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Can we share our way out of climate mess?



On the side of the road, just where you turn into my suburb, there's a large sign that reads, 'Climate Election'. Although the election has been and gone, the sign is still there and it's looking kind of forlorn.

Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban CommonsIt's been a sad few weeks for anyone who was looking for a clear change of direction from the federal government in relation to action on climate change. The reality of the looming climate crisis can feel particularly overwhelming when we fixate on the political process as the only practical solution — a mindset that makes a lot of sense when you consider the complexity and scope of the challenge ahead.

However, this is a mindset that Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom cautioned against in 2010 when she argued that, given the ongoing failure of governments to reach agreement at the international level, it is essential that we 'adopt a polycentric approach to the problem of climate change in order to gain the benefits at multiple scales as well as to encourage experimentation and learning from diverse policies adopted by multiple scales'.

Drawing on her extensive research into the successful governance of the commons, Ostrom emphasised the enormous potential of multi-level action on climate change, particularly because of the relative ease at the local level of building a 'central core of trust and reciprocity among those involved' in order to achieve 'successful levels of collective action'. While acknowledging that global action was necessary, she argued that success was more likely if it could build on a foundation of trust and reciprocity.

So, how can we adopt a polycentric approach to climate action?

Of course, there is plenty we can do as individuals to reduce our environmental footprint. We can avoid single use plastic, reduce consumption and waste, plant veggies, eat less meat (or even go vegan), switch to renewable energy, ride our bikes, and shop second-hand and local. But it can feel a little isolating and almost pointless to attempt to tackle such a massive issue alone.

Another option is to engage with our state and territory governments. The ACT Parliament, for example, recently declared a 'climate emergency' and acknowledged that it needs to prioritise climate action in every decision it makes going forward. There is also a growing campaign to encourage local councils to declare a climate emergency — one that has already been taken up by Darebin Council in Victoria.


"All of these examples work to promote the commons by centring on residents rather than the market."


But you can also start right where you are — in your city, suburb or even street. In its recent book, Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, the organisation Shareable argues that against 'the backdrop of worsening income inequality, climate change, and fiscal challenges, the growth of self-organised, democratic, and inclusive means for city dwellers to meet their own needs by sharing resources couldn't be more relevant'.

The book goes on to share a wide range of examples from 'the global Sharing Cities movement' including self-organised, social housing projects; cooperative taxi services; walking school buses; local non-profit ride-sharing services; accessible bike sharing services; a 'league of urban canners'; a kitchen-tool library; open-access urban agriculture; and a range of city-level regulations that can help to promote sharing. Shareable also emphasises that all of these examples work to promote the commons by centring on residents rather than the market.

Similar principles have been promoted by the 'transition town' movement, which was first developed in 2004 by permaculture designer Rob Hopkins and his students at Kinsale Further Education College, and in Hopkins' hometown of Totnes. The UK Transition Network describes transition towns as a way for communities to come together to create local solutions that 'address the big challenges they face'.

In slight contrast to the Sharing Cities examples, transition towns place a core emphasis on process. The crucial first step is for the community to get together to create a vision of what they would like to build together, and to agree on the nitty gritty procedural stuff that will allow the group to continue to function. Ideally, they will build on existing strengths in the community. What is already happening? What skills and resources exist? How can we collaborate?

Only once the group is up and running, and has a vision for the kind of community it wants to create, is it time to start working on the practical projects that put the vision into action. These projects might include holding a regular produce and seed swap or clothing swap, planting fruit trees in shared public spaces, building a community garden or nature play space, running a monthly repair cafe/co-op, creating a 'library of things', or a setting up a community compost.

You might be wondering how any of this relates to climate change. Well most of these projects support a shift towards a circular economy — one that encourages us to reduce our consumption of resources and our waste by re-using, swapping, and growing our own. They also bring communities together, build resilience, and develop the kind of trust and reciprocity Ostrom was referring to. This helps to support 'higher risk' community projects such as local solar farms or renewable energy retailers.

Finally, these projects are grounded in participatory democracy and help to develop a culture of 'thinking like a commoner'. If the recent election has demonstrated anything, it's the critical need for us to increase our sense of solidarity and our capacity to work together for change. Only then will we be able to successfully fight for the national and global action we ultimately require.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, climate change, Transition Towns, Sharing Cities



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Existing comments

Thanks Cristy! Yes, there are many simple things we can do to help combat the climate crisis. I have installed roof-top solar panels and planted many native trees. I dig our kitchen scraps in around our lemon tree and people remark on our great crops of lemons. We also now get a credit for our electricity, while I hear people complain about their high electricity bills. If you're an owner of a rental property, please install solar panels too, for the sake of your tenants and the environment. We have only 11 years to avert an impending climate catastrophe! Do we really want even more extreme weather events and a temperature rise of 3 degrees or more? Wake up Australia!

Grant Allen | 06 June 2019  

I very quickly became aware of the issue of Climate Change as a secondary teacher in the mid 80's and started teaching about it to my senior students. I record the weather, have been doing so for 50 years! We have rainwater tanks for watering the garden and don't have to use precious town water. We have installed, as Grant mentioned, solar panels on our roof .We compost our food scraps for the vegie garden. We have fruit trees .We grow as many vegetables as our cold climate allows. We have installed LED lighting. We have a reverse cycle heating/cooling system and quite reasonable roof and wall insulation. We recycle as much as we can and avoid plastics as much as possible. We use paper bags when shopping at the fresh fruit and vegetable markets. Why wait for governments to act, WE CAN DO OUR BIT to save the planets for our children and grandchildren ! Get cracking everyone As a retired teacher, now climatologist I can state without fear of contradiction that Climate Change is very real and is happening NOW .It is human induced and as Grant wrote we are quickly running out of time to fix it before it fixes us!

Gavin O'Brien | 06 June 2019  

It's paradoxical, I know, but I, a rusted-on climate change denier, carnivore, etc, happily will follow the suggestions made by the good Dr Clark, G.A. and GOB. Personal story: this Lent I went vegan and off the grog, and ate no food at all till 3.00 pm each day, plus no food at all from Holy Thursday evening till Holy Saturday noon. That’s the traditional lenten fast observed by many Eastern Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, and by Western Christians until about Vatican II. It was an amazingly productive six weeks, including Good Friday wherein I was choir director for the afternoon liturgy and Tenebrae in the evening, plus rehearsals, traditional rite, so about seven hours of pretty much continuous singing if rehearsal is included. Effortless. On Holy Saturday, midday came and I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry. I think we Westerners train our bodies to expect more food than we actually need. I also experienced a total lowering of stomach/bowel issues over that whole time and the need to have a doze early in the afternoon disappeared. I'm processing the info from all that. Like I said, I don’t agree with the thesis of catastrophicAGW, but many of the suggestions above are very worthy for other reasons, including personal health and a far more wholesome lifestyle than a solitary one spent in front of a computer. Speaking of which, time to quit this wretched screen and put some food around my lemon tree. Thanks, all.

HH | 06 June 2019  

Yes, yes. But as usual no mention of the big elephant in the room, unsustainable population increase on a finite planet with all its effects, as Sir David Attenborough emphasises (he the Patron of Population Matters, a UK organisation relevant for us all, with a magazine that I should recommend) - though some of the actions referred are among those that can reduce the rate of increase.

John Bunyan | 08 June 2019