Have you ever come across the idea of ‘hysterical strength’ – the extraordinary power that affords people ‘superhuman’ strength at times of extreme danger? We’ve all heard stories of people suddenly being able to lift cars and trees off squashed people, throw people out of danger or run for our lives – literally. These stories are not nonsense. At times of extreme threat to physical life, our body pumps oxygen and glucose into our muscles, cortisol and adrenaline flows, the muscles tighten and can give us a strength and power that we just can’t muster in other ways.
As communities, we aren’t so very different. We stretch and flex our civic muscles on a day to day basis. Some bits of us to do very little; others regularly work out; some get exercised about nothing else. And then a flood happens. Or a fire. An accident, or a hurricane. Intense snow traps people. The cortisol and adrenaline flows through the civic body, we ready ourselves for action and find ways and means of protecting those bits of the human organism that find themselves in danger, lost, frightened or injured. Response is swift, acute and tackles immediate, obvious symptoms.
When it comes to disasters, communities have absolutely no problem arousing their collective, ‘hysterical’ strengths; their ‘super-community’ power. Every time there is a hurricane, a flood, a fire or any other kind of serious disaster, people come out to support others, to offer what they have that may help; whether that be food, shelter, clothing, labour or first aid.
But what about when the disaster is long and sustained? A chronic illness, where the strength required is still immense, but needs to be sustained? Or where it’s not one disaster, but many repeated batterings taken by a community. How does our civic body respond? This is an important question for many reasons, but is particularly crucial when it comes to dealing with the effects of a changing climate. This is a long emergency. Not a short one. And we all need to build the community strength and stamina to respond to it.
With the devastating data set out by the IPCC report published yesterday (BBC summary here) there can be no possible doubt that billions of us are going to be affected by climate change, in our lives, whether we’re some of the 700 million in low lying areas (like New York, Shanghai, Osaka, Mumbai etc…) or the many areas of the UK at risk of being flooded out of existence in the coming decades. Decades sounds like a long time. Remember celebrating the millennium? Doesn’t feel that long ago to me.
We all know that this is an issue where everyone needs to take action, particularly business, particularly government – whether we’ve really internalised the existential nature of the crisis or not.
But communities can and are taking action to reduce their emissions, and necessarily (and usually through repeated flooding or extreme weather events) building their resilience, strength and strategies to cope with change. Whether a community or neighbourhood is active in doing this or not is immaterial – we all need to, and will need different incentives and support in order to do so. When the chips are down, and the water rises, it is our communities, the places where we live and make our home, where our attention will be necessarily and completely focused.
A little over ten years ago, Nesta launched the £1m Big Green Challenge. My first role at Nesta was working on this project, and it was a serious effort to incentivise and support mass engagement with community-led carbon emission reduction across the UK. With a £1m prize on offer, over 355 communities kick-started and grew efforts to make substantial CO2 reductions in their communities over a 12 month period. The Prize was promoted through mass media, mostly The Mirror as I recall, reaching well beyond the Guardianistas.
The four winners, The Green Valleys (Brecon), The Household Energy Service (Ludlow), the Isle of Eigg and Low Carbon West Oxford all stood out as brilliant ways in which communities had been galvanised to reduce their emissions. The effect, at the time, felt very big and the level of interest and community activity across the UK was non-trivial. And a quick bit of desk research today, shows that many of the participants in the competition are still taking action, still engaged in sustained, activities towards community sustainability.
Competitions and prizes are never the only answer to supporting change – I wouldn’t suggest that. But the evaluation of the Big Green Challenge has some key recommendations that are as worthy of acting on now, as they were then. They include:
- Outcome (performance) based funding offers potential to mobilise community resources to achieve specific goals and to accelerate change. It should be considered an additional option to traditional grant funding of community action.
- Communities can spot and develop opportunities that private business or the public sector could or would not be able to take advantage of
- Communities have distinctive capabilities for engaging people in behaviour change.
- Communities are at risk of being left out in the UK’s transition to a low carbon society. If BGC Finalists are typical, communities are not being involved on any scale by local authorities or energy companies in meeting their substantial carbon reduction commitments
There’s no doubt that the soon to be launched £100m Climate Action Fund from the National Lottery Community Fund will be a great big spur for different kinds of action; with a particular focus on efforts to scale existing initiatives and endeavours. But communities who are largely inactive or quiet on this issue should also be the focus of our attention; and their lack of action shouldn’t be taken as lack of interest. Their response to the climate emergency is as important, not less. And could well be supported through:
- A large scale, diversely and widely promoted Prize competition which specifically seeks to both support and resource communities who are not currently directing any community muscle towards the climate emergency
- Community Leadership development which has a specific focus on supporting, stimulating and increasing the voluntary and community sector muscle for climate mitigation and adaptation activities
- A sustained, public commitment from philanthropic and other UK grant funders to actively collaborate to support communities wanting to take new action on climate change for much longer periods of time. Sustaining community strength is developed over many years, not months. Hysterical strength is short-lived. Funder commitment to long-termism will bring more longer-term thinking, longer-term responses to us all.