What bottom-up sustainability looks like

Increasingly, western democracies are divided over visions for the country’s future. But if we can’t agree on where we should go together, we won’t be able to address issues like climate change. Craig Morris investigates.

group of people of different ages, standing in a garden holding solar panels

Bottom-up sustainability: communities focus on what they can change (Photo by Moss Community Energy, edited, CC BY 2.0)


Recently, I wrote about the German politician who said more of his constituents are voting for parties that want to break the political system because of a “loss of direct contact.” So is it really that simple – we just bring people together, and they work things out with each other?

In September, Prof. Norio Okada of Kyoto University gave a workshop at the Potsdam Summer School in Germany. Back home in Japan, he had come up with a way of getting communities to bridge societal gaps through direct contact. At the workshop in Germany, Okada shared that experienced with the summer school participants from around the world.

Lots of mediators focus on ways to have parties in disagreement talk through their differences. Okada does, too, but he starts off with a warm-up exercise that turns out to be the philosophical underpinning. The group folds a giant sheet of paper the size of a table-top – a kind of “team origami” – to produce creases marking three concentric squares in the paper. The participants think they created this form as a structure for the actual debate, which is true, but the process is also crucial for the participants to get to know each other in a different setting and achieve their first little success story together.

No team ever fails to create the concentric circles in the giant group origami warm-up. As Okada puts it, whatever the group decides to try to do that day, “you have to make it happen.” The goal is not yet to resolve intractable differences, but first be successful as a group.

In this video, Belgian scholar Sander van der Leeuw talks about how culture is important in strengthening communities. Traditional ceremonies provide frequent direct contact so people can work out differences amicably.

The participants then pick a solution to work towards. In Potsdam, the five groups of eight people all picked food issues, such as reducing food waste, eating heathier diets, or establishing a food truck with fresh food. Three steps towards the solution were written down along each crease on the giant paper, and the four sides of the concentric squares marked different perspectives on the project: information, management, finance, and logistics.

For the food truck, for instance, the two logistics people arranged the food supply, while the management duo contacted the city to get a permit for the truck. Later steps focused on adding additional trucks and a farmer’s market. “We doubted whether we could make this work,” said one participant from Nepal, “but I was already part of such a project in New Orleans, and we were successful. After hurricane Katrina, not enough grocery stores had opened up in parts of the city, so we filled that gap.”

“As the groups move from success to success, they build up team spirit,” Okada says. He is thus not offering an overnight fix to complex problems decades in the making. Rather, he has people meet regularly and learn to admire each other in new ways they would likely not discover if they only focused on their differences. That lady you disagree fundamentally with? She has a great sense of humor. The other guy who criticized your viewpoint? You share a passion for swing dancing.

Eventually, tougher decisions can be tackled. Okada hopes that, by the time the first setbacks come, “the group will say, we have accomplished so much together already. We can’t let this tear us apart!”

Of course, there are limits to Okada’s bottom-up approach. Citizens must fundamentally trust each other – and public officials. Petra Künkel, head of the Collective Leadership Institute and another lecturer at the Potsdam Summer School, spoke about Danish cities where citizens can send city officials a picture and location of something that needs to be fixed, and the city addresses the issue. The process wouldn’t work if citizens used it to denounce each other. But if people trust each other and their political system enough, Künkel says, “sustainability becomes a personal hobby, not something left up to city officials.”

The recent dual US delegation to COP23 – cities and local governments calling for mitigation while the national government undercuts it for short-term profits – suggests that communities tend to focus on sustainability naturally. But bottom-up sustainability doesn’t look like top-down. COP23 delegates focus on industry and energy. Communities focus on things they can change. Remember, all five groups wanted solutions for food issues. Getting people to eat healthier food will also reduce emissions – but it’s a behavioral change, not technological change. These citizen groups provide solutions that COP23 delegates are looking for.

Bottom-up sustainability thus adds behavioral change to the technological change from top-down sustainability actions like COP23. We should unleash both.

Direct quotes were taken from episode 3 of Craig’s new podcast for the IASS on Human environments in a changing world.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

1 Comment

  1. “If we can’t agree on where we should go together, we won’t be able to address issues like climate change.”
    That’s not how coalition-building works. The object is to get agreement on a course of action today, while differing on ultimate goals. There is for instance wide support for wind energy in the US Midwest from Republicans and denialists, because it’s cheaper, local, and puts money into the pockets of farmers and school boards. In the UK, there seems to be widespread support for action against urban air pollution oh health grounds (but curiously not in Germany). The Paris Agreement was a brilliant piece of coalition-building across quite deep ideological divides.

    Politics is not about felling good. It’s a Game of Thrones.

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