the role of "community" in carbon governance

In an article with the same title published in the journal  Climate Change,  Gordon Walker discusses the various meanings of community, and many uses in the context of energy sustainability, to illustrate its role or ability in facilitating behavioral change or innovation.  Importantly, Walker discusses how community is often used to “badge, underpin, legitimise or popularise policy initiatives including recently as part of a broad neoliberal shifts towards reducing the size and scope of the state and offloading governmental responsibilities.”  Community has been used conterminously as actor, scale, place network, process, and identity, with typically good connotations. But this is not representative of reality where there exists confrontational and agonistic relationships between and among communities in many cases.  I want to focus on a couple particular aspects of this discussion: the shifting of environmental responsibility to communities and individuals, and the infiltration of “communities” by policy instruments and expert knowledges.

The roll back of state interventions, as part of a larger neoliberal shift in governance, has facilitated a shifting of responsibility for environmental action to individuals and communities. The solution to energy sustainability, then, is particularized as individual behavior change, better consumption habits, or adoption of new consumer goods and micro-generation, and systemic issues are ignored.  This undoubtedly has to be seen as a part of the process of capitalism, seeking to conform to new environmental values through further consumption and growth, without addressing systemic issues that may be inherent in the market-based, capitalist society.  Do community based renewable energy initiatives actually work to reinvent the electricity system and what it means to be a consumer-citizen? Does it challenge the political and social domination of capitalism? The short answer would have to be ‘no’. But it’s not to say that community based renewable projects are a bad thing, rather, they are products of shifts in responsibility for environmental sustainability.  And, they do not equal autonomy.  Most community projects are still dependent on wider infrastructures, the grid and generation facilities.

Walker explains that:

Whilst there is much current activity to be enthusiastic about across international settings, the practical challenges involved cannot be underplayed, and community capacities need to be understood in relation to those of other governance actors and the various enabling resources they have control over. Furthermore as the research base providing evidence that community-based initiatives do work in the ways they are expected to is limited, a critical perspective needs to be maintained which recognizes that communities are not always inclusive, harmonious and collaborative, or indeed may not exist in any cohesive form ready to take responsibility for climate change action. 

This may seem deflating to community based activism or climate action, but the reality is that community based movements grown organically out of widespread concern cannot be substituted by government-incentivized action on behalf of communities with little support.


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