Are sustainable solutions to climate change around the corner or in our neighbourhoods?


Companies, governments and think tanks often declare that sustainable solutions to climate change are around the corner. However, these promises have noticeably failed to materialise. Alternatively, solutions may not be around the corner, but in our backyards, in the number of community driven associations, cooperatives and self-help groups, created and energised by our neighbours, apart from the market or the State.

Are sustainable solutions to climate change around the corner or in our neighbourhoods?

Mass media often promise a scenario free of the climate change menace in the very near future. In a few years, organic products will fill Sainsbury’s shelfs. Super-delicious soya products from super-efficient modified seeds will make us forget meat. Electric cars will crowd electric highways. A large part of our energy consumption will be produced by EDF’s majestic wind turbines spread along kilometres of hills. And flourishing carbon emissions trading markets will reduce CO2 to minimum levels.

All these promised solutions around the corner have been developed and tested by the smartest heads in the smartest and most sustainable skyscrapers in the smartest northern global cities. They make the most of the free market, promoting the spirit of innovation and fair competition between human beings. They consummate the happy marriage between profit and sustainability, capitalism and ecology.

However, there is bad news: we already know that this never worked. It seems that we do not have much reason to believe in these solutions around the corner. Luckily, there is good news: there are alternative solutions growing in our backyards, and we have reasons to believe that they work.

In our neighbourhoods, towns, villages, work or study places, there already exist a number of initiatives that build on alternative ways of producing, consuming, exchanging, living, transporting, creating relations between people and with nature. Our research reveals experiences entailing local energy cooperatives, food buying groups, local currency systems, time banks, car sharing communities, cohousing cooperatives, urban agriculture initiatives, and many more. They advance a world in which food consumers self-organize in small groups and connect, exchange, and learn with local organic food producers. A world in which buildings obtain their energy by collectively owned and managed small solar panels, wind turbines or biomass installations. A world in which ways of living and urbanism reduce the need of displacement, and mobility is based on sharing and on decarbonized vehicles.

In our research we have studied these alternatives. These initiatives are local and diverse. They are embedded in the context and in places. They are built by our neighbours, to address our needs and the needs of future generations. They are truly transformative, as long as they experiment with radical –but apparently viable- new ways of social and economic organization. They promote direct and just relations, based in trust and collaboration, between producers and consumers of goods and services. They promote democracy, community building and citizen engagement. They are based in dialogue, participation, reflection and deliberation. They are spaces for learning and creativity.

They are places for experimentation with diverse alternatives and solutions to climate change challenge. They are not closed solutions, as the solution is the on-going exploration and construction of democracy. Some of these initiatives may be scaled, some may be replicated, some may inspire other practices, some offer new frames and analysis of existing challenges – they all open spaces for discussion. In any case, they offer systemic solutions. They do not just reform the practices of ‘business-as-usual’ but offer alternative models based in alternative production and distribution channels of goods and services, relations, technologies, values, institutions, perspectives and routines.

However, these alternative solutions are still mostly small and under development. They need to mature, to be nurtured, protected and supported in order to for them to reproduce, grow and diffuse. In any case, they have worth, and they can make a difference. Why wait to discover, support and join them? After all, these solutions are not being proposed by powerful groups. Rather, they are being proposed by, and aligned with the expectations and hopes of, those around the corner.

Sergio Belda-Miquel and Victoria Pellicer-Sifres are researchers at INGENIO (CSIC-Universitat Politècnica de València), interested in grassroots innovation and social transformation. They are focused on local initiatives in the city of Valencia (Spain).