Local, community-level action is commonly advocated, by a broad spectrum of actors, as a necessary element in the transition towards more sustainable, low-carbon societies. It is often argued that the scale and social organisation of communities make them a particularly effective site at which to engage individuals in environmental issues, and to encourage and facilitate more sustainable lifestyles. By harnessing local capacity, empowering local actors, building social capital and increasing resilience, communities are rendered more able to respond to the challenges of sustainable development.
Locally-led sustainability activity is being driven from both the bottom up and the top down. As community action increasingly becomes part of official governance strategies to create more sustainable societies, grassroots groups and activists (who are often initially mobilised in response to (perceived) government inactivity) are increasingly buoyed up by a stream of community-orientated policy statements, funding schemes, and legislation flowing down from the top.
It is widely assumed that government support for community-led sustainability initiatives will be of inherent benefit at the local level. However, the incorporation of communities into official government strategy also raises some long-standing and challenging questions about how this is being delivered in practice, for example:
- How is “community” manifested in the context of a government-funded community-led sustainability project?
- What sorts of local knowledge and actions are valued and legitimised by policymakers and funders – and which ignored?
- To what extent are local actors being empowered, rather than being co-opted as a regulatory tool of governance?
- Is community action helping to overcome inequalities in society or simply reproducing them at a smaller scale?
High quality research which tackles these types of questions is therefore crucial – but hugely challenging. These complex interdisciplinary issues require a lens of inquiry which has the scope to be both sufficiently broad to interrogate the politics and philosophy of national and international governance strategies, whilst, at the same time, able to magnify and illuminate day to day actions and interactions occurring at the community level. As a result, these questions are often too large for an individual researcher to answer.