How Do We Build Local Social Capital?

In my previous article, I recapped and built upon Nicole Foss’ (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth blog) presentation in Vancouver last week. The first part of her presentation, I noted, was about the current intractable economic (and specifically debt) problems we face at all levels (governments, corporations, individuals), and how neither of the most-supported top-down alternatives (austerity or stimulus) can hope to improve the situation or avoid total economic collapse.

The second part of Nicole’s presentation focused on what we can do, at the local community level, to prepare for and build resilience to cope with this collapse. There are a number of things, she said, we can do personally:

  • Get out of debt, so that our property cannot be foreclosed upon or repossessed when the situation worsens and we are unable to repay these debts.
  • Keep as much cash on hand (and not in the bank) as reasonably possible (enough to last several months).
  • Acquire useful, non-perishable hard assets (when the economy fails, so will trade, making many hard goods hard to obtain and expensive).
  • Do not depend on governments to do anything useful.
  • Be wary of banks (they may simply close when ‘runs’ begin, preventing you from accessing your money).
  • Be wary of insurance companies and plans (they will not be able to pay out when their investments collapse).
  • Find the right place to live and move there (in or near small towns near healthy agricultural areas; avoid suburbs).
  • Learn practical essential skills, both technical and non-technical (e.g. mediation, facilitation).

There was considerable discussion near the end of the presentation on “building social capital” and other collective actions we can start taking now, in our communities, such as:

  • Assess your community’s energy vulnerability and create a plan to manage the transition to much lower levels of use, more local self-sufficiency, and more use of renewable sources. Do you know where your town’s and region’s energy comes from now? How would you be affected by rationing, scarcities, huge price increases, and blackouts and other interruptions due to crumbling government service capacity?
  • Do comparable assessments of local self-sufficiency in other critical areas (e.g. food security, water, health, transportation, communication, education, building, livelihoods, safety, creation & innovation).
  • Build local networks and knowledge of what essential skills, capacities, knowledge, resources and infrastructure are available in your community, and what people need.
  • Nurture “affinity circles” of people with shared interests and expertise to launch, teach about, publicize and support local community-based initiatives.
  • Organize community get-togethers that are fun, informative, relationship-building and collaborative, and which allow members of the community to practice community-building, consensus, conflict resolution, disaster preparation, developing community capacities and resources and coping with crisis together.

Thanks to Tree, I have had the opportunity to attend several get-togethers of a self-managed community/neighbourhood group in South Eugene OR, which gets together regularly at themed pot-luck dinners and has covered issues ranging from beekeeping to the Transition Handbook. The various Transition Initiative groups I have been involved with, likewise, are drawing community members together to start to deal with these issues (the Vancouver initiative was the key sponsor of Nicole’s presentation).

It seems to me that this task of “building local social capital” presents some significant challenges that are preventing and stalling efforts to help us prepare for and cope better as we face economic (and subsequent energy and ecological) collapse:

  1. How do we get the time and attention of people in our local communities, when most people are so busy with their daily lives they have no capacity or appetite to participate in another activity, especially one that might not bear fruit until the longer term (if at all)? We are all so preoccupied, always, with the needs of the moment.
  2. While we can work together to increase our personal and collective skills, capacities and knowledge now, how can we start to initiate developing local shared resources (e.g. tool-sharing, work bees) and local infrastructure (e.g. well-being centres built around illness prevention and non-pharma treatment, local renewable energy co-ops), until the situation has become bad enough that people see an immediate need for these (so the process seems viable and urgent)?
  3. Who are the exemplars of the skills and capacities we will need when the economy fails, and how can we get those people to voluntarily demonstrate and teach these skills and capacities to others in the community on a Gift Economy basis?
  4. What are the qualities we need to engender (or re-engender) in each and all of us (e.g. generosity, authenticity, caring, and appreciation for what our children and grandchildren are going to have to cope with), so that when the time comes when we have to rebuild our society and economy bottom-up, one community at a time, we will have “what it takes”?
  5. If I am right in saying “the key to resilience in the coming decades will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for”, then how can we increase the imaginative capacity of our fellow citizens so they/we will be ready, in the moment?
  6. So far, the large majority of people I have met who are involved in Transition and other local community-building initiatives are over 40. Is the fact that younger people are largely not engaged with us in these initiatives a problem? What are they thinking and doing about all this?
  7. How do we make “building local social capital” more fun, and easier, so we can engage more people?

These are the questions I’m thinking about now, as I ponder what project I should undertake next (beyond completing Collapse! The Game, which I’ll write about again very soon), to help make the world a better place. I have few answers, and expect that the best answers would come from collaborative groups, perhaps in Open Space, tackling them each in turn.

(Image above is one of 91 cards in the Group Works deck, developed jointly by more than two dozen experienced facilitators over 3 years to help facilitators and participants to design and enable better meetings, conferences and group collaborations. To learn more about the deck, or get your copy, please visit . [Full disclosure: I am a member of the core team that developed the deck.])

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7 Responses to How Do We Build Local Social Capital?

  1. There are many of us thinking along the same lines but we are scattered, rarely with critical mass. I will put a link to your site from my blog (which has a small readership!)and will try to keep up to date with your thoughtful views.

  2. Mike Marinos says:

    Great post. I can count on one finger the number of people in my area interested in the big issues of energy descent and transition but just about everyone is concerned about the price of power and food. Its where we are starting, a small local food co-op, doing whats possible, aiming for tangible successes to hopefully “build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” as Bucky Fuller said.

  3. Pingback: Transition: Building community resilience to cope with collapse… « UKIAH BLOG

  4. Hugh Flouch says:

    Though not aimed at environmental issues, you may be interested in our UK based research on online neighbourhood networks. Sponsored by Cisco, Experian and a London Government body, it examined the social benefits that accrue from these networks, including social capital.

    It’s freely available on the website of the Networked Neighbourhoods Organisation at

  5. Philip says:

    Hi Dave

    Nicol Foss’lists make sense in our minds as they satisfy our sense of self survival…our sense for a story where we are Ok and avoid turmoil. But can we all do it?…..there are a lot of people in the suburbs and there is a sense of entitlement about us all.
    As humans we will try to survive as we give up on humanity. Regardless of any paradigm shift. The human population will shrink. Scarcity and selection will walk hand in hand. The lists buy time. How much time and what of what quality are the questions we will ask ourselves over the comming years.
    The lists make sense for me when I think of my kids. I can’t help it.
    Thanks again Dave. Your links of the month are appreaciated.

  6. Pingback: How Do We Build Local Social Capital? « how to save the world « Canterbury Transition News

  7. Mike Tyner says:

    Just came across this manual discussing the organizational strategy for co-ops. The appendix on the last page lists 150 different things to do to build social capital.

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