Preparing for the future: civil society, adult education, and Transition Towns

The massive upheavals and traumas that befell the nations of the former Soviet-bloc following the collapse of the Communist regimes provided a kind of ‘natural experiment’ for social scientists: their different experiences and outcomes can be compared, contrasted, and lessons drawn.

One of those lessons is about the value of civil society – that is, that sphere of voluntary collective interaction not organised by the institutions of government or markets. From this, I’d also like to draw a bow to what I see as the key value of adult education/ life-long learning and the Transition Towns movement.

A recent study by László Bruszt (1) looks at data from 27 former centrally-planned economies of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and concludes:

Countries with a vibrant pre-transition civil society have embarked on a path towards sound political institutions, economic reforms and democratisation. Countries that had little in the way of civil society, and whose governments repressed it, have introduced more authoritarian regimes and at best dragged their feet on economic and political liberalisation.

These results mirror those found in international happiness research: one doesn’t have to be an uncritical advocate of free-markets and formal democracy to see a clear pattern: stronger civil society pre Soviet collapse = better social outcomes post Soviet collapse. And these results are consistent enough across the diversity of these nations and their experiences to suggest that civil society has a generic usefulness in creating better social outcomes i.e. Stronger civil society pre [insert major change event] = better outcomes post [insert major change event]. (2)

You can see where I’m going with this: clearly, two major change events facing our world are human induced climate change, and ‘peak-oil’. There is, however, still a lot of uncertainty about both of these change events: what will the range of effects be, how big will the effects be, when exactly will they start to impact in ways we feel are significant, what technologies will be available, how will other nations, corporations, our neighbours react, etc?

Given this level of uncertainty, the generic – or non-path dependent – usefulness of strengthening civil society shines out as a sensible, prudent response. The evidence seems to suggest that whatever happens in our unknowable future strengthening civil society will produce better outcomes.

For me, this constitutes one of the strongest arguments in favour of non-vocational adult-education and the Transition Towns movement, both of which can seem easy to mock at face-value: “Seriously, Moroccan Cooking Clases in a time of recession?”; “You think a few well-intentioned middle-class people planting a garden will really stop climate change?”.  Setting aside arguments for or against the specific actions (and you can defend them on specific grounds too), what is of clear value in both these cases is that they are bringing together people who might not otherwise have got together – these social links and the networks formed are what civil society is and what it grows out of.

Furthermore, these opportunities for people to be able to get together, face-to-face, in non-mediated situations, provide an invaluable ‘corrective reality’ to the the – in my opinion – socially and ecologically toxic world-view presented by advertising and the advertising funded mass-media. We desperately need to protect and enlarge those non-mediated spaces at this time in our history.

(1) Bruszt, László, Nauro F Campos, Jan Fidrmuc, and Gérard Roland (2010), “Civil Society, Institutional Change and the Politics of Reform: The Great Transition,” CEPR Discussion paper. [at time of this post the CEPR paper cited is not yet online, the link above is the VOX-EU article I based this piece on].

(2) A useful book on the value of civil society is Robert Putnams’s Bowling Alone: the collapse and revivial of American Community.

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