Self-Powered Communities: An Overview of Theories of Social Sustainability


ABSTRACT: Sustainability may be examined from an economic, political, environmental, or cultural concerns viewpoint, but can it be also be viewed through a social lens? I would like to link the concept of sustainability to the constructive skills of humans by looking at the case of community-based cultural events and festivals.Sustainability is a term used not only in the natural and social sciences, but in architecture, design, and the arts as well. Mostly, we encounter the use of environmental sustainability in the context of current and urgent questions of climate change and global warming. Sustainable development is also a popular expression in urban planning, as well as in sociological and ecological research. Sustainability may be examined from an economic, political, environmental, or cultural viewpoint, but can it be also viewed through a social lens? I would like to link the concept of sustainability to the constructive skills of humans by looking at the case of community-based cultural events and festivals. If the meaning of sustainable is “to sustain itself,” we have to find an answer to what is the festival itself, or what makes a festival sustainable? There are many factors that affect an event’s success and long-term capacity, such as economic stability, specialized knowledge and technology, or the professional network. However, in this article I will focus on grassroots-, community cohesion- and social mission-based approaches of the human construction process. As a framework, I will use among others the idea of “Sustainability Revolution” which is at the basis of the theory of “The Three Es” (ecology / environment, economy/employment, equity/equality).1 By reviewing the ideas of several thinkers we can understand: What drives us? What is the aim of our activities? To change, expand, learn, or share? How can we ensure the sustainability of our events, preventing them from becoming the victims of profit-orientation, poor quality, or “mainstream” movement?

Photo: Ildikó Répáczky

Photo: Ildikó Répáczky

The need for community cohesion

The largest community organizing force lies in religion or ideology and philosophical systems. Its secret is a worldview of unity, one that creates a sense of belonging and togetherness in community members. Anthropologists such as Csányi or Sperber would use the term “beliefs” for this. The latter distinguishes between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are those that stem from experience and innate predisposition, those that change less from culture to culture.We could say that these beliefs are biologically determined. However, there are also reflective beliefs, that are responsible for cultural diversity. Reflective beliefs are very different from culture to culture, for example, in interpretation of art. The famous Hungarian biologist, biochemist, and ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes that the ideal community is grounded in common belief (ideology, tradition), common action (doing the act together), and equal participation (the influence of the individual in communal decisions). From these three elements originates the practice of fealty (loyalty of the individual to the community). Csányi refers to this as social construction.2 Through this system of organizational skills, we reconstruct thoughts and language, but also objects or abstract models, structures, and rituals. The ritual expression of community belief can be a festival itself. However, this is not sufficient, namely because instead of relying on the hierarchy in the group, the maintenance of community planning and mutual responsibility, based on democratic relations, requires regular and transparent communication.

The origins of human actions

Sociobiologists and genetic reductionists posit that all of our actions are determined by self-interest and selfishness of genes.3 Marshall Shalins writes that the nature of man is a restless desire for power, and society is a set of relationships formed by the pursuit of private interests. “Organization is the socialized realization of desire,” he wrote.4 The thesis of Bourdieu states that in modern society, communities are organized into “fields” or “gaming spaces” through common interests and goals. Such a field can be a sector of the arts, or the political sphere. Some fields are more sustainable, having more available resources. What are these resources? Bourdieu uses the term “capital” for these: economic and financial capital affects one’s cultural capital, which symbolizes one’s knowledge and abilities, but also social class. This can be transmitted from generation to generation. Cultural capital defines one’s human (or symbolic) capital, which corresponds to their studies, job, prestige and social status based on respect and honour. Finally, the fourth source is one’s social capital, which is our social network, the affiliation to the communities, and to fields. He calls this “socialization.” Similar to Csányi’s social construction theory, this introduces the concept of social and cultural reproduction, which is knowledge, information, and transmission of existing cultural values and norms from generation to generation. Cultural reproduction refers to the mechanisms by which continuity of cultural experience is sustained across time.5

Cultural reproduction

So to our “What drives us?” question, the theories of Csányi, Bourdieu, and Sahlins suggest reconstruction and reproduction as answers. Humans feel the biological urge to transmit knowledge as genetic material, either referencing a tradition in the past, or visualizing a future innovation.The examined festival “itself” is a representational process, in which the subject is culture, and thus the sharing of knowledge and vision, which seeks to maintain the beliefs of the community. Sperber gives a bizarre but striking epidemiological analogy to this, which fits well with the ever-recurring themes of genes and memes.

“The representations can be cultural in various ways, there are among those that spread slowly between the generations, we call these traditions and these are similar to endamias. Other representations, which are characteristics of modern culture, in the whole population spread very quickly, but they have very short life, we call them trends, and these are similar to epidemics.”6

Visions for sustainable communities

Now that we have explored the object of our inner urge as a concept, we shall examine the form in which it can be used long term. All of the above-mentioned social models trace out hierarchical structures and dystopian visions. However, history has shown that hierarchy-based social structures have failed. What is the structure then that creates sustainable events? Daniel Quinn argues that modern civilization is inoperable and self-destructive (see Dawkins’s “killer memes”), and that social dissatisfaction is caused by unsustainable hierarchal social structures. He writes that we need a modern understanding of “new tribal community.”7 This does not have to look like the old tribal stereotype of “cavemen,” since foraging in the natural community is not a viable or even possible solution for the billions of people on Earth today. He consistently describes the revolution not as a movement to “go back” to some earlier style of living, but rather, a movement to “go forward” into something new. Quinn distinguishes between the concept of “the tribe” and “the commune,” the latter exemplified by the product of hippie movements, a community-based coexistence, where in many cases the common belief of ensuring sustainability is lacking. Quinn’s modern age example for “the tribe” is the circus or the theater. I believe the festival would also fit in that analogy. The community spirit (a common purpose for the common good) brings about cultural reproduction, which provides wellbeing for the members, and maintains the social model. In the “tribal model”, the role of the “leader” is important but does not demand a hierarchy. Rather, that role is considered to be as equally valuable and indispensable as other roles. Examples of such leaders could be an acrobat, an actor, or a curator. Common creation and cooperation allows the success of common production. This is the principle of interdependence whereby the relationships between members of the group are all equal to each other. Within a given group, recognition of both individual and community development therefore facilitates sustainabillity.

A festival based on community spirit

Similarly, researchers of population genetics are examining the sustainable social models of ancient cultures.8 It has been shown that “egalitarian community culture” based on equality reduces competition and differences within the group, and increases competition and differences between groups. This principle provides an answer on how not to fall into the approach of the “mainstream” and how we can hold on to uniqueness and biodiversity in the community. Quinn’s “modern tribalism” model reminds me of the Hungarian O.Z.O.R.A. psychedelic tribal gathering, which is essentially centred on music, but also an art and lifestyle festival.9 It promotes the principles of environmental sustainability (use of renewable energy sources, soft technology, green solutions, community gardening), and it also represents the community spirit that is the drive of the festival as a “ritual.” This is a special sub-cultural community with surprisingly strong cohesion, where the members call themselves “ozorians.” The ozorians initiated a modern tradition through their annual meeting, which goes beyond common musical interests and lifestyle similarities, pervaded with faith in universal values and in nature. I do not intend to shepherd our thoughts toward spirituality or blind faith, but scientific texts also respect the relationships of spirit and matter. We might call this “consciousness” or “commitment” as well. I wonder if our current actions and events are conscious? As Quinn renewed the concept of tribal culture, perhaps it would be advisable to think about a new interpretation of tradition in a modern context. Do we transform our traditions and events and transmit our values consciously, or do we allow them to be forgotten and replaced by new trends?

Human as re-creator

Western interpretation and modern reconstruction of traditions propose a number of further discourses, such as the cultural differences between East and West, the social effects of globalization, desacralization, the relationship between generations, use of technology, acceleration of the world, singularity, etc. Events based on traditions are ceremonial and sacred. During these ocassions, people step out of the volatile and unstable profane time, back into the mythical primordial time, and again remake their presence.10 Eliade writes that this “historical present” is eternal. Modern sacred events evoke artist Hermann Nitsch’s actions in “Orgies Mysterien Theater.” He interprets religious events through the language of contemporary, experimental performance art. But behind the sacred robe, he expresses rebellion against social and political conventions. The sacrality is transvaluated to the solemnity of presence through Nitsch’s performance art, and protest is the basic drive of his actions. The protest as a strong objection impacts community cohesion because it expresses a political, cultural, or religious statement. Instead of the initially introduced “beliefs” and “ideologies” let us use the term “statement,” which offers a framework and commitments to the community on which it can agree. The frameworks create rules, as mentioned above, which have to ensure the authority of the individual and the community. The authority connected to an event or a festival manifests itself as freedom of creation, which entails responsibility and consciousness because each reconstruction of us creates value and heredity.

In a nutshell

Sumarizing the references above, we need new, interdisciplinary, and alternative approaches for our social, economic, and ecological challenges. A holistic review is needed for which the sustainable sciences may provide clues. The object of the sustainable sciences, the “Sustainability Revolution” needs a non-hierarchical, decentralized organizational structure with revolutionary keywords. They are managment of ecology/environment, including democratically based issues related to economy/employment and equity/equality. These three contemporary terms complete the concept of “The Three Es” and we supplement it with a fourth one: education. Our cultural events and festivals fill the role of non-formal education and link past and future generations with the principle of interdependence. Through education, we gain and transmit knowledge, and we are able to reconstruct our social habits and traditions into a sustainable form. Individuals reproduce themselves and their knowledge through cultural mediums. But because of interdependence, community and society can therefore do the same. This is the force that drives us.



1 Andres R. Edwards: The Sustainability Revolution. Portrait of paradigm shift, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2006.
2 Vilmos Csányi:Az emberi viselkedés, Budapest,Sanoma Budapest Kiadói Rt., 2006.
3 Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene, USA, Oxford University Press, 2006.
4 Marshall Sahlins: Culture and Practical Reason, Chichago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1976.
5 Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
6 Dan Sperber: Explaining Culture, Blackwell, 1996.
7 Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure,Broadway Books, 2000
8 Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Christopher Bohm.
10 Mircea Eliade:The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion,A Harvest.Book,Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York.