CERES environmental farm in Melbourne is a community affair

Want to get a city-wide ban on plastic bags going? Or stop aerial spraying in your suburb? Grass roots activism is challenging governments and corporations. And it’s happening everywhere. Grass roots activism creates a strong sense of community and place, connectedness and belonging, as well as a vibrant local economy and a healthy diverse environment that’s sustainable.

One of the best examples of grassroots activism is the collaborative economy, a global trend to make sharing something far more economically significant than a primitive behaviour taught in preschool. A confluence of the economic crisis, environmental concerns, and the maturation of the social web has created a new generation of businesses like Airbnb, which lets people rent out their spare rooms, or Uber and RelayRides, which allows other people to rent your car. Other businesses allow the sharing of items like clothes, couches, tools, meals, and even skills.

As The Economisttells us, the Internet makes it cheaper and easier than ever to aggregate supply and demand. Smartphones with maps and satellite positioning can find a nearby room to rent or car to borrow. Online social networks and recommendation systems help establish trust; internet payment systems can handle the billing. All this lets millions of total strangers rent things to each other.

“It is surely no coincidence that many peer-to-peer rental firms were founded between 2008 and 2010, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Some see sharing, with its mantra that ‘access trumps ownership’, as a post-crisis antidote to materialism and overconsumption. It may also have environmental benefits, by making more efficient use of resources.”

CERES farm

In Australia, a number of new and green collaborative consumption web sites are springing up. One isGoGetCars. Companies and individuals simply book GoGet car for as little as one hour over the Internet. They book it whenever they need a car. These cars are located in “pods”, car parks or garages in close proximity to the office. People swipe smart cards to access the cars. Each car comes equipped with a sophisticated black-box style system that monitors fuel consumption, duration of trip and kilometres covered. The data is matched to the swipe card. The pods are now located in business and industrial areas.  Business parks such as Australian Technology Park in Sydney’s Redfern now host GoGet pods. The pods have to be in walking distance of where people are located, otherwise, they’re not going to use them.

It’s cheaper too. If you run a business, you pay $6.25 an hour and 40 cents a kilometre. Every month, you get an invoice. You don’t have to pay for registration, insurance and service costs. It’s much cheaper than maintaining a company car which can cost the firm up to $20,000 a year. And better still, the cars are only used when you need them. GoGetCars has 20,000 members Australia-wide, and it’s growing.

An alternative is Drive My Car Rentals. It’s simple: people basically make money by renting their car out when they’re not using it. They register online for free, list their vehicle for free, enter their car details, and calculate the rental return. People looking for a car for a short while get in touch with you by email or SMS and you decide whether to accept the deal or not. There’s a similar sort of arrangement with Car Next Door.

Or take Landshare. It’s a horticultural matchmaking service, connecting those who lack access to land, with those who have land to share. Almost 70,000 people have become “landsharers” in the UK, and a sister scheme in Australia has almost 2000 members. In effect, it’s a social networking service that connects people who want to grow their own fruit and vegetables but have nowhere to do it with those who have spare land and who are willing to share.

As the Australian Conservation Foundationpoints out, all this has a profound impact on the environment. “Sustainability is an inherent component of collaborative consumption.  If you need to share a car, you’ll think twice about whether or not you need it.  Every car share vehicle on the road replaces 7-8 privately-owned vehicles.  When items are shared multiple times, reused or resold, it means more use of products already in the market, and less need to create new ones, resulting in a much more sustainable form of commerce. By combining the principles of business efficiency and eco saving, we can make real and meaningful progress towards sustainability.”

Gardens and food

Another trend is the development of local and community food systems where food is grown and shared. It’s nothing new. Their history dates back as far as the early agricultural systems when people lived a connected life.  Unfortunately, our current food production systems bear little resemblance to the systems of our forebears.

The beauty of community gardens is that they bring together people from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages. Gardening might be the main focus but they become community hubs other activities like for example learning and education, playgroups, arts and creative activities, preparing and sharing food, community events, celebrations and social enterprise. Community gardens have become a way of living sustainably in an urban environment. Community gardens feature waste minimisation, composting and water usage techniques that can be used by people in their own homes.

Want to set up a community garden? A good place to start is the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network. As the people at Ceres say, while people are voting with their wallets, their feet and at the click of a mouse, they are also increasingly voting with their shovels. Fair foodsters from all over are supporting community agriculture projects – food box schemes, co-operatives and farmers markets. But they’re also increasingly growing their own produce at home and in community gardens, reappropriating public land for community food forests, and getting involved in food foraging and food swap activities.

Uber is just one car share business taking off

Energy

Also, in an era of ever rising electricity prices and global warming, more Australian households are choosing to generate their own renewable energy – and not rely on the main grid.

A CSIRO study last year suggested that one in three consumers could go off-grid by 2050, based on the prospect that it would be economic for households and businesses to do so from around 2030 onwards.

A recent Alternative Energy Association study found that stand-alone micro-grids are likely to be viable by 2020. This will also lead to a drop in the price that people will pay for electricity. Another report from the Alternative Energy Association, What Happens When We Unplug says this could transform the market, and the way we use electricity.

“Today, new technologies – specifically solar power and energy storage – have created a vastly different rationale for energy market design. They are factory built, and modular. Increasing or decreasing their installation size has a minimal impact on their installed cost. They can be located close to where energy is consumed, with no impact on air quality or health. These new technologies, combined with complementary advances in energy metering, data management and communications, are the building blocks for a very different energy market.

“The potential for a more customer-centric, resilient energy system is now very real. Stand-alone power infrastructure can be locally owned and locally managed, with positive flow-on affects for local economies, particularly in regional areas that may suffer from poor power quality or unreliable supply. The risk of high energy prices for regional customers, which can be the result of more cost-reflective tariff structures, can also be proactively managed by transitioning to stand-alone power solutions or micro-grids. This will also help unwind historical cross-subsidies from city to regional customers, reducing upward pressure on power prices for all.”

Then there are some who are building their own power plants. According to Energia this requires the use of micro-scale Combined Heat and Power (mCHP) technology.

“Personal power plant technology could cost effectively provide most of Australia’s gas connected residential premises with all of their electricity and hot water heating needs at 23 per cent to 39 per cent of the carbon emissions of today,’’ the report says. This will result in 50 per cent to 25 per cent lower emissions than hot water and grid power alternatives.

“Energeia’s technical and economic analysis has found a positive mCHP investment case will emerge for larger households in NSW and VIC by 2015, assuming the removal of current regulatory barriers. By 2021, we see technology make financial sense for 1.5 million households.”

The Christian Science Monitor tells that in Japan, more than 30,000 homeowners have installed micro-CHP systems driven by quiet, efficient internal-combustion engines, each housed in a sleek metal box made by Honda. Japan is ahead because gas utilities have been subsidising and promoting the systems. In Britain, where the systems look like dishwashers and sit under kitchen counters, 80,000 systems made by a New Zealand company are on order.

Grassroots movements can effect real political change. With the latest sustainability-driven grass roots movements, the combination of technology and people’s passions about the environment can make change happen.

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