Sustainability Is Based on Communities

Two women greeting each other with a hug at a house party
[Photo by seventyfourimages via Envato Elements]

The thriving of our species depends on more than taking care of the natural environment. Strong communities formed by meaningful relationships can lead to peace between nations and the cooperation we need to make a sustainable world for everyone.

The word “sustainability” has become a familiar term to most people, used for everything from product selection by individual consumers to national governmental policies. But we must remember that sustainability can only be realized at the community level. The life of an individual is not inherently sustainable. In the natural world, some species live solitary lives, except at certain times such as during the breeding season. Tigers are an example of this. However, many more animal species live in groups and often form well-organized communities.

The most prominent example is us, of course—humanity. It is obvious that humans are superior to other species in intelligence as we define it and have gained an advantage over other creatures, for instance, by using fire and tools. However, such advantages aren’t all that useful for individuals. Modern humans are a species capable of using knowledge and technologies incomparable to anything in the past, but even with all our accomplishments, an individual thrown out into nature on his or her own would be unlikely to survive. We are currently thriving in the global ecosystem not because individual humans are impressive but because we are strong as a species.

What Makes Humanity Most Successful?

The history of evolution consistently shows how much more powerful sociality is than individual ability. Neanderthals—Homo neanderthalensis—are the closest known species to modern humans, Homo sapiens. How Neanderthals, who lived alongside our ancestors, vanished and left us as a single species remains a mystery. Recently discovered biological data suggest Neanderthals had larger and stronger skeletons than Homo sapiens. Considering brain capacity, which can be inferred from skull size, and the level of tools Neanderthals seem to have used, we cannot conclude that they were inferior to us in intelligence, either. While Homo sapiens originally came up from warm climates, Neanderthals survived in harsher, more barren surroundings and are presumed to have been more adaptable to the environment.

So why were Neanderthals, who seemed to be at an evolutionary advantage in every way, pushed aside by Homo sapiens? One widely accepted explanation is the difference in sociability. Being more sociable, Homo sapiens may have become more accustomed to cooperation and a division of labor, enabling them to form larger groups. No matter how Neanderthals were as individuals, the difference in group size would have left them unable to compete.

We can see a similar historical example in the competition between nomadic and agricultural peoples. Sweeping away all before them to conquer vast territories, nomadic people often outperformed agricultural people in personal fighting power. But in terms of sociality, division of labor, and cooperation, and in the size of the groups that can be created under such conditions, the nomads were inferior to the agriculturalists. As a result, agriculture-based communities now predominate.

The most significant reason humans can dominate other species is our ability to cooperate socially and communicate. So, it is ironic that the closest, most significant threat to humanity—one that could cause the collapse of human society—is conflict within the species. This is confirmed by the war in Ukraine, talk of the competition for supremacy between the United States and China, and even the threatened use of nuclear weapons. The biggest crises we face are climate change and environmental destruction. However, a more stable climate and a healthier environment will not necessarily lead to human sustainability. Conflicts within human societies threaten human sustainability as much as environmental factors, perhaps even more so. There is no sustainable future for us unless we find a way to resolve the conflicts within human society and learn to live together.

What Makes a Community Safe and Healthy?

Thanks to the development of high-speed communication technologies, it doesn’t take much time to know what’s happening anywhere on the planet. We can get information from distant countries with just a few clicks. We can buy products made in those places and have video chats in real time with people on the other side of the planet. Since distance is no longer an obstacle to communication and exchange, most people find other countries and cultures much less strange than they once did. Even distant countries we’ve never visited now feel like nearby cities. We can vividly see the lives of the people there through YouTube, and it’s easy to interact directly. As a result, the world feels much smaller.

What’s easy to miss in these communication networks is the quality of the connections, not the quantity. According to Facebook data, as of 2021, 2.9 billion active users access their Facebook pages at least once a month. That’s 36 percent of the world’s eight billion people. The average number of “friends” per person is 340, and the total number of individual friends is more than 100 times the global population. In other words, the world’s social network comprises many interconnected layers of friends. If 36 percent of the worldwide population is bound together by friendship, then the earth should be a utopia, with few enemies to be found anywhere.

Unfortunately, crimes stemming from violence, terrorism, discrimination, and hatred never cease. And recently, something has been getting attention as a new factor threatening health: loneliness. As a problem, loneliness is considered more severe than smoking, obesity, or lack of exercise. Studies have shown that a lack of close social connections can increase mortality by as much as 26 percent. This is equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.

How paradoxical is it that so many are dying of loneliness in this world full of friends? We eagerly share our daily lives with countless friends through various social media platforms, not just Facebook. But how many of them share our dreams and feel our pain? A real connection isn’t the number of friends you have or the number of likes your post gets on social media. External links without any inner connection only make people feel lonelier. To create authentic relationships, we must learn to trust and care for one another and share a common dream for the earth and humanity. Even seemingly beneficial, high-profile connections are no more than trappings papered over the mess of our lives if they lack mutual trust, consideration, care, and shared goals and values.

The Heart of Community: Caring and Compassion

Research into what factors significantly affect quality of life in a community has produced some fascinating results. What do you think most impacts overall quality of life in a community—safety, crime rates, job opportunities, public health? Security systems, the number of police officers, community members’ educational levels, income, businesses providing numerous jobs? All of these are important, of course. But according to many studies, there are other factors with the same or greater influence. These are “how many people know each other’s names” and “how often they interact in public spaces.” Stated more simply, it’s how much people care about each other. It starts simply with knowing who each other is. An example is greeting someone by name when you meet on the street or in a marketplace. This seemingly straightforward element gives people a feeling of belonging to a community and motivates a sense of responsibility for one another. We want to help others around us who are in need and makes us less likely to harm other members of the community.

When I was young, rural villages were small, and we knew each other’s family circumstances well. To exaggerate a little, neighborhood women even knew the number of chopsticks next door because they’d go to help when there were big events, such as weddings or funerals. When adults saw children being rude or misbehaving, either their own kids or those of others, they would scold them. “Do your parents know what you’re doing?” they would ask, giving the youngsters an earful. This was an expression of concern and care, not criticism. In such an environment, misbehaving isn’t easy.

Korea is not alone in this. In the United States, a saying from Africa has become popular: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Similarly, we find the Korean expression: “A disease is healed only by spreading the word about it.” For this proverb to make sense, you must live in a community whose members care about each other. Otherwise, the disease is a private matter that must be kept hidden; letting people know about it may result in discrimination.

Many individuals in communities today are less about caring for their neighbors and more about “keeping up with the Joneses.” They commute long hours to jobs in the cities that help pay mortgages in fancy neighborhoods in the suburbs where no one talks to each other. Often, they don’t even know each other’s names. Lacking mindfulness and care for one another, this sort of community is like a body without a spirit. The greatest power making a community safer, healthier, and more sustainable is the compassion flowing between us, from heart to heart. This applies across the board, from the smallest village to human society, and to all living things. Developing and expanding this mindset can make the world more harmonious and sustainable.

Physical conditions allowing people to connect through compassion, regardless of spatial distance, have already been created here on earth. As the use of social media has increased and many people have shared their lives with others, we have gotten used to the fact that ways of living and thinking different from our own exist in the world. And we can now connect and interact with people we feel emotionally close to regardless of spatial distance. Through such interactions, tremendous changes are taking place in the ways we define community, where the geographical limitations of space were once an important factor. In addition to traditional local communities, new communities of another dimension are emerging, free of geographical limitations.

The networks and social media that connect the world today allow us to create holistic communities where information and emotion flow together. The key, however, is found in people’s hearts, not in technology or infrastructure. In South Korea, this spirit is known as “Hongik”—the intention to care for the world, not just for ourselves—and this spirit is what makes the earth a true community, a global village.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about how to maintain sustainable communities in Ilchi Lee’s book, The Art of Coexistence: How You and I Can Save the World.

Related Posts

Featured Video

Receive weekly inspirational messages from Ilchi Lee:
Previous Post
Five Steps to Clearing Mental Clutter with Information Fasting
Next Post
Reveal Your Unconditional Value with Daily Mind-Body Training

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.