Threats & Opportunities Both Growing

Many threats also create opportunities, and many opportunities give rise to threats. We must cope with very rapid change, some of it unwelcome because it threatens or actually harms our homes and communities. It will prove impossible for many communities to create positive futures without covering some inevitable losses with the offsetting gains from new opportunities.

For these reasons, our discussion of threats and opportunities, while separated below, interweaves them when that facilitates better understanding of how the pieces fit together.

These days people feel threatened on many fronts, but the nature and experience of those threats varies greatly from one community to the next. While lots of people see impending threats, opportunities also abound for those with the vision to see them and the energy to pursue them. Like threats, opportunities will also vary greatly from one community to the next.

Only a fraction of the many threats and opportunities enumerated below will likely be found in any given community, and then the form each may take will likely have features unique to that community.

Threats Growing for Many Communities

Some communities in America are suffering the brunt of economic disruption and related assaults on community welfare resulting from globalization, from the scale and speed of changes in our economy, and from changes in the technologies we employ. At the same time, communities face a daunting array of challenges ranging from growing public safety risks to the opioid crisis to unsafe bridges to failing or polluted water systems.

Tens of millions will be threatened by such problems in the years ahead, and if history is any guide, those communities hit hardest may not get nearly the help they need nearly as quickly as they need it. Developing models for how communities can protect themselves from threats is hugely important, and is in fact central to the political feasibility of rising to meet the biggest challenges we face.

No listing of threats can be complete, and any listing cannot avoid a substantial amount of overlapping, both between threats and between threats and opportunities. That said, the following provides at least a sense of the scope of concerns.

Economic Decline & Hardship - Degradation of the local economy, closure of locally owned businesses, and new jobs that pay much less than old jobs - these hardships are afflicting hundreds of communities. Economic decline can arise from globalization, factory closings, robots taking jobs, damaged or depleted forests, fisheries, or crop lands, trade disputes, disaster-driven crop or livestock losses, corporate or financial predatory or monopolistic practices, abusive employers, and many other sources. Compounding these problems, state and/or federal governments may be unable or unwilling to fulfill financial commitments or historical expectations (infrastructure, health, education, disaster assistance, crop and flood insurance, safety net funding, etc.). Bankruptcy or insolvency of local governments, utility and special service districts, or schools and hospitals may result, and these in turn reinforce decline and can lead to even more institutional failures.

Loss Of Critical Facilities & Services - Many communities are suffering the closure of critical facilities (schools, hospitals, medical clinics, government branch offices such as post offices, vehicle license offices, fire, police and sheriff stations, etc.). Loss of nearby health care services (doctor, dentist, walk-in clinic, pharmacy, hospital, ambulance) is a growing problem, life and property threatening storms are occurring much more often, diseases are spreading north as the climate warms, and other threats such as possible epidemics and pandemics all point in the opposite direction. Not only must critical facilities and services be preserved or restored, in many cases they need to be strengthened.

Underinvestment In Infrastructure & Utilities - Energy, communication, transportation, water, wastewater, storm protection, and other local infrastructure are increasingly unable to meet local needs (for capacity, distribution, or both). Resources are increasingly mismatched to storage and distribution facilities. Many communities are struggling with widespread roadway and utility infrastructure deterioration, sometimes including collapse or threatened collapse of bridges, water supply lines, or other critical local infrastructure.

Environmental & Public Safety Threats - Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, derechos, and tropical force winds are growing in both frequency and intensity. The harm caused by wildfires and community-wide fires started by wildfires is also growing. Fires in California and elsewhere have destroyed tens of thousands of homes and buildings over the last few years. Sea level rise is flooding more coastal communities and eroding beaches and shores. Dust storms and desertification are spreading in pace with growing droughts. Pollution and toxic chemical health threats, ranging from polluted drinking water, to air hot spots, to contaminated lands, to toxic algae blooms, are popping up all over. Severe degradation impacts many communities' natural features: rivers and creeks, lakes, beaches, shorelines, wetlands, adjoining lands, etc. Pests or invasive species threaten agriculture, fisheries, and tourism in many communities.

Social Problems & Unmet Needs - Some communities have large homeless or impoverished populations, and many have significant unmet community needs for health care, senior facilities, mental health services, drug rehabilitation services, before and after school day care, and much more. Many communities are having significant problems with drugs and related criminal activity, and in some cases this must be managed while struggling with rising levels of distrust between local police and the communities they serve.

Many communities don't just have one or two of these problems but instead host a witches' brew of interacting and often mutually reinforcing problems that together represent a kind of continuous never ending assault on community identity and wellbeing.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, because communities are collectively alive, the core of an effective response to serious problems almost always involves setting positive goals and launching ambitious initiatives powered by hope.

This "hope" isn't a euphemism for wishful thinking. It coexists with a full awareness of the many difficult problems enumerated above.

Far from naive wishfulness, our "hope" is the entirely reasonable belief, shared and nurtured collectively by community members, that by working together we can improve our current lives and similarly brighten our prospects for the future. Our hope is simply a belief in ourselves as communities working together.

Opportunities Solve Problems & Improve Lives

It isn't just that "every crisis creates an opportunity." It is bigger than that. Every problem, including those that will never become a crisis, creates opportunities for those innovative enough to invent ways to solve the problem. Since we face a multitude of crises and many times that number of mere problems, it follows that there must be a host of opportunities rising like steam from this bubbling cauldron. A community's challenge is to find these opportunities and pursue them successfully.

It is common to hear our future discussed predominantly on the dark side. If we are told that building the number of solar panels we'll need will cost the equivalent of $10,000 for every single man, woman and child, we imagine 10,000 of our own little dollar bills with wings departing on the breeze, our hard-earned dollars flying away for some nebulous benefit sometime in the future.

We forget that every dollar spent is also a dollar earned. When dollars are earned and spent and earned again, instead of flying away like little dollar bills with wings, they reproduce like rabbits, multiplying again and then again as they circulate in the economy. This means that a great deal of the change and adaptation required to address our problems can be economically beneficial. Smart local communities can make it doubly so. Communities that aggressively join the "adaptive economy" will thrive relative to those that do not.

Many real opportunities will not be generic, but will spring from the very specific situation of each community. A short and fairly generic description of opportunities follows, but please understand that it is a pale shadow of what a community could develop with its own unique circumstances center stage.

Economic Opportunities - The "adaptive economy" requires shifting to a new path that is growing because it helps meet real needs while adapting to our changing circumstances. Thousands of businesses, large and small, are already providing employment and community prosperity across America in the adaptive economy. Every aspect of our economy is changing. How we do everything is changing. Of course there are major opportunities in clean energy and electric vehicles, but there are many opportunities spread across every business sector. Every aspect of what we do must adapt, and that process will create a multi-trillion dollar adaptive economy. Local choices can also expand opportunities to spend locally and recycle into the local economy funds that might otherwise leave the community. Finally, instead of offering costly and counterproductive tax breaks, communities can seek new employers offering better jobs by selling the actual unique opportunities their community offers.

Efficiency Boosts Prosperity - Local communities have numerous opportunities to increase the dollars retained and re-circulated in the local economy. They can protect agricultural land via restraints on community sprawl. This reduces local infrastructure, school and urban service costs and improves governmental efficiency. Those dollars can then go to meet other community needs. Similarly, efforts made to improve the efficiency of both local government and community use of costly resources like energy and water will reduce dollars leaving the community and instead retain those dollars to multiply locally.

Prosperity Needs Identity & Identity Needs A Center - Communities will not thrive unless they nurture and cultivate a strong civic and community identity. This is difficult to accomplish in a landscape of scattered commercial sprawl, but it can be much easier if the retail, cultural, political, governmental, law enforcement, medical care, and educational institutions of a community are concentrated in something like a community or town center. This fosters interaction and enables a multitude of beneficial synergies. A development pattern that retains, strengthens and reinvigorates a strong community center is an opportunity many communities have to build community prosperity.

Community Investment - We can, if we choose, invest local funds to build and rebuild what the community needs. Making these investments often requires gaining voter approval, and in economically struggling communities, that isn't easy. The funds may come from a voter approved bond measure, or from a ballot measure allowing the collection of particular fees and taxes for the specific purpose of constructing or reconstructing some important community asset. Only broad community support is likely to make this possible, so consensus building leadership is required. Even if sacrifice of current consumption is necessary, communities will not thrive nor will public safety be protected without adequate investment in infrastructure and public facilities. Citizens will support sacrifice if the goals are clear and the community is united behind those goals. One only has to look at public behavior during WWII to see the great capacity that can be mobilized under the right political circumstances.

Environmental Restoration - People are often shocked when they see the results of environmental restoration efforts. Dirty, dusty, barren places can be turned green, growing, and alive. This may involve parks, roadways, open land inside community boundaries, community rivers, creeks and lakes, beaches and wetlands in coastal communities, and much more. In some cases, restoration may be specifically focused on abandoned factories that have left degraded and polluted land behind, or on abandoned mines or other extraction sites that have been left behind in very poor condition. Community efforts to restore such places can be huge opportunities, usually delivering their benefits in a plethora of ways and over an extended period. Such restoration projects can create or restore recreation businesses, allow the land to be reused because it is no longer hazardous to health, and free up land for attractive and usable community spaces. All of this contributes to community revival, to community thriving, and to a better quality of life for residents.

Avoid "Beggar-Thy Neighbor" Strategies

Sometimes the strategies of communities to help themselves can come at the expense of other communities. For example, just raising river levees through your town can increase flooding in the next community downstream, where a more regional approach might identify opportunities to divert, capture or contain floodwaters in ways that also benefit downstream communities.

Examples of beggar-thy-neighbor strategies abound. Rivers may be dammed for the benefit of upstream communities at the expense of those downstream. If one community starts over-pumping an aquifer running under adjacent communities, this can destroy wells and damage water quality in those adjacent communities. Examples could fill a book.

In some cases, strategies can simply be losers. For example, cutting taxes to win employers to your community has been shown by studies to mainly result in lost tax revenue without nearly the gains promised when the tax concessions were agreed to. Corporations pit communities against each other in contests to see who can give away the most, and on average, looking at this practice overall, the winners are the corporations as a group and the losers are the communities as a group. So, some strategies are losers.

Another losing strategy is the overexploitation or liquidation of natural resource assets. It may seem at first that allowing the soils to erode is necessary to the most profitable agriculture, or that over cutting forests and over fishing coastal waters produces the greatest profits. But these sources of community prosperity can collapse entirely if resources are so badly damaged or depleted that they must be abandoned as no longer having economic value. So, overexploitation of natural systems is another loser strategy.

Published: June 2019
Revised: May 2023

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