Everybody talks about whittling down big government these days. Now more and more people are talking about something else, too: the simultaneous need to build up local and individual capabilities. The record of what has already been done in many places challenges the thought, energy, and conscience of all of us everywhere.
It is an exhilarating and, in every sense of the word, wonderful development. Just when mankind is tempted to think itself powerless in the face of events, insignificant on the frontiers of the universe, each citizen of the earth is once more hearing the old song: "It all depends on you."
Even a Briton committed to strong central government and the welfare state takes a lead in bringing the focus back to what individuals can do. Should not the "clients" of the welfare state be involved in providing social services as well as accepting them? This is one of the suggestions in "Politics Is for People," by Shirley Williams, who has helped found Britain's Social Democratic Party after leaving a Labour Party she considered to have lost its democratic ideals.
And the spirit of democracy is part and parcel of the conviction that individuals and groups of individuals can make a difference in solving not only their own problems but the world's. Mrs. Williams, a former minister of education, is concerned with unlocking the potentiality of individuals through schools that prepare them for the world of work by cooperation with real-life institutions. She likes the idea that "men and women should not be subjectedm to an economic system, but rather should dominatem it." Here is a way to prevent the conditions exploitable by communism, whose encroachments on the Labour Party were one of Mrs. Williams's reasons for abandoning it. Her challenge is not only to her own country but to a world currently tempting people to apathy or the instant solutions offered by religious or political fanatics. Obviously no one brand of party politics, including her own, is requisite for the "exciting job . . . of creating a society for the individuals who live in it."
It will be no news to readers of this newspaper that individuals in various countries have been playing their essential role in creating better societies. They have been reported in Asian villages, for example, or just last month in Byron, Georgia, where a town showed it could provide a Boy Scout hall, a community center, and other improvements without federal aid. One of the Byron community volunteers said they weren't going to sit back and wait for government money -- if you get two or three people who believe in a local project, "it'll be done."
The individual achievements appear in increasing energy efficiency; rescuing neighborhoods from blight or crime; improving the quality of life in homes, in communities, and --issue of the '80s -- in the workplace.
Wherever individuals wisely use resources of any kind they are serving the rest of the world as well as their own communities. The possibilities are suggested in Bruce Stokes's new Worldwatch Institute Book, "Helping Ourselves: Local Solutions to Global Problems."
It notes that thoughtfulness is necessary to prevent consequences of self-help efforts from offsetting the advantages. In one area the increased use of wood-burning stoves led to a serious air pollution problem. Some efforts prove economically inefficient, inordinately time-consuming, subject to manipulation by institutions.
But, entered into with care, self-help can help everybody. Mr. Stokes lists communities where cooperative programs have dramatically cut energy consumption. He cites the importance of people taking care of their own homes in a period of world-wide housing problems. He finds do-it-yourself rehabilitation already amounting to a $24-billion-a-year business in the United States, exceeding the rehabilitation work done by professionals.
The record of what is happening could be extended. Harry C. Boyte's "The Backyard Revolution" tells of the rise in political as well as other forms of community participation. He calls for "more respect for the positive role that traditional institutions, voluntary groups, and small-scale economic enterprise can play in democratic social policy."
Earlier came "People Power," the US consumer affairs office's thick compendium of case histories on what communities are doing to help themselves in energy, housing, food, health care. As for individuals taking responsibility in protecting the environment, specific efforts were described several years ago in "The Grass Roots Primer: How to Save Your Piece of the Planet by the People Who Are Already Doing It."
In short, some kind of bandwagon is rolling. Or should we say peoplewagon? At any rate, it's time for everyone to jump on.