… our strategies must be more like water itself, undermining everything that is fixed, hard and rigid with fluidity, constant movement and evolution. We are trying to build a politics of process, where the only certainty is doing what feels right at the right time and in the right place… When we are asked how are we going to build a new world, our answer is, ‘We don’t know, but let’s build it together.’
Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.
These days we keep hearing about sustainability, although we don’t hear so much about what it really means. It has many definitions, but the main idea is that sustainability refers to the ability to keep doing what you’re doing indefinitely. For example, a sustainable agriculture will continue to produce high-quality foods without depleting the soil of nutrients or polluting the soil, water, or air with toxic chemicals. (A regenerative agriculture will go one step further and strengthen the ecosystems which support food production: it will build soil, replenish and protect fish streams, produce clean water as effluent, and so on. Let’s just say that this is not yet on the agenda.) And when we talk about becoming a sustainable region, we are talking about satisfying the needs of the creatures living here without impairing any of the natural systems which provide raw materials, enable processing and transportation, and otherwise support human and other needs. Sounds great, right? How can you argue against that?
Sustainability — however we define it — is a noble goal, but there is another goal which I think is a precondition to creating and maintaining a sustainable city or region. That goal is resilience.
I find resilience especially interesting because it concerns the human side of the natural systems which serve our needs. Sustainability is largely about the non-human side: we talk about sustainable agriculture, a sustainable economy, and so on. Resilience has much more to do with the ability of humans, as individuals and in groups, to respond to changing conditions around them. For instance, we can think of someone as a resilient person; this means that she or he responds quickly and flexibly to challenges, is able to recover from setbacks, adapts to changing conditions, and so on. Likewise a resilient neighbourhood, city, community, or region.
We often talk about sustainability as though it is something that can be grafted onto current social conditions with only minor tinkering; if we could just do better at recycling, or switch to biofuels, or cut our energy usage, etc., we would be creating a more sustainable city or region (or world). Colour me politely skeptical. In my opinion, the challenges we face are too profound for small tweaks to make meaningful changes; this is why I believe that resilience is a better goal than sustainability. If you work towards genuine resilience — in individuals, in groups, and in the various social networks that comprise the local economy — you will create the conditions for true sustainability. Without working on the human level, you will always be mandating change from the top down and working against the grain.
And so here is where Seedy Saturday enters the picture. For anyone who doesn’t know about the local Seedy Saturday, it is an annual event organized by a committee of our local Farmers’ Institute. We just had the fourth one this past weekend, and it was a roaring success. I manned an information table throughout the day, and I got to talk to many of the people who came through. It’s a really energizing and fun event, and as far as I can tell everyone who walks out the door does so with a spring in the step, a smile on the face, and a pocketful of seeds. And why not? After all, it’s really a celebration of potential: seeds are nothing if not little miraculous bundles of new life in waiting, and here we are organizing a day to pay homage to that wonderful process that allows us to draw our sustenance from the earth. There is something deep and primal about Seedy Saturday.
In terms of its bang-per-buck ratio, Seedy Saturday is a brilliant operation. It costs very little to organize: a volunteer committee of six or so people meet six or seven times throughout the year for at most a couple hours per meeting; so there are perhaps 100 person-hours of meeting time, plus a certain amount of background organizing and planning throughout the year. On the day of the event, members of the Farmers’ Institute and people from the broader community volunteer their time to make the event a success. Admission is a mere dollar per person, which is just enough to recoup the cost of renting the hall and the other expenses. Seed packets are fifty cents. Admission provides access to many local experts, amateur and professional gardeners and farmers, community groups, as well as five workshops during the day. It really is a beautiful social event, and it produces enormous happiness with minimal labour.
What is one of the nicest aspects of Seedy Saturday is that it very directly produces resilience in the community. Individuals wishing to become better gardeners or more self-reliant in food production can come and learn more from their peers and from experts. The pool of knowledgeable and passionate food growers gets bigger and better connected every year. The number of people aware of the importance of saving seeds grows every year, as does the number of people actively growing plants for seed. Community groups form stronger ties to people and other groups. At the most basic level, the community gets to know itself better.
And all of this happens very organically: this is not one of those public meetings that people drag themselves to begrudgingly and full of trepidation. No one feels too shy to ask questions or offer an opinion. It’s like a party built around seeds and growing and food and hope. So it doesn’t feel like activism, or political engagement. But it produces a more active and engaged bunch of people. In effect, it builds resilience into the community by creating a corps of people who are informed and passionate about regional food security, the right to control our food supply, and the importance of self-reliance.
So, my question is this: how can we start to create more events and initiatives like Seedy Saturday? How can we find ways to get people more involved without making it look like work or duty or obligation? In the literacy work I do, we talk a lot about embedding literacy in people’s daily lives. People often don’t want to feel that they’re engaged in some kind of literacy activity (it sounds too much like school); but if you sneak the literacy bit into something that people really want to do on its own merits — like stand-up comedy, storytelling, or a poetry slam — then it’s much more effective and more likely to draw in all kinds of people. In a similar fashion, we need to create the conditions under which the community will become more resilient, individually and collectively, without people having to think about resilience. It should be organic, spontaneous, and answer to people’s real needs. We need to create more public spaces and conversations which are open-ended and free enough to let the community’s true spirit come through. It’s hard to know how to make that happen, but that is the work that will produce a resilient region. We need to stop steering the process so much and start giving people possibilities that allow them to determine the path forward.
I want to return to John Jordan’s comments quoted at the beginning. Here is how he finishes off his letter to Rebecca Solnit (emphasis mine):
Taking control of the future lies at the root of nearly every historical social change strategy, and yet we are building movements which believe that to ‘let go’ is the most powerful thing we can do — to let go, walk away from power and find freedom. Giving people back their creative agency, reactivating their potential for a direct intervention into the world is at the heart of the process. With agency and meaning reclaimed, perhaps it is possible to imagine tomorrow today and to be wary of desires that can only be fulfilled by the future. In that moment of creation, the need for certainty is subsumed by the joy of doing, and the doing is filled with meaning.