Exuberance as a survival strategy

By David Parkinson


It's the time of year when the vast networks of mycelium send up their fruiting bodies to send spores out into the unimaginable world above the soil.

Last week, I did something that makes me wonder if I’m losing my marbles: I voluntarily reduced the amount of paid work I am doing. Why would anyone do something like that, especially right now when the economy seems to be headed for a long slow collapse? Well, it’s not like I won’t have enough work to keep me out of some amount of trouble: I will continue (as long as funding continues) to coordinate the Powell River Food Security Project. But that gig’s budget only allows for about 12 hours of work per week, and even for Powell River that’s a little thin.

As I have written recently, the one project that really gets me fired up lately is the idea of getting some cooperative projects going in the region. So I’m doing the best I can to understand the process of incorporating a cooperative, gathering together a group of inspired amateurs unafraid to gamble on crackpot ideas, and planning ahead to the coming year. Somehow I hope that this work can replace some of my lost income, but that might take a little time. Unfortunately, I know if no other way to start getting serious about the effort to develop a resilient regional food economy. The simple fact is that we need to let a thousand small experiments bloom; we need to hope for success but plan for failure (and learn from it if we must); we need to connect with the small but vital segment of the regional population who get what is happening and will support food-security projects that might grow into crucial parts of a functioning food system. And there is no time to waste.

In the earlier posts linked to above I throw around some of the possible projects that a cooperative could take on. These are mostly projects that haven’t found a home under the umbrella of an existing non-profit association or for-profit business. One of the aspects of a cooperative that I find most appealing is that power derives very much from the membership; and this is something that I hope a local food-security cooperative would really emphasize. I think what we need to get going is a sort of laboratory where we can brainstorm ideas — a community oilseed farm! a selection of local dried fruit! a shared potato crop! — and find people willing to assume the leadership role on them. If we can combine careful planning with a flexible approach and plenty of volunteer energy, then we can start working on some of the real problems we need to deal with.

Eventually, we need to answer the question, “How self-sufficient can this region be in terms of food?” This is a huge and complex question, but it can be broken down into small digestible pieces, not all of which need to be taken on at one time or by one group of people. But let’s say we want to think about how well we could supply the needs of the regional population in terms of fruit. It’s fairly clear how to do this sort of work (which is not to say that it’s simple): make some assumptions about the needs of the average person, multiply by the population, perform an inventory or a decent estimate of the present amount of fruit production, and then work on shrinking the gap between needs and available resources.

We can repeat this work for any kinds of foods that we’re interested in, taking into account the available farmland, the types of crops or livestock most likely to thrive here, and as many other factors we can measure or estimate. And the value of small and flexible community projects is that they can answer some big questions on a small scale. For example, if we wanted to figure out the amount of grains and legumes we would need to produce each season so that everyone in the region could be assured of some minimal amount of protein crops, we could run some little experiments on small plots, being sure to understand how those small experiments would scale up. For example, is it more or less efficient to work at the small scale, using hand tools and duplicating similar labour in many locations? Or to work at the large scale, using motorized tools and not needing to perform the same tasks in multiple fields? Are there factors besides efficiency we need to take into account? And so on.

My hope is that we can find people in the community with an inquisitive spirit and the desire to start working together to really tackle some of the tough aspects of securing our regional food supply. As someone said to me today, “We’ve pretty much got vegetables covered,” by which she meant that, even if we don’t produce enough vegetables to feed the region, we know a lot about how we could do that if we had to. But vegetables only really last from May through October or thereabouts. The big challenge is to give everyone the tools they need to make it through the year with as much good local food as possible.

And we’re going to need a lot more little projects, groups, and organizations. We can’t put all of our eggs into the same overflowing baskets any longer. One of the challenges ahead of us is learning how to work well together, to make good decisions as groups, and to push towards our goals together. We need to stop trying to limit people’s creativity by insisting that things be done as they have always been done. We need to listen to more ideas and find ways to act on as many as we can without spreading ourselves too thin. We seem to have forgotten how often true inspiration comes from the purest accidents. Time to bring back serendipity.

In nature, resilience comes from exuberance: thousands of spores from one mushroom, of which maybe only a small number will successfully germinate and produce offspring. And those tough survivors often have characteristics that will help future generations to survive. We need to lean to emulate nature in this respect, by spawning many small, simple, but scaleable projects in the community, by continually learning from these projects and sharing what we learn, and by encouraging others to get something going. We need to throw enough good ideas at the wall that some of them will stick and form the core of our strategies for regional survival.

6 Responses to “Exuberance as a survival strategy”

  1. 1 Maureen Simmonds November 11, 2009 at 14:31

    There is no shortage of creativity in Powell River, but there is a huge shortage of that “exuberance” which creates the energy and motivation to bring creative ideas to fruition.

    There is no time to waste, for sure, but I feel that the efforts of the very few will not be enough. The reality of our global situation will have to hit this town with a powerful punch before it wakes up and smells the coffee (Tim Horton’s coffee, of course!).

  2. 2 David Parkinson November 11, 2009 at 15:24

    Thanks, Maureen. I like to believe that the shortage of exuberance is the result of the lack of models more than it is something inherent in people here (or elsewhere). And probably the efforts of the few will not be enough, but a little bit of progress is better than none at all.

    Creating something that goes in a different direction from the status quo might be futile, but at least let’s hope it’s fun — more fun than the extreme futility of pretending that nothing is wrong.

  3. 3 Beringian Fritillary November 13, 2009 at 11:07

    Hello David,

    You’ve written another intriguing post calling for community action. On growthechange, we have experimented with growing 95% of our food and producing 80% of our power. Our next step, is what you have called a “functioning food system”. What we have found is the level of energy and time that is need to grow a resilient food culture, in dramatically changing ecological and social conditions, is beyond a “self-sufficient” or survivalist level. In the local community we are/were living is predominately illiterate (about 60%) and supportive of the notion of rugged individualism, along with anti-intellectualism and superstition. Then there are the 2-4 local large family farms that have the best land, about 1500 acres, at least 1200 of which is not farmed each year, but which we (or any other newcomers) are unable to use, rent or buy because of a lack of local family ties, and a general laizze-faire capitalist food culture. In our story these have been entrenched barriers for community change.

    From my view, the important questions to answer, when looking to engage in a resilient food culture would be:
    Is there a general perspective, in your community, of what food insecurity looks like?
    Are there gender, class, race, ecological, physical or mentally challenged peoples, experiencing barriers in fulfilling their needs or desire of food security?
    Is the community ready for challenges and changes to social habits and culture in meeting the needs and desires of community food security?
    My view is that a community, not growing staple nutritionally rich foods locally, is already food insecure.

    I really like the Mycelium analogy, and I would add that most of the living organism is under the surface, sharing a vast network of indigenous interconnected organic relationships. The fruiting body is the mechanism for expression and proliferation of ideas. It sounds to me that what you are calling for is a Food Renaissance.

  4. 4 David Parkinson November 13, 2009 at 11:54

    Thanks, Beringian.

    I’d say that the quick-n-dirty answers to your questions are as follows:

    • Q: Is there a general perspective, in your community, of what food insecurity looks like? A: No, although there is a small but active segment of the community which is tuned in and concerned.
    • Q: Are there gender, class, race, ecological, physical or mentally challenged peoples, experiencing barriers in fulfilling their needs or desire of food security? A: Definitely. The extent of the problem is unknown, being hard to measure, but it’s real and probably getting worse fast.
    • Q: Is the community ready for challenges and changes to social habits and culture in meeting the needs and desires of community food security? A: Almost not at all. Even the people who are the most concerned about what the future holds seem to be waiting for Superman to save the day…

    But we need to start from where we are. I only hope that a good model of dynamic community activity springing from the grassroots might inspire some more of the same. I’m disappointed by the lack of imagination in the responses so far to the challenges we face. We have to get beyond protesting, digging in our heels, and playing by the bogus rulebook that got us into this mess. I guess we’ll find our way(s) out of the futile and broken patterns of the past… eventually. But we need to start breaking trails in all directions from where we’re stuck. Some will be dead ends, but some will get us where we want to go. Right now it feels that we’re all taking a circular firing-squad approach and putting all our energy into finding The One True Path Forward. That sounds comforting, because then no one needs to think hard or try to bust out of the rut we’re in.

    As the Flaming Lips sing, in “Waiting for a Superman”:

    Tell everybody
    Waiting for Superman
    That they should try to
    Hold on the best they can.
    He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything;
    It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.

  5. 5 Beringian November 16, 2009 at 13:01

    I like to add

    I agree wholeheartedly in the urgency of getting started. I just re-read though your post https://slowcoast.ca/2009/10/19/cooperation-catalyzing-community/ in which you have outlined clearly many of the main and pressing issues of food security. If we were members of this co op model it would fully engage us in the process of building community food security. The test for us was placing that model over our own experiences: we found that we had raised similar issues and are looking for similar solutions. It’s a great working model! I would say to others in your community who are sincere, put the workings of this model to the test and see it for yourselves. We have thought of using a wiki website as a way to interact with the varied and collective responsives of people’s experiences.


  6. 6 David Parkinson November 16, 2009 at 14:23

    Thanks again, Beringian. That’s great to hear that it meshes with your experiences. Not surprising to me, since I’ve spent a lot of time reading, thinking, talking, and hearing about the sorts of projects that people have started or would like to start (here and elsewhere). For me, the place to start from (and to return to constantly) is: what small steps can we start taking together? I think about regular folks who may be feeling the pinch or are starting to worry about their ability to get food on the table — what would it take to make that easier for them with the least demand of time, cash, and physical energy? How can we work together to give people the knowledge and tools and support they’ll need to get moving on gardening, or canning, or learning how to use low-cost healthy ingredients? I’m not interested in working from the top down. I want to find out how we can work better together at the sorts of simple things that many people are already doing.

    I’m excited to find out what projects come out of the woodwork when even more people get involved!

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