Archive for March, 2010

Gifts freely given

By David Parkinson

Our backyard peach tree in bloom

Our backyard peach tree in bloom

Everything you do
Returns at last to you;
So why don’t you do love
(Tom Rapp, “I Saw The World”)

This past weekend I was lucky to participate in a strategic planning exercise in my capacity as a director of the Malaspina Land Conservancy Society (MLCS), a fairly young but fast-moving new land trust in the region. We were recently granted charitable tax status by the Canadian government, so now we are able to issue tax receipts and work in earnest with landowners and interested parties to conserve lands of interest to the community, whether the reason for conservation be environmental, agricultural, recreational, scientific, historic, or any other comparable reason.

Having been involved with the MLCS since the very first meetings held to discuss the creation of a land trust specific to this region, I have had many opportunities to learn about what goes into forming and nurturing a volunteer-based not-for-profit organization. One thing I have realized is the enormous amount of invaluable and devoted care and attention that goes into the many groups and activities that we take for granted in the community.

As a quick and not very scientific example: I did a rough back-of-the envelope calculation of the value to the community of all of the volunteer work that went into Seedy Saturday, a five-hour event which draws around 500 people. I figured that if the hourly rate for volunteers’ time was $20, the event could be said to cost the equivalent of $12,000 in wages alone. We can consider that as  a contribution to the community, made freely and generously by the many people who pitch in to make this event a success. In fact, it jars slightly even to think about converting this volunteer time and energy into crude dollars.

And you can imagine — if you multiply this one fairly modest event by the number of volunteer groups out there, by the number of board meetings, by the hours spent researching, writing, emailing, keeping records up to date, and by all of the other many small but important tasks that keep any organization functioning — that the total value of the mysterious ‘grey economy’ of volunteer labour could be reckoned on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not in the millions of dollars.

When you consider that these gifts of tremendous value are given freely, that in fact they take place as the by-products of hundreds of people’s passionate desire to make the community a better place, you begin to see that this is about much more than dollars. It’s really about recognizing and respecting the existence of an alternative economy, one that has been called the Gift Economy. (I recently read Lewis Hyde’s amazing book The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property, and hope to write about it in future.) We can translate the activity of this economy into the currency of the classical economy (money, goods, etc.), but much is lost in translation. And there is no straightforward way to convert activity in the money economy into the spirit of selfless giving which is at the heart of the Gift Economy. They depend on entirely distinct impulses: in the Gift Economy, greater merit attaches to giving than to accumulating; whereas in the non-Gift Economy, which we refer to as “the economy”, greater merit attaches to accumulating and holding instead of giving back.

What is most interesting about this observation is that we almost entirely lack the vocabulary for describing and appreciating the wealth that we create through participation in the Gift Economy. It is certainly not as though we are creating something like money by using volunteer labour to ‘stand in for’ money. We are instead circulating the gifts that cannot be converted to money: our presence, our attention, our friendship, our support for one another and for worthy projects that we tend overlook — or at best treat as secondary — in the money economy (things like saving species at risk, preserving watersheds, creating safe spaces for marginalized people, and so on).

Which brings me back to our strategic planning session on Saturday. We got together as a board of directors to talk about our vision, our mission, and our values. These statements of what we believe, where we are headed, and how we intend to get there will shape our activities and give shape to the work we intend to contribute to the community (by bringing a lot of eager members on board to share the work). In a way, our strategic plan is like a list of the gifts that we hope to help the community bestow on itself: some of them more tangible, like parcels of land saved from devastation or preserved for public use; some of them less tangible, like a sense of shared work and accomplishment through conservation efforts.

And the role of the board of directors, as directors come and go through the board, is to stay true to this vision, to adapt it to changing circumstances, to continue to enlist participation — in short: to continue working away in one tiny corner of the Gift Economy, greatly benefiting our region without necessarily engaging in monetary activity, of less worth but greater value, no commerce but the commons.

All the groups out there who have taken up one cause or another are working in the Gift Economy when they contribute freely, with no expectation of payment, to the things they value most. And these groups, whether or not they have engaged in an explicit exercise of articulating their vision, their mission, and their values, are giving gifts of incalculable worth and deserve our recognition and thanks. Thank you all!


Texadans meet Transition at the Chamber

By Tom Read

The view from Shelter Point in winter is food for the soul. It's a good place to think about what's happening on our island and in the world.

[A couple of notes to readers: first, this is a somewhat longer post than usual, for which I apologize in advance. Second, I’m off to visit family down south for awhile, and my next posting here will be on April 23. See you then!]

Texadans are lucky that Kevin Wilson volunteered his time last night to speak to our Chamber of Commerce about the multi-sided predicament of peak oil, climate change and economic contraction — and what we might do about it as a community.

Kevin lives in Powell River where he gardens and builds websites, along with serving on the Transition Powell River initiation committee. He’s also a very articulate speaker, and I noticed that the audience of about 40 people paid close attention as he delivered his 20-minute message. It’s quite difficult to compress a topic of such wide scope into so little time, especially when much of the material necessarily involves science and economics.

In addition to its role as a social networking opportunity, our Chamber of Commerce functions like a community forum. Guest speakers include elected officials, educators, public servants and local business leaders. In this instance, we heard from a person who has concerns about the world’s stability, and who shared some provocative thoughts about it.

In a too-brief summary, here’s the gist of what Kevin had to say:

— Our civilization runs on oil, and, yes, we still have plenty of oil. But global extraction of oil is reaching a peak, after which it will go into permanent decline, which means we’ll have to make major changes to our fossil fueled way of life. This is “peak oil.”

—  The process of obtaining energy (in any form, not just oil) also requires consumption of energy. This concept is known as Energy Return On Energy Invested, or EROEI. Kevin cited statistics showing that EROEI for oil extraction has declined dramatically since the early “gusher” days in Texas and Saudi Arabia. Consequently, oil is now a lot more expensive to “produce,” which translates into higher fuel and food prices. That’s another sign of impending peak oil.

— Weather is what you see outside your windows; climate is the accumulated weather cycles occurring over years, decades, and beyond. The planet’s overall temperature is getting warmer, and the result is that our weather is becoming subject to unusual volatility. This damages farming and is already making our food supply more expensive and less reliable.

— Four of the last five major economic contractions (“recessions,” to use the media word) have been preceded by an upward spike in oil prices, and that includes our present economic situation. In 2008, the price of oil rose from $100/barrel (itself a near record) to $147/barrel, a new world record. High oil prices make goods and services throughout our economy more expensive, and make it harder to pay off debts. Oil prices plummeted as industry and consumers reduced their use of oil, and now oil prices are on the rise again. This is part of the volatile economy expected in such turbulent times – lots of ups and downs.

— Our global industrial economy is based on assumed perpetual growth, fueled by further assumptions of perpetual cheap oil and credit. Those assumptions are mistaken. The global economy is therefore not sustainable, and we’ll need to re-invent a network of local economies to provide for our needs.

— Texada Island is historically, culturally and geographically a distinct place, and should logically therefore undertake its own organized effort to transition to a more self-reliant, resilient community.

Kevin did not use visual aids in his presentation, and the topic is complex, so this was a speech you needed to listen to carefully. The key point, I thought, was that oil, climate and global economy are all related in their impact on our industrial civilization, and we ought to do something about this as a community. Toward that end, Kevin described the “Transition Towns” movement (which includes a number of local islands, by the way) that started in the United Kingdom five years ago.

The basic premise of Transition holds that focusing on individual household preparation for these changes, while critical, will not be effective since no household can really achieve total self-sufficiency. Also, that government’s recognition of the overall predicament and its eventual response will arrive too little and too late, but that local community action starting now might be just enough — and just in time — to create a positive path forward.

Food for thought at the Texada Chamber of Commerce meeting, March 26, 2010.

Making it up as we go along

By David Parkinson

Pear blossoms

Pear blossoms

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending an advocacy summit hosted by the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association a Camp Byng down in Roberts Creek. This event brought together about 50 people from up and down the Sunshine Coast and as far afield as Reid Island to share stories and learn how to become more effective in creating social change, especially in the area of conserving our natural surroundings.

A theme underlying many of the discussions at this event was the ever-present question of how to involve more members of the general public. I don’t think we got closer to any brilliant insights on this score, but somehow we’re going to have to find ways to engage more of the folks who feel more at home on the sidelines, or the ones who are tuned out of the important things going on around the region. How to do it?

And somehow, while I was thinking about that, something I had seen recently popped into my head. Maybe we need to treat political and social engagement more like a freewheeling group activity; more like improvisational theatre. This touches on the frustration that I expressed a while ago about blocked brainstorming, and points towards some principles we might adopt when trying to get something good happening with a group of people.

Here are seven principles of improv:

  1. “Yes and…” Fully accepting the reality that is presenting, and the adding a NEW piece of information – that is what allows it to be adaptive, move forward and stay generative. Each performer (agent) interacts with what is offered and offer a unique contribution.
  2. Make everyone else look good. That means you do not have to be defending or justifying yourself or your position – others who will do that for you and you do that for others. Without the burden of defensiveness or competition, everyone is free to create. Complex characters can form that enable unpredictable complex actions and direction to emerge.
  3. Be changed by what is said and what happens. At each moment, new information in an invitation for you to have a new reaction, or for your character to experience a new aspect of them. Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next. You adapt as one structure dissipates and re-organizes into a new structure that expands, yet includes, what was before.
  4. Co-create a shared “agenda.” This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. You are co-creating the agenda in real-time. In order to keep the play going, you respond to the moment and an “agenda” co-emerges that is more inclusive than anything that could have been planned. It is no consensus, which reduces. It is co-creative, which expands.
  5. Mistakes are invitations. In improv, mistakes are embraced – they are the stimulating anomalies that invite the performers into a new level of creativity. By using improv techniques such as justifying any mistake can be transformed into surprising plot point or dialogue that never would have happened in following a conventional pattern. In improv, justifying creates order out of chaos. Mistakes break patterns and allow new ones to emerge.
  6. Keep the energy going. No matter what is given, or what happens, you accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv you keep moving. A mistake happens – let it go move on. The unexpected emerges – use it to move on. Someone forgot something important – justify it and move on. You’re lost or confused –make something up and trust the process. Just keep moving. The system is not static – it is alive and dynamic.
  7. Serve the good of the whole. Always carry the question, “How can I best serve this situation?” and then you have a better sense of when to run in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to give it, how to best support your fellow performers and how to best support the scene. By focusing away from how you will look into serving the larger good – the aliveness of the system – you have more creative impulses and resources available to you at any moment. And the choices you make are more in alignment with the higher levels of creative integration that form a coherent play.

What I like most about these principles is that they apply equally well to any social occasion, from a dinner party to a meeting; and they apply equally well to an ongoing social institution like an organization or coalition of individuals or groups. We often get so hung up on the outcome that we lose sight of the process. We forget about people’s need to be rewarded for the energy they put into the things they do; and when people sit in tedious meetings full of people ignoring one another or putting each other down, when the common goal is sacrificed to personal agendas; when people march inflexibly in one direction, ignoring the ever-changing dynamic in the room; then it is hard to stay plugged in and engaged.

Human society evolved around common work and around shared pleasure and story-telling. People are still hungry for this, but unfortunately the great story-teller of our culture is the television and (to a lesser but growing extent) the internet. These technologies connect us together, but isolate us physically. If we’re going to compete with these technologies, we need to create events and venues where people’s feel able to get involved right away, without having to know the ground rules or be an expert. Where whatever happens is the right thing for that moment, and anyone can jump in and play a part.

Bringin’ in the slops

By Tom Read

Usually, the slops are waiting for me just inside the kitchen back door at the Texada Island Inn. Today I lucked out when chef Elaine saw my arrival and met me halfway.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’ve just pulled up to the back door of Van Anda’s Texada Island Inn, right outside the restaurant kitchen. At home each day, we feed a small stream of kitchen scraps to our chickens and compost pile, but the volume of “table scraps” flowing from a restaurant kitchen seems like a river by comparison. I’m here at the Inn — known to locals as “the hotel” even though it also includes a restaurant and bar — to pick up the Friday slops.

One of the hotel’s excellent cooks, Elaine, saw my car pull in the driveway, and she brought today’s slops out of the kitchen to be loaded in the back of my car (photo). In return, I gave her a couple of clean buckets from a previous slops pick-up. I make sure to scrub the returning buckets with soap and hot water to comply with the stringent sanitation standards required in a commercial kitchen. Sometimes Linda and I will have dinner at the hotel, then I’ll go fetch the slops and we’ll head home. Of course, there’s never anything left over on my plate.

So why am I going to all this trouble, and burning a few extra litres of gasoline in the process? Answer: I’m retrieving slops from the hotel thrice weekly, all year, because the organic matter feeds our animals and our soil. Food-growing removes a certain amount of soil nutrients every year; if we don’t replenish those nutrients then our food-growing will eventually fail for want of soil fertility. Thus, a constant balance must be maintained between what we take away — harvests — and what we add to offset the soil nutrient depletion caused by those harvests.

Slops use is only one part of the balance. They’re a little heavy on tired lettuce, surplus French fries, deep-fried onion rings and mashed potatoes. So we’re fortunate that we have our own chicken and pig manure and that Texada is abundant in wild sources of soil amendments. Texadans also have access to some very effective commercial organic fertilizers that are sold across Canada but brewed right here on the island from imported ingredients.

The wild stuff includes seaweed (collect in fall only), nettle (collect before it forms seed-heads), nitrogen-fixing trees (Western Red Alder) and lots of maple and alder leaves. If you cut thistle tops before they form a seed-head then these widespread “weeds” also become a good input for the compost pile. How attitudes change! When we started our first garden after moving to Texada ten years ago, I tried in vain to remove all the nettles and thistles from our property — the hard way, by hand with a shovel and a hoe. Now I welcome these useful plants on the farm (but not directly in the garden beds).

But I digress, and must conclude by returning to the slops. It’s a privilege to be given those buckets. They help offset the cost of animal feed, even though I must carefully inspect the slop bucket contents just in case a bit of plastic should find its way there. That’s rare, but it happens. And sometimes I find meat scraps, which become dog treats. As for the travel costs — I’m usually able to combine slops pick-up with other errands, so what’s another stop along the way?  Plus, there’s a real satisfaction in keeping something of value out of the waste stream that would otherwise end up in a landfill at Cache Creek.

Now, if I could only get the hotel to add more seaweed-based items to the menu….

Cross-pollination: good and bad

By David Parkinson

Five Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds, courtesy of some guy

Fields of people,
There’s no such thing as a weed;
Seeds of hatred,
Plant them and soon they will breed.

(Fields of People, Wyatt Day & Jon Pierson, Ars Nova; but let’s not kid ourselves: the definitive version is by The Move, from their classic proto-metal/glam album Shazam)

Seedy Saturday, the big blowout festival of all things growable, was this past weekend. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t say much except to underscore what a remarkable event it is. (Not that I’m an entirely unbiased observer, since I’m on the organizing committee, along with Helena Bird, Wendy Devlin, Christine Dudgeon, Julie Thorne, and Kevin Wilson. Thanks, all!) Everyone was in a good mood, swapping seeds, getting information, and catching up with friends and acquaintances.

Someone I’ve never seen before was walking around handing out the Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds in the photo above. Obviously, a giant pumpkin produces many seeds, so this person had plenty to unload. I might grow some of these seeds out, although thanks to the local Seed-Saving Project I know enough now to suspect that they might be the result of accidental cross-pollination with other members of the species cucurbita maxima, which includes other common varieties such as Hubbard and buttercup squash. If those other squash plants were flowering at the same time as the plant that produced the pumpkin from which these seeds were saved…

This is the sort of cross-pollination we want to avoid, because its results are unpredictable. When we’re dealing with a source of food that we spend all season nurturing, we don’t want to find out that we’ve introduced genetic traits that might throw its flavour off or make it more perishable. Commercial seed growers literally go to great lengths to ensure that the plants grown for seed are protected from sources of contamination. For example, carrots have a safe isolation distance of half a mile, and any Queen Anne’s lace (also known as wild carrot) within that half-mile radius is a potential source of genetic contamination. Your carrots will grow normally, and the seeds they produce — in the second year, carrots being a biennial plant — may grow up to be genetically identical to the mother plant; or, if contaminated, might grow up to be something that looks like a carrot but has none of the desirable characteristics for which the mother plant was carefully bred.

And seeds from that plant might degrade the quality even further, and so from there, like multiple generations of photocopies producing a blurred and streaky image of the original.

But sometimes we want to introduce the random element into a process: call it beneficial unpredictable cross-pollination. Here I’m thinking of some examples of recent and upcoming events to bring people together to share ideas, experiences, goals, and strategies for getting things done.

One of these was the Lund to Langdale conference I wrote about back in November. The BC Healthy Living Alliance has magically scraped up a little money to let us organize a follow-up event in April, and the purpose of this will be to pick up where we left off: forming a coalition of activists, farmers, growers, and organizations with an interest in increasing the food security and overall resilience of the entire Sunshine Coast (from Lund to Langdale, hence the name).

I’m really looking forward to this second event, since the first one brought together a very interesting and diverse mix of people from up this way and down that way. And we just got started talking about what a working coalition might look like across such distances and with a ferry trip in the middle. I think that an extended regional (or bio-regional) alliance like this would be a big step forward. And as is often the case with cross-pollination, it’s not easy to predict what the offspring of the fertilization process will produce: maybe some unimaginable hybrid beast with two heads, who knows?

Another more enigmatic upcoming event is one coming this weekend down in Roberts Creek. Billed as an Advocacy Summit, it looks as though the organizers intend to bring together a number of people working mainly on environmental conservation from up and down the coast as well as the Gulf Islands. I have no idea what to expect of this gathering, which makes it extra-appealing. There is a set schedule of speakers and activities, but I’m sure that much of the energy and creativity will come from the random connections made among people from different backgrounds working on different projects. I expect to report back on this event, so stay tuned.

Tomorrow I will mail off the incorporation papers for the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative — that is the name we came up with for our new community project (which you will be hearing more about soon; watch this space). I’m really excited at the prospect of helping to create something that will likely be all about unpredictable cross-pollination. (Of the beneficial kind, I hope.) We will be working to bring people together around the idea of becoming self-reliant in food, as individuals, as families, as neighbourhoods, tribes, and region. I expect a lot of brainstorming, and I hope we can create a culture in which it’s acceptable — if not expected — to dream big, to have high hopes, to set our eyes on the far horizon and not get caught up in trivialities.

We do not get enough opportunities in this world for bouncing ideas around in a playful way, for allowing ourselves to fail gracefully, for quietly helping others to succeed, and for getting outside of our personal comfort zones to where change happens. This is the kind of cross-pollination we need more of, since the monoculture of thinking that has got us where we are doesn’t look likely to get us much further. We need more mongrel ideas, mixed-breed thinking, strange mutant memes drifting through the air like pollen, infecting everything with new possibilities.

Texada Legion in transition

By Tom Read

Music, dancers, poems, jokes, skits -- and a splendid dinner menu straight from Ireland -- made tonight’s St. Patrick’s Day Dinner at the Legion one to remember. Proceeds from this "sold out" event will help with the Texada Legion’s building fund.

The Texada Legion (Royal Canadian Legion Branch 232) is one of Texada Island’s most cherished community institutions. It’s a place of birthdays, weddings, funerals, remembrance ceremonies, concerts and dances, kids’ parties, darts games, crib competition, billiards contests, poker tournaments, political debates, dinner meetings, public meetings, private meetings and just plain socializing with food, drink and convivial conversation. And it’s all kept afloat by volunteers, of whom I’m proud to be one.

I’ve only been a member since 2007, but Texada’s Legion branch is 61 years old, and has occupied its current hall on Legion Road in Van Anda for about five decades. Alas, deferred maintenance has gradually taken its toll over the years, and today our much-loved hall is quite obviously in need of repairs and refurbishing. This is both a challenge and a great opportunity.  The challenge is daunting: we need a new roof, new flooring, new heating system, foundation repairs, renovated kitchen and washrooms, upgrades to electrical, plumbing, and lighting systems, and many other physical improvements. These changes will require significant funds, and raising those funds will not be easy in volatile economic times.

As for the opportunity, what better way to revitalize an organization than to assertively take on such a challenge?  Indeed, in the last few months the Texada Legion’s members and friends have started brainstorming and researching what we’d like our branch to look like five years into the future, and an enthusiastic outpouring of volunteer energy and community support — including from many friends in Powell River — has already started to flow. What is emerging is a growing sense of confidence that our organization, along with its physical home, will endure and even thrive.

It’s all quite exhilarating to me, this gathering transition from depressed worries about leaks in the roof to an ever-stronger belief in a secure future for our place and its people. In posts to come I’ll cover more specifics about the changes happening at our branch, but for now you can take a peek at our brand new website at It’s all a work in progress so do keep checking back.

Finding our way to the centre and back out again

By David Parkinson

A labyrinth in the intertidal zone; a zone of instability between sea and sand

Last week I wrote about brainstorming gone wrong. I was trying to understand why it is that people often react fearfully and negatively when a space opens up for a discussion of possibilities and ways forward. I have noticed a similar reaction in other contexts, so it is not unique to the two specific meetings I talked about. My reason for bringing it out into the open was to think my way around it, because it is very worrying to me.

Activists work to change the world. More than just that, they are usually trying to change the world — or some little corner of it — in a direction other than its present trajectory. They work against the grain of prevailing political, economic, and social trends. (If they work with these trends, we call them something else, like ‘politician’ or ‘businessperson’ or ‘marketing guru’.)

Activists usually acknowledge that a mass movement will be more effective than a one-person crusade. So they put lots of effort into enlisting public support and finding like-minded people willing to apply their time and skills to achieving some vision of a better world (or a piece of a better world). I spend much of my time thinking about public outreach for various projects I’m part of, and sometimes I question the value of it, especially when — as it inevitably does — it takes time away from the work itself.

Let me be clear: when I say “I question the value of it,” this is not code for “I think it has no value.” I’m saying that we need to take a good hard look at where we are spending our time and energy and make some tough choices. We should do this as individuals and also on behalf of the organizations we belong to and work for. It might be that outreach is the most effective use of our time; it might not. This probably varies from time to time and from project to project.

I’m also saying that this is not an empirical science. There are no right or wrong answers and people should feel free to differ amicably. One person’s feelings on this question might shift around over time. The only wrong answer is: “I haven’t thought this through carefully.” If one person wants to spend all of her time getting people on board, and another person wants to spend all of his time working quietly on tangible projects, what matters most is that they’re both happy with the choice they’ve made and feeling effective and satisfied doing what they’ve chosen to do. I think we focus too much on building consensus of technique and not enough on consensus of vision. Which means: rather than have everyone doing their own thing in the interests of a larger set of goals, we often try to bring people together around the same actions and fail to talk about the bigger questions. Sometimes I’d rather see us agreeing more on the problems we’re trying to solve, and agreeing less on the solutions — so long as we’re moving in the same direction roughly.

Here’s how this shaggy preamble relates to the subject at hand: at a rough guess, I would say that about 25% of the local population is aware of the growing challenges of resource depletion and climate chaos and has some inkling what to do about it. I would say that about 1-3% of the local population is aware and is taking serious steps to prepare for the real possibility of shortages, disruptions, and social or economic upheaval. (Growing food, going off-grid, learning to live without a car, building a strong social network, and so on.) Roughly, these latter are the people who consistently show up at events concerned with sustainability, Transition, and protecting the environment. (These numbers are the result of what we call a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess, or ‘swag’ for short. Feel free to quibble.)

The activist’s task is to move the 75% portion of unaware or unready folks into the smaller group which has the facts and has some serious solutions in mind. And then to move all of those folks into the pretty tiny group of people actively creating solutions and leading the rest of the population into awareness and action.

It’s overwhelming when you consider it in its entirety. A huge hurdle — and this is what I was writing about in last week’s post — is that people are naturally resistant to new information, especially information which threatens their worldview and compels them to change their thinking or their behaviour. That’s why getting people to become more aware and take action is so difficult: even when people consciously know something to be true, and acknowledge that it is important to change their behaviour, we’re creatures of habit and prefer to amble along until a crisis forces us to change.

The negative reaction to brainstorming that I have witnessed  is, more generally, a reaction against conversations that threaten people’s worldview and make them question their habitual behaviour. It’s always easy to make the things we do and the way we do them seem like the only things worth doing and the only sensible way to do them; after all, otherwise why would be doing the things we do and doing them the way we do them? Social inertia means that the burden of proving a new idea falls squarely on the dissenter. It means that the untried but promising ideas get squeezed out of the conversation. The conventional prevails unless we fight hard. The people who champion unconventional ideas feel marginalized and may lose interest in the conversation. We lose some of the most promising sources of creative thinking if we’re not careful.

Given that our time is finite and precious, the real questions we need to be asking ourselves and each other are: how much time should we spend creating tangible solutions for ourselves and others? how much time should we spend trying to get the message out and bringing people in? how do we know whether time spent acting is more fruitful than time spent recruiting? can we measure this? can we talk about it? If so, where, when, and how?

Some of us will believe that the single most important action is to connect with people, to spread information, to let people know what they need to know in order to be better prepared and to work to bring them in on the action. (We might be assuming that no action is meaningful if it does not have broad-based support and involvement, or that the situation is not urgent.)

Some of us will want to create tangible solutions and build infrastructure that they believe we will need, whether or not the mass of the population understands or is ready to adopt these solutions yet. (We might be assuming that most people will not take action until ready solutions are in place, or that we must act quickly before the situation becomes drastically worse.)

Probably most people who think about these things fall somewhere in the middle and believe that some proportion of our time is best spent doing outreach and recruiting and the rest spent taking direct action. I’ve always felt pretty close to the middle, but lately I feel that I’m drifting gradually towards the action end of the scale. I see the value of continually working to find the people who are ready to hear the message I’m sending, but I worry about losing time which might be better spent doing the things we already know need doing. It’s gratifying to see the solutions getting up and running, but I’m worried that we’re only getting started and we have a long way to go before we are close to ready for regional resilience or self-reliance.

I do not disparage the work of recruiting and educating and drawing people into the network of activism and action. I do wonder, though, about untapped resources in the form of people who have little interest in talking and planning and prioritizing but simply want to get on with it. I’m not sure that their interests are fully represented, since they have a way of fading into the background. They may not show up for meetings (they’re not really ‘meeting people’) and they have no patience for listening to reasons why some new idea won’t work — they want to brainstorm creatively, with an open mind, welcoming challenges rather than admitting defeat before even beginning. They are the makers, artists, hammerers, tinkerers, builders, planters, and growers. People who bend problems to fit the materials at hand. Lateral thinkers.

How can we engage the creativity of these folks? Do we have the right tools for finding them and supporting them to do what they’re best at? I don’t think we do, yet.

As we move towards a future whose outlines are unknown until we map them, we need to attend carefully to the whole community. We need to try to create a language of engagement and passion and we need to understand that there is no one way to do things. We need to launch a diversity of solutions in keeping with the diversity of challenges and the diversity of people we want to have alongside us as we face these challenges. We need to ask ourselves how effective our techniques are, who we draw in and who we leave out, what we ignore, and who might best be able to take charge of the projects which are not in our area of expertise or passion.

More than anything, we need to brainstorm in the real sense: where there are no bad ideas, only possibilities opening up to the right set of people willing to take them on.

Post facto

March 2010
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