Archive for October, 2010

New rules

By David Parkinson

Fog on the town.

When taking part in community organizing activities, if your envisioned community is to survive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it is important to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this community going to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are.
(Dmitry Orlov, “How (not to) to Organize a Community“)

I’m not sure it makes sense to lead off with this short excerpt from Dmitry Orlov‘s latest black-humour-laden meditation on how to do community organizing more effectively; anyone who goes off and reads the whole piece will see why not. But it struck me as a topsy-turvy enough piece of writing that it got me thinking about how our efforts to sketch out the future we’d like to see are likely to be as wrong as they are right. Recognizing this and living with it should be the first step for anyone who wants to make an impact, no matter how trivial.

Orlov, always a contrary sort, proposes that the most resilient communities in the future are the ones least likely to look viable in the present — in fact, he predicts that the sketchiest and most marginal communities will carry on as though very little has changed, while those who took the most care to prepare will face the most drastic reversals of fortune. Although he has his tongue in his cheek to some extent, I see the larger points he’s making: that we are fools if we think that the future will radically break with current trends, or if we think we can create the future at will based on what we think is needed and what will work. He is also making the point that the raw materials of the resilient future might be in the places we’re least likely to look. And that’s the point that really struck home for me.

The smartest overall approach is to try as many things as possible, making sure that each project is getting the attention and energy it needs in proportion to its likelihood of creating positive change. To remember that even the best intentions can go sideways and that we need to accept the curveballs and reverses that come our way. Taking this humble approach makes those little successes and advances all the more precious.

Last week I promised to follow up by applying David Korten’s five characteristics of successful social change to “a local project which I believe has huge potential to create vast amounts of positive energy in the region while connecting our efforts to others elsewhere.” This project is our community radio station, CJMP FM, which has a new board and has started creating working groups to get the station back on the air broadcasting music and spoken-word programming of local interest. I’m already deeply involved, because I have long been a supporter of community radio. I think it has huge potential for increasing and improving communication and connections in the region.

Korten’s questions sound a little bombastic for a low-power FM radio station in an obscure corner of BC, so I’m going to answer them from a small and local perspective rather than from the perspective of a global movement, which is where Korten is coming from. And his questions are posed as though we have already built the project in question; CJMP is tottering along right now, but with many hopeful signs and many new people getting involved. So I’ll answer these questions in the future tense instead of the present — as though we were a little further along.

Does CJMP FM help discredit a false cultural story fabricated to legitimize relationships of domination and exploitation and to replace it with a true story describing unrealized possibilities for growing the real wealth of healthy communities?

There are so many little efforts percolating away in our region, many of which are coalescing around the Transition Town concept.  Communication among these projects and the people involved in them is still fragmentary and sporadic at best. If we’re going to work better together to connect these various efforts and cooperate amongst ourselves, it will be hugely helpful to have a focal point for communicating and sharing information. Radio has the advantage of being very direct and immediate: it does not put up the barrier of written language, so anyone with something to say can get their thoughts out. And the message is heard as it is spoken. All of our attempts to build the pieces of a local economy not based on desperate resource extraction and other worn-out ideas need an ongoing conversation. We’re lucky to have a community radio license, with the explicit mandate to “provide a local programming service that differs in style and substance from that provided by commercial stations and the CBC.” Everything that is happening in our region is appropriate for our airwaves. No bottlenecks and phony barriers. Let the community talk amongst themselves and stand back.

Is CJMP FM connecting others of the movement’s millions of leaders who didn’t previously know one another, helping them find common cause and build relationships of mutual trust that allow them to speak honestly from their hearts and to know that they can call on one another for support when needed?

Well, we won’t have millions of leaders anytime soon. How about hundreds? Community radio has an incredible power to bring people together, to expose them to the hidden treasure in their own backyard: the people, places, and things that they never knew about. This is what CJMP FM can be for the region: a place where anyone is welcome to say or play whatever is on their mind; to reach out and find friends, allies, and adversaries; to host the never-ending conversation of who we are and where we’re heading. Commercial media are fine for some things, but the presence of an explicitly non-commercial alternative is a great thing for everyone. It makes some people nervous, and that can’t be bad.

Is CJMP FM creating and expanding liberated social spaces in which people experience the freedom and support to experiment with living the creative, cooperative, self-organizing relationships of the new story they seek to bring into the larger culture?

In a word: hell yeah. I can easily imagine the numbers of talented and imaginative people all around here who just need some basic training in order to seize their rightful chunk of the airwaves and get going. When the community owns a slice of FM bandwidth there is simply no reason not to put the welcome mat out and get as much input and support as possible. As far as I can see, this region has never had genuinely open media, meaning that those who care get to participate and those who participate get to make the decisions. This will be a wonderful experiment in seeing how much we can unleash the potential of all corners of the region and let the conversation roll on by itself.

Everyone has something worth saying and hearing. Commercially-driven media simply cannot let all these voices through and continue to satisfy the advertisers who pay the bills. Hence the need for the alternative. It’s just that simple, and we can celebrate that the Canadian government continues to support this way of thinking.

Is CJMP FM providing a public demonstration of the possibilities of a real-wealth economy?

Let us sincerely hope so. Funding is always a challenge for community radio, even when the economy is doing well. Now that we appear to be heading into a prolonged downturn, we need new models for continuing to make change happen when the grants and funders are hurting and as the government withdraws money from social spending. This challenge faces many local organizations and projects many of which have been out there for much longer than this baby radio station. So how do we do it? This is all up in the air right now, but it seems to me inconceivable that CJMP will survive without a large number of enthusiastic listener-members who are willing to put their money down to support something that gives them what they cannot get anywhere else: immediate, real, representative news and opinions about what’s happening around us. We cannot compete with commercial media, especially radio stations, which sell listeners to advertisers and need to create a homogenized sound that will attract the greatest number with the least passion. We are in the position to transmit the real sound of the community, in real time. That has to be worth something to people.

Is CJMP FM mobilizing support for a rule change that will shift the balance of power from the people and institutions of the Wall Street phantom-wealth economy to the people and institutions of living-wealth Main Street economies?

We’ll see how much CJMP FM worries about the structures and institutions that create the imbalances and pathologies that are dragging our social systems down. It will be enough to create a marketplace of ideas and to get people connecting around the authentic life of the region. We need to build all the alternatives that we need, in ways that meet our local needs; and in order to do that, we just need to communicate freely and openly without the outright censorship or self-censorship that comes from having heavy-handed advertisers or funders hanging over us all the time. Some people believe that people want more honesty and genuine connection; others fear it. For myself, any future that I care to live in is full of different voices, outlandish opinions, wild sounds, and the unending chatter of a community finding itself and declaring its own needs and desires. No authority can impose these things on us. And somehow out of all this cacophony we will build something that people can’t do without — because it’s irreplaceable.


Can we make a difference?

By David Parkinson

Fennel seeds maturing on the plant, bathed in the cool light of an October afternoon

We’ll already be well on the road to victory when we realize we can build the kind of society we want right here and now without permission, instead of waiting for some bureaucratic committee to spend a hundred thousand man-hours getting everybody on the same page.
(Kevin Carson, “Civic Engagement is for Suckers“, Center for a Stateless Society)

If this blog has a theme, it’s probably my musings on the subject of how to get from here to there, wherever there is. Change is afoot; things are shifting; and meanwhile the systems within which we organize ourselves socially to get things done are becoming ever less appropriate for the challenges ahead. The whole of society feels paralyzed, stuck in inactivity or futile pretend activity when the real action is elsewhere in places we’ve stopped looking in or have forgotten exist.

What are we supposed to do if we look straight into the blinding void of the collapse of the current economic arrangements which, for better or worse, produce everything we need and provide the jobs that allow us to pay for those things? If we acknowledge that we’re coming to the end of cheap fossil fuels, what are we supposed to be doing to prepare, especially when almost every aspect of our lives has evolved symbiotically with the era of cheap fossil fuels? Worst of all, if the climate is indeed changing too quickly for our slow-moving adaptations to keep up, where will that leave us?

It’s no wonder that so many people feel paralyzed, unable to fix their minds on these questions. The mass media, with their perfect instinct for the Zeitgeist, contrive at all costs to keep us diverted. Our so-called leaders are no less implicated in this mass hypnosis; since their positions depend on keeping the myths alive and kicking, they’re not leading the way towards any new arrangements. And most people are just trying to make it through the day, unable to make much sense of things, maybe feeling that all is not right but seeing no clear alternatives.

Even those who feel impelled to act in some way to prepare for a worsening economy and more austere living conditions can get caught up in counterproductive narratives that end up by blunting the possibility of creating real meaningful change. One of the most paralyzing of these stories we tell ourselves is that we need to effect massive change at higher levels. All other things being equal, of course, if you can make widespread change that will affect large numbers of people or a big system, that’s a better use of your time than messing around on a small scale.

But all other things never are equal. The larger the system you try to intervene in, the greater the chances that it will overwhelm you, wear you down, or subtly cause you to alter your goals. The myth of ‘changing the system from within’ is a myth for the simple reason that more often the system will change you from within. This process is so slow and gentle that you might not know it’s happening — this is how social systems maintain their integrity through generations: by absorbing and digesting all reformist and radical tendencies, rendering them harmless by pressuring dissenters into adapting themselves to the system (often while still believing themselves to be in opposition to it).

To my thinking, the most powerful form of change-making is the type which is idiosyncratic to a local community but connected to broader trends. This type of action draws its strength from its rootedness in those struggles or efforts in the local scene which resonate with one’s family, friends, and neighbours; and from its relevance to and engagement with the global.

The flip-side of getting neutralized by taking on a huge system applies here, and it is the possibility of frittering away one’s time on tiny high-maintenance projects which affect only a handful of people or make change in a very small corner of the world. This fear of engaging in futile actions or of looking like an ineffectual fool undoubtedly gets in the way of huge amounts of amazing projects and stifles more human creativity than we can ever know about.

David Korten is a critic of the current economic system who writes and speaks about alternatives to globalization and large-scale economies. He was a recent speaker on Radio Ecoshock, a weekly radio program from Vancouver Co-op Radio. After listening to his speech on Radio Ecoshock, I found an older article by him, titled “The Big Picture: 5 Ways to Know if You’re Making a Difference”. Korten says that “successful social movements are emergent, evolving, radically self-organizing, and involve the dedicated efforts of many people, each finding the role that best uses his or her gifts and passions.” He rejects the idea that real change has to come from top-down managed social programs, and argues in favour of a diversity of approaches, an exuberance of tactics and methods, some of which might fail while others succeed.

He claims that the following are five characteristics of successful social change, any one of which indicates an approach which has a chance of effecting broad change while working at the grassroots, at least initially:

  1. Does [your work] help discredit a false cultural story fabricated to legitimize relationships of domination and exploitation and to replace it with a true story describing unrealized possibilities for growing the real wealth of healthy communities?
  2. Is it connecting others of the movement’s millions of leaders who didn’t previously know one another, helping them find common cause and build relationships of mutual trust that allow them to speak honestly from their hearts and to know that they can call on one another for support when needed?
  3. Is it creating and expanding liberated social spaces in which people experience the freedom and support to experiment with living the creative, cooperative, self-organizing relationships of the new story they seek to bring into the larger culture?
  4. Is it providing a public demonstration of the possibilities of a real-wealth economy?
  5. Is it mobilizing support for a rule change that will shift the balance of power from the people and institutions of the Wall Street phantom-wealth economy to the people and institutions of living-wealth Main Street economies?

Next time around I’ll unpack this and apply it to a local project which I believe has huge potential to create vast amounts of positive energy in the region while connecting our efforts to others elsewhere.

Another kick at the can

By David Parkinson

Late-bearing golden raspberry enjoying the sunshine before the recent cold wet weather.

The problem with monocultures is that you eventually forget that alternatives exist. They begin by taking something well-adapted and useful, proceed to apply it to all situations as the only solution, and end by erasing the possibility of competition. Finally the monoculture becomes so all-encompassing that no small pocket of resistance can easily take hold — until the forces holding the monoculture in place shift or weaken. Sometimes counterforces make it possible to hold open a small space for alternatives to exist, often at the very edge of survival.

All of this is on my mind this week as our community radio station CJMP FM undergoes another period of crisis and once again teeters on the brink of dissolution. Last time, back in the spring of 2009, the non-profit which had been hosting and supporting the radio station decided to get out of the community radio game. After much back and forth, a new not-for-profit society formed, applied for another radio license, and spent over a year waiting for the CRTC to approve their license application.

On October 1, 2010 this society (the Powell River Community Radio Society or PRCRS) held their first Annual General Meeting, at which those of us who attended learned that most of the original board intend to step down and not seek re-election. Since the society had not signed up any members except for the board, if the board went so would go the society. And with it would go our community radio license, which is a precious asset that would be hard to replace. Since there were members of the community who did not want to lose our chance at having a viable community radio station, the Annual General Meeting was adjourned to a day and time two weeks later.

As I write this, several people in the community are considering whether they want to sign up as members and stand for election to the board. This will entail a considerable commitment of time and energy, since many of the problems that a community radio station faces are difficult and ongoing: the need for funding and volunteers, the purchase and maintenance of equipment, rent for the studio space and offices, utilities, and so on.

In a sense, though, the highest hurdle that community radio faces relates to the monoculture problem: commercial radio and commercial media in general are so widespread and popular that it is difficult, even impossible, for most people to imagine what the alternative would sound like. There is an almost irresistible pressure to make the alternative like a down-home and underfunded approximation of the commercial variety. CJMP FM has always taken this approach, and in my opinion it’s a mistake to try to make community radio compete head-to-head against commercial radio. Until the community is genuinely involved, though, we can’t easily know what community radio should sound like — in this community.

In its 2000 Community Radio Policy document, the CRTC defines community radio as follows:

The Commission’s primary objective for the community radio sector is that it provide a local programming service that differs in style and substance from that provided by commercial stations and the CBC. The programming should be relevant to the communities served, including official language minorities. The Commission considers that community stations should add diversity to the broadcasting system by increasing program choice in both music and spoken word. They should contribute to diversity at three levels:

  • Community stations should offer programming that is different from and complements the programming of other stations in their market. Their not-for-profit nature and community access policies should assist them in contributing to the achievement of this objective.
  • Community stations should be different from other elements of the broadcasting system, including commercial stations and stations operated by the CBC.
  • The programming broadcast by individual community stations should be varied and provide a wide diversity of music and spoken word.

What would happen if we kept the community radio license and involved the community as much as possible? What would that sound like?

For one thing, it would sound diverse; as diverse as the community. In the standard model of community radio, the type of programming often changes, sometimes drastically, from one hour to the next, encompassing music, spoken word programming, news, public affairs, and so on. With proper advertising, the reach of such a station is huge, since it can appeal to almost everyone within broadcast range, if only for a few hours per week. People who tune in regularly to hear a specific show are very passionate about that show and about the station that produces that show. Listeners like these will be very happy to find an alternative, to find a station that is playing something that they love, as opposed to the same old middle-of-the-road rock music that is available everywhere else up and down the radio dial.

For another thing, it would sound local. The one thing that no commercial radio station can produce, nor can our beloved CBC, is the sound of the community, its concerns, the things that people are talking about, what’s really going on out there. There is simply no public venue for an ongoing conversation about us. We have one weekly newspaper, a couple of monthly magazines, a cable TV station, numerous blogs, and other bits and pieces of local media; but we do not have any media which readily supports a high level of public participation in real time and at relatively low cost. The technology is simple. The rest is logistics.

In the region of the 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge, it seems like a no-brainer to have 50-Mile Radio.

It’s baffling to me that community radio seems to be such a hard sell here. In many other places throughout Canada, the community radio station is the place to hear what’s going on in the region, to find out what your friends and neighbours are thinking and doing, and to connect with the place you live in with all its idiosyncrasies and special character. I find it hard to believe that people really want to hear the same old music, the same old stories, the same voices (all sounding so professional and manicured) that you can hear in any place. It’s another aspect of the monocultural approach to creating the world that drops the same damn chain stores and crappy food in every town: many people find that comforting, but many do not. For those who do not, we need to keep the alternatives alive and thriving. Constant resistance to homogeneity and repetition is necessary.

The Canadian government in its finite wisdom has made resistance possible by creating and maintaining the category of community radio licenses which exist to let a community hear its own voice. As long as we have this tool for resisting monocultural media, we have the responsibility to use it. As we begin to enter the era of relocalization during which decisions made at the regional and neighbourhood level will take on increasing importance, we need as many media channels as we can possibly create and support.

If you are interested in helping keep our community radio license, please attend the continuation of the Annual General Meeting of the Powell River Radio Community Society on Friday October 15, 2010, 4:00 PM at the Life Cycle Common Room, 4949 Ontario Ave. in Powell River (at the dead end north of Alberni St.). I will attend, and I hope to bring back good news about the future of local media in this region.

Lower your sights, yeah, but raise your aim

By David Parkinson

A late rose, blossoming despite the cold weather.

Last night I attended Murray Dobbin‘s lecture at Vancouver Island University here in Powell River. The title of Murray’s talk was “Globalization, Local Food, and Powell River”, and most of it was about globalization: where it came from, what its intended effects were, and what it has accomplished (if that’s the right term) since the mid-70s when the whole idea began to take shape among western elites.

Since Murray has spent a good part of his career as a journalist and activist examining globalization, there was a lot of information packed into his presentation, and I won’t try to do it justice here. But one thing he said struck me very strongly: referring to the neoliberal project of stripping away social programs and redirecting government revenues away from the general population and towards corporations and their wealthy owner class, Murray pointed to polling research that shows how resilient Canadians’ values have remained throughout this retrograde thirty-five-year project. Our support for social democratic programs like unemployment insurance, Medicare, and government-guaranteed old-age pensions has remained high during the years in which these programs have been under attack by a series of governments both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’; at the same time, what has changed is our sense of whether or not the government can achieve these things.

The takeaway is that it is far easier to diminish or destroy people’s sense of the possible than their sense of the desirable. We cling fiercely to our vision of the world we want to live in, not surrendering our hopes even when everything everywhere tells us that it is unreasonable and impossible.

No wonder, then, that people put into such situations have typically fled to religion, since it offers a way of reconciling our vision of the world as it could be with the shortcomings of the world as it is — or as it is made to be by malevolent social forces. With the disenchanting of the world and increasing social isolation, the refuge of choice for the western world has been the consumerist lifestyle, which only ends up strengthening the forces deforming the world and making it intolerable: a classic positive feedback loop which is now tighter than ever.

But underneath it all — even among a population that seems disaffected, alienated, tuned-out — the desire for community, solidarity, and shared purpose persists, submerged but not eradicated. The French Situationists had an evocative phrase to express this powerful urge for liberty and beauty in everyday life: Sous les pavés la plage (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach”). We have been given a paved world — worse, we have been made complicit in paving the world — but nothing can destroy our sense of a world lurking just below the harsh man-made surface. For the moment, we don’t know how to dig for it, but we know it’s there, waiting…

How can we narrow the gap between our aspirations and what we are told is possible? Many of us feel trapped in a world of such complexity that we can never see a way to make our mark, to connect and create something with others, and to change the things that threaten the integrity of our lives as individuals and as members of a community. Everything is all so huge, interconnected, and obscured with jargon and specialized knowledge that we’re lucky if we can carve out any small section and make sense of it. Another good reason for retreating from engagement into an unsatisfying but controllable mini-world of superficial pleasures.

Those of us lucky to be living in a country like Canada have been raised on the belief, drummed into us from an early age, that we all have what it takes to make a mark on the world. Our job was to find our special gift, apply it, work hard, and persist; then with some luck our efforts would be rewarded. It feels now as though this sense of future possibility is draining away, and quickly: we worry that the generation of young people now coming up will fall short of their parents in health, wealth, longevity, satisfaction, and security. Unless we pull off some kind of societal reboot, we are at or past the cusp of the curve of social progress and starting the downward slide. Imagine how it must feel to be a young person who realizes this: our secular culture has rarely had to contend with the idea of the end of progress, but decline may become the backdrop of all our planning and action from this point forward — unless we manage to tackle the multiple serious challenges ahead of us. The steps our governments and large social institutions are taking in this direction so far are way too little, way too late, and it’s hard not to feel that we’re on our own for now.

Stoneleigh, one of the commentators at the rambling collage of symptoms known as The Automatic Earth, has this to say in a recent post about the decline of trust in our culture:

Over time institutions become sclerotic, unresponsive, self-serving and hostage to vested interests, at which point they cannot be reformed, as the reform would have to come from those entrenched individuals who have benefited most from the status quo. Institutions become demonstrably less effective, while consuming more and more of society’s resources. Corruption, abuses of power, lack of accountability and the loss of the rule of law become increasingly evident, exactly as we have seen with unauthorized wire-tapping, extra-ordinary rendition and many other actions undermining the open society. Once this happens, trust is living on borrowed time. That is very clearly the case in many developed societies today.

I can’t put it better than that. A more conservative mindset will look at the same set of facts that Stoneleigh is looking at and see some bugs in the code, minor hiccups, a periodic readjustment, but nothing on the scale of a social realignment. Nothing we can’t get out of by doing more of the same, only slightly different. Only time will show which outlook is the wiser: the one which says that many of our systems are reaching the breaking point; or the one which says to hang on, hunker down, and weather the storm, because we’ll soon be back to normal.

One thing is certain, as far as I’m concerned: the combination of a generalized decline in trust with a repressed but uneradicated desire for genuine social connection and a meaningful and decent culture is going to produce some real turbulence. (And this might be as much productive and positive as it will be negative.)

Since the beginning of the neoliberal era, we have been under orders to sit tight and wait for the dividends trickling down from the project of cutting social spending and rewarding the class of owners. These dividends never did show up for the majority; and as time goes on, more and more people see that they were swindled (if they don’t always see by whom). Worse, they fear that the next generations coming up are going to have it worse than they will. Trust is dying, and we don’t know what will take its place.

Stoneleigh continues:

Working within the trust horizon is important, as it means individual small-scale initiatives can benefit from the same kind of social support at a local level that larger-scale ones once did at a societal level, when trust was more broadly inclusive. Local currencies work for exactly this reason. While the task will still be difficult, it has a chance of being achievable, especially where the necessary relationships of trust have been established before hard times set in. It is very much more difficult to build such relationships after the fact, but relationships built beforehand may actually strengthen when put to the test.

Trying to maintain a positive and constructive focus at the local level, where trust has a chance to survive, and perhaps even thrive in hard times, and to avoid being drawn into a blame-game, will be an uphill battle. It is nevertheless something we need to do as a society, if we are to have a chance to preserve as much as possible of who we are through what is coming.

I think that Stoneleigh is dead-on here. We need to set our sights on simpler things, to draw in the radius of our world and build trust within arm’s reach as it evaporates at higher levels. People who lose faith in the social contract (because our supposed leaders have torn it up), but whose belief in a decent society remains undiminished, will be casting about for reasons to re-engage and find meaning and connection. We see the early shoots of this new meaning in the many small amateur efforts around us, many of which revolve around our food sources.

The outline of the next few years is vague. There is a dim sense that things are breaking down; maybe not completely, but to an extent that makes it hard to know how to plan, what to expect. Uncertainty can lead to fear, but it can also be liberating. When the social systems we thought were unavoidable turn out to be flimsy and short-lived after all, we are freed to experiment with new ways of configuring our own lives and of organizing our social relations. Someday we may look back on the present moment and trace the lineages of the new structures that emerged — small, hesitant, and hidden at first — from the old ones deliberately and maliciously pulled apart by those we thought were looking out for us.

The Situationists had another slogan which is relevant here: Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible! (“Be realistic, demand the impossible!”). This is good advice as we begin to learn that the so-called impossible might be possible after all — possible and desirable to us even though undesirable to those who no longer deserve our trust.


I’ve decided to change my regular weekly posting day to Tuesday. Mondays belong to James Howard Kunstler; and Mondays are often holidays when it’s harder to get a post together. As always, I welcome a co-conspirator here, so if you relish the opportunity to blog about matters of interest to our little corner of the world, please get in touch with me.

Post facto

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