Archive for November, 2010

What if we give it away?

By David Parkinson

A tiny jungle of kale plants hunkers down for winter

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
(John Ruskin, 1860, “The Veins of Wealth”)

Yesterday, to celebrate Black Friday, Democracy Now rebroadcast a couple of recent interviews: one with economist Manfred Max-Neef and the other with environmental activist Derrick Jensen. They’re both worth listening to, but I was really caught by the interview with ‘barefoot economist’ Max-Neef, who proposes an economics in radical opposition to neoclassical economics and its trendy offshoot neoliberalism, which can be summed up as the belief that the market is the supreme force underlying and determining all aspects of human life.

Max-Neef proposes a new set of principles on which to base a sane economics. From the transcript:

The principles, you know, of an economics which should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

These principles lead to an economic (and social) system which is extremely different from the one we are stuck in now. I believe that events beyond the control of the economists and politicians are going to compel us to shift to a more human-scale economics within the next decade or so; and this process of humanization and relocalization will continue for the foreseeable future — played out against the ongoing consequences of the overshoot and damage caused by clinging for too long to an anti-human and anti-biospheric way of living. Everything in our media and societal belief system sets us against these coming changes, but I’m not alone in hoping that their net effect will be positive. The way we do things now is extremely out of balance in every way, and the pendulum needs to swing back. Other values need to start trumping the relentless voracious consumption of the planet and its conversion to junk.

The lucky thing is that the seeds of the new economic arrangements are everywhere around us, many lying dormant but many others beginning to sprout and take root. And the place to look for these seeds is in the gift economies that perform an absolutely staggering amount of the good work that goes on around here, and in every community.

The essence of a gift economy is that “valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists).” And where do we see that most often? It’s the not-for-profit and volunteer sector, where people regularly contribute enormous amounts of work for no tangible benefits — at least not of the sort that economists know how to measure, at least not without converting them into ‘in-kind donations’ measured in conventional units of currency. Volunteers and givers work to be part of a healthy community with arts, culture, recreation, and strong social ties among  people and groups. This is not something we can or should expect the cash economy to produce; if anything, the relentless need to work and consume undercuts the hard work of the gift economy.

To take an example which is front and centre in my life lately: I am bowled over by the amount of cooperative work and passionate energy that people are putting into the resuscitation of our local community radio station, CJMP FM. I’ve been involved in plenty of volunteer projects in and around Powell River, but I have never seen anything like the work that people are devoting to this one: they’re showing up to meetings, doing research, and contributing their time and their skills. Local DJs and promoters are offering to donate proceeds from music shows to help get the station off the ground. And the energy is growing. It’s very inspiring to see.

The most interesting thing about this particular project is that operating a community radio station is unlike many other not-for-profit initiatives in that it requires relatively small amounts of capital for startup and ongoing cash for operating expenses. Once you have the gear you need to get the signal from microphone to transmitter to tower, then you only need to rent a space, keep your gear dry, and you’re pretty much ready to get going.

What you do need, and in large amounts, is the time and energy of dedicated and cherished volunteers. And in order to attract and keep volunteers, you need to create an environment which rewards people for contributing their time, expertise, and energy. It has to be the case that those who contribute more, instead of feeling taken advantage of, get even more out of the experience than those who contribute less. Participation has to become its own incentive.

The radio station is only one of many such examples, but it happens to be one that is much on my mind lately. And I’m certain that as the current economic system continues to shift and shudder we’ll start to see more of these seedlings of mutual support and community-building take on more importance in people’s lives. We have surrounded ourselves with an economy which produces unimaginable amounts of what we call ‘wealth’ but which at the same time has impoverished the world by trashing the non-human world and lessening our dependence on each other. We need to start figuring out how to give away our wealth and our labour with the expectation that it will come around again, although not necessarily from the same person or place we gave it to.

For the last half-century or so, we’ve created a system in which extreme dependence on large-scale systems has rewarded us with the most widely-distributed wealth ever seen in the history of the world. Everyone in our society, except for the very poorest, still lives in greater comfort and security than the richest people in previous ages. But the dark downside of this total dependence in huge centralized social, political, and industrial systems is that, once they start to fall apart, we find that we have lost the simple ability to connect, cooperate, and build an economy to sustain us. This where we’re heading, and we’re going to have to find the ingenuity to flow around the eroding remnants of the broken system on our way to saner arrangements.

We’ll find our back to relationships among people and groups which are based much more on the free, uncoerced giving of our labour and our belongings in the knowledge that we will not be abandoned by a system imposed from above by people who have no interest in our local struggles and needs. Of course it’ll be scary and weird at times; but along the way we’ll gain the perspective that permits us to see how scary and weird this supposed best of all possible systems has been all along. That’s something to look forward to.


You’ve got everything now

By David Parkinson


Instead of shooting arrows at someone else’s target, which I’ve never been very good at, I make my own target around wherever my arrow happens to have landed. You shoot your arrow and then you paint your bulls-eye around it, and therefore you have hit the target dead centre.
(Brian Eno)

The days grow short. Nights are cold and mornings misty and moist. It’s the time to withdraw into the household, cook to keep the house warm, read for pleasure, and sleep long nights. And think about this place, and the people in it, and the people who aren’t in it yet but who will be… who knows… maybe in 2011?

Some kind of shift in energy seems to be underway. The old storylines keep their hold, but they start to feel worn thin in places. At time you can see the light of something else showing through, or so you think.

We aim our arrows at other people’s targets, but the payoff grows less each time. We can make our own targets and aim at them; but surely, after some time has passed, we won’t remember why we put them there in the first place.

It might be time to call the arrow’s stopping-place the target, and see what it means to have scored the bulls-eye by landing there. Looking around, you can see that many have been doing this all along. For one thing, you always win. For another, you get to ask yourself each time why this was a winning shot — why even just to shoot was already a victory.

This way, no one has a reason to stand aside and only watch. The game is about taking the next shot, not counting the score.

Tom Atlee says:

I’ve started viewing both optimism and pessimism as spectator sports, as forms of disengagement masquerading as involvement. Both optimism and pessimism trick me into judging life and betting on the odds, rather than diving into life with my whole self, with my full co-creative energy. I think the emerging crises call us to transcend such false end-games like optimism and pessimism. I think they call us to act like a spiritually healthy person who has just learned they have heart disease: We can use each dire prognosis as a stimulant for reaching more deeply into life and co-creating positive change.

Sometimes, in the evening, now that the evenings darken early, I walk around the neighbourhood and see the uncanny flicker of television light from the insides of the warm quiet houses. Every show is optimism. Every show is pessimism. Every show is stay inside, keep watching, engage, disengage, close the curtains. It’s cold and wet outside.

We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that the outcomes are the most important thing; hitting the bulls-eye on someone else’s target. No wonder so many drop out for fear of falling short. For fear of making a fool of themselves. For fear of being the nail that sticks up and gets hammered the hardest.

This may be changing.

The right to useful unemployment

By David Parkinson

The past? the present? the future?

The title of this week’s post is an homage to Ivan Illich, about whom Ran Prieur writes, “Ivan Illich was so smart, and wrote so clearly, that I can barely stand to read him — it’s like looking at the sun.” That’s an accurate description of the effect of reading Illich: I find myself having to stop after every few paragraphs because the writing is so dense; unlike a lot of intellectually rich material, though, it is written in language as clear and simple as the thoughts allow. It’s the depth of thinking under the surface that makes it a joy to read. And Illich’s amazing prescience: he diagnoses our situation from his vantage point more than thirty years ago and points towards solutions which seem more apt now than they might have done at that time.

The theme which runs through his work is that of the counterproductivity of social and industrial systems: how any system which addresses some aspect of human need eventually acquires its own internal logic and, if not resisted, begins to work against human interests. Illich investigated this trend in education (Deschooling Society), medicine (Medical Nemesis), transportation (Energy and Equity), and in very general terms in Tools for Conviviality and its sequel, The Right to Useful Unemployment (And its Professional Enemies). It’s a superficially simple concept with very profound consequences for the way I see the world.

At the Kale Force meeting this week, Carol Battaglio was present to talk about her evolving plan to create a therapeutic farm on the 31.6-acre lot she bought from PRSC Limited Partnership (known locally as ‘the joint venture’). I am personally thrilled to see this project happening, as I was deeply involved in the 2006–07 campaign to stop the City of Powell River from excluding this and other parcels of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve. The conversation around the table was a freewheeling one, and we made some solid connections among existing projects and concepts that Carol might use to realize her vision. The most tangible outcome is that Carol found someone to help her clear the land, which is overrun with stumps and brambles. (But sometimes those seemingly small steps forward are really crucial ones.)

We had one of those huddles near the door that are the sign of a satisfying conversation: people know they need to get going, but stall on the way out because the ideas are flowing. Someone suggested that this region is at a tipping point because there are now so many little projects brewing, underground, semi-underground, just starting to connect to each other and create an alternative economy, barely visible now but growing fast. Another person suggested that this alternative culture is on the rise because the prevailing culture really only has one big idea, whereas the ‘new guard’ comes equipped with any number of schemes all along the continuum from crackpot to surefire; so many of them that they are sure to overwhelm the monocultural approach just as weeds of all types will overrun a field of all one crop.

I think there is something in this. The prevailing mindset of our local economic leaders is to focus on a few large big-ticket projects, among them the quixotic rescue of the Catalyst paper mill. At the same time, citizens watch the City take on heavy debt to pull off what are essentially gambles that the global economy will continue to grow, sustaining the consumerist lifestyle that will see people retiring wealthy, traveling, and shopping as far as the eye can see. I sense a growing unease at what this is going to do to people’s tax burden, especially when the other expensive projects are added to the tally.

Meanwhile, there is a mass movement, disorganized and provisional but gathering speed, to opt out of this worldview and instead focus on the essentials: food, shelter, transportation, health in the holistic sense, and more. If the economy continues to destroy jobs and wealth as measured in money, people will inevitably shift their allegiance to those things which are the real foundation of wealth. And here our economic leaders are (so far) of very little use to us. If anything, the social systems we have created during the past century or so are actively inimical to people’s efforts to build a vernacular culture: for a good example, look no further than the insane amount of highly-paid make-work it took to overcome the provincial Meat Inspection Regulation, which proposed to deprive people of their ability to buy locally-produced and -slaughtered meat as they have been doing for thousands of years. This is just one example, although a particularly egregious one, of trends which have become almost universal: the creation of classes of phony professionals to intervene in the simple exchange of goods and services between people, making them onerous and needlessly expensive; or the outright criminalization of these exchanges, making them dangerous (and needlessly expensive).

Which brings us back to Illich. His life’s work was to argue for a convivial culture, one in which people’s right to create their own culture, tools, language, and social systems is paramount. I like to think we are perched on the edge, maybe even sliding down the slope towards the time for Illich’s deeply humanistic vision to be realized. And it won’t happen because suddenly we’re all attending seminars in ‘sustainability’, or being told how to grow our own food by self-appointed experts — if it happens (when it happens) it will be because the elaborate and meaningless barriers to imagination and creativity are unsustainable. People will start to act as though they are no longer there, and an exhausted tradition of phony professionalism and bureaucratic pantomime activity will be revealed as laughable.

The depth and breadth of the creativity bubbling under the surface of every town and region is an unstoppable force compared to the decreasing returns of the business-as-usual projects we’re supposed to look to for future economic development. The culture we build here will be made up out of semi-employment, improvised solutions, the invention of work, civil disobedience in the face of outworn and unenforceable regulations, and mutual aid in place of phony professionalized ‘services’. This collection of (maybe) unappealing characteristics won’t come out on top for any reason other than pure necessity: the failure of our experts and leaders to have any ideas worth pursuing. Better to have useful unemployment than all of the useless economic development schemes in the world.

Why don’t we have a local food incubator?

By David Parkinson

Early dawn of a bright and warm November day

The more I think about building a local food economy, the more I believe that the key to success is creating an economy that sustains growers and producers, processors, and consumers all year round. We focus so much of our energy and attention on the growing aspect of the food system, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can see at this time of year that the abundance of the summertime is waning fast. Scour the local farmgates and the Winter Farmers’ Market and you’ll see some carrots, potatoes, late greens, winter squash… and not much more than that.

And for as long as I’ve been working in the local food-security scene I’ve been hearing the same ideas popping up again and again: common root cellars and other storage facilities, and community commercial kitchens for processing and preserving the harvest while fresh. Many people still do a good deal of this essential work, but many no longer do. And more (including myself) never learned how.

This summer, Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative organized a tomato-canning bash in the kitchen of a local church. About a dozen people got together to learn how to can tomatoes and everyone walked away with a few pints of canned tomatoes. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: if we’re seriously contemplating an extremely local food economy, we’re going to need to boost production and we’re really going to need to learn how to store food efficiently, inexpensively, and safely.

Food-growing is becoming highly visible and a recognizable and important part of our embryonic local food scene. And if you can grow food, you can preserve it; in fact, preserving food strikes me as the easy part (although that might just be because I’ve never had to do it for extended periods). I don’t think my talents really lie in the garden, and so I’m increasingly drawn to food preservation as a slightly neglected and uncelebrated aspect of food security.

This coming summer, I want to organize many more community-kitchen get-togethers along the lines of the tomato-canning bask in September. The model is simple enough: we buy a good amount of whatever is in season in a given week, find the best way to preserve it, get a bunch of people together, split the costs (supplies, facility rental, etc.), add something on top for the organizer and something for the community,  and work together to stock our pantries for the winter.

One tantalizing way to organize a project like this is to run it along the lines of Community-Supported Agriculture: people sign up at the beginning of the preserving season, pay some amount in advance to help the organizer(s) buy materials and ingredients, and then each week they receive a supply of something for their pantry. This could be a great way to strengthen demand for local food — by extending the time of the year during which we can continue to eat local food. It’s the way people used to eat, and it seems poised to make a comeback.

Eventually this sort of collective activity can generate the demand for a proper community-owned and -managed processing facility, along the lines of the ones discussed in this article that came to me this week and got me thinking again about food preservation. Somehow we need to centralize at least some of the work that goes on in isolation, in the interests of getting more people involved, lowering costs, and minimizing the barriers to participation such as knowledge of health and safety regulations.

So do we spend our time hunting for grants to help start a project like this? Or start small and build our way up? I don’t know the right answer, but I hope to do some on-the-ground investigating and learning when the growing season returns. We need year-round local food.

Post facto

November 2010
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