Archive for the 'activism' Category

Constellaction

By David Parkinson

Truer words were never spoken.

… the artist, as a definite creative individual, uses the art-form that he finds ready to his hand in order express a something personal; this personal must therefore be somehow connected with the prevailing artistic or cultural ideology, since otherwise he could not make use of them, but it must also differ, since otherwise he would not need to use them to produce something of his own. […] But the general ideology of the culture, which determines its religion, morality, and society as well as its art, is again only the expression of the human types of the age, and of this the artist and the creative personality generally are the most definite crystallization.
(Otto Rank, Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development, pp. 6-7)

The deadliest traps are disguised as safe havens; and the worst mistake is to take even the safest of them for granted. Although it’s hard to make headway when constantly questioning the ground we stand on, we’d better start wising up and learning how to be skeptical of everything. This kind of radical skepticism is easily dismissed as cynicism, but cynicism is at its worst when it dolls itself up as a weary acceptance of every shortfall or outrage — the attitude that nothing is to be done anyway, so we might as well dig in and get our cut of the action. Skepticism has its costs too, and the main one is that we find ourselves biting our tongues rather than rain on someone’s parade. It’s an attitude that thrives best underground, reaching out tentatively to find the like-minded who aren’t afraid to undermine good sense or good taste; skepticism can and should have a core of deep optimism that behind the easy non-answers, once they’re knocked out of the way, are harder answers to tougher questions — and that we’re better off asking these questions and having to live with the answers we give them.

An insistence on pushing our understanding as far as it will go, though, tends to take us far from safe and easy opinions and into areas out on the fringes of acceptable discourse. It’s lonely out there, and that’s one reason not to go. Every society devotes considerable energy to rewarding people who amplify the core messages that constitute that society’s belief system, while isolating or ridiculing those who try to step outside and look inward more than is comfortable. This does not happen as the result of some unspoken conspiracy, but is one of the things we mean when we talk about a society. A society which did not defend its constituting stories and create spaces not to be explored would not be a society at all.

What hold true on the macro scale holds equally, although with greater variability, at smaller scales. You put some humans together and get them working together on anything, no matter how mundane, and an orthodoxy will very quickly emerge. Orthodoxy is a social condition in which the gravitational forces of human interaction begin to form a core of shared values or beliefs out of a cloud of individual ones; in so doing, the no-go fringe areas also emerge along with penalties for exploring these darker regions. As this cloud condenses into a fixed constellation — a process usually sped along by the stronger or more convincing members of the group exerting the force of their personality — some people find themselves on the fringes of good opinion. They may unconsciously migrate closer to the centre or do so tactically, unwilling to hold out against the pull of received thought. Either way, this results in a diminishing of possibilities and the warping of the group’s potential.

The emergent shared belief system of a group of individuals represents the best overall solution to the problem of finding a consensus common to those individuals, but it will often be a solution which does not coincide very closely with any one of these people’s actual felt beliefs or desires. The smaller the group, the more likely the ‘best’ solution is to satisfy no one. It may happen to be the preferred position of the most persuasive or powerful member of the group, with no accompanying guarantee that this person will have the will or ability to corral the others into cooperation. Instead, anyone who held a different position from the outset will likely surrender quickly, pretend to get on board with the prescription, and then disconnect from the rest of the conversation. If this sort of thing happens enough, the result is cynicism in its worst form: lip service and sham allegiance.

And yet… one of those unquestioned or rarely questioned orthodoxies is the idea that we ought to impose consensus on our group activities. The device by which this happens is the core-periphery distinction within the group, which corresponds to the membership-board relationship when formalized in the context of a not-for-profit organization, to the in-group-vs.-out-group relationship when less formal, and sometimes to the relationship between the dominant group member and the other or others in a small group or duo. It’s obvious that we do this to maximize our ability to act with unified collective force, but I can’t help wondering whether it impedes progress as much as aids it. My impression from watching all kinds of groups try to engage with complex challenges is that they converge too quickly on a single solution, find consensus with very little constructive debate or consideration of alternatives, and then proceed to implement the chosen solution as though it has the complete support of everyone concerned. This may be the only way to move forward. Often, though, it results in the weak endorsement of a poorly-thought-through approach which eventually fizzles out (to everyone’s surprise).

One of the problems here comes from thinking about consensus as a destination to get to as quickly as possible via the path of least resistance, when we need to think of consensus as a process which allows for — or even encourages — dissent and debate. Typically, the rules of consensus decision-making allow for a participant to block, stand aside, or support the eventual decision. I haven’t used consensus enough in tricky cases to be sure, but I strongly suspect that people will choose to stand aside when they would rather block what they see as a bad decision; or support a decision they would rather stand aside from or block. Getting to consensus is so seemingly important a goal that it shortens the conversation from which the most interesting insights will emerge. The outcome is a decision that satisfies everyone but inspires no one. And these disgruntled and disempowered decision-makers, frustrated in their ability to block or stand aside from a bad decision during its planning, can more easily block or stand aside from its implementation. After all, nothing comes easier to us than silently but effectively dragging our heels and mysteriously failing to succeed.

All this to say that we need to take a long hard look at these and other processes we engage in and engage others in. There is no sense banging our heads against the same predictable walls over and over while expecting different outcomes. Instead, we need to find ways to let dissent and criticism enter the picture; not for their own sakes, but because counterfeit consensus is likely to stall a group project even more than open dissensus: the latter, at least, will highlight points of disagreement and lead to conversations that allow everyone to see the terrain more clearly. I know that nothing drives me crazy quicker than being in a room of people rushing headlong towards a conclusion — any conclusion — so long as it puts an end to a phony discussion with a predictable endpoint.

It now looks to me as though we need to, whenever possible, instigate every organization as though it is a platform for collective efforts spearheaded by individual champions. (The ability to do this depends on the nature of the work that the organization intends to accomplish; sometimes this needs to be kept under tight central control, but this is the case far less often than it is assumed to be so.) Platform meaning that it’s the responsibility of the group steering the organization to put the pieces in place that allow members and inspired individuals to step up and quickly grok the rules and boundaries around action in that context.  Anything made possible by and not ruled out by those rules and boundaries should be fair game, and the larger group needs to make every effort to bring people in and get them working on their areas of interest.

A good example here is Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative, whose board (of whom I am a member) is currently putting the finishing touches on a working version of a project proposal form and accompanying processes which will empower its members to move from idea to working project with the support of the board and membership. The overarching goal is to create a large array of working projects all of which contribute to increasing food security and community connection in the region, rather than making the board responsible for devising and implementing a small number of high-stakes projects chosen via the standard consensus model.

Another example is CJMP FM, which has begun to invite people in the region to submit program proposals in order that its programming schedule will be as diverse as possible. This is the usual way of doing things in community radio, but it’s new to CJMP, whose previous modus operandi was more along the lines of designing a board-approved programming strategy and then find programmers willing to conform to this plan. This might have worked better in an area with a population large enough to supply would-be programmers for whom this centralized plan matched their passion; but otherwise it only shuts out the majority who have their own idiosyncratic and brilliant notion of what radio should be and do.

In both of these cases and others that come to mind, the only way to move forward and engage the energy and passion of a large number of people is to give them as much freedom as possible in conjunction with reasonable and transparent constraints on this freedom. It should be the job of the core group to maintain and expand this freedom; to ensure that participants understand, respect, and observe the constraints; and to cast a wide net of recruitment for new participants. Micromanagement and phony consensus give the illusion of control by driving away all refractory individuals and defining huge areas of imagination and action as out of bounds; so the core group can imagine it’s getting more done by focusing its energy on a small number of tasks and not having to worry about the human capacity to invent new problems and surprising solutions. The cost of that approach might well be stagnation and an inability to understand why the group is making so little progress — or, worse, mistaking failure for success and wandering right off the edge of the map. The trap of micromanagement is so deadly because the people who form core groups within collective efforts tend to be believers in control and rigidity. All the more reason to make an explicit and deliberate effort to minimize needless control over the activities and members of the group.

We need to learn not to be afraid of what might happen if we consciously design social systems for unified action that maximize freedom and autonomy for participants willing to play by the rules. Better yet would be to put those rules under the management of the participants, so as to create a proper feedback loop between participants and rules of action within the micro-world they are collectively creating and populating. Rules shape action, and action shapes rules in an endless and productive cycle of complex interaction. We’re looking to release energy outward in all directions but hold it together through a shared vision and some constraints; having done that we should be as hands-off as possible (and then some), sit back, and enjoy the spectacle of an emergent rich ecology of intertwined efforts feeding into and off one another and producing higher-level patterns. There’s no way to predict the outcome, nor should we want to.

Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging

By David Parkinson

Warp and weft working at cross purposes to bring about a higher-level order.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.
(Julian Assange, 2007)

We’re into the time of year when the year’s-best lists come out and we all engage in acts of reflection on the past year and preparation for the coming year in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t really think that I’m rested and distanced enough to have anything useful to say about the reflection part — except to say that the last month and a half of 2010 was a pretty riotous time, what with our community radio station suddenly kicking it up about twenty-three notches of activity. As I have told a few people, in the four years and a bit since we arrived in Powell River I have not seen such an outpouring of positive energy and creativity. I think that CJMP FM is going to be a game-changer for the region, and 2011 will be the year when we get to see what that might mean. If you’re in the region and have always harboured thoughts of being involved with community radio, check out the website and find a way to be part of this effort.

But that’s getting us into preparation for the coming year. What does 2011 hold in store? I don’t consider myself much of a prognosticator, but it feels as though 2011 will see even more failures among the institutions which make up the world we think we live in. 2010 saw the Deepwater Horizon spill, massive bank fraud, Wikileaks’ revelations shedding light on dark corners of the world of diplomacy and war, and a hundred other occasions to feel unhappy about having to continue relying on huge unaccountable opaque organizations with hidden agendas.

It takes a long time for faith to wear away. But we seem to be in the early stages of a widespread crisis of faith in all of these institutions. Fewer people affiliate themselves with the traditional political parties; fewer people vote; fewer people believe that government can — or even cares to — solve the problems they face. Closer to home, the gap between the public will and the intentions of our municipal government appears to grow wider and wider; we’ll have a chance to see how wide that gap is when we come to the municipal election in November 2011.

But it’s dangerous for people to lose faith in traditional authority without having something else to switch their allegiance to. This really worries me. People with nothing to believe in and governments and other authorities with no mandate to serve the population are a deadly combination. Once you get to that point you get irrational and dangerous populist movements contending with the arbitrary exercise of unaccountable power in the service of insane and obsolete ends. We can expect useful solutions from neither faction, only a hardening of their positions.

Meanwhile, prices will continue to rise and jobs will become scarcer. Social programs will dwindle and disappear (in the name of austerity) while corporate profits will continue to be skimmed for the benefit of those needing the least. Eventually, when there is nothing left to rob the government will declare a new golden age of personal responsibility. And we’ll be on our own.

I wish I had more reason to think that the irrationalism sweeping through society will burn itself out before things become desperate. But I think that this gigantic machine is just going to shake itself into pieces and there’s very little we can do to stop it. It’s simply too enormous and our points of access into it are tiny and closing fast. Closing our eyes and refusing to make sensible preparations are no longer acceptable. Personal responsibility might be being thrust upon us once again, after a few decades of glorious irresponsibility. This will be a tough transition, but I really see many reasons for optimism out there (and I hope that this blog conveys a sense of that, despite the occasional dips into the gloom).

I don’t believe that the collapse of major institutions means that the world will come to an end. The weakening of extremist anti-democratic corporate power is nothing to mourn. We should welcome an increase in skepticism and the creation of citizen-led organizations, collectives, cooperatives, tribes, and freewheeling gangs of troublemakers (the good kind). We need to seize the commons back from those who stole and plundered them, so that we can create our own institutions that serve human ends — as we define them in our territory, for our wants and needs, in the service of regenerating the natural world which is the only source of wealth.

Which is all well and good, if a bit grandiose. What to do? Where do we start? What could we do in the next year which would get us closer to a sane world close to home?

Obviously, I don’t have answers to questions this profound. (Although if you do, dear reader, feel free to put them in the comments to this post.) My only real answer is that — if we believe that nothing short of a full-on systemic overhaul is going to do the trick — we need to begin by opening up spaces where collective action will flourish.

Last week at the monthly Kale Force potluck, Ron Berezan talked about Cuba’s transition to organic agriculture in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the Cubans accomplished with a high degree of social solidarity and minimal physical infrastructure, we will need to accomplish with a low degree of social solidarity and huge amounts of physical infrastructure. I suspect that the Cubans got the better deal: it’s easier to improvise machinery and tools out of whatever comes to hand than it is to create strong social networks of mutual support and compassion out of a deliberately stupefied and disaffiliated population.

We need to shift from excessive and wasteful private ownership and control of land, tools, vehicles, and other resources to social arrangements reposing on trust and mutual obligation that allow us to share and work together more efficiently. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but until now the systems that favour privatization and individual action have been extremely strong and supported by legal, social, and cultural underpinnings which are only now weakening under attack by internal stresses which can no longer be kept under control: resource depletion, notably the end of cheap petrochemicals; an economy founded on greed and ignorance of natural limits on human action; and the devastation of the natural world.

We who live along this short stretch of the endless coastline of a huge landmass, who find ourselves here because of accidents of geography and history, face impending challenges which are fundamentally the same as many other local populations: how to live within the limits of what the earth, water, and air provide; how to govern ourselves so that these resources are divided equitably; how to work, play, and celebrate together to reduce needless suffering and increase happiness as much as mortal life will allow. To pitch things at such a high level is to make consensus seem deceptively simple; after all, who would not agree that these goals are important ones? The problem comes in moving from extremely vague motherhood statements to the bricks-and-mortar implementation. And here we hit some snags. In the next post I want to talk about one of these roadblocks; namely, what happens when we conceive of consensus as a state rather than a process. I’ll argue that there is a kind of fetishization of consensus that is actually blocking progress and will suggest a way we can unblock our efforts to generate more creative action.

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.

The levers that guided the signals to the radio

By David Parkinson

Tattered pear blossoms in glorious full sunshine; soon these will be fruit?


“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

(Howard Zinn, 1922-2010)

In the past week, I have emailed with two people who are considering moving up this way and met face-to-face with one. This has made me reflect more than usual on the weird meandering path that led us here in 2006. I have often thought that an interesting radio program or podcast would be “Who Let You In Here?”: a series of interviews with recent and not-so-recent arrivals to the Powell River region, digging into the reasons why people end up here, in this slightly out-of-the-way corner of the world. Everyone’s story seems a little cockeyed, as though there is some greater force drawing us all here.

To make a long and not-so-exciting story short: among the features of Powell River that looked interesting back in 2006, when we were doing some research on the internet about possible places to move to, the two that stick in my mind were the 50-mile eat-local challenge and the Powell River Regional District’s declaration to be a GE-free crop zone. Events and campaigns like these two act as beacons, sending a message out into the world: there are people here working against the grain, trying to preserve the special character of this region, trying to build something forward-thinking and new. That’s how it worked out for us. An intriguing signal sent out across the worldwide web; a promise of progressive action, enough to merit a second look.

Now, coming up to four years later, the internet footprint of Powell River is much larger, and it’s good to see the number of people blogging and sharing information about all the action happening in the region. If you look on the right sidebar of this blog, you will see my attempt to list some of the blogs which are in some way about the cultural life of this place. Some are more active than others, but they are all attempts to convey some small slice of the life of this place that might otherwise get lost in the noise. They are all beacons, flashing their message out into the world, seen by who knows how many people? who knows where? to what end?

I met today with one of the two people who were in town this past weekend looking for properties. This person is moving with his wife and two children from southern Ontario, and has decided that Powell River is the right place for his family to settle and begin making serious preparations for the effects of peak oil and economic meltdown. Our conversation wandered off into some very difficult territory at times — by which I mean: territory which is barely even on the map for most people. The possibility of rapid social collapse brought about by any number of threats which even now are visible and getting more worrisome. Things that no one wants to have to imagine, let alone try to plan for. Things that we pray we’ll be proven wrong about.

How many other people are quietly making preparations for a gradual, or a not-so-gradual, decline in our living standards? And looking at Powell River as a good place to move to, considering its relatively gentle climate, year-round growing conditions, somewhat affordable real estate, and its small but burgeoning subculture of activists, foodies, and do-it-yourselfers? And what is the picture they see of our community as they sit in Vancouver, or Edmonton, or Peterborough, scanning the internet for signs of intelligent life?

Climate, food security, affordability, and activist culture are the main reasons that drew us here three-and-a-half years ago. We picked up on the signals and homed in on their source. Now we are here contributing (we like to think) to the constellation of projects and activities which continue to pump the message out there: here is a place with many positive possibilities… we are making things happen… come and join us.

Against a backdrop of extreme uncertainty about the future, many people are starting to tune into new messages traveling on new frequencies. (Or maybe old frequencies now being brought back into commission after years — decades — of disuse.) We are developing new metaphors with which we can shape and make sense of the events taking place around us. There is an atmosphere of portent which like most things has a light and a dark side; although the dark side is carrying the day lately, every positive step forward makes the light more real.

Luckily, the beacons radiating outward from here are mostly very positive ones. I can see why Powell River is building a reputation for itself as a place where citizens are reclaiming the commons, naming the problems besetting the world and developing sensible solutions, and looking beyond the challenges we face to find the opportunities. This all makes a wonderful positive feedback loop: more people catching the signals → more people checking out this region as a place to get involved in a forward-thinking community → more new community initiatives and energy → more signals radiating outwards. And so on, round and round, gathering momentum all the time.

It’s exciting to think about the people we don’t even know about yet, picking up on the signals and deciding to take a closer look at this region as a place to find a community. We need all of the positive, imaginative, hard-working energy we can find. Maybe an incentive program to bring in the coolest, most skilled and knowledgeable doers we can find.  These are your tools: word of mouth, radio, blogs, newspapers, magazines, email. Bring us our apple-graders, beekeepers, and cheesemakers; our reducers, reusers, and recyclers; our brewmasters and -mistresses; our cobbers and thatchers; our spinners, dyers, and weavers; our electrical improv artists and plumbing whiz-kids; our tubthumpers, tailors, and troublemakers; our town criers, navigators, and provisioners; our sowers, tillers, and reapers. Now go forth and radiate!

And… we’re off!

By David Parkinson

A springtime harvest of delicious and beautiful purple broccoli

There seems to be three ways for a nation to acquire wealth:  the first is by war…this is robbery; the second by commerce, which is generally cheating; the third by agriculture, the only honest way.
(Benjamin Franklin)

Last Tuesday evening the newly-formed Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative held its first public information meeting at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The purpose of the evening was to share information about how we got to where we are, what we intend to do, and how our members can fit into all that.

One thing I realized as I assembled notes for my presentation was how much progress six novices managed to make in five months. Our first meeting to talk about forming a cooperative was back on November 27, 2009; so the public meeting last week was our five-month anniversary. In that short time, armed with little more than determination and persistence, this initiating team accomplished the following:

  • learned how to incorporate as a cooperative;
  • specifically, learned how to incorporate as a not-for-profit — or community service — cooperative;
  • learned how to amend the standard rules in order to create the governance structure we wanted to see;
  • wrote a vision statement (“A thriving community with a strong and reliable local food network”);
  • started drafting a statement of values and principles for directing our operations;
  • bought a domain, created a basic website, and set up email accounts;
  • created a logo;
  • started recruiting members;
  • began work on one major project, the Fruit Tree Project, and have started to line up other potential projects for this year or next.

I’m sure there is more, but these are some of the highlights.

But why, you ask? Why create yet another organization? What sets this one apart?

I’m still trying to figure out my best answer to questions like these. But the one thing about cooperatives that most interests me and the other members of the initiating team, who are now the board of first directors, is that they are highly member-driven organizations. A cooperative without members is not a cooperative, and cooperatives come into existence in order to supply its members with goods or services which they might otherwise struggle to supply for themselves.

In this case, the main gaps we aim to fill are shared skills, knowledge, and resources. Increasingly, people seem to be getting the message about the importance of food production to the local economy and to a broader picture of sustainability and resilience. Although it’s hard to gauge, there is uncertainty out there about the future and about our ability to keep the food supply running as it has been doing for the past few decades. Interest in local food continues to increase.

But once people start to question the global industrialized food system, how are they supposed to change the way they shop, prepare food, and eat? Some of us have what it takes to start tearing up the lawn to make room for purple broccoli and so on; but many people will feel that they don’t know enough about growing food, or they haven’t spent any time doing it and so it would fail. Or they haven’t got the time, or the tools, or a friendly neighbour they can work with or bounce ideas off. And so the good intentions, as they so often do, fall away and never manifest themselves as positive action.

What people need is a proper community of fellow food-producers (and -processors, and -preservers, and -preparers, and…) with whom they can share plans, garden space, seeds, tools, time, labour, laughter, and everything else that helps us all participate in a “strong and reliable local food network”.

This is where the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative comes in. We chose the word “Provisioners” deliberately: a provisioner is traditionally someone who supplies provisions, meaning food and drink, usually to an army or other large group of people. And of course provision also means forethought or foresight: to make provision for something means to take it into account in one’s plans. Provisions are preparations in advance of some foreseeable event or situation. We wanted to play on this cluster of related meanings — to suggest that each one of us has what it takes to make provisions — to indicate that we can all become provisioners and escape the narrow confines of being either a passive consumer or an all-powerful producer. Just regular folks who know where their food comes from, how it got there, and where it’s going. United into a community of provisioners supporting and strengthening each other.

In this sense, many people up until about World War II were provisioners: they had some idea what it takes to produce, store, preserve, and prepare food for themselves and their families. Most of this work was considered women’s work, but it was respected as vital to the prosperity of the family and the community. We need to get these skills back into regular circulation, but we need to help people ease back into them. Many people are utterly daunted by the idea of tearing up lawn to create garden; or canning large amounts of food and storing it against lean times; or making sauerkraut; or foraging for wild foods; or building and using a root cellar; and on and on it goes.

So the only way out of this that we can see is to create a community of people working together to save money, time, and effort as they increase the amount of food being produced, preserved, stored, and prepared in the region. We intend to work with our members to design and implement projects which will attract people who want to secure their household food supply, but need the impetus of working with others, acquiring skills through doing, gaining knowledge through talking and listening, sharing tools and equipment that they cannot afford to buy for themselves. The Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative was set up to be the framework within which we can make that happen.

Some people out there are the fearless leaders and trailblazers who don’t let any obstacles slow them down. But more are cautious and need support and encouragement. If we’re going to create a grassroots revival of traditional food skills, we’ll need to create new institutions to bring back those skills. This is not something which can happen through the existing consumer model. We cannot shop our way out of our passivity. It’s time to start creating shared projects and community institutions that bring people together. Ones which are open, honest, and fair, and increase people’s sense of a hopeful convivial future.

If this appeals to you, please consider becoming a member and helping us figure out how we can get more people involved in the local food network. Our first general meeting will be on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. In order to participate in this general meeting, you will need to become a member before May 24, 2010. For more information, drop us a line. We need you!

Politics in two dimensions (and beyond)

By David Parkinson

Old stump, new tree. A composition in chiaroscuro.

Old stump, new tree. A composition in chiaroscuro.

Recent events have made me more conscious of how our political system works. It came to me not long ago that the way we talk about politics is very one-dimensional and that there are other dimensions we should be trying to hold in mind as we think about where we are and what lies ahead.

We often think of large-scale politics in terms of left and right. To strip away a lot of rhetoric and vast amounts of detail, the left-right dimension is a continuum along which we battle over the division of the spoils: left means using the power of the state to redistribute wealth and create social programs and a safety net for the less fortunate; right means allowing the individual to decide how to use her or his wealth free from heavy-handed interference by the state.

The real world is obviously much more complex than this simple picture; for example, the right no longer pushes for a minimal state but instead uses state power to redistribute wealth away from the public sector and the commons and towards those who are already wealthy. The last few years have seen a giddy and fast-paced smash-and-grab operation by and on behalf of the economic élite, with the clear intention of destroying the state’s ability to provide a baseline of social services to all. This program seems to be reaching a sort of culmination with the recent project of using the common wealth of the population to ‘bail out’ the élite. When the dust settles from this amazing one-time-only offer — and as we start to face the consequences of spending our capital and destroying the resource base on which all wealth is built — political battles over the allocation of our dwindling wealth will become increasingly desperate.

What’s left of the left meanwhile fights a series of rear-guard battles in a losing war to reserve some share of the common wealth for the poor and less fortunate. As the screws tighten, as the lifeboat shrinks, these battles are only going to become more desperate. Who has the ear of governments? Not the poor.

And all of this wealth, the spoils of reckless capitalism, that we fight over — it’s based on the idea that there are no limits on our ability to continue pulling minerals and fossil fuels from the earth’s crust and food from our fields. Once you have a population which believes that we can keep on creating false wealth forever, then you end up with a political system which is really little more than a stock market. Or a Ponzi scheme.

So rather than a one-dimensional political system which turns every decision into a question of who gets the money, we need to start looking at some of the other less visible dimensions of how we make decisions about how to create, store, and (re-)distribute wealth. Until we start doing that, the language we use for talking about the economy is not rich enough to capture what is really going on. Like a poorly-ground lens, this impoverished language distorts the world around us, accentuating some aspects and diminishing others. We owe it to ourselves to get our heads out of the phony and constricting box of left-vs-right and start thinking about all of the factors that shape the way we interact with one another as individuals, with other groups of people, and with our society as a whole.

It’s important to remember that politics is not just about the ballot box and the talking heads on the television machine. Politics is present whenever people wrangle over who gets what. It’s in the boardroom, the bedroom, around the dinner table, in the meetings we attend, the way we choose to use our time and energy and money. I have seen, lately, a few examples of how bad politics can poison well-meaning non-profit enterprises. Even with the best intentions, if decisions are made in an undemocratic fashion, or if information is not freely shared, or if one person or a small group takes control for their own personal benefit, then the group’s solidarity will suffer.

I believe that we are entering a period in which the community is going to have to step up more and more. I am very uncertain about the prospects for the economy, and if I’m right to be worried then there will be less money flowing around for capital-based solutions to the problems we face. Likewise, we are already seeing sweeping cuts to social spending programs, especially at the provincial level. Many of the social support programs for low-income folks and other less powerful constituencies are going to disappear over the next few years, leaving a huge burden on local communities to find workarounds and patches. How this is going to play out against a backdrop of an extremely disaffected and slothful populace is anyone’s guess; but it’s going to be a rough transition at first. To the extent that we can employ a politics of decency, the rough ride will be less horrible for those of us at the bottom. To the extent that we continue to approach every problem as though it’s just a niche for some new corporate venture, we will blunder and fail.

I want to throw around a few dimensions along which it’s useful to think about how we approach the problems we hope to solve. I’d like to return to these and some others in the future, and spend some time elaborating them. For now, it’s only a skeletal outline of how I believe we should be talking and thinking about the work of renewing and reinventing our communities. Much of this points outward to existing theory and practice, but for now I’m just putting up hasty signposts.

(I’m using the word ‘venture’ below because it allows me not to choose among ‘business’ and ‘non-profit’ and ‘project’ and so on.)

Public vs. private

How is the public involved? As shareholders? Spectators? Make-believe beneficiaries of fraudulent trickle-down effects? Do members of the public have any say in how this venture is run? Phony consultation? Do we have to wait a few years to vote it out? Are we the hapless victims of decisions made in a boardroom to which we were not invited?

Open vs. closed

Similar to the previous dimension, but more about how the real decision-making happens. Even in a supposedly public venture, there are many ways to marginalize members of the community. Cliquishness, secrecy, and any number of needless hurdles can be put in place to keep power concentrated in the hands of the ‘right people’. Are we telling the truth? Is everyone able to ask tough questions without being shouted down or shunned? Are we actively encouraging more public involvement?

Intrusive vs. free

Can people opt out of the venture or its effects on them or their community? Must they be constantly alert to potential damage, pollution, or other ill effects? Are people coerced into either participation or resistance? Are people allowed to opt out, but at the risk of falling behind in some important way? Does this venture create more choice? Or less?

Community vs. individual

Is this venture about satisfying individual needs or wants? Is it about providing some resilience at the community level? Is it doing one when it should be doing the other? How does it strengthen community or reinforce individualism? Are we overlooking some way we can use this venture to create or strengthen community?

Paid vs. free

This is a really important and largely invisible dimension.This society trains us to see everything through a money-coloured filter. When we look through a red filter, we can no longer really see red, because everything and nothing is coloured red. Money is the same way. We do not even see the extent to which we create ventures which are born addicted to the money economy. Could we have done it  otherwise? Who is excluded? Who is advantaged? Have we asked ourselves how far we could have got without taking that first hit of corporate sponsorship?

That’s enough for now. As I say, I’ll try to come back to these and try to have something more illuminating to say about them. I do feel that those of us who want to work on making our communities more resilient need to spend as much time interrogating our methods as we spend considering our goals. It is possible to have admirable goals but undermine their success by hitching them to working methods which enshrine the very things we pretend to be getting away from. It’s maddening and all too common.


Post facto

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