Archive for the 'collaboration' Category

Lesson I: Foster community and cultivate networks

By David Parkinson

A cool blue spring sky; only the gentlest hint of summer's heat.

To receive and to communicate assistance, constitutes the happiness of human life: man may indeed preserve his existence in solitude, but can enjoy it only in society: the greatest understanding of an individual doomed to procure food and clothing for himself, will barely supply him with expedients to keep off death from day to day; but as one of a large community performing only his share of the common business, he gains leisure for intellectual pleasures, and enjoys the happiness of reason and reflection.
(Samuel Johnson; The Adventurer No. 67, Tuesday, 26 June 1753)

It’s a feature of the times and places we live in that the gap between is and ought-to-be is becoming more visible while growing wider; as many people engaged in many activities, from all points in the space of political outlook, continue to work at filling in this gap — or at least to spread awareness of alternatives. The value of common action, and particularly the gap between working together and simply being an isolated individual in an anonymous economic system, goes at least as far back as Dr. Johnson’s time, which was a period during which traditional ways of living were changing quickly.

We now live in a time when the trajectories barely sketched out in Johnson’s lifetime have reached some kind of culmination, although there’s no way of knowing how much further they will be carried by their momentum. But the observations that Johnson makes are no less true now than they were then; only more obscured and hard to talk about. They have become like an occult knowledge bubbling under the surface. It’s starting to become a commonplace (in uncommon places) that the real key to successful social organization and the creation of alternatives will be collective projects that harness much of the energy which is currently wasted. Only no one really knows how to make this happen, so these wishes for better forms of social organization remain just that: wishes. (As a former colleague was fond of saying, hope is not a plan.)

A good recent overview of some of the ferment happening in the world of ‘re-commonization’ is in this article by David Bollier. The historical narrative he presents is one that is starting to filter back into the conscious mind of the culture, and it’s interesting to see that the past years of a somewhat ahistorical future orientation to social change are fading into a new awareness of the paths by which we got to where we are and the forces that moved us along those and not other paths. The works that Bollier points to by Raj Patel, Lewis Hyde, and others take care to present the history of ‘de-commonization’ as the subterranean history of the rise and triumph of capitalism — as its side effects or collateral damage. But are we to work at restoring what has been lost? Or to work at creating counterforces that will inevitably do that work for us? The former looks difficult but possible; the latter daunting beyond all imagining.

Increasingly, or so it seems to me, the search for alternatives of any kind is becoming more appealing to people whose allegiance to the way things are is strong as long as things are working well for them. As more systems pass the threshold into counterproductivity and begin to produce more ill than good effects while somehow still retaining their manic vitality, we might expect more people to step away from isolation and extreme individualism and into… what, exactly?

None of us has any idea how to answer that question. The best we can do is construct new and better systems within which the answers will emerge. And for every system we devise which generates progress and increases social cross-fertilization and cooperation, we’re likely to create a few which just lie there and do nothing useful. Our fear of failure, of wasted time and effort, causes us to fear this outcome more than just about anything; but we have to push through the fear and frustration, through the feelings of blockage and futility, redirecting our efforts where that seems right and doubling down when that seems right.

The far-off goal is for everyone to have some part in the collective creation of a community that consists of innumerable networks, some official and recognizable and others which serve a very particular purpose for a small number of participants. These networks — or their proto-networks — are out there now, arising out of people’s needs and their willingness to sacrifice individual initiative to the convenience (or inconvenience) of depending on others with their added labour and insight (and conflicting needs and desires). As a society we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where the benefits of individualism and the costs of collectivism are presented as higher than they really are. The costs are buried and not to be spoken of.

Like many people, I’m often frustrated by the slowness of social change. It feels as though we are moving into a time of almost perpetual crisis, in which the only way to insulate ourselves from feelings of fragility and threat is to tune out, to retreat further into the isolation which is the leading symptom of the malaise. There’s no real way of knowing, but I can’t help but think that this withdrawal can only worsen, at least among some segments of the population, over the next few months or years. Its costs will be an impoverishment of the human potential that we’ll have at our disposal and more drag on our efforts to get things done, at least to the extent that those things entail popular support. It might be hard to accept this as a natural response, but a society in denial can only expect that denial is one of the few tools in the general arsenal. (We can always deny that we’re in denial.)

Meanwhile, let’s hope, a part of every community will find ways to go from wishing we could organize and get more done together to finding more effective ways to make it happen, to reward individual effort while keeping it under some kind of collective oversight so that the interests of the whole network are always represented. For people raised in a culture where walking away is always an option, this will take real conscious effort and the kind of humility that doesn’t always come easily to people who were promised everything. There is little science to this, but a great deal of art. The exciting part is that it continues to be uncharted (unchartable?) territory; traditional societies have had to nurture and appreciate these skills, and it’s a hopeful sign that we are now starting to value them and talk about them. How we can weave them into our daily lives remains to be seen, but it’s the great work of our time.

The last words go to David Bollier:

I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money or the state for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” — the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.

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NOTE

This post is the first in a series based on the essay Seven Lessons for Leaders in Systems Change by Michael K. Stone & Zenobia Barlow, published by the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Spirit and perseverance

By David Parkinson

Big enough for anything.

Sense must distinguish between what is impossible, and what is merely difficult; and spirit and perseverance will get the better of the latter.
(Lord Chesterfield)

Today spring is tightly coiled, soon to unleash its potential energy in the form of sunshine, warm breezes, longer days, gentler rains, and the unmistakable sense of being on the upward trajectory. Out of winter’s inward-looking retreat to darkness; out into days when indoor and outdoor clothing are the same; when the evenings decline slowly at a shallow angle into the twilight and then into a clear-skied cool evening. Today the bees are buzzing around the apricot blossoms, a perfect sign of hope.

With another successful Seedy Saturday behind us, the season of plentiful food is slowly stirring itself into action again. This is the time of year when the immobility of the cold months of short days stretches into a keen sense of possibility: we make grandiose plans to take advantage of the longer warmer days, and we promise ourselves not to let a precious moment go to waste. (Of course we will waste many moments, precious and otherwise.)

This year, more than ever I suppose, many of us in this region will be talking about the need to be better prepared against the certainty of rising food prices and the possibility of shortages and disruptions in our food supply. We are that much further out on a thin extremity of the supply chain, all the more exposed to the cascading effects of hiccups up the line; and more people all the time are becoming aware of the consequences of this precarious position, even if they might not understand their causes.

The big question is this: if the food supply chain continues to weaken, how self-sufficient can we become? This difficult question is followed by a few which are equally hard to deal with: how can we increase our self-sufficiency as quickly as possible? what happens if our ability to increase local production, processing, and distribution is outstripped by events beyond our control? when is the need for action going to hit the mainstream and become a topic of common concern?

Many of the people I spend most of my time in contact with are aware of the degree to which our regional food supply falls short of demand, and of the unbelievably huge campaign that lies ahead of us. By anyone’s accounting, it’s daunting in the extreme and involves education, money, changes in our attitudes towards worthwhile work and in our conception of what our communities are, what they mean to us, and how we choose to contribute to them.

To me, the most important questions are the how questions; specifically how the unfolding of events is going to lead to changes in these social arrangements. Many people I encounter agree that we all need to work together to rebuild our regional food economy so that it can support the population living here, or at the very least not fall so spectacularly short of doing so; but there is no consensus on how to get going. The number of problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and predicaments to learn to work around is huge, and our resources are as nothing.

The most natural outcome of this type of situation is for everyone to work individually on some aspect of the complex of challenges — it’s hard to say how each person chooses where to dig in: some do what they’re already good at; some go with inclination and a desire to learn new things; some run the numbers and choose what seems like the most efficient places to work; most could probably never explain their ways of responding to what might be only half-formed needs and wants. The upside of individual action is that the feedback loop between input and output is tight and fast; it’s easier to see the sequence leading from work to results, to fine-tune that sequence and create variations on it. It takes some faith to go from working alone, with complete control, to having to accommodate others’ needs and wants.

Another challenge here is that the people who are the most engaged individually are the ones who are too busy for much time spent trying to organize collective activities. They’re also the ones less likely to see the need for it, because they themselves are further ahead in ability to provide for their own needs in case things get weirder. All the while, as more people discover the urge to become more individually resilient within a community of mutual dependence and cooperation, they have to pretty much make their own way and learn on their own. To some extent, this is a good thing, since it encourages discipline and hard work, mental and physical. It’s a bad thing to the extent that it discourages those with less persistence and wastes time forcing them to solve well-known problems and learn workarounds to familiar predicaments.

I’m thinking a lot about this, because it’s so fundamental to everything else we might accomplish, together or separately. Without developing better techniques for pooling our work and distributing the results in a way which is fair and decent, our already small and marginal efforts to build alternatives will be further diminished.

It’s going to be difficult to find creative ways to increase the amount of cooperation and sharing of resources, time, labour, knowledge, expertise, and experience. If there is a theme tying this blog together, that’s it: more than anything else, I’m struggling to distinguish what is impossible, and what is merely difficult and then hoping to find the spirit and perseverance to make headway on the difficult work. The lucky thing is that there is an increasing interest around here in exploring collective styles of work, with a base of some very impressive and experienced individuals who have developed their skills and knowledge in areas which will be vital to the community. We need to continue experimenting in the hopes that we’ll wander into new arrangements that make sense.

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.

“Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.”

By David Parkinson

Blueberry flowers enduring the drizzle

All you want to do is something good,
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood;
Cos don’t you know that you’re a fucking freak in this world,
In which everybody’s willing to choose swine over pearls.
(Aimee Mann, It’s Not Safe)

The path from spring to summer seems to be meandering through winter this year. This past weekend we were treated to weather pretty much straight out of November’s repertoire, although with uncannily long days instead of the usual five o’clock shadow and shutdown. The plants shiver and wait for better weather, but the slugs are in their element. Eventually, though, the record will stop skipping and we’ll go on with the expected progression into the long hot days of unbroken sunshine: tomato weather.

In the meantime, preparations for summer are in full swing. The 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge will be celebrating its fifth year this year, and of course we will be presenting another Edible Garden Tour on Sunday August 8, 2010, as the kickoff event of the 50 days of the eat-local challenge. (Feel free to contact me if you would like more information on either of these projects, or if you’d like to get involved as a volunteer.)

Closer in, the board of the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is getting ready for our first Annual General Meeting, to be held on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The preparations means creating a flurry of documents, getting ready to amend our rules, creating reports on our progress and finances, and generally being ready to stand accountable before our membership as their representatives. The best part of the meeting is that we will elect a new set of directors, who will have a democratic mandate to continue working towards our vision, using our values and principles as a compass.

But what is the cooperative actually doing? What is it for? I can tell that people are confused. I know for a fact that some people who hear that there is a cooperative in the region automatically think that we are planning to start a bulk-food or natural-food store. I’ve had it reported to me on good authority that someone out there believes that we are starting up another feed store, like the old Farmers’ Institute cooperative store which eventually became the Rainbow Valley Pet & Feed  Store after the rancorous breakup of the cooperative.

Obviously there might be some confusion about any new organization, especially one with a slightly cryptic name. People see the words “food” and “cooperative” in close proximity, and naturally they think of a food store. And the word “cooperative” carries other connotations for those who remember the demise of the old feed store. What the heck is a “provisioner”, anyway? It doesn’t help that, as I have learned lately, many people really do not understand what a cooperative is and how it differs from other corporate structures, such as the limited-liability corporation or the not-for-profit society. So one of the challenges for Skookum is to spread the word about the structure and philosophy behind the cooperative movement. We’ll get there, but it’s going to be a long process of teaching and learning together.

The main idea behind the formation of Skookum, which is simple but somewhat abstract, is that we need to kickstart many more experiments in strengthening the local food economy. There are many things going on in the region, but many of them are fundamentally working in isolation when they could be working together better. It is our belief that people want to be able to work better together, to share tangible and intangible goods, and to create things which are more than the sum of their parts. But it’s hard to make that happen; it takes a huge investment of time and energy to meet up with the others who have what you need and need what you have.

Without a structure to make this sort of collective effort possible, though, it simply won’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in conversations sparkling with great ideas and positive energy; but if those ideas don’t get some kind of nurturing support, they just get filed away, along with all the other wonderful things we could do if we had enough time, or money, or something we never seem to have.

So the essence of Skookum is that it’s designed to be a marketplace of ideas about how we can all work together to produce and preserve more food. We have members so that we can crowdsource solutions and so that we can easily gauge the amount and intensity of interest in any project that we might propose. The more members, the more projects we can sustain and distribute among the membership — also, the more easily we can pay for our projects and other expenses.

At its core, it’s a way to organize and connect together the people in the region most likely to have crazy ideas about getting more local food happening. Like a dating service for local-food freaks and compulsive backyard growers.

Let’s take a simple example. Imagine that I would like to grow chickpeas to support my out-of-control hummus habit, but that I don’t have enough space in my backyard garden for any significant amount. So I put the word out through the membership to see who else would be interested in working together to grow a large amount of chickpeas. Two or three people respond, letting me know that they would be very interested and would help with all the soil preparation, tilling, hoeing, weeding, watering, and harvesting. A few others respond to say that they would be happy to participate as subscribers to the harvest, and would be willing to pay extra to support the labour of the three or four people who will be the main workers.

The organizing team goes forth, finds some land it can beg, borrow, or steal for the purpose of growing a little field of chickpeas. Everyone tosses in some money to buy a good amount of chickpea seed, amendments, and whatever else it needs to get from seed to harvest. The project works on a share basis, meaning that whatever the harvest comes to, it will be divvied into equal shares. Some amount of the final harvest is set aside as a community share which we will donate to an organization that deals with people in need; or else we will sell it as a share and donate the money to that organization. (In case they’d rather have money than chickpeas.)

Built into the cashflow of the project will be some kind of payment or recognition for the labour, expertise, tools, etc. contributed by the members who organize the project and ensure its success. Every successful project, no matter what it does, has at its centre a person or a group of people who take primary responsibility: they make the phone calls, organize the meetings, and deal with the crises. Too often these people’s contributions are passed over. One of Skookum’s strong commitments is to provide fair wages for this critical work, because if we are going to have a functioning local food economy we need to find and nurture the special people who go out and get things done (as opposed to talking about getting things done). They deserve a reward for their valuable gifts of initiative and determination.

So the outcomes of this little chickpea project are:

  • more people know something about how to grow chickpeas;
  • more people have some locally-grown chickpeas;
  • some people got paid or otherwise remunerated for spearheading this project;
  • probably some new connections were formed among members of the cooperative and members of the wider community;
  • some members of the community benefited by receiving chickpeas or some equivalent donation.

Nothing terrifically earth-shattering, but if we get enough of these little projects up and running, achieving some kind of self-perpetuation, returning value to their participants and to the community, then we will be sending a message about the power of cooperative effort. And the best part is that all of this activity will be 100% democratic and accountable. There will be no need to rely on the goodness of those who own the business. The business will be owned and managed by anyone in the community who wants to pitch in. And that is the real magic ingredient here: I do not believe that we will organize our way out of the impasse we’re in by retooling private ownership to give it a greenish veneer. There needs to be a much greater degree of public involvement in the food system, or else we’re going to continue enriching the few who make the decisions which generally do not reflect the interests or the will of the people.

It will take some time before this all becomes clear. In a way, we’re fighting our way out of the murk of bad and increasingly outdated ideology. All we can see are problems, and all solutions seem equally plausible or implausible. So we need to keep trying anything but what the rules of game dictate: cooperation instead of competition; collective ownership and management instead of private capitalization and profit-taking; openness and transparency instead of boardroom decision-making and political railroading; togetherness instead of isolation. If we persist, sooner or later something will work. Trust me.

A wildfire warning

By Tom Read

Here's a small part of the Cranby Creek fire zone. You can see that most trees weren't seriously damaged, but that's only because we were lucky that the fire hit when there was still enough moisture in the ground.

Here's a small part of the Cranby Creek fire zone. You can see that most trees weren't seriously damaged, but that's only because we were lucky that the fire hit when there was still enough moisture in the ground.

Back in the late summer of 2006, Texadans fought side-by-side with provincial firefighters to put down an accidentally caused wildfire that could have resulted in widespread destruction if it had successfully migrated from an open field into the forest. That was a very dry year, and capricious winds kept the fire alive as an unpredictable threat right up until overwhelming force arrived in the form of two quarry water tankers and a corps of local volunteers. We were lucky; it was a close call.

Last weekend, another wildfire hit Texada.  Located near the headwaters of Cranby Creek, this fire jumped immediately from a clearing near a dwelling on private property directly into the public’s forest. The cause is under investigation, particularly since nobody has admitted to starting the fire. Ambiguity has fueled fierce rumour and innuendo heard all over the island; dark speculations but no proof. This isn’t healthy for our community, and it’s quite unfair to anyone being targeted by such speculation. I know we can do better than this, but that’s a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as in 2006, Texada volunteers responded admirably to the fire alarm, including the Gillies Bay Volunteer Fire Department, JMG Logging (water tanker) and Wallmer Bobcat Service (backhoe). Provincial firefighters came through as well, including air crews flying two fixed-wing fire retardant bombers and a water-dumping helicopter, plus an experienced team on the ground. After about eight acres of a steep, forested, rocky hillside had burned, the firefighter’s coordinated efforts first contained, then knocked out this fire. The drama lasted about five hours.

The next day I spoke with members of the mop-up crew, who had come from Port Alberni to help fight the fire when it broke out on Saturday afternoon. “We were lucky here,” said a sweat-soaked young man who had been digging out and extinguishing hotspots among still-smoking tree roots. “This was a classic surface fire, where the flames never got higher than my shoulder,” he said. “The amount of moisture in the ground meant that the fire had to use most of its energy to burn off water, so it never got into the tree tops. Mostly, it just singed the trees and destroyed a lot of undergrowth.”

He added that the mid-sized and large trees should not suffer any permanent damage, and the burning of undergrowth and old deadwood on the forest floor will actually help reduce future risk of a catastrophic wildfire on these relatively few acres.  But 2009 is already shaping up as a dry year for Texada, and we may not be so lucky next time. If this fire had occurred on a windy day in August, after months of little rain, events might have unfolded quite differently.

These dangerous events are foreseeable, if not exactly predictable as to time and place. What are we doing as individuals and as a community to prepare for wildfires? I know we haven’t done enough at our house to protect ourselves; our current plan would mostly amount to safe evacuation. But what about our community? Does anyone have a copy of the Texada Emergency Preparation Plan? What does it say about coordinating emergency response and follow-up in the event of a truly wild fire in the forest?  I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out and report back in a future post.

Principles for creating a cooperative local economy

By David Parkinson

Horsetail

Horsetail, like all plants, finds the right niche and provides needed services to its local ecosystem. It does not force itself into a niche where it has no purpose.

Last week, I introduced the subject of designing cooperative local enterprises as one way to start boosting the resilience of this region. But the one big problem with working cooperatively is that many of us don’t have a lot of experience at working with a team of equals, brainstorming, compromising, and discussing our way from problem to solution. My feeling is that we’re going to have to get better at this, and quickly.

There are plenty of processes and methods out there for working better collaboratively. Many of these can be found in the business section of the bookstore or library, since this is the main place where people have sensed a need for making plans at the level of a community — a corporation or a working team being a community of a special kind. One of the few books of this type that I’ve read is Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, which Giovanni Spezzacatena discussed briefly back in March. Block’s main idea is that meaningful change at the level of the community can happen only through conversations which open up a space within which ideas and hopes can emerge organically.

A little while ago, I was reading about permaculture, and it occurred to me that there are some real similarities between the Block-style approach to community development and the permaculture approach to creation and restoration of holistic natural systems. Permaculture is a design system developed initially by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. To go into great detail would take us too far afield for this short piece, but to me the core of permaculture is that it takes a systems view of agriculture and the human role in coaxing food from the earth. Rather than impose a technological brute-force solution to food production, as is done in commercial agriculture, the permaculture approach takes advantage of natural processes, using human labour to maximize positive outcomes and minimize negative ones. Humans move from being producers who impose their will on the earth to being facilitators of the earth’s natural inclination to be productive in a sustainable fashion.

I was reading about David Holmgren’s twelve principles of permaculture, and it struck me that — just as Peter Block’s principles of community development take a very non-hierarchical approach to unleashing the creative energy of a group of people — permaculture in a similar fashion is about observing and intervening very gently and respectfully into natural systems, with an eye to increasing their outputs for the benefit of humans and the other plants and creatures who participate in those natural systems. I’m always intrigued by theoretical systems or collections of principles which are specific enough to have applications in one area but general enough that they apply to other areas as well. So I decided to try to apply Holmgren’s twelve principles of permaculture design to the domain of community development. (Anyone interested in learning more about how these principles apply to the design of agricultural systems can learn more by starting here on Holmgren’s website.)

I. Observe and interact

Successful community development, meaning the creation of new groups working on new projects to benefit the community, is all about careful observation and interaction. Observation means looking at what the community has and what it needs, thinking about why those needs remain unmet, and looking everywhere for the pieces of the solution, even in unexpected places or marginalized people. Too often the same old people are in charge of the decision-making process, and this leads to an insular and stale process for coming up with solutions and new ideas. It’s critical to tap into the genius and passion of the folks who are usually outsiders to the planning process — unless, of course, you really do want more of the same. And observation means continually trying to see past the surface of the community and understand how things are held together at a more abstract level. Why is there more vandalism there than elsewhere? Why do people hang out in this park but never in that one? Why are so few people riding the bus?

II. Catch and store energy

In the world of permaculture design, this is about making sure that no energy is wasted, whether it comes from the sun, rain, wind, or wherever. Catching it is crucial, as is storing it, since storage means having energy even when it is not still forthcoming from its source. For example, rainwater stored in a pond can be used to drive a waterwheel even during a drought.

For our purposes, this principle is about making sure that, when the right people or resources show up, we need to recognize them, draw them into our project, and ensure that their creative energy is not wasted. This might mean getting better at recognizing talents and abilities in people which we don’t need at present but will need in the future.

III. Obtain a yield

This is a big one for me, because I interpret this principle as stating that no activity should fail to produce some kind of reward or benefit to someone. Basically, this means no free labour. It means that even if volunteers are doing the work, their time and labour must be returned to them somehow. And even a small return is better than nothing.

I’ve been involved in a few planning processes which treated the volunteers from the community in an atrocious manner. And so these volunteers trickled away and the collective energy dissipated. Each time this happens the process loses the input of the community, and the community loses a sense of engagement in the process and whatever comes from it.

No one should be expected to work collaboratively on some project without ongoing rewards for their contribution. Sometimes it’s hard to do this, but this is one of the problems that must be addressed at the very early stages of any planning process. Failure to do so means creating a process which does not engage ongoing support and attract talented and enthusiastic collaborators.

IV. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

This one seems like pretty much a no-brainer, but it’s amazing to me how often a conversation about some new project will go off the rails early on and never recover. We live in a culture which finds it very hard to critically examine ourselves and our work. Everyone wants to celebrate their successes, but no one wants to learn from failure, even though failure is extremely informative. And if you don’t recognize when something is not working, then you can’t correct it. The longer it goes uncorrected, the worse the situation becomes.

A conversation leading towards a new vision or a new enterprise must be able to incorporate feedback at all times. It must be open to criticism from within and without. Everything must remain provisional and open to change as long as possible. Plans and methods will change, especially in the beginning, so we need to be ready to abandon preconceptions and change course quickly.

V. Use and value renewable resources and services

The meaning of this principle is clear enough in the domain of permaculture. In the realm of community development, I take it to be saying that we need to find sources of funding and labour which we can rely on to continue. One-time-only or startup funding is dangerous because — if the planning is not careful — it creates a need for more funding. Soon your community effort is devoting too many of its resources and time towards finding more money, and neglecting its primary mission.

I am not saying that one should never seek or accept outside funding. But too often money is seen as the universal cure-all for what are not really financial problems. Failure to observe one or more of the other principles of community development will likely lead to a situation in which only money can push things forward — because you are working against systems you should be working in concert with, or your volunteers are burning out, or you are wasting money needlessly elsewhere. As much as the planning and implementation can be done on a shoestring, so much the better.

VI. Produce no waste

Waste in the context of collaborative planning and creating new community projects can mean anything from wasted time to wasted labour to wasted good will. It’s not entirely clear how waste in the non-physical sense can be used as the input to some other process, but we should be aware of opportunities to apply our excess resources to other related projects in the community.

VII. Design from patterns to details

When entering into a planning process, it is important to stand as far back from the problem to be tackled, or the enterprise to be created, as is possible. The solution can be sketched out from this very high level before the details are filled in. And because the enterprise is being created through an iterative and ongoing series of conversations, the big picture and the minor details can be constantly revisited and rethought.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself well into some kind of planning process or series of meetings and to realize that at no time has the group had a chance to stand back from the solution they are supposed to be working on so as to name it, comprehend it, and talk about it to one another. This means that there is no genuine consensus among the group as to what they are really doing, and the end result of that is frustration when the unspoken assumptions turn out not to be shared by everyone.

A vision statement is a way of stating the whole pattern from the beginning.

VIII. Integrate rather than segregate

This is the very essence of collaborative work: the notion of pulling effort together to generate synergy. It takes wisdom and careful observation to see how various people and resources can be brought together to create a whole which is more than the sum of its parts, but failing to do so wastes effort and creates frustration.

Processes which are modeled on competitive and individualistic planning tend to pit people against each other, if subtly. As a society, we are not very adept at creating truly open spaces which bring people in and give them the tools they need to excel both as individuals and as members of a collaborative enterprise. We need to work hard at this and create our own models as we go.

IX. Use small and slow solutions

Everyone wants a big bang for the buck right away. But oversized and needlessly ambitious plans can burn people out and create false hopes. It’s better to succeed in small things, to continually re-evaluate and expand from there, than to wear ourselves out reaching for too much right away. Small and slow-building solutions allow for continual feedback and re-evaluation, and make it easier to generate some kind of payback in the early stages of development.

One area where we are seeing this principle applied is in the diverse and fast-growing area of urban agriculture, where many people are working on a small scale to develop techniques for producing food in urban spaces like backyards and abandoned properties. Generally, these begin as one-person operations and are highly experimental at first while the correct set of techniques and procedures is hammered out. Presumably these experimental and low-budget enterprises are generating a corps of technically accomplished urban farmers who can continue to expand their operation, codify the ways or working which make the most sense to their community and climate, and bring more people into their enterprise as needed.

X. Use and value diversity

One way to avoid groupthink is to invite and include a diverse set of people in your planning. Too often, collaborative projects fall into a kind of rut because the same people keep showing up with the same ideas. It’s essential to create a welcoming environment so that people who have not been part of the process can easily find a way in and feel as though they can contribute. A lot of this goes back to creating a process which is critical and self-reflexive, since an uncritical group process does not allow for newcomers whose ideas might seem far out or whose troublesome questions don’t have easy answers.

It’s not easy to keep trying to include the sort of people who might have good reasons for not being involved in the process you’re creating. All the more reason for doing so whenever possible.

XI. Use edges and value the marginal

Holmgren uses the proverb “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path” to illustrate this principle. In permaculture, edges are of special importance because we often find particularly exuberant and productive ecosystems at the boundaries between two ecological zones. I take this principle, as it applies to collaborative planning for community development, to mean that we should constantly think about hidden places where there might be opportunities for creative new projects at the edges between ‘zones’ in our surroundings. For example, what might flourish on the edge between day-care centres and composting? Between mass transit and education? Between low-cost housing and unemployed people? This principle urges us to look harder at the places we often ignore and to see edges between two connected domains where we might otherwise see them as completely separated from each other.

XII. Creatively use and respond to change

I interpret this principle as similar to Principle IV (“Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”) only on a larger scale, the scale of societal change. We are in a time of increasing turbulence, most of it so far in the economy but more of it to be increasingly in society in general, how we work and live together with our families and with other people, and how we organize ourselves at the community level to provide for our basic and not-so-basic needs and wants. As the systems which define our society undergo these changes, we will need to stay flexible and look for opportunities to provide goods and services in ways that might not have worked well in the past.

I believe that any cooperative effort to create a new project or to change the environment or culture of some place would do well to think about applying principles like these. It’s good to have some kind of mission or vision statement or goals to work towards, but it’s probably more valuable in the long run to have a set of principles which guide the ongoing process of getting from here to there, whatever that might mean. Goals and visions can always be rethought and reworked, but a collaborative process for community development which operates under weak principles or none at all is destined to waste a lot of time and energy.

The cooperative local economy

By David Parkinson

We use the word 'weed' for plants which interfere with our plans for nature.

We use the word 'weed' for plants which interfere with our plans.

‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it,
And that’s what gets results.

(Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young)

Last week’s column was about creating a stronger local food economy, something which I spend a good deal of time thinking about (and being engaged in). And now that we have a newly-formed Transition effort starting up in Powell River, I hope that we’ll see renewed efforts to start new projects which help move us in the direction of regional self-reliance.

It’s not hard to sit around a table and brainstorm ideas for projects which would help this region adapt to peak oil, climate chaos, and the economic uncertainty that is hitting us now and showing no signs of abating. Car-sharing, carpooling, or ride-sharing networks; backyard gardening cooperatives; municipal composting; local media collectives; neighbourhood potluck and child-minding groups; campaigns to raise awareness of shopping locally; cob-building workshops; micro-hydro and wind power; barter and free exchange networks; and on and on. Ask someone who is hip to the challenges we face and you will get any number of good suggestions of how we can become more resilient, less dependent on fossil fuels and imported goods, and stronger as a community. There is no shortage of good ideas. But so far not a lot of them being implemented.

The more I think about transition planning, the more I believe that we need to see a large number of experimental projects happening. Some will succeed and others will fail. They cannot all be funded by government dollars or money from foundations and charitable organizations. Nor can they all run entirely on the goodwill and time of volunteers. We need to find ways to create small businesses out of these solutions to various problems; but we should also be creating businesses which balance entrepreneurial risk and foresight against a strong commitment to the people and the values of the surrounding community. A local economy which supplies local needs and keeps jobs and wealth in the region will also need to do its part to reduce social inequities and to provide solutions to systemic problems like poverty, food insecurity, insufficient affordable housing, the lack of a living wage, and so on. These problems are the inevitable result of an economy which places profits above all other considerations, and the sooner we stop pretending otherwise the better.

It seems clear to me that the best solutions to the challenges we face will emerge from genuinely collaborative, collectively-designed and -managed, community owned enterprises. Cooperatives provide a good way to create businesses that satisfy needs which individuals find hard to satisfy on their own, and they have the advantage that they are well recognized in provincial and federal business law. But some of the projects we might want to work on are too loose and informal for all of the hoop-jumping and legalities of a formal incorporation. There are no one-size-fits-all structures for getting people to work together so that everyone benefits.

No matter how we formalize an understanding among individuals which involves property, money, labour, rights, obligations, and regulations, we first have to get to the point of working out what it is we’re trying to accomplish and how we intend to go about it. When this is done in order to attract start-up capital it’s called a business plan, and might emerge from a collaborative process of:

  • brainstorming in free-flowing conversation;
  • identifying an unmet need in the community;
  • thinking about how we might harness cooperative energy to solve the problem we identify;
  • solving various problems of start-up costs, dealing with regulations and other legal impediments;
  • enlisting the support of people who need the planned goods/service (potential customers, collaborators, or members of a cooperative);
  • defining how those who contribute their labour and knowledge can be adequately rewarded (whether in the form of money, equity, goods, shares, etc.).

There will always be individuals with an entrepreneurial bent who are talented at identifying business opportunities and figuring out how to apply money and resources to a problem in order to find a solution which will return a profit on money invested. But as for the rest of us, we might have to get involved in cooperative business ventures with other people. And this means having to collaborate effectively, to learn how to weigh different alternatives and figure out what is possible and what is impossible, to figure out what the steps are in solving a problem and which are of a higher priority than which others, and so on.

Lately, I am witnessing a number of processes which are intended to be collaborative and cooperative. For the most part, they are not succeeding as they might. In some cases, they are downright counterproductive. Why is this? As a society, we are pretty good at identifying what we want to do, but we often struggle with how to go about accomplishing the goals we identify. (What we want to do is very often stupid or pointless or toxic, but the goal is at least clear.) Entrepreneurial management strikes me as fairly uncomplicated: do whatever it takes within the limits of the law (more or less) to make your money make more money. All other considerations are subordinate to the prime directive, profit. But cooperative management and business development entail other considerations, since they reflect a community of interests and often have a socially responsible orientation; e.g., the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

We’re going to have to become better at working collaboratively in many ways as we adjust to the post-peak economy in which more of our needs will need to be met locally. I want to work together with other people to cobble together appropriate solutions to problems in the local market, and I want people to receive proper pay for their contributions to meeting the needs of the community. I want to be able to participate in cooperative decision-making in the common interest. I want to be part of starting up enterprises which can support the local economy, train and employ people in useful and necessary activities, and generate wealth which remains in the community. I imagine that many others feel the same way, but don’t know how to start collaborating (and on what?).

In next week’s conclusion of this piece, I will sketch out how we might learn a thing or twelve from David Holmgren’s principles of permaculture about creating an effective collaborative design and planning process which we can use for starting cooperatives and other small businesses in the region.


Post facto

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