Archive for the 'community' 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.

On the margins of the margins

By David Parkinson

Water vapour in the air condenses into fine threads of ice along the surface of a log. How do the crystals know to align themselves to the log's diameter?

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
(Walt Whitman, 1855, from the preface to Leaves of Grass)

Yesterday evening I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Cranberry Community Hall Society, the non-profit organization which owns and manages the Cranberry Community Hall, formerly known as the Unitarian Hall.

I went as an interested observer, not being a resident of that odd little pocket of unconventionality hidden away from the straight line between Saltery Bay, Westview, Townsite, Wildwood, and points north. But as someone who has organized and attended many events at this community hall, I was curious to see what the Society’s plans were.

After disposing of the routine business of an Annual General Meeting, we had a discussion about what the membership would like to see done with the hall. And this was a conversation that was very interesting: almost everyone acknowledged the importance of having an asset like this community hall remain under the control of the people who benefit from it, with barriers to access kept as low as possible. Several people mentioned that we have lost too many of these resources over the past years and we need to work now to bring them back.

It’s still not a mainstream belief that we ought to be preserving these old community buildings and the institutions which own and care for them. I don’t think it’s on most people’s radar that we might be moving into a time when it will be important to live near a neighbourhood hall which could host daycare, art classes, a community kitchen, a library of tools and equipment, not to mention dances, live music, and celebrations of important occasions like births, weddings, and funerals. So many of these activities have been privatized over the last half-century and more that it looks like willful nostalgia to think that we could be doing all of it for ourselves, on a small scale, with limited financial resources — beyond ownership of a hall, of course — but unlimited volunteer labour and support from those who gain the most from the presence of a vibrant common space within walking distance.

Also, there is a pervasive mindset out there, which the coming years will do the hard work of dispelling, that the first solution to every problem is something along the lines of: go find a big pot of funding; hire consultants to put together a study to tell us what we already knew; pay top dollar for the biggest slickest state-of-the-art-est multi-use community complex; and fill it full of well-paid professional service providers. It’s just not sexy enough to slog through the grime and try to retrofit something old and worn-down. I just think we’re coming close to the end of the easy money and were going to have to make do or do without.

I have read enough in the world of peak-oil preparedness, Transition, and food security to know that the creation of collectively-owned and -managed resources like this is one of the main prescriptions for any community which aims to create a soft — or less hard — landing for people who are already starting to feel the pinch from the rising cost of everything paired with stagnant or falling pay (not to mention the deliberate systematic gutting of the social safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility). In his weekly post, James Howard Kunstler, the trickster fool of the collapse scene, writes:

If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don’t rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you’re already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct.

And the paths in and through this new rickety economy are going to be good old-fashioned involvement: immersing oneself in the real active life of the community, as close to home and as close to free as can be managed.

(This involvement take place in a double obscurity: most people in the mainstream don’t see any need for special measures to create more resilient communities; and even those who are savvy to this sort of thing don’t see that this work is not always about shiny new projects with an explicit commitment to carbon reduction or local food or what-have-you. These are the margins of the margins for the time being, but probably not for too much longer, as more people realize that we can build amazing things out of the débris of the past.)

What really struck me about the meeting last night was how organic and basic it was. (Also the high amount of crossover between this group and the new crop of active volunteers at CJMP FM.) This was no project with funds casting around for a purpose; no effort led by ‘experts’ looking to ‘create opportunities for key stakeholders to envision a common future’ or some such bureaucratese; and it was not a meeting of the usual enviro-savvy types out to save the planet. Just a gathering of folks out of the neighbourhood and a few from other far-flung parts of the region, doing the boring unglamorous work of preserving a community asset that many may have forgotten even exists. We’re supposed to think of this work as ‘charming’ or ‘quixotic’, in opposition to the hard-nosed reality emanating from the think-tanks and consultancies or the various recipes out there for saving the world. I just can’t see anything of true and lasting value coming from these high-priced sources; as we move into a time of extreme relocalization we’re just going to have to do what we can to stay abreast of the changes coming at us, and there will never be enough experts and one-size-fits-all solutions to make sense on the local scale.

I am pretty sure that the real meaningful changes that happen as the result of people working together will come from the out-of-the-way easily-overlooked places. We live in a time thronging with well-funded and well-intentioned projects to prepare the way for a shiny new future of low-carbon emissions, ecovillages, local currencies, and so on. And usually what these visionary programs omit is what we saw and engaged in last night: getting together in small groups, working to preserve what we already have, taking tiny steps, making simple achievable goals to build from where we are, with no real overarching goal except to hold open a space for community to flow into. A very humble process.

These are the margins. Out on the edge where the population is dispersed and odd notions proliferate. A zone of experimentation where things self-organize or die. The place no one looks for the answers, because the questions lead to where the money, power, and prestige are held. The last stronghold of romantics, fools, and the connoisseurs of hope, who can tell the real thing from the barbarized version dished out by charlatans. The realm of dissensus and the breeding-ground of our failures which teach us more than their successes. Sometimes disguised as a meeting to preserve a community hall.

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A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE

Regular readers — if such even exist — may have noticed that my posting schedule seems erratic lately. In fact, I am on an eight-day rotation because I feel I should visit the days of the week with impartiality. This way I can always post a day late and still be on time.

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.

Lower your sights, yeah, but raise your aim

By David Parkinson

A late rose, blossoming despite the cold weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoneleigh continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE

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

Texada School says “thank you!”

By Tom Read

A vocal jazz rendition of "Theme From Spiderman" resonates around the village of Van Anda from Texada School's playground last Friday, part of community appreciation day at the school

“We may be small but we’re mighty.” That’s Texada School Principal Carol Brown’s apt description of our community’s little (28 students this year) but vigorous school.

The Texada Island community has responded warmly to Ms. Brown’s leadership, enthusiastically supporting the school in many ways. Just to name a few, community volunteers provide hot meals one day a week, give kids extra academic help, conduct ongoing workshops on social and historical topics,  and contribute funds for extra-curricular activities, including field trips. Yesterday (Friday), the school formally thanked the community of which it is a part, and Linda and I were privileged to attend the festivities.

And what an abundance of festivities! Not one, but two very talented youth jazz groups from Powell River gave a concert to be remembered. Community volunteers (mainly husbands of local teachers) put on a delicious picnic lunch barbeque. A much-anticipated mural unveiling took place — an art piece designed and created by students with the help of a local artist that interprets our island’s industrial heritage of mining and logging.

While I enjoyed the entire event, the most meaningful part for me was the one-on-one reading session that started the afternoon. I got to sit with a student named Austin while he read to me from some of his favourite books. In the end he departed from the program a little by asking me to read a few stories to him. I know that parents do this routinely, but as a non-parent I found the experience an unexpected pleasure.

Austin and I enjoy a one-on-one reading session earlier in the day

Maybe that’s what healthy communities do best — help connect people who otherwise might not learn to appreciate each other.

And the weather on this special day? Perfect!

“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.


Post facto

June 2017
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