Archive for the 'conflict' Category

An open letter to the board and members of the Powell River and District Agricultural Association

By David Parkinson


Thistles growing in a clearcut

On Thursday October 29, 2009, at a general meeting of the Agricultural Association, a member brought a motion to the floor seeking to nullify the election of several members of the board at the June 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Association. After extensive discussion, the board consented to call an extraordinary general meeting at which the members may bring to the floor whatever special resolutions they need in order to remove the offending board members and hold new elections. The president of the board indicated that the current board members would not stand for office in any new elections.

To the members of the board,

First of all, I congratulate you on the work you have done during your few short months in office. You inherited a messy situation and had to figure out a lot of things on your own. You brought to light the true relationship between the Association and the management of the Open Air Market. You worked to settle the fundamentals of the Association: insurance, maintenance, and cash-flow; all of which had been ongoing problems threatening the Association’s ability to function as a working society. You oversaw this year’s Fall Fair, which was very successful and has guaranteed that the Association can meet its expected financial obligations for the coming year.

Whether or not the membership chooses to acknowledge these accomplishments, you should be proud of them. If you had not stepped into the vacuum of leadership in June, it is not certain how these things would have happened.

Along the way you have stepped on some toes and hurt some feelings. As often happens, these bad feelings have festered and spread. You have made some political blunders. You put advertisements in the Fall Fair prize book from several local businesses that some of the members consider to be working against local agriculture. Apparently these are not minor matters which call for reprimands or censure: these are infractions for which you must be excommunicated.

In my opinion, all of the things you stand accused of you did out of haste, ignorance, and excess zeal for the well-being of the Association and its members. I believe that all of the hurt feelings and all of the political gaffes could have been resolved if those concerned had been willing to sit down and talk them through. Unfortunately, no one took the initiative, and we have now probably passed the point at which mediation would have helped.

I can imagine that you feel abused and insulted, having spent who knows how many hours trying to do your best for the Association and its members. It was clear to me, as I witnessed the general meeting last Thursday, that nothing you could say or do was going to turn the situation around. No one even mentioned mediation or any effort to work through the conflicts. The verdict was in before the meeting began. And now it seems likely that the membership will press for new elections: the nuclear option when something less drastic would have sufficed.

I cannot thank you on behalf of the members, as I am no longer a member in good standing of the Powell River and District Agricultural Association. Instead, I thank you on behalf of the community, most of whom never even knew you were on the board. Thank you for doing your utmost to watch over the Association and keep it running. Thank you for working hard to make sure that the Fall Fair could go on. Thank you for doing the best you could in good faith and under difficult and stressful circumstances. Thank you for devoting your time and energy to this thankless child.

I wish you the best of luck.

David Parkinson

To the members of the Association,

The die is cast. You will have an extraordinary general meeting at which you may elect a new board. Some friends and supporters of the current board will disappear and cease to be friends of the Association. No great loss, you may say. And presumably things will return to more or less the way they were before this board was elected. I wonder, though, whether this is really good for the causes that the Association stands for, and whether it is good for the community as a whole.

The people in the region who support local agriculture treasure the Open Air Market and the Fall Fair. But most of them have no direct connection to these institutions other than as consumers and well-wishers. The members of the Open Air Market and the Agricultural Association are mostly the vendors who have an obvious personal interest in belonging to the organizations which give them access to the markets where they sell their produce and crafts.

But the hundreds of people who shop weekly at the Open Air Market, who participate in the 50-mile challenge, who buy from local farmers, who grow their own food, and who generally subscribe to the values of the Agricultural Association — shouldn’t they also be members of an organization which works to further their interests?

I urge you to think about bringing the public into the Association as members. The public good is not served by having an unstable Association tottering from one board to another. Sooner or later, if things carry on as they have been doing, you will run out of members willing to serve on the board. Give the public, your best supporters, a reason and a way to join the Association. Make it clear what you stand for, tell people about it, and enlist their support and help.

Another thing you will need to do is clarify your principles and policies so that every member understands them. It is simply unacceptable to sack your board for violating principles or mission statements which have not been ratified by the Association and made clear to all members. If you must remove board members, it must be because they acted against principles that they clearly understood and explicitly endorsed when they stepped onto the board. And even then, you should all work towards a more forgiving culture, one that does not go straight from personal disagreements and well-meaning blunders to all-out war and slander. Your board members are human beings, fallible like you.

The following is the purpose clause from your constitution, as filed with the BC registrar when the Association was incorporated in 1995:

The purpose of the society (Association) is to establish and maintain a Farmers’ Market which will provide a marketing opportunity to local organic farmers, growers, producers, artists and crafts people; to improve production; to stimulate public interest; to increase consumption of local products and to spark the local economy.

This is your official statement of purpose. All other manuals, lists of rules and regulations, and vague statements of faith have no legal status and should not be considered binding on your members or board, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that they are official documents of the Association.

I think that you need to face the possibility that replacing your board is not going to solve the problems of the Association. In the past two years, the board has lost (by my count) six directors and an administrator through resignation. You are about to add a few more board members to that pile of bodies. Why can’t you find a stable board of directors? I suggest that you try to answer that question.

To my mind, about the only person who said anything decent at last Thursday’s meeting was the vendor who said that she has struggled with the backbiting and gossip floating around the Open Air Market. Her point was that all of this senseless bickering and division is destroying one of the finest things in Powell River. I feel the same way, and I suspect some of you do too.

I believe very strongly that it did not need to come to this, and that the mistakes of the current board came from an excess of zeal rather than from a desire to trample on the historical values of the Association or on the feelings of its members. I also believe that they would have been prepared to make amends, learn from their mistakes, and move on. However, these are moot points now.

Those of us who support the local food movement are aware of all the challenges: a population of aging farmers; the high cost of arable land; the lack of young trained farmers; a runaway regulatory apparatus from all levels of government making it hard to produce and sell food on a small scale; high import costs of feed and inputs; the list goes on. Why add to this list by creating division in the small and embattled group of supporters? Our main task is to find a way forward, to enlist greater support from the public — particularly from those who do not think exactly as we do. We need to continue to build a community around local agriculture, not allow it to divide itself and create rifts. We need to expect differences of opinion and occasional conflicts. We need to learn how to resolve these when they become serious.

I wish you the best of luck.

David Parkinson


What are you fighting for?

By David Parkinson


There are people wearing frowns
Who’ll screw you up
But they would rather screw you down.

(Arthur Lee, “You Set the Scene”, 1967)

A couple of recent events have got me thinking about how we’re supposed to start working together as a community in order to produce positive changes in the way we consume, travel, eat, and generally live our lives here in (possibly) the final hurrah of the growth phase of industrial civilization.

The first was the City of Powell River‘s public consultation meeting last Monday evening (October 19, 2009) at Dwight Hall in Powell River. This was an Open Space event where those present got to determine the agenda in the context of a shaping question, which in this case was something to the effect of “Given Powell River’s future economic uncertainty, we need to pay attention to…”. Attendees were invited to fill in the ellipsis at the end of that sentence, until we had gathered up three sets of twenty-five potential things we needed to pay attention to as we move into an uncertain future. Some of the subjects for discussion were very much on the economic side of things (e.g., taxes, rates of pay for City employees, the cost of transportation and shipping), while others were much more concerned with the general livability of the region (e.g., accessibility for people with physical disabilities, green space).

Once we had created the ‘agenda’ of topics for discussion, we had three sessions of about 20 minutes during which we were free to find the group discussing the topic we found most interesting and contribute to that conversation. At each of these groups someone was documenting the main threads of the conversation as a record of the event.

The subjects which struck me as most interesting were those which were oriented towards the creation of a resilient region: food security, local currency schemes, micro-credit and the spawning of many small businesses, better transportation options, and so on. Of course, as always happens at an Open Space event, there were more things to talk about than time in which to talk about them, so the attendees had to focus on the three conversations of greatest interest or urgency to them.

The first of the three conversations I took part in was on the topic of “focusing on where we are now rather than where we have been as a region”, and this drew a group of about ten people. It was clear that the person who had originally proposed that topic intended it to spark some creative thinking about how this region can move forward and prosper economically, even if we lose the large employer which has traditionally defined this community (i.e., the paper mill).

I was the designated note-taker for this group, and I quickly became overwhelmed as the conversation spiraled off into a heated debate over the best way to create wealth in the community: by bringing in a small number of large employers from outside the region, or by encouraging a large number of smaller employers to spring up from within the region. Then we went off into a tangent focusing on the merits (or not) of Plutonic Power‘s run-of-river project in Toba Inlet, and things got a little tense for a few minutes.

The thought that came to me, as I sat trying to distill the conversation into notes, was that in this culture we have very few good methods for identifying the challenges we face, for talking about these challenges honestly but respectfully, and for working together on good solutions even in the face of disagreement. Obviously, a group of ten random strangers are not going to solve the problems of the world — or even those of their own region — in a few short minutes; but what is always slightly sad to observe is how quickly we harden our positions and defend them against all contrary opinion or facts. We thrive on controversy and conflict, to the extent that many of us would rather rail against the wrongs we see than imagine a better future and work backwards to figure out the positive steps we can take now that might get us there. Opportunities for genuine dialogue tend to hit dead ends quickly and dissolve in mutual distrust.

There is nothing wrong with conflict arising from differences of opinion. What is unfortunate, and what is really damaging our prospects of designing a decent future, is that our main means for settling conflicts is by applying the principle “money talks”. Increasingly, the mechanisms we use to determine our direction as a society is by selling the decision to the highest bidder. Anyone with an alternative vision is free to stand on the sidelines and kvetch, but that’s about as far as dissent goes.

I believe that less kvetching and more positive action is what we need now. We could all spend the rest of our short precious lives identifying all of the things in this world which we abhor and working to overturn them — and any successes we had would be wiped out by any number of new atrocities to seize our attention. But what kind of life is it to be always pitted against, never fighting for? We are going to have to become better at imagining creative alternatives to all of the lousy idiot ideas destroying our world, ignoring as best we can the junk and the rottenness, and pushing forwards into our own dreams. We need to learn to work with those who hold different visions, when this is possible without sacrificing our vision and our dignity — this might not come around too often, but we need to continue looking for those opportunities.

Which brings me to the second event, which resonated with these reflections about conflict and conversation. From this week’s mailbag, someone writes in to say this about my colleague Tom Read, who helps manage this blog and contributes a weekly column:

He [i.e., Tom] is using your site as a soapbox to promote his vision which is highly inappropriate for Texada–his dominance on the site has discouraged other contributions, surely, you must know that on the logging stats, so SlowCoast has become non-relevant.   He supported the Westpac LNG plant and now the Texada South Quarry. So not the best eco stats.

Tom has publicly expressed his belief that the proposed quarry development at Davie Bay is a potentially critical piece of Texada’s economic future. For the record, he did not support the proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal. If anyone wants to know more about Tom’s position, they can contact him easily enough. His opinion is nuanced and expresses his genuine concern for the fate of the place he calls home. And of course you can feel free to disagree with him. Sadly, though, it’s always seems to be more fun to make these intra-regional and inter-personal conflicts as black-and-white as possible; to start drawing up the list of enemies; and to backbite and shun the ideologically suspect. Perhaps our correspondent hopes that I will ditch Tom from Slow Coast so that my ‘logging stats’ (whatever the hell that might mean) will improve and Slow Coast once again becomes relevant. That won’t be happening. This project is an equal partnership and does not require a loyalty oath. I can’t ditch Tom anymore than he can ditch me — thankfully.

What I find especially irritating about this is that Tom has written directly about the Lehigh quarry proposal precisely one time, back on July 10, 2009. The rest of the time he writes about all kinds of things having to do with living on Texada: small-scale farming and animal husbandry, canning and food preservation, living in a remote location, and all sorts of other posts which I would file under the general heading of ‘sustainability’ or ‘regional resilience’. When he’s not writing for Slow Coast, he’s out there working on a number of worthwhile community projects. We need more of this; not mere ideological purity and monocultural thinking.

If anyone out there has something to say, please send your comments or your contributions. Better that than try to tear down the things you disagree with. This site is no one’s soapbox, but is intended to reflect the variety of opinions in the region. If we can no longer express our truths without someone trying to shut us down or shout us down, the conversation is over.

Monks and missionaries

By David Parkinson

Yarrow flowers in a summertime rain shower.

Yarrow flowers in a summertime rain shower.

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and and utterly vast spaces between us.
(Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p. 197)

A number of things I’ve read recently have made me focus more than is usual on how public discourse works — and more frequently doesn’t work — to open a space for honest conversation about where we are, how we got here, and what choices lie ahead of us. The latest epicentre of this is a fascinating conversation between Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins, with — the internet being what it is, a big sprawling free-for-all where everyone’s contribution is welcome and recorded for posterity — plenty of contributions and comments from kibitzers. The whole thing got started when Astyk posted a two-part post about permaculture, the Transition movement, and some of her concerns about the aspects of these two social movements which make them unlikely to connect with the mainstream population (part one here; part two here). Hopkins replied with a very civil post, and as of this writing there have been 72 comments to Hopkins’ reply. My guess is this conversation will reverberate around one tiny corner of the blogosphere for a little while, since it touches on some pretty important themes.

I won’t got through the whole she-said and he-said of it all. Anyone interested in Transition or permaculture, and particularly in the task of bringing these promising but (let’s face it) fringe movements more into the public sphere, should read the three posts. Many of the comments are also worth looking at, if only to give a lively sense of what some of the people are thinking who concern themselves with resource depletion, climate change, generalized economic uncertainty, and the real possibility of social decline or collapse (slow or not-so-slow).

The conversation between Astyk and Hopkins and the wider one among the members of the peak oil community has many threads, but the one I want to pull out here is: how can we be most effective at communicating the need to change, and how can we start making the change happen? (Or do we even bother?)

Viewed from one angle, the conversation boils down to a debate between two camps:

  • one which feels that collapse is so imminent, will be so drastic, and the general public will be so slow to adapt to changing circumstances, that the most effective response is to retreat and work on solutions for rescuing one’s own self or family;
  • one which believes either that the prognosis is not so dire, or that it is dire but that the most effective response is to engage the whole community.

Members of the first camp are sometimes referred to as ‘doomers’ or ‘survivalists’. (Some refer to themselves this way, so it is not a completely pejorative label.) There seems to be no agreed-on name for members of the second camp, but this is where Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins, and most if not all people in the Transition movement are to be found. Transition is very explicitly devoted to the idea that the resource scarcities and the economic upheaval which are expected to come with the end of cheap oil call for a coordinated response involving all parts of the community, from individuals up through families, neighbourhoods, organizations, businesses, on up to local governments (and maybe further). And it is devoted to the idea that this can work, even in the face of public ignorance, denial, or indecision.

A very important conversation lies in the tension between these two poles and in the subtle shadings of belief that lie in between them. Once we accept that peak oil is real, once we take climate change seriously, once we start to connect the dots and see how our actions contribute to the problems and can instead contribute to solutions, then we start to think about what action we can best take. And the two poles can be seen as corresponding to two strains in religious engagement with the larger community; hence the title of this post. Simplifying considerably, monks seek the salvation of the world through retreat and strict observance of religious dictates, and missionaries seek to save the world by direct and forceful recruitment of the whole community.

I see this dichotomy over and over in discussions of permaculture, Transition, and in many other little pockets of countercultural discussion on the internet and in the real world: one side wants to save themselves, pull the ladder up after them, and let the world go to hell. The other side wants to save everything, be fully inclusive, and let none be saved if all be not saved. And like all arguments which are based on very personal and primal views of human nature, there is really no resolution. Much heat, little light.

And it might sound academic, but much depends on having a clear understanding of what is at stake. Some prominent thinkers in the peak oil community believe that a social and economic collapse could happen quickly. If that turns out to be the case, what is the best course of action?

  • Do we retreat to small-scale action at the individual or neighbourhood level and take resources away from public education and recruitment? This might result in tangible solutions in a short period of time, but at the cost of a rip in the social fabric, with some people in the vanguard and others left behind. The risk is that this will worsen existing social unrest and create conflict within the community, endangering any progress made and (in the worst case) leading to survivalist enclaves and so on.
  • Or do we put our resources towards engagement in the community, the laborious process of dialogue, discussion, and consensus, before we feel we can head in any one direction? This might unite the community (accent on might), but at the cost of losing precious time when those who are ready to act are able to act. The worst case is that we spend our days and nights in conversation while the world falls apart around us.

Right about now, if you’re thinking that I shouldn’t even be talking in this way, then you’re experiencing another one of the roadblocks in our way. These are difficult and painful subjects to contemplate. We have made it difficult — socially unacceptable — to talk openly about the crises we face. To do so is to be a downer, to be the ghost at the wedding, the first grey hair that whispers of mortality.

If Transition is going to work, then we need to break through this conspiracy of silence. It’s daunting to think about making headway against such entrenched social norms. As far as I can see, most people out there are blissfully unaware of the seriousness of our situation. Who wants to be the bearer of bad news? When I consider what we’re up against with the local Transition effort — when I consider that a post of mine in praise of bicycles is interpreted as an attempt to make car-owners feel guilty — when I contemplate the degree and all-pervasiveness of denial and willed ignorance that we have made the hallmark of advanced industrial civilization — I can see the appeal of the monk’s position.

And yet that doesn’t sit right. I welcome the opportunity for us to change the equation, to see if we can’t creatively and compassionately open up a space in the region for a genuine and honest discussion of what is really happening. Too often we defer to those among us who are the least able to handle difficult or unhappy thoughts, but I suspect that we are coming into a strange new time when this deference will no longer be in our interest, and that we will acknowledge this to be the case. We may find ourselves having to deal with some tough realities, and no one’s interests are well served by pussyfooting around the truth and pulling punches.

It won’t be easy to change the public discourse. Next to that, the prospect of ensuring an adequate local supply of food, water, affordable housing, meaningful jobs, etc. in an age of declining fossil fuels looks like a walk in the park.

Post facto

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