Archive for the 'cooperation' Category

Constellaction

By David Parkinson

Truer words were never spoken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing should be easy

By David Parkinson

Oats!

Canada Border Services willing, this week will bring something I’m very excited about: the region’s first commonly-owned cider press. For just about as long as I’ve been living here and hearing about the Powell River Fruit Tree Project (now known as Skookum Gleaners), I’ve been hearing people say, “Someone should get a cider press that we can all use” — or words to that effect.

But one thing we can all admit — even though sometimes we go around acting otherwise — is that words alone won’t make this sort of thing happen. For reasons which are not very clear to me, we struggle to get from the desired outcome back to the simple steps needed to get started. I get frustrated fairly often when I hear people saying that we should do such-and-such, or someone should do this or that, and then leave it at that, as though coming up with the first idea off the top of one’s head is a real start towards making something happen. In fact, implementing the solution to a clearly stated problem is, like most things, the product of discipline and hard work. There are few shortcuts that aren’t dead ends.

So, in the case of the desire to have a commonly-owned cider press, we have to work backwards to understand what we can do to make that happen. And here we can easily bog down, hampered by a lack of imagination or a lack of exposure to innovative solutions to a pretty common and simple problem. After all, people throughout history have figured out how to avoid having to force everyone to own the same tools when those tools aren’t in use every day. We have lost our flair for the commons, dazed by cheap commodities and a perverse economy that rewards the illogic of gluttony and waste.

One solution is: buy a cider press among a group of family, friends, and neighbours. And from what I hear, this solution is in practice out there in the hinterlands, where there are enough people with enough apple trees so that there is both a real need for a common solution and a network of mutual trust in place to make it work with minimal effort. This is a fine solution when those conditions are present.

But what about the more common situation, where we see a widely-dispersed network of people with few trees, many of whom do not know one another? In and around Powell River there are many homeowners and tenants who have a few fruit trees on their property; but these trees produce nowhere near enough fruit for these people to start seriously considering getting in on a cider press, let along buying one for their personal use. Only at the level of the whole network of trees could we produce enough cider to justify the purchase of a press.

Also, this network is so disconnected and spread out that there is little hope of creating the sense of common need or mutual trust needed in order for people to work together for the common goal of sharing a cider press. Somehow someone or something needs to pull the network together, and we need to create an entity which people can trust to do the right thing by individuals and by the community at large. It’s unlikely that any individual tree-owner is going to take this task on. It’s one thing to say that someone should get a cider press to deal with this problem/opportunity; but who will buy the thing? Who will operate, maintain, and store it?

If any person or organization were to own and operate equipment which could be held in common for the use of the entire community, we would want that person or organization to be open and transparent to participation by anyone with an interest in using that equipment. In the case of our cider press example these people would comprise owners of trees, people who want to make cider, and others in the community who would benefit from having access to local cider.

The question of a shared cider press is only one among many examples which we could easily come up with, from shared hand tools all the way up to a community farm or vineyard or brewery. It’s simple to imagine cases where a great number of people can benefit from the collective ownership and control of assets which few individuals are likely to buy on their own. In a sense, it is a simple problem to solve, and yet we struggle to find a solution. Our economy has evolved to make it almost necessary for everyone to have to own the same commodities as everyone else, even when shared ownership would do so much to reduce the burden of individual ownership on people, on the economy, and on the environment. We place convenience high above environmental stewardship, and the result is a lawnmower in every garage, even though one per block would be more than enough to keep the lawns mown.

There is a growing movement out there, epitomized by websites like Shareable and the P2P Foundation, seeking sensible collective solutions to problems like this one. I’m amazed by the number and variety of creative solutions that people are developing in order to enable us to work better together, reducing the load on individuals while strengthening community networks of sharing and collaboration. Not to mention reducing the stress on our stocks of non-renewable natural resources and on the the systems which support life on the planet.

The solution we chose is to purchase the cider press through Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative. This organization is completely open and democratic, so anyone wishing to have some say in the use of the cider press is free to join and participate. There are other models we could have chosen for collective ownership, but the cooperative model is ideal for situations like this one, where people benefit collectively through access to resources that are hard to access individually. If we had 100 people buying together, this cider press would have cost about $13 per person: less than the cost of a night at the movies with a bag of popcorn. Well, eventually we will have more members than that, so that the cost (and benefit) of the press will be spread wider and wider.

As long as there is an organization which people can trust to manage the purchase, maintenance, storage, and use of shared resources, then we can have valuable community assets at a low cost to individuals and with a high degree of accessibility for the many owners. It is a simple and brilliant solution to a set of problems which are becoming more pressing all the time.

“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.

Texada’s solid waste conundrum

By Tom Read

Texada’s forests, streams and lakes are notably pollution-free, and I hope we keep ‘em that way by dealing responsibly with our solid waste. Here's a 2007 photo I took of Case Lake, which feeds Rumbottle Creek, which in turn empties into the sea at Raven Bay.

Texada’s forests, streams and lakes are notably pollution-free, and I hope we keep ‘em that way by dealing responsibly with our solid waste. Here's a 2007 photo I took of Case Lake, which feeds Rumbottle Creek, which in turn empties into the sea at Raven Bay.

On Monday evening, Linda and I and about 20 other Texadans attended a presentation in Gillies Bay about the future of solid waste in our region. Officially it’s called the draft Powell River Regional District Solid Waste Management Plan and its duration is 2009 to 2019. Now, I know that’s not a sexy topic for many readers, but it has serious implications for Texada Island and the Powell River region. So I hope you’ll bear with me for at least a few paragraphs.

The plan’s goal is “working toward zero waste,” a realistic recognition that eliminating waste is desirable but not easy to achieve. Just so you know what we’re talking about here, the term “solid waste” refers to lots of things, including household garbage and trash, construction debris, all sorts of recyclable materials, and organic matter, especially food waste. In fact, food waste alone accounts for about 30% of our region’s total solid waste, and it is fairly shocking to realize that this is the single largest category of waste that we produce.

The presentation didn’t break out food waste for Texada, but I doubt that the 30% regional figure applies to us. My sense, based on being an active member of the community here for nearly 10 years, is that Texadans do a lot of composting and feeding of kitchen scraps to domestic animals. So I believe that the amount of food waste is less here than in “urban” Powell River. Since the plan’s overall goal is to eliminate waste, and since food waste is the single biggest category of waste in the region, it should come as no surprise that the plan recommends more backyard composting if it can be done without attracting bears (not a Texada problem, since we don’t have bears here), along with possible construction of a centralized $2.6 million composting facility.

Texadans will be expected to help pay for the feasibility study for this regional facility, since it’s claimed that Texada could benefit. How? Well, the consultant on Monday evening proposed that Texada, since it has no bears, might be a good location for the region’s centralized composting facility, “transportation notwithstanding.”

Ah, yes, transportation. Leaving aside the question of whether Texada makes sense as a possible location for a regional composting centre, there’s no denying that our island is quite dependent on ferry transportation for nearly everything, including moving our waste off the island. And that’s where the plan worries me. During the next 10 years, the plan calls for greatly reducing export of waste from the region as a whole, but it assumes that Texada will continue to export its solid waste to Powell River. Given what we’ve heard from Texada’s Ferry Advisory Committee members about potential increases in ferry fares during the next few years, let alone by 2019, we islanders could see a significant increase in our waste disposal costs.  More illegal dumping could be the result.

Ferry fares, and transportation costs in general, tend to parallel the price of oil. It’s way beyond my expertise to forecast the next oil price spike, but I think we’ll need an on-island solution for processing our solid waste sometime in the next 10 years.  Why? Because oil can increase in price much faster than new, strictly regulated solid waste management solutions can be implemented. This poses a conundrum for Texada and likely the region, too.

Fortunately, Texadans have a long history of creative problem-solving. I can envision a cooperative effort whereby Texadans consolidate our transport of solid waste to Powell River, perhaps starting informally among immediate neighbours. Just to be clear, I’m fully aware that Sunshine Disposal runs a reliable and affordable household waste collection service for Texadans who happen to live along its route. But the waste volume any one household can put in the tagged bags is limited, and there are times when a special trip to the Powell River transfer station (aka “the dump”) becomes necessary.

Some of us live off the beaten path altogether, so our only legal choices are to burn our waste or take it to Powell River. I tried burning household waste years ago and found it a smelly, polluting and time-consuming experience, so now we make the dump run to Powell River a couple times a year. There’s no reason islanders couldn’t cut transport costs by coordinating trips with friends and neighbours, which is now easier than before thanks to this website recently created by a Texada community volunteer, Tom Scott. Cooperation builds community and avoids raising our taxes to pay for consultant-driven solutions.

We might also learn something from our neighbour, Lasqueti Island.

Lasqueti already has a landfill exclusively for its local residents. Unfortunately, that landfill wasn’t built to present BC standards, and it might be prohibitively costly for upgrades to conform with provincial regulations. I’m told by our Regional District staff, however, that a new solid waste management plan for Lasqueti is pending but not yet ready for public release. Texada is considerably larger than Lasqueti in population, transportation services and physical size, but we might benefit by observing how our neigbours resolve their waste disposal problem.

The transportation issue remains my overall reservation about the plan, even though as noted above there are potential ways we could cope with it. I’ve also got a few quibbles regarding the plan’s treatment of illegal dumping and its view of glass as mere trash. But on the whole, the proposed plan looks quite positive. I like its emphasis on reducing waste in the first place, especially from over-packaging. In our household we’re already starting to do that by removing excess packaging in the store in Powell River, taking home only the product. Another positive approach is to reuse containers, such as re-filling our pharmaceutical prescriptions in the same bottle (adding a new label each time).  One of the reasons we support Pharmasave in Powell River is because its owner, Wanda, encourages such re-use and recycling wherever possible.

Solid waste is a constant fact of modern life. Thus, the plan’s provision for an ongoing volunteer monitoring committee staffed by a part-time “waste coordinator” will keep this un-sexy but vital topic continuously visible in our region and allow new solutions to be developed more quickly. Maybe it’ll even help solve the Texada solid waste conundrum.

Growing opportunities

By Tom Read

Here's a photo I took today of some thriving White Russian Kale in our garden. We bought these plants as seedlings from Carolyn Heriot in August. This open-pollinated kale variety is very cold-hardy and we find it quite satisfying in salads, stir-fry and even pesto sauce!

Here's a photo I took today of some thriving White Russian Kale in our garden. We bought these plants as seedlings from Carolyn Heriot in August. This open-pollinated kale variety is very cold-hardy and we find it quite satisfying in salads, stir-fry and even pesto sauce!

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts here on the agricultural potential of Texada Island, based on a document just released by the Powell River Regional District (PRRD). Texada Island is Area D within the PRRD. In that previous post I mentioned several strengths that support the idea of a positive agricultural future for Texada, such as favourable climate, soil, water, and proximity to markets.

This week I’d like to follow up with a few thoughts about agricultural  opportunities, starting with a general statement from the PRRD report, entitled “Powell River Agricultural Plan — Economic Development Discussion Paper,” by consultant Gary Rolston.   Here’s a summary of the paper’s comment on agricultural opportunities for individuals:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify opportunities for individual operators without knowing the individual or the resources they have available to them. This has happened in the past. An “opportunity” is identified to a broad audience. Several people get into the business at the same time and the market is saturated before the first product is available for sale. Opportunities are created by people who have the ability to evaluate trends that suit the resources they have available and can have products available for market when demand is strong. [my emphasis]

The paper goes on to identify three possible “opportunities” for individuals in our region: developing an abattoir or food processing facility, creating value-added products from local produce, and starting a vineyard/winery. Hmm. If you’re interested in making value-added products, wouldn’t that require some kind of food processing facility? Would it be cost-effective for an individual to create such facilities?

As for making wine, I’ve noticed that our region, including Texada, already has affordable custom wine-making services available, and it’s not that difficult to ferment your own, either. Since wine is a discretionary food purchase (unlike, for example, vegetables, grains, and other food staples), and given the many imported wines I see for sale at Texada’s grocery stores, perhaps that market is a bit “saturated.”

So, are there any opportunities that don’t require a large up-front investment in processing facilities?

One possibility not mentioned in Rolston’s paper is growing winter salad greens and vegetables. As about fifty of us heard from Carolyn Heriot at a Texada Garden Club-sponsored workshop in August, almost all greens and vegetables are currently imported into our region during the cold months of the year. She lives near Victoria, and claims to have found a strong demand in her area for fresh local vegetables that can be grown and harvested all during the winter — because the imported stuff isn’t so fresh and is rather expensive as well. Carolyn is author of a best-selling BC coastal gardening book, A Year on The Garden Path, and also sells coastally-adapted seeds (see her website at http://earthfuture.com/gardenpath/Lectures.htm for more information).

Admittedly, our rural island isn’t quite as affluent as the urbanized Vancouver Island market that Carolyn sells to, but it would be a huge accomplishment if local farmers could meet Texada’s needs for fresh produce in the winter. We could also export fresh produce to Powell River if the cost of distribution and marketing could be kept reasonable.

Which brings up another type of opportunity: cooperation among local farmers and eaters in the financing and operation of local food processing facilities, including possibly an abattoir. Texada has few land-use regulations that would get in the way of setting up a small-scale food-processing facility. But do we have the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources capable of competing with the industrial food system? And could we do it in a way that wouldn’t endanger the livelihoods of our neighbours who work in our local grocery stores?

Food for thought, as they say.

Find your tribe

By David Parkinson

Fennel seeds and sky

Seed to Sky

We will not live to see the work of the new age, we shall fight in the darkness; we must prepare ourselves to endure this life without too much sadness, by doing our duty. Let us help one another, call to one another in the gloom, and practice justice wherever opportunity offers.
(Pierre-Joseph Proudhon)

I spent this past weekend in Chehalis at the annual gathering of the BC Food Systems Network (BCFSN), this being my second consecutive year attending this event. The gathering brings people together from all around the province who work in food security in the broad sense: from the grassroots organizers working at the local level to develop community gardens, community kitchens. cooperatives, and other projects, on up to people working at the regional and provincial level to develop policy and strengthen our ability to create a strong and equitable food system in BC and beyond. It’s an opportunity for folks working in small and isolated communities to come together with the folks from the big-city hotbeds of food security work (the entire Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, especially the Victoria-Nanaimo corridor). Opportunities such as this are really valuable to front-line activists, since it is enormously reassuring and empowering to know that you are not alone out there, that others all around the province share your perceptions and your passions, and that there is a big picture taking shape out of the constellation of tiny efforts everywhere.

This year’s gathering was the tenth and the theme was Bioregionalism. From the website:

A bioregion is an area defined by naturally occurring boundaries such as watersheds, terrain and soil. It is also cultural in nature and thus includes healthy associations between people, plants, animals and nature. These bioregions or eco-regions, could generally be self-sufficient with respect to local food systems and land use. When the local population makes choices that support the local ecology, economy and culture a bioregional consciousness is created. Promoting this sense of place enhances many of the principles the BC Food System Network values. Sustainable land use, enhanced Indigenous land interactions, empowered local communities and reduced carbon footprints are some examples of the benefits of healthy bioregionalism.

We spent some time during the gathering breaking out into bioregional discussions and then coming back together to report back and synthesize the information being discussed in the breakout groups. I was the only representative from the Upper Sunshine Coast, and there were two people from the Lower Sunshine Coast: Eleonora Molnar, a community developer with Vancouver Coastal Health, and Dave Ryan, one of the main growers for the Gumboot Restaurant in Roberts Creek. We weren’t sure what the borders were of our bioregion, so we chose to consider the entire Sunshine Coast as a bioregion, separate from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. I can’t say how much sense that makes, but the conversation will continue as we refine our ideas about what makes a bioregion and how we can work within and among the various bioregions in BC.

Some friends were asking me a couple of nights ago what we did at the gathering, and I was a little hard-pressed to say. Much of the real ‘work’ of a gathering like this one lies in forging new connections between individuals and groups. I attended one discussion session on setting up cooperatives, and out of that came a potential new working group under the auspices of the BCFSN to share information and resources about how groups can use the cooperative structure of corporate governance to create pieces of a local food economy. I hope to use this working group as a way of investigating the possibility of using a cooperative to take on some of the projects that people keep talking about, especially the collective purchase of tools and equipment such as a rototiller, a crusher and cider press, a commercial dehydrator, and so on. There is a gang in Salmon Arm, which I named the Salmon Army, doing precisely this: instead of forming a standard non-profit society as an umbrella organization for pulling together the various food-security projects in the area, they are creating a cooperative. It seems like a perfect fit when part of the aim of an organization is to foment public engagment and involvement.

But the gathering is really about talking with all kinds of people from all corners of the multi-front struggle to create an abundant and just food system. And all of that meeting and talking and sharing takes place within the context of an institutional culture which has much to admire. For one thing, people in the BCFSN work very hard to create an egalitarian and respectful dialogue between indigenous populations and the settler community. First Nations folks are central in all discussions and traditional food systems are put on an equal footing with imported agricultural techniques. Another aspect which was mentioned by one attendee during one of the plenary sessions is the ‘culture of gratitude’ cultivated by the BCFSN: people within the network take time to honour everyone’s contributions and make sure that all the work that might otherwise go unnoticed is gratefully and respectfully acknowledged. That might sound like a trivial thing, but it is not. I see a lot of people in my community whose hard work and dedication takes place in obscurity, while others are ready to put themselves in the spotlight at every chance. A huge part of building a resilient community is honouring the people who do the work, especially the ones on the front lines who sometimes get overlooked.

More than just recognizing and acknowledging each other’s contributions, we need to start understanding how our social networks hang together. We need to know which forces strengthen them and which ones weaken them. We need to pay attention to the subtle but very real signals which draw us closer to some projects and some people, and learn to recognize the warning signals which caution us against wasting our time or getting involved with people who put their own personal interests before those of the community. We need to learn the simple but neglected art of showing gratitude to each other, of listening attentively, of respecting the differences among us, of including the ones who are easy to forget about.

In other words, we need to create a tribe for ourselves. A tribe consisting not simply of the like-minded — that’s a cult not a tribe. But a tribe of the people we can work with, the ones who share the more important pieces of our worldview and (even more importantly) are willing and able to work collectively, with gratitude and respect, even when there are differences.

The Chehalis gathering drew together a geographically far-flung but otherwise tightly-knit tribe of people from around the province who are all dedicated to the creation of a network of food-secure communities. So, what’s your tribe?

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.


Post facto

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