Archive for the 'engagement' 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.


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.

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.

Post facto

January 2017
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