Archive for the 'Zenobia Barlow' Category

Lesson VI: Assume that change is going to take time

By David Parkinson

A cherry, someday. Patience!

The slow pace of a cool lingering springtime is starting to accelerate into the lazy rush of summertime, when the coast retreats to lakes, mountains, and gardens and sees after its own psychic well-being. The milestones marking off the next few months are becoming visible after a few months when it seemed as though the summer would never properly arrive; but here they come: weekly market days; the fruit-picking season, from cherries and early plums through to late apples; my annual excursion to the Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network, this year in July instead of on the same weekend as our Fall Fair; the Edible Garden Tour in early August, kicking off the fifty days of the Fifty-Mile Eat-Local Challenge; the Fall Fair; and I hear early rumours of a harvest feast in October. After that, the long decline into wetness, to the making of plans, the dreaming of a summertime that seems so far away it might almost never come again.

Each time the same round of events and projects comes around, each one is slightly more complex and connected up with other people, groups, and projects. Little outposts of action become a network. After some time spent waiting for things to change, for people to climb onto a bandwagon, or for actions to catch up with good intentions, suddenly it all lurches forward and slowly finds its pace. It takes patience — or impatient persistence — to stay the course and wait for a project’s potential energy to manifest itself, through the down times when our efforts appear to be spreading out like ripples into a huge blank expanse of still water.

Even as our patience is rewarded in one quarter, any number of new initiatives are cropping up like newborns unable to fend for themselves, sucking up time and energy out of all proportion to any reasonable expectations of the good they’ll do. It takes the fecklessness of parents to bring these things into existence in the hope that they’ll survive at all. And yet, the miracle is that, despite the odds, most of the community projects that I have been involved with — even the most tenuous and shaky ones — manage to thrive. Even the ones that didn’t make it always manage to set seeds before they expire; I’m often reminded of some past project which never quite came to fruition but which has been transmuted into something else while no one was looking. The not-so-long-lived V8A group sprouted into an email list for dissemination of news of local interest, and pieces of the original concept for V8A are still going forward as Transition Town Powell River, the Chamber of Commoners, our regional Sustainability Charter, and a few other groups and projects.

These are the comforting thoughts that come to me when I take time to contemplate the slow pace of change; a pace so slow that it can look as though things are going backwards, erasing progress and making a dark joke of our efforts. I’m not naturally patient, especially when it comes to building the structures that we need in this region in order to be better prepared for continued fraying of the economy or major disruptions in the food supply (which, no surprise, many sources are predicting in the coming years). Progress has its own pace and all we can do is keep applying pressure as best we can and find our allies. We ought to keep reminding ourselves that we are in no position to judge the effectiveness of what we’re doing, and that it’s worth remembering that we can never predict what will come from our experimental projects with groups of people. We do the best we can, cling to as little of the outcome as we can, and hope.

When it comes to forcing change, money is the great accelerator; much of what we see around us travels at a fearful pace because it rides a great wave of cash in search of more cash to mate with. It takes real discipline to tolerate the pace of stimulant-free change, which moves at the pace of the seasons, coming round again and again, wearing disguises and taking its time. The difference between no change at all and total metamorphosis is hard to see while it’s happening — or maybe not happening. Hard to know until we know.


This post is the sixth 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.


Lesson V: Facilitate — but give up the illusion that you can direct — change

By David Parkinson

Comfrey leaves

We do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis.
(Milton Friedman)

For anyone who feels that our current systems cannot continue for much longer, two important questions are: how will change come about? and what part can and should we play in bringing about change? When we ask the first question, we implicitly refer to some kind of radical change in existing social configurations — something that will draw a sharp contrast between current (unsustainable, unsatisfactory) conditions and some future situation whose outline is obscure to us now, with our limited ability to predict where things are heading. Some people make a career out of forecasting, but it’s certain that they’re wrong more often than they’re right (if only because they are never right, except by virtue of making general predictions which are bound to come true one way or another.) The rest of us project our hopes and fears onto the future and use that to give us some sense of direction. Or we blunder along from one day to the next, never worrying much about much of anything, let alone what part we might have to play.

If we get around to asking the second question, there the answers are even harder to discern. Anyone attuned to the eco/green/Transition/collapse corner of the world is getting a cluster of messages about reducing one’s carbon footprint, producing less waste, creating infrastructure for regional resilience, trying to reweave some of the broken strands of community solidarity, and so on. The reason for doing all of this is so that our future actions will be more in tune with an increasingly widespread (but still not consensual) set of predictions about the ways that our lives are going to be organized in the future. Eventually, if enough people willingly adopt these out-of-time behaviours, we might create some kind of tipping point and usher in a new enlightened age. If people don’t adopt our prescriptions, we might have to use the blunt instruments of policy and law. But that’s comfortingly far off, so for now we prefer to think that a mysterious convergence will take place — more likely we don’t think of this bit at all.

The unknown ingredient is that no one knows how or whether these various predictions about resource depletion, climate chaos, and economic meltdown will play out. The timeframe is similarly unknown. This means that, humans being what they are, we collectively cling to our current system as tightly as we can, preferring inertia to the tough work of doing things differently. The momentum of industrial civilization is enormous and likely to keep things rolling, no matter how erratically or destructively, for some time yet. And every day spent desperately trying to hold a dysfunctional system together is one more day diverted from the necessary and unpleasant work of finding and testing alternatives. We are a culture of procrastination, hoping for the all-time snow day to save our asses. Well, this week we missed the Rapture, but we’ll think up another reason not to deal with things. Mayan calendar? That’ll do.

The lucky thing is that people are always off in all directions in idiosyncratic searches for meaning, for answers to unaskable questions, for ways to stand out from the herd. This means that there are always enough members of a community deliberately turning their backs on the consensus picture of reality and carving out a tiny sphere of private reality where they can experiment along some dimensions of their lives, sometimes skating along the edge between fitting into the society around them and seizing enough autonomy to satisfy their need to be individuals. For many of these people, there is a thrill in being ahead of the curve, in being in the right place when the future catches up; the same urge to control the world through prediction and preparation that crystallizes everywhere into culture, religion, and technology.

Many people perform these experiments in obscurity and don’t think about what it takes to connect with other people and turn the individual into the social. No doubt this is because of the hassles involved in any collective project and the sometimes intangible benefits of tangling up one’s own efforts with the agendas of other people. Often it’s also the result of a sense that one’s own choices are private and that everyone has the right to define their own allegiances and resistances with no interference from others.

At all times, though, there is a force that tends to coagulate individual intuitions and actions into social movements whose assumptions, goals, and techniques can be described and labeled: hippies, Jesus children, back-to-the-landers, yuppies, Tea Partiers, and so on. Setting aside to the degree to which any of these movements had real internal coherence, the fact is that we have labeled them, have attributed motives and interests to them, and have catalogued the social changes we claim that they have been responsible for. In some cases it’s hard to know whether the same degree of social change could have taken place in the absence of a clearly identified group or movement playing the role of the agent of social change; our media-driven self-reflexivity is such that nothing of significance — and even more of no significance whatsoever — can take place without the ritual of knowing who is behind, and what they are after.

The question of how we can rightly locate the source of mass social movements is one of the themes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in which he constantly asks whether responsibility for the war lies with the great historical figures (Napoleon, the Tsar, the generals and nobles) or whether these figures are only the most visible manifestations of the popular will, composed of millions of atoms of human life adapting to the world and expressing urges that no single person could have been aware of or could have articulated. Tolstoy’s arguments are sometimes obscure, removed as they now are from the philosophical context of the time when he was writing; we may also find it hard to imagine how social change can spontaneously arise from a population, since the media are so enamoured of the simplistic storyline in which every effect has one big cause, every rescue one hero, every crime one perpetrator. I am drawn to the idea that the origins and forces driving social movements are systems much more complex than the usual storyline would have us believe, and more like natural forces than the consequences of human will imposed on masses of people.

It’s tempting to think that our actions are heroic, and that we can influence others by our example, and maybe in our own small way we can create what we see as positive change around us — where “positive change” probably means “more people acting the way I do”. The two pitfalls in this style of thinking are that we risk thinking of other people as instruments in our campaign to shape the world to our desires, and that we falsely give ourselves credit for creating a change which might have taken place regardless of our efforts. The former distorts our relationship to others, and the latter to ourselves. Any perspective other than the standard one is worth pursuing, so it is a good discipline to turn things around and try to understand how our actions arise from the events in the world we might otherwise say they cause. A little humility never hurt anyone.

We have created a world in which the interests of the individual are so far above any other needs that we no longer hesitate to project our will onto the world around us, including onto our fellow humans. This lets us accomplish great things, but arguably it also diminishes our understanding of the processes by which change manifests itself continually through us and around us. The more we direct change, and focus on our part in these changes, the less we are present to what is really changing, and why, and how we can participate in that change. The more we take ourselves and our perceived responsibility out of the picture, the more easily we can see how to include others not as passive consumers of the great show that we’re putting on but as co-participants in something whose direction is not under anyone’s control.


This post is the fifth 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.

Lesson IV: Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise

By David Parkinson

Profuse blossoms of cherries, possibly of the variety "Royal Ann".

The idea that something new is possible is spreading. Most favorably, it is giving rise to a new type: the cultural entrepreneur.

For these people, the slow motion failure of the global system hasn’t resulted in capitulation, depression, or isolation. They don’t have a blind faith that things will auto-magically get better. In contrast, to these entrepreneurs, the failure of the global system is a call to arms. An open invitation to build something new. A better social and economic system and not merely another patch on a wheezing status quo.

For entrepreneurs of this type, the goal isn’t isolation or withdrawal into the wilds to build communes or stock cabins with ammo. It also isn’t about taking control of the current levers of power and of forcing compliance. A clue: it’s not about bankrupt ideologies or the politics of the 20th Century.

Instead, this effort is about competition. It is to build new social and economic systems that can compete with the current political and economic monopolies and if successful, force them to compete in order to stay relevant. It’s about building something new from the ground up, a start-up culture of independence and sanity, that attracts participants faster and delivers more results than any other alternative.
(John Robb)

Of course, the real point here is to recognize the breakthrough opportunities when they arise. Either that or to seize every opportunity that passes by in the hope that some decent fraction of them will turn out in retrospect to have been of the breakthrough variety. We’re passing through a time when many of the old standbys are falling away, and it’s not so easy to know what sort of education we should seek, where we should be living, what we should be doing, to what extent we should continue to rely on the infrastructure that provides our supplies of food, water, electricity, and the other essential ingredients of civilized life.

People’s responses to early — and not-so-early — distant warning signs range along a continuum from absolute unawareness at one end to various flavours of extreme engagement at the other. I see this very clearly in my own community: many people see no reasons to be concerned, and this can be the result of having completely tuned out or of being so committed to the status quo that they cannot imagine alternatives. Tuning out is the result of stress, and anyone paying attention can see countless reasons to find life in the modern world stressful. Our endless ability to generate stress for ourselves and one another is one of the central features of human existence, along with pretending that life cannot be lived any other way. I find it hard to imagine what the lived experience is like of constantly running just to fall no further behind, but it is clear that many people around me live like this and can’t find a way out that makes sense to them. For people living like this, there is little to no chance of indulging in luxury activities like imagining a better future or getting involved in efforts to create it. This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.

One of the more amusing and rewarding sidelines in my life recently is that I get to act as one of a crew of unofficial Powell River greeters for people thinking about moving here. During the past year, I’ve probably met or spoken with a half-dozen people in this situation; usually they are relocating to find affordable land, start up some kind of farming or growing operation, and get involved in various alternative projects. More often than not, the word permaculture is involved. These are people who have managed, through a combination of good luck and hard work, to get themselves into a position where they can afford to do what would look to many people like going backwards: a retreat to a smaller, quieter community to create a simpler and more humble life less dependent on the cash economy and much more connected to human interaction and the desire to step away from various dead-ending cultural trends. They have the precious luxury of time to indulge their imaginations and devise their own ambitions. Every community needs people like this, to infuse it with fresh perspectives and to challenge its settled habits.

In the same way that we all enjoy visits from friends who find this region stunningly beautiful, letting us look on it again with less jaded eyes, I always enjoy these welcome-wagonesque conversations, since they allow me to re-experience the opportunities of this place through the eyes of someone giving it the once-over as a potential new home. The people I meet with are not focusing in on only one opportunity here either: they are not typical entrepreneurial types whose business plan is clearly defined and has little room for variation. These are people whose senses are attuned to places with constellations of opportunities, any number of which might turn out to be good gambles. The Upper Sunshine Coast (really the whole Salish Sea) is clearly one of these constellations, and for the past few years we have been — wittingly or not — sending out signals to draw in the explorers and wanderers looking for a place to stop moving and start building something.

If anything, these people are looking for places with a polyculture of possibilities. Like me, they seem to distrust the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket approach that seeks a unique solution. What they hope to find here is a place where a number of shoots are breaking through the soil, any one of which is interesting and might produce something valuable, and the totality of which represents a good gamble against possible failures and dead ends. There are people who excel at single-mindedly pursuing one thing to the end, and we need those types among us for sure. But most people are more easily distracted, unable to resist the appeal of following numerous threads at one time, unsure which ones will end up somewhere productive and which might prove only to have been entertaining diversions. Sometimes this multi-semi-tasking approach looks like dithering or dilettantism, but for a lot of people it’s the strategy that makes the most sense. Or the one which is the hardest to resist, especially for people who are curious and can’t help wanting to be here the action is — or where it might be in a while, if they can hold out and wait for backup.

I don’t think many of us are any good, really, at knowing which opportunities are the breakthrough ones. So we seize as much as our arms will hold and hope like hell that others might come along to help us hang on. Some might break through. Some might break apart.


This post is the fourth 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.

Lesson III: Make space for self-organization

By David Parkinson

Blueberry plants in flower... finally...

Against human nature one cannot legislate. One can only try to educate it, and that is a slow process with only a distant hope of success.
(Bernard Berenson, Rumor and Reflection: entry for February 11, 1942)

This week, as I was waiting to get my hair cut, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two other customers in the barber shop who were comparing notes about their rainbird lifestyle in southern Arizona. Both of them spend five or six months each year away from the wet cold coastal weather, camped out in a foreign country, living the idle life of the retiree. As I listened to them talk, I couldn’t help feeling how we squander resources as though they came in unlimited supplies. Here are people who presumably worked for many years, acquired skills and experience, put down roots in their home community, and then reached a certain age at which it became socially acceptable (encouraged, even) to throw all of that away, turn their backs on the place where they live, and fasten themselves onto a life of hedonism, consumerism, and golf.

I know how hard it is to talk about this sort of thing without coming off all hairshirty and self-righteous. People absolutely have a right to live the way they choose; what irks me in this scenario is the pitiful range of acceptable choice that we see when we consider how best to live our lives. I simply rebel at the idea that it’s alright to become an elder in one’s community, acquire the rights and responsibilities thereto appertaining, and then flee to live an inward-looking life — that it’s alright for that to be a way of living we should aspire to, rather than what it looks like to me: a flat-out abdication of responsibility, of adulthood even.

That does sound hairshirty and self-righteous. So be it.

I raise this only to convey some sense of my permanent mystification at the ways we live and the ways we are encouraged to live. I know I’m not alone in feeling at times as though I’ve crash-landed on a planet reserved for pharmacological experiments or strange psychological games among the captive population. Sometimes nothing adds up, and this de-elderization program is just one of many glitches in the social code that we’re living inside. Just one of many aberrations we seem unable to get to the point of recognizing and walking away from, because the enticements to stay collectively mad are still too strong and overwhelm our periodic urges to ditch it all and go sane for a change.

Who knows? Maybe in a few more years I’ll be ready to sever ties with whatever community I happen to be living in and wander off into the Freedom-55 wastelands with all the others, drawn to something that doesn’t seem real now but might become irresistible with the passage of time. What is it? Not being beholden to anyone or anything more than the absolute bare minimum. Total freedom to come and go as I please, to buy what I like, not to have to put up with any stupid crap from anyone, to eat what I want when I want. With no regard for what’s going on around me. A permanent temporary resident of Wherever.

These symptoms are known well, but the prescriptions are diverse and untested. Many thinkers in the peak oil/collapse  side of the world express their belief — or hope — that with the dwindling of resources and the consequent withering of the economy we’ll rediscover older and presumably healthier styles of creating community. I believe that, but somehow without much conviction; it falls into the category of “things I can believe but not visualize” along with a future with radically fewer cars, widespread urban agriculture, stores filled with locally-grown food, smaller energy-efficient dwellings, and the rest of the litany. Barring some kind of diabolus ex machina to prolong the petroleum-based nuclear-fired plastic fantastic carnival of waste, these things are inevitable, as is a saner and more human set of social arrangements that would see many of our elders earn and deserve an honourable position as holders of wisdom and experience rather than as the most profligate and the least concerned with the health of the culture and the well-being of the younger and more vulnerable members of the tribe.

Sometimes, in moments of lucidity or optimism or maybe benign delusion, I can see the glacial pace of change sped up and shifting visibly. The thinnest tendrils of new behaviour or thought take on solidity, and it becomes almost possible to see what might be the precursors of change. Points become vectors; unassociated facts cluster into patterns, and these start looking like trends. It’s easy to be wrong when the evidence is so flimsy, but there are moments when the forces pushing us in the direction of social wellness choose to reveal themselves, tantalize us, and then fade back into the texture of the familiar world.

All of the small and isolated occurrences that gather together to form these patterns, which become trends and finally irresistible social forces, arise from small individual responses to social forces, trends, and patterns happening around us all — some so visible and real that we can name them; others so subtle and subterranean that we don’t know how to untangle them from the things they affect and mix with. At all times we’re doing the best we can to cope with the world around us, and our idiosyncratic provisional solutions to this unending puzzle combine with those of the people and organizations in our environment to form wholly new arrangements of people, beliefs, and actions.

I believe that there is no master key to hasten the process of change, no set of policies or political arrangements, no prescription for what ails us or the world. As I see it — and this may change, and anyway you’re free to see things otherwise — the only way to build any kind of tough alternative to prevailing patterns is to stay alert to what doesn’t work, step away from the nonsense, and try to find other people doing something similar. Through the collective creation of alternatives, we organize ourselves and our actions into new patterns. When the patterns achieve critical mass and the ability to reflect back on themselves (meaning that we can stand outside of and articulate what it is we’re up to), they become trends and eventually social forces.

It all starts at the lowest level, requires persistence and clarity, and might look for the longest time as though nothing is happening. But something is happening.


This post is the third 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.

Lesson II: Work at multiple levels of scale

By David Parkinson

A huge number of tiny flowers.

This past Monday evening I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Powell River Farmers’ Institute, one of the many local organizations working to increase the amount and variety of food we produce in the region. I’ve attended Institute meetings since not long after I arrived in Powell River and started to work as the coordinator of the Powell River Food Security Project. At the beginning I felt really out of place at those meetings; I was certainly no farmer, and the topics of discussion were often things I knew next to nothing about. But there were reasons to keep attending: these were the dark days when it looked as though Powell River farmers were going to lose their ability to safely raise and slaughter livestock, and at the same time the City of Powell River was applying to the Agricultural Land Commission for the removal of 847 acres of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve to make way for an extremely dubious development scheme. It feels like ancient history now, but at the time it was fascinating to be at the meetings where the community was coming together to face these challenges, which to the farmers felt like existential threats.

Over time, I joined with the committee of the Institute which organizes our annual Seedy Saturday. As someone who supports the local farming community with my dollars, it made sense to support it with my time. And for the past two years I have been a director of the Institute and have done what little I can to advance its goals and accomplish its mission.

Since the beginning of the year, the Farmers’ Institute has been engaged in a project of strategic planning and re-examining its role, its ambitions, and the way that it connects with the surrounding community. Members of the Institute came together to create a vision (“Growing a diverse farming community”) and a mission statement (“The Powell River Farmers’ Institute is a non‐profit society working to advance farming in the Powell River Regional District”); then we started looking critically at the Institute’s current projects and other potential projects that would realize our vision and fulfill our mission — or at least start us moving in the right direction.

This year’s AGM was a sort of culmination of the first round of this strategic planning process, as the members present — upwards of thirty of us — met to decide who would start taking responsibility for which projects that had risen to the top of a simple voting process. Some of these were existing projects which the membership thought were worth continuing, such as Seedy Saturday; others were entirely new or were a proposed revival of the way things once worked. For example, one of the new projects is to work on creating “Farm Field Days” which will bring the farming community together for activities or workshops on someone’s farm; another consists of working to revive the dormant agricultural activities in our local 4-H Club. It feels very good to see the Institute moving forward and at the same time picking up dropped threads from the past; to me it signifies a renewed sense of confidence in the importance of agriculture to the life of this region.

It struck me that the Farmers’ Institute was very wisely taking advantage of a growing membership and an increasing sense of mission and possibility, harnessing this new-found energy and capacity in order to try a number of things to see what works and what doesn’t. The various projects about to start taking off, along with the many that will continue, make up a portfolio of investments in the community: members of the Institute sink their collective time and energy into these projects, of which some are short-term and others long-term; some are small in scope and effect where others (like Seedy Saturday) reach a large part of the regional population; some directly serve the needs of the Institute’s members where others aim to benefit everyone by generally strengthening the agricultural community. Some may falter, but many will succeed.

Here is one of the obvious advantages of working collectively: we get to try all these different projects at various scales, with different amounts of energy in and results out, possible because we can pool the work of a large group and tap into people’s particular interests and capabilities. Working as individuals means that we tend to fall into repeated patterns, sliding along the grooves of our experience and expectations, each time around wearing them deeper. Collective effort challenges our inertia by continually introducing new perspectives and ideas and by finding hidden connections and innovative ways of solving a problem or approaching a predicament.

As we go about our business in our daily lives, we are always working at multiple levels of scale: we need to see to the small and trivial tasks which catch up to us only when they accumulate and overwhelm us; and we need to pay attention to the big ones where failure could be serious. Some we can accomplish ourselves, and others force us rely on other people. Some are simple one-offs, and others come back again and again. Some have only a small effect, and others might make the difference between food and hunger. And for the most part, outside of our immediate families, we have no social networks we can rely on and participate in. Increasingly it feels as though this society consists of people stretched thin, coming ever closer to the point where all efforts to keep ahead of the game start to sputter and conk out. Everyone isolated, exhausted, feeling as though the failures are all down to us.

Sooner or later we may come to some kind of collective aha! moment where it becomes clear that we are not a random collection of beleaguered individuals all coincidentally happening to fall together through the shreds of the social safety net, but that we are merely engaging in an unreasonable way of seeing and addressing what are genuinely common problems, as though these problems were unique to each person and not pervasive and systemic. At that point, I hope, we’ll start to figure out how to gather our problems together and address them in concert. As the Farmers’ Institute is starting to do, we’ll portion them out along the dimensions of tractability, complexity, duration, and scale. I want to believe that this won’t be an expert-driven process requiring consultations and endless meetings, but an organic necessity-as-mother-of-invention-style cobbling together of whatever works in the moment. We’ll see.

Our endless human invention and creativity is always percolating away in the background, but its energy is damped by the pressures to sustain the hyper-individualized lifestyle we call ‘normal’. As those pressures relax, we might find ourselves beginning to tackle complex problems as though we knew what we were doing. And a huge part of that will be rejecting the false idea that all challenges require solutions at the greatest possible scale, our common addiction to grandiosity and illusion, stories about how bigger is always better. We need to relearn how to start small and stay small too, when that makes the most sense. What might kick it off are a few small victories to remind us that we do have more power than we sometimes believe we have.


This post is the second 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.

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.

Post facto

July 2018
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