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Peak Moment 207: Planting the Seeds for a New Society



“We’re a conduit and a packager of important cutting edge material that people need to do the work that they’re engaged in.” Judith Plant and the New Society Publishers (NSP) team are social change agents bringing emerging ideas and authors to the forefront. They converse about the need for women’s voices in social change; rootedness in place, and how their boots-on-the-ground, solution-oriented books are antidotes to fear. They deliberately go out to talk to their readers. Hearing what they want, then search for authors to address topics readers are asking for. [http://www.newsociety.com].

(Photo, left to right, back: Heather Nicholas, Aileen Warner, Ginny Martin, Ingrid Witvoet, Sue Custance; front: Janaia, EJ Hurst, Judith Plant; Jean Wyenberg; Chris Plant).

Judith Plant: It's because we are a conduit and a packager. A conduit and a packager of this important cutting edge material that people need to do the work that they're engaged in. And that's a different place than publishing books for profit.

[Peak Moment intro]

Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. I'm on Gabriola Island, which is between Vancouver Island and Vancouver, western Canada. I'm with the folks that are New Society Publishers. And I want to say, when you look at titles like this: Finding Community, Eco-Entrepreneuring, The Long Descent, Senior Co-housing ... These folks — I've been looking forward to taping for a long time, because their books for a long, long time, have been bringing us new stories, new ideas, and pictures of our predicament, perspectives that matter. So I want to start by introducing the publisher and founder Judith Plant. Judith, thank you for bringing this to all of us in the world, first of all.

Judith: I didn't do it alone, and did it in response to a point of view. You were describing where we are located. Because "Place" is really important to us. What we stand on is what we stand for. Our take on New Society Publishers — which itself has a long history — comes from the Bioregional movement. Bio - life, Region - place. Learning to live within the gifts and limitations of a particular place. Recreating culture that fits so that we as human beings can find our place in nature. So that's the philosophy that we took to the publishing work years ago, when we actually started a magazine that was based on local action set in the context of the global growing understanding that we needed to get our feet rooted firmly in a place. So that we can know who we are, so that people who are trying to relate to us know as well....

A first nations woman years and years ago said to me, "We can't work with you white people because you will not stand still. We don't know where you're coming from. Until you can find a place and start belonging to that place, which takes generations and generations of time, we don't know who you are. You're like you're slippery." And so that's been the quest. That's the underlying philosophy.

I think you could find the thread in any of these books of that perspective. So that's what my partner and I and a group of other people within the Bioregional movement in the late 1980s...the Bioregional movement from California, which such learned and inspiring people as Gary Snyder and Freeman House and Peter Berg. And I remember distinctly at a cocktail party one evening, saying to Gary Snyder, the great god that he is, "Gary, where are the women?" "Oh, the women. The women. The women are busy. They're off trying to figure out who they are." I thought, wow, if this movement is to be anything different from any of the other political movements that have gone before, we need women's voices. Otherwise we're just going to recreate the same mess, with the same frames, if you like, the same values and beliefs — just cast in a different light, as the Left politics did. If we don't bring women's voices into this, we're not going to get anywhere new.

Janaia: It was your book, Judith, that you wrote [Healing the Wounds: the Promise of Ecofeminism] — reading that that I went, "I'm so heartened as a woman to have a woman speaking for me here. Speaking about the power and promise of eco-feminism, of an ecological and feminist consciousness. I didn't realize I didn't have a voice until you had a voice for me."

Judith: I needed that myself! My goodness, all around me was this Bioregional movement where we're trying to bring men home — they're all off joining the green party, and they're not home! And still — we're looking after the kids, homeschooling the kids, doing all the food, doing all the garden — and the guys are off getting their pictures taken! [comments and laughter from the group]

Janaia: What's wrong with this picture?! Yes, and I feel that though some of that is still happening — we do have the men with the prominent voices, and they are heard more fully in this culture, we/you are helping to shift that. I see that more and more of the women are doing the pioneering work — being known.

Judith: And we publish some of those women! I found women like Starhawk and others. It was like, oh, we are not alone. This whole movement is happening — okay, we don't hear about it on the news at night, and we never never will because that's not where our power is. And more men are helping with the canning. I don't mean to be trite about it. Things are shifting.

So at that period of time in the late '80s we were publishing a magazine, and we met up (?) with the folks from Philadelphia over the contract negotiations for Healing the Wounds [Judith's book] with New Society Publishers. They in turn had grown out of the movement for civil disobedience and nonviolent social change in the U.S. So they had a really important place in Philadelphia. They'd given voice on how to do civil disobedient actions. First, people [in the US?] need to do trainings. Very important in our political history.

They suggested, "You know, you might reach more people if you publish books instead of a magazine." So we moved to Gabriola Island with that idea in mind, because we needed to be on the grid. We needed to be able to actually make a telephone call and so on. So we teamed up with them, and we formed a Canadian office of New Society Publishers and for the next five years they taught us the business. Because there's a lot to learn — and that never ends with book publishing, particularly today.

So over the years we sort of shifted the focus of the publishing house from peace, nonviolence, civil disobedience and relationships of nonviolence to sustainability and the environment. Because that was what was going on in the world, really. We saw where people need tools. So we didn't get into publishing because we so much like books, or wanted to make money as publishers, or have a business. We got into it because it was the next phase of our social and political change work. And that's what we've done.

And then in 1996 the Philadelphians, after many years of service, decided to fold their company, their non-profit. Ours was a non-profit at the same time. And we basically, through some fancy finagling and good outside financial support, we were able to settle up with them so they were able to close up shop and pay their bills and feel okay about shutting down. And launched the New Society Publishers, LTD, as a limited company here on Gabriola. That started in 1996 after five years of training from the Philadelphians.

Now, that is what we have today. A few years ago, in some ways, mainstream almost caught up with us. Or something. We sort of came together. So now our task is to continue to seek the cutting edge. What are the tools that people need? Community groups? And of course it's different. So all of these lovely and excited, wonderful and intellectual people here work with us to do that work. In a nutshell, that's where we are today.

Janaia: Wooh! Wow, what a journey. With titles like Radical Simplicity and Independence Days and Senior Co-housing. I think you are doing the cutting edge. I want to toss the ball out to all of you who work with Judith. You're a team.

EJ Hurst: Can I jump in right away? Just because when you were talking about the feminist/ecofeminist perspective. A call came up recently from CUNY feminist press in the United States. They were looking for the top forty feminists under forty. And so I wrote back to them, and they all said I suggested Sharon Astyk. Sharon is very much about sustainable living. She'd gone through a bad experience where an interviewer came to her house, looked at what she was doing living sustainably, and called her a carbon-anorexic. And she was quite hurt by that. They got the impression that her children were huddled together for warmth because she turned the heat down in her house. So she had that experience. And so I thought, well, I don't know if these feminists will think she's the new feminist because she stays home. She does canning. She home-schools. All the things Sharon does. And she writes. She encourages other people to do the same.

Ingrid Witvoet: Importantly assisted in all of those by her husband.

EJ: Yes. And to make a long story short, she was accepted. She did get the honor of being one of the top forty feminists under forty. So high five. Fabulous.

Janaia: Your work goes beyond your authors. Your work is in that kind of networking. Sharon's work is powerful. And fabulous. Really important.

EJ: Yes, if you decide to pick up her books, be prepared. You're going to have your life changed. At least, I certainly did.

Ginny Miller: If I can speak to that. Judith spoke about our books being cutting edge. I've been here for four-and-a-half years, and I watched our books, the prescience of them. They go from being just sort of simmering under the surface — some people are aware but most aren't. And then, all of a sudden, it's what everyone is talking about. And so many of our books are like that. I've watched that for four-and-a-half years.

For example, Guerilla Gardening by David Tracy. He was talking about this whole concept of claiming land that's not yours, but what the heck, everyone is probably going to be happy about it anyway, because you're beautifying a city and urban space. I've got friends in Vancouver doing that very thing. They live along a railway line. Their guerilla gardening is actually extending their whole apartment building. They brought in truckloads of soil. They built raised beds. They've got patio settings. It's amazing. This is guerilla gardening gone crazy, but here's a concept that's huge.

Janaia: And you were on top of it, way ahead.

Ginny: Another example is all three of Sharon Astyk's books. We're huge Sharon Astyk fans. We're Sharon Astyk groupies. But everything she speaks about — she speaks about food security. She speaks about taking care of yourself, taking care of your neighbors. They're prepared for emergencies. Self-sufficiency. These are all in her books. They're accessible. She is as funny as heck. She's a wonderful human being. But the way she lives her life is the way we all can.

That's another thing. All of our books are very accessible. Not all of our books are entirely accessible, but so many of them are. They offer solutions.

Another thing I want to speak to is — there's an overriding anxiety in the world that people feel. My husband teaches college, and he was saying how so many of the students are seeking professional help through school; they're overburdened. And it's more than just the school and being twenty or whatever — it's really got to do with what kind of a life are they working towards and moving into? Our books, I think, are so helpful for that. They're not simplistic but they're not difficult either. They're what we live by. They're what future generations grab onto.

Janaia: I see that you have the depth of thinking like Richard Heinberg doing Peak Everything, which in its own way is prescient, as the numbers start to come in to follow up on what he was saying. But I especially like that you are showing real live people on the ground doing those things to create that kind of connectedness that Judith was talking about — living here in place. Sharon Astyk is a prime example of that, of course. Other kinds of books are topics anybody want to speak about? Or who you are meeting through New Society?

Jean Wyenberg: I've worked at New Society for about four years. I was slowly waking up to the realities of the world before I started to work here, but when I started to work here, it's like being jerked into reality. That's been a blessing for me — learning myself, from everybody here and from our books. And having my own garden and my own chickens, and trying to be sustainable, trying to think about everything I do in my life. Thinking about, do I really want this? Do I really need this thing I could buy today? Actually, no I don't. And, what's going to happen to this when I'm done with it? A friend that comes to me and says, we've got these fantastic new cutting boards. They're plastic and they're really great and they're really convenient, and when you're done with them, you throw them out. [Laughter from group]. Yeah, and so what's wrong with this picture? So you go out and you use something that'll last you your lifetime and many more lifetimes, and after it gets thrown out it biodegrades. They're little things, but I think a lot of people take that and say, "It's convenient, it's great, that's wonderful. Look at this, look how much easier it makes my life." No it doesn't, at least for the planet it doesn't. So that's a personal view at it, just since I've been working here, an awareness of even just the littlest things in your life that you can change. And a hope that that is getting through to other people in the countries, in the world.

Judith: Janaia, one thing we do that's perhaps a little different from other publishing companies is that we actually go out and talk to our readers. Through going to really interesting events like the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, their annual Fair, that Sue and Ingrid have been going to for four or five years now. They wouldn't miss it for the world. It might be interesting for your listeners to hear a bit about that.

Janaia: Certainly. What do you hear from the readers when you go out there?

Ingrid Witvoet: Well in many ways it's a great barometer. It's sort of right smack in the middle of the U.S., in Wisconsin. And it's attended largely by people who are actively involved with renewable energy, or are beginning to be. And sustainable living... especially in the last couple of years I've noticed that. It's a real boots-on-the-ground look at what's happening not in Seattle or in Vancouver or New York or upstate New York, but really sort of in the Midwest. It's quite rural, it's wonderfully re-engaging. You come away from it thinking, oh it's getting through. Oh, excellent!

Judith Plant: And it's three days, and eighteen-to-twenty thousand people camp.

Ingrid: It's at this glorious complex where the Midwest Renewable Energy Association lives, which is all powered by wind, solar. These different installations show up each year. They do permaculture courses. It's an amazing thing right in the middle of corn country and nothing for miles around. It's quite something.

Sue Custance: And that many people too — I think it's probably the greenest show there is. There's no garbage, no waste. All the food is served on compostable plates and cutlery. It's incredible.

Janaia: What do you hear? Judith mentioned you meet some of your readers there. Are you hearing from them what they want to know more about? Are you just seeing lives change? What are you picking up on your antenna?

Sue Custance: Often we come back with an idea of what many people are looking for. The same thing. It's odd that it seems to come in waves. One year we'll come back and say, "Wow, everybody was looking for stuff on This. And nobody last year asked about that." And so we'll give it some thought, and often we'll look for someone in the field who might be equipped to write about that./

Judith: We used to go to San Francisco a lot, my partner Chris and I. And the book table is a very interesting place to touch the pulse of the people.

Janaia: What is a book table? Your book table?

Judith: We set up a massive display of books and then stand behind it. It's like a constant coffee party. Because people come, and particularly around major political events, like "George Bush got in again. My God." People came up to our table and, knowing that we're not Americans, with such grief. Using the opportunity to relay to us as a way of saying, "Please forgive us. It's not me" and "We feel so terrible." Well, that's just sort of an extreme example, but that's the sort of thing. There's something about books that brings out peoples' real stuff.

Janaia: In your case in particular, the flavor, the themes that you are covering, tell people already where you are. So they'll feel safe to come to you and say, "I'm sorry Bush got in again" [because] it's not an energy that moves us towards that living in place, living more sustainably.

Judith (quoting a reader): "I just heard Richard Heinberg speak. What's the book that's going to tell me what I can do? Give me the book that'll tell me what I can do." Well, here's The Better World Handbook. And they're set. They're happy, and they can take it away.

Janaia: I think it's like the thing we're hearing from our viewers. It's like they know — they may not want to believe that things are worse, but they can feel it. And they want to know, "What can we do?" Which is why of course the whole guerrilla gardening thing exploding like crazy. But people are looking levels deeper than that, as your books are pointing out.

Ingrid: That's one of things I'm noticing. When you're at conferences, people sort of sidle up to the table and say, "Do you know anything about these books?" [Laughter] Yes, I'm from New Society. "You do?" [sound of person then talking a mile a minute]. They think we just manage a booth with a nice collection of books. But then when they find out that you work there, they're stuck. They're in, and they're just...

Ginny: It's a level of comfort, too, don't you think?

Ingrid: People figure that they know us somewhat from the material.

Heather Nicholas: It's so rewarding to have people come who've known the company for years and years. They come up and say, "I have shelves full of your books. I've been reading your authors for decades." It's always exciting when that happens of course.

Janaia: So what you're hearing here, of course, is that you are thought leaders. The authors you are bringing forward, the authors you look for — that's something different. You're not just staying with the bank of authors you've already had. You're actively looking for people who can knowledgeably cover topics: that strikes me as unusual. I don't know the world of publishing. But we now are relying on you — for that prescience that you have. So those folks with the shelves of books are counting on you to be looking towards what else is on the forward edge.

Judith: Joanna Macy said exactly the same thing to me a few years ago. "You've got to keep going. We need New Society Publishers." And it's because we are a conduit and a packager. A conduit and a packager of this important cutting edge material that people need to do the work that they're engaged in." That's a different place than publishing books for profit, or what's going to sell.

EJ: And part of that, that we're moving into, is the digital age. Because the youngest generations who are in Steve's courses — that's where they find their information. You may have noticed there's no one here looking that fresh twenty-year-old [laughter]. It's been a little bit of a challenge, but it's something we're all doing together. And trying to bring it to a younger reader, who may be reading it on an iPad, may be reading it electronically. So as far as possible, we're making our books available electronically, and moving towards the simultaneous e-publishing of books. Of course Heather can talk to it better than I can. But part of bringing the information forward is the actual structure of the information is transforming.

Heather: But it's still a book, whether the book is being read on an iPad, whether it's being read on a Kindle, whether you've got your traditional book. I believe the book is... the idea of the book is the concepts. It can be packaged any way. But we're about the ideas.

Janaia: Yes, you're about the ideas. It's about how you bring those ideas forward. The gift of the book is you give us depth. You give the author time to pursue ideas fully.

Heather: That's so nice. It's not a web page.

EJ: That's right. And it's not a Tweet!

Janaia: It's not a Tweet! Which we understand. Peak Moment is not a documentary: it won't take us five years to produce this. [We hope.] Nor is it the YouTube 3-minute sound byte. We're trying to give people a little more to chew on, as you are.

Judith: Like a TED lecture. Except that we have a group here. Rather than one person giving their idea, you have a more social sense.

Janaia: In this group, that's really lovely. We have only about four minutes left here. Anybody have any thoughts they wanted to make sure to cover that we haven't yet?

Jean: When you watch the news, especially coming from the south, there seems to be a lot of fear in the world. A lot of fear. A lot of fear because stuff is happening. Although a lot of people have been warned about for some time, typically didn't really believe it could possibly be happening. But it actually is now. And I think that at least our books, as we've said before, do give solutions. Simple solutions. They're not going to solve everything. But on a personal level, things that you can do as an individual to help get past that fear. Because you cannot survive if you're surviving in fear, because it brings out all this other unpleasant stuff that isn't real, that's based in fear. You need ideas and solutions and things you can do on a day-by-day basis, to help you get through scary, scary times.

Ginny: I think what they are is they're galvanizing. It's always fight or flight, with reaction to fear. And there's nothing worse than being paralyzed with the idea that you can't do anything. You've lost your personal control. Forget control of the world — you've lost your personal control. And when you feel you can get your personal control back, then that's exponential. That gathers together. People can group together. And strong individuals become strong groups rather than — paralyzed people become prey. And I think what Jean was saying was that our books produce that galvanizing effect. You read them and you're motivated. You read them and you're uplifted. You read them and you're provided with tools.

Janaia: In the last minute, I'm going to turn back to you, Judith. Where are we going? Any last words?

Judith: Open heart, inquiring mind. I'd say that's what we're attempting to do, is to keep our hearts open and our minds open at the same time. So we inquire, and try to keep our finger on the heartbeat of people who are, in increasing numbers, dedicated to change...to see what we can provide for them — the tools.

Janaia: You've already provided us with the tools for some decades, actually, it feels like. And I am heartened that you are still here and doing that continually with that same fervor and passion. I'm sure there are countless people who would voice that same echo to you. With a lot of gratitude.

Judith: It's a lot less lonely that it used to be.

Janaia: Less lonely, yes! I think that's true for a lot of people who are embodying the change that your books are talking about: they are a lot less lonely. Thank you so much, everyone, for this conversation; for the work that you're continuing to do. Yes!!! Yes!!

You're watching Peak Moment, I'm Janaia Donaldson with the wonderful people at New Society Publishers who are at that cutting edge giving us their prescient ideas. They're keeping us all going in the right direction. Join us next time.

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