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This hugely hopeful moment

Even though there is huge fear, dislocation, unemployment and suffering powering through Europe and America just as it has been powering through so many other parts of the world for so long.

Even when it becomes absolutely clear that in the current system, in order to keep those at the top ‘safe’’, everyone else is being pulverised as the financiers and their professional and political accomplices are rescued with the money of the rest of us.

Even though that financial crisis is fast becoming a sovereign debt crisis and the free market’s gun is being held to country after country’s heads in Europe just as the IMF has done for decades elsewhere. Even though the oil tanker of economic growth is fast developing huge holes that no billions of dollars can plug. Even though, or should we say, because of this: we are living in a hugely hopeful moment.

This is not because someone else is going to rise up, or some preordained revolution will happen, but because that oil tanker was and is driving us fast towards the destruction of societies across the planet, towards the destruction of our ecological limits, and towards a six degree Celsius planet in which human life would become virtually or actually impossible.

Our hope is that the holes in the side of the tanker are so huge that it cannot be fixed. We don’t need a monetarist Plan A to try and fix it through intensifying exploitation, nor do we need a Keynesian Plan B to fix it through a collective effort in which society is galvanised to restore a market that is for a while slightly more under the control of the state, but still directed by an economic growth model that is destroying the basis of life.

The ‘Arab Spring’, the movements in Greece and Spain that took back the public squares, the Occupy camps – none of these, nor the financial crisis itself, were predicted by the experts, the pundits, those world-weary told-you-sos who glibly proclaim that fundamental change is not possible.

From here on in, nothing but fundamental change is possible. It is up to us whether we develop a vision that can enable us to refuse to choose the supposedly least worst option and so end up back in a worse mess, or to choose what we really want. It is up to us whether we regain our ability to live in balance, as humans have been well able to do in the thousands of places where commons regimes have been our way of organising. Commons regimes are not the stuff of history – history is full of empires and power – commons systems of robust resilient conflictual but ultimately mutual care are what we make when we don’t bother making history, and instead focus on making community.

So I asked my partner – Eva Schonveld – who has been very involved in the Transition movement here in Scotland, what kind of vision do you have for the direction we should be heading in? I was curious to see that – just like for so many people – capitalism is a word that is back in use, because when there’s serious digging to do, it makes sense to call a spade a spade.

A Transition vision
Can we begin to articulate a politics and economics of place, which enables us to act from an embedded awareness of, and care for, a particular place and the people who live there; while avoiding the pitfalls of parochialism? In such a system we start from each person as a complex of needs and abilities, each one of us with as much right as any other to the share of space and resources which will keep them fed, clothed and sheltered. Each one with a vested interest in contributing to the wellbeing of the people and place that sustains them.

Such a system, seen in the context of global capitalism, looks a trifle flimsy. But global capitalism is increasingly recognised as unviable. Not because of its inherent injustice and its capacity to make perfectly ordinary people impact on others in monstrous ways, but because its logic leads it to inevitably operate in a way that exploits, ignores and overrides the planetary limits. As those limits are passed, the systems fundamental flaw becomes increasingly obvious as we watch it efficiently and relentlessly destroying the basis of its own existence, and the existence of humans and fellow lifeforms.

Until capitalism approaches the limits of the planet to supply it with raw materials, it offers the possibility of wealth, convenience and status to anyone it engages with. Not that many actually get these things, but having been forced into relationship with it, people are more or less convinced that these things are potentially available to them.

Compared to this, a community-based life, where the things that we need are produced largely through balancing the capacity of the local land to provide for the needs of the people who live on it, looks a lot like hard and unrewarding work. But when capitalism is forced to admit that in order to keep those at the top ‘safe’, everyone else will need to pay the price, the differences between those two options start to dwindle. The difference between a hard reality where I’m engaged in a self-directed creative endeavour to build a long term, sustainable and satisfying way of life – and a hard reality where my life is increasingly prescribed by an elite which seems untouched by similar hardship, can enable people to see the potential value in a locally-focused existence, which can currently seem drab and worthy compared with the glamour offered by the capitalist dream machine.

Communities involved with the Transition movement are beginning to bring the realities of this new kind of politics and economics to life. Transition encourages local people to re-imagine and then begin to re-create their place as a vibrant hub of sustainable creativity; a place where the skills to make the majority of the things that we need to sustain ourselves and thrive are learned and remembered, where people engage in primary production to support themselves and their neighbours; a place where those who care for others are cared for in turn by those around them. So far, so Hobbiton, but we do not live in isolation from one another, as individuals or as communities. The more readily we acknowledge our interdependence, the less likely we are to stray into conflict. Most decisions for everyday life are best made at the most local level possible, but it is important to identify those issues and agendas which are best discussed and decided by a wider assembly. In beginning to flesh out how such a politics and economics might develop it is important to think carefully about what level different decisions are made.

It is clear that it is only a matter of time before those seriously applying themselves to attempting this kind of Transition to a sustainable, equitable society run up against any number of the vested interests which keep people from equal access to the means of production, which ultimately always leads back to the land. So land reform needs to be one of the guiding agendas.

But what about power?
In their critique of the Transition movement – ‘The Rocky Road to a Real Transition’ – Paul Chatterton and Alice Cutler distinguish between the lasting systemic changes they argue we need to work towards, and what they see as the less substantial place-based changes the Transition movement encourages people to focus on. They argue that “changes to place don’t really add up to a long lasting and substantial transition, not least globally” (2008: 33). Chatterton and Cutler argue that the Transition movement is in danger of focusing peoples attention on making changes to their locality, a focus that can deflect them from pushing for the systemic changes that are urgently needed, and they argue that these Transition initiatives carry the potential of inadvertently absolving the State of its responsibilities (to the extent that it still exists) by themselves taking on community service roles.

In this critique, Chatterton and Cutler’s understanding of the fundamental nature of power is diametrically opposed to that prevalent in the Transition movement. They write that, rather than Transition initiatives being able to create resilient places that seek to build need-meeting functions which are not governed by economic growth, they are ultimately subject to the same order of oppression.

In contrast, Rob Hopkins, one of the key figures in the Transition movement, argues that Transition initiatives can “come in under the radar” (2008) – making radical changes which are at first not particularly noticed by the powers that be – and can thereby help to transform the systems that are driving extinction. He quotes Vandana Shiva: “these systems function because we give them our support, but if we withdraw our support, these systems will not be able to function” (Shiva 2008). Coming from Vandana Shiva, this is anything but simplistic, it is a call to recognise the depths to which we become complicit, as men or women, in systems that oppress us all.

So can Transition’s focus on place-making creatively empower the marginalised while actively resisting a system built on marginalising? Does its focus on the importance of establishing ways to meet our material needs echo Shiva’s eco-feminism that “makes no distinction between ‘basic needs’ (food, clothing, shelter) and ‘higher needs’ (freedom and knowledge)”? (Brinker 2009)

Rob Hopkins argues that the key distinction to make here is between a focus on localism and a focus on localisation, He writes that:
“localism can perfectly well take place within a globalised growth-focused economy, a ‘business as usual’ scenario . . . (hence its appeal to mainstream political parties), whereas localisation carries within it an inherent social justice and resource-focused critique of globalisation (Bailey et al. 2010, North 2010), emerging from concepts such as Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 2004), Steady State economics (Daly 1977) and Schumacher’s (1974) concept of ‘Buddhist economics’. Localisation is a social movement and a principle for social and economic reorganisation, whereas localism is a principle for political organisation. (Hopkins 2010)

So is there a way of engaging in place-making so that it can support all others to secure their places against the forces that simply exploit for profit? Is there a way in which attempts to establish sustainable and equitable bottom-up need-meeting structures can work with attempts to focus on system change?

Making the connections
In practice many people move between at one moment being focused on rebuilding resilient localities in a way which focuses on building relationships and attending to place-making, and at another moment focus on protesting and confronting policies and developments (be they airport expansion, road building or coal fired power stations) which they experience as being imposed on them by the unequalising system of economic growth. People may be working in a Transition initiative at one moment and engaging in protest the next.

Meanwhile in Occupy camps – as in peace camps, road protest camps, G8 camps and climate camps before them – people devote huge energy to sorting out interpersonal problems in order to build and sustain community, and also devote huge amounts of energy to communicating their message, a message that is all the more powerful if it emerges from a sense of community, from building an alternative world of cooperation rather than exploitation, rather than simply being focused on what it is against. Whether it is an Occupy camp, an NGO or a carbon-cutting community initiative funded by the Climate Challenge Fund, when all the energy is focused on communicating a message, then the sense of what Tom Crompton calls the ‘intrinsic values’ at the heart of the protest or community building drains away, and the initiative becomes shallow and ineffective. On the other hand, when a camps’ or an initiatives’ ability to enter into open-ended dialogue with neighbours and the public over the issues that matter to it, is overwhelmed or curtailed by becoming lost in interpersonal dramas and conflicts within the group, then it can become exhausting and ineffective in this way.

The Occupy camps may well go the way of other protests through a combination of being stamped out and becoming exhausted in the winter cold and the incredible hard work of being open to all comers in a society where so many are thrown out. But they have picked up the torch of earlier protests, have brought them right into the heart of where ordinary people walk to work and are realising what the system is they are being made to work for.

My guess is that later this year there is going to be quite a different and more powerful upsurge, and it is up to us whether it is simply one of rage against the system, or is connected to fundamental issues like uprooting the financial system and ensuring energy and land reform that returns real need-meeting ability and power to communities. If we can say once and for all that this system isn’t working and that the worst thing we could do would be to make it work. If we can communicate a clear vision of the enduring alternative, that of building communities deeply rooted in place and working globally with each other to ensure global justice and care. Instead of the current free movement of goods and finance, and severe restrictions on the movement of peoples; we need the free movement of peoples and severe restrictions on the movement of commodities and finance in order to ensure a healthy planet and healthy societies.

How we react to what can easily look like a terminal diagnosis for humanity, could mean that we look back with relief at what turns out to have been a global mid-life crisis: a time to resist through protest and collective action; a time to rebuild place and community. It may turn out to have been the time that we insisted on protecting planet and peoples through burying profit and finding that what blossoms in its place is the chaotic but connected establishment of collective need-meeting structures that rethink economics by starting from the need for food, water, warmth, shelter and care.

Through discarding an economics of scarcity and excess, can we remember how to make do with what we have, how to enable sufficiency and security and a future for all?

Justin Kenrick and Eva Schonveld are active in the Transition movement, fully support the Occupy movement, and take inspiration from the land reform movement in Scotland and from indigenous peoples struggles across the world.

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