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Turning the herd

"Salvaging hope has to do with finding some wayward lead animals who are running oblique to the cliff’s edge and trying to persuade other members of the herd to follow them, in hopes that collectively it may actually slow momentum or even reverse direction of the herd, or at worst, save a few animals from being swept over."

>We are sitting in a bay window of a stone cabin staring at the sunny, windswept west coast of Ireland, Rossbeigh Beach on the Iveragh Peninsula, overlooking Dingle Bay near Killorglin. We began this trip with an utterly absorbing International Communal Societies meeting in Scotland, moved on to a climate farming design charrette at a Permaculture center in Norway, then a repeat performance on a biodynamic farm in Sweden, and now the annual Feasta (Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) retreat week in the west of County Kerry where we are brewing cool coffee with our Biolite stove and charging this iPad.

We travelled by train from Dublin with Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) after spending the night at the home of David Korowicz, to a quaint summer retreat cottage on the beach purchased by London barrister John Jopling in 1960 as a stone ruin and still being very gradually restored. It will house the dozen or so international participants of our conversation the coming week.

Arriving in late afternoon, we sat here in this window and curled up with a book we picked off the shelf, Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, a Feasta anthology edited by Brian Davey and published in 2012. Now completely entranced by Davey’s opening chapter, in this post we will try to describe what we liked about it.

The chapter is called What can be done if mainstream politics loses interest in climate change, which seems at first glance a dumb question, being a fait accompli, but it turns out to be a compendium of the world’s best thinking on how to turn sour lemons into mojitos.

The first thing Davey observes is that great changes seldom come from confrontation. Rather, they are approached obliquely, indirectly, because from the standpoint of the historical participant, what needs to happen is unclear. Actually, as to our present dilemma, Davey’s essay points clearly to what needs to happen and catalogs the challenges.

Policymakers and business leaders are a tight-knit class locked into a commitment to growth. Growth underpins our global economic system, if for no other reason than money is merely the issuance of debt obligations and when you add the requirement of (unlent) interest, as Margrit Kennedy observed 30 years ago, it sets up a Ponzi scheme that is utterly dependent on growth, and endlessly seeking new patsies. This system requires both the unscrupulous lender and the gullible victim, and the globalized education system is geared to produce both in large numbers.

Money, drug and energy addicts share a brain chemistry that gets reinforced by both Western diet and social networks of fellow addicts. Policy is largely formulated by officials dialoging with the predator class and their skilled lobbyists and public relations hires, creating a mainstream narrative drummed by media that drowns out all alternative narratives, even the ones being trumpeted by Mother Nature in the form of superstorms, net fossil energy decline and global weirding.

No-one likes to maintain stressful confrontational relationships over long times, so regulatory capture is followed by the capture of non-profit opposition groups, popular media, and large open public fora, such as we described in past narratives of Rio+20 and UN climate conferences. Davey says, given this context, the situation appears pretty hopeless. We are a herd species and our herd is galloping towards a cliff.

Salvaging hope has to do with finding some wayward lead animals who are running oblique to the cliff’s edge and trying to persuade other members of the herd to follow them, in hopes that collectively it may actually slow momentum or even reverse direction of the herd, or at worst, save a few animals from being swept over.

We might think of these as “seed” experiments — complimentary currencies, ecovillages, “cool” stoves, and non-violent methods of conflict transformation — as the fringe of society but they are actually the leading edge of our inevitable future, if we are to have one.

In Denmark we can point to Ross Jackson’s “breakaway” strategy — a reform of global governance led by democratically or economically advanced countries like Iceland and Bhutan. In Germany there is the “solidarity economy” that hopes to congeal cooperative networks of CSA’s, community energy companies, community gardens and similar grass roots enterprises into a political force. From Ireland and the UK we have the Transition movement that combines town-scale remodeling projects with personal reskilling to cope with energy descent and climate change. From Italy we have Slow Food evolving through slow money and slow living to slow everything, very useful to the herd-and-cliff metaphor. From France we get Decroissance, which personally we prefer over its English version (Degrowth), because the French sounds more like a flaky pastry than losing your job. Something similar is emerging in Bolivia and Ecuador with Buen Vivir.

From these seeds, with some sunlight, water and the luck of a green thumb, who knows? What we may see will not be a centralized, pre-conceived new system replacing the old like Bolshevism or the Campuchean Revolution, but a bottom-up, decentralized Sacred Unrest, to borrow Paul Hawken’s words.

As Davey says, though, “What is still not clear is how far governments are capable of contributing to the new future.” It is argued by Naomi Klein, among others, that nations are now functioning as brands, running sophisticated PR campaigns designed by their financial sectors for the purpose of gaining expanded markets, access to raw materials, and new populations of debt slaves. Alternative futures will have to compete with this for minds and hearts.

It is helpful that governments and their economic schemes are increasingly seen as corrupt and bankrupt. It is less helpful that they are erecting a neo-liberal security state to impose power and undercut their opposition by violent means. Nonetheless, truth will out. As Napolean said, “Never harass your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” The herd is not slowing yet, but the outliers are gaining adherents.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Andy Docker.

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