Urgency and the long Game

August 4, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

While I was walking my dog this morning under the sparkly blue skies I’ve grown used to, I detected a slight shift in the angle of the light, reminding me that the earth rotates on its axis and it’s heading back around the sun. This summer has been a bounty of sub-tropical and Mediterranean weather, the best and sunniest summer in years, unleashing a frolic of outdoor life. It’s going to come to an end, but I don’t mind.

Image RemovedI’ve adored this summer, but I also know that April, May, and June were collectively the hottest three months on record. Climate change reports published over the last year from the IPCC, as well as others, have stressed the urgent need for action. The atmosphere, oceans, and climate are all changing faster than models predict. We are flirting with disaster.

When Bill McKibben came to Schumacher and Totnes three years ago, he was in the midst of playing a leading role in the KeystoneXL non-violent direct action at the White House, getting himself arrested along with hundreds of other citizens. He gave a talk in town to a large audience. He said the same thing, the climate is changing faster than the models predict. This is what motivated him to put his “body on the line”, as he put it, to keep the carbon locked up in the Tar Sands in the ground. He also praised the work of Transition, the positive social and economic changes that were occurring in many towns like ours where people were trying to build community, sustainability, and resilience. Then he said something that stuck, “it’s where we need to go, but we may not have time.”

If the earth’s physical and living systems are becoming dangerously unstable, so are the political, economic, and social systems of this planet consuming civilisation. In recent months, reported by Nafeez Ahmed and others, scientific bodies, transnational corporations, and government agencies, are taking seriously, and in the case of defence departments, preparing for, various scenarios of collapse, resources wars, climate refugees, domestic control.

Image RemovedCould we be at the head waters of some torrential bad shit coming down the mountain? Already, the world seems to be falling apart before our eyes. Gaza: it’s beyond urgent. Adding to the horror, Ahmed also reports that the current aggression may also be motivated by cold calculation to control natural gas reserves. Ukraine, Crimea and Russia: more resource grabbing? China, Wall Street, and others are buying up the arable land in Africa. Drones, terror, war, civil war, failing states. Refugees. Ad infinitum.

Meanwhile, the anglophone countries are the most vehement climate change deniers. The governments of these countries are increasingly beholden to big money and run by double-talking charlatans. They conspired to put everyone under surveillance with their watchful ‘Five Eyes’ programme. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) they intend to impose would subordinate us all to the rule of corporations. The US is fracking from sea to shining sea, while Detroit’s water is held hostage and armed militias hunt down children on the border. The UK does whatever the US does. In Canada, they’re fixed on being the next Saudi Arabia no matter who lives downstream or who stands in their way. In Australia, they’re destroying the Great Barrier Reef so they can increase coal exports to China. WTF?

Image RemovedWhat can we do faced with the growing cacophony of urgent calls? Perhaps, you’re doing what I’m doing, working for bottom up, community-led, collective alternatives to this madness. Perhaps you’re in one of the growing number of places where this is happening, part of a far-flung and growing movement. Paul Hawken calls it the ‘blessed unrest’. The shift is beginning. Planting gardens, starting cooperatives and social enterprises, producing renewable energy, raising awareness about solutions – working at all levels within reach to co-create a new eco-social compact equipped for what’s ahead, or maybe even a chance to avoid the worst. One conversation, one community event, one social enterprise, one ‘aha!’ moment at a time. And hoping for the best. This is the long game.

We hear the urgent calls. Are we doing enough? If the shift is beginning, can we accelerate it, should we? If not, are we still on the right path? Should we be training for civil disobedience? Prepare for robust resilience or the ‘lifeboats’?

Naturally, I’m interested in how we can grow and strengthen this movement. How can we double the number of groups planting community gardens, starting coops, producing their own renewable energy, etc. In particular, I’m curious about how activists and community organisers can apply some of the lessons to be drawn from network and complexity theories, and how we can intentionally widen, diversify, and densify our networks. The more solid connections we make into new networks, the more new opportunities emerge for innovations to spread and resources to be distributed. Theoretically, the growth of this connectivity can reach a critical state, when suddenly a cascade of new connections spread exponentially, but like with earthquakes and similar phenomena, one can’t predict which connection will set it off, or whether it will happen at all. One can’t know which adjacent possibility, which new connection made, may be that one.

Image RemovedTotnes affords many opportunities to make new connections. Many people visit the town from all over the UK and the world to learn about Transition, what’s happening here and what’s happening elsewhere in the movement. These include on-the-ground Transitioners and the curious, as well as government and university groups. Schumacher College draws its own interesting visitors and collaborators, which brings us into contact with some amazing figures across a wide swath of this movement. There are language schools, which bring in students from Spain, France, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Many of them find their way onto a Transition Walk, and some even participate in meetings, events, and projects.

Many of us here are fortunate to be able to play the role of unofficial diplomat for Transition Town Totnes, and sometimes for the wider movement. We develop acquaintances and friendships with people just like us, working for the same things, but in their own ways, in the context of their own places and circumstances. We naturally share personal stories and give historical accounts of projects. Sometimes interesting opportunities for collaboration arise. And so do offers of help, resources, connections to new networks and new possibilities, and always ‘a place to stay if you’re in town’.

Image RemovedSometimes long distance collaboration take shape. For example, there are links being developed between people and projects here and Arboretum Marbella, an innovative sustainability project in Spain. Satish Kumar, from Schumacher will co-teach a permaculture PDC there in October. An exchange programme with a local organic farm is also being discussed. Plans are being hatched for additional projects.

In the Devon area, some of us are beginning to think about working at greater scale, but closer to home. The first step is to become better connected. We’re looking to stage a one-day ‘community-led economics’ conference that brings together everyone in the Devon area who is doing this kind of work. We’re aiming to share stories, get to know each other’s challenges and successes, capabilities and resources. Hopefully, there will be many new connections and new possibilities for collaboration. Working together at county level appeals for many reasons, including having a more persuasive voice with local authorities. Proximity also makes it easier to focus on project replication. This seems vitally important.

Happily, the REconomy Project has the resources to support such events and are already planning two in October and February, in Fife and Penzance. And the Transition Network is co-organising regional ‘Roadshows’ in Cornwall, Bristol, Hertfordshire, and Fife. If the outcome of these events are stronger, denser regional networks, with lots of budding relationships, then that can only be a good thing.

When these new relationships get to the stage where ‘offers of help, resources, connections to new networks and new possibilities, and ‘a place to stay if you’re in town’ begin to flow, then it also becomes a practice pathway for social permaculture and solidarity. The practice of solidarity in this context holds exciting possibilities. The Ajudada conference in Portalegre, Portugal last year, and the on-going Village Building Convergences in Portland, Oregon, offer inspiring examples of visitors, neighbours and locals working together to manifest transformational projects. Imagine if this kind of ‘barn raising’ ethic became a prominent part of the culture of this movement, with ‘ajudadas’ happening like traveling festivals every season, pulling in friends and neighbours from ‘zone 0’ to ‘zone n‘ wherever they occur. Imagine if our response to the urgency of the world is to ignore the artificial boundaries of town and borough and expand the natural frontiers of our community.

Images: the sun; war room from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; A study by UA professor Sudha Ram shows, through network visualizations, varying patterns of news diffusion on Twitter for a dozen different news agencies, University of Arizona; PDC poster for Arboretum Marbella

Jay Tompt

Jay is a co-founder of the Totnes REconomy Centre, an associate lecturer in economics at Plymouth University as well as a regular teacher on our postrgraduate economics programmes.  He co-developed the Transition Network REconomy Project’s Local Economic Blueprint course and handbook, co-founded the REconomy Centre, and developed the Local Entrepreneur Forum model.

Tags: building resilient communities, social movements, Transition movement