Show Notes

Peter Lipman is the former (founding) chair of Transition Network and Common Cause Foundation. He also chaired the UK government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Community Energy Contact Group. He’s been a teacher, a co-operative worker, an intellectual property lawyer, and worked at UK charity Sustrans, latterly as external affairs director, before setting up Anthropocene Actions, a community interest company that promotes fair, loving, and ecologically regenerative societies.

He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • That cultural change towards empathy and connection will help address challenges and “be an enormously important part of that having a go, that holding that belief that we can do better”
  • The call to experiment more, “take more risks and be much more loving, and see where it gets us”
  • That changing our physical environments – such as architecture and infrastructure – to become more welcoming spaces will improve the dynamics of our interactions and behaviors
  • The need to find peace with paradox; “it’s about acting now with urgency… from a place of calm and not seeking to control outputs, outcomes; of kind of going with what emerges”

Resources

Anthropocene Actions: Solidarity Matters https://www.anaction.org/values-based-solidarity

Connect with Peter Lipman

Website: https://www.anaction.org

Twitter: https://twitter.com/peteralipman

Transcript

Vicki Robin

Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? A project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking each one our one big question. In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong or going awry, what could possibly go right?

My guest today is Peter Lipman. He is the former and founding chair of Transition Network and Common Cause Foundation, and also chaired the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Community Energy Contact Group. He’s been a teacher, a co-operative worker, an intellectual property lawyer and worked at the UK charity Sustrans, latterly as external affairs director, before setting up Anthropocene Actions, a community interest company that promotes fair, loving, and ecologically regenerative societies. Now, here’s Peter.

Welcome, Peter Lipman, to What Could Possibly Go Right? You and I met through Transition Towns and we have historically both worked on cultural change. We’ve used social processes like Open Space and World Cafe and Conversation Cafe. We believed in working together and human relations and shared values. We believed in culture, we believed in a change of heart and mind can lead to changes, in how we collectively live on this earth. We believed that cool initiatives like Transition Towns, or for me, the Conversation Cafes or Your Money or Your Life could spread like wildfire and turn the tide. I think for me, and I think for both of us, this has been an article of faith.

Yet, in each of our countries, from the response to COVID to Brexit, there’s been some uninvited guests, who actually aren’t people. They don’t actually play by the rules of mutual respect, by which I mean, deliberate disinformation and social media manipulation by who knows who, just to name a few. Then along comes QAnon in the United States, and then the pandemic, and then the sovereignty movements; call them anti-vax, or anti-mask or anti-government.

I soon saw that if we couldn’t do this, if we couldn’t collectively meet the threat of the pandemic, how are we going to move our civilization away from fossil fuels and the general drift of assault on Mother Earth? Yet, I think it’s also an article of faith for both of us that in every breakdown are seeds of breakthrough, which is the premise of this podcast; asking people like you who think long term and systemically where you see possibilities emerging. So this is going to be over to you Peter. In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?

Peter Lipman

Whoo, thank you for that intro. Everything that you just said really resonates for me. I’ve been particularly watching the dominant powerful world’s response to the pandemic. Unfortunately, not with surprise, but with a real bashing to my faith, which is a faith that human beings, all of us, have an extraordinary capacity for empathy, for connection, for love, for sharing.

Of course, we have other capacities. We have capacities for aggressiveness and defensiveness and all of those other things. But so much of my work has been based, as you were saying, on how do we engender cultural changes towards the former and away from the latter. Watching the responses to the pandemic, the idea that Pfizer and Moderna and others’ profits come first and human lives come second; that was really upsetting, is still obviously really upsetting. Watching some of the responses to the health care workers here in the UK being abused, equally upsetting.

As you say, in all of these things, they’re always seeds of hope. One of the seeds of hope for me was seeing, for the first time, a really high level and well-argued case against private healthcare, against the use of intellectual property. There’s a whole raft of expanding in, what does intellectual property even mean. Against the use of intellectual property, to enable profits for a few and really mean the rationing of life for the many. And the many, of course, is always going to be those with less access to money, so the poor world.

Then you get straight into the questions about how that came about, that the world was set up in that way. Where pre-colonial conquest India had a massive GNP, was a really rich country, and look at how it was left after the East India Company and British imperialism. You see it playing out again and again. So, yeah, it’s been a tough time. And I say that from a position of absolute privilege in comparison to most people, sitting here in my home office, able to work remotely with an income.

It’s been a really tough time for a lot of people, and it hasn’t augered well for the much, much more desperate and deep-seated issues around climate breakdown, around gross inequality, around loss of biodiversity, around the multiple stresses that we’re facing. Just this week, we got told that we’re pretty certainly passed yet another planetary boundary, with plastics and chemicals.

So that kind of takes me back to what motivates me. I suppose what motivates me is, that comes back to really what gives me in my own life meaning, and that is to try to do something about these things, no matter what it looks like. I partly inherited that from my parents, who were both white, anti-apartheid activists in apartheid South Africa, and took massive risks.

And I partly inherited it from just, well, what else are you going to do in this world? You talked about all these challenges we face. But if we don’t do anything, then we’re guaranteed that things will get worse, and it’ll happen very fast. So we might as well have a go.

Certainly, cultural change feels to me to be an enormously important part of that having a go, that holding out that belief that we can do better. And trying experiments, and maybe trying experiments that aren’t based on a careful iteration of what we know, an extrapolation from certainty, but taking more risks; whether that’s in how inclusive we are, or how much we try things in a deeply emergent way where we really aren’t even trying to control the outcomes.

It seems as if as part of moving out of the Holocene into, you can call it the Anthropocene, you can call it the Capitalocene; some people now call it the Pyrocene because of all the fires. As we move into these times of discontinuities and interacting stressors which are so hard to predict, maybe we just have to take more risks and be much, much more loving, and see where it gets us.

Vicki Robin

Did you say take more risks and be more loving? Well, awesome. What is social love in the time of breakdown? That is so interesting. I just want to link it to something else that occurred to me while you’re talking, is that another article of faith is in localization, where people can actually… It’s not the right way to say it, but where your reputation matters.

Your reputation is a currency. Being a good actor in a local community makes a difference in how much that community will show up for you in any way, shape or form. It gives you local power, that has nothing to do really with money. It has to do with relationship. We’ve both worked on localization, and there’s something in that localization that’s loving. If you’re going to be loving, it’s where it shows up, right? So there’s a lot in what you’re saying, that’s so provocative.

Peter Lipman

We’re deeply social beings, and we really are shaped by what’s around us. If the culture around us is one of fear, of anger, that’s really hard to cut yourself off from. It’ll seep into us, because of the way we are. If the culture around us is one of empathy and connection, again, that will massively influence us, always with individual variation.

So how do we change those cultures? As you say, the culture at a big abstract level matters, but the culture of the people around us, the people that we see regularly, the people that we work with or socialize with, will really shape what we think is possible. At a time like this, where it’s easy to feel deeply discouraged and maybe hopeless about climate breakdown, about all of those other factors, about the rise of authoritarian regimes, about massive inequality; for me in the UK, living in a country, which until recently was part of Europe, which was arming its borders, which was leaving people to drown in the Mediterranean.

What are the seeds of action in that? And the seeds of action, for me, are always there as part of that challenge. When there are people in Greece, in other countries, who are taking risks legally, to support asylum seekers and refugees. When there are ships’ captains who are prepared to sail their ship into harbor in Italy with a boat full of desperate refugees. We constantly have examples around us of people who can reach that inner love, that compassion, that feeling of connection to others, and can act on it.

So unless I believe that everyone or nearly everyone has that capacity, but certainly most of us have that capacity, I don’t know where I’ll find my energy and my motivation. But I do believe that I know that although we get hurt and damaged, and we end up repeating patterns that aren’t useful or helpful, I know that we can also be inspired, and particularly be inspired by the people around us, so it feels worth constantly experimenting.

I suppose when I look back at what I’ve done, over the years, I’ve always been fascinated by what enables communities to access that kind of group wisdom, but also to make better choices. Before Transition, I worked at a sustainable transport NGO here in the UK called Sustrans. My particular passion there was, how do we take this road between the houses, this highway space, and how do we redefine it? Because that’s where we meet each other. We don’t meet each other in our houses. We meet each other when we come out. If we come out into a threatening hostile environment, then we’ll tend to be defensive.

So how can we change the physical environment to make it a welcoming space for everyone? And also then change the dynamics of how we behave? It’s those two things together. So it’s not just about the culture for me. It’s about what is the architecture, the the infrastructure, within which that culture can thrive. Just going back to the roads, an architecture which says this is a space for cars, it’s a space for big metal boxes. It’s not a space for kids to play, it’s not a space for people to chat or sit.

Well, what happens if we change that physical space? And we actually say we’re going to break up the sight lines. We’re going to have a little playing area right by the road. We’re going to have trees in the road so that you can’t see a long way and go really fast. So that can change the physical infrastructure. But what do we do then around the culture? What events do we hold? What practices do we support and encourage?

In many ways, the whole Transition Movement is doing the same thing as that, but on multiple levels about multiple things. It’s saying it’s not just about the space between our houses. It’s about all of those massively important flows; money, food, energy. How do we as a community, take control over those things, but do it in a way that respects limits and boundaries and other people’s needs? And every time I say the word “we”, I kind of stop and I think, what do I mean by that? Because of course, the “we” has multiple levels. There’s the we of your street, if you’re doing that kind of work. There’s the we of your town. There’s the we of your country. Maybe there’s the we of beyond humanity? Because so many times we draw the boundaries of our circles of compassion and empathy around the people like us.

And the word people is an interesting one there. Do we mean just humans by that? You look at other cultures, and so many cultures of other beings beyond human beings are part of that “we”. There’s a deep relationship, they may be hunted, they may be ate, but there’s a relationship. They’re not a kind of atomized, disconnected, this is something that is a thing that I consume. In my attempts to experiment with all of this, I suppose I’m trying to grapple with culture at lots and lots of different levels.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, another movement I’m involved in is – the name that sticks, even though it’s not the name I love – is called FIRE; Financial Independence, Retire Early. I stumbled into it after years of having just abandoned Your Money or Your Life because I wanted to do other things, and discovered that there’s millions of people around the world who are in this process of trying to unhook. Sort of pole vault; use capitalism to pole vault over capitalism, and reclaim their time. And yet to what end? Yeah, that’s a question.

So I have discovered this deep bench of people in this movement, who are really concerned about capitalism and private property. They’re really concerned about, I can just feel them pushing out the boundaries of this capitalist system. How do we exist in this? I’m trying to communicate like, well, maybe we have a responsibility. Maybe we’re a bunch of people who have actually decoded money to a certain degree, and maybe we can actually take a stance and intervene.

So I’m calling it Financial Independence, Regenerate Everything. But what I notice there and so many places, is that in that group, there’s clearly an interest in local action. There’s clearly an interest in like, I’m not going to work for money, but what am I going to work for? What enterprise can I start? Where can I act in the community? We’re talking about local investing and investing in businesses in your community.

So I’m feeling intimately because I’m working on this, the intense desire to know what to do this; this sense that we don’t have agency in a world that is sort of crashing in upon us, and this need for agency. I can see that agency can become violent because you just need to push this out of your space. And yet, when you try to go, Okay, fine, what’s the ten things you can do? You don’t end up with a kind of list that really reflects what you’re saying. What is the list of interventions, at the scale of intimacy, and also at the scale of just being a little rudder on a big ship, just being like we used to talk about trim tabs.

I’m hearing a couple of clues in what you’re saying. One is loving. One is the architecture; like how can we intervene in our community, so that you put a table out on the sidewalk. I live in a cul de sac, I could put a table out in the middle of the cul de sac – and the firetruck just has to get around it – and have a conversation out there.

What are the creative, risky ways that we can interrupt the patterns of atomization, as you say? You also talked about property and intellectual property, but property itself; the boundaries of our homes. Like, stay out the front door. How do we risk interrupting the boundaries, in this sort of playful, loving way?

And the other thing you said was, that we’re treating everything like things, including people. They’re just numbers. So how do we, heartful people, in the midst of even this massive tidal pull in the other direction, how do we stand in that undertow, and be congruent with our values and actually do things? There’s a big setup for you.

Peter Lipman

Well, it’s interesting. You’re connecting taking risks with acting for others, with others, I suppose. Then you brought in property. I’m not convinced – and you mentioned capitalism, at the start of it all – I’m not convinced that actually, we can really feel safe or loved or looked after in a capitalist world. One of the basic threads of capitalism is scarcity, is that everything is rationed by access to money. It’s normal – quotes, normal – for us in the societies that you and I live in to walk past homeless people. What an extraordinary idea. Here we are, in countries where there are almost always more empty homes than there are homeless people. And yet, it’s normal to do that. How can you and I feel safe, when we know that if something goes really wrong, we could be one of those homeless people?

So I guess I’d start from saying, and this is where it gets risky, because we’re living in that capitalist world where if things go wrong, you suffer. We have to find ways to make everyone feel safe. One of the ways of doing that is very much at a local level. If someone is struggling, we’ll reach out, we’ll help them. But that can be exclusive as well. We can end up saying – as you could argue very strongly that the European Union has said to people – poor people from the east, from the south of Europe, you can’t come in. We’ll have you in as cheap labor, but when we don’t want you, then we’ll put up violent borders that will exclude people.

There has to be a challenge to us at a higher level than just the local. So what do we do? What would it be mean? How would it be a meaningful program to end all homelessness anywhere in the world, as a part of enabling us to feel safe enough to take the risks that we need to, given inequality, climate breakdown, loss of biodiversity, all of those things?

So then when I’m looking at a kind of example, we were both very involved in the Transition Movement. What could the Transition Movement do now to say, Okay, we’re setting up a community-owned renewable scheme, but we’re not only going to say that people who have disposable money or wealth can invest in it. We’re going to say that there’s some other mechanism where an ever-increasing proportion of the shares are held communally, not individually; where we go beyond a kind of small community benefit pot.

Unless we do things that undermine that logic of capitalism, I think we will go on having wonderful dreams about a loving world, being pushed backwards steadily, in fact steadily at an increasingly rapid rate from my perspective. So that’s where the risk taking comes in, that actually, the real risk is to go against the dominant logic that operates all around us, and there are lots of ways of doing that.

So, abolish intellectual property. I speak as a former intellectual property lawyer. Abolish it, get rid of it. I don’t think we need it. I think people are extraordinarily creative. Particularly when we find something we’re passionate about, we don’t need patents for that. We need to unleash people’s passion and energy and creativity, make people feel safe. Universal basic assets, for example, which means that everyone has somewhere to live, has access to the income they need for food.

Reparations. How much of our current behavior stems from guilt, from worry, that there are past harms that we, some of us, are living off? So you know, what, are we going to have a meaningful reparations movement? I mentioned India earlier. What about the relationship between the UK and India, where on some calculations, the UK took 66 trillion pounds from India, as part of colonialism. 66 trillion. That’s a lot of the infrastructure here in the UK. Do we just sit on that and ignore it? But if we go back into history, how far back do you go?

Now all of this needs a really kind of meaningful conversation and exploration. In order to have that, we have to both be brave enough to expose ourselves to things not being exactly as they are at the moment, which isn’t such a bad thing when you look at how things are. But then you get the ticking clock of climate breakdown, the ticking clock of the emissions going up and up, and out and out. So it’s like, how do we make change happen really fast? So that’s the question.

That’s partly why I’m so fascinated in cultural change, because, in fact, because we are such social beings, such plastic shapeable beings in our assumptions as to what’s normal, what’s feasible, what could happen; that feels to me like the key rather than a kind of a techno-fix here, or tinkering with the rules there. And look at some of the changes in people’s assumptions about what’s normal that happened over decades. Can they happen faster?

One of the things that I’m doing with some colleagues at a small community interest company called Anthropocene Actions that we set up, is to look at the idea of solidarity and say, we’ve got this superpower, we’ve got this ability to collaborate. There are so many of us who want to do something about what’s going on the world. How could there be an infrastructure for solidarity, across geographies, across differences, where we support each other?

I watched a wonderful film called Pride, which is based on a true story from the mining dispute here in the 80s, where a group of lesbian and gay activists in London decided to support a group of miners. They picked an area on a map and decided they’d support a group of miners in the South Wales Valleys. Of course, at the beginning, these were very, very different cultures, didn’t really know how to communicate with each other, but they got to know each other. And partially as a result of what the activists from London had done, the National Union of Mineworkers changed its position on gay equality and gay marriage, and used that vote that it had inside the Labor Party to lead to a change in Labor Party policy, which meant that eventually, we got gay equality around marriage here in this country.

Now, that was a fantastic example of non-transactional solidarity. The activists in London didn’t reach out because they thought any of that was going to happen. But it happened. That’s a fantastic example of what can emerge from loving, non-transactional solidarity.

I was watching the reports of the Water Defenders in North Dakota, and both feeling massively heartened by the range of people coming to support the local defenders, and also the lack of that infrastructure. Who knows what would have happened if the defenders had reached out to the workers in the factories making the pipeline?

But the infrastructure for that doesn’t exist. So we set up Solidarity Matters as a kind of experiment. Can you start to create and over time, co-create a kind of dispersed viral infrastructure to enable solidarity across silos, across geographies, and that’s a kind of an ongoing experiment for us, that we’ve been working with. It’s in approaches like that, that it feels like we’ve got maybe a massive untapped potential.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, you bring to mind a couple of things. Number one, when I started going to Brazil, they have the landless peasants movement, where they interrupted the assumption of private property, and the assumption that you have the right to grow GMO corn or whatever. That actually gained momentum. Lula came out of that, and there was a period of time where they had Zero Hunger. Basically everybody had a living wage, small but… And of course, then the forces, we see the pendulum swing. But that was a solidarity movement. Or the Via Campesina, that is a powerhouse.

I wonder about other infrastructures for solidarity like that, where it’s not just local. Here in my community, there’s a group of people, BIPOC and white people, who started a fund, a local reparations fund. I was like, I’m all in. I gave money. And the whole idea was that whoever gets the money, you’re not going to determine that. They’re just people who need, and then there’s a pot, you’re putting money in the pot; and they’re not going to write you thank you notes. It just worked with my mind on that, like, really? I think all small experiments in this are worthwhile.

Another thing we have, and I don’t know if you have it, is we have these Buy Nothing groups. It started near me on Bainbridge Island and now they’re all over. It was especially popular in the pandemic, because you couldn’t take your stuff to the thrift store. So the community weaving that has happened – and I’m sure we’re not asking each other our politics – we’re just giving and receiving and giving and receiving, and it’s a web now. It’s a habit.

I’m thinking in terms of the people who are asking, whose consciousness has been raised, and they’re asking, given the enormity of what’s going on, what can I do? And there is a clue in this idea of mutual aid. There’s a clue in the Buy Nothing groups. There’s a clue in babysitting cooperatives. There’s all these places where people are figuring out to break the boundaries of the atomized world and stitch a cooperative world.

Peter Lipman

Totally. As you say, the pandemic enabled a flowering of mutual aid that was really beautiful, and has left groups. Certainly in the road I’m on, where there wasn’t a kind of community feeling like that; now, there’s a very regular community encounter. Also, people got tired and people get battered by the kind of the bigger forces, the city level forces or the national level forces. So the question to me is always, how do we operate on these different levels or scales simultaneously?

At the moment, maybe the thing that is most possibly going right in the whole world for me is Chile, where you have this extraordinary thing going on where you had the devastating years of neoliberal brutality and austerity, and then you have the People’s Assemblies and the raising the underground prices coming together to spark a real national and local refusal to continue with an unjust system you have.

Then, a referendum. Can we just rip up the old constitution and have a new one? Yes. You have elections for a grouping of 155 people to rewrite the constitution and then you have a majority progressive left, Indigenous, feminist, and environmentalists now setting out to write in a democratically sourced ecological constitution. You have a young new progressive president who’s just named the first ever majority female cabinet in the whole of the Americas, under representative democracy. All of that has happened in about two years, two or three years.

So in terms of urgent change, and the possibility of change, we know it’s there. Now, that’s not to say that everything will be easy in Chile, it’ll all go swimmingly. The forces of reaction are really not happy with Chile, and they’re going to be even less happy if they think it’s a good example that other countries are going to follow. But it’s a reminder of the power of solidarity. People came together in the streets, and they said, Enough is enough, we’re not going to put up with this anymore.

So the question then again becomes, what is it that enables that now in Chile? It may be a particular culture, a particular set of circumstances, and I don’t want to assume some kind of global, what works in one place works elsewhere. But I think that the responsibility for people like you and me, people of relative privilege in this world, is to not sit back in that kind of comfort zone and think, Oh well, they managed that in Chile, but that would never happen in the US, or that would never happen here in the UK. It is to say, Well, okay, what can we do? What can we do to connect up local movements, national movements, to learn from other countries? Particularly for countries like the UK and the US to really learn from the extraordinary movements around the world in the global south.

The weaving together of all of those things comes back in a way to saying, How do we use our privilege, our time, our capacity, whatever, in a way that is proportionate to what’s going on in the world? And what’s going on in the world is devastating. It’s not as if it’s a new thing. For many peoples in the world, this has been going on for decades, if not centuries.

So it’s about acting now, with urgency, and yet somehow doing that from a place of calm and a place of not seeking to control outputs, outcomes; of kind of going with what emerges. So many of these things are kind of a massive paradox. But actually, as I’ve got older, I certainly haven’t got wiser, but I’ve got more accepting of paradox.

Vicki Robin

Exactly. It’s like as Bayo Akomolafe says, The times are urgent, we must go slow. So I think this is a beautiful cherry on top of our conversation. It’s a beautiful place to leave it, with a lot of examples and a lot of ambiguity, so that people watch this and think, but what can I do? You’ve actually given a lot of ideas about how we participate in this world in such a way, not that we’re going to have the outcome we want, but we’re gonna have the experience of solidarity that we longed for. Thank you, Peter.

Peter Lipman

Thank you, Vicki. It’s been lovely to chat.