Alternative Editorial: Where We Should Be Looking

by Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of The Alternative UK

As we’re moving into the end of 2018 – knowing we have a lot of seasonal distraction on the schedule - we’re beginning to think about how to approach 2019. In what ways do we need to develop in order to step up?

What is clear to us is that the  context for The Alternative UK has sharpened significantly since the publication of the IPCC report, only eight weeks ago – which we covered here. If we launched in 2017 in response to Brexit and the need to re-imagine our politics, our call today is to be able to work at full system level, to re-imagine the survival of our species 

If that sounds too big, grandiose even, then let us give it some parameters. The future of the human race depends upon a better understanding of the relationship between human beings, society and the planet. We need a better understanding of what we, as humans, are doing habitually that has caused the destruction of our habitat. And then do something different.

This better understanding has to occur at all levels. It’s not enough for the experts to know, obliging them to spend their entire lives trying to influence the power brokers. Who are mostly in hock to the old system which caused the problems we have today.            

It’s not enough for small groups of practitioners to know, unless they are sharing their practice assiduously, in ways that can be applied to innumerable different circumstances.

And it’s not enough for politicians to know, if they are trapped in a political culture and structure that prevents them acting according to their heart-felt beliefs.

Within that set of caveats, we see our job as one of integration: bringing together the new perspectives of experts, systems and, perhaps most importantly, practice on the ground. For change to happen, you can’t have one without the other and, in our sense of things today, it’s the last of those – enlightened action on the ground – that gets the least attention. Not only the ingenious initiatives occurring all over the world, like kernels of popcorn rising to the surface – which we report on the Daily Alternative. But the broader scale, whole community shifts that are signs of our collective evolution.

Emergence is not something that happens at arms-length: that’s sculpture. And we don’t – and never have had – the luxury of stopping the world while we design a future we desire. Just as swimmers have to understand the tides before setting off on a cross-channel adventure, we too have to grasp the dynamics of the present to make any progress.

Since Brexit and the Trump Presidency, we have had to figure in the rising of people power. In the UK 52% of those taking part (overall turnout 72.21%, compared to 66.1% in the General Election) in a direct proportional vote, chose to Leave the European Union, against the settled will of all the main political parties. In the US, in the less direct, electoral college system of the General Election, it’s more difficult to define what happened, except that Trump won against all the mainstream media expectations. In this piece on the US Public Service Broadcasting site it’s described as blue-collar workers, traditionally split between Democrats and Republicans, showing up for Trump, but not Clinton.

Some dismiss both of these results as populism, without inquiring properly into why it’s popular and why that matters. For our money, if the vast majority of people have been instrumentalised by the growth economy, robbing them of their time and freedom to act, we should not be surprised if they respond to calls for more control over their lives.

But if we ignore that trend - the likelihood of more disenfranchised people responding to strong politicians who want to make a break from the liberal past - then those of us who want to keep moving society in the direction of openness will always be sabotaged by the numbers who desire more boundaries and security. We cannot afford to ‘other’ more than half the population as ‘the right’ or, something I hear far too often in so-called polite circles, ‘stupid people’ -  a word used on both sides against the other. 

For that reason, engaging people on the ground – not simply in like-minded groups, but across the political divide – is urgent. The difficult bit is doing that well, so that such gatherings don’t get defined by what divides people, but by what – as Jo Cox defined – they have in common. And the biggest thing we all have in common right now is the need for a future, of any kind.

Focusing on the grass roots does not mean working singularly with the materially disadvantaged. It means being able to capture the whole socio-economic system as it appears on the ground in communities. What we regularly find when we visit a town, city  or region – depending on the networks of who invited us in – are groups of people disconnected from each other and from any sense of a local system of actors who could answer their needs. Instead they are constantly made aware, by their choice of mainstream media, of their disconnectedness from where the power lies at a national level.

This story of their general powerlessness is not inaccurate: citizen participation in decision making is almost non-existent in the UK, beyond a single vote in an unfair system (see Make Votes Matter) every five years. Where is the political party that directly addresses that democratic deficit (meaning, not for some time in the distant future)?

However, what could be increasingly on offer, is citizen participation at more local levels. In the town of Frome – a model we keep referencing for its very natural, logical efficacy – participatory budgeting and decision making has become the norm. At the next level of power, experiments are happening in municipalities around the world – Barcelona, Iceland, Italy, Mexico, Seoul – so the mechanisms are improving week by week.

At the same time, we are beginning to see signs of municipalities connecting with civil society projects and entrepreneurs to build local systems that could tackle the climate emergency from where they are, not waiting for national level policy to frame their actions. See this very diverse group of 40 – featured in today’s blog - beginning to step up.

What isn’t being connected urgently enough is the desire for ‘more control’, at the community level, with locally made solutions. It’s as if the question ‘what do we want’ cannot be answered by ‘ what do we already have, here?’ Instead we have governments ‘nudging’ people to behave according to their perspective of what change needs to happen, offering them solutions, sourced elsewhere, at scale.

While there is a role for government interventions in the bigger picture of sustainability, finding local solutions for local problems would have the double impact of growing community networks and enterprise. For that to happen, more time has to be given to trust-building and relationship-making in friendly ways – which is the goal of our collaboratories.

For example, instead of (or maybe in addition to) doing PR campaigns persuading people to recycle, or switch their energy supplies from one national supplier to another, why not convene (and fund) more spaces – both real and virtual – where people can agree on what they want and offer their own, locally developed, green practices? So much good work done at the very local level – for example in Transition Towns, or quite differently, in local football clubs - needs more resources to grow, but have the connectivity and trust already built in.

This whole community approach, linking people with the solutions already on offer in their town, city or region – gives people belonging and purpose. And makes them less vulnerable to the big money actors such as Cambridge Analytica - in the employ of old elites who want to maintain the status quo.

So from January 2019 we are going to start offering a bit more of a news service, that highlights the changes at community level that are engaging whole system change. We’ll keep doing our Daily Alternative blogs, highlighting change across the whole spectrum of I, We and World. But our editorial spot will focus on what changed this week, where change most needs to happen: in the daily lives of the people.