Alternative Editorial: Shift Your Gaze

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

People are rising, but that's not a scary thing.

Last week we talked about how Brexit is a ‘gateway politics’. How, through the breakdown of the current system so visible on our screens, we will collectively begin to reach for a genuine alternative. 

This week another aspect of this moving from pure frustration – anger, resentment, disbelief! – to a place of more meaning and purpose became clearer to us. But you won’t read about it in the mainstream news media.

Moving from the House of Commons, we turned out attention to more of a commons movement, one part of which is taking shape in the South Devon/Plymouth region. It’s a shift from the representative form of politics, housed at Westminster, to something more participative, co-created and able to be owned by communities. This doesn’t necessarily do away with political parties, for now: although it might lead to that in the future. 

But it does prioritise the need for people, everywhere, to step up into a new form of citizenship that will help them feel more in control of their future. What that future looks like is not yet clear: new language has to be found, new relationships between people and their institutions have to be expressed. It’s a new political sensibility that needs space to develop. But, on current evidence, it’s human centred, relational and driven by the call for climate justice.

At this stage of the transformation, there is no single epicenter for what is a growing ‘system of systems’ in the area. We observed the Devon Convergence, initiated by Jay Tompt, who describe themselves as ‘a regional movement of people who want a sustainable, fair, and resilient economy, a truly bioregional economy’.  

They’ve had three gatherings so far with a fourth likely to take place in Torbay in June 2019. Jay writes: “We hope these events will facilitate relationships that will lead to greater alignment, information sharing, and collaboration, with outcomes like innovation diffusion and project replication, resource sharing, regional scale projects, and a regional movement building a resilient, regenerative, fair and inclusive economy in Devon and the South West”.

The Bioregional Learning Centre (previously blogged here), led by Isabel Carlisle, is itself a group of actors and partners including Dartington Hall culture centre: they are focused on developing a ‘resilience strategy for the region’.

They work through four interlocking programmes - on the economy, ecology, arts and design and learning. In a beautiful, signature project on the River Dart, they are developing a water charter together with the people who live on its banks, as well as those interested such as the canoeists and fishermen. “We want the Dart to be a fish-able, drinkable, swim-able, paddle-able and sustainable river”.

In the heart of Plymouth itself is the Real Ideas Organisation, whose mission is to put social enterprise at the heart of a renewed democracy. They’ve supported initiatives like Nudge, who reclaim space for local creatives of all kinds; Octopus Energy Company who supply local, clean energy; Column Community Events who set the organising scene for anything from regenerating community gardens to ghost hunts; and Illuminate– the annual projection mapping light show, featuring young glocal stars like Jamie Knight and Char Wolf. 

Aided by regional platforms such as Plymouth Octopus and Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, all these transformative projects are consciously overlapping and increasingly collaborating – seeking each other out to see if they can offer real alternatives to the spectacle of the catastrophic failure coming out of Westminster. 

What they are offering are not mini- or more manageable versions of what came before – isolated units within the neoliberal growth economy. Not simply small energy companies replacing large ones, local garden centres or pubs replacing national chains.

Instead, these enterprises are constructed differently, arising out of new participative, flatter organisations. They are sometimes co-operatives, other times holocracies, or any number of other new experimental structures. One that seek to challenge the old forms, and give the individuals working within more room for self-expression, dignity and reward. 

Here, the model of the individual contributor (be it initiator, worker or volunteer) implies a more connected, complex human who thrives on relationship and belonging. They look after each other and factor community culture into their design. Their shared intention of correcting the environmental imbalances - in ways that are socially just - gives them meaning and purpose. 

All within a much more connected idea of the world outside as a living planet, with physical limitations, now needing our urgent, direct care and attention. 

This isn’t happening overnight – it’s a long and patient journey, but one that may be accelerating now.

Thirty years ago, for example, the residents of the Pembroke Estate (previously blogged here) were living in very poor conditions, overlooked by the municipality and isolated from any story of a thriving 80s Britain. Finding their own community within, they applied and won a substantial amount of money to re-design and build their estate – a triumphant story

Today they have new challenges, needing to grow their idea of community to embrace other estates and homes in the area in order to flourish. But they have an internal structure that encourages diversity and new initiatives now: they seem determined to keep developing.

Interesting that South Devon, embracing both Totnes and Plymouth, voted Leave. This may be an indication of how far the community has to go to attract more participation and collaboration in the project for cohesion and local autonomy. Or we could understand the vote as a confirmation of that ideal and status. A Leave vote is simply not as easy to understand as the mainstream newspapers would have us believe.

It is clear however, that there is plenty of energy for a genuine alternative social structure and culture in the region. As well as those mentioned above, there are similar clusters of multiple small initiatives turning into effective ecosystems right across the country. They all need to succeed in becoming more than the sum of their parts - and we all need to give them more attention. Not only the oxygen of publicity, but active networks and crowdsourced funds. 

It’s our suspicion that this kind of move towards more local community and autonomy is available everywhere across these islands. In the face of painful, national-level dysfunction, turning towards people you could easily know – your neighbours and fellow residents – is something to consider.

What to do? Discover long term initiatives that are already happening in your area. Push for decision making processes that help you contribute directly to a climate target currently out of the reach at the national level. All these available actions could just make your daily life more hopeful.

Shifting our gaze from the toxic, disempowering mainstream spectacle could just be the lifestyle change we all need right now. And maybe one day, we’ll be grateful for Brexit as the event which gave birth to the new habits and practices that returned us to our communities, and ourselves. And as a direct consequence, saved our planet.