Alternative Editorial: Responding to Urgency

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By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of The Alternative UK

The gap between theory and practice can be vast. Working out how a problem could be solved draws upon our thinking capacities which in turn give themselves innumerable possibilities: some realistic, some not. Deep thinking also gives us the illusion of time – as if thinking were an action that somehow holds the consequences of the problem in question at bay. Which it rarely does. A wonderful theory of change does not itself, produce wonderful outcomes.

I felt this keenly along with millions of others this week, when international experts gathered in Thailand from all over the world. They were there to pool ideas on how to rescue the 13 young footballers who  had gone for a birthday cave adventure and become stranded in a small pocket of air hundreds of feet below the surface. Numerous theories of rescue contended: leaving the boys until the rainy season was over, drilling a hole from the surface, swimming them out. Some ideas were more elaborate than others: Elon Musk offered a boy-sized submarine to float the boys out of their temporary prison – although he hadn’t built one yet. 

Witnessing the deliberation from my comfortable home, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in imagining the worst of outcomes as the talking continued. Hurry up, do something, was the growing cry from deep inside, as  Thai citizens all over the country took the action of deep prayer and the world’s media gave them their most urgent attention outside of the World Cup. When one of the most experienced divers died, simply from not being able to manage his oxygen supply in those conditions, it was a wake-up call: the danger became fully present. Soon after, with the likelihood of more rain coming, the team kicked into action. 

What it took to save the boys is only now becoming clear – and with the hindsight of success, it’s a great read (see here). What strikes me is the degree of co-operation and mutual trust that was required: a long chain of quite different knowledges and skills came together to ensure these young boys could live. Starting with the 25-year-old coach who had made the original error of judgement in taking the team down into the caves, but whose unique capabilities kept them alive and calm while waiting for rescue. 

A trained Buddhist acolyte, Ake Chantawong kept the boys calm and taught them low breathing and meditation to conserve the oxygen in the small space. When the first divers reached them, they were amazed at how ‘ready’ the boys were for an ordered rescue: solicitous of each other, patient for orders. Their letters home were cheerful and hopeful – keen to soothe their parents and wry about their longing to eat good food. One day we’ll hear about how the boys agreed the order of their rescue: but there’s something about the tone of their messages that suggests they had a strong enough relationship to each other, for that to be a simple exercise. How easily it could have been a ‘me-first’ scramble of competing teenage survival instincts.

This spectacle of connected, effective action responding to a crisis has stayed with me all week and made me think about its application to our current, global circumstances. What would it take for us – the people who live on this burning planet  - to collectively wake up to the crisis we are in and take the action required to ensure our survival? 

The extent that the story above can work as an extended metaphor, or maybe even a model of co-operation depends upon who is narrating. Our current environmental crisis cannot be seen as a task to be managed by the usual experts on the surface, with the people in their communities depicted as those waiting to be rescued. The usual hierarchies of power have not proved effective enough until now.

 If you question that judgement, ask yourself who has the hard power  - the tools of force, including money and arms – to make the planetary rescue attempt and what have they done with that? Has business, politics and the army combined to save us from imminent disaster? What percentage of our General Election manifestos has paid attention to this threat to our survival? Ask Plan B who are taking the government to court this week to sue them for failure in their duty of protection.

So who are the ‘experts’ – meaning those with agency and enough knowledge - capable of making a plan? And what is needed at the crisis point where the most vulnerable wait? What are the capabilities required to generate sustainability while the action plan is carried out? And what is the chain – not of command – but of collaboration that will ensure that the whole plan will work effectively in the time given? And if we are going to take the metaphor all the way, what is the prayer – the vision of success – that we can all take part in, from wherever we are, whether in the form of social media or a newly constructive mainstream news?

Put most simply, saving the planet has to be a team effort: with those at the top (meaning the managers of national resources) taking and applying vital information from those on the ground to shape their plan. Subsidiarity – allowing most decisions to be made locally, by the people affected by those decision – should be a staple of democracy, and surely the best way for people to step into citizenship. When such a culture of collaboration exists in a society, engendering trust between the top and bottom, clear plans of action can be made – and potentially, executed swiftly - because the people are participants rather than supplicants. 

Might there be culturally specific factors operating in the cave rescue – happening within a Thai society where harmony and balance between forces and actors in society is more fundamentally accepted? Could it also be the culture of international rescue operations – where the urgency of taking action is a given? And trust in people to supply vital information about conditions on the ground, embedded in the culture of effective practice?

You could say that mapping such cultures of collaboration is what The Alternative UK has been busy with since its inception. We know that the actors we need are already there, but the story of their successful working together is yet to be imagined, let alone be reported as operative. When Joe Cox was murdered two years ago – a victim of our polarised society - that was our wake-up call. And now the call to action is upon us, what can we see and do?

Stepping away from the mainstream story and looking outside of the power bubble, we are seeing many of the actors we need for a full-scale rescue of our towns, cities and regions. But can they see each other? That we have enough experts with the scientific knowledge to indicate the most effective action plan is clear. That we have innumerable actors with enough knowledge and first-hand experience to apply that plan is becoming clear – see Transition Towns springing up globally, Permaculture communities with their blueprints for ecological systems that could be copied everywhere, many, many others waiting in the wings for the attention they need to mature – is also true. Our Daily Alternative is the act of noticing these initiatives and bringing them to the attention of others they might co-operate with.

But most importantly, what we are seeing beyond the tool boxes for survival is the capacity for action at the ground level. People whose experience of life, knowledge of the real circumstances of people as they encounter the problems we are trying to overcome, are already acting in a million small ways to prepare people for a better future. Whether they are the social workers and carers – the ambulancemen for capitalism as they have described themselves – who know what it takes to keep people the right side of survival. Or the space makers – designers of community hubs and work spaces - who help bring people into relationship with each other, to grow the shared value of the town or city. Or the entrepreneurs who give full rein to their imagination to solveold problems creatively. Or the artists who enchant spaces with emotional expression and insights into what’s wrong and could be better. In a way, these are all the Ake Chantawongs of the crisis: the people who can create the conditions for flourishing across the living communities, without whom survival is not really possible. 

But communities are too often divided by the very actors whose job it is to empower them – the politicians who put party before people. Those who believe that change begins with the right Party being in government and getting their hands-on power at the top: a theory that leaves communities divided between competing parties, no matter who wins. Without changing the system that keeps that thinking in power – particularly the first past the post voting that keeps political entrepreneurship at bay – how can change happen?

The answer we are seeing is to work below the radar of politics. To do the hard work of bringing people together without top-down instructions, so that the community itself becomes conscious of its own resources, resilience and ability to not only imagine, but design a future that they can all look forward to. 

  • This starting the work from the bottom up – as we are attempting in our collaboratories - is not a rejection of those with hard power, but a commitment to a soft power strategy. Exercising their own autonomy, being prepared to experiment with new and better ways of acting directly to save the planet – local food and energy projects, co-housing and working, shorter working weeks, vegan businesses – they can attract attention and craft new narratives and, in that way, change the space of possibility. Give the politicians tools and information they don’t even know they are looking for. 

And if the politicians are not inclined to listen and learn, let go of some of their own power at the top of the vertical hierarchy they now occupy, and share it with the people in a more distributed ecology of power, they should expect someone else to start doing what is necessary, for them. 

Is that Elon Musk I see arriving in his submarine?

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