Alternative Editorial: Capturing and Surfing the Wave

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Another week on the surfboard, lying flat and paddling with our arms. To the left and right of us, waves rise and crash on the beach. But we know, from the current beneath that something much bigger is on its way. It’s tense: will it be the one we’ve been waiting for, over decades of training? Or will it be something we dread - more like a tsunami, throwing us off our boards and destroying everything in its wake?

Excuse the extended metaphor, but it’s not easy to describe how it feels to be in the sea of possibilities that is our socio-political landscape today. Experiencing directly the soft power battles of our social and mainstream media – Extinction Rebellion, Donald Trump, Jacinda Ardern, Nigel Farage – like waves of hope and despair. 

But we are feeling the strong currents of something genuinely alternative taking shape below the surface. What is that shift and why does it have so much promise? To be able to understand it, we are having to resist referring to historic precedents, and be prepared to be part of it as it evolves.

Firstly, old school mobilising – lining up people behind an idea or powerful leader – is steadily being replaced by self-organising as Hahrie Han first described several years ago. Bernie Saunders’ campaign for the Presidential nomination in 2016 was one of the first high-profile illustrations of the efficacy of letting people run with their own skills and enthusiasms, rather than try to corral them into a limited set of options of how to engage. Anyone who was keen, could join in and add whatever they had. 

But there’s more again now – both in the US and in UK movement building. Not only can those who are volunteering choose their form of contribution. Now there are ways to be involved without having any clear intention of contributing at all, other than an openness to participating. Which can come from the energy of conviction, but equally out of fear of the future, or need for belonging. 

For example, working with the Extinction Rebellion Network Hub (to be launched soon), we’re exploring how these multiple forms of self-organising can sit alongside each other, without losing the energy of the whole. 

From Empathy Circles of three or four people, to Makers or Death Cafes where group sizes vary. To Talk Shops, or Thinking Boxes– poised between the virtual and actual – of 15-20 people. All the way up to People’s Assemblies typically 100 or more and then Citizens Assemblies, capable of national level engagement. Citizen Action Networkswill also be part of this suite of offers.

This acknowledgement of the diverse needs and capacities of people to take meaningful part in such an urgent conversation is in direct contrast to the headline-grabbing, soap-box approach of a demagogue. Having a powerful leader is old-school seduction - it allows us to get back to business as usual, while someone else takes on the impossible. We remain in the trance of our own powerlessness and dependency on the special ones.

This new form of movement building – evident in Transition Towns, Permaculture, the Co-operative movement but with the added urgency of the climate window - is closer to the action of bringing a new idea of society into being. Where every kind of person, regardless of culture or levels of agency, can participate. 

Sometimes in ‘affinity groups’ that share a particular purpose, such as an interest in political change. Sometimes in broader, more diverse groups that harness the energy of multiple interests – such as People’s Assemblies. Or eventually, Citizen Action Networks. 

In each of these gatherings, there is always some form of training available. Whether it is how to hold a successful meeting, or some form of personal sustainability – from mindfulness to crafting. What is implied is that each of us can grow: we are all on the path of increased response-ability to these momentous times. But each of us can choose our own path: we are self-leaders, within a culture of collaboration.

To some extent, this is an echo of the old idea that rather than give a person a fish, it is better to teach them how to fish. But it is also exponentially more, when there are multiple levels of skills now being offered within communities, that can harness the best of global ideas at a local level. Alongside food growing, communities are also increasingly enabling low to high-level social enterprise, technology, networking and all forms of relational welfare – care systems through relationship building

Still in the early stages, communities are also becoming more ambitious with their media making. From neighbourhood forums to regional collaborative hubs, we are getting better at narrativising our own daily lives, independent of the national dramas. 

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If you try to picture this kind of development it’s not easy to do in the old language of empowerment. When we read about recent successes of, for example, the Preston model we are still hearing about a new style of inwards investment leading to economic growth, more jobs, more confidence arising from better material outcomes. 

All of which is important, but not what we are pointing at here, which is closer to psycho-social development. A focus on human and social potential as the building blocks of a more sustainable, regenerative culture. That is connected directly to – or even more, inter-dependent with - a healthy planet.

Another popular model is the Participatory City of Dagenham and Barking, the result of a £6.5 million investment, from, amongst others, US Bloomberg Philanthropies. As George Monbiot describes here, the creativity and unconditional support offered has given rise to a new culture of ‘bonding and bridging’ within the community, that echoes many of the developments described above. A testament to the idea that given enough time and resources, people want to connect and thrive as a community.

Participatory City of Dagenham and Barking

Participatory City of Dagenham and Barking

But when you consider how to ‘scale’ that success, you quickly come down to money: how many cities will be on the receiving end of that kind of largesse? And, given that the participation rate is still only small – only one in 50 locals at the time of Monbiot’s review – it is not quite touching on what we are pointing at: what might be possible for the future. 

Participatory City could be the best outcome of a “good state”, doing top-down but wise investments in local development. However, our idea of the best outcome arises from something entirely organic: it is evidence of our psycho-social evolution, coming into view from the bottom up. Our individual development, having social and planetary impact. 

In an ideal world, these two would work together - a pincer movement that could beat the multiple crises we are facing. But watching the spectacle of political breakdown at Westminster, that seems a long way off yet. 

A fractal illustration of a brain

A fractal illustration of a brain

Instead, what we are observing is another energy – that of radical organising within a climate emergency – calling forth a new set of possibilities from the people at multiple levels of society. Only a year ago, we could not have imagined this.

Maybe the most exciting aspect of this phenomenon is that it won’t require scaling. The speedy growth of Extinction Rebellion’s effect on the broader society – loudly amplifying the efforts of others before them - can better be described as fractal. Finding its energy from naturally occurring similarities of values, human behaviour and social dynamics. People are not being coerced and corralled, they are rather ‘waking up’ and finding their own agency in what is intentionally a decentralised uprising. Much more about this soon.

Imagine now what is possible, if individuals participated in growing numbers in Citizen Action Networks within towns, cities and regions. These networks would be designed in collaboratories, harnessing citizens’ efforts - however large or small - to get their communities to carbon neutral by 2025. Early CANs could inspire ever-improving CANs across a country and within international networks of the same. Causing a tsunami of the kind of change we need to get to our goals.

At times like this, we have to hold our nerve. As we paddle on our surfboards, only occasionally feeling this wave building, we mustn’t fall asleep. Or mistake the currents, pulling us towards (or sometimes away from) the shore, for sharks. As anyone who has surfed before knows, the most difficult part is staying alert, catching the wave and then having the strength and agility to surf it to the shore. 

It could also be fun.