Alternative Editorial: This Really Is From The Grassroots Up

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As more and more people wake up to the multiple crises we face, not just as communities of individuals, but as a species, the cry gets louder: what can be done?

‘Business as usual’ (delivered by the establishment) will say, we’re doing our best, while doing very little. These are the people that Greta Thunberg continues to call out at the highest levels. But even we – those of us who have been planning for a more sustainable planetary civilisation for decades – cannot come with a simple and clear answer for everyone to follow.

The problem, we say, is complex. If you focus on one part of the solution – for example, switching to fossil free fuel – another part of the system may rise to sabotage your plan. The protests by the gilet jaunes are the most familiar example of what happens when you don’t take social justice into account alongside environmental measures.

Trying to take whole system action slows everything down when we clearly need to accelerate. Unless you work at the level of the microcosm. Capturing the essential patterns of how things fit together well at a manageable level – say a town, city or region. Then offering that as a prototype for rapid acceleration across the nation, even the world. This brings everything within our reach.

Of course, there is no one-size fits all – the prototypes cannot be rigidly replicated. Nor can they be scaled up by a central body. Instead, for speed, they must be fluid, capable of adapting to the conditions and the people they find themselves in.

We tend to describe the elements of each one of these prototypes as fractals. Partly because that suggests the conditions in which these elements can be found are naturally occurring. And partly because the nature of a fractal is to replicate itself in relation to its environment: giving rise to a very diverse set of responses.

What would be common, for example, in a community, are human beings with similar, essential physical and emotional needs. But with very different levels of agency. Even those with similar capacities for acting - largely due to similar development conditions – have an immense diversity of mental health. 

That in turn creates a landscape in which there are some solutions to the triple crises available but they are unevenly distributed. Forgive the domestic metaphor, but it’s a bit like a cake mix with lumps – essentially made up of the same materials, but requiring much better blending. So that it can rise. 

Building an entity that can respond to this complex mix of problems and solutions is essential to the task of meeting the climate emergency. In the past, governments have applied a one-size fits all, trickle down set of policies for action. And complained when they don’t get traction. 

They have lacked the imagination – or complexity thinking required – to design their policy vehicles for reflexivity: they have failed to invite input from the citizens themselves to make them work. As such, their policies lack intelligence on their own terms, or the need for intelligence to be applied at every level. 

In many ways, people on the receiving end of this trickle-down governance have bought into it. Convinced they don’t have the answers, they wait to be told what to do and blame the government for the failure of results. It’s not a criticism: we have all been subject to the effects of the global growth economy that has kept each of us in in a trance. Believing that progress can be achieved through alienated work, seduced by the consumerism that has kept our deeper needs in check. But now it’s time to wake up.

Whatever our plans, they must include everyone. The excluded can be targeted by those who know how to manipulate, precisely because they are vulnerable. However, inclusion does not mean just pulling people on board with whatever project you are working on, for the sake of appearances. 

It means being willing to re-design your project to enable engagement with those who are generally marginalised. It is their intelligence that, until now, has been missing in our understanding of how things could be more effective. 

Enriching municipalism in South Devon

Last week we spent another few days in South Devon on the Totnes / Plymouth axis – witnessing the emergence of a prototype citizen action network, gradually taking shape. 

We met actors, like Hilary Kolinsky, architect and co-founder of Interchange, and working on neighbourhood planning from the ground up. It’s about making where you live, better. Everything from social events to food sustainability. Establishing small pockets of ‘commons’, from shared marquees to vegetable gardens. Always building relationship and trust. 

Or Penny Tarrant, founder of Environment Plymouthwho spends all her working hours responding to calls for support in developing green tools and practice. She’s well ahead of local council policy, which she helps to shape from her multiple acts of neighbourhood action-learning.

Or Matthew Pontin – photographer founder of Fotonow– who is opening a ‘talk shop’ in his neighbourhood. Spurred by the conviction that he shouldn’t have to visit more affluent parts of town to get a decent cup of coffee, he opened a WhatsApp group to discuss. Next door neighbours, who never met previously, are now collaborating on turning an empty shop into a community hub – with a coffee machine. 

These street level initiatives are happening everywhere: Stephane Kolinsky, founder of Not For Robots podcast describes it as evidence of a post-Brexit enthusiasm for getting stuff done. But it needs nurturing. What is the structure that gives agency to this new energy, he asks? Not big money operating at high level, but small amounts of money that keep things intimate and moving.

With the help of the Esmee Fairbairn Trust, POP+ Plymouth has facilitated a good number of such initiatives adding up to £1.5 million over the past two years. For example, creating a Street to Scale fund that gives £1000 to any small group that wants to take collective action on a project for their neighbourhood. It’s just enough to make the difference between dreaming something up and achieving it – fuelling a practical imagination. And it’s invaluable for bringing people into relationship for the first time.

If POP+ has its ear to the ground, hearing and amplifying the work of volunteers and activists, the Real Ideas Organisation is championing social enterprise as the format for people power. RIO’s Ed Whitelaw – whose work we’ve described before here – sees the focus as ‘enriching municipalism’. Building city level generative power – whether that means using the Preston model of internal sourcing of services for large local business. Or finding better infrastructure for People’s Assemblies. 

If the trend for self-sufficiency at all levels originated as a response to the government’s austerity programme, the climate emergency has significantly accelerated it again. Every day new practices, tools and cultures appear. The XR Future Democracy Hubwe co-created and launched last week, will be a growing resource for increased autonomy.

But this emerging alternative system needs to become self-conscious. Each level – and each part of each level – needs to see the others as part of a new system coming into being. For that we need more active story-telling and narrative building – a role for local media. Watch this space.

As we mulled over the evidence of so much activity occurring below the line of what political parties have imagined or enabled, the need for a citizen action network becomes ever clearer. This new energy and capability should not be harnessed by any one political party, but preserved for the community as a whole. It should stay independent of national level divisions and tribal discourse. 

In that way, CANS (citizen action networks) could be the safe and healthy containers for this era of waking up. Where citizens can find both agency and belonging. Where they can work together, more purposefully in the face of climate emergency. And where, in the process, they will be renewing and invigorating democracy in ways we’ve never experienced before. 

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