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Reflections on being a 'Cultural Optimist' and a month of scaling up

And so our month on 'Scaling up' draws to a close.  It has been such a busy and thought-provoking theme that I thought I'd pick up on a few of the threads before we draw it to a close.  I also generated a new term to describe myself which is always handy.  It has been fascinating to see the ongoing debates around David Holmgren's Crash on Demand piece and my response to it.  Dmitry Orlov has waded in, as has Nicole Foss, David MacLeod, Joanne Poyourow, and most insightfully for me, Erik Lindberg and Albert Bates.  Albert Bates, in his article Charting Collapseniks, tries to make sense of the diversity of opinions on the issues Holmgren raised, positioning many of the key thinkers on an axis of his devising.  

Collapseniks

Although I dislike any notion that ends in "opia", and feel I would diverge somewhat from those closest to me in the graph about the importance of local economies, his article introduced a term that was new on me, describing me as a 'Cultural Optimist'.  I rather like that.  I wanted to reflect on that, as it feels like an important insight.  

Yes, I'm a Cultural Optimist.  I believe that people are capable of doing remarkable things.  I believe that our natural instinct, unless it becomes damaged or wounded, is to be nurturing, community-minded creatures.  I have seen time and again the delight and creativity which flows from people getting together and making stuff happen, and indeed how natural it feels.  I believe change happens when people start living as though the next evolution had already arrived. Indeed, that that's where most meaningful and sustained change ever comes from. 

I also believe that, as Andy Lipkis put it in my interview with him, "our job is to make viable the alternative and have it ready. If we’ve really done our homework, we could scale this thing in a flash".  If we could shift our energy, our resources, our time, away from imagining that engaging with the political system on its own terms will yield much of any use, and into scaling this up and making it happen, we could achieve the changes required.  In my review of the new film Local Food Roots this month I quoted Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible Todmorden, who said: 

"We’ve got to try to persuade the powers-that-be, through our own actions, that you can live differently”

It's that "through our own actions" piece that is most important here.  As Lipkis put it: 

"The Bush administration was ready for all Americans to be protesting to try to stop the Iraq war. They expected that, they built that into their design. I was so amazed that they could say they didn't care what the people said, that I had to think through why they did not care about that. How did they make it resilient?  Because all they cared about was as long as people kept consuming, especially petroleum, their objective was being met. They were counting on no-one changing lifestyles" The most radical thing sometimes that you can do is actually vote with your feet and vote with your dollars.

I believe that things can change fast.  This month we heard how the UK government published its first ever Community Energy Strategy, a statement of intent from government that it wants to "tap into the enthusiasm and commitment that’s so evident in community groups across the country".  That strategy was shaped, in part, by the input of Transition Network and some community renewables projects that grew out of Transition.  Yes it's not perfect, yes there's clearly a long way to go, and yes it emerged just days after a public commitment to massively scaling up fracking, but for it's a powerful response for those who argue that Transition is having no impact on policymakers.  

Transition, for me, is in part about withdrawing our support from the existing, climate-destroying, fossil fuel-hungry beast, and transferring it to a new culture, a new economy, a new society.  It's divestment writ large.  As Lipkis put it, 

I think we’ve been trained to spend time on these battles, on the negativity, and we lose people.  We’ve lost precious decades. The crash is on its way. We don’t have to do anything. We need the time to convert people and move people. From the experience of those of us who went through the ‘60s and ‘70s in protest movements, I don’t think that route’s going to succeed. If we focus on that our best leaders are going to end up in jail for too long.

That's why Transition, for me, is skilful.  It works at the local level, it is apolitical and therefore works beneath the radar, and it has the power to make what currently seems politically impossible become politically inevitable.  As one commenter on the Lipkis piece put it:

Forty years ago the hippies did stuff too:  living off the land, appropriate technology, developing permaculture.... but until [Transition] they didn't reach out to other groups, they didn't have an inclusive message.  If you aren't political you don't have influence.  Doing stuff is a good start but it's a start.  Without social influence you cannot sustain a social movement.  

Lindberg's piece Agency On Demand? Holmgren, Hopkins, and the Historical Problem of Agency was very thought-provoking, passionate and deeply honest.  In it, he challenged his perception that Transition has framed its argument around the idea that peak oil is inevitable and that so is change.  He wrote:

"Just as cultures in ascendance adapt to increasing flows of energy, our job in a post peak world is to make the best of the inevitable crisis or peak and the diminishing energy and consumption that follows.  In neither case is human agency the main or structural driver of events". 

He distinguished between the distinctly different narratives behind the peak oil and climate change issues:

"While peak oil is a narrative of historical necessity and the limits of human agency, climate change is a narrative of how a free and independent people must learn how to impose limits on their freedom and power".

But he then makes the statement that I'd like to take issue with:

"I read his (i.e. my) response to Holmgren as a rather desperate attempt to maintain a course set by a narrative that is crumbling beneath us.  For the Transition Movement, in many of its details and specificities—its tone, its inclusiveness, its optimism, its scale, its focus, its projects—was built around a peak oil narrative"

You see, for me, I don't see that as being so much the case now.  In The Transition Handbook, the argument was that peak oil and climate change have to be looked at as interconnected, overlapping, interwoven.  But in the latest iteration, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, and in the talks I give now, Transition is framed as a response to the 'New Normal', the rapidly moving convergence of issues of which peak oil, or rather the end of the age of cheap energy, is one, as are climate change, the economic crisis and the social justice implications of returning more power to local economies.  In this context, Transition argues for resilience, for seeing resilience as a form of economic development, one that makes the most sense at the local level.  Lindberg concludes:

"I think much of the debate precipitated by Holmgren’s  “Crash on Demand” comes down to the sudden realization that if there is to be radical change of the sort necessary to avert a climate disaster of unimaginable scale, we can’t depend on some sort of historical necessity to make this change for us".

I would agree.  What can make this change for us though is a new resilience-based narrative about where we go from here which is more nourishing, more sensible, more thrilling, than what is presently on offer.  With the UK's economic future being hinged on the idea that we can replicate the US shale gas experience in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, in spite of public support continuing to fall.  As Andrew Simms tweeted yesterday:

"One day soon we'll look back and see as absurd that slight changes in GDP growth was the prime political barometer of success or failure".

Robert Newman poster

So yes, I'm a Cultural Optimist.  I believe that humans are hardwired to do amazing things together.  It's how we got where we are.  Are Stonehenge, Bristol Cathedral or the rail network the result of our ability to collaborate and create remarkable things that could only arise from such collaborations, or merely the result of selfishness and competition? 

On Sunday night I went to see Robert Newman's latest show A New Theory of Evolution at Exeter Phoenix.  Readers may know Newman from his last show, The History of Oil. In this new one, he draws from a wealth of sources to argue against the 'selfish gene' theory of evolution, arguing that evolution is as much about co-operation and nurture as it is about competition.  

Drawing on examples of how nurture and empathy in rats is shown to change brain function, how penguins work together to keep warm by taking it in turns to be on the outside of the 'huddle' and many other examples, he disputed Richard Dawkins' version of evolution, arguing that Darwin originally argued for a much more co-operative interpretation.  

He argued that this "red in tooth and claw" version of evolution has been used to justify as 'natural' an economic system that sees people, communities and ecosystems as expendible and great polarities of wealth as entirely benign.  "It's not survival of the fittest", he argued, rather "survival of the misfits".  He quoted W.H. Auden from his last collection of poems: 

As a rule, it was the fittest who perished. The misfits,
Forced by failure to migrate to unsettled niches, 
who altered their structure and prospered. 

He also quoted from his latest book The Trade Secret in which the book's hero Nat Bramble says "those who don't fit today are the ones who make tomorrow".  This resonated with the discussions we've had here about scaling up Transition.  The danger in Auden's quote, which has run through protest culture and the alternative movement for decades, is to assume that it is only in those "unsettled niches" that we can find a home, can have any impact.  As Lipkis put it:

We’ve built the right foundation. Our happiness, our health is the answer. It’s infectious. Our job is to be that much more infectious and inclusive. And don’t put up barriers of titles. Don’t put up barriers of shame and blame. Be open to learning fast and welcoming people in. We’re hacking the system and making it so much better. If we invite that kind of creativity, the generation that’s inheriting this right now is really ready to take this home. 

Some people have interpreted 'Scaling up' to mean becoming just larger as organisations, more anonymous, more top-down, bigger as opposed to more effective.  It's a danger that Sophy Banks picked up on in her post.  What we've explored this month has been about how to be more effective, and as we've seen, effectiveness is not necessarily about size.  My sense is that the way of working that Transition is developing is novel, and distinct from previous approaches.  That's not to say it has all the answers, or that it is all we need, but this month's discussions have shown a distinctly different approach to how to scale up to increase effectiveness.  

During February, when our theme will be 'Resourcing your Initiative', we'll be talking to Robert Newman to hear more about how his ideas relate to Transition, as well as with the man in Bangalore whose vision is to grow rice on every roof so that the city becomes a net exporter of rice, and the attorney in Berkeley, California, who is devising the legal resources a Transition future will need.  And lots of other stuff too.  I hope you'll join me.  We'll close our 'Scaling Up' theme by raising a glass to Cultural Optimists everywhere.  We can do this. 

Comments

Gary Alexander's picture

Evolution is driven by symbiosis as well as competition

Thanks Rob, for an interesting month of posts, and especially for the Crash on Demand discussions, and keep up the good work as a cultural optimist.

I just want to comment briefly on your remarks about evolution. Evolution is out there and works as it does, regardless of our theories about it, which say more about us than about natural processes. The emphasis on competition can be best understood as a projection of capitalist principles onto the natural world, as you imply. I think the more recent scientific view is that evolution procedes as a mixture of symbiosis and competition.The life cycle of any creature cannot be understood without understanding its environment. All creatures are simultaneously separate individuals and parts of a larger whole. Fitness, as in 'survival of the fittest' means fitting in the sense that a piece in a jigsaw puzzle fits into the hole left for it. That hole is the particular way of life, the niche, of that individual. Fitness certainly does not mean a general superiority of one creature over another. Brian Goodwin, a former Transition Trustee, was a pioneer of research in this area in his days at the Open University. I remember several very interesting seminars of his about this.