So, what do you do?
Overheard at a recent party:
“So, what do you do?”
“I’m an anti-capitalism activist fighting to turn the global economic system on its head, but it doesn’t pay very well.”
Myself, I’m finding that question increasingly difficult to answer. It’s not because of a fear of comparative status, or that what I do is too complex for an ordinary mortal to understand, or that I’m fed up with “labels”. In part, it’s because the nature of the question invites the kind of conversation that goes well beyond the asker’s intention. The question is usually proffered in the context of a social situation, intended to politely break the ice, yes, but also to quickly establish one’s role within the grand economic machine. The expected answer is one that fits the form, “I do X” such that X is an easily digestible descriptor that signifies socio-economic value. I don’t do X.
My answer is usually a variation on the theme of “little of this, little of that” and I know I’m not alone. I know lots of people around these parts who have developed multiple streams of income, or more broadly, multiple pathways for meeting their needs. For myself, and many others, it’s partly in response to lack of overall activity in the default money economy, and partly by design. Diversity is a resilience strategy.
This approach to creating a livelihood for oneself through diverse need satisfying activities fits into a larger context of evolving and diversifying economic relationships. Informed as much by new economic thinking as necessity, people are rediscovering and reinventing gift culture, experimenting with different means of exchange, and finding work arounds to “business as usual” sources of capital through peer-to-peer lending and crowd funding. The resulting diversity is creating new networks of economic activity and exciting new possibilities for developing resilience at the local level.
Those beginning to ride this wave are shredding reductionist categories of “consumer” and “career” and thinking of themselves as co-creators and whole persons. Seen in this light, the question “what do you do?” almost seems an anachronism from an obsolete age.
The transition to this new kind of economic state of affairs seems to be underway but it’s only just beginning. It provides a natural opportunity for Transition initiatives to develop projects that support and accelerate this change. In Totnes, there have been a few events and projects that have begun to plant seeds, such as Change the Exchange, the 24 Hours of Transition, Skillshare, Doctor Bike, and the resent talks by Charles Eisenstein and Mark Boyle.
Now, there is growing interest in developing and adapting the work of Manfred Max-Neef and the framework he developed in the book, Human Scale Development. In it, he identifies a set of 9 universal human needs, violaters, satisfiers, and pseudo-satisfiers of those needs, and a methodology for employing this framework to inform local economic development strategies. One of the insights this work brings out is that there are a multitude of ways of really satisfying needs but that consumer culture often delivers only a limited or pathological substitute. What’s interesting, of course, isn’t this insight – this realisation in some form is already part of the economic world view of many Transitionistas – but the framework, which systematically breaks through the intellectual and emotional clutter of advertised desire to re-establish an authentic relationship between real needs and real satisfiers. It seems to offer a potent toolbox of ideas that can inspire just the kind of economic change we’re talking about, leading to new strategies for creating resilient livelihoods, as well as effective community-scale projects.
“I was interested in why people behave in ways that threaten the viability of a living planet even when they are aware of what they are doing. When I discovered Max-Neef’s work It seemed to offer another piece to this complex puzzle: people have fundamental human needs which are universal across time and cultures. If the only options available mean violating the needs of others, some of their own needs or even the need for a living planet they will do so. The model illustrates the systemic nature of the problem very clearly and also shows that there are many different ways to satisfy one's needs. Fortunately many of these ways still remain outside the money economy and this is where we can start making important changes to create an economic system that serves our needs rather than us serving the needs of the economic system.”
She’s developed a workshop with Big Green Canoe which she delivers on a regular basis. She’s also piloted another workshop for Transition Streets which has been well received and may receive funding to bring it to more Transition Streets groups. In September, she delivered a taster in a workshop at the Transition Conference. Now, she’s working with Naresh and others to develop additional pilots which may end up finding their way into the Transition Training curricula. In the meantime, she and I have been discussing ideas for making her work and the ideas of Max-Neef relevant and accessible for the wider community which may result in some interesting collaborations beginning in January. Watch this space...
Images: Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times"; Change the Exchange event; Max-Neef's 9 human needs; Inez Aponte