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Individualism and the Bigger Picture

The bigger picture underpins the whole of the Transition movement for me. It’s the reason why I engaged in the first place and the context for my participation.

Arizona, Mountains, Car 2001Transition meetings run the risk of revolving around the ‘business of the day’, particularly where events and projects are concerned, and the bigger picture starts to look like an elephant in the room no one pays any attention to. We need to make space for those conversations.

Early this year for one of Sustainable Bungay’s monthly Green Drinks at the Green Dragon, we chose the theme of shifting cultural values, after several of us read the recent Common Cause report by Tom Crompton.

Despite concerns that the subject was too intellectual or “airy-fairy” (our usual themes and activities tend to be more obviously practical: waste, local food, energy, keeping bees), and that No One Would Come (we’re not Totnes, after all), the bar was packed with the biggest turnout of any of our Green Drinks and the conversation was long and lively. You can read more about it here.

In the context of cultural values I'd like to look at individualism; one because it is endemic to our modern culture and two because I think it is one of the greatest obstacles to making a smooth transition to a liveable future. That along with social inequality and injustice. And blindness to the fact that the artificial systems which hold our current civilisation and its institutions in place are totally dependent on the earth’s living systems and not the other way round.

I see a direct link between the availability of fossil fuel energy in rich Western countries such as the UK and the individualism which is so prevalent. Most of us here have been able to afford a kind of splendid isolation from each other and the rest of the world, particularly in the last 30 years. My personal computer, stereo, i-pod, car. My house, my garden. My personal relationships, my space. My comfort zones (which you better not go too near). The high energy return on energy invested (EROEI) fossil fuels have given us has gone hand in hand with an exaggerated (illusory?) sense of our own self-importance, whilst disconnecting us from our fellow humans, creatures and plants.

Popular psychology and psychotherapy have reflected and reinforced this bubble with their focus on the personal, the domestic, finding myself (with other people part of my personal movie), I’m OK You’re OK (just as long as you fit my picture of you!) – and the consumerist - I Can Be Rich, Thin, Successful, go shopping endlessly, be a supermodel, have a supermodel, treat myself and have Time for Me!

That’s a big picture thing. Because individualism and the lifestyle that goes with it is not just personal. It uses up vast planetary resources. It literally 'costs the earth', as fellow transitioner and musician John Preston sings in his song of the same name. Maintaining this lifestyle is a huge part of what’s driving the Alberta tar sands extraction in Canada and the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that Bill McKibben and others have been protesting (and being arrested) about in Washington and which Jay wrote about in yesterday's excellent post.

And of what's driving the proposed gas fracking operations closer to home in the UK.

We need to keep these things in the conversation so they inform our decisions. Because everything comes down to home in the end.

Pics: Before Transition - One man, one car, mountains, sky, Arizona 2001; Shifting Cultural Values in Bungay, January 2011; Still of Josh Fox in Gasland - from On Gasland and Feeling (Transition Norwich blog)


Mike Grenville's picture


 Recently I went to a talk by Peter Owen-Jones (the vicar of Firle who did Around the World in 80 Faiths). He was in Ethiopia at the home of a Coptic priest. All he seemed to own was a bed and a few pots for cooking. Peter asked him if he had ever been to England and he had, for a Coptic conference. He then turned to Peter and said "you people have so much stuff. When did you stop knowing how to share? If I need a spade my neighbour has one, if I need a hammer, some other neighbour has one." By complete contrast we all have garden sheds fully stocked with our own individual set up tools. For me the answer as to when it happened in England was the Enclosures Act which uprooted people from their communities into the 'dark satanic mills' . Today we are drowned in a sea of stuff that either can't be repaired or is cheaper to buy new. Clearly a process that can't go on. 

A while ago I was on a meditation retreat in India. In another part of the campus was a group of Indians on the course, most of whom had come from one village. We are all so individual that it is really hard for us to imagine a whole group from one village going on a course about anything in the West. In terms of community, the immigrant communities in our midst probably have a lot we could learn from.



Ann Owen's picture

I can't help but think: Why

I can't help but think: Why did you have to go on a meditation retreat in all the way in India?

Every year when we go to festivals here in the UK, we often joke that it feels as if we've brought the whole village, as there are so many people from back home there. If we'd go to festivals abroad, I don't think we'd know anybody either.

More and more I'm becoming convinced that community is a state of mind, an openness and a willingness to adjust ones own expectations and experiences to those which are common in the geographical location one finds oneself living in.