Building the new in the shadow of the old


Richard Moore

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In the previous posting I went into considerable detail with the ‘co-op commons’ model. After having had some time for consideration, and for conversations with some of you who responded, I now see the co-op idea as a bit of a premature tangent. It is one of many new possibilities, but the new perspective I gained from the Beau Sejour workshop is much broader than that one, over-specified possibility.

Something else happened in the interim as well. I was approached by a group who are developing a documentary film on the theme of ‘crisis, collapse, and solutions’. One of them came to Ireland and interviewed me for many hours, over the course of two days. I ended up explaining what I’ve learned over the past 20 years, my interpretation of history, my visions of a better world, of how to pursue change, etc. In the process of trying to explain these ideas clearly, I was in fact clarifying my own thinking for myself, and further integrating the ideas that came out of the workshop. 

I’ve now got a clearer framing for why ‘building the new’ makes so much sense, and why the ‘shadow of the old’ is so relevant to that process. I now see an underlying coherence among the various movements that are seeking to ‘build the new’…

The Shadow of the Old
The Old is the system we are currently living under. And living under its shadow we – if we are paying attention – can see that the Old is dysfunctional, that it is based on unsound principles and practices, and that it is finally falling apart around us. 

It is easy to identify some of the unsound principles. The principle of economic growth, for example, is both unsustainable and disruptive of social stability. The practice of industrial-scale agriculture is dysfunctional in all sorts of ways. The way our debt-based money system works, our transport systems, our energy systems, our educational systems, healthcare systems etc etc. The Old, even though some old things do work well, nonetheless provides a comprehensive lesson book on how not to do things.

If we survey the various movements that are seeking to build the New – those that focus on community resiliency, decentralization, grassroots participation, co-ops, locally-based sustainability, etc – we find that they draw their inspiration directly from the Shadow of the Old – the lesson book of the Old. 

Each movement identifies a dysfunctional system in the Old and promotes a more functional system to supplant it. Debt-free local currencies, for example, introduce a more promising money model than central-bank, debt-based money. And the reason these various movements have clustered around a focus on the local, is the dysfunctional over-centralization we can see in every aspect of the Old. 

Taken all together, including Transition Towns, ecovillages, co-ops, community gardens, co-housing, CSA’s, and all the rest, we see an emergence of collective wisdom: independent creative threads adding up, potentially, to a coherent vision of the New; a cluster of new-system models whose whole is potentially greater than the sum of its parts. All inspired by the Shadow of the Old

The Participation Barrier
These movements have all run into what we can call a ‘participation barrier’. That is, not enough people participate, in any given community, to make a significant difference in the local economy, or in how the community operates. Activists participate, and some early adopters, but most people don’t join in. 

Promising prototypes of the New are being developed and tested in hundreds (thousands?) of communities, but nowhere have the prototypes been able to go mainstream, to really demonstrate their potential value to a community. They have been blocked by the Participation Barrier.

Above, I talked about a potential coherent vision, and about the whole being potentially greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like with the personal computer. When silicon chips reached a certain level of power, a potential synergy existed between the chip, a keyboard, a screen, and a bit of software. But it took someone like Steve Wozniak to come along, someone who could see that potential, and who was able to manifest the synergy in an affordable coherent whole that eventually changed the world.

I suggest that our prototypes of the New are like that. They’re promising on their own, in the way a chip or a keyboard might be, but it is only when potential synergies among the prototypes are pursued, that something transformative might be able to emerge. I suppose this is the central insight I took away from the workshop, and the ‘co-op commons’ was my amateur attempt to come up with a quick example of a ‘coherent whole’. 

The other insight I got from the workshop was that pursuing the potential synergy among our prototypes would be the natural way to overcome the participation barrier. What Wozniak came up with was affordable – it was economically attractive to consumers – and that’s what made it socially transformative. 

Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to devote energy to what they see as idealistic pursuits. That’s basically what the participation barrier is all about. We need to accept that most people in communities will evaluate something like a co-op from a consumer perspective: What do I get out of it? What does it cost me? How much of my time does it take? Our individual prototypes have not fared well from that brutal perspective. 

But if our prototype initiatives really do hold potential synergies, and I think it is clear they do, then we should be able to find ways to manifest those synergies, and create intiatives that people will want to participate in because of the concrete benefits that are on offer. Not that the only benefits would be economic – certainly not – but economic viability, I suggest, is essential, for initiatives that hope to become socially transformative. And achieving economic viability, in any kind of community initiative, requires some serious work.

Business plans
In order to talk about the economic viability of community initiatives, the natural language to use is that of the business plan. That is one thing that the Old has understood how to do well. My ‘co-op commons’ proposal was a very rough sketch of a business plan. And I’ve now decided that pursuing those kinds of ideas in my own amateur way is not the best way forward. 

I’m now thinking about another workshop, perhaps even a Beau Sejour 3. The idea is to get activist leaders together from the various prototype initiatives, and the workshop would be about coming up with sketches of practical business plans that manifest potential synergies. The idea would be to initiate an exploratory process, to get lots of different sparks going about possible synergies, and to get participants thinking in holistic terms about change, and about how to get people involved in change.

Economic viability is one essential dimension of a business plan, but the kind of sketches these participants would come up with would have other dimensions as well. Their visions are not primarily about business, but about ways life could improve in the community, and become more sustainable. Those visions would be reflected in the business plans along with the numbers.

I could see us working productively with a couple of dozen participants over the course of a weekend. We could get a lot done in parallel with breakout tables, and Open Space might be a good way to manage that. We’d want some kind of process initially, with the whole group together, to do some sharing and get some brainstorming going. That should lead naturally into a breakout process like Open Space.

‘Business plan sketches’ provides a clear focus, and I think we could expect some interesting concrete ideas to emerge. In the closing session, we’d be asking people what they’re taking away from the experience, and hopefully this might lead to some ongoing networking and some actual follow-up collaborations.

So this is now my official next project: to work with others to make such an event happen. Don’t know who the ‘others’ are yet. I’m counting on the universe to manifest them. The morphogenic field has been cast.