10 June 2010
Always darkest before the dawn
Our global society is in crisis, and the core of the crisis seems to be about resources: resource limits, overuse and misuse of resources, resource-related conflicts, and the resulting destruction of our natural life-support systems. The crisis is at an extreme stage, as we are approaching the final hard limits of a finite earth. This is all the more frightening because our governments seem powerless to respond effectively to the crisis. We can all see the rocks ahead, and yet the crew steams straight on, as the ship-of-state carries us toward destruction.
Some people saw the crisis coming years ago. A worldwide environmental movement has been active since at least 1962, after Rachael Carson’s The Silent Spring was published to wide acclaim. This movement has focused on lobbying for environmental protections, and for stronger regulation of corporations. The movement has had a number of successes, as when the Environmental Protection Agency was first established in the USA. But over time the movement has become less effective, the regulatory agencies have been corrupted by corporate influence, and the dark clouds of crisis loom ever larger.
But hark! At this darkest time, promising new initiatives are emerging. While the environmental movement may have faltered, environmental consciousness has spread throughout the society. And in the face of government ineffectiveness, activists are turning their attention toward grassroots solutions to the crisis.
From the early days of the environmental movement, we have had the notion of ‘think globally and act locally’. This translated mostly into individual life-style choices, such as driving and consuming less, recycling, installing double-glazed windows, etc. The new wave of activists are interpreting ‘act locally’ in a more empowered way: they are working to mobilize whole communities around the goal of achieving sustainability at the local level.
This new wave of environmentalism is coming together as the Transition Towns movement, and it is spreading rapidly and globally. The new wave is non-confrontational and apolitical, unlike the feisty old wave, and yet the new wave represents a much more radical response to the resource crisis.
The Transition Towns movement realizes that environmental protections, regulations, and other such measures are simply not enough, even if they could be achieved. A total transformation is needed in the way we use resources and in the way we run our economies. If every community can go through a transition process, and achieve sustainability locally, then the whole society would be transformed.
The total economic transformation of our societies is a very radical agenda indeed. If we look back in history for movements with equally radical agendas, we find only violent revolutionary movements, and mass political movements. Our new wave of environmental activists are not at all radically minded, in that traditional political sense, and yet they find themselves on a very radical path, a path toward social transformation. How do we account for this novel emergence of politically innocent, and yet potentially effective, radicalism?
I suggest that this new kind of radicalism comes from a fundamental shift in consciousness on the part of leading-edge activists. That shift is not toward radicalism itself, rather it is a shift from ‘asking government to solve our problems’, to ‘figuring out what we can do for ourselves’. Activists were drawn toward this new consciousness, as it became increasingly clear that governments were simply not facing up to the crisis, and that no amount of political activism was going to wake them up.
As long as activist energy is directed towards influencing governments, only small things will be asked for. In order for initiatives to have any hope of success, they must be framed within the context of overall government policy, and they must not be making ‘unrealistic demands’. Thus stifled in their options, the very imagination of activists ends up being constrained to incremental hopes and proposals.
But once activists turn their attention to grassroots solutions, their imagination, their visions, and their creativity are unleashed. Instead of limiting their thinking to ‘achievable reforms’, they begin to ask, ‘How can the problem actually be solved?’ Once that bold question is asked, sensible people can often find answers, even if governments can’t.
The community is the natural place to pursue grassroots initiatives, and the techniques of sustainability have been pioneered by intentional communities, ecovillages, permaculture farms, etc. The Transition Towns movement is simply bringing the available tools to bear in a place where they can make a real difference in mainstream society. While governments aren’t listening, communities might be persuaded to pay attention — to ideas that can benefit them. This seems to be a quite sensible strategy for moving toward sustainability, one community at a time.
It is not only environmentalists who have turned their attention to the local, as a focus for effective activism. The crisis is multi-faceted, extending to economic collapse, unemployment, homelessness, etc. And in every such area of crisis, governments show the same inability to respond effectively.
Activists who seriously want to create jobs for people, or respond to some other area of crisis, are increasingly seeing the community as the best place to apply their ideas and their energies. As these energies converge on the community, we are beginning to see the emergence of a generalized localization movement.
Around the world, there is a growing movement to pull back from the relentless march of corporate globalisation by re-rooting economic and social activities at the community level. From the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets and food co-ops to the revitalisation of community banking, people are organising themselves to reclaim the economy from large profit-driven corporations and instead build sustainable, local alternatives.
— Anna White, “Why Local Economies Matter”
Anna White talks about a “growing movement”, but unfortunately the growth is horizontal rather than vertical. More and more activists are getting involved, in a growing number of communities and initiatives, but in each community the initiatives remain marginal, mere fringe activities. Until these initiatives can grow beyond the fringe stage, none of them can have any significant effect on their communities, as regards achieving sustainability, revitalizing local economies, etc.
It is very difficult to get very many people in a community to participate in any kind of activity. There is very little sense of community left in our societies, and everyone is busy with their own lives and their own concerns. The crisis is real, the various solutions being offered make good sense, but most people simply aren’t motivated to participate. The emerging localization movement, though very promising, has run into a serious obstacle, what we might call the participation barrier.
Understanding the participation barrier
There is a common pattern to the various threads of this emerging localization movement. There is typically a small group of local activists who are driving some initiative in a community, and only a small percentage of the community who are participating in the initiative’s program, or even paying much attention to the program.
There might be a weekly farmer’s market, for example, and it might even be crowded with happy farmers and happy customers. But in terms of the overall food business in the community, the farmer’s market usually handles only a negligible percentage. The early adopters get on board, and it’s very difficult to grow participation beyond that. The same story can be told for community-currency initiatives, and all the others.
There is no mystery as to why these various threads are not progressing beyond the fringe stage. In order to understand the causes we need to consider what motivates activists to participate, and what motivates — or fails to motivate — ordinary citizens to participate. Let’s take the Transition Towns movement as an example.
This movement is focused on the need to move toward local self-sufficiency, based on the beliefs that peak oil is imminent, that this will cause a collapse in our existing supply chains, and that governments are not likely to respond effectively to this crisis. Those who become activists in this movement share these beliefs, and they also share the belief that significant progress toward local self-sufficiency is an achievable goal. It is these beliefs that motivate the activists.
When the activists try to promote participation in the movement within the community, they do so by trying to inspire the same motivation in others, by explaining to people why they should embrace these same beliefs. This approach seems to be quite reasonable and natural. Unfortunately, however, it does not turn out to be an effective motivator.
There are a variety reasons why people generally don’t respond to this approach. For some, it’s because they are convinced peak oil isn’t a real threat. For others, it’s because they assume governments will find a way to deal with the crisis. Some don’t think local self-sufficiency is a feasible objective. Still others may be politically conservative, and may perceive the movement as a left-wing liberal affair, with which they don’t want to be associated.
The early adopters are the ones who do respond to the movement’s approach. Perhaps they were already of a similar mind, or perhaps they were persuaded by the promotional efforts. But once these early adopters get on board, continued promotional efforts of the same kind will not have much success. The same reasons for not responding continue to exist, and repetition of the message is unlikely to change that. The various localization threads all have this same problem: the very beliefs and attitudes that motivate the initiative are also barriers to its growth.
In addition, there are all those people who are ‘too busy’, or too apathetic, to pay much attention to any kind of community initiative, regardless of whether the motivating beliefs make sense to them.
The fact is that most people will not respond to a new initiative of any kind unless they can see a clear benefit to themselves in doing so. Only a few early adopters will respond on the basis of long-term hopes, or on the basis of ‘doing the right thing’.
As things stand, the various localization threads have not been able to offer the necessary clear benefits. The mere idea of a farmer’s market may be enough to bring in the early adopters, and get a farmer’s market up and running. But even an operating farmer’s market does not offer enough immediate benefits to bring in the majority of the community’s business.
And so it goes with all the solution-based threads: the incentives offered are insufficient to generate widespread participation. An entirely new approach is needed if localization is going to escape from the fringe and make a real difference in communities. The approaches currently being pursued are not working. Trying harder with the same approach is not going to help.
Localization: a movement in need of coherence
There is a convergence of activist energy toward the local, but that energy is split. There isn’t a single localization movement, rather each thread is a movement unto itself, single-mindedly pursuing its own individual goals.
Above I talked about the motivation behind the Transition Towns movement, and how it emerges from a certain line of thinking. That thinking begins with a concern for sustainability, and the idea that the ‘big problem’ is peak oil. Other activists are more concerned about financial matters, and they see the ‘big problem’ in the banking system. Their line of thinking leads them to promoting initiatives like local currencies and local banking. For others ‘worker exploitation’ is the ‘big problem’, and local co-ops are ‘the solution’.
Each of the individual movements has its own analysis, its own ’big problem’, and its own ’solution’. The various activists all find themselves working at the local level, as a strategy, but they don’t see themselves as part of a common cause or common movement.
Something needs to change if any of these movements are going to make progress. Some kind of reframing is needed, some shift of consciousness on the part of the activists and movements. With each group pushing its own solution, and each unable to generate enough incentives to break through the participation barrier, none of them will succeed in achieving their goals.
Each of the solution-based movements has its own line of reasoning, but there is one primary assumption they all share: it is possible to transform society by transforming one community at a time. However, the various movements to not think of this assumption in general terms. The Transition Towns folks would say: it is possible to make society sustainable, one community at a time. The local currency folks would say: it is possible to make society prosperous, one community at a time. And so on, for each of the individual goals.
Because they are each focused on solving just one of society’s many problems, the movements don’t realize that they all share a deep common goal: to transform society, by transforming one community at a time. I suggest that embracing this common goal is the reframing, the shift of consciousness, that is needed to bring the localization movement into coherence, and enable it to break through the participation barrier and begin to make a real difference in society.
With the more general framing, the various movements can come into collaboration with one another, rather than competing for activist attention and community attention. Self-sufficiency, local currencies, local food production, co-ops, etc. are all good ideas, and they are all complementary to one another.
A sound local currency, for example, can enable local producers to become economically competitive within the local marketplace, particularly in bad economic times, when official currency is hard to come by. And worker-owned co-ops are a very good way to organize any new undertaking, whether it be a food-growing enterprise, an alternative-energy enterprise, or an energy-efficient shuttle service. There is a tremendous amount of potential synergy among the various threads, and as we go on we will be exploring that potential in some depth.
If social transformation via community mobilization is accepted as the common goal of the various localization movements, and if all of the threads are accepted as useful contributions to transformational thinking, then a path is opened to a much more effective strategy of achieving community mobilization.
The first step on this path is for activists to shift their focus from their solutions to the community itself, and its unique circumstances. For any kind of problem, it always makes sense to start by examining the problem, rather than starting with a favorite solution. You don’t begin by asking, “What can I hit with this hammer?”, but rather, “Which tools are needed for this particular job?” In terms of localization, we need to begin with the question, “How can this community be mobilized around social transformation?”, rather than, “How can we advance our favorite policy agenda in this community?”
When we focus directly on the goal of mobilization itself, and we have in our toolkit the whole repertoire of localization threads, then we can approach the problem of providing incentives in a very methodical way. We have a toolkit, and with our tools there are any number of projects we could propose — taking advantage of synergies among the threads — that could improve the local economy in one way or another.
What we need to do is survey the problems our community is facing, the potential opportunities that are available, the things people are wanting, the things they are complaining about, the things that are dividing people, and the things that might already be spurring them into activism. After we understand the overall situation in the community, we can seek to come up with customized initiatives that could bring immediate pay-offs for the community, and therefore provide immediate incentives to participants. Then incrementally, new projects can be added, new incentives generated, and more people can be brought into participation.
Next to come in this chapter: a survey of the various localization threads, and identification of the many potential synergies among them.