“What the hell do we do next?”

If you’re part of a group or organisation Rhizome works with, the chances are that you identify yourself as part of the Green Movement in its broadest form. If you’re a trainer or facilitator who read this blog, the chances are that you do a lot, if not all, of their work for that same movement. You may well feel that  with it from within – you are of the movement and for the movement. So how do you feel about Paul Kingsnorth’s thoughts:

“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing. There is no likelihood of the world going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?” [my emphasis]

Is it a question you recognise? It’s taken from a longer article in Orion Magazine which I was directed to by Dave Pollard’s recent Links post. If Kingsnorth is even half right (and I reckon he is) it’s an enormous question that spawns others.

What are we at Rhizome doing, for example, to facilitate the movement answering the question? … What should we be doing? … Are we wasting our time working with and for the Green Movement?

Kingsnorth poses 5 possible answers to his question:

One: Withdrawing…take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.

 

Two: Preserving nonhuman life…The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?

 

Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.

 

Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be…

 

Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on…In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? …Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?

If any of that rings true with you, and with us here at Rhizome, it begs the question of where we put our energy, skills and resources.

On one level, the level of how we work I could argue that Rhizome’s already, instinctively, in tune with Kingsnorth’s 5 answers. I see in myself and some of the conversations I have with my Rhizome colleagues our own take on these impulses.

We ‘withdraw’ into our internal relationships, using the work we’re asked to do as an opportunity, a tool even, to build our relationships, to challenge, to grow, to contemplate and reflect.

We also insist that relationships, that the nature of groups and organisations, have a value beyond serving a group’s structure or process. In working that way we make Rhizome and the groups with whom we work (or should that be ‘relate’) more able to be refuges.

And largely we do this by inviting folks to join us in getting our hands dirty. No hi-tech training tools or techniques – just people experiencing together, doing together and reflecting and learning together from that doing. Increasingly I find myself designing work that emphasises getting hands dirty at the earliest possible opportunity and for the longest possible time.

What of preserving nonhuman life? I don’t want to stretch the analogy to breaking point, but there’s an element of truth in saying that if we can help each other to relate more openly, more honestly and across our diversity we stand more chance as individuals, as groups and as a society and a species, of opening up to the needs of an even more diverse group – the ecosystems, the nonhuman life, all around us. Every group or organisation is a kind of ecosystem – a tangled and interdependent web of relationship, power, and dynamics.

But how we work is just one level and there are the where and with whom questions to be answered or at least to be continually asked. Rhizome folk meet next week. Our discussion are always lively, interested and interesting. When presented with questions like this one how could they be otherwise?

Giving Up on Environmentalism

The destructive power of hope? The futility of environmentalism? Sustainability as preserving the world we know, a “project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat”? Dave Pollard’s latest post Giving Up on Environmentalism over at how to save the world, in which he extensively quotes Paul Kingsnorth is a challenging read, but well, well worth the time.

If there’s any truth in what Dave and Paul say (and I think there is, though oddly it doesn’t lead me to want to give up on my environmentalism), what’s the meaningful work for activists to do?

When consensus doesn’t work

Over at how to save the world, Dave Pollard has written a thought-provoking piece on consensus entitled When consensus doesn’t work. It comes complete with a ‘will consensus work?’ flowchart that highlights some of the issues we raised in our When not to use consensus post.

He touches on some situations in which consensus does not work. Most of these are cases in which it should never even have been tried (and yet groups do try!). But one thread of his argument that’s relevant to groups who do meet the basic criteria for using consensus decision-making is our innate conservatism and how it prevents us making radical change:

There is another situation when consensus is unlikely to work: When the degree of change needed to achieve the goal is necessarily radical. It is in our nature to be resistant to change, and, while change is possible when there is agreement on its urgency or importance, or when the change is easy or fun to make, the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it. I have seen too many occasions when a consensus-seeking group opted, after exhaustive discussion, for a decision that was too modest to achieve the needed result, because getting the whole group to agree even in substance on radical change was just impossible. This is particularly true in businesses faced with change-or-die situations: groupthink seems to set in, with the participants trying to reassure each other and persuading themselves to stay the course, usually with tragic results

Now a “modest” decision as part of a conscious and longer process of change, that’s fine (and chimes with the information gap theory we blogged about a few days ago). But Dave’s right isn’t he? We’re often faced with the chance to do something bold, creative, radical and decisive and we opt for less. But is this a criticism of consensus as a decision-making practice or just of people in general? Does consensus support us less to make radical change than other methodologies? I don’t think so, at least not in terms of other participatory methodologies. Clearly a visionary dictator (not saying it’s a nice vision) can make a unilateral decision to make radical change. But the issue is whether when we come together as a group we create a dynamic that blocks change.

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Looking at the Climate Camp here in the UK, it more or less pulled itself apart, partly at least, because it was unable to agree a way forward when proposals for significant change emerged. The result of that collapse was that change was forced on the collective, but happened in a way that cost it more in terms of energy and cohesion than if it had consciously opted for change and managed that process.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked in groups that were faced with significant change and found a way to make decisions to support that change. One of the shared characteristics of the groups that did that successfully was a lot of underlying trust in each other. Another was humour – being able to laugh at the sudden fragility of the group when faced with change. Another was commitment – being so profoundly moved by an issue that changes had to be made and it was just a matter of time until everyone did the individual and then collective processing that made it possible.

I remember one meeting in which a campaign of direct action was agreed, although the legal consequences for those involved could have proved very significant indeed. This was a real change for the group – a step into unknown territory. At the next meeting the decision was reversed because we hadn’t caught up emotionally with what we’d decided idealistically. Eventually we did catch up, reversed the reversal and all lived to tell the tale. It sounds messy, but it needed to happen. We needed our wobble, our dip back into conservatism. We needed to acknowledge our weakness and humanity and to do so in a space where that was OK and wasn’t pounced on as ‘failure’.

Good consensus helps groups build those kind of spaces and groups – critical and supportive in the right way at the right times. Human and idealistic. So whilst I agree with Dave that what we see in consensus groups is often a default to conservatism, I think that consensus used well is a fantastic tool to tip us over the edge, collectively, into radical change.

Hat tip Dwight Towers (again!)