Category Archives: Systems thinking

Ponderings

My debut as a newspaper columnist

For the past three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to write a weekly column for the Danish daily newspaper Information.

It’s been a fun challenge to try a fit some of my ideas, thoughts and opinions into the column format. You can find all three columns here (in Danish, obviously):

  • Rodløs på nettet – about how modern life and technology is making us less rooted, less connected to the land and the communities where we grow up.
  • Vi har brug for flere nybegyndere – about daring to be a beginner, even when we reach the age where people expect us to know better.
  • Hellere ånd end regler – about the lack of respect and spirit in modern farming and all the horrible unintended consequences that this lack gives rise to.

Who knows, maybe I’ll have the chance to write more columns in the future…

Notes to self

I’ve been involved with the Copenhagen Food Co-op for almost 5 years now. And along the way, I’ve learned a lot about organizing volunteers, building local community and getting people involved. I’ve learned mostly by making a lot of mistakes along the way.

But in the last year [October 2013 to October 2014], the pace and depth of my involvement in the food co-op has reached a whole other level. It’s been really intense. With crisis, change, conflict, action, and oh-so-many meetings. It’s caused me to consider the lessons that the Co-op has taught me. Lessons that I continually have to remind myself to practice and heed as I work in this field.

I’ve been trying to formulate these ‘Notes to Self’ over the past few months. Editing and adding to them along the way. And I will probably continue to do so in the future. I share them here as a work in progress. They are written as notes to myself, and may not make all that much sense to anybody else. But I’m putting them up here as a way of committing myself to remembering, heeding and developing these further. They’re only in Danish for now, as I keep adding to them at the moment and can’t be bothered to translate them just yet.

 

1. Lyt

Lyt til folk omkring dig. Ikke kun deres ord, men også deres handlinger. Læg mærke til hvad de gør. Den måde de agerer på er som oftest udtryk for de interesser og motivationer, der driver dem. Hvert møde de kommer til, hver opgave de påtager sig er et udtryk for engagement. Du må lytte for at forstå, hvad der driver det.

 

2. Spørg

Det er ikke altid du kan lytte dig frem til hvad folk brænder for. Indimellem lægger de deres energi i ting, som de ikke rigtigt føler for. Måske fordi de står alene med dem. Måske fordi det var de opgaver, som de let kunne komme i gang med. Måske fordi de tidligere følte for dem, men nu er blevet fanget af ansvaret og vedligeholdelsen. Måske fordi de i virkeligheden ikke selv ved, hvad de brænder for. Spørg dem. Lad være med at tro, at du kender svarene på forhånd. For det gør du ikke. Vi forandrer os alle sammen hele tiden. Det samme gør vores svar.

 

3. Gå efter energien

Den vigtigste drivkraft er folks egen energi, interesse og begejstring. Du må aldrig tage andres engagement for givet! Din vigtigste opgave er at understøtte og styrke den energi. Give den plads til at udvikle sig og vokse sig større. Energien ligger latent i alle mennesker. Som en kilde, der kan åbnes. Et frø, der kan spire. Lad være med at prøve at lokke folk til at interessere sig for noget andet. Hjælp i stedet med at forløse deres energi. Gå efter de lette sejre, som kan gøde jeres selvtillid og give jer mod på mere.  Fælles handling er den ilt, der får fællesskaber til at blomstre.

 

4. Sæt ord på energien

Menneskelig energi og begejstring er en flygtig størrelse. Vi kan let glemme, hvad der vakte den, når vi sidder til et langt møde eller med en sur tjans og bare bider tænderne sammen for at nå i mål. Derfor er det vigtigt, at minde folk om, hvorfor vi gør det her – hvad der gav os energien til at gå i gang i første omgang. Ved fortælle historien om, hvad det er vi skaber sammen. Om hvilke værdier, vi udlever i fællesskab. Ved at rose og anerkende det arbejde folk lægger, kan du spejle og forstærke deres energi omkring det. Hjælpe dem med at se, hvilken forskel de skaber. Det er meget vigtigere end du tror.

 

5. Sig fra overfor drænerne

I nærmest alle fællesskaber vil der være folk, der tager mere energi end de giver. Det er dem, som bekymrer mere end de begejstrer. Ofte lægger de meget arbejde i fællesskabet, men desværre føler de også, at det berettiger dem til at fremhæve det negative, snarere end at rose og anerkende. Og dermed ender de ofte med at dræne andres energi og lyst til at engagere sig. Derfor er det meget vigtigt sige fra overfor disse drænere. Synligt og tydeligt. De skal ikke have lov til at bestemme over andres lyst til at engagere sig.

 

6. Fokusér på menneskene, ikke på grupperne

Husk, at virkeligheden svarer ikke overens med de fine planer og organisationsdiagrammer, som du udfærdiger. Ansvaret kan aldrig ligge hos en gruppe, for hver gruppe består af en masse mennesker med deres egne motivationer og interesser i et komplekst net af gensidige relationer. I sidste ende vil det altid være mennesker, der tager ansvar, udfører opgaverne og får ting til at ske. Nar ikke dig selv til at tro, at bare fordi en gruppe på papiret har et ansvar, at den så automatisk vil leve op til det. Følg menneskene og relationerne. Det er den eneste måde du kan lære at forstå, hvem, der gør hvad – og hvorfor.

 

7. Stil kærlige krav

Folk giver sjældent mere end de føler er højst nødvendigt for at være med. Hvis de ikke føler, at der er stort behov for deres hjælpe eller indsats, vil de som oftest trække sig og bruge deres energi andetsteds. Denne form for bevaring af energi, satisficing, er en naturlig ting – og som oftest helt ok. Man skal ikke forlange mere end folk ønsker at give. Men pas på, at det ikke bliver en sovepude. For energien kan let blive så lav, at selv de grundlæggende opgaver ikke bliver løst, fordi alle tror, at det er der nok nogen andre, der gør. Derfor er det vigtigt at lave en klar forventningsafstemning og stille krav til folk, så de ved, hvad de har at forholde sig til. Krav er kærlighed. Det minder folk om, at der er brug for dem. At de har en vigtig rolle at spille. At de er en afgørende del af fællesskabet.

 

8. Afpres jer selv

Der kan let gå drift i den, så fokus bliver på at holde det eksisterende ved lige snarere end at kigge fremad og udvikle nyt. Men løbende udvikling på den ene eller den anden led er nødvendigt for at holde visionen i live. Det giver en følelse af fremdrift, der bekræfter folk i, at de med til at skabe noget vigtigt. At vi er på vej et sted hen sammen. En god måde at fastholde denne udvikling er ved at afpresse jer selv gennem ydre krav og muligheder: Fondsmidler, nye samarbejdsmuligheder, medieomtale, offentligt bureaukrati kan alle være med til at sætte deadlines, der kan afpresse jer til at udvikle og levere mere end I ellers ville have gjort.

 

9. Vær ikke bange for pengene

Penge er som gødning. Hvis I har få penge, hæmmer det udviklingen og udførelsen af jeres idéer. Hvis I har for mange penge, bliver I let dovne og vælger de nemme (og dyre) løsninger uden at overveje, om de passer til jer. Det kan også let give anledning til konflikter, fordi den letteste magt ligger i at bestemme, hvordan pengene skal bruges. Men alt dette til trods, må du ikke undervurdere, hvor stor en forskel penge kan gøre i forhold til at frigøre energi og skabe plads til nye projekter. Nogle gange kan lidt ekstra gødning løfte meget mere end du tror.

 

10. Lad være med at køre solo

Lad være med at gå hurtigere frem end folk kan forstå eller følge med. Lad være med at skippe mellemregningerne for at nå hurtigere i mål. Alle andre har brug for at forstå, hvordan du er nået til dine konklusioner. Spørg dem! Invitér dem til at give feedback. Vis, at du respekterer deres holdninger og erfaringer. Det kan godt være, at det kun er de færreste, der tager imod muligheden for at blive hørt. Men de sætter alle pris på det. Og i sidste ende vil det også gøre, at de føler, at de har været med til at forme resultatet.

 

11. Vælg fra

Det du ikke gør er lige så vigtigt, som det du vælger at gøre. Overvej omhyggeligt, hvilke opgaver du påtager dig, og hvilke du overlader til andre. Det er langt bedre at gøre få ting godt, end at gøre mange ting halvt. Du kan ikke tage ansvar for det hele. Fokusér på de ting, som du er særligt godt stillet for at løse. Og gør andre i stand til at løse resten.

 

12. Lad folk finde deres egne løsninger

Det er let at komme til at føle, at du har fundet den store, sande løsning, som alle andre bare skal have hjælp til at indse er den rigtige. At de bare skal reddes fra deres egen misforståede vanetænkning. Men at sætte sig for at redde nogen er blot at begynde at undertrykke dem. Du ændrer ikke folks holdninger eller handlemønstre ved at forelæse om, hvor gammeldags og utidssvarende deres tankegang er. Sådanne erkendelser kommer ikke gennem abstrakt tænkning, men gennem konkret handling. Ved at folk oplever situationer, hvor deres gamle tænkemønstre ikke længere fungerer, og de derfor tvinges til at tænke og handle anderledes. Giv dem redskaberne og lad dem finde deres egne løsninger. Det er den eneste måde at skabe bæredygtige forandringer på.

 

13. Gør aldrig for andre, hvad de kan gøre for sig selv

Når du når en ansvarsposition i et fællesskab, kan du meget let komme til at suge ansvar til dig – uanset om du vil det eller ej, fordi du er gammel og garvet. Men husk, at din vigtigste opgave nu ikke længere at træffe beslutninger, men at gøre andre i stand til at træffe dem uden din hjælp. Du skal lære at udvise den tillid og tålmodighed, der kan gøre andre i stand til at gøre det selv uden din hjælp. De lærer ikke noget, hvis du bliver ved med at våge over dem og gøre ting for dem. “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.” Husk, at ethvert fællesskab er mere en skole end det er en virksomhed. Målet er menneskene, mere end det er arbejdet eller resultaterne. Din opgave at give andre selvtilliden, så de kan gøre det selv.

 

14. Lær fra dig

Du ved mere, end du tror. Der er så mange ting, som du tager for givet. Arbejdsgange, værdier, mødeformer, redskaber. Tag dig tiden til at hjælpe andre. Del dine redskaber. Invitér andre til at lære med og af dig. Alt for ofte tænker de ikke selv på at spørge.

 

15. Sig det vigtige igen – og igen

Alle folk har travlt. Alle folk har gang i hundrede ting ved siden af. De kan ikke huske halvdelen af, hvad du siger til dem, så sørg for at gentage det vigtige igen og igen. Jo flere gange du gentager noget, jo bedre forstår folk, at det er vigtigt. Og det er først, når de ser det som noget vigtigt, som de bør forholde sig til, at de begynder at gøre det til deres eget.

 

16. Vær nær og vedkommende

Folk vil have personlig kommunikation. De vil ikke læse manualer eller forklaringer. De vil ikke komme til møder med folk de ikke kender. De vil mødes og tages ved hånden. De skal føle, at de bliver set og hørt. De vil indgå i en gensidig relation, der er nær, vedkommende og tryg. Det tager ekstra tid, men når du viser, at du er villig til at bruge tid på dem, bekræfter det dem i, at du værdsætter deres tid og hjælp. Og på den måde kan de bedre gøre fællesskabet til deres eget.

 

17. Anerkend dine fejl – og fortæl om dem

Du kommer til at begå en masse fejl undervejs. Det er uundgåeligt. Men husk, at ingen dømmer dig hårdere end dig selv. Lad være med at krympe dig, vrænge eller ærgre dig. Tag i stedet og bred armene ud. Giv et lille hop og et smil og råb “How fascinating!” til dig selv. Hver fejl er endnu en anledning til at lære. Endnu en anledning til at blive klogere. Derfor er det også vigtigt, at du fortæller om de fejl, som du begår. Vær ærlig om svaghederne, dumhederne og forvirringen. Lad være med at sætte dig selv op på en piedestal. Vær åben, ærlig og ydmyg – det vil gøre det nemmere for andre at se, hvordan de kan lære af dine fejl og gøre det endnu bedre.

 

18. Giv Plads

Du fylder mere end du tror. Tænk over, hvilken rolle du kommer til at indtage i fællesskabet i kraft af, at du har været med længe, at du har mange erfaringer, at du har en fremtrædende rolle til møderne, at du er den, der har været på TV og fortælle om projektet. Det er altsammen med til at gøre, at folk forventer, at du har svarene – også selvom du selv er usikker og ikke føler, at du har styr på noget. Andre kan opfatte dig meget anderledes end du ser dig selv. Husk, at du siger en masse – også i kraft af det du ikke siger. At folk måske føler, at de har ikke ret til at udfordre dine holdninger, fordi du har været med så længe. Så hold din kæft lidt oftere og giv plads til dem.

 

19. Sørg for, at ingen føler for meget ansvar

Ofte er det dem med størst ansvarsfølelse, der ender med at påtage sig mere, end godt er. Når du kan se, at nogen har det svært og er på nippet til at gå ned med stress, så er det ikke nok at sige det til dem. Den bedste måde at passe på hinanden er ikke gennem ord, men gennem handling. I stedet for at sige “pas på dig selv”, er det langt bedre at vise omsorg ved at tage nogle af opgaverne og noget af ansvaret, som de ikke selv kan give fra sig. For selvom man egentlig godt ved, man skal passe på sig selv, er man som regel også netop dér, hvor det er allersværest at give slip.

 

20. Gør det til en fest

Der vil uundgåeligt opstå kriser og konflikter. Situationer, hvor energien er lav og modet synker. I disse situationer er det afgørende at finde den rette tone.  Undgå, at det bliver en downer. Vær modig og upbeat. Du kan ikke smile, når du er sammenbidt. Brug mere tid på at udfolde løsningerne end at analysere problemerne. Folk kender som oftest problemerne, men ved ikke, hvordan de kan løse dem. Vis vejen og gør løsningen til en fest, som alle kan være en del af – som de vil være kede af at gå glip af. Jo mere, folk føler, at de har mulighed for at være med til at løse krisen, jo mere vil de have lyst til at hjælpe.

 

 

21. Hør flere sider af den samme sag

Alt efter hvem du spørger om en given sag vil du få forskellige svar. Dine vurderinger er kun så gode som den viden du baserer den på. Så sørg for at få flere perspektiver på den samme historie. Folk kan lægge vægt på meget forskellige dele af en historie, alt efter hvilken kæphest de vil hyppe. For at forstå detaljerne i en sag er du nødt til at høre flere forskellige perspektiver på den (“doveryai, no proveryai“, som russerne siger).

 

22. Stå fast

Du skal ikke være bange for konflikterne. Der vil altid være konflikter. De opstår som regel, når nogen ikke føler sig hørt, spurgt eller anerkendt. Måske er der nogen, der ikke har lyttet, eller har handlet for hurtigt. Stå fast på dine egne værdier og hav tiltro til, at du kan spørge, lytte og forstå, hvor konflikten kommer fra. Det er som oftest nøglen til at løse den.

 

23. Skub

Nogle gange er det ikke nok bare at stå fast og lytte. Nogle gange må du række ud og give folk et lille skub, for at de kan komme videre. Skubbet er ofte det sværeste. For det er dér, hvor du med fuldt overlæg overtræder folks grænser for at hjælpe dem videre. De kærligste skub kommer i de sværeste samtaler. Dér hvor du ikke bare lytter til hvad de siger, men siger, hvad de har brug for at høre. Og som oftest vil de være meget taknemmelige for, at du havde modet til at give dem det lille skub, de havde brug for.

 

24. Vælg dine kampe

Prioritér dine ambitioner omhyggeligt. Du kan ikke udfordre folk på alle fronter på samme tid. Hvis alt er i bevægelse, under forandring og i udvikling, så har de ingen faste holdepunkter. Så bliver det for svært. Du kan ikke både udvikle fællesskabets logistik, infrastruktur, beslutningsprocesser, værdier, kommunikationsveje og selvforståelse samtidigt med at der strømmer masser af nye medlemmer ind. Fællesskabet kan ikke både vokse i størrelse og i dybde på samme tid. Det kræver en løbende afvejning. Vælg dine kampe med omhu og fokusér på dem, der vil frigive mest energi og mod på mere.

 

25. Vær tålmodig

Det tager meget længere tid end du tror. Alle har brug for at nå til deres egne erkendelser. Du kan ikke tænke for dem. Og du kan ikke handle for dem. Det bedste du kan gøre er at gøre det lettere for dem, men tempoet bestemmer de altid selv.

 

26. Husk, at verden er større end jeres organisation

Når du er dybt inde i en organisation er det let at udvikle en form for organisationsblindhed, der gør, at du ender med at tro, at I er så særlige, at I skal udvikle alle løsninger selv fra bunden af. Jo større jeres organisation er, jo lettere er det at være blind på denne måde. Men der er så mange andre projekter og organisationer, der står med nærmest de samme udfordringer: Om møder, om organisering, om motivation, om lederskab, om begejstring. Find dem. Lær af dem. Samarbejd med dem. Sammen kan I lave nogle meget bedre løsninger, der kan komme jer alle til gavn.

27. Forvent ikke tillid fra folk, der ikke kender dig
Det kan godt være, at du kun har de bedste hensigter, men det ved alle andre ikke. Så når du møder nye folk og præsenterer dem for dine tanker og projekter, så vil de ofte være skeptiske og bekymrede for, at du har bagtanker på den ene eller den anden måde. Lad være med at være skuffet over det. Tænk på, at du ville være mindst lige så skeptisk, hvis du var i samme situation. Giv dem tid til at lære dig at kende. Du skal vinde deres tillid med handling og ikke med ord.

28. Pas på dig selv

Håb er en stærk drivkraft. Håb er en økse, som du kan bryde døre ned med. Håb kalder på handling. Men husk, at håb forblænder. Du kan nemt komme til at overse og overhøre det helt åbenlyse fordi det ikke passer med dine forhåbninger. Det er så let at strække sig for langt, kæmpe for hårdt og tilsidesætte sig selv i håbet om at nå et mål. Men du når aldrig i mål. Der vil altid være mere at gøre. Mere at give. Og virkeligheden tager ikke hensyn til dine håb og drømme. Sørg for, at du får mindst lige så meget energi ud af det du gør, som du lægger i det. Du kan ikke leve på håb alene.

 

29. Lad være med at have ondt af dig selv

Nogengange er det hårdt. Nogengange har du mest lyst til at give op og trække dig, men du bliver ved alligevel. Og du har ondt af dig selv, fordi du er så vedholdende, også selvom det er hårdt. Men lad være med at have ondt af dig selv. Hvis du har ondt af dig selv, vil du hurtigt bruge alle dine kræfter på at fortælle dig selv historien om, hvor meget du kæmper, og hvor synd det er for dig. Og du kan ikke være noget for andre eller støtte andre, hvis du bruger din energi på at have ondt af dig selv.

 

30. Husk, at privilegier er usynlige.

Vi tænker aldrig over alle de fordele, som vi har fået med os. Og vi omgiver os ofte med folk, som minder meget om os selv. Derfor er det nemt at tro, at alle andre kommer fra ligeså gode kår og har ligeså gode muligheder som du selv. Husk, at dine privilegier er usynlige. Det er alt for nemt at glemme hvor meget andre skal overkomme og tilsidesætte for at gøre, som de gør, og være hvor de er. Tag aldrig for givet, at det er eller har været lige så let for dem som det har været for dig.

 

31. Bevar modet

I virkeligheden er der ingen, der rigtigt bekymrer sig om, hvorfor du gør det. Hvorfor du er håbefuld eller opgivende eller begejstret. Du skal ikke kun gøre det for andres skyld. Du skal gøre det for din egen. Den bedste måde at få anerkendelse på er ved ikke at behøve den. Gør det for at bevare dit eget mod og handlekraft. Gør det fordi det er sjovt og giver dig energi. Gør det fordi alle de andre muligheder er så utilfredsstillende. Gør det fordi det giver dig modet til at stå op om morgenen, tage din rustning på, og få ting til at ske. Hver dag.

 

32. Kend dine allierede

Du får brug for masser af hjælp undervejs. Støtte, råd, begejstring og overbærenhed. Derfor er det vigtigt, at du ved, hvem der er dine allierede. Det er de folk, der giver dig mere energi, end de tager. Dem, som du kan trække på, sparre med og støtte dig til, når du har brug for det. Dem, som også er der, når det går dårligt. Dem, som sørger for at minde dig om, at du kan ikke gøre alting selv. Lyt til dem. Giv dem lov til at hjælpe dig!

 

33. Det er aldrig slut.

At være en leder er ikke en titel, du opnår, men en praksis. Det er noget, som andre gør dig til, i kraft af hvad du gør for dem. Du bestemmer ikke selv, hvornår du stopper. Det kan ikke bare lade være og forvente, at andre træder til og overtager. Det sker ikke af sig selv. Så længe du er der – formelt eller uformelt – må du lede – eller være klar til det. Det er aldrig slut.

 

On optimism

Back in November, I attended the Copenhagen Book Fair where Nadja and I were interviewed by Andrea Hejlskov about our project Borgerlyst. It was a brief talk about literature, activism and nature, which you can see here (it’s in Danish, though):

One of the questions that Andrea asked us was how we could be so optimistic when things continue to look so grim.

I answered that I believe that optimism is a choice. You can only be hopeful when you act. When you make things happen. I didn’t say so in the interview, but I’ve been very inspired by how John Seager answered the same question in The Conversation:

I’m a total optimist. I didn’t start out as one, I just ended up there because all the other options seemed unrewarding.

You know, they’ve done research on luck. They done experiments where they take two people with similar life experiences. and one thinks she’s very lucky, and the other thinks she isn’t. They’ve both had their ups and downs in life. And they would give them those little metal thingamajigs, the puzzles you try to untangle to see how long it would take them. Except they can’t. They give you one that literally won’t come apart. The unlucky one gives up after about 30 seconds. The lucky one just keeps trying. Because the lucky one just figures, ‘I know I can do this.’ And so, having an optimistic cast of mind, and thinking that way opens up doors that the other way doesn’t. And y’know… if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

I learned a long time ago that nobody else seems to really care all that much what I think, so I might just as well think what gets me up in the morning, and that’s optimism.

I love that. I’m an optimist because all the other options seem so unrewarding.

Belonging

“As the globalised, placeless world spreads, and as progress is increasingly defined as the ability to look out of a hotel window in any city and see the same corporate logos lit up in familiar neon, it could be that the most radical thing to do is to belong.”

– Paul Kingsnorth: Real England

Obtain a yield

This is my attempt at rewriting permaculture principle no 3 — “Obtain a yield” in terms of Organisational Permaculture. It is part of a project initiated by Dan Mezick to map all 12 permaculture principles to cultivating groups and teams.

The idea is that the members of the Organisational Permaculture group each pick one of the permaculture principles and rewrite it. And we’ll end up with a complete draft of the 12 principles of organisational permaculture.

The only guidelines were that the posts describing each principle should be at least 500 but not more than 1000 words, and include at least one picture or diagram/sketch. But since there has been very little coordination, I have no idea if what I have written matches any other expectations than that.

Oh, well. It is a first draft, after all…

Obtain a yield

Whatever work you do together as a group should provide some concrete value to you. You need to ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing. That you obtain a yield.

A yield in this regard can be any number of different things. But generally it is something that leaves you better off than you were before. Such a yield is not just about money or food. It is about all the things that will enable you to sustain and improve your shared work.

Therefore, through your work you should strive to gain
• more connections
• more energy
• more joy
• more fun
• more community
• more courage
• more confidence
• more resources
• more beauty
• better understanding
than you had before. As permaculturist Bill Mollison says, “the yield of a system is theoretically unlimited, or, limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.” In other words, obtaining a yield is not just something we do at harvest or when we collect our paycheck. It is a continuous creative process, a flow of energy that helps us to sustain us in the work we do together.

As the community organiser Marshall Ganz has stated again and again: Collective action is what builds community. Doing things together is the one thing that will turn a group of people into a cohesive whole. And in order for collective action to be successful, it needs to obtain a yield.

Joy, fun and beauty are just as important yields as money, information and influence. And they are often a lot easier to harvest early on. It’s kind of cliché to say that we should focus on picking the low-hanging fruit. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

Having easy successes early on builds the confidence, ability and energy necessary to tackle bigger challenges later on. And as Ganz’ mentor, Saul Alinsky, put it, “the organizer’s job is to build confidence and hope in the idea of organization and thus in the people themselves: to win limited victories, each of which will build confidence and the feeling that ‘if we can do so much with what we have now just think what we will be able to do when we get big and strong.'”

Permaculturist David Holmgren remarks that any changes we make or elements we introduce in a system ought to be productive. It should increase the number of beneficial connections, increase the energy in the system, increase the yield. So it is with collective action. With each successful collective action that a group makes, the group as a whole grows stronger. It is the law of increasing returns. Just like how each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again. The group grows stronger the more it works together and the more success it achieves. Success breeds success. Or as it is written in the Gospels: “To those who have, more will be given.”

Confidence builds confidence. Generosity begets generosity. Trust begets trust. Obtaining these yields is the prerequisite to build and store the resources that will prove vital when unexpected challenges and difficulties arise.
But one word of warning when it comes to obtaining a yield: Don’t optimise too soon. Don’t let yourselves be seduced to focus solely on one or a few kinds of yield to the exclusion of the others. Forget about the small efficiencies. For, as the computer scientist Donald Knuth wisely noted, “about 97% of the time, premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

Optimisation comes at the cost of flexibility. You may not notice at first, but such a loss of flexibility can prove critical when a crisis occurs. It is a constant trade-off between exploiting a known path of success (optimising a current strategy), or diverting resources to exploring new paths (thereby wasting energy trying less efficient methods). Therefore, have many goals that can provide many different yields. Stay flexible, and forget elegance. Instead, remember: If it works, it’s beautiful.

Appreciative reminders

This is part six of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.

 

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So, where does that leaves us?

I would like to end this essay with a few concrete suggestions. But since I doubt that most people are willing to build their own an off-the-grid log cabin or to live in a kibbutz in the Arava desert, or want to go out and have somebody threaten to kill them, I thought I’d aim for something a little less radical, but perhaps even more important. Something more akin to that little magical moment that Frances Whitehead shared with the sphinx moth.

I call them appreciative reminders. They are humbly re-appropriated rituals that may help to remind us to appreciate our life, the world, the forces that have created it, and on which we continue to depend. And by helping us to such appreciation, they may, by extension, help us towards choosing restraint. I should note that many of these reminders are specific to the local climate and vegetation where I live. Other, quite different reminders may be required in other parts of the world.

Breathing
Breathing is our most fundamental relationship with the world. With every breath we draw, we reaffirm our continuing dependence on the world around us. It reminds us that we do not, cannot, live in separation from the world around us. We can’t appreciate every breath equally, but once in a while, take the time to savour it. Hold your breath for as long as you can and feel the thrill of life when you finally inhale. In this way, breathing can be a sacrament. That is, a metaphor that has come alive with meaning. Similar to how the bread and wine at the altar can come alive as the body of a saviour in the mouths of some (or just remain bread and wine for the mouths of others), a breath of air can come alive as the direct and immediate connection between you and the world. You are not separate from it, nor it from you. Part of it is always in you. Appreciate it as you would any other part of yourself.

Sun salutation
In yoga, the sun salutation is a sequence of poses. One of the most wellknown andwidely used sequences around. Traditionalists contend that it is at least 2,500 years old, and originated as a ritual prostration to the rising sun. The sun, of course, is the source of all energy on the planet. Without the sun, Earth would be a frozen, dark lump floating through space. The flow of energy from the sun is what makes life possible. It flows through all of us every day. Greeting and celebrating it every morning seems appropriate. Just imagine what a day would be like if the sun didn’t rise. So, take your time to appreciate the morning sun with a sun salutation. And you’ll get a good set of stretches with which to start the day, too.

Grace
Saying grace is mostly associated with the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But it is used in many cultures and contexts, both religious and secular. It is simply a short moment of gratitude and appreciation for all the wonder and work that has made a meal possible. From the forces of nature to all people who played a role in preparing, cultivating or hunting the food. In Japan, for instance, it is customary to put one’s hands together and say “Itadakimasu” before eating a meal. It translates as “I humbly receive” — and that is pretty much all that needs to be said. It doesn’t have to be a moment of great fanfare or pathos. Rather, it’s a moment of quiet reflection. Saying grace is a just a simple way to remind ourselves that every meal is a gift for which we should be grateful. A reminder that we should never take our food, nor the forces that we depend on to make it, for granted.

Grace in reverse
I don’t know there is any culture or religious practice where anybody actually does this, but it occurred to me that it might be appropriate. All the waste that we produce — both the organic matter such as peels, roots, stems and shells that we discard when cooking as well as the urine and shit that leave our bodies — is also food. Food that other organisms in the biosphere consume with relish, turning it into nutrients that allow new plants to grow. Just as we say “Grace” when we receive food, we should say it when we pass our waste on, for it, too, is food. Every time you empty your compost bin or flush your toilet, take the time to draw a little circle in the air. A little reminder of the intimate connection between the food you eat and the waste you give. A reminder that waste is food.

Breathing together
Before initiating some shared task, it can be a great help to have a shared way of checking in and leaving your thoughts and worries behind. Breathing together is a very powerful to do just that. I’ve experienced it in yoga, where we begin by sitting in the lotus position and then singing three Om’s together. Om is a mystical Sanskrit sound of Hindu origin, which you can chant, sing, hum or drone as a mantra. Singing it together gives a deep sense of reverberating togetherness. You can hear everybody’s voices together at once, but you can’t easily separate them into individual voices. It is one shared voice singing from multiple throats. Singing together means breathing together. You flow together, circulating, sharing and taking in part of each other. Tuning in to whatever you’re about to do together. Through the singing and the breathing, you become present, your mind calm, reminded to appreciate this moment.

Planting
In the spring, when soil temperature reaches 6°C, the micro-organisms will wake up, and the seeds in the ground will begin to sprout. This is the time of the planting. This is when you plant the seeds that will define this year’s crops. For everyone who has a garden or a plot of land (or at least has access to a garden), this should be a time for getting together. Invite your friends and family for a planting. A dig-in, a garden day, call it what you will. It will be a lovely day with good food and lots of hectic activity: Digging the garden, turning the compost, sharing seeds and seedlings, spreading the love from one garden to the next. Afterwards, take the time to visit and help others in their gardens. The planting is a reminder of the magic that is the sprouting seed. And a reminder that even a tiny seed can need a little help to grow.

Budburst
Budburst is the beautiful spring day when the buds of the trees finally burst and cascades of green begin to appear. It is the most vulnerable time of the year for the trees. They marshall their remaining strength saved up over the winter and burst forth with fresh green leaves so that they can begin growing anew through the wonder of photosynthesis. The trees depend on these first, few weak leaves to generate enough energy to allow more buds to burst, reinforcing the process. Budburst is an occasion to celebrate spring, the resilience of life, the overcoming winter, the rising sap and the sprouting anew. So take the time to go for a long walk in a forest or wooded area. Smell the changing air, listen to hopeful chirping of the birds. Take a long, deep breath and let the spring inside.

Summer Solstice
The longest day and the shortest night. The height of summer. Build a bonfire and let it burn through the short night, marking the turning point towards shorter days and longer nights. A reminder that we get light and dark in equal measure, and that we should appreciate both equally.

Harvest
All of the crops have been gathered. All the seeds have been collected. The summer is over, and autumn is nigh. And it is time for the most important party of the year. Celebrating not only the end of all the hard work that went into producing this year’s harvest, but also the bounty that we have gathered. That which will sustain us all through the winter, but which is at its ripest and brightest right now. It’s time to have a feast and a dance.

Fall
The days are growing darker. The leaves are turning, and slowly falling to the ground. What was once bright green is now yellow, brown or red. It is an occasion for reflecting on the frailty of life. What grew so powerfully, so irresistibly short months ago, is already spent. Take a loved one by the hand and go for a long walk in a forest or wooded area. Maybe even the same one that you visited for Budburst. Smell the changing air, listen to the cold wind rustling through the leaves. Remember all the people who are no longer here. All that you have lost along the way. Remember that one day you won’t be here either. Take a long, deep breath and let the autumn inside.

Winter Solstice
The shortest day and the longest night. The depth of winter. Stay up throughout the night with friends and family with candles and sweets. Stay awake, sing, tell stories, and play games to mark the turning point towards longer days and shorter nights. A reminder that we get dark and light in equal measure, and that we should appreciate both equally.

 

Depending on your sentiment, some or all of these reminders may come across as new age pseudo-spiritual babble. I invite you to find other reminders that suit you better.

But no matter which ones you choose, I hope that they will help remind you.

Remind you to be appreciative, humble and grateful for all the wonders of life we all receive every day.

Remind you of this, perhaps the most important, moment in human history. The moment when we need to realise that we’re all in this together, and that we need to develop new forms of communal restraint that allows us to take care of each other and the planet we share.

Remind you to opt for fewer, but better options. Options that don’t tempt us and make us smaller and weaker than we are. Options that help us find the things that we cannot do without. Options that give us space to grow, and to become. Options that make us happier, in spite of all.

Remind you that your choice does matter.

 

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This is the final part of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the essay in its entirety here.

Two stories of appreciation

This is part five of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.

 

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How can we find this love? How can we come to feel this kind of appreciation?

I believe that all paths to such feelings are deeply personal. What affects one will not necessarily affect another. But there are some commonalities. The most fundamental of these are related to life and death. To the wondrous, unfathomable depth and richness of the many forms and shapes of life around us. And to the awareness of our own mortality and frailty. Talking of such things can easily become very abstract. So I will try to illustrate what I mean through two very concrete examples.

When the artist Frances Whitehead moved to Chicago, she started a vegetable garden behind her house. One year she planted bottle gourds — one of the first plants domesticated by man. These plants have flowers that only bloom at night and wilt in the morning. So they require nocturnal insects to pollinate them. But there aren’t adequate pollinators in the Chicago area because the climate is too cold. So Frances did what all of her garden books recommended: She went out every evening and pollinated the flowers herself with a paint brush in order to get the gourds that she wanted.

But one night, she came out to find an enormous sphinx moth among the flowers. It was going from flower to flower, quietly and affectionately pollinating each in turn. Frances was awestruck: Here in this bombed-out neighbourhood of vacant homes in the middle of the city with hardly any trees — let alone nocturnal bottle gourd flowers — this moth showed up because she had planted the plant that it wanted. The plant that it had co-evolved to pollinate. Where did it come from? How did it find its destination?

Frances recalls:

I became like this child. And what was revealed to me was the closest I have ever come to a mystical or theological moment. So, I guess I am now officially a nature worshipper. But what I believe that I came to worship was not nature in that kind of tree-hugging kind of way. Actually, I got a glimpse of the complexity, of inter-connectivity that was beyond my comprehension up until that point.

She saw the magical complexity of life in that moment: Something bigger than herself. And she felt like she was stepping outside of herself, and feeling a deep sense of wonderment. She came to appreciate the interconnectedness, the interdependence, of every living thing.

But just as appreciation can build on the wonderment of everything living, it is also intimately linked with death. We don’t like to think about it, but with every passing day, we are one step closer to death. And it should give us pause to think.

All that we know will die. As will we. Knowing this, do we pay attention to what really matters? Do we pay enough attention to the people around us? Do we pay enough attention to what matters to them? Do we pay enough attention to ourselves? Are we making the most of it? Are we appreciating the lives we have?

In David Fincher’s film Fight Club, Tyler Durden (the dark, anarchic club founder) holds up a convenience store. Durden pulls the clerk, a poor fellow named Raymond K. Hessel, out into the alley behind the store and puts a gun to his head and tells him that he is going to die. Does he realise that? Does he want to work in a convenience store for the rest of his life? Doesn’t he more from life?

Shocked and sobbing, Raymond admits he once wanted to be a veterinarian.

Durden says that he’ll be watching him. That if Raymond’s not on his way to become a veterinarian in six weeks, Durden will find him and kill him. Then he lets Raymond go.

Why did he do this?

To make Raymond consider his life. To make him appreciate being alive. As Durden reflects:

Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.

Putting a gun in someone’s face is a very drastic way to make your point, but it is a point worth making: What would you appreciate after somebody had put a gun to your head and threatened to kill you?

There are so many things we don’t seem to appreciate. So many things we take for granted. We get caught up in churn of everyday life. We are often so busy just keeping everything rolling that we forget to enjoy it. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our goals and ambitions that we forget to appreciate all the wondrous things that happen along the way.

As Nietzsche said, “not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not a goal.” Or put in another way: You don’t have to wait for the music to finish before you can enjoy it. If that was the case, all musicians would play as fast as humanly possible so that they could reach the end, and allow people to appreciate it. Life is a process. A perpetual state of becoming. An endless now. We can only appreciate it as we live it. Sometimes, we just need a little reminder.

 

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This is part five of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here, or read the next part here.

An ethic of appreciation

This is part four of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.

 

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How can we develop such communal restraints on a global scale?

In the long run, such restraints may well become law. But it is not likely something that will be imposed on us from above any time soon, since there seems to be very little political will to introduce restraints that break with the status quo. As the politicians would argue, it makes no sense to try and introduce laws that the majority of their constituency doesn’t appear to want. You can’t make legislation without popular support (well, and expect to be re-elected, anyway).

But as Aldo Leopold said, only the most naïve student of history actually believes that Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. What he did was to summarise an already existing ethic. Such an ethic of sustainability is already forming. It is a new set of social norms and practices for sustainable living that we are developing as we become more aware of how our way of living is affecting the planet.

It is an ethic we are developing by choosing restraints to limit the choices we can make, freeing us, in turn, to focus on the things that we cannot do without. But the challenge is, as I’ve described above, that we are choosing these restraints individually, which weakens our resolve. We need to find new ways of articulating our choice of such restraints that makes our resolve stronger. And which makes them easier to commit to.

I am an atheist. But I agree with Alain De Botton who argues that religions have important things to teach the secular world. Religious rules and vows may seem are well-respected means of communal restraint. Even though they may seem medieval and antiquated toady, most of them made good sense at their time of origin. As an anthropologist friend of mine explained, the dietary and clothing restrictions of Islam is actually very sensible practical advice for living in the desert (with the technology available in the 7th century), And so, it is quite similar to the recommendations we get from the Department of Health.

Similarly, the ban of usury once found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam was originally instituted to prevent exploitation of the poor through debt peonage, which was rampant at the time (this was back when slavery was a part of everyday life). Indeed, the anthropologist David Graeber has argued that the religious restraints of Christianity were vital in changing perceptions of slavery, leading to its eventual abolition.

Now, I’m definitely not advocating starting a new religion. But I do think that we can benefit by adopting some of the same practices used by religions in order to develop and strengthen a new ethic of sustainability based on communal restraint. In fact, I think that some of these practices will make it easier to make the choices we know we need make. As the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.

We already have plenty of information. Plenty of facts about soil degradation, peak oil and carbon emissions. But we cannot use these facts to scare people towards sustainability. That will only lead to them to refuse acknowledging the need for restraint even more. Instead, we need to develop an ethic of appreciation.

Some of the most beautiful and intensely poetic religious rituals and ceremonies revolve around appreciation: Wedding ceremonies, naming ceremonies, funerals are all about appreciating love and life. That is why they move us so.

But there are also beautiful celebrations of the seasons, the Earth and the passage of time. Like the Jewish harvest holiday of Shavuot, or the Japanese festival of Tsukimi where people stand together in the autumn night, celebrating the harvest moon, reflecting on the passage of time and the frailty of life whilst drinking tea and eating rice cakes.

We often underestimate the profound love that is at the core of all religions. It is a deep, honest and humble appreciation of the world and the forces that have created it. And from that springs a deep gratitude and a great sense of moral obligation. An obligation to nurture and cherish that world.

It is through such love that we become willing to choose restraint.

 

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This is part four of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here, or read the next part here.

Communal restraint

This is part three of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.

 

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The farmer and author Wendell Berry relates the story of an Amish farmer who was asked, “what does community mean to you?” He said, “when my son and I rest our horses from plowing in the spring, we usually stop them at the highest point of our farm. From that standpoint we can see thirteen other teams at work. And I know that if I get sick or debilitated or die, those thirteen teams will be at work on my farm.”

This is the realisation that we need to make: That we’re all in this together. That we depend on one another ― not just from time to time, but all the time. And not only do we depend on each other for help in times of need, we also depend on each other to restrain ourselves for the sake of the whole community.

Small communities have always been defined by such social restraints: Traditions, institutions, norms and expectations. Marriage is a good example, as Berry explains: “Just because you have the capacity to look with desire on every desirable woman doesn’t mean that you ought to try to sleep with every one of them.”

In fact, Berry sees the institution of marriage as a kind of communal generosity. Marrying one person indicates fidelity ― not just to your chosen partner, but to the whole community. It’s an indication of restraint that sets others free. They may look upon you with desire, and they may be tempted to seduce you ― but they will restrain themselves because of their respect of the vow of restraint that you have taken. Or perhaps because of their respect of the institution through which you took that vow.

Now, I don’t think that we should return to all of the social and religious restraints of medieval village life. But I do think that we have to develop some new communal institutions and restraints in order to maintain the stocks of resources that we all depend upon. The ecologist Garrett Hardin suggests that one solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is to make a shared agreement to limit our individual use of our shared resources. He calls it “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” But what might such communal restraints look like?

One example is the city of São Paulo, which banned all outdoor advertisements in 2007. Just think about that: The more than 20 million inhabitants of the world’s fourth-biggest city have agreed to restrain themselves from advertising in order to defend the commons that is the city’s public spaces. And they appear happier because of it. A 2011 study showed that more than 70 percent of city residents find the ban to be beneficial.

In a similar vein, Wikipedia, the world’s fifth-biggest website, leaves hundreds of million dollars in potential ad revenue on the table each year. They believe that advertising would cheapen the encyclopedia and threaten the neutrality and impartiality of the content. Instead, it is funded solely through donations from its millions of users worldwide.

Another example is the Israeli kibbutz Ne’ot Semadar where I spent two months in the spring of 2011. In this small, tightly knit community there are no advertisements, no newspapers, no TV, no sweets, no fast food, very little alcohol, no mobile phones in the public space, and internet access was limited to the private homes or the communal internet room. And there was no need for money since there were no shops, and thus nothing to spend money on.

Going as far as they have at Ne’ot Semadar may sound draconian. But since everybody there have agreed to these restraints, it doesn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel deprived at all. Instead, I felt that I had been given more space. To meet people. To learn.

For instance, since none of us received any money for our work, we all had to consider the true importance and value of our work. Both in terms of the part our labour played in the logical order of things, but also the moral implications of it: How others depended on it. What the consequences would be if we failed to do our job properly. Working in the goat yard, I had part of the responsibility for more than 200 goats. The goats depended on me. To feed them and bring them water. To milk them. To keep them alive. If I overslept and didn’t get up in time for the milking and feeding, the goats would suffer. The consequences would be immediate. It was a very tangible sense of responsibility.

In a way, this sense of responsibility was the most important restraint of all at Ne’ot Semadar. I knew that the kibbutz depended on me to do this work. And being part of this community, I was depending on them, too. But what were the limits of this responsibility? In the beginning I was constantly fretting: Am I working hard enough? Is this acceptable? What do the others think? Having no external measure of the value of my work, I was constantly badgering myself to work harder. The only way I could know for sure would be to be done. But on a farm there’s always work to do and rushing it rarely helps.

It took me a couple of weeks to realise that nobody was checking up on me. Nobody worried whether I was working hard enough. If anything they thought I was crazy to work so hard. So I stopped fretting. And I started to spend time with my own thoughts, dreams and longings. It gave me room to grow. To be ― or become ― me.

In a way, that was the real surprise: That living in a community with so many restraints actually made me feel more free. That I felt more free than I feel here in Copenhagen ― where I have so many more options, but only under the constant intrusion of people, products and companies that are trying to influence the decisions I make. That choosing restraint, paradoxically, made me happier.

 

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This is part three of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here, or read the next part here.