A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.
– David Foster Wallace
A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.
– David Foster Wallace
Bio update: Since I left Borgerlyst in June, I’ve been working on a new community organising initiative, focusing on building a local broad-based citizens’ alliance in Copenhagen.
After some months in stealth mode with the working title “Civilsamfundsalliancen”, we’ve now made ourselves known to the world by our official name:
Medborgerne is Danish, and can be translated as “citizens” – but with the added connotation of being an active member of a community, not just a set of rights. Medborgerne is a platform for broad-based community organising in Denmark. Inspired by Industrial Areas Foundation in the US, Citizens UK in the UK, and DICO in Germany, we hope to take similar role in Denmark, helping local communities build power for social justice and the common good.
I’ve co-founded the initiative with Ruth Gøjsen and Michael Wulff, and we’re currently looking to raise the funding necessary to build a local broad-based citizens’ alliance in Copenhagen. In the long term, our goal is to build a network of local citizens’ alliances to have an influence on national politics in Denmark.
We’ve just launched our website (in Danish, obviously), and I’ve already had my first media appearance as co-founder of Medborgerne in an interview in the Danish online magazine Altinget.
Vi forstår ikke hvad det vil sige at være på flugt, før vi møder det. Det er ikke nok at se det i fjernsynsbilleder fra fjerne lande. Det går først op for os, når det kommer tæt på – når vi møder mennesker på flugt i vores eget land.
Det er først, når vi ser disse mennesker i rammer vi kan genkende – på motorveje, banegårde og rastepladser – at vi forstår, hvor forfærdelig og skræmmende en oplevelse det må være. At forlade sit land. At kæmpe for at holde sammen på sin familie. At være bange for, hvad der venter én.
På et abstrakt plan vidste vi det godt. Gennem de sidste år har vi set flere og flere konflikter flamme op og tvinge flere og flere på flugt. Vi har hørt tallene af døde, sårede og flygtende stige og stige. Men det var bare tal. Vi forstod ikke rigtigt, at der bag tallene var skæbner, historier og håb.
Så længe det var abstrakt, var det blot endnu et politisk spørgsmål. En sag, man kunne være uenig i og ryste på hovedet af. Hvor man kunne synes tonen var for skinger. Men nu ser vi det. Nu forstår vi det. Og nu reagerer vi.
Vi hjælper, hvor vi kan. Som under krigen hjælper vi folk til Sverige. Men hvor de dengang flygtede fra en fremmed besættelsesmagt, flygter de i dag fra os. Fra den politik og de vilkår vores land stiller dem i udsigt.
Netop som vi forstår, hvad det vil sige at være på flugt, forstår vi også konsekvenserne af de politiske valg, der bliver truffet i vores land. Vi lever i et land, der aktivt søger at skræmme folk væk. Som lukker sig om sig selv i en sådan grad, at folk, der intet har, hellere vil gå 200 kilometer end at søge tilflugt her.
Det giver ikke bare en dårlig smag i munden. Det vækker skam. Og vrede. Og med denne vrede følger et stort behov for at handle. Et behov for at vise, at sådan er Danmark ikke. At folk på flugt er velkomne her.
Denne vrede er vigtig. Husk den. Ikke kun nu, hvor der er masser af opmærksomhed og gejst. Men også om en måned eller tre, når det ikke længere er nyt, og ikke længere føles akut.
Husk denne vrede i det lange seje træk, der kommer. For at ændre den politik, der bliver ført. For at møde og hjælpe de mennesker, der er kommet hertil, og som har brug for vores støtte til at kunne opbygge en ny tilværelse i dette fremmede land. For at vise, at i Danmark er flygtninge velkomne.
For the past five years, two projects have been a constant presence in my life: The Copenhagen Food Co-op and Borgerlyst – the laboratory for civic agency that I co-founded with Nadja Pass in 2010. Both projects have been the source of a lot of learning, good experiences and good friends.
But over the past few months, I’ve been preparing to step down from my responsibilities in both of these projects to make room for something new.
In April, I stepped down from the board of the food co-op. I gave a status report at the annual General Assembly, describing how the community has grown and developed over the past five years. It’s been quite a journey, with lots of ups and downs. And I’m very happy to pass on the reins to the new board. They’re all good people with lots of drive, hope and vision. And I’m certain they will help the food co-op become an even better community for organic veggie enthusiasts all over Copenhagen.
And on June 5th, on Borgerlyst’s fifth anniversary, I stepped down from Borgerlyst. We had a big party to celebrate and look back on all that we have achieved together. Nadja will continue to develop the project in a new direction, and I will focus on working on a new project that has been in the works for a while now.
The project focuses on working with community organising as a method and approach to develop the power and agency of ordinary citizens and create new trustful relationships in the local communities where they work and live. This short film gives a good introduction to community organising:
The project’s working title is “the civil society alliance” – because the goal is to build a broad-based community organisation that brings together many of the diverse communities and institutions of Danish civil society – from churches, mosques and synagogues to labour unions, schools and student organisations. Bringing all of these communities together to build their political power and ability to work for the common good – not in spite of but through their diversity.
One of my main sources of inspiration for this work is the UK-based community organising charity Citizens UK. I attended their six-day training in Cardiff last autumn, and I’ve been very impressed with the efficacy and professionalism of their organisation. In my view, their approach is exactly the kind of thing we need to revitalise Danish politics and participatory democracy. As one organiser at the Citizens UK General Election Accountability Assembly on May 3rd put it: “This is how politics used to be done, and we wish it could be done like this more.”
I’m really excited to be able to focus on this work. And I’m fortunate to be working together with a group of excellent and dedicated people from across Danish civil society. In the coming months, we will be writing grant proposals for a pilot project, meeting people, listening to their needs, interests and worries and get people engaged.
More to come …
Back in September, I attended the Economy, People & Planet conference at the Copenhagen Business School. It was an intense experience with lots of good people, interesting talks and workshops. The talk that I enjoyed the most was CBS professor Ole Bjerg who talked about The Inconvenient Truth of the Post-Growth Economy
He started out with the image of the Earth seen from space that we greens often show to express that we’re all in it together on this Spaceship Earth. But his point was that there are four errors with that image:
1) The Earth is round
Seeing the Earth from space doesn’t match with the perspective of life on Earth that we experience everyday. Nothing in our day-to-day activities give us that sense of connection to something as huge as the entire planet. There’s no direct feedback.
2) There are no people
Seeing such images of the whole planet is an ecologist’s dream: It’s a whole system without any visible interference. For the uninitiated, seeing such an image will make them feel unwelcome. The indirect conclusion being that they – people – are the problem. That without any people on it, the planet would be in balance. That the planet would be better off without us.
3) There are no borders
You can’t see borders and countries from space, yet they are very much there. We can’t ignore them. No matter how much we want it, there is no global “we”. It is an abstract and unreal ideal. Simply because we don’t all feel that we’re in it together. Very few refugees and migrants are welcomed across borders. Zooming out doesn’t make them go away.
4) Who’s looking at this image?
This is not a human perspective. Sure, it might be an astronaut. But it will a tiny minority of the Earth’s population who will have the opportunity to see the Earth from space. So maybe it’s God? Maybe it’s a postcard from God? If so, it merely takes our agency. It just shows that we’re out of our league. And what is God doing? Either he sent the postcard because he’s left us behind. Or maybe he can’t help us. Or maybe he just likes to watch…
For someone like me who have been known to use the image of Earth seen from space as a macroscope to show how we’re interconnected and interdependent, Bjerg’s points are both provocative and insightful. It is very much true that zooming out like this makes us lose our human everyday perspective of the people and politics that our lives consist of. The image asks us to leave that behind for a bigger, more abstract cause. The planet itself.
And having thought about this, I tend to agree. As Wendell Berry says, “it all turns on affection.” It won’t be appreciation that saves us, it will be affection. Affection to specific places. To specific people. To specific needs.
And that leads to Ole Bjerg’s conclusion. Instead of focusing on the image of the planet as a whole, we should focus on this instead:
Our money offers a much more direct, close and immediate connection between the health of the planet and our own everyday life. It’s a leverage point, as Donella Meadows would say. If we can change the way our money works, we can change the way we relate to the planet.
Bjerg offered a few examples, including local money and full reserve banking. He is working with the initiative Gode Penge – a Danish equivalent to the British think tank Positive Money that lobbies for money reform as a way to create not only a more sustainable economy, but also a more sustainable planet.
I encourage you to check it out if you’re not already familiar with it. I think you’ll be surprised by what you’ll find …
“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
In this essay I challenge our celebration of freedom of choice and offer a case for choosing restraint, instead. I argue that we need to rediscover appreciation. Because, in the words Abraham Joshua Heschel, “humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”
It also contains stories about living in the wild, banning advertisements, being threatened with a gun, pollinating flowers, saying grace, and herding goats.
I spent a long time writing and thinking about it, and I think it has turned pretty well. I hope you will take the time to read it.
It is somewhat longer than my usual blog posts, so I’ve split it up into six parts, which I’ll post here one by one to get people interested. You’ll find the first part below.
We celebrate our freedom of choice. But in fact it is our options that control us ― not the other way around. There are so many options available to us all the time, inviting us to choose them.
Go to any convenience store or supermarket. Go down any shopping street. Sit at your computer or take out your smartphone. Watch TV or go to the movies. In all of these places your attention will be guided. You will be reminded of all the options at hand, offering instant gratification:
These ever-present reminders of these options reinforce our use of them. They become habits. And so we indulge ourselves all the time: Why not have a sugar boost? A coffee fix? Check out the latest news or gossip? Or how about a quick look to see if your latest status update has received any likes?
The wealth of options available to us ― choices to consume various products, mostly ― all but paralyse us. For instance, the average American supermarket stocks 30-40 different kinds of breakfast cereal. And almost just as many different kinds of peanut butter: Do you want smooth or chunky? Or extra chunky? Or do you prefer creamy? Or crunchy? Do you want regular, natural or organic? Or perhaps a reduced fat variety? And what if your preferred combination of natural and creamy isn’t available? What is your second preferred option?
As we become unable to analyse all of the options on offer, we come to suffer from what psychologists call “decision fatigue” — as we have more decisions to make, our decisions become progressively worse. We can either agonise over every single choice we make to ensure that we pick the right option (and generally feel less satisfied because we are now acutely aware of all the options we didn’t choose), or we can just pick the options that we have some sort of emotional or habitual connection to.
These are typically the options that address our weaknesses and vices rather than our strengths. These are the options that appeal to us on a habitual, subconscious level. And whenever there is a lapse in our awareness. Whenever the barrage of options overwhelm us and opens a chink in our mental armour, we follow the habitual impulse to give into these small temptations. And so we find ourselves choosing to buy things and do things that we know are bad for us. We pick options that we don’t really want, but which are so alluringly easy to choose.
These options tempt us in ways that are so hard to avoid. They make us smaller and weaker than we really are. Than we can be.
And yet with every choice we make, we are constantly reminded that these are our own choices. And that we only have ourselves to blame when we make choices that are bad for us. It is our fault. Our weakness. Our addiction.
But that is a lie.
When everything we see is highlighting a certain set of options, urging and cajoling us to choose between them, it becomes fiercely difficult to choose something else.
It’s very difficult to avoid having your train of thought hi-jacked by billboards and advertisements when you enter a public space. Most of us are probably so used to it by now that we don’t really consider how ridiculously violating it is to have your personal, mental space flooded with unsolicited messages reminding you of your own weaknesses. The street artist Banksy said it best:
People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it.
But it gets even worse if you make a conscious decision to avoid some of the things that talk to your weaknesses. For instance if you choose
That you don’t want to watch TV because it makes you spend your time slouched, entertained and unaltered.
That you don’t want to eat fast food because it makes you tired, fat and lazy.
That you don’t want to use Facebook because it makes you care way too much about imaginary internet points and not enough about meeting people face to face.
No matter what reasons you offer, you will soon find yourself to be considered (and feeling) preachy and holier-than-thou.
Because if you choose to refuse something for reasons like this, then what does it say about the people who haven’t made the same choice? Does it mean that they’re choosing to be slouched, fat and unable to engage with other people face to face?
Of course not.
It just means that they are not willing to give up those options entirely. Either because they genuinely like them, and don’t see them as all that problematic (there is always a balance to strike, it seems. Soul food, for instance, is supposedly good for the soul, but not necessarily good for the body). Or because they don’t want to be seen as preachy and holy. Because they don’t want to be forced to explain why they’ve opted out every time the topic is touched upon. As the carnivore joke goes:
– “How do you know if someone is a vegetarian?”
– “Don’t worry, she’ll make sure to tell you.”
We don’t like anybody else to remind us of our own weaknesses. We all fight that fight every day. And similarly, most of us don’t like to remind others of their weaknesses. It’s their choice, after all. We are all adults. We should be able to make our own decisions. We are all free to choose who we want to be.
But we only have freedom of choice to the extent that we are free to define our options. And we rarely consider all of the options that are available to us. Instead, the options we tend to consider are guided by the norms and expectations of the society of which we are part. For instance, we don’t really consider a life without advertisements — simply because of the vast social consequences that such a choice would entail. We would have to opt out of society altogether to avoid them.
And so, when we celebrate our freedom of choice, we gloss over the fact that this freedom of choice is shaped, to a large extent, by products, services and retailers that invite overindulgence, even addiction. That some options are indeed a lot easier to choose than others.
This raises the question: Which options are being left out? Which options do we come to ignore as our attention is guided towards indulgence?
We don’t see the option that says “None of the above.” We don’t consider that we always have the option to withhold our choice or even pick something not on the list of available options. In this way, what is at stake here is more than the personal freedom to be who you want to be. It is an ideologically driven celebration of choice. And it doesn’t allow us not to choose. Because at its very core is what the farmer and author Wes Jackson calls a refusal to practice restraint.
See, we have never had to worry about restraint before. As hunter-gatherers, we hunted and gathered as much as we could and as much as we needed. It is speculated that the first people in Northern America and Australia killed off all of the megafauna there within a few hundred years of their arrival ― because they couldn’t restrain themselves. It was just too easy pickings.
With the advent of agriculture, we have begun a trajectory of exploitation, where our only restraint has been the technology at our disposal. At present, we have optimised our technological exploitation of the Earth’s resources in a way that seems certain to lead to the brink of depletion.
Simply put, we are running out of the stuff that is necessary to sustain us. It is a tragedy of the commons at a global scale. We cannot sustain infinite growth, infinite options, infinite freedom of choice on a finite planet. And so, it seems certain that the only way that we can prevent collapse is if we can learn restraint. We have to acknowledge the limits of the planet that we all share and depend upon.
We don’t like to acknowledge these limits because that will force us to limit our freedom of choice. It will force us to recognize the fact that we can’t have it all. We don’t want to be told “No”. Because, in the broad scale of history, we have never taken no for an answer.
That is why Wes Jackson sees this moment as the most important moment in human history, including our walk out of Africa: It is the moment where we have to learn restraint. Where we have to start living within our means — hopefully while retaining the knowledge that allowed human civilization and the exploitation of all those resources in first place.
In this way, we are faced with a fundamental challenge to the way we have come to see ourselves: Of all the options available to us, are we able to choose restraint?
They say knowledge is power, and that power corrupts. These are easy things to say, but it can be hard to fathom their full meaning.
The quote is from Ellsberg’s memoir “Secrets”, and it is something that he told Henry Kissinger just before Kissinger was given his first high level security clearance. I think it does well to describe how knowledge, and secrets specifically, can change how you relate to other people.
“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.
“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.
“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.
“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.
“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.
“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.
“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”
….Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning. As I’ve said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.
I think our great failure to find good political leaders today is a deeper issue. I just read a quote by Laurens Van Der Post in which he said: the reason we don’t have leaders is because we don’t want them, that we’ve entered the era of wanting to be self-led and self-directed. I think he would credit this to a rise in human consciousness.
I don’t think we will ever find a heroic leader that will satisfy us again. So we’re in this transition time of wanting a different politics.
I would say that what we want, as it’s clear in a lot of surveys that Yankelovich and others have done, is for our institutions to give us back the authority and the means for taking care of the major issues of our day in our communities, in our schools, in our local health-care facilities, whatever.
I also think that we still have a lot of politicians, as well-intentioned as they are, who just get swept into the dynamics of our political system which turns them very quickly into self-serving, difficult-to-take-a-stand leaders.
In December, I attended a seminar run by Vibe Strøier, one of the leading lights in organizational psychology in Denmark. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a consultant, helping large organisations deal with organisational change.
As she described her experiences and her approach (which I might write more about another time), it struck me how much of her work focused on helping managers and their subordinates cope with changes that they hadn’t had any say in. Put in another way: She helped people deal with the manifold stresses and pressures that were caused by the structures of authority in which they were embedded.
For instance, she used Heidegger’s notion of Thrownness, which describes how we are thrown into a world full of things that we have no way of influencing, to help middle managers accept the limitations of their position — under pressure by managers, subordinates and customers — and focus on the things that they can actually change instead. In a way, it is quite similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, which has spread through its association with Alcoholics Anonymous.
It would seem that the working life of a mid-level manager in a large public sector organisation is comparable to the personal crisis associated with something like alcoholism. Which is sad, indeed. Because that would imply that it is just as impossible for a manager to change the power structures in which he is placed, as it is for an alcoholic to not be an alcholic any more (and as they say, once you’re an alcoholic, you can stop drinking alcohol but you’ll always remain an alcoholic).
Strøier clearly says that what stresses people out in big organisations is having to deal with an opaque power structure that can (and often does) turn their working life upside down without giving them any say in the matter. But even so, she focuses on helping people cope with having to work under the existing conditions (presumably because she finds that it is infeasible to change these underlying power structures).
To me, this poses some fundamental questions:
Thinking about this, I find that this is something of a false dichotomy: You can fight to make big changes happen, but most often, what you will get is a lot of small improvements. The key is in the compromise. As Saul Alinsky wrote:
To the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.
A free and open society is an ongoing conflict interrupted periodically by compromises — which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum. Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise”.
But the thing is: To get even those 30 percent ahead, you have to start out unreasonable. You have to demand it all. You have to go for the big change. If you just accept things as they are and try to make them tolerable, they will never improve. In fact, most likely, they will gradually get worse.