Category Archives: Politics

Politics

Civilsamfundets renæssance

Note, oktober 2018: Jeg skrev det første udkast på dette essay i foråret 2014 for at lodde  interesse for at introducere community organising som tilgang i Danmark. Efter følgende gennemskrivninger, blev det endelige essay en del af begrundelsen for opstarten af Medborgerne – Danmarks første borgeralliance.

 

Behovet for, at civilsamfundets fællesskaber står sammen og tager ansvar har aldrig været større. Vi står overfor udfordringer, som ingen af os kan løse alene. Det kræver, at vi i civilsamfundet – både enkelte borgere, løst koblede fællesskaber og gamle organisationer – finder sammen.

At vi lærer at organisere os og arbejde sammen. For på trods af vores forskelligheder, har vi meget mere til fælles. Og det kræver, at vi lærer at handle politisk og målrettet på de problemstillinger, der ligger os alle på sinde. At vi opbygger en alliance på tværs af civilsamfundets mange fællesskaber.

I

I disse år spirer nye lokale, fællesskabsorienterede initiativer frem over alt: Byttemarkeder, byhaver, reparationscaféer, pop-up caféer, restaurant-dage, samtalesaloner og meget mere. Disse nye “aktivt uorganiserede” fællesskabsprojekter er blevet muliggjort af internettet, der både gør det let at starte nye initiativer og sprede begejstringen, og for andre at opdage og engagere sig på løsere og mere fleksible vilkår end det hidtil har været muligt. Hvorfor stifte en forening, når du bare kan starte en Facebook-gruppe?

Disse projekter har alle det til fælles, at de fokuserer på at skabe noget nyt, og vise, at det kan lade sig gøre. Som f.eks. Cykling Uden Alder, hvor frivillige kører ture med ældre medborgere i cykel-rickshaws. Eller Venligboerne, hvor lokale borgere møder nytilkomne asylansøgere og hjælper dem med at lære dansk, finde tøj og møbler og meget andet. Eller fødevarefællesskaber, hvor borgere går sammen om at købe fødevarer direkte fra lokale økologiske landmænd og derved støtte lokal og bæredygtig fødevareproduktion. Som Signe Voltelen, der står bag flere københavnske byhaveprojekter, forklarer: “Mange […] synes, politikerne har fejlet. I den forstand er de nye initiativer en reaktion. En måde at begynde forfra, nedefra – men med det positive som drivkraft.”

Men selvom disse initiativer berører forskellige politiske spørgsmål om alt fra ældre og asyl til fødevarer og klima, er de som regel omhyggelige med at understrege, at de er apolitiske og åbne for alle. Til trods for, at de ganske tydeligt tager stilling i deres handlinger. Det er en selvmodsigelse som de lever fint med, fordi de gerne vil bruge deres handlekraft til at gøre en forskel i deres egen hverdag, men ikke kan overskue at engagere sig i de større bagvedliggende politiske spørgsmål.

Af og til opstår der dog en politisk sag, der er så grel, at borgerne rejser sig i vrede. Som f.eks. i februar 2014, da hele landet nærmest var i oprør over S-SF-R-regeringens magtfuldkomne gennemtrumfen af salget af DONG-aktier til den berygtede investeringsbank Goldman Sachs. I løbet af få uger blev der indsamlet mere end 250.000 online underskrifter mod salget, som meningsmålinger viste, at mere end 80% af danskerne var imod. Det udløste en krise, der resulterede i, at SF forlod regeringen. Men Folketinget stemte alligevel for salget. Og snart efter fortog modstanden sig. Selv ikke da regeringen efterfølgende besluttede også at sælge det statsejede selskab NETS til den mindste lige skruppelløse kapitalfond Bain Capital gav det anledning til mere end mat frustration og politikerlede. For lige så let som folk kan mobilisere sig om en vred enkeltsag, lige så hurtigt kan det løbe det ud i sandet igen. Det er kun, når modstanden er organiseret og vedholdende, at civilsamfundet kan holde beslutningstagerne ansvarlige.

Forskellen mellem mobilisering og organisering kommer klart til udtryk hver gang, der finder en ny skolemassakre sted i USA. Så mobiliserer borgerne sig og kræver, at nu må politikerne virkelig sørge for at stramme våbenlovgivningen. Meningsmålinger viser, at op mod 60% af amerikanerne går ind for strammere våbenlovgivning, men selvom der finder skolemassakrer sted med uhyggelig regelmæssighed, sker der alligevel ikke noget. For hver gang, der er optræk til stramninger, er The National Rifle Association lynhurtigt ude og lægge pres på de politikere, der sidder med de afgørende stemmer. De har 13.000 lokalafdelinger fordelt over hele landet, og de står klar og ved præcist hvor og hvordan de skal sætte ind for at få politikerne til at rette ind. Til trods for, at de er i mindretal formår de alligevel at forhindre stramninger af våbenlovgivningen – simpelthen fordi de er bedre organiserede end deres modstandere.

Denne form for handlekraftig organisering er civilsamfundets vigtigste redskab til at skabe politiske forandringer. Et andet eksempel på dette er da den sorte borgerrettighedsforekæmper og fagforeningsmand A. Philip Randolph mødtes med præsident Franklin D. Roosevelt i årene før Anden Verdenskrig. Randolph havde længe kæmpet for at få et møde med præsidenten. Og nu præsenterede han sin sag og argumenterede for behovet for at indføre lovgivning, der kunne stoppe diskrimination af sorte i virksomheder, der fik offentlige kontrakter. Da Randolph var færdig, lænede præsidenten sig tilbage og overvejede, hvad der var blevet sagt. Så nikkede han og sagde: “Jeg er enig med dig. Nu må du gå ud og tvinge mig til at gøre det.”

Som historien almindeligvis fortælles, kunne Roosevelt ikke risikere sit politiske liv for denne sag, selvom han principielt var enig i behovet for ny lovgivning. Han ville først være i stand til at indføre en sådan lovgivning, hvis det fremstod som om, at han var blevet presset til at gøre det. For ellers ville hans egne politiske støtter være imod ham. Dette pres måtte komme fra civilsamfundet. Og de borgere, der ønskede denne nye lov, måtte organisere sig for at lægge det fornødne pres på ham. Civilsamfundets magt ligger altså i at organisere sig og lægge pres på politikerne i et sådant omfang, at de ikke længere kan ignorere de emner, som civilsamfundet ønsker at sætte på dagsordenen.

I Danmark har civilsamfundets fællesskaber – fagforeninger og kirkelige organisationer, højskoler og oplysningsforbund, brugsforeninger og andelsboligforeninger – en meget stærk tradition for denne form for organisering. Det har været afgørende for at gøre Danmark til at et af de mest tillidsfulde og demokratiske lande i verden. Ikke alene arbejdede disse fællesskaber hver især for at skabe det samfund de ønskede at leve i, men de formåede også at organisere sig og samarbejde om at opbygge den fornødne magt, der skulle til at sætte deres ønsker på den politiske dagsorden. Det var sådan det danske velfærdssamfund blev skabt.

Men i de senere år har disse fællesskaber mistet kraft. De seneste generationer er vokset op med en velfærdsstat, der har givet os så mange muligheder, at vi helt har glemt hvad det vil sige at kæmpe for noget. Og vi har glemt den kraft, der ligger i at organisere sig. I stedet ser vi de organisationer, der byggede vores samfund, mere som produkter og services end som levende handlefællesskaber. Flere og flere borgere er ikke længere aktive deltagere, men forbrugere og tilskuere. De ser fagforeningen som et forsikringsselskab for deres arbejde. De ser kirken som en udbyder af kulturelle tilbud som spaghettigudstjenester og babysalmesang. De ser andelsboligforeningen som et spekulationsobjekt. De ser foreningen som fritidstilbud eller som samvittighedsaflad.

Denne udvikling har sat vores demokrati under pres. Flere og flere danskere føler sig afmægtige og frustrerede over de muligheder, som de har for at engagere sig. Den offentlige debat er fastlåst og de politiske partier bliver stadigt mere topstyrede. Flere og flere danskere lever i bobler, hvor de kun omgås folk, der ligner dem selv. Vi mødes i stadigt mindre grad i fællesskaber, der går på tværs af social baggrund, holdning, uddannelse, religion og etnicitet – hvilket mindsker forståelsen for andre grupper i samfundet.

Og samtidigt oplever vi flere og flere udfordringer, som politikere og forvaltninger ikke formår at løse. Den sociale ulighed vokser. Der er stadigt større mistillid til folk med anden etnisk baggrund. Flere og flere danskere føler sig pressede og stressede, men internaliserer disse bekymringer og skyder skylden på deres egen utilstrækkelighed i stedet end at søge at ændre de rammer, der presser dem. Hvilket igen gør, at de let kommer til at føle sig ensomme og isolerede. Og bagved det hele kaster klimaforandringerne en lang skygge over fremtiden, som ingen kan overskue konsekvenserne af, og som ingen lader til at være villige til at handle på.

Byhaverne, byttemarkederne og alle de andre nye, fremspirende fællesskabsinitiativer er en reaktion på denne udvikling. Det er en søgen efter nye, rene og umiddelbare muligheder for selv at møde andre og sammen kunne gøre en forskel i det små og i sin egen hverdag. Disse projekter forløser en stærk begejstring og et stort mod på fremtiden. Men de er ofte også meget skrøbelige. For de er som regel båret af nogle få idealistiske personers store engagement. Og fordi projekterne er så løst organiseret, risikerer det hele at gå i opløsning, hvis (eller når) disse iværksættere mister gejsten.

Samtidigt oplever de gamle organisationer faldende medlemstilslutning, hvilket ofte får dem til at fokusere endnu mere på at holde deres egen organisation kørende og sikre deres egne interesser. Og derfor undlader disse organisationer at opsøge og støtte de nye fællesskaber, for det er jo ikke deres medlemmer. I stedet laver de flere og flere tilbud – medlemsfordele, medlemsrejser, online medlemsplatforme – for at lokke folk til. Men ofte ender de blot med at bekræfte opfattelsen af dem som serviceydelser snarere end levende og handlekraftige fællesskaber. Og jo mere de fokuserer på deres egen organisation, des mere lukker de øjnene for mulighederne for at samarbejde med andre fællesskaber omkring de spørgsmål og udfordringer, som påvirker dem alle.

Denne udvikling efterlader civilsamfundet fragmenteret, svækket og uorganiseret. De gamle fællesskaber isolerer sig og lukker sig om sig selv. De nye fællesskaber er ustrukturerede og flygtige. Det gør, at det ellers så stærke danske civilsamfund har stadigt mindre indflydelse på samfundsudviklingen. Virksomhederne og markedet er organiseret i stærke interesseorganisationer med masser af ressourcer til at arbejde for deres politiske mål. Staten og dens offentlige institutioner er tilsvarende stærkt organiseret, med en stor værktøjskasse til at påvirke og forme det omkringliggende samfund. Men civilsamfundet har slet ikke samme magt og kraft som tidligere. Hvis ikke civilsamfundet organiserer sig, vil det stå svagt og være ude af stand til at arbejde for sociale forandringer, der kan løse de problemstillinger, der berører os alle.

Det er den udfordring, vi står overfor i dag: Hvordan kan vi vende denne udvikling: Hvordan kan vi skabe en platform, hvor civilsamfundets nye og gamle fællesskaber kan mødes og lære af hinanden; hvor de kan styrke hinanden og arbejde sammen; hvor denne nye energi og mod kan fastholdes og udvikles og løftes op på det politiske niveau? Hvordan kan civilsamfundet på ny møde markedets og statens beslutningstagere i øjenhøjde og skabe et folkeligt pres for en udvikling i retning af et mere lokalt, bæredygtigt og fællesskabsorienteret samfund?

II

“Store virksomheder organiserer sig, små virksomheder organiserer sig, selv kriminelle organiserer sig,” pointerer Neil Jameson, initiativtager til den britiske civilsamfundsalliance Citizens UK, “men de fleste i civilsamfundet undlader at organisere sig fordi de tror, at det, at de ikke behøver at forhandle med andre, gør dem frie. Men i virkeligheden gør det dem svage.”

I over 25 år har han arbejdet for at organisere det britiske civilsamfund og en alliance, på tværs af civilsamfundet, der kan møde beslutningstagerne ligeværdigt. I dag samler Citizens UK over 350 organisationer, der tilsammen har opnået en magtposition, som ingen af dem kunne have opnået alene. Alliancens hidtidige højdepunkt kom op til parlamentsvalget i 2010, da de holdt et stormøde med 2200 deltagere, hvor alle tre premierminister-kandidater mødte op og i større eller mindre omfang forpligtede sig på at arbejde for alliancens politiske mål – netop i anerkendelse af at denne forsamling havde magt til at påvirke valgets udfald.

De hundredevis af medlemsorganisationer har fundet sammen om at arbejde for det, de kalder “det fælles bedste,” hvilket kommer til udtryk i en række afgrænsede, men eksplicit politiske mål, som alle alliancens organisationer kan støtte op om. Alt fra sikre og affaldsfrie gader og levedygtige lønninger til bedre vilkår for asylansøgere og flere lavindkomstboliger.

Denne alliance er resultatet af mange års tålmodigt og vedholdende arbejde med at opbygge relationer, tillid og forståelse på tværs af civilsamfundet. Den fandt sin begyndelse i det østlige London i 1990erne, hvor Neil Jameson arbejdede målrettet med at knytte relationer på tværs af sprog, kultur og social baggrund. Han drak kaffe med hundredevis af mennesker fra lokale kirker, moskeer, synagoger, skoler og studentersammenslutninger. Han lyttede til deres håb og bekymringer. Til deres fortællinger om, hvad der pressede dem og deres familier i deres hverdag. Og han udfordrede dem på, om de rent faktisk var klar til at gøre noget ved det. For hvis de ville gøre noget ved det, så krævede det, at de kunne finde sammen, organisere sig og opbygge magt sammen. Han underviste dem i, hvordan de selv kunne gå ud og tale med deres naboer, foreningsfæller og venner, lytte til deres håb, bekymringer – og udfordre dem og insistere på deres evne til selv at skabe forandringer.

På denne måde begyndte lokalsamfundet at organisere sig. De styrkede langsomt de indbyrdes relationer, og efterhånden som de knyttede bånd, begyndte de også at finde ud af, at de havde mere til fælles, end de først troede. Som Neil fortæller: “Folk opdager, hvor fantastisk det er at have noget til fælles med andre, som de hidtil havde troet var så sære at de lige så godt kunne godt være fra en anden planet. Som du ikke ville tage på besøg hos, om du så fik penge for det. Og så opdager du, at de er lige så bekymrede for deres børn, som du er for dine, at de bliver også overfaldet af de samme røvere, som du gør, og at problemerne med affald gælder dem lige så meget som alle andre.”

Og når de først opdager det, begynder de også at handle sammen. “De vil selvfølgelig ikke kunne blive enige om nogen ideologi,” forklarer Neil, “men det er heller ikke vigtigt. For når du først får samlet dem i et rum, så snakker de ikke om ideologi. Så snakker de ikke om rød eller blå. De snakker om: Hvem kan hjælpe os? Hvem er vores allierede? Hvor kan vi få penge fra? Hvilken magt har vi? Hvilken magt har de? Lad os bare se at komme i gang.”

Med Neils vejledning begyndte de lokale borgere og organisationer at opbygge den politiske magt og den indbyrdes tillid, der er forudsætningen for, at de sammen kunne skabe vedvarende forandringer på de problemstillinger, der er vigtigst for dem. I 1997 gik de sammen om at stifte The East London Communities Organisation – en alliance af lokale civilsamfundsorganisationer, der alle arbejdede sammen om at udvikle og forbedre deres del af byen. De lagde pres på lokale fabrikker til at sætte filtre på deres skorstene. De samarbejdede med lokale myndigheder omkring de olympiske lege, og sikrede både gode jobs til de lokale under olympiaden, samt at den olympiske landby skal omdannes til stærkt tiltrængte billige boliger i en af verdens allerdyreste byer.

2012: London Citizens demonstrerer for at sikre, at den olympiske Landsby bliver omdannet til over 800 billige boliger, lokalt ejet af en lokal “Community Land Trust.”

I løbet af de sidste 15 år har organisationen spredt sig fra Østlondon, og blev først til London Citizens, og siden til Citizens UK med lokale alliancer i en lang række andre engelske og walisiske byer. De er gået fra at have magt på et lokalt niveau til at have magt på et nationalt niveau. Det kom klart til udtryk op til parlamentsvalget i 2010, da Citizens UK holdt et valgmøde, hvor alle tre premierminister-kandidater mødte op og foran 2200 ledere fra hele det britiske civilsamfund forholdt sig til alliancens politiske mål – netop i anerkendelse af, at denne forsamling havde magt til at afgøre valgets udfald.

2015: Citizens UK afholder General Election Accountability Assembly tre dage før det britiske parlamentsvalg. 2200 ledere fra over 350 civilsamfundsorganisationer er samlet for at holde de politiske ledere ansvarlige for deres beslutninger de sidste fem år – og give dem mulighed for at forholde sig til Citizens UK’s politiske dagsorden for de næste fem år.

Denne tilgang til magt og organisering er præcis den samme som den, der kendetegnede tidligere tiders civilsamfundsbevægelser. Der er ikke noget nyt i det. Men som den gamle demokrati-tænker Hal Koch sagde, så er demokrati en livsform, som hver ny generation må lære for sig selv. “Det, som folk selv tager, er meget bedre end det, som de får foræret,” sagde den engelske filosof John Stuart Mill. Med det mente han ikke blot, at det man skal arbejde og kæmpe for at få, føles mere værd, end det man bare får foræret. Det handler også om, at man igennem det arbejde og den kamp, der skal til for at vinde det, får en politisk dannelse. Man bliver bevidst om, hvordan magt fungerer. Man lærer de redskaber, som gør én i stand til at finde sammen med andre og opbygge den magt, som skal til for at skabe forandringer.

Men det kræver, at man tør forstyrre den måde tingene allerede er organiseret på. For det er først, når man ryster posen og begynder at nedbryde de gamle mønstre, at man kan skabe plads til nye former for organisering. Det er netop når vi mødes på tværs og begynder at samarbejde med organisationer og fællesskaber, der slet ikke ligner vores egne, at civilsamfundet kan finde ny styrke. Ikke alene giver det ny energi og begejstring at arbejde sammen med andre om en fælles sag. Man opdager også, at man sammen kan løse udfordringer, som ingen vil kunne have løftet alene.

“Det er der rigtig mange, der gerne vil,” understreger byhavedyrkeren Signe Voltelen, “men der også en utålmodighed. Man kan godt få lyst til at gå på gaderne i protest – der er bare ikke opbakning til det.”

Men opbakningen er der. Vi ved det bare ikke endnu. Hver især føler vi, at vi står alene med vore frustrationer og forvirring over beslutningstagernes manglende lydhørhed. Men vi er langt fra alene. Det kræver bare, at vi opdager, at de folk, der deler vores frustrationer ikke nødvendigvis ligner os selv eller deler vores ideologi. Og at det på ingen måde er en forhindring for, at vi alle kan arbejde for den samme sag.

Men det kræver, at vi forstår, hvordan vi kan skabe de forandringer vi ønsker os. Vi kan ikke nøjes med lave hyggelige hverdagsinitiativer eller mobilisere flygtige protester. Hvis vi virkelig vil skabe forandringer, kræver det, at vi ikke bare drømmer om verden som den burde være, men at vi også er i stand til at forholde os til verden, som den er i dag. At forandre verden som den er, kræver, at vi finder sammen og organiserer os. Det kræver, at civilsamfundets organisationer tør kigge ud over deres egne nicher og særinteresser og arbejde sammen om en fælles sag. Ikke for at protestere, men for at sætte ord på det fælles bedste vi ønsker at skabe sammen – og for at tage magten til at føre det ud i livet.

III

Det danske civilsamfund står overfor en renæssance. På tværs af civilsamfundet er der en masse energi, mod og vilje til at skabe positive og vedvarende forandringer i det danske samfund. Men vi mangler en fælles platform.

Derfor er vi nu gået i gang med at opbygge den første danske civilsamfundsalliance. Vi vil vise, hvordan man kan styrke lokale borgere og fællesskabers indbyrdes relationer og politiske handlekraft. Dette arbejde kræver tålmodighed, og vi må starte i det små. I København, hvor vi bor. Over de næste to år vil vi arbejde for at skabe det eksempel, som andre i Danmark kan lære af og som kan være med til at inspirere til nytænkning og udvikling af civilsamfundets rolle i det 21. århundrede.

Vi håber, at du vil være med.

A new project

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 …

What’s wrong with this picture?

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 …

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

Choosing restraint

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.

You can also read the whole essay in one go in whichever format you prefer:

 

CHOOSING RESTRAINT

 

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?

 

***

 

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

On secrets

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.

Recently, I came across a quote from Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

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.

On political leadership

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.

Margaret Wheatley

On symptoms and illnesses

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:

  • Are you are working to cure the symptoms or the illness?
  • Are you dealing with the underlying structures causing these afflictions or the immediate consequences that they cause?
  • Is it better to be pragmatic and give up an idealistic attempt at changing the bigger system in order to alleviate the immediate suffering?
  • When do you make a stand and fight to make big change happen, and when do you settle for small improvements?

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.

Four Yorkshiremen in reverse

Today, I came across an interesting blog post by Dave Snowden who apparently is something of an expert when it comes knowledge management (whatever that is).

Snowden writes about the dangers of rose tinting — that is trying to map out a route to some ideal future instead of working in the present and relating to the real problems at hand.

His point being that idealists tend to be unable to embrace dissent and learn from it, and so they seek and encourage confirmation rather than conflict. That means that when a group of idealistic, like-minded people get together, it can easily devolve into a sort of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch in reverse, where they encourage each other to develop bigger and bigger utopian fantasies that can encompass all needs and suggestions and thus avoid any dissent.


Drawing of the four Yorkshiremen found on Wowox.com

I’ll be the first to admit to having a utopian bent, so for me this is a welcome warning. I do try to be realistic about the scope of what I’m doing. I find the mental image of “Four Yorkshiremen In Reverse” to be a rather powerful reminder of the danger of such rose tinting.

Snowden goes on to say that you won’t change things by lecturing people on how old fashioned their thinking is. This is similar to Euan Semple’s credo that “to rescue someone is to oppress them.”

Instead of lecturing, Snowden suggests that you put people “into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves it’s sustainable.”

That is certainly something to ponder.

Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

I read a lot of superhero comics growing up. And so, I was intrigued when I came across David Graeber’s brilliant essay Super Position, which dissects the super hero genre — comics and movies both — in order to expose the world view these stories propagate.

Most superhero stories follow the same basic pattern: a bad guy begins a project of world conquest or destruction. The hero finds out about it and seeks to stop the bad guy, and eventually succeeds at the last possible moment. Everything returns to normal until the next bad guy (or even the same bad guy) shows up with a new plan.

It’s a variant of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Man in hole” theory: Man falls into hole. Man struggles to get out of the hole. He succeeds. The end. In short: Trouble occurs, and the hero needs to rise to the occasion to fix it. As Graeber writes:

These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own (..) In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.

Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas.

Graeber points out that the superheroes are always seeking to maintain the status quo, even though the status quo is not by any means fair or just in its own right. It’s as if they don’t have the imagination to think of how things could be changed for the better.

Reading this, I realized that this is a fundamental pattern: It’s easier to say what you don’t want than what you want. It’s easier to point out the problems with other people’s solutions than it is to suggest your own. It’s easier to rally to fight something you disagree with that it is to organize around a shared vision of what could be. In short: Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

It is easier to imagine yourself as a superhero fighting crime than it is to imagine yourself living in a society where there’s no crime to fight. And it is even harder to imagine how you can help bring about such a society.

It is easier to fight the symptoms rather than the root cause. It’s easier to give to a charity than wonder why charity exists in the first place. As the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Imagination is a very sensitive thing. If you think too much about how things could be different, you tend to get bummed out about how impossible it seems to change them. And if you tell people around you how you’d like things to be different, they might call you a dreamer or a communist or a utopianist. And they’ll probably laugh at you.

In a way, we’re all just super-villains with low self-esteem. We’re so unused to imagining how the world could be any different that it takes a lot of courage even to try. And even more so when we decide to act upon our ideas to affect the change we want to see in the world.

And so, our efforts tend to be humble: A party. A conference. A rally. A culture centre. A food coop. A co-working space. A magazine. A website. A free software project: Projects that can be started up with a minimum of money with a little spare time. Not just to minimize the risks of failure but also to minimize the risk of ridicule.

But even though these projects are humble, we must remember that every such effort is monumental: They are acts of imagination. Attempts at creating something new that challenges the status quo. Something new that we want to be part of. Something that we can point to and say “We want more things like this” instead of always opposing the things we don’t want. Such projects allow for bolder dreams and higher hopes. It gives us the courage to imagine. And to act.