The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Short Break

Hi, I'm going to have a short break for a few weeks.  Will be back with a weekly blog devoted to community development, social justice and sustainability around mid-late January 2015.
Thanks for reading during the past year.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

This Changes Everything: A Review

It sure does.  Change everything, that is.  Naomi Klein’s latest book is aptly titled.  Climate change changes everything and everyone.  No nation, no community, no individual is immune to the effects of climate change.  Even those who deny climate change are not immune.

The subtitle of the book is Capitalism vs the Climate – again apt.  it could just as easily have been Everything you always wanted to know about climate change.  Klein set herself a mammoth task in writing this book, and largely, she has succeeded.  She covers the science, the politics, the history, the roles of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Green. 

She introduces us to the Heartland Institute of climate change deniers at their conference in Washington.  She takes us to indigenous communities in Canada, South America and the Ogoni living in the Niger Delta.

We get glimpses of the boardrooms of big companies such as Chevron, BP and Exxon Mobil.  We see the communities offering alternatives, from the solar project of the Cheyenne in South Dakota to the citizens of towns and cities in Germany taking back control over their power supply.

Klein has researched and written this book over a period of five years – and it shows.  It is thoroughly researched, meticulously documented and superbly written.

All of the history and science is fascinating, yet Klein’s major purpose in the book is to ask whether it is possible to escape from the brink of climate disaster.  Furthermore, is it possible, she asks, to do so “without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism?”  Klein’s unambiguous, raw, answer is: “Not a chance.”

So, do we have a chance?  What chance do we have?  In answer to the first question, Klein is ambivalent.  “It’s not clear which side will win,” she states, but goes on to say “the companies in the crosshairs are up against more than they bargained for.”

That qualification begins to answer the second question – what chance do we have?

Reading the book through in sequence from page 1 to page 466 the reader moves from despair, to struggle, to perhaps and finally to possibility and a sense of regeneration.  For that regeneration to occur Klein advises that a number of things need to happen:

1.  We must stop consuming – now.  That means not simply replacing our stuff with green alternatives.  It means quitting the consumption obsession.

2.  We must connect with each other and with the earth.  Klein cites many examples of this happening throughout the world and suggests that climate change has been one of the catalysts for previously disparate groups learning to coexist and collaborate.

3.  We must ramp up the opposition to Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Technology.  Klein sees the emerging Blockadia movement as a hopeful example of this. 

(Coalitions and the Blockadia movement have left the NIMBY (Not IN MY Back Yard) isolationism behind and replaced it with Ni ici, ni ailleurs -  neither here, nor anywhere.  Climate change changes everything.)

4.  The most important thing that needs to happen, according to Klein, is that we must change our thinking, change our worldview, change our values.  We must choose policies “that don’t merely aim to change laws but change patterns of thought.”

5.  Finally, our faith and hope in our present top-down leadership must change.  We are going to have to become active in decision-making at local levels.  For Klein, “if change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.”

Naomi Klein is absolutely right:  This Changes Everything.

The book can be obtained from the link to the right of this post -labelled "Books Reviewed on this site"

Wednesday 10 December 2014

No Champions

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI - Results 2015), released this week, is a sobering and disturbing read.  It analyses the performance of 581 of the world’s nations in terms of how they are doing with respect to climate change. 

The CCPI compares the climate protection performance of each country using indicators on: emissions, efficiency, renewable energy and policy.

What is disturbing about reading this report is that the authors felt unable to award first, second or third place to any nation, because “no country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change.” That’s worth repeating: “no country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change.” 

That is akin to no runner in the Olympic Marathon being awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal because none of them ran a sufficiently fast time to warrant it.

Disturbing indeed.  The report suggests that even if all nations of the world did as well as the top ranked nations the target of keeping global warming below a 2o C rise would fail.

Disturbing too is that the top 10 of the world’s largest CO2 emitters are responsible for approximately 2/3 of all emissions, with 7 of them being given a “poor” or “very poor” rating. 

The countries doing best (i.e. given a “good” rating) all hail from Europe, apart from one – Morocco.  Indeed, Morocco is given especial mention in the report as it has shown considerable improvement in its climate change response in recent years, and is an example of how a developing nation can contribute towards action on climate change.  The report cites Morocco’s renewable energy targets, it’s development of solar2 and wind projects, and it’s cuts to gas and fuel oil subsidies as worthy of mention.

Indeed, of the top 40 performing nations, only six are from outside of Europe: Morocco (9th), Mexico (18th), Indonesia (23rd), Egypt (24th), India (31st) and South Africa (37th).

Tellingly too is that of the G20 nations (arguably the richest nations on earth), seven of them lie in the bottom 10 placings:  Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Russian Federation, Canada, Australia and Saudi Arabia.  The final two of these (Australia and Saudi Arabia) come in second-to-last and last place.

So, if the nations of the world aren’t up to scratch, and some of them are going backwards, what hope have we of remaining below the 2o C target?

That’s where we come in.  Us, the citizens of the world.  The common folk, those of us who do not sit around board tables or in the parliaments, congresses and senates of the world.

The way forward seems to be that change will only come from the ground-up, not from top-down.  And there are signs of that all around the world.  People and communities doing one of two things (often both): 1. protesting and blockading big oil and it’s associates and 2. undertaking local sustainable systems that prove that it is possible to live sustainably without the need to raise the temperature.

Neither of these actions are captured in the CCPI report and are certainly not mentioned in the “Key Results” area.  Yet, it is these local, community-led activities that will ultimately make the difference.  Perhaps the authors of CCPI will acknowledge this in a future report.

1. The 58 countries make up all bar those on the west coast of South America, most of Africa, and some Asian countries.  It does, however, include all the OECD, G20, ASEAN and EU countries along with a number of newly industrialised and “countries in transition.”  Altogether, these 58 countries account for more than 90% of global CO2 emissions.  This is the seventh publication of this report.  Jan Burck, Franziska Marten, Christoph Bals (authors), Climate Change Performance Index - Results 2015, Germanwatch/Climate Action Network (Europe), December 2014.
2. Morocco is constructing the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant in
Ouarzazate (500 MW).

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Containing Problems

How often do we look at a social problem and try to contain it.  We set up committees, government think-tanks and even NGOs – all with the express intent of defining the problem, analysing it and then solving it.  All within the box we have created around it.

Many years ago (1999 to be precise) a community development worker and thinker in New Zealand presented a paper to the Summer Heart Politics Gathering in Taupo, New Zealand.  He titled the presentation Co-operation, Collaboration and Co-ordination.1 

vivian Hutchinson’s basic tenet was that traditionally we had tried to solve social problems and/or issues by establishing a group, organisation, agency or think tank to deal with each individual issue.  This model looked like this:
Problem 2
We attempt to contain the issue, place borders around it and then the “experts” within the containing box can deal with the issue and eventually solve it.

vivian then went on to describe our ways of dealing with social problems or issues being to set up discrete organisations to deal with (supposedly) mutually exclusive issues, as in this next diagram (Diag 2).

Problem 3Each of the social issues (represented by the squiggly lines) is surrounded by and contained within the confines of an organisational structure (the solid lines). 

Thus, according to this model, we set up organisations to deal with: refugees, people with disability, unemployment, climate change, mental health, youth issues, drug/alcohol, homelessness and numerous other issues,

This model Hutchinson labelled as the “in-charge” model.  Organisationally it is characterised by hierarchy, expert-based and rationalist.  These structures lead to elitism, authority and we-know-what’s-best mentalities.

However, said Hutchinson 15 years ago, the complexity of social issues is such that no one of us, nor any single-focussed organisation, is capable of containing and solving these issues.  Hutchinson suggested, instead, that the issues contain and surround us and our organisations, much as in this diagram (Diag 3)
Problem 4
The organisations that we establish are surrounded by complex, and inter-connected, issues.  The issues are not mutually exclusive as the “in-charge” model suggests.  Hutchinson called this the “shared-power” model.

What do we do then, if the issues surround us, and not the other way round? 

Hutchinson proposed that the first thing to do was to get rid of the notion that we are “in-charge.”

The second thing to do was to connect.  Hutchinson described the difference in the two models as
“In the in-charge model your effectiveness comes from your programmes and the resources you have to get the job done.  In the shared-power world your effectiveness is ruled by the quality of the relationships between key players, and especially their ability to work together to build trust, agreement and consensus.” (emphasis in original)
The key then is to connect, co-operate, collaborate and co-ordinate, as represented in Diag 4.

Problem 5
Working in this way is not easy.  It means having to creatively listen, to recognise connections between issues, to come to some level of consensus and agreement.

But, as Hutchinson was quick to point out, “whether we like this situation or not,” this model provides us with a more realistic portrayal of the social issues surrounding us.

There are many examples of such networks occurring around the world.  Since Hutchinson’s presentation 15 years ago, social issues seem to have become even more pervasive.

That just means that we have to be even more determined to connect with one another and find creative solutions in the diversity of our experience, knowledge, skills and wisdoms.

We also need to be vigilant.  Because the “shared-power” model is not easy, we can slip back into it very quickly because of complacency or inattention.  Being aware of the two models, though, does help reduce that possibility.

1. vivian Hutchinson, Co-operation, Collaboration and Co-ordination.  Paper presented to Summer Heart Politics Gathering at the Tauhara Centre, Taupo, New Zealand in 1999. (Note, the small “v” in vivian’s name is intentional)

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Choices, choices, choices

We see quotes like this everywhere on the Internet and elsewhere.  “We all have choices” they proclaim.  If your life is not as it could be or as you would wish it to be, then, say the proponents of choice-making, make better choices.

Sounds appealing doesn’t it.  Things not going well? – make a better choice.  Facing obstacles or barriers in your life? – make a different choice.  Simple really. 

It’s true enough – we all do have choices.  However, we do not all have the same choices.  Some of us have very limited choices, whereas others have almost limitless choice.  For some, the choices may be between one unwelcome outcome and another unwelcome outcome – with no choice really being desirable.

The next step along this path of choosing is to create your own reality.  By treading this path we get to the point where the Universe conspires with us to give us what we desire.  This all happens because of the choices we make.  If we make good choices then the reality that we create will be good also. 

From this perspective it is very easy to take up a moralistic stance that says that those that make bad mistakes deserve the reality they create for themselves.

Making choices is good in theory.  In practice, however, it is all just a little naive.  Naive for three major reasons:
  1. The environment within which we all make choices is not an equitable one.  It is not a level playing field.
  2. People do the best they can from the understandings, knowledge and skills that they possess at the time.
  3. We are all intimately linked with one another and our world.  None of us make our decisions in isolation or independent of all the other decisions that are being made.
Unequal Playing Fields

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have clearly demonstrated that there is a strong correlation between inequality and social mobility, mental health, educational performance and a range of other social indicators.  In their book The Spirit Level they note that
“bigger income differences seem to solidify the social structure and decrease the chances of upward mobility.  Where there are greater inequalities of outcome, equal opportunity is a significantly more distant prospect.” 1
When children are raised in poverty the choices they have as adults are significantly reduced, “affecting every thing from (their) job prospects to (their) marital happiness.”2

As inequality in a society increases the ability of people to make positive life choices decreases.  Making choices is not simply a question of individual choice.  Making choices becomes a political act; choices that those with greater access to power, resources or prestige make easily, not realising that those with less access have less options available.

Doing Our Best

One of the insights of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is that people do the best they can with the resources available to them at the time.  The key phrases here are available and at the time. 

This understanding is a crucial one, because it recognises that people do not wilfully make bad choices.  Rather, people make the best choice they can with the knowledge, experience and skills that they have available.  Rather than blaming people for their decisions, NLP uses this insight to work compassionately with people.

This means that we cannot judge others from our own understanding, perspective or worldview. 


When we tell others to make better choices, or even that “you have a choice,” we are often ignoring the interplay between people and that the choices we make are not mutually exclusive.  We are intimately connected, bound together in a vast web of life. 

The idea that we have choices in life and that if we make good choices then good things will happen to us is rooted in Cartesian linear causality thinking.  This thinking is all very well if we apply it to billiard balls bouncing off one another on a billiard table.  But, it is woefully inadequate as a system of thought when it comes to how the world works.

Joanna Macy is a well respected systems thinker and Buddhist practitioner.  Now in her 80s, she describes the move from linear thinking to systems thinking in a book published more than 20 years ago:
“Linear, one-way causal premises proved inadequate, for these can be applied only piecemeal to two variables at a time.  As the pattern-building interactions of phenomena were studied, a different kind of causality came into view, one that is mutual, involving interdependence and reciprocity between causes and effects.  Such a notion, which is an anomaly within the linear paradigm that has dominated Western culture, bears a striking similarity to the Buddhist teaching of causality…”3
In other words, we are not individuals acting only in our own sheltered shell, with all decisions and choices being mutually independent of other decisions and choices of other people.

Others are making choices all the time, and often we have little control over the choices they make and the outcomes of those choices.  We have even less control the further removed from the centres of power, influence and resources we are.

Yes, we do make choices.  We all do, all the time.  But, for us to judge others based on the choices they make is naive and neglects to take into account the political, social, cultural and interdependent realities of the world.

1. Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, Penguin, London, 2009, 2010, p 169
2. Anthony W Orlando (business/economics lecturer, California State University), “Not Everyone has the Tools to Become Rich: How our childhood shapes our ability to succeed,” Huffington Post, September 2014.
3. Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1991.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

The Most Interesting Person I Know (A Review)

The Most Interesting Person I Know.  Now, there’s a catchy book title.  Makes you want to open it up immediately and read about these amazing people.  Stephanie Hunt has compiled a fascinating series of interviews with 25 people in the Coffs Harbour area of Australia.

What makes this a most interesting book to review on this blog?  I’ll let Stephanie answer that.  Community development workers will recognise an African saying that she quotes: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”  She extends that by saying “It has most certainly taken a community to create this book!”

Isn’t that just what community is?  A space in which there are dozens, hundreds, of most interesting people.  Each and every one of them bring something to the creation of that community.  Those working from an Asset Based Community Development model know how important it is to map a community’s assets.  People and their skills, knowledge and passions are the most important assets.  Thanks to Stephanie, Coffs Harbour now has a “map” of at least 25 interesting people. 

In this book there are community workers, social justice advocates and those making the community space a better place for others.  There are Aboriginal elders, refugees from Togo and Sudan. There are musicians, local body politicians, religious leaders.  There are farmers, craftspeople, a lawyer, a sportsman and a high-tech designer.  The diversity of community life is vividly on show in this wonderful book.

Some, like Auntie Bea Ballangarry are staunch advocates for Aboriginal people.  She has extended her hand and heart of friendship to many in the area, setting up WOW (Women of the World) – an extensive network of women of all creeds, colours and cultures in the Coffs area. 

Gai Newman is a tireless community worker who manages the Coffs Harbour Neighbourhood Centre where many have been able to find assistance and a friendly face.  Sometimes it is not the material help that is the most important.  As Gai says “even though we don’t have all the answers, we have compassion.” 

Many refugees in Coffs, like Kuie Manyoun, have come to escape war.  Kuie notes that “war never stops in African cultures.  It’s all the men that go to war, so women have to be responsible for the whole family.”  But, that is Africa.  Kuie does not expect that culture to have settled in Australia along with her.  She, and her husband and children have plans.  Plans for a safe, happy and successful future.

This book can help all of those living in Coffs Harbour, and wider, recognise our diversity, and celebrate our commonality.  This book can help all of us plan for a safe, happy and successful future.

Stephanie Hunt writes a blog that has profiled over 60 people – all of them most interesting.  I suspect that Stephanie will be finding dozens more most interesting people to interview and write about.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the CanDo Cancer Trust which provides financial support to local cancer sufferers and their families.  The book can be bought on Stephanies blog.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Gee – Twenty!

Last week I was in Brisbane, Australia, where the G20 summit is to take place on 15/16 November 2014.  G20 is the forum for leaders of 20 of the world’s major economies; 19 countries plus the European Union.  Six other nations have also been invited to attend in Brisbane.

So, in Brisbane 20+ of the most influential and powerful leaders of the world will be meeting.

Gee, I thought, if these leaders really put their minds to it, and they had the intention, then we could see some highly beneficial changes in the economic, social, environmental and cultural make-up of the world.

So, I put my mind to it and came up with 20 suggested changes that would be beneficial.  Here then is my Gee Twenty list.
  1. A ban on further fossil fuel extraction and use.1
  2. Drastic reduction in spending on the military and weapons.
  3. Redirecting of those savings in 2 above towards providing access to clean safe water for all.
  4. A cap on salary levels, so that exorbitant differences in income are enormously reduced.
  5. Investment in renewable energy systems.
  6. Transference of investment in infrastructure that supports private vehicle use towards infrastructure that supports low impact and public transportation.
  7. Stopping the destruction of rainforests and other threatened ecosystems.
  8. Promotion of small-scale, local farming and agricultural activities in preference to large scale monocultural agribusiness.
  9. Free education for all – education that stimulates creativity and critical thinking.
  10. Promotion of restorative justice rather than retributive justice.
  11. Transitioning from electoral representative democracy to a democracy based on sortition and participatory democracy.
  12. Recognising that we already have enough and that continued economic growth is damaging to our environment and to our well-being.
  13. Full recognition to the rights of self-determination of indigenous peoples.
  14. Apologies and restitution to colonised people so that 13 above can be achieved.
  15. Full and accurate disclosure on what goes into the food we eat and where it comes from – both fresh food and cooked food.
  16. Research and promotion of programmes that look at nonviolence, forgiveness and other forms of resolving conflict.
  17. Restriction on where and when advertising is permitted.
  18. Greater access to mental health services.
  19. Complete protection of endangered species.
  20. Understanding that all the 19 suggestions above (and dozens more) are interconnected and that systems thinking is required.
There are dozens of other issues that could be added to the list and we will all have our favourites.  At a personal level, it matters little as to what and where we begin, but it is important to understand the interconnections and that no one issue is of greater importance than another.

Do you think the G20 leaders will take any notice of this?  I suspect not. 

Change must begin with us.  As has been quoted often
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Although attributed to Gandhi there is no evidence to suggest that it is a direct quote of his.  However, the sentiment is one that he would have endorsed, so long as it was clarified that he also advocated a collective approach – change is not simply a personal one.

1.  The Prime Minister of the host nation, Australia’s Tony Abbot, has removed any discussion about climate change from the agenda, claiming that he did not want the  agenda “cluttered” by subjects that would distract from economic growth.

Monday 3 November 2014

Book of Forgiving: A Review

Of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of books that I have read in my life, The Book of Forgiving1 is one of the most beautiful, heartfelt and important of them.

Yet it is not so much a book that one reads.  It is more like a play.  Desmond and Mpho Tutu have scripted the play.  They are also the Director and Narrator and you, the reader, are the lead actor.  When you begin you are alone on centre stage.  Meanwhile, waiting in the wings are all those who have harmed you or those whom you have harmed.

The Tutus set scenes, give prompts, ask you to ad lib, and guide you on a journey through four Acts – what they call the Fourfold Forgiveness Cycle (Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, Renewing or Releasing the Relationship).

This is a book in which the reader is a fully active participant.  It would be possible to read the book much as you would a text.  Some benefit, no doubt, would come from that; but by far the greater benefit comes from keeping the journal and undertaking the tasks that the Tutus provide for the reader at the end of each chapter.

Desmond Tutu is the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and came to prominence as a vocal critic of apartheid in South Africa.  After Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa he asked Desmond Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  This role taught him much about the process of forgiveness and healing.

His daughter, Mpho, is an episcopal priest and is undertaking a doctorate in forgiveness.  She shares a very personal, and deeply moving, story in the book.  Together, the two of them bring a wealth of expertise, experience and insight to the journey of forgiveness.

They present all this in an engaging, easily accessible manner, including reference to research at times, giving the book a sense of being grounded.

Like any good play, this one begins with a prologue.  The prologue here is a description of what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is such a suppressed process and practice in western culture that it is easily misunderstood.  Desmond and Mpho Tutu wish to dispel five myths early so as to be able to move onto what forgiveness is.  For them; forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, it is not disregarding justice, it does not mean forgetting, it is not easy, and it is often not quick.

A number of stories are shared in the book that help to illustrate the points that the Tutus are making.  Many of these stories are brutally honest, sincerely respectful and deeply moving.  A word of caution: keep a box of tissues near at hand.

All forms of forgiveness are addressed in the book: forgiving others, asking for forgiveness, forgiving yourself, and forgiveness as peacemaking in the world.

By the end of the book and after writing the journal and undertaking the exercises I had a greater appreciation of what forgiveness is.  For me I discovered that some of the ingredients of forgiveness include:
  • “There is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no-one undeserving of forgiveness.” (p 3)
  • Forgiveness involves making a choice.  Instead of choosing the Revenge Cycle, we can choose the Fourfold Forgiveness Cycle.
  • With true forgiveness shown towards those who have harmed us we move from being a victim to becoming a hero.
  • “We are able to forgive because we are able to recognise our shared humanity.” (p 125)
You may discover other ingredients of forgiveness in this beautiful, easily-read, and easily understood, book.

Read it, act it out and after forgiving others and yourself, take a bow.

1. Desmond & Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, William Collins Books, 2014

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Attending a Workshop (An Exercise in Presence)

How many times have you turned up at a workshop or seminar anxiously glancing at your watch and thinking of all the things you could or should be doing instead of being at the workshop?  Then you sit down, wondering if you locked the front door or thinking about the dozens of emails piling up in your inbox.

By now the workshop is 10 or 15 minutes old, the facilitator has introduced the agenda and given an overview of the day – and you haven’t heard a word!

It happens often doesn’t it?

Here’s a simple exercise that the facilitator can use to help workshop participants attend right from the start.  It allows participants to be fully present, with their attention focused on the workshop and not on other matters.
  1. Before participants arrive, the facilitator places a bag an some notepaper on each participants chair.
  2. Once everyone has arrived ask participants to write their name on the bag and then on the notepaper to answer this question:  “What have I left behind or given up in order to attend this workshop today?”  The facilitator may wish to give some examples and explain that the answers could include: activities (e.g. finishing the monthly report, or going to the gym), thoughts and plans (e.g. thinking about tonight's dinner and what to buy for it, or deciding where to go for the summer holidays), routine commitments (e.g. not meeting your partner for lunch).  Note that it may also be helpful to suggest that participants turn off their mobile phones and place them in the bag as well.  (There may be some exemptions to this: e.g. doctors or parents with young children)
  3. Give people about 5 minutes to write as much as they can think of.  Encourage them to write anything and everything that comes to mind.
  4. Ask participants to pair up with one other person and then for each to tell the other what has been written on their list.  Allow about 5 minutes.
  5. Once each person has had the chance to tell the other what is on their list, then ask them to tell the other person that “I am going to place this bag (and everything in it) outside the door and leave it there for the duration of the workshop.  I will then focus my attention on the workshop.”
  6. Ask participants to physically place their bag outside the door (or just inside it if security is an issue)
  7. Once everyone has placed their bag outside the door, reassemble the group and ask if anyone still has anything left that would hinder them attending to the workshop.
  8. Finally, ask participants to turn to their neighbour and tell them: “I am now present.”
This may all sound rather silly and perhaps even tedious.  However, it is surprising how the simple act of physically acknowledging, and putting aside, any potential hindrances can help participants to (fully) attend a workshop.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Community Engagement Hurdles

Photo: Robert Voors (Flickr)
Community Engagement is one of the latest in a long line of buzz-phrases used by those in authority to describe or orient what they do for or to communities.  If it is done well then it can also describe how those in authority work with communities. 

To work with communities, though, requires more than just techniques, skills or resources.  What is most needed by those representing authority who wish to work with communities is a mindset that:
  • is willing to give up the notion of being the “authority,”
  • is willing to recognise that wisdom resides within the community,
  • is willing to let go of being an “expert,”
  • is able to see both the bigger picture as well as the local detail.
Devising Community Plans and Outcomes has been one of the projects of community engagement when it is used by local authorities.  Community Outcomes can be useful, but they can also be disengaging when used inappropriately.

Here is an example of some of the hurdles that can occur when a community engagement process is used to produce a community plan and outcomes.

A local authority begins a community engagement process to create a community plan (including outcomes).  In doing so, they consult a number of individuals and organisations.

Hurdle Number 1.  The consultation at this stage can often only engage with those already engaged.  The engagement can exclude many because it is a) at too high a level, b) requires technical or specialised knowledge, c) is couched in unfamiliar language or simply d) the local authority officials are aloof or otherwise do not “fit in.”

Once the consultations have concluded, a set of community outcomes are produced based on all the feedback, discussions and analyses.

Hurdle Number 2.  The community plan merges together all the data and information into a single set of outcomes that express an overall community plan for the area.  But in doing so, some of the detail particular to unique sectors of that community can get lost in the bigger picture.

The community plan is then used and interpreted by local authority officials.

Hurdle Number 3.  Officials can become entrenched in the view that their interpretation of the plan and the outcomes is the right one.

The community outcomes are used by the local authority to decide what projects it wishes to support and which organisations it will enter into alliances or collaboration with in order to proceed.

Hurdle Number 4.  If a community group does not undertake projects that fit the community outcomes then it and its projects may not be supported by the local authority.  This leaves the organisation two options: a) it can change its projects, programmes or methods to ensure support, or b) it can remain faithful to the neighbourhood within it works but with limited ability to act because of withdrawal of support.

Community engagement certainly has its place, but those undertaking the process need to be very careful that the management of the process does not derail or disengage parts of the community in the process. 

For this to happen requires more than simply the techniques, skills and resources of community engagement.  To be able to work with a community requires a shift in mindset.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Building Freedom Prisons

Freedom was one of the major catch-cries of the 1960s.  Liberation was the name of the game: women's liberation, sexual freedom, civil rights.  The New World would appear before us once we were free.  A world of peace and equality was promised.

For awhile it did look promising.  Men began to discover their emotions, women began to discover the world outside the home and everywhere minorities were becoming full participants in economic and political realms.

Out of the call for freedom and liberation arose the Human Potential Movement.  Individuals were overcoming their low self-esteem, realising their potential and creating their own world.

So why is it that rates of depression are on the rise in the western world?  Why is suicide one of the big killers amongst youth?  We have greater choice yet less satisfaction.  We can spend ages in supermarket aisles choosing between essentially the same items.  We complain that there are dozens of channels on TV yet there is “nothing to watch.”  Why?

Did the promise of individual freedom only end in us having the freedom to build our own prison?
Oh, what a beautiful prison it is.  Instead of cell benches we have the latest designer lounge suites.  Instead of prison gruel we can taste exotic dishes from all over the world.  Instead of a bleak view from inside barred windows we can view the latest movie or watch a wildlife documentary at the click of a button.

Yet we are still trapped.  We are less connected with our fellow human beings than ever.  Oh sure, we have social media, we have instant connection via email, texting, iPhones and other such smart technology.  But, in general, individuals today have a smaller social network than they did a generation or two ago.

Escaping the Prison

To escape this prison we need to break down the walls.  We may also need outside help, which is where those with a commitment to community development come in.  If we are isolated in our prison then community is the means by which we break out.

If community is the answer, what was the question?  Perhaps that is the single most important tool that a community developer or community educator has in their toolkit – questions.  Helping people to understand the power of questions is a crucial step towards breaking down those prison walls.

One powerful question to ask is this:  Does our freedom equate with having more choice?  Many commentators on inner freedom and happiness suggest that the pursuit of our desires may be the very thing that inhibits us obtaining freedom.  It seems that the more choice we have the less free we become.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Technology will save us

Amidst the fears of climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity loss there are those that proclaim that “technology will save us.”  Humanity has found technological solutions in the past, they claim, and so it will do so in the future.

Their faith is laudable.  Their recognition of past techno-solutions is evidence of humanity’s creativity and innovation.  So perhaps they are correct in declaring that technology will save us.  The blinker however is in the word will.  Will implies a future tense.  The technologists announce that humanity will create the necessary technology in the future.

The Future is Now

But we have the technology NOW.  We have the technology to transform our energy sector.  We have the technology to transform our transportation infrastructure.  We have the technology to transform our food production and distribution.

In short, we have the technology right now to save us.

Here are just a few examples from the energy, transportation and food sectors showing the already available technology that can transform our present wasteful and destructive patterns.


A Canadian report indicates that for an investment of $1.3 billion more than 20,000 jobs can be generated in wind, solar, hydro and biomass energy production, more than 18,000 jobs in energy efficiency methods, or almost 19,000 jobs in wind and solar power to meet Canada’s emissions targets.  Yet, the same $1.3 billion invested in oil and gas extraction generates only 2,300 – 2,800 jobs.

Two young inventors in the Philippines have developed prototypes of solar panels that can be printed from 3D printers.

Solar roadways are being trialled in Idaho, USA and if implemented could generate more than three times the electricity that Americans currently use per year.


From 2015 Dutch trains will begin running on electricity supplied by wind power and could be fully powered by this source as early as 2018.

Over 500 cities in 49 countries have introduced bicycle sharing schemes.  Paris has gone the extra step and recently introduced a kids version (P’tit Vélib) of the popular scheme.

Beyond that, the French have gone even further with twenty companies (employing 10,000 people)  joining a trial that pays people to walk to work.  The scheme is designed to boost peoples health, reduce air pollution and cut fossil fuel consumption.

A number of European cities have experimented with providing free public transport, with results varying from minimal difference to substantial increases in patronage, reduced pollution and less carbon emissions.


It has been suggested that buying local from small farmers could reduce ones food footprint by about 15%.  Such small farmers use up to 40% less energy by cutting out intensive pesticides and fertilisers.  Small scale diversified farms are more likely to have a higher total output per unit of land than do large scale monocultures.

Permaculture (the principle of working with, rather than against, nature) has been available for at least 50 years.  The word permaculture (permanent + agriculture) was coined by an Australian game ranger, Bill Mollison, who put forward three guiding ethics:
  • care of the earth
  • care of people
  • sharing of surplus.
In India the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) used less water, chemicals and seeds, yet increased yields up to 68%.  Agro-ecological practices introduced in Africa are showing increased yields with less pesticide use. 

Following a devastating hurricane in Nicaragua in 1998 a study showed that those farms using agro-ecological principles were considerably more resilient than those based on intensive chemical and pesticide use.

Where there’s a Will

So, we have the technology.  It is not a question of: when will technology save us?  It is a question of: do we have the will to use what we already have?

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Place of Competition

“Competitive markets,” “competition for resources,” “competition builds character.”  With numerous phrases such as these we might expect that competition is what makes the world go round.  Yet, competition is nothing more than a concept.  Some would go further and claim that competition is an illusion.

Of course, sport is based on competition.  It would be difficult to conceive of an Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, or the Tour de France without competition.

But, that is where competition should remain.

There is no need to introduce competition into other realms, such as education, business, health, housing or employment.  Yet, we do. 

We are wont to rank students according to their results in academic tests and exams that take little or no account of emotional differences, cultural differences, intuitional differences or spiritual differences.

Housing is supplied on a competitive basis.  Those with access to wealth accumulate more properties than they need and others must compete on the rental market in order to find somewhere to live.

When health is supplied in a competitive environment then those on limited incomes will struggle to receive the health benefits they should deserve from living in a modern society.

Where did our obsession with competition being the basis for social policy come from?

Darwin and Kropotkin

Perhaps Mr Darwin and his Origin of Species had a role to play.  More likely, it was the misinterpretation of what that tome had to say that was at the basis of the obsession.  The “survival of the fittest” came to be the phrase most commonly associated with Darwin’s theory.  Yet Darwin did not coin the phrase.  He preferred the phrase “struggle for existence” which he used
“…in a metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another…” (my emphasis)
Darwin and his theory came to almost monopolise the popular ideas of evolution and was expanded upon and, unfairly, used to justify “social Darwinism.”  But there were many others writing at the same time as Darwin who were similarly attempting to discover who we humans were and where we came from.

One of these was Peter Kropotkin who published an oft forgotten book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902.  This book put forward the notion that many animal and human societies were based less on competition and more on cooperation.  Kropotkin had read Darwin and had determined that many of Darwin’s followers had misinterpreted him.  Kropotkin’s reading of Darwin (and his own research) recognised cooperative elements in Darwin’s writing.

Kropotkin did acknowledge competitiveness, but also realised that for many societies (both animal and human) competition “did not answer it’s purpose.” 

Kropotkin was keen to develop the cooperative element in Darwin’s theory – quite at odds with the competitive element commonly mistaken to be the core of Darwin’s theory.

Competition distorted

Not only have we misinterpreted Darwin, we have also distorted the word competition itself.  Competition combines two Latin words; com meaning together and petere meaning to strive, to seek, to attack or rush upon.

Rather that competition being about rivalry then, the word literally means “to strive together” or “to seek together.”

Had we taken a more literal interpretation of the word compete, or had we understood the role of mutual aid or cooperation in evolution, then maybe today we would have a society that benefits all rather than one in which there are winners and losers in a competitive maelstrom.

Maybe we still can.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Simply Living in History: A Review

Simply Living in History1 is published by the Simplicity Institute and is an important book – because of its simple message: we can and must live simply.  Indeed, after almost 200 pages the author of the chapter on Permaculture states unequivocally “greater simplicity is not optional.  It is unavoidable.”

A few pages later, one of the book’s editors notes that “any solution to todays social, economic, and ecological problems will not be solved and probably only exacerbated at the highest government level.  It follows that it is up to us.”

And that is what this book does.  It shows that we can do it, that we have done it – for thousands of years – and that we are still doing it.  Or, at least some of us are – living simply that is.

It is possible to read this book by dipping into any of the chapters in any order that you wish.  Each chapter is complete in itself and each is written by one of 24 different contributors.  The chapters give a brief overview of historical examples of communities and individuals who have opted for simplicity throughout history.

However, by reading the book through in sequence the reader becomes impressed by the continuous chain of seeking for simple ways of living that humanity has pursued over the past 2,500 years.  The book begins with Buddha in the 5th Century BC and continues up to the present day, culminating with an essay on mindfulness – a practice that has entered Western thought by way of Buddhism.  Thus, the book neatly turns its own circle.

There are two caveats to place on the reading of this book.  First, it draws heavily on the Western tradition, apart from one chapter on Buddha and another on Gandhi.  The Greek and Roman thinkers are represented by Diogenes, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics.  Two chapter on Jesus, St Francis and the Monastics then serves as a bridge between the Greeks/Romans and the 16/17th Centuries where we meet the Quakers, the Amish and thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Ruskin and William Morris.

The second half of the book begins with overviews of 20th Century communities (e.g. Ditchling Village and the Agrarians) and writers (e.g. Ivan Illich and John Seymour).

The final chapters outline the ideas that many today are familiar with (e.g. Voluntary Simplicity, Permaculture, Transition Towns and Degrowth) before ending with the chapter on Mindfulness.

Although the attention of the book is on the Western tradition, this should not be viewed as a criticism.  It is primarily the Western, rich, nations that have contributed mostly to the problems that now mean that a simple path is a necessity.

We Can

The second caveat is that this is not a “how to” book.  It is an “I can, you can, we can” book.

The desire for a simple way of living can have many motivations: moral, philosophical, ecological, economic, social, religious, practical, communal – all these motivations are represented here.

If there is one theme that underpins each of these motivations it is that at the heart of each is a desire for a less consuming way of life.  It is, as the editors (Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod) note in the Preface: “simple living is about knowing how much is ‘enough’ and discovering that ‘enough is plenty’.”

Serge Latouche2 is even more adamant when he contends that “we have to deal with the addiction to the drug of consumerism.” (my emphasis)

Although there is an undercurrent that consumerism as an ill that, well, consumes us, the book is hopeful.  As Mark Burch3 reminds us: “People have never taken up simple living because they thought it would make them worse off.  They have never persisted in it if it reduced their wellbeing.”

He then goes on to exhort us “…to live simply in terms of what is to be gained and not what is to be foregone.”

Yes, it is a hopeful book, it is an inspirational book and it reminds us that there is a wealth of experience and knowledge to draw on in seeking a simpler way of life that offers greater well-being for all.

Simply Living in History is available at

1. Samuel Alexander & Amanda McLeod (eds) Simple Living in History, Simplicity Institute, Melbourne, 2014.
2. Serge Latouche is Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris-Sud.
3. Mark Burch retired as Director of the Campus Sustainability Office for the University of Winnipeg and is currently a Fellow of the Simplicity Institute.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Bias and Prejudice

In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen notes that “angry people are not always wise.”  How true that is.  Our personal prejudices often get in the way of wisdom, and often, too, get in the way of common courtesy and humanity.

The word prejudice gives away its insidious aspect quite clearly – pre judgement.  Therein is the problem with prejudice.  A judgement is made before the facts, the ideas or the character of someone is known.  We come to an opinion of, or a conclusion about, something or someone before we know the full circumstances, sometimes even before we know any of the circumstances.

Prejudice is usually a judgement made towards someone else, it is a desire on our part to reject, take offense at or disrespect someone else.  The other may be of a differing cultural background to our own, they may have a different skin colour, they may believe differently, they may be afflicted by a disability, they may be of a different nationality, they may be of the opposite sex, they may be younger or older than us.  The difference could be any number of things. 

When we assume the belief, understanding or characteristic of the other person to be inherently inferior to our own then we are pre-judging – we are prejudiced.

Does this mean that we should do away with our own views, beliefs or cultural norms?  Not at all.  In fact, we can still value, embrace and celebrate our personal or collective identity.  We can, if you like, be biased.


Bias is sometimes considered as a synonym for prejudice.  However, this is not necessarily a useful way of thinking of the word.  The word derives from old Latin and seems to have originally meant “on a lean, aslant or oblique to.”  Within that understanding there is the sense of a "leaning towards" something.  It was not until the 16th century that the association with prejudice came into the English language.

Dictionary definitions often add notions of favouritism or partiality to that of bias.  Thus, bias can be thought of as judgement that is towards ourselves.  Our bias is that we feel comfortable with ourselves or identify with our culture.

Being comfortable towards our cultural heritage or who we are does not mean that we are automatically prejudiced against another’s cultural background or identity.

So, we can be biased but not prejudiced. 

We already have a word for negatively stereotyping another because of their culture or identity – prejudice.  We need a word for being content with, happy with and comfortable in our culture or identity.  Why not the word bias?

Bias and Prejudice.  We can be biased, but we do not need to be prejudiced.  Anne Wilson Schaef said it best in the epigraph to her ground-breaking book “Women’s Reality”
“It is not necessary to deny another’s reality in order to affirm your own.”

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Two Unhelpful Slogans of Change

A previous post discussed five slogans of social change.  Here are two more, only these have proven to be unhelpful in the various campaigns for social justice.

Power Grows out of the barrel of a gun.

This slogan has been attributed to Mao Tse Tung.  Undoubtedly, Mao did gain political power via the use of guns and weaponry.  However, as has been shown time and time again, the power obtained by violence is both illusory and transitory. 

Illusory because of the nature of power.  Until the 20th Century many of those working for change understood power in very much the same way that those who were the oppressors also viewed it.  That is, the power of one group over another.  The feudal lords over the peasantry or the owners of capital over the labouring classes.

However, the understanding of power changed significantly in the second half of the 20th Century.  Michel Foucault (the French philosopher) shifted the thinking about power from the idea that power was something held by one group and used to coerce or oppress another group.  Foucault’s insight was that “power is everywhere” and transcends politics.

The environmental movement also helped shape a differing conception of power – one that began to see everything as interconnected and hence that one part of an ecosystem was dependent on other parts and that if one part attempted to exercise control over other parts or the whole, it was doomed to fail.

Undoubtedly, the non-violent campaigns of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and later Nelson Mandela (and many others) rocked the idea that power is obtained through the use of violence.

Sadly, the nations of the world have not yet given up Mao’s slogan.  The “War on Terrorism” is a good example of that.  Since that war began the number of terrorists and terrorist organisations has increased rather than decreased.

The Ends justifies the Means.

This slogan was used by many working for social justice ideals.  Within community development it was used extensively by Saul Alinski, a social activist working in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, this slogan also came to be unhelpful in a liberatory sense.  The feminist movement and the indigenous movements of the 1970s and 1980s both challenged this view.  Rather, they suggested, the means and the ends must be in harmony with one another. 

Later, those movements and the emerging sciences of systems and quantum physics suggested that the means and the ends are so intertwined that often it is difficult to tell one from the other.  Linear causality had been cast aside.

Joanna Macy, an American deep ecologist, engaged Buddhist and systems theorist, explains it succinctly.  She makes no distinction between ends and means, and defines means as “ends in the making.”

It is doubtful that many individuals and organisations working for social change have fully accepted and understood what dispersing with these two outdated and unhelpful slogans means.  It is not simply a rejection of one set of slogans and the picking up of another set.

We must be mindful of approaching our personal and worldly transformation in ways that truly understand what the ideas of non-violence and interconnection mean.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

In Conversation with Peter Westoby

Peter Westoby launched his new book Theorising the Practice of community development – a South African Perspective recently.  I caught up with Peter over coffee at the University of Queensland a few days after the launch and we chatted informally.

Peter has now written, or co-written, six books relating to community development.  You can find a review of his (co-authored with Gerard Dowling) book Theory and Practice of Dialogical Community Development here on this blogsite.

Peter is originally from the UK but now resides in Brisbane, Australia, where he is a lecturer in community development at the University of Queensland.  His community development work has taken him to South Africa, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Vanuatu. 

Writing and Practice

I was keen to ask Peter whether the process of writing about community development changed the way in which he undertook his community development work.  Peter reflected that the process of writing reinforced practice and forced him to look at theory.  Writing helped to make sense of the world and enabled him to ask “what might it mean?”

For Peter, his writing is a creative process and opportunity.  “When I begin a book,” he notes, “there is a part that knows what I want to say and there is a part that I don’t know.”  Writing allows that part that is not known to become known.

For Peter, his writing helps to make explicit what is intuitively known.  Writing enables him to ask “is there is a different way of thinking about what we’re doing?”

The South African Experience

Peter’s most recent book looks at community development in South Africa.  I was keen to know if he thought that the South African experience had anything to teach us in Australia and New Zealand.  Peter was ambivalent in his answer, primarily because South African community development was operating in a very different setting to that in Australia or New Zealand.

“South African development is about survival,” Peter states.  Community development is about economic development – “it’s about jobs.”  Furthermore, in South Africa inequalities are at the “heart of things, whereas they are often on the edge here in Australia.”

Community development in South Africa is not located within a welfare state which means that it is often about livelihoods.  “Black practitioners,” says Peter, “want to talk about jobs.  Whereas in Australia it is about the right to a voice or a fair share.”

If the South African experience does have something to teach us here then it is that change is long term and that we must learn patience.  That learning includes being aware of the dangers of burn-out.  “When things get tough, the mistake is to work harder, (so that) we become our own worst enemy.”

What Next?

Peter has been a prolific writer of books dealing with community development (6 books in 5 years) so I wondered what was next on the authorship agenda for him.

“Soul,” replied Peter, “Soul, Community and Social Change.”  The title is an intriguing one and Peter explained that he was delving into this from four perspectives:
  • soul as being embodied energy, of a downward, earthy nature rather than an upward, other-worldly kind.
  • a soulful approach, as in getting close attention, becoming slow.
  • a recognition that we are part of the earth, so how do we re-enchant the world, so that we come to understand the part we play?
  • Gandhi’s soul-force (satyāgraha).  The use of non-violence and civil disobedience.
This certainly sounds like a book to look forward to.  Due for publication in the middle of 2016 – look out for it.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

How to Change the World

As community development workers and those working for social justice we see things that are unjust or harmful.  We want to change the world.  How do we do that?

The first lesson for those who want to change the world is to realise the paradox that we can’t change the world.  So, do we just give up?  No, it’s all to do with ends and means.

We can’t change the world if our intention is to change others, to change the way in which others think or to change what others believe.

Years ago, soon after I had begun working in the fields of community development and social justice I found myself participating in various campaign meetings or networking forums.  What I heard often disturbed me.  There were instances of personal attacks and people telling others what they should do or what they should think.  I began to wonder why it was that this group of people who all espoused a better, more peaceful and just society could not behave well with one another.

It was only years later that I began to understand how to answer that question for myself.  Many of us seeking a better world are looking forward to that better world being in the future.  Therein lies our second mistake.  The better world will be if we allow it to be right here and now.  That means that we must act as if we already live in the better world of our dreams.

Before I am misunderstood to be recommending the “you can’t change anything unless you first change yourself” let me assert that that is not what I am suggesting.

The “change yourself first” notion is the third mistake.  The mistake is to assume that we are all individual and disconnected selves.  We are inter-connected beings.  Thich Nhat Hahn calls us inter-beings.  Thus, we must find ways to act now both as individuals and as connected beings.  That should be our quest.  For, until we are able to do that we will not be able to change ourselves, and we certainly will not be able to change the world – not in the future, nor in the now.

The fourth mistake and lesson that we need to learn is that we cannot convince, coerce, force or bully someone else or some other community into adopting our beliefs, ideas, or ways of behaving.  Indeed, attempting to do so may stimulate the opposite reaction.

Saying and Doing

What we say and what we do can also send mixed messages and it is our behaviour that often gets the attention of others.  A recent study from Harvard University found that almost 80% of middle and high school students ranked achievement and the pursuit of individual happiness above that of caring for others.  Ninety-six percent of their parents however said that they wanted to raise ethical, caring children.  What was going on?  The parents were acting in ways that suggested that achievement was the greater value, even though they told their children that compassion was important. 

We can behave in such a way that the other may come to accept that our way may be better for the world.  Equally, we may come to realise that the other person or community may be behaving in a way more conducive of a better world.

So, what am I advocating?
  • Inviting others into dialogue and joining in dialogues with others,
  • Acting in compassionate ways when we witness injustice, to both the victim and the perpetrator,
  • Discovering the true meaning of forgiveness,
  • Practicing empathy,
  • Making our speech and our behaviour congruent,
  • Being open and honest in our relationships
  • Having the courage to change our minds and ways of thinking,
  • Accepting that everyone brings an unique perspective and that no-one of us has all the answers,
  • Sharing our skills, knowledge and resources,
  • Promoting inclusive and open decision-making processes,
  • Encouraging others in their quest for honest empowerment,
  • Continue to be curious and open to making mistakes.
By adopting these traits and ways of being in the here and now, we can change the world.

Monday 18 August 2014


We’ve done it again.  Every year since the mid 1960s we have done it.  We have overshot.  We have taken more than we have given. 

In the next day or so (posted on 18 August 2014) we will exceed the earth’s capacity to rejuvenate or replenish what we have used up since the first of January.  Overshoot Day is a symbolic day that indicates the rate at which we use up the earth’s resources without the earth being able to replenish that use.

It’s a bit like getting your year’s salary on 1 January and then exhausting it by 20 August.  From the 21st of August you go into overdraft.

What’s more – we’ve been going into overdraft at an earlier and earlier date each year (see table at right).  In the early 1960s we never reached overdraft, in fact, metaphorically, we were able to save a little.  But, since then, we have rapidly expended our biocapable income.  We have spent without a thought given to those to come.  Rather like spending the inheritance that we had planned for our children or grandchildren.

Collapse may come even earlier than in our grandchildren's era.  We may be in for a terrible shock sooner than we think.  Looking around on the surface it is easy to lull ourselves into a false sense of security.  The earth still provides – doesn’t it?  There are plenty of resources still to be used and found – aren’t there?

Systems don’t work quite like that though.  Have a look at this graph:

The bold dashed black line represents the earth’s carrying capacity and the solid red line represents our consumption.  Even as the carrying capacity begins to fall, consumption continues to grow and we continue to celebrate our domination over nature, we continue to espouse economic growth as the saviour of all our ills.

Eventually, however, resources and renewables become exhausted and consumption peaks and then drops rapidly.  The earth, and us with it, collapse.  Its all simple systems analysis.

Instead of continuing to strive for growth we must withdraw from continued high rates of consumerism.  We must once again become stewards.  We must act as guardians of our planet.  In short we must act response-ably.

In the coming years we must be seeking ways to ensure that overshoot day falls later and later in the year.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Deepening Community: A Review

Paul Born is an optimist – a joyful optimist.  He thinks that the world can be a better place.  In his latest book, Deepening Community, he asserts that the answer is very, very simple: “bring chicken soup to your neighbour.”
Furthermore, he believes that he knows how it can be a better place. 

With these words Born begins a 140 page journey into the possibility of community.  He shares stories from his own childhood and adulthood, stories from his neighbours, stories from his daughter and from 500 others.

Before setting off on this journey Born sought the insight of 2000 active members of Tamarack (the organisation in Canada that he directs) and received responses from 500 of them.  These responses helped form the basis of the book.

Born’s strength as a writer is that he has the ability to draw from these stories useful concepts, techniques and principles.  He does so with simplicity and clarity.

Noting that we live in challenging (and chaotic) times Born sees the possibility of community arising in three ways:
  • by turning away from others – shallow community.
  • by turning against others – fear-based community.
  • by turning towards others – creating deep community.
We have a choice he says.  It is no surprise that Born chooses the third of these options.  After briefly traversing the dysfunctional approaches of the first two options Born uses the book to uncover ways to deepen community.

For Born the conscious act of building community begins with story.  By sharing stories we discover our shared identity, we begin to understand one another, we celebrate and care for one another, and together we create a better world.  This simple process is described by Born through a series of five stories.  Each of the stories that he shares (be it his own, or Anita’s, Lucas’, Rita’s, Jill’s or Will’s) is packed with the full scope of human emotion and condition. 

Born’s knack is to draw out of each story half a dozen pieces of wisdom that help to deepen our understanding of community and how it is built.

Born’s book is simply written and, in just 140 pages, easily readable.  All in all, it is a joy to read.  Indeed, what are Born’s final words?
“And what is deep community?  It is the process of finding joy – much joy! – together.”

Wednesday 6 August 2014

The ABCD of Agency Advertising

Do you notice that the adverts of aid agencies or those seeking support for work with disadvantaged communities often feature people who are impoverished in some way?  Perhaps it is the child in Africa without access to clean water?  Maybe it is the person in a wheelchair in a western nation who is dependent upon a carer to feed them?

Each of these adverts pull at our heart-strings.  The agencies then hope that this tugs our wallet out of our pockets and we donate to the charity.

Of course the agencies and charities need funding to be able to continue their work.  But ads like these will never help break down the structural barriers that mean that these agencies have to exist at all.

The message contained in the adverts is one of “look at me, I am in despair, I am at your mercy.”  The message we are given is that the person in the advert - and presumably hundreds of others - has no skills, no assets, no creative ability.

In community development there is a concept known as ABCD – Asset Based Community Development.  Briefly, ABCD begins with discovering what the assets, skills, talents and abilities of a community are, and works from that base.  This is different to that of a needs-based approach, where the deficiencies and lacks of a community are the starting point.  The problem with the latter approach is that it views people and communities as inherently valueless.  People in this approach bring nothing with them to the process of development, they are dependent entirely on the expertise, skills and knowledge of the outside developer.

But, people, no matter what their situation, have skills, knowledge and talent.  Why not acknowledge that?  Why not utilise that?

This is not to say that those who are on the margins of society or those in situations of disadvantage are not in need of assistance.  But, it is not for the expert to judge what that need is.  It is not for the expert to devalue the person or community by advertising the neediness.  People are of more value than that.

I have seen one advert that bucks this trend.  A young man who uses a wheelchair speaks about what he has managed to achieve, because of his abilities, with the help of others.  He does not present as needy or dejected or demoralised.  He projects himself as a very competent, engaging young man.  His story is very much one of “this is what I am doing.”  His parting words are: “How you doing?”

“How you doing?” indeed. 

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Why So Many Community Groups?

Community groups are everywhere you look.  There are groups working with the homeless, those with disability, the unemployed.  There are support groups for head injury, survivors of sexual abuse, parents of children with autism.  There are advocacy groups championing environmental causes, prison reform or the plight of refugees.

In many cities in the western world there are general community development groups attempting to build communities within particular suburban areas.  Often there can be more than one, sometimes several, such groups all working in the same geographical area or issue.

Why so many?  Surely they can get together, pool resources and hence become more efficient?  I hear these questions frequently from politicians and government bureaucrats.  If there weren’t so may groups, they argue, there wouldn’t be the same call on “our” funds to support them.

The questions are completely rational – if you start from the assumption that efficiency is the be all and end all of community organisations.

But, efficiency should almost be the last criterion by which community groups are judged.  One of the primary benefits of so many community groups is that of encouraging and maintaining civil society.  Without the plethora of groups people would have;
  • little chance to participate in society,
  • less opportunity to debate issues,
  • nowhere that they can become involved in public affairs,
  • little ability to manifest a sense of local (let alone global) community,
  • reduced opportunity to challenge powerful elites,
  • no chance to build social capital and,
  • no mechanism for pursuing social justice.
Each of these characteristics of community groups is important in building civil society.

Global Civil Society

The term Global Civil Society has been with us for approximately twenty years and describes a society in which all the above aspects of life in society are upheld, promoted and respected.

Civil society (at least in the west) has long been bound up with the concept of the Social Contract and hence with the State.  All that began to break down in the 1960s and 70s in Eastern Europe and South America.  In western nations a sense of unease about the role of the state was also underway, especially within the feminist, anti-war and anti-apartheid movements.

With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the ousting of military dictatorships in South America the ideas surrounding global civil society began to grow.  In the west, the emergence of globalisation helped to engender a more robust critique of western society and a willingness to look within.  When western thinkers and activists did look within their own societies they found monsters that they didn’t like.

In the US particularly, Robert Putnam1 found that American communities were losing their connectedness.  They were losing social capital, even though economic capital was growing at an enormous rate.  Others were finding that within their own societies there were alarming levels of racism, child poverty, environmental degradation and marginalisation of minorities.

The idea of the state being the provider and arbiter of all things, via the social contract, began to look unsustainable.  Community organisations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and non-profits increased in numbers.

Identifying and counting community organisations is akin to counting bubbles in a bathtub.  There are so many and they come and go as quickly.  However, the group Open Democracy has been tracking International Non-Government Organisations (INGO) over the past two decades and have found a steady increase in the numbers.

Why So Many?

Why so many groups, then?  Simply – because they are necessary.  They are necessary if we are wanting a society in which people can feel actively engaged and able to participate in the decisions and mechanisms that govern their lives.

Such a society must be our continual quest.

1. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Joseph Stiglitz on Inequality (Part 2)

Joseph Stiglitz packed out the Sydney Town Hall
The previous post on this blog was a guest blog from a member of the Economic Society reporting on a presentation that Joseph Stiglitz (ex Chief Economist for the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001) gave at the Sydney Town Hall on 8 July 2014.

This second part concludes the guest post by outlining Stiglitz’s thoughts on the causes and consequences of inequality.  He also makes some proposals for addressing the issue.

Causes of inequality

Echoes of a distinctly North American debate rippled across the Pacific after this year’s Australian Federal Budget.  Speaking to the Sydney Institute, Joe Hockey (Australian Treasurer) argued that more Australians should be ‘lifters, not leaners’‘ and that the government should be concerned with “equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes.”

Stiglitz shuns these ideas.  The belief that hard work determines one’s income or security (when most workers’ incomes are inadequate reflections of their contributions) or that opportunities can be separated from outcomes (when the lucky few seem only to get luckier) contradict recent common experience and common sense.     Stiglitz points to the world’s wealthiest 100 individuals, suggesting that most of these ultra-rich made their fortunes not by their physical inventiveness or their superhuman productivity, nor by the creation of a happier, healthier society.  Instead, Stiglitz states, they did it by seizing more of the available economic output.     Rather than ‘increasing the pie’ (of available resources), Stiglitz claims that these ultra-rich simply ate more of it.  And although greater ‘equality of opportunity’ may spark the hope that ordinary effort might be more justly rewarded, Stiglitz shows that opportunities are only more equal tomorrow if outcomes are more equal today.

Consequences of Inequality

Despite his training as an economist, Stiglitz knows that the costs of inequality are not only measured in dollars.  An unequal society is a divided society and a less democratic society. More enlightened social sciences have described these consequences for many years.  But Stiglitz notes that the economics profession is gradually realising that faster economic growth and greater equality are not exclusive, but co-requisite.  Inequality stifles growth and leads to more fragile economic and political systems.  These and a host of other maladies inflicted by inequality are the centrepiece of The Price of Inequality.1

The Great Rebalancing

The effects of inequality are known, so how can they be redressed?  Free markets cannot guarantee fair outcomes, but government policies in many nations have proven to be inadequate.  Stiglitz argues that, nonetheless, politics remains paramount and that the policies we choose dictate the level of inequality we tolerate.  Taxes and welfare settings mould the distribution of income and are decided by governments.  But these adjustments are not enough to tackle a persistent and pervasive problem.

The package of policies that Stiglitz proposes for the United States apply similarly well to Australia and elsewhere.  Stiglitz advocates for reform of the financial sector by breaking monopolies and ending privatisation, legal reform to ensure fairer access to justice, taxation reform for a more progressive system with fewer loopholes, repairing the social safety net to provide free education and universal health care, and an economic policy agenda which promotes growth led by public investment and which guarantees full employment at a fair wage.

While these ideas seem ambitious in a political system which itself has become more unequal, we can take heart from Stiglitz’s intellectual forerunner Keynes, that
“…soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
1. Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How todays divided society endangers our future.  W W Norton and Co., New York, London, 2012, 2103.

Note from editor.  Stiglitz is pro-growth as this report indicates.  This blogsite has often argued for de-growth if we are to move towards a sustainable future.