Communities as hothouses - part 1
There is no returning to business as usual. Covid 19 has radically altered the social, economic and political landscape and revealed the stark realities of existing injustices and inequalities. It has brought, and will continue to bring, profound challenges to our lives and demand a rethink of all our systems.
Taking into account the knock on effects of an economic recession and the larger threat of climate change, it should be clear by now that this is a long emergency. We are entering in the words of Nafeez Ahmed a phase shift, which will require us to “[relearn] the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values.” (Ahmed, 2020)
Grassroots community action plays a central role in driving systemic change. Recent events have shown that local communities are uniquely placed to rapidly mobilise and meet local needs in times of crisis, when state provision is inadequate or faltering. (Boons, F.A. et al, 2020: 21)
If we are committed to remaking our societies in the face of prolonged systems instability we need ways to activate our collective imaginations and energies, develop new systems of collaboration and production, and maintain momentum under increasing material, social and psychological strain. In this chapter I explore the impact our existing economic system has had on our ability to bring about deeper societal change by systematically shrinking both our physical and mental spaces. Assessing the success of capitalism through the lens of nine fundamental needs central to the Human Scale Development approach, I then propose three interconnected ways to strengthen our communities’ changemaking capacity and sense of agency, which will help us grow regenerative cultures and support our efforts to build a better future.
Awakening the sociological imagination
In Planetary Primacy and the Necessity of Positive Dis-Illusion, Professor Stephen Sterling argues that the learning required for our continued existence on the planet ‘involves a willingness to recognize, own, and engage with the most difficult and intractable issues of our times’ and is ‘dependent on the disillusion of ourselves and others’. This dis-illusion is the breaking apart of our erroneous perceptions of reality, which have led us to the crisis we find ourselves in.
While painful, this process offers an opportunity to re-make the world, providing we are capable of using the space that has opened up to imagine ‘life affirming alternative policies, structures, economies, and lifestyles.’ (Sterling 2019:64)
Similarly, nearly three decades ago, Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues, warned that we were facing a ‘crisis of Utopia’, manifesting in the loss of our ‘capacity to dream’. Max-Neef’s response was to develop a framework capable of revitalising this capacity to envision a world that is socially and ecologically just. (Max-Neef, 1991:3)
For the last decade I have used this framework, known as Human Scale Development or Barefoot Economics, with international groups and communities, in the UK and Europe, as part of this process of ‘dis-illusion’. This has enabled participants to go deeper into the psychological drivers behind their life choices and see beyond their individualism into the systemic nature of the issues we face.
How Human Scale Development aids Positive Dis-illusion
Human Scale Development (HSD) centres on three inter-dependent pillars:
- The actualisation of fundamental human needs
- Increasing levels of self-reliance
- The balanced interdependence of:
- people with nature and technologies
- global and local processes
- personal and social goals
- planning and autonomy
- civil society and the state
HSD places the actualisation of human needs at the centre of economic success rather than growth in GDP, acknowledging that not all GDP growth increases our capacity for needs actualisation. It recognises nine fundamental human needs which are considered universal, finite and classifiable, in contrast to the strategies we use to meet those needs, known as satisfiers, which are endless and variable. These needs are Subsistence, Freedom, Participation, Protection, Idleness, Understanding, Creation, Identity and Affection. Our choices of satisfiers depend on time, place, technology, socio-economic status and any number of cultural variables. Satisfiers are evaluated on their ability to adequately meet a need or needs without harming a person’s other needs, the needs of other people or the fundamental conditions of life i.e. a thriving Earth.
HSD offers a workable foundation with which to begin the process of dis-illusion, as from the outset it challenges many assumptions of economic orthodoxy.
For example, if we recognise the importance of Affection and Idleness for human wellbeing, then why do we expect people to work longer and longer hours to meet their need for Subsistence, thus depriving them of opportunities to meet those needs? If Identity, Affection, Understanding and Protection are central then why are the people who mostly provide our children with the satisfiers for these needs (teachers, parents, carers) generally poorly paid or not paid at all?
If we acknowledge that a living earth is the fundamental condition for the actualisation of our needs and we expect the economy to serve this purpose, why do we continue to destroy her life giving capacity for monetary profit?
When evaluating most Western economies through this lens, it turns out we may not be doing so well after all. Many of the satisfiers for our social needs rely on meaningful connections and close relationships, which are often undermined by the pressures of capitalism, with its emphasis on competition, control and individualism. As HSD views poverty not as a lack of income, but as a lack of adequate means to actualise a need we can start to see how many in the developed world suffer from multiple poverties despite high levels of GDP and a general excess of material goods. HSD states that any poverties extended over time may lead to pathologies, not only of the individual but of society as a whole.
Our attempts to meet our needs through systems of control and domination are leading to multiple poverties and even collective pathologies. The Cartesian dualism that has dominated our societies for the last four centuries has fostered a compelling but destructive myth of separation: from ourselves (manifesting in consumerism and addiction) each other (racism, isolation, violence) and the earth (alienation from nature, ecological exploitation).
The process of dis-illusion requires that we examine not only the design of external systems, but perhaps more importantly the worldview and cultural norms that have enabled such a system to come about and be perpetuated. This means examining how our systems of education, economics, justice and politics create a culture of separation and dominance which we internalise and in turn become complicit in re-creating again and again.
By elucidating the dynamic interaction between culture, conditioning and personal choice, we can begin to see that our understanding of how to meet, for example, the need for Protection is embedded in a dualistic worldview that divides people, cultures and nations into good/bad, insider/outsider, higher/lower etc, within a world of limited resources. In this paradigm, solutions to conflict require domination and violence. It is understandable that many of us feel afraid and insecure and are therefore willing to accept our governments’ high defence spending. Given how much arms manufacturers profit from war and the power this gives them over so called democratic leaders, it is not likely business or government will be initiating any meaningful change to this system any time soon.
The language of Human Scale Development helps communities understand their conditions from a systems perspective by articulating thoughts and feeling they up to this point could not find words for. Participants begin to see that what they considered personal problems are related to wider policy decisions and are able to break the cognitive habit of privatising public ills.
Many describe an ‘aha’ moment when I introduce the word ‘pseudo satisfier’ (a satisfier which seems like it might meet a need, but never does, requiring an endless cycle of attempts towards satisfaction) Participants as young as 17 are able to identify the deeper reasons for their choices. “The X-box pseudo satisfies my need for Identity and Affection, because what I want is to hang out with my friends, but it’s the only option I have. I would prefer to do other things with them in person.”
Realising how the system limits their choices for meaningful satisfiers, many participants describe feelings of emptiness, alienation, estrangement, sadness, confusion and a sense of being ‘locked-in’. ‘I am a good person, why can’t I make good choices?’ This misalignment of our intrinsic values and our behaviours results in a kind of ‘values schizophrenia’: we wish to do the right thing but our survival depends on a system which inhibits ecologically and socially just choices.