Monday, December 07, 2009

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

The recession's over, yay, the recovery is here. Well, tell that to the six people who cancelled photo shoots in the last month. Actually, they didn't cancel, they simply fizzled. When I approached them to confirm - "Sorry, budget has disappeared."

I published an article earlier today on this blog showing Americans who stay in their homes until the absolute last minute after being foreclosed; stripping everything and reselling it to put food on the table. One homeowner was asked why he didn't leave or make arrangements to leave despite being given notice. His answer: "I couldn't believe it." It's not so much hard to believe, but difficult to accept.

While we're in a financial crisis, it turns out that the financial industry is the biggest industry in South Africa. Now think of the organism that a country is in comparison to a human body. Finance is the brain, limbs are manufacturing, the digestive system is energy [farming and fossil fuels]. Why then is South Africa's agriculture [think arms and hands] the third smallest sector? How is it sustainable to have finance bloated to the point that it is the biggest sector? I imagine a giant head swelling, sucking up the resources of the rest of the body, creating a top heavy organism with tiny hands and duck-like legs and feet. No wonder the economic apparatus is crumbling. Finance has become a parasite, I kind of Ouroboros, that eats taxpayers money to become what it is, loses it, then gets to eat more. The threat is that such a creature will consume the system because of its own appetites, rather than be the stimulus that it pretends to be. The sheer bonuses bankers pay themselves demonstrates how far removed finance is from a public service. It's a private service, with private perks, in a private playground of players.

Speaking of which, it's time to take a look at the pet snake that corporations use to inform their markets of THE WAY THINGS REALLY ARE. In South Africa, the Sunday Times uses its front page to market South Africa to South Africans, encouraging them to go and buy tickets to the Fifa World Cup. It leaves the last word in this article to quote Julius Malema, that most inclusive of South Africans, who says the youth should go out and buy tickets and welcome and protect visitors. Protect them? From what? From who? If Julius is our spokesman for everything from Caster Semenya to UFS scandals and to inviting tourists to this country, we have serious problems. The most serious is the standards we apply to leaders, which appears to be less than zero.

The media pontificates on mobile phones, the latest study showing that phones don't or couldn't cause cancers and tumors. This reminds me of similar inconclusive studies on smoking causing cancer, and studies on anthropomorphic global warming. And swine flu. In all these cases, there's a lot of noise and uncertainty - thanks to the media - with the result that nothing happens. Actually, it is quite clear what the underlying reality is, whatever the media says, people simply need to think for themselves.
And then there is swine flu. At the moment the death toll has moved beyond 11 000. Meanwhile one media report says cases are waning, another reports record infections in parts of China and California. Meanwhile, South Africa, hosting the 2010 World Cup, remains strangely immune to swine flu infections, and has done so ever since the Confed Cup.

Which brings me to my point. All of this running around by individuals to protect their own bottom lines isn't going to change. Denial is entrenched.
My advice is to begin to covertly form communities that don't need to be convinced, that can look after one another in terms of security and resources.


My circle of friends includes many professionals in the world of environmental NGOs. I have noticed something about the way they view the importance of their work and the likelihood of its success that I’d like to share.

In brief, many now admit openly that human overshoot has gone way too far and that the programs they run are like band aids when the wound calls for a tourniquet. They lament the rise of expectations for a narrowly defined version of progress that will only deepen our predicament. It now seems undeniable that structural and psychological requirements for global economic growth have much more sway than any rhetoric about sustainability.

Although the depth of despair is greater than usual, most of these thoughts are old news. However, a couple of new conversational memes have emerged. First of all, my friends are turning inwards, becoming concerned about personal and family security. Second, they are considering adopting a new strategy that plans for responses to crisis and breakdown, rather than their usual fare, which is advocating for course corrections to avoid troubles.

In these conversations, I see a parallel with what Naomi Klein discussed in her book Shock Doctrine. She documents how a particular wing of neoclassical economists, based primarily out of the University of Chicago, took advantage of disasters to push through legal, policy and business agreements that would never be accepted otherwise. The take home message is that radical changes may only be possible during a crisis, and that in chaotic times the advantage goes to whoever has a response plan available.

I don’t see that these discussions have made it into any official programs of the environmental movement, but perhaps they need to be. The existing system does a great job of protecting itself and will be unlikely to change sufficiently to ahead off a crisis. If breakdowns are now inevitable, the standard role of environmental groups may be necessary but insufficient.

All of this gives rise to covert communities, also known as Mycelial organizing:

"Mycelial organizing." Mycelium runs invisible under the surface, colonizing a substrate without a sound, only emerging momentarily in a mushroom when the timing's right. This is what we need, those nameless networks of people who are already talking about the next few years and energy depletion. Oftentimes you're going to find these networks only among anarchists, outlaws, and others who reject the basic value framework of Industrial Capitalism. These are the networks of mutual aid that already exist, and these are the networks we need to continue to cultivate

If I may give praise to my local people, we've got something here called the Crop Mob ( It's a bunch of mostly young folks who gather once a month on a farm (usually run by one of the mobbers) to work on a big project that the usual folks merely wouldn't be able to accomplish without weeks of effort. It's fun, followed by a meal, and a great place to meet new folks while pulling weeds and mulching.

The value, I believe, of this sort of project is less in the actual work we do than in the network that's forming through this. If some kind of societal breakdown occurs, who will take up the slack? Probably those very people who are already on some level working outside the value-system of Industrial Capitalism. Food Not Bombs comes to mind as well. What else could there be? What else is already emerging in embryonic form? Foodways not Freeways?

As to plans, I don't really have any? I'm not sure what kinds of plans there could be...

Indeed. Making plans right now, when we're aware of our context, becomes very difficult indeed. But there are some actions we could be taking and should be taking to begin to gear up communities. What destroys communities? High walls, television, me-syndrome, consumerism. What builds communities? Trusting, changing, sharing, engaging, learning, teaching, helping, protecting. Trust and change are perhaps the hardest of all, but from there it ought to get easier in a world that is becoming less and less orderly.

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