Faced with the apparent visions of the future as involving ‘Collapse’ or ‘Authoritarian continuance and rising dystopia’. A group I belong to, associated with the Anthropocene Transitions Network, aimed for a an alternate vision of ‘Regenerative Cultural Values’.

This is some basic thinking on what is involved, obviously it is not just my own thinking (see ‘ecology of mind’ below), but I don’t want to scapegoat anyone else, for its deficiencies.

The Problem?

Apart from disliking the targets of ‘Collapse’ and ‘Authoritarianism’, there are lots of consultative processes in modern society, which essentially seem to be set up so people can drain themselves in effort, to be ignored by the powers that be. This is a common neoliberal consultative practice. The aim of the consultation seems to be to support whatever action is being taken by the authorities, and pretend it has support. Perhaps we can add this “Neoliberal Consultative Process” to the targets of Collapse and Authoritarianism as it can be part of either.

Is there some other way?

What are Regenerative cultural values?

Regenerative cultural values aim to revitalise values and relationships and make them as functional, participatory and resilient as possible, so as to produce constructive ‘democratic’ change.

Regeneration appears to have to involve systems thinking as its base, and preferably complex systems theory. Complex systems thinking could also be called ‘ecological thinking,’ as seeing oneself and others as a system and acting in the midst of systems is part of the process of the new vision. It also involves the recognition that ecologies change, evolve and regenerate. They are not stable forever without force.

The term ‘ecology’ does not have to refer to ‘natural environments’, but can also refer to communities, and economies etc. All of these involve interaction with other participants and other systems, mutual influence, symbiosis, conflict and co-operation, and so on. ‘We’ spill out into the social culture, borrow other people’s ideas or language, are shaped by (and shape) traditions, use tools and objects to think with. As Gregory Bateson argued, our minds are not alone, but exist in an ecology of mind which extends way beyond our skins, with feedback and originality. In an ecology nothing dominates completely according to its will. The most dominant feature in most ecologies is the Sun. It does not control anything, but without it most ecologies would die.

Boundaries between different systems and different people tend to be fuzzy and vague, this ‘spill out’ is not unique.

Being outsiders within

However, we live in a hierarchical social system, and higher levels do try and control lower levels, rather than let those lower levels freely adapt to local conditions. Consequently, regenerative cultural values may need to separate from, or hide from, the hierarchies until they get established. That is, they may have to form what Geels has called ‘niches’ – areas of creativity which both avoid being: noticed until ready; pushed into the service of the hierarchies worldview or; crushed. They form ‘subcultures,’ ‘temporary Autonomous Zones’ or even act as hidden ‘parasites’ using the hierarchies without submitting to them.

Community

‘Community’ is a vague concept that carries a lot of baggage, but it is important.

What we can observe is that humans, if unobstructed, nearly always build something we can call ‘community’. In villages, suburbs, online groups, sports clubs, children’s sports, mother’s support, child minding groups, even in prisons, and so on. The trend is that people support each other to the degree possible, take note of each other, identify with each other, and build friendships and rivalries, and so on. Ideally they come to form a mutual ecology; community is not an on/off process but develops. ‘Community’ can also be a political term which indicates people are seeking recognition for their groups, and participation in wider spheres. All ‘healthy’ human systems probably involve some forms of community and relationships, not just with other local humans but with animals, surrounding environments and so on. Community does not have to be anthropocentric.

Community can arise out of ‘projects’, or people working on something for the common good, such as building a local arts/sports centre, developing community energy, helping people in floods or fires, protecting the local village from over-development or being overwhelmed with current strangers, preserving the local wildlife and their ecologies, recognising common responsibilities or ownership of rivers or woods or community gardens, and so on. Projects also involve mutual learning, and cohabitation with others.

If so, then one way of generating community is to help people to get working or projects relevant to them, without expecting the project to be accepted by the ‘powers that be.’ If possible perhaps the project should also be outside the influence of the powers that be (in a ‘niche’), so that these powers do not interfere, and processes get finished. This community might then extend into other fields not as remote from the hierarchy – say agitating the local council, people with similar views, or the police office, for support, and getting forest protection etc.

This kind of action can also build a political base to challenge the way things are done, or to support those local powers who might challenge the system that produces local and national misery.

Resilience

Resilience seems tied into an apparent paradox: allowing diversity and conflict can build unity on some occasions.

Deviance, diversity and conflict are necessary for resilient communities. A community of ‘perfect harmony’, probably has a limited number of roles, responses and modes of control, and probably is not capeable of surviving disharmony. It could find it difficult to try processes out to see if they work, because people and processes, have to follow the established and harmonious patterns. Diversity allows diversity of responses without planning, and evaluation of the responses, and hence more chance of adapting.

I suspect that a community only appears perfectly harmonious if there is ongoing threat of violence and suppression.

The challenge is that the community has to be able to survive the internal conflict which can be generated by diversity, and levels of diversity may have to be experimented with. People still have to manage to think of themselves as ‘together’ with each other and their various ecologies even in diversity. I suspect that it is social tradition, rather than human nature which makes this difficult, but I could be wrong. This is especially so where the general political ecology acts to force people into opposing ‘sides’, but if people are aware of the engineered polarisation they can try to reject it, and be open to one another.

Openess – the Thou

I have written elsewhere of Martin Buber’s idea of ‘it’ and ‘thou.’ [1], [2], [3] This is an easy, and apparently trivial distinction, but it seems important.

When we make something or someone, an ‘it’, then we consider that person or thing to be without complexity, without valuable being. They are something to be used and manipulated, perhaps discarded with complacency. Culturally, ‘we’ seem to regard most ‘things’ in the world as ‘its’ – we pollute air and rivers, move rocks without care, chop down trees to stop the mess of dropped leaves and so on. There is no real care needed for an ‘it’.

However, when we regard something, someone or some process as a ‘thou,’ we approach it as a being that is open, that must be learned about, lived with, cared for and so on. It is a bit unclear in Buber, but it would seem to be possible not only to treat those we regard as deviant as worthwhile thous, but all the ecologies we live with. People can treat their cars, their pets, their toys, trees, beaches, special rock platforms etc, as thous if they care about them. The idea of caring for the non-human as if they were beings of worth, is not foreign to us. Thouness and caring seem to be related.

This caring does seem foreign to the idea that monetary profit is the only value, because with profit, some things have to become its, to be sold, destroyed or polluted, and things which cannot be profited from are valueless by definition.

It seems part of the basis of regenerative cultural values to rediscover the ‘thouness’ of life and being, perhaps within a community project of some kind.

Summary

Regenerative cultural values, begin locally. [Added from Ken McLeod: where “local” can reference both spatial and cultural proximity].

They begin in the making of community, collaboration, conflict and recognition.

Regenerative values are open to the thouness of people and ‘nature’.

Regenerative values accept that diversity is useful for survival and adaption, despite the unease it may generate.

Community may be generated through projects of general value to the the local people.

These projects may need to be hidden, or to engage only briefly with established hierarchies, until they are robust or finished.

Once the projects have results, then it may be useful to venture out into the world, gain support and give support.