In recent years there have been some interesting experiments in citizen ‘advocacy’ using the Internet to organize ‘meetups’, petitions, programs and campaigns. Most of them, however, seem designed to confront the existing political system: mobilize protests, lobby, or support less corrupt politicians. Perhaps it’s time to see whether the Internet and ‘grassroots democracy’ could be harnessed for direct action, solving some of the problems we face ourselves instead of tilting against the political establishment in the perpetually uphill and futile struggle to get them to act on our behalf.
How might we do this? I wrote before about Malcolm Gladwell’s tracking of Rick Warren’s ‘Cellular Church’, a religious and now social action network based on ‘cells’, political units even smaller than communities, handfuls of people with shared values and ideals working, each in their own way, on self-organized actions inspired but not directed by Warren’s ‘anti-hierarchy’. The power in the cellular church is all on the front lines. Warren is substantially just a facilitator, suggesting principles to guide the cells in deciding what to do, but not directing or coordinating those actions. He eschews the ‘power’ of hierarchy not out of altruism or humility, but because he knows that people will act more passionately, more persistently, more substantially, if the ideas are theirs than if they are ‘instructions from above’. Warren writes:
If I go to church with 500 members, in a magnificent cathedral, why should I volunteer or donate any substantial share of my money? What kind of peer pressure is there in a congregation that large? If the barriers to entry become too low — and the ties among members increasingly tenuous — then the church as it grows bigger becomes weaker. One solution to the problem is simply not to grow, and, historically, churches have sacrificed size for community. But there is another approach: to create a church out of a lot of little church cells. The small group as an instrument of community is initially how Communism spread, and in the post-war years AA and its 12-step progeny perfected the small-group technique. Members sat in a circle. The focus was on interaction — not one person teaching [or preaching] and the others listening — and the remarkable thing about these groups is their power. [Churches and others soon found] the small group was an extraordinary vehicle of commitment. It was personal and flexible. It cost nothing. It was convenient, and every [member] was able to find a small group that precisely matched his or her interests.
Suppose we were to try to create a complete, new social and political ‘system’, all over the planet, based entirely on personal responsibility and action at the cellular, microcommunity level, assuming the existing social and political systems can and will do nothing for us and have outlived their usefulness.
Note that this does not require a large coordinating group, or a major media outlet to connect and communicate with the cells, or a large budget of time or money to ‘coordinate’. It is deliberately anti-hierarchical, not centrally organized, unfunded, and leaderless. The model is purely organic. It will take on a life of its own and go where it will go. The principles and practices will be amended by collective consensus. The founding group will establish the initial set of principles and practices, launch The Magazine, teach the practices to others, and then get out of the way — once the movement is launched, they become largely irrelevant to its evolution. Those with personal ambitions for fame and power need not apply.
How might such a grassroots political ‘system’ work to solve a problem like, say, global warming? It would probably start with self-education actions, then progress to conservation actions, energy self-sufficiency (using renewable, community-based sources), boycotting of major users and wasters of non-renewable energy and polluters, pledges to buy local, re-learning to make and do things for ourselves, and cooperative programs to achieve radically simple lifestyles. As the cells and communities that do these things start to be recognized as ‘model’ communities they will be emulated by others. Companies that make housing, automobiles, and other major contributors to global warming will be replaced by those that are more responsible and responsive to the new market. As the companies that now depend on huge government handouts and subsidies lose market share and become unprofitable, they will no longer be able to buy politicians, and those subsidies will end, removing many of the distortions in the current economy and accelerating the shift to more environmentally responsible, zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle production. Conservation all by itself could have a huge impact. So would a major grassroots move to buy local — wiping out the Wal-Marts of the world and creating astonishing new markets for locally-produced products, while eliminating the need for long-haul transportation — a major contributor to global warming. As we re-learn how to make things and do things for ourselves, we will re-discover the wondrous value of community, of self-sufficiency, of taking time for simple pleasures, and abandon the malls for the much greater (and less destructive) pleasures of the back porches of those we love.
None of these changes assess blame for or directly confront the major perpetrators of global warming. The political system exists to protect the wealthy and powerful and perpetuate and increase their wealth and power. The politicians and lawyers are paid to block political solutions to global warming. What this grassroots approach does is ignore the existing political system and create a new one, which we the people control, that renders the existing political system obsolete. I think the power to stop global warming is on our hands, not through the ballot box or the street demonstration, but by educating ourselves what we can do as individual citizens and consumers to stop feeding it, and to choke off its source of political and economic support through personal, responsible behaviours.
In an upcoming article, I’ll take a stab at a first set of principles for such a movement. Suggestions for principles, and for a name for themovement, more than welcome.
Thanks to Jon Husband for his provocative e-mail that prompted this article.