Taking Things Into Our Own Hands

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.

That movement would need a name, and it would need some kind of critical mass to launch it (we want Oprah to invite us to explain it, but if the legacy media aren’t interested, that’s just fine). It would also need four other things:

  • Principles: A set of principles that reflect broad human values and ideals, especially those that are not reflected in the actions of the existing political and other systems. Those principles would guide, but not dictate, what the cells of the movement would focus their attention and actions on. They might include leaving a socially, ecologically and financial healthy world for our children and future generations. They might include self-learning and educating each other in the critical life skills we need to appreciate others and to be part of nature and to make a joyful, stress-free living doing things we are good at and love doing and which are needed. They might including preventing and self-treating diseases and illnesses and looking after each other when they are unable to look after themselves. They might include living a radically simple, indigenous life, taking from the Earth and from others no more than we need and no more than we give back. These principles would not be about standards or rights or things we should expect or demand of others. They would instead about personal responsibilities, what we hope for our future and expect of ourselves to pave the way to realizing those hopes. They would guide us to appreciate the world as it is now and could be and to take things into our own hands to make it better.
  • Practices: A suggested egalitarian methodology for (a) surfacing relevant information about problems and issues that the cell is concerned about, (b) achieving a collective understanding of these issues and some promising approaches to deal with them, (c) deciding what to do, individually and collectively, and (d) when deemed appropriate by the cell, linking up with other cells interested in the same issues so they can collaborate on larger-scale activities. I think my complex system ‘convergence’ methodology, perhaps bringing in elements of the ‘U’ presencing methodology as well, might work: It’s scalable, egalitarian, proven to work in addressing the most complex issues, and not hard to learn and teach (and the more you practice it, the better you become at it). 
  • Network Facilitation: A very lean, simple set of tools that enable cells to self-organize and to network and collaborate with other cells.
  • Attention, Guidance and Encouragement: At least initially, in order to kindle the movement, the founding group will need to offer attention, guidance and encouragement to all the movement’s cells. I would suggest that they do this through what I call The Magazine (that’s simply what I would name it — the word means ‘storehouse’ and it would be a storehouse of information, ideas and enthusiasm for the movement). I’ve described the idea for this in an earlier article: Weekly looseleaf pages (suitable for those on both sides of the digital divide) that contain stories (no theory, no analysis, just real, detailed stories of what’s happening and what people are doing about it) that illustrate aspects of a critical issue, or possible approaches to it, that can be filed and archived in binders by subject, and which have a few ideas for possible action and space for each individual and each cell to note what actions they would propose to take.

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.

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7 Responses to Taking Things Into Our Own Hands

  1. theresa says:

    I may follow some local leads on that. For the most part I live in a pretty isolated place, work in even more isolated places and am never in town (whitehorse) long enough to commit to or organize things that I can follow through on. I stay in touch with my various circles either by email or travelling. But I can think of a few leads. It’s easier in the City, big City even better, to connect with like minded people. Although I know from experience that can be another kind of trap. It’s not always as easy as it looks either. I’ll give you an example, last summer I was working in a diamond exploration bush camp in NWT. Local native people are employed as much as possible, often for something like a camp manager or bear watch. When I came onto this location (I am a cook, not a geologist), I thought I might have some things in common or to talk about with one camp manager who had been doing this kind of work most of his life. To make a long story short, one of the two bear watch custodians of the location had shot a bear and burned the carcass during the months when the camp was down and didn’t report it. The authorities were brought in to investigate, ask questions, there was no way to prove who did it or why and it went for further investigation the operation didn’t get shut down and nobody got fired. Another bear showed up in the middle of one night, right past the electric fence, ripped the kitchen walls down and went after a can of bacon fat that I had left on the counter (stupid) there is always alot of uncooked dried food around but not with that kind of smell. That bear probably got shot too, just on account of the fact that he had come in contact with human food. Anyway, so it was not a foregone conclusion that the person whom I thought might share some similar values or something I could learn from was necessarily on the same page. If there had been any good reason to shoot the first bear than why didn’t they report it? There is a fairly narrow (some think) criteria for what kind of impact you can have on the environment in those places but maybe if you are a native person you think it doesn’t apply to you since all the land is or was your land. So there is a difficulty in finding people with the same values if you live in an isolated place. A church usually has a very strong, not loose, set of beliefs. One thing I did try to do this week, along those lines, was to locate one of those nigerian letter writers who show up in your inbox (I got one a few weeks ago but can’t find it) and write back to them (!) with questions about their country and try to engage them in some sort of broader baseddiscussion about the current events in their country. I was in Nigerian once on an overland tour, not for very long. I was hoping I might get a good cat and mouse game going since there was still a sliver of hope that I might buy their line and send them the money they were looking for. On the other hand they might turn around and see things differently and try to make some change. Most of these people are just doing jobs and probably wouldn’t mind a diversion with somebody from a developed country (same is true of phone solicitors if you talk to them). So that’s my mission for now, call me crazy (everybody else does). Nothing like a good cat and mouse game on the way to saving the world:-)

  2. Janene says:

    Hey –I don’t know if you have gotten this recommendation before, Dave, but you are once again brushing up against Jeff Vails’ Rhizome. Check out http://jeffvail.net and his book A Theory of PowerJanene

  3. theresa says:

    I was hoping I woulld see some suggestions here about the name for your movement (?) or guiding principles. Maybe I took up too much space above. I could suggest a name from the language of science. The phenomena of “Emergence” might be of interest. It addresses all of the requirements of self organization, couldn’t be confused with a social system in which the individual human spirit could be “broken down”, it can be seen and observed in nature where it is expressed as pattern forming. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence Human Emergence Movement ?Principles? I don’t have any suggestions for that except the fundemental principle of any new philosophy or vision goes back to how sincere the beliefs of the original visionary are. I’m not convinced. Your “blog”is authentic but…?

  4. Frank Camino says:

    Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine have investigated similar social assemblies which they’ve come to call “segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated, networks” or SPINs. The concept was recently resurrected by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in their analysis of asymmetric warfare, Netwar and Networks, I think the title was. John Robb took the cue and further examines this idea in his ruminations on open source warfare on his Global Guerrillas site. Of course, there is nothing in their composition that indicates that SPINs are only best put to use under combat conditions. But we’d do well to read these sources to see what further principles might be derived. To divine the commonalities of these various SPINs whether these be by Al Qaeda, the Green movement, or by Rick Warren will be necessary.

  5. Hi Dave, Thank you for your thoughtful blog, which I keep turning to by way of Flemming Funch http://ming.tv and Lucas Gonzalez Santa Cruz I lead the Minciu Sodas laboratory for serving and organizing independent thinkers around the world http://www.ms.lt We have very much pursued such a route as you describe, so that we have created the Open Leader network http://www.openleader.com as a way to organize ourselves around those people who contribute to the Public Domain (as opposed to various forms of copyright or copyleft) which is the kind of sharing that is needed for us to social network freely on each other’s behalf. We have some experience in a set of principles that relate to the growth of independent thinkers as leaders, see “We Learn to Stick Our Necks Out” and other papers at http://www.openleader.com/index.php/MinciuSodas/Papers It would be great to work together with you!

  6. Dave Smith says:

    I’ve always liked the term “harbinger”…One that indicates or foreshadows what is to come; a forerunner.

  7. Theresa says:

    wonder how big those cells were supposed to be? I always liked this idea and blog post best. I particularly liked the binder idea but it has taken me awhile to to around to coming back to paper. Binders beat blackberries, cell phones,and laptops by a mile.

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