Corporate capitalism has ravaged the planet the way HIV ravages the human body, triggering a Critical Mass of cascading environmental, economic, social and political crises. Economic and climate instability, collapsing ecosystems, peak fossil fuels and devastating resource wars-if Earth were a patient, her condition would be critical.This sobering yet essentially optimistic manifesto is required reading for anyone concerned about our ability to live well and also within Earth's means. A powerful tool for community transition and cultural transformation, Ellen LaConte's Life Rules (New Society Publishers, 2012) offers a solution to our global challenges that is at once authentically hopeful, deeply inspiring and profoundly liberating.
Nature, or Life as a whole, is not a political phenomenon in any obvious sense. Derived from polis, the Greek word for “city,” politics could be considered antithetical to Life because cities as they’ve existed so far have tended to destroy other-than-human life forms and natural systems. Historically, politics is about people. It favors people as if we were not a part of but were larger than Life. More accurately politicsis about — and most politics favor — some people.
But other-than-human species operate in some ways that resemble political activity. Life has lasted as long as it has because other-than human species, beginning with bacteria, worked out — and Life encoded — organizational systems, methods of self-governance and economic behaviors and relationships that allowed them to live together in a fairly orderly manner, given all the chaos (both creative and destructive) that haunts Life’s hard-won, relative orderliness. That’s what politics is supposed to do: Keep a lid on chaos. And to a certain extent politics and governments do that. They facilitate people living together in a surprisingly orderly manner, given that both creative and destructive chaos is always trying to erupt, even in human societies.
But Life’s politics accomplish one other absolutely vital thing: They help other-than-human species live within Earth’s means. Life’s socio-political arrangements and relationships hold chaos and order in a creative tension that prevents other-than-human species from exceeding the limits of a finite planet and putting Life on Earth out of business.
Human politics and governments do not help us live within Earth’s means. Both have been compromised by and have yielded to an undeniably chaotic force: the viral global economy. For while leaders and Powers try to manage the economy and like to think they can and do control it, it has long since gone beyond human control. No combination of political efforts (equivalent to the medical efforts that produced an effective cocktail of drugs to check HIV) has succeeded in checking the global economy’s influence, aggressiveness and spread. In both its creative and destructive aspects it has proven to be more unmanageable than the virus I’ve compared it to.
Since much of the activity we group under the label “political” at every level of every society has been distorted by money and many politicians have become the playmates and servants of the Powers, politics has devolved into ancient, failed, chaos-fueling behaviors: bought-and paid-for politicking; rabid factionalism and partisanship; me first, us versus them and “break out the big guns” attitudes.
The problem is that humans have thought of politics as having to do only with the ordering of human lives and relationships. As we accept that our well-being depends on the well-being of other-than-human species, the communities they create and ecosystems they maintain, if we are wise we will not only include them in our political considerations, we will make them — and the rules that permit them to benefit from both creative chaos and order — the context of our politics.
If chaos, in the form of economically-induced global Critical Mass, doesn’t beat us to the punch, a new understanding and practice of politics along Life's organically democratic lines may restore and maintain the creative tension between chaos and order that VISA International founder Dee Hock calls chaordic.
1. the behavior of any self-governing organism, organization or system which harmoniously blends characteristics of order and chaos.
2. patterned in a way dominated by neither chaos nor order.
3. characteristic of the fundamental organizing principles of evolution and nature.1
Building Democracy In
Whatever the tenor of politics in future, any political activity that intends to facilitate long-term sustainability will need to mimic Life’s organically democratic model. That will require that we make a shift from politicking and partisanship to participation and partnership.
Life’s Economic Survival Protocol is not a restaurant menu. If we want to mitigate and survive Critical Mass, we don’t get to choose the parts of the protocol we like and leave out the ones we don’t. Economic relocalization and diversification, bioregional resource and ecosystem management, community self-reliance, becoming native to place, interdependence and subsistence, for example, are not discretionary. If sustainability is our aim, democracy is not discretionary either. Since it proved to be the best method Life found for facilitating all the other elements of the protocol, Life built democracy in. Living systems are radically, directly, organically democratic systems. So must ours be if we want to survive Critical Mass. Why?
• So that, like the natural communities with which we need to reconnect and partner, our communities can, in Kelly, Atlee and Surowiecki’s terms (see Chapter 10), distribute intelligence and benefit from the wisdom of crowds.
• So that our communities can be smarter, stronger and more competent than any of us alone or any homogenous group could be.
• So that we can avoid or at least minimize the intracommunity and intercommunity conflict and competition that will otherwise strain resources and drain us of the collective creative energy and diverse skills we will need to become self-reliant.
• So that adversity does not diminish our humanity and violence does not mire us in chaos.
• So that all of the members of our communities can, if they choose to, acquire the practical skills of democracy and be able to model and teach them to each other and the next generations.
• So that we can thinker with our possibilities for a better, more Earthological future together as effectively as Life tinkers with new solutions to the challenges it faces. Thinkering — a combination of thinking and tinkering coined and prototyped by Dale Fahnstrom and Greg Prygrocki of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s cutting edge graduate Institute of Design — is a method of putting our diversely-gifted heads, hands, backs and hearts together to innovate, solve problems and meet challenges together.
• So that we can coordinate our activities as the equivalents of effective antibodies, participants in a planetary immune system that’s capable of counteracting the viral economy that has caused this round of Critical Mass.
The human immune system is comprised of communities of cells that are distributed throughout the body in the same way that our Earthological human-natural communities will be scattered throughout the biosphere, the body of Life on Earth. Those communities of cells — like the thymus, spleen, lymph nodes and fluid, bone marrow and groups of white blood cells — that constitute and manage the immune system are as different from each other as ecological communities in Saharan Africa will be from those in the rainforest of the Congo River Basin and on the Mongolian steppes.
What makes them a coherent system capable of supporting, protecting, defending and healing the body despite their differences is the constant exchange of accurate information about the condition of their part of the body, constant attention to the well-being of their part of the body, a shared goal (the vitality and health of the whole body) and unfailing intercommunity cooperation and collaboration that turns the scattered clusters of cell communities into a complex, high-functioning, highly intelligent, self-healing and self-perpetuating system.
Repeated in every kind and scale of living system, this is democracy at its best. It is democracy we can emulate in our Earthological communities. Lifelike democratic political structures and practices will enable us to partner with other communities, life-forms and living systems with the shared goal of restoring health to Earth’s immune system and surviving Critical Mass.
Mimicking Life’s organically democratic methods will be a huge challenge. “It should come as no great surprise,” wrote Elisabet Sahtouris, “that the freedom of conscious decision making gives us a good deal of anxiety. We look around us and see these other species functioning on the whole the way our bodies do, untroubled by questions of whether what they’re doing is right or wrong, good or bad. Yet we are stuck with choice-making conscious minds that are an experimental substitute for the innate evolutionary knowing of other species, and we must use those minds as best we can to decide how to behave.”2
As more goes wrong and goes more seriously wrong everywhere, our instinct will be to just take care of ourselves and our loved ones as best we can — and the rest be damned. It’s what the survival instinct tells the members of all species to do, at least in the short term. But when that doesn’t work as well as we need it to, when instinct wears off and the distinctly human gifts of consciousness and conscience — or just desperation— set in, some of us will try democracy. Why? Because Life has shown us that democratic relationships and behaviors are the most effective,long-term-survival relationships and behaviors. And we are smart enough to figure out collectively what that means for us. Twentieth-century US clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick got it right. “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”3 That covers most of us.
Humans have been creating ways of living together since time immemorial. We know more about ourselves, our needs and what makes us tick and stick together than ever before. We know more about the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of democracy than any of our predecessors and can gather from them their best practices to incorporate into our Lifelike democratic communities. We know more than we did even a few decades ago about how complex systems, including human social systems, work most effectively. We have thousands of experiments in community living to study. We cannot fail at this difficult undertaking unless we choose not to succeed.
Of course there’s no guarantee that all members of self-reliant Earthological communities will automatically behave better towards each other and their surrounding natural communities than people do now. But, however we may define “bad behavior,” behaving badly toward each other or egregiously breaking Life’s Rules is readily apparent in small communities, and the capacity to do damage on a grand or global scale would be reduced. Our ability to identify and do something about bad behavior would be increased as would be the opportunity to mete out justice fairly and democratically.
The International Forum on Globalization acknowledged that downsizing “does not guarantee democracy or equality or human rights; it just makes them more likely. Smaller communities offer people greater access to the sources of power and greater opportunity for positive outcomes.” 4 As when resources are abundant and widely accessible there are fewer violent conflicts; so also, suggest democracy theorists including C. Douglas Lummis, Benjamin Barber and Thom Hartmann, when opportunities to have one’s opinion heard, discussed and considered areabundant and widely accessible, there is less disaffection and conflict.5
And for most of us it is a little harder to behave badly toward people with whom we interact on a regular basis and on whom we depend for our well-being and survival, people whom we often look in the eyes, than it is to behave badly toward people far away into whose eyes and lives wenever have to look. Conversely, we more often behave well toward those with whom our lives are intimately bound up than toward those whomwe do not and cannot know intimately.
Governance v. Governments
Although at the local level Earthological communities will likely establish organizations that are akin to governments, we will more nearly be engaged in governance itself (the process and practice of governing ourselves) than in creating institutions. “Governance is organic and allbut unorganizable from above,” observed Toronto urban policy writer, Edmund Fowler. “Rather it is cooperative and self-organizing from below.”6
If established governments don’t work with us (which will more often than not be the case), we will have no choice but to self-govern and work around them, preferably under their radar. We can do this. We can do what those ancient bacteria did: We can bend the rules. We can obey sovereign laws that we cannot afford to break (ones that would get us jailed or executed, for example). At the same time we can unofficially draft and, when necessary redraft, guidelines (unofficial laws) to serve the economic needs of our natural and human communities. And we can obey those Life-serving unofficial laws as if they were official. In effect, we can secede functionally from sitting governments. In the US, for example, 250 community land trusts (CLTs) have been established (See the South Boston, Massachusetts example in Chapter 13), many under the guidance of the Institute of Community Economics, to facilitate long-term ownership, democratic self-governance and sustainable management of both natural and human communities in places as diverse ecologically and socially as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont. CLTs, a grassroots, often deeply green, response to the failure of government and politics are on the rise in England, Canada, Kenya, Australia and New Zealand.7
Going Local author Michael Shuman assured us that, although “A local government committed to community self-reliance can accelerate the rate of transformation,” all of the steps to relocalization “can be taken by individuals and organizations acting unofficially. There is no law in the United States that prevents citizens, working together, from framing a set of principles, awarding seals, compiling a State of the City Report, starting locally owned businesses and banks, training community-minded entrepreneurs, waging an invest-local campaign, and issuing a community currency. For each and every one of these initiatives, the participation of local government is not necessary — even though it can add expertise, legitimacy, and funding.”8
In addition to the obvious advantage of relocalization and quasisecession (we don’t have to wait for sitting governments to fix problems they can’t fix and may not fix for our benefit anyway) there’s an additional advantage: Such unofficial structures of governance as community associations don’t fall under the rule or jurisdiction of supranational organizations. They cannot be prevented from or penalized for choosing to obey Life’s rules instead of, for example, the WTO’s.
From time to time the Earthonomic and environmental well-being — the common good — of all the human and natural communities in a region will require that individual communities yield to the counsel of the larger coalitions and networks in which they participate. But as many decisions as possible should be made by the people most directly affected by those decisions.
Regional coalitions and interregional networks of communities would be cooperatively or collaboratively governed by councils of representatives of the participating communities. Nonetheless, their authority should, in general, be subsidiary to the authority of local communities except when the decisions or actions of local communities threaten the well-being of the larger human and natural communities of which they are a part.
Though regional and interregional governing bodies would serve some sort of protective, legislative, judicial and coordinative functions as bioregions do for the ecosystems that comprise them, it might be that their most important function — the most important function that encompassing natural systems serve — would be to facilitate the constant exchange of accurate information among human communities, to act as genuine central intelligence agencies as the brain and immune system do for the body and the rainforest as a whole does for the vine-based communities that hang from its branches. The real time collection, synthesis, storage, sorting, interpretation and dissemination of accurate information might be the new and most vital role of interregional and international agencies, organizations and regulatory bodies in a Deep Green, sustainable future. Why? Having information about the status, successes and failures of other natural and human communities will be the key to the success of each community and of all of them together. In this Critically Massed period in which we face simultaneous economic and environmental collapse, there will not be time for individual communities to reinvent the wheel. The widespread exchange of information about what works and what doesn’t, particularly among communities located in similar ecosystems, will effectively speed the evolution of Earthological human lifeways.
An Evolutionary Model of Governance
We customarily use “democracy” as a noun, the name of a thing, in particular, the name of a form of government. But like Life, in essence democracy is a verb. It is a process. It is a ceaselessly dynamic, scrappy, creative, adaptive and ever-evolving process which, like any exercise repeated faithfully, makes its practitioners better at doing it. Accordingly, as members of Earthological communities we will not organize ourselves once, establish “a government” and “there, that’s done.” In response to what Critical Mass and Life throw at us, we will, like the diverse members of Earth’s natural communities, need to organize, disorganize and reorganize as circumstances warrant. We will need to design political organizations that have the kind of flexibility that immune systems have built right into them. The kind of organizations we need should, in Dee Hock’s terms, be “infinitely malleable yet extremely durable. [They] should be capable of constant, self-generated modification of form or function, without sacrificing [their] essential nature or embodied principles.” 10 No permanent capitol buildings or unalterable constitutions should stand in the way of an organically democratic community’s capacity to evolve.
If we are to mimic Life closely, as many of us who are willing and able will participate in organizing and governing aspects of our communities. Our lives will depend on it. But this does not mean that we will all have to be hands-on or full-time involved in governance, just as not all of us will farm or rehab buildings or run businesses full time. Some aspects of community governance and maintenance will require full-time attention and particular skills, knowledge or experience for which we will select qualified members of the community to lead and represent us.
Leaders and representatives need not be — in fact probably should not be — professional, tenured politicians. Natural communities build in redundancy: Several or even many species fulfill roles necessary to the community’s well-being. Our communities should also build in redundancy by giving many skillful leaders the opportunity to contribute their gifts to the community and prospective leaders the opportunity to become skillful.
Leaders and representatives of Earthological communities will be chosen on the basis of their familiarity with their human and natural communities, with many of their members, and with Life’s Rules — in short, for their eco-literacy and for their flexibility, fairness and fidelity —rather than for wealth, influence, power or political acumen.
The Role of Parties and Politicians
Political parties are so much a part of the psychological and historical landscape of the US now that it’s as difficult to imagine not having or needing them as it is to imagine not needing laws to keep us in line and prevent us from cheating each other. And because even the most Earthological and self-reliant communities will have to function for the foreseeable future within larger existing socio-political systems, it’s impossible to imagine that some members of those communities and sometimes whole communities will not continue to try to use political parties and to leverage politicians to act on their behalf. The desire to make existing systems work better and work for more of us is as ingrained as the difficulty we have knowing when to stop doing what’s not working.
Accordingly, self-governing Earthological communities may choose to participate in existing political institutions and parties and may determine to permit or encourage the formation of new ones. Larger communities and networks of communities — at the bioregional level, for example — might find that Earthologically attuned political parties provide a way for diverse opinions to be integrated and consolidated and to find coherent expression. However, Earthological communities would not necessarily need either politicians or parties and might find them to be digressive and divisive. The fewer intermediaries that come between members of a community and the implementation of decisions they have made together, the better.
Of course, not everyone will choose to participate actively or constructively in the governance of even their local communities. And there will be no perfect world in which everyone chooses partnership over partisanship and self-interest. But if politics is the art of the possible, organically democratic or Earthological politics is the art of creating the possibility of a livable future, community by community by community, as many communities as possible at the same time. We all have a vested interest in the success of that undertaking. Michael Shuman, a community organizer, author and activist with years of experience under his belt, admitted that “decisions at the local level are [not] always efficient, fair, democratic, sensitive, creative and disaster-proof. But the more responsibility that we can place for politics at the local level, the more likely people are to take their politics seriously and act responsibly.”12
Deep Green Dreaming
Having said that Earthological politics and governance will need to work very differently than politicking and governments presently do, I must repeat that the closest we come to a political philosophy and social movement capable of helping us to envision, create and manage ecological communities is through Green Parties and their widely accepted Ten Key Values.
Green Parties are making inroads in legislatures and parliaments around the world, but their impact is less than is needed to upend politics as usual or provide a sufficient antidote to the viral economy. Too often Green candidates must yield principles, policies and whole chunks of their platforms in order to forge relationships with other minority parties and fund candidates and campaigns.
The Green movement, on the other hand, if it were to become deeply, ferociously and persistently green — if, that is, it were to take Life as its model and Life’s Economic Survival Protocol as its operating manual — might well, as Critical Mass worsens, be able to draw a critical mass of related single-issue organizations worldwide into a world-changing coalition powerful enough to change politics forever. This Deep Green would embrace all of its constituencies’ issues not as separate issues to be dealt with separately, but as interrelated aspects of one overriding issue: mimicking Life in order to live within Earth’s means.
A worldwide, self-conscious movement of the kind Paul Hawken and his WiserEarth colleagues are creating by cataloguing non-governmental environmental and social justice organizations in every country could make Green Parties the most influential political parties in the world.
Deep Green, Radically Conserve-ative and Profoundly Liberating
In his last State of the Union message, US President Ronald Reagan said that “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.”13 In the American political landscape, classical environmentalism and present post-carbon, climate mitigation and localization movements are routinely stamped as liberal and, therefore, Democratic, Progressive or Green causes. Typically it is Democrats, Progressives or Greens and the equivalent parties in other nations that are in the front lines on these issues. And there can be no doubt that having or taking the opportunity to protect and defend the futures of our human and natural communities would be as profoundly liberating as it will be profoundly challenging. But concern for the environment is not particular to any one party or ideology, as an Internet search on green Republicans or conservative environmentalists will attest.
In fact, it can reasonably be said that successful, Lifelike Earthological communities would be not only deeply green but also radically conservative precisely because the natural communities they will strive to mimic are radically conservative. Though the first of those two loaded words is often used to mean extreme or extremely unconventional, radical comes from the Latin word for “root.” Its original meaning is “arising from or going to a root or source.” The primary source of support for all life on Earth is Earth. Earth is the physical source of Life. Natural communities are so deeply rooted in their places on Earth and in Earth-stuff — physical resources — that they are poster children for “radical.”
When it is detached from several centuries of political connotation, conservative means “tending to conserve or preserve, protect from loss or harm, and use carefully or sparingly, avoiding waste.”15 This is precisely what successful natural communities do. Their inherent conservatism is what makes them sustainable and allows them and the ecosystems with which they partner to last for astonishingly long periods of time. Conservative columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan pointed out that “At the core of conservatism, after all, is the word ‘conserve.’ [Hence my use of a hyphen in conserve-atism.] The earth is something none of us can own or control. It is something far older than our limited minds can even imagine. Our task is therefore a modest one: of stewardship, the quintessential conservative occupation.”16 To which, David Jenkins, the Government Affairs Director for Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) added that “The notion of stewardship is central to conservatism. Without a strong stewardship ethic — and the forward thinking outlook it requires — the logic behind many conservative ideas falls short.”17
Happily some of us in every community have that stewardship ethic and capacity to think ahead and, also happily, those ethics and capacities prompt people to steward and think ahead not only for their surrounding natural communities but their human communities, too.
The prime movers of grassroots democratic relocalization efforts are often gifted, persuasive visionaries, the equivalent of the entrepreneurial or pioneering species that are first on site when a geographic space opens up for resettlement. The best of them are also servant leaders. They lead both from the front and the inside, from deep familiarity with a community and the nature of the challenges it faces, and with the whole community’s interests at heart.
Sometimes the spur for self-organization and self-governance will come from a group of visionaries and activists. The Earthaven community in western North Carolina, for example, was founded by a group, including intentional community scholar Diana Leaf Christian, permaculturalist Chuck Marsh and Arjuna da Silva, that was interested in “learning about, living, and demonstrating holistic, sustainable culture.”Since 1995, Earthaven has grown to over 60 full members — from young children to a great grandmother — and expects to grow to 150. They have built homes and co-housing units in 14 neighborhoods on 325 acres, created gardens, common buildings, community power and water systems and developed on-site businesses ranging from construction, woodworking and a sawmill to market gardening, herbal medicines and a nursery. As part of their engagement in community, members run workshops in self-reliance skills, herbalism, community-building and permaculture, and they invite apprentices to learn these Life-mimicking skills.18
Sometimes ordinary people gather themselves spontaneously to deal with a crisis they all have in common. Groups of displaced farmers in Brazil, for example, organized the Landless Workers Movement and succeeded in reclaiming twenty million acres of fallow agricultural land on which they have established a mutually supportive coalition of dozens of self-reliant, self-determining agrarian settlements. And when Argentina’s national economy collapsed in 2001 under the weight of strategic adjustments imposed by the IMF and World Bank, millions of Argentineans spontaneously organized popular assemblies — 200 of them in Buenos Aires alone — to coordinate food production and distribution systems, health care clinics, day care, alternative transportation systems, regional assemblies, community-based workshops and manufacturing plants.
In a 2010 address to the UN General Assembly, Queen Elizabeth II said that “It has perhaps always been the case that the waging of peace is the hardest form of leadership of all. I know of no single formula for success, but over the years I have observed that some attributes of good leadership are universal, and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm, and their inspiration, to work together.”
There is a bit of popular wisdom to the effect that if you want to really help an impoverished community survive and thrive you don’t give its people fish, you teach them how to fish — and maybe help them get or teach them how to make appropriately scaled fishing gear; you don’t just give its people food, you help them to rebuild soil, adopt sustainable agricultural practices and maybe give them seeds — and better still, help them learn how to save their own. This is what Lifelike leaders will do for their communities and how Earthological communities will lead other communities toward sustainability.
Servant Leadership, Community, Full Liability and Love
I had the pleasure of visiting and corresponding, briefly, with organizational consultant Robert Greenleaf in his last years, a decade after the 1977 publication of his groundbreaking book on Servant Leadership.Greenleaf practiced what he preached, which was in essence that the relationship between members of human communities including their leaders is, like the relationship of members of natural communities, a general liability or full partnership and is best characterized as a serviceoriented, care-full and loving relationship.
“Love is an indefinable term,” he wrote, “and its manifestations are both subtle and infinite. But it begins, I believe, with one absolute condition: unlimited liability. As soon as one’s liability for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished.
“Institutions, as we know them, are designed to limit liability for those who serve through them. In the British tradition, corporations are not ‘INC’ but ‘LTD’ — limited. Most of the goods and services we now depend on will probably continue to be furnished by such limited liability institutions.”
Greenleaf proposed an alternative vision of leadership and liability. “Any human service where one who is served should be loved in the process requires community, a face-to-face group in which the liability for each other and all for one, is unlimited, or as close to it as it is possible to get. Trust and respect are highest in this circumstance, and an accepted ethic that gives strength to all is reinforced.
“Where there is not community,” he wrote in Servant Leadership, “trust, respect and ethical behavior are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain. Living in community as one’s basic involvement will generate an exportable surplus of love which the individual may carry into his many involvements with institutions which are not communities such as businesses and churches, governments and schools....”
Greenleaf concluded, “All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form for large numbers of people in our society is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his own unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group.”20
I have more recently had the equal pleasure of corresponding with August Jaccaci, a futurist, grassroots democracy visionary, 2010 Vermont congressional candidate and Thomas Jefferson scholar who is, like Greenleaf, an organizational consultant and servant leadership visionary. Jaccaci has also come to the conclusion that love is the key to every advance in human evolution.
“The global economy is being reshaped around technologies that enhance real-time communication, connectivity and relationship,” Jaccaci writes in General Periodicity, “The nature of those human relations is becoming ever more critical as their emotional and spiritual dynamics become the value determinants of individual and cultural well-being. The new coin of the world economic realm will be the creative synergy in those relations, in the integrations, in the sharings that increase knowledge, power, profit and health....
“What happens in a major stage of transformation and renaissance like ours now,” he continued, “is that for a short period of time we play with all kinds of new potentials, and, briefly, anything is possible....Discovering potentials is the work of the hour.”
Jaccaci is unrelentingly, persuasively optimistic about the capacities of the human mind and heart to heal, help, grow and expand the reach of their compassion. “While the shift toward democracy is still emerging, a new form of political economic power is gathering at the level of the nation-state. The all-pervasive, over-arching power of life itself, which I call Biocracy, is appearing. As humanity comes to realize that ultimately all life and all species must thrive and prosper or eventually none will, the values of dominance and control are giving way to the values of resonance and reverence....
“Humanity is awakening to the realization that the universe is made of love, by love, for love,” he says. “Love is the source, substance and future of all being. So if we would build a sustainable culture, let us build it on a web of love and it will be both ephemeral and timeless, momentary and enduring.”21
The words of such expansive thinkers along with the teachings of the world’s spiritual masters and Earth sages prompt me to suggest that democracy, such as Life built into its very fabric, may be what love looks like away from home.
A Force More Fierce: Refusal, Resistance and (R)evolution
Coming into the second decade of the 21st century, nearly every symptom of Critical Mass is worsening more rapidly than I had imagined, and they are converging and amplifying each other exactly as I had imagined. I find myself paying more attention to the proposals of those who call upon us to be more fierce than we have lately been in defense of Life as we know it — and of ourselves, our communities, our descendants and their future. I am attending to the possibility of the kind of Life-saving love of which our spiritual leaders and many of our secular leaders speak.
The solutions I synthesize in the next chapter are constructive, collaborative, non-confrontational and nonviolent. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge, again, that while some of our leaders may yield some of their power, the Powers and most of our leaders will not yield easily or willingly their power, their vision of the future as more-of-the same or this economy and their control over the systems that maintain it. They will not yield to the Green vision or Deep Green politics willingly. Nor will we, so long as we believe the global economy is a healing force rather than a viral one.
Even when critical masses of us realize that we need to change dramatically, the Powers will not, for the most part, facilitate our efforts to heal Earth’s flagging immune system and save ourselves from the worst that Critical Mass can do.
The longer the present viral global economic system persists, the less money, stamina and health and the fewer resources we will have left with which to create any kind of desirable future when the system collapses, as it most certainly will. And as it does, conflict and violence at every level of society will increase. Along with the tools of disconnection of which Keith Farnish writes, governments will be forced to use the tools of repression in order to maintain control, order and something like the status quo.
We will not be able to love our way into what follows Critical Mass in the usual ways we understand love. Love may need an edge.
Life gives us our lives. To respond appropriately to that gift, we need to preserve, not challenge, Life’s capacity to continue to give life and more life and more kinds of life to Earth and to us. Respond comes from a Latin word that means “to answer to or promise or pledge in return.” I’ve said that the members of natural communities and the communities themselves (the successful ones at least) are highly response-able. But they cannot pledge anything and cannot choose to offer Earthonomical behaviors in return for the gift of life. Appropriate responses to the gift are encoded, built-in. And among those built-in responses are rejection of collapsing or corrupt systems, resistance to dominance by any one species or members of a species, and (r)evolution. These may need to be among our responses to the forces that threaten Life as we know it.
Resistance in the form of prolonged, large scale protests and acts of civil disobedience such as those which Gandhi practiced to bring an end to the British Raj in India. Resistance such as oppressive Venezuelan, Iranian, Egyptian and Syrian governments have not been able to ignore or stifle may become — will likely become — more common. Acts of resistance are examples of democracy in action too. And because they are among Life’s democratic, or biocratic, methods of survival, they are organically democratic actions.
While the Powers will probably ignore our fledgling efforts to localize some aspects of governance and economic activity (especially if it removes from them some of the increasing burden of responsibility for fixing things they cannot fix), they will not react passively and peaceably to political secessions or expanded and intensified forms of resistance and protest. These present a challenge to authority and to the flow of tax monies and political legitimacy. The Powers will doubtless condemn as terrorism such acts of resistance on our own, our children’s, grandchildren’s and Life’s behalf. They may well treat resistors as if they were terrorists. In their continued efforts to get away with breaking Life’s laws, the Powers will accuse resistors of breaking their laws. Those of us who have not yet become fierce, who have stopped short of breaking sovereign laws, may have to be more fierce, including perhaps by breaking sovereign laws that facilitate the trespasses of the present system, perpetuate harms done to Earth’s immune system and hamper Life-saving alternatives.
In other words, secessionists, resistors and protestors may not always be able to act passively and peaceably either. We in the United States have the Founding Fathers’ example and Declaration of Independence to consider in this understanding of the courage that freedom entails. In the two and a half centuries since their acts of resistance, revolution and reconstitution and in the first years of the present decade ordinary people around the world — in the former Soviet Union, in South Sudan, in Northern Africa and South Africa and Southeastern Asia as well as on the streets of many American cities — have risen to the occasion of their oppression, the destruction of their homelands, the outsourcing of their jobs, the inequity of their national economies and the theft of their resources and rights. And they have sought, though they have not always received or yet achieved, organically democratic alternatives to Powers and pyramids.
An increasing number of influential philosophers, activists, writers and critics of the present system are advocating for revolution, for hobbling the system and bringing it down before it can take everything familiar down with it. They believe that infrastructure sabotage and activities both small and large in scale that undermine the system’s capacity to function reliably may push many typically patient and passive people to take charge of their own lives while there’s still a relatively tolerable climate, ecosystem services and resources to support them.
What I advocate here might best be called by the same name I give it when other-than-human species engage in it: (r)evolution. But in this we cannot entirely take our cues from Life. Some other-than-human species can choose to leave or withdraw support from larger living systems that are failing them; they cannot choose to sabotage or overturn those systems. We can. Our attempts to mimic Life’s survival methods may be punctuated with acts of sabotage, rebellion, disobedience and even armed resistance. These acts may be necessary if we want to speed and support a (r)evolution and transformation equivalent in ambition to the one that put an end to prehistoric lifeways and brought us the Powers, civilizations and patterns of dominance that have evolved over three millennia into the viral global system that threatens us now.
Happily for us, the Great Turning from empire to Earth community, from power over to power to, and from the Powers to democratically empowered people, is as old as the first empires.
From Juggernaut to Jubilee: A Metaphor for a Great Turning from Empire to Organic Democracy
Throughout human history, myths and metaphors have changed people’s minds about how the world works and how we they might best work with and in it. Here are two that can help us make the mental shift from larger-than-Life hubris to Life-saving Earthologic.
There’s a Hindu god called Vishnu who is known by several nicknames.One of them, Juggernaut — Jagannātha in the original Sanskrit — means “Lord of the World.” In our time he would have been one of the Superclass, the 1% of the Powers That Be. In his role as Juggernaut, the grinning Vishnu — wouldn’t you grin if the world was your oyster? — traditionally lived in a temple made to look like a chariot, with huge stone wheels at each of the four corners. The chariot on which Juggernaut reclined regally represents the world, his world — Earth and every thing and everyone in it — being pulled under his ostensible protection safely through its rounds of the heavens.
Traditionally, once a year Hindus put a statue of Juggernaut on a heavy wooden wagon and make a procession through cities and towns in order that the people, especially the scattered poor, the ill, lame and elderly who could not get to the temple to see him, might worship and be blessed by the god. In the past as now, hundreds of willing pilgrims along with an elephant or two pulled the huge wagon on which the ponderous stone god sat while the worshipful ran alongside throwing gifts of food, flowers, money — what few material goods they had — and even themselves on the wagon. But in the distant past, Juggernaut’s parade was a mixed blessing. People were knocked about, kicked aside and trod upon as the ecstatic procession rolled through the streets and towns where gongs and horns tolled its raucus approach. Heavy as it was, and heavier as it grew with the addition of each new tithe or body, Juggernaut’s wagon was very hard to pull up hill and almost impossible o stop when it was going down hill.
And so it was that Juggernaut often bore quite unsafely down upon his followers. The stony-eyed, greedy-hearted god in his faux chariot rolled over, crushed or maimed some, sometimes many, of the worshipers, the pilgrims, the lame, ill, elderly and any beasts who simply got in the way. Adoring, entranced hordes were swept willy-nilly along by the increasingly frenzied parade of worshipers and speeding wagon. Certainly the unfailing generosity and awe of the faithful left some of them poorer than they already were. And although some of them deliberately martyred themselves under the wheels, for the rest, loving Juggernaut was a mixed blessing.
Little wonder that the word juggernaut has come into modern usage meaning any force, event or power that is so heavy and huge or relentless that it seems both inescapable and unstoppable. Lording it over the Earth, riding high atop the prevailing pyramidal socio-economic system, the viral global economy is our 21st century Juggernaut. Several centuries after Juggernaut’s parades got under way in India, the Jewish people of the ancient Middle East had almost been crushed by one empire and exile, one plague and famine, one flood and enslavement, one Critical Mass after another. According to their Torah, they were given by the divinity they called Yahweh a surprisingly democratic solution of such repeated juggernauts: Jubilee.
The word for the celebratory event called Jubilee derived from the Hebrew word yôbēl, the name of the rams’ horns that announced it. By pronouncement of Yahweh through his prophets — democratically predisposed visionaries to a one — every 50 years the yôbēl were to be blown throughout the land to signal that the Powers That Be and everyone else must free slaves, forgive debt, restore property and land to its former owners (the peoples and other living things from which it had been taken), leave some of the land untilled, fatted calves unkilled, fruit and nut trees unpicked and unfilled and the people unbowed. This meant that those Powers, lords of their worlds, would suffer a loss of tribute, income and, yes, power.
Jubilee years were intended by the wise of that Critically Massed time in the Middle East to let the Earth and every thing and everyone in it heal, to let Earth’s strained accounts refill and other-than-human beings and us find their own way.
As you might imagine, there have been very few Jubilees. Since the Powers in even ostensibly democratic nations still aren’t inclined to grant the rest of us Jubilee, we’ll have to grant it to ourselves, blow our own horns throughout all the lands, jam a stick or two through empire’s wheels, unseat Juggernaut and take over the wagon. Or, better still, turn our backs and make our own Lifelike lifeways — democratically.
For Example: Civic Self-Governance
Founded in 1959 by members of a suburban Philadelphia community, the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA) has been a remarkably successful experiment in civic sector community government. The authority of the CHCA originated and resides not in laws but in the freely given consent of the people who live or work in Chestnut Hill. The CHCA supports and was designed to supplement Philadelphia’s city government, to address problems and challenges city government didn’t or couldn’t effectively address. In the intervening years the Community Association has brought new health to the Chestnut Hill shopping area and local economy; organized special events for seniors, young people and school children that create a sense of community; founded a successful newspaper that informs and links all segments of the community; planted trees and gardens; redesigned traffic patterns and parking systems; worked to alleviate or solve human relations problems of all kinds including clashes between classes, races and generations; rescued and restored historic buildings; bought up properties in danger of decay and turned them into community assets; helped to police the community and to “keep alive a vision of community in which impossible dreams can become reality.” The association has included all members of the community and participating businesses, organizations and institutions in its vision and decision making processes; rotated and shared leadership according to the tasks at hand; developed community-wide financial support and a consensual taxation scheme that not only sustains the association’s activities but helps community leaders discern levels of community support or non-support for those activities; fostered mutually supportive partnerships between community institutions like hospitals, schools and colleges and evolved constitutive legal documents — called “Agreements, Definitions and Commitments” — designed to be changed as the needs and circumstances of the community change. “[The] system has been seen by many observers of democratic government as the best, maybe the only, hope through which local communities can insure their own survival." Lloyd Wells reported that when Chesnut Hill Community Association had fallen prey to the same sorts of failures — diminished democratic vision and energyc resident passivity, personal ambition and fiscal corruption and irresponsibility — that plague many modern US communities, a fresh batch of "Hillers" and some of the old guard who were distressed with the loss of consensual process were shaking things up in Chestnut Hill again.9
The CHCA supports and was designed to supplement Philadelphia’s city government, to address problems and challenges city government didn’t or couldn’t effectively address. In the intervening years the Community Association has brought new health to the Chestnut Hill shopping area and local economy; organized special events for seniors, young people and school children that create a sense of community; founded a successful newspaper that informs and links all segments of the community; planted trees and gardens; redesigned traffic patterns and parking systems; worked to alleviate or solve human relations problems of all kinds including clashes between classes, races and generations; rescued and restored historic buildings; bought up properties in danger of decay and turned them into community assets; helped to police the community and to “keep alive a vision of community in which impossible dreams can become reality.”
The association has included all members of the community and participating businesses, organizations and institutions in its vision and decision making processes; rotated and shared leadership according to the tasks at hand; developed community-wide financial support and a consensual taxation scheme that not only sustains the association’s activities but helps community leaders discern levels of community support or non-support for those activities; fostered mutually supportive partnerships between community institutions like hospitals, schools and colleges and evolved constitutive legal documents — called “Agreements, Definitions and Commitments” — designed to be changed as the needs and circumstances of the community change.
“[The] system has been seen by many observers of democratic government as the best, maybe the only, hope through which local communities can insure their own survival." Lloyd Wells reported that when Chesnut Hill Community Association had fallen prey to the same sorts of failures — diminished democratic vision and energyc resident passivity, personal ambition and fiscal corruption and irresponsibility — that plague many modern US communities, a fresh batch of "Hillers" and some of the old guard who were distressed with the loss of consensual process were shaking things up in Chestnut Hill again.9
• Scientist Wangari Maathai inspired and led the Green Belt Movement, a community tree planting, environmental reclamation and community democracy movement in Kenya, an accomplishment for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize and many Kenyans won increased competence and confidence.
• Community activist Lloyd Wells spearheaded the Chestnut Hill Community Association, advised several communities in Maine and inspired formation of the Center for Consensual Democracy.
• Architect Paolo Lugari gathered artists, technicians, scientists, carpenters, gardeners, educators, students and inventors and put them together with members of the Guahibo people in Colombia to create the self-reliant Gaviotas community.
• Artist, philosopher and social innovator Oberto Airaudi guided the creation of the Damanhur federation of self-reliant communities and ecovillages in the Valchiusella Valley of Northern Italy. Each village has its own social and political structures, businesses and particular vision for the future.
• Architect Paolo Soleri envisioned and orchestrated the evolution of cities that are designed to work like as well as with living systems, beginning with the small prototype Arcosanti in Arizona. Soleri called this fusion of city planning, design, landscape and building arcology. Principles of arcology have been adopted by communities all over the world.
• Urban ecology visionary Richard Register, author of Ecocities, helped residents, designers and leaders in Berkeley, California, begin the process of reinventing their city as clusters of live/work neighborhoods with natural, agricultural and re-wilded areas between them.
• Activist-priest Don José María Arizmendiarrieta encouraged his parishioners in the Basque region of northwestern Spain to establish the Mondragón cooperatives, a now 60-year-old coalition of more than 170 worker-owned-and-operated service and production entities that serve over 100,000 people in several self-reliant villages.
• Physicist and prolific writer Vandana Shiva founded an NGO in India called Navdanya (nine seeds) that coordinates the efforts of 5,000 local communities and villages to provide for themselves ecologically using local resources.
• Permaculture educator and natural builder Rob Hopkins co-founded the Transition Network and helped his own community of Totnes in Devon, England come together to prepare for peak oil and climate instability by becoming locally and regionally self-reliant.
• Urban planner and architect Jaime Lerner inspired and coordinated an effort by the residents of Curitiba, Brazil to imagine the post-peak city they’d like to live in and then create it.
Life Rules reprinted with permission from Ellen LaConte and published by New Society Publishers, 2012.