Monday, October 10, 2011

9. Strive for a Socially-Just Economy

Economics and social injustice is such a significant issue that it demands its own Practical Tool point. Our society currently has deep economic divides which are worsened by race, culture, geography and prejudice.

NEF writes of the Great Redistribution where power, asset ownership, voice, and political clout will have to become more fairly distributed across the populace. If we are to be successful in overcoming current problems, then as we design long-term, viable economic solutions we will have to overcome some potential pitfalls of a purist Relocalization model.

This isn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather to remind us to temper it a bit. I strongly believe that the Relocalization model and “unleashing the creative genius of communities” are key to our society designing our way out of this mess. However with respect to social justice, to equality of voice, and fair shares of assets, going into the post-petroleum era we have a lot of inequity and some potential skill deficiencies, paradigm gaps, and generations-engrained enculturation to overcome.

Not an island

Dashed collective expectations are very dangerous.
--Stoneleigh, “Century of Challenges” DVD
The Transition movement is founded upon a strong base: Start where you are. Operate on a scale at which you feel you can make a difference.

That said, we cannot forget that our local communities are not islands. Particularly within our cities, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can “transition” only our own neighborhood without regards to the next neighborhood over.

No matter how many local vegetable gardens, water cisterns and solar panels we install in our local neighborhood, if the next neighborhood over has none, when tougher times come what do you suppose people from that unprepared geography will do? We cannot take the survivalist approach and say “I’ll take care of my own” with complete disregard for the rest. Our Transition effort, our local resilience, is ultimately only as successful as the whole.

Here at the Transition Los Angeles city hub, we often use this paragraph in the materials we use with leadership:

Our common goal is growing local community resilience and self-sufficiency throughout the Los Angeles basin. We realize that we cannot succeed alone; our individual security during energy descent within this massive LA basin is entirely dependent upon the degree to which we have prepared the whole area.

It is very easy to get entirely caught up in the flurry of local activities and events and not find the time for outreach. But at this early, early stage of Transition awareness-raising (here in L.A. but similarly across the entire U.S.), we cannot afford to neglect our neighboring communities. Particularly when those neighboring communities are economically disadvantaged and are less likely to initiate a Transition group on their own.

Design influences

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
– Chinese proverb

Within Permaculture we teach designers to observe the design influences upon a site: how sun, wind, fire, or neighboring uses might affect the garden. Some significant design influences for a socially-just economics are education, information resources, and enculturation.

My husband is a computer software engineer. He once sagely pointed out that poverty isn’t just a lack of assets; poverty also means lack of access to information and to Western cultural resources. Those of us who have grown up in affluent communities – even those of us who have since “voluntarily simplified” and intentionally changed our level of consumption – are well accustomed to seeking out information. That might be via internet, public library, books, magazines, networking groups, etc. We know how to (and we are encultured to) look for answers.

Many people within more disadvantaged neighborhoods do not have this enculturation. They are less likely to jump on the internet and learn about peak oil and learn about the Transition movement. They are less likely to encounter information about outside-the-box solutions like the sophisticated bartering systems of LETS and time banking. They are less likely to discover which professions will become dead‑end as we move into a post-petroleum era. They are less likely to be exploring how to organize a community and learning how to overcome the pitfalls as we (society as a whole) relearn this forgotten skill.

In a piece on another matter, Hopkins wrote: “What we see in Transition is that often those who get engaged, offering their voluntary time, are people with some spare time and with particular skills, and a confidence that their input of energy will make a difference. In more disadvantaged communities, these things are in short supply, so the [UK proposal Hopkins was writing about] does not operate in a level playing field.”

With respect to pure Localization and our more disadvantaged neighborhoods, Hopkins’ statement is quite accurate. Firstly the part about time: We need to realize that these may be neighborhoods whose best potential organizers are working 2 to 3 low wage jobs to feed extended family thus have little time to learn about and expand the Transition movement.

In Hopkins’ quote, the part about confidence hit me hard. In many ways these may be communities that have never before been empowered to self-organize, for whom “unleashing the creative genius of communities to respond brilliantly to times of great challenge” may draw blank faces.

In my pre-Transition community service experience, I witnessed this in an African American inner city school in Washington DC, in a predominantly Native American school in Arizona, in heavily Latino schools in L.A. These were pockets of people whose history in poverty bred hopeless acceptance, which developed into apathy and inability to generate change. Community meetings which should have rallied spirit and brought out connections to get resources, instead played out with audience members waiting to be told what to do. Our projects had to first instill the basic idea that positive change could in fact happen, before we could get down to teaching the mechanics of how to go about creating it.

Hopkins goes on to point out that nonprofit organizations, social service organizations, social justice organizations already know about and have been working to overcome this un-level playing field; there is much we can learn from them.

New forms of “support”

The fledgling Transition movement is – in many cases – unfolding first in communities and neighborhoods which are predisposed to being more progressive, more intellectual, more highly educated. We (the Transition movement as a whole) will have to develop ways to help less-affluent neighborhoods get organized toward Transition concepts. This assistance will probably have to be far more than our current level of supporting fellow TI’s by answering questions about how we coped with similar issues, or sharing Trainings.

We may have to invent new models to help those disadvantaged communities develop information‑distribution systems, in ways that corporate America has never bothered to develop. When Transition Los Angeles (TLA) did tabling in South LA it was an eye-opening experience for us. Up until that point TLA’s information distribution systems had been entirely web-based: webpage, Google Calendar, email announcements. In South LA we discovered that approximately 40% of the people who stopped by our table didn’t have email.

That meant TLA had no setup for contacting them. It also revealed that large numbers of LA residents didn’t use the internet on a regular and consistent basis the way that many of us regard as “normal.” And South LA is not the poorest area of our city!

Perhaps the best answers will come from a localization model of forming productive partnerships with the specific nonprofits which are already locally invested in these communities: by educating the nonprofits about peak oil + climate change + economic contraction and their likely ramifications, and asking the nonprofits how this disadvantaged community could proactively respond.

There is a danger here in crossing the line – from our brilliantly conceived “solutions welling up from the grassroots” model into a “do it to them” model. I do not know how we will accomplish this.

What are the answers?

It seems to me that this chapter within the Transition movement is yet to be written.

§ Perhaps it means awareness-raising about the long term nature of this economic downturn and the fact that it demands unprecedented change – change in professions, change in suppliers, change in our attitudes about taking on debt, change in lifestyle habits toward much more self‑sufficiency, change in the way we transact business and our financial vehicles.

§ Perhaps it means regarding those nonprofits who are working locally within the disadvantaged neighborhood as an integral part of the local neighborhood, helping them to learn about resources such as Edgar Cahn’s No More Throw Away People; and helping them to set up time banks and LETSystems.

§ Perhaps it means creating alternative “job fairs” to highlight the need to look beyond jobs and begin putting in place resilience-building local businesses.

§ Perhaps it means siting some of our Transition reskilling events in that other neighborhood.

§ It may mean helping local groups navigate the complexities of getting access to land on which to grow food. The Transition group in my neighborhood is helping a local middle school (58% African American, 22% Hispanic, 48% eligible for free or reduced-price lunch program) to set up a plot-style community garden on school grounds. Plots will be made available to individuals and families based on the criteria of whether they have access to land.

§ It may mean obtaining translations of Transition videos and books by tapping into our international Transition Network. Here in L.A. we’re already beginning to explore how to get the message out in Spanish.

§ It may mean devising non-internet, low-tech ways to get the word out about events and meetings. It may mean phone trees, or cultivating relationships with churches and interfaith networks to help get the word out. Recall that in pre-petroleum-era times, the pulpit was a powerful information‑distribution point.

§ Perhaps we’ll work with existing centers within these communities – churches and schools for example – and share our resources in how to change the cultural stories we tell each other. Within less affluent communities, some of these cultural stories may include waiting for help from the outside, hoping for an external savior, rather than a responsibility toward do-it-yourself.

§ It may mean overcoming mainstream media messages with alternative “media” (“Becoming the Media” ingredient). It may mean helping immigrant neighborhoods to reconnect with the knowledge and values of their culture of origin, helping them to value this as wiser than the false direction that American culture has recently taken, from which we must now back away.

§ Along with all of this, it may also mean listening in ways we haven’t been trained to do. Early Transition materials suggested we “listen to the Elders.” Here in L.A. we realized that many of our chronological-elders are themselves products of the industrial growth paradigm: they are 1950’s-and-later transplants to this geography. But within the immigrant neighborhoods, the elders who once lived in what our culture often dismisses as “third world” cultures may hold some of the important earth-based wisdom and low-tech solutions for our area.

Our experiences in South L.A.

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