Monday, 28 October 2013

Living abundantly within limits: resilience, ABCD & intentional community

There's an exciting feeling of 'things coming together' at the moment. I'm someone who gets excited easily, but this feels particularly significant. It's a convergence of different trains of thought, but also of different trajectories of action - and when the thinking and the doing start joining up, then I reckon it's worth taking quite seriously.

One of the bits of 'joined up doing' is around food. I've blogged several times here about the rise and rise of FoodBanks, and on some of the many dangers of embracing them with enthusiasm. Locally, one of the things we're trying to work out is how to link up the desperate - and politically disgraceful - need for emergency food provision with opportunities for those 'in need' to maintain (or rediscover) some dignity, pride, a sense of giftedness, and the possibility of being a valuable contribution within their community. Inspired in part by stories from 'The Stop' in Toronto and other initiatives closer to home, but perhaps even more so by some of the passionate and gifted local people who are wanting to work together to may our neighbourhood a better place, we're exploring on our estate how we can develop 'community gardening teams' to help people with their gardens, pass on gardening skills and wisdom, and start transforming patches of wasteland into attractive, wild and fruitful green spaces. We're exploring how we can connect up neighbours with gardens they can't care for, with neighbours who want to grow stuff but don't have the space. We're exploring how we can get Firs & Bromford growing fruit and veg in every available plot of land, to supply a regular 'farmers' market / cooperative shop / community cafe' with fresh produce, alongside home-made jams and freshly-baked bread, alongside healthy cooking and eating sessions, and bring-and-share community lunches featuring speciality dishes from our many different cultures. The plan is that those who temporarily find themselves in need of emergency food supplies can also find themselves much more permanently immersed in a thriving ecology of growing together and eating together, giving and receiving, learning and sharing.

This movement towards local food links up with some 'big thinking' being done in the interrelated and overlapping fields called 'transition', 'permaculture' and 'community resilience'. An incredibly important report was published a few weeks ago entitled 'Climate after growth: why environmentalists must embrace post-growth economics and community resilience'. It was co-written by Rob Hopkins, the inspirational founder of the Transition Network, which began not too many years ago in the Devon town of Totnes, and is now a global phenomenon. At the heart of the report is the (deeply political) argument that 'the nearly ubiquitous belief of our elected officials ... that addressing the climate crisis must come second to ensuring economic growth' is utterly 'wrongheaded', and for two reasons: firstly 'because it underestimates the severity of the climate crisis', and secondly 'because it presupposes the old economic "normal" of robust growth can be revived'. Instead, the authors argue, we have entered into an era of "new normals" - in terms of our energy supply and consumption (because 'the era of cheap and easy fossil fuels is over'), our climate (with dramatic changes and severe shocks becoming a rapidly-intensifying reality) and economics (because consistent growth is no longer possible, after the end of cheap oil, and with debt mountains growing ever-larger).

Adjusting to these 'new normals' requires 'one common strategy', they argue: building community resilience. In practice, this includes developing 'community-owned, distributed, renewable energy production', 'sustainable local food systems', 'new cooperative business models, sharing economies, re-skilling, and more'. All of these initiatives are 'inherently local', and start small, but are already 'spreading rapidly and creating tangible impacts'. 'Done right', say the authors, they can 'serve as the foundation of a whole new economy - an economy comprised of people and communities that thrive within the real limits of our beautiful but finite planet'.

It's hopeful language, and the initiatives described in the report and the many more found within the Transition Network are real embodiments of hope-in-action. Across the world, at a neighbourhood level, people are beginning to do what is necessary to live within the limits of 'what is possible' for the future of our planet, and for our generations to come. Although the initiatives are almost entirely happening 'from the grassroots', it is, in many ways, a movement 'from the outside-in': it begins with the urgent, global limits on what is possible for our planetary sustainability (energy, climate and economy), which shapes action at a local level. Thinking global, acting local.

A lot of this resonates with an approach I've explored here a lot, that of asset-based community development (ABCD). But there is, I think, a difference of direction. If the direction of 'transition' and 'resilience' is from the 'outside-in', from what is possible global to what is necessary locally, then the direction of ABCD is, in many ways, from the 'inside-out', from what is necessary (locally) to what is possible (locally) - thinking local, acting local. Our basic human needs for health and wellbeing, safety and security, raising flourishing children, and ageing and dying well - among others - are best met by, and within, our local communities, through neighbourly relationships and communal activity. ABCD points us to the abundant possibilities we discover within community, when we decide to do 'what is necessary' ourselves. This is not - emphatically not! - to say there is not a place for institutions, and for the state as the 'institution par excellence'. But it is to put those institutions in their place, to be clear about their limits. We cannot know what we need (in the way of support or 'expertise' from such institutions, professionals, systems), until we know what we already have. We need to start with the question, 'what can we as a community do for ourselves?' before we can ask the question 'what do we need other people to do with us, or for us?'.

Into this swirling mix of connections I need to drop another one. This may be the point where some readers have a knee-jerk reaction towards the door (or the 'close' button), but I'd plead with you to stay with me, if you possibly can. The 'third dimension' for me in this big 'join the dots' exercise is 'intentional, Christian community'. 'Intentional' in the sense that hopefully is reasonably obvious: not just 'doing church on Sundays', but a deep, reflective commitment to 'living in community', 24/7, and drawing on the depths of our faith tradition to shape and resource that 'living'. Here in Hodge Hill, we're exploring this 'intentionality' in a number of different ways.

As a church, we've just launched an 'offer' - to congregation members, and to those who count us as their friends and travelling-companions - of a twice-yearly conversation with a 'spiritual companion', to explore our own personal sense of 'life balance', to be thankful for where it feels 'good', and to identify areas where we'd appreciate some help, or where we'd like to try something new. The 7 'dimensions of spiritual well-being' that we've decided to structure these conversations around are:

  1. CONNECTING, welcoming and listening - finding ways to connect with other people, to offer hospitality and welcome others, and to be people who listen with care and attention, to friends, neighbours and strangers
  2. DOING (with and for others) - finding ways to share our God-given gifts and skills, alongside and for the benefit of others, as well as ways to encounter God's presence in the work of our daily lives - nurturing humility in service, and action-in-solidarity
  3. Presence, healing and PEACE-MAKING - seeking God's 'shalom' (wholeness, peace, justice, and the integrity of the natural world) for our lives, our communities, and in our world, through our relationships, our actions, our choices and our lifestyle
  4. GIVING & RECEIVING - finding opportunities to generously share our gifts, time and money with others, and to receive in gratitude from others
  5. LEARNING - broadening our minds and our horizons, and learning new skills, and in particular, going deeper into the Bible and 'inhabiting' the Christian story, firing our imaginations in new ways
  6. PRAYING - finding ways (which work for us, now) of holding ourselves, our lives, our neighbours and our world to God, and opening ourselves to be sustained, energised, inspired and challenged by God - a 'mindfulness' that renews and sustains our compassion
  7. RESTING & PLAYING - finding spaces to have fun, recharge our batteries, be ourselves, and enjoy the company of others - including celebration and feasting - renewing and sustaining all that we are and all that we do!
Five of these are remarkably similar to, or certainly deeply resonant with, the '5 Ways to Wellbeing' promoted by the (non-faith-affiliated) new economics foundation: 'connect', 'be active', 'take notice', 'keep learning' and 'give'. They're things that are good for us - for all of us - and we think they happen to be good for our communities and our world too. Alongside this 'offer' of companionship, we've been exploring, for some time, the possibility of a 'community house', where people can come and live and 'do community together', while actively seeking to build relationships of trust and friendship with their neighbours, and nurture a place of hospitality and prayer. A place of both 'engagement' and 'retreat' - an experiment in 'living a balanced and connected life' in the midst of a busy, urban neighbourhood. As I've blogged recently, we've had our ups and downs with this dream, but we're beginning to see some real, concrete (well, brick and grass, at least) possibilities emerging - but also the possibility of deepening and broadening the 'dispersed' (rather than 'residential') community of those of us who already live and/or work locally, by exploring and developing a shared 'rule of life' which might connect our local (and sometimes more explicitly political) 'activism' with some spiritual, relational, earthed 'foundations', in a way that might just possibly prove attractive to other friends and travelling companions in other places.

Now I realise the content of these last few paragraphs may well feel, in the words of one of my closest friends, 'a bit of a left turn'. But for some of us, at least, this is where all the dots begin to join up: the global and the local, the human and the non-human worlds, the necessary and the possible, living within limits and living abundantly, the 'outside-in' and the 'inside-out'... 'Spirituality' is a notoriously woolly, slippery word, but if it describes something that is about the whole of our being and our living and our relating, that allows us to embrace tensions and contradictions and 'otherness' and new discoveries, that gives us a deep grounding that allows some kind of 'centre to hold' while 'things fall apart', then what I am talking about here is the beginning of a spirituality of resilience and community building. Just the beginning. There is plenty of work to be done to 'flesh it out', articulate it, and live it out thoroughly and painstakingly and fully. But a beginning is the only place we can start, and this is my beginning, and potentially a beginning for many of us in Hodge Hill, and perhaps even beyond.

There is, inevitably, at least one more thing to be said. And that is to reiterate the point that 'doing what is possible and what is necessary' at the local level is no kind of excuse to let governments and those invested in the world's money-systems off the hook. We need not just for local experiments to become infectious, but for a growing movement for the just redistribution of money, resources, power and value so that 'what is possible and what is necessary' can be done on national and global scales too.

I'm currently reading two books about 'revolution' (among many others!). One is by a Christian, Ray Simpson, the founder of the Community of Saint Aidan & Saint Hilda. Ray's book describes The Cowshed Revolution: a new society created by downwardly mobile Christians. Features of this 'new society' include:

  1. a relational economy (rather than a selfish one)
  2. a sense of continuity (between, in Edmund Burke's words, 'those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born')
  3. a 'freedom that is accountable to natural justice' (where 'the market' is 'harnessed to social responsibility')
  4. subsidiarity (the principle 'that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done just as well by a smaller and simpler organisation')
  5. restorative justice 
  6. land cannot be bought without taking into account the natural and human life it supports
  7. the media celebrate the common good, not what degrades
  8. social wrongdoers are named and shamed through public information procedures
  9. those who model goodness are honoured
While Ray has gathered plenty of evidence of small-scale, largely Christian-rooted, experiments with this 'downwardly mobile' trajectory, there aren't many pointers to it 'taking root' more widely. My other book, on the other hand, is by social theorist Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, and it describes some recent, large-scale revolutions - however partial and faltering - and how real change has swept across nations, continents, and the planet itself. From Egypt to Occupy Wall Street, Castells analyses the dynamics of these revolutions, and identifies some common features:
  • they are networked in multiple forms (not just electronically)
  • they become a movement by occupying the urban space - 'challenging the disciplinary institutional order by reclaiming the space of the city for its citizens'
  • movements are local and global at the same time
  • movements are viral (because 'seeing and listening to protests somewhere else ... inspires mobilization because it triggers hope of the possibility of change')
  • they are usually leaderless movements, horizontal and cooperative, where the transition from outrage to hope is accomplished by creating highly reflective 'spaces for deliberation'
  • they are, at least in principle, non-violent movements
  • they are rarely programmatic, but are aimed at changing the values of society, and so are political in a fundamental sense
  • they generate their own form of 'timeless' time - on the one hand living day by day, 'not knowing when the eviction will come, organizing their living as if this could be the alternative society of their dreams'; on the other hand, 'in their debates and in their projects they refer to an unlimited horizon of possibilities of new forms of life and community emerging from the practice of the movement' - 'they live in the moment in terms of their experience, and they project their time in the future of history-making in terms of their anticipation'

As a Christian theologian and (at least would-be) community activist, Castells analysis excites me. It raises the possibility of thinking globally, acting locally, with the possibility of infectious, global consequences. It challenges me to sustain those reflective 'spaces for deliberation' among my friends, co-workers and neighbours, and to venture together into those urban spaces that need reclaiming for us citizens. And it highlights what we Christians call an 'eschatological' perspective, of seeking to 'live the future in the now' such that no experiment in 'doing things differently' is irrelevant.

The dots are joining up for me. I wonder how they join up for you...?

1 comment:

  1. So much of this resonates with the way I am thinking at the moment. Have you come across Incredible Edible Todmorden? I think they have a lot to teach us in terms of connecting around food, building community and promoting resilience. I hadn't come across Castells' analysis before but IET would, in my opinion, tick most of those boxes.