AJUDADA: First day – head

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The first day of AJUDADA is now over, and I’m back at the home of Olga, who is putting up a lot of us, including Charles Eisenstein and a group from Tamera community.

All parts of the day were special.  Registration was in an old church, and people were given wonderful badges that were hand made from slices of cork, a Portuguese speciality, with cork oaks trees all over.

The opening introductions were out in the open, but only about 100 people were there. Many more arrived during the day, and nearly 700 are expected overall. There is a wide age range, including a group of children, with various activities arranged for them.  I think I am probably the oldest.  Most are Portuguese, but some were from the rest of Europe, and even some from Brazil, Columbia, New Zealand and the USA.

After the introductions, we went into the Cultural Centre for a series of ‘Flash’ or short presentations from people and groups with relevant projects, including bicycles in Portalegre, Portalegre in Transition, Bioenergy and of course, AJUDADA itself. All events had immediate translations into Portuguese or English, depending on the language of the presenter, which was quite a strange experience.  It highlighted the diversity among us, but did slow down everything.

We then walked across town to the public market, where I had worked yesterday on the exhibition, for lunch, which was a lovely salad, prepared for us by volunteers. But by the time we had eaten, and walked back, we were nearly an hour late starting the afternoon programme.  The first event was a round table discussion, between Charles Eisestein, Ana Margarida Esteves, Anselm Jappe and me. People seemed to like it, as it led to quite a few interesting conversations for me. After that, there was another series of Flash presentations.  My favourite was a short film made this morning by a group of small children, who were all there in the auditorium.  After the film each of the were asked to say what children could offer to AJUDADA more than adults!  Very sweet.

From there, we again walked across town, this time to the secondary school, where we had two ‘fish bowl’ discussions, one in English and one in Portuguese, the only events of the day without translation. For me, this was the highlight of the day.  For a fish bowl, there are five chairs in the middle of the room, which are for the people who want to speak.  Anyone in the room can choose to speak, but only 4 are filled at one time.  When someone fills the 5th, someone in one of the others must leave. So there is quite a rapid turnover of speakers, and all are equal.  People told there stories and others commented on them.  Much of the time was spent with one women who started by saving she was a farmer, but it turned out she was actually pioneering a bit of gift economy around her.

We finished the day with another meal, quite similar to lunch, with lots of interesting conversations.

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AJUDADA: final preparations

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I arrived in Portalegre yesterday evening and I’m very excited to be here.  Alvaro collected me and Juan del Rio, and drove us to an old church in Portalegre, where a large group of people were working hard at the remaining tasks before AJUDADA starts on Friday.

The three of us went out for dinner, and to get a flavour of Portalegre. It turns out that it was a special day, the feast day of San Antonio. It seemed like the whole town was in the streets, eating sardines and dancing to live music.  We joined in with that.

Then we went back to the church, where the meeting was continuing into the night. It was after midnight when we left and they were still going strong, but looking very tired.

Today, we reassembled, and they gave us a task. We went to the Public Market, where all the AJUDADA participants will be eating, to set up an exhibition of ‘letters to Portalegre’ which were little art objects from all over Europe.  We left space for the participants to add their own later in the week. The Market is a large and quite handsome public space that is hardly used these days, due to competition fron the supermarkets.  Of course, it would be ideal for use by a localised gift economy.  Perhaps that might be an eventual outcome of AJUDADA.

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Charter for a New Financial System?

I read a post from Positive Money, for whom I have a lot of respect, on a “Charter for a New Financial System” with mixed feelings.

It is a report on a conference called Transforming Finance, held in London just last week. The Charter they produced is supported by many far sighted people, concerned not just with finance, but with environmental and social change issues: The Finance Innovation Lab, New Economics Foundation, Share Action, Positive Money, Move Your Money, Friends of the Earth, Ecology Building Society, SPICE.

There is a lot that I like in this Charter. It says:

  • Since the crisis of 2008, the failure of our financial system to deliver benefits for society, the economy or the environment has been a perennial feature of mainstream political debate.
  • the conditions for transforming finance are now in place at European and national level, and that, with sufficient political will, 2013 could be the year where it starts to happen
  • a new wave of financial providers, be they ethical banks, new entrants, state sponsored entities, social finance or peer to peer platforms, is being proved in the marketplace

Their proposals are that the banking sector needs to be transformed in the following ways:

  • There should be no bank in the system which is too big to fail, so the taxpayer is not underwriting their costs with an implicit subsidy.
  • Retail and investment banking should be regarded as entirely different businesses and separated accordingly.
  • There should be increased competition and diversity within retail banking allowing for frequent new entrants, and exits, multiple ownership models including mutuals, credit unions, local banks and sector banks.
  • Banks should ensure they invest a far higher proportion of their balance sheets to the real (non-financial) economy and for productive uses. Policy should be actively used to reduce speculation and the creation of asset bubbles.
  • There should be a permanent and legitimate role for the state in banking, at a local or national level, either to reduce the cost of risk capital for socially desirable activities and innovation, or to influence the overall allocation of credit to the economy.

and especially:

  • investment institutions should understand and take into account the social, environmental and other systemic consequences of their investments; the legal framework must support and encourage this.

These are very significant changes to the financial system and I’m sure would reduce some of our current difficulties.

So then, what is it that I am unhappy about?  I suppose it is the sense (which is implicit in their vision) that the overall shape of the economy will be largely the same as it is now.  There will be companies and institutions competing in a market place, funded by banks and some new financial institutions, regulated by governments.

For me, the deepest problem now is that we have an ‘upside-down economy’ where the purpose (enshrined in law and their governing articles) of our major companies and other productive enterprises is to provide financial return to their shareholders. This is very different from a purpose which is to serve human and natural wellbeing in their area of operation, which comes out very much second best, if it is addressed at all.  I don’t see this charter as addressing that explicitly, although there are nods in that direction.  Without that deep change of purpose, I can’t see how there will be a change away from the increasing wealth inequality and environmental destruction that characterises our current economic system.

Moreover, if it is wellbeing and not financial return that is the driving force for productive enterprises, and if we are to optimise our economy for that, it will need to be largely co-operative, not competitive, and locally-based although regionally and globally co-ordinated.  I spell all this out extensively in my book, eGaia, Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications. (Available to download on this website, and I’m currently working on an up to date second edition.)

None of this is addressed in this Charter, well-meaning as it is, and in its own terms, deep and radical. And so, this Charter will be seen as a radical document, attracting the enthusiasm and zeal of many people, who will campaign for it as though it really were the solution we need!

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Technology cannot tackle climate change

I came across this interesting post by Prof. Calvin Jones, in an unusual place, ClickonWales  (thanks to Pete Lipman). The idea is that large scale renewable energy projects for wave, tidal and wind power, while useful, are not a solution to climate change.

Renewable energy projects near Wales under consideration

It is interesting that while this is a post appearing on a website with fairly conventional ideas,  it makes some quite strong environmental points:

  • “Most of the audience seemed cheered by the economic opportunity and the possibility of mitigating the effects of climate change. I was terrified.
  • a belief that technology and increased resource efficiency can ‘solve’ our ecological and climate problems… is Walter Mitty land. It is populated by well-meaning, intelligent people to be sure, but a fantasy none the less.
  • On ‘current trends’ we can expect three billion more people in the global middle class by 2030… To enable this, we require a mere doubling of world electricity production. Let me say this slowly. This. Will. Not. Happen. There is not enough stuff in the world for material consumption to effectively double on a global basis. There is not enough water for the dishwashers, or indeed to drink. There is not enough aluminium for the Audis, and not enough kerosene for the short-haul holidays to Hong Kong. There are certainly not enough prawns for the cocktails.
  • we have to re-define value and work in terms of what really adds to welfare and yes, in places we recognise. Then we should encourage this useful work, and spread it around all who want it, instead of maximising its commodified price and to hell with the rest.”

This is an fine start to letting go of conventional assumptions.  Real progress comes when we look towards practical ways of creating low consumption societies, with modest physical comfort but high social and cultural pleasures, and much more resilience to economic and environmental dangers.

As usual, my favourite examples are from the Transition Network.  I am also working on a new edition of my book, eGaia, Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications, in which I spell out the qualities needed for a truly collaborative (but bottom up, not centrally controlled) global society, and how it might work.


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Help me support Ajudada in Portalegre, Portugal

[AJUDADA – YouTube video in Portuguese with English subtitles. To turn on subtitles, use the captions button, below centre right, while playing.]

I am going to AJUDADA, in Portalegre, Portugal, 14 – 16th June, 2013, with hopes it will be one of the most important events I’ve attended in many years. AJUDADA has the prospect of getting a critical mass of the population in Portalegre involved in a real beginning to a gift economy so that it makes a significant difference to their lives.

AJUDADA is an international gathering that will take place on the 14, 15 and 16 of June. Its participants will bring their visions and skills to Portalegre to plan viable solutions for development together with the local community. It will be an ‘international event, anchored in a local community.’ While not formally a Transition event, people from the Transition movement are central to its organisation.

I invite those of you who want a community-oriented, sustainable future to share news of it, support it, and maybe even come.  If you can’t come, follow the Facebook page, and join the discussions. I am not one of the central organisers, but I have been helping, and I have a small part in the video, along with Charles Eisenstein.


The name, AJUDADA is an ancient Portuguese word used in rural areas of Portugal to describe a once common practice in which members of a community joined together to help one another in the different chores in the fields. It is being revived as an image of a ‘gift economy’ where everyone gives and everyone receives, as part of an ongoing community where people look after each other, in contrast to a market economy, where all are out for their own benefit.  Anyone is able to give something to others and the expressions of that gift are as diverse as the people in a given community.

Why Portalegre?

As many other towns in Portugal and all over the world, Portalegre is facing a severe economic and social crisis. On the one hand, the basic needs of many people are not being met and, on the other hand, those with the time and willingness to contribute to the community are not able to do it, including many people who are currently unemployed. No one is going to rescue Portalegre from the outside. But what is possible from the inside? Cast off by the global economic system, what might be possible locally? AJUDADA aims to catalyze the awakening of local sharing, local resiliency, and local creativity. If it is possible here, it is possible everywhere.

The video

The video will give you a sense of the city of Portalegre, let you meet some of the organisers, and see some of their community meetings to plan the event. Here are some quotes from the video (with elapsed time) that will give you a sense of the event:

  • “3 days to see the world with a new set of spectacles” Annalieke, (1:48)
  • “The gift economy is people giving and receiving from each other, without money, in an organised fashion, with an ongoing relationship.”  Gary, (2:55)
  • “The critical thing is to get out of all sorts of mental traps, especially around money.” Gary, (3:50)
  • “We live in difficult times, facing a system that does not work”, Filipa, (4:25)
  • “A positive demonstration, powerful for its force of inspiration, that can spread afterwards.” Filipa (5:51)
  • “An international event, anchored in a local community” Filipa (6:11)
  • “Ajudada is an event where people are discovering their power… a new model for economic resilience, economic revival.” Charles (7:50)
  • “A lot of international people are coming, not to help but to hold space for what is already there to blossom forth.” Charles, (8:22)
  • “Trying to find solutions that would normally be satisfied with money.” Sonia, (12:08)
  • “A feeling of belonging to a whole”, Sonia (14:22)
  • “Who organises Ajudada? Includes a group of people from the Transition Initiative of Portalegre… but we can not say that it is a single person, or entity that is organising, it is all of us, the organisation has every day more people”. Annelieke, (15:31)
  • “Ajudada is a transformation process that will make us all awake.” Gil, (16:36)
  • “For the whole world!” Juan, (18:47)

Website: http://www.ajudada.org/en/#/sobre
Communications kit: http://www.ajudada.org/en/ajudada_kit_comunicacao_EN.pdf

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‘No local’ – Can small scale change the world? Is it the alternative to capitalism?

No local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World, by Greg Sharzer, Zero Books, 2012.

This post was stimulated by a review of this book by Michael Ware, on a website called Climate & Capitalism. It raises interesting points with which I both agree and disagree.

He characterises localism as “Start small and stay close to home; forge community ties, grow your own food locally, and create alternatives that can eventually replace the current system of global capitalism with a sane, sustainable way of life.”  Most of the argument of book and reviewer is that localism has no hope of replacing global capitalism.

Well, I agree in part. I agree that the local alternatives promoted by the Transition Network especially, or the Post Carbon Institute and others, for example, are highly unlikely to grow smoothly and gradually, until everyone sees them as the preferred alternative.  (Whoever said they would?) Our current economic and political systems have far too great a hold on the minds and ways of thinking of most people, and are far too well defended socially and physically for that.

That is not to say that localism isn’t important, even vital. In a recent blog post “Do the earliest mammals have lessons for sustainable societies?” I relayed evidence that the early mammals, who lived before the dinosaurs went extinct, were very different from modern mammals, although they were ancestral to them.  Similarly, the localism we are developing today may be ancestral to the social and political structures of a sustainable future, but will not be the basis for them. They are vital in pioneering the community-oriented, collaborative structures we will see in the future.

I argue in my book, eGaia, growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications, that the future sustainable society will be locally-based, but globally connected.  It is not the vision that Ware caricatures as “Localism seeks a return to a preindustrial economic model that romanticizes small-scale production” although perhaps that is close to what some of us thought in the 1960s and 70s.

There are many benefits to large-scale organisation, in terms of sharing resources and best practice. There are appropriate scales for production to optimise resource use and community benefit, and some will be very local (most food and energy), others may be regional (some manufacturing, some energy), while a few that require very expensive specialised facilities may be global (computer chips?).

We have very few models for decentralised but connected, collaborative enterprises.  Large co-operative groups such as Mondragon in the Basque country may point the way.  (And see Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way). Developing ways for our local projects to link and support each other seem to me the next step for us, and point to a future sustainable society.  Such frameworks as Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (and see Jon Walker’s slide show explaining it) or holacracy or sociocracy may be useful.

I don’t see the transition as a smooth one, but as one which will take place on the wave of dissolution of a global financial crash.  This isn’t a ‘come the revolution’ argument that people in the late 19th and early 20th century would have used.  It is only now that we are reaching the limits of the Earth.  We are witnessing the early stages of the collapse now. We don’t need to put our energies into helping or pushing that crash. Far better to build the community-based structures that will enable us to survive when it comes, and which will make it smoother and less traumatic for all.

Also, I wouldn’t describe our problems as stemming from ‘capitalism’. After all, the review is in a blog called Climate & Capitalism. Capitalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and has changed radically, even through my lifetime, to its present globalised form. In my book, I argue that the root problem is in the disconnection of people from the natural world and their communities, which has taken place in spurts over thousands of years.

The No Local book claims that the only real alternative is ‘class struggle’ and the reviewer agrees.   This is perhaps where I part company most strongly.  Both book and review accept the Marxist views of class struggle: that there are the good and the evil people, that the evil ones must be removed, and the only way to do that is by confrontation.

I think of the few young people I know (children of my friends) who have chosen to become bankers, or my friend who helps buy and sell companies. Evil people? Certainly not.  They are intelligent, very able people who are part of a culture that says making lots of money is the major goal in life, to feed a high consumption lifestyle.  I remember reading about the crash of the Icelandic banking system, and how it freed up lots of bright, talented people to work in more socially constructive ways.

It is not the people who support the current economy who need to be the target of our campaigns for change, but the ideas and social structures they are caught up in.  Some of those people may become our sustainable society’s greatest social entrepreneurs, once conditions and visions have changed.

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Cyprus: a test for different kinds of currency?

The broken euro

Chris Cook spotted this interesting analysis of the situation in Cyprus by Frances Coppola.  There are now effectively two Euros, one for Cyprus and one for the rest of the Eurozone, because credit controls now in place in Cyprus mean it is effectively separated from the rest financially.  People will have to use cash for most transactions.

This raises the question of whether people will begin to use ‘alternative currencies’.  By this Coppola seems to mean other major currencies such as the Pound Sterling or the Turkish Lira but also for ecurrencies. It will also be an interesting test case for much more ‘alternative’ forms of exchange such as local or complementary currencies, barter, gift economies, community exchanges.  Certainly, this will appeal to the ordinary Cypriots.

He speculates that serious experiments might be stopped by the government, as they have been in the past.  It will be very interesting to watch!




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A budget for sustainability and community

The budget we deserve?

I listened to George Osborne’s budget and Ed Milliband’s reply with dismay, not that I expected anything else, and thought to myself, “What might I or people with similar ideas have done?”  So, here are some ideas, uncosted, and maybe mistaken, for discussion.  Any comments? Similar posts?

Firstly, my goals would be to promote a rapid change to an economy driven by wellbeing for people and planet, one rooted in vibrant, resilient communities, not big corporations and big government. An economy that is essentially collaborative, not competitive. In particular, the goals would be to look after people and help them live lives that are modestly comfortable in material terms, very frugal in resource use but ‘wealthy’ in social and cultural terms.

I don’t want to restore economic growth and the kind of “healthy” economy that is causing the melting of the icecaps, extreme weather, mass extinction of species, rising food and energy prices, economic inequality, depletion of resources, and on and on. I don’t want to restore a dysfunctional and destructive economy.

Firstly, we could raise money generally through a financial transactions tax  on buying and selling stocks, currencies and other financial instruments (the Tobin or Robin Hood tax). Wouldn’t this damage the UK’s financial services industry? Yes, I hope so. It is very much too dominant now. Iceland found when they severely restricted their banks that a lot of bright young people became available for more socially productive enterprises!

Secondly, we could support the setting up of a network of community-owned banks, with the power to create money through loaning it into existence the way our commercial banks do now. They wouldn’t charge interest, but just have fees to cover their costs and a small profit to be used to support community needs.  These new banks would support local businesses, public services, community organisations, but guided by a mixture of social and environmental criteria: Does this activity reflect best environmental practice? Improve community wellbeing? Support those in need? The point here is to encourage wellbeing over financial performance.

We could provide support in financial and organisational terms for a range of community-based organisations and small businesses such as: repair, re-use and recycling centres for goods, clothing, furniture, etc. to reduce consumption, community energy companies that help with insulation, energy efficiency and also provide renewable energy, community transport and vehicle sharing, community exchanges for sharing goods and services of all sorts, local food and agriculture, caring services for children, elderly and others in need, community art, music, dance, celebration, festivals.  I’m sure there are a lot more possibilities here.

Finally, we could set up a volunteer ‘community corp’, like the President Kennedy’s ‘peace corps’  aimed especially at young and unemployed people. It would provide a basic income, and optional hostel accomodation for a workforce to serve the community. It would give them basic training in a range of skills to support the kinds of community enterprises above and also skills of communication, cooperation and handling conflict constructively.

Of course, these ideas aren’t what you hear from today’s politicians, business leaders and the media. Most mainstream ideas about money are illusions, clouding the collective minds of humanity. We get the budget we deserve. For the proposals above to be enacted by a Chancellor, it would be necessary for these illusions to be dispelled for a large part of the general public. Is that change beginning to happen?

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Do the earliest mammals have lessons for sustainable societies?

Early mammal, lived alongside the dinosaurs.It may seem surprising, but a statement in a recent article in New Scientist about early mammals who lived before the dinosaurs went extinct, gave me an insight into the problems facing those of us trying to create sustainable societies today.

The dinosaurs died 65 million years ago, in a great climate-change catastrophe possibly culminating in an asteroid strike on the earth.  There were also 20 lineages of mammals back then, but none of them were from modern groups of mammals. The dinosaurs dominated global ecology, taking up all the major niches, leaving only marginal ways of living to the early mammals. For example, being warm-blooded, they could hunt for insects at night when most dinosaurs were too sluggish: “a small insectivore that climbed trees and had a long tail.” The great expansion into the modern lineages (primates, rodents, etc.) only developed during the 2 or 3 million years after the dinosaurs died out.

Now many of us who see the madnesses of our present societies are trying to build practical alternatives: local food systems, community transport, local currencies, permaculture, the Transition Towns movement, ecovillages, and so on.  We imagine that the new social structures we are growing will form the basis of a future society that is co-operative, egalitarian and environmentally sound. We are very unclear about how what we are doing could become mainstream, but that doesn’t stop us.  To ourselves and each other, we are clear about the importance of our projects and (hopefully) enjoy doing them.

I know well from personal experience and from watching others how much difficulty the presence of the mainstream economy makes for our projects.  The most die hard local food campaigners can sometimes be spotted in Tesco and admit that it provides a lot of their food. And food from our community farms isn’t cheaper than supermarket food, even with a lot of volunteer labour. How can community transport take off when most people have their own cars, and what about those committed environmentalists who claim good reasons for owning a 4 x 4? The most successful local currency systems seem to be those that are backed by conventional currency! I’m sure you can think of many examples.

Does this mean we are mistaken to think we are developing better, sounder ways of living? That really, the competitive market, chasing money and consumption, is what people want and will always choose?

I don’t think so, but here is where the lesson of the early mammals and dinosaurs comes in. I have been convinced for some time that our alternative sustainable vision will not take over simply because enough people come to see that it is needed or better. The defenses of the mainstream economy, especially in the realm of ideas, will see to that. The social and economic niches are not there. The change will come only when the conventional economy collapses.  I say ‘when’ not if, because I think that even if it doesn’t collapse in the short term through its own instability, (which is most likely) eventually it must collapse through the effects of extreme weather, resource shortages (especially peak oil) and environmental degradation.

The lesson of the New Scientist article is that the social forms we are developing now are not those that will become mainstream after the crash. Moreover, they don’t need to be, but they do need to point the way, to contain the seeds of what will become mainstream. What we are doing now needs to be pre-adaptive, to enable us to survive a crash of the money system.

For the mammals, warm-bloodedness was probably the key to their survival, but maybe it was just chance. Many cold blooded creatures survived too. The key feature for our sustainable efforts is that our projects are co-operative, not competitive, and give us the social and emotional support we need to get through the change. We are pooling our resources, and that can enable us to survive with much less money when the crunch hits.

The fully fledged sustainable social structures can only really develop once the market economy – where the driving force for production is to make money – can be replaced by a collaborative economy where the driving force is to serve the well-being of people and planet.  In an overpopulated, resource-short world, we will then be able to create efficient ways of providing lives for everyone that are modestly comfortable in material terms, but opulent in social and cultural terms.

I spell out this future vision in my book eGaia, Growing a peaceful, susainable Earth through communications, both in its social and practical dimensions.  In the forthcoming second edition, the change will take place explicitly after a crash in the money system. Charles Eisenstein, Dave Pollard, Rob Hopkins and all my Transition friends are pointing towards the same vision.

A friend phoned me up a couple of days ago to say that the Cyprus bailout was actually going to be the start of the big crash.  I suppose that could be true.  Of course, the mammals might not have survived the extinction event, and we can’t be sure our vision will either. We may know soon!

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Welcome to EarthConnected!

This blog is part of a conversation with other people who want a radically changed culture. Are you working towards a practical collaborative sustainable way of living? Looking for ways to create an economy run not for financial gain but for quality, social need and a healthy environment? Exploring ways in which we could grow community based economies?

I think there are practical routes through to it, using communications technologies and systems principles. I spell out all of this in my book eGaia, Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications.

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