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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