Monday, March 31, 2014

Searching for Alternatives 4: Transition

by Gunnar Rundgren, originally published by Garden Earth

“Governments tend to be reactive rather than pro-active; most change comes because people just go on with it and start to live their lives as it had already happened”.

Originating in the little town of Totnes in South West England, the Transition movement has spread to many countries.

There are now some 1,300 official Transition initiatives, but that is only the tip of the iceberg says Rob Hopkins when we talk in February 2014.

Transition stands for an effort to build communities that can reduce their use of fossil fuel and their carbon footprint and at the same time be able to cope with the challenges of climate change and diminishing energy supply.

Transition Town Totnes, which was initiated by Rob, was the first initiative and strives to build resilience through a process of “re-localizing, where feasible, all aspects of life”.

By using much less energy and resources than currently consumed communities can be more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than today. The initiatives take a starting point in positive visioning and emphasize things that can be done here and now.

Food is one of their main entry points and many actions are very hands-on, e.g. in Totnes there is a community supported brewery. In Slaithwaite the Green Valley Grocer is a community-owned co-operative and there is the community supported bakery.

“Our vegetables are grown a few miles out of the city, picked in the morning and delivered by bicycle in the afternoon. What could be better?” asks the group in Norwich that started a community supported farm with delivery by bicycle.

Transition Town Totnes wants that food is sourced where “possible and appropriate” within 30 miles of Totnes and that enterprises and resources are owned by members of the community so that the elements of the localized food system create an interdependent web.

It deepens the “buy local” argument by also including from whom they should buy locally. In the report "Economic Blueprint for T&D: Our local food economy", they conclude that it is better for the local economy to buy from independent shops than from supermarkets.

They claim, based on research from the New Economic Foundation, that buying from independent shops will generate 2.5 times as much local income compared to buying from supermarkets. This is because local shops tend to buy local services, “if our aim is to strengthen our local economy, it’s just as important to look at where the money is spent, as well as how much”.

“Does this also hold for farms?”, I wonder. After all, many farms are more like assembly points, e.g. a chicken producer buys the chicks, buy all feed, buys industrial equipment, vaccines, professional consultancy etc, most of it from national or global organizations (there are three broiler chicken breeders totally dominating the market), and they do all they can to reduce need for labor, or use migrant laborers.

This means that even if the farm happens to be in the vicinity, it is not particularly embedded in the local community or environment. Rob acknowledges this and says that those kinds of farms would typically not engage in the local business in any case.

Some buy local campaigns don’t take into account the financial realities of many people these days Rob notes, “if you are on a low to medium income, buying all of your food locally just financially isn’t an option”.

By putting the ambition lower, say at ten percent, it doesn’t exclude people, “if this town [Totnes] could manage a shift of ten percent of the food to local that would be £2 million in the local economy every year”.

With aims at this level, it is also easy to build coalitions with other institutions, such as the local town council. “Ten percent feels achievable, totally re-localizing the entire food economy feels a bit abstract to me”, Rob concludes.

Transition is rather quiet in big political discussions; there is no critique of “the system” or “the economy”. Rob Hopkins thinks that the initiatives still have a big impact on policies.

Instead of arguing against growth they argue that building community resilience is a form of economic development. He thinks the Transition movement deals with many of the pressing issues by positive action, rather than systems critiques or through political action.

Community ownership and cooperatives rather than private companies are the natural models for collective actions in transition initiatives. “Transition is a social technology designed to work on a local scale and in order to do this you have to try to stay below a lot of those discussions and focus on doing stuff.”

While it is important that there are also people that argue about the bigger policy issues, the role of Transition is another. Rob concludes, “you need the examples, and you need the stories, and you need the stuff that is already happening and the stuff that just started without waiting for permission”.

“We didn’t want to stop selling locally but the market dwindled. We used to sell vegetables to local grocers but they all slowly closed. The small shops have been slowly shutting down and they used to be our main market. There used to be 4 shops in Dartmouth alone that we supplied and now there’s only one left.” says one farmer in Devon, England.

A report by Holly Tiffens for Transition Totnes concludes that there has been grown a wide range of fruit, vegetables and cereals in the Totnes area in the past, but that the interviewed producers identified labor issues and low economic margins as key disincentives to production today.

Other impediments were supermarket competition, limited consumer demand, inadequate processing infrastructure and inefficient distribution methods.

The report recommends: “co-operative working as a potential solution to address crop production issues and identified the need for improvements in supply chain infrastructure, enhanced distribution efficiency, and investment in consumer education to strengthen local markets and enhance demand for locally grown products."

A transition of the food system will not be easy. I do agree with Rob and the Transition Movement that it is important to change things here and now. But it is equally important to try to change to macroeconomic structures which nudge both producers and consumers into the logic of the competitive market. It is not a question of either or, but both.

They also have to be combined with a change in values and paradigm and aim at an economy where man's wealth does not result in nature's poverty and the poverty of other people.

As Peter Volz, the researcher from an organization called Agronauten that follows me around to the various business which are part of the RWAG says “the moment of social transformation is when people look each other in the eyes”. When people act based on their place in an abstract system instead of being humans, we get problems.

The post is part of the process of writing my upcoming book Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food. I am looking at different models to change our food system, in terms of production and consumption, but in particular in creating new relationships in the food system, preferably relationships that transcend the consumer-producer dichotomy.  

Listen to a conversation (in two parts) between me, Claudia French and Irina Almgren about the challenges and opportunities of today, the Transition Movement, my book Garden Earth etc.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.
About Gunnar Rundgren:  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Resilience is Always Local

May 2011 Mosaic
Mosaic (Photo credit: keepps)
by Resilience Economics:

Great video here from Eric Garland on why the best strategy for resilience may be to grow some deep roots in your own hometown.

If you have time and want to meet up with some brilliant (and fun) people, be sure to mark your calendars for the Transition Economics gathering in St. Louis, May 19-May 21st.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

On Participatory Economics and What Must Be Done

by Gar Alperovitz, Michael Albert, originally published by Gar Alperovitz blog,

An abridged version of the following conversation with Michael Albert, developer with Robin Hahnel of the participatory economics model or “Parecon” appeared on Truthout.

MICHAEL ALBERT: Participatory economics proposes a small set of institutions that define the heart of a new type of economy. These institutions are conceived to further various values: self-management, solidarity, diversity, ecological sanity. The idea is that as you carry out economic activities - in other words, as you produce and you allocate and consume - you simultaneously accomplish not only those functions, but by virtue of what the institutions require of us as we operate, you also advance those values. The basic institutions that are meant to accomplish this are few. There are worker and consumer self-managing councils; where self-management means that people should have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected by them. There is equitable remuneration - referring to the share we get in the economy in the form of income, our claim on the social product. Under participatory economy these are in proportion to how long we work, how hard we work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work. There is also what’s called balanced job complexes, which is a way of organizing the tasks that we do, so that our work lives, our economic activity and production, has a comparably empowering effect on us all. Finally, there is an allocative system to apportion work, labor and effort - the goods and services we produce - that isn’t a market or central planning but is something we call participatory planning. So in a nutshell, that’s participatory economics: (

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Even though I disagree with many aspects of Michael’s model, what I like about it is its rigor and clarity. Parecon is a very tough-minded economic vision and model and it sets a standard for us to look at. One place to start (with my own work) is that - given the specific historical conditions we face in the United States - I’m primarily interested in the question of how we begin to move in the direction of a model that realizes the kinds of values that Michael just laid out though is different in structure. I am interested in the political economy of institutional power relationships in transition. The question is one of “reconstructive” communities as a cultural, as well as a political fact: how geographic communities are structured to move in the direction of the next vision, along with the question of how a larger system - given the power and cultural relationships - can move towards managing the connections between the developing communities. There are many, many hard questions here - including, obviously, ones related to ecological sustainability and climate change. I’ve called the model for what this might plausibly look like in practice “the pluralist commonwealth”: commonwealth because it seeks transitionally to restructure political reality by democratizing the ownership of wealth, pluralist because it embraces a variety of institutional approaches towards that end. The model includes some planning, a great deal of decommodification, and partial use of markets in certain areas. It adheres to the principle of subsidiarity, meaning we decentralize as far as possible to the local level where direct democracy is truly possible, but we are also not afraid to look towards institutional forms like regional or national public ownership when the problems are best solved at those scales … more broadly, it’s a community-centered vision, starting with the questions “How does the community I live in begin to restructure? What are the next steps that could move us towards a larger egalitarian, democratic, and ecologically sustainable culture?” As we move towards the pluralist commonwealth, economic interventions that stabilize communities - for instance by localizing the flows of goods and services, or by promoting worker ownership - not only have immediate practical benefits, but provide the necessary preconditions for the growth and development of a renewed culture of sustainable democracy that can serve as the basis for still further transformations at larger scales. But the model is designed to make maximal use of actual on-the-ground forms of democratized ownership - the millions of employee-owners, the thousands of community development corporations and cooperatives that already exist in the US serve as a key starting point. Importantly, the focus is on transitional forms, not on ultimate theoretical final states. A full description of the model, its elements, and many of the challenges that come up in connection with the approach is available at:

On Experimentation and Possibility

MICHAEL ALBERT: I appreciate in Gar’s work the emphasis on being attentive to what is possible now. We don’t go out in the streets trying to do things that can’t be done. In the context in which we find ourselves seeking ideal relations now, as if they can be had over night, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think where we may have a difference, is on the importance not only of addressing what’s possible now, but also whether or not this leads where we want to go - which to me means that we have to have some understanding of where we’re trying to go. So for instance, Gar mentioned that his understanding of the future would include some markets. Well, if we mean the same thing by “markets” (people use the term in all sorts of conflicting ways), then I would probably disagree. Markets are a form of allocation that I don’t think a good classless self-managing society can have, and have it be consistent with those kinds of values. Now that doesn’t mean that you can just say: no markets tomorrow. That’s the part I agree with Gar about.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Here’s how I think about it. We need to remember the importance of learning and experimentation - you can’t really know what’s going to happen. For instance, if you take control of a workplace, there are a lot of different ways in which a workplace can be controlled. And since nobody knows enough about what all the effects are going to be at large scale, with really significant social change, I think we should try to do some of this piecemeal. I think that Michael’s projection is utopian in the best sense of that term; I don’t see that as a negative. It’s where we might be when we get to where we want to be. But I think, both as a historian and as an economist, that the problem is quite different from that: how, in the specific historical condition of the United States today, do we move towards a more egalitarian society, one that transforms the ownership of capital, one that builds and nurtures community and that is ecologically sustainable? Lay three or four decades on the table: how do we move towards these larger goals? So I’m much more interested in an evolving and reconstructive approach that reconstructs community, changes power relationships, and also moves towards some kind of planning. Not just allocative planning, but, in a society of 300 million, large-scale geographic planning to stabilize communities. I come from Racine, WI, a city of about 100,000. The rug was pulled out from under the economy there: industries moved out, all driven by the capitalist relationships dominant in the marketplace. What would be ways to stabilize economies, stabilizing the health of communities so that we can build constructive kinship and other relationships of democratic participation in them?

MICHAEL ALBERT: I agree we need to experiment - but I would say, for instance, we have been doing this for, conservatively, a couple hundred years, and some things we have learned. We may not know all the different options various kinds of workplaces will adopt, from country to country, from locale to locale, etc. But we do know that some very few things need to occur if people in those workplaces are going to be free to decide what they want. What participatory economics is saying about economic life and what participatory society is saying more generally about the other realms in life is that there are a few institutional choices that really aren’t particularly optional. We can’t have private ownership of the means of productions and vast corporations and make believe that we’re going to have self-management for everybody. In the political sphere, you can’t have a dictatorship and make believe that you’re going to have public participation, freedom, and self-management and justice. Those institutions are contradictory. So participatory economics doesn’t say that all workplaces will look alike. It does say, however, that we need to apportion work in such a way that 20% don’t dominate 80%. That should be a truism, basically.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Let me clarify several different points in agreement and disagreement. I don’t disagree in principle with Michael: finding ways to organize work in which people are not locked into power relationships of the kind he’s talking about, is very important. Having said that, it’s not easily done, and it’s complicated. For example, I was just out at Isthmus Engineering in Wisconsin, a worker-owned company that was in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. It is a real high-tech, very advanced scale, robotic building worker-owned cooperative and nobody in their right mind in that place wants to be the power player. You’d think somebody would want to take control of the damn thing. Not at all. No one wants to be in charge. So what do they do? What they do is hire a manager who wants to do that, subject to the recall of the workers themselves. And they regularly recall them, when they don’t like what they’re doing. So how people actually in the practice of the workplace want to allocate different roles becomes extremely complex.

What Must Be Done?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: I don’t claim to have a sophisticated view of how transitions might take place in the specific conditions facing other countries, but I do think a lot about the United States. Here, we need to develop community-wide structures of democratic ownership, we need to work out cooperative development, we need to work out participatory management, we need new ecological strategies developed at the local city, state, regional level. We need to go forward in nationalizing several large corporations: I think that’s possible, we nationalized General Motors, we nationalized several of the big banks, de facto, we nationalized Chrysler, we nationalized AIG. I think there will be more crises, and at some point rather than being bailed out by the government, the public may keep the corporations it has to rescue. We’re talking about democratizing the ownership of wealth, or socializing in some form. I think that needs to be a pre-condition in any of the systems we’re talking about. The model that I call the pluralist commonwealth incorporates a variety of these strategies, not simply worker ownership - though I do put a great deal of emphasis on worker-ownership and workplace democracy. But that’s only one form of democratizing ownership. There are also, for instance, city-wide models. In Colorado, we just had the takeover (“municipalizing”) of the electrical utility. That’s city-wide, geographic ownership of the means of production, it’s democratic ownership. There are 2,000 public utilities which could become the basis of a whole municipal scheme or strategy. Several hundred cities own hospitals. A number of the states already are moving toward ownership of state banks; many already own chunks of other businesses. Most people are simply unaware of these developments, or of models like this where we already can see expanding public ownership through municipal and state ownership. These are geographic ownership structures, that point for larger scale entities towards regional or national forms of public ownership. The Pluralist Commonwealth model aims at steadily beginning to develop the institutional substructure necessary for future larger changes, but also that begins at the level of an ordinary community re-orienting itself. I think the appropriate near term trajectory of change we’re working with is 30 years, that’s a timeframe that’s reasonable for developing participation to the degree possible, ecological sustainability, reconstruction of community, laying groundwork for a reconstruction of a non-growth system over time. Beyond that timeframe other things may be possible …

MICHAEL ALBERT: You mention nationalizing, and it could be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be a good thing if it’s moving us in a good direction and a bad thing if it’s moving us in a bad direction. That seems pretty obvious. But if we look at it over time, we have lots and lots of instances that are not good, that don’t move us in a positive direction. What characterizes positive direction? What characterizes it is more and more people having a more and more appropriate level of say over their own lives. What characterizes it is more and more people getting a fairer and fairer share of a social product and getting a fairer set of burdens they have to fulfill to be a part of society. If we can agree about that, we can make demands. Right now in the present, we can demand changes in the minimum wage, changes in the wage structure in a particular firm, we can demand new budget items in our national or local budget. But to do these things and much more in a way that moves us forward, our approaches now have to create an infrastructure that will stay with us and aid us rather than be corrupted and hurt us in the future. And they will have to develop more and more movement, and more and more activism because people are liking them. There’s a resistance, it seems to me, about saying something about what we want, as if doing so would cause us to trample real and desirable options. If we say we don’t want a division of labor that would put 20% above 80%, somehow that’s going to cause a problem. If it doesn’t cause a problem to agree on that, and agree that it ought to be part of what we are seeking, let’s just say it and move on. If we say that we don’t want people to own the means of production and who get their income in the form of profit, if we don’t want that because that makes class division, crushes solidarity, demolishes dignity, and creates skewed income distribution, then we should just say it. That isn’t going too far. It’s not extrapolating so far into the future or into details that it somehow restricts us. On the contrary, it can help orient us. We have to think about how to make demands and how to build structures that are part of the trajectory of change that takes us where we want to go. But that means we need to know something about where we want to go, as well as where we are at and what’s possible right now.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: For 40 years, my argument has been that democratizing ownership of wealth has been the key to egalitarian society and the goals of egalitarian society. That’s what I’ve been writing about, that’s what I’ve been experimenting with, that’s what I’ve been developing, and that’s what the vision of pluralist commonwealth is all about. But you start at the local level, both at the workplace, community and other institutions and you reconstruct the egalitarian democratized structure as well as participatory structure. That is where the learning takes place. You learn to do it in one community and it may be possible to spread to another community if you have achieved anything of significance. And as this happens, we learn more how to move towards the vision that is much larger than just the community level. That’s the whole strategy of what we’re doing in the current phase of development. Beyond this, if the work is done well, further things may be possible. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an absence of fear that bad dynamics are going to emerge. For instance, worker-owned co-ops, on their own, floating in the market, tend to replicate the behavior of worker-owned capitalists in some circumstances. They sometimes develop positive participatory schemes, sometimes not. But we know from the studies of worker-owned plywood companies in the US, they can tend to develop conservative attitudes, not socialist attitudes. So there’s a whole question about the role of worker-owned companies, and even though I’m an advocate of further democratization of the workplace, we also need to be building larger structures. This is what’s happening, for instance, in cities like Cleveland: the notion is a community-wide ownership structure that encompasses partially independent worker-owned companies. And these businesses are partly supported by the purchasing power of non-profit institutions like universities and hospitals that depend on lots of public money, and this arrangement then begins to give stability to the whole geographic community, articulating a vision and politics that builds for the entire community. It’s a mixed model that is being tested. My argument is that the planning model can be managed partly by economic participatory economic planning, partly by market, but critically, when you get to the point where you can do that kind of planning, the model becomes less and less significant because it’s constrained and encompassed in a larger framework. I think the question that most critics of your model, Michael, have raised is important: the notion of each person laying down what he or she plans to buy or needs against a production schedule, that is, what they’ll actually contribute, becomes an extremely difficult path to envision as realistic. Somebody pointed out recently in an article in Jacobin that if you look at just the kitchen goods for sale on Amazon, there are millions of items. Now that’s not the society we want, obviously, but it points to the magnitude of the issue: the planning problem becomes extremely difficult if you don’t use some forms of market to adjudicate purchases and production. I think we need to move experimentally with planning and markets, as well as with community development forms that don’t include either one. I’m very interested in how we democratize and socialize, at different levels, the ownership of productive wealth. And then moving steadily from models we learned from up from community to region to nation, always following the principle of subsidiarity: keeping it as low as possible.

MICHAEL ALBERT: You mention that markets will corrupt a worker cooperative because it’ll create a context in which - and I agree with you - there’s a tremendous incentive to essentially, maximize, not just profits for owners, but surplus among that workforce. And so you begin to see the same kinds of behavior, say colluding, not cleaning up the environment, speed ups exploiting workers who are weaker, and so on and so forth. Okay, agreed. The solution you bring up is that we can have some community-wide participation that puts restraints upon the way those pressures and incentives play out. Well, I don’t disagree with that as part of an answer. That’s certainly plausible. But another way you can try to proceed is by understanding that the problem is the impact of the market. Or understanding, that a corporate division that divides the work classes into two classes of labor, one above and one below, corrupts what you’re doing. If we understand these two sources of corruption or subversion of our aims, then we can talk about them, and we can build a movement where the people who are participating are aware that over the long haul, we have to solve the problem of the division of labor and the problem of allocation, because if we don’t, the old corporate and market structures will corrupt what we’re doing. It’s certainly true that if you have millions of goods, and you ask, can Joe look at all those millions of goods, evaluate them, and ask how much of each he wants - that’s absurd. Joe can’t do it, and he’s also not remotely interested in doing it. But even now, of course, neither Joe nor you nor I evaluate all possible options, but we still find options that suit us. So in a participatory economy, the consumer and the producer basically have to indicate their desires for different categories of clothing or food or housing, or various kinds of luxury goods or enjoyable goods. That doesn’t mean you have to itemize down to the color or the size. Many things are statistically totally determinable once you have the overall inclinations of people. In Venezuela right now, there are diverse experiments going on, trying to experiment locally with alternatives that move towards a more egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are democratized - they’re trying to do at least elements of what we’re talking about. And in these experiments, two things come up pretty often, not just as long-term issues, but as immediate short-term issues: the division of labor in the workplace, and the impact markets in corrupting possibilities. So for instance, in the countryside they have consumer co-ops, that is to say, communities which are trying to find a way to determine their overall consumption and trying to share it among the various members of the commune in a fair way. And then nearby, there are producer communes that are producing, for instance, the agricultural goods that the neighbors are going to consume. So what they have begun to do is to negotiate allocation. Instead of having a market determine how this transaction between the people who are farming and the people who are eating in the countryside will occur, they meet together and negotiate cooperatively what they think is just and fair and right. That’s potentially a beginning for participatory planning. You mentioned the case of workers in the factory that didn’t want to be the ones particularly running the show, so they would go out and hire a manager. I understand that. It’s a perfectly understandable dynamic and even predictable. What happened in Yugoslavia is instructive: they made a revolution, got rid of the capitalists, instituted market socialism, and initially had workplaces where everybody was treating everyone equally, everyone calling everybody comrade and so on. But over time, because of what you described earlier, the competitive pressure of markets, these Yugoslav workplaces have to cut costs, make alienated decisions, to pollute, and on and on. If they previously met together in councils and decided they wanted things like daycare, air-conditioning for everybody, and clean air in the workplace and wanted to clean up for the community and so on. Then, nonetheless, under the pressure of competition, they had to start going back on those decisions. And because most people didn’t want anything to do with going back on those decisions, and certainly didn’t want to be the ones to make such degrading choices, they went out and hired managers and got them from business schools from capitalist countries to a large extent. This wasn’t a healthy process, and this is what we’re talking about when we talk about changing the division of labor in the workplace so that everyone’s doing their fair share of empowering and disempowering work. It doesn’t mean that management pe se disappears. It means that managing, and conceptualizing and organizing and doing agendas, and all sorts of various empowering tasks, as well as the rote tasks, are handled in a way which doesn’t elevate some people to dominating others.

On the ground

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Just to clarify: In the model I mentioned - the one that featured in Michael Moore’s movie - the workers didn’t want to “manage;” they wanted control - which is to say the manager (administrator) if he was not responsive to their needs and desires. Let’s again return to what’s happening on the ground - all but ignored by the mainstream press. What’s interesting is that a truly massive process is underway that I have not seen happen in my entire adult life, particularly with regard to the ownership of capital and the development of co-ops, and worker-owned companies, and land trusts, and community owned structures and municipalization strategies. Though the public press does not cover this, it is, in fact, explosive. In my experience most activists and radical theorists are also unaware of the range of activity (our website is one useful resource for coverage of these developments). As people learn more and more about the development of this pattern of democratization, they are also teaching each other principles that can be applied at higher levels as we move forward. As I said earlier, given the challenges facing the dominant system there are certain to be opportunities again with the big banks - more crises - and as people learn different principles over time, getting to national and regional scale of democratization is possible. I believe a parallel process is also likely over time in connection with health care: As the system falters and fails, moving towards democratization is likely. California passed single-payer twice, but this was vetoed by Schwarzenegger. Vermont is likely to establish it this year. And beyond single-payer is likely to be a still more democratized system in a sector now nearly 20 percent of the economy. The most interesting developments that are going on, in my experience, are those that build and anchor workplaces in communities. In Cleveland - and an increasing number of other cities in the United States - what you have is a quasi-public entity, that is, a hospital or university that has a lot of public money in it, providing support by purchasing goods and services from worker owned companies linked together as is part of a geographic community-wide structure, with part of the surplus feeding back into the community to create new businesses. So it’s not just about the workers, but as a matter of structure and principle, it’s a vision that builds a community - or commune - and that’s happening experimentally in many parts of the country. Interestingly, in Argentina, if you look at the recuperated factories and other businesses, many of them now are actually moving towards the model I just suggested, with places like the municipality (for instance Buenos Aires) purchasing from them as a way to stabilize their market and to socialize their procurement for public use, schools and hospitals, for instance. That structure of using a larger public institution - in this case, city government - to sustain and nurture different patterns of cooperative production stabilizes the market. This is where I think the exciting action is if we want to think about possibilities of moving toward a larger systemic vision. And as I said earlier, we could come back to the question of whether that eventually ends up using markets in some cases, or cooperative parecon styles in some areas, or public planning in other areas. I think it’s an open question.

MICHAEL ALBERT: I don’t disagree that there are many experiments, and in those experiments, people learn principles and those principles can be applied more broadly. There can be instances, although I’m not sure there’s much of this in the US that’s of any merit, of governments helping local experiments to stabilizing their operations, but I don’t think this is going to happen at a significant scale anytime soon unless movements force it. And I don’t disagree that in Venezuela and, to an extent, in Argentina, the government has indeed helped experiments become more and more participatory, more and more moving toward self-management, and that is exciting. I was very much excited by the taking of the firms in Argentina. I am excited in the United States, by the development of co-ops, and the extent to which people in the co-ops really do want something new, and more generally by the simple fact of the changing consciousness in the United States which is very much drifting away from faith in capitalism.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: On that latter point, that’s exactly where you and I agree entirely!

MICHAEL ALBERT: But where we seem to disagree is around participatory planning. Most people don’t criticize Parecon because of its notion of what is equitable, or its notion of self-management, or its notion that we should have solidarity; they criticize it for being too complex. The claim is that at some point the participatory planning process simply burdens people in a manner that people won’t accept, or shouldn’t have to accept, and that we should try to do it in a more efficient way, for instance, through markets. My problem with this objection is twofold. First, it very quickly comes to the conclusion that it’s too complex, there are too many steps or too many people involved in the planning process - all of which there are answers for, which, however, are generally ignored by the critic. And second, it goes back to markets as a solution. The problem with markets isn’t necessarily their complexity (although some of the ones that exist today are so complex that nobody knows remotely what they’re all about!). The problem with markets is not that they demand too much of us. The problem is that they turn us into egomaniacs. They destroy the ecology. They produce class difference and gargantuan income differentials, much poverty and some plenty. So I will grant you that it may be the possibility that when we experiment with it, and when we learn more about it, participatory planning will require some very clever refinements so as to reduce the amount of time and complexity that’s involved with that part of our lives. But to say that we can’t go through this process of experimentation and refinement, and that therefore we have to fall back on markets, is analogous, to me, to somebody saying that democracy puts complex demands on the voters, and therefore it would be much easier to have a dictator decide. Actually, it’s even worse, because you could imagine a dictator who is reasonably humane but markets are structurally incapable of delivering humane outcomes. In such an approach one is literally trading a fear of complexity, for a certainty of cataclysm.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Michael, we just discussed two specific models in which worker-ownership is combined with one or another form of public planning, and a third where this is partially true. In Cleveland and in Buenos Aires the use of public purchasing partially stabilizes the market for worker-cooperatives. In Venezuela co-ops themselves provide support for each other (while in practice they also receive public support, i.e. another form of planning in the real world). The critical point here - for a transitional strategy - is to understand the complexity of these processes and at the same time attempt to foster further movement, practically, towards a more evolved model without jumping steps and creating chaos in the learning and development process.

On values

MICHAEL ALBERT: Gar, you’re involved in what I think are incredibly important and valuable experiments trying to do things in new ways. Wouldn’t it be advantageous when working with people who are setting up co-ops to help them understand that they don’t want to replicate the old division of labor which will corrupt their values and aspirations - that they should want to organize their work in a new way that has everyone participating and empowered? Wouldn’t it be advantageous to help them understand how market pressures will conspire to corrupt their creativity? And wouldn’t it be desirable to help them see that there are ways to avoid those ills?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: On participatory planning within the firm or within the community question, on restructuring jobs and the culture of work - with rotation and open-book management and so forth - that sort of thing is already being developed in many parts of the country, experimentally, and I certainly agree that that is the direction to go. Caveat, what you find is that in many situations is that many people don’t want to do these things! The reality of the world we live in is that people sometimes aren’t interested in many circumstances; no matter how much young radicals yell at them, that isn’t what they want to do right now. So you have to work with the reality, and it’s particularly important because what we often find is that people who care about these issues, actually don’t want to deal with what poor black people who are interested in co-ops or what working class people who are actually trying to develop worker-owned firms actually think and feel. We need to learn to listen to what the people need and want, and not try to impose on them a whole schema that they may not. This is historically difficult stuff: how do we balance the project of raising consciousness, advancing a vision of utopia, with the real and honest engagement in real-world experiments. And more may be possible than we think. As I said earlier, there has been a change in consciousness that makes this one of the most interesting periods of American history, maybe the most interesting. There’s a loss of belief in the corporate system, there’s a recognition that something is fundamentally wrong, there’s a discussion beginning around socialism amongst younger people, who recent polls show react slightly more favorable to that formerly taboo word than to “capitalism”. So there’s an openness to discussing things, and also to questioning the traditional state socialist model as the only alternative on the table. So there’s an opening to a whole different vision of where to go forward. I think that’s where we are in the question, so let’s not blow it; let’s see what we can develop over time.

MICHAEL ALBERT: We agree that there’s a giant opening. We agree that we don’t want to blow it. We agree that it’s certainly the case that lots of times people don’t want to change their circumstances dramatically in a direction which doesn’t seem worthwhile, or which even seems like it might even be some kind of con game. Again using the Venezuelan example, it’s frequently the case that at workplaces down there’s an effort to introduce workers management or workers self-management that the workers themselves resist, not because they resist the idea of self-management per se, but because they think it’s a scam to get them to work harder, without them really having any more power than they do now. So I agree with you, of course, one doesn’t impose something, but one does have to discuss it if you’re ever going to get there. And that means discussing in a way that moves in the direction that we want to go to: which means talking about changing the division of labor and about the problems with markets and a real alternative. I could be completely wrong about this, but I think that markets as an institution, even without private ownership, are vile. They’re not just vile; they’re one of the worst creations of humanity in its entire history. They warp human development, warp personality, misprice virtually everything. They skew the direction of development to have little to nothing to do with the human well-being of most of the population. They violate the ecology. They produce class division. We know that central planning is also a horror. It’s a horror when it’s imposed on a workplace like in General Motors, which is essentially planned internally, and it’s a horror when it’s imposed on the whole society. It seems to me that saying these things should be no more controversial than saying we don’t want dictatorship or we don’t want private ownership. No one would say that the fact that we need to experiment, to learn, to listen, implies that we ought to hold in reserve or even jettison our understanding that private ownership and dictatorship are disastrous. Now, I agree with you, it is a big deal to articulate what the participatory alternative is. But the discussion shouldn’t be that any participatory alternative is too complex or demanding so we have to fall back to markets. There is no falling back to markets. Falling back to markets is like falling back to dictatorship. There has to be, instead, a constructive suggestion of an alternative way of doing allocation. This idea of the possibility of stabilizing experiments through government policy could be a positive thing, but could also of course be an incredibly destructive thing. To the extent that we can force the government to utilize some of its gargantuan resources to benefit experiments that really would enhance the well-being of the population, that’s terrific. But you’ll have to force it because the government is in the hands of the rich and powerful. That’s part of the process; we don’t want to do it in a way that elevates the government as being our savior and dissolves movements. We want to do it in a way that builds movements and builds continuing pressure. You talk about all these various experiments and I agree. I think setting up a co-op is good. Setting up a co-op with self-management is better. Setting up a co-op with self-management and with balanced job complexes is even better. Setting one up like that, and that’s in a position to negotiate with its consumers is terrific. And if they can get aid from public funds to stabilize and ensure survival, great. But I don’t think that is the road all by itself to a better society: we also have to have massive movements which are making demands both in specific institutions, say like General Motors, and also in society as a whole.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: That goes without saying, Michael, I totally agree with that! That’s what I’ve saying and writing about for years. But once you get away from the abstract that we’re talking about, these principles, if you actually get your hands dirty and start talking to different groups other than the gang of young people who we find easily these ideas accessible very quickly, it’s a different game. How do we reach ordinary Americans in my hometown of Racine, WI where the problems are just extreme? How do we begin to understand them, and where they are coming from, and actually work with them in a way that works? That requires both understanding of the principles, but also being willing to test different ideas with them: patience and humility.


MICHAEL ALBERT: I was in Argentina in a room with about 50 people that were there from different occupied factories and I’d been asked to come and speak. We started around the room and the first person who spoke described their situations and concerns, and by the time we got to the 7th person, and this really happened, a lot of people in the room were crying. This person spoke and put it very eloquently and said: I never thought I could possibly ever be saying anything like this - he, too, was tearing up. He said that we took over the workplace, the owners and the upper management were gone, because they didn’t want to be a part of a workplace that they thought was going to fail. And we took it over and made it work. But now he had to say, I’m afraid Margaret Thatcher was right, there is no alternative. This is why they were crying. He said: we took it over, we were so excited, we made our wages equal. We instituted democracy. We had a workers’ council. We made our decisions democratically, and after a period of time, all the old crap came back. All the old alienation came back, and now it just feels the way it used to feel. And they were all saying it, person after person was saying it. I talked to a woman in one of those workplaces who had been working in a glass factory, in front of an open furnace all day long. Then they take over the factory and they go around the room and ask who wants to do the finances and keep the books, and nobody would do it, and she volunteered to do it. She’s just a worker, the same as everybody else in the place, she hasn’t gone to school or anything. I asked her “what was the hardest thing to learn?” She wouldn’t tell me. So I asked again and she didn’t want to tell me. “Was it to do the financial books?” No. “Was it to operate the computer?” No. “Was it to do accounting?” No. What was it? I was at a loss. She says “Well, first I had to learn to read.” And four months later, she is doing the accounting and the bookkeeping for this glass firm which is now functioning at a surplus, whereas the capitalists have been running it into the ground and losing money. But the downside was that she, as the accountant, was becoming a member of a class of people in that factory, about 20%, who were highly empowered and who appeared far more pivotal to the functioning of the factory. And who, over time, were bringing back the old alienation, even though she was just a wonderful person. So I tried to describe the idea of balanced job complexes. When they took over, and the manager who was doing the accounting left, somebody volunteered because not many people wanted to do it. And I said: well, pretty soon what happened is that you had one-fifth of your workforce doing work that’s really empowering, and after a while they’re governing, and after a while they’re paying themselves more because they think that they deserve more, and the rest of the people aren’t even at the meeting where this gets decided. And they agreed with this; it helped them see that there was a reason for this: it wasn’t human nature. Thatcher wasn’t right. It wasn’t inevitable. They could’ve done things a little bit differently and could have had significantly better results. But one told me: we did a lot of that, and we still had problems. We were trying to reapportion tasks and so on, and it still went bad. So then we talked about the market and the pressure that it put on them to compete, and the way that pressure slowly but surely re-introduced the old division of labor. So my experience is somewhat different from yours: I find that it’s easy to talk to working people about, say, balanced job complexes - I have more trouble talking to perhaps half the young radicals nowadays, and much more trouble talking to left academics. With the latter, it’s almost impossible!

GAR ALPEROVITZ: I don’t think there’s a difference in the value structure here. We may have some different experiences. I think there are some places where people will in fact pick up on those themes and try to develop rotations and accept the inefficiencies that they will experience in the short run. But all of this takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, and some people just don’t want to do it. In some places, people will. And I think the question of experience, given the stage of history of the real world, where we are really at, will help us understand how to what extent we can push these developments in different areas. I regard this as a question of testing the real world. Not whether or not these principles about planning and markets are correct in the abstract: these questions are testable, and we should test them wherever we can. But I am cautious about imposing or trying to impose a vision on people who don’t want to hear the vision. The critical thing is whether or not the communities in which we are engaged wish to do an experiment with and test the models that intellectuals, and radicals, the left, and theorists, and so on come in with. And the answer is, in many cases, no. And for reasons that are good reasons, for instance, in some places, they are frightened to death that it will blow up the current structure of work and they’ll lose their jobs. People will understand what you’re talking about, but they are going to find the solutions, the mix of principles and problems that works for them, in their situation. And that mix is by no means obvious: by no means is theory a reliable guide to the way this comes out in the real world. So for instance at Isthmus: they understand the dynamics of power and management, but they don’t want to share those responsibilities: for them, the solution is to recognize that those are positions that nobody wants to do, and you hire someone to do them that you can control democratically or even fire, if you don’t like what they are doing. The values you’re talking about, I don’t disagree with at all. What we’re talking about is where we are in this stage of history with specific communities, all with different skills, levels of support, income, and training and all ultimately exposed to the markets whether they like it or not. This is the reality where we need to move and advance these different ideas. And to do so effectively, it seems to me to be a matter of testing as we go, on the one hand - and projecting a larger possible longer-term vision, on the other. I suspect that to the degree we actually keep testing and developing in the real world, there is likely to be convergence on several levels between many of the Parecon and the Pluralist Commonwealth models.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

About Gar Alperovitz 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tell Unilever to Stop Greenwashing Rainforest Destruction

Oil palm plantation on the slopes of Mt. Cameroon
Oil palm plantation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Sum Of Us

We've just learnt that Unilever is supporting a dirty industry attempt to continue the destruction of Southeast Asia's rainforests.

If it gets its way, orangutans could keep dying in the name of "sustainable" palm oil.

The consumer giant is attempting to ignore scientists' work and rewrite the rules on what counts as forest that should be spared from destruction, backed by the worst palm oil producers.

It's a direct challenge to the strong scientific standards that groups from SumOfUs to Kellogg's to Mars have aligned behind. If we don't stop it, this could amount to a license for deforestation in the name of conservation, and undermine the huge progress we've made to save the orangutans.

Unilever is the world's largest palm oil user, and it's done the right thing in the past to support rainforest protection. It can do the right thing again, and we know that it's sensitive to consumer pressure.

Right now Unilever thinks it can push this greenwash behind closed doors. But if we can put this into the public light, it won't be worth the risk for Unilever to continue.

Sign the petition now to tell Unilever not to greenwash rainforest destruction.

It doesn't have to be this way. We’ve made tremendous progress in getting big palm oil companies and a dozen of the world’s biggest consumer companies, including giants like Kellogg and Mars, to commit to end deforestation in their supply chains.

Every week, more companies are joining up and pledging to do the right thing. Up until now, even Unilever has played a key role in promoting strict criteria for responsible palm oil production.

Crucial to the rainforests' protection is the scientific work that's been done to define what counts as a forest that should be spared from the bulldozers when companies go deforestation free.

Specifically, companies have pledged to protect "High Conservation Value" or "High Carbon Stock" forest - based on a common understanding of what this means. The combined pressure from groups like SumOfUs and other NGOs has worked.

Companies from Kellogg's to Mars to Wilmar - the world's largest palm oil trader - have accepted this common, strict approach and definition to ensure deforestation-free palm oil.

But now Unilever is participating in an industry attempt to redefine what counts as "High Carbon Stock" forest. Only the worst industry players are participating actively in this greenwash - companies like IOI and Cargill.

If they get their way, companies could keep pushing bulldozers into some of the world's most important rainforests even while claiming to be deforestation free. Even worse, they are refusing to stop any deforestation until the "study" is complete. And now Unilever is joining them.

It's clear that industry will use this exercise to loosen the definition what forest they will spare from the bulldozers. If they do, it could open the door for continued destruction for what they want to call "sustainable" palm oil.

It's a desperate attempt to continue business as usual and avoid growing consumer demands for deforestation-free palm oil.

Unilever doesn't have to be a part of this. We need to show Unilever that we won't tolerate this greenwash.

Tell Unilever not to greenwash rainforest destruction and withdraw from the "study" now.

Thanks for all that you do, Taren, Paul and the rest of us.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Christchurch Rebuild: Christchurch Joins a Group of the Chosen

English: Christchurch Cathedral. Christchurch,...
Christchurch Cathedral, Christchurch, NZ (Wikipedia)
by Brierley Penn, New Zealand Herald:

Christchurch is poised to benefit from the opportunities afforded by the "100 Resilient Cities" initiative after being chosen as one of 33 cities from 400 applicants to pilot the introduction of the network.

"Post-disaster, the focus on resilience is a given in the hard infrastructure - pipes, roads and buildings," says Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel.

"But it's not necessarily a given in terms of what makes a city a city - namely its people."

"The 100 Resilient Cities Network gives us a framework for combining both. When we look at pipes, buildings and roads, we can see what a more resilient infrastructure looks like - it will readily absorb the impact of a future event, maintaining essential functions and will more easily restore to full functionality. A resilient community or series of communities is not so easy to define."

The Rockefeller Foundation sought cities facing unique threats and challenges, from climate change impacts and natural disasters, to public health threats and housing crises.

Defining resilience as "The ability of a city to withstand chronic stresses and acute shocks while still maintaining essential functions and recovering quickly and effectively," it is clear to see why Christchurch was a leading candidate.

Winning cities receive membership in the 100 Resilient Cities information-sharing network, along with a $1 million grant to hire a Chief Resilience Officer and to create a resilience plan, along with tools for implementation.

"The focus of Rockefeller is really to create a community of practice among cities globally around how we can improve resilience," explains Michael Nolan, Technical Director of Sustainability and Climate Change at Aecom.

"There may be opportunities that link cities around the world with regard to how insurance is considered, or how investment is encouraged to support resilience. It's a very powerful programme in terms of its potential for influence, but also to be involved in that network from its first foundation group, which will expand out to 100 cities over the next few years."

Featuring cities ranging from Melbourne, Los Angeles and Rome, to Dakar (Senegal) and Ramallah (Palestine), the breadth of knowledge and experience encapsulated within the participating cities is clear.

"They've all got a different range of hazards and risks ... and they're all at different levels of progression in responding to those, so there is good learning."

Nolan is confident of the benefits for Christchurch. "The programme is pioneering. It has a very good framework, very attractive financial and network support, and I think the establishment of a Chief Resilience Officer ... is a really smart way to engage and increase activity in these cities."

"Being part of the RC100 Network is critical both in sharing our lessons learned and learning from others," Dalziel adds. "There is no need to re-invent the wheel".

"Some of the principles around building resilience are universal, even though the application may vary from culture to culture. NZ of course has devised some of the resilient technologies - e.g. base isolation - and we send Canterbury engineering graduates throughout the world. The access to international strategic partners is invaluable. Once the platform is established we will have full access to all the tools to assist in our resilience strategy."

A workshop is being held in Christchurch today, bringing together key players to set an agenda for the future of the Rockefeller Foundation process in the city over the next few years.

Nolan says the workshop's purpose is, "To get that conversation and the guidance from all different players, so that it's very much a focus on co-creation. We actually are not as self-sufficient as we once were as communities, nor are we as connected," Dalziel says.

"If we have learned anything from the earthquakes it is actually how much we can do for ourselves for a reasonable period of time depending on how quickly we can access all the resources within our own communities."

Nolan is confident the project has the strong local government and community support to make an impact. "There's a really good steering committee for the project, involving universities and key players within the council and external to support this. But more broadly, there's been a very positive response to being selected, and the benefits will flow for Christchurch."

100 Resilient Cities

Last August, the Rockefeller Foundation called for cities to apply for their new 100 Resilient Cities initiative, providing a $1 million grant to support the chosen cities in increasing their focus and activity on resilience.

The project was inspired by the increasing concentration of populations in urban areas, coupled with greater social, environmental and political instability. A hundred years ago, only 10 per cent of humanity lived in cities. By 2050, that number is poised to increase to 75 per cent.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

BOOK REVIEW - "The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities" by Doris Sommer

work of artby Anna Upchurch, Impact of Social Sciences:

Celebrating art and interpretation that take on social challenges, Doris Sommer looks to steer the humanities back to engagement with the world. 

Among the cases that she covers are top-down initiatives of political leaders, such as those launched by Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and also bottom-up movements like the Theatre of the Oppressed created by the Brazilian director, writer, and educator Augusto Boal. 

This inspiring book is filled with models, sources, and ideas that can be adapted and adopted to inform teaching and research about activist art and creativity, finds Anna Upchurch.

This review originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.

Recent years have seen a number of new books published by senior academics responding to the current budget-cutting tensions that arts and humanities disciplines face in higher education, caused by economic recessions in Western Europe and the United States.

Notable examples include Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum (2010), The Humanities and the Dream of America by Geoffrey Galt Harpham (2011), Blow Up the Humanities by Toby Miller (2012), and The Value of the Humanities by Helen Small (2013).

Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? (2012) answers the big question expressed in its provocative title and includes a chapter, ‘The Character of the Humanities’.

While each makes a distinctive contribution to the current debate, broadly speaking these books historicize and re-state arguments about the value of arts and humanities subjects, research, and education to contemporary societies.

Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and the Public Humanities is a fresh and welcome addition that explores projects from the programme she founded at Harvard University, the Cultural Agents Initiative, within the context of socially engaged art and interpretation.

Sommer is Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard and also author of Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education.

Established in 2000, the Cultural Agents Initiative ‘has sought to increase the impact of creative and scholarly practices by identifying artists, educators, and community leaders who have developed socially productive artistic practices, by reflecting on the role of art in building civil society, and by disseminating best practices through workshops and public forums’.

Sommer recalls in the book’s introduction that a motivation to start the programme were very real fears about the future of the humanities in corporatized universities.

The Work of Art in the World looks back over more than a decade of collaboration between artists and academics and ‘takes inspiration from arts projects that merit more sustained reflection than they have gotten. These are creative works on grand and small scales that morph into institutional innovation. Reflecting on them is a humanistic assignment insofar as the humanities teach interpretation of art (to identify points of view, attend to technique, to context, to competing messages, and evaluate aesthetic effects)’ (p. 3).

This aesthetic training by humanists ‘can fulfil a special mission by keeping aesthetics in focus, lingering with students and readers over the charmed moments of freely felt pleasure that enable fresh perceptions and foster new agreements’ (p. 3).

Drawing upon intellectual sources that include Kant, Schiller, Dewey, and Ranciére, among others, Sommer argues that the aesthetic training that fosters individual judgement underpins civic life in democracies.

Her concern is not to teach pessimism and retreat from the world: ‘Teaching despair to young people seemed to me not only tedious but irresponsible compared to making a case for cultural agents’ (p. 6).

And no doubt her students, like mine, are far more interested in her risk-taking cultural agents and models of practice that they can analyse, interpret, and potentially adapt.

The book opens with two chapters that explore these projects and models.

Chapter one, ‘From the Top’, examines government-sponsored creativity in projects as diverse as the troupe of traffic-directing mimes in Bogotá, Colombia, conceived by then-Mayor Antanas Mockus, to the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in the US from 1935 to 1939 during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The importance of play and pleasure in changing public attitudes was illustrated by the mimes, who drew attention in fun ways to traffic and pedestrian safety, helping to reduce deaths and accidents.

This programme was one of many creative initiatives in the public space in Bogotá that Mockus was invited to Harvard to share in the Cultural Agents programme.

art 2
Professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn’t follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. Credit: Harvard University Gazette.

Chapter two, ‘Press Here’, concerns ‘bottom up’ initiatives by artists and cultural agents who are catalysts and organizers.

Sommer recalls the international artistic and political career of Augusto Boal, who developed Forum Theatre and other interactive theatre techniques and games that encouraged ‘spect-actors’ to explore moral and ethical challenges of everyday life.

Like Mockus, Boal was invited to Harvard to lead workshops and teach his techniques to participants and students.

The workshops had ripple effects such as a summer theatre production at the local high school, which led to a Forum Theatre approach to AIDS prevention and treatment for youth in Tanzania, among other offshoots.

Other change-agent projects include an exhibition about ACT UP, the gay rights campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s in New York that resulted in lower prices and shorter approval times for AIDS treatments.

Chapter four describes ‘Pre-Texts’, a programme in Boston, Mass., that integrates literacy, sustainable arts and materials, and civic values, using the arts to teach literacy and literary criticism to young people ranging in age from kindergarten to graduate studies.

Part of the Cultural Agents Initiative, Pre-Texts trains artists and teachers to facilitate workshops at schools, summer programmes, and other settings, inviting young people to interpret classic literary texts through their own art made from recycled materials.

Few of us have access to the resources that Sommer has at Harvard, but this inspiring book is filled with models, sources, and ideas that can be adapted and adopted to inform teaching and research about activist art and creativity.
Image credit: Mimes, Harvard University Gazette.
Image credit: Humanities Centre University of Alberta Edmonton Alberta Canada, WinterforceMedia (Wikimedia public domain).
Anna Upchurch is Lecturer in Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. She specializes in cultural policy and the history of ideas about the arts and humanities in society.

She co-edited Humanities in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Utility and Markets (2013) with Dr Eleonora Belfiore. Read more reviews by Anna.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

NZ Needs to Review its Direction: Economic Report

Key Summit - Routeburn Track
Key Summit - Routeburn Track (Dept of Conservation)
by Jamie Morton

A new report discussing the potential to move toward a green economy says New Zealand should "carefully review its direction of development".

The Royal Society of New Zealand's paper Facing the future: towards a green economy for New Zealand, was launched in Wellington this afternoon.

It highlighted research on the resource and consumption challenges facing New Zealand and the rest of the world and the opportunities for dealing with them, concluding that New Zealand could have a number of economic, social and environmental gains by accelerating its move to a green economy.

A green economy is defined by the United Nations Environment Programme as being resource efficient, low carbon and socially inclusive.

The paper noted that human consumption growth over the last century has had significant effects on the global environment, such as reduced water quality, loss of biodiversity and a changing climate.

"These environmental changes are not good for long-term sustainability and wellbeing," said Emeritus Professor Gerry Carrington, chair of the society panel that authored the report. "The panel agrees that New Zealand can avoid adverse consequences for the economy, society and the environment if it reconsiders its direction of development."

The paper noted New Zealand has several targets for reducing national net greenhouse gas emissions, including a 50 per cent reduction by 2050 compared with 1990. However, recent modelling by the Ministry for the Environment indicated that by 2040 New Zealand's net GHG emissions were expected to be 51 per cent higher than the 1990 baseline.

The Society says New Zealand is well positioned to become a green economy with its many natural advantages, such as extensive renewable energy sources.

"We also have many opportunities to increase our resource efficiency, which means improved productivity," Professor Carrington said.

"Many businesses and organisations are already aiming for sustainability. Communities are working together for change, and innovators and entrepreneurs are ready to grasp the opportunities of a greener economy."

The paper identifies a number of barriers that need to be overcome, such as the perception there are trade-offs between being economically competitive and being sustainable, and that a green economy might lead to a lower standard of living.

"The paper points to growing recognition of alternative indicators better suited than GDP for capturing the quality, quantity and sustainability of economic activity."

Sectors where research, new technologies and innovation would help moves to a green economy are also highlighted in the paper.

"Initiatives which bring together different interest groups, such as the Land and Water Forum, have shown that sustainable solutions can be generated by collaborative processes incorporating government, communities, businesses and individuals." The recently-announced Smart Grid Forum was another example.

Professor Carrington said the aim of the paper is to encourage the discussions that will help shape a sustainable future. "Becoming a green economy will require action and collaboration across all sectors of society. It's good that we are already seeing this happen."

The paper follows on from a major report released in 2012 by the University of Auckland Business School and consultancy Vivid Economics, which proposed an ambitious blueprint for "green growth".

It suggested mandatory emissions standards for new vehicles, an electrical "smart grid" and a stocktake of our clean green image and made recommendations for our major industry sectors, including tourism, agriculture and forestry.

The report backed improving standards and infrastructure to meet an influx of electric cars, urged investment in public transport and second-generation biofuels, and proposed mandatory light vehicle emission standards for new vehicles.

The Green Party welcomed today's new report. "The Royal Society has set out a credible, collaborative plan to transition our economy to a more sustainable footing," leader Russel Norman said. "With a smart, green economy, we can create good jobs while protecting our natural environment. This is a win-win economic plan that our Government should be supporting."

The Report: A Snapshot

* New Zealand would be advantaged by making a transition to a green economy, and is well positioned to start now to build on its existing strengths.
* New Zealand has a strong competitive advantage in renewable energy systems, and has many opportunities for growing low-carbon technologies and services.
* A number of New Zealand organisations are undertaking initiatives that increase the efficiency of resource use.
* Initiatives that support social inclusiveness, as exemplified by the land and water forum, have shown resilient and sustainable solutions are more likely to be generated by collaborative processes that incorporate government, communities, businesses and individuals.
* There is a need to engage the public and businesses in creating a vision for a resilient and prosperous future.
* New Zealand should establish strong research collaborations to support green innovation, and foster ways to incentivise and grow the production of low-carbon goods and services, improve efficiency, and manage demand.
* Long-term investments are needed in innovation, trialling new approaches, and supporting collaborations, in areas such as land use, energy supply and efficiency, transport and housing.
* The path to a green economy requires a well-informed and stable policy environment, especially for issues at the interface between economic development and environmental protection.

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Europe Should Lead on Climate Change

Join the energy revolution, March 20th, 2014
Join the energy revolution, March 20th, 2014 (foeeurope)
by Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu, The

“What happens in Brussels this week could have life-or-death repercussions for millions of people now and billions more in the future.”

Europe has often been the driver of the world’s ambition on climate change. 

Ahead of this week’s EU summit, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu call on European leaders to take bold action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

From recent flash-floods in Britain and France to summer wildfires across Southern Europe, the threat is coming into sharper focus. The impacts of climate change are here, on Europe’s doorstep.

Europeans are worried. In recent weeks, devastating winds and floods throughout Western Europe caused trauma to their victims, raising further concern about extreme weather events, but it’s the big picture that alarms the population at large: in a future defined by our success or failure to tackle climate change, are today’s leaders ready to act?

Nine in ten European citizens now consider climate change a ‘serious problem’, a Eurobarometer poll revealed this month.

This week, European heads of state have an opportunity to address their concerns when they meet to discuss a package of new climate related measures and targets for 2030.

It is one of the first in a delicate sequence of international events and summits over the next two years, concluding with a major conference in Paris, in December 2015.

What happens in Brussels this week could have life-or-death repercussions for millions of people now and billions more in the future. Climate change is a slow, grinding crisis but urgent action is needed to defuse it.

The EU has often been the driver of the world’s ambition - morally, politically, economically - in tackling climate change. There have been setbacks, but its overall record is a model to others on the world stage.

Its leadership has created the space for other blocs, such as the world’s least developed countries, to make themselves heard. And this week, Europe cannot falter.

The targets decided now will set the terms for further negotiations. Europe must seize the opportunity to act now and create momentum towards a robust, universal, fair and legally binding agreement in Paris in next year.

The implications of climate change are vast and complex, but two things are clear.

If the EU agrees a package this week, it will have a chance to lead discussions at a major summit convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York this September. And if Europe does not lead, who will?

The signals are that the other great powers may not be ready to speak out. This risks leaving many of the more vulnerable - and more outspoken - small islands, least developed and Latin American countries without an ally.

And the target itself should be ambitious enough to be meaningful. The European Commission’s current proposal of a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 on 1990 levels is not enough to guarantee Europe’s status as a leader in climate negotiations - or to meet its own objective of reducing its carbon emissions by 95 per cent in 2050.

With clear, strong policy signals and targets, European businesses can boost their competitiveness. The United States and China are also making leaps and bounds in adapting their economies to meet climate targets, and Europe is losing ground.

Those two countries now lead the world in wind power capacity, and are catching up with Germany and Italy, the world leaders in solar energy. European businesses must be given the conditions to compete or may lose their edge completely.

We aren’t naïve. We know it is complicated to negotiate an agreement among 28 countries. But as Elders, we believe leaders’ decisions must be accountable to moral imperatives. Addressing climate change is also a matter of justice.

If we are to be true to our commitment to human rights, then rich nations owe a fair and honest deal to the world’s most vulnerable regions. The people on climate change’s frontline have often done the least to cause it.

This means reducing the suffering of those worst affected and acting now to avoid further suffering in the future. It also means sharing technology, funds and solutions to help vulnerable countries and communities to engage fully in the transition to a low-carbon world.

As the cradle of the industrial revolution, Europe created our carbon-heavy world and must lead the world into its next, low-carbon, safer and more caring chapter.

As Elders, representing different parts of the world and a shared moral compass, we would like to encourage and support leaders in the EU to act in the interests of their own citizens and the citizens of the world.

Strong action on climate change in Europe will help EU members to maintain their competitive edge and be ‘ahead of the curve’ in the transition to low carbon development.

It will also help the countries and communities least responsible for the causes of climate change to make their voices heard in partnership with a strong ally; an ally that acknowledges and acts on their responsibility for carbon emissions.

Current and future generations, our grandchildren and great grandchildren, need the world to act decisively now to avoid dangerous climate change. The EU is well placed to create the positive momentum needed to enable others to act. Tackling climate change is in Europe’s economic interest. It is also a chance to display leadership at its finest.

A version of this article appeared in The Guardian.
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