I need to spend more time in the mountains!
On an alpine trip a couple of months ago I discovered Doughnut economics (or did it discover me?).Last week my wife and I were on another Himalayan adventure, this time studded with impossibly crenellated canyons, snow leopard prints sprinkled on fresh snow and lumbering yaks silhouetted black beside lotus-leaf stupas. One evening Kaaren suggested this podcast. Fantastic!
Jonathan Rowson’s Scottish brogue tumbles warm and rough as sandy surf on a tropical beachand his choice of words is exquisite but it was his “applied philosopher’s“ thought that drew me out beyond myself . His primary interest is connections and contradictions between our individual inner selves and our lives’ relational socially networked landscapes. His Perspectiva Insittute by-line is “Systems, Souls and Societies”. That triple braid sometimes twists into empathy and co-operation, other times unravels into a disconnect between feelings and facts we’ve all experienced (e.g. in response to climate change) or might wind itself into million other conformations. Listening to Rowson reminded me of this blog series’ very first post in which I wondered if development is all about the interplay of our individual biological selves and the increasingly complex societies we’re coagulating into. Our evolutionary past vs a networked future? DNA vs. dialogue perhaps.
From a mountain meadow at 4000m Rowson flew me out on a magic carpet woven out of intersecting thought strands: a search for a new economics that includes what humanity really needs, the diametric functions and frailties of left and right brain, complexity, systems, parenthhood with its delights and drudgery, Brexit as an egregious contemporary zugzwang -a compulsion to move even though all options lead to bad outcomes (Zugzwang is a chess term, Rowson is a chess grandmaster, I’m a chess minor minnow). I could have picked up and run with a hundred intriguing ideas.
For this blog I chose the importance of definitions. Aware that whatever term we use, repeated millions of times every day, ripples out around the home we’re destroying, Rowson deliberately chooses “Climate Collapse”, galvanising but not paralysing, over “Climate change” (too neutral he says). Change happens insidiously, collapse involves us, cataclysmically. He rejects the somewhat disempowering “climate emergency” and “climate disaster”. Read this George Monbiot article. Rather than “the sixth great extinction event” he’d have us call the current biodiversity crisis “Humanity’s first great extermination event”. He wants to involve us not just describe a passive accident. Definitions! They determine where we look, what we see, how we respond and the agency we experience. My favourite mystic/cartoonist Michael Leunig says that visually here:
Two weeks ago I had the chance to play with the hearts and minds of Masters students at WII (Wildlife Institute of India) one of Asia’s premier conservation institutions. In one game I divided them into family (DNA connected) groups ‘fishing’ (for chocolate bars) around a common lake. “Richest family after 10 years wins” I said. Inevitably, DNA driven, they overfished their lake and within six years all five families were roadside labourers breaking rocks with India’s economic miracle burgeoning around them. In a simple natural resource management game all of them, elite students in Asia’s finest conservation institute, lost. Munching on’ fish’ we debriefed, exploring the word “rich” and why they assumed its definition to be “with the most money”. Had they defined rich differently and thus framed their objective as “Families with friendly relationships with neighbours, a healthy environment and sustainable fish population win” a (very simple) co-operative sustainable fishing solution would have emerged. It was waiting for them, embedded the game rules. All five families could have won. Dialogue would have trumped DNA. Re-defining just one word was the path from zugzwang-prone individuals to a solution space in their possibility-laden social network.
That was just a game played with privileged students one WII afternoon. Here’s a real life example. Some years ago I worked with an indigenous NGO in a forgotten corner of Cambodia where only 20 years ago family groups lived in a Paleolithic paradise -yeah alright, that’s a myth- life expectancy, child mortality, infectious diseases, gender relations etc….Nevertheless imagine Eden avalanched by modernity: roads, deforestation, plantations, men with semi-automatic guns, prostitution, murders, glue sniffing, land grabbing, cultural annihilation and all civilisation’s other trappings. Disaster for people whose spirit is twisted into the forest itself. The NGO accepted they couldn’t halt modernity’s tide but when we worked together to tease out the essence of their vision I got “dignified adaptation”* -indigenous people understanding the new world and responding as Indigenous people. They did some “standard NGO things” (health education agriculture, literacy etc.), and did them very well.But the NGO’s extraordinary intervention was “dialogue teams”- Indigenous staff who simply facilitate indigenous groups discussing their situation, understanding it in their own terms and looking for responses. Dialogue not solutions. Just discussion. Framing issues for themselves. Brilliant!
I have stayed in touch over the years, watching amazing unpredicted outcomes emerge out of their deliberately defined vision. Outcomes like forest patrols, using their indigenous jungle sense to sneak up on illegal loggers, confiscate chainsaws and automatic rifles (brave stuff) and hand over trussed-up angry men to the police. That’s dignified adaptation! So is an indigenous woman elected to local parliament or coalitions of previously isolated families helping each other or groups advocating to government to gazette forests, or an indigenous lawyer using legal routes to land titles…Just by framing issues themselves in desperate but not disempowering terms.people to whom “progress” was happening become proactive participants in their development trajectories,
What do you think- could development be about moving from individual DNA determined reactions to relational, proactive discourse-driven action….. Moving our solution space out of our selfish genes’ zero-sum ambit and into the infinite possibilities of the 7-billion-node human, relational network that awaits? could that be it?….. Oh and I’m wondering who could be a dialogue team for humanity in our selfish struggles. Who’ll help us redefine our systemic issues as “we win by just relationships with other humans, cooperative solutions and a healthy planet around us”. Could it be that solutions will easily fall out if only we could develop our own desperate but not disempowering definitions? Could our role as development professionals be dialogue not solutions?
Answers on a post card to… Nah, just post a comment below. :-)
Want an evaluation challenge? Accept an assignment to evaluate “dignified adaptation” in a rapidly changing context.