Grounded route to a Big Society

31 03 2011

On the New Public Thinkers site, Dougald Hine wrote a really useful analysis of the criticism that has been flying around about the Big Society. It was a great example of cutting through the agonistic culture of politics, where something like the Big Society idea is used as an arena for two-sided contest. Dougald suggests that whatever your political colour, the necessity for social reform to reduce alienation and increase agency is being forced on whoever has any power to make change, by the erosion of economic security and social fabric. I commented on Dougald’s piece but as I was doing so, Paul Kingsnorth sent some provocative tweets about arts funding which I wanted to respond to in relation to this Big Society debate. So, here’s a  post to explore this further.

I’m not a political theorist so, although I appreciate structural analysis of the Big Society and think it’s essential, I can’t contribute greatly to it. What I can do is to advocate for persistent and pragmatic action in communities. Eleanor Saitta commented that we need to develop alternative organisational structures that skirt both market and state, but that without large-scale wealth distribution all these efforts will still leave us as ‘starving peasants fighting in the gutters over scraps of food puked up by the rich’. While I’m shocked by wealth inequality, I’m not sure the scenario is currently quite as stark as this. Because, for me, hope lies in imaginative participatory strategies to grow nourishment so that we don’t have to scratch around in the gutters of the rich.  By nourishment, I mean food but also all the other goods that will help us eat, help others eat, and otherwise allow us to stay well. By ‘us’ I mean all life, not just humans.

While we must talk about capitalism, we must also eat and help all the places where eating is going to be increasingly difficult. The way to do that is to harness technology to art in the service of ecological innovation. Note, technology is just a tool whereas art is the force that generates ideas, motivates people to participate and helps spread spores of ideas. Here are a couple of examples:

Farm:Shop is an urban farming project led by artists in an empty shop in Dalston. It uses hydroponics, aquaponics and other technologies to grow food indoors. Some may this isn’t art, it’s growing food. Partly the art comes through the creative social activities they are doing with visitors. But fundamentally, this is the kind of art we need to develop. Francesco Manacorda calls it an “emerging kind of art…that is interested in cycles, natural materials, growth and roots rather than ‘original’ creations that hang disconnected, in time and space.”

Another example is the vision of ‘bioregions’ to replace the outdated idea of developing places through ‘high-entropy knowledge hubs’ and ‘iconic cultural buildings’. These ‘bioregions’ can still be cultural without a new build major art museum. John Thackara writes here about how artists are working on such projects in the Basque Country. An example in the UK is Heartlands in Cornwall, a new bioregion which is also a cultural centre.

The triad of sustainability where economic, social and environmental capital are held in balance has to be challenged, and it is by these examples. If you focus on generating ‘biosphere capital’, then prosperity, social wellbeing and biodiversity can ensue. The Big Society discourses have not easily admitted talk of ‘bioregions’ or ‘biosphere capital’. That, I think, is because in order to develop such capital you need to bring both techne and poiesis into play together, both technology and the imagination. UK society is profoundly technocratic, and is extremely uncomfortable with metaphor being applied in arenas of work and public planning. On the other hand, the cultural elite are profoundly resistant to art being instrumental to social and environmental wellbeing.  The two domains of culture and public services resist porosity with each other (while there are many examples of partnership experiments of course).

Back to Paul Kingsnorth’s challenge. Yesterday, ACE issued its funding news, and many organisations had 100% funding cuts, some lesser percentages and some had an increase. So, there were a lot of hurt feelings at the unfairness of it all. Paul asked “Is there any cut to our services which we in the rich world would be prepare to tolerate? And if not, isn’t the Earth screwed?” and said “the arts, like all human industry, rely on an economy fed by a dying planet. We have to live with less.” This is a fair question and a good one. But I do profoundly believe in state funding of experimental and participatory culture.  Public funding doesn’t have to mean salarying middle class artists and discounting the purchase of culture by middle class audiences. However, ACE made decisions yesterday which cut many of the organisations, like Proboscis, who are doing the kinds of work that is most likely to generate biosphere capital and most likely to bridge the gulf between public planning and culture. Moreover, almost invisible in media coverage of culture cuts is the devastating reduction of museum and archive services, especially in education and outreach. These services directly help with community cohesion and place-making. If their funding is cut, then we need to show philanthropists and corporations that their future prosperity depends on collaborating with creative thinkers and creative communities to generate biosphere capital.

Agonising, Agonism and Nuclear Power

19 03 2011

‘A body of water: water’s body that seems to have a mind (and change it: isn’t that what makes a mind, its changing?)…’ From Philip Gross, Betweenland 1, The Water Table

It’s been a truly painful week for the people of Japan and all of us watching their tragedy unfold. Only a few hours after the horrific tsunami we heard that the Fukushima reactors were in trouble and straightaway there began a tense debate about nuclear power across the media. By ‘tense debate’ I mean that the discourse was quickly more agonistic than usual. Agonism is dominant in our political culture. It assumes conflict is inherent and enduring in politics, that harmonious agreement is a myth and that the object of politics is to win. Agonistic debate tactics include:

  • Perceiving and portraying another as an opponent rather than as a partner in truth-seeking
  • Only responding to points you disagree with, not acknowledging points of concurrence or mutual interest
  • Characterising your opponent’s view as more extreme than it is, or focusing on the most contentious aspect of their position
  • Making predictions about a scenario that don’t take into account all the influencing factors, focusing on certain factors in order to make a point. For example, taking what your opponent proposes and predicting that it will lead to negative outcomes.
  • Accusing opponents of being ‘blinkered’ or ‘having an agenda’ as a bluff to conceal the partisan nature of your own position.
  • Characterising opponents as typical of a certain group, and making ad hominen attacks.

It is very easy to get sucked in to using these tactics because they are the acceptable norm, there is little critic awareness of them and we are not taught alternatives in education or by example. The less I know about a subject and the more I feel my position is attacked the more likely it is I will succumb to agonistic tactics. I found I was arguing too much about nuclear power on Twitter so I took a step away and decided to reflect by writing this post.

I’ve wavered on nuclear power and my current position is not fiercely against it but neither am I for it. I wore the yellow No Thanks badge in the 80’s but then came to acquiesce, thinking the threat of climate change requires a diversity of solutions including nuclear. But in recent years I started to question nuclear as I considered how climate change impacts (rising seas and storms, as well as more conflict and terrorism) might threaten its security.

In acknowledging views of those who promote nuclear, I accept the following:

  • That there have been advances in nuclear safety
  • That the Japanese scenario is exceptional (the megaquake and the ageing reactors) so this shouldn’t be the only indicator for global decision-making
  • That we shouldn’t let fears about nuclear allow ageing reactors to continue in service while we delay decisions about next steps (but I differ in that I think we should now invest in renewables not new nuclear stations)

My concerns about nuclear power are not just about the risk of radiation from accidents (although that is one big concern). They include:

  • The slow timescale of planning and building power stations is not rapid enough to tackle global warming
  • When nuclear power stations are damaged through accidents, natural disasters or potential terrorist/wartime attack, they are damaged expensively and even catastrophically
  • Peak uranium
  • The dangers of radioactive waste disposal (although I acknowledge these problems are increasingly being solved)

For a very convincing round up of the arguments against nuclear read this post by Thomas Bjelkeman (the founder of Akvo).

One accusatory tactic of the pro-nuclear camp is that anti-nuclear campaigners are opportunistically using the Japanese tragedy to push their agenda. I do feel that the focus on Fukushima in the media is overshadowing the humanitarian crisis. But it is true that crises like these are powerful stimulants for public discussion and education, especially if we avoid shutting down debate through agonistic tactics. The media (in the broadest sense, including publishers, education, museums, anybody who is communicating) must seek to raise the bar in educating for a world of complexity and promoting ecological literacy as the most essential competency. For example, on BBC Question Time, Dimbleby allowed a panellist and questioner to get away with a conflation of green energy solutions with windpower. High profile events like this, which are amplified by social media and BBC web resources, should be opportunities to underpin debate with raised understanding of green solutions, including:

  • Drastically reduce energy consumption, for example through efficiency measures and incentives that favour sustainable local food, industry and transport. (This above all is the priority.)
  • Aquamarine: Investment in wave and tidal power
  • Wind: Investment in 4,000 new turbines, half at sea – UK has 40% of all Europe’s wind resources)
  • Sun: Investment in solar, in particular supporting microgeneration
  • Creative solutions such as Biogas (poo!), Motion power (e.g. powering devices while you walk or cycle) and smart solar materials
  • Geothermal (e.g. piping geothermal power from Iceland)
  • Biomass gasification
  • Hydroelectric power
  • Clean coal and gas (including coal capture and storage)
  • Nanotechnology.

The assumption that nuclear is the best alternative to fossil fuels, and seeming the cheapest because of its public subsidy, prevents us from exploring this range of safer alternatives. There is a conundrum here: that the climate crisis sharpens our knives rather than our wits as it should. We need to put down our knives and focus our collective wits on the problem. My interest in overcoming this knives-out agonism came from a phase of reading Hans Gadamer, when I applied his ideas to develop more dialogic forms of interpretation in museums and galleries. I do believe that cultural organisations and practitioners have a special role to play in nurturing skills in dialogue in order to help us all address these big problems in more diplomatic and pragmatic ways.

Do please take me up on this article, though maybe without using any of those unhelpful tactics.


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