Friday, 25 November 2011

Re-imagining the future

Today's post is by Jeppe Graugaard who is researching grassroots innovations at the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA (where he undertook an MSc on Climate Change, 2008-9). He runs a website/blog called Pattern Which Connects. Here you can find his work on grassroots innovations, most recently on the Dark Mountain Project, and the exploration of personal and collective stories for change.

Although I missed the cake, Transition Norwich's three year birthday do was a really enjoyable evening with lots of inspiring stories about transition. The 15 minute film showing what kind of activities are going on within Transition Norwich highlighted to me the diversity of projects that transitioners instigate. It was also great to see the different 'ingredients of transition' that Rob Hopkins presented, from food projects to street
parties and local money Transition Towns keep innovating new ways of building resilience and reviving local economies. Transition seems to just keep growing and diversifying.

This is probably due to an insistence, in Hopkins' words, that there is no right way to do transition and an underlying openness to the new. Although there are overarching stories about what transition is doing – like “trying to articulate what it will be like when Norwich's carbon footprint becomes like Mozambiques” – there is no formula for what transition looks like (although there obviously are ingredients). The focus is on showing what is possible when a group of people come together determined to explore what a low carbon life might mean. The transition approach is one of inclusion rather than confrontation, as it also came out in the discussion about transition and politics in the q&a after Hopkins' talk.

The positive vision underlying transition is inspiring and draws people into a space where they can begin to re-imagine the future. This is crucial for motivating and creating change. But it is also slightly at odds with the rather grim situation we are facing, including running out of oil and increasing climate change, but extending to what has been termed the sixth mass extinction or ecocide. Whatever statistic you use, it doesn't look good – we are living through a century where about three species are wiped out every hour that ticks by. This is not something that makes me feel very positive. In fact it is rather overwhelming.

A couple of years ago, I had a kind of nihilistic breakdown of sorts where most things stopped making sense against the background of the havoc we as a species are imposing on the planet (and on a smaller scale what is happening to wild places in England). It seemed that it didn't make much sense to continue talking about carbon emissions, carbon trading, low carbon transition plans and carbon rationing anymore. If my family two generations down the line will not be able to share their lives with many of the other living beings that I care for and love, what's the point? Is the only future we can imagine one where humans continue to dominate the natural environment? One where the 'solution' to climate change is devising technical solutions which will allow us to ignore our conscience and continue exploiting the seas, the mountains and the forests?

I got through my nihilism and life went on. However, it seemed clear that the 'problem' of climate change, peak oil and biodiversity loss is our way of thinking. Somewhere along the line we totally lost sight of nature, we relegated it to 'other', to 'resources' and to 'entertainment'. That's why the positive vision underpinning transition must be complemented by an honest attempt to break free of the underlying way of thinking that is the source of our control-mania, blinkers and flippant optimism. Times are tough and it looks like they are going to get tougher. It is not easy. Last night in the pub I overheard a discussion where one guy brazenly stated that he did not care about what is happening in Greece because what matters is your immediate surroundings, your closest and your everyday life. I empathise, but we've got to start caring about the wider world, even the non-human world, because in our interconnected and networked lives the everyday is inextricably linked to the rest of the globe. For better and for worse.

When I came across the Dark Mountain Project, it seemed like I had found a place where it was ok to be sad or worried about the state of the world but also where the worry was transformed into support and constructive action. Someone told me at the Dark Mountain festival in August that “sometimes one can feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, and I go away from this [festival] feeling less overwhelmed, and thinking 'no, perhaps all these ideas I have aren't so silly after all, and I should carry on pursuing them' […] There are projects which I want to start getting moving which will... coming here makes me feel more like I am going to do them.” In that way, I think we all found encouragement and strength. My festival neighbour put it thus: “For me Dark Mountain is a meeting point where… really, the main point is listening, is hearing other people. Seeing how they do things, and then how that can help me do my thing.”

When I met Dougald Hine – Dark Mountain co-founder with Paul Kingsnorth – after the festival, he explained this same sentiment in terms of what happens when we come together with our frustrations and decide to start thinking differently:
The night before the riots started [in London], I was starting work on an essay which I put to one side and will come back to. It started with the proposition 'the game is almost over'. It is time to remind ourselves that it was a game, and that we are the players rather than the pieces we've been playing with. The game, in a sense, is what we've known as capitalism. It's the way of viewing the world, and the actions that follow from that, where you tweak reality as made up of things which can be counted, measured, priced. And once you agree to that rule then certain kinds of behaviour become almost inevitable.

A lot of the stuff we've said about human nature is really about the nature of humans when playing that particular game. And history and anthropology have a lot of other material for us which shows that there are other constellations in which we can be human together than the ones which are normal under the rules of this particular game. And as this unravels then things are likely to be useful or not useful to the extent that they have an awareness built in that there are other games that humans are capable of playing.
So, let's start playing different games. Dark Mountain Norwich is underway. Come join the conversation.
Jeppe Graugaard (

You can read the interview with Dougald Hine in its full length here

Jeppe on the road; stone hill from Circles on Pattern Which Connects; discussion about eduation and the future at the Uncivilisation Festival; cover of Dark Mountain Issue Two


  1. "A lot of the stuff we've said about human nature is really about the nature of humans when playing that particular game", so true!

  2. Loved this piece Jeppe. Especially where Transition meets Dark Mountain:

    "the positive vision underpinning transition must be complemented by an honest attempt to break free of the underlying way of thinking that is the source of our control-mania, blinkers and flippant optimism"

    A conversation truly worth engaging in.

  3. I agree, it is all about the game, having taken part in the NEF's game perspectivity it is almost impossible for me now not to see the route to change for the majority of people being somehow entangled in the idea of playing a new game. So much hope given by neuropsychologists researching the 'mirror neurons in the brain and seeing that actually human 'nature' is hard wired for empathy and cooperation, not competition and separation. (Check out Dr. Allan Schore online) It is time to re-imagine a new game!