Coalitions of Mutual Endeavor
Building critical mass
for critical change
Natural systems principles for multi-issue coalitions--creating critical mass for a sustainable future

I was honored to be one of the half-dozen attendees selected to present our own work to the sold-out seminar "A Systems View of Life" presented by Fritjof Capra and hosted by the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, CA over three days in June, 2012. Fritjof came up to me afterward to complement my presentation, and said, "It's nice to hear a presentation in a language I can understand."

Here are my prepared remarks.

Natural systems principles for multi-issue coalitions--creating critical mass for a sustainable future

By Dave Ewoldt
June, 2012

My basic premise is that systems science can ground coalition development to create the critical mass necessary to begin implementing systemic life-affirming change--the rational, scientifically validated creation of a sustainable future that also fully embraces emotional and spiritual intelligence (or whatever word you want to apply to it).

Due to time constraints today, I'm not going to go into a detailed defense of some of the individual points, but merely introduce the major pieces of the overall framework, some of their relationships, and some of the ways they can be implemented.

There are a number of givens that provide a foundation for this perspective to organizing for social change that is holistically integrated with a living planet. Not necessarily in order of importance, the first is that environmental and social crises are inextricably intertwined. Next is that systems science in general and ecology in particular fundamentally deal with relationships. Then, applied ecopsychology deals with rebuilding and strengthening all the natural relationships that define who we are and our place in the world for maximum health and well-being at the personal, social and environmental levels. I deploy these concepts and disciplines in creating a natural systems perspective on sustainability to provide the foundation for coalitions capable of building critical mass for systemic critical change.

As Gregory Bateson says, our major problems arise from the difference between how nature works and the way people think. This work very directly helps people remember how to think and act the way that nature works. As has been said elsewhere, people won't fight to save what they don't love.

This "connecting the dots" perspective has direct applications in education, healthcare, transportation, city planning, food, water and energy security, economics, governance, and spirituality. After all, a systems view of life builds on the premise that life is a system. This is really where my basic optimism springs from. Humans can think systemically, as we are specifically wired to do so. This ability may be atrophied in the masses, but can be nurtured back to health. Systems science and ecopsychology also provide scientific validation for much ancient indigenous wisdom.

My guiding axiom is that true justice is not possible without sustainability, and without justice there will be no peace. Therefore, a sustainable future can only emerge from lifestyles and social institutions that embody ecological integrity, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy.

I have developed a systemic--coherent, comprehensive and cohesive--framework, built on the natural systems principles from which sustainable--healthy, vibrant, and resilient--ecosystems emerge, that can support this critical paradigm shift. These core principles are mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity.

This alternative to the status quo does, however, entail letting go of some major aspects of the status quo--especially dominator hierarchies, disconnection, and industrialism with its dependence on economic cannibalism. We can, after all, only ignore the laws of thermodynamics for so long. The pragmatic elements of this alternative are mutually supportive relationships, reconnecting with the natural world (which includes each other and our communities), and relocalized steady-state economies based on an Earth jurisprudence that reduce consumption, waste and want.

On the ecoliteracy front, combined with exercises in reconnecting with nature, I have developed an easily teachable toolkit congruent with this framework that includes methods for non-hierarchical organization, communication, shared leadership, and democratic group decision making. And since these all work with the cooperative, creative life force, the overall process contributes to improving quality of life while requiring an order of magnitude less energy than we use today. It also directly addresses what we must begin to do to mitigate catastrophic anthropogenic climate destabilization, loss of biodiversity and habitat, dwindling resources (peak everything), an imploding growth paradigm, biospheric toxicity, injustice, inequity, forced migration and displacement, and our ever increasing body burden.

The framework itself begins with how we got into our current state of crises. Not only must we be clear about where we're going, we must be equally clear about how we arrived in our present state. It's time to be brutally honest about what doesn't work. Some mistakes simply aren't worth repeating. So, here's the sad and sordid history of Western Civilization in 1000 words or less.

Some 8,000 or so years ago, the paradigm of force-based ranking hierarchies of domination overran, subjugated and displaced societies that were predominantly peaceful. These societies didn't exhibit evidence of practicing war or slavery. Their social relationships were based on mutual support and balance with the natural world, where differences didn't infer either superiority or inferiority--this is what Riane Eisler calls the partnership paradigm.

The shift from partnership to domination created the original social trauma--the fundamental disconnection from all that is natural and naturally fulfilling--that manifests today as cultural PTSD.

This combined with predominantly monotheistic views of spiritual transcendence--that the spirit is "out there" somewhere but not an intimate and integral aspect of who we and our environment are.

Fast forward to the Enlightenment. Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, Descarte--dualism and disconnection validated and enhanced by science--which also tended heavily toward reductionism. This strengthened the view of nature as evil and dangerous; something which must be tamed and bent to the human will and desires in order for progress and prosperity to occur. Our pathological sense of the other is deep and long-standing.

This period also gave us the enclosure of the commons which started in 15th Century Tudor England. The enclosure movement effectively destroyed 600 years of democratic consensus based community decision making for private profit and the model of genocide, forced displacement and exploitation which will become the signature of Western colonialism for the next 500 years. Cap and Trade legislation is the culmination of this mindset, in the attempt to enclose the last global commons--the atmosphere--for private profit.

This was also the beginning of debt for imperialism and economic cannibalism. Central banks financed war and conquest, governments granted corporate monopolies to exploit conquered people and resources for debt repayment and private profit. This was also the beginning of Industrialism, based on hierarchies and nature as an endless supply of resources and a bottomless pit for waste.

Then we add to this toxic mix modern Western psychotherapy which further enforces the subjugation of our base instincts and inner nature with its rather single-minded focus on trying to make us feel sane about living in an insane world.

Which leads to what we have today: The Triumvirate of Collapse--Peak Oil (the end of affluenza lifestyles), Global Warming (the end of life as we've become comfortable with it), and Corporatism (which ends any hope for people's sovereignty and what passes for our democracy).

However, the status quo finds itself facing a couple, at the very least, of inconvenient truths. From the perspective of the economy and those who narrowly define wealth in financial terms, the energy availability and natural resources for tomorrow's growth, which is necessary to pay today's interest on yesterday's debt, is no longer assured and in fact is scientifically highly unlikely.

Then, the biospheric toxicity from chemicals and industrial pollution, radioactive nuclear waste and depleted uranium munitions, plastic clogged landfills and oceans, increasing greenhouse gases, decreasing forests, topsoil and fresh water from sprawl (which is described in Arizona as home builders building homes for home builders), materialism and industrial agriculture... and... but I've only got twenty minutes and this list will take all day. These all not only have negative economic impacts--diminishing marginal returns with increasing marginal costs--but are all hazardous to life in general and human health and well-being in particular.

So, there's the short version. And the bottom line is if the root of our problems, indeed our spirit deadening and life threatening crises can be succinctly reduced to hierarchy and disconnection, then it's time to chart a new path and develop a new story based on an alternative that is every bit as systemic but that works with and for life. It's time to reconnect and concentrate on building cooperative networks and relationships that are holistically integrated with a living planet. After all, the prime activity of living organisms is the tendency to self-organize into mutually supportive relationships that benefit the web of life.

This leads us into the need to develop solutions, or responses actually, and to implement them post haste. I prefer to talk about responses, as solutions tend to make people think that once we've solved the problem, we can go back to normal, without ever admitting that "normal" is what got us into this mess in the first place.

This has lead me to conclude, after decades of environmental, social, and political activism and research, that multi-issue, cross-discipline, big-tent--or whatever buzzphrase you prefer--coalitions and non-hierarchical methods and processes are necessary, and to develop a framework that can support their continued development. Applied ecopsychology, natural systems principles and an ecologically sound and legally defensible definition of sustainability supply the foundation for this work.

Coalitions have a few common requirements and necessary conditions. The first is a common goal, which I believe is a sustainable future. Next is a set of shared values, which I believe are supplied by the Earth Charter--an internationally vetted people's declaration of interdependence. Coalitions also require a process and methods to reach this goal and put these values into action.

Systems science provides a rational grounding for this alternative based on mutually supportive relationships. This turns commonly accepted power and control hierarchies--which are assumed to be natural and for which we supply the basic legitimacy--on their head. Or rather, opens them up and lays them out on their side.

Here are the basics of this coalition building project, and its minimal requirements. These processes and tools are all explicitly non-hierarchical, and congruent with the underlying natural systems principles. These are all introduced in an interactive two-day workshop format.

* Organizing -- the Acorn/8-Shields process, based on the cycles of nature, for organizations, teams, and events
* Communicating -- Gestures of Conversational Presence (bringing equity and body into conversation), open question circles (dealing with specifics, discovering shared values, needs and desires), conversation cafe (deepening conversation, gathering input, refining goals) which all have active listening as an integral component
* Shared leadership -- Acorn model
* Group decision making -- Natural Consensus refinement - clarifying intent and dealing with blocks

* A perspective for dealing with methods of change in self-organizing systems, and how quickly this change can develop and be accepted

* Concrete action steps that can be deployed -- reconnecting our 53 senses with their roots in the natural world and relocalizing our lifestyles and communities

* Sustainability in policy and regulations, steady-state local living economies, Earth jurisprudence

* Ancillary workshops and training in reconnecting with nature (applied ecopsychology through the Natural Systems Thinking Process developed by Dr. Michael J. Cohen), policy development in sustainability (Community Assessment and Sustainability Inventory project), and using the 8-Shields process framework (although I highly recommend Jon Young's 8 Shields Institute for this).

* Methods and tools for effective non-hierarchical meetings, designing distributed systems in areas such as energy and food, permaculture, ecocity development, bioregional governance

Part of the awareness raising effort can take the form of Community Learning and Information Centers or Chautauquas in conjunction with the core workshops. This function can easily be picked up by organizations that have available space, even on a part-time basis. In addition to regular classes, Conversation Cafes and Open Question Circles can help determine and design local actions. This extends the concept of ecoliteracy from the classroom to daily life.

The first challenge is building the initial critical mass for the coalition organization itself from national groups and individuals, and getting organizational representatives trained in the tools and methodologies to assist in local coalition building, inter-organizational relationship development, and organizational capacity and team building. A track record of success among those who innately understand the power and possibilities of the framework and tools can then bring the more reluctant (who tend to say, "we've tried coalition building before and it didn't work.") on board.

Most organizations are aware of the need to build coalitions, but there are few tools and even fewer frameworks available to guide this work except in single-issue coalitions. For instance, the peace movement has been trying to get support from environmental and community groups for decades--and vice versa, of course. As well, there is a long history of failure with multi-issue coalition efforts particularly in the areas of agreement on a common goal, shared values, and agreeing on whose issue deserves the highest priority. Single issue organizations also don't invest in the skill sets and tools necessary for coalition development or to address underlying root causes. It may be part of their vision, but not their mission.

When it comes to systemic change, we have to be aware that slapping band-aids on symptoms won't have lasting effect. While we must continue to put out the single issue fires, we must also permanently disable the arsonist responsible for all these raging wildfires. We can't allow coalition development to simply be an excuse to gather more volunteer firemen.

Previous attempts tended to build on leader based hierarchies, even when they attempt to be inclusive. They also tend to be hesitant to state exactly what they stand for in fear of alienating potential allies. They're afraid to say, "No" for fear of being seen as negative. We must also get beyond institutional ego in getting credit and public accolades (an incorrect perception of diluting the brand) which is also a relic of hierarchies. A properly developed coalition will strengthen all the constituent groups and mitigate their issues of concern.


My request to all of you is to see who might be interested in forming a think tank to show how systems science can ground and inform this work since systems are at the core of it all. I believe we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do so -- to build a truly comprehensive and cohesive foundation that can work from primary education, to policy and regulation, and all the way up to writing new cultural stories and popular entertainment.


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