Do Egalitarians need Spirituality?

A thoughtful review by Graham Strouts of David Holmgren’s new book, Future Scenarios appears at his website, Zone 5.

This provides an interesting angle on the predeliction of Egalitarian thinkers to foreground the need for a ‘reorientation of spiritual values’ or a ‘fundamental change of paradigm’. Note that while Holmgren himself is clear that under certain scenarios such social changes are essential, not every Egalitarian is in agreement. One of the issues with advocating a return to spirituality is the question, Which spirituality? Continue reading

Four Ways to Make Social Change Work Better: The Transition Movement and the Four Cultures

Transition actually looked like a good tool for the job. They were picking it up by whatever handle they grasped. They were swinging it as earnestly as they could.’ – Jon Mooallem, NY Times

The Transition Movement, a grassroots coalition pioneered in the UK by Rob Hopkins, is a great case study for understanding and improving the process of social change. In this article I aim to clarify the microdynamics of social change by using Grid-Group Cultural Theory (the four cultures) as an analytic tool. The theory, first developed by anthropologist Mary Douglas, suggests there are four competing ways of organising and disorganising society, at every level, and that a balance between these makes for a better outcome than an exclusive over-emphasis on one or another of them. Most social activists recognise a basic conflict in social-political visions between, broadly, left and right, conservative and liberal. The four cultures shows that there are actually four basic positions, not two, and that social interaction is much more intelligible when we take all four into account.

It’s my conviction that the Four Cultures approach can help social change agents ‘to bring in the people that conventional activists have failed to reach’, by showing how to be more inclusive while also becoming more focussed on what kinds of inclusion really matter. Continue reading

Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming

The director of the UK’s Soil Association, a peak organic farming body, has been in Australia talking about a new agenda for the organic movement.

There’s a chance to hear what Patrick Holden  said on Radio National.

Patrick Holden in Sydney Feb 2009

The   broadcast talk spoke of a ‘Rob Hopkins effect’ – referring to the impact on Holden’s thinking of the originator of the Transition movement – a grassroots push to plan for communities that will be more resilient in the face of the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

Holden’s words are like a primer on the Egalitarian mode of understanding the world. He speaks of major threats to civilisation, of population size as a problem, of a need to change our values, not just our living arrangements. He extols the benefits of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down planning, and of localising the economy.

Towards the end he also speaks of the need for the organic movement to go beyond merely speaking to itself. And this is where the issue lies. How can an almost text-book Egalitarian agenda communicate beyond the self-imposed ghetto of Egalitarianism? Is there a way of talking outside the box of one’s own worldview?

Continue reading

How I learnt to stop worrying and love grid-group cultural theory

old-divinity-school-cambridgeFourcultures received a nice email from Huw asking how I learned about cultural theory. It was  while enrolled on a religious studies course that I first came across the work  of anthropologist Mary Douglas, who had developed a four part typology of cultures in her book Natural Symbols. Admittedly at the time it didn’t seem very clear how to apply this, since education is mostly wasted on the young. Intriguing as it was, I didn’t take it any further. But it must have been bubbling away under the surface because years later, while studying the phenomenon of peak oil, it suddenly struck home that the arguments for and against peak oil seemed to match very well the contours of cultural bias, or social solidarities,  that Douglas had sketched. On further investigation it became clear that the theory had been strongly developed since the 1980s and now has much to say about today’s social, political and religious debates. That’s what this website is about.

A definitive survey of Mary Douglas’s work was written by Richard Fardon: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography (London: Routledge, 1999).

For those wanting to find out more about grid-group cultural theory and the four cultures it describes you could check out Michael Thompson’s book, Organising and Disorganising, which Huw says is great.

Michael Thompson gave a lecture at the RSA, and an interview which you can download.

[updated 4/2/2016]

Contingency Plans for Peak Oil

Should national governments make contingency plans in case of peaking oil? In a recent report of an interview he did with Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, the journalist George Monbiot appears shocked there is no such plan for the UK. Why?

In about 1973 you could collect three vouchers from the side of a cornflakes packet and send off for a little plastic model of a North Sea oil rig. For a child, this was the brave new frontier, the UK’s answer to the space program. It was exciting. And even then it was common knowledge we had ’30 years’ of oil so there was no need to worry about the future. Since then, we’ve always had ’30 years of oil’ because most policy makers saw this not as a prediction about reality but merely as code for ‘not on the policy radar, ever’. Then (after 30 years, note) North Sea oil began its steep and irreversable decline and policy makers were actually surprised.
Unfortunately for Reason with a capital R, humans don’t look at the facts and then decide what is going on. Instead we collect and filter data on the basis of preconceived notions of what must surely be going on. Egalitarians such as George Monbiot generally believe things must be running out and our options are narrowing. The by-line to the article says he was ‘shocked and alarmed’. He would be – it’s in the egalitarian job description. In contrast, Individualists are quite sure they know that there are limitless opportunities just waiting to be unlocked by human ingenuity and that all talk of scarcity is defeatist nonsense. Then there are the Hierarchists and the Fatalists who have their own take on the argument. These four poles are the four ‘cultural biases’ of grid-group cultural theory. An understanding of this goes a long way towards making sense of the way issues such as peak oil and global warming are such a lightning rod for debates about how society ought to be organised. A great primer on the basics of grid-group is Christopher Hood’s The Art of the State (1998), and the FourCultures blog looks at the world through a grid-group lens.
At the very least, this approach helps us recognise that we’re not really debating how much oil there is. We’re really promoting conflicting visions of social organisation, and using oil (or carbon dioxode, or whatever) as the pretext.

Peak Oil talk: has it peaked?

According to Nielsen’s trend monitor, BlogPulse, weblog mentions of ‘Peak Oil’ themselves peaked on June 27 2008.

In spite of such compelling evidence, sceptics argue that supplies of Peak Oil opinion are actually unlimited and will never run out. Others are more cautious and warn that not talking about it won’t make the issue go away. They also warn that if demand for Peak Oil talk did ever outstrip supply, the blog would be a very different place from the blog we have always known.

Though the trend seems clear, it’s too early to tell yet whether this really is a peak, or whether we’re seeing instead early indications of a less radical ‘undulating plateau’.

Experts note that this pattern is fully compatible with the well-known ‘Hubbert curve’ hypothesis of resource extraction, and that M. King Hubbert himself would have predicted the present shortfall in Peak Oil blogging- if only he had remembered to predict the invention of the blog itself.

To avert an impending Peak Oil blog crisis, many American bloggers are considering asking their OPEC counterparts to increase production of views about Peak Oil, although there is widespread concern that this may still be too little, to late. It has even been suggested that opinion-producers could dilute their blogs using so-called ‘advanced recovery technology’. In this way, Peak Oil talk could be sustained well beyond current expectations.

The opinion of this author is that even though we may indeed have exhausted half of all the words about Peak Oil that will ever be written, we won’t run out completely for at least another, oh, let’s say thirty years.

Furthermore, absolute shortages of Peak Oil talk are highly unlikely and in any case can be avoided by means of substitutes such as unconventional Peak Oil talk. We may not know what this is yet, but that certainly won’t stop us from talking about it.

And if all else fails we can always talk about peaks in many other commodities – a trend already clearly identifiable among key opinion-formers.

One thing is certain: the current lull in Peak Oil talk has nothing whatever to teach us about our amazingly short-term view of energy resources, which stops us thinking any further than this week’s prices at the pump, and which encourages us to believe that as soon as oil prices drop slightly we can all go back to talking about Paris Hilton.

So relax Peak Oil pundits, as ever there’s nothing to worry about. Just remember you read it here first.