Why I’d like to bring together radical academics and people building a sustainable, non-corporate system on the ground

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Posted Jul 5 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

I’m going to the Breaking the Frame gathering on Thursday, representing Lowimpact.org. The event has been organised by Corporate Watch, Scientists for Global Responsibility, Rising Tide and Luddites200. Dave King of Luddites200 contacted a couple of years ago and I’ve been going along to his ‘politics of technology’ reading group one evening a month since. Very interesting it has been too. I’ve been introduced to the work of Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, Lewis Mumford and Ivan Illich, and now I’ve been asked to give a talk on the Ujamaa system I visited in Tanzania in the 1990s, to sit on a panel about and to facilitate a workshop on alternative technology. From their website: ‘Breaking the Frame is based on the idea that everyone has the right to take part in decisions about technology, and that is crucial to creating an economically just and sustainable society’. The event looks very interesting – here’s the timetable, and here’s how to book. See you there?

I was asked to bring along 3 people for the alt. tech. workshop, and I deliberately invited people who are doing practical things that are sustainable and outside the corporate system. Convivial, in other words (as Ivan Illich would have said). Convivial means the opposite of corporate – technology that can be used and controlled autonomously by individuals and communities – so nuclear, no / solar, yes; GM, no / growing veg and seed saving, yes; corporate software, no / open source, yes – you get the idea.

So the three people I’m bringing along to the workshop are:

  1. Barbara Jones of Straw Works – the country’s top straw-bale builder
  2. Paul Jennings, who has a smallholding in Wales with his family, is going through a one-planet development application to build their house on the smallholding, is involved with the One Planet Council, that helps other people do the same, and writes for Lowimpact.org
  3. Ed Morriss, who lives off-grid in the woods in Buckinghamshire and builds renewable energy systems including wind, solar, gasification plants and rocket stoves. He’s setting up an off-grid website.

I really don’t know what to expect. What I’m guessing is maybe 50 people – some political activists, some building alternatives to the corporate sector and others working more on the theory side than the practical. All are essential I think. Finding Dave’s reading group was a breath of fresh air for me – people I don’t have to persuade about the fact that we’re in a corporate empire. They’re way ahead of me, and have read several times more than I have.

However, although an understanding of the theory of political change is vital (and it’s something that more practical people often lack), I have a couple of criticisms of things I’ve heard plenty of times from the academic/theory/radical side over the years (although I want to stress that this is nothing to do with the position of the organisers of Breaking the Frame – it’s just a conversation I want to have when I’m there). First, I sometimes get the impression that academics are more interested in knowing stuff for its own sake, rather than for how it can contribute to challenging the corporate sector. Also, I’ve heard solar installations or artisan bakeries criticised, because the poor can’t afford an installation or £3.50 for a loaf of bread. But it’s not the poor who are going to buy it, it’s the middle classes with a bit of money. That’s how much you have to pay for a loaf, otherwise it will be corporate, unhealthy and damaging to the environment. So ultimately, for people who are money-rich and time-poor, their contribution has to be money – they’re the people who will be buying hand-baked loaves and getting solar installations; and for people who are time-rich and money-poor, their contribution can be learning how to install renewables, make craft products, bake artisan bread etc. – otherwise, what? Stacking shelves for Tesco, or telesales for an insurance company? No – let’s get some non-corporate apprentice schemes going.

I used to think that money was the root of all evil, but now I see that there are lots of fantastic people out there – renewables installers, community energy groups, natural builders, community-supported agriculture groups, organic growers, independent businesses etc. – who need money to be able to provide a sustainable, non-corporate source for the essentials of life. To condense – if you can’t afford £3.50 for a loaf, start a bakery and then you will. Don’t criticise solar panels, independent breweries etc. for being middle class. It’s the only way we’ve got of providing the necessities of life ourselves rather than have them provided by the corporate sector.

As I said, this isn’t a criticism of Breaking the Frame at all, but I’m going to be banging that drum when I’m there. I also respect Dave because he convinced me that something might be true – I’m still not sure it is, and I resisted for a long time, but I can see now how it might be. Sorry for paraphrasing Dave, and I apologise if I misrepresent you – but you can tell me in the comments if I do.

So, my position has always been that ultimate power rests at the top of the corporate hierarchy. Dave’s position is that it rests at the cutting edge of technology. That’s where the people at the top of the corporate hierarchy have to put their money if they’re going to stay at the top of the corporate hierarchy, and they know it. So things like artificial intelligence, genetic modification, nuclear power and nanotechnology get funded even though those technologies, if unchecked, have the power to make us extinct. So decisions are not being made at the top of the hierarchy about whether or how to use these new technologies – the decision has already been made for them by the technologies themselves. If it makes money, it happens. Technology itself has its own momentum, and no-one is in charge of it. It’s making capitalism do things, not the other way round.

I think he has a point, and that’s a very scary scenario indeed. We need people making those decisions – and they need to be our best people, not people at the top of the corporate hierarchy. This is the other thing I want to talk to people about. My Ujamaa talk will be about one way of approaching this, but I’m ready to drop it entirely if someone comes up with a better way. But we do need something I think. There are lots of interesting things happening that are quietly building a sustainable, non-corporate sector – but they will come to nought in the end if we don’t come up with a way of implementing a new decision-making system.

You’d be very welcome to come along – if you’re a change-the-world nerd you’ll find it fascinating. It’s very cheap entertainment too – camping plus all your food, from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon – £60. See you there?