Pink pants, red herrings and life’s work

(or: More than my job’s worth, part 2)

The snickett where the pants lay.

Some weeks ago I made a decision. Except that it wasn’t me that was making the decision, I thought, it was the pants. They had been lying there, in the path, for probably more than a year. It’s a muddy, narrow path between hedge and houses; the route to school that I walk with my son every morning. A dozen parents had casually side-stepped the pants a thousand times apiece, perhaps not noticing them, perhaps embarrassed; but surely all, like me, wondering secretly: whose were they? How had they fallen off? Were they missed? Surely someone should pick them up. Should I pick them up?

Yet month in, month out, they lay there, unloved and ignored, covered in turn by summer dust, autumn leaves and winter snowfalls, exposed after every wind or thaw to reveal an ever more crumpled, downtrodden repose, their pinkness struggling to be heard beneath the deepening coating of mud and algae.

The day I decided to pick them up would be the day my life would change, I thought. The pants had called me. And if you respond to the call, the pants are yours.

It’s not easy to look nonchalant while clutching someone else’s mouldy pink pants to one’s bosom while walking along a busy footpath, but I tried. To be honest it was a relief when I finally bundled them into the car. But once they were home and washed, I conferred on them the special purpose of symbolising my response not just to the call of the pants but to the call of the New Project (hinted at in my previous post).

Shortly after that, my computer crashed — literally, onto a quarry-tiled floor — shattering important inner components. I lost several weeks’ worth of un-backed-up data, including initial outlines of the pants-tagged project. I lost my momentum as well as my drive; the project was shelved, and when I came back online I couldn’t quite recall the magic that had seemed previously to knit my ideas into such an elegant structure. And anyway, I had an article about Arctic ice cap melt to catch up on. The project, and the pants, I decided, were red herrings.Red Herring

Devastating ice melt

The Arctic ice cap melt article, by the way, was perhaps the most devastating piece of journalistic research I have ever undertaken. It’s not that the data are new to me – they’ve been reported already. It was the experience of detailed review, of learning of scientists in submarines watching thick ice diminish rapidly to thin, of hearing their sad resignation as they talked of 20 years of evidence having no effect on policy, of realising that, in a few years, the view from space in northern summers will show Earth without its characteristic white cap. It was also in learning how the ice cap is the thermal regulator of our planet, not just in terms of the sunlight it reflects but in terms of how it keeps the Arctic air cool, the subterranean methane where it belongs and the jet stream steady; about how its phase change from solid to liquid will be hard to reverse and, even if in some future decarbonised century it is, the transition will meanwhile have been implicated in a wholesale shift in the global climate to a brand new state.

This is not just coming sometime. It is underway, right now; it is happening very fast; and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

It’s perhaps natural to feel a sense of nihilistic despair — or hedonism, depending on your inclinations — after assimilating the severe implications of such dramatic changes, especially if they are underpinned by an understanding of their gruesome knock-on effects for our food supply and security, and even more so if they are combined with news of economic crises, rapid species extinction, planet-wide toxic pollution, and the ever tightening grip of psychopathic, planet-trashing corporations on our energy, food, land, air, oceans and democracies.

Strangely though, after a day or two of staring blankly into space, the effect on me was neither of these. I picked up the pants once more, abandoned my vain concerns that the ideas behind the New Project were inadequate because they were incomplete, and decided that a flawed, messy concept symbolised by a pair of discarded pink pants was better than no concept at all.

This wasn’t just driven by a sense that drastic action now might provide a chance of ameliorating further disruptions in the distant future: for us short-sighted animals that’s too dim a light. No, the reason for the renewed drive is the very fact that the situation does look impossible. Only a miracle can save us now.

Well, what if miracles can happen? Trying to help trigger one would be rather an adventure wouldn’t it? Come to think of it, miracles are happening all over the place, right now. And they are beautiful happenings. Seeds germinating; stars exploding, leaves unfurling; insects pollinating; nature reclaiming; consciousness awakening; people rising. While there is time, there is time for miracles.

A small step

So I am committing here and now to this: an attempt at starting a small thing that might contribute in some invisible way to an already unfolding miracle. It doesn’t matter what the chances are, who I am or where I start. The main thing is to show up and start. After all, I did pick up the pants; mud, algae and all.

My starting point is where you’d expect it to be, my hobby horse: the fact that we are paid to destroy our habitat with our left hands and are expected to pick up the pieces, rebuild our integrity and restore the planet — in our spare time — with our right hands. The economic system can’t work any other way, they say. It’s the rules: they require us to make a living out of killing and exploiting, so that we can find a bit of spare time for healing and mending, they insist.

And if you find the set-up psychologically disturbing, don’t worry, they say — we have drugs for that. And try not to worry that most young people won’t even be able to make a living out of death any more either, since we’ve screwed the hell out of the planet and the economic models already so actually there’s not all that much death left to be profited from. Just keep your head down and be grateful that you’re one of the lucky ones who can get some.

Well I say, they can stick their death imperative where the sun don’t shine along with everyone they are paying to justify it. We are getting wise now to consumer advertising and brain-washing, to staged debates, framed arguments and manufactured fear, to unnavigable legal systems, corporate lies, government oppression and media lackies.

Awareness enables us to transcend that which we are aware of; and we’re reaching the point where enough of us are aware of all that to transcend it in numbers. Economic rules, after all, can change. They are simply abstractions implanted in the mindset of our culture. We can challenge them; we can unhitch ourselves from their assumptions; and we can escape the stranglehold they have over our imaginations.

On our side, we’ve got millions of creative but disenfranchised, under-employed, thinking young people with energy, time, and nothing to lose. We’ve got courageous, angry uprisings. We’ve got the internet, for now. We’ve got investors looking with bemusement at stranded assets and wondering how they might yet leave meaningful legacies.

We’ve got billions of pounds’ worth of subsidies going into destructive activities. We’ve got a natural world begging to teach us a better way. We’ve got expertise in steady-state economics; gift economies; permaculture; consensus building; conflict resolution; natural parenting; we’ve got indigenous knowledge and unsung women and a thousand other things waiting in the sidelines to contribute their quietly-won wisdom.

Sadly, it does seem, frustratingly, that we can’t simply recreate the entire global economic system overnight. But big changes in complex systems do happen — and they can be triggered by a change in just a single aspect, which then leads to other, interconnected, knock-on effects. Pump up CO2 levels in the atmosphere, for example, and bingo: everything from air temperature to ocean pH to methane release rates shifts.

I believe it is possible to find a single aspect of our economic system that, if nudged, could create a shift that helps erode the belief that our growth driven, ecology-consuming system is the only one possible.

It’ll be no surprise that my personal nomination for that aspect is this: what we’re paid to do, and how. Work, in my view, is critical. The work of destruction would not be done if there were no-one doing it. And the corollary is that there is an almost endless supply of interesting, meaningful, restorative work to be done – if only it would pay a half-decent living.

The wrong future

I’m especially interested in the livelihood opportunities we could create for younger people, those among us with so little by way of prospects, but with so much energy, imagination, commitment and time to offer and with so much to lose.

Their perspective on the world is already different from that of their parents, and rightly so; they know they are burdened with crumbling economic, social and governance systems and a devastated and destabilised natural world. They know they look ahead to years of dirty work on discounted wages while bearing the burden of a growing, ageing population with little or no help from state institutions. They may even sense that their hard-won education has likely prepared them for the wrong future.

For many young people, their aspirations, their measures of future success, will amount to little more than survival. But these people, our children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren, deserve more than this. They deserve a life — and a new definition of success.

Nice streamImagine, if young people could measure their future success in terms of the suffering they had averted; the destruction they had reversed; the soil they had rebuilt; the landscape they had restored; the life they had promoted. That, to me, sounds like a strong contender for anyone’s life’s work.

Such a definition of success is pretty much the opposite of how it is measured now, given the correlation between material gain and nature’s loss. By the new measure, investing in success, and in successful young people, would mean investing in life, not death. But, I hear you saying, this is no more than an idealistic dream, impossible in practice: after all, the economic system doesn’t work that way. Who would earn the money?

On a pragmatic level these are fair responses. But as we know, systems change if conditions change. And I have a feeling that creating the demand and potential for different work opportunities for young people offers a promising pressure point for change.

For starters, it doesn’t matter if the initial work of restoration and reconnection does not “pay” economically speaking. There is, after all, plenty of money already made available to support uneconomic activities. It’s called subsidy. Most of these subsidies pay people to do stuff that is compromising the future. What if they paid people instead to build a resilient, life-promoting, natural-capital-restoring future?

Subsidising life

I am keen on this idea of incentivising different ways of working for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it would tick a lot of yawning boxes. Not only would it facilitate the work that’s needed – local food production, soil rebuilding, tree planting, landscape restoration, carbon farming, community building, conflict resolution, and so on – it would also support the shift to local economies, thereby subtracting trade from the destructive, global economy.

It would encourage people into work that boosts and preserves their own health. And it would provide much-needed employment for young people in skills and sectors that would equip them with a degree of resilience in the face of change and a sense of pride in their future.

In time, as the old economic system fails because of its dependence on finite reserves of fossilised sunlight, the new enterprises will take over, because their foundation will be real-time sunlight harnessed using nature’s methods to most efficient effect. So subsidising this uneconomic work is not really subsidy: it’s long-term investment.

There’s an additional bonus.

My favourite quote, from Upton Sinclair, reminds us that it is impossible to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it. In other words, what he does for a living frames his beliefs about what is important or true, because his life and his identity depend upon it.

Well, imagine that the work this man does for a living requires him to believe that protecting and supporting life is the priority for a healthy future, rather than the idea that, say, extracting minerals and squirting pollutants into aquifers are good and necessary things. In other words, that his salary depends upon him upholding, rather than discounting, the ultimate value of life itself. Then he would internalise that belief, because his salary depends upon him doing so.

What I’m suggesting is that if we can change what people are paid to do, we have a means to change what they believe as well – and so to replace the collective belief in the destructive, growth-based system with a belief in a co-creating, life-based system.

It’s all rather abstract for now, but still, I’m going to make this my mission: to facilitate as many opportunities as possible for young people to undertake education, skills training and paid work in the restoration of natural ecosystems and the symbiotic integration of human communities within those ecosystems.

I believe in this mission even if the work must for now be undertaken in the context of isolated projects or programmes that don’t appear to pay for themselves. This supported approach is justified because the current system is so very clearly on its last legs, as might well be the complexity of life on Earth required to sustain a human habitat.

Establishing and developing alternative models of living that restore the ecosphere is therefore an imperative that overshadows every other. If we’re going to subsidise anything, shouldn’t it be livelihoods for a living future, rather than the rocky road to extinction?

Oh no, another mission!

I don’t yet have a detailed view of the form this project will take, but I have been researching some ideas, and have settled on a general outline.

So as it stands, my project idea has two parts. One part will be a campaigning function. I’ll begin by trying out a campaign to redirect some aspect of UK public subsidies into the education, employment and empowerment of young people so they can undertake work that builds the foundations for a living future. Details to come.

The second part is about money, and requires more research. I like the idea of starting a fund, perhaps a charitable trust, that acts like a Very-Long-Term investment bank. It will be an upside-down sort of bank by today’s measure, because if you put your money in, you will get a cast-iron guarantee never to get it back, and instead will gain the assurance that it will be converted, through the meaningful education and deployment of young people, into natural capital for future generations. Working out what this construct will be and do is quite some task. I will be building a more focussed definition over coming days and weeks.

I welcome any thoughts and suggestions and of course any offers of help. My dream is that this entity and its communications, whatever they end up looking like, and however modest, demonstrate the potential for redirecting investments from the business of death to the enterprise of life, by channelling the energy and free thinking of the younger generations.

In my wildest dreams this thing could be a catalyst for an intergenerational miracle, leading to a new purpose for humanity (but then I am rather reliant on a good dose of hyperbole to get me out of bed on a morning).Karuna Forest Garden

And of course we have a head-start on the ground: there are hundreds of examples of established, forward-looking, future respecting, life-loving projects and initiatives that young people can turn to for inspiration and education. It was learning about cooperative businesses and housing arrangements, worker-directed firms, community land trusts and food projects, permaculture pioneers, transition communities and local energy projects, among other things, that had such an  influence on my thinking about what’s possible.

I maintain links with, and learn from, one such pioneering operation not far from me: Cwm Harry, which operates the Get Growing community market garden, various waste recycling projects, permaculture courses and an apprenticeship scheme among other things, and which has ambitious plans for future development that suggest an encouraging overlap in thinking with the ideas I’ve been gestating.

I would like to see more young people recognising that organisations like these, which develop local skills and expertise and build on local resources, are an important part of a living future. I would like all young people to have opportunities to learn from these projects, to work with them and contribute to them.

And I would like to see the project pioneers themselves attract more money, support and recognition so that their projects can develop, interconnect, cross-fertilise and merge, perhaps eventually to forge between them a new modus operandi.

Incidentally, there is a precedent for such a process, one that contrives me the opportunity to use another magnetic analogy. Every few hundred thousand years, the Earth’s magnetic field undergoes a total flip in its direction. Remarkably, this process starts with the emergence of small pockets of reversed field direction — “inverse magnetic polarity” — which eventually come together to produce the full field reversal.Yes these really are the actual pink pants. OK, so they're boxers, but that didn't have the same ring. And I know, they have Alpha Male branding, which is also not quite in keeping with my thinking. But there we are. You have to make do with the pants you are given.

If I can do anything, even at this late hour, that helps accelerate the investment in, awareness of and coming together of the pockets of inverse cultural and economic polarity that offer such valuable lodestones for a new way of working, I will happily devote my available waking hours to the task. After all, the pants have called.

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10 Responses to Pink pants, red herrings and life’s work

  1. Cat says:

    Vanessa, this is genius :-) On a personal level, it fills me with joy to see you emerging with this wonderful purpose from long honest pondering and incubation (it gives me hope that I’ll get there .. eventually). On a practical level, there’s so much potential here. A few off the top of my head thoughts:

    Might it be useful to start building a directory of all the larger projects, communities, initiatives etc in the UK that are already leading substantial courses in skills and new visions for a living planetary future, to ask them what they offer the 16-24 age group, and what they might need to be able build more in the way of subsidised training for young people, apprenticeships, etc?

    Are there ways to design in both connections with experienced teachers / mentors / elders, and with a peer group sharing the learning experience, supporting and teaching each other?

    Although I know you decided not to re-train as a careers officer ;-), there is something vital in this about changing the culture of aspiration in schools, too, so that young people aren’t simply fed the idea that there’s only one kind of work and one kind of economy that’s possible.

    If there’s anything I can do virtually from Berlin to help you, I’d be happy to give this some time over the next couple of months, before I head to Scotland at the end of September.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Cat, wow, I’m a bit lost for words – overwhelmed actually, by your response, kind words, support, sharing and generous offer of help. It really means a great deal. Thank you, for this much-appreciated thumbs up, from someone I greatly respect, for an idea that still feels like jelly. Putting it out there, I decided, was the best way to get it to set and you’ve already helped that happen.

    Your ideas are excellent. It’s great to have some initial bullet points for what I now realise will become an endless to-do list. I will pursue them all. I really like your point about the aspirations that mainstream education encourages: I agree this will need addressing too, in time. Goodness, I seem to have gone from not knowing quite what to do to having way too much to do, overnight. It’s a good feeling.

    And I would love to take you up on your offer of help, in not too burdensome a way, once I’ve worked out a bit of a plan. It’s lovely simply to know I have someone to bounce ideas off!

    I’m certain you will get there too. It’s all just in there, brewing mysteriously, I reckon ;) That incubation phase does seem to be a formless sort of process … for me it’s been almost painfully long (6 or 7 years in all) and frustratingly fuzzy (even now it feels more like a decision to plump with something rather than a crystal-clear calling, but I suppose the theme has come from some sort of convergence of ideas). The leaving behind and the places between are as important as the next turn in the path, I think. On which note, I am now going to finish reading your latest post. Looking forward to it.

    Thank you again, lots. :)

  3. Cat says:

    Glad to be of service, Vanessa :-) More seriously, it’s the trust and respect I have for you that makes me feel that whatever you set your heart to doing, it’s heading into a very good place that’s worth going to.

    Yes, it feels good to me if my help is in the form of supporting, listening, being a ping-pong partner for bouncing ideas around at this early stage of the (ad)venture. Happy to email or Skype, if you do the Skypey thing.

    On reflection, my first ideas were perhaps running ahead of your first principles, of applying leverage at the level of state subsidy, raising awareness and aiming to change the culture of what gets subsidised. But hey, like you say, it’s a long to-do list :-)

    I’m delighted that Bridget is up for being involved with this. She’ll have some interesting input from her involvement with the Edgeryders Project
    http://edgeryders.wikispiral.org/ as well as her abundant other gifts and passions for this question of what resilient right livelihoods might look like.

    Okay, fire away on email whenever you’re ready :-)

  4. James says:

    Fine words indeed Vanessa. I am sure there are many more people who think this way, and the number is growing.

    350.org has launched Global Power Shift which gives me hope that my grand-children may have a peaceful future to enjoy. Keep thinking!

    http://globalpowershift.org/understanding-phase-two/

    Jim

  5. stevematt says:

    Vanessa, first of all, thank you for framing the issues so clearly and bluntly – the issue of how to “live well”, in support of life, rather than killing it, when (unless we’re very lucky) we have to make a living and try to do the right thing. David Korten called this the “play or die” nature of the economic system. Nowadays there seems to be a lot of “extend and pretend” going on (interesting in the recent Guardian piece on Transition how many in power seem to be secretly worried about collapse, for example).

    There’s a lot going on here, and you rightly see things in terms of very big, complex systems. Some threads running through the present do highlight some of the challenges that would lie ahead for the “Pants Revolution”. We are arguably increasingly in thrall to our machines and screens, our brands and our crazes, but less engaged with the “real world” (nature and neighbours) around us. I think this especially applies to many young people, despite the many rebellious an creative things going on that you also talk about.

    While there are different stories happening at the same time (think Joanna Macy’s, for example), there is some evidence to suggest that people as a whole are less bothered about all this stuff, and blaming the “other” now seems to be more acceptable. You could even argue that mainstream politicians are encouraging a lack of concern for the Earth and our fellow humans by promoting selfish, destructive values. (Check out Common Cause on how the “values climate” can affect people’s attitudes and behaviour: http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=4224).

    Challenges aside, I think what you have in mind is great – the central task is to restore life, and stop destroying it, and an important part of the solution is to enable and encourage young people to contribute to change for the better. This goes way beyond the “green jobs” notion in the mainstream, though, and, as you suggest, it will be important to look at the stories of projects, places and groups who are doing this. There are loads. I must admit I can be quite pessimistic about how things are evolving at the moment, and am starting to think about an idea along the lines of “islands of hope” – places, projects, maybe movements that are doing or trying to bring about life restoring change, despite the challenges involved. Wholesale change for the better may be far away, but they offer hope, knowledge, models and practice that could serve us well if and when a wider change becomes possible.

    On the two prongs to your project, the campaigning bit is interesting as it might perhaps partly focus on the bad things that are being subsidised, as a way of encouraging people to think about how public money is used. The money side of things sounds like some kind of foundation, or maybe an existing one would take up the cause.

    Anyway, thanks again for what you’re doing and do keep me in the loop. And i’ll avoid saying anything silly, like, “May the pants be with you”… :)

  6. Belinda says:

    Hi Vanessa. I always read your posts with interest as you so eloquently put thoughts that many of us can entirely relate to into an understandable form.

    I known my life and many others is a constant compromise between what we feel is right (and wrong) and how to translate that into everyday life – the current system is very good at keeping us all so busy that we don’t have much time to think these things through or heaven forbid do anything about them! And I too am desperate to give my teenagers something tangible and stimulating and positive to light the fire in their bellies – it’s no wonder that they choose to lose themselves in the virtual world when the ‘real’ world they will inherit seems to be falling apart before their eyes.

    But here are some thoughts on tiny steps in the right direction – perhaps not the miracle you are looking for but anything that tips the balance might bring the shift forward. Tridos bank is based on the current (back to front) model but does invest in positive projects across the globe and are a good example of the positive face of investment – perhaps they might be a good interim organisation to work with / get advice from re the banking issue.

    In relation to education and opportunities Worcester Council recently organised a Green Futures careers event for secondary school pupils where various organisations showcased their work – from renewables to design – making work to rebuild / enhance / protect a real option for young people coming through the system at the moment.

    And of course Positive News which brings a welcome release from the constant bad news and reminds me (and the children) that there is a lot of really good stuff going on as well.

    As a person who works within the system, is constantly compromising as a result but is always looking for ways to move things forward let me know if there is anything I can help you with :)

  7. Vanessa says:

    Well that’s lovely to hear – thank you Cat for your kind words and faith!

    Your first ideas were absolutely fine. I’m still not sure which level I should start at. It probably makes sense to get a clearer idea of the possibilities at ground level before making demands up the echelons. I shall have to get all strategic and make a plan I suppose!

    It will be great to have both your and Bridget’s support. I have had contact with Edgeryders too but the conversation fizzled … this definitely would be a good time to reignite it.

    Will come back to you soon, when I have things to bounce, probably on email initially. Much appreciation and thanks again.

  8. Vanessa says:

    Thank you Jim. That’s heartening to hear. I had just – a day before – come across Global Power Shift: a very encouraging development and much in line with my thinking. I hope it takes off!

  9. Vanessa says:

    Steve, thank you for this considered and thoughtful comment. I wanted to take a bit of time to assimilate before replying.

    I think you’re spot on about the ‘extend and pretend’ tactics at work (I too picked up on the collapse worries in that Guardian article) – and also, sadly, about the ongoing trend towards ever greater disengagement, especially among young people. I try to ignore this but it’s wise to bear it in mind, if only as ballast against the inevitable disappointments that will strike throughout any endeavour that promotes reconnection.

    Thanks for the link to the Common Cause research on values. I hadn’t seen it and from what I can tell so far, it looks like it will be enormously helpful. I knew that decisions are as influenced by emotion as much (if not more than) the facts, but hadn’t made the connection between the emotional response and common cultural values. The report includes some sobering and rather daunting reminders of the scale of the challenge. Still, the idea that a campaign, even if unsuccessful, might have an indirect impact on cultural values, provides some compensation for those.

    Also heartening is that you’ve articulated so neatly and succinctly the central task to which I plan to devote my energy. Not only does this arm me with a few more phrases for when people look blankly at me, is also reassures me that I’m explaining my intentions in an understandable way. And yes, I’m thinking of setting up some sort of trust or foundation, unless there’s a way of saving work by partnering with an existing one – research underway now.

    Overall I’m with you on the pessimism front. It might be that islands of hope (a wonderful expression) are the best we can salvage. But on a personal level, I need something – even if just this – to work towards, not least so as to keep myself from drowning in thoughts of other, worse still, possible outcomes.

    Thanks again for taking the time to respond so helpfully, and for your suggestions and pointers. The pants are most definitely with me, and it seems they have picked up a following breeze! :) I’ll certainly keep you posted.

  10. Vanessa says:

    Hi Belinda,
    Lovely to hear from you and thank you for commenting with such thought. You’re absolutely right about the ongoing compromise of life and making a living – and I’m glad to have struck a chord regarding the challenge of creating a positive future for our young people.

    It’s good to have your pointers to others working in a constructive direction. I knew about Triodos Bank (but needed a reminder to check them out again) and Positive News (in fact we are just down the road from them!). They’re beacons in the smog, for sure. I didn’t know about the careers event in Worcester though – that’s very encouraging. I’d be interested to know how many went, and/or whether it was considered a success. Perhaps I can email you…

    And also – thank you so much for your kind offer of help – very much appreciated. It would be nice simply to see what your thoughts are on various things at this stage so I will get in touch soon. It will be an opportunity to say a proper hello too!

    Thanks again :)

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