Sunday, May 19, 2013

Making an Iota of Difference

Carvaggio's David and Goliath

Iota: noun

  • The ninth letter of the Greek alphabet (Ιι), transliterated as ‘i’.
  • [in singularusually with negative] an extremely small amount:nothing she said seemed to make an iota of difference

Yesterday evening I attended a talk by a man who lives in the nearby village of Mousehole. The talk was about creating sustainable communities - whatever they are - and was given by Anu van Warmelo. It took place in a Penzance venue called Open Shed, which is a kind of cafe where you can get your laptop or sewing machine refurbished and your bike repaired while you sip on a latte and flick through the latest issue of Resurgence. It's exactly the kind of place that I had been missing during my years in Denmark and, I was to learn, the kind of participatory open place where you can chat with the locals that's been heading towards extinction in recent years.

The talk seemed to get a good reception from the 20 or so of us in there, perched as we were on skip-rescued sofas and a farrago of old chairs. Despite the talk being called Creating Sustainable Communities the focus wasn't really on this, more it was an exposition of what makes certain communities and aspects of these communities more likely to be resilient in the face of change.

Some surprising examples of resilient communities were illustrated, and you can be sure that none of them were suburban tracts surrounding giant mega cities. American trailer parks, for example, could be seen as the ultimate in adaptive and resilient communities. You can move your trailer around at will (to escape bad neighbours or just for the hell of it) and when your daughter grows up she can buy her own trailer and plonk it next door to your own. Slums were also cited as places with masses of social capital in the absence of financial capital.

I was less sure of his example of Beverley Hills being a resilient community by sheer dint of the narrow world view of its denizens, comparable to a medieval village where nobody travels much and is disinterested in the wider world. Maybe it was meant as a joke.

Anyway, it was a thought provoking talk and it reconfirmed my prejudice that I'm now living in an area that will likely fare much better than other regions of the UK and beyond over the next century.

Afterwards there were questions and one man vented his frustration that despite all of his efforts to live sustainably over the years it has not made 'one iota of difference' to the status quo. Massive corporations with giant PR budgets were riding roughshod over the planet in an orgy of destruction, he said, and there was nothing - nothing! - that we mere individuals could do that would have the slightest effect.

Activism has its place
I had to disagree. Not because I'm a naive clicktivist or placard waver who thinks that we can 'make politicians listen' while retaining our own comfy life styles - I'm not. Instead I believe that we will never know the direct result of our actions, most of which are too miniscule to be noticed on the micro level, but which can add up at the macro level and induce tipping points.

But just because they are minuscule doesn't mean they don't add up. After all, if Rosa Parks had chosen to stand up on that bus in 1955, black people in America might not enjoy the same civil liberties (or lack thereof) that everyone else enjoys in the United States. She could not have foreseen the outcome of this, moments before she parked her stubborn backside on that seat, but the subsequent furore was the spark that ignited a civil rights movement. Parks later wrote:

"People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

I can well appreciate that people in the environmental movement are tired of fighting against all that is wrong and destructive, and I know full well that some people burn themselves out in the process and become cynical and bitter. With large parts of the once-idealistic movement having been co-opted by 'the machine' is it any wonder that there's a distinct lack of hope?

But then, if everyone had adopted the 'it doesn't make one iota of difference' approach then would we have seen the recent banning of neonicotinoid chemicals by the EU? What about the far from perfect but still a step in the right direction decision to substantially scale back discarding fish by fishermen? There are plenty of examples, big and small.

Corporations don't rule the world, physics does
But in terms of the whole 'corporations rule the world so why bother' meme, I couldn't disagree more. Yes, corporations are too big and out of control - that's what happens when you let Big Capital grow too large. That does not mean they are omnipotent. They are still subject to the physicals laws of the universe, and they are very vulnerable to collapse. What's more, they are also very vulnerable to politics - let's not forget that politicians will always save their own necks before someone else's - even if that 'person' is a corporation. Just this year we have seen Tesco halted in its seemingly world-conquering expansion. It has abandoned stores in the USA, its profits are down and many of its customers have left to find something even cheaper and nastier (by the way, my first ever job was as a Tesco shelf-stacker at its first ever megastore, built on an irreplaceable SSI at a wildflower meadow just outside of Solihull).

Gandhi said that however feeble his own efforts seemed he slept safe in the knowledge that all empires, however mighty, will one day be no more. It seemed inconceivable when he said this about the British empire - but now look at it. To misquote another great philosopher, Adrian Mole, "I couldn't find Britain's remaining imperial possessions [the Falkland Islands] on the big world map spread out on the kitchen table until I discovered them underneath a cake crumb that Nan had dropped."

Industrial civilisation is also an empire. But it's not an empire built on ideology (are any?) but on the sheer logic and dynamics of the flows of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.  And peak oil means that big, increasingly, does not mean better. Big has become too big as in too big to fail. And if something is too big to fail there's a problem with the system because it means it will take down the whole edifice when it inevitably does fail.

On being a small furry rodent
So, sustainable communities, to me, means keeping out of the way of things that are too big to fail. A falling dinosaur can crush a lot of small furry rodents when it topples. In practice this means meeting people face to face (and not just online), about doing the things that you know are right with the materials, space and resources that you have at hand (however puny you might think these may be), about avoiding suicidal financial systems, getting a grip on your food supply and keeping yourself sane and healthy in the process. It also means linking up with like-minded people and trying to avoid spending too much time with those who have become too emotionally invested in business as usual.

Liquid lions teeth
This morning, after I've written this, I'm heading out to a traffic roundabout just down the road from here. I noticed yesterday that it was covered in yellow dandelion flowers. Perhaps it's just me but I immediately thought 'dandelion wine'! I'll use one of the demijohns I found in my father's attic after he died, and will take great joy in watching it ferment away and make plopping noises in the airing cupboard. At the end of it all I'll have several bottles of my own wine and the GDP and CO2 output of Europe will go an infinitesimal notch lower because I have not purchased any bottles of wine from Italy or France. Granted, it's not going to bring the supermarket system to a skidding halt, but it will make precisely one iota of difference.


  1. Follows the latest theme on the Diner, goes up this week. You need to write more Jason.


    1. Hi RE. Been a bit busy of late but I'm planning to get back into the groove as time permits!

  2. Lovely, thank you, and thanks for the fine pictures over at your other place. I made 10 gallons of home brew yesterday, now that the house has warmed up a bit for the fermentation. Been doing it for a few years now. So easy to do, and it's much better than I remember it being when my Dad used to do it way back when. Growing some of my own hops as well, and plan to try making a mugwort beer this fall.

    I was talking to my wife this morning, about how so many huge changes have happened, bit by bit, just in our lifetime with regard to consumption/corporations. I'm 52 and still remember a somewhat simpler time, with less of every human interaction being commercialized. It really ratcheted up in the 80s, but the 60s and 70s were very different from today. The point is that this economy which we think is so unchangeable grew up over not that long a period through many, many individual actions by buyers and sellers. There was no big 12 month project to hyper-consumerize the world. And it will come apart again, probably as the buyers stop buying and the sellers stop being able to make money. So, every action counts. Making your own stuff and only spending money that stays in your own community I think is one of the best things we can do right now.

    Good luck!

    1. Mark - I have similar memories. My father made us tramp around the countryside looking for fruit and elderberries, which we then de-stalked, squashed etc for him to make batches of wine that would last a year. He even made his own sticky labels for the bottles - 'Chateau Heppenstall' if memory serves.

      As for the hyper-consumption thing I think you are right - it was not there and then suddenly it was there (although I'm 10 years younger than you, I still remember the 70s). If there was a button that could be pressed and it would all disappear again, would it be a wise idea to press it? I think not - things will have to go back to something recognisably similar to how there were bit by bit i.e. catabolically.

      Good luck with the wine!

  3. "It's exactly the kind of place that I had been missing during my years in Denmark and, I was to learn, the kind of participatory open place where you can chat with the locals that's been heading towards extinction in recent years."

    I realize this isn't your point, but what's the deal with that. I've noticed the exact same thing over the last dozen years.

    1. Hi Ed. It was a take-home-point from the talk. As society has become more atomised and commercialised, former public spaces have been invaded and turned into pseudo-public spaces. Here in England the pub has traditionally been a social institution -literally a public house - where everyone is more or less equal. You can go and stand at the bar and read a newspaper, and maybe speak to people you don't know. Many pubs have been at the heart of the community.

      Over the years, that has all changed. Loud music has encroached on conversations and it's getting harder to find anywhere without flat screen TVs on the walls blaring out sports, news, MTV etc. Places have become 'BYOFs', meaning 'bring your own friends', further eroding the concept of a public space. They lure people in with 'happy hours', big screen football matches and other gimmicks, with the emphasis being on heavy drinking and hedonism.

      Luckily, for me at least, there are still plenty of decent public places here in Cornwall (along with plenty of awful ones). But then it's that kind of place.

    2. I'll second the importance of a good pub! When I came back to my home town here in rural Wales after many years living overseas, my networks were pretty much all gone. We have a couple of very good pubs, though, so I made them my 'third space' and over a couple of years, realise that I've got to know judges, ex-directors of major listed companies, a senior combat surgeon, solicitors, lecturers, teachers, electricians, house painters, plumbers, plasterers, carpenters, truck drivers, and a stonemason, amongst others. That's not including the various people of unknown occupation who are important because their families have been here so long...

  4. Just a word of caution on dandelion wine, it can be explosive stuff so make sure you don't stash it anywhere near anything you value. I speak from bitter experience, my wife wrecked my book collection after a house move in which the books in a box ended up next to fermenting dandelion wine. The bottles that didn't explode were very tasty. My other favourites are parsnip, elderberry and rhubarb.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Phil. I was indeed going to store it in the airing cupboard of the house we are renting, which also currently houses several hundred of my books!

      Elderberry is a definite this year, but alas the slugs ate my rhubarb, so there will be none of that.

  5. Nice article. Thanks.

  6. Finding like-minded people is so important and so difficult. Cornwall seems to be a good choice though, I love the sound of 'The Shed'and wish we had one.
    Foraging is so fulfilling, along with making something out of nothing. I have been looking at the fields full of dandelions and thinking I need to get some recipes for something tasty from them. There are so many this year that I can't bear to see them go to waste :)

    1. By the time I got there the council workers were out in force with their strummers and mowers! I had to look further afield for my dandelions, but got them in the end.

  7. Did you happen to listen to the Today programme on R4 this morning? It finished up with an interview with Stephen King; not the novelist, rather the chief economist of HSBC. He was plugging a book, granted, but his message was that growth in the Western world is essentially finished, because the factors leading to post-WW2 growth are now absent. There was a lot going on in my kitchen at the time so I couldn't hear the presenter's response that well - but I got the impression it was rather incredulous... Still, the fact is increasingly seeping out into the mainstream that the party's over...

    1. I try not to listen to Today - I get all depressed and end up shouting at the radio! Still, interesting to hear that Mr King is changing his tune. I've read a few of his articles and they don't stand out in my memory.

      I think the idea is slowly seeping into the mainstream. I saw Nicole Foss (from The Automatic Earth) being interviewed on prime time news in New Zealand the other day. The presenter did well to control her incredulity, but it's worth watching - this is the link:

  8. Millions of iotas- do make a difference, even if they are not coordinated or organized. I found Paul Hawken's book- "Blessed Unrest" helpful in accepting that this chaotic emergent response to our global trendlines is a powerful movement, and maybe it is better that it is comprised of bottom up individual responses. We've all seen small actions cause ripple effects, but how many other effects have gone unnoticed? Cummulative small actions are kind of the essence of the tipping point phenomenon. If we were able to tote up all the tiny individual interactions that end up causing a state change, it wouldn't be surprising at all. Unfortunately, we can't so we will continue to get surprises, some good, some bad.
    In the mean time, I will continue to take steps to a low energy lifestyle, assuming it will not be for naught.

    1. Agreed. Everything is reborn from one nanosecond to the next. To think that our individual free will has no direct effect is the start of the slippery slope to nihilism and despair. We'll never know if our iotas made a meaningful difference to something, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

  9. It is a great feeling when you've found the place where you can adapt in place. My American inner-ring suburb is pretty good, too, though radically different from your rural village. Mousehole, hunh? How apropos! Iota by iota, it does add up.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.