Tuesday, 30 September 2008

dealing with it...

I think it was E.M. Forster who, when asked about the critical public response to A Passage to India said that 'humankind cannot bear too much reality.' His quote forms the issue I am grappling with in this section - the intention is to get this argument out in the front end of the text and then move forward. So its a bit of the book that will come early on, perhaps to be revisited in the concluding remarks. I need help with this section - big help!!

The problem is how to explore in a realistic way the issues that for most of us are simply too difficult to consider in any practical manner because either we don't believe what we are being told about, or we simply don't recognise the arguments being placed in front of us, they are either too abstract, or too big to feel we can deal with it in any personal way, or they are too far into the future, or they just represent too much of a threat to the way we do things...

I have recently been reading the work of Otto Scharmer from the MIT, USA. In making sense of his arguments I have found he points to a very important issue at the heart of our existing organisations. Scharmer says, 'Most leaders are unable to recognise, let alone change, the structural habits of attention used in their organisations.' His argument is that leaders have a significant blind spot that impedes their capacity to 'see' the world in which they operate in a fully rounded sense. This blind spot exists not only in 'our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being.' Scharmer explores in great depth the means through which such a blind spot can be uncovered, primarily examining how people attend to and respond to the situations in which they find themselves. In reading Scharmer's work, particularly in his eloquent exposition of Theory U, I became more aware of the impediment that I regularly face when attempting to explore issues related to sustainable retreat. It is not that people don't care, it is simply that their habits of attention are busy dealing with other priorities, and so the blind spot of sustainable retreat is amplified as just other noise, rather than something that they take into their 'inner self' to use Scharmer's term, they don't feel the message.

In work closely related to this theme, a recent lecture by David Selby from the Centre for Sustainable Futures in Plymouth, UK, connected to the notion of contemporary societies inability to deal with pain. His work has recognised how a consumerist society feels despair when confronted with argument that undermines everything upon which it is built and as a result it disregards the possibility that there might be bad news around the corner, preferring the fix of progress. The expression of critical views of existing culturally held norms puts most people in a state of personal anxiety. Our western culture is built upon the importance of the strong individual, and there is little place in that environment for emotion, fear, and the pain of views that resonate differently from the status quo. It is interesting because it could also represent a fear of connection, a fear that expressing concern in the world is a weakness - in effect a cultural blind spot.

It takes us into a strange place in the argument, because there is a great sense of defeatism surrounding the whole discourse of climate change, and sustainable ecological retreat - we are relegated to the role of victim before we even begin to try to do anything and make any changes. I think this is a result of our disconnection with the world. As Selby says, grimly, ' we live in a dark age where no one wishes to entertain the notion of global heating, we are unable to attend to the darkness because the addictive and compulsiveness of consumerism keeps us in denial and we choose instead to befriend our pathology rather than deal with the darkness.' Now I don't intend to dwell on the pain debate in this book, as I am not equipped to pursue the thinking very well. But it is interesting and it is a voice that is coming from many quarters in the form of reframing and transforming the discourse of change and I think that this is our route forward - to explore interconnectedness and use it as the language of re-connection with feeling as well as acting for change, and a common starting point can be emotion, in this case mourning, grief and renewal.

If the interdependence of all life remains just a mental concept, without power to affect our attitudes and behaviors, unless it takes on some emotional reality, we will I think remain quite stuck. As Joanna Macy says, 'We need to feel it, and our capacity to feel is stunted if we block out the pain within us over what is happening to our world. If we use "mourning" for the expression of moral pain for what humans are inflicting on the natural world this pain for the world includes not only grief, but fear, anger, and despair as well. Because these emotions are not encouraged in conventional society, and because they reveal the truth of our interconnectedness with all life, we allow them full play.' (Macy from the forthcoming: The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature).

Reconnecting us with our true capacity to care, for each other, and for the planet seems to awaken us to the interconnectedness of all life forms, our deep ecology. In the work of Scharmer it explores this in leadership, in Selby's work it comes strongly through in the importance of attending to the denial. I have come to see this way of seeing as an explanatory principle both for the pain we experience on behalf of the natural world, and for the sense of belonging that arises when we stop repressing that pain. It is I think, ultimately an expression of great hope, ... but we have to deal with it - personally and collectively.

Lovelock - sustainable retreat

In his most recent book the eminent scientist James Lovelock (2006) points out, that as nations and individuals we are currently trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback where our preoccupation of self impedes our vision of our wider effect.

‘What happens in one place very soon affects what happens in others. We are dangerously ignorant of our own ignorance, and rarely see things as a whole’ (Lovelock 2006).

Whereas my earlier ideas proposed the notion of a learning school functioning as a network in a deliberate, orchestrated strategy for improving the quality of educational provision, I now recognise that this in itself is severely limited. A commitment to interconnectedness, and a willingness to develop strategic understanding of the consequences of interconnectedness take us much further into the interplay between individual and group, between one living community and another and as such, it causes me to have to rethink the place of education within a much wider sphere of human encounters and activities. To so anything less, is simply to magnify the already intolerable level of failure that exists in the system.

So I come to write a revised edition of an earlier set of ideas. Whereas the earlier work was concerned with reform, this book is quite robustly in favour of transformation, further reform is not enough. A decade ago, I was not alone in thinking that a coherent argument in favour of sustainable development would be sufficient to galvanise a range of opinion and practice and create a vibrant and innovative way of responding to change. I now think that we have to be advocates for transformation, as sustainable development simply created the pathway for maintenance of the status quo. Transformation means seeing the problem through a completely different set of lenses, the reformists lens no longer provides enough interconnection to enable the challenge of sustainability to be appreciated. A decade ago I was concerned, as many were, with sustainable development - a reform of existing policy. Now I think we are in a race for survival and sustainable retreat is our preferred route, our transformation journey.

Sustainable development is fashionable and fits the old world order that still believes in the main that global warming is fiction, or at least fixable, and favours business as usual with a trust in technology as the solution to the current problems we face. But as Lovelock comments, sustainable development puts us in the comfort zone of pretending we are making real change when in fact we are deluding ourselves, and colluding with existing arrangements;

‘Sustainable development is a moving target. It represents the continuous effort to balance and integrate three pillars of social well-being, economic prosperity and environmental protection for the benefit of present and future generations. Many consider this noble policy morally superior to the laissez-faire of business as usual. Unfortunately for us, these wholly different approaches, one the expression of international decency, the other of unfeeling market forces, have the same outcome: the probability of disasterous global change. The error they share is the belief that further development is possible and that the Earth will continue, more or less as now, for at least the first half of this century. Two hundred years ago, when change was slow or non-existent, we might have had time to establish sustainable development, or even have continued for a while with business as usual, but now is much too late, the damage has already been done. (Lovelock 2006, p3/4).

Lovelock’s argument is that it is much too late for sustainable development, he makes a compelling case for what he calls sustainable retreat (p8). In his critique of science as a ‘cosy, friendly club of specialists who follow their numerous different stars, he observes that they are ‘wonderfully productive but never certain and always hampered by the persistence of incomplete world views’. We might usefully draw the analogy across every sector, and particularly shine it upon current educational policy. It is much too late for educational reform under its current guise as it is wedded to the view that we create citizens in the form of consumers, reliant upon economic development. This, the old order, has crumbled, we prop up schools as if there is no alternative, yet we fail to see that the damage is already done, we need to transform the whole notion of education for a clear need, survival.

If we think of education for survival - for sustainable retreat we can explore it on personal and societal terms. How we relate to our planet, and how we begin to construct In what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning, what she describes as the essential adventure for our time - a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization. It is a re-evaluation of how we live together on a grand scale. She continues, ‘People are recognising that our needs cannot be met without destroying our world, We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.'

She continues...'Whether or not it is recognized by corporate-controlled media, the Great Turning is a reality. Although we cannot know yet if it will take hold in time for humans and other complex life forms to survive, we can know that it is under way. And it is gaining momentum, through the actions of countless individuals and groups around the world. To see this as the larger context of our lives clears our vision and summons our courage.’

My primary observation is that I got learning communities badly wrong. I thought a decade ago, that the general development of the learning community concept, and its integration in the education system as a progressive vehicle would enhance the likelihood of other, closely connected concepts and issues and facilitate a radical redesign at a systemic level. Despite many valiant efforts, it is clear that the enterprise of learning community development is fundamentally flawed, not least, in the notion that a community simply focused on learning is in any way equipped to develop appropriate responses to a changing environment. There are many reasons, but one central failure of the learning community development has been the nature of learning - what is learnt is too often taken as given rather than being held up to careful critical scrutiny. Instead, I will propose something different, a concept I have begun to call a sustainable living community - and I could do with help to get this term better dear readers! It is more deeply embedded in responding to cultural, social, ecological, economic and spiritual need, with connection to local food, local work, local innovation and reengagement with earth, interconnected networks of similar communities, communities looking at new forms of building for sustainable living and of course, exploring how we educate all members of the community to begin to participate in what Peter Senge calls metanoia - a shift of mind and practice in response to a changed environment.


Every now and then I meet with a small group of friends and colleagues and we have a day in a quiet place together and explore where we are with our work. The day is I guess something ike a retreat, a chance to recharge and revitalise.

My themes for the autumn are drawn heavily from the wonderful work of David Orr. I want to get my head on rethinking education for sustainable retreat. I will write more abou tthe term in a later blog. For now, I want to post a set of propositions that will set the scene for future writing. I make no claims for these, they come from David's work, they provide a fine way to begin to examine the ideas, and as you will see they already connect to earlier posts.

All education is environmental education.

The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter but mastery of one's person.

Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world.

We cannot say we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on people and their communities.

Minute particulars matter - we can usefully attend to the power of example

The way in which learning occurs is as important as what we learn


Last night a group of about twenty of us met in Hebden Bridge Alternative Technology Centre to explore the possibilities of using small scale hydro-power in the valley. The Calder Valley, my home, is littered with the remnants of the early Industrial Revolution - where water powered cotton and silk mills drew people from the land to work in the new global industries. Our particular valley - Wickenbury Clough, housed three mills, the earliest dating back to the 1690's called Greenhurst Hey Mill which operated as a wool carding and drawing factory.

The industry has long since moved to other parts of the planet, but the legacy remains in the form of holding ponds, goits, channels and in some cases mill wheels. Until recently these have been looked upon as quaint reminders of a world that has passed by.

The renewed interest in the remaining infrastructure comes from its potential as a source of energy. Over a few months, through a myriad of conversations and chance meetings it has become clear that a number of people through the valley have begun to think about ways in which they might use the existing technology, and connect it into new ways of drawing energy from the streams and rivers on a local scale.

The route to achieving this is not easy. Primarily because over the decades the source of power which we use to run our homes and businesses has become distanced from where we live. Whereas in the early industrial age the power source was located on the site where the industry took place, the modern industrial has seen the elimiation of small scale sources of power in favour of a few mega-scale enterprises. Whilst this provides for the needs of us all in terms of heat and light, it comes at a cost - both financial, social and environmental. We are all aware of rising fuel prices, seeking alternatives seems a sensible thing to do, we have become more and more distant from sources of power which are localy available, looking again at what potential there is for sustainable forms of energy within our communities allows us to reconnect with the geography on our doorstep, looking again at how our energy is produced enables us to become more aware of the impact the production of energy has on our world. We become less aware of the simple technologies that already exist that can in suitable environments, provide credible alternatives to the power industry. We learn, as a result, to be reliant on someone else providing a solution to meet our needs, this reliance disempowers and disconnects us from each other, and from our world.

The meeting was fascinating, a diverse group of people with quite different motivations for exploring the possibilities of using hydro power for personal and community use. We finished last night with agreement to continue to talk and share insights and experiences as we explore how to generate micro-power, I didn't know many of the people present at the meeting but isn't it interesting how an idea can generate energy - how an idea that has personal and collective resonance provides a wonderful opportunity to begin new learning journeys?

Sunday, 28 September 2008


It is time to take a long, slow look at what we are doing...

Fast food, media soundbytes, speedy information networks, rapid, global flows of goods and services, an over-saturated and ever-growing commercial landscape...... Daily life has become a cacophony of experiences that disable our senses, disconnect us from one another and damage the environment.

But deep experience of the world-- meaningful and revealing relationships with the people, places and things we interact with-- requires many speeds of engagement, and especially the slower ones.

'Slowness' is a holistic approach to creative thinking, process and outcomes. It envisions positive human and environmental impacts of designed products, environments and systems, while constructively critiquing the processes and technologies of which they are born. It celebrates local, closely connected fusions of people and industry, it preserves and draws upon our cultural diversity, and it relies on the open sharing of ideas and information to arrive at innovative solutions to contemporary challenges.

Slowness is not time-based. It doesn't refer to how long it takes to make or do something, but rather describes the individual's elevated state of awareness in the process of creation, the quality of its tangible outcomes and a richer experience for the community it engages.

It is morning, Sunday morning, late September. It is sunny and the sky is deep blue without a cloud. Later today there will be a small celebration in our town for the autumn harvest. It is a social affair, spread by word of mouth, neighbours telling neighbours, people have been bringing little baskets of locally created produce, bread, beer, cheese, vegetables, herbs, honey, eggs. All the produce is locally produced, the gathering is part of our town's project - Incredible Edible Todmorden, a celebration of local food, an imaginative response to the swirl of modern life. It is simple yet effective, it is touching peoples interest in a way of living which for two, perhaps three generations has slowly been eroded, the connection of people to their environment, people to each other, people to their communities. It is deceptive however, the project is immediate and life enhancing, but it is also of considerable importance, it demonstrates the possibility of other structures and other forms of community than those that dominate contemporary western society. It is neither looking back to a rosy past, nor aiming to preach a different vision of the future, but through the practice of community action it generates the dialogue of the possible through which new interpretations of reality are presented. Underpinning much of the work of the project is a deep commitment to emergence, to the importance of dialogue, of being open to new connections and ideas and to suspend the voice of judgement that so often gnaws away and tells us it is not possible.

Friday, 26 September 2008


This is the blog for the new book.

In the next few months I will be posting ideas, sample sections and things which I hope will begin to form the core of the book I am writing as a follow up to Learning Schools, Learning Systems.  This earlier book was finished in summer 1998, so the new book is a reflection on what I have learnt in the last decade, how the ideas have evolved, and what I now think we need to do.

I want to use the blog to host the argument, to generate response, and to trial this way of writing with my colleagues on the writing group. It is an approach to writing that really interests me.  Charlie Leadbeater used a similar approach to write We-Think (2008 Profile Books) using a wikki for response. As the technology is so simple to use, and the availability is widespread, it seemed to me to be a good opportunity to explore this way of communicating and sharing knowledge, and it also forces me to actually get down to some writing!

So, here goes, enjoy the ride...
Paul Clarke 
Saturday September 27th 2008