Transformative Incrementalism: Changing Global Systems By Changing Our Part Of The World

By Tim Hollo April 28, 2024

Transformative Incrementalism - Changing Global Systems

On Saturday evening April 20 Tim Hollo presented a speech at the Gaiarcadia Summit online, on a panel on “Ecovillages and Sustainable Cities” alongside David Holmgren, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Mumta Ito and others. Here is the speech!

Good evening, afternoon or morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be part of this important conversation, sharing virtual space with esteemed colleagues, thinkers and practitioners, all working towards a future in which we can not only survive, but thrive.

I’m joining from the unceded sovereign lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people in what is now called Canberra, Australia. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and those to come, acknowledging the deep time over which they have stewarded this land, co-governing their communities with a fundamental appreciation for their interdependence, with each other, with those who came before and will come after, and with the natural world, which they see as family. And I recognise and affirm that any work we do towards a better future must place decolonialism at its core – because the intertwined threads of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and human exceptionalism are the cause of the crises we face, and any work to address any of them must address them all; and because it’s clear that Indigenous thinking has so much to teach us about living sustainably, living entangled with each other and the natural world. And that way of living is coming. We will live it into being together.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about, at the tail end of this session on sustainable cities and eco-villages – how we can change the whole world, change the systems of power, the destructive structures and understandings of the world that are driving us to the precipice and over it, by transforming our little parts of the world. This idea of transformative incrementalism.

To start with, I want to frame the moment we’re already living in right now as the “end of the world as we know it” – the subtitle of my book, “Living Democracy: an ecological manifesto for the end of the world as we know it”.

For the longest time now, certainly for the 25 years I’ve been actively involved in climate and environmental campaigning, we’ve been talking about how we’re being driven at high speed towards a cliff, and we have to turn the car around, hit the brakes, seize the steering wheel – whatever metaphor you choose. Well, I don’t know about you, but, reading recent science – record temperature markers in the oceans and atmosphere, record species loss, record fires and flood, and not only ecological, but across systems, sclerotic governance, out-of-control economic inequality, destruction of democracy – I think it’s time to update that.

We’ve gone over the cliff.

We have gone over the cliff.

We’re now in free fall.

There’s a certain liberation that follows from coming to grips with that idea. Why? Well, in no small part because there is so much, as previous speakers like Mumta have detailed, there is so much in the old system we genuinely want to let go of. The trauma, the genocide, the separation of human from nature.

But also because we’re over the cliff, but we haven’t landed yet, have we? And we genuinely have no idea where, when or how we will land.

Because we are tiny. And the cliff is huge. This moment enables us to come to grips with our own human scale – one tiny but crucial part of an unimaginably complex, entangled whole. Once we recognise that we’re not going to hit the ground at high speed tomorrow, but that we will be in free fall for the rest of our lives, we can see what has happened – or rather what is happening – as not the end of the world, but the end of the world as we know it.  This is a slow apocalypse. And a slow apocalypse gives us time to choose, time to shape it, to bend the curve, bend the arc of history. Time to build, or grow, cultivate, the world we want to land in, and make sure it’s as gentle a landing as we can manage.

I start with this framing because it provides the context for the theory of change that is the core of my presentation – transformative incrementalism; changing global systems by changing our part of the world. It’s a theory of change that borrows from Antonio Gramsci’s famous analysis that the old world is dying and the new is struggling to be born, as well as from the ecological science of panarchy – an understanding of the world as interwoven cycles across scale and space and time, cycles of growth, conservation, collapse, and reorganisation.

The central insight of both of these is that, in collapse, in release, in the dying of the old world, is the space for reorganisation, for the birth of a new world. And that we humans have the extraordinary privilege and capacity to influence what it is that is collapsing and what it is that emerges. If we choose to face up to it. In this understanding of change, at points of collapse, what happens next depends on what is growing, and what the circumstances for its growth are.

So the theory of change that I set out in Living Democracy starts with sowing the seeds of change – starting together to do the things we want to see in the world we want to live in, the things that will help us survive well together now and in the future. It extends and builds not through capitalist growth, getting ever bigger and bigger, but by cultivating healthy soils around us – supporting others to replicate our work, or learn the lessons and apply them in some other form; by connecting to each other in networks of common practice, and cultivating social norms that support the work. Importantly, it also weeds the ground, plucking out the bad, withdrawing our consent from destructive old ways of being. And in doing so, as the old world burns, we cultivate the new in its ashes.

So how do sustainable cities and eco-villages fit into this model?

In this model, they’re not just examples of how to live differently; they’re not just prefiguring another world; they’re certainly not stepping away and separating ourselves.

They are projects of living into being the world we want to live in – sowing seeds of better ways of living together in cities and villages, while cultivating healthy soils by supporting others to replicate and extend and adapt what we’re doing, while cultivating ongoing connections between ourselves and others, and while withdrawing our consent from old, destructive ways of living in cities.

Let me give a few examples of what that might mean in particular spaces.

Food systems are a beautiful place to start. Current food systems for cities are a recipe for disaster. Extractive and destructive industrial agriculture in far away places, with food transported into cities along supply chains that are both destructive and fragile. Extractive capitalist distribution processes, with dominant corporations charging customers too much while paying farmers and workers too little. Unhealthy foods pushed on us by advertising and urban design and planning, and our time-poor lives. It’s vulnerable and destructive and unhealthy.

The rise of urban collective and cooperative agriculture is a magnificent, transformative approach, as Helena and David discuss. We grow food together, where we live, converting lawns and streetscapes and balconies and roofs into plots. We are literally sowing seeds of the better world. We share that food in all sorts of ways, supporting and encouraging others to replicate what we’re doing – through being visible, through talking to each other, through sharing the food we’re proud to have grown, through cooking groups and co-ops, through farmers’ markets, through co-locating at schools or community centres. That’s cultivating healthy soils in so many ways. And, of course, we’re withdrawing our consent from the extractive, capitalist food systems by doing all this. We’re transforming the increment of our local food system, and showing the way for others to follow.

Energy systems are similar. Urban microgrids, renewable energy co-operatives, suburban batteries, suburb electrification campaigns. All of these are sowing seeds of the clean energy future. Like with food, we cultivate healthy soils by talking about them and encouraging others to replicate them. We put our community solar infrastructure on community halls or bowling clubs, where they’re visible. We run them as co-ops, not for profit, channelling funds into other transformative projects in our communities. And we withdraw consent from the extractive, destructive, fossil-driven energy system, taking matters into our own hands together, not waiting for governments or corporations to act.

We’re can see similar processes with transport – communities getting fed up with waiting for government to act and setting up their own, crowd-funded, community-run projects, whether they be local bus routes, walking school buses, bike and pedestrian paths guerrilla’d into place. We can see it even with urban planning, with communities coming together to deliberate around what they want in their area, from nature playgrounds to co-housing to community centres, preparing plans and presenting them to local government, sourcing funding, finding developers willing to make them happen, transforming their increment of the world.

One of the aspects of this work that I particularly love is the blurring of boundaries that goes on, in so many ways. We blur the boundaries between urban and rural, urban and wild, wild and rural. A home can be a power plant and a farm. A farm can be a school.

And this leads me to the way this work can transform governing, as well, cultivating in us all our capacity to co-govern, to come together to make decisions collectively, interdependently, in deliberative ways, for our common future. Borrowing from and building on Elinor Ostrom’s ideas of subsidiary and polycentric governance and Murray Bookchin’s of municipal confederalism, we can see how transforming cities and suburbs and blocks and communities into eco-villages that self-govern, with overlapping responsibilities, is sowing the seeds of new ways of doing democracy, cultivating healthy democratic soils as we support others to work in similar ways and build connections and networks and confederations, and withdrawing consent from the destructive and dominating, coercive and corrupt, adversarial and exclusive ways of doing governance that have led us to where we are today – careening over the precipice.

This, then, is transformative incrementalism – we don’t transform whole systems by taking tiny, incremental steps in changing those systems. We transform our part of the world utterly, and support others to transform their part of the world, and we entwine our efforts together

So, let me finish and leave time for discussion, by saying this: as we do eco-villages and sustainable cities, let’s understand what our task is, right now, at this moment of history. We’re not here to tinker around the edges. We’re not here to make incremental steps in systems, making the cities and towns around us a little more sustainable.

We’re here to live into being the world we want to live in. We’re here to transform our little part of the world utterly into one where we can survive and thrive, entangled and interconnected with others doing similar and different things around us.


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