Blogs >> Hunting Dancing Bears: The search for hope and innovation in a time of crisis’ by Jonathan Dawson

Hunting Dancing Bears: The search for hope and innovation in a time of crisis’ by Jonathan Dawson

This post is part of a blog-series called Hunting Dancing Bears: The search for hope and innovation in a time of crisis

In my last blog here, I said that I often begin classes with a Tom Stoppard quote inviting us to assume that everything we know is wrong. Another favourite early group activity is a showing of this short film clip created as part of a campaign to promote drivers’ awareness of cyclists.

Two teams of young people, one dressed in black one in white, are stood under an urban underpass with a basketball. ‘How many passes does the team in white make?’ asks the announcer and the film runs. With no difficulty at all, everyone counts the 13 simple passes made. Then the announcer asks: ‘But, did you see the moonwalking bear?’

The film then rewinds and on a second playing, pretty much all the students (though, interestingly, rarely all!) see what they had missed first time round as their eyes followed the ball – a guy in a bearsuit ambles through the scene doing a Michael Jackson moonwalk dance. ‘It is easy to miss something you are not looking for’, intones the announcer.

Indeed it is. In Blessed Unrest: How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no-one saw it coming Paul Hawken writes: ‘Scientific experiments repeatedly show that groups of educated, urbanised people pay no attention to unfamiliar objects directly in front of them if they focus too strongly on familiar ones. What we already know frames what we see, and what we see frames what we understand.” He goes on to say that the Industrial Revolution went unnamed for more than a century after the process began, ‘in part because its development did not fit conventional categories, but also because no-one could define what was taking place, even though it was evident everywhere.’

I find this insight hugely exciting and invite my students to think of the course as a prolonged exercise in spotting moonwalking bears. This calls on them to recognise that our language and concepts are deeply programmed by today’s dominant forms of social and economic organisation and reinforce them, making it difficult for us to see and recognise events and trends that do not conform to the patterns they describe. By way of example, the terms ‘developing countries’ and ‘Third World’ have a profound if largely unconscious bearing on how we understand the relative worth and ranking of different countries as well as of the trajectories they are travelling on. Similarly, such apparently innocuous concepts as ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’ set up a dichotomy between people and the rest of the planet that arguably lies at the heart of many of our current crises.

My last blog was a stab at pointing out what I consider to be some of the most important moonwalking bears of the current era. It proposed that there is in train a wave of innovation that falls beneath the radar, unrecognised by most of our political leaders and mass media precisely because its patterns and ways of self-organisation do not conform to familiar ways of seeing and understanding the world.

I suggested that innovation was especially strong in the ways in which people are organising themselves to meet their needs: increasingly moving from ownership to access through mechanisms such as car-pooling and the hiring of tools; collaborative consumption that lays the emphasis on shared use and a greater sharing and recycling of goods; greater mutuality by way of peer-to-peer lending and insurance; a resurgence in the use of cooperative ownership forms and community buy-outs of everything from village shops to Scottish islands; a resurgence of interest in community currencies; and the increased participation by the users of health, education and other public services in the design and delivery of those services to meet their specific

What I was pointing to, in short, is what I see as a wave of innovation in the social economy. A favoured metaphor is that of archipelagos of islands forming that are today largely invisible but that will hove into view as the waters of the globalised economy recede.

I further suggested that several current trends are favouring such innovation. These include the ever-wider reach of the Internet that enables dispersed forms of organisation and the creation of new communities of interest and mutual support; economic belt-tightening that is likely to promote a greater sharing of resources, if only as a way of keeping bills down; and demographic trends that make centralised provision of public services on today’s model economically unviable.

And yet, as I write and teach this stuff, I wonder to myself to what degree it is actually true. Am I really just kidding myself with pretty, hopeful stories that, in fact, are marginal to dominant trends that will drive the future direction of our societies? For starters, one would expect trends of the type that I am putting into my moonwalking bear category to result in some reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, exactly the trend is in exactly the opposite direction; even in the depths of the recession in 2009/10, UK greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2.8 per with CO2 emissions rising by almost 4 per cent
Another doubting voice whispers in my ear that these trends are extremely marginal and appear to me to be of potentially greater significance primarily because of the highly distinctive places I have lived over the last decade – the Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland and now Totnes and Schumacher College in Devon – both of which are characterised by unusually high levels of social innovation.

Yet another cynical hypothesis that presents itself is that while we may see some interesting innovations in the purely social sphere – in how public services are delivered, for example – the kinds of trends I am exploring will never have the muscle to challenge the dominant consumer capitalist model. The power of the corporations is such that they will never allow such prime economic territory to be ceded.

So, are we or are we not on the threshold of a revolution in how we organise our societies that is significant in social, economic and ecological terms? Do the trends I spot out of the corner of my eye represent no more than blown leaves in the underpass or is the form of a dancing bear truly emerging?

This series of blogs will explore these questions. I will be digging under the surface, looking in more depth at some of the models I sketched out in my recent evening talk at Schumacher College, seeking to sift out the substance from the shadows.

The moonwalking bear hunt has just moved up a gear.

Jonathan Dawson is co-Head of Economics at Schumacher College and teaches on the MA Economics for Transition

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