The Way It Could Be.
Part 4 of 6.
Day 2: Afternoon
As they started to ride Pete explained, "We want to take you to the fridge factory, because we mustnt leave you with the impression that our economy has no normal modern firms. So far weve focused you on the most important parts of our economy, the household, the commons and working bees, the free goods and the mutual aid and surpluses given away, and the little family firms and co-ops operating mostly at the craft level. All thats around the neighbourhood level and except for the little firms its almost entirely outside the market sphere. Those enterprises can actually supply most of the things we need, but there are other things like radio sets, shoes, fridges, stoves, bikes, wheelbarrows, tools, nails and bolts, sewing machines, tanks, butter, cloth. These are produced by a few small to medium factories of the kind youd regard as quite normal. They use modern technology, electric machinery and computers and their staffs include engineers and accountants, and they deliver by road and rail"
As Mike expected by now, almost as soon as they left the house the path was new to him, but as rich and varied, and gardened as the others. He got Pete to stop at a fence where little pigs ran to greet him. "Cant imagine eating bacon when its in that form can you?"
"No. When you live close to animals the vegetarians recruit well. But some people here do eat meat. Pigs are extremely efficient recycling machines. They eat a wide range of scraps and make it into food, and manure. And they are the best clearing contractors. See over there, hes got a stack of moveable fence sections. Now if you have a patch of nasty weeds you want out, you just put some of those hurdles around it, peg them down well, and let the pigs dig it all out, and cultivate and fertilise the ground. By the way notice how the hurdles are made from thin bush poles and sticks. Thats one of the foresters crafts. If we have time we must drop in on the Thompsons. They harvest from the coppices in the area and do bush carpentry -- rails, hurdles, handles, gates, stakes, lattices, furniture. They often bind the joins with green wattle bark. It strips off like cord and is very flexible and you can wrap it tight like a tape, but when it dries its like steel wire. Did you notice our table mats. Dot Thompson wove those from wattle bark strips. They also make shingles. Know what they are?"
"Roofing I think."
"Thats right, just like very short fence palings, split from Forest Oak or Tallowwood. Not difficult to do but you should see Vic in action with his froe, the splitting tool. Belts a billet of wood into a nice stack of shingles in no time."
"But how long would they last?"
"Maybe 25 years. You wouldnt get that long out of corrugated iron if it wasnt painted in this region. Takes no energy to make a shingle roof but it takes a lot to make an iron one. By the way theres a natural roofing material that will last much longer than shingles or iron."
"What is it? Tiles?"
"Oh, yes, but I didnt mean that; I mean something living, like wood."
"Ill show you, just down here."
The path curved down a gentle slope between fenced fields. Ahead Mike could see it cross a shallow gully and rise the other side. Pete stopped on the little wooden bridge. "There," he said, "Grade one roofing material."
Mike looked where Pete was pointing but could see nothing apart from a small swampy pond where the gully had been impounded by the road embankment.
"The reeds. Phragmites. Good for thatching. A well made thatch roof can last seventy years, even in Europe where its wet much of the time. Of course it is more problematic in Australia because of bushfire, but it is useful for many things, like animal sheds to be warm in winter."
"Any thatchers left; thought they would all have died out by now."
"Ah many people around here are very interested in old crafts. We keep them alive. Think what a shame it would be if humans forgot how to do things like make a beautiful 150 litre water tank using only some planks and iron strip. Ive done it, but Im not an expert like Fritz. Hes a cooper; makes barrels, by hand. Ill make a bet with you. When you go home visit your closest university library and look for technical books on making and maintaining steam engines. Ill bet you cant find any. I know a technical university that threw out its entire collection, just to make more shelf space! Steam is fabulous. Its not very energy efficient but thats not so important if you have plenty of wood as we have, and if you dont need much energy. Some of the electricity supply in this region comes from wood-fired generators. Several of our homesteaders and factories use steam engines. Theyre simple so they will run for ever with little maintenance. So we are secure and independent. We can run our saws and generators even if you run out of coal or petrol."
Before long they came into a small settlement. Near its center was a group of larger buildings and sheds. "We call it the fridge factory but it produces many other things," said Pete, " such as sinks, gas appliances, heaters and washing machines. They design their own models. And you can get any of their products repaired here. They build things to last and to be easily maintained. No nuts you cant get a spanner on easily. No components that have to be thrown away rather than repaired or imported from China. Lets find Cedric. He knows were coming."
Cedric turned out to be a cheerful, somewhat rotund older man, eager to show Mike and Pete around. "First the office area. Mike this is not going to be very interesting but we must make sure you understand that this region doesnt use only Medieval craft production. We have many factories like this, technically much the same as you have."
They went up some stairs from the front desk to an open space with five or six people at desks among cabinets, mostly working at computer screens. He introduced Mike to the two closest people. Deirdre doubled as financial and computer brains and Tim handled orders in and out, the former being for materials and components.
"Boring boring," said Cedric, " just a normal office. Come down to where the real action is."
"Cedrics an engineer; doesnt take too kindly to driving a desk up there."
"Thats right, mostly Id rather be down with Charlie and Ben and the boys and girls in the workshop, especially at the faults bench. Thats where we diagnose problems and breakdowns in items coming in for repair, and work out design improvements."
He led them through the repair and recycling area, past many old appliances in various stages of assembly. "All these will be fixed up and used, one way or another, many as spares though. Over theres machinery used to smarten up worn parts or make new one-offs that might get an appliance going again. Nothing goes out to a tip. The irredeemably broken bits go the foundry. Of course our designs reduce as much as possible the use of things like plastics that cant be recycled. We dont import many components ready-made. We make most of them ourselves, from basic materials like steel thats imported from outside the region."
"What powers the machinery?"
"Ordinary 240 volt electricity, but its mostly generated in the region. Some solar PV, some windmills, but mostly wood fired steam generators. Wood comes from our plantations. Occasionally we have to draw on the national grid. We only use electricity for lights, radios and computers, some pumping, the occasional drill. And TV in some houses. Of course we never heat with it."
"Isnt electricity is a problem for alternative technology, I mean getting it in large quantity when you want it, like at night."
"Sure is, but in this region we use very little, so we can meet the need. Where you come from the average household electricity use is about 40 times as great as ours. Its almost as bad for water. Where you come from the average household is using about 300 litres a day, in the house not including the garden. Thats incredible. We average about 50 litres. And we get that from the roof, and we recycle it! So our overall drain on national supply systems is even less than for electricity."
Cedric took them quickly through two other big sheds, one of them the foundry where they passed shelves holding many moulds and dies for all manner of things, down to buckles and buttons. There were a number of small furnaces but no pouring was close to happening. Mike noticed that some of the workers in overalls and heavy gloves were female. Cedric pointed one out at some distance, hunched over a roaring grindstone emitting bursts of white sparks now and then. "Thats Adele, our best blacksmith. She bosses the men around; gets them to do the heavy work while she watches the colour in the steel and makes the decisions."
Further down the shed, past crates, racks and drums, "This is fridge assembly area. We only turn out about ten a week, mostly as orders come in from the region. Its nothing like an assembly line. The five people working here will make each whole fridge or other appliance as a team. Any one of them could do it all on their own, so they vary that theyre doing all the time, and they are all doing other things at the same time as odd jobs and repairs come in or someone needs a hand somewhere else in the factory. So their work is extremely varied, and up to them to organise. No one is in charge. They know what they have to do."
"Are there any qualified engineers, I mean apart from you?"
"Oh yes, of course, but theyll be down here with dirty hands most of the time, especially checking out things that have come in for repairs. Its a bit noisy here; come out to the lunch area. Joey has a kettle on."
They sat in a quiet leafy spot with tables and chairs just outside a small kitchen. "There you are," said Cedric, "Boringly normal small factory. We dont do everything in this region by adze, scythe and sickle you know."
"But while its technically like the factories where you come from, economically and socially its very different," said Pete.
"To start with, although its privately owned its a kind of cooperative. Cedric is the main shareholder but all of the workers have shares. Some of the other firms are owned by Community Development Cooperatives or growers or millers cooperatives, and a few are normal private firms wholly owned by an individual or group. However theyre all run by a board of stakeholders."
"Stakeholders? Dont you mean shareholders?"
"No. Theres a huge difference. Who has a stake in this factory, an interest in how well it functions?"
"Well the owners, the shareholders."
"Anyone else? What about the people who buy the fridges? They want to be sure theyre safe and will function well, and are a cheap as possible."
"And the workers in factories that arent co-ops have an interest in how theyre run, especially if it wants to cut labour or wages," said Cedric.
"And what about the community. They might get impacted by fumes or noise or wastes. All these groups have a stake, an interest, in the factory. So the governing board has representatives of all these stakeholders. That makes our firms quite different to yours, which give all power only to the shareholders."
"Another distinctive thing about our firms is that we see them as serving the community. Theyre not here to make fat profits to enrich the few who invested the capital. Their function is to provide us with good fridges and to provide people with jobs and livelihoods. And if we suspect theyre not shaping up we quickly do something about it."
"So," said Mike, "This fridge factory runs not much different to the way the state runs the railways?"
"Yes, you could say that. Everyone gets a reasonable wage, maybe different for different skills or responsibilities, and little or no profits made, because the thing is meant to provide a service to the community. Remember there isnt much incentive in this region for any private owners to make fat profits, because they dont need them they can live very well here without much money. Cedric works hard, but not for money. He just likes running this factory well, and being appreciated for this. It takes skills I dont have."
"But where I come from none of this would work. Owners of corporations wouldnt accept conditions. People would only buy from the cheapest firms. Owners would insist on maximising profits as the only consideration, and they wouldnt allow anyone but shareholders on their boards."
"Yes, and of course if they behaved like that around here theyd go broke, because wed refuse to buy from them!"
"So you are quite right," said Pete. "Ours is a totally different economy. And it cant work without a totally different mentality. The economy and the culture of a society are closely connected. Our economy cant work without very good citizens. Citizens think about whats good for their locality. Where you come from people dont so they wouldnt sustain firms like ours."
"But how do you know the factorys efficient, if its not competing against others for sales?"
"Ah, good question. We watch that all the time, politely, through a variety of devices. Firstly we can compare its performance with others in the region. We have teams of experienced and expert citizens who check out enterprises doing similar things from time to time, like public inspectors. Their main concern is not to criticise or trap, but to see if they can suggest ways of improving the operation? They report to the Regional Economic Committee. As in the villages, the overriding concern is how to organise or change things to maximise the welfare of all, so a problematic enterprise will be assisted and no one will be thrown into unemployment. That doesnt mean a firm wont be closed down if necessary. It just means wed do it nicely and make sure everyone was relocated."
"Who purchases your fridges? Do you export them?"
"The main purpose of factories like this is to serve their region. Thats probably ten kilometres across, sometimes much more sometimes less. Our landscape has about one village per 1.5 kilometre, so thered be about 20 to 50 towns in a region, maybe up to 50,000 people. So most of our products only travel about 10 kilometres, but a few will go further. We maximise self-sufficiency as much as is reasonable. Just about all food can come from within a fews hundred metres of where you live. But neighbourhoods dont make their own fridges. Maybe one in the region will suffice, or maybe several regions will share the one fridge factory, electronics works, foundry and vehicle repair works. And more specialised and high tech things might have to come from much further away."
"Think of self sufficiency in terms of concentric circles going out from you house," Pete said. "The further out the zone the less stuff coming from it."
"What about exports to other countries?"
Cedric shook his head vigorously. "There cant be much international trade in a sustainable world. There will not be the energy for that. Only a few important things you cant produce very well should be moved across national borders, like maybe high-tech medical or IT gear."
"What about steel production?"
"Oh, yes, that should be made in a fairly big works and moved by rail to regions."
"But what about economies of scale. It must be very inefficient to do things in small enterprises in each little region."
"Sometimes it is. Thats why this country would need only one or two steel works. But you would be surprised how often small plants can be highly efficient. Sometimes you can easily overlook the overhead costs we save. Maybe it costs us more to make a fridge here in dollars, but then we eliminate the transport and packaging and marketing costs, and the cost of not repairing it.
On the ride back Mike suddenly said, "Got any lawyers around here?"
"Lawyers. I just thought, are there any lawyers in this town?"
"Pete paused, then said slowly, "Lawyers? What are they?"
That ought to have been the end of it but Mike pressed on. "
So no one ever needs legal advice here, no disputes ever occur, no crime, no one sues?"
"More or less yes.," said Pete. "We do seem to get along without much trouble."
"Why do you think that is?"
"Firstly I guess people here arent very sabre-toothed or competitive or greedy. Second our economy doesnt pit people in struggles for scarce things, like development contracts and jobs. And third, because our situation requires cooperative effort to find and follow the ways that will be best for the town. We know that if individuals go for what advantages them at the expense of others, then the town will die eventually. This orientates people away from conflict. And we have procedures for dealing with conflicts that do inevitably arise occasionally, for example we have mediators. Theyre village elders wholl sit down with parties to a disagreement and try to nut out whats best for all. Theyre trusted and respected people everyone knows are fair and wise and skilled at mediating, and eager to solve town problems. Theres not much they cant make progress on."
"Are they paid?"
"No, of course not. By the way, I was only kidding when I made out I didnt know what a lawyer is. In fact there is one in town, well a very faded apology for one."
"Oh really, I didnt see an office in town."
"No, doesnt practice now. I fact I havent practiced in fifteen years."
"You?! A lawyer!"
"No, no. Im not. Havent touched it in fifteen years your honour."
"Well, well. Noble Pete, one of them. How the mighty fall. If youd had better legal advice you wouldnt have revealed that.
"I thought you would have been impressed." Said Peter in mock indignation.
Mike thought for a moment. "Now isnt that strange. You know when I arrived I would have been. Id have grovelled. Mike, meer journalist, meet Pete, lawyer, several notches superiorer. But Ive seen this bloke in patched duds and Ive seen his toes through his slippers. I know he talks to chickens and makes great ship models. Hes Pete, not a lawyer." Jan would have been so proud of him.
Pete smiled and said, "I think youd better leave town as soon as you can son. I fear youre starting to think like us."
When they reached the house Jan and Gran were scurrying around the kitchen. "Were
having afternoon tea in the Pergoda. Its our little neighbourhood tea house. You can
usually be sure a few people will be there at tea time, but today some more will come
along to meet you and chat over some aspects of how The Glen works."
Their cups, thermos flasks, bikkies and cutlery were carried in baskets For some inexplicable reason Pete had tucked a small box of tools under his arm. In less than two minutes they had threaded through sharp twists and turns to drop down stone steps into a low shelter huddled in thick bush, with a small open space on one side and a fern cluttereed gully on the other. A fountain trickled water into a little pond, among bamboos, papyrus and water lillies. The shelter was no bigger than a carport, but with oxide coloured ornamental columns and cast iron brackets supporting a tiled roof over a massive bench bolted together from rough-hewn logs. Amy was there, with another little girl about the same age but taller, with straight black hair. She was introduced as Patsy. They were lighting some aromatic candles.
"Like it?" asked Jan.
"Its a mish-mash of styles, see a Greek pot there, but its mostly Asian looking, so we call
it our Pergoda."
"But its not just for tea, "said Pete. "Look, in the shelves there. Art and craft things. If you
are sitting here and the muse grabs you, you can sketch or model some clay."
Gran had already occupied one of the comfortable lie-back chairs and was taking her
knitting from her shoulder bag. Jan began getting things out of the baskets, but Pete was
rummaging in his tool box.
"What are you going to fix?" Mike asked.
"Oh I thought Id just do a little more on my lantern, see there. Its a block of sandstone I
found. Ive been chipping away at tea times here for about two years now."
The sound of people approaching. They were not visible until they burst through the
curtain of hanging foliage. Harry and Frieda led the way, followed by Amanda. Jan introduced three other adults and two children equipped with baskets. Soon the bench was smothered in more cakes and biscuits than Mike thought theyd get through in a week, some freshly baked and unwrapped from steaming tea towels.
Mike leaned back in his chair, lifted his gaze, and froze. Just above him, coiled around
the rafters was an enormous goanna made from paper mache. Further along were other
animals, and elves and fairies, including a family of owls fast asleep and leaning against
Mike was happy to take a back seat, tuning in to different snippets of conversation, and
reflecting on the things that preoccupied people.
"Has everyone seen the Kingfisher near the waterwheel. Penny says hes been there for
three days now. Hope he stays."
"Yes. We havent had them around foa long time. Arent the colours vivid."
"We told Amy theyre related to Kookaburras; I mean Kookies are members of the
kingfisher family. So she thought it would be big. She got a surprise theyre so tiny."
"How did the bamboo planting go Ben?"
"Try this Honey. Its from a hive we put down in the spotted gums this year."
"Has Pip finished her tapestry yet? Did she use the wool the Andersons dyed?"
"What are you knitting now Gran?"
"Did you make the candles Amy?"
After listening for some time Mike said to Pete, "Ive been thinking. What about renewable
energy sources. All we have to do to defuse most of the problems is to get off the fossil
fuels and start using sun and wind instead. Presto, no greenhouse problem."
Frieda was sitting next to Mike. She immediately turned and said, "No, we definitely dont
think thats possible."
"Why not? Plenty of sun and wind."
"Yes but capturing their energy and making it available as electricity when you want it, like
at night when theres no wind blowing, is very very difficulty and costly."
"And loses a hell of a lot of energy, "Pete added.
"Weve done the sums," said Frieda" and we think Australia could only get about one-fifth
of its present energy."
"The killer is liquid fuel," said Pete. "Australia would have to harvest about 60 million ha of
trees growing at 7 tonnes per ha per year. We only have 20 million of crop land, and 40
million ha of forest, and you wont average 7 tonnes per hectare on much of the remaining land."
"And then theres the idiocy of growth," said Harry who had turned to attend to the
discussion. "Energy demand will be four times as great by 2050."
"Well I dont have the numbers at hand to assess any of that. Let me take up something
else." Mike paused, thinking out how to put it.
"Dont you feel vulnerable, being so cut off from the global economy. It supplies so
much. Arent you frightened you wont be able to get what you need from it?
"Dont you feel alone isolated. Insecure. I mean you are so dependent on yourselves, on what this region can produce. Where I come from people would see that as an alarmingly insecure way to be."
It was as if hed dropped a tin of frogs into the punch bowl. Cries of "Youre kidding!", "Never!" from around the bench. Good natured laughing and eye rolling.
Harry said," Mike, look if theres one thing on which we beat you hands down its security. We are very very economically secure. We can provide all this for ourselves, no matter what happens to the global economy. It doesnt matter whether theres global recession or the stock market crashes, or the currency is devalued or interest rates rise or the national debt blows out or some transnational decides to close its plant here. None of that can affect the fact that we can go on getting perfect food from our gardens and farms, Tom can go on making great toys and furniture from local timber. Henry can go on repairing our boots. Harriet can go on baking beautiful cakes. But in your economy its totally different. Your are very dependent on what happens in the global economy."
Someone else jumped in. "Your capacity to live adequately depends on you being able to sell something into the global economy, so you can get the money you need to buy necessities from it. So you must constantly fear that your access to necessities will be cut by something going wrong in the big system thats far beyond your control. Interest rates rise so you can no longer meet the repayments and you lose your house. The transnational decides it can make higher profits relocating its branch plant in Thailand so bang goes your job. But nothing like that can happen here. We are secure. We know that no matter what happens on the New York stock exchange tomorrow we can go on providing for ourselves most of the things we need for a high quality of life."
Amanda pushed in, "And do you see how this is about the general concept of development. Mainstream thinking about development is catastrophically wrong. It accepts that development is whatever those with capital will do in order to make more profit then they could doing anything else anywhere in the world. So they might develop more coffee plantations in Colombia or a cosmetics factory in China."
The irritation in her voice rose a notch. "They never develop what the people there most need to have developed. So you either end up like the Philippines with huge export processing zones producing luxuries to export to the rich countries at negligible benefit to the few who get low paid jobs, or you end up like Tuvalu or Haiti, with no development because no corporation can maximise its profits producing anything there. Development is in other words what ever will most benefit the rich."
Harry said, "Development is also whatever will add most to GDP of course. If thats your development goal then you help corporations do as much profitable business as possible."
None of this was now being addressed to Mike. It had taken the form of a group exchange, to itself.
Amanda went on from Harrys point, "Yes, now contrast that with development in this region. Weve developed the things thatll be best for the people and the ecosystems here, and weve been able to do this precisely because we have prevented free enterprise and the market and the few with capital from deciding whatll be developed. Would he have our community workshop and commons and jobs for all if we hadnt done this?"
Amanda was becoming even more agitated as she turned back to Mike. "Can you see what all this means for the Third World. Billions of people have had to go without satisfactory development because the only conception of development anyone understands is the capitalist one. Billions go on year after year without the things they need simply because it is not in the interests of anyone with capital to develop little factories and farms in which people can produce for themselves basic things they desperately need."
Harry again; "Thats what weve done here. Weve got together to develop our region into a form that enables us to provide for ourselves what we need for a good life, and weve shown that this can be done without much capital and without sophisticated technology and without getting involved in the global economy and taking loans and trying to earn a lot exporting and enticing in foreign investors."
Amanda went on in her agitated tone. "The capitalist approach to development says you cant develop without attracting foreign investors and getting into debt and exporting furiously, and thats precisely what the rich want you to believe because then you have to deal with them on their terms, accept their investments, their loans, and sell your exports cheaply. Sixty years of that kind of development shows this is fabulous for the rich, they get access to your land and labour and forests and put these to work producing for the benefit of rich consumers far away, but most of your people actually get poorer. Capitalist development has been a catastrophe for most of the worlds people. Its geared their productive capacity to the interests of the rich. It is a form of plunder." Then as an after thought, "Look Mike we are not attacking you here. Its the way the global economy works thats the problem. The big problems like Third World poverty can never be solved in that system."
Mike said, "OK, let me change tack again. You claim you have a steady-state or zero-growth economy here, no increase in output or consumption from year to year, right? Well no economist would say thats viable."
More frogs in the Punch.
"Why on earth not!"
"Well, the more wealth thats generated the more for people, therefore the higher quality of life in general. And without growth in consumption unemployment rises. And the more wealth created the more resources there are to spend on fixing welfare problems and the environment."
"Gawd! You dont really believe all that do you?" Where to begin?"
Harry pushed in, "Mike, whats the unemployment rate around here?"
"How would I know? What is it?"
"About the same its been for almost twenty years now."
"Ah, there you are, making no progress at all on the problem eh?" Mike played along.
"Yes, you got me there. The unemployment rate around here is, zero, zilch, none. Why? Because we have at least that miniscule amount of sense necessary to totally eliminate that problem. How do we do that? We just organize so that everyone who wants some work can make a contribution to the work that needs doing to provide well for all. Thats what tribal societies, do, its what the Amish do. Theres no excuse for not doing it. Only primitive and brutally barbaric societies have unemployment. If someone invents a labour-saving device around here, yippee, the average amount of drudgery everyone has to do is reduced a little. You dont need economic growth to do any of this, to cope with unemployment. By the way how much unemployment where you come from?"
"Im not sure, maybe "
"Let me tell you. Officially around 30 million in rich countries alone, which really means closer to 60 million, because governments use viciously deceitful indices. Next do you know the more the GDP grows in your society the more the quality of life falls. Its now well established that its going down, virtually everywhere. Dont try to tell me that growth in output is important because it makes everyone better off. It makes the richest 30% richer, while the poor masses are probably getting poorer. The real take home pay of 80% of American workers has fallen for twenty years. And what was the other screamingly funny thing you said, oh yes, if we produce more we will have more wealth to devote to fixing the environment, which by the way is being destroyed by all the producing we are doing. What would you say about the state of the environment around here. Seen any erosion. Notice any birds or .frogs. Pesticides in the food? Car engines belching CO2 into the atmosphere? Food transported 2000km. Nutrients taken from the soil and not returned? Mountains of garbage going into the local tip? Monstrous houses gobbling energy? Toms factory devouring fossil fuel as he works with hand tools? Our environmental impact is extremely low, and thats because we have dramatically reduced the volume of production for sale. Theres no other way you can save the ecosystems of the planet than by reversing growth, and then having a stable economy."
When Harry stopped for breath Pete got another chance. "And when you let growth, the profit motive and the market determine your economic fate, the main thing that inevitably results is that the richest and most able and energetic few quickly take everything. The US economy is now effectively owned and controlled by 1% of people, the corporate super-rich and theyre getting richer at an obscene rate while most people are actually taking home less purchasing power "
" and they own the media, which means there is no critical discussion of the situation." Harry came back in.
Mike was again somewhat agitated. "But your living standards here are so extremely low! Its all so primitive peasant-like at best. It sure is quaint, cute, I genuinely mean attractive. But most most of your economy is subsistence. Growing your own food, making and repairing things by hand. Not earning much money and having no modern supermarkets to spend it in anyway. Your houses are tiny and made out of mud. Few imported goods in the shops, and bring your own containers. Old furniture. Everything needs a good coat of paint. Old threadbare clothes. No cars. No travel. No holidays away. Eleanor would say you are intolerably austere, frugal in fact deprived and impoverished."
Harrys turn. "Mike, what do I go without thats important? My clothes are warm and functional. My house is solid, big enough, sufficient, comfy. Do you think PETES rocking chair could be improved? It cost about $5 to make, for bolts and screws. Would it have been a better rocking chair if it had been bought for $300. In fact it would probably have been worse because it would have been shoddy, and imported from China.
"Well maybe its not the functional value that Im getting at. Its more the standards."
As he said it he knew what the response would be, almost word for word. "What do you mean by standards? My house is quite good-enough. My clothes are too. There is no need for them to be any better. Did you see the handle in Toms adze, made from a sapling. Now its perfectly good enough. You seem to be saying its inferior because its not turned and polished with a label on it, and bought from a supermarket. This is one of the biggest differences between our society and yours. You all what the best, the highest standard, the most luxurious house or clothes or car. But we are content with whats good-enough and usually something home made, rough and cheap is quite good-enough."
"Very often our home made and hand made things are actually superior to the shoddy things you buy in your supermarket. Your furniture is a good example; its badly made, it wont last and it cant be repaired. If Tom makes you a chair or a cupboard it will last more than a lifetime.
"OK, I agree its about what you accept. You dont feel deprived because you accept rough, cheap, old things. But Neanderthal man accepted living in a cave as normal. Eleanor would see your houses as subnormal. OK youve come to accept that standard, but Eleanor would see it as quite inferior."
"Doesnt she just mean that its not slick, or fashionable, or, and this is what it really comes down to, or expensive."
"But shouldnt we always be striving for the best, and not happy with whats second rate?"
"In some things yes, like medical technology, but not when it comes to what you call living standards, because concepts like nice house and high living standards mean more resource expensive. Here the general rule is be content with what is good enough, and usually theres no difficulty in that, no sense of deprivation or hardship."
"Mike, even if it was irritating, or inconvenient for Pete to wear those duds, or even if his roof leaked a bit, wouldnt that be an acceptable cost to defuse the global predicament?"
"Thats the guts of it Mike. Thats what it all comes down to. To get rid of the terrible problems plaguing billions of people, and likely to destroy us too, basically all we have to do is live more simply. Now wouldnt that be a small price to pay even if it was a nuisance. But we claim its not only not a nuisance, it can liberate us and bring a far higher quality of life.
"Mike when it comes to quality of life we think its obvious that our way of life is far superior to where you come from. It would be a big mistake to judge this by the clothes we wear and the fact that our houses are one quarter of the size of yours. Our food is perfect, everyone has as much work as they need, no one is dumped into poverty or loneliness. We have rich and supportive community, we dont go without anything we need, we have a beautiful and leisure rich landscape, we have a rich cultural life, we have no crime, our kids are safe on the streets. And we are very secure -- we dont have to worry about what the global economy does. And we have to work for money only two days a week! Just about none of that is true for you."
"But you couldnt do what you do without access to the national and global economies. You need steel and electric motors."
"Yes we do now but things like that could mostly come from factories in regions not far away, supplying wider areas, and with a very few things like steel coming from one national steelworks via a good railway system. You have to remember that The Glen is only a small region thats pioneering The Simpler Way, and the eventual goal is to have towns like this at say two kilometre distances apart, with occasional big towns and a few small cities connected by rail. The cities could have museums, universities, theatres, big libraries, and be accessed by almost anyone in say a couple of hours by rail. Most people would not need to go to them often."
"I just think its unrealistic to think that all the things in my supermarket could come from my region."
"Of course! But thats not what were saying. Most of those things are unnecessary anyway. In our house we use only one form of soap, a block. One goes in a shaker for wash up purpose. Its not packaged and its made within 200 me of our house. Very little needs to be imported into the country, maybe some high tech medical equipment or computer components."
Somehow the conversation moved to other things, although again Mike thought they might have sensed that a change was appropriate. Pete went over to his sandstone and began tapping away. Gran called Amy over to check a sleve length. Amy and Patsy had brought out some clay and were making stick-like figures. "Thats Harry with his hands in his torn trousers, and thats Pete with his chin in his hand, and that angrylooking one there is Amanda."
As they walked back to the house carrying the baskets Jan said, "Mike, weve been
studying you closely, and we think we have come to the conclusion that you could do it."
"Cope with a visit to the doctor, to Dr. Bernie Finlay. You will probably have difficulty with
it, but we think you should go?"
"Visit the doctor. Theres nothing wrong with me."
"There will be."
"What? What kind of doctor leaves you worse off after the visit."
"Doctor of Divinity actually. Doctors to souls mostly."
"Wrecks souls mostly," said Jan. "Ive seen unrepairable damage inflicted in
"OK youre being mysterious again, but Im game. Where is this DD of yours."
""Thats the spirit son! But prepare yourself for a shock. Dont say we didnt warn you.
"No fear. You are on your own. Just dump him outside and run Pete."
Ten minutes later they were back on the bikes. Mike marvelled at how each time they left the house they seemed to take a different path, with more diverse things to look at. When he mentioned this Pete said, "Id say that within fifteen minutes bike ride from our house there would be more than a hundred interesting little nooks or caves or pergodas or castles where you can have afternoon tea or the kids can explore Its a very leisure-rich landscape."
After about fifteen minutes they entered thick forest. The path was only wide enough for single file. They soon came out into a clearing, containing what looked like a little farm. There was a vegetable garden, an orchard, a small dam and ducks and chickens roaming on the banks. In the center was a tiny shack made from mud bricks and roofed with bark like the old settlers huts. At one end of the hut was a stone fire place. Around the door was an odd collection of tools, boxes, fire wood and buckets, and a pumpkin vine had grown up over the two sheets of rusty iron that served as a veranda above the front door. Some metres away were a few small sheds, with water tanks attached. Beside the front door was a neat little flower garden, Mike thought making the scene fit or a travel brochure, but what kind of person would live here?
Pete led to the door, having to stoop to get under the sapling supporting the veranda roof.
Close behind him Mike looked through the open door into the single room. Bookshelves
lined the opposite wall, a table was covered in papers. Above the fire place hung iron
pans and pots. Closer to the door was a bunk and beside it plain wooden shelves stacked
with folded clothes. It seemed somewhere between a peasants hovel and a cattlemans
bush hut, but quite neat and tidy.
"Must be out the back", said Pete and called out. A reply came from somewhere so they
walked around the hut and towards the sheds. Before they got there a figure emerged
from one, head bent to get out under the low eaves. When it straightened
up Mike halted in his tracks. It was a rather attractive middle aged woman. She was
clad in old overalls, carrying an axe, and smiling.
"Mike, meet Dr. Bernie Fenton."
"Pleased to meet you Mike. But call me Bernie. Im sure Pete and Jan will have given
you a totally wrong impression of me. Would you like something to drink after your ride.
Sorry its mostly up hill to here from Petes place. I dont have the problem because I go
to town on Francis, my donkey. "
"No thanks. Not long had morning tea. I must admit you are not quite what I
expected actually not remotely what I expected, to be quite honest."
"Let me show you around my little fairyland. Pete did I tell you the chicks have hatched out. Come and see." She strode off, heading for another low shed. On the way Pete pointed to a small wire netting pen. "Chicken tractor."
"Now Pete, city slicker I might be, but those are not chickens. I can tell."
"Shes got the guinea pigs in there now, but the idea is that you move a pen when whatever animals have mowed that patch of grass, or fertilized and scratched up a vege garden bed. I like the pen made in a cylinder using two bicycle rims, so the lil critters roll it to new grass all on their own. Fully automated self-regulated system."
After the chickens Bernie showed Mike other Permaculture features in her systems. The poultlry were rotated around four vegetable gardens and the orchard. Waste water from the house ran down to ponds and then to fruit trees. In two of the sheds shelves were stocked with bottled fruit, dried corn, strings of onions and bins with apples and potatoes. A tiny shed contained bee keeping equipment and harness for Francis. The workshop had a drill, a grindstone and wood turning lathe operated by pedals, made from an old bike. A small windmill with canvas sails operated water pumps and a single solar panel powered lights, radio and computer. However most of the lighting came from candles, made from the bees wax. Bernie explained that a candle throws a lot of light but it usually goes all over the place. She had a reading light made from a single candle placed at the focal point in a parabolic paper mache dish lined with bits of broken mirror. "I often use the 12 volt electric lights, but if Im going to sit and write or read for some time I prefer this one."
""What a fabulous spot," said Mike. "But what led you to live like this?"
""Time to reveal all Mike, "said Pete. "Can we sit in your chook house Bernie?"
"Yes, this way. Mind the geese. Theyre on eggs and the males can get a bit
aggressive. " She took them around one of the sheds to a low lean to, completely
covered with vines except on the open side which overlooked reed beds and willows on
the edge of the dam.
"I dont keep the chickens in here any more Pete, but I still call it the chook house,
although it is mostly used for having a cuppa with friends or visitors."
"Reveal what?" said Mike.
Pete said, "As you might expect people in The Glen have different ideas about
The world. Id say everyone accepts the unsustainability of consumer society and the
need for radical change. But I think we differ most in what we think is an appropriate
response to the situation. Jan and I believe its important to live very frugally, but Bernie
goes much further than we do and we thought you might find her thinking interesting." He
looked across to Bernie, handing the stage to her.
"Im sure you are asking yourself why would this middle aged lady with three degrees
and a middle class English accent be living in a place like this. Well, basically its
because, I suppose its just because Im kind of selfish. It gets me closer to peace of mind
than any other way could. It eases the torment somewhat." She paused, as if
working out how to proceed, then said casually, "Have you ever had to sell any of
"What? No." Where was this leading?
"Me either. But many people do you know, to get the money in an emergency to buy food
for the others. Ive seen it. Ive worked in Pakistan. Several hundred million people live
in conditions that do things like that to them, chronically hungry, and something like
30,000 children will die today, basically because they dont get enough food or clean
water. You can sterilize dangerously contaminated water if you have fuel to boil it, but
they cant get any because it is all sold to rich people to put into their cars and
speedboats. The poverty and misery and the death rates are a consequence of the
distribution of world resources. If you have a sports car then others cant have the
resources and the fuel you have in that car. The rich countries are taking most of the
worlds resources and about three billion people do not get enough for tolerable lives. Im
sure you know all this. I can go down to the co-op and buy coffee or a shirt. The coffee
was probably grown in Colombia on land that should have been growing beans for
hungry peasants. The people who make the shirt would have been paid 15c an hour.
Obviously theyd be far better off if they could spend their time in their own little firms and
farms, producing to meet their needs, but that would be a disaster for me wouldnt it. I
might get no coffee, and Id certainly have to pay a lot more for it. My rich world living
standards are a function of their deprivation and poverty; its a zero sum game. If the
limited resources come to me they cant go to them. I get more than my fair share of the
available resources dont I, and the global economy devotes much of their labour to
producing cheap goods for me." She paused. "Do I have this right or am I making a
Mike said nothing.
"Well it just all gets to me. I find it very disturbing to think that Im consuming what
others dont get and desperately need. Im consuming the products of their labour at
miniscule benefit to them. As I see it the core problem, the basic cause of the global
mess, is simply affluence. A few insist on living far more resource-expensively than is
possible for all, although the rest want to do the same, and that directly generates all the
big problems, the deprivation, the conflicts over resources, the destruction of ecosystems.
"So you see I find it distressing to be a part of it, and living here the way I do reduces the
extent to which Im a cause. Mind you theres no sense of deprivation or hardship in it. I
love this place and the way I live here. I would not change even if there were no global
problems, but given that there are, living very frugally here gives me more peace of mind
than I would otherwise have, not that its a lot. If affluent living standards are the basic
cause of the big problems then Im going to have as little to do with them as I possibly
can. I just find wealth, consumption, and luxury profoundly disturbing, repulsive in fact."
Mike didnt feel pressured to respond. Bernie was clearly just explaining her outlook,
rather than engaging in an argument. It suddenly occurred to him to bring Pete in. "How
do you see it all, Pete. You dont live like Bernie. Do you see it differently?"
Pete thought for some time, chin in hand. "No. I dont think so, as far as understanding how the world works. But Jan and I do live differently of course, so you might say we respond to the situation differently. Its complicated I think. It would be a better world if we all lived more like Bernie, but I believe that what Jan and I do is sufficient, that is, that all people could live sustainably if they moved to the ways we have adopted in The Glen. Now it is extremely difficult to get people in the mainstream to consider that big a transition. It would be even more difficult to get them to consider changing to Bernies lifestyle."
Bernie said, "I must say I agree with Pete. The Glen is sufficient. Thats a way all the worlds people could live well, in a sustainable and just world. Its just that I want to be even less complicit in the global economy."
Pete said, "See Jan and I do buy some things through the coop that come from transnational corporations operating in the Third World, and Bernie tries not to do that. Our general view however is that thats one of the many compromises we feel we have to make to have the time and energy to focus on our main goal, which is developing The Glen as an educational venture and helping to run the visit program. Im not disagreeing with Bernies analysis or response. In fact I would not mind going to her level of frugality and self sufficiency. And that means Jan and I are more culpable than she is, more a part of the problem, because we consume more than she does, and thats disturbing, but we live with it."
"One thing we see exactly the way Bernie does is travel as evil."
"Hows that?" said Mike a little sharply.
Bernie gazed into the distance. Mike could see she was thinking about how to respond. Then she looked at him with a faint smile and said, "I guess its because I dont like killing people, especially children."
Mike was a little surprised at himself becoming angry. What kind of cute smart-ass retort was that, and hows she going to construe travel as murder. Yet he knew he should be polite, remaining silent would be an acceptable strategy, but this had better be good.
"If I flew to London for that conference the aircraft would burn 250 tonnes of jet fuel, and as much coming back. Ive never worked it out but I would think you could sterilise a lot of contaminated water with that much fuel. At east 10,000 children doe every day in poor countries because their families have to use dangerously contaminated water. They know it is deadly. So I couldnt feel content with using up fuel to get me to the other side of the world and back when I know that a direct consequence is that that fuel is not available to sterilize that much drinking water. Its a zero sum game. If I use so much fuel they cant. Its the same with a sports car or a stereo. Those things take resources to produce and if you have them someone else in greater need doesnt."
"But thats not the choice. If you didnt go the plane would still fly there."
"Yes, but it should not be flying there, half full of tourists and half full of executives from corporations producing things we dont need, while there are much more urgent uses for the fuel. At least far fewer people should be flying, and I wouldnt be content to be one of them. Do you think I am mistaken? " she asked quietly, almost as if seeking assistance in working it out.
Mike didnt know what to say, being aware that he could find himself discussing his own travel record, and that would not compare favourably with Bernies. And thank God he had come to The Glen by train and not driven. No need to reveal any of that. He was rapidly developing skill in looking at the floor, remaining silent and giving the impression that he was considering the point carefully and sympathetically which he was.
After a pause Bernie said, "Its wider than travel of course. Wealth is evil and ugly and stupid. I despise wealth."
What surprised Mike was the emotion that had come into her manner, previously so mild and detached. Now there was a distinct note of bitterness. He said nothing, but both knew she needed to elaborate.
"Again if you have wealth then you have more than you need and so you have things others cant have, because theres not enough for all to be wealthy. If you have wealth you have more than your fair share and others must therefore be deprived of a fair share. If you have a car you have quantities of aluminium and steel and copper that are therefore not available to others are they? So wealth, the affluent lifestyles of a few of the worlds people, kills many others. So how else should we regard wealth and those who seek it as other than ugly, stupid and evil?"
Pete said, "You know, tribal societies seem to understand this. They somehow know that
it is dangerous to cohesion if some individuals begin to get wealthy, and they have
mechanisms to prevent too much inequality from developing. Our society here in The
Glenn cant be strong unless theres a high degree of solidarity, feeling of togetherness,
comradeship, mutuality, readiness to help each other, and all that is jeopardized by
inequality. If a few get much richer than the rest, and cause the impoverishment of some
by taking over their business, then you arent going to have as much cohesion are you, as
much willingness to work together on the working bees for the public good. So wealth is a
"Yes but its not just dangerous to social cohesion, and its not just a problem of equity. Wealth is repulsive stuff."
Mike said with a smile, "The quest for wealth is the core driver of Western civilization. Eleanor might agree it can be dangerous, like I believe many lottery winners get into difficulties, but she couldnt doubt that it was very attractive and desirable stuff. Everyone wants it. Are you sure you want to use the word repulsive?"
"Yes. I have great difficulty associating with people who want it. I am upset, disgusted if I have to go to a specialist and deal with a person who wants and take so much and has a big house and expensive car and holidays abroad. A mind that wants those things is warped, at best genuinely pathetic, an object of pity. It reveals to me a disappointing vulgarity, a retardedness to think that this person would value such things, as if your fifteen year old still got a kick out of stepping on ants. To me it reveals a tragic gullibility the poor fellow has missed the point of life. Hes fallen for the seductions of consumer culture. I might admire his professional skill, but hes not can admirable person."
"What annoys me most," said Pete, "is not the crass, squandering of th4e very rich, its the mindless obsession of the middle class with their property and their wine racks and their mansions and their fine furniture. These are the people who have the capacity to understand and act, but they d rather think about their share portfolios."
"Our real wealth, living in The Glen, isnt private. Its all the things and the people and the institutions and the festivals and the security and the workshop and the landscape that we have access to and these are public property. Thats why Im happy to pay tax. Look at all the things it provides for me.
Bernie said, "People in The Glen arent interested in wealth anyway. It just isnt
important around here."
"If I won the lottery how could that improve my quality of life here?" Pete asked.
"My quality of life comes from my garden, my friends, Grans cooking, the pottery group,
the wood fire on a winter evening. Secondly, we take steps to prevent differences in
wealth becoming significant, for example by not buying all our bread from one baker and
making sure Hec has income by buying from him even though he might not be quite so
good at baking as Sam."
At last Mike said, "Well, I have thought about things like this from time to time. Its a matter of how you come to terms with the situation. I mean we all know things are crook in many parts of the world, but, quite frankly, what the hell can I do about it. Worrying about it wont do much good. I actually give to charity, not much, but I do, now and then. If I knew something that would make a significant difference Id probably do it." Then, after a pause, "Look, quite frankly, what difference do you make by refusing to fly?"
Pete said, "You werent to know but Bernie writes a lot, on global justice issues."
Mike came back a little too quickly, "Thats not really the point. That might make a difference, but living here so frugally, what does that do? Should I do that?"
"Oh Im definitely not saying that, said Bernie. "As I said, I live the way I do essentially for selfish reasons. If I lived the consumer way I would have much less peace of mind. I see the affluent consumer way as the direct cause of the problems, so the less I have to do with it the less troubled I am at contributing to the problems. Thats all."
Mike again remained silent.
"Bernies not telling you how to live, whether to quit travelling. But thats a problem you have Mike, isnt it?"
"Not if I ignore it."
Pete said, "Which is what most people do of course so the mass of global problems remain festering on. Your problem young Michael is that it is probably going to be a notch more difficult for you to ignore all that after coming here."
Mike nodded. "Where then do you find peace of mind?"
"Well I dont think you can," said Pete "Terrible things are happening and rich world greed is responsible for most of them and you and I are locked into that and cant avoid involvement. Theres no way you can feel OK in such a situation. As I see it the best you can do is make some contribution towards the radical changes that will eliminate the problems some day in the distant future. That reduces the unease, but theres no way to avoid the moral dilemmas set by being part of the cause."
Bernie said, "I recall Germain Greer was once asked if she was happy. She snapped back, Im not feeble minded! If you care about the global situation then you have a problem and it can be hard to come to an accommodation that enables you to enjoy life, and do important things without being crippled, but without becoming indifferent. Its a fine line I dont walk too effectively Im afraid."
"And on the topic of peace of mind," said Pete," heres one of the main torments we suffer. Have you ever had that dream where you have discovered the cure for arthritis, or an anti-gravity device or a perpetual motion machine. So important, so valuable, but no one will take any notice of you! Mike we could be wrong of course, but we firmly believe we have the solution to the global mess. Maybe 40,000 deaths each day from hunger and avoidable illness, an average of 5000 war deaths a day right throughout the last century, four billion poor people, ecosystems being destroyed. Why? In a word, the fundamental causal factor is simply greed. People want living standards they cant have without using more than their fair share and more than the planet can provide, and therefore without generating vicious dependency and conflicts. The answer therefore can only be The Simpler Way. If you all accept it, bingo, more or less all of those terrible problems cease to exist. And whats more, its extremely easy to do! No sacrifice. In fact you leap ahead in quality of life. But no one will listen! How do you think it feels to believe you have the answer but they all just go marching past you to their doom. Its like pleading with someone to get off the railway track because the train is coming, and they dont take any notice."
"And," said Mike after another pause, "When I came here, from what Pete and Jan said, I only feared physical mutilation. But you are seriously dangerous; you maul the spirit."
"Dont blame Bernie. Shes only told you what you already know, what everyone knows."
"Yes, but not what everyone feels, thats the problem isnt it."
"Yes it is. If people felt the significance of what they know is happening, then wed fix all the problems before supper tonight."
"As I see it" Bernie said, "its not that people see a problem and then ignore it. Its that they dont see the problem in the first place. Most people simply do not see any moral problem with having a too-big house or flying in an aeroplane or owning a four wheel drive car, or buying more clothes than they need. If you told them that when they do those things they are helping to kill people and start wars and drive species to extinction they would be stunned and most annoyed. Yet it is the pursuit of affluence that is the ultimate evil on this planet; its the direct cause of the big problems. If you insist on having rich world living standards, which are totally impossible for all to have, then you must take far more than your fair share of world resources, you must resort to thuggery or deceit to get them, and you must support brutal regimes willing to run their economies in the ways that suit our corporations. And you must be prepared to support the military action that is needed to deal with any threat to your empire. When Fred Ordinary buys his 4WD he is fuelling all this. But he never sees it."
"And its never pointed out to him by any of his political leaders, economists, teachers or journalists. But thats about to change, isnt it Mike?" said Pete with a smile.
Mike remained silent again. Bernie saw that it was time for a change of pace. She stood up saying, "But you should not think I am about hair shirts, deprivation and hardship, or suffering in order to save the planet. I have everything I want here. My beautiful little house is quite adequate. I eat perfect food. Hear that bullfrog, hes the leader of percussion in my orchestra when the sun goes down, must be three million frogs in that little dam. Morning soloists are butcher birds and maggies, the dull clunky tinkling of the goats bells, or Francis bellowing when he knows Im bringing him the potato peelings. My bed cost nothing, because I made it, and it is perfect. There is no way in the universe it could be improved or you could buy me a more comfortable one. The mattress and eiderdown are filled with years of feathers from my poultry. One of lifes greatest delights is to roll into bed on a winter night tired after a long days work and snuggle into that softness and warmth. Mind you, I do use a very high tech bed warming system."
"Ha!" Pete roared. "Do you know what she does? On a really cold night she stands a brick to heat up on the side of the open fire and half an hour before she turns in she wraps it up in a bag and puts it in the bed. Some high-tech, huh?"
"But, Peter, the judgement and experience required! Could you position that brick at just the right distance out, in view of the size of the fire, the coldness of the night, and whether the logs are Mollucana or Casuarina? Long ago, before I graduated in this, I actually set fire to a bed, well at least it began to smoulder, because my brick was so hot "
"But she couldnt get a patent on it. Its the way the old bushies used to do bed warming. It is very effective. A brick can hold a lot of heat. My dad used to do it. Middle of the night when his feet were too hot youd hear a crash as he kicked the brick out."
As they free wheeled back down the hill Pete said, "Its a fairyland isnt lit? Shes been there for years, gradually creating her patch, learning how to do things best in that situation, like where best to put the mill and what direction storms come from and whats the fire danger side; thats where the dam is now. Settlement design is so important, at the village level and at the tiny homestead level. You have to make sure you are not working against what nature wants to do."
"Seems so unusual, a single woman living way out in the forest."
"Not really. See, Bernies one of our homesteaders. Therere lots of them, in single households on little patches. Sometimes there will be two or three close together. A few more in a cluster and youd call it a hamlet. Really the countryside around here is packed with homesteaders and hamlets, and then villages like The Glen, with occasional larger towns not far from them. Ideally there would then be a very small city within an hour of them all, giving access to much more centralised things like theatres, museums, a university college, a big library and a central hospital."
Jan smiled faintly as they came in. "You were right," Mike said, "That doctors bad for your health." Jan didnt respond, but offered him a cool drink. Neither felt much desire to talk. Dr. Bernie would probably come up on the agenda before long. "Dinner in twenty minutes."
"Good. I might as well get into that bundle of work."
Mike went upstairs, took the folder from the bedside table and came down to sit on the back veranda. He had only opened the folder when Amy can through the arch and onto the lawn, slowly wheeling a bike with some difficulty. She saw Mike and stopped.
"Had a bust up. Chains off and I got a flat tyre."
"Yeah. Bikes not."
"Does look a bit sick. Ill see if I can sort it out if you like."
He came down onto the lawn and took the bike.
"Hey, you barked your knee. Sore?"
"Maybe you should go in and put something on it."
Mike realized she was being a bit aloof, clearly he had not yet been forgiven. Getting the chain on wasnt difficult. "Did the tyre suddenly go flat?"
"No. Its been going down for some time, slowly, since I fell off."
"Got a pump handy?"
"Yes, in the shed where the bikes are kept."
He wheeled the bike down to the shed while Amy went ahead, limping a little, and soon came out with a pump.
"I think something must have hit the valve and loosened it slightly. Ive tightened it. Ill put a bit of huff and puff into the tyre and well see if it holds up. If not its probably a small leak in the tube so well have to get the tyre off later."
"Alright thanks." She was warming up a little. "How do you know about bikes?"
"Because I have a twelve year old and hes wrecking his bike all the time. Tries to do too many smart stunts to impress his mates."
"Whats his name?"
Amy smiled faintly and said, "Allen another alien. Thanks for fixing it," then turned and walked towards the steps.
"Well," thought Mike, "We made up a little ground there oops, thats a somewhat military analogy, probably not acceptable around here. Gawd, am I starting to think like the natives. Could jeopardize my alien status."
As they sat down to ,dinner Jan said, "Theres a town meeting tonight. Hope you are happy to come along."
"Whats it about?"
"Its a regular meeting . Theyre held every second Friday evening. Heres a copy of the agenda."
She passed a sheet with about 10 items listed, beginning with Andys dog, Gym hours, and Murphys loan.
"Wont mean much to you Im afraid, but we are quite familiar with the history of all those issues. And some have a long history."
"Ill say" said Jan. "Some have been on the agenda for months."
"Because we cant decide yet. We chew them over again and see if they have sorted themselves out. If not we look again for ways to make a bit of progress and maybe give everyone a couple more weeks to think about it."
"Why dont you just take a vote and settle the matter?"
"And do what 51% want to do?"
"Yes. Thats how meetings proceed. Thats why you have a vote."
"And what about the other 49% then?"
"What about them?"
"They wont be very happy will they?
"No, but so what?"
"Well we all have to live with them next day dont we. If you force many people to accept a solution they dont like we will have trouble in future wont we? And we dont want to have forced anyone to live with a decision they dont like; thats not nice is it?"
"OK but thats just the way it has to be. You cant please everyone. Someone has to give way."
"Sometimes you cant avoid that, but the point is to work hard to avoid it if you can. In other words to keep looking for a solution that is not I win you lose.
Pete said, "Look, like I explained last night, what makes a difference here is that usually people are not voting for what they want. I mean what would suit their own self interest. Sometimes its like that but in general the question is, Whats the best option for the town. See, tonight Andys dog is on the agenda. Now thats a very difficult and important problem. Its whether Andy should be able to have a dog."
"Why shouldnt he?"
"Because one of the rules in this town is no dogs and cats."
"Because they are ecologically indefensible. They gobble up vast quantities of food that humans could eat, packaged in energy intensive plastic and cans. And they kill wildlife. And anyway we have plenty of pets around here, such as sheep and goats and ducks and rabbits."
"What if Andy really wants a dog, not a duck?"
"If you really want a dog you should wouldnt settle in this town. You would go to one that is happy about having dogs."
"So why does Andy think he should have a dog if they arent allowed?"
"Well, Andy is eight years old and hes severely intellectually retarded. A month ago his parents found out that he was mad about having a dog. So now we have this big problem. Some people think we should accept the proposition for his sake and some think it is an important principle we shouldnt break easily and at the last meeting someone pointed out that we are not sure he couldnt be persuaded to settle for something else."
Jan said, And some said there are other similar cases which could easily arise and wed then have the problem of deciding one way for one and another for the next one, and where do you draw the line."
"At the last meeting someone suggested what about seeing if he would like a baby alpacca. The Andersons one door up from his place keep a few sheep and they would be prepared to add a couple of Alpaccas to their flock if this would solve the problem, so one could be his special pet."
"Would he be happy with that? Big difference between an Alpacca and a dog."
"Thats right. Its its hard to judge whether hed be content with one. His mum will probably tell us what she now thinks, tonight but if its not a proposition well all have to think again.
"But the main point Im making" said Pete, "is about what people are voting for. They arent voting for what suits their own self-interest. They are trying to work out what is best for the town and for Andy and for the Andersons who would have most of the bother if the Alpaccas dont work out well. The differences thats prevented a solution so far are differences about what would be the best for all concerned. Thats very different from what usually happens where you come from. When someone goes to vote in an election they are usually only voting for what policy would be best for themselves."
Gran had said little but at this point looked at Jan. "By the way,the blue gums are on the agenda."
"No, its not on the sheet."
"I know, but it will come up. I spoke to Malcolm."
"Oh dear," Jan said quietly. Mike could see that she wasnt happy about something but he didnt ask.
Anyway all further discussion was cut short by a loud banging outside the door. "Aw no" said Pete. "Sir Henrys out again. Jan jumped up and shouted. "No, you cant come into this kitchen ever again. Do you remember what you did last time." She reached the door and yanked it open, and there standing politely with short legs and feet neatly together was a fat bellied pony with a straw hat on his head.
Jan turned to Mike who had come out with them and said, "This is Sir Henry. He lives next door but he gets out whenever he can and goes on the town, looking for open kitchen doors. Heaven is finding a bread box. You should see what he can do to an unguarded kitchen; pulls everything down onto the floor."
Pete took hold of Sir Henrys collar while Jan went for some bread. This persuaded Sir Henry to follow Pete, while Jan and Mike returned to the kitchen.
When order had been restored Mike said, "How did The Glen get started on this path. You seem to have said that about twenty years ago it started to happen. Why? And what was done to move to what the town is now?"
"Ah, yes, Petes written the history up. This whole region was slowly dying. People tried the usual things the conventional economists recommend, exporting more, producing more efficiently, looking for new crops, competing for tourists, writing grant applications and trying to tempt some corporation to set up a branch plant here. Meanwhile the government dedicated itself to globalization so went about removing all assistance and protection for rural areas and just told .us to work harder and smarter and beat everyone else in the world to win the scarce markets. Strange to say we didnt manage to do that and things accelerated down. Businesses closed. Farms went broke. Unemployment rose. More people left."
"Typical story," Mike said. "Its happening all around the world. In fact its accelerating. More than half the worlds people now live in cities. Unfortunately we just dont need many people in the countryside any more."
"You mean your economy doesnt need them. But the planet needs them there. Your best chance of achieving sustainability is to have people in country towns, villages and small cities."
"So what turned it around?"
"I think the final trigger was a particularly bad drought. That pushed a small group, I think it was only five families, to get together in desperation to see if there was any possible unorthodox strategy that might enable them to hang on. These were all people who were strongly bonded to the land here, families that had farmed from way back and were determined never to leave. They realized that their chances of hanging on no matter what would be best if they cooperated to provide what they could for themselves. Now the breakthrough was that although they were an impoverished local aristocracy, asset rich but with little income, it occurred to them that the town had the paradox of much productive capacity lying idle, especially all the unemployed poor people with their skills and brains and brawn, and the unused paddocks and dams, and on the other hand all the unmet needs for production, which the idle productive capacity could in principle meet. Why couldnt they somehow put the two together, that is, organize for the unemployed people to grow and make things for themselves, things they previously got only by buying imports from shops, using money earned from exporting their produce or labour. So they started a cooperative around a garden and workshop, and then someone thought of buying a back of flour a week and having a bread baking day, then a fish tank was set up. They started working for each other, repairing cars and houses. They started bottling surplus fruit, and they set up a nursery and began a community orchard."
Pete had returned. "Mind you," he said, "At first the core group acted like the executives of a firm, hiring people to produce and arranging for them to receive output in proportion to their inputs of time and energy. But there was no notion of profit; it was all .about a cooperative attempt to harness available resources for mutual benefit. They got into many other things, like providing entertainment, setting up a market day, planting commons, and they built cheaply using mud and saplings."
"OK so they more or less created their own independent sub-economy, based on subsistence principles."
"Yes, exactly. They kept struggling on in the normal market economy, but they just got together to create another economy that was like a family putting its own resources into providing for itself as best it could."
He had taken his sewing basked from the sideboard. He unrolled and examined a pair of trousers which had several holes and torn seams. He got one positioned and began sewing. On the other side of the fireplace was Gran, predictably knitting away.
"Did it splutter or thrive."
"Look they wee stunned at what they quickly achieved. They shouldnt have been because we can now see that they were harnessing up huge unused productive potential that had been sitting idle. I think a really important factor was that the area had been so depressed. This meant that much land and water was not being used and could be hired cheaply or used for nothing."
"What about those people in the town that were OK within the normal economy."
"Well no one was really, and even the few who were surviving best could see how theyd benefit if others were in better shape and were less inclined to leave town. It was in their interests to connect with the new economy, so they started buying things from it. Later they separated out some activities that were viable as little firms, like the bakery. Others were not like that, for example the planting of community commons to provide herbs, bamboo, and the clay pits. Later came the mini bank and business incubators; these really didnt so much start as evolve from arrangements a few were making to cooperate on finance and advice."
"Yes, as you said, the town had no where else to go. That explains a lot doesnt it. Im thinking why would people in affluent suburbs in cities today ever do it. Wouldnt they need to be down and out before theyd consider it?"
"Unfortunately you might be right."
"Well again, whats the use of The Glen, if people are not in the situation where they will take any notice?"
"But we think they soon will be"
"Why. Rich countries are getting richer every day."
"But their quality of life is deteriorating, so in time thatll prompt them to ask whether there is a better way. And there is coming up a nice little event that will give them one hell of a jolt.."
"Many geologists think petroleum supply is close to peaking, maybe within ten years."
"Yes, Ive heard about that. Yes that would make a difference."
"You couldnt exaggerate the trouble that could cause, given how dependent all aspects of consumer society are on liquid fuels. Some people believe lit will lead to the die off of billions of people, partly because of conflicts and wars that will be triggered, and partly because of the disruption of agriculture. Did you know that pumped ground water feeds almost 500 million people. Diesel pumps provide the irrigation water. Without liquid fuels you cant keep the supermarket shelves stacked can you?"
"But it wouldnt happen suddenly."
"No, and thats in our favour. If supply tapers and it takes say ten years for the effects to start being felt severely, that could provide the gradual pressure to get people to see the need for cutting consumption and building local economies. By then we have to have built enough impressive examples of The Simpler Way."
"So you dont think much can be done for a long time?"
"I dont think mainstream will change much for a long time, but theres lots we should be doing here and now. All over the place in cities and towns there are unemployed and poor people and bored retired people who could be coming together to put their vast productive power into producing cooperative to meet many of their needs. And thats happening; but on nothing like a big enough scale."
When they arrived at the workshop the open central space had been mostly filled with chairs and tables. Some people were coming in from Marios carrying their meals to eat at the tables. Some flopped into bean bags and easy chairs. There was much chatting going on, with kids playing here and there. More people came in and by the 7 p.m. starting time there would have been about more than one hundred people taking up most of the space.
"OK everyone can we start?" Mike was surprised to see that the speaker was a teenage girl. He wondered how she could handle the meeting if it became difficult. He leaned to Jan and said "Who gets to be chairperson?"
"Anyone," said Jan. "Someone will volunteer. We usually have someone different each time, to share the practice. I think Melissa does a good job but she can be a bit slow. She likes to give people a lot of time to speak up if theyre thinking of it, but I wouldnt be so concerned about that. We could get through a bit quicker but that doesnt matter much."
"First, Ill just draw your attention to some reports that have just become available from committees. First theres the fish review, at last, theres the survey on the views of oldies, and theres the one on the options for renovating the pump house. They are all a bit bulky so we didnt print many copies, so you can look at these in the library if you want to. Do we want any of these on the agenda for the next meeting?"
There were a few comments either way. Someone said "How about giving people more time to digest the other two but the fish one needs to be acted on pretty soon because we have to restock ponds within a month. We need to be sure whether to try new varieties."
Mike whispered to Jan, "Whats the oldies one about?"
"Its to do with a survey and interview study with older people, to get clearer about their situation and what problems they are experiencing lately."
"Any additions to the agenda?"
"Yes, the blue gums," a voice said.
"Thanks Mal, Melissa said, and wrote on her papers.
"Oh dear," Jan said to herself.
Melissa said, " Do you mind if I change the order a little and we can deal with the bamboo issue first. Shouldnt take long to get it out of the way. The study groups report has been in the library since the last meeting. Just to refresh your minds they are saying its all pretty straight forward and they have listed the best new varieties in order of preference in view of the needs and uses criteria we worked out some time back. The question is how far down the list do you want the Commons Committee to go. Do we lash out and get the lot as they suggest, or only the first five, or the seven?"
There was some muttering, and after a few seconds of almost silence two or there said quietly "yes" or "OK". Mike was expecting Melissa to prod the debate into action when she said, "OK, the bikes next. Are we any further along on this one?"
"Yellows" someone called out. "Definitely yellows now, sorry."
A few others said yes or "Agree".
"Mary?" Melissa laid, looking into the assembly. Mike turned and saw an elderly lady begin to speak.
"I think I agree but its very sad to have to accept it. If we go with the yellow proposition we are saying we arent capable of being sensible about the bikes and its not good if we have to take such a childish step to solve a problem we shouldnt have. I have been hoping that the situation would improve and we wouldnt have to acknowledge how disappointing we are. But now it seems we do."
"Are you still opposed?" asked Melissa.
"No. I think we have to do it?"
"Do what?" Mike quietly badgered Jan.
"Paint the public bikes yellow." Said Jan.
Someone said, "Theyll look crook I dont want ugly yellow things lying around."
Someone else said, "But thats the point, to make them ugly and conspicuous."
Jan leaned over to Mike, "We have about twenty community bikes. Theyre public property. You just pick one up from a wherever you find it and ride it where you want to go and leave it. The problem has been that some are not being brought back into the centre well enough, and too many are needing repairs. The idea is that we all make and effort to return them to the most used areas, and if one breaks down you either try to fix it soon or take it to Macss cycle shop. The town pays Mac to fix them. The main problem is that people are riding them home and taking too long to bring them back. What they have done in some places overseas is paint the public bikes a garish colour, so no one would want to steal them, and if ones sitting in your yard people will see that you havent taken it back yet. Whether we should do this is whats up for decision. Hildas point is that to do it would be to make a sad admission to ourselves, that we are too silly and sloppy to make the system work satisfactorily without such a clumsy device."
Meanwhile the discussion seemed to splutter on with periods of silence and brief comments, which Mile mostly found indecisive and unfollowable. There was amazingly little input from the large numb er of people present. No one seemed to say much from any sense of deep conviction and the silences seemed to him to indicate that everyone was waiting for someone else to take a stand. So he was surprised when Melissa suddenly said, "Are we ready to settle then?", and after a slight pause, "OK, the loan for Murph. Again silence reigned.
Mike whispered to Jan, "What about the vote on the bikes?"
"No need," said Jan. "Obviously everyone is prepared to go with the yellow proposition. Many wont like it much but in general people are obviously thinking we have to try it. We can change back any time of course."
That hadnt been obvious the Mike. "Is there ever a vote?"
"Yes, sometimes, but usually its clear what we all want to do. Sometimes we need to know how far we are from a generally acceptable option. We often vote to clarify this but in general we dont vote to decide what to do. If there is a significant divide its obvious that more thinking and discussing has to take place before we have found a satisfactory solution, I mean one that everyone is more or less content with, or at least can live with."
"Doesnt that mean some things never get decided."
"Certainly some go for ages without a final decision, while people try to persuade each other to move, or try to move themselves to what most want. The airing of positions also enables people to think about how we could help minorities to shift, that is maybe theres some adjustment we could make that would make the option more acceptable for them. Like I said earlier we realise it is very important to go on working hard to find strategies everyone is happy with."
By now they had both lost track of the agenda. Mike found it impossible to work out what was under discussion. He had come to understand that most of the action was implicit; people seemed to be reading each others minds and not needing to say much. Once when difficulties were raised someone said, "Can the committee just go over the pros and cons briefly to refresh our minds." Melissa said, "Yes lets do that but several knew ideas have been put forward here so maybe the committee needs to add them to the issue summary and give people a chance to digest? Yes? Would that be better? OK. Wheres Trevor. Got that Trev?"
"Trevor is coordinator of that committee, " Jan said to Mike. "Hell organise a revised overview to help us all think about what the new information means."
The meeting went on, moving quickly through most items, in a way that continued to puzzled Mike. It hardly seemed necessary to have a meeting if no one objected to anything and when someone did the issue was deferred. Then he saw that Andys dog was coming up soon. He could focus on this one because he understood the background.
A minute or two later Melissa said "Andys dog." There was a pause.
"Betty, last time you and Fritz and Helen I think were going to rethink the principle point."
"Yes," a voice said, "We asked for more feedback from those who were inclined to agree with us."
Jan said to Mike, "Betty was in a group who had argued the importance of sticking to our principles if we can. She put out a request for expressions of view on this."
"I have to say several people thought it was important but none thought it was supremely important in this case. It seems that I and maybe Helen are a bit isolated here. I thought there would have been more with us. Looks like well just have to stand back."
"Have you thought of a win win?"
"No. I think its a matter of upholding a principle or breaking it. Remember we dont know whether Andy will like a dog if he gets one and for how long and we dont know whether some other pet would be satisfactory."
"Sure, it is an uncertain situation."
"My concern," someone said, "is that we havent got any guidelines about where to draw the line. I mean what about similar cases, not just about pets."
"Yes, but we very rarely get a problem of this kind do we? Anyway special cases are special and you just have to work out what to do when they arise. Principles shouldnt be rigid, mostly, I suggest. They are a guide but you have to focus on whats best in the particular situation. I dont think that if we go with the dog this time we will be in danger of becoming weak and sloppy."
"Alright," said Betty. "Helen?" she said looking around. No one spoke but maybe Melissa had seen a gesture from Helen.
Another voice said, "Jane couldnt come tonight but she said she had worked on it with Andy but now she thought the Alpacca option probably wouldnt work out."
"Janes Andys mum," Jan said to Mike.
There was a pause, various mutterings largely undecipherable, then Melissa said, "OK. Thanks for that. Now the loan to the Conroys. I need to note that the amount has been changed. Do we all realise that? The new figures are in the library, in Conroys Dairy Grant, Doc. 23. The change is to do with the unavailability now of the materials that were to be purchased. The committee is happy with the figures, I mean they think they are sound, and as good as we are likely to get."
"Whats it come to now then?"
"$15,000, up $2000."
"Ive lost track of this. Whats the Banks position?"
"Theyre OK. Its been through there and they have no problem Its just whether this meeting sees any problem with the change."
"What about the dog?" Mike whispered to Jan in a slightly irritated tone. Jan looked at him as if to say havent you been listening and said, "Andy will get his dog."
"Does anyone want to look at the detail?"
"Not if the committees happy."
"We are," a voice said.
""Any problem then?" Melissa asked. A brief silence followed.
"Now" Melissa said, " the blue gums."
Hang on, what had been decided about Conroys loan? What a sloppy way to run a meeting. But the mention of the Blue Gums sparked Mike up. The meeting had been surprisingly dull. Apart from the fact that he couldnt understand much that was going on because no one needed to spell anything out, there had been no debate, no argument, no conflict, no fireworks, and in fact almost no discussion at all. Melissa seemed to go to the next item before the last one was settled and people would mostly say nothing and there would be pauses and quiet and a few mutterings and a few apparently incidental comments fed in, and then without any vote it would somehow be concluded that something had been concluded, and theyd go on to the next item. Maybe though something would take off here because Mike had sensed from Pete and Jans comments that the blue gums thing was quite a problem.
"Malcolm," said Melissa, "You put this on the agenda for this meeting two days back. Do you think thats enough notice?"
"Yes. I put it on the notice board before that, and I think all the main people are here."
"Ok, if people dont have a problem with this, Malcolm has the floor."
Malcolm was sitting forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, looking at the floor. The room was very quiet. After a few seconds Malcolm said, "First can I check with the green committee about the replant B option. Can I check with you sort of officially, finally, how sure you are now about time for regrowth to 10 metres? Is there still a lot of uncertainty about this?" His voice was quiet and slow.
A voice said, "No, its definite. Someone thought there was a problem but we have checked and all the numbers in the appendix are OK. So you really are looking at 5 years Mal."
"Thats a bit hard to believe," Malcolm said, "As Ive said theyve been there 40 years to get this high and I just didnt think theyd get to 10 metres in 5 years."
"But remember weve just had Forestry Department assistance. The Appendix 4 figures are from them and for this area and for the sorts of cultivars used now, and new growing techniques. Theyd be guiding us on how to care for them, you know, the best way. Your dad was right on his own when he planted them, and the varieties and techniques are different now. They can bring them on much quicker."
Mike could see that his expectation of being able to follow the blue gums issue was mistaken. Again people seemed to be able to read the subtleties and meanings without much being said and he couldnt follow the significance of any of it. Seemed like a damned sloppy way to run a meeting.
Malcolm nodded a little, still looking at the floor. Mike could see Jan fidgeting and anxious, so he decided not to ask her what was going on. Everyone was quite and faces were very serious, and there were intervals of silence between short comments. Everyone, especially Malcolm, seemed to be wrestling with something heavy.
After a few more inscrutable inputs and replies, Malcolm sat back in his chair but without looking up slowly said, "Well, Mary and I reckon that if its 5 years then, OK thats our main concern of course, how long till we get the forest back."
There was another pause. Some people moved a little and some spoke to each other, but again Mike marvelled at how so many people could remain so quiet.
Melissa said. "Are you sure. Should we defer to the next meeting?"
"No" Malcolm said. "Thats it. Were OK with it now."
Another long pause. There was a little more movement and background noise. Mike couldnt even assess the mood; there seemed to be some sort of relief of tension but he couldnt tell if people were for or against Malcolm. And what had been settled was still a total mystery to him.
Melissa; started to shuffle her papers, allowing more time to pass, and a few more people began to talk softly, Malcolm was writing something.
Melissa then said, "Only two late additions. The first is organising the visit from Wintonvale. Do we need a special group to do this or can C and L E handle it?"
"Cultural and Leisure Events committee," Jan said to Mike.
"Special committee", someone called.
"Yes, its going to be a big job." Other voices affirmed.
"Right. Ill put a sheet up on the board calling for volunteers. Anyone want to be convenor?"
"Dot was interested. Shes done most of the initial chatting with them. Shes not here, so will I check with her?"
"OK Ill pencil the Dot in, and Ill also put up the draft agenda, then you will know what youre volunteering for. Remember last year they really put on a great day for us so there will be a lot to do."
The last item was about whether or not to fix the pump house, but again seemed to involve little more than vague murmers and cryptic comments and an agreement that almost passed Mike without recognition. Then Melissa said, "Thats the lot. Wes was taking minutes; anything to attach, give to him. Tea and bickies are ready. Thanks everyone."
People got up and moved around, some chatting in little groups, some going to the dining area and many spreading out onto the Green.. Some helped carry tables and chairs out.
Mike looked at Jan. She said to Pete, "Oh dear, oh dear, poor old Malcolm. What do you think? Is he really OK about it?"
"Yes," Pete said, "I think so. The five year point was the crux all through and he now accepts it. You can understand why he hadnt been sure, because the committee changed what it was saying earlier."
"Yes," said Jan, "I hope he is confident about it and not just giving way."
Then she realised that Mike was frowning at her. "Oh, sorry, sorry. You wouldnt have made much sense of that would you. I forgot you were there. It was such a difficult meeting. Come on, lets get a cuppa and Ill explain." Mike was even more confused. He couldnt see what had been difficult about the meeting.
As they walked to where the benches were spread with cups and plates of biscuits and scones Jan said, " Forty years ago Mal helped his father plant a blue gum forest on part of his land. Years later their farm went broke. It was the same old terrible story that thousands of farming families suffer. They were very attached to their patch of turf and to the landscape they had created. For Malcolm the blue gum forest was especially important. Its an absolutely beautiful forest now, huge trees. But about twenty years ago the town development cooperative worked out deals whereby a number of struggling farms were more or less saved. These deals involved the town taking some sort of possession of some of the assets , or control over use of some of the productive capacity, while enabling the families to stay on and farm to supply the town. In Malcolms case the deal specifically involved earmarking the timber in the blue gum plantation to be cut and sold when it was ready. This was the only way the banks would agree to not sell the whole farm off. Later the town community development cooperative reorganised this and got the ownership of the forest from the bank, but only by taking a loan to pay off the debts. This was a big ask of us but people took it on largely under a scheme whereby the timber was earmarked for building community facilities. See that meant we would not have to buy the timber from commercial suppliers. Three years ago we started to move towards building some things we badly need, including another school room, and especially the rebuilding of the hospital."
"Hospital? In this tiny town?"
"Yes, why not? Its miniscule but it includes facilities for old people. It is very important that we can get care here and people dont have to travel, or be sent to old peoples hostels far away. Well the old buildings were clearly on their last legs. There was no way we could get it rebuilt without access to the blue gum timber. Couldnt afford to do it any other way."
"In addition," Pete said," We badly needed income and we had been banking on being able to sell some of the timber."
"Well then we slowly realised how very attached Mal and Mary had become to their beautiful forest."
"Of course it isnt just their forest," Pete said. "Its everyones We all enjoy it. No one wants to see it cut down. The whole thing is quite distressing for everyone."
"As the talk about cutting it increased poor old Mal and Marg just became more and more upset about losing it. So then we all had a problem. A big problem. We needed to cut it, most people didnt want to, and Malcolm and Mary were going to be badly affected if we did. What a trap with no way out!"
"The breakthrough opened up when someone with a forestry connection found that it might be possible to regrow the forest quicker than wed all been assuming. We set up a committee to explore this and they found that it might take only a few years before another forest was coming on."
"Oh this was the reference to the five year point?"
"Yes. A lot depended on how long it would take. The five year time became critical. Mal thought they could be content-enough with it if they were starting to see a forest coming on again in about five years. At first he didnt think thered be much to see there in only five years. But we got Forestry people in and it does seem that with their advice and monitoring there will probably be a good cover in five years, and well more or less have a forest back in say ten; nothing like the old one, but something looking promising."
"But" said Mike, "legally it isnt his forest is it. I mean the town owns it and needs it."
"Yes, those are considerations, but another huge consideration is that no one wants Mal and Mary to feel rotten. Imagine how that would be. So we all had this dreadful problem. It has literally come up at meetings for years."
"Of course all along Mal was acutely conscious of not wanting to prevent the town from getting its hospital, which would be his hospital too of course. That made him feel crook."
Pete said, "And he knew we wouldnt feel good if we knew he was going along but only for the sake of the town."
"But it isnt his, legally. He doesnt own it."
"Oh really!" said Jan "So what? That doesnt settle anything. Of course the Development Coop could have at any point said its ours so we are going to cut it. Too bad Mal. Thats what any good bank CEO would do eh? But that would be to behave like brutal monsters. Do you think I want to live out the rest of my days alongside Mal and Mary, knowing that we did that to them? So we all had one hell of a problem. Thank god, thank Mal I suppose, it looks as if they have really become able to accept that the replanting will be OK-enough for them. It is a huge cost to them, so everyone will be so grateful and relieved that they can accept that in five or ten years they will have a forest back on that slope. If he hadnt been able to come to that position we would all have to carry a much worse emotional load than we will anyway. Cutting that forest down will be dreadful enough."
"So you see," said Pete, "we have to thank him for that. Thats a big thing hes doing for the town, helping to reduce our problem. One thing I will guarantee you, there will be one hell of a good turn out at the working bees replanting the trees!"
"Well, well," said Mike, "I didnt realise any of that, so I didnt grasp the significance of the discussion at the meeting. I can see why you said it was a difficult meeting now."
"Yes, extremely difficult for all of us. Mals giving way was really a heroic gesture, and hes solved our problem."
"Ten PM," said Pete. "Its late. Well late for us. We g et up early. You must be tired Mike."
"Yes, sure am."
"Lets go back." Pete and Jan soon extricated themselves from the many people still drinking tea and chatting.
As they walked Mike said casually, "Apart from the blue gums the rest of the meeting was pretty boring though."
"Boring!" Jan almost exploded, throwing her arms into the air. "That was a huge and problematic and tension ridden, nail-biting agenda."
"Really?" said Mike. "You must be joking. Nothing seemed to happen. I certainly didnt see any tension or conflict, apart from about the blue gums or course."
"Ah, but you just wouldnt have understood what was at stake and what was going on. Several other people gave way on things that were really important to them. Several potentially big conflicts were resolved, without hysterics or brawling. In fact there were some huge conflicts of interest at stake."
"I didnt see any conflict at all."
"No, people didnt fight, but what they wanted, or thought was the best option, clashed, but the problems got worked out by people firstly not getting heated, and secondly looking for the best solution for the town, and asking themselves could they give way in the interests of the town."
"And everyone there had that orientation," said Pete. " I mean we all came to the meeting with about twenty years of experience of this. No wonder we usually manage to work through the difficulties apparently smoothly and find good solutions, because we have worked hard for years to be good at finding the best solution, not digging in to defend our initial position or our interests. A lot of practice has gone into developing the political culture that makes our meetings work well. There are deep understandings, for example that the main point is to find the best solution for everyone, that its very important not to stir up open conflict or hostility, that it is crucial to get feelings and preferences honestly expressed because its no good if someone was really unhappy with some proposal but didnt say so and later either suffers it or cant wear the decision comfortably and we all have to start again. And its important that people can express criticism or disagreement without offence."
And" said Jan, you wouldnt have realised that people there know each other well and know the history of the town, so we know how any proposal affects each individual, so we can steer around difficulties "
" or bring them out to deal with them, with a minimum of trouble."
"But why didnt the chair person sum up, or say what had been decided. Half the time she just went on to the next item even before anything was decided."
"No. It was always clear to us what people wanted and whether there was dissent. No need to repeat what we could all see. "
"Well I couldnt."
"No, but you havent lived here for twenty years. When you have you will read the cues well."
"And youll know how to participate in a meeting, what people are bringing to it, what the goal is, how to not cause trouble, how to facilitate, how to help others get difficult things on the table, how to help the best solution for the town emerge, how to make sure no one is wearing a decision thats not good for them."
"Theres one more really important point about our political process," said Jan. "Let me ask you where and when was the decision about the pump house made?"
"Mike was puzzled. "You mean to renovate it?"
"About half an hour ago, in the room next door."
"No, sorry. It was made in and through the many informal chats people have had about the issue over the last month since it was raised as a problem. When people are chatting about town affairs they will say, By the way, what do you think we should do about the pump house?, and they will discuss possibilities and pros and cons, and so options and difficulties will be sorted out and in time it becomes clear what everyone thinks makes most sense. Sometimes we find we are uncertain, and maybe some committee will need to research it more thoroughly. But usually when the issue comes up at a meeting like tonight, the work has been done. The task is basically to rubber stamp formally what we have worked out in those informal chats. So the process is far from taking a vote to tally what most see as suiting their self-interest, its a slow, informal process of everyone mulling the issue over to develop the best strategy for the town "
Pete cut in, " and see, the process ensures that the participants then own the decision. They have had the time to see that it is a good decision, to be convinced by the arguments they have heard, and theyll then be solidly behind it. The Ancient Greeks understood this. They would debate and consider things in their day to day interactions, and the formal vote would not really be a making of a decision. Of course you can only do this in communities that are pretty small and that enable most people to discuss things and share ideas and participate."
"You realise that the form of government were talking about is anarchism? Where you come from a few govern you. Around here we govern ourselves."
Mike really did feel weary as he climbed the stairs to his room, glass of milk in hand, and a billion things buzzing inside his head. The office seemed a very long way away. There was his folder of work on the edge of the dressing table, cord still neatly tied.