Grazing on grassroots

In my work at the Conservation Commission I reviewed a subdivision application in which two state agencies, another town committee, and a not-for-profit all held interests aimed at compliance with federal guidelines. Add to that a concern for global climate stability, and these layers of complexity, while necessary, are frustrating and often counterproductive. 

So let’s start with necessity. In living systems when conditions are stable, more and more complexity will develop to take advantage of subtle gradations in micro environments. More and more specialized creatures develop, creating an increasingly complex web of life. So it is not surprising that several thousand years of Western civilization have produced highly specialized people skills in ever more complex webs of relationship. We are now in what ecological economics calls a “full world” situation. As Charlotte fills up, in a filled up Vermont, in the filled up hemisphere, on a crowded planet, it is only natural that we would have a sense of overwhelming complexity.

By contrast the original European landowners in Charlotte had relatively naive decision-making concerns. By original, I do not mean the indigenous people who had interest in the land for sustenance. I am referring to land grantees, some of whom never stepped foot on land they held title to for speculative purposes. Grantees made laws and inflated expectations out of their narrow interests. Today we are still constrained by those laws and suffer under those archaic expectations while our circumstances are dramatically different.

We live in a full world—by full I mean “of people.” (Sadly in my lifetime the world has become steadily less full in other dimensions.) Daniel Boone had a policy that whenever a European neighbor was within a day’s walk he would move on. Today the relative spaciousness of Charlotte is under pressure from “Daniel Boone syndrome.” The town meeting was an effective community program for dealing with this problem at one stage. But ever more complex institutions and ever more sophisticated understandings are needed to help us fit ever more interests onto the same land. We are only now appreciating how that includes the interests of plants, animals and life processes that sustain us.

Institutional complexity is sometimes counterproductive. One response to complexity is to break it into “manageable” chunks. Let’s take another insight from ecology. Breaking a habitat into mappable/manageable chunks does reduce the complexity. It also reduces the productivity and resilience in that system. This fragmentation favors some species, accelerates some processes and diminishes others. Similarly, dealing with social, political and economic complexity in fragmented “manageable” chunks, we favor certain interests over others with unforeseen consequences to the whole. A party with special interests may see the whole and be confronted with conflicts within their interests or they may just dismiss those conflicts.

This has been facilitated by a fundamentalist ideology of the marketplace. Free market fundamentalism is a distortion of underlying elements of truth. It has given rise to faith in the “magic of the market.” We are enticed to exercise self-interest in blind faith that the market will transform our selfishness into the “common good.” This deceptive “moral” claim by market ministers has undermined institutions that conditioned us to a responsibility to others (unions, churches). Now the emperor has no clothes. The “common good” served by this fundamentalist secular theology is the corporate stockholder. We need to create communities that put the market in its place (it has a place) and force it to recognize our interests in the foundations of life and in each other. Wholeness is complex, but we were made for it. We can build institutions to realize it.

Many Charlotte committees and commissions are now or are becoming just such communities of the common good. The social and regulatory complexity that confronts us at the Conservation Commission is frustrating, and we survive by mutual support. Having a shared passion that we pursue with varied skill sets, we persist in a view of Charlotte encompassing hundreds of years and framed by boundaries of watersheds not survey markers. We recognize that complexity is natural and that fragmentation is not inevitable. 

Reducing fragmentation in social and natural communities is a challenge—the market is stacked against us. In a practical way we find the two greatest obstacles to constructive change are distraction and diversion, distraction being the self-imposed and/or obligatory demands of everyday living, and diversion being habits and practices of avoidance that masquerade as productive activities. Diversions also come in blatantly indulgent forms. Complexity fuels these conditions by intimidation and frustration, but complexity can be overcome. 

Change happens to us or it happens with us. Many institutions of 200 years ago offer us firm foundations, while others are founded on sand. In every case the policies of 200 years ago must be recalibrated to meet today’s needs. My invitation to you is to take stock of your busy-ness. Can you identify distraction or diversion? Are you willing to give five hours a month to being part of the change rather than a victim of that change? Grassroots are putting up leaves everywhere. Develop your appetite for community engagement.

The Charlotte Conservation Commission meets the fourth Tuesday of each month, and all are welcome.