“Big Change is Coming” – New Leaflet Launched!

On Saturday afternoon, April 22nd 2017, members of the Llanfyllin Transition Project team and recent Sector39 permaculture graduates from Chester and Reading launched a new leaflet in Llanfyllin in celebration of Earth Day and in solidarity with the global march for climate science.

The leaflet gives some basic information about the Paris Climate Agreement, which we feel is a great incentive for local communities to come together to plan their own futures.

If you would like to distribute some leaflets yourself, a PDF version is available from the link below. Please feel free to share widely:

Earth Day 2017 Paris Accord Leaflet

In other news, we were extremely pleased to see that the Advertizer (April 18th 2017, p. 18), featured a short write-up about our work with photography students at Llanfyllin High School. We are really looking forward to seeing the images that the students produce to communicate the need for a cultural shift towards ecocentrism if we are going to meet the challenge of climate change!

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Animism and the Personhood of Ecosystems

“I am convinced that in the somber decades to come, the end of the world ‘as we know it’ is a distinct possibility…when this time comes (it has already come in my opinion) we will have a lot to learn from people whose world has already ended a long time ago – think of the Amerindians whose world ended five centuries ago, their population having dropped to something like 5% of the pre-Columbian one in 150 years, the Amerindians who nonetheless, have managed to abide, and learned to live in a world which is no longer their world ‘as they knew it.’ We soon will all be Amerindians. Let’s see what they can teach us about matters apocalyptic.” (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2014).

If we are to take heed of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s suggestion that we might be able to learn something about ecological sustainability from the life-ways of our ancestors, as well as from the cultures of indigenous peoples around the world, we are inevitably going to bump up against animist worldviews. The term animism derives from the Latin root word anima, meaning soul, and in its scholarly usage refers to the belief that the world is populated by ‘spirits,’ or, to use a more recent term, ‘other-than-human persons.’ For an animist the world is alive, so that rocks, trees, animals, plants, mountains and rivers could all posses personal attributes, desires, fears and needs, just like human beings. From an animist perspective, ecosystems are communities of beings in dialogue, and we are participants too.

Animism was first popularised as a scholarly category by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), who saw the belief in spiritual beings as the very earliest expression of religious thought. Indeed, for Tylor there was little distinction between traditional indigenous religions and the major world religions. Tylor’s version of anthropology, however, was closely wedded to a form of social Darwinism that was particularly popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which saw European (and especially British) culture as the pinnacle of social evolution, and other non-western and indigenous cultures as backward, irrational and misguided. Sadly, such a view distorted Tylor’s perception of the animistic worldview(s) he wrote about in his books, and it wasn’t until much later that scholars began to re-engage with animism without such a dismissive and colonialist attitude.

In his 1960 publication ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View,’ the American anthropologist Alfred Iriving Hallowell (1892-1974) described how for the Ojibwa people of central Canada the world is populated by persons ‘not all of whom are human.’ Hallowell famously gives the example of his conversation with an old Ojibwa man:

‘I once asked an old man: Are all the stones we see about us here alive? He reflected a long while and then replied, ‘No!’ But some are’ (Hallowell, 1960)

The old man’s answer to Hallowell’s question had a lasting impact on the anthropologist. The old man’s response suggests that for the Ojibwa people, stones have the capacity for life – their worldview leaves open the possibility that stones, trees, mountains and so on can be persons, and as such ought to be granted the same respect as a human person, just in case. Interactions with features of the landscape, therefore, must be understood as interactions between persons, as relationships.

More recently, scholar of religions Graham Harvey has taken up the themes of Tylor and Hallowell’s work (amongst others), with the formulation of his ‘New Animism.’ New animism differs from Tylor’s ‘old’ animism firstly through not assuming a social Darwinist perspective that sees animism as primitive and irrational, and secondly by shifting its focus away from the somewhat problematic notion of ‘spirits,’ towards the much more encompassing idea of ‘persons.’ Harvey writes:

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others (even if they are not always sociable). Animism…is more accurately understood as being concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons” (Harvey, 2005, p. xi).

The underlying relational philosophy of the new animism (which is only ‘new’ to academia), represents the antithesis of the materialistic-industrial-consumer philosophy that has dominated Euro-American attitudes to the environment for the last 200 years, and would seem to offer a route towards the kind of ‘Deep Ecology’ advocated by Arne Naess.

Many in our post-industrial society are likely to feel uncomfortable with the notion of attributing personhood to the various components of our ecosystems, but we can take a hint from the Ojibwa and treat ecology as if it possesses personhood, without necessarily believing that it does. If we were to adopt a relational attitude, and interact with rivers, streams, trees, animals, soils and so on as if they are persons, our behaviours and actions would also necessarily be altered as a consequence. We wouldn’t want to pump sewage into another person, for example, or destroy the home of person, or abuse, misuse or exploit another person. When we think in relationships, we realise that we need to develop good relationships with the other persons in our ecosystem – prosperous, mutually beneficial relationships. Much as in systems thinking, a relational worldview makes us aware of our own interconnected and interdependent relationship with the world around us. So, even if we don’t believe that the tree in our garden is a person, or the river in our village, or the sky above our heads, we can still behave as if they are – our actions can be informed by a relational ecocentric perspective, rather than a purely anthropocentric one.

Granting Personhood Status to Ecosystems

An interesting recent development is the gradual granting of personhood status to key ecosystems by some of the world’s governments. For example, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, known as Te Awa Tupa amongst the indigenous Maori people, was the first river to be granted the legal status of personhood. The Maori people, whose lives are dependent on the river system, and who have always thought of the river as an ancestor, have been fighting for the last 140 years for the river to be treated with the respect that it deserves as an ancestor and living entity, a request that was finally granted on Wednesday 15th March 2017. Gerard Albert, the lead negotiator on behalf of the Whanganui tribe explains:

“We can trace our genalogy to the origins of the universe, and therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”

What this means for the Whanganui River is that, as a legal person, any damage inflicted on it is equivalent to damaging a human being. What if we could do this for our own rivers, forests and mountains? What impact would it have on our relationship with our local ecosystem? Might it help us to achieve the goals laid out by the Paris Climate Agreement? Would it encourage us to behave more responsibly? To change our use of chemical fertilisers, for example, which may leach into the river from farmlands? I think it would.

Within days of the New Zealand government’s decision to grant personhood status to the Whanganui River, a court in Northern India ordered that the sacred River Ganges, and its primary tributary the Yamuna, also be granted the legal status of personhood, as well as glaciers and other ecosystems, precisely so that they can be protected and preserved for the benefit of future generations, and for our global system as whole.

Briefly turning to the theme of folklore, we might be surprised to find that many of our local landscape features have already had their personhood recognised by our ancestors. Bala Lake, just over the Berwyn mountains, for example, is inhabited by the great monster Tegid, and the River Severn was known by the Romans as the goddess Sabrina. What about Afon Rhaeadr, Afon Tanat and Afon Cain? Are these persons too? If so, have we been treating them with the respect they deserve? Could animist principles be a catalyst for the change in thinking required by the Paris Climate Agreement? Perhaps we should consider lobbying to have our rivers and ecosystems recognised as persons, just as the Whanganui tribe have been doing for the last 140 years.

References

Hallowell, A.I. (1960). ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View.’ In G. Harvey (ed) (2002) Readings in Indigenous Religions. London: Continuum. pp. 17-50.

Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Company.

Tylor, E. B. (1930). Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and
Civilization. London: C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014). ‘Who is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?’

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/ganges-and-yamuna-rivers-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-beings

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GCSE Photography Students at the Community Orchard

We have just received some more photographs and a little write up from Louise Bass, Photography Teacher at Llanfyllin High School:

My year ten Photography class have been working with the Llanfyllin Transition Project to produce banners and a booklet cover. Very kindly Jack Hunter came in to introduce the project to help fuel ideas to do with Permaculture. Students spent time discussing environmental issues and ways of encouraging cultural changes to work with nature to help support green practice and ways of working.

Students also benefitted from a visit from a past textile student who is now studying at university. Marianne Terrill spoke about her project using digital images of green foliage inspired by environmental issues. Her sketchbook showed the digital manipulation of images to produce beautiful printed fabric designs. Bringing the outside inside on soft furnishings.

On a damp Thursday morning Mr Hunter and Steve Jones kindly agreed to show the students around the Wetlands and Community Orchard. Here students had the opportunity to photograph the environment in detail. Steve spoke very inspirationally about using nature to heal the damage we have done. The space is a beautiful location providing fun for all the community and a real environmental mini ecosystem. My favourite comment was that there is no such thing as waste in nature only another resource!

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In lessons students plan to use their new found knowledge to combine with images captured to produce real banners, posters and a booklet cover. I look forward to seeing what they produce.

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GCSE Photography Students at the Community Orchard

We had a lovely morning taking Llanfyllin High School photography students down to the community orchard and the wetlands as part of the Llanfyllin Transition Project. It was really good to see them getting up close to nature. We are really looking forward to seeing the fruits of their efforts!

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What is Systems Thinking?

The following is a little snippet of something I am working on for the Llanfyllin Transition Project Handbook:

When we think about our position in the world, especially in Western societies, we tend to think of ourselves as somehow separate and distinct from nature. We live our lives in a human-made bubble. This idea is most clearly expressed in our culture’s binary distinction between nature and culture, between the wild and the domesticated. This perceived divide between ‘us’ and the rest of the natural world has had an enormously destructive impact on our planet. Our assumed dominance over nature has led us to plunder the Earth’s natural resources, to destroy vast swathes of wilderness, and to decimate whole populations of plant and animal species – all because of our own self-imposed distance from the natural world, and our self-elected dominance over it.

All of this can be understood as resulting from a form of reductionism – the notion that we can better understand and control the world by breaking it down into individual component parts. For example, forests become ‘trees,’ which then become ‘wood,’ which we can use for our own purposes. When we enter into a reductionist mode of approaching nature we ignore fundamental connections between these component parts. By breaking nature up into commodities, we destroy a complex whole. In our desire for oil (as a component-commodity of the natural world), for example, we have tended to ignore the negative impacts of extraction processes on other components of the natural world. Think, for instance, of the destruction of precious habitats for the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, where focussing on just one part of the whole (oil) has led to the collapse of other interrelated parts (woodland habitats, animal species, plant species, and so on).

We can express this situation in a simple formula:

Nature/Culture Divide + Reductionism = Ecocide.

Systems thinking is one method by which we might be able to overcome our culture’s dominant destructive attitude to the natural world. Although there were precursors to systems thinking throughout human intellectual history, we can trace its current popular formulation to the writings of the physicist Fritjof Capra, perhaps most famous for his synthesis of quantum mechanics and mysticism in the book The Tao of Physics (1975). Drawing on his background in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, Capra came to the conclusion that reductionism fails as a mode of interpreting the natural world, which, contrary to the old Newtonian view of physics, does not consist of mutually distinct ‘objects’ (e.g. atoms as simple balls of matter), but actually is much more accurately described in terms of systems of relationships, processes and networks of interrelated, and interdependent, parts.

“The new vision of reality we have been talking about is based on an awareness of the essential interrelatedness and interdependence of all phenomena – physical, biological, psychological, social and cultural. It transcends current disciplinary boundaries and will be pursued within new institutions” (Capra, 1985, p 285).

Key to this new vision of reality is the system, very simply defined as set of things working together as parts of a complex whole. The idea of systems derives from observation of the natural world, and indeed from ourselves – human beings are complex systems too!

“Living systems are organised in such a way that they form multi-leveled structures, each level consisting of subsystems which are wholes in regard to their parts, and parts with respect to the larger wholes. Thus molecules combine to form cells. The cells form tissues and organs, which themselves form larger systems” (Capra, 1985, p 27).

Perhaps the clearest example of the kind of system Capra is talking about is the ecosystem. Broadly defined, an ecosystem is a community of interacting organisms (plants, animals, etc.), in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (air, water, soil, minerals, etc.), interacting as a system.


If one element of the system is damaged, removed or destroyed, all of the other component parts will fail too. This is precisely what has led to the current crisis facing our global ecosystem today. The underlying philosophy of the industrial revolution was one of mechanism, reductionism and human dominance over nature. Natural resources were seen as independent commodities, the extraction of which had no consequences for the rest of the environment, so we had no qualms with mining coal, chopping down ancient woodlands and replacing them with factories and refineries.

Similarly, human beings were viewed as separate from the environment, above it almost, so that the pollutive byproducts of our industrial activities were somehow thought to have no direct impact on surrounding plants, animals, or even other human beings. This we now know to be entirely false, and yet incredibly we continue to perpetuate an outmoded worldview – as though we are separate from our ecosystems and our actions have no consequences. The adoption of a systems view and a re-awakening of our intimate inter-connection with the natural world, might assist us in realising the error of our ways and point us in new directions for change.

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Llanfyllin Transition Project Handbook – Preview Copies

We have a limited number of preview copies of our Llanfyllin Transition Project Handbook available for just £3 each. Come along to our climate change event at Llanfyllin High School, this Thursday at 7pm to get one! The aim of the handbook is to inspire positive community change, no matter how small or how large, to help tackle the challenge of Climate Change using ideas from permaculture, the transition movement and deep ecology.

“It is exciting to discover a Welsh community that has already done so much to pioneer these practical solutions using permaculture design and the power of the Transition Movement: influencing school curriculum, creating local community orchards and gardens, establishing a housing co-op and associated enterprises, storytelling, offering cutting edge training to spread this knowledge far and wide, and grounding all of this with an understanding of our deep interconnection with all species as humans alive at this critical time in our history. Reaching out, Llanfyllin Transition Project have gathered stories about their approach and shared it in this book. Prepare to be inspired.”

– Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture Magazine and a co-founder of Permanent Publications.

“The Llanfyllin Transition Project (which embodies both pragmatic daily wisdom, and myth inspired storytelling), is a vitally important means to invite our participation toward eliminating the variety of eco-crises threatening all life on planet Earth. I encourage all of us to support this project and read this book.”

 – Mark A. Schroll, PhD,author of Transpersonal Ecosophy, Vol. 1: Theory, Methods, and Clinical Assessments.

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Presentation for GCSE Photography Students

Jack’s presentation, given to GCSE Photography students as an introduction to the Llanfyllin Transition Project last week, has now been uploaded to the resources page:

Click Here to Access the Full Presentation

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Year 10 Photography Class

Jack has been at Ysgol Uwchradd Llanfyllin High School this morning discussing climate change, permaculture and the Llanfyllin Transition Project with Year 10 Photography students. They are going to be creating posters, placards, banners and a book cover for our World Earth Day event in April, communicating the message of our collective responsibility to care for our local and global environment.

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Are we ready to face the climate challenge? – Lecture Screening and Discussion

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Rachel Carson, author of the groundbreaking Silent Spring, warned us many years ago of the dangers of allowing politics to influence our understanding of the natural world:

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics” Rachel Carson, The Silent Spring.

This begs the question what the role of science is when the politicians of the day can cast aside the dire and detailed warnings of the climate science community, despite the agreements and commitments they so publicly made to respond to this unfolding crisis?

We teach science in our schools yet we fail to adhere to it in our daily lives. What message does this send to the growing generation? The smoking ban, compulsory seatbelts in cars, these were considered responses to known and measurable threats, so why then do we ignore the much more serious warnings about climate and energy?

We know of the disproportionate hold the oil industry has over our economy, over the US presidency and the Russian rouble, yet to allow that reality to frame our responses will have dire consequences for all.

Last year we launched the Llanfyllin Transition Project, ‘Saving the Planet One School at a Time,’ with the specific aim of exploring these ideas across the whole community, and asking ourselves the question of how we can better prepare for what awaits us.

To begin, surely we are obliged to refer ourselves back to the science – what can we expect, what is happening, how much do we know? Also, we need to look at this information outside of the political and economic framework that surrounds the debate in the media.

The global scientific community will stage mass demonstrations to celebrate World Earth Day on April 22nd. This year’s event and campaign will fight against efforts to silence science and focus on creating and supporting knowledge sharing, community engagement, citizen science and stewardship.

We will be holding a series of events leading to Earth Day, the first of which is at Llanfyllin High School, 23rd March, building to the global event in April. It is free and will be informative, challenging and inclusive.