Felling the forest

This past weekend, I watched the film ‘Get Low’ – it was recommended to me by Cormac following a conversation about Community Builders (can you spot who the Community Builder is in the film?). It is a film filled with wonderful acknowledgements of the gifts we possess and find naturally around us. In many ways, it speaks to some of the core values of ABCD.

Image from the film 'Get Low' (2009)One of the scenes that resonated most with me sees the main character, Felix, walking through the forest that grows on his land with an old friend, Mattie, who he has reconnected with after 40 years of self-imposed isolation:

Mattie: “It really is beautiful out here. It probably looked like this everywhere 100 years ago.”

Felix: “If you leave things alone, they know what to do”

Now, while trying to avoid reading too much into this seemingly simple exchange, for me this is a comment on the society we have constructed. It brought to mind the discussion in McKnight & Block’s The Abundant Community, about today’s ‘depth of dependency’ on professionals and systems to fulfil the functions that were once the concern of families and communities. To bring it back to the film, it struck me that this scene is a comment about how the world now is (Mattie’s remark) and how it was and should be (Felix’s remark).

For those within the ABCD movement, this ‘depth of dependency’ is one of the core concerns. We have ‘outsourced to professionals’, those people who get paid, everything from the ‘well-being of our children’ to ‘physical health, entertainment, nutrition, employment, mental well-being, care for the elderly, and stewardship of the land.’

‘All have been outsourced to professionals. All are organized in systems designed to deliver these functions in as efficient, low-cost, and consistent a way as possible.’

The systematisation and professionalisation of everyday functions has deskilled many and has desensitised most to their abilities, talents and skills that enable them to lead self-fulfilled lives, create greater equality and ensure a healthier society. To exhaust the film simile further, we have felled the forest with the hope of creating a more efficient ecosystem but are now realising that the trees knew what to do all along. And when you fell the forest completely you are left with a desert; a baron wasteland.

The news headlines over the last couple of days have spoken to this ‘dependency’ – a ‘something for nothing’ culture. In many ways, worklessness is a manifestation of the dependency we have created and, according to research published in July, is being passed down through generations:

‘Unemployed young adults whose fathers were also out of work are actually happier when not working.’

Ivan Illich, the well-known critic of institutions within Western culture, offers an interesting perspective in his essay ‘Shadow-work’ on ideas around ‘worklessness’ which is tempting to bring in here, but deserves its own blog post. In the essay he points to a central tenet of dominant social theory that ‘work is presented as the stone of wisdom, the panacea, the magic elixir which transforms what it touches into gold.’

This is where asset based community development (ABCD) lends itself as a powerful non-political lens through which to view how we turn the tide on dependency – not just in terms of those claiming benefits, but more broadly on those everyday functions that you and I are best placed to do for ourselves and each other.

A system ‘solution’ to a system ‘problem’ isn’t really going to get us anywhere – these approaches miss the wood for the trees, and so just keep chopping the forest down. ABCD enables a different kind of conversation; it is a window to the forest that magnifies the ability of the natural world to work together, to nourish one another, and to thrive. This is what requires a more prominent arena for discussion.

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