The Gaia Foundation ran a short course at Schumacher College in September “Earth Jurisprudence and Community Resilience: Learning from Africa”. From it Isabel Carlisle learnt that the challenge for Transition now is to build relationships that connect local sub-communities.
I took part in this short course as a Transitioner (Transition Highbury Steering Group), an educator (creating programmes containing the knowledge, skills and approaches that prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century) and someone with a personal interest in seeing how the transition and diversity agendas might be brought together. What I came away with was an understanding of how indigenous people in Africa relate to their eco systems, how youth and old age can collaborate in “eco-education programmes” and what Earth Jurisprudence has to do with resilience. The question I held in my mind was “what can we in Transition learn from all this that has relevance now?”
Building Community Resilience
Earth Jurisprudence is a concept that was first proposed by Thomas Berry. At the First Earth Jurisprudence Meeting (April 2001, Washington DC) there was a call to move away from our anthropocentric view of the world and its resources and to take note that “The various indigenous peoples and remaining wilderness areas of the Earth act as references for special guidance in achieving a viable mode of human presence on the planet”.
The Gaia Foundation was started in 1984 and now supports the Earth Jurisprudence movement. Its mission is “to work in partnership with those who are committed to ecological governance through restoring cultural and biological diversity, which we believe is the basis for building ecological and community resilience. When we understand the dynamics of the eco-system in which we live, we are more likely to respect the laws of the Earth in a mutually enhancing way.”
Because indigenous people intimately know their eco-systems and relate to them on many levels—for basic survival needs; inspiration to creativity; sources of meaning around which language evolves; the sense of the sacred and the expressions of the human spirit—they can read the signs of change that signal the health, or otherwise, of their land. The resilience of each community is a measure of its ability to adapt in time to recover, or change with, the resilience of the eco-system when it is disturbed. A healthy eco system supports life: if we are looking for a new definition of the “good life”, this could be it.
Re-awakening Memories of Place
The Gaia Foundation has been working with indigenous communities in South Africa, Ethiopia, the Amazon and elsewhere to “map” ecosystems in such a way that the value of that system can be conveyed to government officials, developers and others who seek to intervene in those lands. Forests, water sources, high and low land are mapped in 3-D, together with fertile land for farming, grazing land for cattle and the sacred spots from which the energy of the community arises. As an exercise we all “mapped” our childhood homes and told each other the stories of what it was like to live there, re-awakening the memories of what was special about that place and through what activities we connected to the land and the seasons. Even growing up in big cities, we remembered playing in the parks, growing things and tobogganing in winter. Yes indeed: in 1963 the ice on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, London, was so thick that we walked across it! We heard how this mapping brings communities together and prompts the memories of the elders, which in turn creates a story of belonging for the young.
The Value of Sacred Sites
From Mphathaleni Makaulule we heard about the work of her Mupo Foundation in Venda homeland in S. Africa. “Mupo” means “all of nature”, regulated by nature’s laws that promote life and teach humans how to live well, in balance with the natural world. In order to revive sustainable African livelihoods that are able to cope with climate instability, Mpathe facilitates dialogue between elders and youth on ecological governance; takes elders into schools to teach cultural biodiversity and practical skills; and educates the authorities about the role and importance of the sacred sites. The sacred sites are key because they are oases of biodiversity, often virgin forest, protected by the rules of the community that prohibit hunting, harvesting and cutting wood.
Colin Campbell, who grew up in rural Botswana, steeped in Tswana culture and spiritual practice (and is now living in the UK) took us through activities that allowed us to experience nature directly: not by thinking but by feeling. We took solo walks into nature and together built a sweat lodge. The Elders, he said, are those who have spent most time in nature but the true elder is nature herself. We need to learn directly from Gaia. From that perspective, first generation immigrants from Bangladesh living in British towns may have a better knowledge of how to live with nature and the seasons than native town-dwellers. The reality is that we are all interconnected and alliance building is key to solving problems. “Trust that people do know and encourage them to work together based on their own knowing: move away from ‘Experts’ moving in.” Being in relationship allows for the emergence of new ideas and solutions. Colin also suggested that we need to “reclaim the capacity to sit in uncertainty and feel our vulnerability. We create all our laws to create certainty but then we avoid our place in the universe and the truth of who we really are.”
Questions For Transition
So, Transitioners, here are some of the questions and ideas generated by the group:
- How do we, living in multicultural societies, create dialogues and experiences to recover shared meaning about man’s relationship to the natural world that become an impetus to action?
- What is the overarching myth for our times and what does it mean to live without a myth? Should this myth be about change and adaptation or about aligning with traditional wisdom? The way to bring a myth into being is to live the myth.
- How do we create a space for the feminine dynamic for change? Women can no longer collude in the myth of their stolen power. In traditional societies the feminine and nature are strongly linked.
- Transition re-connects us with the land. Is there a way in which we can link urban to rural communities?
- Eco-mapping and charting the natural calendar through seasonal food and ceremonies brings us back into alignment with the natural order of things, which is what Earth Jurisprudence is about.
What does eco-literacy in a multi-cultural society look like?
Living systems evolve around a central fulcrum that is itself evolving. Wisdom consists in understanding the fulcrum so that we can stay aligned and resilient.
If diversity is a measure of the resilience of a community then the challenge for Transition now is to build relationships that connect local sub-communities defined by ethnicity, culture, faith and class. Inter-generational learning through community dialogue process, convened around the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change, could prove to be a very valuable tool in bringing many such groups together. If this is an area of Transition that you would like to help evolve, please email me to register your interest in a shared enquiry into Transition and Diversity that the Transition Network is now addressing.
For more information about the Gaia Foundation in London and its events go to: www.gaiafoundation.org