Changing the world one conversation at a time

By Pam Gunnell and Ken Dyer (future Ecovillagers)

We recently visited the Nannup Flower and Garden Festival and were enthralled, entertained and mentally stimulated by that wonderful ball of energy and wisdom, Costa Georgiadis. His purported topic was ‘Community Gardens’, but the stories he told demonstrated that community gardens don’t have to be physical places. ‘Community’ exists anywhere two or more people talk to each other and a garden can be the metaphorical flourishing and blooming of ideas, as well as a place where plants grow.

All this stimulated us to start thinking metaphorically about community and how we two relatively powerless individuals can help change the world.

Aristotle, that great cultivator of ideas and harvester of their seeds, is reputed to have said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”.

Well, we thought, community is like the lever — people talking and working together for some common purpose. Communities are powerful. As anthropologist Margaret Mead was fond of saying: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.

And isn’t the fulcrum the idea, the objective, of making a better world? Who doesn’t want a cleaner, greener world, even if we don’t all agree on what stands in our way of making it so? Not everyone yet identifies ‘the world’ in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem stability, so that has to be something we must work on a little harder. And Costa had some ideas to help us in this as well.

One story Costa told was of a friend of his nicknamed ‘halfcut’. This man kept one half of his beard cut short. Costa didn’t say if it was as luxuriant as his own, but clearly it was noticeable enough for other people to ask why he did it. He was then able to reply that it was all about deforestation and land clearance. When people ask, Costa said, it’s OK to tell them what your issue is. Without the halfcut beard to stimulate people’s curiosity and therefore their query, it wouldn’t have been acceptable: it would have felt like haranguing them. But the garden of ideas can flourish through the sort of discussions that can happen when we’re able to share our passions without forcing them on to people. Don’t be didactic, but make it impossible for people NOT to ask, seemed to be the message.

Before listening to Costa, we might have thought that the fulcrum would be the desire for an agreed outcome, attainable only if all or most members of communities agree on and carry out the actions that will achieve it. Or perhaps they could agree that, even if one side is wrong (say about climate change and the urgency of taking action to address it), many of the actions we’d have to take would create a better world in many other respects. The desire for a better world would be the metaphorical fulcrum.

But Costa also told the story of his ‘floral beard competition’, which made us think a little differently about what the fulcrum might be. For three years now, bearded individuals have been encouraged, he told us, to decorate their beards with flowers. The participants have experienced the competition itself, and the parade of beautiful beards that accompanied it, mostly as just a lot of fun. But, Costa pointed out, the idea behind it that he wanted to promote was the importance for biodiversity of growing flowers. Everyone benefitted: the competitors (who enjoyed themselves), the florists (whose businesses flourished), the growers/gardeners (who supplied the florists), the ecosystems in which the flowers grew, and future biodiversity (which was encouraged by the idea of flowers).

The fulcrum in this case, the desire to encourage biodiversity, didn’t have to be agreed upon formally in advance. Indeed, it didn’t even have to be a shared desire. But the story demonstrated that one person’s vision can be promoted through the activities of many people simply enjoying themselves. All it takes is imagination to find ways to involve people. Activities that give people pleasure are likely to be carried out. If they also have the inherent quality of contributing to the bigger picture, not all participants need be aware of that although we think participants should be informed so they are not being manipulated into doing anything to which they would disagree.

How can we apply this to living in Witchcliffe Ecovillage?

We’ll be living in community, the lever of change. There will be endless opportunities for individuals to stimulate the curiosity of others, both inside and outside the Ecovillage. It doesn’t have to be anything as idiosyncratic as growing only half a beard! For a start, our way of living in the Ecovillage — the building technologies associated with our houses, the way they will be clustered around community gardens, our models of governance, the groups we form, our ways of supporting each other — will not just be models for ‘teaching by example’. We hope they will be so intriguing that people who come to look will find it impossible NOT to ask what they’re all about, why they’re important, what they mean to us, why we decided to live there. They will provide the reason for people to ask the questions that will enable us to begin the dialogue that will grow the metaphorical garden of ideas.

Since we arrived in Margaret River a few months ago, many people have been curious as to what lured us here and asked us about it. Most have at least heard of the Ecovillage and have been interested when we’ve talked about why it’s so important to us and the reasons we want to live there. Their asking has given us the opportunity to at least hint at the wider objectives!

And perhaps we future residents of the Ecovillage can use our imaginations to find many equivalents of Costa’s floral beard competition; ways to involve people in enjoyable activities that are not overtly didactic, nor manipulative, but that simply contribute to the change we want to see in the world.

So, we have great hopes for the Ecovillage. We hope, especially, to live compatibly with our ethical and political beliefs and, at the same time as helping to cultivate our physical community garden, be part of a metaphorical community garden that recognises community in every small transaction between people, contributing to the growth of knowledge and ideas about how to bring about a more just, biodiverse and beautiful world.