Why would we ponder how human systems work? The answer is in one word: agency.

Human agency is of huge significance to organisations, communities and social movements.  There will always be times when we need to organise via top-down networks. But the trouble is a reductionist, mechanical view of human systems is privileged in our thinking: a cultural hangover from the industrial era, reinforced by managerialism. While top-down organising has been great for many things, we have also unthinkingly perpetuated approaches that limit agency.

A new paradigm is emerging that understands networked systems as adaptive and complex. If we want to grow a movement or get bang-for-buck in an organization, understanding these dynamics is no longer optional. We need to understand self-organisation, the special sauce that liberates collective intelligence. What helps it flourish? What kills it?

The urgency of the problems we face compels us to think about this. Many creative minds use complexity concepts in corporations and the field of social innovation. Yet to date, there has been limited application in social movements and environmental campaigns. Surely now is the time. To protect Earth’s life-support system, let’s tap into the power of networked humanity.

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5. Beyond fear: courage

This blog was written for a seminar series on Fear hosted by the School of Regulation and Governance, Australian National University, Dec 2017. During the past five years when I worked as Community Engagement Coordinator for Lock The Gate Alliance, I had the honour of working with Australian communities resisting unconventional gasfields and coalmines. Prior to this, while working in Health Promotion, I had explored how complexity and network theory can be used to generate collective responses to problems – learning that proved valuable as we scaled up mass-movement dynamics in the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers campaign. Lock the Gate Alliance (LTGA) derives power from the collaboration of farmers, environmentalists and First Nations people. It is a national network-of-networks that supports local groups and regional alliances that are self-organised, autonomous, and bear their own names. The observations I share here are not representative of LTGA, but rather my reflections on the sustained outbreaks of collective courage we see in the movement, and their relationship to fear. By this I don’t just mean dramatic civil resistance that may express itself in blockades, but innumerable, and undramatic acts of gritty persistence across the country. It takes enormous courage for Acland farmers to continue resisting New Hope Coal’s mine, when, having been promised that the expansion would not go ahead, the Campbell Newmann government performed a backflip - after New Hope’s parent company donated $950,000 to the Liberal National Party. These are David v Goliath struggles: small communities against mining giants and their friends in government. Social movements are an interesting lens through which to explore fear. In social movements, fear is always present, but the experience of fear can be transformed to such a degree that extraordinary acts of courage become possible. It is appropriate to fear unconventional gasfields. Shale, tight gas and coal seam gasfields are characterised by the invasive spread of wells, compressor stations, pipes and waste dams across landscapes. This spatial intensity amplifies all risks of contamination and methane leakage. Rapidly accumulating research shows risks to air, water, health and climate. Similarly, the destructive impact of coal on water, farms, health and climate are understood and feared. I co-developed a process of grass-roots democracy whereby communities form survey teams, and visit every house in their district to ask people if they want their road and lands Gasfield Free. These surveys get a massive majority of yes responses. The communities then declare themselves Gasfield Free. From the moment we first did this, the process started replicating in neighbouring districts, liberating tremendous creativity. Just as this was taking off I went to a meeting that someone had organised in a nearby village. There were two speakers. The first was an environmental scientist who explained the many risks of coal seam gasfields. The second, an environmental lawyer, gave a superb exposition of the legal framework. To the ears of community members, they were hearing ‘how powerless you all are’. To my horror I realised that this was where the meeting would end. I saw that people looked flat and hopeless. Afterwards, it struck me this meeting had outlined only two of the three landscapes relevant to this issue: the environmental and legal landscapes. But there is a third, social landscape - the only landscape in which people have power. Since then we made sure that any meeting, film or event ends with the story of the social movement, the source of our power. We immediately invited people into, and provided pathways to collective action. LTGA works with self-organised groups and alliances in decentralised networks that liberate collective intelligence and grassroots power. I think this way of organising has implications for the experience of emotion and agency. When people first become aware of the threat they take on concerning information. With this comes stress, bewilderment and anxiety. But I’ve been interested to observe a collateral wellbeing that comes from involvement in face-to-face action groups: a sense of...