I skipped a letter - for good reason

how do people keep balance?? in a changing world-frame, along with business and the civil sphere?

I missed a couple of newsletters - so that means more after the New Year :)

The last month has been quite extra-ordinary, but I honestly was overwhelmed by the deluge of news and needed quiet space to make some decisions. I’ve been learning again to listen to energies pointing me in the right directions, and also how holding a decision, having the determination to hold to it, and setting forth is so freeing.

  • “What for?” was the tone of the first two weeks—and the reason I didn’t get to writing a letter. What am I doing anything for?

  • And seeing how decisions, once made, begin to propel new impossible things—setting out the tone of the next two weeks which we’ve just passed.

I was in the UK over the weekend with a group of women for the first run of the EIT Food WE Lead Programme (aka we were guinea pigs). Extinction Rebellion was in London streets that weekend, so I headed to Trafalgar Square. I came back in time on Monday night to find the fences there, the streets clear and found out afterwards that the police had cleared the streets that very day.

In the past month, I’ve found myself in the middle of a transition—thinking about the changing role of business and the civil sphere, as city centres grow conscious of what’s not in(cluded in) them.

The business and civil sphere as we know it really grew in the late 20th Century as big industry expanded its reach into regions, lives, and our notions of a “living”. And we might say that the civil sphere’s breadth of NGOs and developmental organisations grew from an ideological core that was mostly Western liberal democracy, fringed with “culturally unique qualities” (Western liberal democracy hitting practical speedbumps) wherever it settled, including in Western liberal democracies. With societal values tipping and sustainability beginning to enter the core of business and livelihood, this separation of business and the civil sphere is changing, and I’m beginning to feel a strange discord. It’s a fun mess to be in: from a bird’s eye view, all the know-how that the non-profit and NGO spaces have worked through are becoming requisites in business as business goals shift; from an individual perspective it can be alternately exhilarating (novelty!), frustrating (undervalued work/misaligned understandings), scary or anxiety-provoking.

I find it all of the above—taking what I know of alternative economies and holding their bright, conceptual frames up, while diving into the heart of business, bobbing around trying not to let the competitive side of business get to me.

For money…?

So a good friend challenged me to think about the big whys, and money came to the top of my list of anxieties.

I’ve tended to have as little to do with money as I can, but I’ve come to see that that position—the ability to deny the value of money—becomes possible only when one isn’t in need of it or the power that comes with it. But that’s impossible—we still need it to maintain our health, psychologically and physically. We need it to do the work we love, free of financial stress.

In order to do that work in places where some impact can get into the system, we need to be able to survive within that system at minimal cost, maximum gain (to our skills and what we can return to the system to move it in the direction we want it to go in). Usually that means a rise in wages; what would we then invest it in?

So part of this means placing myself into new situations when I’ve outgrown old ones. It’s challenging to keep balance while moving, but it helps to know that we are each on our own path, and that our real work is to maintain the balance of our paths, to be confident (not the same as cocky) about them, without comparing ourselves to others and feeling we’re falling short.

Because Life’s a performance?

I’ve finally watched Season 2 of Fleabag! And some of Season 1, and it’s so good together - Season 1 seems to drill in the theme of life as performance, and to include all the nervous tics, awkwardness and goofing around—that especially come with the performance of wanting, lusting, and desiring something or someone—as a central, erotic impulse in our lives. Tapping into these acts for what they are—escape options when we’re confronted by the Social Conventions of Politeness and Moral Uprightness—and admitting what they stand for, could give us more alignment, with ourselves and one another. A chance to look at someone and know that on some level, they are just playing too, just figuring it all out.

Fleabag showing us how the dramatic, charismatic, and idealistic gives us hope, and focused concentration delivers precision. And how to balance both.

A story from my weekend in the WE Lead programme re-taught me this:

I chose a group with a strong, vocal, charismatic leader—that seemed to be openly discussing their plan—over a group was working quietly—and which I mistook for not really knowing what they were doing. When the time for a decision needed to be made, I didn’t step in to question the decision that was THEN made (omission is also a decision). What happened? I was swept up in the strong current of a leader advocating an ideal goal, but not initiating a culture of asking what that ideal meant--or what we wanted to achieve. 

What I learnt was to not mistake quiet working for ‘not knowing’, to reshape cultures of quiet acquiescence into active enquiry and deep delving, and to step forward to be part of shaping that.

To change intentions and awareness?

Beyond “good” or “bad”, I think the role of any civil society actor is to bring attention to something, and change the frame (as Richard Bartlett has written about Extinction Rebellion).

That’s something to keep in mind in the long cycle of change that we’re in—now is not the time to make solid new structures, as Nora Bateson says, but to flow and wobble along together. It’s the time for fluidity and change, a metamorphosis of our consciousness and collective knowledge as it returns, amplified by the clustering of new actors, energies and resources coming together. With all the change, it can be hard to keep sight of where we want to head, and what a “good business plan” might be. But the space of greater change is opening up, and we are really just preparing the way for the “us” 20 and 40 years on, to realise the big goals we are working towards now.

To show how to create policies that “let grow”?

While Singapore has created a full skills pathway for different sectors, this workforce overhaul hasn’t considered the new skills needed for the new non-fossil fuel based industries. It’s easy to see this need in multi-stakeholder situations where nature and people are involved, where we need specialised understanding, humility to work across disciplines, and compassion and openness to be fully present when the intense encounters of different cultures, languages, and customs arise.

At the intersections of community and nature, our governmental agencies aren’t fully equipped to deal with the changes that are needed, though some are learning; a good example—plans for the remaining residents on Pulau Ubin however fraught that is, is an attempt, a try.

This is the case around the world—community, conservation, and natural resource management has been the role of development aid agencies and NGOs for half a century, outsourced to them because the modern nation-state model was ill-equipped to deal with land, people, and natural resource as a complex, entangled, phenomenon. Now, though, the barriers that sit between language and technologies are largely gone. Though language and cultural difference still exist, we’re now able to at least respect difference by tapping on more genuine experience we’ve had through earlier encounters, and to interact with ‘target populations’ or ‘beneficiaries’ without the inherited violence in those words.

These forms of respect outstrip the policy and action and tech-making. They should be behind everything we design. And we have a deadline for this - we need solutions where community knowledge and policy knowledge sits on the same bar, rather than to place technology above people—for instance, thinking that geoengineering solutions to sequester carbon is a magic bullet, without thinking about the human and non-human beings this will affect. We’d do well to remember again that the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’:

As the IPCC report on land specifies, measures like expanding local and indigenous communities’ role in forest management would bring major benefits, as would a transformation of food systems to ensure sustainable agricultural practices and minimal food waste.


I’m leaving you all with resources I’ve worked on/encountered in the past month:

Read our Submission


Soil #regeneration project
Marcus’ plot, community garden in the east —
Sunday morning and we’re gathered in a permaculture garden plot with banana circle fringed by pigeon pea and sunnhemp. The pH kit shows us some funky unexpected results - follow our finger and go clockwise, and you follow us as we move from the edge of the fence inwards towards the banana circle, in 4 spots we’ve picked out. Funny thing is, the soil colours turn more and more purple - indicating a higher ph, higher alkalinity as we go along. Is it the soil or is it the compost-making that’s making the soil more alkaline?
#soilmystery leads Marcus to take two more samples (middle top and middle bottom) from untreated soil (read, soil untouched by the permaculture practices he’s used), and soil from the back of the garden (I forget the significance of this). They’re both purplish, not blue or green like a nice neutral soil would be.
Urban soils in Singapore are a mix of many things- near impossible to decipher their origin or genealogy. While soil compositions in the strata of soils after the 1970s (with urban redevelopment) may be harder to decipher, nothing is stopping us from looking at soils now and into the near future.

All things land use and governance frameworks don’t make room for.
Want more Room for hope and imagination? #yes #please #citywidesoil #regeneration #project
October 10, 2019

Waters just off the coast of Gangga island, North Sulawesi

Strength and peace,

Huiying

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