Wednesday 29 April 2015

The Pilgrim & The Politican - guest blog by Jane Davidson

When I was first approached to work with Satish on this exciting project, I was doubtful; what had I to offer to illuminate one of the greatest spiritual thinkers of the 20th and 21st century - a man who creates lasting mental images from his inspired turn of phrase and who is truly authentic in what he says and does? There are certainly others who could provide a better critique and be more immersed in his thinking. But, after reflecting for some time, I became excited - maybe the narrative of our time is a profound loss of dialogue between different actors about what matters. In the era of the ever shortening sound bite, we no longer debate ideas. This documentary is the chance to do that, to energetically debate Satish's ideas between ourselves and with others and to momentarily call a halt to the daily onslaught of the senses and reflect on the human condition. After all, as Satish says, "human energy is the most important form of renewable energy."

Satish and Jane - Schumacher College November 2014

I think we find ourselves at a turning point in this early part of the 21st century. Somehow, we’ve lost our moral compass. As a society, we value the wrong things in the wrong way; we value and define success in financial terms rather than in people terms, we are focused on growth rather than the art of living well within environmental limits. Intellectually, we know that our lifestyles are damaging this planet of ours, yet we don't act.

Deepwater Horizon oil fire

I have spent much of my adult life looking to policy and politics to create a better and fairer future; Satish has lived his life outside politics, teaching and inspiring others to live their lives better. Yet despite my secular and his spiritual convictions, there are many areas in which we have joint interests that cross the secular/spiritual divide.

We believe there is an important conversation to be had about where beliefs come from, the role of spirituality in a secular age and, as comrades and travellers together, to use our discourse as an art form to challenge and probe and ultimately to recognise, revive and reinterpret for today’s generations, the legacy of an extraordinarily wise man. This won't be a hagiography, but an interrogation of over half a century of ideas to redefine what it means to be an 'everyday pilgrim' in the 21st century.

You can be part of making the series happen and learn more about it here. 

But you can also participate in other ways. Send us your questions, your comments, your favourite Satish-ism and contribute to the quality of the content as we make this documentary series. As Satish says, "Don't ask someone else to transform if you have not transformed yourself." We want this series to be transformative, to interrogate ideas and challenge beliefs and in doing so provide an eon of a whisker of a sliver of a notion that together, we just might find some common ground that will help inspire a better future for us all. All those of you who are funding us to make this happen, thank you. It's a story that needs to be told in the form that fits the age. Thank you for helping to make it happen.

Many thanks, Jane. Leave a comment below or contact us via Twitter: @emergenceuk ; Facebook: Emergence UK ; or sign up for our mailing list and check out our previous work at: 

Wednesday 22 April 2015

“We’re All Going To Die” – adventures in Warrior-ship with Margaret Wheatley - by Philip Ralph

We live in the age of hyperbole. A time when understatement seems to be a thing of the past. It’s no longer sufficient simply to say something was good. It has to be awesome or mindblowing. And if something is bad, it’s not just bad, it’s “literally the end of the world”. So, I’m fully aware that what I’m about to type may well be taken with hefty shovelfuls of salt. You’re going to assume I’m exaggerating. But I’m not. I promise.

Last week, I had an experience that was life changing. Literally.

And, yes, I am using that word correctly...

As we approached the launch of our crowdfunding campaign for our Satish Kumar Documentaries, I realised that I was missing out on a key part of the work he has spent his life engaged in – namely, Schumacher College. Satish was one of the key founders back in the 1990s. It was his original document of intention that set the template for how Schumacher has progressed ever since. Far more than just a college, Schumacher is a community, an idea, an ever-changing new paradigm in learning. 

Old Postern - Schumacher College
I have been meaning to do a short course at Schumacher ever since Fern came home after her first time there totally invigorated and inspired but the timing has never seemed right. But when Fern and I met with Satish at his home in Hartland in early February to discuss the documentaries, he happened to mention that Margaret Wheatley was coming to Schumacher in April to host a short course called 'Leaders as Warriors for the Human  Spirit'... and the die was cast. I had to be there.

Margaret Wheatley
You see, Margaret Wheatley, for those who have never heard of her, is a truly remarkable woman. Like Satish,  Meg is a teacher, an activist, a thinker, a philosopher. Her revolutionary work in the field of leadership and systems theory offers an entirely holistic and interconnected way of looking at our means of organising our world. Her seminal book, ‘Leadership and the New Science’, first published in 1992, brought together advances in quantum science, biology and chaos theory to show how hierarchical structures are actually contrary to natural systems and that chaos, interconnectedness and change are, in fact, the only route to transforming how we work together. A lifelong teacher and activist, since 1973, Meg has published eight books and worked as a consultant and speaker with every possible type of organisation:

"They range from the head of the U.S. Army to twelve year old Girl Scouts, from CEOs to small town ministers. This diversity includes Fortune 100 corporations, government agencies, healthcare institutions, foundations, public schools, colleges, major church denominations, professional associations, and monasteries. I have also been privileged to work on all continents (except Antarctica). These organizations and people are wrestling with a similar dilemma—how to maintain direction, integrity, motivation, and effectiveness as we cope with relentless turbulence and unending change in this very troubled world." Margaret Wheatley, bio.

Fern’s very first Schumacher course when she was Fellow for Wales on the Clore Leadership Program was with Meg Wheatley after having read ‘Leadership and the New Science’. The connections Meg’s work gave to Fern between holistic thinking, systems theory and leadership lead directly to the creation of Emergence – indeed, emergence as a theory of how things come into being sits at the heart of Meg’s work. Despite my desperate resistance to change, Fern’s insistence that I really should take note of this woman lead me to go to one of Meg’s seminars in Cardiff in 2014. And to say that I wasn’t disappointed would be a huge understatement... You can see the day for yourself  on artplayer. Or, alternatively, here's a brief taste of Meg recorded this past week at Schumacher.

Fern was right, as she so often is. Meg is, as our American cousins might say, 'the real deal'. I saw someone speaking candidly and openly about the genuine, unvarnished, un-spun problems we face as a race at this time on planet Earth. A time when we are stuck in old systems, desperate to change and yet desperate to stay the same, hurtling towards a terrible fate that we can clearly see yet find impossible to accept. Meg spoke with compassion and real understanding of the overwhelm so many of us feel at the crushing weight of the systems we live under, of the sense of lostness we feel, and of how we are reacting to that by redoubling our efforts to do the same things. As Einstein is famously supposed to have said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome and yet here we are, propping up the failing capitalist economic growth system again and again, all while it continues to undermine and destroy the eco-systems that keep us alive.

What particularly struck me about Meg was that she doesn’t possess a trace of ‘guru-itis’ – she doesn’t insist that she has all the answers and that one must only ‘do it her way’ to be happy forever. On the contrary, Meg embraces doubt and uncertainty and thrives on the cut and thrust of questioning and open conversation. At the heart of everything she talks about is a deep and abiding faith that “humans can get through anything as long as we’re together”.

I must admit that I found that last notion impossible to reconcile myself to after a lifetime of cynicism and disappointment. However, when Satish said Meg was coming to Schumacher, the stars seemed to have aligned and I signed up like a shot.

So, how was the course?

I’m not going to tell you. Not because I want to deprive you of the life changing experiences I had there but because, frankly, I’m unable to put it into words that would even come close to encompassing it. 

I will say that I sat with Meg and fourteen fellow humans from all walks of life in the beautiful surroundings of the Dartington Estate and we shared ourselves with openness, compassion, grace and love. We talked of our struggles to find sustenance and energy at this difficult time in the world. We spoke of feeling lost and exhausted. We spoke of our doubts and fears that we were doing the right work – work that might be of service to others and to ourselves. We spoke of warriorship – not destructive, aggressive actions against others but of being brave, of staying, of seeing it through and being there for each other, fully aware of the pain and suffering around us and not wanting to add to it. And we spoke of the impermanence of life – the divine beauty in the small moments of joy and sadness, the blossom and the birdsong and the wind in the trees.

Spring flowers at Dartington
Oh, and we laughed. My God, how we laughed. Such delight in each other’s company. I can’t tell you... In the midst of some of the darkest ideas that Meg challenged us with – letting go of believing we can change the world, giving up on relying on hope to get us through – the humour and warmth of the group made it all okay. We laughed till we cried. The range of Meg Wheatley T-shirts may not be global bestsellers but they certainly made us chuckle... my personal favourite being a simple ‘Meg Says No’. Close runners up: ‘The Pope of No Hope’ & ‘We’re All Going To Die’.

I guess you had to be there... I certainly did. I needed to be there. I couldn’t have been anywhere else. It literally changed my life. Literally. I am not the same person as I type this today that I was before I went to Schumacher.

By the end of the week, with tears in my eyes, I was able to say, hand on heart, I do truly believe one of Meg’s key maxims for Warriors for the Human Spirit – the one I found impossible to reconcile myself to last year:

“Our actions embody our confidence that humans can get through anything as long as we’re together.”

I believe it now. I really do. Because I feel it in my bones. And it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s a daily practice to be compassionate and open and understanding of each other. But I know that it’s the only thing that makes life bearable. To be together, truly together, with our fellow creatures – human and otherwise – on this small, fragile blue ball we call home. It’s the only thing that matters.

That is one hell of a college...

Towards the end of the week we headed down to see Satish at The Old Postern on the Dartington Estate where Schumacher College has been based for a quarter of a century. Our course was in the Elmhirst Centre at Dartington Hall, a sign of the burgeoning health of Schumacher as it bursts its seams with so many people wanting to be part of its optimism and paradigm-shifting courses. 

In the warm sunshine, Meg and Satish greeted each other as the old friends they are – and two halves of my world became whole.

Meg and Satish 16/04/15
Schumacher College is a remarkable place. You should go if you can.

I recommend Meg Wheatley and her work to you without reservation. Her book, ‘So Far From Home: lost and found in our brave new world’ is an incredibly tough but vital work. On the course we lovingly referred to it as Meg’s ‘Dark Book’ and we laughed. It won’t make you laugh... but it could very well change your life...

I leave the last words to Meg in one of her favourite quotes. And I send it out to my fellow warriors, now all back in their lives, wondering, like me, if any of that was real. 

It was, my friends, it was.

We were together.

I forget the rest.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Doin' Dirt Time & Living Like A Pilgrim By Fern Smith & Philip Ralph

We have less than two weeks until our crowd funding campaign goes live on April 27th. We are committed to raising a sizeable chunk of money to make a documentary series about one of the central questions of our time: how do we live on this planet at a time of global, environmental and social crisis? I am interested in what happens if we really open ourselves to this question and not get lost down the twin rabbit holes of blind optimism or deep despair.

The person who is helping us open to this question is Satish Kumar. The person who sits in the place where we might want to sit, asking the questions we might want to ask is Jane Davidson. She is, in many ways taking the role of every woman and every man who is struggling with this question daily. Satish has committed himself to a three things - living lightly, living emergently and living like a pilgrim. Living lightly involves using our ‘fair share’ of resources and not compromising the lives of future generations .Living emergently is about being open to uncertainty and not knowing – living like an artist. So far so good. Any materialist or rationalist might be able to go along with the first two of Satish’s precepts, but what about the third. In a largely secular society, what does ‘living like a pilgrim’ mean to us?
Satish at Resurgence Summer Gathering. Image Ruth Davey

In the past weeks developing the campaign as you can imagine I’ve sent a few emails. Crowd funding is about reaching out to the universe and asking for support. Many of you reading this will know that that is exactly what I’ve been doing recently, requesting people, networks, organisations to help share our information in the hope we can raise the money to do something we really believe in. Many of you have responded to that request from the universe with offers to support and share our campaign. However, I often feel when my fingers are tapdancing on the keyboard of time that I’m doing anything but living like a pilgrim.

So having an opportunity to step into another’s shoes every now and again and to look at the world as if I were a pilgim has been a rare privilege . Satish is one very significant person who has made very particular choices in his life. His choices have inspired and enabled countless others to strike out and make different choices than those normally on offer in a Western consumerist society.
This may be the longest segueway of all time... I’m trying to find my way towards speaking about two other very significant people who I have had the good luck to meet. They have been central to my choices, my preoccupations and the development of Emergence. They are, Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds, two artists who walked away from success and their old lives in order to live lightly, live emergently and yes, most definitely, to live like pilgrims.

Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds were two artists interviewed by Suzi Gablik in her seminal book Conversations Before the End of Time. The interview is called Doin’ Dirt Time – it is one of the most challenging, troublesome and inspiring things I’ve ever read. For this particular blog me and Phil wanted to experiment a little and to share with you a dialogue which we have been living with for two years now and which we will probably continue to live with for the rest of our lives…

Dirt Time is time spent following trails or tracks in the earth - from animals, leaves or the wind. Doin’ Dirt Time is the art and practice of following and making sense of these tracks. It is also the title of an interview conducted by the American art critic Suzi Gablik with two visionary sculptors, Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds, more than twenty years ago. I came across the interview in Gablik’s book, ‘Conversations Before the End of Time’ in 2013. It contains interviews with artists, activists, critics and spiritual teachers. Gablik, inspired by ‘the art of dialogue’, uses the form to speak about the role of artists at a time of ecological collapse. She is in accordance with some of the people she speaks to while others have wildly different convictions and claims. Gablik does not attempt to impose her own point of view, but to open up a space for real listening, a meeting place, a place for total respect for the viewpoint of ‘the other’.

Doin’ Dirt Time is the second interview in the book. It describes how these two sculptors decided to stop making their work, to give their art and their possessions away and to live their life as an art – not for their art. It is provocative stuff and raises many questions that have only become more potent with the passage of time. I am an artist, a theatre practitioner – or was, when I read the book - part of Volcano Theatre an international touring company that I co-founded some 25 years ago. I read Doin’ Dirt Time first on a train between London and my hometown of Swansea. By the time I arrived I had a desire to restage the interview and to present it as ‘art’ - as a new invitation for dialogue.

At the time of reading the interview, I had been struggling with the question Gablik raises with Dutton and Olds concerning the role of artists at a time of ecological crisis. I had recently been involved in developing a collaborative arts and sustainability initiative in Wales called Emergence that advocates ‘creative practice for a sustainable future’. This began when I took a year sabbatical and was inspired by the many concepts, teachers, and artists I encountered, for example the work of Margaret Wheatley, Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra and Satish Kumar. Emergence creates opportunities and space for deep dialogue concerning the ‘art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet’ (Tim Jackson).

Inspired by these new ideas, the 25th anniversary of my theatre company gave me an opportunity to commission a number of pieces from past and existing members as well as create something myself. I wanted to put into the mix a simple performance that questioned the very nature of art and theatre and provoked discussion around these themes. This was the context in which Doin’ Dirt Time was first performed in February 2013. I did not know it then but it was the start of a big change in my own life.

Volcano Birthday Party

I don’t like change. As I get older, I come to think that the great challenge life presents is to learn to accept change as a gift and not a curse. When Fern first read the interview to me on a car journey my immediate reaction was the same as many peoples when they see us perform it: “Who are these crazy people? And what on earth possessed them to do what they did?” But I love Fern and her restless need for change – no matter how uncomfortable it makes me - and when she suggested that we create a performance piece from the interview, I readily agreed. After all, it would require no rehearsal or thinking time…

Fern suggested we use a verbatim theatre technique in which actors are presented with individual recordings of interviews on MP3 players, which they listen to and speak simultaneously along with. It’s reminiscent of the old, annoying child’s game of speaking at the same time as someone else. Using this technique would enable us to offer the conversation between Gablik, Dutton and Olds as if it were happening right there in front of people. It would also allow us to work with a new ‘Suzi’ for every performance since no rehearsal was required. Across seven nights at Volcano’s space in Swansea in the spring of 2013 – 21 years after the original conversation took place – the words of Doin’ Dirt Time came to life once more. Like Fern, I had no idea that this simple performance piece would change my life…

The initial seven performances in Swansea as part of The Birthday Party were fascinating – both in the process but also in the reactions of our audiences. There was an interest in the means of performance, but more than that a deep need to explore and chew over what Rob and Rachel were saying. They speak about their fears for the imminent end of the dominant way of life we humans lead on this planet; they speak of their fervent wish to “live their daily life as a prayer” and to be “separated from the separation”; they speak of their hope that they can learn the skills of tracking and awareness that will enable them to directly engage with nature as a way of life not simply as a leisure activity. Right from the beginning there was conflict and dissent related to what they said – “What good does it do to just ‘drop out’?” “It was easy for them – they had no children, no responsibilities and they could afford to do it!” - but there was also a fervent understanding of their very real concerns about the direction we are still taking and, underneath it all, perhaps a desire to emulate them.

But by far and away the most common question we were asked as we offered Dutton and Olds’ words up, night after night, was – “What happened to them?” At that stage, the only references to Rob and Rachel we had found were related to the interview and Gablik’s book. It truly seemed that they had succeeded in their quest to go ‘off grid’ and disappear completely.  And then we found their website…

Following the initial presentations synchronicity and serendipity played their role, and we were invited to present the piece in many different settings always as a means of furthering conversations and dialogue, and always for free. We were a month away from taking it to the Uncivilisation Festival when a former ‘Suzi’ told us that she had seen a comment from Rachel and Rob on an academic article on the internet. This led us to their website which we immediately trawled for clues as to what had happened to them. The site mentioned that they had written a book - Water Drawn Before Sunrise - which appeared to be a joint autobiography. We felt as if we were now tracking Rachel and Rob just as they had learnt to track foxes and deer in North America with their teacher, Tom Brown Jr. We ordered the book and began to read. The lives of these two visionary artists became more real to us with each turn of the page. The book was written as a dialogue, one writing a chapter, the other picking up where the other left off. The book revealed the story of their lives from their childhoods, development as artists, their individual successes, spiritual seeking and finally their meeting, shared concerns and calling. As we read the book we had a growing sense of who these people were and the deep thinking behind their radical choices and the impact their decision to ‘disappear’ had on the rest of their lives. Phil and I had a shared and inexplicable sensation that by reading their words we were starting to come into direct dialogue with Rachel and Rob…

At event after event, in widely disparate locations and settings, Fern and I ‘became’ Rachel and Rob. We shared their words, their concerns, their fears and their profound longings. We began to look at our own lives and the choices we were making through the prism of Rachel and Rob’s words. At the same time, we read the story of their nine year retreat. Their decision to return to the world to share their vision became for us a profound inspiration and meditation – not necessarily to directly emulate them but rather to let their visions lead us to make different choices in our own lives. This created the simple desire to be with our fellow humans, animals and plants on this planet we call home at this time of change and collapse; to sit with compassion and empathy for ourselves and for all life – and to know that there is no separation between us.

As we became aware of this shift, and as more and more people asked us what had happened to Rob and Rachel, it became more and more obvious to us that we had to contact them. We had already contacted Suzi Gablik and gained her permission to reproduce the interview. But now, we had to go to the source – to the people whose words and lives had so inspired us. We wrote a long joint email to them both – sharing our journey and asking for their permission to continue…

We sent the email with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. It was a relief to finally be making contact. I also had a sense of a completion of something. I felt we could no longer continue to offer this performance without the permission of the two subjects of the original interview. It had increasingly felt that we were calling upon Rachel and Rob, inviting them into the room in some way - we now had to give them a conscious choice as to whether we should stop or continue to offer it in future.

It was no time at all before we received a reply. We could not have wished for anything better. Their joy at us seeking them out, and their generous and enthusiastic response validated our decision to contact them in the first place. We were now in real connection, real dialogue with Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds - these people who had inspired us so much. Although the response came via email, the message felt like it had dropped into my inbox from another planet and another time.

The words sent to us from Rachel and Rob were profoundly moving in their generosity and openness. They told us of how moved they were to hear of what we’re doing and that they were happy for us to continue. And so we do. But we also now have their own words of love, connection and compassion and a real sense that their journey is our journey and that both are continuing.

We continue to offer Doin’ Dirt Time freely wherever we are invited. It has become part of our lives and so have Rob and Rachel. And, like them, we continue to change, grow and face the challenges of life. Doin’ Dirt Time brings us into contact with new people across the country, all of whom are questioning, seeking and tracking a new way of living, a new way of being present as a human being.

In 2014, we performed Doin’ Dirt Time at the Resurgence Summer Gathering and another part of the circle was completed. There before us was Satish Kumar, who was also interviewed by Suzi Gablik for the same book twenty years ago. The power and energy of words, thoughts, ideas and, above all, connections, becomes clearer and clearer as we move forwards with this offering. It is an invitation and a challenge, a gift and a blessing.

We are performing Doin’ Dirt Time soon in Cardiff at a symposium on activism and storytelling on 25th April and at the Two Degrees Festival at Artsadmin on 6th June.

We always thought that one day we might be able to meet Rob and Rachel in person and share our stories. Every time we perform Doin Dirt Time we connect to them in a way that might possibly be even deeper than might have happened if we had met them. We wrote to Suzi Gablik in December 2014. We have been in contact with her on a semi regular basis throughout this process. This time it was to share with her a document called Playing Suzi Gablik written by all those who had played Suzi in past Doin Dirt Times – Lucy Neal, Emily Hinshelwood, Rhodri Thomas, Tom Payne, Carys Shannon, Clare Whistler, Jane Trowell, Sarah Woods, Rosie Leach, Jason Benson, Gary Anderson, Taskeen Nawab, Tim Dalling, Janne Tooby and Isabel Carlisle.

We heard back from Suzi with very sad news. Rachel had died, aged 68 a couple of months before. She told us that she had been working on a novel We contacted Rob and heard the news from him, unable to comprehend what he might be going through, having shared one anothers life so deeply. Rachel in the interview had spoken of her desire to live life as a sacred act, as a prayer – or in Satish’s words to live like an artist, to live like a pilgrim.

We continue to offer Doin Dirt Time. It has taken on more significance than ever for us.  We will always be connected to Rob and Rachel through our hearts. What we gain from this piece of art is beyond measure. When one commits to ‘living like a pilgrim’ one never knows the destination of ones journey. We do know however, that no words spoken from the heart are ever lost in time…

The last words I leave to Rob Olds, taken from their website

The night of 12.12.12. Rachel began her last artwork called Distance Becomes Sky as she recounted to me while she was in the hospital, "The book was channeled from inside my heart like the visions of radiance. A story woven from the wholeness of all life."

During the night I would hear her scribbling and pieces of paper rustling under the covers of our bed. Sometimes I would wake to see a glow of light from a flash light with the now familiar scratching sounds of her writing. Most of the writing came in a meditative state and written in the dark in tiny booklets she made just for this purpose. 

During the day she would transcribe the night time work into something legible that I could read and then type into our laptop. Her work went on for over a year and a half, day and night. I knew it was taking her life force but I'm an artist too and I know when a work of vision is in process and you have to allow it to arrive and honor it. She was literally running her last mile to complete this important story of sacred Earth.

In Memory of Rachel Dutton Olds

April 25, 1947 - July 11, 2014

"I came in with this smile and I went out with this smile."

"Distance Becomes Sky was channeled from inside my heart like the visions of radiance. A story woven from the wholeness of all life."

Anyone interested in reconnecting with Rachel's heart and creative vision is urged to buy a copy of Distance Becomes Sky.

Fern Smith and Philip Ralph 2015

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Monsters & Nightmares by Philip Ralph

It’s fair to say that is not how I normally start my day...

This morning, at around 8.20am, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Wales about my thoughts on the announcement of a forthcoming play at a theatre in London about Jimmy Savile. You can listen to the interview here – it starts at 02:22:20 and runs for about eight minutes.

Why did my day start like this?

Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray & James Collinson
Well, a few years ago I wrote a play called Deep Cut. It is a verbatim/documentary drama about the deaths of four young Army recruits at Deepcut barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002 and, in particular, how the parents of Cheryl James, the only woman among the four, have fought long and hard for answers and justice. Their fight continues and if you want to know more about their story, you can head to their website. Because I wrote Deep Cut – and it was perceived to be successful – it magically puts my name on lists of people who can be approached for comment by radio shows etc when something similar comes up. 

The question that framed the discussion between myself and the writer and critic Bonnie Greer was whether or not it was “too soon” or simply insensitive to write and produce a play about Jimmy Savile and his appalling crimes. For what Bonnie and I thought on this subject, I direct you to the interview. But, as I hung up my skype connection at the end of the interview, a deep and profound thought crossed my mind – and drove me to write this blog.

It’s a thought that has been burning through my brain in the last couple of weeks as the general election campaign has finally kicked off and the candidates have been on the hustings. It’s been on my mind as I read the news, or when I go for a walk, or when I read a book, or try to work. In fact, it’s a thought so pervasive that it has even taken over my dreams. Let me lead you into it because I’d be really interested to know if anyone else is having the same thought that I am...

So, the interview finished – Bonnie emphasising that theatre is a place to have important debates and that British theatre is the best in the world – and I hung up my skype connection and sat there in the afterglow of a raging adrenalin rush (I don’t normally start my day in this way so my body was overcompensating just a tad...). And here’s the first thought that went through my mind...

So what?

Don’t get me wrong. Let me be clear – what Jimmy Savile did – his innumerable crimes – was absolutely reprehensible and raises deep, important questions that need answers. But Savile is dead. His victims are still suffering and trying to go on living their lives bearing the wound of what he did to them – and a play won’t change that. Yes, theatre is a place to examine it and, yes, it may give them a voice and bring some closure. Of course. I could hardly say otherwise having written a play about Deepcut. But, ultimately... so what? Because the thought that won’t leave me alone, that invades my dreams, that haunts me as I walk the streets with the dogs – that thought is nowhere to be seen in the theatre. Or in television. Or in film. Or in the political messages of the candidates who seek my vote. And that thought is this...

Why is no-one talking about the environment?

This is perfectly normal. Obviously.
Not just talking about it – shouting about it, screaming about it, raving about it... Why is no-one doing that? 

Why are we all so fucking calm?

Boring... I wonder what's on telly tonight...
In the past two weeks, since the launch of the election campaign, California has announced that its drought of the past five years has now reached such epidemic proportions that there is no snow on the Rocky Mountains to melt and replenish the reservoirs. California has no more water and it’s far from alone. The Observer tells us that water is the next commodity we will be fighting over. Half of India’s rivers are polluted to the point of toxicity. Canada’s glaciers will shrink by 70% by the end of the century. We still don’t know why the bees are dying. The news is consistently terrifying and utterly compelling and yet no-one seems to be making drama or art about it and none of the politicians have it front and centre in their speeches – or anywhere at all, come to that. And I have to ask myself – why the hell not?

In the past, whenever I’ve discussed the notion of creating a piece of drama that centres around the irrevocable damage we are doing to our planet, I am always met with the same response. “People don’t want to hear it. Everyone is already stressed, they get home at the end of the day and they want to be entertained – they don’t want gloom and doom. It’s a turn off.”

Similarly, the politicians – with perhaps the exception of the Green Party but you’d at least hope that they would be talking about it – are shying away from the subject in order to place all their focus onto the economy (and immigrants, of course, but that really comes down to the economy again. “They come over here, taking our zero-hours jobs that we don’t want...” etc). 

Growth. It’s all about growth. We need to get back into growth. The economy has grown again. It’s all going to be fine. If we just get back into growth then we can pay off the deficit (that none of us were actually responsible for creating) and then we can go back to living our lives just the way we want, consuming and wasting resources as much as we want, buying the latest Land Rover SUV despite the fact that we live in flat, suburban areas, etc etc etc.

But here’s the thing that the world and the climate and the environment are trying to tell us, day in and day out. The thing that we’re not listening to. The thing that keeps me awake at night.

You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

I’m going to write that again... And this time I'm going to underline it...

You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.

That’s it. Everything boils down to that. Slice it whichever way you like. Do your sums again and again. There’s just no way of getting around that one. The only resources we’re ever going to have are right here, right now, and we’re burning through them like there’s no tomorrow. And, if we keep on like this, there won’t be. Never mind the economic deficit. What about the ecological deficit? We’ve been overdrawn at the bank of the environment for decades now and the day of reckoning looks like it may well be at hand...

Too gloomy? Too apocalyptic? Too soon? Sorry. I know. You lead very stressful lives. So do I. Busy, full, stressful lives. We don’t want to hear this, do we? I know I don’t. I just want it to all be okay and my choices not to matter and be able to buy anything I want whenever I want and (here it comes...) eat a pasty and watch DVDs whenever I want. But I can’t. Not anymore. Because it’s blindingly obvious what’s going on and the less people talk about it and try and act as if everything is normal, the more blindingly obvious it becomes.

Skin care in the dystopian future goes right to hell...
The only representations of the damage we are doing to the environment in drama seem to be through zombie films and TV shows. Either that or they’re so bleak (cf: The Road) that you can barely bring yourself to watch them.

And so we switch off, tune out and the inertia and the denial go on. And all the while our politicians are fiddling while Rome burns, hoping that we don’t notice that they don’t care...

So, yes, the theatre is the place to examine the crimes of Jimmy Savile. I’m sure the play will be sensitive and compelling. But surely, surely, the time is ripe to start making art as if the world mattered. Surely that should be more important right now. Surely we have to start talking about it, owning it, accepting it, taking responsibility for our choices. Surely we have to begin to discuss it in drama, in plays, film, and television. Not in an apocalyptic way but in a mature, responsible way that looks at our behaviour and questions the values upon which it is based. Surely we can’t continue to keep our heads comfortable in the sand and just carry on. Surely, if there is a debate to be had about anything, it should be this. The survival of our race and the planet we call home. Surely.

“We're not listening, Phil. And stop calling us Shirley...”

Now, I'm fully aware that you may disagree. You may argue that people are talking about it - you may argue that actually there's too much talk about it and that we all just need to be left alone to get on with our lives and everything will be just fine.

As I hear so often these days – business as usual is not an option. There is no Planet B. Sometimes in my darkest moments, I’m not even certain that making art that puts the environment and the wasteful way we live front and centre would make any difference to the inexorable direction we’re travelling. At times like this I feel completely lost and without a sense of direction. And it's important for me to honour this lostness and doubt as well as sharing my belief that art, activism, random acts of kindness and the art of living can make all the difference in the world. If I don't honour the lostness and doubt then phrases like 'positive visions of a sustainable future' become nothing more than Orwellian Newspeak

For me, that’s what Emergence is all about. That’s why I, as an artist, am engaged with this project. I want to make art like the world matters. Fern and I are constantly trying to figure out neat, punchy ways of describing what it is Emergence does. The long answer is that we believe we need as a planet to   practice “the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet”. The short answer is we are trying to find our way towards finding out what "the art of living" would look and feel like. It’s hard to hold onto that in my darker days and in the face of the raging tide of denial that seems to surround us wherever we look. It would be so much easier to go with the flow. But it just wouldn’t feel right. And so I carry on, because it's the only thing I can do…

Margaret Wheatley, quoting Thomas Merton writes "Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps the results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…In the end it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything."

I suspect she's right. But some days it's hard to feel it's enough...

A more upbeat blog next week. Promise. After all, there's nothing to worry about, is there? It's all going to be fine. It's all going to be just fine... 

Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Comfort of Community by Philip Ralph

Fern and I have two small dogs. They are called Jaffa and Betty.

We’ve been away for the past five days at various events and workshops and had to find somewhere for the dogs to live since, annoyingly, the world isn’t terribly dog friendly and we can’t take them with us wherever we go. All of our usual dog minding options were full or unavailable and we were beginning to panic when we remembered Canine Comforts near Rhossilli on the Gower near Swansea.

You see, the problem with our dogs is ... (do bear with me, this isn’t all going to be about the dogs, I promise. You might even begin to discern that I’m using them as something of a metaphor later on cause I fancy myself as a bit of a writer) ... that they are a feisty couple of so-and-sos. Both of them are some form of Jack Russell terrier cross and they can be a real handful. Jaffa in particular – and I’m sure she won’t mind me saying this – can find it very trying meeting new dogs. She always has to get right in their face or up their bum, the fur on her back standing to attention, indicating clearly that if the new dog doesn’t back down pronto then things could get a bit growly and bitey. Canine Comforts, unlike most dog kennels, houses dogs together in one big pack – they sleep together at night and run about together during the day. So, it was with a due sense of trepidation that I delivered the two dogs there last Wednesday night...

How did they get on? That’s where the metaphor bit comes in and also the dramatic suspense. Now, don’t just skip to the end to find out if they survived or managed not to rip their pack mates limb from tiny limb. There’s method in my madness. Read on to find out more...

While the dogs were enjoying Canine Comforts, I headed to London to meet up with Fern at the launch of our friend Lucy Neal’s new book, Playing for Time

Lucy, former director of the LIFT Festival, co-creator of Case For Optimism and stalwart of Transition Tooting, has been a lynchpin for us here at Emergence over the last five years. She spoke at the second Emergence conference in Swansea; was at the heart of the planning and delivery of the first Land Journey and Summit at CAT nearMachynlleth in 2012; and facilitated and walked the Gower Way as part of the Walk That Reconnects last September. She’s been working on Playing for Time for the past two years. I won’t say too much about it here since Fern is going to blog all about it next week but, suffice it to say, if you’ve found your way to this blog and are even a tiny bit interested in the arts and sustainability, then you need to read this book.

The launch event was held on Thursday night at the beautiful Free Word centre in Clerkenwell. The many collaborators and artists who had co-created the book alongside Lucy had been there all day together, celebrating and marking their achievement, before a larger launch event in the evening to which I was invited.

Here’s the thing though – I was really terrified about going...

I’m 44 years old. I look like an all-in wrestler. People scare me.

To be more specific, large groups of people gathered together at social events scare me...

And small groups, to be honest...

In fact, ANY group of people, no matter what size, gathered together socially gives me the almighty collywobbles. The jitters. The heebie jeebies. You get the idea...

This is a bit of a bind since I’m really committed to the idea of community and recognise it to be crucial to the whole movement surrounding the changes we need to make to create a liveable planet for future generations. It’s the separation we feel from each other, the suspicion we feel about each other, the doubt and fear, that leads us to attack each other and to jealously guard – and waste – valuable resources. We literally need each other to survive.

But, as I said in my last blog, I don’t like change. I like staying firmly in my comfort zone and what that means to me usually revolves around being on the other side of a closed door from most of the people in the world (and eating a pastry based food item whilst watching a DVD boxset...).  But, recognising that my need to stay in my comfort zone has lead me to a much smaller, sadder life in the past, I know that I have to bite the bullet, put down the pasty, and get out there and be with people. And, of course, whenever I do, I discover that people are, by and large, bloody lovely. And indeed so they proved to be at the launch of Lucy’s book.

In fact, I’d go further and say that it was a room chock full of some of the bloody loveliest people one could ever hope to meet. Passionate people. Engaged people. Committed, dedicated, creative, funny, enlightened and inspirational people. Everywhere I looked. 

And therein lay another problem for me...

“What the hell” – I couldn’t stop myself from asking in a slightly Sex & The City type way – “am I doing here?” Because I may do some work with Emergence and I may feel passionate about these issues but I’ve never walked the walk and talked the talk like the people around me that night. These people aren’t waiting for a politician to tell them it’s okay to go and make connected, relational, valuable, useful art that connects and inspires their communities. They’re just doing it. And as the evening went on, my feelings of inadequacy faded away to be replaced by something much more useful. I realised that these people around me – the ones I was so afraid of – were my community. I stopped feeling inadequate and felt inspired instead. If they can do it, then so can I. I came away feeling fired up and engaged and ready to tackle change head on. And I drew that strength from being with people who don’t whinge and moan about the world and do nothing. They act. They do. They make. They create. I want to be in their gang. I want to be part of their community. And, slowly but surely, I think I am.

If that weren’t enough, Fern and I then traveled to Cambridge where we were part of a wonderful weekend called Way of Council and Community, lead by the force of nature that is Pip Bondy

Pip has made teaching and sharing Council her life’s work and it shows. Small of stature but huge of heart, her strength, compassion and wisdom are remarkable. Like Lucy’s book, I recommend her and her work to those of you with questing souls and fearless hearts. 

Way of Council is a ceremonial form of deep communication and listening that derives from tribal cultures stretching back thousands of years. It is intuitive, open, heartfelt, passionate, and – you guessed it – utterly terrifying. Pip teaches the practice of sitting together in circle with our fellow humans and really truly speaking and listening from the heart to what serves in that moment. It might sound a bit woolly, yoghurt-weavy and new-agey but, believe me, it’s anything but. It’s primal. It’s grounded. It’s pant-wettingly scary. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run and, try as I might to be funny and frivolous so everyone in the circle would think I was a great guy, the reality of the experience is that I had to tell the truth. And the truth hurts.

The content of the weekend – what we all shared with each other – is confidential, quite rightly. But I can tell you this: I went into a room in Cambridgeshire and met strangers. I was scared, terrified even, and way way WAY out of my comfort zone. And I walked out of that same room two and a half days later – you guessed it  – part of a community. We had spoken from the heart and listened from the heart, we had laughed and we had cried and we had come to know each other not as strangers but as fellow travellers. We had broken down the barriers between us and come to recognise that we are all scared, all lost, all searching, all grieving, all joyful, playful, delighted and thrilled to be human animals in this time and place.

(Okay, park your materialist, First World cynicism and go with it. Believe me, no-one is more surprised than me to be on this journey but I am so very glad that I am. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, my friends...)

After the weekend was over, dazed and not a little confused, Fern and I travelled home and went to collect the dogs. And what did we find? (METAPHOR KLAXON!!!) Our two dogs – and yes, even fiery Jaffa – had, after initial fear and doubt, fallen into deep and warm community with their fellow species mates. They had played together, they had slept together, they had eaten, chased, barked, scrapped and cuddled together. They had broken out of their comfort zones and were a community.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere...


In recent years I have become fascinated by the etymological derivation of words. The true meanings behind the words we use in everyday life carry great hidden messages for us if we only care to look a bit deeper. Most recently I have been thinking a lot about the words community and comfort. 

As I said above, comfort for me is a solitary experience and I wonder if it may be the same for many people in our solipsistic, materialist culture. But once we push through our comfort zones and fears around other people we are, more often than not, rewarded with a real sense of belonging and warmth. And that’s not surprising since the etymological derivation of ‘Community’ boils down to ‘Together we are one’.

But here’s the kicker and the real life lesson for me from the last few days. The comfort zone I am so scared to leave... the solipsistic, solitary experience of closing my door and sprawling on the sofa with a pasty... the desire to remove myself from the company of others because I feel inadequate or lost or threatened by their company... I think I may have got it all wrong...

Because you see, the etymological derivation of ‘Comfort’ boils down to a really fascinating notion –

'Together we are strong'.

Like my dogs, I’m going to remember that the next time I face meeting strangers. I think it may well make me see things in a new light. I think it might offer me real comfort to continue doing things that scare me in this particularly scary time in human history. I think it might make me feel less alone. And I hope it does for you too.