A spiraling network of sustainability: Debates, power relations, and tensions in the CASA network
by Thomas Macintyre, February 2018
The Colombian case study of the International T-Learning project is based on exploring grassroots initiatives envisioning and enacting sustainable forms of living. A major part of this research has taken place in a network of sustainable initiatives called CASA Colombia, with a special focus on its annual flagship event ‘The Call of the Mountain ( El Llamado de la Montana) . As an experiential gathering which brings together people, ideas and practices across cultural, social and economic spectrums, the Colombian T-Learning team have come to understand this event as a social learning classroom – a transformative space with the potential for disruptive forms of ‘transgressive learning’ based on encounters between different worldviews (Chaves, Macintyre, Verschoor, & Wals, 2017b; Chaves & Wals, 2017) .
Buen vivir panel during the Call of the Mountain 2015, Misak Universidad
Starting out as a small gathering by the ecovillage movement of Colombia in 2006, the Call of the Mountain has mushroomed into a larger intercultural event, with the mission of articulating its vision of sustainable living with other actors in society. For example, the event was held in the Hare Krishna community Varsana in 2014, and the Indigenous Misak University in 2015, with over 500 participants, including invited guests from Indigenous and afro communities of Colombia, as well as a wide range of organisations.
El Llamado de la Montaña in the Hare Krishna community of Varsana, Cundinamarca, Colombia
However, there has been a long-term simmering debate in the network concerning the role of CASA and the Call of the Mountain event: Should it continue expanding and articulating its vision with other sustainability groups as a means to forward the sustainability message? Or should it fortify and celebrate its original members and their communities through smaller and more intimate family gatherings?
This debate has been a simmering tension until 2017, when it erupted in full force. The Call of the Mountain was to take place in the Indigenous community of the Kankuamos in the spiritually infused mountains of the Sierra Nevada in Northern Colombia. With talk of there being up to 2000 participants, and a deep spiritual connection with the territory, enthusiasm was high and planning started early. However, the organising team of the CASA network found itself struggling with communication problems both within its network, and with the Kankuamo representatives. These problems were exacerbated by the challenges of articulating an intercultural event with the complex political dynamics of an Indigenous community, many of whose members remain suspicious to outsiders after years of colonisation.
The pueblo of Atánquez, in the Territory of the Kankuamos.
All it took was a minor breach in protocol by the CASA network for the Kankuamo leaders to cancel the event. After months of planning and investments in personal time and money, the CASA organisation erupted into disorder, recriminations flew, and a desperate search began for another venue in the Sierra Nevada to hold the event. At the same time, questions were being asked as to the structure and maturity of the CASA organisational team to allow such a breach of protocol to happen, and deeper questions about the role of CASA as a network arose. In the end, the Call of the Mountain was held in one of its founding communities – the ecovillage Anthakarana – in a small, family sized event of only 40 people. A three day future-search methodology was employed by participants to reflect on the process of CASA and the Call of the Mountain, and a re-envisioning of its future.
Future search methodology during the Call of the Mountain, Anthakarana, 2017
Through the future search methodology we collectively came to understand that after a period of expansion – beginning in 2012 with the founding of CASA – the network had over extended itself through its mission to articulate with many other groups and increase participant numbers. As a self-financed and autonomous event, the Call of the Mountain relies on volunteers to organise and facilitate. This has involved countless hours of virtual meetings and collaborating on google documents, logistics, budgets, resulting in several members experiencing burnouts in 2017. The natural course after such an expansion was a process of contraction, of looking more within, taking care of the family, and rebuilding trust and inspiration closer to home. The Call of the Mountain had come full circle – or as we will see below, had turned inwards in the spiral – back to its community roots.
The CASA ‘family’ celebrating during El Llamado de la Montaña in Anthakarana, 2017
To finish off this blog, we will use the emerging Spiralling theory of Change (SoC – see figure 1 below) to explore how the CASA network transformations can be understood in terms of expansion and contraction, and up/out and deep scaling. The SoC represents an emergent and fluid representation of how the T-learning team understand change and transformation. Based on the ecological symbols of the spiral and a plant – witnessed in the seeds of a sunflower, and the unfolding of a silver fern – the spiral symbolises the unfolding and transformation of life. The following is a look at the CASA through the lens of the SoC.
Figure 1. Spiraling theory of change. Developed by Martha Chaves, Dylan McGarry, Heila Lotz-Sisitka and Gibson Mphepo during the T-Learning workshop in New Delhi, India, November 2016
Roots: The roots represent the cultural-historical context of a process. For the CASA network and the Call of the Mountain, such roots lie in the organisation by mostly neo-rural people into intentional communities in the countryside of Colombia. Historical and cultural forces of modernisation have alienated many from the life in the city, with with a strong desire to connect to a territory through embracing Indigenous ideas and practices of living a lifestyle more connected to Mother Earth – the good life of buen vivir (see Chaves, Macintyre, Verschoor, & Wals, 2017a) .
Shoots: These are the small action and changes that have resulted in spaces for innovation and reflexion. In this case, communities have been established, and new practices emerging, such as participatory decision-making strategies of sociocracy, economic solidarity through community enterprises, and ecological construction with local materials. As a means for exchange as well as a celebration of community living, communities decide to meet up yearly in a member community in an event they call the Call of the Mountain.
Stems: At this stage the processes encounter moments that are either conducive to change, or act as barriers to transformation. Barriers are represented by the symbol ‘//’ which must be overcome for the budding of leaves. In the case of CASA, an early challenge was for members to address the ‘baggage’ of modernity which they have brought with them to their new lives in the countryside. Some shoots die as members and communities are unable to resolve their economic situation in the countryside, or find it too difficult to live a community lifestyle with shared responsibilities, and inherent differences in power relations between community members. At this point, the power of community comes into force, where communities which manage to develop shared visions and empower its members to be active and find meaning in their lives flourish. This requires deep reflection and collaborative thinking – some communities fall apart – while some shoot into the stems which twist and turn in a spiral fashion, moving the process forward (see Chaves, Macintyre, Riano, Calero, & Wals, 2015 for an account of a community going through this process) .
Leaves: Moving upwards in the spiral, the organic budding of leaves represents outcomes, sustainability actions, and robust change, and at this stage arises the challenge of how to replicate these actions. After eight years of building community and holding the Call of the Mountain, the ecovillage network has been consolidated, with an increasing number of people interested and getting involved in community initiatives. In 2012, the ecovillage movement decided to articulate its network with other people and initiatives outside of the ecovillage realm thus creating CASA Colombia – the council of sustainable settlements of Latin America. This can be seen as a means for upscaling and outscaling sustainability actions to the wider public (Chaves & Wals, 2017) .
Blossoms: If successful, blossoms represent the outcomes that produce new seeds (processes that are replicated). The blossoms are beautiful, and represent the culmination of peoples’ dreams and desires. The dotted lines representing invisible processes and new resources, processes or outcomes that have the potential to provide pollen, fruit and hence seeds. We can see this blossoming through the Call of the Mountain event being held each year, which has brought together a wide diversity of people, ideas and practices
. There are 1 also the invisible processes of new relations forming and being broken between people and territory. An experiential event which brought about a new way of thinking – for example a feeling of connection with one’s fellow man during a sufi ‘dance of universal peace.’
Seeds: Attracted by the smell of beauty and desire, pollinators arrive and fertilize other processes/contexts through participating in network events. The resulting fruit are the stories, resources, methods, new insights, skills, and new connections that provide needed nourishment to other projects and contexts. Finally, seeds can be stored, maintaining the ‘genetic’ history/narrative of the process, learning and the outcomes.
The above is a simple narrative of an expanding process of learning – an ever expanding process of life replicating itself. Although life does replicate itself, it is important to appreciate that this process is uneven, occurring in pulses; expansion when spring arrives to a frozen landscape, or rain to a parched field; and contraction when autumn arrives or the rains do not come in time. In our personal experience, this same process of expansion and contraction has occurred in the CASA network, generated by the tension between generating outside change (accelerating expansion through upscaling and outscaling) and the more introspective individual and family transformation. In the figure 2 below, we can see how actions and learning experiences can generate fruits, or conversely, the process can collapse, moving back to center of the spiral.
Figure 2. A closer look at the ToC model demonstrates that T-learning processes spiral out in both directions, representing a constant commitment to reflexivity as the T-learning processes continually undergo expansion and contraction, and deepening if the process is critically reflected on
Fundamental to this process is reflexivity, the process of understanding whoone is in a changing world. This is a two way loop: – not just influencing the world around us, but also being conscious of how the world is transforming us at the same time. CASA organisers have dedicated time, energy and love to growing the network and changing the world around them. However, it is clear that many have given too much of themselves – the spiralling plant has grown too big, requiring too much energy which it cannot obtain from its own root processes. It is now time to stop thinking up and out, but instead ‘deep’ into how to reconnect with the networks core strengths and desires, and rebuild broken dreams and relationships.
Nota Bene: Ideas in this blog on the SoC model are based on the collaborative work by the T-Learning team on the theory of Spiralling change.
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