Monday, September 07, 2009

Almost a Plan

Great news from the folks behind the we20 Web site, full details here. They're holding a contest and your we20 meeting could receive $1000 to enable your plan:
To mark the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh (24th and 25th September) host a we20 meeting and you could win US$1000 to make your ideas a reality!

Remember, the basic idea for we20 is to have your own G20 meeting to discuss a problem and to create a plan to overcome the problem. Your we20 meeting could produce a plan for your local area or a wider plan with national or global goals. You may have an existing project to invigorate; ideas to develop; or are looking for a fresh approach to a local challenge. Check out previous we20 meetings and previous plans if you need inspiration.

The competition is open to people anywhere in the world so start organising your we20 meetings!
If you followed along, you already know I think we20 is a great idea. But you've also gather that I'm not much of and organizer. I had a loose invitation to friends over the last week, and the result was two we20 meetings of sorts that fell short of making any plan. So I've not posted anything at the we20 site, but thought it useful to tell about these meetings. I suspect others trying to get a plan together will find something a bit similar happening with their initial attempts too.

The first meeting was just a couple of friends stopping by after they had gone to the fair. We talked about the physical constraints that the economy is facing. In An Open Letter to the Queen found at the Transition Culture blog, the Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted:
“It has been said that ‘the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment’. The earth itself is what ultimately controls economic activity because it is the source of the materials upon which economic activity works”.
Well put, so the three of us discussed not consuming so much. I think we started out thinking this from a positive direction, even in mocking tones about ridiculous consumption. But this tone quickly shifted about to the fact that lots of consumption is reduced simply because so many people don't have jobs and incomes. It's hard to feel sanguine about that. And we felt stymied about what to do, and what plan to make.

On Saturday night I went to a friend's house, there were five of us there at that meeting and I had the news about the $1000 prize. Even if we couldn't come up with a plan, we thought perhaps we might know people capable of getting a proper planning meeting together. In our meeting we talked about Carbon and energy as global problems. We also talked about the nature of the G20 Summit to be held in Pittsburgh September 24–25. Pittsburgh is a fairly small city and the geography is challenging with hills and the confluence of two rivers. So some of the talk was simply about the inconvenience the summit is sure to cause as well as what sorts of responses to it make sense. In this regard we mentioned Web sites and initiatives. We also talked about the WTO Meeting in Seattle ten years ago. If there was a consensus it was about the importance to "Think globally, act locally." That agreement made us all favorably disposed to the we20 idea, but no closer to making a plan.

While there was no group plan put into place at either meeting, genuine connections were made. We all began to think about initiatives others we know are excited about, and little ways that we can respond, for example positng content at myG20 or posting questions via HeyG20 at Twitter. We also talked about who among the people we know really could get a group of us together to hammer out a plan. Like the first meeting with two friends, this second meeting began to attend to the practical realities of financial hardship among our friends and the larger community.

Here's what I take away from the meetings. First I think everyone is very much in agreement about if not reducing consumption at least reducing the impact our consumption makes. It's significant I think that at both meetings gifts of home grown produce were exchanged. Second, the economic distress of people we know weighs on us. That's not a simple issue. In some ways talking about that specifically feels like gossip. Certainly not malicious gossip, but there's a hesitancy to say too much. In some of the cases the situations are people running through their savings just to live. There's a presumption that at some point the economy will turn and they'll get back to doing something like they used to do.

One of the participants is an attorney in the Family Court system in the County. She pointed out that the group homes which care for clients she supervises haven't been paid in two months because Pennsylvania is the only state yet to pass a budget. Presumably some legislation will get passed. But the subject of the group homes led to discussion of the demise of many other private-public partnerships which have been lost in the financial crisis. Longstanding and well-regarded institutions have closed, probably never to open again.

With people taking turns adding details to this line of talk, the dilemma of friends trying to avoid foreclosure, and to rescue any bit of their savings on hopes of an economic turn-around gained added weight. The uncertainty about what we can take for granted made us wonder how to make a plan.

A small plan which addresses consumption issues is worthwhile and something perhaps to work towards. But the more engaging problem of how to respond to the economic distress of good friends we know more daunting.

Even without hammering out a plan, we20 is an idea that helps focus attention. Nobody wants to advertise their financial problems, but convene a group and I think it likely you'll hear about problems you didn't know about. Even rosy economic projections predict little job growth two years out. John Robb points to a graph from Calculated Risk showing employment as a percent of the population. He notes that it's almost back to the "levels 'before' women entered the workforce en masse." Robb adds "Hilarious." but such gallows humor is probably an acquired taste. The effects of unemployment are being felt widely. The effects are quite particular. No plan may come easily from your meetings either, but I suspect the meetings will change perspectives.

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