Theme 2: Towards a new political culture

When Uffe Elbæk on a street corner in May 2013 decided to form the Alternative Party he initiated an astonishingly persistent movement which came from the periphery with great force: since everything Uffe did was seen as both very different and very wrong, nobody believed that he would succeed. However his project was a success and has today developed new standards for the political life. It questions the standard conception that the centre – in this case Copenhagen and the established system in the Danish parliament – is where the changes are made.

Uffe Elbæk is our second guest blogger on The Positive Change and is in the following going to tell us about his journey from the periphery of power to the centre of power.

Towards a new political culture

By Uffe Elbæk, political leader of Denmark’s The Alternative Party

It’s a pleasure to be offered to write for Samsø Energy Academy’s new blog. In fact, I feel somewhat honored. I can’t take off my hat enough for their daily efforts to create a green, sustainable transition in Denmark. They are among the pioneers in this area.

That’s why I don’t want to use my column here to tell you about the need for a serious green transition and green entrepreneurship, because many of you, each in your own way, are already experts in these areas.

Instead, I would like to share my/our thoughts about how we can create a far more green, progressive and entrepreneurial agenda in Denmark through among other things developing a new political culture.

Perhaps some of you will find my story inspiring and even want to get involved in politics in new ways. Others may just want to get to know me and The Alternative Party better.

I know exactly when the idea of starting a new political party and movement – a new political platform – emerged. It was during a conversation between two young activists, Sophie and Søren, and me on a street corner in central Frederiksberg May, 2013.

The three of us had been to a meeting at Danish Parliament in conjunction with the Under Radar project. I started the project to shine light on all the good new sustainability projects taking place under the political and media radar.

When we got to the corner of Gammel Kongevej and H.C. Ørstedsvej, we stopped, because that’s where I live. Then, either Sophie or Søren asked me, “Uffe, why don’t you start a new political party?” Even though I immediately shrugged off their idea, the question definitely got me thinking.

I looked back on my work life with the Front Runners and the Chaos Pilots, which were about not accepting the type of society we have today as being the best possible. And it occurred to me that of course, politics can have far more participation then is often the case today.

Yes, politics in a humbler, participatory way, building on the premise that more and more of the politicians’ most important duties is direct contact and dialog with regular citizens. Not least politics in a way where we have the courage to imagine a radically different sustainable society than the one we have today.

What was needed was nothing less than a political and cultural revolution, I thought. Of course in a friendly and constructive way. As the Russian Jewish-American anarchist and Women’s Rights champion Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” It was just such a life-affirming revolution I envisioned when we just about a half year later we founded The Alternative Party.

A whole lot has happened since four years ago when Sophie, Søren and I stood on the street corner of Gammel Kongevej and H.C. Ørstedsvej. I don’t hide the fact that the common journey we started out on that day in May 2013 is the most democratically hopeful one I’ve experienced in my entire life.

Even though it has been a journey against all odds. Because from the very start we were told by just about everyone that would never, never, never succeed with The Alternative Party.

There wasn’t a thing that wasn’t wrong with us: Our way of developing policies – through political laboratories – was wrong. The way we campaigned to gather the necessary signatures to be able to run for parliament was wrong. The way we ran our political campaign was wrong. And even though we actually got into parliament, the way we were organized, and not least the way we were as politicians, was wrong – according to the political commentators and many of the journalists covering Danish politics.

Yet luckily there were and are a lot of people who have had the exact opposite experience. Namely, that this was exactly the kind of politics we were waiting for. Where the ambition is to go from our current representative democracy to a far more direct participatory democracy. And where together, we build a new democratic bridge between the Danish Parliament and the surrounding society.

From being three people on a street corner, we are now over 11,000 members today. From an Executive Board, we now have ten district boards and over 80 local chapters spread across the country. There are even activities outside of Denmark. With inspiration from The Alternative Party in Denmark, there are new political initiatives in diverse countries such as Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, and Nepal.

This is a new democratic vision and ambition that my parliamentary colleagues in the party and I are focused on every day in the Danish Parliament. We try our best to develop and practice a new political culture by being curious and listening to each other and our colleagues from the other parties. And by being humble as an elected parliamentarian and always trying to become smarter through meeting civil servants, businesspeople, and regular citizens, who are all experts in their own daily lives.

Even though no one is perfect, and the effort to create a new political culture is difficult in a place like the Danish Parliament where spin and conflict unfortunately dominate, I am in fact really proud about how far we’ve come during the two years we’ve been in Parliament.

Everything from the way we organize our days along the Green Hall (the nickname for the area of Parliament where we have our offices) to the way we develop our policies through on-going political laboratories, to the way we make political decisions in our parliamentary group.

In relation to the latter, as an example we livestream all of our parliamentary group meetings so everyone can watch when we discuss how we will vote in parliament. It’s a vulnerable way to create transparency, but I believe that it’s important to show the public the nuances in politics. A “yes” vote is not always a 100% “yes.” It could be an 80% “yes,” because usually there are good arguments for and against a particular issue.

I am – admittedly – not least a fan of our very own tiny development department, which time and again comes up with totally surprising new proposals for how we can make politics participatory and meaningful for people. Our latest big initiative from the development team is the creation of a new action-oriented medium, Altivisten, which you can find at altivitsen.dk.

Altivitsen is a solutions-oriented polar opposite of all the conflict-filled journalism that dominates today’s media-scape. Here, everyone can contribute with solutions within three main categories: How can we live sustainably, how can we create a good life, and how can we develop democracy?

For me, the development department’s work is a good example of that we can be the change we want to see in the world. More citizen involvement in politics is for me absolutely necessary in order that we can make the changes that Danish politics need. There is a need for a new political culture where all kinds of citizens find it exciting, meaningful and educational to participate. Otherwise it will end up being the same middle-aged, tie-wearing white men (sorry for this generalization) who decide how our society should look and run.

That is why I ask you reading this to continue to participate in society. In the community, in the local green transition, and in new ways of being political. There is a need for much more diversity in Danish politics if the decisions being made are going to represent what people want.

Embrace your democratic authority, create communities, participate and seek to influence. As the great American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

You must do that which you do not know that you know

What is fragility?

It’s an interesting word to look at, because we often speak using completely different hard-sounding words when it comes to climate change and the environment. Concepts such as robustness – which is similar to the terms resilience and sustainability that are often used in the climate debate – while the opposite of robustness and resilience, fragility, is often not taken into account. However, much suggests that it is precisely our sensitivity that affects how well we humans fare in the world, especially when our surroundings are undergoing change. Development and sustainability, robustness, fragility and resilience.

In order to understand the concepts of sustainability, robustness, fragility and resilience from the perspective of development, we must figure out what kind of ability to resist they characterize.

Looking at the development concepts we mentioned before, sustainability can be the same as biological aptitude created through natural selection. Robustness can refer both to sustainability and resilience, i.e., to the ability of an organism to adapt to a particular environment. One is robust when one does not change its own basic characteristics in the process and resists the environment rather than encompassing it, while the concept of resilience is characterized by strong adaptive features, where one understands how to utilize changes in the environment to their own benefit.

Fragility can be divided into positive fragility and negative fragility. The negative means that the organism declines due to a lack of adaptability, while the positive characterizes organisms that are able to adapt to new and difficult conditions through inventive transformations. The creativity of the organism is at the heart of this, which causes the organism to succeed in exploiting its more difficult experiences and to exploit what you still do not know that you know.

Where robust cultural history is about survival power within environments that maintain a heavy status quo and whose survival characteristics have been dictated by the environment, sustainability is a result of strategic analysis, planning and chronicling where both state and industry have recognized the need for a transformation in order to survive climate change.

The concept of resilience is not so easy to use in planning, as it is more connected with the positive aspects of fragility, where the fragility of the human organism is utilized to establish a protection against vulnerability. An example could be the doctor Ignaz Semmelweis, who in the mid 1800’s rescued many new mothers from post-natal death by getting doctors to wash their hands before delivering the baby.

Positive fragility The concept of positive fragility can be understood from the similar word sensitivity, that is, being sensitive and a consciousness phenomenon that has an especially reflective content. Positive fragility uses distinctive mental potentials because it knows that it doesn’t know everything, yet at the same time it has the ability to activate what you do not know that you know. An example of this may be when Alexander Fleming accidently discovered penicillin.

Actually, the researcher had given up on the solution for how to kill staphylococci. He instead went on vacation, but when he got home, the petri dish of the bacteria was infected with penicillium mushrooms that had killed the bacteria. By using his ability to observe and combining it with the sensitivity of the experience to something with which he had no objective, he utilized his non-knowledge productively, and instead invented penicillin.

This is an alternative way of finding out something that depends on sensation, imagination, and thinking, and which works not by controlling, but instead giving, benefiting, enriching and conveying joy. In that way, positive fragility is a social category. It is about our perception of others, and thus also about our relationship with ourselves.

Nassim Taleb and the black swans
These thoughts are in many ways related to Nassim Talbe’s term “anti-fragility.” He places fragility up against robustness as something that can transform itself into its opposition by utilizing stress. Taleb says about his term:

“Some things take advantage of shock: They thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, coincidence, disorder, stress factors, and love stories, risks and uncertainties. Let’s call this antifragility. The resilient withstands shock and stays the same, while the anti-fragile improves.”

He continues:

“Antifragility, which is the opposite of fragility, has the unique ability to allow us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them – and do it well. This gives a solution to what I have called the Black Swan issue – the ability to calculate the risk of subsequent rare events and predict their occurrence. Following Taleb, the story of ‘black swans’ is created by major unpredictable events that occur in spite of our attempts to capture them in models. Taleb also comes with concrete examples of the differences between robust, fragile, and anti-fragile in our society: Under the category of professions, academics, private sector leaders, the Pope, and politicians are fragile, while those who are robust are post-office workers, truck drivers and train engineers, while the anti-fragile are writers and artists.

And then there’s the relevant question about global warming: How can the fact that we cannot do anything about sea-level rise be turned into a strength? Said in another way, what is the potential of robustness in our fragility in terms of the climate crisis?

A robust reaction would be to stop all emissions immediately. A fragile reaction would consist of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strategies that, however, will not be sufficient in itself without negative effects. They will face political barriers, and this is where their fragility lies. Technologies such as of 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence that could help us reduce the resources used for transportation would mean unemployment among those who would otherwise have operated machines. However, it is unclear how such fragility could be turned into a robust benefit, yet we still can learn from Taleb’s terminology. We can stop considering robust as an ideal, and look differently at fragile. This also encourages us to understand resilience as a phenomenon that belongs to a completely different system than sustainability. However, the road there is not without problems: It implies that we have different view of history, vulnerability, and vulnerable populations. Fragility lies not only in our perception, but in what is being seen. In order for us to adapt to them requires great social awareness, as well as an ability to act from this place, and be ready for rejection. It requires a great change of mentality, and the password for this is generosity.

Conclusion

Talking about fragility as opposed to robustness and antifragility, we also talk about human consciousness. It is in the interaction between nature and society that fragility plays out. Nature and society are fragile in relation to what we do to them. The resources that we have available each year from nature are already exhausted after the first 8 months. It is this knowledge of the fragility of nature that can make us change our behaviour. However, the means on this journey are also fragile, as they themselves corrode the resources.

Precisely because robustness, fragility and antifragility are all intertwined in capitalist power structures, we need to analyze these forms of power and gain an understanding of new forms of mentality – including a new generosity towards the billions of victims suffering from capitalism, which an action to save the world requires. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a new ideological travesty.