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Changing the world: The microbes have a message of hope – featured in Permaculture magazine, Autumn

This article, published in Permaculture magazine (August 2016), uses the soil – and the microbes in it – as inspiration for how we might change the world for the better.

Campaigners at a local "save the libraries" protest

Take your imaginary self off to your closest patch of healthy soil. Shrink yourself down to much, much smaller than this full stop. Go down a few centimetres and take a look around.

As most readers of Permaculture magazine will know very well, what you can see before you right now is a world bursting with a bewildering array of life.

Tiny bacteria are buzzing about in their millions, breaking down organic matter and transforming ammonium in to nitrogen that’s handily useable by plants. Fungi are forming remarkable strands stretching through the soil, enriching the rhizosphere and creating minute air and water pathways.

Protozoa – relative giants – are nipping past you in the hunt for some of the bacteria to eat, managing their numbers as a result, whilst nematodes – tiny worm-like eating machines – are also controlling the population, sliding through a patch of soil nearby, mouths open, to devour anything from a bacterium to a slug.

Bigger things with legs and bigger things without legs – worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, spiders, ants – are beside you too, tunnelling, devouring each other and shredding waste, boosting soil fertility. And all of this life, through its waste products and its deaths, is providing nutrition that plants thrive on.

Those plants meanwhile, are manipulating some of what’s going on, exuding sugars that attract the beneficial bugs they need.

It’s a phenomenally busy mix. Whilst this lot are not necessarily all the best of friends, they are all critically important to each other and to the health of the place they live in – a fantastically complex but wonderfully rich and varied system functioning to the benefit of all.

We’ll come back to them in a little bit. For now, dig yourself back out of that soil and back to your normal size, before something eats you.

Up in our human world, it’s felt to me, to many people I know (and perhaps to you), that things are a little grimmer than they’ve been for a while. There seems to be more than a fair share of bad news to suck out our enthusiasm, or boost our fears.

Not much feels like it’s going in the right direction, be it the global temperature, the electability of Trump, the population of the oceans, our humanity to those most in need, the destructive hunt for more, and harder to reach fossil fuels … It seems that news I don’t want to hear has been coming at a greater rate of knots.

An anti-fracking protest banner

Over the past fifteen years I’ve been lucky enough to work with some brilliant people in some brilliant organisations, all focused on social and environmental change. And in that time, I’ve seen campaigns achieve remarkable things.

Through the combined efforts of people – ordinary people – I’ve seen laws like the world’s first climate change law get passed, I’ve see local threats like major coal mine plans blocked, I’ve seen a million mobilise to march through the streets against war and I’ve seen obscure international trade deals made popularly unpopular.

Alongside the approach of campaigning through politics, I’ve also seen how powerful it is when people create living, breathing “examplars” of a new way the world can work down on the ground: local communities pulling together to create tool-sharing schemes, alternative currencies or (where I used to work, in The Orchard Project) creating community orchards. Projects like these deliver a taste of positive, alternative visions of a way the world can be. They present real, tangible arguments for change.

Take the Orchard Project’s work for example. By creating community orchards across the UK, and helping people to feel a sense of ownership and investment in those spaces through training and support and through harvesting and traditional celebratory events, we’re not just creating orchards, we’re creating thriving community food hubs for decades to come, improved local natural spaces and a route to understanding more about local food and the land.

Positive, progressive changes in society often happen step by step, usually in small ways here and there. An improved law here. A community orchard there.

These changes are realised because people come together and create them, using all manner of approaches. Campaigns that force change through pressure are one way changes happen. The creation of thriving examplars that show how things can be done better is another way. Direct actions that block or embarrass the holders of power, research that swings a debate, boycotting to withdraw resources from those with the power, changing the way you live your own life or manage your land; these too are all methods of creating change.

All of these have, in different ways and at different times, helped generate real and meaningful change in the world.

Of course, none of us really hanker for small, piecemeal, bit by bit, change. What we really want to see, and arguably can’t see enough of right now, is really big, significant change. A shift in the zeitgeist and a normalizing of things that right now feel like they’re further on the fringe than they should be, like permaculture. It’s frustrating when a better world that we think is possible seems so far away – sometimes further away than ever – after so much effort.

UK anti-fracking activism

But that real change – the substantial, lasting, visionary and progressive change that really feels like the scale of impact we’re all wanting – can’t be achieved through a simple project, or a campaign or a group. It never has been and never will be. That kind of change can only ever be achieved by movements.

Movements are beautifully messy collections of groups, opinions, tactics and ideas from all over the place, that are all heading, sometimes loosely, in the same direction. They are bursting with variety. Different people in different places doing different things in ways that together are slowly adding up.

Not everyone in the same movement can recognize how vital they are to each other and not everyone in a movement will get along or agree with each other. Indeed, many will passionately disagree, on tactics, ideas and even solutions. The priorities of different groups will differ and different groups will look different, sound different and often demand different things.

A protest as part of the ultimately successful "Save Warrington's Libraries" campaign

That can be frustrating but excitingly, what makes a movement so powerful, so unstoppable, is the very fact that it is so diverse, so varied, so bursting with colour, creativity and innovation. It is impossible to control, impossible to manage, impossible to predict and outwit.

And slowly, over time, so often, the different actions generated by the different people start to add up. Shifts start to happen and at some point, hard to predict quite when, a momentum becomes unstoppable and accelerates, a tipping point is reached and what seemed so far away not so long ago, starts to feel within reach.

Now, take yourself back to that soil. Down there is a living, breathing, thriving example of how those of us that strive for a better world will achieve it. There is huge variety, there are different groups serving different functions and using different approaches, there are some that work together brilliantly and some that don’t get along, but unbeknownst to them, they are all dependent on each other and only together will they really reach their greatest potential. The variety and the interactions together create a phenomenally resilient whole.

Famously, every teaspoon of soil contains a billion bacteria, yards of fungi, thousands of protozoa, a healthy bunch of nematodes. But through the combination of these disparate parts in to a thriving “soil web” that teaspoon of soil also becomes a symbol of strength.

It is easy at times to lose hope, lose energy, doubt whether we are having any effect in our various attempts to better the world, and question what, if anything, we can do.

So let’s take some strengths from what the microbes are showing us. Seeing ourselves as a part of a much bigger whole, not just as individuals in a challenging world, can help remind us that to some degree, it matters much less exactly what we are doing to make a difference, and much more that we are doing something.

That it is through the beautiful variety and activity of all of us together that we create a resilient movement.

And it is resilient movements, like resilient soils, that thrive and succeed.

By Neil Kingsnorth


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