Meaning 2019, on 14 November, was a big day full of wonderful, sometimes challenging, ideas. When it almost seems like too much to take in, it’s good to check out someone else’s reflections. We asked Anca Rusu of ethical.net to offer her thoughts on the speakers we heard together in Brighton…
I went to Meaning Conference not knowing what to expect. I’m not your usual conference participant, and this was the first famous conference I had attended.
I knew most of the speakers from previous encounters or by hearsay, and the wide palate of topics under the larger climate emergency umbrella sounded intriguing, challenging and rather ambitious.
I was coming from a place of grief for the state of our world, after months of daily reads of scientific reports, future predictions, exponential increase in carbon emissions, business-as-usual, political apathy, uprisings, turmoil, and loss.
From the moment I stepped in that warm and welcoming temple of music that is the Brighton Dome, I felt I was joining a community (of change) event, more than your standard conference. I’d met people who were Meaning regulars having attended previous editions, excited about this one even before the first speaker took to the stage.
From the vegan catering, to the fair trade chocolate bars, and reusable cutlery, it felt that Meaning was also practising what it preached. The setting itself was positively adding to the general sense of possible futures focused on fairness, justice for all, and sustainability.
The twelve speakers hailed from different professional backgrounds focused at least part of their presentations on tackling not only the climate crisis but also imagining or reimagining ways of being in the world, as individuals, as a group, as a species, as part of a complex ecosystem.
I filled pages with notes, as you do when ideas start darting around. I was suddenly wide-eyed and all ears, hungry for stories of change, unique projects that could be the norm in an ideal future if only we get to fix the current mess.
Refreshingly, the first takeaway from Meaning wasn’t empty promises and far-future carbon targets, it was about viable projects taking place now – which (aside from yesterday) is the best time to do something.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
Nilofer Merchant coined the term ‘Onlyness’, which comes from an interesting exploration of the uniqueness of the self in a co-created future where everyone has – or should have – a role to play.
Because the current system is exclusive, with not everyone allowed to compete on the same terms, potential is being squandered by organisations around the world. Inclusion should be key in fixing challenges that transcend the individual.
Clare Farrell’s reminder that civilization is facing a terminal diagnosis due to climate and ecological breakdown was not the easiest talk to kick off an otherwise enjoyable day, but neither is Extinction Rebellion, the climate movement she co-founded, a “popularity contest.”
Clare’s perspective is that one way “to be in the service of life” is to let go of both denial and false hope, and instead face up to reality.
Anyone interested in environmental issues should know by now about the Green New Deal (GND) – the much-discussed proposed legislation in the United States aiming to address both the climate crisis and economic inequality by decarbonizing the economy.
This plan is gaining traction in the UK too, and Miatta Fahnbulleh of the New Economics Foundation can convince anyone this is one of the most viable plans to transition to a just and sustainable future, even if it means we’ll have to rewrite the rules on investment and economic power.
Though such a plan would transform the economy to the benefit of all humans on the planet and the living world we all depend upon, it necessitates unprecedented mobilisation of resources. We’re talking about radical changes because major problems require bold solutions.
While catching the imagination of a large and increasingly environmentally-aware audience, the plan has inevitably attracted backlash from the business-as-usual world.
The pace and scale of such a plan are indeed monumental – but not impossible; and the conditions for these changes are already taking root.
Brett Hennig reminded us of the hard truth that election was not originally intended as an instrument of democracy. The “aristocracy of birth”, and later the “aristocracy of the rich”, were key to either running in elections or voting in them. We easily forget it was only decades ago that women won the right to vote.
In his search for consensus-seeking formats, and new ways to govern ourselves, Brett explained the ancient practice of sortition: the random selection of people to come together and make informed decisions as part of a citizens’ assembly. This alternative system could hold the key to tackling the climate crisis and societal injustice.
With most mainstream mass media failing to serve a larger audience, especially in times of crisis, it was refreshing to listen to Jennifer Brandel’s vision of an audience-first revolution to reinvigorate reporting in newsrooms.
The need to bridge the gap between journalism (telling) and the readers (listening) is not new, but Jennifer made it her goal to fix this with her engagement consultancy Hearken and its unique – though common sense – technique: listening to the audience first, not last.
It started from the core belief that journalism should help people learn about each other, and make their lives better by creating an open conversation; a mutually beneficial feedback loop.
She shared several success stories. One started from a reader’s simple query why public drinking fountains are always on, day and night. The ensuing investigation brought a scandal to light a scandal about lead contamination (too much lead in pipelines needed to be flushed out).
I knew mindfulness helps us. When times are hard, finding peace in oneself is a way to cope with the problems in the social system we belong to. But how do you change and challenge the system? With the world in dire need of change at both individual and global levels, the concept of social mindfulness discussed by Rachel Lilley opened my eyes to a type of mindfulness that enhances not only our own lives, but also the lives of those around us as a force for systemic change.
I’m not a business owner, so I don’t think much about this sector, but I am aware of the need for integrity and purpose that should be at the core of every enterprise.
So I was all ears when Armin Steuernagel – a self-confessed capitalist who founded his first business at 16 – presented an alternative model of ownership that should replace the currently dominant shareholder model of capitalism which prioritises “absentee control” of a business (by controlling a company, one abolishes ownership as there is no clear sense of who’s ultimately responsible for it) over “steward ownership” (allows self-governance, decommodifies the company from soulless investors focused on just the bottom line).
In the current system, a company is just an asset: a number that can be easily sold or closed in spite of the consequences for those working with or depending upon it. The steward ownership approach would shift the emphasis away from profit-maximisation towards, yes, purpose, and responsible stewardship.
Self-owning a company enables individuals to keep their business independent and focused upon its fundamental ethos. Such companies are self-governed: the majority of voting rights stay in the company, with those people directly connected to stewarding its operation and mission. In this model, it isn’t possible to put the company onto the stock exchange market, and you can’t sell it without agreement from all of its owners. In this way, it becomes a life-long commitment.
There is evidence that this model of ownership leads to healthier, more resilient businesses, the long-term success-stories of which speak for themselves. Start-ups like Ecosia – but also bigger and more established companies like John Lewis, Zeiss, or Organically Grown Company – use this purpose-led scheme as an alternative to faceless (and therefore, detached) capitalism.
Erinch Sahan of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) reminded us that fair trade shouldn’t be just as a form of certification for products, but a way of operating that supports communities, enables sustainability, and creates local prosperity.
Fair trade should be “in all ingredients, not just the supply chain”, and the new formula proposed by WFTO is rooted in a mission-led business model for a new economy intended to do more than just “maximize returns”. Fair trade social enterprises practise fair trade at all levels of business, with far-reaching impacts, focusing on necessary priorities, and the positive transformation of local communities.
This is not just an idea, it is a movement, with a global community acting locally, successfully rethinking the current economic model.
Here’s an idea: co-operative businesses should operate in partnership with public institutions to grow communities towards a common goal. The localised economy helps build a healthy and resilient community. Everyone wins.
This model of collaboration exists and Sarah McKinley talked about it: ‘the Cleveland Model’. From community-owned energy to social enterprises and new models of ownership, Sarah underlined the importance of community-focused wealth-building as an alternative to the current system; models that better realise fundamental values of equality, democracy, and sustainability.
I’d seen Agamemnon Otero speak before and as a Londoner interested in sustainability, it’s wonderful to hear about the amazing community projects initiated or supported by Repowering.
He demonstrated how meaningful change happens best in the hands of the people most directly affected by the projects in question. The power of cooperatively owned projects moves beyond setting up solar panels on schools and council flats. It’s also about educating youth about energy independence, even teaching them to build their own panels, sticking together, building resilient communities.
Though such projects do offer a reasonable return over a reasonable amount of time, empowering communities by offering more control over their resources is the long-term goal.
Paul Mason tapped into the growing age of the machines and made us ponder more on what it means to be human in a world and during a time of markets and algorithmic decision-making. Are we mere customers, numbers, puppets, serving a system that feeds upon our insatiable pre-controlled need to buy stuff?
His new book, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being, is a call to action for those of us who feel we have become slaves to the faceless forces we call ‘the market’.
At the heart of all these projects was community. The community of people working together in a business with a greater purpose than financial profit; community making journalism work for the citizens; community claiming the right to use natural resources like solar energy; a community of rebels demanding that politicians tell the truth about the climate crisis. Community: ultimately the only force which can alter the course of our world in order that it works for the benefit of all.
Community was at the heart of the conference’s final talk, by Maff Potts. This man lost dear ones early in life, worked for years with homelessness charities, was himself homeless for a while, and close to putting an end to his life. But his decision to set up the warm-hearted movement Camerados radically changed his take on life.
The Camerados believe the answer to our problems is each other, not new business models and new ideologies. As such, we need to reconnect with each other in a meaningful way.
To facilitate this, the Camerados have recreated the comfort and intimacy conducive to facilitating valuable conversations, with ‘public living rooms’. Bring a couch, some fairy lights, maybe a few postcards, and the people will come.
These public spaces are set up to achieve NOTHING. A public living room is an “outcome free zone”; no-one will give you advice, everyone will simply listen, and share their own story.
This space encourages direct engagement with other people – no intermediaries, no assessments; you’re just looking out for other people, meet and support each other through difficult times. This may sound like a performance or PR stunt, but the results of this simple method of connecting to others had incredible results for those involved. We felt its purpose and warmth even in the cold concert hall.
And most Meaning attendees agreed.
Now is time to walk the talk.