01.11.2007

Aurora and the White Dog Café

Sociocracy is a philosophy that values cooperation and social and environmental responsibility. And, as Adrian Glamorgan finds, it's finding its way to Australia via some fascinating detours.

Sociocracy is a philosophy thatvalues cooperation and social and environmental responsibility.And, as Adrian Glamorgan finds, it's finding its wayto Australia via some fascinating detours.

Theday in 1985 when Dr Gina Price was first packing herbags to Antarctica, ready to be among 28 winterers atMawson Base, a friend asked her, "How are you goingto cope with living in a small isolated community fora year?" Gina drew her breath and replied: "Iam as fascinated with that question as I am with theother aspects!"

Of course, she guessed the hard "cold heart"of Antarctica. She knew to expect hard work from thetwo other scientists, five construction workers, theteam of radio operators, plumbers, electricians, mechanics,carpenters and cook. But beyond the skills, logisticsand lines of authority, and the fragile, punishing environment,she could not guess at the tricky situations they wouldface together socially. These difficulties came unexpectedly:a proposal to paint the shared lounge really brightcolours; finding the food became too salty when thecook got cranky; and the decision that had to be madeabout ending the lives of infirm, older huskies. Ginalearned, as did others, "we had clear roles andresponsibilities ...However, our competency didn't carrythrough to our decision making."

Gina went because she was, and is inspired, by auroras.A love for these extraordinary Northern and SouthernLights, mixed with her innate scientific respect andcuriosity, pulled Gina from her West Australian hometo the extremes of the earth: Fairbanks, Alaska, theremote jagged peaks of Spitzbergen in Norway, and thatfirst long wintry sojourn at Mawson Base in Antarctica.

As an auroral physicist, she investigated the beautifulsky swatches and swirls of pure colour to understandmore about how solar wind meets polar darkness, andions interact with the Earth's magnetic field and affectour upper atmosphere. During those polar nights, Ginawitnessed "a symphony of light encompassing smallpassive arcs, softly pulsating patches and large dynamiccurls and curtains which form crowns of light encircling....Youforget how cold you're getting because you're absorbedin this amazing show in the sky."

By comparison, the unease on the base about cullingsome of the 28 huskies used for field trips appearedmuch more complex. Some people became very upset. Thedogs added something to the base. Gina explains, "Ifelt safe with the dogs. I wouldn't go into an ice cavethat they wouldn't go in to. A lot of us enjoyed runningthem, but they were working dogs, an integral part."When it was time to cull and decide the fate of theolder dogs, "interestingly it was those who workedmore closely with the dogs who understood the need andsome who rarely ventured near the dog lines were theones who were fiercely opposed to the culling."

Some decisions, like painting the wall a lurid colour,are a matter of aesthetics. Some decisions, like convincinga cook to go easy on the salt, must be very delicatelynegotiated indeed. Other matters, like animal welfare,touch on ethics, but also people's complex emotionalstate. Antarctica might be a long way away, but thekind of problems it threw up for Gina started her thinkingabout how we make decisions together in our workplaces,families and wider community, and how often those decisionsaren't made well. As for the huskies, with food in shortsupply, "Finally the deed was quietly done andit wasn't until much later that I learnt how difficultit was for the person who carried it out." We makedecisions, but rarely know the toll they take on thepeople involved.

Serendipity struck with just hearing the single word"sociocracy". Hitting the web, Gina Pricediscovered the work of a Dutch electrical engineer,Gerard Endenburg. Endenberg is a technical genius, theman responsible for inventing the flat speaker we usetoday in personal radios and mobile phones. More thanthat, Endenberg has used the logic of physics and informationloops in nature, the science of cybernetics, to devisea communication and decision making method named "dynamicgovernance", or more commonly, "sociocracy".He's put these ideas to the test successfully in hisown electrics company and turned it around from bankruptcy.Sociocracy is being examined by a range of companies,as an important tool of governance. The European divisionsof Shell, Mars and Pfizer use it; the US Green BuildingCouncil relies on it. Gina was so intrigued that, withher colleague Liz Dare, she organised a training circleof her own to bring the first sociocracy trainer toAustralia, Tena Meadows O'Rear, from the United States.

Tena's tenacious! She cofounded the Way Station, forpeople in need, and lives and works in EcoVillage ofLoudoun, Virginia, a cutting edge environmentally responsiblecohousing community that she jointly founded in 1995.Like Gina, Tena is a Quaker, and it turns out Endenberg'smentor had Quaker roots. This is accidental, or perhapsit isn't. Something about mutual respect must resonate.
Currently, Tena supports sociocracy in the US GreenBuilding Council and its Chapters across the country,Common Market, a highly successful organic and naturalfoods cooperative grocery that O'Rear helped to found,and the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, one ofthe first restaurants in the US to emphasise organic,locally grown food, and renowned for its socially responsiblebusiness practices. They're all using sociocracy tomake decisions and communicate. It seems to be working.

I mentioned the White Dog Café in Philadelphia.It's world renowned for its funky way of doing business,and its heartfelt connection with sustainable agricultureand yummy cuisine. But by some coincidence - is theresuch a thing? - way back in 1875 the building was hometo one Madame Helena P Blavatsky. The story goes thatwhile she lived at that house, the colourful spiritualistbecame ill with an infected leg, which led her throughan inner transformation. The doctors wanted to amputate.Instead, she had a white dog sleep across her leg bynight - and she was cured! She became the founder ofTheosophy, grandparent to the current holistic movement,and gave the café its name. Sociocracy now hasthe pressure cooker of the hospitality business to proveitself!

So, by some strange, poetic thread, husky and whitedog, aurora and Way Station, Gina Price and Tena MeadowsO'Rear (and Judy Wicks, White Dog Café founder),are all becoming involved in bringing sociocracy toAustralia.

Why the hype? Well, sociocracy offers something newwhere it's needed. Tena's eco-housing community startedwith enthusiasm and vision, shining conversations andinspiring meetings, until the decisions started to getreal. They mattered. "Our group was falling apart,"she admits, "and we would have fallen apart, butsomeone had heard about this obscure Dutch guy and sociocracy."So they brought in John Buck, who seemed to know somethingabout it all, the meetings got better, shorter, peopleacted responsibly, information got fed back, thingsgot done, and now they wouldn't meet without it.

As Endenburg considered natural systems, he thoughtabout the principles that endlessly repeat. Nature rewardscooperation, relies on local expertise, taps the powerof limits. Nature relies on sunlight (transparency andopenness), and diversity (so everyone has a voice, maintainingsafe space.) Nature recycles, fits form to function,uses only the energy it needs, curbs excesses from within.Endenburg worked out a system that mirrors these dynamics.It takes a little training. Employees have to go throughinduction. People need occasional reminding and toppingup. But instead of thwarted employees and isolated leaders,there is a rich engagement, and a productive workplace.Most of all, in a time of change, the system encouragesflexibility and adaptation to change. Think what liesahead for us with global warming! Will our current waysof doing democracy and business planning be enough?

Gina's take is that humanity once went through whatcould be poetically described as an era of lightning."Lightning can be seen as an expression of divinewill and autocratic, top down rule by power." AfterZeus' arbitrary attack, came the rainbow. "Therainbow era brought forth freedom, thought and selfexpression of the individual. Every person sees theirown rainbow. The rainbow is a purely optical, staticphenomenon with no source of energy. It could be consideredto be associated with the era of democracy and recognitionof the perspective of the individual."

Largely unknown before the 20th century, "theaurora era brings a global consciousness. The auroraencompasses and unites the globe and is visible fromspace. In fact, aurora may be used as a signature ofoxygen and thus life on distant planets. The aurorais active over a huge range of scales and is dynamicand self steering." Similarly, she suggests, "sociocracyenables organisations from small community to globalbodies to generate and steer themselves. A few simplerules make the aurora work." Gina thinks the principlesof sociocracy might do the same for human organisations,corporations and communities.
Husky, white dog and aurora. If the answer isn't sociocracy,then pray it's something like it, something new to helpus warmly meet each other at the moment of conflictand not turn away. Maybe this is the biggest challengehumanity has right now: finding a way to talk and governourselves, with integrity, honesty and good nature.

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