Terry Fowler

Something out of Nothing

The almost universal feeling of powerlessness among humans is a learned condition, a profound human mistake. It flies in the face of what science now tells us is implicit in and characteristic of all organisms. Like the rest of nature, humans participate in the life force as active beings, and that life force is rooted in the principle of self-organizing power.

The election and inauguration of Barack Obama is a parable that illustrates this perverse relationship we humans have with power. Obama’s victory produced an outpouring of euphoria across the world. And it is stirring to see an African-American as head of such a powerful nation, when that very nation has so viciously exploited Africans and their American descendants and excluded them from its own material and social successes.

However, in many ways the powerful position Obama now holds negates the symbolism of what he has achieved. He is seen as the Leader whose progressive policies will help to solve the nation’s systemic dysfunctions (which are many) — in particular to lift the poor and broad sections of the middle class, working and nonworking, out of their political and economic powerlessness. Obama’s personal achievement lay in not waiting for a leader to empower him but doing it himself. Unfortunately, his position as leader, by popular definition, puts him in the place of telling eagerly awaiting followers what to do, of perpetuating their disempowerment.

Obama is acutely aware of this irony and has already addressed it, telling his supporters not to hang back but to pitch in and do what needs doing in their neighbourhoods. One is reminded of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural admonition, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Obama’s political training in this respect was exceptionally appropriate: the Saul Alinsky method of community organizing in Chicago. Alinksy had no patience with neighbourhood organizations waiting for someone to fix things up. Instead, his organizers were trained in helping residents of disadvantaged areas to realize their own ability to challenge the local power structure collectively. In this enterprise, disciplined organization was as crucial as the different talents of individual activists. A number of writers have stated that true leaders are similar to Alinksy organizers – they empower others.


A Long History of Domination

Here we come face-to-face with an intriguing mystery. Why do so many of us – not just the poor – feel disempowered? David Korten has written a skilful summary of human history illustrating how, in all our so-called civilizations, the few have always dominated the many. Thus, for most of us, feeling disempowered is a spectacularly ingrained habit.

The paradox, as Korten also stresses, is that other organisms have no such hang-ups. From what science has been able to tell us, from life’s beginning even single cells have been extraordinarily adept at organ-izing themselves – as the word suggests, making an organism. (Korten 1999, 107-11, 121) This process, the essence of the life force, requires creative imagination and willingness to cooperate, without waiting around to be told what to do. This process, the essence of the life force, requires creative imagination and willingness to cooperate, without waiting around to be told what to do.

This notion is strange only to humans, who have used their self-consciousness to imagine themselves progressively further and further removed from the rest of nature, as they see it. Life, as Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan have said, is matter capable of choosing its own direction and matter’s minute-by-minute choices are mutual self-empowerment. (Korten 2006, 267-74) The only entities who are unsettled by this account of how things work are the authorities we invented to provide ourselves with more secure and ordered lives.

These authorities are gods and secular rulers and their representatives: priests, kings, lords, presidents, prime ministers, beadles, and satraps. Although we invented these authorities, we do not usually actively choose to submit to them. They acquired their dominance by playing on our fears and insecurities, and once that dominance became established – either by custom or by formal institutions – it was extremely difficult to dislodge. Dominance of the many by the few became the habit of human societies.

This pattern of dominance has become so habitual that we now shake our heads sagely and pronounce it to be “human nature” and then proceed to re-interpret nature using that human template. This reinterpretation process became especially influential following the creation of 17th century mechanistic science, which was itself part of a project by religious and secular élites to shore up their authority during the violence and disorder of the early 17th century. If matter was thought of as inert and subject to the laws of God and His creation Nature, then human society could be no different. Inert citizens must similarly be subject to secular laws of the state. “On earth as it is in Heaven,” was not intoned lightly, and it had distinct political overtones, as Stephen Toulmin reminds us.

Even mainstream science has moved beyond this machine model of the cosmos, but our institutions and our personal behavior are mostly still shaped by it. There is a good reason for this state of affairs: a mechanical view of nature and society legitimizes the political dominance of those who rule “according to law.” The authority of mechanical science has been vastly increased by general acceptance of its claim to be neutral and therefore above politics. It is of course nothing of the sort. Hundreds of books and articles that have exposed the biases of mechanistic science are nevertheless ignored by the corporate media, by ruling institutions, and ultimately by the vast majority of citizens.


An Appreciation of Scale

While virtually all of the authoritarian civilizations self-destructed sooner or later, mechanistic civilization has gone global and its self-destruction promises to have extremely grave, global consequences. The industrial farming, the factories, and the transportation and energy systems that grew out of the mechanical science revolution raised the standard of living for a few hundred million people for a short time. But those technologies have stripped the entire planet of a substantial proportion of its natural capital, such as forests, clean water, fish stock, and topsoil, and have spread a ghastly mix of toxic chemicals over all that remains. Even more alarming, resource extraction and industrial development have been releasing greenhouse gases that are warming up the weather worldwide with potentially disastrous consequences. Climate change and the other destructive effects of the industrial revolution are very literally threatening the lives of billions of humans.

These billions are mostly Third World poor people, who ironically have maintained self-sufficient local communities for millennia before the stampede of industrial “progress” ravaged their economies. We should distrust both the leaders of this charge and their definitions of progress. At the beginning of the 21st century “amid the ecological and cultural devastation wrought under this leadership, we would do well to look to the wisdom of those who have refused to be stampeded.” (Broomfield, 197)

Without romanticizing peasant and hunter-gatherer societies, we must acknowledge that many of them have been remarkably resilient, losing ground only when industrial invasions have pulled their supports out from under them. Their expertise of how to survive, especially in harsh times, irrespective of the rulers and empires that swept over their lands, is crucial to everyone’s survival now. Developing this expertise required participation, co-operation, and a sense of self-reliance. These are the sorts of qualities needed by the single-celled organisms to create larger, more complex ones.

However, the self-organizing cells had, and still have, an appreciation of scale. There are sizes beyond which organisms cannot grow, and there are practical limits to the number of organisms in a community. All organisms had already worked this out. But humans kept building bigger empires, cities, and institutions whose ability to create new expressions of human intelligence we celebrate as making us far superior to the old peasant societies. But there was a big catch: the larger the scale of these human organizations, the less sustainable they became and the less participation there was by everybody in decisions about the goals and direction of the organization.

Thus, we have developed a collective amnesia about our abilities to organize ourselves, embedded as we are in dozens of different huge centralized systems that control our food and agriculture, our patterns of urban development, our treatment of sickness, our communications with each other, and even our culture and entertainment. This is a political reality that goes far beyond our large governmental institutions and it seems to have blocked any genuine progress.

The crisis we now face presents us with an unprecedented problem and thus an unprecedented opportunity: how do we continue along the evolutionary path started by self-organizing cells without these pervasive but destructive human institutions?


Dissolving the Blockages

I think we are part way there. Many of us have already become aware that our institutions are driving us towards our own extinction. The next step is to see that their fatal flaw is to repress our talent as organisms to self-organize, and to self-organize again, and again. In other words, to realize we have the inherent ability to adapt our self-organizing methods and principles constantly.

Our social and political evolution towards a sustainable economy requires the self-confidence – despite everything we’ve been taught – to understand we can create something out of nothing. This is a somewhat misleading phrase, since there is always some sort of context or ground that helps to explain the emergence of a new organism or organization. However, as materialists we of the mechanistic persuasion are convinced that something new must nevertheless come from previously identifiable parts that have been reconfigured, just like the development of a new machine. Self-organizing is a dance of life that allows creative new patterns of cooperation to emerge without judging them.

Self-organization occurs when the “parts” literally redefine themselves by inventing new kinds of relationships with other parts. For years policymakers (before they gave up) were grappling with the problem of the middle class exodus from the centers of American cities. How, they wondered, could they “bring back the middle class”? Jane Jacobs retorted that sensibly built city districts “grow” the middle class. (The analogy to a petri dish is very tempting.) Her argument was that dense, physically diverse urban areas provide the proper medium for imaginative people – who are everywhere – to create not only new economic activity but also new kinds of economic activity.

Roberta Brandes Gratz gives one of my favourite examples in her book The Living City. She tells the story of Kelly Street in the south Bronx, which, in the mid-1970s, fitted the stereotype of that part of New York City – derelict buildings, vacant lots filled with rubble, and serious street crime. The street had a number of determined people, however, centered on Frank Potts and his family of eight. Over the previous fifteen years they had scraped and saved and worked incredibly hard to buy and renovate first one, then two, then more of the four story buildings on Kelly Street. When three more apartment buildings were scheduled by the city for demolition because of nonpayment of taxes, the Potts family, some neighbours, a social worker, and a few other helpers offered

to take the buildings off the city’s hands and renovate them. They were willing to … provide some unpaid labor. They wanted to build low-cost cooperative housing that would not be a permanent burden on taxpayers, as was massive subsidized new construction … . They knew … that there was an endless resource of neighborhood people looking for just this kind of job opportunity … . (Gratz, 113-4)

Eventually, by seeking out contacts and support from conventional politicians and from university and nonprofit groups set up to assist such ventures, Kelly Street was rebuilt by its residents.

The initial impetus was the threat of housing demolition, but, significantly, even while details were being worked out, the community started a garden on one of its vacant lots. Some time later, they organized a food cooperative and started recycling paper and glass for income. And, of course, dozens of young residents learned the skills needed in carpentry and construction for the renovation process. As new residents filled up the apartments, local merchants stopped going out of business and new stores opened. All this happened rather gradually, over a period of ten or more years.

Networks of Communities

The idea behind the Green movement and other movements related to it – local food, self help, and intentional communities, for example – is to become aware of our personal abilities to meet our own needs and desires by cooperating with friends and neighbors in our own communities. “Transition towns” in the UK are seeking “practical steps that communities must take on their own to become self-sufficient in food, energy, and materials.” (Hamer) A few of them have gone quite far along this path.

Such local communities in the 21st century would never resemble Stone Age tribal settlements completely isolated from each other. Thanks in part to mechanistic technology we have a broad number of sophisticated ways of communicating with each other about our successes, our failures, our bright ideas for the next step. There will of course be fearsome disputes, requiring far more political skill and maturity than we presently have. But power would be diffused. There would be networks of communities in constant contact with each other but rich in their abilities to be self-sufficient in more and more elegant ways. This would be the human version of the self-organizing cell. Just like cells, local settlements would have defined boundaries, but also intensely sensitive to a vast network of other cells in the area. Humans will have started to reweave themselves into the cosmos.


Broomfield, John, Other Ways of Knowing, Inner Traditions, Rochester VT, 1997.

Gratz, Roberta Brandes, The Living City, Simon and Schuster, NYC, 1989.

Hamer.Ed, “Rob Hopkins: Transition Town Totnes,” The Ecologist, November 2007, pages 52-5.

Korten, David, The Great Turning, Kumarian Press, 2006.

___________, The Post-Corporate World, Kumarian Press, 1999.

Toulmin, Stephen, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990, 1992.


…For most of us, feeling disempowered is a spectacularly ingrained habit.


Sensibly-built city districts “grow” the middle class.


“Amid the ecological and cultural devastation wrought under this leadership, we would do well to look to the wisdom of those who have refused to be stampeded.”


Edmund P. (Terry) Fowler is author of Building Cities That Work and Cities, Culture, and Granite. He is also co-editor of Urban Policy Issues: Canadian Perspectives. He taught local government, history of science, and Green politics for many years at Glendon College, York University in Toronto, Canada. He is currently writing a book on the science behind the politics of food, health, and urban sprawl.

“The Life Force: Something Out of Nothing,” Green Horizon Magazine, Spring 2009, 14-16