Six weeks ago, a country new to the world declared its independence and set about developing a constitution for a sustainable and fairer society.
The country is the Independent State of Jungle (ISoJ) and if you haven’t heard of it, that may be because it is rather small – an acre of land and allotments in Penryn, Cornwall.
The founders are members of the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union, who crowdsourced their constitution through an open deliberative process over the course of a week.
The questions they have explored are exactly the ones that the UK or any nation, if born into today’s world, would want to address. How should decisions be made? Is there a common purpose to the nation? What are the rights and the responsibilities of being a citizen? What relationship should exist with the wider environment?
What emerged is a dreamer’s charter, with logic on its side. When it comes to education, for example, the consensus was not to separate out teachers and students in strictly defined roles, but to allow people to do both, always learning and always teaching.
In the spirit of openness, the constitution starts with the declaration that “we all have ideas that are wrong, but we will change them.”
The “sharing of knowledge”, it continues, “is integral to our growth. We are all teachers; we are all students. We inspire and encourage a critical consciousness…Listen before you object. Think before you speak.”
The model of democracy it offers is one that opens out to a wider range of voices. “We believe all decisions should be made by consensus. The consequences of our decisions for the Earth and all life must be taken into account. The three guiding principles that govern all of our decision makings are environmental responsibility, social equality, and economic justice. We will resist all suffering in the world.”
The new nation is Cornish hedged around its perimeter and includes an eco-build shed of straw-bales and cob constructed during the summer. The country is named after the JungleHouse Project, a mobile centre for environmental activism, creativity, art and ideas – most recently seen in Paris during the climate change negotiations – designed to be an open space to share ideas, experience and develop solutions.
2016 could be a good year for dreamers. In a wider mood of insecurity and fear, hope can play a surprisingly powerful role. There is a pedigree too for utopians as November 2016 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the publication in Latin of the book Utopia by Thomas More.
More presents a traveller’s tale of an ideal society living on a fictitious island. More’s Utopia (‘no where’) is an island two hundred miles across, with fifty four cities, and organised on very different lines that More imagined to the Tudor England he inhabited.
The term ‘utopian’ was used by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century Communist Manifesto as a term of abuse. But utopian thinking has lived on, in art, in radical thinking in economics and philosophy, in literature, such as in the field of feminist science fiction.
Imagination is the most powerful tool that we have for social change. By re-imagining the world around us, we can put it together again in a different way – first in our minds, then in our stories and ultimately in reality. Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy is an example of new fiction, equipping us for action today by helping us to imagine how a tomorrow shaped by climate change might turn out.
A celebration of modern utopianism across 2016 is lined up to launch later this month, to mark the anniversary at Somerset House in London. It is organised in concert with King’s College London and The Courtauld Institute of Art. An international research conference on the same theme is due in July, with other events worldwide.
Simon Burall of Involve, the participation charity, argues that 2016, with all the tensions and constitutional questions of the UK today, is exactly the time to explore new ways to develop a more visionary, deliberative democracy – a scaled up version of the Cornish experiment.
Today’s diggers and dreamers like the allotments-turned-Independent State of Jungle are inspired by what Roberto Unger, the Brazilian theorist, calls the ‘spirit of possibility’.
And they are not alone. Paul Hawken in his book, Blessed Unrest suggests that there are probably two million organisations in the world of people at the local level who are experimenting with co-operative economics, working to protect local ecological systems, supporting indigenous peoples, fighting for social justice in different ways.
So, if you want my tip for 2016, it is to invest: invest in hope and dreams.