The Movement of Starlings

This piece by Susan Clark appeared on the "Slowstruck" site on May 28, 2014. See the original post  here.

It’s called a “murmuration of starlings.” Maybe you’ve seen one, either in an online video or, if you’re lucky, in person: magnificent, soaring groups of birds that swoop and dive overhead, creating stunning patterns with their overlapping arcs. Just the word “murmuration” somehow makes you want to slow down and ponder: how do they do it? Hundreds of birds collaborate to create patterns of breathtaking grace and beauty. They never collide. And interestingly, they do it all without any leader.

The movement of a murmuration cheers me up when I’m feeling low. And since I deal with political decisionmaking and community conflicts on a regular basis, believe me: I can feel low pretty often.

What can nature teach us about the way communities work, and the nature of motion and change itself? Pondering the movement of starlings is instructive for those of us who are embracing “slow,” and who may be pained by the direction of politics today.

Let’s face it, most of us shy away from political engagement. In fact, mocking the government is a sort of national pastime in the U.S., and Canadians aren’t far behind in their disdain for elected officials. Last time I looked, the U.S. Congress had an approval rating that was significantly lower than BP’s during the oil spill. After last fall’s U.S. government shutdown, humorist Andy Borowitz reported that the majority of Americans “would enjoy seeing Congress torn limb from limb by a ferocious bear,” and the only disagreement was over “which bear would be best suited for that assignment.”

We turn away from politics in disdain, but we are all troubled by a small voice that wonders where the answers will come from. Whether we’re concerned about social issues, the economy, or climate change and energy independence -- we lovers of “slow” know very well that our world could benefit from more effective political processes. Why can't democratic decision making be more like slow food -- local, organic, and full of the vibrant creative spirit of home?

I think it can. And bear with me, because here’s where the starlings come in.

“Emergence” is the term that scientists use to describe the phenomenon where many local collaborations produce global patterns. And “emergent change” is a model that can give lovers of “slow” a sense of hope about the future.

The Internet has given us an extraordinary new tool to communicate information at speeds, over distances and in volumes that were until recently unimaginable. But it’s done more. It’s changed the way we think. Today’s voters are veterans of the Open-Source Revolution. Gone are the days of top-down control; welcome to networked citizens with extraordinary online research and organizing abilities.

Governments are now slowly realizing that we’ll all do better if they treat citizens as collaborative equals, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki. Reliance on “experts” is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing.

In the coming weeks, I’d like to invite you for a cup of tea, and enjoy some stories of “slow democracy.” In recent years, more and more communities are inviting citizen participation in creative, friendly, human-scale activities. Forget about public hearings with squeaky microphones; I’m talking about neighbors sharing stories, exploring common values, and making a lasting difference. Citizens and governments are collaborating to create processes that are inclusive, deliberative, and empowered. Sometimes “slow democracy” involves art, sometimes storytelling, and almost always, a fair amount of friendly laughter.

I am only a single bird. But as each of us makes the individual decision to slow down and become a bit more mindful about how we spend time in our communities, beautiful, meaningful patterns of change are beginning to emerge.

I look forward to sharing stories with you about slow democracy.