A script (in Lean Logic) is a practice of some difficulty, widely accepted and fulfilled by the members of a society or group, and reinforced and integrated into their values by their culture and rituals.S8

It will be necessary, when inventing a survivable future, to develop routines and practices which are not intuitively obvious. There will be many aspects of life—including the various means of limiting the growth of capital and population and protecting the local culture and ecology—which will not be guided by what seems to be common sense, and by what feels right. A script, which does not necessarily have to be written down, is a process or a procedure which a society believes it must carry through, but which is at the same time difficult, offering many temptations to cheat or forget about it. The script, therefore, is integrated into the culture, and made inseparable from what it means to be a member of that society.

Among the many examples of the principle in action in traditional societies, one that has been studied in detail is that of the milpa script, which has been sustained in varying forms for five centuries or more by the Huastec people, an indigenous community of some 120,000, in the Gulf Coastal slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental region of Mexico. Agriculture in this area of moist tropical forests has a basic problem. The forest is an essential part of the area’s ecology, but land is also needed for growing food. If forest land is maintained for agriculture for substantial periods of time, it degrades rapidly, there is erosion and flooding and it is colonised by weeds that compete with crops and inhibit the regeneration of the forest.S9

Management of the land in such naturally forested tropical regions therefore has to be based on the “swidden” system, a principle of rotations which includes a long phase to allow new forest to mature before it is eventually felled again, followed by a relatively brief period for food crops.

However, this is quite a difficult kind of agriculture to sustain, for several reasons. For one thing, it requires periodic changes in the actual possession of land. That is to say, whereas the usual food crops lend themselves to smallholdings managed by a single farmer or household (though extra help is sometimes needed), the forest is on a much larger scale, requiring collective responsibility, so some way has to be found of surrendering property rights over a patch of land, and then reclaiming them at a later time—say, twenty years later, or more. Secondly, there are stages in the process at which the action needed is possible only when the group works as a collective: for instance, when the forest is felled or replanted. Thirdly, there are constant temptations to take short cuts by, for instance, felling the forest too soon, or encroaching onto neighbours’ land, or not cultivating the main milpa crop (maize) to the standards which will enable the rotation cycle to be sustainable for the indefinite future.

And the fourth reason why this form of management is demanding is that it requires continued vigilance that the land used for it will not be encroached on or mortgaged by conventional business interests. The stand-off between the ejidos/comunidades (the commonly-owned landholdings managed collectively by a community), and the mestizos (the privately owned land which consists largely of pasture, much of it in poor condition) is intense and real. Indeed, this was the main motivation behind the Mexican revolution in 1910, which led to the execution by firing squad of the Emperor Maximilian (an event famously painted by Manet) and the firm establishment of the system of community-owned land in Mexican law.S10 The difference between the impacts of the two kinds of land use—one of them protected by the legal “shell” that provides collective property rights—is clearly visible. Janis Alcorn and Victor Toledo explain,

The tenurial shell that reinforces community and cultural values is physically visible at the border. Standing at the border where degraded pasture of large private holders meets the community’s patchwork of milpa and forest, people tell stories of how their way of life and forests were threatened before the revolution, and how they were unable to reclaim parts of their territory (now outside the border). They say that the revolution was terrible, but they acknowledge that it saved their forests and their way of life.S11

There is clearly a material incentive for the members of a milpa script community to sustain their standards of cultivation and their way of life. It keeps their communities together; it provides them with food and water (since it maintains the watersheds); and it preserves a richly diverse and productive ecosystem as a rich asset, with abundant edible species. The Huastecs, for instance, grow some 500 edible plants and, in the region as a whole, more than 1,000 species are cultivated.S12

And yet, raw self-interest is not enough to sustain a collective enterprise. The temptation to cheat is always there: to ignore the strict protocols of milpa cultivation, to abandon the rotation system and to turn to weedkillers and herbicides instead, to encroach on a neighbour’s land during a time when the borders are not defined, to fell a patch of forest ahead of time, or even to sell out to the mestizos, get rich and go. What holds it all together is the culture embedded in the milpa script. The aim is—it has to be—not just to produce the food and manage the ecosystem, but to maintain the local cultural identity.

That identity is expressed in terms of the culture, and the culture is expressed in rituals which belong within the Catholic tradition, built in turn on traditions with roots in the pre-Hispanic Aztec period. The milpa ritual requires the care and dedication of a craft; the process of making the milpa is regarded as sacred. This is a community in which enchantment has survived: obligations to the wild plants and animals are recognised; the land is regarded as part of the community; the emotions are engaged. The rituals are especially intense shortly before the big seasonal events and turning points in the milpa cycle. There is, in this context, no visible join between culture and practice, between work and play, between song and memory, between the two parts of agri- and -culture. In summary, as Carl Folke and his colleagues write:

Rituals help people remember the rules and interpret signals from the environment appropriately. Where traditions remain strong, people see no need to preserve esoteric knowledge; they simply practise their culture.S13

Script, despite its name, takes us away from the written word. It recruits us into the ecosystem, and makes us part of it. This is a time to move on from being lean, from being so logical, from thinking so hard—and to grow into simply practising our culture.


Related entries:

Rote, Competitiveness, Slack and Taut.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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