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"These are the questions we have to live": Roshan Lal on commons and joyful struggles

Local musician and activist talks about the importance of community building and commoning in the face of uncertainty and the multiple crises humanity is facing up to.

This interview originally appeared on the Foundations Earth website, forming part of its generative journalism inquiry which asks: ‘What if we could respond inclusively and effectively to planetary-scale problems?’

Roshan Lal is a musician and community organiser for refugee and climate justice living in Sheffield. He currently works with Faith For The Climate as a Movement Builder, as well as many grassroots and community activist spaces in the city and beyond. Roshan co-founded South Yorkshire’s first community resettlement group in 2020. In his climate activism he has volunteered with Green New Deal UK, Extinction Rebellion and Friends of the Earth. Rosh's music and lyrics engage with many of the same issues as his activism.

In this interview, syndicated from our friends and colleagues at Foundations Earth, Roshan explores the depths of uncertainty that humanity is experiencing, as well as the vast potential for new (and old) ways of living and being which focus on commons, collectivising and the importance of “remember[ing] that it should be joyful”.


Roshan Lal

At what crossroads do you find yourself at this moment in time?

I think it's about accepting the uncertainty of what lies ahead. You know, we're talking about polycrisis, multiple intersecting crises in the span of a human lifetime.

You have a number of assumptions based on your background, your culture, your upbringing, of the way your life will go. Those assumptions permeate our culture. It's this idea of linear progress, individual self actualisation, becoming a property-owning member of the middle class, or whatever.

What living in a time of multiple crises shows us is [that] those assumptions have been contingent on forces that don't exist anymore – ideas, ideologies that are being shaken and upturned.

The climate crisis, inequality, pandemics and public health, all these crises – there is no end date. These aren't events; they're the frames that we'll live the rest of our lives in, as individuals, as societies, as a planetary civilisation.

There are forces in the world that are stronger and more levelling than human agency. That's incredibly humbling, and that's important to remember in the face of a crisis in the natural world, and in the climate – they will humble us. So as individuals, we have to be able to look that in the eye and be ready to understand that our assumptions about our own futures, our family's futures, our communities, our societies, they're kind of out the window. We need to start working with that uncertainty, and that humility, and with the best knowledge that we can gather, on how we live together in this time of increasing breakdown, disruption and crisis.

It's easy to turn away. It's easy to deny. I do it all the time. But in those moments of revelation – where I'm like, ‘Oh, shit, I need to take this seriously’ – that's the kind of opening that allows you to do the political work, the social work of taking seriously the ‘new’ we need to build.

I agree it's humbling, and I love that frame as well. And it's one that we don't bring enough to the table. Thank you. Next question: what is it that enlivens you that you see hatching or growing wildly in the commons?

I think we're seeing a return of the defence that there should even be a commons, which feels like a change.

From growing up in the 90s and early noughties, [it was] the apex of the idea that you are an individual who is rationalising your own self interest, maximising your own utility, and that's how you go out in the world and get what you need. Public institutions and services, they hold people back, and what's really the height of human self actualisation is individuals seeking out their own personal gain.

That's always been bullshit. We can only become the people we are with the work and the love and the care of others – our families, our friends, our communities. That interdependence is what actually helps us become who we are and who we need to be. Because we can only understand ourselves in relation to others [...] ‘The tragedy of the commons’ is not actually what it was made out to be – there are ways to manage commons that won't deplete them, and people can interact and collaborate in ways that defend commons and sustain their longevity.

But also [...] seeing a rise in ecological consciousness. Seeing that move from a more spiritual space, a new-age space, to the natural sciences, actually recognising how ecosystems are so intertwined, and harm in one element of the ecosystem for one species equals harm for all other elements of the ecosystem or species. That thinking about the natural world as a complex, adaptive system, where all the pieces matter – that holistic, ecological thinking is becoming more mainstream, and not just being used in sciences or an ecology, but actually applying that to politics, climate, to sociology, applying that to economics. There are these parallels and harmonies. They're reaching out to each other.

So it feels like there is a holistic coming together in the sciences, in philosophy, in ideologies that is trying to remind us, because it has always been there. We just forgot about it. This has been part of early human logic, knowledge and indigenous knowledge, pre-capitalist knowledge. These things already existed, we're just returning to that wisdom. It feels like that gives me hope.

When you're paying attention to that return of the commons and that more holistic, ecological frame, that multi-agent capability and moving beyond individual and singular – when you're paying attention to those things, how are they affecting you?

I think again, it's humbling.

Growing up as someone who was a fairly political person, but wasn't really active in a movement or a scene or an organisation, I thought that individual will could change the world. Being part of collective organisations that try to harness people's collective power rather than their individual power, it gives a more refined, sophisticated view of how change actually happens.

Because I think that for so long, there's this idea that the theory of change is: lobby the right person, lobby the right power-holder, policymaker, and when you get them to agree with you, then the thing you want will happen. Considering the immense power of the structures that we're trying to deal with – histories of racism and colonialism, an economic system that is so totalising that it literally limits our imaginations of a world beyond it, [which] concentrates so much wealth and power that it leaves everyone else impoverished and powerless – the idea that any one person can try and build a counter-power against this by themselves is kind of nonsensical.

So it's an increasing recognition that all struggles are interconnected and that all the pieces matter. You see it in the climate movement. In the early days of the ‘traditional’ environmental movement, it was very much about individual lifestyles, changing what you consume. Now we're seeing a real radical flourishing of understanding. Migrant solidarity and migrant justice is a climate issue. Housing is a climate issue, transport, work, health. They're all so deeply interconnected because they all exist within the natural world that has been depleted, and then depletes our lives and our societies.

So it's a recognition that if you do want to be part of the transformational change that we need to move past these crises, you need to really think about where you're putting your energy and your attention and your capabilities, and it's never going to be something you can do by yourself.

It's a monumental work that we've been given – those of us who happen to have been born in this time have been given – and we didn't ask for it. But this is what we've been given and we have to face up to that responsibility. And that's pretty exhausting.

But in that realisation, of both your accountability and your responsibility, that's where your life of purpose also exists. These are the questions that we have to live. And by trying to live those questions we can find the real meaning we need from our lives, rather than a life of conspicuous consumption and individual satisfaction.

We need each other
Monica Trinidad

What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform our response to planetary-scale problems?

The one thing I keep telling myself, and I tell others – I'm more hopeful about us taking on these huge, monumental, inhumane structures, and building a new society and a new consciousness that takes the non-human world and the natural systems that we live within, and each other, seriously. I’m more hopeful about that than ever. And I think that's because of some of what we've talked about already – increasing ecological consciousness, the ideas, the technology’s also there [...] the skills and capabilities to think our way out of this are there.

But it's also about shifting consciousness, so people are recognising that there is a sickness in our society, the way we live is making us sick, the way we treat each other is making us sick, the way we work. We don't recognise the humanity of our fellow citizens. We diminish the lives of others just because we don't know them. We don't see them. There is a recognition that that is a sickness.

On a human society scale, the other thing that makes me hopeful is that there's nothing inevitable about the way we live. The way we live is contingent on historical, cultural reasons. And if you read a bit of history, you realise that there are times in history when the unexpected happened instantaneously. There are times in history when empires fell and no one predicted it. Where people who were powerless showed their defiance and undermined what seemed like an eternal bureaucracy that was undefeatable.

There's radical possibility in history, because human societies don't operate on the principles of natural sciences. We can make things happen that are beyond the predictive power of science and we have an immense collective power and possibility. If you can grow, if you can nurture those things that we need – the movements we need, the renewable power we need, the technologies, the ideas, the consciousness. If those can merge at the right proportions, together, then immense things can happen. So, yeah. I hold on to that.

Thank you. Yeah, I needed a bit of that today. Holding all that, holding that declaration of hope, and those parallel factors and convergence, what is the courage that you will need to take you further in that direction?

I can sometimes find the courage needed to face up to everything we've been talking about, but I can't find it alone. And, you know, increasingly we need to continue to recognise that with the crises that are coming, with things that are unpredictable, that are coming for us, that are going to get bad, we need to build resilient communities that are accountable but also compassionate.

We need to move out of this idea that we're atomised individuals or households that need to deal with all the shit in life. Everything that's being thrown at us, that it's something you need to take on by yourself.

The most immediate thing in recent history that demonstrates that, to me, is the pandemic. I'm reading a great book, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. It's about how in times of crisis and natural disaster, it actually led to a rupture in the status quo, where you saw people from the grassroots, from the ground up building egalitarian structures built on mutuality and cooperation. It goes against everything retold in popular culture – that in a crisis you can't trust the general population, they're all going to be anarchic and out for themselves. She gives so many examples from the early 20th century – from earthquakes, up to the September 11 attacks, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina – where people built organisations, systems and mutual aid networks, where they were just supporting each other and they took what they needed. They didn't ask permission.

It led to massive social shifts and the people at that time reported the joy of that mutuality, of that coming together, that collectivity. They were there standing amidst disaster – and people died, obviously, and people were really hurt – but they also report the joy of how simple it was just to take care of each other and to work together.

That's the work we need to do. In a prefigurative way, we need to be building those roots and those networks and those organisations before the disaster happens. And so when the disaster does happen – and it will, and it won't be once, there will be many – we have those networks in place already.

It reminds me a little bit of that trust exercise where you fall backwards. What's the courage that's required of you, Roshan, for that ‘prefiguring’?

I've got decades of acculturation that tells me not to reach out, not to speak to the stranger, not to see someone else's struggle in mind, not to give a comforting word or hand to someone because, you know: ‘Don't worry about them. They’re nothing to do with you. You don't know them. You might say something wrong. They might not trust you. You might not trust them. You shouldn't trust them.’

I've been inculcated with that my entire life, and every time I have not listened to it, it's been for my benefit and for whoever else’s benefit as well. It's always helped me recognise the voices of those who tell us that we’re weak and powerless. And that completely works in their favour, the cynicism that tells you: ‘What's the point? Why even bother?’ That's the voice of those who would like us to remain weak and powerless.

But as soon as we reach out that hand and show solidarity to others, as soon as we show compassion, those ideas fall away so easily, because that's who we are. That's where we want to be. That's where we want to be, behind this facade of this cruel, inhumane society we've built for ourselves. You have to keep reminding yourself. Keep trying.

What do you want or need from your community to make that happen?

I think it’s important to remember that it should be joyful.

Trying to build a world that respects the needs of people and the non-human world is a joyful thing. Because if we do it, imagine what we can win. Imagine what we could have if we get closer. I probably won't see it in my lifetime, but we can carry the torch enough, we can push the boundaries enough to make it possible in someone's future. Real, lasting joy is found in the collective work of communing together, eating together, making music together, demanding the impossible together.

It will be a struggle but it can be a joyful struggle as well, as we pick each other up when we need to, as we remind each other of what we're trying to do, as we support each other in our hardest moments. So that's what I would want for everyone else and for myself – to remember that this can be joyful.

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