Our Autonomy is our Purpose. #55 #cong22


Purpose is doing.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Purpose is what you do.
  2. Autonomy, identity, and values operate within a context to produce a purpose,
  3. Environmental degradation is the elephant.
  4. My change in purpose

About Conor O'Brien:

I am a retired dairy farmer from a tradition of cooperative and local involvement. I am a member of the Board oversight on Mitchelstown Credit Union. Chairperson of Knockmealdown Active that develops outdoor activities there. Also involved with a local group using walks on the Knockmealdowns and the Galtees to build the community. I help to organise an October storytelling workshop on Cape Clear island, although this year was on Whiddy Island. Learning more about the soil every day. Reading. Local and general economic history.

Contacting Conor O'Brien:

You can reach Conor by email or connect with him on Twitter.


By Conor O’Brien

A purpose is the proposed solution to a human problem. It is only possible if we have autonomy to act as we decide. We are social animals; all our actions and purposes are defined in relation to others.

Our actions describe what our purpose is. As Donella Meadowes said: “The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves.”; and: “The least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior.”

Our purpose is affected by our identity, our values, and our context. Identity is affected by three main areas of our lives: family, place, and profession. Being able to act purposefully in anyone of those areas strengthens one’s personal autonomy and identity. For one person it may be their profession that defines them; for another, especially in Ireland, place is often a very strong part of identity. Gender influences how it is both perceived and expressed, particularly so for women in relation to family and to a decreasing extent in professions.

Values are the gut-feelings that determine how we relate to others. We tend to be strongly reciprocal, often to the point of altruism. But this strong reciprocal tendency makes us hypersensitive to unfairness, often to the point of jealousy and revenge. A common purpose is one of the mechanisms by which we overcome this potential whiplash between love and hate. If a couple have a common purpose in raising their family it provides a balance to the relationships.

There is an analogy in biology where some microbes can move the Ph of their environment above or below 6.5Ph which is the sweet spot for most plants. A common purpose can act on a relationship in a similar way.

A purpose without a feedback mechanism will not be achievable. Within a family feedback relating to core values occurs through their normal communication. Organisations are just as dependent on feedback of values and will also be affected by strong reciprocity. In their simplest form they can be defined as mutual fairness, autonomy, and development.

Values are not as easily measurable as material factors, but again a Donella Meadows quote: “Pay Attention to What Is Important, Not Just What Is Quantifiable.”. One might find that an organisations purpose is unachievable, but if the organisation maintains its values while it adapts it may survive. It will almost certainly fail if it forgets it’s values.

Having a purpose implies changing the present context and reorganising how social relations and resources are configured. Purpose without action is just a dream. Action will cause uncertainty, fear of the unknown, and concern whether the risk is worth the reward.

Climate change, environmental degradation, and fossil fuel reduction have produced an extremely uncertain context for satisfying our core needs of food, water, shelter, and sociableness. This has been caused by the way in which the public values of our society have prioritised capital and power over community and the environment. An immediate result is that there is a genuine possibility that food security might be an issue for our grand-children, and possibly even our children because the biology of the soil has significantly degenerated.

There is a classic photograph from the 1920s in the American Mid-west of a country road heading into a huge black cloud of dust. This was replicated last year during another dust-storm; only this time the cloud was white. There was no more black earth left to blow.

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. The operating principle of our economic system is that individuals will preferentially satisfy their own needs. This is not valid, but it has enabled a subset of humanity to do so at the expense of all others.

Plans to achieve one’s purpose cannot be based on the principles that have led to the present environmental crisis. This will require local and community based approaches rather than a government led top-down ones. Whether our present centralised governance structure will support this may be crucial to our social and environmental regeneration. One will have to consider several routes, husband resources carefully, and be prepared to adapt them.

For me that leads to two purposes. I have experience of organising storytelling workshops. I want to run one next year that helps environmental workers to find stories that speak of changing values so that our grandchildren will not be at risk of food insecurity. This is tentatively set for St Brigid’s weekend 2023.

Contact me if you know of a storytelling facilitator who might be suitable.

The other is a recognition that good food leads to good health and that future generations of children need security of nutritious food. Regenerative horticulture that provides this is a skilled profession that can only be learned by doing. I intend to support the establishment on my farm of a two to three acre smallholding which would have sufficient income both to make a profit for the operator and enable her to train another person, who could then start up on their own. It may grow into a larger cooperatively organised operation, or not. Try it and see.

If you know someone who is interested in this tell them to contact me.

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