‘Community lies at the heart of the way we go forward.’

It’s been quite a journey for Pete Lawrence from the days of Cooking Vinyl and creating the Big Chill music festival to igniting the sparks for Campfire Convention. Pete doesn’t particularly like the title ‘activist,’ but to my mind he is one of the great social movers and shakers of our time. He set up Campfire Convention in 2016 to bring music, nature and people together in community both online and in real life (although that’s had to take a back seat for now), with a focus on what it means to give back to each other, to our communities and to the planet. 

Sue: Welcome Pete. I love how your inspiration for bringing nature, music and people together around a campfire has evolved into such an international community. 

Pete: I suppose I’ve always had ideas above my station regarding grand visions and I’ve always wanted to make them happen on a shoestring or through community engagement, which is what has happened with all three of my major projects. But the common factor has always been about bringing people together. 

Sue: How did this start for you?

Pete: I graduated from Reading University after scraping a third in Sociology and then started working for Our Price Records. This gave me an incredible musical education. I ended up managing shops in Reading, Oxford and Basingstoke before working for a record distributor called Making Waves. That took me on an amazing journey into non-mainstream music – from Bluegrass to Country to English Folk through to Electronica – everything that was outside the pop mainstream really. I went on to set up my own record label, Cooking Vinyl. My mission was to make folk music into something hip and cool. And, I think we achieved it, especially when New Musical Express devoted a whole issue to music, which two years previously had been completely uncool, to them anyway.

I’ve been fortunate that the Big Chill in particular, created a lot of value which enabled me not to have to work after I left, some thirteen years ago now. Since then it’s been very much looking at how we can reinvent social networking.

Sue: When you look back over your career, do you feel the challenges you experienced prepared you for the turmoil we are all going through right now? 

Pete: It very much feels like that. For me, it’s a big experiment – a big journey.  I do feel I am living in the moment more than ever. Any financial planning and spreadsheets just go out of the window. We are dealing with such a new paradigm and where we can go with this. 

Campfire Convention is about exploring how we can social network in a different way that doesn’t base itself around algorithms or mining data or selling advertising. It’s post capitalism really in the sense that it’s looking for new models which are much more community based rather than the traditional top down structures. 

Sue: It seems to me that the world we know is crumbing – it’s like great big cement blocks are breaking off and crashing to the floor. But we don’t know what this means. I sense Campfire provides a platform where people can come and explore in the moment what they’re experiencing. 

Pete: Yes, it’s very much like that and we’re working on making a software upgrade at the moment for a more seamless user experience. It’s nourishing but equally quite challenging, particularly when you’re depending on volunteers to create and evolve every aspect of the Campfire community. We have created a karma scheme. This is about repaying in karma or maybe through actual monetary surplus share for people’s engagement on the site. That’s what we are working towards – really focusing all our intentions on a community, which can actually pay back to its members in every sense. This means you don’t come to Campfire thinking, ‘What do I get from this’, or, ‘What does my subscription give me?’ It’s more about what we can all build together. So, it’s very much an act of co-creation. 

The World Harmony event we ran online over the Summer Solstice was all about co-creation. That’s been incredibly spontaneous particularly as we haven’t been able to meet a lot of the key players in our own team. For example, I have never met the guy who was amanging the tech for us and made the Campfire.world website. He just popped up online through a friend of a friend. It’s been amazing to see how it came together organically. 

As I see it, it comes down to being in service to the planet and to the community – and this has to be the overriding factor for ways of making a living now, because, as you say, the old structures are crumbling, and we need to become stewards of this amazing planet we are on – to really take care of it.  

Sue: I’m talking to so many people who saying, ‘I don’t want to go back to life as it was.’ They often have an idea of a utopian life that lies ahead, but first we have to get through the chaos we are living through. What’s your vision of where we are heading? 

Pete: I think we have to be very mindful of the language and the imagery we create.  In a way we can dream stuff into being. It’s all about coming up with concepts people can grasp. For instance, with our karma scheme, it’s not just about a scheme that can pay back to people, it’s about finding new language, new models, new frameworks that you can hang your ideas and your concepts on. I think this has to revolve around looking after the planet and being cautious about what we’re doing in every respect; the ethos and the ethics of everything we’re doing has to come first. So, there is a big shift going on, and a lot of people are waking up to new ways of doing things.  

Sue: Waking up is a frequently used phrase these days. What does it mean to you?    

Pete: It’s an awareness of the repercussions of all our actions. It’s an awareness that we are part of nature – nature isn’t a separate thing that’s out there. It’s also about moving away from service to self to service towards the planet. It’s about an alignment that’s going on. I think for a lot of people this is happening in various different ways and there’s no particular set way that people are waking up. It can happen in every single conversation we have, because it might trigger something that can be life changing. So, we shouldn’t underestimate every meeting and every conversation we have. It’s no longer about critical mass and big profits – it’s about taking care of the way we are in every respect. 

SueAlong with everyone else, I am very anxious about the planet. But we can’t stop climate change. It’s not possible. So how do we deal with this? 

Pete:  Engaging with Deep Adaptation really and being aware of all those things that flow from this. I think it’s also the reorganisation of our ambitions and our parameters. It’s become almost standard that people expect to holiday abroad once year or to travel to business meetings. All this has to change. There’s a massive economic crash coming so the real pandemic will come flowing through from that. A lot of people haven’t begun to take this on board. I’m only just beginning to take the potential repercussions on board, myself. 

I’m selling my house at the moment so I’m not sure where I’ll be – I could be in my camper van. But it’s certainly about working with the land locally and working with democracy in new ways that take the initiative – the UK Government seems incapable of having any vision or ability to understand where we are going. Certain governments can be referenced such as New Zealand, where there’s a sense that the government is tuned into what’s really important in life. But in this country? Well, what can you say? 

Sue: I think it’s because we’re so impacted by our conditioning and colonialism. The defacing and removal of statues of people who made their money through slavery is such a powerful symbol. It’s not acceptable to have them there anymore. 

Pete: Yes, it’s huge. It’s like inner work but on a massive national and international scale – we all interrelate with other countries’ heritage, past and shadow traditions. Someone was saying to me the other day that Germany has done a lot of work as a country and community dealing with their recent past. But I think a lot of that is untouched for most people in this country.  What happened in Bristol was just a pressure valve exploding in terms of what needs to be dealt with regarding the heritage of this country. 

Sue: I sense that people are desperate for real connection with each other and at the same time wanting a new kind of freedom, but I wonder what this will mean to us.  

Pete: More than ever it seems that people are making collective decisions at base level and the Government is becoming increasingly irrelevant in many respects – other than dishing out big pots of money. But how long are they going to have these big pots of money? Half the world is unemployed now and it’s going to get much worse, so who’s going to be paying taxes? I think there needs to be a massive redistribution of wealth and paring down of essentials. 

Sue: Is this why you are selling your house?

Pete: It’s partly for cash flow and partly because I don’t know what’s happening and I feel I need to be freed up. Again, I’m privileged that I do have this asset. But effectively no one owns anything anyway. We need to move away from the mentality of it being mine. The world has all these resources and natural benefits. We have to think about how to create a more equitable redistribution of these. 

Sue:  The Native American Indians refer to themselves as custodians of the planet. But we have become so caught up in ownership and the belief that the more we own the more immortal we become. 

Pete: Yes, things have become so pronounced and so extreme, which actually has helped the awakening process – painful as it has been. It’s made us all realise how sick certain elements of the world are, and how much they need attention. I think we just have to do our bit as far as we are able to, within the time we’ve got. Focus this energy and enthusiasm into community, and all sorts of magic can occur. 

Sue: I do get a sense this is a real grassroots-up revolution, and everything is up for grabs.

Pete: Things are certainly moving in parallel. But, how do we harness the information? How do we connect people? One of the things Campfire would like to do – as soon as we’ve upgraded our software – is what we’re calling the Campfire Ecosystem. This is connecting different communities that are doing good work and offering them our own software as a solution for online community networking. 

Sue: It reminds me a little of the car boot revolution when everybody started flogging stuff out the back of their car and then the Government said, ‘Excuse me! We need to tax you on this.’ I have a vision of our Government exploding! 

Pete: Yeah. Westminster is effectively closed, and the virus is going to keep a lot of those institutions closed. With the crash that’s coming, is there going to be a civil service? Are there going to bureaucrats to run all these things, and to chase you up over your parking ticket or whatever? I think it all points back to self-organisation and finding ways of empowering people so they’re not taking advantage – they’re acting in service. It’s small steps for some people and big leaps for others. Today’s beach litter-droppers might still wake up and become tomorrow’s stewards of planet protection.

Sue: Would you describe yourself as an activist?  

Pete: I like the word activist. I know some people have a knee jerk reaction to the word. I suppose it’s the images that the media has fed them. Again, we have to move away from preconception and media narratives. I’ve given up watching the BBC, which seems aligned as a Government mouthpiece. We have to find a new language. As far as I am concerned, activism is about being aware and working for change – positive change. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of the justice system either; that could be crumbling as well. So, we are moving into a much more anarchic self-governing system. 

Sue: I can certainly imagine more bartering going on.  

Pete: Yes. And, moving out of cities because some kind of restrictions and social distancing are going to remain in place. I think a move towards more localised communities is inevitable. Emissions are also going back up, so there has to be some pretty urgent action somehow around climate emergency again, which has been pushed into the background. We need to address this. A lot of airlines are going bust. We can’t keep subsidising fossil fuel industries, which are on the way out. Renewable energies and resources have to be our priority.  

Sue: It’s really curious how we’ve needed this dramatic lockdown to really change our understanding of what’s okay and what isn’t. 

Pete: It’s a massive opportunity for big change at personal, societal and economic levels. Everything’s up for grabs. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that people who are the most vulnerable have been the ones who have suffered the most. Again, it highlights huge inequality in the world. 

Sue: Yes, there’s been very distressing reports about the increase in domestic abuse and child abuse. Maybe when we live in smaller communities, we can start to keep an eye on each other, like we used to. 

Pete: A lot of those neighbourly values are coming back in. I have seen so many examples of that. 

Sue:  It’s alarming when you think of the enormous changes we have to make.

Pete: Actually, I’ve taken the time to try and anticipate what lies ahead. So, when the home truths start to hit, I’m prepared to some extent. It’s harder and harder to find reliable sources of information. But, there’s an American channel called Peak Prosperity that’s been very ahead of the game on everything since before lockdown. Nearly everything Chris Martenson has talked about or warned about has come to pass. So, I think anticipating what’s around the corner is a huge part of reducing the fear that many people are feeling. A lot of people who were in denial are now waking up and seeing things through a very different lens. Huge change is manifesting. 

Sue: It feels to me like we’re caught between two worlds – one world that hasn’t quite finished and a new world that hasn’t yet begun. 

Pete: Yes, we are certainly in liminal space!

Sue:  That can be a very fertile space if we allow it to be. But the way we have lived until now has been so restricted – we are so used to being told what to do. 

Pete: Yeah, people are slaves effectively. I think the economic system has been one of the main reasons that’s happened whether its students finding themselves in horrendous debt or its people strapped down to a ridiculous mortgage or companies making money out of money – all this has to realign. 

Sue: In my experience, big challenges throw all the cards up in the air and it takes time for them to land as a different picture. We just don’t know what this new picture is yet. 

Pete: Or what can we rely on. We have no idea what the future of the internet or online companies like Zoom may be. We may have to return to more a feudal system and a very local network. At the moment we’re blessed that we are able to communicate. For instance, I’ve heard fantastic examples of Icelandic people making new best friends with Africans. Our World Harmony Event focused on this incredible international community network, with over 10,000 participants from 60 countries. And, we celebrated our human connection with each other by lighting beacons on the solstice and equinox. We are doing it again on the weekend of September 26th, right at the end of the equinox period.

Sue:  I love the idea of lighting beacons because it also connects us back to our ancient ancestors. How do you think Campfire will have developed by the next Solstice?

Pete:  Very organically and through our circle teams. There’s a new Lighthouse for Learning that Julie Horsley has a setup, which is all about online courses and hopefully face to face courses. We also want to bring an elders and mentorship scheme circle to life. A lot are still ideas which are floated to see what interest there is; maybe the time isn’t right or maybe it is. 

The idea of Circle Teams is as important as the beacons. Whether people light a physical beacon in their back garden or on an actual hill or in a park, a pin is put into a map which we’ve tied into our technology, so these pins become points of local organisation. We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Peter Macfadyen’s Flat Pack Democracy around taking power back at local level.

We will certainly support these sorts of initiatives because political parties are becoming a thing of the past as far as I’m concerned. It’s about finding the common links rather than two sides of the House [of Commons] battling it out in this ridiculous pantomime we have.

So, yes, Campfire will be involved in promoting new forms of democracy, and at the local level.

Sue: Do you feel overwhelmed at times by these big visions?

Pete: I do find for every idea that comes from me, there is equally something that can be remixed or reinterpreted and handed on to someone else to take forward. Whatever it is, the idea is to stimulate people so they can use Campfire as a launchpad to promote their ideas. And, also to meet people and collaborate. It’s not about being possessive about ideas or about copyright. If those ideas bubble up elsewhere and create work, wealth and wellbeing for people, then that’s great.

Sue:  I’m curious about your eldership programme, and how important it is for older people to step up into this role. 

Pete: Yes, learning how to be a woman or a man in this world is really important. Transgender issues add another level of complexity and interest to the whole idea of what initiation into adulthood means. So, creating eldership circles which help with mentorship and the flow of ideas from one generation to another are essential. 

We also want to empower young people and bring them into Campfire, knowing they will be listened to, given a platform for their ideas and that they can rely on us as having firm shoulders to stand on. 

Sue:  It sounds as if this is exploring what real value means. 

Pete:  I’m a great believer in a universal comfortable income. We had a panel at our very first Campfire event in 2016 before our website had even been launched around basic income for all. Brian Eno was one of our keynote speakers – he insisted on coming on the panel. No speakers at any of the Campfire events have asked to be paid. It’s a sense of service and the act of wanting to be part of something. 

This is something that’s inevitable to me. The current system for the self-employed and those who are furloughed either isn’t working or it’s going to disappear. So, there’s going to have to be something that’s much more universal. I think it would certainly teach something to those who are unaware or arrogant about their earnings or wealth – the fact they would be receiving the same as someone who’s unemployed and perhaps even homeless. 

Sue:  I also think value is about finding an avenue of work that people care about. I came across a statistic which says 83% of people hate their job.  That’s a soul-killer. 

Pete: It certainly is. Everyone needs to be working to their natural gifts and to have the grace to be able to explore what those gifts are.

Sue: What would you say to somebody who said to you, ‘How do I make this world a better place?’

Pete: I would say follow your heart. Listen to what your calling is. What you give out will come back. Find a quiet space to think about those around you. Then find ways to act on it. Find that unique gift that’s within all of us. This is the essence of what makes the world a happier place. It’s the economic constraints which enslave people. So, it’s about joining something that can free you up. I think everyone has to become engaged as much as possible on the local level. 

For me, it always comes back to the metaphor of the circle and the fire. That’s home. That’s where we can gather together, whether that’s online or face-to-face. Fire is a great leveller. You come around the fire. You’re heard. Everyone is sitting at the same level. It’s a circle which means you can see people across the other side. There’s such beauty in the circle.

Sue:  Is there anything else you would like to add?  

Pete:  It’s big challenging times for us. But I’d say community lies at the heart of the way we go forward.  We all need to have awareness of others around us, many of them with our truest and best intentions at heart. 

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