ULEX: Whats in a name?

January 8, 2017

What’s in a name? Ulex is the latin name for the plant which in Catalunya we call argelaga. In English it is known as gorse. It’s a common thorny-evergreen flowering plant. Its yellow flowers and sweet fragrances are well known from the northern coast of Scotland to the edges of the Mediterranean Sea. What’s it got to do with a pan-european activist training project?

One of the best bits of advice I got from a close mentor back in the day has really helped me navigate my way through innumerable meetings in collective projects. He advised me: “Just never have an opinion about project names or colour schemes.” It’s a good call (and you know it!). But with this project the name mattered. So, why Ulex?

The Ulex Project is a pan-european and internationally focused project, so we wanted a name that would carry beyond a single language or set of national borders. Something that would  need translating. That’s why we went with the latin name for a plant. Botanical latin crosses borders without denying local variants. Ulex is the latin name for the plant which in Catalunya we call argelaga. In English it is known as gorse. It’s a common thorny-evergreen flowering plant. Its yellow flowers and sweet fragrances are well known from the northern coast of Scotland to the edges of the Mediterranean Sea.

But why this plant?

Ulex is a plant that grows well under challenging conditions. It’s excellent at enriching damaged land. This means it’s an excellent successionary plant – a species that can play an important role in healing land that has been damaged. It can prepare the way for the returning health and biodiversity. Commonly we can see this on land that has been clear cut, or degraded by over-grazing or excessive extraction. Ulex supports the reforestation and return of biodiversity especially through its capacity to improve soil fertility. It does this by helping to fix nitrogen, providing more nutrient rich conditions for other plants to grow.

We see the training and educational work of the Ulex Project as analogous to this. Through capacity building and supporting increased resilience, we seek to enrich the conditions that enable social movements to thrive.
We are working in a damaged social landscape. The impact of neoliberal policies throughout the last decades of the 20th century and during the first years of the 21st have caused a social degradation analogous to the impact of mono-culture farming and de-forestation on natural habitats and ecosystems. Sociological studies like Robert Putnham’s Bowling Alone, have documented the ‘social recession’ that follows in the wake of neoliberal policy. Atomisation, individualistic preoccupation, and a breakdown of trust are the obvious symptoms. Withdrawal from the public sphere, the depopulating of civil society, the depoliticisation of everyday life, are all consequences.

The social fabric is the soil in which social movements are rooted – and it has clearly been impoverishment. This process reached a low point with Frederick Jameson’s claim in 2004, that it was “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”. For many people in progressive social movements it rang all too true.

For many of that might have begun to change again in recent years. The fall out of the 2008 financial crash represented a point of disruption that has begun to enable many of us to free our imagination beyond the horizon of capitalism. Numerous movements and struggles have found a renewed vigour since then. And yet, as we are all too aware, the discontents exposed by the post-2008 disruption are also finding expression through channels carved by the far right.

The social damage wrought by neoliberalism and the historic defeat of the left has created both social and psychological conditions that pose some serious challenges to progressive organising. A loss of confidence, trust, and imagination are a real block for many. An increased sense of repression and surveillance is another major obstacle in certain areas and spheres of action. And there is also the loss of contexts in which organising and community building skills and qualities might have been acquired. In a sense we’re coming back from a serious low. But, at the Ulex Project  we do believe we can come back. The integral approach to training taken by Ulex Project addresses these multiple dimensions. It offers activist education that really can support the individuals and organisations engaged with social change practices to thrive.

Ulex also represents resilience. Social change is complex. There are advances and defeats, historical loses and gains. And yet the spirit and heart of progressive social vision endures and grows again. William Morris wrote in 1886, in A Dream of John Ball:

“I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other people have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Ulex, that robust and spikey plant, also represents this complex continuity of vision and effort that runs through generations engaged in social struggle. It has the capacity to shoot from charred stumps after devastating fires. And in some cases its seedpods are actually opened by that heat.

In the area where the Ulex Project’s residential centre is situated ulex is used traditionally to start fires. Lighting the stove in the winter or firing up a bread oven, the oily sap of ulex means that it burns very hot and very bright. In the same way, we see the work of the Ulex Project as a catalyst, a kindling, that can help to ignite the transmuting flames life-affirming social change.

So, you could say that Ulex is a networked project adding nutrition and fertility to social movements through training and capacity building. It kindles the realisation of social justice, ecological intelligence, and cognitive vitality.

Just as the ulex plant quietly fixes nitrogen and prepares the ground for future biodiversity and ecological health, so each of us through our choices today are preparing the ground for vibrant social movements that can support our flourishing and that of others, both today and in the future.