The Kind of Civics You Need When Things Get Gnarly

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We have been talking quite a bit about the DIY tactics we can use to solve systemic problems from the ground up, but we haven’t quite yet gotten into Gnarly Civics. What is Gnarly Civics? Simply put, it’s the kind of Civics you need when things get Gnarly. What does that mean? It’s the application of alternative subcultural attitudes, identities, philosophies, and approaches to contemporary political and social challenges, with an emphasis on applying their lessons to dealing with Gnarly (read: really bad and generally seen as unsolvable) problems. What do we mean when we say alternative subcultural? Though this is a broad term with a very broad set of emphases one can choose, my focus is on the cultures connected to the development of skateboarding culture. Things like punk rock, surfing, hip hop, and elements of the hippy culture. Why this set of cultures? Think about the people who are seen as causing the problems in contemporary society. On one hand, we have disaffected young, mostly white, people who think that society has abandoned them due to impositions of diversity and inclusion that limit their freedom of expression. They have a hardcore form of art called “memes,” are brash and bold, and don’t care what other racial groups think of them. They claim that the liberals’ restrictions on this art form legally in the EU and on social media platforms are because they “can’t meme,” rather than the old “can’t kickflip.” They even explicitly say their culture is “the new punk rock.” If you didn’t guess already, these are the alt-right. Liberals and much of established politics would probably call them “freaks.” True or not, hold that in suspense for a moment as we move on to our next group.

These are people who started making machines in their garages in the 80s or so. People thought they were interesting but perhaps not very useful. But they caught on, one brand urging people to “think differently.”  These machines are now known as computers. These people built enterprises worth in the billions of dollars and starred trends that shape how we communicate and view the world. They inspired new clans called “start ups” to follow their highest principle of “move fast and break things,” creating social media networks and this very medium. Try to think of the similarities between this motto and another motto of skate culture popularized by Thrasher magazine. Some tried to maintain their principles of creativity and community with a motto of “don’t be evil.”

However, many lost their souls and started to become destructive enterprises called to account by politicians and the media for causing political division, taking people’s data to sell as fool’s gold to misinformed and overhyped marketing organizations, leading people to extremism to maintain their attention to view aforementioned marketing, encouraging people to decimate and demoralize those professionals who focus on people rather than algorithms as being dumb and worthless, and adopting the labor practices of the most abhorrent industrialists with added technological control, running humans like machines. These are the “geeks.” And now I will explain these classifications.

Jeff Grosso once stated that two of the main groups of skateboarding are “freaks and geeks.” So our alt-right members are the “freaks” and the tech industry are the “geeks.” Both are seen as problems in society. Much like the skaters of old that people wanted away from their handrails and empty swimming pools. These people, much like extreme thinkers and nonconformists throughout history, have gained quite a bit of traction. They also have some things they can learn from predecessor alternative cultures and some things we can learn in engaging with them from these cultures. The first is that their bad actions are often either a response to reality that they feel is the best one or what I call a “mistake of flow,” going in a direction that feels positive but isn’t principled.  The second is that there is unbelievable potential for positive change but only if the seeds of positive change are there and planted authentically without imposition. Imposition and anything short of cooperation backfires when dealing with an independent culture. Ideally, the culture self-corrects and that is where we want to be.

There are then unique lessons for each culture, conditions, and set of people that we can draw from. Those will each require their own installment.

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Who are you servicing? The Problem with Providing Services as a Solution.

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In my last installment, I covered agency and a little on how you can expand your own power situationally and daily. Now I’m going to talk about how the outside world tries to help “little people” (not literally but metaphorically) and how there can be people who want to help you and be your partner but just don’t get it and kind of refuse to get it. This mentality on the part of the “helpers” feeds back into the mindset of the DIY ethos I explained in DIY Ethos as a Response to Repression, which is my long-overdue analysis of an answer I got from Rodney Mullen at a conference in 2017. In short it deduces to if the system doesn’t care about you, why care about winning it to you? The answer is not that the system entirely doesn’t care about you, it does care about you but not in a way that properly recognizes the level of your agency and/or is trying to “use” you for some purpose they want but may not be your priority. Who are they really servicing? The skater’s skepticism is right.

The system presumes that it is a Skynet-type entity that knows exactly what to pick for your community’s problems with scientific precision, with perhaps the exception of leaving to human choice whether your kid wants the bubble gum or grape flavor in their liquid medication. It thinks that it knows and can solve your problems in your life better than you can. As such, the system would tries to give the people as little choice as possible without regard for the individual circumstances where the piece just doesn’t fit. Giving people things and, more often, specific services rather than the funds or choices of different product and service offerings to do what they believe is best. This is the Problem with Services, it is wrong and this lack of understanding of the people’s unique knowledge and contextual decision making capacity as well as the appropriate way to add in the intelligence and assistance of experts and technology leads to a massive amount of unsolved problems, wasted money, and political frustration and misdirection.

Speaking of medication, healthcare is probably one of the biggest areas where you see this issue. You have problems that manifest themselves as medical problems, that the person might even know the true cause of deep down but wind up as being health problems that lead to consumption of very costly services like ER visits and ambulance rides. The benevolent system sees that it cuts costs by covering less things and less things that cost more, it makes mathematical sense to a machine, there are two variables, number of uses and prices for items, reducing the number of items and reducing the number of items with a high cost results in a lower probability (all other things held constant, which they aren’t) of high cost items being used. But this is not random probability and there are actors with incentives and some degree of agency involved. Whenever there are people involved, it’s never a matter of simple probability and control. There are hundreds of variables, variables whose meanings are not well understood without being in the situation yourself, and certainly not reducible to what can be codified in a law book or a computer program. My own personal experiences in this area have led me to start building a project I’ve code-named HXF. As this develops, I will talk more about it on this podcast as well as an upcoming podcast called Rebuilding The Renegade, which is basically applications of Gnarly Civics-type principles to gnarly personal problems. If you want to know when that’s coming out, sign up for emails at

As I explained previously, the DIY ethos we study here is, in my opinion, a natural and rather healthy response to this seeming cluelessness of the systems that claim to be there to support us. If they can’t do it for us, then let’s do it for ourselves. We know this better than they do. That is good and actually quite refreshing given how politics today seems to work: blame someone else for everything and never offer any solutions other than those directly involving political power. The challenge we work through here is how we can best use this thought and this reaction in the environment we are in. The other challenge is obtaining resources to take great ideas from the bottom and implement them.

Others have identified the problems when the system, when people that think they know better try to solve the problems of the common person. A TED talk highlights the costs and ineffectiveness of social services in the United Kingdom and how an experiment where recipients were given more control over the services and professionals they work with helped to resolve problems that have costed tremendous amounts of money. Prior to this effort, everything seemed extremely mechanized and un-human. She also highlighted how building a community around people where personal connections were more valued than systems of providing services helped more than all the “well-calculated” services that welfare experts have been proffering for ages.

The act of interaction, in and of itself, starts to naturally and spontaneously create a better situation for people, whether that is in a cause-directed manner with explicit proclamations and actions like some of the subcultures we look at in Gnarly Civics or in a more indirect fashion with people just trying to help each other, perhaps even when people are interacting for a completely different purpose. This is because of innate knowledge that comes from closeness to a person and their situation that cannot be encapsulated in a set of rules. You don’t necessarily have to go all punk rock and say we’re ditching the rules, though that can work, but you have to have communication unstructured enough that it’s authentic. No scripts.

Now, where I sort of break from the DIY consensus (and I guess a little with Rodney Mullen) is that some interaction, when necessary, proper, and not harmful, with the greater system may be immensely beneficial. This is particularly true when these power players are entrenched into the space where you want to make a change. Just don’t sell out as the punks would say. Maintain your control but if you can get a little bit of support, don’t blow it off right away. This does get tricky so I will have to cover partnerships more in depth later. Of course, we always prefer as much independence as possible because independence breeds edge and edge begets efficacy, as I stated in slightly different terms at that conference.

If the system, though, can take some ideas from us and from an independently developed structure then we are both pretty good. Start giving people more discretion in what they can do using your program’s resources. Let them lead. Run based on authentic collaboration, not unnecessary rules, structures, and restrictions.

How do we start implementing this? You will need people and resources. The latter is why I think that partnerships can be valuable. But depending on your current status, you can start to build from people you know who are like minded. For others, like myself, it’s a whole lot tougher. You’re probably going to need to do a lot of strategic legwork and use what amounts to a marketing strategy. Putting yourself in an environment where these kinds of interactions happen also helps. This is where I goofed the most in college. More on that on my Rebuilding The Renegade series.

These are just a few ideas. Now think of some real problems in your life and that of others and think of how you can build up a solution with people around you, collective Resources and maybe a little help.



How Much Agency Do You Have?


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If you are in a bad situation in your life, like financial hardships, racial issues, or personal conflict, it is a common and honestly appropriate reaction to feel that you have less than adequate capacity to change the situation you are in and the situation around you. Even if you are in a pretty good situation with a good life, you will probably still feel that you have rather limited ability to change the greater problems in society. How we categorize this capacity is using a term called “agency.”

The levels of agency we have go all the way from the basic level of being able to do some things that have meaning in the current moment, to speak to one person or to many, all the way to power in politics, business, or institutions.

Of course, not everyone has the same level of agency. But often, what happens when we give information or advice on a one-to-many level, like what I do here on the podcast, YouTube, or in writing, we operate upon assumptions. This is a necessity in all social sciences and frankly all scientific fields. Assumptions when left in place and not substituted for an appraisal of the actual situation can result in a suboptimal or plainly inappropriate solution. Sometimes they result in assuming the person has very low agency, the only thing, for example, they have left is to use their physical capacities to stage some kind of protest (if that will even work), or they can assume that someone has the power to be a sort of superhero, do everything all at once, spend an inordinate amount of money and wield influence over others. The former results in you believing you can and hence doing less than you can to make change and also makes you feel so awful about yourself and your situation that it creates unneeded dependency while the latter, though it creates empowerment and possibly increases risk-taking, sets you up for failure and quitting because expectations are just too high for the person’s actual agency. Agency, in the holistic sense and not in relation to a specific context (eg. voting/suffrage) is in no way a dichotomous measure, it is a continuum.

When you are planning to implement strategies to address a problem, be it working to change policy, developing a social enterprise, or fixing a personal issue that transcends into political problems like financial instability, assess your level of agency and then try to aim higher than what it would dictate but in a manner that does not create defeat by going over a threshold where you get pushed back. The way I see it, there are two schools of thought in this regard: the first is to do what the more agency assumption would have you do and try to do really big stuff, put yourself in a place where you have to perform BUT understand that a failure to do so is not fatal, and the second is to aim for just a little more than what your agency is or close to the edge of your level of agency, then gradually increasing capacity upon those efforts. I think the best approach is a combination of both. There are “events,” so to speak, where the norms of society and the situation allow you to push far beyond the bounds of your normal capacity for a transient period of time and these are scenarios you have to seriously take advantage of. This is kind of like the scenario snowboarder Shaun White explains where in the Olympics he will do a very difficult and risky trick he wouldn’t do elsewhere, allowing him to push boundaries toward success. There is also a more day-to-day situation where trying to constantly do huge things causes burnout and near instant defeat before you even get started. This is where you just push a little more than you think your agency allows you to do. For example, getting together a skate setup in your backyard and then inviting your friends over. You don’t want to go too far and start imposing your vision for a whole skatepark by building on a plot of land that isn’t yours before getting approvals, because that’s stupid and will get you in big trouble, compromising your ability to do something big later.