Simple Living Archive

Why We Cannot Save the World

Friday, September 28th, 2012

This article is an attempt to respond to those who say they see me as a defeatist, a ‘doomer’, a dogmatically negative person. I have described myself of late as a joyful pessimist, and will try to explain why. This article draws on various theories about complexity, and the phenomenological philosophies of several writers, poets, artists and scientists. But it’s not a work of exposition of theory or of philosophy. It is, I guess, a confession.

Hardly a day passes when I don’t hear a cry for us all to work together to do X, because if we do that, everything will change and the world will be saved (or at least be rid of some horrific and intractable problem and hence made immeasurably better). Many variations of X are proposed, and they’re often about (a) comprehensively reforming our political, economic, education or other system, (b) achieving some large-scale behaviour change through mass persuasion or education, or (c) bringing together great minds and volunteer energies to bring ingenuity and innovation to bear collaboratively on some issue or crisis.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible: Look at what we have done in past to eradicate diseases, to institute democracy and ‘free’ enterprise worldwide, to dramatically reduce the prevalence of slavery, to pull the world out of the Great Depression, to produce astonishing technologies and improve the position of women and minorities, we are told. All we need is the same kind of effort dedicated to X. If we work together we can accomplish anything.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible. But such change, I would argue, is not possible. The belief that substantive and sustained change comes about by large-scale concerted efforts, or by the proverbial Margaret Mead “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” misses a critical point — throughout human history such change efforts have only occurred when there was no choice but to do them, when the alternative of inaction was so obviously and inarguably calamitous that the status quo was out of the question. And even then such efforts usually fail — either they run up against fierce and powerful opposition and are suppressed, or they bring about a new status quo that is arguably worse than what it replaced. Alas, the history books are written and rewritten by the victors, so “what might have been” is invariably portrayed as worse than what is.

I have tried to capture this realization in what I have come to call Pollard’s Laws:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

The human mind is astonishingly malleable; that is one of the reasons we have adapted so quickly and effectively to changes that most creatures could never manage. But a consequence of that malleability is that we can be persuaded that things are good, or at least OK (and improving), when they are not. We can even be convinced that the history of human civilization, allegedly from brutish to enslaved to democratic and affluent, is one of “progress”, when there is overwhelming evidence that it is not.

We can be persuaded that our exhaustion, our physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and imaginative poverty, the debilitating chronic diseases that are now epidemic in our culture, the ghastly suffering to which we subject other animals in the name of food and human safety, the epidemic of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in our homes and institutions, the endemic sense of grief and depression about our lives and our world, the accelerating extinction of all non-human life on Earth except for human parasites, the rapid depletion of cheap energy upon which our whole culture totally depends, the endlessly growing gap between the tiny affluent minority and the massive struggling majority, the runaway climate change that our human pollutants has triggered, the utter impossibility of ever repaying the staggering debts we have dumped on future generations, and the consequences when those debts come due — we can be persuaded that all of these things can be somehow fixed, that all of these unintended consequences of the way we have been living our lives for a thousand generations, can somehow be resolved in one or two, by a concerted effort to do X.

They cannot. That is not how the world, or human civilizations, work, or ever have worked. Our human civilization, like all living systems, is complex, and complex systems do not lend themselves to mechanical ‘fixes’. They evolve, slowly, unpredictably, over millennia. We may be able to change many malleable human minds in a hurry, if we’re motivated, and if we must, at least for a while until we can go back to what we were doing. But we cannot change our bodies, which are still evolving slowly, trying to adapt to our minds’ relatively recent decision to leave the rainforest, to eat meat, to settle in large, crowded, stressful, hierarchical cities, to walk upright. Our weary, pretzel-bent bodies are complaining about the changes we have forced on them over the past million years, and struggling with them. Too much too fast, they say.

And we cannot begin to enable the ecosystems of which we are a part to adapt to these changes, ecosystems now in states of massive collapse, exhaustion, desolation and extinction. We do not know what to do. We are limited to mechanical solutions — technology and engineering — and mechanical solutions cannot ‘solve’ these crises — crises that technology and engineering have themselves substantially caused.

Throughout this article I am going to use the term ‘organic process’ instead of the more abstract term ‘complex system’, and the term ‘construct’ instead of ‘simple system’ or ‘complicated system’. The distinction is important.

We want to understand things, and we want to be able to control them, so it is not surprising that we’ve become so adept at representing (‘re-presenting’) organic processes through the use of models, theories, ‘laws’ and other human constructs. But these models are absurdly oversimplified representations, and when we mistake the model or theory for reality we do so at our peril. A car is a construct, and it works quite well for awhile, but it is no replacement for the mobility processes of a living creature. Likewise, a computer is a construct, and a very useful one, but it is not a replacement for, or even a facsimile of, the processes of a living brain.

Keep reading over at Dave's blog (which may need to be renamed) How To Save the World

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

What Does Presence Look Like?

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Since my retirement, I’ve been attempting to practice being more present. One of the obstacles, I’ve discovered, is that I’m not entirely sure what presence ‘looks’ or ‘feels’ like. I think meditation is a worthwhile practice, but it doesn’t quite capture the full sense of ‘being present’ — that rare and remarkable feeling of being simultaneously relaxed and aware, totally ‘in the moment’. It’s the kind of high-performance state that is needed, I think, to be either an excellent facilitator or an excellent creator.

ee cummings and TS Eliot describe the need for a poet to be in that state of being that is completely attuned and open to what is, such that the creation seems almost to occur through them rather than by them. But they also explain that the craft of poetry both entertains (e.g. through evocative imagery or a clever turn of phrase) and brings new insight or perspective, a new way of looking at things the reader has never considered. To cummings this was a never-ending fight; to Eliot it was the painstakingly hard work of the writer.

It would seem almost impossible to at once ‘be’ in that open, creative state and ‘do’ the hard, struggling work, needed to produce great poetry. I think the reason it seems so impossible is because it is — I think there may be in fact two different states of presence.

The first, which I’m calling ‘Now Time’ presence, is that relaxed, aware, open state of high perceptiveness, imagination and connection in which you are totally attuned to what is and open to what could be. The second, which I’m calling ‘Clock Time’ presence, is the focused, attentive, self-disciplined, synthesizing state in which you are able to bring everything you know to bear to do something extremely competently. You’ve probably experienced moments of both, though probably not at the same time.The first is more a ‘being’ state, a somatic one in which your body is utterly at one and at peace with the rest of the world. The second is more of a ‘doing’ state, a social one in which you are sufficiently attuned to others’ sensibilities to be able to produce something that will resonate with them (though in the case of poetry you may not not quite how it will resonate with different readers). The first lets you sense and feel what is, while the second lets you capture it so others can feel it too.

Both are high-performance states, but they are very different. From studying great writing I have learned that its creation is often iterative, and I’m proposing that it is when some of those iterations are in ‘Now Time’ presence and others are in ‘Clock Time’ presence, that the best writing is most likely to result.

Let’s look at an example. TS Eliot wrote his Four Quartets over a period of years, and there is evidence they were extensively edited and reworked as he wrote subsequent works. Take a look at section I of the first quartet, Burnt Norton, the section ending with:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

And now read the final section V of the final quartet Little Gidding, written years later and meant as a completely separate work, which includes the following:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from… And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I would argue that the haunting, stark, playful and beautiful images in this work came to Eliot when he was in a state of “Now Time” presence, while the craftsmanship, the careful and precise choice of words, the brilliant re-statements and circular integration of ideas and images into a cohesive whole, occured when he was in a state of “Clock Time” presence. Eliot claimed that the only way to evoke emotion in the reader of poetry was through the use of images, though whether the emotion evoked was precisely the one the writer had hoped for was not the poet’s business. But images alone are not enough, he wrote, in an essay The Social Function of Poetry:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

These two effects, I believe, require two different states of presence to produce, and what comes to the poet in each of these states must then be crafted together into something that is neither overly sensuous and emotional nor overly intellectual. This, I think, is why poetry of the calibre of the Four Quartets is so rare.

So what does each of these states of presence ‘look’ like, and how are they different? The fact that Eliot’s quartets draw on quaternities (the four seasons, the four elements etc.) got me thinking about Jung’s quaternity and the four aspects of the self: Emotional, intellectual, instinctual, and sensual. I tried to draw how dominant each of these four aspects of self are in each of the two states of presence, and in two more prosaic, lower-performance states: the state of constant anxiety in which many of us live most of our lives, and the state of ecstasy we feel during sex or under the influence of euphoria-producing substances or activities (most of them quite addictive). I’ve reproduced these sketches above.

From this perspective, the two states of presence are quite different, and I would argue it is impossible to be in both of these high-performance states at once. The “Clock Time” presence state (upper right sketch) is the one most of those we have relationships with would like us to be in as often as possible: Attentive, responsive, active, alert, and working unselfishly. This is the state wild creatures shift into automatically when they face a fight-or-flight crisis. It’s amazingly productive, but it’s exhausting and, I suspect, unsustainable. We can’t be “on” all the time. Still, this state allows our intellectual selves to dominate, supported by our sensual and instinctual selves, and, of necessity, we need to subordinate our emotions to the task at hand. We may be effective in this state, but, as cummings would say, we’re not really “ourselves”.

Wild creatures, many biologists now think, spend most of their lives in a “Now Time” present state (lower right sketch). This is the state that, I believe, corresponds to the relaxed/aware state of high creativity I occasionally enjoy: playful, joyful, living in the moment, highly perceptive (rather than conceptive, as in the “Clock Time” presence state). It is a meditative, letting go/letting come state in which our instinctual, intuitive selves dominate, supported by our emotional and sensual selves, with our intellectual selves subordinated. It’s an open, ‘being’ state rather than a directed, ‘doing’ state.

By contrast, most humans seem to spend most of their lives in the chronically anxious state (upper left sketch), dominated by (mostly ‘negative’) emotions, reinforced by the fictitious stories we are told by our culture or which we tell ourselves. Except, that is, for the brief respites we get in moments of sensory-overload ecstasy (lower left sketch) — mostly sex and escapist activities. No surprise we prefer this state to the state of chronic anxiety, even if this state has to be artificially induced and proves to be highly addictive.

Those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth, on what the two states of presence ‘look’ like. The obvious next question is: How do we shift into these two high-performance states, and back and forth between them, more easily and skilfully? I’m working on that, but, paradoxically, I might have to be in those states to figure out how to get there.

Originally posted here.

Preparing for the Unimaginable

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

One of the lessons of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is that the events that have caused the greatest changes (and collectively most of the substantive change) to our civilization and our way of life were completely unexpected, unpredictable “black swan” events. His new book argues that rather than trying to plan and prepare for a future we can’t predict, we should do things that improve our resilience, and create systems that are “anti-fragile”. Unlike most fragile, complicated human-made systems, “anti-fragile” systems (such as evolution and other complex natural systems) actively adapt to, learn from and benefit from upheaval and dramatic change.

I have often said that that I believe the key to resilience in the coming decades will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for, and then navigate them.

So now I am sitting down with a small group of colleagues here on Bowen Island, starting to think about creating what the Transition Movement calls an “energy descent” plan for our island, and wondering how we can hope to plan for the unpredictable, unforeseeable, and unimaginable future we face.

I’ve been part of several scenario planning and simulation exercises over the years, and studied them extensively, and what stands out for me from these exercises are five systemic human predilections that render the product of such exercises more or less useless:

Believing the future is predictable: What actually happens turns out to be well outside any and all the scenario ranges that were planned for (not “better” or “worse” than the scenarios, but utterly different in unforeseen ways).
Believing the future will continue and accelerate current trends: We have an irresistible tendency to predict that the future will be much like the present only much more so (the “Jetsons syndrome”).
Believing change will come soon but overall will be modest: We tend of overestimate the speed of change in the short run and underestimate the full extent of change over the longer term.
Believing we can prevent, mitigate and otherwise control future events: We tend to wildly overestimate the degree of control we (including our ‘leaders’) have over the changes (political, economic, social, behavioural, ecological, educational, medical, scientific, even technological) that sweep over us. No one is in control.
Believing that centralization works: We tend to believe, irrationally and in the face of their record of colossal and continued failure, that centralization and unification will make things better, when it only makes them less agile, less democratic and more vulnerable. Even now the Wilber cult is calling for a “World Federation” that mirrors Cheney’s “New World Order” (and, fortunately, is just as unachievable).
I’m not surprised, therefore, that several of my Transition colleagues are skeptical of the value of a long-term Transition and Resilience Plan for our island. How can we possibly plan for a future we can’t begin to predict, that we have no control over, that we probably can’t even imagine?

Despite the cleverness of Taleb’s insights on ‘anti-fragile’ systems, they’re not very useful: Humans can’t create complex ‘anti-fragile’ systems. It’s taken nature billions of years to evolve them, and even then there have been at least five major extinction events that wiped out most of the life on the planet. We only just realized after several millennia that we have precipitated the sixth, and we are utterly clueless on what to do about it (and don’t get me started on geoengineering, the latest control fantasy by the people who brought you GMOs).

The only thing we can say for sure is we won’t be able to live as we do today. Since we can’s and won’t know how or when the coming economic, energy and ecological crises will unfold, and there’s no evidence that we can prevent, significantly mitigate, or long forestall these crises, what if anything can we do now to prepare for the unimaginable?

In the process of developing Collapse: The Game, I’ve been playing with various scenarios and mapping how various economic, energy and ecological crises (at least insofar as I can imagine them) might affect the various aspects and systems of human life — governance, food & water, energy, health/well-being, learning, transportation, communication, building, security, livelihoods, recreation, arts & crafts, science/technology/innovation, and ecology. The game simulates how, in a relocalized world, we would invest in new personal and community learning and capacity building, local resources, and community infrastructure, to anticipate and cope with various crises ranging from currency collapse and the end of cheap energy to pandemics and refugee crises.

For anyone who’s kept up with their Transition and Collapsnik reading (see the links under ‘Post-Civ Writers’ in the right sidebar), these scenarios have been sketched out at length in both fictional and non-fictional accounts. But although it’s clear that some of these crises are likely to occur, how and when they will occur is unknowable, nor is how they will manifest themselves at the local and national level, nor how the complex interrelationship between all of our systems will compound or mitigate their effects. It’s your guess against mine, and the debate is fruitless, since we’re all going to be mostly wrong.

So lately I’ve been thinking: Rather than trying to lay out specific ‘forecast’ scenarios for the future, would it be more useful to develop an illustrative story that would convey a sense of the degree of change to our lives that we might face in the future? That way we might get a visceral sense of how much our lives will (have to) change, and begin to think about, in general, what might we do to enable us, when changes of this magnitude occur, whatever they be, to be more ready for them than we are now?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about; it’s a story about how I could envision some of the people currently living on Bowen Island might be affected by the types of economic, energy and ecological crises the Transition Movement and Collapsnik writers (including me) have been speculating we could face:

The biggest impact of the economic crisis on Bowen Islanders was psychological — the shame of losing jobs (as half of us did), the pain and dread of seeing a lifetime of savings disappear along with the prospect for retirement, the awkwardness of retired Islanders coming out of retirement after admitting their pensions and retirement savings were gone, the terror of foreclosure on homes as house values plunged far below the mortgages on them. The levels of stress, anguish and fear were palpable and many of us were badly scarred by the Great Deflation — we mostly tried to heal ourselves, or each other, using whatever therapies we could draw upon, though quite a few unfortunately took it out on family, friends and neighbours.

A lot of Islanders quietly moved — off-island to live with family or friends, or in with relatives or housemates. Most homes had multiple families living in them, in makeshift separate suites or improvised co-op arrangements. Homeowners took in boarders to make monthly payments, and renters took in sub-tenants. The poverty was subtle but apparent — the sudden appearance of homeless people on the island, in the woods and parks, the number of people asking for money by the ferry, people knocking on doors asking if they could do odd jobs, and asking if they could quietly tent in the back yard “until they got back on their feet”, many trees illegally cut for firewood. When the currency collapsed, Bowen Bucks became a real currency, though a Gift Economy largely prevailed, with people doing things for others, and giving ‘loans’ as they could afford, with the knowledge they would probably never be repaid. When you know everyone in the community, you do what you can.

The shame drove quite a few “breadwinners” to suicide, and the stress and poverty caused addiction and theft rates, and physical and psychological illness rates, to soar. Government cutbacks meant almost all civil service workers were unemployed, and cutbacks in health and education meant Islanders focused more attention on illness/accident prevention, self-diagnosed and self-treated many illnesses, home-schooled or unschooled their kids, and focused on palliative/hospice care rather than life prolonging in old age.

Energy rationing meant the end of daily car commutes to Vancouver, so those still working organized bus-pools. Ferry service was cut by three fourths and doubled in price, so the Cove was filled with “pitherers” — people, many on bicycles, offering to run errands or pick up supplies on the mainland for a fee or a return service. Because the Island is so hilly, bicycles were a challenge for many, so in addition to impromptu taxis and buses, organized by Internet, there was a black market for gasoline (and much gas siphoned at night from those without garages); there were even a few horses pressed into service. The Internet, a major energy user, was a shadow of its former self; streaming and file-sharing were gone, but basic communication services were still affordable and maintained. Cell phones were for emergencies only.

Thermostats were regulated by BC Hydro and energy audits became mandatory; up to the ration maximum, energy prices were subsidized to keep heating and lighting affordable. Some Islanders, to save money, kept their thermostats at 60F and wore coats indoors. Many others installed personal solar and wind energy generators, and a wind farm on Mount Collins was being studied. The high cost of energy had a huge impact on food costs, and almost all available growing space on Bowen was now being used for gardening; canning bees had become the most popular social events on the island. As endless avian flu outbreaks had made poultry farming uneconomic, many Islanders had gone vegetarian or vegan, as had most of the Island restaurants.

Climate change had had little direct impact on Bowen, but the indirect effects were extensive. The horrific US droughts led to political animosity over sale of so much Canadian water to Americans, using the abandoned Tar Sands pipelines, and almost led to war. Canada’s vast reserves were dwindling quickly. But the biggest climate impact was the arrival of thousands of boat people on our shores, climate change and economic refugees from dozens of countries devastated by drought, storms, soil exhaustion, civil war, famine, and desperation-induced despotism. Islanders were split between those wanting them expelled to almost certain death (the refugee internment camps were closed when the sheer flood of people overwhelmed them), and those wanting to take them in even as levels of hardship of our own people increased. A surge in Bowen’s murder rate was attributed by some to “criminal illegals” but was mostly due to increased stresses between long-time locals and over-zealous protection of private property by angry xenophobes.

So the idea would be that, rather than thinking about the need for each of us to learn technical skills such as how to grow our own food (or perhaps move somewhere where growing food is possible year-round), stories like this, customized to the unique circumstances of each community, would prompt people to start to think in general terms about preparing for major change, and asking broad questions about change resilience and change capacities such as:

Building Community:
How can we start to create a local ‘community’ capable of self-organizing and doing things competently, collaboratively and autonomously?
To start with, how can we get to know our neighbours and their skills and needs, at least well enough to know whether, if/when we have to create a true community with them, we’ll be able to (and even know whether this is the neighbourhood we want to be in if/when that happens)?
Who is our ‘community’, anyway (especially if it’s embedded within a big city with no coherent boundaries), and how cohesive could it be if it had to become much more collaborative and autonomous?
What’s the right size for organizing a community — big enough to have a good mix of skills and capacities, but small enough to be manageable?
Reducing Our Dependence on Centralized Systems:
How can we become less dependent on the current systems – government, corporate (employment), financial, health, education, food, energy, transportation, communication, clothing and equipment manufacturing, construction, entertainment and recreation, police and justice etc. – especially those that are currently highly centralized, vulnerable or far-away?
To start with, how can we as a community learn more about how these systems work, so if/when we need to recreate them locally (if the established large-scale systems fail), we’ll be able to do so?
And at the same time, how can we find out more about the community we now live in — its resources, where it gets its food and energy from, who has what skills etc. — to appreciate how well our community will fare if it has to rely much more on its own resources?
Increasing Our Self-Sufficiency:
How can we become more self-sufficient as individuals and as a community, less reliant on travel to/from, and purchase and sale of goods and services from/to other communities?
To start with, how much of what we buy and sell now (our goods, services and labour) is currently, or could be if necessary, sourced and used right in our community?
Increasing Collaboration and Sharing:
How can we, through careful buying, maintenance and sharing, learn as individuals and as a community to buy less and waste less?
How can we come to accept that we probably won’t like everyone in our relocalized communities, appreciate and get along with those we don’t, and learn to resolve conflicts and reach consensus amicably?
How can we learn and practice doing things (from cooking to mentoring our community’s children to fixing our houses) more collaboratively in our “do it yourself” culture?
Psychological Preparedness and Resilience:
How can we learn, as individuals and as a community, to cope better with whatever crisis may come our way; and to deal effectively with panic and with ideological differences?
How can we become better prepared psychologically to deal with change and adversity, and the negative emotions it can stir in us?
To the extent we are already intuitively aware of coming threats and crises, and how they might affect us and our children and grandchildren, how can we learn to accept and deal honestly and effectively now with this awareness, and the grief and anger and fear it brings?
How do we talk honestly with each other now about all of this as a community, and move past denial and procrastination when talking with loved ones and/or neighbours?
How do we become more self-aware and self-knowledgeable so we really become conscious of how we feel now, and how we might handle the stress of events to come and the changes they will require?
I believe it’s far more important for us to start answering these questions than to start learning about permaculture or solar panels. In fact, I think answering these questions will lead to a shared appreciation of what technical skills we will need, as a community, to acquire (we don’t all have to be technically expert at doing everything), and when we’d be wise to start learning and implementing these skills and this knowledge.

I’ve met quite a few people who live in co-housing, and they have, in the process of establishing themselves as true communities, broached and answered the questions in points 1-4 above. It wasn’t easy for them, and I believe that, in the process, they’ve moved far ahead of most of the rest of us in their level of preparedness and resilience for future economic, energy and ecological crises.

When I started to develop the outline for the Bowen Island Transition and Resilience Plan, I expected it to have a current state analysis, and a whole spectrum of future scenarios, followed by a timeline with specific action plans to achieve food security, post-descent energy self-sufficiency, our own currency, wellness and learning capacities and facilities, electric powered transport, green building, and so on.

I still think these are admirable goals, but I am coming to believe that trying to map a course from where we are now to that future is like trying to strategize how to win a yacht race to a specific destination without knowing either the course or the possible weather. When it comes to our civilization’s future we cannot know the course, and all we know about the weather is that it will be stormy.

Best then to focus on our preparedness for whatever we might face, the resilience, capacity and cohesion of our crew, and our readiness to act, in the moment, whatever comes, and to imagine and navigate ways around the obstacles as they present themselves. And fare forward.

Reposted from Dave's Blog: How to Save the World

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Gangsters and Banksters

Friday, February 10th, 2012

The Occupy movement has focused public attention on the vast and growing disparity of wealth and power in the US, and increasingly in other affluent nations. You’ve all seen the statistics — essentially all of the increase in real wealth and income over the last 40 years has accrued to less than 1% of citizens, and for the other 99% real wealth and income have declined, in some cases precipitously. As a result, nearly half of all Americans, and well more than half of American children, now live in poverty or near-poverty. There is essentially no social or economic mobility left in US society — if you’re born rich, you will surely grow richer, and if you’re born poor, you will surely grow poorer. The American Dream, and the American middle class, are dead.

This dramatic and accelerating shift has not been an accident. It is the result of deliberate policy decisions that have prevailed since the Reagan/Thatcher era: Huge subsidies, bailouts, tax loopholes and tax cuts for the rich and wealthy, near-zero interest rates (well below the real cost of living, masked by fake government statistics), massive deregulation (and non-enforcement or cheap out-of-court settlement of horrific regulatory violations), dismantling of employee benefits, crippling of unions and workers’ rights, incentives for offshoring and laying off domestic employees, and on and on.

The rich and powerful now own the politicians of all major parties, almost all of the large corporations that control much of the economy, and the mainstream media, and through them they have altered the financial, political, economic, tax, regulatory, information and education systems, globally, to suit their own purposes and entrench and further enlarge their power, wealth and privilege. As long as this elite continues to wield this much power, the situation will continue to get worse. And as renowned management consultant Charles Handy has said: No one gives up power willingly or voluntarily.

So how might this power be shifted? How can we radically redistribute income, accumulated wealth and power from the 1% to the 99%? The likelihood of revolution seems remote, and revolutions rarely achieve democratic or egalitarian ends anyways — the power and wealth are simply redistributed to a new elite. Political reform seems equally improbable, since the political systems (and the use of bribes, first-past-the-post voting, interference with minority voting rights, election-rigging, super PACs, paid media smears of establishment critics, backroom deals, threats from slimy corporate lawyers, and gerrymandering) ensure that there is no choice for voters that is not endorsed by the 1%.

We could wait until the economy collapses, at which point governments, banks, large corporations and the media will also collapse. The wealth and power of the 1% will then largely evaporate, and the elite will take what’s left of their money and retreat behind their gated mansions, as the suffering of everyone else mounts.

We will of course continue, no matter what happens and no matter what else we do, to try as networkers and teachers and writers to inform the majority of the 99% about the criminal actions and social and environmental atrocities that have allowed the 1% to acquire and entrench their wealth and power, and as activists to undermine, mitigate and undo some of their most outrageous damage and injustices. But this is a tall order: Decades of propaganda and educational neglect have brainwashed most citizens to believe the rich and powerful have earned their privileges legally and ethically, and that there are opportunities for anyone to join them. And that until/unless they join that elite the average citizen isn’t listened to and can’t change anything anyways.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, the Indignant movement and the Arab Spring movement, it is dawning on many people that the massive disparity and inequity of wealth, income and power in the world is not because some people are smarter or luckier or harder-working than others, but because the 1% have cheated, bribed and stolen the wealth of the 99%, and the natural wealth of the Earth, and used it to brutally and relentlessly consolidate their power over all of the systems of modern society, on a global basis. That, in effect, our society is now run by a privileged, in-bred and self-perpetuating elite of gangsters and banksters — an illegitimate, unelected, undemocratic, criminal elite. One that is running our economy off a cliff, and desolating our world to the point of collapse.

Still, the conditioned response of most people, even those most oppressed and those most aware of the true extent of malfeasance that has led to this state, is a “Well what can we do anyway?” shrug. “It’s always been this bad” resignation and “It’s not really that bad” denial play right into the hands of the elite. That is why I predicted that (although I think there is still considerable life left in it yet) the Metamovement will ultimately fail. No one gives up power willingly or voluntarily. And (almost) no one is prepared to make the powerful give it up involuntarily.

So we wait.

The people of the world’s struggling nations (and the homeless in affluent nations) are perhaps a step ahead of the rest of us in this cycle of growing disparity and hopelessness. They have lived with this reality longer, and while there are still millions, perhaps billions longing and dreaming of joining the elite, there are few in denial that the rich and powerful are substantially gangsters and banksters dressed up and posing as caring democrats.

If we can, like them, move past denial, what would it then take to move past outrage, and move to take back our political and economic systems? Is “involuntary” redistribution of income, wealth and power in a morally bankrupt political and economic system necessarily violent? Is it even possible, or, as Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker has written, are the huge, massively-complicated, centralized, necessarily-bureaucratic systems that underpin our civilization themselves the problem — is their very size their undoing? Could we really bring about change, for example, by revoking the rights of corporations and making the elite individuals hiding behind them personally and fully liable for their corporations’ (and banks’, and political parties’) illegal activities? Or would their armies of well-paid lawyers simply prove, as many believe, that the rich and powerful can get away with anything?

And then what? When corrupted courts exonerate the criminal elite, will that elite be spurred to even more extreme and transparent outrages, and will a chastened citizenry give up once and for all and just struggle along as best they can? The failure of most of the public to become outraged at the Citizens United case, or other egregious highly-publicized pro-corporatist court decisions, is disturbing.

My sense is that most citizens (and the proportion is growing with each new generation) intuitively feel that the systems under which we are forced to live and work are hopelessly broken and that the elite is too well entrenched for there to be any hope of fixing these systems through reform, by “working within the system”.

So we wait.

The work of anthropologists suggests this is how civilizations often end. When the majority have given up believing in them and in their possible reform, but are not yet ready to walk away from them, system collapse becomes inevitable. The coming Long Emergency, as our unsustainable economic, energy and ecological activities cause all of our civilization’s systems to repeatedly reel and stumble, and finally fall, will give most of us, I think, the impetus we need to walk away, at first to the edges, where the homeless in affluent nations and the vast majority in struggling nations are already living — outside the purview of the “official” political, economic and other systems, and then off the edge, to begin to create new systems from the ground up. I see all of this happening, in waves and fits and starts, over the next half-century. We will have no other choice.

Until then, the gangsters and banksters will continue to rule, though more and more uneasily, as their own dependence on many of these systems results in them slowly or quickly losing most of their wealth and power. And even then they will have more than most of us could ever dream of.

So we wait. And do what we can, in the meantime, both to mitigate as much as possible the most egregious ills of the elite machine, and to begin to begin to learn what we must learn to start again when that machine completes its desolation of our planet, and implodes.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

The End of Strategy

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

I spent much of my professional career developing and implementing Strategic Plans. The hardest part of this was that most people didn’t (and still don’t) know what ‘strategy’ is: the choice among alternative courses of action, not the determination of goals and objectives. It’s about how, not about what.

Most of the ‘strategic’ plans I was given (by bosses, and by clients I was advising) were not plans at all, but rather targets. I began to realize that my bosses and clients didn’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve these targets, which is why they just set them and left it up to me to achieve them. Indeed, for the most part they didn’t care how they were achieved, so I got rewarded and applauded when the targets were achieved (even if it was not my doing) and chastised and rated poorly when they were not (even if the failure was not my doing). In part this is because in most organizations today the bosses do not now how to do the work of their subordinates, so they can offer nothing of value in setting strategy (i.e. in intelligently suggesting how to achieve objectives and targets).

This failure of understanding and setting strategy seems endemic in all kinds of organizations today. Executives’ compensation is wildly disproportionate to the value they provide (they are mostly overpaid number crunchers), and the amount of control managers have over an organization’s activities, and success or failure, is absurdly overestimated.

The middle column of the chart above shows how strategic planning should work, but in most organizations it does not work at all. Instead of strategies being developed collaboratively and intelligently, they are either left up to individuals (who are given only objectives and targets), or imposed without consultation; in the latter case, the worker must figure out how to work around the (inappropriate) strategies to achieve the targets and objectives, while still helping the boss save face by making it appear s/he at least tried to implement the strategies. It’s a farcical game that goes on everywhere, and, especially in organizations that have grown too large to manage, it’s one of the reasons most organizations are so dysfunctional. The energy of the organization comes from control and authority, but the control is a myth, and the authority is consistently misapplied.

As I began to work with and study what I now call Natural Enterprises, and later Natural Communities, I began to realize that, rather than trying to make strategic planning actually work, these organizations had actually given up on strategic planning entirely, and instead operated improvisationally, with an entirely different modus operandi that is illustrated in the third column above.

Instead of being driven by a Mission and Vision (which are inherently and perpetually dissatisfied with the current state, such that any happiness in those organizations that goes beyond transitory success is highly suspect), these organizations are driven by a Purpose — a shared “Why are we here?” statement that, for the most part, needn’t and doesn’t change. Instead of getting “stretch targets” that can never be achieved, they aspire to sustainable happiness of their members (workers, customers, community). They worry not about how to ‘grow’ to get somewhere else, but how to continue what they do well now.

Since they have no objectives and targets to become what they are not now, they are free to focus on assessing the risks and threats to sustaining what they have already become. And they have no illusions of being in control: instead of trying to change their environment, they seek to prevent (in a few cases), mitigate (more often) and adapt to (most often) the changes, risks and threats that they envision. It is an essentially conservationist organizational philosophy, instead of the ‘grow or die’ philosophy that prevails in most organizations today.

And instead of authoritarian coercion and leaving the ‘how to’ up to the people on the front line by default, these organizations empower and trust those people to decide not only the ‘how’ but the ‘what’ of their actions, drawing on their personal passion and sense of responsibility, and their experienced, improvisational skill to know what to do, and how to do it, in the moment.

The cynicism, distrust and alienation that prevails in most large and traditional organizations preclude such an approach, which is why the economy and culture that has created such organizations is unsustainable and crumbling. Once this economy and culture collapse, I expect to see such an approach, which worked in pre- and non-civilization cultures, become once again the way most human organizations operate — though of course at a much smaller scale than today’s civilization.

We would be wise, I think, to emulate these Natural Organizations now, to the extent we can do so. Giving up on the folly of top-down strategic planning in today’s volatile and hugely unpredictable world only makes sense. We can and should learn to co-operate Natural Enterprises and Natural Communities improvisationally, replacing Strategic Planning with Resilience Planning.

But old habits die hard. Consultants and ‘expert’ advisors to all types of organizations have been steeped in the Strategic Planning ideology, and continue to push this dysfunctional approach on their clients. Even the Transition Movement, for example, often tries to create Future State Visions and Descent Plans that are more about what can be implemented (now) than about scenarios of what might need to be adapted to in the future, more about trying to control the community’s destiny than giving its members the capacity to adapt resiliently to the unforeseeable. It is no wonder that many Transition communities’ efforts are stalling.

Resilience planning is about growing better, not bigger. It’s about sufficiency, and sustainability, and responsibility, and trust, and adaptability and giving with the faith that our gifts will come back to us. It’s more about learning and being than doing. It’s about taking joy in what we are doing well, and how we are being of use to the world here, now.

It’s time we tried it.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Transition and the Collapse Scenario

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

For the last year or so I’ve been involved with our local Transition Initiative, and have communicated with many members of Transition initiatives around the world. Several of my articles on Transition-related topics have been published by web sites (like Energy Bulletin) that focus on how we can cope with emerging energy, ecological and economic crises, and some have been used by other Transition Initiatives in their community planning and resilience activities.

What I like best about the Transition Movement’s approach is that:

  • it’s communitarian: it uses co-developed, collaborative, bottom-up strategies,
  • it draws on emergent collective wisdom within and between Transition communities (rather than relying on experts or gurus),
  • it’s locally-focused: every community will face different challenges when these crises hit, so there is no one right answer for coping with them, and
  • it’s inclusive: it embraces anyone who thinks it makes sense to increase preparedness and resilience for dealing with peak oil, climate change, and/or economic crises, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.

What Transition communities are doing is necessary and laudable, and will go a long way to helping these communities and their residents prepare for and cope with energy, ecological and economic crises.

Many Transition communities’ preparedness and resilience plans seem to be based on the hope that with such planning and transition work we’ll be able to maintain our quality of life, though more sustainably and responsibly, after the transition period. Unfortunately, our energy, ecological and economic systems are complex, globalized and interconnected, so it is likely that (a) a crisis in one system could trigger others, in any of the three systems, and (b) a cascading series of crises could quickly render any such plans obsolete and inadequate.

What will happen, for example, if economic crises bankrupt governments so they cannot provide the public transport needed to cope with energy crises, or if (as we’re seeing with Japan’s tsunami’s impact on its nuclear power) an ecological crisis exacerbates an energy crisis and precipitates an economic one? Or worse, what happens if a series of cascading crises or waves of crisis (many pandemics have several “waves”, and often economic recessions have “double dips”) leads to a total collapse of our energy, ecological and/or economic system?

At the risk of exasperating my crisis-fatigued colleagues in the Transition Movement, here’s a collapse scenario, not inconsistent with those of many researchers, scientists, historians, economists and theorists who’ve looked at peak oil, runaway global warming, economic depressions and the history of civilizations.

It’s a collapse scenario rather than a crisis scenario because it anticipates a dramatic and permanent shift in how we live, rather than just a transitional period of invention and adaptation that we have to go through before returning more-or-less to the style of life we’ve become accustomed to today. I personally believe that if our planning, project work and capacity-building are far-reaching enough to help us cope with a complete system collapse, it could well be the difference between the survival and extinction of our species.

Here’s the scenario, in five stages, showing how a crisis in one area can precipitate or worsen crises in other areas and eventually lead to system collapse. After I describe the stages in the scenario, I’ll explain how I think the Transition Movement could organize to help cope not only with crisis, but with collapse.

scenario 2011-2015

Scenario part one, 2011-2015: (01a) Reported G8 unemployment rates reach 20% (real rates reach 40%) and many workers take pay cuts. (10) A worsening poverty crisis is exacerbated by the onset of chronic deflation, hurting those on fixed incomes most and precipitating a worsening (07) personal debt crisis. Meanwhile military and bailout spending combined with unwillingness to raise taxes and falling personal incomes produces (01c) declining tax revenues and (07) runaway government debts. As (07, 01a) consumers run out of income and credit to spend, business profits stall and begin to plunge (01b). Oil revenue dependent states (Mideast, Mexico) begin to fail (13) as oil production peaks and declines. (12) Hurricanes, droughts, floods, glacial melt and forest infernos increase in frequency and severity.

scenario 2015-2025

Scenario part two, 2015-2025: (01abc) The vicious cycle of declining employment, wages, prices, consumption, revenues, taxes and profits continues and accelerates. (07, 10) Deflation gives way to hyperinflation as peak oil production impact is reflected in prices of gas, transport, food, health supplies, agricultural supplies and manufactured goods. Defaults on personal, corporate and government debts soar, leading to bankruptcies, foreclosures, currency crises and devaluations. (03) Governments seize and ration critical energy supplies. (13) Many small nations fail, some falling to criminals, drug cartels and warlords, most just balkanizing as local authorities take over governance and essential services. (02) Agricultural subsidies are abandoned as governments find them unaffordable, worsening the unsustainable industrial agricultural system. Some foods just disappear from the shelves. (06) Many governments walk away from social security, health, education and infrastructure maintenance services to fend off bankruptcy. (05, 04, 11) Water crises cause deaths and riots in China and disruptions in the Western US and other countries. The refugee situation worsens as climate change refugees join economic refugees in camps filled to overflowing all over the world.

scenario 2025-2050

Scenario part three, 2025-2050: (01) The most difficult stage of transition sees the continuation of the slow collapse of the industrial economy producing a Great Depression, with most governments (06) cutting back to minimal services, millions of corporations folding, (09) stock and housing markets collapsing, and defaults leading to massive levels of bankruptcy and foreclosure. Most people in once-affluent nations see their credit, savings and pensions disappear and their net worth become negative. (07) Repeated government defaults and devaluations lead to abandonment of most currencies, with only currencies backed by gold, oil or other commodities still having any value. Some community-based local currencies emerge to fill the void. (13) China, India and a score of other large nations join Mexico as failed states, leading to anarchy, civil war, charismatic leaders, totalitarianism and massive emigrations. (11) The last large forests disappear, and waves of pandemics hit plant and animal food supplies, which, combined with (5) a growing scarcity of fresh water and the impact of peak oil on large-scale agriculture leads to the complete collapse of the industrial agricultural system – corporations abandon farms and food production facilities, and they are occupied by squatters and self-organized community food co-ops. Famines become commonplace as a result of severe oil, water and food shortages. (04) The refugee crisis becomes so severe that it cannot be controlled by police and military patrols, so international agreements are created that allow anyone entering or leaving a signatory state other than in an authorized vehicle to be shot on sight; this draconian threat sharply reduces cross-border refugee flows and stems an international catastrophe. (08) With no oil left for non-approved, non-essential food, transport or production activities, international trade slows almost to nothing, and goods that cannot be produced domestically become very scarce.

scenario 2050-2075

Scenario part four, 2050-2075: As we enter the second half of the century, old crises subside and new ones emerge. (01) With the collapse of the industrial economy, people get used to making do without jobs (and creating some of their own), and learn to live without (06) government programs , without (07) national currencies, and without (09) credit or pensions. With nothing left to fight over, wars diminish as people in each remaining nation and area struggle to deal with (04) the huge number of displaced and homeless people all around them. (11) Pandemics continue as health and hygiene worsens in many areas and as climate change allows tropical diseases to thrive in once-temperate climate zones. (02, 03, 05, 08) People begin to refer to these times as The Era of Scarcity, as oil becomes unavailable even for essential services, water is rationed, food shortages continue to ravage struggling nations, and manufactured goods become so scarce that most people now work in ad hoc recycling and reuse jobs. (12) With no government resources left for management and emergency programs, massive fires burn out of control on abandoned lands, whole provinces are abandoned to sand and drought and floods, and when severe storms hit cities, the cities are simply shut down. Many areas that were desperately pillaged for coal or dirty oil, and many now-damaged nuclear power sites, have become so toxic to life they are declared international quarantine zones; there is no money for remediation.

scenario 2075-2100

Scenario part five, 2075-2100: As the century nears its close, the process of transition to a post-cheap oil, post-stable climate, post-industrial economy world is well advanced. The world has become relocalized, and poorer but more resilient in the process. The economy is now dominated by cooperatives and local subsistence enterprises providing essential goods and services to their communities. Communities provide almost all of their own services, and the artifacts of centralized economies have mostly disappeared – central interest rates, stock and commodity and housing markets, big corporations, central governments, central currencies, large-scale farms, large-scale utilities. With a steady-state economy there is no inflation or interest rate anymore, and communities issue their own non-fiat currencies. The vestiges of crisis remain, however, and there is debate on whether the ongoing challenges of (04) homelessness and poverty, (05, 03) extreme scarcity of fresh water and energy, (12) ever-increasing ecological disasters like rapid sea-level rise and runaway global warming, and (11) the seemingly endless waves of pandemic disease preying on the weakened social fabric, will continue for so long and remain so overwhelming that the human species, already drastically reduced in numbers, with a birth rate far below replacement levels, will even survive another century.

.     .     .     .     .

Many people see this scenario as too dismal to take seriously, but, from what writers like Jared Diamond have described, it’s not an atypical civilization collapse scenario. And every civilization has collapsed. So if this is what we could well facing, what could the Transition Movement do now to help us be ready for it, prevent some of its worst effects, mitigate others, and enable us to adapt to what we can’t change?

Let’s take a look at the 13 crises depicted in the above scenario, in turn, to see what we might be able to do, at the local community level, and in coordination with other communities. I’m presuming that we can’t expect governments to help, for reasons explained in the scenario. So left to our own resources, how could we tackle each of these crises, even as the systems are collapsing? Could we, in fact, see some of them not as crises at all, but as opportunities to live better?

Most of the suggestions below are preparing strategies, rather than mitigation or adapting strategies. And the appropriate strategies will vary significantly from area to area; I was thinking of Vancouver, Canada when I put this together.

  1. Loss of most jobs, personal disposable income, business profits and government revenues: The industrial growth economy is a treadmill, and it’s not sustainable. We are co-dependent with businesses and governments on its continuance (indeed, its continued growth) and when it stops, we’ll all suffer together. Some things we might do in our Transition communities:
    • Create local livelihoods using local supplies providing essential goods and services to local customers. We will have to relearn how to make a living for ourselves, and this will probably have to be done through cooperatives that are not dependent on profits or growth for sustainability.
    • Help wean existing enterprises off dependence on profits and growth (i.e. dependence on external investors) and off dependence on imported supplies and exports to other markets.
    • Educate and encourage community members to buy local, and to be willing to pay more for more durable goods.
    • Relearn to make, do and repair things ourselves, and share equipment and skills so that we need not spend money buying them from outsiders.
    • Learn from each other how to live within our means.
    • Work collaboratively with governments to rationalize what services they can reduce or stop providing without causing suffering to citizens, and how they can devolve authority and responsibility to local communities to reduce bureaucracy and spending.
  2. Collapse of industrial agriculture and resultant food shortages and famines: We have become dependent on mass produced, unhealthy, oil-dependent, mega-polluting, animal-suffering dependent, massively subsidized agriculture, and it’s not sustainable. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities before and as it falls apart:
    • Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% local, organic food self-sufficiency, and work toward that target. There is a huge amount of relearning and redeployment of labour involved in doing this, and a long lead time needed to heal and prepare the soil for it.
    • Get governments to end agribusiness food subsidies, and encourage community members to buy local. Provide local subsidies to the poor to enable them to afford local organic food.
    • Strongly encourage community members to become vegan.
    • Teach community members how to prepare and cook their own nutritious, delicious meals, especially those living alone. Make community pot-luck meals endemic.
  3. End of cheap energy, and energy rationing: Peak oil theory suggests that with exploding demand (especially from Asia) and now declining supply, prices will soon soar, and governments are likely to impose rationing to ensure essential oil-dependent goods and services (food production, heating, emergency services, transport and production of essential goods) continues. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as this happens:
    • Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% local, renewable energy supply, and work toward that target. There is a huge amount of research, learning and investment needed to achieve this, and in most areas it is unachievable, but it is worth striving for. When it is not achievable, the community needs to make hard decisions on how to fill the gap, and what to do if and when the government imposes rationing and/or ceases energy-dependent services, and if and when blackouts and brownouts become commonplace, or the grid fails, or local oil suppliers simply close down for lack of product to sell.
    • Specifically, target and work towards ending the need for private vehicles, improving electric train, bus, ferry and other local passenger-only mass-transit services. Make community members aware that electric private cars and car-pooling are only a stopgap solution, not a sustainable one. Encourage and enable bicycles, walking (including fitness), and other zero-energy transportation.
    • Get governments to provide tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Provide local subsidies to the poor to enable them to afford local renewable energy.
    • Get community members to accept that airlines, air cargo and long-distance truck transport are horrifically energy-inefficient and work with businesses and governments to phase them out before we have no other choice.
  4. Global flood of immigrants and refugees: We are already seeing the first evidence of this in massive exoduses from war and natural disaster areas, as well as impoverished nations whose ecosystems have already been desolated. No area of the world will be exempt, so we must be prepared to accept our share, which in most cases will be orders of magnitude more than we’re used to or would ideally want to accept. Fences, camps and gunboats will soon no longer be enough. Already, many affluent nations are paying/bribing poor nations to prevent their own citizens from leaving, to try to stop the crisis at its source, but this isn’t sustainable either. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as hordes arrive at our doorstep:
    • Educate community members on what to expect — how many and when, and how many will be ‘legal’ under immigration quotas and how many will just show up. A lot of scenario analysis is needed to ascertain this; we need to know.
    • Work with community members to appreciate that discouragement (through laws, offshore camps, or guns) is not going to work, and to develop a community immigration welcome and management program to cope with the flood rationally, systematically and fairly, and integrate new members into the community effectively. It will have to deal with a host of issues: health and disease, food, poverty, skills and livelihoods, housing and homelessness, education and family services, language learning etc., many of which will compound the challenges in other Transition areas.
  5. End of cheap water, and water rationing: The situation for water and the situation for oil are analogous. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as it starts to run out:
    • Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% sustainable local-source water (and zero waste/zero blackwater), and work toward that target. That will be a challenge even for many who have already achieved this, since glacial runoff (river) water supplies are diminishing worldwide, and demand (including agricultural and industrial) is increasing at an enormous rate.
    • Institute voluntary rationing programs now (e.g. no watering lawns, no unattended garden watering, no golf course watering except with water collected right on the course property, steeply progressive per-litre charges)
  6. Governments reducing and abandoning services: The biggest challenge with massive government deficits and debts is not that these can never be repaid (governments can always devalue or default on their debts, just as bankrupt companies and individuals can); it’s that when they want to borrow additional funds, no one will lend them the money. When that happens, governments have no choice except to raise taxes (which is somewhat ineffective in a recession) or cut services. Although sometimes bankrupt governments choose to cut military spending (the UK gave up on Suez when it could no longer afford the fight), history suggests that cuts are more likely to be made to social security, pensions, health, education and transportation. If/when that happens, here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to replace the lost services:
    • Unschool our kids, in community. I’ve written about this a lot.
    • Learn to manage our own health. If a community’s members learn to self-diagnose, self-monitor, and self-treat minor and simpler illnesses and injuries, the public health system can focus more on serious illnesses and injuries. We should also fight the absurd neoliberal ideology that centralizing health services increases efficiency, and press governments to relocalize health services.
    • Learn to do without heavily-subsidized public transportation. The best way to do this is to decentralize our economy and our governments (many of the suggestions above have that effect), so we need to travel shorter distances, and so that bicycles and walking become viable alternatives.
    • Prepare to make do without social security or national pensions. This means that most people won’t be able to “retire”, and will need some viable livelihood for life. It also means that we in our communities will have to take responsibility for supporting the local people who now depend on federal programs.
  7. Debt crises, currency crashes and the end of fiat money: At the heart of our current financial crisis are governments printing money to cover soaring debts, debts caused by military adventures, insane tax cuts for the rich and corporations, and bailouts of irresponsible and incompetent corporations. This is unsustainable, and it is only the fact that most of the world is still, against their better judgement, accepting US dollars as the international standard, that is keeping the US dollar from collapse, taking with it many other currencies. Eventually money only has value if there is something real behind it. Fiat money is “valued” at what the government decrees it to be worth, and if there’s nothing behind it it will, eventually, lose its value (ask Argentinians). Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as this happens:
    • Encourage community members to sell off investments denominated in fiat currencies, and pay off personal debts.
    • Rehearse what life will be like if our investments, and our cash, become worthless over a few years. How will we live, and what will we offer to get the goods and services we need?
    • Launch local community currencies (LETS), to learn how they work, and how to manage them collectively, so that when the official currencies become worthless we have something to fall back on.
  8. End of cheap imports, and global goods scarcity: Because of cheap labour, an artificially suppressed Chinese currency, agricultural subsidies, and cheap oil prices, we have become dependent on cheap imports for almost all manufactured goods, and for much of our food supply. This is unsustainable. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to prepare for the end of cheap imports and a commensurate global scarcity of many manufactured goods and foods:
    • Relearn how to make and grow in community the things we now import (this ties into the suggestions under points 1 and 2 above). Some plants won’t grow where we live, so we will have to shift what we eat to accommodate the foods that will. Focus should be on essentials: food, clothing, energy, water and shelter, and, arguably, information and communication technologies, which will be essential for collaboration with other communities when it becomes unfeasible to travel to them.
    • Educate and encourage community members to buy local, and to be willing to pay more for more durable goods (from point 1 above).
    • Relearn to make, do and repair things ourselves, and share equipment and skills so that we need not spend money buying them from outsiders (from point 1 above).
  9. Collapse of stock and housing markets, credit, and value of savings and pensions: It’s ironic that working class people, the main victims of the global corpocracy, are as dependent as their employers on business profits, since much of what’s in most workers’ savings and pensions is publicly listed stocks. When those profits plunge, the market crash will eradicate the value of savings and pensions. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as this happens:
    • Encourage community members to sell off investments denominated in fiat currencies, and pay off personal debts (from point 7 above).
    • Rehearse what life will be like if our investments, pensions, and our cash, become worthless over a few years. How will we live, and what will we offer to get the goods and services we need (from point 7 above)?
    • Renegotiate mortgages as house prices fall. Sooner or later, with so many houses “under water” (worth less than the mortgages on them), either banks are going to have to foreclose on so many properties they won’t be able to unload them, or they will have to (and damned well should) write off the excess of the mortgage over the property value. [An aside: Want to try an interesting experiment? Put the current value of your house, and what you think it might rent for in today's market, into this calculator, and see whether your house is (still) significantly overvalued].
    • If you’re still a ways from retirement, prepare to make do without retirement, and to identify some viable livelihood for life. And our communities will have to take responsibility for supporting the local people who won’t have a pension or a way to make a living in their later years (related to the 4th suggestion in point 6 above).
  10. Wild fluctuations in inflation/deflation, interest rates and commodity values: Most people have never experienced chronic deflation, hyperinflation or double-digit interest rates. We’re going to have to learn to cope with all of these. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to be prepared:
    • Tell stories about what life has been like with deflation, hyperinflation and double-digit interest rates. Run scenarios so people can learn what they should do if/when these occur.
    • As chronic deflation takes hold, prepare for annual wage decreases instead of increases, and figure out how to adjust your budgets and lifestyle accordingly.
    • When hyperinflation is predicted, prepare for daily price increases for essential goods, for credit and savings to disappear, and for the value of your pension (if the stock market crash hasn’t wiped it out already) to vanish. In these situations, cash is king — for an hour, after which it’s worth a lot less. Daily life is perpetual turmoil, and what was a decent wage today is a starvation wage tomorrow.
    • When double-digit interest rates are predicted, prepare for a plunge in housing values (mortgages become unaffordable), and pay off your debts on time and your mortgage before the rate comes up for renewal (if you have a variable rate mortgage, you might want to lock in or sell your house now).
  11. Pandemics (four kinds: human, food plant and animal, forests): We normally think of pandemics as epidemic diseases of humans or poultry, but all living species are subject to them, and farmed animals and mass-produced crops are especially vulnerable because there is so little genetic diversity to reduce the spread, and because farmed animals are cooped up close together. Forests are also vulnerable as tropical tree pests move to temperate zones as global temperatures rise, and find hosts with no natural immunity. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to be prepared:
    • Stop buying from and supporting agribusiness, and buy instead from local, organic farmers whose products are more diverse and spread out and hence less vulnerable. Get governments to end agribusiness food subsidies. Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% local, organic food self-sufficiency, and work toward that target. (from point 1 above).
    • Develop local community pandemic scenarios and preparedness plans, and periodically simulate and rehearse as a community how you would respond if a pandemic of any of the four kinds occurred.
  12. Eco-disasters (storms, floods, tsunamis, droughts, earthquakes, desertification, wildfires, sea level rise) and loss of habitats: The potential impact of such disasters depends heavily on where you live, and some areas are more vulnerable than others. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to be prepared:
    • Identify the various types of possible disaster, and the likelihood of each occurring in your community.
    • Develop local community disaster scenarios and preparedness plans, and periodically simulate and rehearse as a community how you would respond if a disaster of any kind occurred, focusing on the types of disaster most likely to affect your community.
    • Have a debate on whether, given your community’s exposure to energy, ecological and economic crises compared to other areas, your community is a good place to live as we begin to face these crises. This could be especially pertinent if your community is heavily urban, suburban, in a low-lying coastal area, an arid area or a high-risk earthquake zone. Perhaps instead of preparing for major crises, it might make more sense to move to an area better equipped to withstand them.
  13. Failed states, global wars and global crimes and crime networks: Politics is always the wild card in crisis situations, and it’s hard to know how to prepare for situations like a civil war or political disintegration in a neighbouring country, or an invasion from a country desperate for your resources. I live in Canada and fully expect that when the US runs out of oil and water they will come and take ours, by any means necessary. I have no idea how to prepare for this, or even if it’s possible to prepare for it. I think Transition communities will have their hands full with preparations for the other 12 types of crisis in any case, so I won’t make any suggestions for dealing with wars and invasions.

The above ideas are just my suggestions. They won’t be needed, or work, in all areas. More importantly, each community needs to develop its own process to draw on the knowledge, ideas and perspectives of its community members to surface and implement the appropriate strategies for dealing with crises and especially collapse scenarios.

How might this happen? I have said before that I think the most important job of this century will be the facilitators and mentors who will help communities organize and address these issues now and as they occur. There are many techniques (like Open Space) that could be employed, but much depends on the culture and composition of each group. I think competent facilitators will emerge in each community and the success of the preparation, mitigation and adaptation strategies each community develops will, I think, be largely a result of how well the Transition groups in those communities were facilitated.

Currently, from what I’ve seen and been told, many Transition Communities have created “working groups” that are focused on specific issues such as developing renewable energy, food sufficiency, creating local livelihoods, etc. These seem to work well in focusing members on specific short-term activities within members’ areas of competency and passion. But I challenge whether this kind of structure will be appropriate for dealing with the longer-term issues, especially if and when the collapse scenario appears to be the most likely one (I think it already is, but I’m patient, sometimes). Some of these collapse-level crises will require an interdisciplinary approach, a mix of idealists, imaginers, critical thinkers, pragmatists and activists to grapple with effectively. As Einstein said, we won’t solve the complex problems of the future with the current thinking that has produced them.

I also think a key element of resilience is being prepared for what cannot be predicted or even anticipated: so-called Black Swan events. I don’t think anyone can yet envision what would happen if, for example, GMO crops produce some unforeseen nightmarish consequence, or if something produces a large-scale nuclear meltdown, or if bioterrorism becomes simple enough for individual crazies to become proficient at, or if the US dissolves Soviet-style into 50 countries, or if any of a million other seemingly improbable or impossible events occurs. That’s why I’m a believer (see my comments on crises 11 and 12 above) in scenario planning, simulations and rehearsals, where we can “play” with improbabilities and learn to develop the agility and resilience to accommodate them if they, or anything like them, actually occurs.

That’s one of the reasons I’m developing The Transition Game (another reason is that I think games are a good way to engage younger community members in Transition). I’m still thinking this through, but I’m envisioning a game where:

  • everyone playing the game would either win (by cooperating effectively) or lose together (i.e. the game would not be competitive); the more players, the greater the likelihood of the group winning
  • a computer (or manual scoreboard) would track critical measures of the community’s well-being (e.g. population, production, community “wellness”) and indexes of the severity of each of the 13 crisis issues, each “year” as the game is played
  • crises emerging in one area would affect other areas, using the logic illustrated by the arrowheads in the scenario diagrams above (e.g. a worsening/improvement in any of crises 01a, 01b or 01c would subsequently worsen/improve the other two)
  • successful strategies would not try to “fix” the problems, but rather prepare for, mitigate the extent and effects of, and/or adapt to, each of the crises
  • each player would select in advance a set of abilities, drawn from something like this list of critical knowledge, skills and capacities; they would be expected to exemplify those abilities during play, and the abilities that no player selected would be maintained in a “community weaknesses” list, which could (as events in the game unfold) prove to be the group’s undoing if some situation absolutely requires that someone have that ability
  • decisions would be made collaboratively, by consensus, not by each player “in turn”
  • Black Swan events would be incorporated, including the ability of players to make some up on the fly

I know there are some environmental games out there already; if anyone has played any of them and has comments that would be useful to consider in the design of The Transition Game, I would welcome them.

I hope this discussion is useful to Transition Communities, and will share any feedback I get with the Transition Network, and back with you, my readers. I know there’s a lot in here; thanks for listening.

.     .     .     .     .

PS: I finally got around to updating my “About the Author” bio and Signature Post list on the right sidebar.

Read the original post on How to Save the World.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

If You Don’t Like Your Story, Can You Create a New One?

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

For most of my life, I have struggled intermittently with depression (the Noonday Demon), and anxiety (its Accomplice). And in my practice to become more present, I have been trying to better understand, recognize and articulate strong negative emotions that come up for me from time to time, and which sometimes propel me into depression, and often keep me from being truly present in that magical state of simultaneous awareness and relaxation.

why we do what we do

Here’s a table I recently constructed to categorize these negative emotions and how I’m learning to deal with them:

Trigger Emotions Triggered Thoughts/Stories/Beliefs Triggered How I Try to Avoid Being Triggered How I’m Trying to Cope When Triggered
1. Bad news, daily observations. Grief, Sadness, Anger, Determination
Our planet is being desolated by human activity and sheer human numbers, and we are inflicting a staggering amount of suffering trying to keep the industrial growth civilization going, a civilization that is inevitably collapsing anyway. This story seems valid.
Avoid news and places that provoke this. (1) Seek out beautiful natural places to be present and remind myself how wonderful life is; (2) Imagine and write about how we might live better; (3) Increase personal and collective capacities; (4) Let go of what I can’t change, control or predict.
2. Bad news, daily observations. Anger, Acceptance.
Most of the people in the world act, often, and usually unintentionally, in ways that are cruel, ignorant, irrational, dysfunctional, irresponsible, unreasonable and/or destructive. This story seems valid.
Avoid news and people that provoke this. (1) Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Recognize my feelings and judgements, (b) self-accept, (c) understand what’s happened and why, and allow time to discharge any irrational feelings and allow irrational beliefs to subside, (d) articulate and express my feelings, (e) be generous: appreciate others’ intentions were not malicious, and then (f) let go of my feelings and judgements and acknowledge that for most people, it’s just too hard for them to change, so forgive them: No one is to blame; (2) Assess and improve when possible any underlying systemic process/communication/collaboration problems that provoke these misbehaviours and actions by others (usually only possible at local, small scale level); (3) Recognize and explain my view that others’ behaviour is generally their stuff to address not mine (don’t take it personally or try to “fix” it).
3. Criticism by others (stated or perceived). Anxiety, Hurt, Defensiveness, Self-hatred Because of my propensity to be overly optimistic about what I can do, and to over-promise, and to procrastinate, I often end up letting people down, and in so doing let myself down. New story needed.
Self-manage: Don’t over-promise or over-commit
(1) Admit what has happened, apologize, learn from it, self-accept, self-forgive, and take steps so I don’t repeat it; But: What about situations (most of them?) where others’ criticism of me is unfounded or exaggerated?
4. Situations of actual or possible danger or physical discomfort.
Anxiety, Dread, Fear, Shame, Helplessness I (and/or someone I love) is likely going to suffer greatly (worst case scenario thinking). New story needed.
Try to avoid such situations.
None. Coping strategies needed.
5. Situations of actual or possible psychological or social discomfort. Anxiety, Dread, Fear, Shame
I am going to feel trapped and miserable. New story needed.
Try to avoid such situations. None. Coping strategies needed.
6. Situations of actual or possible personal failure. Anxiety, Dread, Fear, Shame I am going to screw up and cause great suffering to myself and/or others. New story needed. Self-manage: Don’t over-promise or over-commit; allow time; do my research. None. Coping strategies needed.

I’ve focused most of my attention on dealing with the first three categories, since the avoidance strategies for them (shown in the fourth column above) are mostly ineffective — these things are happening, and are going to happen, no matter how I try to avoid them, or try to avoid knowing about them. I think I’ve made good progress on these, with the coping strategies shown in the right-hand column of the chart.

These strategies are fairly simple self-awareness and self-management techniques. They don’t require me to change myself, or others, or the world.

Recently, a friend said to me, “What if you turned that third statement around? What if what’s really up with you, Mr. Idealist, is that other people are constantly letting you down? Maybe it’s just easier for you, as a believer in people’s basic goodness and good intentions, to take the fall when things go wrong.”

This got me thinking about whether (and when) the ’stories’ I’ve been telling myself in categories 3-5 are true, and, if/when they’re not, what is the true ‘New Story’ I should be telling myself instead when these anxiety-provoking triggers occur? So, using the turn-around statement above, my New Story for category 3 situations might be:

This person’s claim to be disappointed or let down by me is unwarranted. Their expectations are not what I clearly offered or agreed to. Their disappointment is their stuff, a gap that they created in their mind/heart, not one I created or am responsible for. I’m actually disappointed in them, that they are laying this on me, unfairly and unreasonably.

Assuming this is supportable (there are times when I have created expectations that I haven’t lived up to, though I am learning not to do this), then this becomes a category 2 trigger instead of a category 3 trigger. Instead of being filled with anxiety, hurt and self-hatred, it is more appropriate for me in these situations to feel outrage, but to use the coping mechanisms in the final column for category 2: self-manage my own feelings, understand and be generous about the accuser’s unreasonable behaviour, assess whether it came about because of some systemic but rectifiable failure (e.g. poor communication processes), and put it back to them that their behaviour and/or action was unreasonable, and why, and then just let it go. Not easy, but much better than trying to cope with feelings of self-hatred for something I didn’t do.

At the same time, I have to take care not to over-promise, which is hard to avoid when you want everyone to be happy with you. I am slowly learning this. The hardest part is avoiding the implicit (unstated) promise that can be inferred when I don’t say explicitly what I will and what I won’t do, so that I anticipate and prevent possible disappointments through clear, unambiguous communication. Such communications can produce immediate expressions of disappointment (”I didn’t think you planned to do that, I thought you were going to do this”), and it’s a real temptation to avoid them when that possibility exists, but such avoidance is really not much better than a lie, a lie of omission. I’m learning that someone’s disappointment with my intentions is much easier to deal with than later disappointment with me because of their unreasonable (but unchallenged) expectations about my actions (i.e. what I have or haven’t done).

Then I wondered whether the other contributor to this trigger — my propensity to procrastinate — might need a similar “New Story”. I view procrastination as an exemplar of Pollard’s Law — we do what we must (our personal imperatives), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. To the procrastinator, doing “what we must” means doing it only when we have to, when there’s no time left to do anything else. I’ve stopped giving myself (and others) a hard time for procrastinating, because I think it’s human nature. If it’s really a matter of over-promising, then I have to learn not to promise what I can’t deliver. But most of the time it’s just procrastination, and if people have issues because I leave things until the last minute, that’s their problem, not mine.

The final three categories of triggers are all fear/anxiety triggers, and they include:

  • situations of actual or possible danger e.g. bad weather (especially when driving), and situations of actual or possible physical discomfort e.g. cold, wet, illness, pain
  • situations of actual or possible psychological or social discomfort e.g. where there is pressure to interact socially with people I don’t know or particularly like (I feel trapped and miserable)
  • situations of actual or possible personal failure e.g. missing important deadlines, dropping the ball while juggling a lot of things at once, forgetting something important

In all these situations, I anticipate an outcome full of suffering, and lack any workable coping strategy, so I have just tried to avoid them. As a consequence, I’ve become a very fearful person, and the related anxieties often lead (when they endure for any period of time, or are given credence by circumstances) to serious bouts of depression.

In thinking about these, it seems to me there is a six-part possible coping strategy (there are other strategies that work for some people, like desensitizing oneself to these fears, but they don’t seem to work well for me):

  • Honour the feelings of anxiety, dread, fear etc. I feel. I feel these things for a valid reason. “Fight or flight” in many of these situations is instinctual.
  • Self-accept. This is who I am.
  • Understand and put in perspective where these feelings come from. What is it I really fear? Is the threat real? What does responding fearfully to these situations get me? Five years from now looking back, will my current fearful response seem justified? What steps can I reasonably take to mitigate the threat or its impact?
  • Be present. Breathe. Be aware of my body, what I am thinking and feeling. As distinct from that “zoned out” state we can sometimes fall into in the face of anxieties and fears.
  • Express my feelings. Let them out. Discharge.
  • Let go. This is the hard step, for me. Let go of outcome, and the need for (and illusion of) control and certainty. Take the existential step of realizing that there is only this moment, now, and that I am not my mind, not my thoughts, not my feelings. Turn the fear to gratefulness.

What then are the New Stories to tell myself instead of “Look out: major suffering ahead”, when these situations arise?

In a few cases, these situations were preventable, and in those cases, the story I should tell myself is similar to the one I am now telling myself when others criticize me for valid reasons: “I need to learn from this experience so it won’t happen again”.

In most cases, however, these situations are not preventable, predictable or controllable, and in those cases, the story I should tell myself is one of self-compassion and dispassion:

  • For situations of real/possible danger, physical discomfort, or failure, the story is: “This sucks. I feel bad. Oh well, I just need to do my best, it will pass, no point getting upset about it.”
  • For situations of social/psychological discomfort, the story is: “I care about most people, I just don’t care about most people’s stuff. Oh, well, don’t beat myself up over that, I just need to find the people I care most about and bide my time with them until this is over.”

With these New Stories and additional coping strategies, my trigger chart looks very different:

Trigger Emotions Triggered Thoughts/Stories/Beliefs Triggered How I Try to Avoid Being Triggered How I’m Trying to Cope When Triggered
1. Bad news, daily observations. Grief, Sadness, Anger, Determination
Our planet is being desolated by human activity and sheer human numbers, and we are inflicting a staggering amount of suffering trying to keep the industrial growth civilization going, a civilization that is inevitably collapsing anyway.
Avoid news and places that provoke this. (1) Seek out beautiful natural places to be present and remind myself how wonderful life is; (2) Imagine and write about how we might live better; (3) Increase personal and collective capacities; (4) Let go of what I can’t change, control or predict.
2. Bad news, daily observations, unwarranted criticism by others.
Anger, Disappointment, Acceptance.
(1) Most of the people in the world act, often, and usually unintentionally, in ways that are cruel, ignorant, irrational, dysfunctional, irresponsible, unreasonable and/or destructive; or (2) This criticism of me is unwarranted. Their expectations are not what I clearly offered or agreed to. Their disappointment is their stuff, a gap that they created in their mind/heart, not one I created or am responsible for. I’m actually disappointed in them, that they are laying this on me, unfairly and unreasonably. Avoid news and people that provoke this. (1) Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Recognize my feelings and judgements, (b) self-accept, (c) understand what’s happened and why, and allow time to discharge any irrational feelings and allow irrational beliefs to subside, (d) articulate and express my feelings, (e) be generous: appreciate others’ intentions were not malicious, and then (f) let go of my feelings and judgements and acknowledge that for most people, it’s just too hard for them to change, so forgive them: No one is to blame; (2) Assess and improve when possible any underlying systemic process/communication/collaboration problems that provoke these misbehaviours and actions by others (usually only possible at local, small scale level); (3) Recognize and explain my view that others’ behaviour is generally their stuff to address not mine (don’t take it personally or try to “fix” it).
3. Valid criticism by others (stated or perceived); OR Preventable situations of actual or possible danger, discomfort or failure.
Regret, Determination.
I need to learn from this experience so it won’t happen again.
Self-manage: Don’t over-promise or over-commit; allow time; do my research
(1) Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Honour my feelings, (b) self-accept, (c) understand these feelings and put them in perspective, (d) be present, (e) express and discharge my emotions, (f) let go, and be grateful; (2) Admit what has happened, apologize if appropriate, learn from it, self-forgive, and take steps so I don’t repeat it.
4. Unpreventable situations of actual or possible danger or physical discomfort or personal failure.
Acceptance. This sucks. I feel bad. Oh well, I just need to do my best, it will pass, no point getting upset about it. None
Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Honour my feelings, (b) self-accept, (c) understand these feelings and put them in perspective, (d) be present, (e) express and discharge my emotions, (f) let go, and be grateful.
5. Unpreventable situations of actual or possible psychological or social discomfort. Acceptance.
I care about most people, I just don’t care about most people’s stuff. Oh, well, don’t beat myself up over that, I just need to find the people I care most about and bide my time with them until this is over. None
Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Honour my feelings, (b) self-accept, (c) understand these feelings and put them in perspective, (d) be present, (e) express and discharge my emotions, (f) let go, and be grateful.

There’s a lot new here, and I’m still thinking it through. But I realize that, while I’m moving forward in becoming more present in the face of the world’s unbearable suffering, and the violence and other misbehaviour of our human species, I still have much to learn in coping with external criticism and with my deep-seated fears. Maybe by changing my stories that provoke negative emotions, and by changing my coping strategies, I will get better at this. I’m not sure that this isn’t just a rationalization or wishful thinking, however: If I’m really coming to self-acceptance, can I really change those stories or strategies? Is this less anxious, less fearful, less self-hating person really me? Or do I really need to come to acknowledge and accept who I am, now, the person represented by the upper table, not the lower one?

One way or the other, I think the answer to these questions is emerging. And once I have them, perhaps I’ll finally be ready, after more than a year of reflection and “down time”, to discover what I’m meant to do with the rest of my life.

Read the original post on How to Save the World.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

There's Something Happening Here

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Some things I’ve noticed lately:

  1. The NYT, and the few other mainstream media that still have a shred of credibility remaining, have recently been filled with Op Eds and editorials urging various powers (corporations, Obama administration, Supreme Court) to do (or not do) things. But these urgings have an increasing tone of hopeless wishful thinking, since to the informed reader it is almost absurd to believe that what they are urging will actually transpire, given that these powers have been doing precisely the opposite for years now and show no inclination to change.
  2. The progressive alternative media have become tedious reading lately. When Bush was in power, they were all about the need to overthrow that psychopath and undo all the damage he had done. Now it’s all whining about how terrible things are still. There is no action agenda, just a growing sense of hopelessness, anger, and despair. Will the anomie and disenchantment of the young build into anger, and a ’60s-style outpouring of generational outrage ? Will there be a new party of the left working to take over the Democratic party like the tea party of the right is striving to take over the Republicans?  As the US continues to go bankrupt and its citizens give up on the ability of its federal government to work even at a rudimentary level, is there a tipping point here signalling the Soviet-style collapse of the US (Dmitri Orlov seems to think so), and if so will power devolve to communities, and how quickly?
  3. I have always believed, based on my study of history, that change happens only when (per Pollard’s Law) there is no alternative to change left, or when it’s easy to change, or when it’s fun. Times of great change seem to occur either at tipping points (when some seemingly-minor event is just enough to start an avalanche of people dramatically changing behaviours or beliefs, who weren’t ready to change before), or after “black swan” events (unexpected, unpredictable events with catastrophic consequences). But lately we’ve seen at least three “black swan” events (Katrina, the BP Oil Disaster, and the Japan Tsunami/Reactor leaks) that, rather than shifting the collective will, beliefs or actions, have caused us to retrench, and resist making any change that might avoid recurrence of such events.
  4. A lot of the political discussions of the day seems to presume that our civilization’s problem is one of power imbalance and collective political and social will (or lack thereof). Their premise seems to be that with the right people in power and the right re-balancing of power (political/legal, economic, police/military, and ideological/media, all could be right with the world. These arguments seem oblivious to the reality that, in our complex modern world, no one is in control. Not the government. Not vested interests of the left or right in the US. Not the global corpocracy. No one.

Put these things together — a tone of hopelessness in the mainstream progressive media, a largely useless outpouring of outrage in the indymedia, a giving up of citizens on the viability of centralized representative governments, reactionary responses to black swan events instead of constructive ones, the ratcheting up of existing systems to prolong the period before tipping points, and a naivete about the powerlessness of even the most powerful in modern complex systems — and what do we have?

In his book Beginning Again, David Ehrenfeld describes our civilization as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and beginning to rattle and moan. He describes its coming apart in chilling terms:

There goes a chunk — the sick and aged along with the huge apparatus of doctors, social workers, hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and manufacturers of sophisticated medical equipment, which service their clients at enormous cost but don’t help them very much.

There go the college students along with the VPs, provosts, deans and professors who have nor prepared them for life in a changing world after formal schooling is over. There go the high school and elementary school students, along with the parents, administrators and frustrated teachers who have turned the majority of schools into costly, stagnant and violent babysitting services.

There go the lawyers and their hapless clients in a dust cloud of the ten billion codes, rules and regulations that were produced to organize and control an increasingly intricate, unorganizable and uncontrollable society.

There go the economists with their worthless pretentious predictions and systems, along with the unemployed, the impoverished and the displaced who reaped the consequences of theories and schemes with faulty premises and indecent objectives. There go the engineers, designers and technologists, along with the people stuck with the deadly buildings, roads, power plants, dams and machinery that are the experts’ monuments.

There go the advertising hucksters with their consumer goods, and there go the consumers, consumed with their consumption. And there go the media pundits and pollsters, along with all those unfortunates who wasted precious time listening to them explain why the flywheel could never come apart, or tell how to patch it even while increasing its crazy rate of spin.

The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.

That, I think, is what is happening here.

The corollary to Pollard’s Law is: Things happen for a reason. If you want to change things, first understand what that reason is.

So what is the reason that, despite millions of people being aware that the “flywheel” of our civilization is starting to come apart, and wanting to change it, we seem unable to do so?

I believe the reason that all human civilizations have crumbled is that the qualities of our species that produce civilizations are precisely the qualities that make them unsustainable. We have those qualities because they — notably our exceptional intelligence and exceptional ferocity — have been an evolutionary success story. Intelligent species that are not ferocious (perhaps including Bonobos and Neanderthals) have been unable to adapt to the niches that humans have. They were, I think, not up to the violence towards the rest of nature, and towards each other, that was needed to survive in places they were not biologically equipped to live.

We admire and reward both ambitiousness and ferocity, so it should be no surprise that the most ambitious and fiercest of us have dominated the gene pool. We admire winners. Our myths, in literature and film, are overwhelmingly about people with the determination and ferocity to overcome incredible adversity, to defeat those more powerful, to tame wild lands. That ferocity, I believe, is fed by our inherent assertiveness. Women love, and have children with, men who are assertive, powerful, “successful” at having and doing more, so the propensity is reinforced and carried on.

At the same time, our ambitiousness is driven by our intelligence, our realization of what is possible. We aspire to be more than we are and have more than we have. We want to build, to create, to “develop”. When we imagine something, we want to realize it.

When there were only a few intelligent (and hence ambitious), assertive (and hence fierce) members of our species, there was room in Earth’s laboratory for their excesses. But as they “succeeded”, they grew in numbers and impact, overcoming natural balances and constraints, and finally created a civilization embodying this ambition and ferocity — the industrial growth civilization that has, since its beginning, been catapulting us towards the sixth great extinction on our planet, and the first “caused” by a living creature. Our world is now exhausted, overcrowded with humans and our decaying artifacts, and taxed to the point we are all suffering from stress-related physical and mental illnesses.

As we begin to realize this, our tendency is to think that the way out of the excesses and crises of industrial growth is, not surprisingly, more of the same. If our intelligence and ingenuity have gotten us into this mess, perhaps technology and innovation can get us out of it? If ferocity and assertiveness have created the problem, perhaps great collective determination, hard work under some brilliant and inspiring leader, and if necessary violent subjugation of those not doing their share, is the answer? And both progressives and reactionaries see centralization — globalizing and making even more “efficient” what we are already doing — as the means to make things better, though for progressives it is globalizing and centralizing “rights” and social services, while for reactionaries it is globalizing and centralizing the military and industry.

Einstein famously said that you cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that gave rise to it. But that is the kind of thinking that the vast majority of people have, thanks to natural selection, and there are no levers of power that will allow a small minority with some different kind of thinking to prevail over the majority, not for long anyway, and not enough — there is, after all, no one in control of our industrial growth civilization, no switch that anyone can flip to stop it.

Most people find the above analysis terribly defeatist and pessimistic. Since I read John Gray’s Straw Dogs, however, I have found this realization liberating. “We cannot save the world”, Gray says, “and happily it doesn’t need saving… Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”

So what, if anything, should we do, now that our creaking and unsustainable industrial civilization is beginning to fly apart?

I think it depends on what you’re good at, and what you have passion for. There is a need for rear-guard actions to mitigate what Ehrenfeld calls the “desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains” and “the last great violation of nature.” There is a need for reskilling ourselves and our children and grandchildren with the essential capacities needed to make it through the difficult transition to a post-collapse world. There is a need for models, at the community level, of more sustainable and resilient ways to live and make a living.

I don’t have the ferocity (or energy or courage) for the rear-guard actions, the good fight that activists have always fought and will continue to do so until the end. I am open to supporting them, however, with my imagination and my writing ability, if they think that would be of use. I am working slowly to learn or relearn some essential capacities so that I will be less helpless as our civilization faces the crises ahead. And while I’m not sure I have the patience (or collaborative ability) to help build real-world models of more resilient local community, I am exploring ways to combine my gifts for writing and imagining possibilities in some unique ways (games, visions, simulations?) that might help others cope better, or see their way through these crises better. As I wrote recently, I think the key to resilience will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for, and I think I can help with that, at least at the local level.

There’s something happening here, and it’s the beginning of the end. The signs are everywhere. There is no reason to celebrate (it is going to be a hard ride, and there will be no Rapture, no collective consciousness rising, no deus ex machina invention, or other form of salvation). And there is no reason to despair. We were unable to change, so now change is being imposed on us.

Sproing. There goes a chunk.

Read the original post on How to Save the World.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Not Present

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

So it’s another year, and one year since I first read Ran Prieur’s warning that when you have, at last, the time and opportunity and freedom to do nothing, nothing is all you will want to do, and you may then remain depressed for a long time before you finally discover and realize what you, alone, unpressed by others, really want to do with your life.

For one year I have had that freedom, and Ran’s warning was right on. After the initial exhilaration, I spent most of 2010 doing nothing (of substantial use to anyone else, anyway). I put a bit of energy into four projects I think are important, but that’s all. I was pretty self-indulgent, and on balance not significantly happier, and actually somewhat less productive in non-work-related areas, than I was in previous years when I was working full time.

One paradox I have been facing is that in moments when I feel most “present” (those amazing times when I am feeling at once very relaxed and very aware) I can see and imagine much more clearly what I want to do with the rest of my fortune-blessed life; but that intentionality, that sense of purpose and direction and knowing what I care about and what I have passion for and what I feel good about doing, seems to be a prerequisite for feeling present. For me at least, presence and intentionality are a self-reinforcing ‘positive feedback loop’, but so is their lack. When I don’t have both, I have neither, and am stuck, aimless, motionless, inside my head.

I have been focusing much of my time of late on self-acceptance and on being aware of and letting go of my ’stories’ — the fictions about myself and others, and about the past and the future that I mistake for reality, and which constrain and depress me and hold me back. These stories I tell myself include:

  • the story of Gaia’s ghastly and ever-increasing suffering, loss of beauty, and collapse
  • the story of most people’s insensitivity, cruelty, excessive neediness, rapaciousness, stupidity, dishonesty and unreasonable expectations of me and what the world “owes” them (and I of course include myself, much of the time, in the category of “most people”, and acknowledge that much of this human folly is unintentional)
  • the story of what will happen if my worst fears (usually of loss, suffering, or acute social anxiety) are realized
  • the story that I am lazy, hypocritical, selfish, useless to others, “part of the problem”, promise what I can’t or don’t really want to deliver, and am too easily angered, upset and fearful

This “letting go of stories”, and total non-judgemental, non-expectant self-acceptance, are the key practices I am using to become more present. It is as if when I let go of stories, judgements and expectations (and hence am freed from the fear, anger, anxiety and other negative emotions they provoke) what is left is true presence.

Sort of. The truth is that when I am alone, what I generally feel when I let go of all these things is a kind of ’space-y’ numbness. It is when I am with others (in love, in sex, in intelligent conversation or in learning) that this ‘letting go’ brings about an amazing sense of presence. I suspect that this ‘thinking out loud’ blog that I’ve been writing now for eight years, is to some extent my reaching out for an intelligent conversation with others who are sympathetic, at those times when I am physically alone. Last month, after an animated hour-long conversation on a bus with a woman I had only just met, I suddenly realized I am feeling happy. It was only at that point I recognized that I had not been feeling happy before this chance encounter. How can I be so un-present that I am not aware of a fundamental, creeping sense of unhappiness, especially when I am living in a situation in which, by all rights, I should be constantly and ecstatically happy?

Photo: Mindful Wandering, by Maren Yumi

Yet after I’ve spent some time with people — even in intelligent conversation — I have a growing longing to be alone. So then I escape the crowd and retreat to comfortable space-y aloneness again. Except sometimes now it isn’t space-y: Perhaps I am slowly learning how to be alone, since there are moments, listening to well-crafted music, or bathed in certain light and shadow, or steeped in warm water, or surrounded by exceptional and peaceful beauty, or somehow moving effortlessly (e.g. on night trains), when I can be present alone. These are for me rare moments of great creativity, imagination and insight. In such moments I really feel like “the place through which stuff passes”, a part of all-life-on-Earth, instead of a disconnected “self”, an “individual”. It’s an amazing feeling of readiness, of momentum, of well-being, and of really be-ing.

In those moments my intentions are usually to write (music, poetry, short fiction) and to find people near where I live who are at once exceptionally intelligent, empathetic and gentle. If they also have many of the 65 abilities that will become all-important in the next decade, or if they’re potential sexual partners as well (young, slim, fit, attractive, poly, and with high sexual appetites) that would be an unexpected but unessential bonus.

So what’s emerging for me this year is a set of modest intentions and a possible process for helping me realize them:

  • Continue to try to live by my six principles: be generous, value my time, live naturally, self-accept, practice be(com)ing present, let go of stories;
  • During my time alone, create an environment (peace, beauty, light, music, warmth, movement) conducive to that state of presence that produces my best writing, and devote at least three hours a day to that writing — and trust that the outcome of that process will be positive; and
  • Find, as close as possible to where I live, some more exceptionally bright, empathetic and gentle people, and spend as much time with them as possible; at this stage I have no idea if that time will be spent just in conversation and recreation, or on projects with shared purpose (I trust that if I find them, we’ll figure that out together).

Thinking about my one-word theme for the year, I keep coming back to the same word that I chose for 2010: mo(ve)ment. I think it is interesting that the words movement, motion, motivation, moment (in time), momentum, momentous and emotion all stem from the same root meue- meaning both instant and important. The power of presence, and of living in the now, to “move” us.

That’s all I’ve figured out so far. How about you, dear readers? What is your intention for 2011, and your process for realizing it?

Read the original post on How to Save the World.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Will You and Your Community Survive Collapse?

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

What I came up with was a list of 65 abilities (diagrammed above) that tended to fall into five main types:

Knowledge: Acquired information that is essential context for understanding how the world works and how we might do things better.
Innate Capacities: Inherent abilities, aptitudes we’re born with (evolution has selected these qualities for survival for all species, not just humans, and you can see all these capacities simply by watching the birds, or wild creatures at work or play. Many of these innate capacities are drummed out of us by the education system or other social indoctrination and can be lost. And they must be practised to be retained.
Acquired Capacities: These are also abilities that come to us naturally, but they generally emerge from practice and with maturity as we become adults

Skills: Learned abilities that come from applying our knowledge and capacities in practicable ways. None is inherent; all are learnable.

Behaviour Patterns: These are complex abilities that involve the sophisticated application of a mix of knowledge, skills and capacities. Many of these are rare and hard-won and all must be practised. It’s been my experience that in hierarchical organizations and social structures these behaviour patterns are almost non-existent. They emerge generally from groups of people finding the most effective way to work together as peers. This is where the real “ability gap” lies, I believe, if we are to be effective in our Transition Initiatives, in becoming more resilient personally and collectively, and in building a new and better society after civilization’s collapse.

I think most of these 65 abilities are fairly self-explanatory. I have added notes to the five I think are not. I went through a lot of other possible abilities which I finally grouped into this list of 65 (if you’re curious, here’s my worksheet listing which are grouped with each of the 65).

It’s a fairly imposing list. No wonder living in intentional community is such a challenge! So what good is this list? Here’s what I did with it:

I wrote each of the 65 abilities on a “post-it” sticky note (I used 4 different colours for the 4 different types)
On a large whiteboard, I made a map, as shown above, to delineate areas where I had the ability, needed to improve it, or didn’t have it at all, and likewise areas where those in my community(ies) had or lacked the ability. I posted each of the 65 sticky notes in the appropriate spot on the “map”. If I was the best in my community at some ability, it went on the far left side of the map. If it was an ability many of us in the community are good at, it went in the middle (midway between left and right) and so on.
I considered the degree to which I am or will be very dependent on my community (stickies on the right side of the map), and the degree to which it will be very dependent on me (stickies on the far left side of the map). I realized that some of the latter abilities are not recognized in the community, and I need to take responsibility (in Transition activities at least) for conveying these as areas where I can provide a unique contribution to my community.

I considered the degree to which my community is unprepared for crisis (stickies in the bottom section of the map). There were a lot more than I expected, given the number of capable and experienced facilitators here on Bowen Island.

I created my own personal “learning plan”. I have a lot to learn, even if I continue to be dependent on others in my community in a number of areas where I will probably never be particularly competent.

I asked myself: Looking at this map, and imagining some of the crises we are likely to face in the coming years and decades, Could I survive collapse (answer: I’m not sure)? Could my community (answer: I’m not sure)? From what I know of the world, could most communities (answer: probably not)?
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. As a tool for Transition Initiatives, would this be a useful first step to assess current personal and community strengths and weaknesses? Or would it be so overwhelming that it would just discourage potential Transitioners before they’d begun?

And is it useful as a personal “taking stock” tool, to measure your own resilience, and what you need to learn in the years ahead?