Simple Living Archive

Does It Matter Who Is Perpetrating the Destruction of Our World, or Why?

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

[Keith Farnish thinks it's useful, perhaps even necessary, to get angry at the perpetrators of the destruction of our world. He believes it can shake us out of our lethargy and our sense of helplessness. I've never found anger particularly useful, since I usually end up feeling that the objects of my anger didn't mean to do anything outrageous, so I feel angry and upset at myself more than at them. But perhaps that's precisely the perpetrators' intent: Just as they would have us accept our share of 'blame' for the BP Oil Spill, the Alberta Tar Sands and other ecological disasters, if they can convince us that we are complicit in our world's destruction, and they are merely trying to provide us with what we think we want or need, then the heat is off them. Maybe he's right.

Following is an article I wrote as an introduction to the chapter on The Tools of Disconnection in Keith's upcoming book Underminers, that explores this in more detail.]


Paved With Good Intentions

Keith Farnish tells us we need to get angry before we will be moved to act to undermine the industrial civilization that is killing our planet. Then, he says, we need to focus our attention on the “tools of disconnection” — the means by which the perpetrators of our disconnection from our intuition, our positive emotions, our senses, each other, and all-life-on-Earth keep us disorganized, confused, fearful and dependent. Our undermining actions, he asserts, should be aimed at accelerating the inevitable demise of industrial civilization with minimal suffering, balancing the risks to ensure we don’t get caught, and acting strategically to get maximum impact from our actions. The sooner we precipitate civilization’s fall, Keith says, the sooner its damage can be minimized, the sooner nature can begin to restore balance to our world, and the sooner the survivors of collapse can begin creating a better, sustainable way to live.

So who are these “perpetrators” Keith speaks of? They are the private and public corporations that depend on endless accelerating use of resources, production, consumption and waste, and which, as the book The Corporation explains, they pursue with pathological and amoral single-mindedness.

They are the politicians, judges, lawyers, police and military forces that, working hand-in-hand with these wealthy corporations, create and enforce laws and wage wars in their own self-interest, not ours. They are the media, the shills, the advertisers and PR firms, the education system and the bought economists and junk scientists who perpetrate the propaganda that everything is fine and there is no other, better way to live than industrial civilization.

And they are the religions, the therapists, and the techno-salvationists (”human ingenuity and invention will solve all our problems”) who are complicit in reinforcing the propaganda by telling us that it is our fault as individuals when things are bad, and that with necessary struggle, industrial civilization will prevail and make things better for all of us despite our personal weaknesses and sins.

The combined economic, political, media and psychological power and hegemony of these four groups of perpetrators constitute the self-reinforcing and completely uncritical and totalitarian system that Mussolini dreamed of — it was labelled fascism but he called it corporatism. Its task is to completely subjugate and control the populace, to brainwash them so completely that there is no opposition, no dissent, just a perpetual machine of unthinking monolithic human production and consumption.

Through its political messages, its advertising, its scare tactics, its lies, its withholding of information, its theft and violence, its indoctrination, its creation of false choices and false rewards, it keeps us in its thrall, disconnected. Each of us an obedient part of the system.

But what is this “system”? Can it really control us that effectively in this world where often-conflicting information and ideas are ubiquitous and free? And why would so many people — not just psychopaths like Mussolini — willingly become perpetrators of such a system?

The liberal/progressive worldview holds that we are all, at heart, innocent and good. Surely, then, the perpetrators of this terrible, unsustainable, teetering system had the best of intentions? They must have meant well, didn’t they?

This worldview also holds that getting angry isn’t the answer, that we need to appeal to people rationally, with the facts. The truth, we believe, cannot long be suppressed, and when people learn it, they will, if this system is so bad and brutal, instinctively work to dismantle it and replace it with one in the common good, a truly democratic system.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, provides some clues on why this doesn’t happen. Our large brains, he argues, have made us too smart for our own good. Our brains can now construct their own reality, completely disconnected from ‘real’ reality, and live happily in that illusory place, in effect mistaking it for ‘real’ reality. And, as Eckhart Tolle has explained, an unintended consequence of the evolution of our complex brains is that we now have an ego, capable of inventing and believing stories that provoke negative emotional responses which in turn produce in our heads other stories. This vicious cycle of negative intellectual and emotional activity in our brains, disconnected from what is really happening here, now, has made us all mentally ill.

So two paradoxical consequences of our large brains are that (i) we can be fooled and emotionally manipulated by misinformation in a way no other creature can, and (ii) even if we are one of the perpetrators of this misinformation, we can fool ourselves into believing it, especially if that belief is reinforced by others who credulously accept the same beliefs.

Despite all of this, despite the fact that we are all in a sense perpetrators, all so disconnected and confounded by our egos and the imaginary realities our brains have invented that we don’t ‘really’ know what is real or what we are doing, Keith is correct about what must be done: We must act to dismantle industrial civilization. But how can we do that when we are so hobbled, so handicapped, so caught up in this vicious system of our own making?

Keith suggests several answers. First, we have to inform ourselves about what is really happening (by reading and studying thoroughly and by thinking critically and challenging everything) and what our ‘real’ options are (by studying history and reading both fiction and radical non-fiction). Second, we have to get angry enough at the system that is killing us all (it doesn’t much matter who the perpetrators are, or if we are ourselves perpetrators or complicit) to shake ourselves out of our passivity and unawareness and act. Third, we need to influence and educate others. Fourth, we need to become models, finding radically alternative ways to live and modelling those behaviours. And fifth, we need to reskill ourselves to facilitate both the work we must do to dismantle industrial civilization, and the capacity to live good lives during and after civilization’s collapse.

This is a tall order. The first step towards well-being is to appreciate the challenge we face, and the first step to doing that is is to understand the tools of disconnection and how they keep us cowed, and dependent.

Read the original post on How to Save the World.

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

Why We Do What We Do

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I was researching some of my old posts the other day and realized there is a synergy among three of them that I hadn’t recognized before. This article will attempt to pull them together to create a theory for why we do what we do.

The three articles are:

1. From last December, my article Intuition, Chemistry and Heart-Sense explained how our emotions dominate our decision-making. As the drawing above describes, our senses inform our instincts, our emotions and our intellect, and both our instincts and our intellect inform our emotions and our decisions (though our instincts do so immediately, before we think, while our intellect takes its time, and, with the advantage of hindsight, second-guesses and sometimes overrides our initial decisions). Meanwhile, our emotions dominate our decision-making most of the time. Our chemistry (e.g. pheromones) is the result of the interplay between our instincts, senses and emotions, while our heart-sense (what our heart “tells us”) is the result of the interplay between our intellect, senses and emotions.

2. In a pair of recent articles entitled Too Smart for Our Own Good (part one and part two), I attempted to illustrate Eckart Tolle’s thesis, that wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right diagram above. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted. By contrast, as an unintended consequence of our very large brains, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left diagram. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, irrational denial, irrational hopefulness, nostalgia, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events and memories (real or imagined), and the ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us, which leads us to be unhappy for no reason, or complacent and unrealistically expectant (and then shocked and disappointed). Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

3. Many of my articles over the years have explained what I call “Pollard’s Law“: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. This is my observation about how we prioritize the things we want to do. This is not a criticism of human nature — all natural creatures behave this way because from an evolutionary perspective this has proved to be a successful strategy for living. But what it means is that we never have time left over for the things we think we “should do”, especially the larger, longer term projects, because they are always pre-empted by the needs of the moment. The “what we must” in Pollard’s Law is very personal — our imperatives are a mix of instinct, emotion, sense and intellect, and they are volatile — they may include finding love, or doing something out of a sense of outrage that impels us, or even giving up our lives. They may be tainted by our egoic mind and pain-body. But for most of us, many of the things we would love to do, or think we should do, never reach this level of imperative, so we hold back — we wait; we hope; we dream.

Put together all three of these models of who we are and what we do, and you end up with the complex, holistic model in the diagram above, which, I think, can be used to understand (and perhaps even change) what drives us to do what we do (and not do). Here’s how this model applies to me at the moment:

  • I have relearned in recent years to trust my instincts and live naturally (my hedonism, nudism, exuberant idealism, love of wild places and wild creatures and creature comforts are lifelong personal attributes). But although I am working to get attuned to my senses and emotions , I am still very much possessed by ego, still not truly present except in rare moments.
  • The primary stories I tell myself (the ones I need to let go of if I hope to become present) are about a world of lost beauty, cruelty and suffering, about gaia’s death and a coming long and painful civilizational collapse, about people’s unreasonable, cruel, unfair, manipulative, wilful, ignorant, irrationally expectant, power-abusing and dysfunctional behaviours. These stories trigger feelings of anger, indignation, grief and despair (my pain-body reactions) and, when I realize later my anger was overblown, feelings of shame and self-hatred. One consequence of this is that I became so stressed after being triggered four years ago that it precipitated a latent chronic disease, ulcerative colitis, that I will now have to live with for the rest of my life.
  • A related, second set of stories I tell myself are about perceived dangers and uncertainties. These stories trigger feelings of anxiety and fear (of loss or suffering). Thanks to my great imagination, I am very good at imagining the worst, and reacting to those fictional worst-case stories as if they were real and imminent.
  • A third set of stories I tell myself are about my propensity to, in one way or another (and with my procrastinator’s best of intentions, of course) promise what I cannot deliver. These stories trigger feelings of self-dissatisfaction (letting people down) and self-loathing.
  • On top of all this, I suffer from recurring social anxiety tinged with misanthropy (notably triggered by crowds of strangers). Sartre said we human beings project our worst fears and most deeply disliked personal characteristics onto other people rather than facing them inside ourselves, seeing in strangers the worst of what we perceive in our own personality. I’m not yet clear what the stories are behind this anxiety and misanthropy (which date back to my early school years), nor am I able to tease apart my frequent loathing of strangers from the often-accompanying self-loathing. This may all be related to the second and/or third set of triggers and stories, but maybe not. Whatever it is, it’s another strong influencer of my behaviour.

As a result of the pall this casts over me, there is a constant battle going on between (a) who my senses and instincts (the unclouded, trusted, chemical part of me, the part that is a complicity of my bodily organs) tell me I am, and what they tell me to do, and (b) who my confused, easily-triggered and untrusted mind and emotions, the cultural part of me, tells me I am, and what it tells me to do.

My personal imperatives, therefore — my “must dos” under Pollard’s Law, are:

  • To fall, and to be, in love (which, while it lasts, vanquishes the egoic mind and pain-body and makes me whole, present); and
  • To avoid stress, which means not reading or listening to bad news about our world, working to develop my resilience, avoiding vexatious people and situations of tension and conflict, avoiding dangerous risks (e.g. bad weather, especially driving, and loss of freedom or security), avoiding physical discomfort, avoiding crowds of strangers, and avoiding any situation where people have what I think may be unreasonable expectations of me.

If you know me, this explains a lot. It explains why I am no longer living in places that get very cold weather or treacherous road conditions. It explains why I have changed jobs over the years, why I was obsessed for years with achieving financial security, and why I retired early. It explains why Tree had to rescue me during my last bad anxiety attack (and why, when the vicious cycle of egoic mind and pain-body takes control of me, I spiral down quickly into unfathomable helplessness, anxiety and depression).

It explains why I am poly, and why I am vegan. It explains why, whenever I face conflict, even on projects I’m passionate about, I disengage myself and flee. It explains why I’m not personally working on the front lines to end the atrocities of the Alberta Tar Sands and factory farming, although I think I “should”. It explains why I’m not living in intentional community, despite believing passionately that this is the only sustainable and resilient model that can take us through the Long Emergency ahead.

It explains why I have no perseverance, and why I try to avoid commitment and responsibility. It explains why I am still deciding what I want to do/should do/can do, without being broken in the process, months after retiring and having the opportunity to do anything I “want” to do, and why I am afraid to grab the dragon’s tail. The real dragon, I know, is my own ego, and it’s the hardest one to slay. As James Taylor (who has fought similar demons to mine) asks: Where will we hide, when it comes from inside?

In short, this model explains most of what I do, and don’t do, and the disconnects between what I believe and what I do.

At the beginning of this year I wrote a new personal bio, to take stock of who I am now:

Vegan, earth-loving, earth-grieving, idealistic, poly, somewhat unsociable and inattentive, unschooled, self-dissatisfied, nudist, intuitive, corpocracy-hating, anarchist, doomer (about industrial civilization), optimistic (about post-civ society), radical, unspiritual, hedonistic, impatient, easily-discouraged, overly-analytical, comfortably retired (from paid work), generalist writer, dreamer and imaginer of possibilities.

So now you know why I am so. And why, because and despite who I am, I do what I do, and don’t do what I don’t.


Read the original post on How to Save the World.

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

Dave Gets Interviewed for a Podcast on Complexity and Transition

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

A few days ago I was interviewed by Steve Patterson for his regular podcast program Two Beers With Steve, as we talked about complex systems, dependence on industrial civilization, transition, resilience and steady state economics. Steve is well-read and a terrific interviewer, and there are some great podcasts on his site, including, recently, Stoneleigh (from The Automatic Earth) and James Kunstler. You can listen to or download the podcast here, and browse through Steve’s other podcasts here.

Read the original post at How to Save the World.

sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, available now.

An Existential Approach to Bringing About Change

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Donella (Dana) Meadows was famous for her twelve ways to intervene in a system, one of the most often cited works in the field of bringing about change. What is often forgotten is that she listed the twelve ways in reverse order, from least effective to most effective, and suggested that there were really only three highly effective ways to intervene:

  1. Change the paradigm (way of thinking) that underlies the system, or open people up to operating without any set paradigm at all.
  2. Change the fundamental goal, purpose or function of the system.
  3. Encourage and enhance self-organization: Remove the barriers to self-organization and let the collective wisdom of groups of people continuously tweak the system to serve them collectively.

I have recently been talking with fellow Bowen Islander John Dumbrille about the various change initiatives being supported on Bowen, such as Bowen in Transition and its Visioning exercise, the launch of Belterra, the first co-housing and intentional community initiative on Bowen, and the recent proposal to convert half of the island into a special kind of National Park.

I spent most of my adult life working on various programs that were intended to bring about some kind of desired change: more effective work, more successful organizations, self-improvement of one form or another, increased knowledge, understanding, skill or capacity, a more sustainable world. In retrospect, I don’t believe any of them accomplished much. As I noted in a recent post, the six dominant trends of the past forty years have all been negative and all occurred despite massive amounts of energy, effort and enthusiasm to achieve the opposite objectives.

I have been focusing much of my energy and writing of late on the Transition, Unschooling and Communities movements, because I believe what they stand for. Rather than being change initiatives, all three of these are alternative movements; they represent a walking away from the traditional way of doing things (and an attempt to create a new way of doing them) rather than an attempt to reform current processes and institutions. All three of them embrace all three of the Dana Meadows’ top three ways to intervene in a system. For example, unschooling suggests that the way to optimize learning is by enabling people to learn what they want when they need it in the real world, rather than “teaching” them a standard curriculum in a separated institution. Transition’s objective isn’t to make the current culture sustainable, but rather to transition to a very different culture. And intentional communities are local, self-organized and self-managed, and operate on consensus, the antithesis of the top-down, competitive, “representative”, “we’ll do it for you” political systems most of us live with and try in vain to make better.

So it seemed to me such movements should have the right “stuff” to succeed, if Meadows was right. Yet my instincts tell me that the struggle these movements are having to gain traction beyond a small, informed and eager group of people, is an indication that something is wrong with them. At first I thought this was just that it would take people time to appreciate these alternative models of a better way to live. And that perhaps they would not get the momentum to scale up to widespread popularity and implementation until crises got bad enough that people had no choice but to look for better alternatives — that there is as yet no “burning platform”, as businesspeople put it.

But even before speaking with John I had this nagging sense that these movements were flawed in some other way I couldn’t quite fathom. What accounts for the success of a few large-scale change movements (ending slavery, improving the status of women, reducing tobacco addiction and drunk driving) and the failure of almost all others?

John had a suggestion for how to approach the movements I cared about, that also provided an explanation for the success and failure of other movements. His suggestion was to appeal to potential converts at an existential (visceral and emotional) level, rather than a pragmatic and rational one. So to appeal to potential Transition movement members, for example, instead of asking people the practical question “How can we make the transition to a post-cheap-oil, post-stable-climate, post-industrial-economy society?” we should perhaps be asking the existential question “What does it mean to live a good life?”

Asking such questions in a way that is non-presumptive and non-judgemental is, in my experience, almost unheard-of, except perhaps in Buddhist circles. Many movements attempt to prey on human emotions (the US Tea Party being a stellar example, but  many anti-poverty and animal welfare movements use similar tactics). But what movement has ever stepped back from judgement and ideology and attempted to recruit people by appealing to their ability to ask themselves questions about what it means to be human and to be of use, and to be an integral part of all-life-on-Earth?

I’ve tried to illustrate this in the diagram above. The traditional idealistic approaches that political movements have used for centuries (lower left) have fallen victim to the same failings as all ideologies — they are too inflexible in their thinking (”the market will solve all our problems”) and too blind to complex realities to accommodate how the world really works. There have been two reactions to this failure: employing propaganda (”if they won’t buy the logic of our argument, prey on their emotions instead”) (lower right), and its opposite, pragmatic realism (like what the Transition movement has done to transcend ideology by focusing on disaster-preparation and resilience-building, without playing the blame game)(upper left quadrant).

What almost no one seems to have tried is the existential approach (upper right quadrant) — neither ideological nor dispassionate, but politically transcendent, appealing neither to the emotionally-neutral intellect nor to thought-driven emotions like fear, anger and hatred, but instead to the higher emotions — our feelings of connection and belonging to something greater than all of us.

The reason this hasn’t been tried, I suspect, is that it’s too hard — it’s much easier to appeal to ideology, idealism, pragmatism, or raw emotion.

So how might it work? Let’s stick with the Transition movement as an example. At the moment, a lot of people have never heard of this movement, or say they don’t “get” it. It has successfully transcended politics in its pragmatism, and has attempted to deal with the grief of many people about the damage we have done to our environment (it has an integral “heart and soul” component) but it now appears to be stalled. There are lots of working groups in communities around the world that have done visioning exercises and developed local plans for renewable energy, transportation that is not oil-dependent, conservation, disaster preparation, local currencies and other worthy projects. But now what? Until some of the dominoes fall and there is a great sense of urgency, or no alternative, the conditions do not seem right (and human nature is not currently disposed) to implement these ideas.

If Transition were to take an existential approach, it would begin with an existential question such as “What does it mean to live a good life?” and help each individual to become informed about what is really happening in the world (issues like peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis), not for the purposes of planning how to cope with these issues, but for the purpose of deciding how one should holistically respond to this knowledge, from the perspective of increasing the well-being and health of all-life-on-Earth now and indefinitely into the future.

This is less an intellectual exercise than an emotional, physical, sensual and intuitive one. It is not about responding to facts with rational plans, but instead responding to emergent understanding with appreciation and a connected holistic “knowing” (intellectual, emotional, physical, chemical, sensory, and intuitive knowledge, integrated) of what is, what is needed, and what must be done. When Derrick Jensen writes (to many, cryptically) “Stand still and listen to the land, and in time you will know just what to do”, he is, I think, speaking of this kind of holistic “knowing”.

What is needed to allow such an existential approach to work, however, is a rebuilding of our personal capacity for such “knowing”. That entails relearning how to listen to and trust our instincts, how to become present and to silence our egos (which are busy telling us fictional stories and whipping up our baser emotions until we become mentally incapacitated), and how, as groups, to collect and share information, ideas, and perspectives non-judgementally and process this into holistic and collective knowledge. This rebuilt capacity may then let us “know just what to do”, and move us to pursue consequent collaborative effort that is joyous, sustained, heart-felt, and inexhaustible.

In short, we need to become more functional, healthy, connected individuals first, before we can hope to be part of any viable and sustainable change process.

So how do we do that?

I think self-directed learning programs that combine capacity-building with useful information would be a useful strategy. I’m not a fan of training programs because they’re one-size-fits-all when one size fits none. But we don’t have a framework for self-directed learning the way we have for formal education. From the work that’s been done by unschoolers, we might guess what such a framework might look like:

  • purpose-driven
  • intentional towards that end (with a roadmap and milestones that will likely change along the learning path)
  • suited to the style in which the individual best learns and works
  • a mix of individual and collective work
  • with access to pertinent knowledge (online, and, more important, access to people who have essential and contextual knowledge in their heads)
  • with access to facilitators (enablers) and mentors (listeners)
  • natural (learning the way wild creatures learn, through play)
  • time, and effective methods, for practice

In my case, what I think I need to learn to be able to contribute effectively and usefully to making this world a better place is (a) generosity (including empathy and active listening), (b) living naturally, (c) self-acceptance, (d) presence, and (e) letting go. These are capacities more than skills, but acquiring these capacities requires practice as much as acquiring skills does. This is all I think I would need to be able to bring an existential appreciation to the issues and projects I care about, to know, in consort with others with comparable capacities, “just what to do”.

There is of course lots of knowledge I will probably need to actually do what I discover I must do, but I think I have the knowledge of how the world really works to be able to obtain the appreciation of “what to do”. Many people, I believe, need to acquire more knowledge of how the economic system works (and what happens when it doesn’t), and what the possible effects of peak oil and climate change will be. Acquiring that additional knowledge should be part of their personal self-directed learning program, their preparedness for knowing “just what to do”.

The way to launch such an approach, I think, is to start by inviting people to come together (perhaps in Open Space) to:

  • help them assess what capacities and knowledge they might need before they’ll be ready to be of use (i.e. to know what to do),
  • connect with people seeking the same capacities and knowledge (so they have the opportunity of learning together), and
  • provide them with an unschooling (self-directed learning) framework for identifying what capacities and knowledge they need, and for acquiring those capacities and that knowledge.

This will not be an easy invitation to craft. It asks a lot of people.

When these people are brought together it should be with the intention of reconvening them when they self-assess that they have acquired what they need. So it should include an open invitation: Tell us (all of us — this is a self-organized program) when you’re ready.

And then, when they’re (we’re) ready, we can reconvene and start to ask the existential questions together about what makes a good life, what does if mean to be human, to be of use, and to be an integral part of all-life-on-Earth, and, together, what do we now “know” we must do. We won’t need to assign tasks or set up working groups. It will be, individually and collectively, obvious what the answers to these existential questions are and what that means we must do, as individuals and collectively.

I have no idea whether these “things we must do” will be showing people working models of different ways to live, or blowing things up, or healing suffering, or just waiting in a way that does minimal harm and conveys a deep and genrous love. But we will know just what to do. Right now, most of us do not.

And that is why, I think, all the well-intentioned things we are doing now are not working. It’s not that the world is not ready, that things aren’t “bad enough”. We are not ready. We have much to learn before we will be.

Given that this existential approach is so much more difficult than other approaches, can there possibly be enough of us to make a difference using this approach? That’s another great existential question. When we’re ready, we’ll know.

(thanks to John, and to Paul Heft, for helping me think this post through)

Read the original post on How to Save the World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, available now.

Lesson From a Wild Cat

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Four years ago I wrote about my remarkable experience with PucPuc, the wild grouse who used to greet me every day when I ran laps in my back yard in Caledon, and even climbed up and perched on my shoulder when I sat down beside her. Many readers told me I should see this visit as a sign from Gaia that I needed to reconnect with nature, slow down, pay attention. I was very moved by this experience, and I miss PucPuc to this day, even though I now live thousands of miles away.

About a month ago, while I was hosting a workshop for a group of facilitators, Tree noticed a small orange tabby cat on the deck outside. The cat was peering in through the window of the living room door very curiously, but he took off as soon as Tree opened the door. We noticed a poster a few days later about a lost orange tabby named Elwood, and since then I’ve been leaving food out for Elwood, who has become a regular visitor.

Ryan, who lives about a mile from me on Bowen Island, adopted Elwood and his brother as kittens after they were found abandoned. They both spent days outdoors and came in at night, but at some point last spring Elwood ran off and became feral. Ryan acquired a safe and humane cage trap from the local animal welfare organization, and I have been gradually putting Elwood’s food deeper and deeper into the cage, in anticipation of setting the trap mechanism once he’s come to trust it. The cage sits, locked open, outside on my deck, and is lined with a warm blanket and a towel that Elwood and his brother used when they were together, so it’s familiar to Elwood.


Day by day, Elwood and I have gotten to know each other better, and he has begun spending more time on my deck each day, arriving at 5:30 pm or so for the first half of his dinner, and returning at 11:30 pm or so for the second half. He’s become comfortable enough with me that my presence inside the house, even only a few feet away from him, does not faze him, but the minute I touch the door handle he’s gone. I can be playing music and talking away inside and he’ll sleep comfortably in the cage for hours at a time (he goes in there even when there’s no food, since I think it provides security from attacks by other cats plus warmth and coziness for sleeping).

The evening before last, I propped the living room door open while Elwood was away prowling, sat inside the open door with some food and blankets visible beside me, and waited for him to return. When he showed up he poked his head inside the house but would come no closer. He meowed quietly at me (”hey, put that food outside”) and I spoke back to him for about half an hour. It was a stirring experience. This cat was telling me that he liked the current arrangement and was not prepared to sacrifice his possible freedom for warmth and security. He was showing me that you can be wild, free and intimately connected with nature, and still have a profound, reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship with a creature (me) who is tamed, constrained and separated from the wild. While I was inviting Elwood into the warmth, comfort and security of the house, he was inviting me into the wild, free and connected world that he lived in. He was giving me some ideas about what true presence in the world is. When Elwood gave up on the conversation and went into the cage to sleep, I closed the living room door.

I think we were both a bit sad.

Read the original post at How to Save the World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, available now.

A Culture of Dependence

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Before civilization culture, children were dependent on their parents for a period of about ten years, during which, following the model of most wild creatures, they spent most of their waking lives learning to be independent, through play.

So now let’s look at what happens to us in modern civilization culture:

  1. We’re dependent on our parents essentially until we get “full-time” work, which on average in North America is now age 23.
  2. Our education system teaches us nothing that is of any use in living independently. In fact, it “teaches” us that our lot in life is to work hard to get good marks (for which we’re dependent on that education system) so that we will be sufficiently attractive to potential employers that they will “offer” us a job.
  3. At this point we will become dependent on our employers, and on their business’ success and continuity, until we are wealthy enough to retire or dead, whichever comes first. That means for almost all of us we are dependent on the continued growth of the unsustainable global industrial economy.
  4. We are perpetually dependent on governments for our education services, our health services, and most transportation and other essential social services. If we are unfortunate enough to live in the US or a third world nation, we are also probably dependent on our employers for our health services.
  5. Because we are not taught to take responsibility for our own health, most of us are also dependent on doctors and their Big Pharma friends for our continued health and well-being.
  6. Because we no longer live in communities that are able to look after their own problems, most of us are dependent on centralized police and other security services that have acquired almost unlimited authority over us, for our “safety”.
  7. Because most of us no longer know how to (or live in areas where we cannot adequately) grow our own food or make or repair our our clothing, personal transportation vehicles, buildings and other essentials, we are dependent on a vast subsidized centralized global agribusiness oligopoly, on cheap materials and labour extorted from struggling nations, and on cheap energy in ever-increasing amounts, for these essentials of life.
  8. Because we have forgotten how to imagine and how to amuse ourselves, most of us have become dependent on mainstream media organizations, conglomerates that used to provide both information and entertainment, for our musical, audio and visual entertainment. Few seem to have noticed that most of the mainstream media have ceased providing any information at all, and those that still do are seemingly all in financial difficulty.
  9. Because virtually all of the additional wealth created in the last 40 years has accrued to the wealthiest 1% of the population, the rest of us have become dependent on ever-increasing amounts of indebtedness to be able to buy what we need to live.
  10. Because we live mostly in shoddy, vulnerable, built-to-fail buildings, and because our economy relies on just-in-time shipment of goods and materials around the globe, and is designed to be efficient, with no built-in redundancy, rather than effective, we are dependent upon a continuation of the cool, peaceful and stable (by historical standards) climate we have enjoyed for the last ten millennia.
  11. If we are fortunate enough to acquire enough wealth to retire, we are (unless we have a rare and generous defined benefit pension) dependent for the rest of our lives on substantial and consistent annual increases in stock market valuations to fund our retirement. That means we are dependent on the continued growth of the unsustainable global industrial economy, even when we are no longer contributing actively to it.
Essential Human Activities How We Did This Before Civilization Culture How We Do It Now Under Civilization Culture
Learning and Staying Informed self-directed, with self-selected mentors dependent on massive hierarchical education systems and dumbed-down mainstream media
Making a Living simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on large corporate employers “offering” us jobs
Staying Healthy preventive, self-diagnosis and self-treatment dependent on massive cumbersome medical systems
Getting Around on foot dependent on complex, fragile transportation systems and cheap oil
Dealing with Antisocial Behaviour self-managed in community, rehabilitative dependent on punitive, coercive, invasive, incarcerating centralized security systems
Eating Well simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on huge, cruel, toxic agribusiness and factory farms
Clothing Ourselves unnecessary (self-adornment is craft, art and fun) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in shoddily-made clothing
Sheltering Ourselves, Keeping Warm unnecessary (the forest provided all the shelter and warmth we needed) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in materials for constructing shoddily-made buildings, and on cheap oil
Entertaining Ourselves self-developed and self-performed in community (art, music, performance arts) dependent on massive over-hyped, overpriced ‘entertainment industry’ products
Coping with Retirement not applicable (there was no arduous ‘work’ to retire from) dependent on inflated housing valuations and ever-increasing stock market prices to provide annuity income

The chart above contrasts the dependencies of prehistoric and wild cultures, with those of today’s civilization culture.

I’m not saying we can or should attempt to live completely self-sufficient lives. I am saying that we are now at a stage where we are utterly dependent on institutions that are unwieldy, unsustainable, and collapsing. They are completely undependable.

An increasing number of us realize this, and have attempted to become more self-sufficient. How are we doing? Here’s my scorecard:

  • Dependence on education systems: Worsening. We spend more and more of our lives in these largely useless and damaging systems, and most of us have been brainwashed to the point we believe that only “special” children can be deschooled and are capable of self-directed learning.
  • Dependence on big corporate employers: Worsening. As employers dump more an more workers into the ranks of the unemployed, and as our over-stretched and debt-submerged economy teeters, more people are fighting for fewer jobs. Almost no one is learning how to make a living for themselves (our education systems don’t teach this), and most people have been brainwashed to believe they could never make a living for themselves.
  • Dependence on governments: Staying the Same. It’s easy to blame governments for all our ills, but research consistently shows that it is their unwieldy size and detachment from the people they represent, not the non-competitive nature of governments, that is to blame for their inefficiency, and that large public organizations are actually more effective and just as efficient as private organizations doing the same work. Nevertheless, when national and state/provincial governments collapse, we’ll be in big trouble, because so few at the community level have the competencies needed to take over the services big government agencies and departments provide.
  • Dependence on the medical establishment: Worsening. In most affluent nations health care costs are skyrocketing while quality of care is not improving, so health care systems are close to collapse. Most people don’t know how to prevent illness and accident, nor how to self-diagnose and self-treat even simple ailments. The health care system continues to encourage that ignorance, and what’s making it all worse is that the average age of our population is increasing, and hence the average citizen needs more services every year.
  • Dependence on security authorities: Worsening. As we become more globalized and more mobile, we have become more anonymous and isolated from each other and hence more dependent on centralized institutions to keep us safe from each other. And as income and wealth disparities rise, so does injustice, anger, and desperation, and therefore crime, violence and war.
  • Dependence on agribusiness: Worsening. Factory farming is now a global phenomenon. Affordable food now depends on massive subsidies, animal cruelty, homogenization and chemical treatment of everything we eat (and our soils), exploitative international trade, and availability of ever more cheap energy.
  • Dependence on exploitative international trade: Worsening. Globalization continues to eviscerate the effective production of goods locally, and is now likewise making local provision of services non-viable. Increasingly the people of affluent nations no longer make anything, and provide ever fewer services. All we contribute to the economy is consumption.
  • Dependence on cheap, abundant energy: Worsening. The achieved and possible improvements from renewable energy, technology, and our modest conservation efforts, are dwarfed by the soaring and insatiable energy demand from China and India, where almost everything that used to be made in affluent nations is now made, and whose people are seeking a US-style life and level of consumption and waste.
  • Dependence on mainstream media: Staying the Same. We have won some victories online, and there is at least a voice to counter the corporatist media conglomerates, but that voice remains imperilled by corporations seeking to ‘own’ all the channels to and from the Internet. And the average citizen is just as dependent on the mainstream media for entertainment as ever, and is no longer critically consuming any information at all, just accepting the propaganda they’re fed.
  • Dependence on increasing debt and credit: Worsening. Except for the wealthiest 1% of the population, real income has declined since the 1970s, and all the apparent increase in wealth is illusory — it’s all dependent on ever-increasing amounts of unrepayable debts. The “recovery” of the industrial growth economy now depends on cheap and abundant credit and a willingness of citizens to get even deeper into debt.
  • Dependence on a stable climate: Worsening. Our economy is increasingly global, relying on global movement of people, products and materials anywhere we need them on short notice. And more and more of us are living in ghettos and shoddy buildings not built to last more than a few decades before they start to fall apart, and not built to endure violent climate events.
  • Dependence on the unregulated industrial growth economy: Worsening. In addition to our reliance on this unsustainable economy for employment, energy, health, entertainment and essential services, we depend on it to maintain the value of our homes (our primary collateral for our ever-growing debt), investments and pensions. And as this economy falters, its corporate interests are pressuring their corporatist political friends to prop it up by dismantling or ignoring the few regulations that prevent them from becoming a psychopathic, oligopolistic clique of price-fixing, environmentally-ruinous thugs.

We are, in short, dependent on a complex set of unsustainable systems, and that dependence is getting worse. So what are we to do?

I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to ’save’ these systems, or most of the people who just aren’t aware or capable enough to wean themselves off them. But those of us who want to be models of more independent, self-sufficient ways of living, I think the best approach is the same one nature uses to wean young wild creatures off their parents: play. Here’s some things we could play at:

  • unschooling ourselves and our children
  • natural entrepreneurship: learning how to make a living for ourselves, doing what we’re meant to do
  • walking and cycling, instead of using energy-inefficient vehicles
  • taking charge of our own health: prevention, exercise, self-diagnosing, self-treatment
  • living in community e.g. creating our own self-organized and self-managed community centres and other community-shared resources; looking after our own security and conveying important and actionable news and information among and between communities
  • singing, playing instruments, acting, drawing, and participative non-competitive sports
  • gardening and permaculture, eating a vegan diet (and learning to cook delicious meals for ourselves), learning to make our own clothes, learning to construct zero-net-energy, zero-waste buildings, learning to repair instead of replace, learning to buy less (and shop more carefully), and sharing instead of buying equipment
  • practicing emergency preparedness in our communities, through simulations and table-top scenario planning exercises

Why “play”? Because play is all about learning by experiment, joyfully, and being fully open to outcome. In the greater scheme of things, our skunkwork efforts at reinventing a working, community-based culture are not going to change much. They are not scalable (trying to do things at a scale larger than what can be managed through local personal responsibility is part of what got us into this mess). Most of them will probably fail. But a few of them will succeed, spectacularly, and perhaps give the survivors of our crumbling civilization culture some ideas on how to do things better next time.

I’m starting to explore some of these, and I’ll be writing about some of my playful experiments in coming months.

Read the original article at How To Save The World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, available now.

Links and Tweets for the Month: October 15, 2010

Friday, October 15th, 2010


The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged (or Tweeted): Sharon Astyk on our overuse of computers and the folly of technophile thinking:

[Citing Jared Diamond] “All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that’s why we’re in the situation in which we now find ourselves. What makes you think that [now], for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems it previously produced?

The computer… is not lasting, is complex, often needs to be thrown away and cannot be fixed – or is more costly to fix than replace… Overwhelmingly, it isn’t making us smarter, or know more, saving us energy or changing the world. It is just another technology, doing some good and some bad…

I hear more and more from people who say they can’t get along with the people they actually live near, who are on an endless quest for people just like them, to spend their future with the mythical community of perfectly like-minded people. I hear more and more that someone can’t have a relationship with their neighbors and the people near them, and need to move somewhere else… Perhaps that’s an unintended consequence of the internet, no? Now that we’ve experienced the joy of little clubs filled entirely with people focused on X or Y shared thing, we’re less able to get along with the people whose common connection to us is a place, or a history or a more formal relationship?

Unless we are willing to ask “is this really good for us, now and forever?” we are likely to be trapped in the assumption that the next thing will magically set us free. And it won’t. The next thing will further invest us, and move us a little closer not to a solution, but to a collapse.

[Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker concurs, but for a different reason: Despite the strength of social networks' weak ties (giving us access to essential information and critical connections), the social network form of "activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice." And that's not really activism at all.]

The Spectre of Deflation: Economist Mike Maloney tells a bankers’ conference he is predicting chronic deflation, to the point banks collapse, tax revenues drop, governments cease functioning, defaults soar, currencies collapse, stock markets tumble, even commodities collapse in value, as money supply seizes up and capacity to spend plummets toward zero. It’s all due to unrepayable debt levels — in the US $60T when you add it all up, and $180T if you add in the deficiencies in current value of pensions, medical and social security liabilities, that also need to be funded (and cannot possibly be). I’m not sure that he’s right about $10/bbl oil in the near-term, or about gold’s value soaring by additional factors of 10, but Ilargi has persuaded me his logic is mostly sound. What he’s missing is that, when people run out of money to spend, they won’t be able to buy gold either, so its price will also fall. [As Dmitri Orlov says, "the ultimate commodity in which to invest is not gold or shotgun shells but people you can trust".] It’s compelling viewing nevertheless, even though he stomps off the stage at the end when he’s told he’s run out of time. The video has 2 parts; the link above is to the first half.


Living Intentionally in Ethiopia: Awra Amba, a small intentional community in Ethiopia, where religious observance is prohibited and everyone’s work is equally valued, is a model for both struggling and affluent nations. As in many communities worldwide, because the soil is now so poor, it’s not self-sufficient, but they have found ways to live comfortably through local trade. Thanks to Tree for the link, and the one that follows.

Worker Co-operatives: The Natural Form of Business: Once the domain of artists, credit unions and tradespeople, the co-operative movement is shifting to the service industries. [And speaking of co-ops, Dwight Towers writes about co-op movement founder Robert Owen and his Equitable Labour Exchanges, that used a local currency denominated in hours -- where everyone's time was valued equally.]

Practicing Presence: Richard Moss struggles to explain in an hour what he says can take thousands of hours of practice: To know that we are not our thoughts and feelings, get beyond our brain’s controlling ego, let go of stories and just be in the present. This video gets better at the end. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

The Benefits of Natural Burial: Natural burial is greener than cremation. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.


financial share of profits

“This is Very, Very Bad”: Paul Krugman in the NYT sums up the foreclosure mess as the simple continuation of a massive and ongoing government-backed fraud perpetrated by US and global financial institutions against homeowners and taxpayers. Why is it allowed to continue? Because as the chart above shows (from, financial services make up 1/3 of US profits (and GDP). Only the war industry is comparable in size. Without banks and wars, there simply is no US GDP. Without these two industries, and rising housing values and consumer spending, there is no US economy.

We Can’t Even Be Bribed to Eat Well: New research suggests we are now so addicted to food that is processed, chemical-laden and saturated with fat, salt and sugar, and so frightened to actually prepare foods ourselves, that even when good food is easy and inexpensive we choose junk food instead.

Pipeline Safety Hazards Highlighted: We know (thanks to BP) about sloppy construction and lax safety in oil and gas exploration, and last month I highlighted the dangers and hazards in Alberta Tar Sands oil pipeline construction and operations. The NYT reveals that construction and operation of gas pipelines is equally lax. Profit before people and our environment.

Obama’s Bloated Run-Amok Security Machine Gets Worse: Glenn Greenwald explains that, out-Bushing Bush, Obama is now justifying secrecy about his assassination program against alleged enemies of the US (even US citizens) on national security grounds. He’s essentially saying that if the US government decides it wants to kill you, you don’t even have the right to know of that decision, or that it was involved, or why it made that decision, or to appeal that decision or charge them for their action. Madness.

Big Pharma Gets Medicinal Herbs Banned in EU: Intensive lobbying has paid of for Big Pharma and Agribusiness which successfully pushed the European Parliament to make its only competitor, small medicinal herb producers, meet staggeringly expensive registration and testing rules that effectively put them out of business. Thanks to Tree for the link, and the one that follows.

Monsanto Kills: Their “safe” Round-Up herbicide is now connected to birth defects.

Nature Conservancy: Just Another Front for Mega-Polluters: Take a look at the Nature Conservancy’s “Leadership Council” — talk about a rogues’ gallery of the world’s worst corporate citizens. Thanks to Keith Farnish for the link.

Google Amps Up the Echo Chamber: The president of MoveOn warns that, now that Google automatically customizes our search results based on past search history and other information in our profiles (at one point you could choose to opt out of customized search and see what ‘everyone else’ would see as search results), there is an even greater risk that we will only be presented with information and viewpoints that conform to what we already believe.

(whew, that was a depressing round-up; bet you’re ready for some…)


This Is a News Website Article About a Scientific Paper: A brilliant parody of modern-day science reporting. Falling-down funny, and a bit scary. Thanks to Karen Hay-Draude for the link. [In the same vein: Robert Neuwirth's Circle of Caveats -- thanks to Brian Hayes for this link.]

Imagining What’s Possible: A lovely post-peak-oil animation by Anita Sancha. Thanks to Dale Asberry for the link, and the one that follows.

If Jealousy is Biological, Why Do Gays Get Jealous?: Author Christopher Ryan dissects a study showing that jealousy is independent of sexual orientation, and concludes that jealousy is a conditioned, learned behaviour. It stems, he argues, from endemic abandonment issues in modern societies where babies are deprived of natural, constant touch and attention from parents, and reinforced by a society that promotes heterogeneity, jealousy and monogamy as a means of psychological control. He supports his argument by referring to the pro-hetero, pro-monogamy, pro-partner-as-possession messages in popular media (exemplified by the nauseating song When a Man Loves a Woman).

The Suck Fairy: Ever noticed how, just sitting on your bookshelves, the books and films you thought were wonderful when you were young, are, on rereading or reviewing, pretentious, unbearable, awful? Jo Walton blames the “suck fairy”. Hilarious. Thanks to Bowen’s Corbin Keep for the link.

Continue reading the full article at How to Save the World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

What the World Needs Now

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

(This morning I received a message from my dear British friend Andrew Campbell, expressing frustration with a couple of people he looked up to, and riffing off the anti-expert, anti-’leader’ tone of my post yesterday on coping with complexity. Here is how I replied.)

Over the years I’ve met a lot of ‘leaders’, from senior business executives in large corporations to revered authors to senior government officials. A lot of them have the act right: the charismatics, the leaders that people expect to have all the answers, act as if they do (though they proffer few if their speech-writer or editor hasn’t vetted them). The good speakers know how to use the right words with the right inflection while still not really saying anything except to reassure you that you are right. The good writers know how to take their one interesting new idea and build a $20 book or $1000 seminar around it, and some of them even know enough not to talk about it without rehearsed scripts, because generally they don’t talk as well as they write.

The business leaders, some of whom are astonishingly dimwitted (in my observation, people are promoted because they match the image of those doing the promoting, not on merit) just give orders and aren’t foolish enough to try to justify them (they have staff for that). What’s funny to me is that when ‘leaders’ admit to being unextraordinary, when they dare to be authentic, people are usually bitterly disappointed. They believe their adored leader just had an off night, and will be ‘themselves’ again when they put the make-up back on (and may it please be soon). ‘Leaders’ can’t, daren’t, take the costume and the greasepaint off.

As much as our world is built on hierarchy and the acceptance that some people are just meant to be leaders and the rest just meant to be followers, my experience is that intelligence and practicality and judgement and emotional wisdom and imagination and creativity are pretty evenly distributed across the global gene pool, and the ability to articulate or otherwise apply whatever one is good at is mostly a learnable skill. That’s why I have no use for leaders, and believe the future rests in the hands of facilitators — people who are able to skillfully help a group of ‘ordinary’ people do their best collaborative work. Facilitators are not teachers; they are from the unschooling school of encouraging people to learn how to learn for themselves (or relearn how to learn if they are victims of the education system, the workplace system and/or the media).

active-listeningI hold mentors in equal esteem to facilitators. I mean mentors in the sense of sounding boards and active, empathic listeners for individuals. The word ‘mentor’ is not quite right, since it connotes smarter-than; the best mentors in my experience only speak to help clarify, or to offer advice if it is asked for (and that advice is usually more like possible avenues of exploration or questions to ponder than “what you should do”, since no mentor worth her salt would presume to know what someone else should do). Sometimes a mentor’s gift is just to be present, to listen with compassion and appreciation. Sometimes it’s to demonstrate, a suggestion of “you might try this”.

I confess I am a terribly facilitator (I even took a test that confirmed this). I can’t retain my objectivity and refrain from proffering content. But thanks to my imagination and years of reading and thinking about a broad range of subjects, I’m often a pretty good content provider in a well-facilitated group.

I am not much better as a mentor, in the sense I describe above, since while I’ve learned to be a better listener, I often can’t resist throwing out unsolicited ideas and advice, and I’m not terribly empathic (too unclear, still, about my own feelings, and often incompetent at conveying them, quietly).

What I am, alas, is a visionary — someone who excels at imagining what is possible. Not a very useful skill in an age when we are utterly preoccupied with fighting dragons.

(Image of facilitation from NCSU; image of mentoring from UConn)

Read the original post on Dave's blog, How to Save the World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Complexity: It’s Not That Simple

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Complexity theory has been around for a generation now, but most people don’t understand it. I often read or listen to consultants, ‘experts’ and media people who proffer ludicrously simplistic ’solutions’ to complex predicaments. Since it seems most people would prefer things to be simple, these ‘experts’ always seem to have an uncritical audience. Because most of what’s written about complexity theory is dense, academic and/or expensive, I thought I’d try to summarize the key points of complexity theory (focusing on the social/ecological aspects of it, not the mathematical/scientific ones) using lots of examples for clarity, and in a way that might be used practically by those grappling with complex issues and challenges.

Complexity theory argues that simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems have fundamentally different properties, and therefore different approaches and processes are needed when dealing with issues and challenges in each of these types of systems.

As the diagram above illustrates, natural systems (both social and ecological) are inherently complex. It is the nature of evolution that natural systems, at every level from unicellular life up to our global ecosystem, tend to become more complex and diverse over time, until a crisis (e.g. natural disaster, epidemic, meteor strike) occurs and brings about chaos, system collapse and/or extinction, after which the cycle begins again to evolve towards greater complexity. Even an apparently ’simple’ natural system (like an amoeba) is astonishingly complex, and there is a kind of fractal (or Bohmian hologram) quality to it: all its content is contained in any part of itself, at a lower resolution.

Human invention, for the most part, uses biomimicry, i.e. we attempt to manufacture, to replicate mechanically, things that appear to work in nature. A simple invention like the arrowhead, for example, mimics the speed and penetrating sharpness of predatory birds and animals. Agriculture mimics the natural diversity-diminishing processes of flooding and wildfire. In similar ways, most industrial systems mimic natural systems. But these simple and complicated systems do not evolve of their own accord, they are not self-sustaining, and they lack resilience. They are also fragile, and subject to rapid decay and obsolescence. It takes a huge amount of effort to repair, replace and maintain the components of such systems.

Natural systems are highly effective but inefficient due to their massive redundancy (picture a tree dropping thousands of seeds). By contrast, manufactured systems must be efficient (to be competitive) and usually have almost no redundancy, so they are extremely vulnerable to breakage. For example, many of our modern industrial systems will collapse without a constant and unlimited supply of inexpensive oil.

As natural systems evolve to become more complex, their resilience increases. For example, more biodiversity means less vulnerability to pandemics. However, as manufactured systems become more complicated (e.g. through centralization and globalization) their resilience is reduced. A breakdown in a single component can cause the entire complicated system to seize up or collapse.


The more complex natural systems become, the harder they become for humans to ‘manage’ (control or influence).  That is why much of the complex and varied natural world has been replaced by monolithic, homogeneous manufactured systems (e.g. cities, factory farms, dammed waterways), that are much less resilient than the natural, sustainable systems they replaced. Similarly, the more complicated manufactured systems become, the harder they become for humans to ‘manage’. Large organizations (businesses, public organizations and governments) therefore become inherently more and more dysfunctional (and less resilient) the larger they grow.

Our modern civilization is built on amalgams (combinations) of natural and manufactured systems, and it has components that are simple, complicated, complex, or a combination of all three. Almost all businesses, for example, have both social systems (which are complex) and automated systems (which are complicated), and most offer both products (which are mostly complicated) and services (which are mostly complex).

Most of the so-called intractable problems we are now facing (e.g. war, violence, poverty, epidemic disease, and the growing economic, energy and ecological crises) are not ‘problems’ at all, but complex predicaments. The challenges of complex systems are predicaments, not problems, because, since they are not mechanical, they cannot be ‘fixed’ or ’solved’. Alternative, non-mechanistic approaches must be used to deal with them, which is what this article is mainly about.


Simple problems or situations (like hammering in a nail), with few variables (i.e. few things to consider) and which have obvious solutions (strike the nail with the ball of the hammer until it goes in), are best approached intuitively.

Complicated problems or situations (like fixing a car), with many variables, all of them knowable (at least with some study), and where the solutions aren’t obvious but cause-and-effect relationships can be determined, are best approached analytically. Systems diagrams and analytical processes — the type that competent managers and advisors employ — are useful for dealing with complicated situations and problems. Unfortunately, we are all too easily tempted to try to reduce complex predicaments (e.g. how to deal with the nightmarish global debt crisis), to simple or merely complicated problems (e.g. how to get banks to give consumers more credit in the short term so they can spend us out of recession, for now), because we’re good at solving merely complicated problems.

In some complex situations, it is possible to simulate the complexity of the system with a simple or merely complicated model, and achieve useful results, at least in the short term. For example, if you can isolate your organization’s customer service problem to a single cause (say, that service staff don’t have the authority to do the things customers need), you can ’solve’ this problem by giving them more authority. But complex predicaments usually defy such simplification; things are generally the way they are for a good reason, one that’s not obvious or simple (or someone would have ‘fixed’ it already). And people are excellent at finding workarounds for clumsy simple or complicated ’solutions’ that managers or consultants have imposed to try (inevitably unsuccessfully) to ‘fix’ complex challenges. Complicated approaches generally don’t work for complex predicaments, any more than a simple hammer will fix all the complicated problems you might encounter with your car.

Complex predicaments (like running a social event or a business, or coping with economic, energy or ecological collapse) have these four characteristics:

  • The number of variables that can have an effect on the system/situation/event is infinite
  • Most of these variables are unknown or unknowable; only the most obvious ones can be listed or diagrammed
  • The relationships between cause and effect in the system are unfathomable; at best you can notice correlations that may or may not be meaningful
  • It is impossible to predict the outcome of an intervention in the system/situation/event (or when Black Swan events and other unforeseeable interventions will occur)

As we come to understand complex predicaments better, we’re learning that the best approaches to them are very different from what works best for simple or complicated problems. Because all the variables cannot be known, and because cause-and-effect relationships cannot be established in complex situations, analytical approaches (like systems flowcharts) used in complicated problem-solving simply won’t work.

The best approaches in complex situations are, well, complex. They entail the use of many different techniques, some of which we are not very good at, and some of which are quite sophisticated, novel, or nuanced. What I have learned so far is that an effective approach to a complex predicament should have these attributes (and I’ll be using the challenge of peak oil and how the Transition movement is working to address it, to illustrate these attributes):

  1. Methodical: Coping with complex predicaments requires a focus on continuously improving processes, not achieving outcomes. A key feature of complex predicaments is that an appreciation of the true nature of the predicament and an understanding of possible workable approaches to deal with it co-evolve. You can’t know the desired outcome up front, because you just don’t know enough about the situation. Your approach needs to facilitate this co-evolution of understanding, and enable you to go beyond selecting from currently known alternatives and simplistic dichotomies. It also requires an appreciation of the four best ways to intervene effectively in a complex system. In my experience, a methodical approach to any complex predicament requires the skills of an excellent, practiced facilitator, someone with an appreciation of complexity and group process, and the competence to enable the group to do its best work. A good facilitator will:
    • Clarify and keep the focus on the group’s purpose and intention (see point 2 below)
    • Optimize the use of available space & time
    • Help the group manage and enhance its knowledge, learning, and appreciation
    • Encourage free flow of creativity & ideas
    • Manage the flow of energy in the space
    • Help the group deepen and navigate interpersonal relationships
    • Help the group appreciate, broaden and shift its perspectives and worldviews
    • Model the behaviours the group needs to demonstrate to be effective
  2. Purposeful: If a group is addressing a complicated problem, the purpose is obvious (to find and implement a solution). When it’s faced with a complex predicament, the purpose is not obvious. The purpose is often itself complex: to deepen an understanding of the predicament, to learn what has worked and not worked in similar situations, to explore options for addressing and coping with it, to imagine how things might be done differently, to identify what the group needs to know and be able to do that it currently does not or cannot, to appreciate the knowledge, ideas, shared values and perspectives of others, to deepen relationships for future collaboration, etc. The group needs to understand and agree on its purpose in all its complexity, and stay focused on that purpose. It also needs to be intentional, i.e. to be willing to and begin to stretch energetically towards achievement of its purpose even as the understanding of that purpose may still be emerging and evolving. For example, a community Transition group’s overarching purpose might be to enable their community to make the transition to a post-carbon economy, and its intention might be to form working groups to focus on various aspects of working towards that purpose. Note that the purpose describes a process not an outcome.
  3. Visionary: If a group is grappling with a complex predicament, it needs to have a shared vision of what should be different at each step along the process of working towards the purpose, and also a vision of what might happen if they didn’t do that work (often called a “worse- or worst-case scenario”. What would coping with and adapting to the predicament, versus doing nothing, “look like” in the near and more distant future? Several of the Transition communities have developed “timelines” that contain their imaginings of each stage of the transition, possible Black Swan events, and the consequences of inaction. This is how you navigate through complex predicaments, where the outcome is unknown so there’s no clear path from current state to desired future state.
  4. Preventive: One step in coping with complex predicaments is to try to imagine and anticipate possible negative occurrences as you work towards your purpose, and take steps to head off such occurrences before they happen. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. George Monbiot’s Heat, for example, presents a comprehensive climate change prevention strategy, and while many would now argue that we’re too late to prevent catastrophic climate change (and that in any case our society is incapable of moving as fast or as far as Monbiot’s strategy required), the book contains many suggestions for actions that community Transition teams could employ to make the local transition to a post-carbon economy.
  5. Defensive: When the system is complex, it doesn’t respond to proactive steps (at least, not predictably). It requires some humility and realism to acknowledge that you can’t always control a situation; in complex situations, usually the best you can do is mitigate risks and consequences of what is happening, as you become aware of them, and in the moment, and hence reduce the impact of undesirable situations on you and your community. Ilargi and Stoneleigh’s Automatic Earth for example outlines many steps you can take (such as extinguishing your debts and selling your equities) to mitigate the risks and consequences you will face when the next economic depression hits. A Transition community might likewise mitigate the risks and effects of the end of cheap oil by improving public transport, establishing local renewable energy co-ops, etc.
  6. Attentive: Complex systems are in constant flux, so it is essential to continually monitor and ‘probe’ to collect information and make sense of what is happening, so that you can respond to unfolding occurrences knowledgeably and effectively. Sometimes the best way to probe what’s going on in a complex system is just to try something, a systematic intervention, and see what happens. Another method is to gather stories and anecdotes and look for meaningful patterns. Sometimes by scanning broadly for data and synthesizing it, you can get a clearer and more actionable picture of the situation. Transition communities across the globe are trying various methods (e.g. car-share and ride-share programs) to see how they effect local dependency on fossil fuels, and collecting and sharing stories, knowledge, ideas and findings with other Transition communities to get a better picture of what works and what doesn’t.
  7. Experiential: The analytical techniques that are used to address complicated problems are inherently theoretical and hopefully repeatable, and our (left) brains love this “best practices” stuff. Unfortunately, theoretical approaches and “best practices” don’t usually work in complex situations. What works better is experimenting with an array of diverse approaches in parallel and in series, and examining the results and get a collective understanding of what is effective and what isn’t in the real world, and where might be the best place to go from there. The Transition movement doesn’t have a set of “best practices” for coping with the end of cheap oil; what they have instead are “patterns“, synthesized from experiential work, of what approaches seem to be effective across an array of different situations. Two examples of such patterns: Iteration (going through a process iteratively to refine and learn from it is more effective than trying to get it perfect the first time) and Self-Organization (actions seem to work better when the group embracing them organizes itself to plan and implement the actions, rather than having the work assigned to its members by a central control group). More about “pattern languages” in an upcoming post.
  8. Improvisational: As we have learned from our response to Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina and other modern crises, preplanning doesn’t work in complex situations. Improvisation entails responding to situations on the fly; for example, emergency workers find improvisational capacity far more useful when dealing with complex crises than procedure manuals, provided these workers are armed with the right tools and knowledge, empowered and connected with others for consultation. Adaptation entails changing yourself or your situation to respond to an outside event, rather than (as we too often try to do, futilely) trying to anticipate, change or control a complex system (the weather, for example). Improvisation and adaptation skills cannot really be learned in a classroom; it takes extensive ‘field’ and/or simulation practice to become competent at them. For example, some Transition community trainers have learned that it’s impossible to know how much their students know, or are ready to know, about peak oil, until the training session is underway, so they often have to improvise their curriculum on the fly. Likewise, some Transition initiatives have run into unexpected obstacles (e.g. bird-lovers objecting to wind turbines), and have had to adapt their programs to suit local sensibilities.
  9. Collaborative: It’s foolish to believe anyone has all the answers, or can possibly cope alone in this massively interconnected society. Local knowledge, ideas, perspectives and skills are collective assets, and in our atomized, nuclear, specialized civilization, collective understanding and collaboration are the only ways to compensate for the lost core and generalist knowledge and skills that we need to relearn to cope with complex situations. Each member of a group brings a piece of the truth, and unique knowledge and skills, that, especially in dealing with complex situations, are essential to equip the group with collective capacity, competence, understanding, consensus and wisdom. Most of the real work in community Transition initiatives is done through self-organized and self-managed collaborative working groups, that use consensual decision-making processes.
  10. Holistic: We are usually part of the complex systems whose predicaments we have to cope with. From inside, we get perspective and knowledge of four types: intellectual, emotional, sensory and intuitive. The best approaches are rarely purely rational; it requires synthesizing and balancing all four types of knowledge. Some indigenous peoples say that before making important decisions it is essential to “sleep on it” so that the subconscious knowledge from our hearts, bodies, spirits and DNA can be integrated with our conscious, intellectual knowledge. An essential aspect of the Transition initiative is the “heart and soul” component — appreciating the feelings of grief and anxiety that come along with facing energy, ecological and economic crises. Only when we make space for all four ways of knowing, understanding and responding to predicaments can we bring our full capacity, skill and energy to addressing them.
  11. Appreciative: There is a tendency for some consultants, managers and experts to presume they know “from experience” how to deal with an organizational challenge, and fail to appreciate the unique context of each situation, or to appreciate that things are the way they are for a reason. It’s essential to understand that reason in all its complexity — how things got the way they are and why they’ve stayed that way — before we can begin to address them effectively. No one is to “blame” for complex predicaments, which often have long and complex histories, and may be self-reinforcing. For example, the Transition movement discovered that trying to reduce the impact of peak oil by improving average gasoline mileage for cars may be ineffective, because as mileage improves drivers may decide to drive farther (for the same price), or drive bigger cars (with the same mpg as the older smaller ones), and hence negate the impact of the regulatory or technological change that enabled the mileage improvement.
  12. Open: Groups addressing complex predicaments need to be completely honest and transparent, and must be open to different approaches, points of view, directions of inquiry and exploration, and conflicting information. The sponsors and facilitators of such groups must ensure that their invitation is sufficiently open to attract the right, diverse mix of people to address the predicament competently, and that the process they use is open and flexible to the ideas and insights that emerge. Group members can’t afford to “burn bridges” or be closed-minded to even bizarre-sounding scenarios, proposals and knowledge (Einstein said “If at first an idea doesn’t seem crazy, there is no hope for it”.) George Monbiot’s Heat makes some proposals for reducing fossil fuel usage, for example, that some dismissed out of hand, such as converting AC electrical power to DC to reduce power loss, and shutting down all non-essential airplane flights because there is just no way to make such travel energy-efficient. The people who might have moved such ideas forward were just not open to them, and a chastened Monbiot is sounding increasingly pessimistic that his reforms will ever see the light of day.
  13. Bottom-up: Historically, most solutions have been devised and implemented top-down, by leaders atop political, corporate or social hierarchies. But complex predicaments like poverty, violence, climate change, the debt crisis and resource scarcities have defied all attempts at top-down “fixes”. The best approaches to such issues have come from bottom-up initiatives to deal with them at the local level, at a scale where actions can be taken quickly, and where the people involved know each other and what needs to be and what can be done in their community. This is why the Transition movement is organized as a network, where all the work is done at the community level, and there is no hierarchy.
  14. Trusting: (This one’s a toughie.) When organizations confront complicated problems, the usual result is a solution (usually imposed top-down) and an allocation of tasks (who will do what by when). By contrast, in confronting complex predicaments, it is essential that team members trust each other to decide what they will individually do, and what they will decide in small groups to collaborate on, and then to do those things. The responsibility rests with each individual — no one can or will stand over them and tell them what to do or how to do it or stay on their case if they haven’t done it. Such implicit trust is foreign to many people experienced with group work, and some believe trust “has to be earned”. What many find difficult in confronting complex predicaments is that they need to just trust people to accept and follow through on their responsibilities, and also that they have to trust a group process that is emergent and pliable, even when that process struggles with lack of consensus, lack of knowledge, lack of ideas, lack of direction, or internal disagreements and conflicts. The Transition movement focuses a lot of attention on trust-building activities, and on ensuring facilitators have the necessary skills to help the group navigate through trust issues.
  15. Humble: Implicit in the idea that innovation and human ingenuity can ’solve’ any problem is a level of arrogance and hubris that has no place in the struggle with complex predicaments. As I have explained, there is no ’solution’ to complex problems, so what is required is the humility to accept what is, and what cannot be changed, and to adapt. Even now, some technophiles are proposing to ’solve’ climate change by geoengineering — firing trillions of small reflective metal fragments into the atmosphere to deflect much of the sun’s rays. They have absolutely no way of knowing whether this will have the desired effect; this complex predicament has an infinite number of variables, most of them unknowable. Their action, if taken (and it is quite feasible) might backfire, or might plunge us into another ice age — no one knows. Their energies would be better spent learn studying and learning from nature, a humbler pursuit far more likely to come up with sustainable ideas that, at least at the community level, might help reduce energy usage or deforestation or factory farming — three key sources of atmospheric warming. What is impressive about the Transition movement is that their handbooks are not “what to do” guides for dealing with a post-oil economy, but suggested approaches and resource lists for local Transition groups to study and adapt as appropriate to the situation of their community. They’re staying humble, and setting an example for others working to address complex predicaments.
  16. Redundant: I mentioned earlier that industrial systems strive (out of competitive necessity) for efficiency, and minimize redundancy, which makes them fragile. As we develop approaches to deal with complex predicaments, we need to take the opposite approach: because we can’t know the outcomes of these predicaments, we need to build in redundancy so that we are resilient no matter what happens. Some of the community Transition movements are working to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels entirely, even though there will probably be some hydrocarbons available in the future (e.g. in local coal mines). This gives them a cushion to fall back on in a worst-case scenario, though it probably means they will have a redundant (excess) supply of energy.

Complex indeed! You can appreciate why many people would prefer to recharacterize complex predicaments as simple or complicated problems, and use tried-and-true analytical methods to ’solve’ them — even though the solutions won’t work (though that often isn’t discovered until the consultant, ‘expert’, manager or ‘leader’ has collected their pay and moved on). Fortunately approaches and processes that employ some or all of these attributes are being employed by groups all over the world who have given up on experts and simplistic ’solutions’ and are striving to develop real, working, sustainable strategies to cope with complex predicaments. And an increasing number of facilitators are studying complexity theory and amending their roles and their approaches to this vital work (which is mostly in the public, NGO, and NPO sectors, and mostly unrecognized and under-appreciated), supporting and encouraging the use of complex (emergent) techniques instead of complicated (analytical) ones.

When complex predicaments are left unaddressed for long periods of time, they can sometimes worsen into chaotic predicaments (like the horrific challenge of homelessness in Haiti). Chaotic predicaments have the same characteristics as complex predicaments, with the additional attribute of massive turbulence, to the point that change and crisis are occurring so rapidly or continuously that any type of coordinated, rational response becomes impossible. Any complex system can become a chaotic one during a period of protracted war, hyperinflation, depression, extreme endemic scarcity or other situation where panic or other irrational behaviour prevails. There is no consensus on how best to cope with chaos, or even if an effective approach in such situations is possible; spontaneous approaches, moment to moment, seem to be the main option.

The hopelessness and desperation that often prevails in chaotic situations often produce a power vacuum that can allow charismatic and despotic leaders to take control; the struggling nations of the world are replete with stories of this happening, and there is a danger that, as we in affluent nations face multiple crises in the decades ahead, we too could see the emergence of chaos and fall victim to the false and simplistic promises of fools and tyrants. The best insurance against this, I believe, is to tackle these predicaments while they are complex, using approaches and processes with attributes like the ones I have suggested above, before they become chaotic.

.     .     .     .     .

So that’s my introduction to complexity theory. There’s much more to it, of course, but I’ve tried to focus on what I see as the key issues of (i) differentiating complex from complicated systems and situations, and (ii) laying out the attributes of effective approaches and processes for addressing complex predicaments. Let me know if you think I succeeded.

Read the original post on Dave's blog, How to Save the World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Ten Important Questions

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

These are the questions I’m asking myself these days, trying to come to grips with why, now that my life is idyllic, now that I have the time and opportunity to do anything I want, I’m sitting here, doing nothing, my hands turned up, feeling fearful, disconnected, directionless.

These are no-escape questions: No closed-ended “yes or no” questions. No hypothetical “if’s” that I can safely answer knowing that the “if” is just a fiction (”What if I had only 37 days to live?”) and no “why’s”, the answers to which are probably just excuses.

I’ve answered these questions for myself, but my answers aren’t the point of posting these questions. Probably best we all keep our answers to these questions to ourselves anyway: Private answers are likely to be more honest.

So here are the questions:

1. Who am I, really? Behind the veneer, behind the ego, beneath the roles that I play, behind who I pretend to be, who I think I want to be — who am I? What’s my sense of myself? Not what I do, or what I think or believe, or what adjectives I apply to myself, or what I associate myself with (vegan, poly, radical, naturalist). What really motivates me, what frightens me, what drives me to do what I do, what stresses me and stops me from acting, what am I really good at and not good at? How do I really feel about myself? What are the stories I continue to tell myself even though all stories are fiction? What am I addicted to, without judgement as to whether that addiction is good or bad (sugar, sexual fantasy, TV, shopping, “stuff” and the work of taking care of that “stuff”, escapist music/movies, love, comfortable escapist job, the approval and attention and appreciation of others, etc.)?
2. What do I really care about? Not what I think I should care about. What keeps me awake at night, including things that scare me and things I’m ambivalent about what, if anything, I could do to make things better (factory farms, climate change, poverty, war)? What do I really want to do before I die, even things I lack the courage to try (hang gliding, to sense what it would feel like to fly like a bird)?
3. What am I really accomplishing? Viewed from the perspective of someone else looking objectively at my actions, is what I am doing important, purposeful, achieving anything enduring, aligned with what I want to do, with who I am? What, of the things I’m doing, follow Pollard’s Law (We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun.)?
4. Of the things I do now, what could I stop doing? Do I know what I have to keep doing, and what I could let go? How much of what I do is just because I’m caught up in routine, or living up to others’ expectations?
5. What could I live comfortably without? How much of what I do is to acquire, or keep, stuff I don’t really need? Why am I so afraid to let that stuff go?
6. What does the world need from me now? Not stuff that I want to give that the world doesn’t really need or want. Not stuff I don’t want to give, or don’t think I’m competent or ready to give.
7. What’s holding me back? I’m not who I think I want to be, and I’m not doing what I think I want to do. But things, I’ve learned, are the way they are for a good reason. What’s the good reason I am who I am, and the good reason I’m doing what I’m doing (and not doing what I’m not doing)?
8. What’s really holding me back? This is the Byron Katie twist on question 7 (or for that matter, any of these questions.) Do I really know that what I said in my response to question 7 is true? What if it weren’t?
9. What one simple thing could I do, in the next 24 hours, that would just get me started towards learning or doing something I always wanted to learn or do?
10. What would it take for me to accept myself as I really am? How can I accept myself without needing affirmation from others that that’s OK?

Answering these questions was a pretty sobering experience for me. In some cases I don’t yet have very good, or clear, answers. I’m going to try to draw a self-portrait that shows me as I portrayed myself in my answer to question 1. Should be interesting.

And I’ve put my answer to question 2 on my laptop, alongside my Six Principles, to look at whenever I decide, as I do often these days, what to do next, and how to go about it.

And beneath them, I’ve written question 8.

Read the original article on How To Save the World, Dave's blog.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.