What You Can Do: A Framework for Personal Action (version 0.9)

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What You Can Do 2009
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It’s been a couple of years since I tried to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of many of my readers: “What can I do?” in light of all the suffering in this world, and the looming collapse, some time in this century, of our unsustainable, teetering civilization. Past versions of What You Can Do have been mostly checklists, and I thought this time I’d try to provide a model, a process that each individual can tailor to her or his own capacities, abilities and passions. It’s illustrated above, and it’s fairly ambitious, but I think it makes sense. It draws heavily on the work of Joanna Macy I wrote about last week (and I hope to attend one of her workshops later this year). It also draws on the work of Richard Moss, Otto Scharmer, and my book Finding the Sweet Spot.

Here’s a walkthrough of the process, which to some extent I’ve applied in my own life. I won’t pretend I did any of this in this order, or with this much focus or rigour, but if I knew then what I know now perhaps I would have. Here we go.

STEP 1: APPRECIATE

If you’re going to start on this journey, you need to be positive, “yes…and” affirmative, grateful, self-accepting, and appreciative of the astonishing joys of living. As long as you’re negative, always working against The Man, you will find that as soon as your energy is fed by anger, it is exhausted by frustration and despair.

Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons explain it this way: This work, as important as it is, depends on us being true to ourselves, self-appreciative, giving ourselves permission to take risks, learning to accept compliments, “smelling fear and heading straight for it”, and managing our own and others’ expectations. We have to balance idealism and realism, perseverance and pragmatism, masculine aggressiveness and feminine perceptiveness and resilience. We must see that the glass is half full and half empty. We have to get past the internalized oppression that we carry inside us, the fear of saying and talking about what we most care about, even though doing so makes us vulnerable and may expose us to disbelief and even ridicule.

Tom Robbins lives by the principle of “crazy wisdom”: “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything.”

Joanna Macy describes gratitude as a revolutionary act — it contradicts the relentless message of the industrial growth society that we, and what we have, are never enough, so we are made to be perpetually dissatisfied. Gratitude breaks this hold on us, showing us that we are sufficient, and hence liberates us from industrial growth society’s propaganda, mindset and entrenched behaviours.

Your journey will be a long and challenging one, and for you to usefully complete it, it must be rooted in indefatigable appreciation, gratitude and joy. Are you ready for this?

STEP 2: BE PRESENT

You’re going to have to bring all your attention to this journey, all your focus. Changing the world in any meaningful way doesn’t lend itself to multitasking, distraction, or living inside your head, or in your dreams.

Richard Moss argues that most of us envisage ourselves through the stories we tell ourselves, about our past, our future, about ourselves and others and the world, and that these stories and the emotions they evoke (fear, hope, guilt, regret, nostalgia, insecurity, self-importance, self-hatred, anger, jealousy and bitterness) are a mere shadow world, an invention of our minds, that keeps us from being in and living in the Now.

David Abram shows us how to rediscover the spell of the sensuous, and hence how to reconnect with our instincts, emotions, senses and all-life-on-Earth, by spending time in wild places, and paying attention. Once reconnected, we come to know, intuitively and viscerally, with our heart and body and senses, not just our head, what needs to be done. Time disappears, we remember who we really are, freed from the stories and all the gunk that’s been attached to us. And we can then bring that attention and presence to everything we do, and we’re going to need it!

We are Gaia.

STEP 3: LET YOUR HEART BE BROKEN

When we are disconnected from our feelings, our senses, and our instincts, and live in our heads, we act (intellectually) as if everything is all right, while we know (emotionally, viscerally) that something is terribly wrong. It is as if there are two highly dissonant people inside us: an active one that goes about our daily work, engaging in normal relationships; and a passive one that suffers silently from a profound, unnamed and unexpressed grief and a deep but unexplored sense of anxiety.

Richard Bruce Anderson describes the process of working through this disconnection: “At the heart of the modern age is a core of grief. At some level, we’re aware that something terrible is happening, that we humans are laying waste to our natural inheritance. A great sorrow arises as we witness the changes in the atmosphere, the waste of resources and the consequent pollution, the ongoing deforestation and destruction of fisheries, the rapidly spreading deserts and the mass extinction of species. All these changes signal a turning point in human history, and the outlook is not particularly bright. The anger, irritability, frustration and intolerance that increasingly pervade our common life are symptoms associated with grief… Grief is a natural reaction to calamity, and the stages of grief are visible in our reaction to the rapid decline of the natural world. There are a number of steps that people go through in the grief process. The first stage is often denial: ‘This can’t really be happening,’ a feeling common among millions of Americans… We know the facts, but we’re ignoring them in the interests of emotional survival.” When we acknowledge this pain we can begin to move forward through the remaining stages of grief — anger, despair, and finally “a peaceful accommodation of reality.”

Nick Smith explains: “Here’s an alternative to [endless] effort and struggle:  Instead of living in hope of a better life or anyone coming to make it feel better, we can elect to allow everything to be exactly as it is… and then welcome whatever angst or despair or other form of fear appears, so that we can really face it.  Instead of following the mind’s need to move, we can choose to sit still in the middle of it all and allow it, consume it, regardless of the consequences.  This can feel like death itself, but by letting our heart be broken like this, what we discover in the rubble can never be lost.  What flows free from an heart that’s been broken open is an unimaginable love that could never be put back, and which envelops everything.”

Joanna Macy explains that the pain we feel for the world (what I have described as “our unbearable grief for Gaia”) is universal; we all sense it, and that this pain is unprecedented; never since the start of our civilization have we faced the possibility of the end of our society and a massive life extinction event. We tend to block or repress this pain, for fear it will deeply depress or paralyze us (or be socially unacceptable to express); the consequence is that we end up suppressing our instinct for the preservation of life. We need to reframe the “silent scream” of these emotions as our deep capacity to hear within ourselves the sound of the Earth crying, and hence as a feeling of deep, instinctive compassion in which we “suffer with” all-life-on-Earth. When we let our hearts be broken, she explains, the grief and sorrow we feel for the world is transformed into love, the fear and dread is transformed into courage and trust, the anger and outrage finds expression as passion for justice, and the feelings of ignorance and helplessness yield to glimpses of opportunity.

Show the world your broken heart.

STEP 4: UNDERSTAND HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS

Our world (like all ecological and social systems) is inherently, staggeringly and wonderfully complex, but everything we are taught about the world and how it works (in schools, and in the mainstream media) is reduced to simplistic, mechanistic terms. We continue to believe that “the environment” (something that is portrayed as somehow apart from us) is just facing “problems” that need “solutions” (political, economic, scientific, technological, or spiritual). In complicated systems (like your car), “problems” can be fixed. But in complex systems there are no problems, only predicaments, unintended consequences of actions that cannot be undone. Nature teaches us (if we will only listen) that you don’t fix a predicament, you adapt to it. The reason so many of our modern crises are so wicked and intractable is that they are not problems, but predicaments, unintended consequences of (mostly) well-intended human actions. To understand how the world really works, and how we can start to learn to adapt to our modern predicaments, we need to understand complexity.

With that context, of adaptation rather than futilely chasing “solutions”, my blog and my Save the World reading list can help you understand how the world really works. If that’s too much reading for you, at least read these seven books, in this order:

  1. Full House, by Stephen J. Gould. The improbable emergence of humans on Earth.
  2. Story of B, by Daniel Quinn. A radical revisionist history of civilization, in fictional format, and an explanation of how we got to where we are now.
  3. A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen. A dark explanation of the reason for the core of grief at the heart of the modern age.
  4. A Short History of Progess, by Ronald Wright. Why all civilizations collapse. A survey of past civilizations’ savagery and short-term thinking. Jared Diamond but shorter.
  5. Against the Grain, by Richard Manning. Why Jared Diamond said monoculture agriculture was the greatest mistake in human history, and what it’s come to now.
  6. Straw Dogs, by John Gray. While we have a responsibility to try to make the world better and joyful, for those we love and leave behind, we cannot be other than what we are: a fierce, brilliantly adaptable species destined to bring out the next great extinction, and annihilate ourselves in the process.
  7. The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler. What the near future will look like when this century’s looming ecological, economic, political and resource crises begin to cascade.

You should also study and meet with people from indigenous cultures, to appreciate there are many ways to live that are different from (and arguably superior to) the ways of living that our industrial growth society would have us believe is the only way to live. A great primer on this is Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden, a personal study of several indigenous cultures around the world.

Now you know what really happened, and what’s really happening. Cycle back to steps 1-3, take a deep breath, and fare forward.

STEP 5: KNOW YOURSELF; DISCOVER THE COURAGE TO ACT

At this point you should be reconnected with your heart, your instincts, your senses, and all-life-on-Earth, and prepared to bring appreciation, presence and openness to the work you will be doing. And you should have a reasonable idea of what needs to be done. The next step is to connect with yourself, to learn what you are meant to do, what your role in making the world a better place should be. My book Finding the Sweet Spot describes how to do this in the specific context of making a living. But the same principles and approach can also help you learn what you are meant to do in the broader context. This involves self-exploration to discover (a) your Gifts (what you are uniquely good at doing), your Passions (what you love doing), and your Purpose (what is needed in the world that you care about, and which resonates with who you are). Where these three things intersect lies what you are meant to do.

David Robinson describes a method for discovering these three things:

  • Practice (doing what you can) is the means to discover your Gifts, what you have the capacity and competency to do.
  • Intention (doing what you want) is the means to discover your Passions, what you love doing. 
  • Autonomy (being nobody-but-yourself, in spite of everything) is the means to discover who you really are, and hence discover your Purpose.

The only way to know, he suggests, is to do. Until you try things, you can’t know if they are your Gifts, or your Passions, or your Purpose. My book has lots of exercises for finding this intersection, what you’re meant to do.

Through self-knowledge comes the courage to act. When you know what you’re meant to do, that’s a huge step towards doing it. When this is who you really are, what you want, and what you can do, how can you not do it? There is still, of course, the fear of change, which is mostly the fear of the unknown. These first five steps are the reconnecting cycle; the last four are the actions, which you will take in collaboration with others to realize what you’re meant to do. As you go through these four steps and determine precisely what actions you’re meant to pursue, some of the fear of change and of the unknown will dissipate. When you’re ready to act, you’ll know.

These first five steps are a cycle, or as Joanna Macy describes them a spiral. They’re never done and forgotten. They’re a continuous process, a set of practices to keep you reconnected.

The final four steps are a balance, a set of actions you do more or less together, because each informs and enriches the others and keeps you from being ‘stuck’ in one type of action.

STEP 6: BUILD PERSONAL AND COLLECTIVE CAPACITY AND COMPETENCY

These are the ‘head’ actions, the ones rooted mostly in intellectual (thinking and learning) activity. Knowing who you are, and what you know and need to know, will direct and inform these types of actions, at the personal level. You may conclude that some of the things you believe to be in your sweet spot are not currently Gifts (distinctive competencies) of yours, or you may be lacking the capacity to do them, so you’ll need to open space and time, and study and practice, until they are.

At the collective level, you will need to connect, communicate, share, teach and show what you know with others in your community. You will also need to collaborate with others in your communities to develop collective capacities and competencies. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to have these qualities, just that someone in each community needs to have them, and others in the community need to recognize and draw on them. This is done as part of a collaborative process that, at a high level, follows this flow:

  1. Passion: Individual reflection on the subject at hand. 
  2. Conversation: Collective reflection, through a collective engagement of the collaborators.
  3. Consensus: Collective decision, though the understanding that emerged from the conversations.
  4. Action: Individual decision, through the acceptance of personal responsibility by individuals.

This process of “letting go” of personal perspectives and “letting come” of consensus is an application of Otto Scharmer’s ‘theory U‘. The acceptance of personal responsibility by individuals is part of Chris Corrigan’s teachings of Open Space and the collaborative processes of indigenous cultures.

STEP 7: DISMANTLE CIVILIZATION

These are the ‘hands’ actions, the ones rooted mostly in physical activity. This is the hard, thankless work of blockading, obstructing, boycotting and otherwise preventing the unsustainable industrial growth society from functioning. It will collapse under its own weight, given time, but we cannot wait: by acting to undermine it now we can lessen its damage and shorten its longevity, so that the collapse, though still devastating, will be less disastrous than if we allowed industrial civilization to pollute and enhaust resources to the bitter end.

Of course there are also many personal actions you can and must take to live simpler, more responsible and sustainable lives. They are not enough, however; much more radical action is needed.

Keith Farnish’s book Time’s Up! provides a blueprint for achieving this type of radical action effectively and safely (Derrick Jensen’s recent books also provide some excellent ideas). Here is Keith’s key message:

A Simple Message for Mankind

Human activity is destroying the natural systems that we depend upon for our survival. Our most basic instinct as humans is to survive; yet we continue to destroy our life-support machine. Connected humans understand this terrible contradiction; disconnected humans are not able to.

Not all humans are responsible: just those who are part of Industrial Civilization. Industrial Civilization depends on economic growth and the unsustainable use of natural resources, so it has developed a complex set of tools for keeping people disconnected from the real world and living a life that keeps civilization running. Humans have been manipulated in order to be part of a destructive system.

The only way to prevent global ecological collapse and thus ensure the survival of humanity is to rid the world of Industrial Civilization.

Civilization is complex and delicate: it depends on everything running smoothly and also depends upon people having faith in its goodness. Global ecological systems are changing in unpredictable and major ways; natural resources are running out rapidly; the population is growing, particularly the population of urban areas; there is considerable political and civil unrest developing throughout the world: any combination of these factors are likely to lead to a sudden and catastrophic collapse of civilization during the 21st century.

It is possible to create a situation where civilization is left to crumble gradually, reducing the impact on humanity, and the sooner this is done, the less the global environment will be harmed. The key things we need to do are:

  1. Reconnect with the real world, so that we can understand our close relationships with it in everything we do. The more you connect, the more you will realise how unreal civilization is.
  2. Live in such a way that we do not contribute to the expansion of the global economy, reducing our impact on the natural environment in the process. Be aware that authority figures within the system, such as political leaders and corporations, will attempt to provide you with ‘green’ advice: this advice is designed to ensure that civilization continues, and should be ignored.
  3. Create the conditions so that others may also change through education and, even more importantly, undermining the tools that civilization uses to keep us part of the machine. Don’t waste time protesting: this changes nothing – that is why it is legal.

A future outside of civilization is a better life; one in which we can actually decide for ourselves how we are going to live.

STEP 8: CREATE NEW, NATURAL STRUCTURES AND MODELS

These are the ‘heart’ actions, the ones rooted mostly in creative activity. The most notable right now are the Transition Network, Permaculture, Unschooling, and Intentional Communities movements. Each proposes a radically new way to live, and models this behaviour through real-world activities, networks and communities. There are some who hope and believe that such models will serve, eventually, to render those of the industrial growth society obsolete and cause them to crumble. There are others who believe that these new models will only scale and flourish once industrial civilization has collapsed. Regardless of which you believe, these natural, alternative models are the future, and the more work done to make them more resilient, adaptable and diverse, the better our chances of mitigating the suffering that will come with the collapse of industrial civilization, and providing options for new beginnings once that occurs.

Find the type of structure, network, model or community that works for you, that fits with what you’re meant to do. Whether it’s alternative energy, art, or social media, be creative, and find other people who share your vision and purpose to collaborate with in model-building.
.     .     .     .     .

It is important that we each participate in all three (step 6, 7 and 8) activities. Each informs and enriches the others. Do only the first (step 6) and you’ll be stuck in abstraction, never ‘realizing’ anything. Do only the second (step 7) and you’ll be depressed and angry and subject to quick burn-out. Do only the third (step 8) and you’ll be isolated and stuck in small-scale activities, invisible to those doing work in other areas. Just as you should eat a balanced diet, your actions as a responsible citizen of Earth should likewise be balanced. And all of these actions should be collaborative. The cowboy culture is dead… this is the time for collaboration culture.

STEP 9: BE A MODEL; BE (NOBODY-BUT-)YOURSELF

There’s one kind of model that doesn’t fit in step 8, and that’s the model of you. By modeling all the things you have learned in this process: appreciation, presence, openness, knowledge of how things work, self-knowledge, courage, unique capacities and competencies, radical activism, responsibility and creativity — you show others who may be ready to take action themselves the way. That’s far more powerful and effective than writing or teaching. Don’t tell, show.

At the same time this journey, this work, cannot be that of self-sacrifice. The movement to make the world a better place needs its workers to be healthy, whole and energized for the long haul. So it’s important to create time and space for you. In step 5 you identified, among other things, your Passions. Some of those Passions won’t be in your step 5 sweet spot — never mind, slot them into step 9, and create time and space for them. It’s a long journey, and you need to allow for recreation and re-charging.

You must remain faithful to yourself, or this work will consume you. Remember to be authentic, and to love yourself. We need you healthy and happy. And to be, as ee cummings said, nobody-but-yourself:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy, but it isn’t. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being
can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Feel and work and fight till you die. That’s what this work is about.

.     .     .     .     .

Whew! I told you this was ambitious. This framework will continue to evolve as I apply it and as others contribute to it. I welcome your comments. The idea, again, is that instead of prescribing a checklist of ‘save the world’ activities for people to do, to provide instead a framework/model that will allow each individual who is ready to do this important work to devise their own personal plan of reconnection and action.

Thanks to all the contributors to this model, especially Joanna Macy whose Work That Reconnects models are the backbone and inspiration for much of what I’ve outlined above.

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4 Responses to What You Can Do: A Framework for Personal Action (version 0.9)

  1. It’s going to take some time for me to absorb all this, but thank you for providing such an easy to understand blueprint. For step 6, a link to Seeds for Change is worthwhile, they provide great training (very cheaply) along with lots of info about consensus decision manking and other techniques. http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk

  2. Pete Dignan says:

    Dave – you are doing a bunch of heavy lifting for many of us who are waking up to the same understanding. Thank you – please keep it up.

  3. vera says:

    Admirable summation, Dave.We are getting closer, aren’t we…. :-)

  4. Jeff Aitken says:

    you make a remarkably tasty tea from potent sources old & new

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