The last two days in Ithaca at the (extraordinarily well organized — thanks Sarah & Emily!) Net Impact seminar were an eye-opener for me. On the one hand, I really got the sense that the largely-young crowd of 2400 attendees was pretty naive about how much of an impact their actions will and can have on the social and environmental behaviours and actions of the corporations they work for (or hope to work for — most are still students and few of them have entrepreneurial aspirations). The sponsors of the event, after all, included ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, GE, WalMart, Coca-Cola, P&G — a rogues gallery of corporate malfeasance and greenwashing if there ever was one. The best hope, I think, is that they will flood into the government and public sector jobs that the stimulus programs have (we hope) opened up, and that those jobs will last long enough and be effective enough to produce some real change — not in regulations as much as in government-funded NPO programs — social service, health, information and education programs. Making life a little better in their communities for a few people, for now.
On the other hand, I felt embarrassed that I was so jaundiced about what they were doing, yet at the same time I could not really be bothered to debate with them, to explain why this “try to change these organizations from within” effort was at best futile and at worst a dangerous distraction from the work we need to do to prepare now for economic, energy, environmental and, finally, civilizational collapse. Everything I know and have learned suggests we’re long past the point of solving these problems or even significantly mitigating them, and that it’s time to focus on transition and adaptation. But these young idealists, with few exceptions, are technophiles (believers that technology, ingenuity and innovation can address the coming crises), unwavering believers in the political and economic system (they mostly think that Obama has a plan for all this, and he just needs more time), and most seem unaware of even what the Long Emergency, peak oil, the growing debt crisis, the transition movement and permaculture are all about.
So to some extent it was like spending two days speaking a foreign language. These energetic believers’ whole worldview is so different from mine that what I say to them, without the benefit of the context that, for example, my Save the World Reading List provides, makes absolutely no sense to them. It sounds crazy to them. And I’ve been so immersed in conversations with people who really have come to understand what is happening to our world, and what needs to be done, now, that when I encounter this sea of incredulity I am startled, exasperated, and dismayed.
Daniel Quinn has said (in Beyond Civilization):
People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.
Well, these young people are open to something new, but not to the message I have for them. They do want to argue with me, and they are willing to listen. The problem is me. I have neither the patience nor the energy to provide them with an ocean of information, reading and rhetoric to get them to understand what, at this point, they find unfathomable, and would probably find unbearable even if they did appreciate it.
So what’s the point? Invest hundreds of hours in order to show a few people how they’ve been misinformed and propagandized and deceived and unexposed to the terrible truth of our civilization’s cost, its unsustainability and inevitable and ghastly demise? So they can be depressed and paralyzed, as I was when I first began to come to grip with this knowledge? What will that gain us?
I don’t think it’s possble to provide a seminar or short conference that would allow the audience to learn everything they would need to overcome their acceptance of the prevailing orthodoxy of thought. I’m not sure even a whole course or university program would suffice. In addition to being exposed to a lot of new and challenging information, people need time to digest it, and, more importantly, to discuss it with others.
Joanna Macy runs a program that focuses instead on reconnecting with Gaia, with one’s emotions and instincts, and letting one’s heart be broken and opening oneself up, with others, to an awareness of the grief for all-life-on-Earth that we all feel, must feel, if we do begin to reconnect. This is the basis for the 9-step “What You Can Do” program that I have been writing about, which is illustrated above.
Likewise, Derrick Jensen suggests (in A Language Older Than Words) that we listen to the land, and in time it will tell us just what we need to do.
I am trying to believe this, but I’m not sure I do. As Quinn says, you need to be ready to listen, to reconnect. Although I don’t much like the analogy, it’s a lot like being ready for a religious conversion. I understand that most people are indoctrinated into their religious beliefs from a very early age, but many still need some event to trigger a true realization of that belief. And others who come to religion later in their lives do so because they’re ready — some combination of events and support from other believers is sufficient to take them past a tipping point, and bring about a major worldview change. A heavy dose of propaganda needs to be applied at just the right time, by more than one person, in the context of the convert’s own community and situation. This is not easy stuff.
Organized religions do this very effectively. They provide the tools for evangelism, and the infrastructure to keep the flock in the fold. Whereas some of them are con-men and criminals, others are generous and sincere. Gladwell has described the “cellular” organization that enables many evangelical churches to convert and retain members, using a bottom-up outreach and support process coordinated by a top-down hierarchy that supplies the tools of conversion and retention.
Perhaps the Transition movement and the Permaculture movement, both community-based networks, are the analogue of the local cells of religious groups. Perhaps these are the networks that we can use, instead of debates, conferences and books, to do the same thing to organize those who are, as Quinn and Jensen say, ready to listen, to reconnect, and to start to do the much more radical work that will be needed to:
Yet I’m troubled by this. If we create cellular networks to organize the work of reconnection, learning, action and creation needed to enable a better world, could these not easily become, as so many religious networks are, vehicles for indoctrination and exploitation? Will we end up with sects who think that better world can and should be built now, in the shadow of our teetering civilization, and others who think we should focus on undermining existing civilization and that nothing very useful can be accomplished until that work is done? I can see myself agreeing with both viewpoints.
I am at heart not a political person. I don’t like to debate (so Quinn’s words naturally appeal to me). When I speak with climate scientists they tell me that they don’t dare say what they really think is happening to our world, and that they don’t dare share their extreme pessimism about whether it can be “fixed”, for fear that politicians and others will just stop listening to them (“we don’t want to know, then”). So we’ve reached the stage where the people who really know are now afraid to say what they know. And so many of us who see evidence all around us that something is very wrong keep quiet, keep doing what they’re doing, and conclude, uncomfortably, it must be “just them” that feels this way.
I kind of expect that, faced with evidence, most people will come around (eventually, and almost assuredly too late) to believe what I believe, and that they will then be ready to listen and to “get with the program” that my graphic above illustrates, or some program like it. In that I am, I think, an optimist — I believe that in our hearts we all want to do the right thing, for everyone.
But I don’t know. We are who we are and, learning and programs and propaganda notwithstanding, we will do what we will do. As Pollard’s Law states, we do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. We will “get with the program” only reluctantly, because we don’t like change, and this program will never be easy, or fun. Most of us will only begin when there is absolutely no doubt left that our existing civilization is doomed.
No wonder most people don’t want to know, and are so willing to believe that the system doesn’t need to change, that we can continue to grow forever, that we can change the system from within, or that technology or ingenuity or the Rapture will save us, in time.
I’m not one to argue with them.
Although I know they are mistaken.
Category: Our Culture