An Existential Approach to Bringing About Change


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)

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32 Responses to An Existential Approach to Bringing About Change

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  2. Colin Bell says:

    Dave, thank you for another very thoughtful and stimulating post. There’s some very interesting parallels between what you’re looking at and my work, which focuses on how the Christian church can/should get involved in sustainability.

    Your existential approach, in particular based on “our feelings of connection and belonging to something greater than all of us” is almost exactly what being a Christian _ought_ to be. I’ll be the first to admit that this has often been heavily obscured by the way the Church has operated in practice. As you say, it’s hard, and like other idealistic groups, the Church has retreated to easier places, and being a Christian is too often what you _do_ rather than who you _are_ – at least in the Western world today. (Rereading this I realise you and I have different views on what “idealistic” means – or at least I certainly wouldn’t put it at the same point on the diagram as you have. But that’s a different debate.)

    However, it is what we are called to: ultimately the Christian life is about “being Christ in the world”, which amounts to asking the question about what makes a good life in the same way you suggest. For us there are some parameters- we’re not starting with a completely blank slate as you seem to be – but hopefully they’re ones you’d consider helpful: a desire to live a moral and thoughtful life, love for one another (humans), the necessity for community and relationship, the necessity for growth as human beings, and care and responsibility for the planet (plus others, probably).

    I’ll let you come back at me on that if you’re interested, but if these parallels work, then what comes out of it in Christian thinking should probably be helpful to your argument. I reckon it broadly supports your “unschooling”-type approach although I want to think more through how Christian ideas of growth relate to it and the general “how do we educate” debate.

    However, it suggests a couple of correctives elsewhere – which I think can also be justified by other means. Firstly, there can never be complete certainty about who we are, how the world works or what we should do about it. (In Christian thinking God knows, of course, but he only reveals part of the answer to us.) Secondly, you learn and grow in your being by doing. So I don’t think your model of coming together only when we’re ready, _then_ working out all the answers, _then_ enacting them really works. We’ll never be completely ready, and even if we were, we couldn’t find all the answers. Instead, we need to combine the three processes, having a willingness to move to a more existential approach but not be there yet, a willingness to seek answers, and a willingness to do what won’t necessarily be obvious, but will be our best guess to date (and almost certainly better than what we’ve have done otherwise). The three will then build each other up in a positive feedback loop.

    Hope this is helpful.

  3. Arch says:

    Well thought out, and well written. – I would enjoy attending a meeting/forum on SL where you present these thoughts, allowing time for potential attendees to review them before time.

    I know in reading this, it summarizes much of the thinking I have approached in the last year of participating in the meeting opportunities in philosophy, meditation, transhumanism, and dreaming in SL. However, you have done a yeoman’s job of composing a tome that presents and helps to solidify my own thinking.


  4. John B says:

    This was a very thought provoking article. I was intrigued by the underlying question that you are asking which is: “How do we get society to transition to a better way of living?”

    I believe the only practical method is to craft viral questions or viral discussion topics. When we consider the rapidity of change that has been and is currently shown when a new electronic appliance, or service such as Google, Wikipedia or Facebook is adopted and mastered without benefit of any formal education process or government program we see the possibilities.

    When we start discussing these questions rather than just trying to preach to others we have as much to learn as we do to teach. You have asked some of these such as “What does it mean to live a good life?”, “What does it mean to be human?”, “What does it mean to be useful?”. These should not be questions but each should be the start to a long and meaningful discussion and self reflection.

    Other discussions might be:
    What makes you truly happy, not just temporarily thrilled?
    What would you do if you did not work anymore?
    What are the most important things in your life and why?
    How can we maintain the environment and have what we need?
    What things do we really need to live a good life?
    Does the world have the right number of people?

    Some questions or discussions will quickly die due to lack of interest but others may go viral and start mass discussion and change just like we have seen with the current electronic and communication revolutions.

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  6. Hun Tun says:

    I respectfully disagree with you, John B. I think the type of existential approach called for in this blog post requires a degree of depth and comprehensiveness that is simply lacking in the kind of electronic culture in which “viral” memes propagate.

    In fact, I would go further and say that the kind of fast paced, instant connectivity of “wired” services like Facebook and Wikipedia is not only ill suited to this kind of existential questioning, but that it also stifles the holistic listening that is the foundation of all true existentialism. I suspect that part of the reason why an existential approach hasn’t been tried is that in today’s world most people do not have the “bandwidth” or the attention span to attempt it. When Derrick Jensen asks us to listen to the land, I don’t think this can be done over twitter or facebook. It should be done with all the screens switched off, preferably outside…

  7. norberto rodriguez says:

    hi Dave, very interesting approach. Thanks !

    You know, I have also followed the Transition movement from its very beginning. I have also read Donella’s writings for a long time (what a great loss for the world was her passing). I tried to start a transition movement in my community with no much luck, and I have been looking for the flaws in that approach. I am afraid the issue is not with the transition approach nor with any other “change” approach.

    I wonder if one of the key reasons is that, overall, we all are afraid of change, even if life is a continuous change, we don’t like to think that we “need to change” because of specific reason. We usually are bad for being proactive and prefer to wait until there is a crisis and there is no other alternative but change.

    It seems to me that many people in our communities are tired, overwhelmed or burned out from the current situation in the world and our small communities. I wonder if the root-causes of this is anger, hate, anxiety, fear, apathy, uncertainty, delusional thinking.

    Now, back to your article, I like your “existential” approach and your conclusion is very interesting because it may go along with one of mine, which is based on the Buddhist principle of impermanence. Let me explain.

    As far as I understand it, impermanence means that any community will eventually come to an end. No matter what, all of us will not be around in a few more years. Perhaps, when we accept this fact, we will not react with anger, denial, and despair anymore. This acceptance may bring us “inner peace”, and if each one of us can find this peace, our communities may accept the idea of change and we may have a chance to start working together towards common goals and objectives. And this point goes also along with the idea of resilience, since the fundamental notion behind resilience is that life is a continuous change. Resilience is not about staying the same, nor it is about preventing change. It is about increasing our capacity to change so we can bounce back after the change. In other words to make the best of impermanence. And this means we will accept reality and we may accept change.

    So, I wonder if by taking your existential approach we may be able to understand impermanence, get rid of all our fears, anger, uncertainties and be able to answer your crucial question: what does it mean to live a good life?

    just an idea, thanks again

  8. Dan says:

    As a practical, technically-minded peak oil person, I can say the Transition Movement already felt pretty touchy-feely when I first met them, but I have been trying to get more in touch with my creative side.

    If you want to know about people and groups in the Existential quadrant, look up Joanna Macy, the Evolver Movement ( and the Pachamama Alliance ( They haven’t grown into mass movements yet either, but the Burning Man crowd comes close.

  9. John Kintree says:

    One reason why movements such as Transition Towns reach the stage of “But now what?” is because the system is freaking hard to change. The system being political power concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people. We can come up with a plan for dealing with peak oil and climate change, but do we have the political power to implement it?

    In the recent elections in the United States a number of candidates were elected who deny that global warming is even a problem. Why should those few people have so much power to block effective action to reduce CO2 emissions for an issue that is really global in scope, and affects every one of the nearly seven billion people on the planet? They can do this because this is the existing structure of power.

    Another question that can be asked is, “How do we respond, and what will it mean when practically all of humanity has access to the Internet? From a purely material, technical perspective, it could happen by early 2012. From a political perspective, it will take longer than that.

    Existentially speaking, when it does happen, we may go beyond the question of, “How do I, as an individual, create meaning in my life?” to “How do I, as part of a global collective, participate in creating meaning for the whole? The whole is experienced through satellite images, video recordings from every part of the planet, and collaborative writings such as Wikipedia articles, in addition to quiet moments when we walk away from the technology and contemplate the land.

    Change is upon us. One way of another, we will create meaning through this Internet-connected entity of us. The structure of power is about to change, too. Good.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    [Wow, some deep and well-thought-out comments here — thank you! I’m going to ponder what everyone’s said before responding, but in the meantime here’s another reader’s comments, sent to me by e-mail (and reproduced here with her permission): ]



    You’ve stumbled onto something here that has real gravitas. I have a Master’s in organizational management from Fielding Graduate University, which is one of the pioneers in teaching change management, so I’ve seen LOTS of models but none as intriguing as this one. I also have a permaculture design certificate so I’ve seen those other models too.

    With this background I recognize the wisdom in your model and I’m going to challenge you a little bit here to expand on it because your model neatly encompasses something that has bothered me for years now about all of the movements involved in consciousness raising toward fundamental personal/societal change.

    Although you draw from unschooling, where, exactly do children fit in? I’m asking because in the community I live in, which is ground zero for a whole bunch of permaculture innovators, headquarters for the conscious evolution movement, spiritualists (all flavors), etc. You’d think my community was Esalen Institute with a population of 250,000. However, I have a three year-old and have been rather let down to discover that none of this wisdom trickles down into children’s educational/unschooling/whatever opportunities.

    So my only point here is that you’ve articulated a perspective that one could only gain from wisdom. My sense is that those who have wisdom should, by some existential or divine law, have to share it with the youngsters. This is the secret ingredient that I see missing from the movements that have any intelligence or authentic life force. In other words, what I’ve seen is that it’s all still dominated by the “me” generation or Baby Boomers who are (rightfully) earning money from their endeavors as teachers or consultants and don’t give away much of their time for free or have a way to reach youngsters. But maybe that’s just where I live.

    For example, in our local permaculture community there are many older extremely wise people who are of the “do-you-own-thing” generation and ignore the lack of wisdom or self-awareness in the 20 year-olds in the community who are still working out their family issues and inflicting their egos/problems on the group and stunting the group and/or turning people off. I don’t know why the older folks are reluctant to mentor or teach these youngsters. My concern, however, is less for this type of group, which you point out is largely ineffectual anyway as it generally doesn’t grow much beyond itself.

    What I’m more concerned about is the seeming lack of a formal orientation or social contract amongst the “conscious evolvers” in having a responsibility to the very very young children. Those who are very young right now are encountering patterns that are vestiges of a world that is already dead and that they will battle to either defend or evolve away from for the rest of their lives. This is where community really does matter. I have so many wise friends and they happen to be scattered all over the country, not here.

    I know there are people here who have much to offer but I don’t sense that our community elders are up for what I feel is missing. They seem to want their own version of a “salon” surrounded by those just like them rather than be in the trenches with the drooling diapered masses. Is this merely a problem of life stage differences? Or, I wonder if others feel this lack of a transmission of information and knowledge from generation to generation? To be clear: I’m not in any way abdicating or removing myself from performing this role but one parent can do only so much. Most parents I know are wage-earners. Those higher on Maslow’s Pyramid are needed to serve as role models for small children of what is possible.

    I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.

    Finally, I wrote an article that you might enjoy reading. Despite it’s pragmatic title it’s very existential and not boring: Stormwater Management as Adaptation to Climate Change. It was very influential with the USEPA and munipalities.

    Here’s the link:

    Best wishes,

    Laura Funkhouser

  11. David Wilcox says:

    Thanks Dave for those very valuable insights. I’m writing a lot about the UK Coalition Government Big Society idea, which is struggling, so this is very relevant.

    I wonder it is even more complex, and whether different approaches appeal to different personality types

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  13. Thanks for pulling together a range of understandings about what might be needed to allow the changes many of us see and sense are needed.

    One you might like to have a look at in the existential arena is I have been working with these teachers for 14 years, & I sense that this is a valuable addition to the existential pot.

    btw I’m guessing Chris Corrigan might be a friend? We are Open Space colleagues..

  14. In a couple of weeks or so I’m meeting with Transition folks from around the UK, to look at ‘training’… Your thinking and drawing out of the key needs is SO helpful – I’ll be taking it with me. Thank you again

  15. Hi Dave

    Great article. I’m pleased to have been quoted and will try to add something useful here.

    Some studies – plus my own experience – have shown that honest existential inquiry tends to have a ripple effect on others’ well being.

    Other factors (e.g. political coercion, inertia) may mean this change doesn’t always map to a commensurate change in business or political behavior – that is beyond an internal ripple effect. For many church and religious groups, that is fair enough – not everyone is interested in a flavor of “engaged ….ity/ism.” But transition by its nature is ecumenical, and its probable intent is to move from inquiry to political inclusion – for instance, joining or supporting transition/sustainability committees at the local govt level.

    If the salient character of transition people is existential enquiry, I think your point holds – the movement may work on a broader scale. At the least, it shouldn’t result in the typical leftist anger, despair, and ultimately, irresponsibility.

    The tricky thing to my mind is that existential inquiry in a group context can be exhausting – and often ineffective. Aloneness and connection have to be supported, and it’s hard to that in any context. Some old religious traditions do it well, most new religions or pseudo religions don’t. Maybe unschooling techniques can work. I’d be interested in exploring.

    At the very least, Transition could work on developing a cultural character that is reflective. How to get that, and avoid arriving at (Dans point) touchy feely love ins, or some other unexpected destination, is probably a matter of experiment. But if the culture is healthy, people may be equipped to move from inquiry to political inclusion – for instance, joining or supporting transition/sustainability committees at the local govt level.

  16. Thank you so much! I knew a little of her work, but not the 12 ways to change a system stuff. The thinking you are doing is just so fertile, really helping people think this stuff through. Best wishes to you,
    Dwight Towers

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  19. dN says:

    hey dave, thanks for another thoughtful post.

    you cannot believe that you’ve not made change in the fields you’ve spent most of your past energy. it is impossible to calculate the ripples of change you’ve sent forth. first of all, you’ve made monumental change simply within yourself. & secondly, i’m sure that you’ve posed questions to others that have made differences in their lives, if unbeknownst to them, & to you as well. these are two concepts that keep me on a path of change.

    though i understand that need to see change in society, great change, great change means quick change. therefore, a reaction will occur, shortly thereafter, or in the next generation. if i’ve learned anything from art & music studies, it is that with every movement, there is a reaction, not always a progressive one. we need to alter the fundamentals of our thinking towards the earth & one another. in this way, we will change for good. but the downfall of this, is that we will not live to see the transition. it may take too many generations for this to take place. too many, because our time here seems to be quite limited.

    it’s very difficult for the masses to change. it’s too hard for most individuals to change. unless, of course, there is a rally behind an atrocitiy that affects the masses, & draws a primal response from an otherwise apathetic crowd. this may sound a little patronizing, but it’s simply my observation. people can change. most people don’t seem to know that. that it is not so difficult to change once the benefit is apparent, but how do we make the benefits apparent? we need to pose questions, appeal to sense & reason, encourage critical thinking. it is also imperative to bear in mind that each of us is at a particular point of awareness. so i must ask, how do we bridge those gaps while not coming across to those at different points as naive or condenscending? how do we create the ‘right’ conditions, the atmosphere, where metamorphosis is inevitable? can we?

    i agree with your assessment on the knowledge base we all must acquire. i, myself, need to have a greater understanding of the workings of government & economics. i’m unsure where to begin there for 1) how to educate myself in those fields, & 2) i already have a full plate of learning before me.

    i’ll put it out there, i’m ready! i’m been trying to educate myself on the truths of life, the agendas that make politics, the hands-on knowledge of how to live off the land, the attributes of a thoughtful & compassionate individual, & the process of living here, now, & not in, or in reaction to, past dramas. we must come together now, not put off until there are enough people to make change. until my education parallels yours, or theirs mine. i think education is key for change, but it is not a necessary key to see that the world is in peril. many people see it. that awareness is all that is needed to come together.

    all we can do, is make the best decisions with the knowledge we have at the present moment, it is imperative that we constantly seek knowledge. & by knowledge, i’m not being exclusive to scientific fact, or historical names & dates, but the learning of ourselves, of compassion, of patience, of non-judgemental tolerance. we must make decisions. we must act. doing nothing is an act, but an act of disassociation from life, of disrespect for life. we must act whether we will live to regret it, or not (thanks Kierkegaard). we must admit mistakes made, & not hold ourselves in judgement. there is no day of judgement. this thinking is what has frozen our actions, &
    causes us to to place a void between us (who believe & behave) & them (misguided less-than-human souls who are wrong). we can not let go of what we have done if it’s written somewhere to be brought up against us to be rewarded or punished. we can not expect good behaviour because there is punishment. we can not reward good behaviour with bribery. good behaviour & a positive life are the rewards.

    we, as individuals on a daily basis, need to ensure that change becomes an integral part of our humanness, so that a tidal wave won’t wipe away our work. we must teach our children how to think, how to ask questions, what the world is & what it can be. ultimately, it will be up to them.

    i better stop there, i hope this doesn’t sound too much like ranting.

    “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ~ Count Leo Tolstoy

    “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” ~ Arnold Bennet


  20. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for this post, which was brought to my attention by the Chair of the Transition Network (the charity set up to support Transition initiatives around the world). It made me wonder whether you have read my book, The Transition Timeline, which was the second book from the movement?

    It tried to open up exactly the kind of existential conversations you are talking about, as well as recording some of the outputs from early conversations in this area as ‘cultural story changes’ built into our visioning work. Judging by the feedback I’ve had it hasn’t done too bad a job, but it clearly hasn’t shifted your perception of the way the movement has operated to date. I guess a book isn’t the ideal medium for the intriguing self-directed approach you suggest.. Which I think is a beautiful template to try out going forward :)

    All the best,

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  23. Don Dwiggins says:

    Hi, Dave,

    Glad to see you getting into Transition. It’s been a while since I’ve corresponded with you; in the meantime, I’ve become part of the initiating group of Transition San Fernando Valley, part of Transition Los Angeles. I’ve found your posts on this subject stimulating, as usual, and will forward them to the group. I think one of the challenges for a Transition group is to ensure a balance among the Head, Heart, and Hands facets. Most of us are oriented toward one or two of these, so it’s a stretch (in a good way) to try to keep them all in play.

    Here’s a thought: is it possible that this “trinity” cuts across your diagram, in that each of them (in their various manifestations) can usefully be considered to have pragmatic, existential, idealistic, and propaganda aspects?

  24. andrew says:

    “- Sorry, but to be truthful and complete, I have to add this kicker.
    The highest leverage of “0” is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of
    paradigms, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that even the one that
    sweetly shapes one’s comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited
    understanding of an immense and amazing universe.
    It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and
    to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole
    realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into not knowing.
    People who cling to paradigms (just about all of us) take one look at the
    spacious possibility that everything we think is guaranteed to be nonsense
    and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no
    control, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the experience
    that there is no certainty in any worldview. But everyone, who has managed
    to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it a
    basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose one
    that will help achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a
    purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your
    favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is a lot better
    informed than your will. It is in the space of mastery over paradigms
    that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down
    empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and
    have impacts that last for millennia. Back from the sublime to the
    ridiculous, from enlightenment to caveats. There is so much that has to be
    said to qualify this list. It is tentative and its order is slithery.
    There are exceptions to every item on it. Having the list percolating in
    my subconscious for years has not transformed me into a Superwoman. I seem
    to spend my time running up and down the list, trying out leverage points
    wherever I can find them. The higher the leverage point, the more the
    system resists changing it-that’s why societies rub out truly enlightened
    I don’t think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work
    at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously
    casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do
    with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with
    strategically, profoundly, madly letting go. ”
    Copyright: Donella H. Meadows
    End citation.

  25. andrew says:

    The above is never, or in my line of sight never, put into the mix — i think this says a lot about why we never leverage any system, and hadly ever leverage the human system called personla genius – but – hey – what would i know, we live in the age of deference to the gurus. Senge, Scharmer et al…busy stacking up odds to feed their systems with work, busy leveraging ‘systems’ in the wrong direction because, dear Dave, dear sweet Dave any systems that gets reduced to Four corners is for twits, and we seem to live in a world of …please complete yourself ;-)

  26. Dave Pollard says:

    Heading to a local transition community meeting this evening, along with John D. I will probably bring up the ‘get yourself in order first’ existential approach to transition. I might raise the possibility of approaching the visioning and timelining exercise (Shaun, my copy of your book is well-dog-eared) in this binary (what to do as individuals, what to do as communities) way, and using the Black Swan argument to prevent getting too set on preparing for one specific vision.

    Thank you all for your fascinating and considered responses.

    John B, I do like the idea of asking important questions as a means of guiding our personal and collective thinking towards transition, and towards gaining an appreciation of existential issues such as what it means to live a good life. And Norberto, I also like the idea of ‘appreciating impermanence’ as a better (more adaptive) objective than achieving sustainability or resilience.

    Dan, I’m a huge fan of Joanna, and am aware of the Pachamama approach, but this seems to me more geared to understanding our grief and other emotions (“heart and soul”) than to the more existential issues that I’m trying to grapple with here.

    Laura, I am intrigued by the inter-generational challenges we are now facing and the huge disconnect between generations that our modern, nuclear families have helped breed. The interesting thing about mentorship is that it can’t be imposed, it must be requested. I believe the key behaviour for us boomers is to shut up and listen to the children and young adults first, before presuming to advise them, and through that effective listening allow them to seek us out. And then, of course, being available and accessible despite our furiously busy lives.

    What I’m beginning to appreciate (in an existential way) is the importance of patience in all this. Patience isn’t the enemy of urgency. It’s a mindset that requires us, in spite of everything, to take the time to learn what is really going on, to learn about ourselves, and to reflect on how we can best act to make the world a better place both personally and collectively. That takes time (more perhaps than most people will ever have) but it’s worth it if it makes our work more effective, more inclusive, more informed, and a better model for others to follow.

    Thanks again!

  27. bob steffler says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article Dave. I’m not even sure how i stumbled upon your site but i’m glad i did. I too have been struggling for some time now with movement staggnation and what to do about it. Unfortuneately, for me it has meant dropping out of all involvement completely. I’m coming from a long history of militant radical political activism; radical ecology, anti racist action, and anarchist communism. My own self reflection led me to realize that myself and the movements i was involved in were amounting to not much more than self indulgent, self imposed ghettos. What i find interesting though, is that when i was a teenager and first started to get involved in various radical movements; lacking the analytical development i have now, i was motivated almost exclusively by existential, visceral and emotional reactions. So, maybe there is something to your ideas. But then, the cynic in me says, “ya, and where did all that existentialism get you in the big picture?…nowhere.” I like to think that the 60’s were full of existentialism too, and we all know where that failed revolutionary period got us…the crisis that we find ourselves in now.
    I’m not suggesting that your ideas on presenting the current crisis as an existential question are wrong or doomed to a repetition of failure. I honestly think you could be on to something. Yet my gut says that there is still something missing from this equation. unfortuneately, i can’t see what it is, but i truly hope that we all figure it out. Soon.

  28. Steve says:

    Great post! This reminds me of some exercises we did when starting to design our eco village. We were all asked to answer the question:
    “if you were independently wealthy – how would you live? what kind of luxury life would you make for yourself”
    Before we shared the answers with each other we were asked to pick out those things that didn’t entail a high degree of fossil energy, direct or embedded.
    THERE. There is the sweet spot of what we love to do and what we can do in a transitioned world. Try it. You’ll be surprised. Most of us (here in Sweden)wanted to sit in front of a log fire in winter and go swimming in the lake in summer. And spend time with friends. THAT is luxury for us!

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  32. Anonymous says:

    We need to save the world from the united states, capitalism is dangerous: please answer this message so that we can build a plan all together.. Humans are much more intelligent than any species on earth, so tell me why they’re the ones destroying it, we have a responsibility to protect every living thing.

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