Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



March 27, 2012

How Many Circles Does it Take to Make a Community?

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 23:40

networkLast evening I spent a couple of hours with three of my Bowen In Transition colleagues — Don Marshall, Rob Cairns and Robert Ballantyne — discussing what, if anything, we might do to start preparing our community (Bowen Island, off Vancouver BC, population 3800, area 20 sq. mi.) for the economic, energy and ecological crises — and perhaps even collapse — we expect to see in the coming decades.

Bowen in Transition, like many global Transition Initiative communities, is already doing several short-term small-step activities — learning about and (at a personal level) applying permaculture principles, obtaining and acting upon home energy audits, compiling a list of local experts in sustainable food, energy, building etc., holding awareness events etc. But as I noted in my recent Preparing for the Unimaginable post, I am concerned that we need to start thinking about longer-term, larger-scale, community-wide changes if we want to have a community sufficiently competent, self-sufficient and resilient enough to sustain ourselves through major and enduring crises.

I have read some of the “energy descent plans” of some of the leading Transition communities, and they strike me as being long on ideals and objectives and short on credible strategy — how to get there from here. And while my original thought was to draft a “Transition and Resilience Plan” that would include current-state data, scenarios, impact analyses and detailed action plans by community segment (food, energy etc.), I have come to realize that our future is so “unimaginable” that strategic planning is impossible — we cannot begin to know what we must plan for, and if we guess, we will be almost certainly so wrong that our plan will prove mostly useless.

Instead, I wondered if it made sense to have what Don, Rob and Robert called a “Working Towards” plan — specific ideas for helping us (1) build community and increase collaboration and sharing, (2) reduce dependence on imports and centralized systems and increase self-sufficiency, and (3) prepare psychologically and increase resilience for whatever the future holds. The idea was to start doing this within our 40-person Bowen in Transition group, and then engage others, until a majority of Bowen Islanders have acquired this knowledge and these capacities, and Bowen has become a real community. “Working Towards” these three objectives — community, self-sufficiency and psychological resilience — seemed to be something we could all agree on regardless of our ideology.

The more I thought about this ambitious goal, the more skeptical I became. Even if we could get our 40 Transition-savvy members to collectively model this behaviour (when we can’t get most of them to even show up for meetings), how could we possibly scale this up to a couple of thousand people?

As we talked, it was clear that each of us was sufficiently passionate about Transition to stay involved in it to some extent, focused mostly on short-term payback actions in the areas each of us cares about — for Don that includes water, waste management and well-being, for Rob it includes renewable energy, conservation and sustainable technology, for Robert it includes learning and education, and for me it includes livelihoods, transportation, ecological sustainability and self-governance. But as Rob pointed out, most Bowen Islanders are so busy (and stressed) looking after (and out for) family, homes and careers they have no cycles left to do more than vote, sign petitions, and attend occasional information meetings. Transition, even for the aware, is mostly in the “important but not urgent” category.

How do we make Transition urgent, or, if not urgent, at least easy or fun to be involved in in some meaningful way? Robert talked about the value of stories in getting people to a common understanding, which might be a way to create a sense of urgency. He said most Bowen Islanders came here from elsewhere, and their story is mostly about why they came here and what they consciously gave up to do so.

Our story, he explained, reflects and drives our values, and those in turn determine what we think is important to do in the world. Combine that with Pollard’s Law (we do what we must — looking after personal imperatives and addressing the needs of the moment; then we do what’s easy; and then we do what’s fun — what we love doing) and you get something like the graphic above. It explains (left side) why 40 Bowen Islanders gave up a day of their time without much convincing to take our crash course in Transition; it also explains why it’s so difficult to get them/us to do much more.

I talked a bit about Resilience Circles — the new movement that Tree told me about and that Transition US is working with. A resilience circle is:

A small group of 10 – 20 people that comes together to increase personal security during these challenging times. Circles have three purposes: learning, mutual aid, and social action. The economy is going through a deep transition, and economic security is eroding for millions of people. We’re worried about our financial security and about the future we are creating for our children. Many of us aren’t part of communities where we can talk openly about these challenges and fears.

Tree’s group in South Eugene, Oregon, that I mentioned in my post on Building Local Social Capital, exemplifies resilience circles (although it does not call itself that and did not follow the Resilience Circle process). Could such circles be the model that might allow us to bootstrap community to a community-wide scale? One presenter to Transition US suggested that a converging of the Transition and Resilience Circle “methodologies” might allow us to do just that.

The challenge with doing this is that I don’t think you can just go about setting up resilience circles in a coherent and organized way. These are substantially self-organized groups. And unlike Transition groups (which tend to have local champions that coordinate and hold them together), resilience circles appear to be more collectively-managed, with no one particularly in charge or depended upon for their continuance.

The four of us discussed the “magic” of such small “sticky” groups that keep going without a leader or end objective. We each had some experience of such groups — mine was (is) a group that meets monthly for breakfast in Toronto, that I co-founded and which is still going strong without me more than a decade later. It has no leader, and sending out reminders is unprompted and self-organized. It has often had guests, who occasionally join the group, and has had a few larger-group and longer events, but it has generally had about eight members at any one time, of whom usually 5-7 show up each month. Is there something magic about this number, we wondered, as Christopher Allen has suggested (his research suggests ideal size of a working group is 5-7 people and ideal size of a “community” is about 50 people)?

If he’s right, then perhaps instead of trying to create and sustain an Island-wide Transition group we should be looking to create Resilience Circles in each immediate neighbourhood in which one or more of our 40 Bowen in Transition members lives. What would happen if each of us were to call up, out of the blue, our immediate neighbours (whether we know them or not), invite them to a “block party”, and gauge whether there is sufficient interest among them to self-organize a Resilience Circle? This kind of “cellular organization” has worked well for others.

Then, instead of the primary role of Bowen in Transition being Island-wide awareness-building and member recruitment as it is now, it might evolve into a much simpler role of visiting on a rotating basis the 20 or 30 Resilience Circles on the Island, during their get-togethers, suggesting Transition-related activities to them  and sharing “success” stories between/among the different circles. If we could link and network, say, 25 Resilience Circles of a dozen people each, that would be 300 people in the Bowen in Transition network, instead of 40.

The question is whether such a network of circles could evolve into a true model “community”. That raises the question What exactly is a “community” anyway? If we mean it in the sense that we need to “build local community” to be able to take on additional responsibilities when local crises hit and central authorities are no longer able to respond, and to be able to collaborate and share and make decisions in our collective interest, and support each other, then I would say a community is a group of people (around 50 if Christopher is right) who collectively have these attributes:

  1. They know and care about each other, and help each other actively and voluntarily rather than out of a sense of obligation or contract.
  2. They collectively have the capacities to make a life together in a relatively independent, self-sufficient and self-managed way, and to support each other.
  3. They care about the same things. That may be shared values, or shared longer-term objectives, or may be just the result of being thrown together to cope with one or more shared crises.
  4. They live in a geographically contiguous area and have a shared sense of place and connection to the land. (I know this proviso will be controversial among “virtual community” fans, and I am not saying that virtual groups can’t do some of these things well, but they can’t do all of them, especially if the crises at hand take from us much of today’s taken-for-granted technology, which I think they will.)

So today 50 people in an area of 500 people could constitute a community, if it was not too far-flung. And then if and when we find ourselves in a world of multiple crises or total social collapse, these 500 people could re-form into ten communities of 50 people each, with 5 people in each of the new communities having already learned how to live in community, and hence able to show and teach the other 45. They would make natural community “federations” of 500 people, and these federations might, as with indigenous confederations, be granted responsibility and resources from the individual communities for doing certain things that are impractical for a group of only 50 to do.

How many circles, then, does it take to make a community? If a circle is 5-7, it would take 7-10. If a circle is 15 (as in the Resilient Circles model) it would only take 3-4. We can’t prescribe it — it needs to evolve to suit the needs and culture of the people and place, and will probably vary.

But I’m intrigued about the possibility of creating a viable, self-sustaining and intimate Resilience Community from neighbourhood cells up instead of from municipality down. And I’m intrigued about the idea of “Working Toward” Transition not by compiling a plan, but organically by developing commitment, compassion, capacities and a sense of urgency in small federated groups, and allowing their collective wisdom to percolate across, until, in our collective wisdom, we are ready for whatever we, and coming generations, must face in the years and decades ahead.

top drawing by Nancy Margulies

March 21, 2012

Links of the Month: March 21, 2012

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 15:35

kereru (native species), painting by NZ artist Robyn Forbes, from my own collection

Vera over at Leaving Babylon has written an interesting series of articles on the hazards of planning and on permaculture design. She’s also very good at responding to comments on her blog, which means that some great conversations have evolved in the comments threads. The most recent article on permaculture proposes understanding and emulating nature’s design, and as I was responding to it, it occurred to me that my response pretty well sums up my current thinking on where we are now in the collapse and the sixth great extinction, and what we can do about it. Here is what I wrote:

It seems to me that it is anthropomorphizing to say that nature ‘designs’ or to say that nature even cares. Nature adapts, mostly to other elements of itself. Evolution, which is tautological (it occurs because it works) tries a million random different things every second and those that don’t die produce what we call evolution. It’s all random, as Stephen J Gould showed so starkly and brilliantly in Full House. We can no sooner follow nature’s staggeringly complex lead than transmute ourselves into gargoyles. Human models and constructs are merely complicated, mechanical, temporary and fragile. We cannot and must not count on them.

I read all 1060 pages of the permaculture primer Edible Forest Gardens to learn that permaculture is about spending 20 years studying the pre-catastrophic-agriculture ecology of the place you live, and in the process intervening patiently to introduce and reintroduce native and native-compatible plants in such a way that evolution just might allow them to take hold. It’s the perfect model of how to behave in a complex system (Dave Snowden’s probe-sense-respond strategy). What we call design in such efforts is just hoping that we understand well enough so that a larger proportion of our interventions take hold than if we just planted stuff randomly. The celebrated indigenous permaculture ‘gardens’ of Central America were basically discovered, not designed, and were secreted away so humans couldn’t fuck them up with their design experiments. This works in places where the pre-cat-ag vegetation naturally supports a healthy human diet. It doesn’t work where most humans live now, which is why indigenous migrants to non-tropical-forested places evolved to eat mostly fish and meat and self-limited their numbers to what wild game was sustainably available — small numbers. Until we discovered and tried to replicate cat-ag, which as Jared Diamond has explained turned out to be a very bad idea. The idea that we can ‘do’ permaculture sustainably anywhere is, in my opinion, sheer hubris.

So what to do? If we want to be on nature’s side (assuming she/it has a ‘side’) we should do for ourselves what she is in the process of doing to us — quickly reduce our numbers to sustainable levels (at one point that might have been perhaps 2 billion, but with the damage we’ve done to carrying capacity now might be 1/4 of that), and have those that are left migrate mostly back to areas that support humans with a healthy human diet without cat-ag. We won’t do the former, for religious and cultural reasons and because it is too late to organize to do anything on such a scale even if we were capable of doing something in a coordinated way on such a scale, which we are not. So we’re left to do what we can, which is to do as little harm to the world as we can, love and care and look after each other, learn what will help us deal with the collapse that we have unleashed and might help the survivors begin to create a better way to live (mostly, learning to build and live in community again), and be present, relishing every moment of this amazing and unpredictable experiment called life.

PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S COLLAPSE

Morris Berman on the End of the American Dream: A revealing interview with the writer who says America long ago lost its heart, and its way. Thanks to Tulcidious for the link. Excerpts:

Financial bigwigs lead their affluent lives, unaffected, unremorseful, and unindicted for wreaking havoc on the nation. Why? Because they won. They hustled better. They are living the American Dream. This is not the American Dream that says if you work hard you can be more comfortable than your parents; but rather, if you connive well, game the rules, and rule the game, your take from others is unlimited. In this paradigm, human empathy, caring, compassion, and connection have been devalued from the get-go.

The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Here’s what the US lacks: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. America has its priorities upside down.

Let Your Life Be a Counter-Friction to Stop the Machine: A scathing, relentless and articulate 23-minute video by Paul Edwards and Lanny Cotler that chronicles the ruthless and destructive history of the US from the genocide of its indigenous peoples to the imperialist propagandized Orwellian hologram of today. It overstates the degree of power and control of the American financial and political elite, but not its brutality or the effectiveness of its ideological hold over its citizens. The title is a quote from Thoreau on the importance of civil disobedience in the face of tyranny. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Rebuilding from the Bottom Up: Respected (even in the mainstream) economist John Rubino recommends Nicole Foss’ recent Italian interview on the futility of looking for political solutions to our current economic crises. Excerpt:

My solutions, such as they are, are grassroots solutions. We have to build things from the bottom up. Our centralized life support systems will fail over time because they’re critically dependent on tax revenues that won’t be there and cheap energy that won’t be there. These centralized systems won’t be able to deliver the goods and services we’ve come to rely on…

In many parts of the world where people really don’t have any money anyway, their society functions on barter and gifts, working together, exchanging skills. This works as a model. It doesn’t get you a large fancy sophisticated industrial society because it doesn’t scale up that well. But it works very well at a small scale, and this is the kind of structure that we need to rebuild.

Visualizing Debt: A remarkable new infographic illustrates the 3T€ indebtedness of Europe’s five most bankrupt nations. Just so you know, that’s about 1/60th of the total US indebtedness (but no problem there, right?) Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

Glaciers, Essential to BC’s ‘Clean’ Hydro Power, Melting Fast: A scientist says glacier melt is accelerating so quickly that BC must start looking for other forms of energy to hydroelectric (hydro dams currently provide 80% of the province’s power). Coal anyone?

LIVING BETTER

Peer-to-Peer Gaining Strength: A new article from Simone Cicero explains the Peer Production model (illustrated above) in lay terms. This is the cooperative approach to business formation and operation I recommend in my book Finding the Sweet Spot. It is consistent with many of the changes we are going to have to make to the way we live and the way we make a living: greater collaboration, better identification of real human needs and co-designing and co-development of products and services to meet those needs, transition to a Gift Economy and the end of private intellectual property and manufactured scarcity. Thanks to Michael Bauwens for the link.

Stationary Bicycles as a Power Source: In Mayan Guatemala, they’ve brought this obvious, inexpensive alternative energy source to an art form. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Essential Capacities for Effective Group Participation: Gotta love Blurb, which provides a lovely intuitive feel to reading books online. One of the latest books on their site is “The Lotus”, which outlines nine essential capacities for groups to engender. Thanks to Venessa Miemis for the link. This is a great list:

  • Being present
  • Suspension and letting go
  • Shared purpose and intention
  • Compassion
  • Whole system awareness
  • Self-awareness
  • Using personal influence (uncoercively)
  • Humour
  • Dealing with complexity, paradox, conflict and uncertainty

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

Fascinating NYT interactive infographic shows how much citizens in different parts of the US depend on various forms of government assistance; of course this does not show the huge subsidies and bailouts given to corporations

Santorum Supports Fracking, Calls Environmentalism Terrorism: It’s hard to believe many Americans want this nut-job to be president. The religious fanatic comes out in favour of unregulated fracking and says all environmentalists are radical extremists with a terrorist agenda.

How the Anti-Science Lobby Works: An insider’s leaked documents from the Koch Brothers’ Heartland Institute show how Big Oil and Big Coal generate and fund propaganda campaigns to block climate change regulations and spread misinformation. Thanks to Ivor Tymchak for the link.

Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs: Just in case you haven’t already read this insider’s summation of soulless corporatist culture.

Tar Sands Watch:

Government Policies Killing BC’s Forests: These clowns can’t manage anything, and they’re totally in the back pockets of the forest industry. Should be called the “forest elimination industry”.

Invisible Children/Kony 2012 Group Unmasked: One thing the people of central Africa suffering from brutal despots and child-kidnapping warlords didn’t need is a slick well-financed holier-than-thou right-wing religious fanatic group using opposition to the warlords as a vehicle for fund-raising and propaganda for “revolutionary” religious causes, including support for an African death-to-gays crusade. Watch the brilliant Charlie Brooker video at the end of the post, which sums it up perfectly.

FUN AND INSPIRATION

translation guide by Fraser McAlpine for BBC America; thanks to Dawn Smith for the link

Somebody That I Used to Know: Evidence of what can be done by artists without any corporate intermediaries and without spending megabucks. Watch these three videos in this order:

  1. Pop song Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye and Kimbra. Starts kinda slow but music gets interesting later and the video is clever.
  2. Now watch this even cleverer cover version by Toronto indy group Walk Off the Earth. Note the number of views. Good harmonies too. (Thanks to Michele Hull for the link) (Bonus: WOTE guitarist Gianni Luminati’s amazing virtuoso solo performance)
  3. Finally, watch this take-off on the cover version. Fall-down funny.

Non-Errors: A list of supposed grammatical and word-use ‘errors’ that actually aren’t — at least not anymore.

Are You an Asker or a Guesser?: This has been around awhile, but if you haven’t read it you should: Knowing which is your style, and the style of others in your circles, could save you a lot of grief and misunderstanding. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Neil Young’s Cortez Redux: If you’re a Neil Young fan, check out this 37-minute jam with Crazy Horse built around the song Cortez the Killer.

Twisty Takes on the Anti-Abortion Extremists: A hilarious review in I Blame the Patriarchy of a frightening trend: Criminal regulations designed to coerce and humiliate women into ‘rethinking’ their abortion decisions. She’s such a great writer. Thanks to Liz Henry for the link.

Shit Salt Spring Islanders Say: Also what Bowen Islanders, and most Cascadians who frequent offshore areas, say. Priceless.

Rick Mercer Spoofs Stephen Harper’s Anti-Science Agenda: PMO Scientist Pest Control

For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage: Interesting review of what this says about 21st century American culture and the ever-growing class divide.

The Unnaturalness of Monogamy: Chris Ryan, co-author of Sex at Dawn, explains why monogamy has only recently become an accepted norm in the human animal, and why it is so unnatural and biologically doesn’t work. Thanks to Cheryl Long for the link.

Vancouver in the 1950s and 1960s: An amazing online collection of the photographs of Fred Herzog, an immigrant who came to Vancouver in the middle of the last century and photographed what he saw.

THOUGHTS FOR THE MONTH

From the Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity:

Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money, then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.

From Sam Rose:

This is where 30 years of political apathy lands us: we get to re-fight the battles and wars that were at least in part won 40 years ago. Everything from your right to clean water, your right to peacefully assemble, your right to organize and collective bargain with an employer, your right to privacy, your right to link to a goddamn website, and your right to decide what to you do with your body are now in question.

From Brian Leli’s Where the Time Goes (thanks to Brian Kerr for the link, and the one that follows):

Life is a place where I am doing time. Nothing more and nothing less. I just want to get on with it and keep getting on with it until my parts break and I am unable to. The way I see it, all the hours and days are going onto a list somewhere. And I take pride in mine. When I reach its end, I want running down it to be like running the Boston marathon. To trudge through line after line of canceled television show, dreary bar, beach vacations and phone conversations would destroy me; then as well as now.

A blank page and a stopwatch. That’s all we get. Until we don’t. What we dreamt of doing doesn’t mean a damn thing.

From Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire:

This is the last age of the world, for we are come as far now as we may along our path from what is natural. We herd and pen the beast that’s born to roam. In huts we cling like snailshells to the fenland that it is in our great-fathers’ way to stride across and then pass by. We cook the blood from out the earth and let it scab to crowns and daggers; pound our straight track through the crooked fields and trade with black-skins. Soon, the oceans rise and take us. Soon, the crashing of the stars.

March 20, 2012

Preparing for the Unimaginable

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 04:26

image from FlaSunshine on Flickriver

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not surprised, therefore, that several of my Transition colleagues are skeptical of the value of a long-term Transition and Resilience Plan for our island. How can we possibly plan for a future we can’t begin to predict, that we have no control over, that we probably can’t even imagine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe it’s far more important for us to start answering these questions than to start learning about permaculture or solar panels. In fact, I think answering these questions will lead to a shared appreciation of what technical skills we will need, as a community, to acquire (we don’t all have to be technically expert at doing everything), and when we’d be wise to start learning and implementing these skills and this knowledge.

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

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

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

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

March 15, 2012

Song of the Satyrs

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 15:32

The word ‘tragedy’ has a wonderful etymology. It literally means ‘song of the satyrs’ (the first ‘tragedies’ were ‘satyres’ of the human condition in which the players dressed in goatskins). Although it has come to mean a play with an unfortunate ending, it began as a story of the human condition, using satyrs (raw ‘uncivilized’ creatures), as a safe way to reflect upon (satyr-ize) our own species.

A way to bring out truths about us, and our society, that we might not want to hear if we thought they were really about us.

This blog has in recent years been trying to discuss such truths, without the art and subtlety of a true tragedy, with two major story arcs — who we really are, and how the world around us really works. Our story has all the elements of a brilliant tragedy — we could not ask for a better, more devilish script:

  1. Our satyric protagonists, Mr and Ms Sapiens, are torn between instinctive loyalty to their bodies, and learned/imposed obedience to their culture. Their bodies — their visceral selves –  are telling them to live a wild, easy, fun life for the moment, in the moment. Their internal chemistries have addicted them to love, to sex, and to a variety of intoxicating substances and activities.
  2. But their new satyr culture frowns on such frivolity, and inundates them and their peers with propaganda calling for them to work hard, to conform to rigorous and repressive rules of conduct (including strict romantic and sexual monogamy), to obey without question those in authority, and to fight and even give their lives in defense of their culture and its fierce ideologies.
  3. The tension between these two opposing forces is paralyzing, debilitating, and the Sapiens have become ill, physically and psychologically, trying to reconcile them.
  4. So as the viewer of this play, on the one hand you sympathize with the Sapiens’ desire to be free, unencumbered by their culture, but on the other hand you also appreciate that without that culture and its inventions the Sapiens’ satyr species would be long extinct.  The Sapiens are so immersed in and dependent on that culture they cannot escape it. They know no other way to live.
  5. So we watch as they vacillate between trying to go back and trying to go forward, and as the culture steals their souls and covers them with its gunk, its imprint, to the point they forget who they are and become “everybody else”, automatons in toil and violence and desperation. Until they are “steeped in blood so far that returning were as tedious as going o’er”.
  6. Soon, the Sapiens’ lives become a relentless cycle of doing what they must, until they are so exhausted that whatever brief and precious time they have left is spent not in finding a way out of the hellish life they have created/fallen into, but in activities that are easy and fun, that provide a few stolen moments of peace and joy.
  7. Their culture and their world have become so complex as to be no longer fathomable. They long for simple answers, and many proffer them, but they know too much to find any solace in any of these false promises and explanations, these “witches’ prophecies”. And they see this culture, inexorably and relentlessly destroying the world, out of control, and are filled with grief and a sense of terrible dread, anger, sorrow and shame for what it has done, and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness knowing in their hearts it will all soon end, badly.
  8. As the play reaches its climax, our protagonists find themselves unable to act, unable to simply be, and unable to be happy. What will they do? How will this dark tragedy resolve itself? Suicide? Violent struggle? Magical salvation?

A great story indeed. Fortunately it is only a satyre, an acting out of how another culture, such as the Easter Islanders or the Anasazi, or the fauns and satyrs of the primeval forest, might have faced existential crisis.

It could never be our story.

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