How Can We Prepare For an Unknowable Future?

Last Sunday, Bowen in Transition, the local chapter of the global Transition Network, held a meeting to discuss “our growing feelings of anxiety and insecurity as the news of climate collapse (and economic and social precarity) gets ever worse, how to deal with it all, and how to adapt to what is to come”. This was the first of several facilitated group discussions on this topic, and we started out with what the Transition Network calls the “inner transition” aspects: the internal work of understanding, coping and helping others cope emotionally with what we are now facing and expect to face in the future.

This idea of precarity (it’s the noun that relates to the adjective precarious) refers to uncertainty and the perception of possible risk or danger. It’s what I think underlies our anxiety, insecurity, and perhaps the grief, anger, fear and shame we feel about what we have done to this planet and what this bodes for the future of all life on earth, including ours and our descendants’.

We talked briefly about what we the members of Bowen in Transition can possibly do to help us prepare for a future we cannot possibly predict, and how that might lead to a kind of paralysis where we do nothing.

Brian Hoover and our brilliant facilitator Shasta Martinuk had raised the point about how, early in our civilization’s history, workers often spent their whole lives working on a single project like a cathedral, without any hope of ever seeing the culmination of their work, which might take decades if not centuries to complete. And how today, with the sense that we may not have decades or centuries left to do whatever work we now have to do, and with no real idea what we can or should do that will really make a positive difference, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Afterwards, I had a conversation with local activist, writer and artist Pauline Le Bel, who was part of our earnest group at the meeting, and I said to her:

What you said stood out for you (“the importance of deciding what to pay attention to; embracing insecurity; and letting go of outcomes”) also stood out for me. I think insecurity is the consequence of precarity — we can’t possibly be secure when we have no idea (but lots of fears about) what the future holds. That’s why for me Transition is all about those two elements of preparation for whatever might happen: re-skilling, and building community.

And why to me it’s so important to look past the grim decades to come and see how our work (both artistic and preparatory) might provide useful grounding for the human societies (plural — I think they will be amazingly diverse) that emerge in the millennia after collapse, even though we can’t possibly know or imagine how what we do will benefit them. We are cathedral-builders for the generations that will rise from the ashes of our unsustainable and crumbling industrial civilization. We are laying possible foundations. They may choose not to use them, and in that they may be wise. That is not our business.

So at this stage that would seem to be my answer: First, re-skill our community’s people (learn the essential skills that we will need if and when economic and ecological collapse leads to bankrupt governments and corporations and broken infrastructure). That doesn’t mean everyone needs to learn permaculture skills, for example, but those with the talent and passion for such work should, and we need to know who they are. Local communities left to manage by our own devices are going to have to be ready to be self-sufficient, and that means everyone needs to learn some relevant skills (both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’) that will be useful in collapse (and no, coding and financial arbitrage and marketing and accounting and litigation are not those skills). And we’ll have to be prepared to offer our skills to our community in return for others’ work in areas they have relevant skills in. Forget the use of currency, if there’s any left, or keeping score.

And second, build community. That means relearning how to relate to each other, to collaborate, coordinate, research needs, build local capacity, deal with conflicts, create local infrastructure and resources to replace the centralized ones that will no longer be available, and identify and overcome obstacles. It means that personal and family priorities (and possibly property) will have to give way to the priorities and needs of the whole community. It means dealing with dysfunctional, discordant and unpleasant community members, modelling needed behaviours, showing (not telling) people how to do things, learning to need and want less, learning greater self-awareness, and continuously adapting to ever-changing circumstances. It may mean migrating our whole community, if climate collapse makes ours practicably uninhabitable.

I have no idea how, even in our relatively small and self-contained community, we can go about doing these things. I guess we start by studying other cultures that do them well.

In past generations, much effort and pride went into creating a better world for following generations than the current one had. That’s no longer a reasonable hope. But if we look past the struggles of the coming decades, and learn from the ancient cathedral-builders, we might see that our work now will see its ultimate fruition not during collapse but in its aftermath, centuries and millennia in the future.

We have passed the point where sustainability and resilience are reasonable markers for what we should be doing. Nothing we do in our modern industrial civilization is sustainable, and resilience (“bouncing back” from hardship to some previous state of prosperity and growth) is a foolish ideal. The new markers for our actions are self-sufficiency (at the community, not the individual, level), adaptability, local knowledge (of the land, its life and its interdependencies), self-management, collective well-being, and equanimity — finding joy in spite of everything.

We have no way of knowing how our success (or failure) with these new markers will inspire (or incapacitate) the new human societies (probably much smaller and more local than anything humanity has witnessed in thirty millennia) that emerge from the ruins of our doomed civilization. But their affect will surely be substantial. Even if it’s 70 generations hence rather than 7, their astonishing societies will bear the hallmarks of what we do in the years and decades to come.

And the natural world, the more-than-human world, will recover in time no matter what we do, but the time it takes before it once again thrives will depend on our actions, or our inaction, today.

If we set aside blame and think of them and not ourselves — think of the cathedral whose walls and spires we will never see in our lifetimes as we struggle with its foundation — we can do right by these far-future generations, human and more-than-human. We owe them no less.

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4 Responses to How Can We Prepare For an Unknowable Future?

  1. Well said. The one thing I’d add to re-skilling and building community is: mitigate damage to our landbases as industrialism accelerates to its inevitable end. The more forests still standing, the more species still extant, the less pollution, the less carbon in the atmosphere, the easier the transition for those humans and non-humans who survive the collapse.

    This can be defensive, engaging in and supporting grassroots environmental defense wherever you are. Or proactive and offensive, deliberately targeting what enables all of the industrial system’s devastation: fossil fuels. Either path is the surest way to leaving a legacy for thousands of years after your death, and offers the possibility of a deeply meaningful sense of life purpose in an era where investing in the dominant culture feels ephemeral and pointless.

  2. Paul says:

    “If we set aside blame and think of them and not ourselves — think of the cathedral whose walls and spires we will never see in our lifetimes as we struggle with its foundation — we can do right by these far-future generations, human and more-than-human. We owe them no less.”

    The cathedral as a metaphor is questionable. The cathedrals were built to celebrate the glory of God and to house the ruling institution of the Church in grandeur, preserving traditions of architecture and hierarchical relations–and I don’t think those are our goals. And “cathedral” doesn’t bring an image of “resilience” to mind, but rather (unchanging) stability.

    Don’t we want to build for far future generations the same as we want to build for present generations? Don’t we want to offer as a legacy what we find really works for us in precarious times? They will need healthy attitudes/values and nurturing social relations, plus (forgive the overlaps) what you described as letting go of outcomes, developing skills and artistry, developing community, and fostering self-sufficiency (at the community, not the individual, level), adaptability, local knowledge (of the land, its life and its interdependencies), self-management, collective well-being, and equanimity (finding joy in spite of everything).

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Agreed, Paul. It’s an imperfect metaphor because of its connotation. Trying to think of a better one — something that takes generations of work before there is a benefit. Maybe permaculture forest garden?

  4. 1in7.7B says:

    I’ve never been able to see my future. ;-)

    En Vogue: “Free your mind.”
    Beyond many?

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