Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

March 22, 2014

Several Short Sentences About… Jellyfish

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:11


there are things
     – loren eiseley


  1. The jellyfish is one of the simplest creatures that has ever existed.
  2. It is the oldest living animal species that has more than one organ.
  3. It has no brain.
  4. It has no central nervous system.
  5. It has no spinal column or bones of any sort.
  6. It has no heart.
  7. It has no blood.
  8. It has no circulatory system.
  9. It has no respiratory system.
  10. Despite all of the above, it is not simple.
  11. The jellyfish is, in fact, staggeringly complex.
  12. Despite centuries of study, very little is known about these creatures. We basically have no idea how they do almost anything, because just about everything about them is different from other complex creatures, and remains mostly a mystery to scientists.
  13. The jellyfish is not, even vaguely, a fish.
  14. It has brain cells, dispersed throughout its body and tied into to a neural network that communicates information neuron-to-neuron, not through a centralized system. So it is, essentially, intelligent everywhere, and cannot ‘die’ (or be rendered ‘unconscious’) through injury.
  15. It has thrived for 650 million years.
  16. There are over 10,000 enormously diverse jellyfish species, some of them microscopic, some of them with ‘bells’ over a meter across and tentacles over 100 feet long, and weighing up to a quarter of a ton.
  17. Some species have 24 eyes, which enable them to see 360-degrees in three dimensions, though only 2 of its eyes, apparently, can see in colour.
  18. It can fire venom through millions of tiny barbs fired through tiny tubes on its tentacles, in some species enough to paralyze or kill a human adult.
  19. Before it fires venom, it analyzes the chemistry of what it is touching to ensure it is either food or threatening (and hence worth immobilizing), but even taking time for this analysis it still fires at a speed 10 times faster than a car air-bag inflates in an accident, and faster than a bullet, and at a pressure of up to 2,000 psi, enough to penetrate deep into the skin of most creatures it encounters.
  20. The tentacles of a jellyfish can continue to detect threats or food, and to fire venom accordingly, long after the tentacle is separated from the ‘rest’ of the jellyfish.
  21. It reproduces both sexually and asexually, through a wide variety of ways, including (usually daily) spawning, splitting (division into two creatures), self-cloning, and ‘budding’ (producing new organisms on various parts of its body).
  22. Some species can revert from adults back to immature polyp form when threatened, and then ‘re-grow’ into ‘adults’, over and over, and are hence theoretically immortal.
  23. Jellyfish polyps can remain dormant for years, if the environment is not ideal, before starting to grow and reproduce.
  24. Most jellyfish ‘die’ by wearing out and decomposing, usually within a year of maturation, or by being eaten by creatures who have a natural immunity to their toxin.
  25. Korean robots have been developed to ‘kill’ large blooms of unwanted jellyfish (they have been clogging and shutting down the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, coal-fired power plants and desalination plants, and destroying oceanic salmon farms) by shredding them, but biologists think this will actually increase populations because “when you cut open jellies, you get artificial fertilization — that’s how aquarists get eggs and sperm from species that are difficult to spawn; all those embryos will then metamorphose into polyps which can live for years and clone themselves”.
  26. Jellyfish move with an efficiency (energy produced / energy used ratio) 50% greater than any other sea creature. We’re not at all sure how they do that.
  27. Some species are bioluminescent — they can create their own light to hunt in darkness.
  28. Some large-mass jellyfish live at ocean depths greater than most other creatures can tolerate. Biologists are just beginning to discover the nature of these even-stranger species. A deep dive off Chile last year unearthed a huge never-before-seen jellyfish with multiple solid ‘legs’ and ‘feet’ that was able to self-propel at astonishing speed in any direction and turn on a dime; photographed but uncaptured, its constitution and lineage remain a complete mystery.
  29. The collective biomass of jellyfish is so large that their vertical daily and tidal migrations are believed to affect ocean food systems and indirectly even ocean currents (they compete for food with krill, whose global biomass is second only to bacteria, and greater than that of humans)
  30. Jellyfish, at various stages of development, often form ‘colonies’ that manifest behaviours that resemble those of a single ‘creature’ more than those of a collective. If they are sharing intelligence between bodies exactly as they share them within a ‘single’ body, where exactly does one creature end and the next begin? The Portuguese Man-o’-War, a dangerous jellyfish-like ‘entity’ almost as ancient as the jellyfish, is in fact not a creature at all, but a collective of four specialized types of polyp (whose functions are, respectively, mobility, reproduction, digestion and defence) which have evolved together and now cannot survive independently. [And some octopi, which are immune to the Man-o’-War toxin, carry torn off Man-o'-War tentacles as weapons to use against other prey.]

So here we humans are, clumsy, fragile, watery bags of bones and organs, neophytes in this world of unfathomable ancient complexity. Still drawn to the ocean, from where we came. Only recently did we come ashore. Who can guess what might emerge after we’re gone. And when it does, whatever it is, it will probably have to continue to deal with jellyfish.

photo by Mitchell Kaneshkevich

March 8, 2014

The Qualities of a Great Story

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 21:02

sncap2Lest my readers conclude, as a result of yesterday’s article, that I’m down on stories, let me say again: I love stories, and find them useful for learning and imagining, and also very entertaining. So today I’d like to summarize the qualities that I think the great stories I’ve read all have.

This will probably be an unorthodox list: I’m not talking about ‘elements’ of a story here, and in fact I don’t believe there are any essential ‘elements’ of a great story. I’ve read great stories that have no well-developed characters, let alone sympathetic protagonists (some mystery stories come to mind). I’ve read great stories that have no discernible plot, at least in the traditional sense of a beginning, a conflict, a resolution and a conclusion. I’ve read great stories that have no drama or struggle or tension (such as comedies, unless you really bend the meaning of the word ‘tension’). Some of my favourite stories defy traditional narrative structures, which I find tedious, constraining and unimaginative (thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for this intriguing link).

So what do I think are the qualities of a great story?

I’d start with TS Eliot’s two qualities of great poetry, which I think apply equally to stories. In his essay The Social Function of Poetry he wrote:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

So (1) it gives pleasure and (2) it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example). My favourite story writer Frederick Barthelme also writes, in his 39 Steps for Writers, about the importance of imagery: “Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many”. This sensory information roots the story, gives it a sense of place, whether familiar or strange.

While I think all Frederick’s “steps” are useful, steps 21-22 are the ones I would nominate as the third essential quality of a great story:

If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.

Quality (3) then is every sentence must pay.

Quality (4) is that it takes a camera or “theatre” view. That is, it relates what the camera “sees” and “hears” through action and dialogue, not a bunch of back-and-forth “he thought… she felt”. It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. I’m ambivalent about first-person narratives — stories that relate what happens or happened to one person from behind her/his eyes or inside her/his head. Even Shakespeare used “asides” and monologues to convey important thoughts or feelings of characters that could not be brought out naturally in action or dialogue. But great stories, IMO, use these devices sparingly.

Quality (5) is that it respects the audience’s intelligence. That means no manipulation of the audience’s feelings or thoughts by painting a simplistic, black-and-white picture of a situation or character. That means no deus ex machina. That means no helpless creatures injured or killed for no reason just to stir up audience emotions. That means the story has to be coherent. That means it requires the audience to think, to pay attention to what’s happening, to read between the lines.

Quality (6) is that it leaves space for the audience. It omits enough detail (without omitting anything essential) that the listener or reader (or even viewer) can fill in some of the details from their own experience or imagination and become part of the story, make it their own.

Quality (7) is that it must be in some way really imaginative, clever, or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”. I don’t understand the appeal of many series, sequels and trilogies (though there are exceptions). I appreciate that we can come to love characters and settings and that their familiarity is heart-warming, but unless every ‘episode’ includes something totally new, something that astonishes, really shines, I think it’s lazy, mediocre writing. And there is so much of that, in this age of imaginative poverty.

That’s it. Just seven qualities. Fewer than one in a thousand stories, in my view, has them. There are other nice-to-have qualities, but those are the essential ones.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. Many, even most of the very popular stories I’ve read do not have these qualities and I can’t even finish them, and many of the most beloved stories in the English language are, I think, dreadful, absolute dreck. These are the seven qualities I aspire to when I write stories now, and I’m going to be writing a lot of them this year.

Image from Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin

March 7, 2014

The Trouble With Stories

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:47

image from Justin Bale’s OWS archive 

 We hold stories dear to our heart. Some even believe “stories are all we are“. I love stories. I’ve encouraged groups doing strategic planning — looking for the best way forward — to start with ‘future state’ stories that describe a day in their lives once the group’s goals have been achieved. I’ve learned that telling stories is the best way to hold an audience and help them remember your message. And that they’re subversive — you can get people to think about a point of view they would normally balk about considering by couching it in a story. And that if a story is sufficiently compelling, it really doesn’t even matter if it’s true. We want to believe. Make-believe. Make us believe by telling us a story.

So what’s with the title of this article? What could I possibly have against stories?

The trouble with stories is that they make us believe what’s not true.

I wrote a rant against stories five years ago, in which I said:

Stories are addictive. They oversimplify complexity to the point we become complacent, that we think we know what is really happening and that all the alternatives have been identified and considered. Stories are sedative: We tell our children “bedtime stories” to lull them to sleep. Stories are manipulative, readily subject to spin, especially on complex subjects about which there can never be absolute or certain knowledge. And they are subject to censorship and the crime of non-reporting, which the mainstream media do constantly. Stories give us false hope. Many live their lives dreaming of what might be instead of realizing what is. Stories lead us to live inside our heads instead of in the real world. Stories are excuses for inaction: When we get worked up about a story, we can mistake that for actually doing something about it. And stories are only stories. The true horrors are not just stories. Just as a map is not the territory, a story is not the thing that the story is about.

At that time, I also described two “laws” of human cognition and behaviour that, I said, conspire to make stories so powerful, and so dangerous:

  • Daniel Dennett‘s Law of Needy Readers: On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.
  • George Lakoff’s Law of Frames: Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.

That article was criticized by those who thought stories to be so essential to human nature, that to argue against their use was to deny who we really are. At that time my principal argument against stories was that we substitute reading them and telling them for meaningful action to deal with the real issues the stories are about. And we do. But since then I’ve become more sanguine about what we can really do about these issues. My further study of complexity has led me to believe that it’s too late to change the massive, global, evolved systems that are destroying our world, if it were ever possible at all.

So my problem with stories, now, is not that they’re unactionable, but that they’re untrue, and our belief in them as being true causes us to behave in dysfunctional ways.

Most of the harm of stories stems from their deliberate (and necessary, for brevity) simplification (sometimes to an extreme degree) of a complex situation, a situation rooted in complex systems. Here’s what I’ve learned about complex systems:

  • They are not changed by heroic action; nor are they controlled by a conspiracy of ‘evil’ people. They are the way they are for a reason, and they have evolved over a period of time, due to the combined influence of a nearly infinite number of people, actions and variables, to be the way they are. Because they contain a mix of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, they tend to remain in stasis and resist change, but no one is in control of them.
  • Likewise, complex systems cannot simply be replaced by better-designed systems, despite what Bucky Fuller said. Systems evolve and systems collapse, and when they collapse new systems (possibly but not likely ‘better’) replace them, piecemeal, one step at a time. There is no ‘progress’, there is just evolution, punctured equilibrium, with stasis then shift then a rebalancing and a new stasis, and, unless the system is tiny and local and autonomous, no one is in control of it, no one ‘designs’ it. Around and around, that’s the way things go in evolution. Trial and error, a slightly better fit for an ever-changing situation. Not a better system, just a slightly better fit for the situation as it has evolved.
  • The ‘interventions’ in large complex systems that do work — in fact, without them, many complex systems would collapse much more quickly — are workarounds. All large corporations and other bureaucracies accomplish most of what they do by virtue of workarounds instituted by people on the front lines — workarounds that often circumvent and even violate official ‘policy’ but are the only way to get what is needed actually done. The heads of the smartest large organizations realize this and don’t try to stifle workarounds, and may even quietly reward them.

Stories, in short, are fictions, deceptions, simplifications, inventions. They are propaganda, even though they may be well-intentioned. They are not true. They may be useful, for teaching, for persuading, for brainwashing. But they are not true. The truth is complex, and no story can tell it.

The stories in your daily news, the biographies you read, the ‘self-help’ books with stories of transformation, the case studies you take up in business school, the myths and fables you grew up with, the war stories, success stories, creation stories, the epic novels and plays and films of all genres, and even documentaries — all stories, convenient, arousing, manipulating, entertaining, distorting, oversimplifying fictions, packaged and sold to us avid (or reluctant) consumers. We want to believe it’s simple, that it can be fully understood, that there’s a simple answer, and we loathe complexity because it won’t give us simple ‘truths’. But if it’s about organisms or people or societies or ecologies, or even scientific phenomena (all complex systems), it’s never simple.

Look at the elements of archetypal stories: They have a sympathetic protagonist, a struggle against a heinous unredeemable enemy (which may be human, or not, and may be metaphorical, or even within the protagonist), a ‘turning point’, and a resolution, redemption, or salvation — a great and victorious change. None of these things is real — reality is always far more complex than this. Consider the situation in Syria, for example. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and how should we intervene? Think you know? Not so fast. Here’s just a teaser (courtesy of the Vlog brothers) on how complex the situation there really is, and there is no intervention that is likely to help the situation more than it worsens it. (In fact, it’s even more complex than the Vlog brothers portray it.) And the situation in Ukraine is even more complex than that.

Let’s consider some of the stories that progressives love to tell: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” story. The invention of the Internet. The abolition of slavery and forced segregation. The defeat of Nazism and the fall of  the Soviet (and other tyrannical) empires. The extension of rights to women, gays and minorities. The ending of the Vietnam War. We tell these stories, with the best of intentions, as if they were true.

But as tempting as it may be to see a powerful cause-and-effect in a few actions by one or a few people, the sheer complexity of these systems is such that change, which in history books is written by the victors who always overstate their successes and omit their failures, occurs slowly and unpredictably as the result of a million factors, most of them uncontrollable. Social change occurs when the majority are fed up with the status quo. Each new generation is less attached to that status quo, and hence more open to changes, some of which are for the better, and some of which are for the worse. And all inventions are built, as they say, on the shoulders of giants. The Internet was inevitable once certain prerequisite technologies had been invented or evolved (many of which were invented for completely unrelated reasons), and it was impossible without those prerequisites. A number of those prerequisite technologies were, no doubt, invented for military ends.

Of course, you can change people’s minds about issues you care about (most effectively by telling them stories). But often they will change them back again. As Dennett and Lakoff say, changing the worldview that underlies someone’s beliefs is something very different. It’s a slow and unreliable process. And even then there’s the additional step of actually getting them to act on that changed worldview. And that action, if it happens, is only one a million variables affecting the system, most of which have evolved to keep the system in stasis as long as possible.

We want to believe that individual conviction and effort can make a difference. And of course, at the local level it can. But trying to change large, complex systems quickly (in less than a generation) is like trying to get the waves of the sea to part. And even when these systems collapse, as all systems do, we can’t expect to be able to impose, on any significant scale, a new ideal ‘designed’ system on the ensuing chaos that will work. Lenin tried that.

Instead, what we can do is find workarounds that make things at the immediate level where we do have some control, work a bit better. And if we build strong connections and a sense of local community, we can co-develop and share those workarounds for the benefit of others. Then, as the current economic and political systems continue to collapse, we will have the rudiments of new systems that can gradually replace them. This is already happening in different ways in many places.

And we can, instead of trying to change teetering, large, complex systems, adapt to the realities of these systems by learning new competencies and capacities that will enable us to thrive as these systems collapse, to starve them to the extent they’re destructive, and to stay out of their way.

And, instead of dwelling on the stories we tell about the past and the future, and about ourselves and the world, we can simply be present, attentive to what is and can be done, right here, right now.

This is how wild creatures deal with complex systems (such as their ecosystems, and human systems that intervene in their habitat). They work around, they adapt, they learn, and they live in the moment. They have no need for stories.

Such mundane, local work is not, of course, the stuff of great stories. There are no heroes, no enemies vanquished, no great victories after epic struggle, no dramatic turning points, no great redemption or salvation. There are no inspiring leaders, taking us valiantly forward. There is no great change. No ‘progress’.

I love stories. They’re a great way to remember things, and to learn simple things, and to imagine possibilities, and to entertain each other. But we should be careful not to believe them, not to base our beliefs or actions on them, and not to hope (or fear) they will ‘come true’. They aren’t true. Not any of them.

February 28, 2014

In Awe of the Possibility

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:13


image by Scott Hanft

Our industrial civilization has created a scarcity of everything, and not just of ‘consumables’: We’ve also, at least in our minds, created a scarcity of relationship (too many ‘Facebook’ friends and not enough real ones), trust, collaboration, time, and even love. Love, we are told, comes once in a lifetime, it’s personal, it’s hard work, and, of course, you can only really love one person at a time. No surprise there’s so much jealousy and loneliness in our world.

I asked a friend of mine the other day what kind of loving relationships she has now, and what she is now looking for. I knew she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend and that the breakup was difficult for her. I also know she has a very strong and deep network of friends.

Her response surprised me. She said (I’m paraphrasing):

I have a lot of friends who I care deeply about, and they sustain me. What I seek is a monogamous and deeply spiritual connection, a ‘oneness’ with someone based on mutual devotion and worship of each other. I want all that, and I’m convinced it’s out there. Until I find that, I’m perfectly content to live, and be, ‘alone’.

Devotion. Worship. That seemed an almost antiquated view of love, particularly for a woman. Is such love possible without ‘losing’ yourself, without enslaving yourself, I wondered.

But as I spoke with her, I realized that she is speaking from a worldview in which there is an unlimited abundance of love in the world, and that it’s possible to love, and to give, without in any way diminishing yourself or your love for and of others. In fact such love could be the ultimate form of self-realization.

Her spirituality is very personal, but it is rooted in Eastern spiritual principles that see all life on Earth as connected and as one, and which see love as the purpose, the driver, for everything in life. In this view love isn’t just an emotion, a feeling one has for someone or something. It is the essence of life, and exists beyond the physical plane. Life’s purpose is not to understand, or procreate, or provide some kind of legacy; it’s to love everyone and everything, to transcend the limitations of our bodies and our thoughts and our feelings.

I’ve written occasionally about brief glimpses of this kind of transcendence, this kind of presence where there are no boundaries, there is no time, there is no suffering, there is no ‘I’ or ‘other’. Where ‘I’ simply disappear into the wholeness of everything.

A year ago, in an article on my ‘presence’ practice, I wrote about this as a possible ultimate outcome of such a practice:

How do I imagine, in my moments of inquiry and contemplation, my normal state of living if I were able to awaken, connect, and realize who/what I (and the unity of which I am inextricably a part) really am, every moment?

I imagine myself in a state that is at once very relaxed and very aware. A state where my intellect is largely at rest (and damn, it needs a rest!) and where my emotions are calm, even, compassionate, and playful — not “under control” but just at peace. A state where my senses and instinct come to the fore, with my senses acute, noticing, connected, taking in, feeling-at-one-with, enjoying, and my instincts are ‘directing’ ‘me’, gently, letting go, letting things come, just being present, being generous, ‘touching’ appropriately when that ‘touch’ would be helpful.

No longer my ‘self’.

I imagine myself being just a part, flying, floating. Green and blue and white, flowing and glowing.

Softening. Getting lighter.


I think this is what my friend means as the place from which to enter into a love that is mutual devotion and worship. That love for ‘one other’ is not something apart from the love of everyone or everything, it builds upon the foundation of that love of everyone and everything. Only once she is herself in that state of ‘being’ –self-less, light, peaceful and connected, and can recognize and see this ‘other’ in the same state, can they together begin to create this even more intense love and devotion to and worship of each other, because that devotion is not exclusionary of the rest of existence, it is a deeper expression of that love for the rest of existence.

It hurts my head thinking about this, and our language is utterly inadequate to express these concepts. The words have been mostly co-opted by new age opportunists who prey on our anxiousness to proclaim this a state that is rare and exclusive and painless and above the masses and available if only you’ll buy their book and take their courses.

But what my friend says makes sense, not in the intellectual ‘sense’ of the word but in the sensuous ‘sense’, the intuitive ‘sense’. When she said it, it was as if I had a sudden glimpse of something so far beyond what I usually think and feel that I was briefly in awe, not of her, but of the possibility she was describing.

I realized that she brings this ‘sense’-ability to everything she does. Her work, which is extraordinary, is a form of devotion, love, worship of those she works with and for. And that love is unlimited, energizing not exhausting. And it is only possible from that state of presence and acceptance that she has practiced her whole life, and continues to practice. So now she hopes (without actually ‘hoping’) that she will find ‘an other’ who shares that, with whom she can build that next level of love and devotion and worship, to love even more. Or rather, she hopes that it will find her.

I hope it happens for her.

So back to my ‘presence’ practice, as discouraging and unproductive as it seems to be. If I am going to truly be of use to the world, in what’s left of my life, I need to be able to transcend (move past or around, nothing ‘mystical’ here) my own anxieties, my grief, my impatience, my mind’s false ‘sense’ of reality. To transcend them not by ‘detaching’ from my feelings, and others’, but by seeing them as just what they are — feelings, conceptions, reactions, inventions that are understandable and worthy of empathy, but not really ‘real’. And to do all this not in order to ‘better’ my ‘self’ but to get beyond my ‘self’ (my fictitious but demanding and preoccupying ego) and its limitations. To love more. To float, to fly, to vanish. To be a part.

How much might we love, and how much might we be able to give, if we could just get past this complex and intricate prison of scarcity and limits that our minds (in their terrible and misguided attempt to make ‘sense’ of us and who ‘we’ are) have locked us into.

So hard. Maybe not going to happen, at least to me. But still, I am, sometimes, in awe of the possibility.

February 9, 2014

How Our Narratives Inform Our Hopes for Change

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:07


dust storm, texas 1935; image from wikipedia

When co-founder of the Permaculture Movement David Holmgren recently suggested it might be better for the world if we were to try to precipitate global economic collapse in order to mitigate runaway climate change, he received a harsh response from Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins, and somewhat more sympathetic responses from Dmitry Orlov and Nicole Foss. The second article (due out next month) in my series for Shift Magazine will talk more about this, but in the meantime I wanted to recommend to you Agency on Demand, a fascinating take on this debate, written by Eric Lindberg.

Eric’s point is that the markedly different positions staked out by well-meaning, informed people on this issue stem from their different worldviews — the way they see our human culture operating and functioning, how they perceive the world really works. What underlies those worldviews, he says, are our narratives, our stories of how we believe humans got here, and how humans think and act, individually and collectively, which is largely a conflation of our own personal stories and the stories of others we have chosen to read and integrate with our own.

A critical factor differentiating these diverse worldviews and narratives, Eric argues, is our perception of human agency — what humans are capable of doing, individually and collectively, when they share a worldview and when they do not. The more I study history, and the more I learn about complex systems and their intractability, the more I am coming to share Eric’s view that our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

My friend Paul Heft wrote a good synopsis and reflection on what Eric has said, to some of his Transition colleagues, and he’s given me permission to publish it here.

Paul’s post:

Erik Lindberg’s essay on analyzing collapse narratives is insightful. Basically he’s questioning, do the assumptions behind our narratives still seem sensible, or are they merely comforting myths? Can people really make history the way we hope, especially given what we know now? Are we the conscious ones, or are we still deluded? Are we ready to give up our beliefs and move toward reality, or is that too uncomfortable?

I count myself as a radical, because for decades I have believed that the problems of the world are system problems–they’re not just isolated events, the consequence of particular circumstances or the decisions of particular people–and therefore the solutions require radical changes to the systems (economics, politics, etc.) by which we live. But radical changes to existing systems are difficult, they are constantly resisted by the existing institutions, by the powerful people that benefit most from the status quo, and by the masses of people who fear they will lose something if the systems in which they are embedded were to be altered. As Lindberg points out, the radical changes of the past, the political or economic “revolutions” or wars, have failed or have spawned terrible regimes or have had devastating unintended consequences.

Lindberg’s “Liberal” histories have a long tradition of rationalizing negative consequences, so that in hindsight we can claim to see continual progress with a few unfortunate episodes thrown in for color. It’s a very handy point of view for the ruling elites, but I don’t buy it. Lindberg rightly points out how many critics of the status quo, such as myself, are left feeling powerless to make the radical changes we feel are necessary, because we don’t see a path without the possibility of even greater harm; and I would add that we’re dispirited (for various reasons) by non-radical campaigns such as those the environmental movement and the Democrats conduct.

Lindberg states that the Transition Movement holds a kind of belief in the inevitability of radical change due to the inevitable decline of oil and other fossil fuels. The belief is that “people will find the joys of community and simple purposeful living far more compelling than the collapsing and increasingly alienating industrial structure of society,” so they will be eager to give up on the existing economic and political system.

Clearly [Lindberg] no longer has faith in “this sort of historical necessity” of a positive “revolution”. He sees the peak oil problem being too easily ignored; the energy descent it forces is too gradual, while the economy continues to support rather high prices for oil. My belief is that the rising cost of production of oil (and liquid fuels in general) definitely constrains the global economy, but not enough to force it to crash or to change its basic mechanisms. For decades there will be plenty of money to be made (by the wealthy) by keeping the economy running in its profit-generating mode, though we might be stuck in a perpetual depression. What Transition sees as opportunity “to build a better alternative,” most of the world will see as the opportunity for a higher standard of living slipping away. Lindberg doubts the chances “for a small and relatively obscure movement to gain widespread support and rework the wants, wishes, and expectations of the industrialized world, especially when the vested interests that control most media and spend trillions of dollars a year on advertisements will do everything in their power to stop it in its tracks.”

Lindberg sketches out how increasing numbers of people who are aware of the predicaments and injustices of the world feel themselves forced into a radical dilemma. They see the dangers threatened by climate change increasing in the direction of gross habitat destruction and even, possibly, the extinction of humanity (and perhaps most other species we are familiar with). They see that political leaders are unable to deal “rationally” with climate change and peak oil–all decisions are economic decisions and money is the only measure of value, preserving the economic system in its present form is the top priority, their charter to maintain the near term profits of the wealthy overshadows the “greatest good”–in every powerful nation, of every political stripe. They are beginning to see that the worldwide capitalist economic system is prepared to grind every bit of value out of the earth and our labors, regardless of the effects on habitats or on human welfare, for the sake of continuing to accumulate wealth and maintaining the powers that be. The great machine will grind on, more slowly or more quickly, and will brook no opposition. States are expanding their powers to control their populations, knowing that some resistance is inevitable. The quest for power, and the money to exercise that power, takes precedence over all other considerations. If revolution is needed, is that even possible?

At this point, many people in the Transition Movement might object that I ought to have a better attitude. In Lindberg’s terms, they argue that “a free and independent people must learn how to impose limits on their freedom and power” in a “possible triumph of free will”. We must choose to believe that people around the world can influence their leaders (cf. 350.org’s efforts) to lead us in sacrifices to halt climate change and deal with peak oil better–even though the politicians are paid by the wealthy to keep the economic engine grinding away. My own opinion is that this is a pipe dream, a delusion. A similar, common response is a call for faith, a belief in miracles (delivered by technology, or evolution, or movements, or whatever) as against cynicism: Yes, the situation looks grim, no solution is simple, maybe none is obvious, but if we give up then of course the results will be bad. This isn’t Lindberg’s attitude, and it’s not mine, I’m too much a believer in a “reality” that we need to discover by questioning, not just letting our desires lead us. But if you can develop this faith, this better attitude, you can continue campaigning, with hope, for many more years.

David Holmgren suggested a different way for us to radically influence the economic system: to bypass the leaders and the political process, and instead undermine the economy by stepping out of it. (Some localization efforts are a way to step out of the global economy, one consequence often being to reduce the contribution to its destructive activity.) He hopes that if enough of us around the world turn our backs on the global economy, it will crash (since it is presently built on a fragile foundation of enormous debt); the economic engine will grind to a halt and thus habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions will reduce tremendously.

Lindberg, despite his article’s title, doesn’t address this particular strategy much except as an example of the radical, morally ambiguous choices we are starting to feel forced to make. It’s unclear how practical Holmgren’s suggestion is. Would an economic crash really stop the global economic engine, or just interrupt it briefly? What would the state’s response be? Would Transition’s localization efforts be villified and even legally limited? How great would the suffering, and thus the backlash, be in the developed nations and the rest of the world? Might an economic crash–for any reason–usher in a fascistic political system and large scale war as it did in Europe during the Great Depression?

Lindberg warns that we “may have a series of unbearable decisions in the days and years ahead.” The collapse we foresee includes “predictable violence.” Our own planned actions will have results that are “neither controllable nor predictable.” Even nonradical actions, such as “just planting trees” or “building community”, are decisions not to engage in radical actions such as resistance to the system; such negative decisions will have unpredictable consequences too–Chris Hedges, for example, warns that impending fascism must be opposed. I don’t think Lindberg argues for no action, I think he is asking us to check reality and realize the dilemmas we face.

In the course of making such “unbearable decisions”, what delusions are we ready to give up?

    • Do we need to believe that the economics of oil production will be the key driver in changing our economy and how we live?
    • Do we need to believe that climate change can be stopped through political action?
    • Do we need to believe in “the responsibilities of a citizen of a democratic society”?
    • Do we need to believe that we can foresee the effects of our action or inaction, that we are confidently working for good and avoiding harm?
    • Do we need to believe that the “bad guys” are the reason for the world not working as we desire?
    • Do we need to believe that we are doing God’s work, or that humanity has a purpose as a species, or that Nature has a plan or key role for us?
    • Do we need to believe that our activities now are building the better future we are desperately trying to imagine?
    • Do we have faith in capitalism to “green itself” and make a better world, or do we demand that others have faith that undermining capitalism will make enough room for us to make a better world?
    • Do we need to believe that consciousness is evolving so that there is a growing proportion of people who are as aware as we are?
    • Do we need to believe that we understand people’s motivations?
    • Do we need to believe in rational decision making?
    • Do we need to believe that mass movements are necessary? that individual virtue is necessary? that our own contribution is important?
    • Do we need to invent a new narrative that clarifies how we fit into the great sweep of history, that explains how we contribute to progress?

Questioning these things makes us anxious; we have grown up believing that we should be able to figure everything out, that there are right and wrong answers, that the world can be understood and explained (often according to rules and mechanisms), that reasonable people can come to agreement.

When Lindberg concludes that “Moral philosophy and deep spirituality may be our solace and salvation,” I think he is implying the need to step back and seek a larger perspective. Of course that just leads to more questions, but perhaps less anxiety, as we learn to take these things less personally: who are “we” that feel responsible for the world? Can the world get along without me? Who demands that my decisions be correct? Can I be open to others’ ideas, without judging them or myself as right or wrong? Do I need to feel in control of my future, or the world’s future?

Certainly I am anxious about the world and my role in it. Sometimes I’m sad or angry. Sometimes I’m depressed, feeling utterly small and powerless. Increasingly I’m able to accept the world, even though it will never fit with my ideals; it’s not an object made to my measure. Blaming myself or others doesn’t seem helpful. I practice meditation, hoping that I can avoid the domination of thought and learn to honor feeling, as a path to better knowing reality and realizing what actions to take.

.     .     .     .     .

I don’t have a lot to add to what Paul has said, since his worldview and mine are pretty congruent. Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming. The Map above, from my post last spring, shows some of the worldviews of different groups in the 21st century, and what they each “need to believe”.

A number of my collapsnik friends  believe that brutal fascism is inevitably what happens when those with wealth and power are threatened, as they certainly are by the global economic collapse we will surely face whether we try to precipitate it or not. So, they say, if some of us try to precipitate it sooner, we might end up being the scapegoats for its occurrence. Depending on your worldview, your narrative, and your sense of the potential for human agency, it may or may not be worth doing anyway.

My worldview, perhaps naively, is that economic collapse will sap the ability of the rich and powerful to bring to bear armies, militias, legal and media stormtroopers to try to hold off collapse or control the rest of the populace. And, also perhaps naively, I believe that in times of mutual struggle and despair most people can and do care about and look after each other, and that hence Mad Max collapse scenarios are highly unlikely. Perhaps that is just something I “need to believe”, and I am constantly re-examining it.

What is at the heart of many worldviews is a “need to believe” both in human agency, and in a better future. In the bullet points above, Paul might seem to be questioning this need to believe, but he’s actually saying, I think, that we would be well-advised to become aware of what is our own “need to believe”, and what is the “need to believe” of other informed and caring people, and how those different “needs” reflect different narratives of the human story (and of our own personal story), and different senses of human agency. And then to appreciate and respect those differences, rather than arguing about (or trying to change) them.

My worldview, narrative and sense of human agency have evolved greatly over the past decade, and continue to do so. But, as Beth Patterson pointed out in a comment on my last post, a shift from a salvationist to a collapsnik position may only be possible after a deep and painful process of dealing with the overwhelming grief that is often a prerequisite of such an acknowledgement of inevitable loss. We have to allow that process of our fellow caring, anxious human colleagues, and give them time until they are ready to ask themselves and listen to challenging truths, and until they have at least begun to process the commensurate grieving.

I believe that collapse (economic collapse, runaway climate change, and perhaps energy/resource exhaustion as well) is coming or cannot be averted, and that it will be unpleasant for most. But these days I am beginning to see collapse as a natural and inevitable process that will lead, in time, to a new equilibrium of life-on-Earth, with the much-smaller human population becoming, as it was for its first million years on the planet, a small and incidental player in the panorama of life on Earth, living joyfully in places we are naturally adapted to live.

For now, at least, that’s what I need to believe.

December 24, 2013

Who Are We, Uncivilized?

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:22


Bonobo photo by Christian Ziegler for National Geographic.

Once I’ve finished my three-part series on complexity for Shift magazine, explaining why our energy, economic and ecological systems are headed inevitably for collapse, I’m proposing to write a series of speculative stories for the magazine on what life might be like for humans after collapse.

Many authors have written about life during or shortly after collapse, and most such stories are dystopias. But I think it would be more inspiring to write about life a few millennia in the future. In order to do that, I think I have to get a sense of what humans are really like, underneath the trappings of civilization, liberated from its programming, its homogenizing, colonizing, poisonous, domesticating, addictive, inhibiting influence.

Anarchist writer Wolfi Landstreicher gave us some clues, when he wrote:

We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

Could we live this way, if we dispensed with civilization culture? What will we be like when we’re feral again?

I’ve done a lot of reading, of late, about indigenous tribes relatively untouched by civilization, about feral children who grew up without the mental programming of language in their neural circuitry, about bonobos and chimps and baboons and other close relatives of our species, and about prehistoric human societies, to try to answer this question. The bias, and blindness, in most of these accounts is astonishing and unsettling, especially since some of them were written quite recently. But setting that aside, here are, I think, some of the qualities of feral humans — the humans who will represent our species when civilization is gone and forgotten. Our descendants, I believe, will:

  1. Live outside of ‘clock’ time. Like wild creatures, they will only live in the world of constrained, measured, fast-moving time that civilized humans live their whole lives in, during brief moments of fight-or-flight stress. The rest of their lives will be spent in ‘now’ time, in an eternal, joyful present, the way our long-distant ancestors lived, I believe, before the migration from the safety of our idyllic tropical rainforest tree homes, for reasons we can only guess at.
  2. Live without the use of abstract languages. Not because they will no longer be able to invent and use them, but because, like the great whales and other intelligent creatures, they will have no need for them. They will communicate as wild creatures do, through expression, gesture, song, and the senses of touch and smell. That communication will be, in many ways, more profound and more articulate than what our modern languages are capable of.
  3. Live in small, extremely diverse, nomadic communities of several dozen people, tribes, mostly in areas where humans are able to live comfortably without technology — the tropical, treed areas from whence we came, a million years ago. After the current runaway climate change, it’s impossible to guess where on Earth those places will be by then.
  4. Be vegetarians, once again eating the foods our bodies, lacking in claws, canine teeth and speed, have evolved to eat. It will be complex — once we’ve lost and forgotten the technologies of hunting, we will likely reduce our habitat to the locations and ways that are consistent with a non-hunting, un-settled life. We will be capable of reinventing and rediscovering these technologies, of course, but won’t unless and until we must to survive. If we can thrive without them, we will. If the climate of that time is inhospitable, we’ll either shrink our numbers to inhabit only the most hospitable areas (as bonobos did), or we will learn to use technologies that will let us survive in less naturally hospitable areas (as chimps did). Or, most likely, we’ll evolve with a shifting balance of both. How do bonobos live? Here’s what National Geographic says: “Bonobos eat a lot of the herby vegetation that is abundant in all seasons—big reedy stuff like cornstalks and starchy tubers like arrowroot—which offers nutritious shoots and young leaves and pith inside the stems, rich in protein and sugars. Bonobos, then, have an almost inexhaustible supply of reliable munchies. So they don’t experience lean times, hunger, and competition for food as acutely as chimpanzees do.”
  5. Be physically healthy, strong and beautiful, almost without exception. This has always been the nature of feral species living in balance with other creatures. Our descendants will neither need nor want clothes, analgesics, or reality-escaping substances. Their bodies will be beloved canvasses of expression, not prisons of self-loathing.
  6. Play, and create, a lot. This assumes we are able to avoid the inhibiting effects of (self-created) captivity and self-domestication. The New Yorker explains: “Captivity can have a striking impact on animal behavior. As Craig Stanford, a primatologist at the University of Southern California, recently put it, ‘Stuck together, bored out of their minds—what is there to do except eat and have sex?’” Civilization is a form of such captivity: Instead of letting us use our leisure time for creative endeavours like art and recreation, civilization assumes we will (apparently like baboons and chimps, but not bonobos) use any leisure time in destructive, antisocial activity, and hence establishes systems that consume all possible leisure time in mindless tasks of work (essentially as slaves) and consumption. It assumes we have to be ‘domesticated’ for our own good. But if we’re not captives — if we’re truly feral — we will never be bored, and, I believe, we will fill that time (beyond eating and having sex, which I expect we will do a lot of, unrestricted by scarcity, obesity-causing processed foods, rules about monogamy, and jealousy) in play and in individual and social recreation. This is the attribute of feral humans I am least sure about, however. I would not want to be a chimp or a baboon, now or then. I am both alarmed and encouraged by what scientists like Robert Sapolsky have learned about primate behaviour. And I would find writing about creatures who are incorrigibly aggressive and violent when not occupied by the needs of the moment (i.e. Mad Max characters), terribly depressing.

One of the qualities that characterizes almost all human stories is the positive transformation of a sympathetic protagonist, and/or a situation, usually through adversity. Stories, we are told, must have struggle, conflict, drama, and progress, or they aren’t interesting, aren’t ‘stories’ at all.

I have a big problem with this argument, which strikes me as unthinking literary dogmatism. Mystery stories, for example, generally have as their essential element a problem to solve rather than a conflict to resolve, and this problem-solving doesn’t require adversity, transformation, or struggle. They are puzzles, and they can also be great stories.

Likewise, although modern comedies too often stoop to mindless ridicule, and get much of their energy from the reader’s or viewer’s loathing of obnoxious characters, the best comedies, I think, are gentle, witty, and teach us things in an engaging way that doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t disparage, and, basically, doesn’t have a lot of drama. Yet they are still great stories. (Two of my favourites are Annie Hall and Noises Off.)

My favourite TV series is Aaron Sorkin’s comedy Sports Night, where unexpected and only occasionally unfortunate things happened to its mostly sympathetic and quirky characters. What made this series great for me was the dialogue, which was witty, human, engaging and resonating. The characters talked about their feelings, their fears, their doubts, their beliefs, what they were passionate about, and why. Watching it was like meeting new, wonderful friends.

So I’m inclined to make my stories, set in a future as distant from today as the era of the great pyramids, about feral future humans with the six qualities above, and have those stories be a mixture of mystery and comedy.

This will be a huge challenge. Somehow I will have to relate my stories’ characters’ feelings without the use of dialogue, by describing what they do and how they look — their body and facial ‘language’ — and by conveying what they’re feeling by getting inside their non-verbal heads and describing what’s happening there. I want to do that in a way that’s not forced or difficult for the reader — so I don’t want to invent yet another ‘language’ and make my readers learn it. And I know the English language is inadequate for the task, limited as it is to the purposes of control, instruction and patriarchy for which it was designed. It may be that these stories will have to be conveyed as plays or films, rather than in text, to increase the tools I have available to do this.

What I may have to do to accomplish this, is to bring together a group of actors, and have them co-develop with me a set of possible gestures, expressions, and representations of how an intelligent creature that is more intuitive, perceptual and holistic and less ‘literal’, logical and conceptual than modern humans might think and communicate.

I think this will be provocative and interesting enough for the audience that there will be no need for a lot of drama or struggle for the characters. I want to explore what makes these future feral humans laugh, what brings them joy, how amazingly diverse they will be in the absence of a homogenizing culture. I’m a great admirer of mystery stories, so I’d love for the story to revolve around a mystery. A mystery great enough to transcend the millennia between astonishingly different cultures. And one that guesses at what we humans will be like when we’re feral again. I think this would make a great, if highly unconventional, story. But damn, it will not be easy.

Comments and counsel welcome.

November 26, 2013

What I Hope to Be Next Year

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 22:35


Let things ripen, and then fall; force is not the way at all.
Just let go and we will see: the way to do is to be.
(– Lao Tzu, song adaptation by Laurence Cole; thanks to Shasta Martinuk and Brian Hoover for introducing me to it.)

About five years ago I published a musing based on an exchange I had with my friend Paul Heft. It took the “three circles” diagram from my book Finding the Sweet Spot, that endeavours to help you discover what (work) you’re meant to do, and morphed it into the more existential three circles diagram shown above, that endeavours to help you discover what (who) you’re meant to be.

The differences are analogous but substantial: What I’m meant to do lies at the intersection of what I do well (my Gifts), what I love doing (my Passions) and what the world needs now (my Purpose). What I’m meant to be lies at the intersection of what I am good at being (my Capacities), what I love being (my Joys) and what I and my community(ies) need and want me to be (my/our Desires).

There are subtle but important distinctions here: Compassion, for example, is a Capacity of Being rather than a Gift (skill). Being self-sufficient is (for many) a Joy (something we(‘d) love to be, rather than a Passion (something we love to do). Patient is something those in my communities might want or need me to be (a Desire), rather than something they might want or need me to do (a Purpose). And, importantly, these qualities of Being are not just personal, but rather both collective and personal; we are social creatures, and without each other we cannot be much.

I’m re-exploring this because I’ve come to realize (especially since my retirement from paid work) that we are indoctrinated to spend most of our lives trying to figure out what to do, rather than what/who to be. The world doesn’t care who we are, this would seem to suggest, only what we do. It’s a materialistic argument that comes from a worldview of impersonality and scarcity, and I’m no longer sure it serves us well.

I’m deliberately using the expression “what I’m meant to be” rather than “who I’m meant to be” because I’m not convinced we can really change who we are. If I were to say I want to be empathetic (when I know I’m really not), that’s an aspiration about who I want to be, and I think that’s generally futile. On the other hand, if I were to say I want to be provocative (which is certainly within the realm of who I am), that’s an aspiration about what attributes of myself I want to exhibit (“be” in the state of) more often. Hope that’s not too confusing.

To my surprise, while the Sweet Spot of What I’m Meant to Do continues to evolve each year (though I confess I no longer pay it much attention), the attributes and states of Being at the intersections and centre of the three circles (shown in italics in the diagram above — What I’m Meant to Be) has not really changed for me in five years. I know the people in my communities, those I love, want me to be perceptive, sensitive and patient, and that I will try my best but largely fail to be so. I know I’m intelligent and intuitive and that is valued by those in my communities, but this brings me little happiness. I know that I’m good at being reflective and playful, and love being so, but those in my communities don’t much care about that. Oh well. I’ll be that way anyway. And I know that I want above all to be more present, but that I really suck at it — my moments of presence come when I don’t expect them, and all too rarely.

But I also know that being articulate, provocative and imaginative are in my “being Sweet Spot”: I love being these things, and am good at them, and being these things is valued by those I know and care about. My moments of true connection, appreciation, and feelings of being “nobody but myself” come when I am being these things. Same as five years ago.

So I’ve been having a bunch of conversations with people I love, people I know, and people I’ve just met lately, to explore how I can be these things, instead of trying to be who I’m not and do what I have no Passion, Gift or sense of Purpose for. Thanks to all of you for your forbearance and inspiration in that process. Because through these conversations I’ve discovered two ways I can be articulate, provocative and imaginative, and at the same time do things that are in my “doing Sweet Spot”:

First, I’ve realized that my ‘place’ among the collapsniks — the growing group of informed, thoughtful people chronicling the crumbling of our global industrial civilization with the knowledge that collapse is inevitable and even desirable — is as the one who articulates an appreciation of how complex systems work and why (provocatively) it is the momentum and inertia and positive and negative feedback loops of such systems that prevent us from steering them away from catastrophe and collapse, not any inherent failing of human character, will or ingenuity. No one is to blame; it’s the system we collectively evolved. And also, my ‘place’ is to be the one articulating how that appreciation of complexity can help us ‘be’ more resilient as we face the crises that will culminate in civilization’s slow (over a few decades) collapse.

And secondly, I’ve realized that my ‘place’ among writers about grief and history and possibility is as the one who puts our current predicament — the end of our brief few millennia of cheap energy, economic ‘growth’ and climate stability — in the context of a million years of human existence on Earth, and writes stories of an astonishing future centuries and millennia after the fall of this fragile, unsustainable, ghastly blip of  ‘civilization’, when a small remaining human population combines the ancient knowledge of how to live gently and joyfully on our planet with the select knowledge of science and art and manufacture, to create a world of unimaginable beauty, wonder, harmony, creativity, diversity, peace and joy. No dystopia after the fall; but instead, finally, the realization of what humanity might be, as part of (not the creators of) a better world. I want to tell those stories, to give us all the vision, perspective and courage to navigate the blip of civilization’s collapse.

Articulate, provocative, imaginative. That’s what this joyful pessimist hopes to be next year.

October 21, 2013

“Save the World” Reading List: 2013 Update

The Three Es

illustration of the complex relationship between economy, energy/resources, and ecology, by the author (‘up’ arrow means ‘increase’; ‘down’ arrow means ‘decrease’); economic collapse, resource exhaustion and runaway climate change: we are on track to face all three in the next few decades, and with them, the end of our civilization

IBeyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

The following list of books and readings is for people who are ready to listen to some very unorthodox and unsettling ideas and understandings. It’s a list of the essential works that have, along with my own thinking, synthesis and conversations over the past decade, led to a radical shift in my worldview. I have deleted many of the works listed in my previous (2008) “Save the World Reading List” and added some explanation of the key learnings from each reading in this shorter list. I hope it will give you some appreciation of the thinking in this blog, and the opportunity to experience some brilliant, insightful and astonishing writing about who we are, how the world works and what we might do now.

The links to each item in the list below are to my own or others’ reviews of these works, or to excerpts or summaries of them.


When I started blogging ten years ago, in February 2003, I was told (and believed) I was a success — as a writer, innovative thinker and business “executive”. But after 30 years on the sidelines of the environmental movement, I felt lost, as if I had somehow lost my way and didn’t recall when that had happened. I began to research what was really going on in the world, and why, after the heady idealism of the 1960s, my generation seemed to have made things unimaginably worse, not better.

My inquiries led me to explore particularly two things:

  1. How the world really works (socially, politically, ecologically) as contrasted to the simplistic way the media seemed to be portraying it, and
  2. How we, the human species, really ‘work’ — why has our civilization culture come to be what it is, what motivates us to do what we do, and who are we, really?

The first line of inquiry led me to study complexity theory and gaia theory, and to explore some of the ideas at the intersections of the various sciences. My first revelation was reading the works of evolutionary theorists, most notably . 01 Stephen J Gould’s Full House, in which he argues that evolution is more a random than a ‘progressive’ process, and explains that many ‘advances’ that appear natural or evolutionary were in fact improbable, unintended consequences, accidents. Statistically, he argued, the appearance of vertebrates on Earth was a millions-to-one long shot. Gould and his colleague Richard Lewontin also vigorously opposed the ideas of EO Wilson and others who believe that social/cultural ‘evolution’ occurs in a way analogous to physical evolution.

I found the idea that the emergence of humans on the planet was accidental and highly improbable disturbing, but compelling. I went on to read . 02 Ronald Wright’s  A Short History of Progress (and similar works by others e.g. . 03 Jared Diamond’s  “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” and .04 Richard Manning’s Against the Grain — both referring to the development of “catastrophic” agriculture), and then.05 Daniel Quinn’s  Story of B and .06  Beyond Civilization. These books argue compellingly that human history, from our emergence a millions years ago, has not been one of progress but rather one of violence, unsustainable short-term thinking, creation of technologies that create more problems (in the long run) than they solve (in the short run), brutal hierarchy, relentless and destructive violence, and a total inability to learn the lessons of our history (so we keep repeating our errors on an ever-increasing scale).

At this point I was reading an average of two books a week including everything I could find on “cultural studies” and evolutionary biology. I discovered by reading . 07 Michael Boulter’s Extinction that the Sixth Great Extinction of life on Earth has been going on inexorably since humans invented arrowheads and spears, and from reading . 08 Peter Jay’s The Wealth of Man and Marshall Sahlins’ essays I learned that prehistoric humans, far from living ‘nasty, short and brutish’ lives, lived lives of leisure, health and joy. And . 09 James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency provided a compelling portrait of how the end of the industrial growth economy, cheap resources, and stable climate would play out — a series of cascading crises over several decades leading to final civilizational collapse.

I next discovered .10 Derrick Jensen’s dark work  A Language Older Than Words and my ideas about the inherent nature of humans began to shift. While I remain convinced that humans are not by nature ‘evil’ or destructive, I have come to believe that we are inherently violent, and that our modern overpopulated, resource-depleted and stress-exhausted society has made us all mentally ill, and disconnected us from our inherent (and evolutionarily sensible) biophilia (love of all life on earth). We have lost the bearings that helped us live a life of abundance in balance with the rest of life, and now we don’t know what we’re doing.

This began to make more sense when I read .11 Stewart and Cohen’s Figments of Reality, which plausibly explains that our minds, which we have come to think of as ‘us’, are just a feature-detection system that evolved to help our constituent self-organizing cells and organs defend themselves, collect information and manage their collective movement in the big watery bag in which they’d come to live. But this feature-detection system, in yet another unintended consequence of evolution, developed an ego, a ‘mind of its own’ and developed a complicated social theory that our minds are us and that they are individually in control of who ‘we’ are and collectively in control of the planet. It is this ego, plus the self-reinforcing propaganda that humans, through our languages, are able to perpetuate to make us believe what others believe, plus the terrors our big-minded imaginations were able to invent, and then believe, and then manifest through our traumatizing behaviours and inventions, that has led to this terrible disconnection, this terrible illness that afflicts us all. Many of the “self-help” books that try to help us overcome this disconnection aim to defeat the delusion that our minds and egos are “us” so we can live more presently. I think it’s futile — we cannot be other than who we are — but the best of this genre I have read are .12 Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and .13 Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being.

So I have come to believe that it is this illness, this disconnectedness that has caused us to overpopulate and ravage the planet, with the best of intentions, in the sincere belief that we are making the world better for those we love and those to come. But now those of us paying attention have realized that we have instead destroyed our world, desolated it to the point we have pushed our civilization to the brink of economic, resource and ecological collapse, and unknowingly precipitated the Sixth Great Extinction.

Having read these works, I still wanted to be a humanist, a believer that together we could change the world, that the unintentioned disaster we have wreaked on our planet is not irreversible and that we could turn things around. But I kept encountering evidence that we have not really evolved, socially or culturally, since prehistoric times. It’s been a random walk, with periods of enlightenment and periods of barbarism, but no particular trajectory.

And my studies of complexity theory, particularly the explanation of how complex (as opposed to complicated) systems work, including an appreciation of the real import of the Jevons Paradox, made me despair that, even if we were able to get our collective act together to agree on how to mitigate the damage we have done and start to develop a culture reconnected and reintegrated with the natural world, we could not do it. We cannot change who we are, and we cannot do anything consistently and differently at any significant scale. There is too much inertia, and too much momentum, for us to change now, and as our systems get ever-larger and ever more interconnected, they become even more change resistant and, paradoxically, even more fragile. The essence of complex systems is that they evolve slowly and they cannot be controlled, predicted or significantly or reliably reformed even when these is a considerable consensus on the need to do so. All civilizations collapse of their own weight, and ours will do so spectacularly, as we face a cascading series of economic, energy and ecological crises, all of them now inevitable because of the accumulated and accelerating affect of several millennia of unintentionally and disastrously destructive human activity.

It was at this point that I read .14 John Gray’s Straw Dogs, in which he systematically deconstructs the arguments that humanism (some great upsurge of global human consciousness and conscience), or technology and innovation (our most modern religion), or anything else can ‘save us’, writing that we humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process.

“We labour under an error”, he writes. “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not… The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment… We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remaining humans are settled in cities, emulating the noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure and play. There is nothing technically impossible about such a world…A High-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like this ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens.”

He concludes: “Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”

I read this book at exactly the right time in my research and thought process. Many of those dear to me loathe the book. But I found it liberating. I suddenly knew it was not my job (despite the name of my blog) to save the world. Having passed the first denial, that climate change and the sixth extinction were real, I had now passed the second, that they can be reversed or even significantly mitigated.

Shortly thereafter, I read a prophetic book written back in 1993 by .15 David Ehrenfeld called Beginning Again in which he writes: “The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.”

And that is what I see happening now, a quarter century later. All of this has taken me from where I was to where I am now, a self-described “joyful pessimist”, freed from the burden to save the world, and free to just live, to just be.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still support humanist movements like Occupy, and the radical activism of the Deep Green Resistance movement, even though I don’t think they will accomplish anything enduring. Their heart is in the right place. And I’m still involved in the Transition/Resilience and Intentional Communities movements because their adherents are thinking in the right direction and doing some very useful things in the process, things that might be helpful to the survivors of civilization’s collapse.

What I no longer have patience for are those who would ‘design’ a better society, who believe that this is anything more than an idealistic waste of time. That is not how change has ever occurred or ever will, and a belief that we could somehow concoct a plan for a reformed, renewed civilization with all its trillions of evolved, complex, unpredictable and self-sustaining moving parts, and then implement it globally on a massive scale in just a few decades is just foolish. At any rate, although no one is listening, the climate scientists are screaming that we have already passed the tipping point, that 6C atmospheric change is coming within a few decades based on what we did in the last century and that 12C won’t be far behind. So radical redemptive change, even if it were possible, is too late. In attempting to juggle and balance economy, resources and ecology at an ever-increasing velocity, we have already dropped the ball on all three, and are now just waiting for the fall (the diagram above, which is discussed further in upcoming posts, attempts to show this precarious balance).

[paragraph added January 16, 2014] A new book by .16 Clive Hamilton called Requiem for a Species explains where we are now, as this realization of having passed the tipping point is starting to dawn on more and more of us. It presents some possible scenarios of runaway climate change, and discusses why so many are still in denial and how we can deal with the grief that we are left with when we move past that denial.

In short, our civilization cannot be saved, nor can we save the world from its ravages (which the Earth will recover from, in time). But we can start now to be prepared, so we will be resilient in the face of what we are likely to face, mostly by relearning the skills of self-knowledge, self-sufficiency, and living (and making a living) in community.

That is an extremely oversimplified summary of what has taken me from a believer in working hard towards an imagined ‘sustainable society’, to an existentialist, trying to live in the moment, joyfully, attentively. Just trying to see what really is in this staggeringly beautiful, complex, unfathomable world. I’m still writing, because it helps me think, rather than in the belief I can (or should try to) influence others’ thinking or actions.

As I say, now, it’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.


When I last put together this reading list, it had over 80 suggested readings. Many of them, I realize now, were idealistic and unrealistic proposals for how to mitigate civilization’s collapse. But some of them, while not essential enough to make the list above, are nevertheless very engaging and worth your time. Here is a list of them, by theme:

How the World Really Works, Where We Are Now, and What’s Ahead

  • The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul. The globalization of corporatism and how it has poisoned our democracy, our media, and the planet, and left us as mere consumers, dumbed-down, obedient slaves of our political and economic systems.
  • 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (signed by 1700 scientists including the majority of then-living science Nobel laureates). “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.  No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.  A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” A few decades have passed, and none of the proposed actions has been taken.
  • Population Projections, by the US Census Bureau. They’re no longer assuring us that US and Global Population will level out at 300 million and 9 billion. Would you believe 1 billion and 12 billion by the end of the century, and still rising?
  • The Two-Income Trap by (now Senator) Elizabeth Warren. The peril of fuelling a half-century of economic ‘growth’ entirely through increasing the debt load.
  • The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. A scientific explanation of global warming, how we are causing it, and the possible consequences.
  • Elizabeth Costello, by JM Coetzee (novel). Why we tolerate “a crime of stupefying proportions” against our fellow creatures on Earth.
  • A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright (novel). A speculation on what a time-traveller five hundred years into the future would find — a world with many fewer humans and a different, more modest society.*
  • Waiting for the Macaws, by Terry Glavin. A series of portraits of ecosystem destruction around the world that illustrates “the dark and gathering sameness of the world”.
  • Heat, by George Monbiot. A rigorous explanation of why, even if we exploit every renewable energy option to the max, we will still inevitably have to draw on and burn enough hydrocarbons to fry the planet.
  • The Slow Crash, by Ran Prieur. An (online) essay that explains how civilization will end, not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers. My own two cents added in this review (from 2005, and my predictions still seem very plausible).
  • Endgame, by Derrick Jensen. Volume 1 explains where we are; volume 2 provides the argument for direct action, expanded in Deep Green Resistance (below).*
  • The Great Depression, by Pierre Berton. A stark portrait of the horrific economic collapse of the 1930s that economists swore “would never be allowed to happen again” shows us what we’re facing again, now.
  • The Five Stages of Collapse, by Dmitri Orlov. How financial/economic collapse quickly leads to political collapse and then to social and cultural collapse.
  • Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth. The Dark Mountain co-founder muses on the inevitability of civilization’s collapse and the futility of trying to prevent it or mitigate its damage.
  • Deep Green Resistance, by Derrick Jensen et al. The argument for direct action: “Civilization is going to crash, whether or not we help bring this about. This crash will be messy. Since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down, whether or not we help it crash, the more life will remain afterwards to support both human and non-humans.”
  • Why We Cannot Save the World: My summary of Pollard’s Laws, the Jevons Paradox and why complex systems resist change.

Reconnecting with All-Life-on-Earth:

  • When Elephants Weep, by Jeff Masson. Compelling scientific evidence that animals feel deep emotions.
  • Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich. Compelling scientific evidence that animals are intelligent, complex, rational and communicative.
  • The Hidden Dimension, by Edward Hall. We need space and a natural environment to be healthy and human. When we’re deprived of them, we get mentally ill.
  • The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. How to reconnect with nature, and rediscover wonder.
  • Rogue Primate, by John Livingston. How anthropocentric cultural prosthesis has led our species astray, and how we might find our way back by rediscovering “the sweet bondage of wildness”.
  • The Machine in Our Heads, by Glenn Parton. How the ecological crisis is rooted in a human psychological crisis of self-colonization and disconnection.
  • Humans in the Wilderness, by Glenn Parton. An intriguing proposal for rewilding the Earth. Impractical but worth thinking about.
  • The World is Dying, by Richard Bruce Anderson. Online essay about our instinctive grief over knowing what we are doing to our beleaguered planet, and our feelings of helplessness about how to remedy it.

Preparing for Collapse:

  • Tools for Conviviality, by Ivan Illich. De-institutionalize, de-school, decentralize, reduce dependence on external authority and “expertise”. Full book is online.
  • Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen. How “giving up hope” is the first step to moving forward.*
  • Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel. Ideas to free yourself from possessions and wage slavery without sacrifice.
  • The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. What makes things change, and why most things don’t.
  • The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Why collective wisdom is better than accepted wisdom and expertise at solving problems, and how to tap it without succumbing to groupthink.
  • Biomimicry, by Janine Benyus. Lessons and approaches from nature that could inspire and make more resilient our processes for food production, harnessing energy, manufacturing, health care, education, collaboration and entrepreneurship.
  • The Logic of Sufficiency, by Thomas Princen. A set of principles, assumptions and connecting theory for rationally and collectively self-managing complex adaptive systems.*
  • The Cellular Church, by Malcolm Gladwell. An online essay that suggest cellular organization principles might allow us to accomplish, bottom-up, what political entities cannot.
  • The Democracy Project, by David Graeber. Rediscovering the true meaning and practice of democracy, bottom-up.
  • Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein. A comprehensive prescription for a true sharing economy; probably not achievable as more than an uneasy supplement to the industrial growth economy until the latter collapses, but fascinating to think about.
  • In Defiance of Gravity, by Tom Robbins. An (online) essay that argues we must “insist on joy in spite of everything.”

* additions in afterthought October 2013

Postscript: I’ve made a GoodReads list of all the books in this list: You can find it here.

August 21, 2013

A Model of Identity and Community

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:20

Model of Identity Formation rev

Aaron Williamson, a consultant in Toronto, recently published a fascinating model of the community aspects of identity as the first step towards developing a theory of community formation. The model so far is explained on his blog and I’d recommend you read his excellent, short article before continuing reading this.

Aaron asked in his post “what’s missing?” and this article is an attempt to answer that question. His original model is shown above, with my suggested additions and changes in red, and my clarifications based on his article in pale green. Here’s a summary:

  • Aaron acknowledges that “a community or potential community is a complex system” and that “community itself is an emergent quality — community, per se, does not exist; it is a perceived connection between a group of people based on overlaps of intent, identity, interest and experience“. These four aspects of our ‘selves’ are shown as green circles, above. Elements of each aspect are shown in orange circles.
  • His argument is that if we can achieve a reasonable understanding of these four aspects of our selves and see how they overlap with those of others in the group, we can ‘form’ more effective, better connected communities.
  • Aaron has created this model for use with business clients (like me, he’s an alumnus of the E&Y/Capgemini Accelerated Solutions Environment process for tackling challenging business problems). As such, he has, I think, either unintentionally or deliberately omitted the messy aspects of our identities and our ‘selves’, the emotional and subjective aspects businesses would mostly prefer you leave at the door when you report for work. This omission may make the model more palatable to business clients, but I believe it significantly weakens the model and its value in facilitating better communities.
  • Specifically, I think the aspects of identity that are missing (and I’m probably missing some more) are:
    • (a) our physical appearance and presence (like it or not, we judge people by appearances and form relationships with others based on whether we like how they look, and it’s naive, I think, to ignore this fact)
    • (b) our emotional makeup (the qualities in ourselves and others that attract us or trigger us negatively, our emotional intelligence, blind spots, passions and fears)
    • (c) our chemistry (the pheromones, hormones and other chemicals that provoke involuntary responses in us, and cause us to want or believe in sometimes-’irrational’ things)
    • (d) our values, which are a complex mix of rational, emotional, instinctive and visceral things that are important to us, and very much a part of our identities
  • Similarly, the aspect of our ‘selves’ that Aaron calls experience is, I think, better described as ‘capacities’. Memory, learning and actions all contribute to our capacities, and I think our experiences do as well, so I’ve moved experience to one of the orange circles connected to the renamed ‘capacities’ green circle. I’ve also added three other contributors to the ‘capacities’ aspect of our selves that I think Aaron missed, namely emotional capacities, innate abilities and practices. I think this change makes the model more complete and coherent.

So as Aaron explains, where there are strong ‘overlaps’ between these aspects of self among members of a group, that group will emerge to be a community (note the names applied to these four types of community below are mine, not Aaron’s):

  • If the overlap is mainly common interests, it will emerge as a Community of Interest. Learning and recreational communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common capacities, it will emerge as a Community of Practice. Co-workers, collaborators and alumni are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common intent, it will emerge as a Movement. Project teams, ecovillages and activist groups are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common identity, it will emerge as a Tribe. Partnerships, love/family relationships, gangs and cohabitants are often of this type.

That’s about as far as Aaron has taken the model publicly so far. When I worked as a consultant I was required to claim I could help clients ‘create community’ or ‘create culture’. Now I’m older and retired and can recognize this as pure hubris. You cannot create community, all you can do is try to create or influence conditions in such a way that the community self-creates (self-forms, self-organizes and self-manages) in a healthier, more self-sustainable and resilient way. Much of the work of the Transition Network, and the sister Resilience Circles network, is about doing just that.

Probably the greatest challenge to doing this is that you can’t, generally, compel anyone to be in a particular community, or exclude anyone who meets qualifying criteria from joining one. Executives can try to seed committees and groups with people they think are best suited to a particular task or role, but they can’t make them act as real communities unless the members themselves want to do so, and whether they will choose to do so depends largely on the uncontrollable overlaps and conflicts of all the factors in Aaron’s model. If the chemistry is bad, or their values irreconcilable, a group of people will act dysfunctionally no matter how theoretically well-suited they might appear to the person trying to get them into community together. If you really want to help a community succeed, you’re stuck with the people who self-select into it, including some you wish weren’t there and excluding others you’d really like to have join.

There’s a controversial principle in Open Space events that “Whoever shows up are the right people.” The best way to influence who shows up is to research who you’d like to include and then craft an invitation to the desired potential members of the community that is specifically written to make it impossible for them to resist. But even then, if they show up and get confronted by some badly-behaved person you hoped would not show up, your work could be for nothing and the community could quickly self-destruct.

Once the community has initially self-selected, the best way you can intervene to make it more effective and connected is through facilitation of their collective processes. That’s one of the reason’s I’m so proud of Group Works, the card deck of ‘patterns of excellent facilitation’ that I was involved (with many others) in creating, since it’s a tool that can help facilitators do this work more effectively. Facilitation includes helping communities reach consensus, resolve conflicts, identify shared visions and values, build affinity and capacity, create a shared, safe space for collaboration and decision-making, and achieve their intentions. So it has an impact on increasing overlaps and minimizing dissonance in all four of the aspects of self in Aaron’s model.

So, Invitation and Facilitation are critical means of helping communities to get established and to thrive once they do. A third means is Capacity Building. Not everyone has to learn all the essential capacities of a self-sufficient, empowered community. Instead, members need to identify and acknowledge their individual and collective capacities, and the collective gaps, and develop a means to trust and empower those with recognized capacities to do what they do best, and to develop new capacities that fill essential gaps in the community as a whole. Related to capacity building is helping to create and evolve Effective Processes that the community agrees to follow to perform essential collective functions.

There are five capacities that I believe everyone in a community should acquire: Self-KnowledgeSelf-Awareness, Self-Caring, Attention and Appreciation. Yet these capacities are, in my experience, scarce, even in fairly mature and well-functioning communities, and their absence is one of the main reasons for conflicts in many communities, including conflicts that break up the community. We would all be better off, I think, if we spent less time trying to ‘self-improve’ and persuade, and more trying to ‘self-accept’, ‘self-understand’, ‘self-manage’, and really listen and understand others. I have no idea how we might accomplish this; it’s taken me a lifetime to become modestly competent at these and I’m still working on it.

All told, that’s nine essential qualities (or perhaps ‘patterns’, if we use pattern language terminology) of effective community formation and sustenance. I’m sure there are many more.

That’s my contribution to the first part of Aaron’s model. I’m looking forward to seeing and contributing to it as he develops it further, and would welcome your thoughts on it — its integrity, coherence and usefulness, and how it might be employed to help communities work and play and live together better.

August 20, 2013

The Death of Imagination

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 02:55

milky way andromeda collision

NASA depiction of Earth’s night sky in 3.75B years when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are colliding

Imagination is the capacity to conjure up ideas, stories, prose, poetry, music, images, and ways to deal with problems and predicaments, seemingly out of nothing. It is the ability to be open to possibility, to let something emerge within you, and give it voice.

Creativity, by contrast, is a crafter’s art. It is the capacity to realize, to make real, either your own imaginative possibilities or those described or specified by others. It is a different skill entirely, and while some people are both imaginative and creative, there are many more creative people today, I think, than imaginative ones.

Why should this be so? Why is the world, challenged as it is by a host of intractable problems and emerging crises that have led us to the brink of civilizational collapse and ushered in the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, suffering from unprecedented imaginative poverty at exactly the time we most need imagination?

A good imagination requires a combination of (a) innate qualities (sensitivity, lateral thinking capacity, openness to “let things come”, and the mental agility to integrate, suspend judgement, synthesize and, for want of a better word, dream), and (b) capacities learned from practice (composition, editing, articulation, reflection, perseverance, critical thinking, attention and play). The former (the innate qualities) have often been discouraged and disparaged as flakiness or weirdness; artists have almost always been under-appreciated. But the capacities that come from imaginative practice have, I think, only recently become rare. I’d argue that this is in part because we don’t really value practice of anything anymore (it’s too much work, takes too much time and in our modern world nothing is expected to last anyway). It’s also, I think, because so many of our modern recreations (hackneyed mainstream films, formulaic popular fiction and TV, insipid popular music and derivative video games) require no imagination at all, either to produce or to participate in. So we get little practice imagining. Almost nothing is left to the imagination anymore.

The most important effect of the dearth of imagination is in our processes. Process is “the way we do something”. For millennia, the processes we used were principally those handed down by parents or mentors from generation to generation, tweaked by each generation’s new sensibilities, tastes and popular passions. With the introduction of industrial culture, this way was largely replaced by more ‘efficient’ standard processes, documented in manuals, enforced with forms, close supervision and mandatory sign-offs and, as much as possible, automated.

Process is now largely imposed on us, in one or more of three ways:

  • Training in the “right way” (or “the company way”) to do things
  • Prescriptive documents (manuals and specifications we are forced to follow)
  • Embedded in technologies, from the constraint of simple forms that must be filled out/in, to automated software and equipment that can only be used in limited ways.

Many new technologies have useless manuals that are ignored because they merely restate the constraints imposed by the technology’s menus and buttons. No one can be blamed for not RTFM.

Every technology is inherently limiting. Manual, low-tech tools and media like pens, paints, knives, wood, and musical instruments can be used in nearly unlimited ways, constrained mostly by our imaginations (or lack thereof). Software constrains you to what the program has envisioned as possible and useful and hence designed to allow.

This has had its greatest impact in the industrial and office workplace. As many business writers have noted, the most important phenomenon in 21st century businesses of any size is that most workers know how to do their increasingly specialized jobs better than their bosses (many of whom have only one abstract and, in practical terms, largely useless and hugely overrated ‘skill’ called “management”). What that means is that executives have to largely trust employees to know how to do their jobs well (which is why increasingly they hire expensive experienced older employees rather than train young people to do any advanced, important jobs).

The young and menial workers are constrained by technology (telemarketing scripts, software ‘aids’ and embedded error detection and correction tools) to ensure their lack of useful skills and experience doesn’t cause any serious problems for the corporation, and to weed out any variation in processes. These are all, of course, jobs awaiting improvements in technology that will enable them to be either automated or offshored.

Survivors in the business world quickly learn that the way business works, at its best, is through workarounds. Workarounds are modifications to the prescribed, official, imposed processes that allow the worker to actually do what’s best for customers, co-workers and community, despite training, manuals and technologies that force them to follow processes designed to do what’s best for shareholders and executives of the corporation. That may sound terribly cynical, but in 37 years in business I never discovered a large corporation that worked otherwise, and many of my co-workers have acknowledged that workarounds are, in fact, how all the really important work in organizations gets done (almost none of it by executives). The key is to appear to be following standard process while actually deviating from it. This requires a great deal of imagination and no little tact, which is why most imaginative people in large corporations burn out and leave, leaving the corporations in the hands of the arrogant and the clueless. These corporations survive without imagination because through oligopoly (which is no longer regulated in this ever-more-corporatist society) they have the financial and political might to buy up, threaten, shut down and shut out imaginative upstarts, and flood the airwaves with advertising propaganda that persuades unimaginative, dumbed-down consumers that they are actually offering value (or at least amusement) for their products’ hugely inflated prices.

So we can’t expect imagination from the corporations that dominate our economy, or from the media or political decision-makers.

So if we want to create an environment that enables and encourages more imagination, before our industrial civilization dies, in part, for lack of it, where do we start?

20 ways to imagine

from one of my early articles on imagination

I’d like to believe we could start in the classrooms, but my experience has led me to believe that the mainstream education systems, both public and private, are really just another flavour of large corporation, where well-meaning teachers follow standard processes set down by corporatist administrators and only occasionally sneak in workarounds that actually allow students to learn or do anything of value.

So instead of speaking of institutions of education, let’s start instead with the processes of facilitating and mentoring young people’s learning processes, whether through unschooling (not homeschooling) or other methods of avoiding the dysfunction of large educational institutions. How could we make these processes, and the environments in which they occur, more enabling and encouraging of imagination?

For a start, we could (through exercises and examples and by demonstration) show young people how to imagine, and then how to create (i.e. to make that product of the imagination real), and then let them practice at it through play, encouraging just the practice, not the end-product. That means, for example, helping them learn how to make music without needing to rely on ‘samples’ of others’ music and canned instrumentation. That means helping them learn to write stories and poetry that is not fan fiction, but wholly original — by mentoring them to recognize what is original and what is derivative: a critical analysis of their own work. That means encouraging them to play their own compositions, not ‘covers’ of others’. That means helping them to design games that are not automated, which players can adapt and evolve easily without ‘rewriting’ them to be more fun, and more creative, which don’t require computers or complicated tools, and which don’t have prescribed ‘roles’ or invariable rules. Games that make play a creative process rather than a reflexive, constrained one, and whose object is having fun and learning, not ‘winning’.

We could facilitate and mentor them to discover how to learn for themselves, and then how to make all learning play, adventure –joyful. And to apply that capacity and their imaginations to discover what they really love doing, and what they’re really good at doing (probably things that aren’t on any list of ‘job skills’ and hence things they’re going to have to discover for themselves, using their own imaginative processes). And then to imagine what the world really needs that no one else is providing, and how, uniquely, they could bring it to the world, and in so doing, realize what they’re meant to do to make a living. No form or checklist or vocational program is going to teach them that. It’s the most important thing they’ll ever have to imagine.

We could, as well, point them to really outstanding imaginative and creative work, and not force it on them, but just invite them, in their own time, to discover it, to learn from it. It’s hard to find: I spend a lot of time in bookstores and online searching for good short stories, well-crafted written work in all genres, and needle-in-a-haystack excellent poetry (and no, I don’t think my own creative work yet measures up to those standards; I’m not practiced enough either). I’m dismayed at how many writers (of all ages) read next to nothing of others’ work, and how many musicians appreciate only one genre of music and find really well-composed work too complicated to appreciate. Like anything else, the practice of imagination involves studying those who’ve become really good at it, and understanding why and how.

This will not be easy. Most of us who live or work with young people are too busy and too exhausted to devote time to the frivolous practice of helping them to imagine. Spending time with young people is, alas, not highly valued in our culture.

And I think it’s too late to recover the imaginative capacity of most people who have reached adulthood. Just as it becomes almost impossible to learn a language if you’re not exposed to it in childhood, when your neural pathways are forming and reforming, I think it’s likely that the lack of any imaginative practice in youth has stunted most adults’ capacity to ever really become good at imagining. Unfortunately, they’ve (we’ve) been brought up to be good at just one thing: consuming, conspicuously, uncritically and insatiably.

So that’s why I speak of the death of imagination. When our culture collapses, and we run out of cheap energy and cheap money and cheap labour to provide and operate our mind-numbing technologies, the survivors will have to learn, again, to imagine. They will discover it isn’t hard, or expensive, and that it’s fun, and that with practice they can get very good at it. It’s part of who, underneath the pall of our declining culture, we are.

.     .     .     .     .

A Postscript on Innovation: You may wonder why I’ve not used the word innovation in this essay, a word beloved by business ‘leaders’. It’s because it’s become a weasel word that, for many, means derivative, incremental, style-over-substance design created in a laboratory by people disconnected from real users with real needs. Real innovation is a dance of three things: imagination, creativity and critical thinking. It is an iterative process entailing a collaborative revealing of what is needed and what is possible. It is a process that often asks “what if…?” and “how might we…?” and “why doesn’t it already exist?” questions. Both asking and answering these questions requires a lot of imagination, a lot of learning and probing and challenging and suspending judgement and further questioning. It’s the antithesis of the design process as it is normally done in most businesses. Most businesses don’t have the talent in their whole organizations to do it well, and many that do don’t recognize that talent until it’s gone. That’s why there is almost no real innovation in the business world today. And why I gave up writing about it on this blog quite a few years ago.

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