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

May 31, 2014

From SHIFT: My Three-Part Series on Complexity and Collapse

Filed under: _ Uncategorized — Dave Pollard @ 23:28

complex predicament map export

Graphic courtesy of SHIFT Magazine (click on the graphic to view full-screen)

The third and final part of my series of articles on complexity and collapse is now up on the SHIFT Magazine site. Here’s a synopsis of all three parts, with links to the online versions of the articles:

Part One: The Energy Predicament

 A look at our global energy and resource systems, and the complex relationship between resource prices, regulation, exploration, supply and demand, and how they are pushing us towards disastrous resource exhaustion. An overview of how the three systems — energy/resource, economic and ecological/climate — are related.

Part Two: The Economic Predicament

The complexities of our global economic systems, and an exploration of whether, although it won’t ‘save’ civilization, the dismantling or crumbling of our current industrial growth economy, sooner rather than later, might lessen the hardship and suffering of drastic climate change that we and our descendants are likely to face.

Part Three: The Ecological Predicament

How our biosphere is yet another complex system, a look at some of the latest climate change scenarios, and an attempt to paint a picture of a future world as much warmer than our planet is today as it was colder at the coldest point in the “ice ages” of Earth’s recent past – and posing the question, in the face of this grim certainty, what a rational, useful, human response might be.

The three articles together constitute a sort of manifesto on complexity and the futility of attempting to change these three, massive, global, interconnected systems — and what we can do instead.

Please take a look at some of the other excellent articles in the first three editions of the new magazine, and if you like what you see, please let the editors know, and consider subscribing. They’re doing some great stuff.

May 30, 2014

10 Ways to Help Your People Shine

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:06

bodies in motion paul stevenson

image: Paul Stevenson, from flickr, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

When the members of the non-profit Group Pattern Language Project developed the 91-card Group Works deck [download 1-page summary of all 91 patterns; download a deck free; buy a professionally printed deck], we intended it mainly to help facilitators and participants in meetings and other deliberative work to use their time more effectively and to improve their collaborative processes. But we’ve discovered that this Pattern Language is being applied by some of the 2000+ people and organizations using it in ways we had never imagined. Many of these creative applications can help people work smarter, more effectively and more joyfully, and show their “best stuff,” and not just in a meeting context. Here are ten of them:


1. Unearth Your Organization’s Shared Values (and those you share with the people using your products and services)

Dream interim report top 7

image: chart from City of Calgary Cultural Transformation Project Dream Phase 2013 draft report

The City of Calgary consulted with a large proportion of their workers, and with a group of the City’s citizens, and used the 91 pattern cards to identify the top 7 Shared Values of each group (they’re illustrated above). Remarkably, 6 of them were the same. The exercise brought into sharp focus what was most important to both groups, and provided the impetus to assess actions that would help the City’s workers improve the quality and value of their services, and improve the processes they use throughout the organization.

What are your people’s shared values? Do the people who use your products and services share them?


2. Create “Spaces” Big (and Safe) Enough to Encourage Candour, Trust and Boldness

holding space

Chris Corrigan, one of the many facilitators who helped develop the Pattern Language of group process, is using the cards all over the world to support his Art of Hosting practice of holding space — creating a generative and safe ‘container’ within which people can be honest, creative, and courageous. In his book The Tao of Holding Space he writes:

“[The space is] the ground in which structure organizes the support and growth of action from ideas.  From that empty place, small invitations emerge. From the small invitations, conversation nurtures growth. From that growth comes the momentum that attracts the resources of time and attention and money to see the ideas to completion.  The emptier the space the more giving it is and the more intricate the action that emerges. There is no need to talk about it, because that only confuses things. Just offer it and hold it open.”

Do you create such spaces for your people? Do you know how to “hold them open”?


3. Help Your People Appreciate and Embrace Complexity and Emergence

Gibran Rivera of the Boston-based Barr Fellowship community describes the importance of tapping into “the power of authentic relationship and a trust in the organic power of emergence. Emergence is not implementable, a fact that seriously challenges our dominant (and industrial) paradigm for change. We don’t ‘do’ emergence, we create conditions for emergence so that emergence can happen all by itself.”

In complex systems sustained change is predominantly something that emerges, rather than something that can be designed and imposed top-down. The Pattern Language provides a vocabulary for exploring and discussing the complexity of issues and recognizing and enabling emergent possibilities as they arise.

Do you know how complex emergent systems differ from merely complicated mechanistic ones? Do your programs, plans and projects appreciate this difference?


4. Elicit Your Quieter Members’ Important Stories

All of us have valuable information, insights and perspectives that can improve decision-making, collaboration and work effectiveness, but not everyone is articulate and forthright at conveying them. Stories provide a context-rich vehicle by which people, when asked in genuine curiosity, can explain how ‘their’ world really works, so that others can make sense of it at a deep and actionable level.

The City of Calgary used a ‘story’ process, with the Pattern Language cards as its framework, to interview its people across all its service areas, from roads and bridges to regulations, parks and recycling. The story format allowed people not used to being asked about their work and its issues to talk about them easily. One employee in the roads department, for example, told a story about how astonished and delighted he was when the new administrative head of the department took off his tie and spent a day in the field learning how to lay cement.

Such stories have immense power. How many of them in your organization remain unheard?


5. Facilitate Conversations That Matter

small group 2

The Pattern Language we’re using was designed for group deliberative activities, and an important subset of such activities are conversations. My experience as a Knowledge Officer for a large organization taught me that information, ideas, insights and perspectives are best conveyed through context-rich, iterative conversations among people with shared passion and mutual trust. But most of us are not very skilled at conversation, for all the practice we have at it. The Group Works Pattern Language provides a vehicle for self-assessing, self-monitoring and practicing these skills. When we are preparing for an important conversation, or reflecting on one that went especially well (or badly), we use the cards to “storyboard” the conversation. Gradually, we’re learning the qualities of great conversations and invoking them at every opportunity.

How skilled are you and your colleagues at the art of conversation?


6. Enable Your People to Identify Their Gifts and Follow Their Passions
follow the

I wrote in my book Finding the Sweet Spot the importance of discovering the work that lies at the intersection of what you do uniquely well, what you love to do, and what’s needed in the world. As part of their process, the City of Calgary asked their people to identify the Patterns and qualities that made (or would make) the City a great workplace. This Appreciative Inquiry approach inevitably helped their people identify what they love, and care about, in their work, and the degree to which they are working in their “sweet spot”. And nothing can make people shine more than an appreciation of what they care about and do well, and the opportunity to do more of it.

Do you know your own “sweet spot”? Are you working in it?


7. Say “Thank You” in a Remarkable and Memorable Way

There is an iPhone app of the Pattern Language (and an Android app is in the works), but some people have been using images of the cards online to “speak” with others familiar with the Language in more novel ways. One that has been particularly appreciated is, after a meeting or conversation or event in which someone has exemplified one of the Patterns, sending them an e-mail with an image of that Pattern card and a short accompanying thank-you note saying something like “This is a personal ‘thank you’ for having recently exemplified the ____ pattern of excellent group process by ___”.

It’s a unique and quick way to specifically recognize and reward outstanding group process work (whether as facilitator or participant), and recipients are often so taken with this gesture that they take the first opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ by sending a similar note to the next person they notice doing exceptional work. There’s a free zip file of all 91 Pattern card images you can download, that makes this easy to do.

Who is demonstrating excellent group process in your organization? Do they know it’s appreciated?


8. Empower Your People to Co-Organize and Co-Facilitate Effectively
guerrilla facilitation

In most organizations, management calls the meetings and sets up the task groups. By teaching your people the Pattern Language of exemplary group process, you give them the knowledge and tools to self-organize well designed and highly effective get-togethers, peer to peer. And you give them the skill to intervene effectively in any deliberative activity that is not being well facilitated, or is not being facilitated at all (but should be), and in the process improving its effectiveness and value. That’s a skill sure to be appreciated by anyone who’s suffered through horrible meetings.

How well-facilitated are your meetings and deliberative and collaborative activities? Could a workforce of skilled “guerrilla facilitators” make them more productive?


9. Learn, and Teach Your People, a Shared “Appreciative” Language



All of the 91 Patterns we decided upon are framed appreciatively — they are things that have been shown, over and over, to just work, at many scales and in many contexts. We deliberately avoided “anti-patterns” and found, finally, that they weren’t really needed, or particularly helpful. We all know the ingredients of poor group process.

Those who have, either within their organizations or as part of facilitator communities of practice, had the opportunity to learn the Patterns are now speaking to each other in this amazing shared Pattern Language. When they say to each other “Follow the Energy” or “Not About You” (two of the Pattern names) they immediately know what that means, and have ideas for how to apply it. It’s a wonderful shorthand of shared understanding and experience, and a powerful way to learn, internalize and institutionalize better group process.

How many of the 91 Patterns are part of the “language” of your organization?


10. Re-envision Your Organization’s Essential “Gestalt”


image: Gene Stull

Permaculture teacher Delvin Solkinson has been using the Pattern Language of group process for three years as part of his permaculture design courses (the photo above shows all 91 cards in a spiral, and was taken at a recent course at the home of visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey in New York). The purpose of the courses is nothing less than “to learn to map and design our land and our lives.” What Delvin calls “pattern literacy” is a powerful means to appreciate and articulate “why we’re here” — our entire purpose and the gestalt, the essential quality, of our community or our organization.

What are the Patterns that differentiate your organization powerfully from other organizations performing similar functions? What are the Patterns that make your community’s members a true community, one whose members care about each other?


What we’re starting to realize is that life is substantially a “group process,” and that tools that help us recognize and invoke the patterns of exemplary group process can help us in much broader ways than just meetings. They can help us, and the people we live and work with, do many things better: In a word, they can help us shine.

May 29, 2014

What the 1960s Were Really About

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

Jo Jo

During the late 1960s, like many of my peers, I wrote lots of poems and short stories that featured pretty young people with flowers in their long hair –gentle, spontaneous, uncivilized “children of the Earth”. Joanne, the love of my life at the time (pictured above) challenged me on the one-dimensionality of these characters, and their lack of complexity, but that was what I wanted the world, and my own life, to be — simple, unmarred by trauma, untouched by the weight of civilized culture. Wild and free.

At the time it seemed political — we were all about peace, ending the war, protecting the environment, civil rights, freedom to be whatever we wanted to be. And many of us were idealists who believed our generation could accomplish anything, and that it was our responsibility to remake civilization in accordance with those ideals — peace, love and joy. In my more hopeful moments I still sign my messages with those three wishes.

dan o'neill 2
Dan O’Neill cartoon from the 1969 Jefferson Airplane CD Volunteers

My political worldview revolved around the belief that it was “the system”, “the machine”, “the empire” that was to blame for everything wrong with our world, not individuals, that even the most monstrous of us was simply another victim of this system that gutted us of our humanity, our connection, our capacity to bring about positive change. That was my first inkling of what complex systems were like, how impossible they are to reform, and the source of the great disillusionment that plunged me into a deep depression through much of the seventies. I felt like a wild creature caged, unable to find any way to freedom, but constantly telling myself it’s never too late to break free and reunite with my fellow idealists and save the world, or at least a few of us.

The person who recovered from that depression was not me, but a poseur, safely bunkered in his own head for the next quarter century, broken and quietly disconnected from reality.

Now, with the benefit of a decade studying our culture, I’m finally able to make, I think, some sense of what happened in that astonishingly brief and amazing era of the latter 1960s, and why, like me, the movement seemed to fall apart.

I now realize that we’re all broken, wounded, made ill by the chronic stresses of our omnipresent civilization culture. “The system” not only destroyed the planet and prevented us from our plans to “save the world”, it damaged all of us, filled us with the anger, fear and sadness that we articulated so well through our music in the 1960s. And what we espoused and sought — peace, love and joy — was not just an idealistic plea for sanity and revolution, but the very antithesis of the anger, fear and sadness we were feeling caught up in and sharing with each other. It was an escape from the suffering that stemmed from that stress-induced anger, fear and sadness, that we wanted more than anything. And escape we did — sex (and love), drugs and rock and roll were (and still are) our escape vehicles, our way of coping with and sublimating our anger, our fears and our sadness.

We embraced “free love” and casual, frequent sex with true escapist passion – nothing is more effective at making us feel less fearful than the potent cocktail of chemicals that love and lust arouse in us. Nature does this deliberately — she doesn’t want us to be too fearful to express our love to a potential partner, or too fearful to get carried away when that partner says “yes” and hence make babies and protect them with our very lives. Likewise, drugs help us escape from our sadness and grief, and music often helps us escape from both anger and sadness.

When the whole world seemingly embraced this prescription for peace, love and joy, we mistakenly took their jumping on the bandwagon as sympathy and solidarity for our idealistic cause. We thought that we had become the first generation in history to overtly reject the messages and beliefs of our damaging dominant culture en masse, and the first generation privileged enough to hear and follow the desperate message of need for self-healing and reconnection that our bodies were giving us.

What we didn’t realize is that many (across the political spectrum, and people who were apolitical) who seemingly signed on to the movement had a much simpler agenda than ours.  They didn’t want to join us to “smash the system” that was causing the suffering and damage, and replace it with a humanist utopia. They just wanted in on the sex, drugs and rock and roll that were easing our pain, to ease theirs. Like us, they wanted escape. They shared our pain, but not our ideals. In many cases their choice of sex and music was (and is) violent and misogynistic, and their choice of drugs was (and is) the opposite of “mind-expanding”.

We found ourselves, after this revelation (in retrospect not surprisingly) alone, embittered, exhausted and disillusioned. While some of us “flower children” are still fighting the good fight, most have lost faith or health or energy or moved on to different priorities.

LOTM suzanah be kind

We are meant to be wild. We are suffering, every waking hour, from the chronic, relentless stresses that never give us rest. Our bodies are hurting, our souls are beaten and disconnected. And we’re fighting a system that is larger than all of us, that no one can control (or ever could), that no one is to blame for. We’re all doing our best. Our escapism isn’t hurting anyone, is it?

Well, of course, it is. We’re hurting ourselves, because the “peace, love and joy” we feel under the influence of oxytocin and endorphins and testosterone and alcohol and dope and a wall of sound are transitory, addicting, unreal, disconnecting and ultimately unsatisfying. As long as we live in their fog some would say we are not really alive. And as tempting as it is to say “the system is broken, it’s too big to defeat or to fix, it’s collapsing anyway, so wake me when it’s over”, if we live that way we are, I think, living a shadow of a life.

So what is our responsibility now, those of us still crazy after all these years to make the world a better place, and those of succeeding generations who never got the chance to blow an entire civilizational reboot, as we thought we did? What are we wounded surgeons to do? I have written a lot lately about four modest actions: (1) relearning essential skills, (2) learning to create and build community, (3) living an exemplary, self-aware, purposeful, joyful life as a model for others, and (4) healing ourselves and helping to heal others. And, I should add, supporting those activists driven to do more, those driven to fight the system without expectation of significant success, even as it crumbles. Surely this is enough to do?

I think it is. But the fourth of these actions — healing ourselves and helping to heal others — is essential for each of us, and we cannot hope to do it very effectively as long as we keep succumbing to escapism. That escapism isn’t just sex, drugs and rock and roll either. It’s escapism in our work, in our entertainment (TV or movies or online distractions or books), or in the mall, or the casino, or any other unnatural place we go or unnatural thing we do just to feel good, just to get away, to be numb to the pain for a while.

I’m not sure there is any escape from escapism. It’s natural, it’s human, it’s completely understandable that when we’re suffering we want to escape. I confess I’m an escapist and that this is probably impeding my ability to be more present in the world, more really alive, more able to pursue the four actions above. But I don’t believe any more in self-improvement or “self-help” programs. An escapist is part of who I am, now, and it’s enough, I think, to recognize that everything that’s happened before and since the 1960s has quite understandably made me this way. I suspect there are many like me, of every generation. We all have our coping mechanisms. I am tired of insulting, patronizing prescriptions to “face your fears, move past your anger, and learn to cope authentically with your grief.” They are like telling a paralyzed person that with practice they can learn to walk.

Better, I think, to know and accept who we are, and appreciate how we got here. The 1960s were a blast, and despite the half-century hangover I wouldn’t have missed them. They taught me so much — about what is possible and what is not, about myself and “my generation”, and about what it means to belong, and to feel, and to ache, and to dream, and ultimately, to fail. No shame in that.

May 28, 2014

The End of Central Governments?

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 02:14


National Center for Atmospheric Research projected chronic drought areas mid-century; purple and red areas may be essentially uninhabitable

Students of past civilizations describe a civilization’s end not as a sudden tumultuous collapse but more a ‘walking away’, a giving up on the whole way of being and living embodied by the civilization, in favour of a simpler way of being and living. Civilizations, being inherently large and complex human creations, require a huge amount of infrastructure, resources, transportation networks, hierarchy and propaganda. They all collapse, eventually, when the cost of this complexity ceases to be sustainable, usually either because of resource exhaustion or climate change.

What collapses, most notably, is people’s faith in their way of being and living. People need to believe that the culture they live within is the best one for their community and descendants, and when they cease to believe, the political structure of that culture will inevitably collapse. You can only promise the impossible and lie to the people who ultimately have to keep the social fabric together, for so long, before they simply cease to believe. Like the Anasazi whose thousand-year-long North American civilization disappeared so quickly without a trace seven centuries ago, when the people cease to believe in the viability of their culture and walk away, the political system, and its governments, disappear.

I think this is beginning to happen to our civilization. Conservatives generally want strong central governments to sustain a military to ward off attackers. Progressives generally want strong central governments to create a social safety net and help ensure the well-being and education of the people. But now we have conservatives utterly dedicated to the dismantling of government, “starving it until it can be drowned in a bathtub”. And we have progressives so appalled by ubiquitous government surveillance and military misadventure that they are refusing to pay taxes. And we have young people who see governments as so inherently corrupt, inept, and unredeemable that they don’t bother to vote or even follow what they’re doing.

All factions seem to have lost faith in the value and integrity of government. Only the corporatists want the government to continue as it currently operates — siphoning from increasingly disgruntled taxpayers to subsidize the extremely rich and their global corporate enterprises, and engaging in colossally costly wars to steal resources and extract slave labour from struggling nations to enrich them further.

The corporatists own the propaganda arms of the culture — the political parties, the business ‘leaders’, the media, the advertisers — and they are doing their best to mislead and sedate those who have not yet caught on, and discourage those who have. They cannot last much longer.

This culture has pushed us headlong into runaway climate change, and the sixth great extinction of life on Earth. It has exhausted the essential resources on which it has gorged itself for two centuries, and deluded its citizens to believe that somehow innovation will create more from nothing. And it has indebted struggling nations, future generations and the natural world to an extent utterly impossible to repay or sustain. So soon enough, collapse will be upon us.

So how will we walk away, this time? What will it look like? How will central governments come to an end this time?

I am fond of saying that things must get much worse before most people will give up trying to sustain what has been for many a wonderful, astonishing culture. But there are different ways of giving up. This culture will not end, I think, in revolution or bloodshed. It is not worth such a price, nor will radical ‘reforms’ work. Nor will it degenerate into Mad Max-style anarchy and violence. In a crisis, most people tend to be surprisingly rational, protective (of those they love) and cautious, especially when the crisis is prolonged.

Many of those who live with constant struggle — people in most non-affluent nations, the homeless, the chronically poor — are already living in a sort of collapse. They haven’t ‘walked away’, because there was nothing for them to walk away from, or to. They still aspire, mostly, to live the affluent lifestyle we are accustomed to. They do not pay into, or receive anything from, central governments now, and in many nations are unenumerated, not even considered part of the populace.

Warlords and organized crime (and other forms of crypto-government) need access to centralized infrastructure and resources as much as established political organs do. Warlords need transportation, political, financial and military infrastructure in order to sell heroin, or oil, or people, and in order to buy guns and ammunition. Organized crime needs a stable real estate and construction industry to launder their wealth and enrich themselves, and functional currencies and networks for whatever people need that they can’t get through ‘legal’ channels.

When these systems fall apart, everything tends to go local, and there is much less to support inequality of wealth and power. Things that are available locally become relatively abundant (because there’s no economic way to export it), and things that must be imported become relatively scarce. The paper assets of billionaires then lose most of their value, and their hard assets become unmovable (physically or financially), beyond the immediate communities in which they sit. Without an industrial infrastructure to support its distribution, even hard assets — gold, minerals, oil reserves, buildings — will likely fall sharply in value. We will, I think, face a great levelling of wealth and power, and, thanks to climate change, a simultaneous great migration toward the poles.

I don’t see central governments “collapsing” so much as slowly withering away. The rich and powerful will do their best to steal what’s left of the people’s assets: government-owned land, property and cash. They will probably succeed, since they’re the foxes minding the public henhouse. They will call it “privatization” and say it’s in the people’s interests, though it will not be. They will describe the liquidation of assets of cities and then counties and states to pay off corporate debts (the richest 10% own over 90% of US municipal bonds) as “prudent fiscal management”. What is left, as many citizens of bankrupt towns and cities have already discovered, will be utterly inadequate to meet minimal needs of citizens. I think we will see essential services — health, education, security, infrastructure maintenance — largely move into the hands of for-profit corporations that will charge prices only the rich can afford, and will provide inadequate services for everything else (witness e.g. the disgrace of prison privatization in the US).

This could lead to a devolution of service to communities, which may of necessity start to fend for themselves and self-organize the provision of essential services to community members, possibly through co-ops (as has happened in past depressions). This may provide a much lower level of service than what we’re used to, but at least it will be ours. The privatized services tailored to rich urban dwellers will almost inevitably go bankrupt as the value of the paper wealth of the rich plummets as a result of economic collapse. The rich may then try to organize their own walled-community services, but they probably won’t be able to find anyone willing to work in them for what they are able to pay, so eventually they may have to join neighbouring communities which have found successful ways to provide subsistence services, peer-to-peer. The high-priced medical specialists, pharmaceuticals, lawyers and private schools will, by then, probably be gone, unaffordable vestiges of the great levelling.

In many struggling nations, there is currently a vast disparity of wealth. But that disparity depends substantially on the largesse of the corporatist interests in affluent nations, and these interests will have little money left to spend to support them, so in those countries, too, there will likely be a great levelling of wealth. Even the drug czars will probably find that organized crime no longer pays, as the value of currencies collapses. There will be little value in oil reserves and pipelines if there is no money to produce and maintain them, and no money in customers’ pockets to pay for them — especially with the plunging EROIs of modern energy supplies.

As in many struggling nations today, and as in the Great Depression and the Long Depression before that, millions will likely flock to the cities fruitlessly in search of jobs. This could mean that the cities and suburbs will be hollowed out, as the cost of maintaining bridges, expressways, elevators and other infrastructure becomes too high to continue. They may simply be scavenged for what is of transportable value, and then abandoned. The majority of us will likely move towards areas with nearby land that is arable without artificial oil-based fertilizers, and away from the many increasingly intolerable and desertified areas shown in purple and red on the map above.

It is this Great Migration that, I think, could bring the end of most national governments. These governments currently own the security apparatus — the bombs and border militias and armies and security agencies — in most countries, and most people will, I think, continue to believe that security is essential, especially in the face of masses of climate change refugees seeking a habitable place to live. But the astronomical cost of “home security”, which is almost certainly the least efficient and effective of all government services (for complex but perfectly logical reasons), can probably not be maintained through economic collapse, especially with the end of cheap (high EROI) oil. Once national governments admit they cannot afford to maintain armies, borders and weaponry, it’s probably game over for them. And there will almost certainly be no capacity at the regional level by then to devolve authority for security to. On top of this, as people move from the cities towards the remaining arable hinterlands and thousands of miles towards the poles, they’re not likely to care much if someone wants to invade the areas they’ve abandoned.

We’re already seeing a loss of faith in the value of centralized governments, across the political spectrum. If they prove unable to cope with economic collapse, and the great uprooting and great migration brought on by runaway climate change, we may see, in a few short decades, the disappearance of most of the national governments on the planet. As they were until just a couple of millennia ago, political boundaries may then get fuzzy, and largely unimportant and, for better and for worse, it may be the decisions made in each local community, face to face, that will once again determine the well-being of citizens.

Community-building anyone? And where will we be trying to build communities by the middle of the century?

May 25, 2014

The Power of Potlucks

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 23:08

Just at the end of a video on the Sharing Economy that Janaia and Robin at PeakMoment.tv were making with Tree Bressen, Janaia, Tree and I started riffing on the Power of Potlucks. This short, fun video is the result. No insult intended to the fine people of West Vancouver. [Link for e-mail subscribers]

May 13, 2014

Choosing Our Pleasures

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:47

Driftwood Papaloa Beach

Papaloa Beach, Kaua’i, photo by the author

Imagine you’re in this situation: It’s a half hour before sunset, and you’re in a lovely home in an exceptionally beautiful place. A small group of people is preparing a group dinner, and that number includes a stunningly attractive, cheerful and provocatively dressed person, who is not interacting with you particularly (you have never met), but not ignoring you either, and is very close by.

You know that, from where you are, it’s a short and gorgeous hike through the woods to the seaside where you could sit on the shore and watch the sun setting over the ocean, and still be back in time for dinner. Or you could just stay and chat with the group and enjoy the company of this very attractive person.

Which do you do? And why? For most people, I think, the choice would be one of relative scarcity and rarity: If you lived in a paradise every day, or lived with a stunningly attractive person every day, you would probably choose the rarer opportunity. But if both opportunities were equally rare, I’m guessing most people would choose to hang around and skip the hike.

What determines how we decide what we do? I’ve argued that our decisions are driven by what I call Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour:

We do what’s urgent (what our personal priorities of the moment tell us we ‘must’ do), then we do what easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time or energy left for what is merely important.

So every day when we get up we do what we must — breathing and eating, our ‘jobs’ at work and home, exercise and medications and other things we believe essential to our health, duties essential to those who depend on us, or on whom we depend. And then, exhausted (because we don’t even have enough time for the never-ending list of urgent things), we squeeze in some things that are easy and/or fun — TV or Internet or reading or listening to music, a drink or a toke, sex or snuggles or substitutes therefore, some impulse buying, picking up a lottery ticket, a casual chat by phone or online. And then we sleep and get up and do it all again the next day.

There is never time or energy left for planning that exotic trip we always wanted to take, or for that course we always wanted to take, or for that important but difficult conversation we keep putting off, or for that activity we think might make us a better person, or the world a little better place, if only we would just get it started.

And when we retire, the things we do change, but they’re still governed by Pollard’s Law. We have more time when we’ve retired, but we also have the sense that there’ll be more time tomorrow too. Somehow we never get around to the things that are really important but not urgent and not easy and not particularly fun. That’s not procrastination; it’s basic human nature. It’s engrained behaviour that has enabled our species to survive very successfully on this planet for a million years.

I believe we are all damaged by the inherent brutality and violence and trauma of modern industrial civilization — disconnected from our true feelings, senses, instincts, and all life on Earth, and in the process we’ve become, physically and emotionally, chronically ill. So we are all trying our best to heal.

And that attempt at self-healing, I think, plays into our ‘choices’ of which easy and fun activities to squeeze into each day once we’ve done what we absolutely must. We tell ourselves we deserve a break, a reward for what we’ve done. We’ll do easy things because it feels good to check some things off the list. And we’ll do fun things because, damn it, we deserve it. Even when we beat ourselves up for the “shoulds” we haven’t gotten around to (because they didn’t make the Pollard’s Law cut), we still don’t do them.

Our bodies, in their effort to optimize the survival of our trillions of cells, obey Pollard’s Law quite scrupulously. To get us to do ‘fun’ stuff (so we’ll want to get up tomorrow and perpetuate the species instead of sinking into illness and depression and killing ourselves) they’ll churn out a bunch of hormones and other chemicals to reinforce fun behaviour.

While the clueless neuro-’scientists’ (those modern-day phrenologists who presume to tell us who we are by interpreting parts of our brains ‘lighting up’) can’t seem to figure out which chemicals do what, it seems clear that some chemicals prompt flirtation and infatuation and sex, some prompt us to run and play and thrill-seek, some prompt us to get high by ingesting substances, and some prompt us to cuddle, to watch the sunset, to meditate, or to eat certain foods.  And some reward these behaviours after the fact and/or charge us up at the next opportunity to repeat the behaviour, until we are, supposedly, ‘addicted’.

These chemicals mostly work on us when we’ve finished the urgent ‘musts’ of the day and are ready for the easy and/or fun stuff. There’s a good reason for this: In prehistoric societies (anthropologists now believe) we had very few ‘musts’ — we lived a leisurely life of an hour or so gathering or hunting food (and even that was pretty much fun), and the other responsibilities of adulthood were shared among the community so that they were collaborative, low-stress, social, and not at all arduous. So those chemicals were at work most of the time, not just in the few hours a day we modern humans steal for easy/fun activities. Nothing much was urgent or important.

So those chemicals were hard at work during our ancestors’ easy, joyful lives, getting us to procreate, to nurture, to exercise, to eat foods with essential nutrients, to appreciate and want to preserve beauty, to love life and want to continue doing it, to handle the occasional stresses (mostly carnivorous predators) quickly, instinctively and effectively, and to play (play being the means by which, for most of our time on Earth, we have learned delightfully how to survive).

These ancestors wouldn’t know what to make of the situation I posed at the start of this post. They couldn’t fathom having to choose between erotic, sensuous, aesthetic or spiritual delights — they had lots of time for them all, often simultaneously.

We’re not so lucky. We live in a time of manufactured scarcity and chronic stress, where the chemicals in our body designed to prompt quick and appropriate action during brief times of fight/flight/freeze threat, are at a loss trying to guide us through lives of constant and intense stress and disconnection from our instincts.

Modern human behaviour is primarily dictated not by our bodies, but by our culture, which tells us (under the threat of serious and even lethal social sanctions) what we ‘must’ do urgently (i.e. what we must spend most of our waking hours doing). Our culture also presumes to tell us what are not acceptable ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ activities, even as it tempts us, for commercial purposes, with unnatural stimuli (e.g. violent media, false ideals of ‘perfection’) and unnatural products (e.g. artificial drugs, gambling, processed sugars) that exploit our bodies’ chemical propensities,  to addict us ruinously to what the culture asserts is only socially acceptable in moderation. Our blame-the-victim culture addicts us and then makes us pariahs for those addictions.

Our bodies, thinking we’re still living in a natural world, grab on to these addictions to fill our ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ moments as a coping mechanism to try to relieve the relentless stress that fills the rest of our days, inadvertently making us sicker instead of healthier.

We can’t help ourselves. We’re only human. We’re already doing our best.

What we can do, I think, is be a little more self-aware: Aware of what’s going on, what our culture is making us do, what our bodies are making us do. Not to change those behaviours, but to appreciate them, and perhaps, little by little, realize that some of those urgent culturally-dictated ‘must do’ things aren’t urgent after all, and stop doing them (reducing both the stress on ourselves and, just a little, the damage to our planet). And to realize that some of those easy and fun things aren’t so healthy, and that some other easy and fun things might be better for us (but not to beat ourselves up if we can’t change them — many of them are addictions, after all).

Most subversively, I think such self-awareness might help us give up trying so desperately  to sustain this massively destructive, debilitating, sickening civilization culture, and let it go enthusiastically, let it collapse, as it is inevitably and already doing. We’re meant to be wild, not civilized.

And it might help us realize that, after collapse, the next human societies might once again inhabit a world of ease, of abundance, of health, and of joy, where what our bodies are driving us to do will once again be good for us, making us healthier, happier, and more connected. Liberated societies in which we don’t have to choose between erotic, sensuous, aesthetic and spiritual delights, because we’ll have them all.

April 30, 2014

The Patience to Wait for Courage: A Meditation

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 17:21

by jordan wooley jrwooley6

photo by jordan wooley (jrwooley6 on flickr, creative commons)

So I sit in the forest, this place of astonishing beauty that I pretend for now is my place, preparing to meditate. “I am the open-source collaborative project of trillions of cells”, I tell myself. “My brain is a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in my body evolved for their mutual benefit. My ‘self’ is not coherent, just an emergent property of my body’s semi-autonomous processes. Now I am just going to listen to, pay attention to, my body, my senses, my instincts, the trillions of cells that never get an audience up here in the hermetic chamber of my brain, that small conceited 1% of my cells that presumes to be ‘me’.” Mantra.

I ask myself: What would I do if I weren’t fearful, if I were really connected? My instincts often tell me what I need to know, the real truth, before I feel it, before I think it, make ‘sense’ of it. What do these instincts tell me now? They speak to me, sometimes, mostly in the calm of night, in a beautiful, peaceful, confident female voice, a voice full of joy and clarity, with the undercurrent of a swallow’s song. Here is what they say:

No one is to blame. I am not to blame. We are all doing the best we can, even those of us who are damaged to the point of pathology. We are all ‘trying to get better’ in one sense or another. No one is in control. Nothing can ‘save’ this used up, worn out, teetering, overextended civilization, even if we wanted to; it’s going to collapse, and force us all into a ragged shift, a Great Migration, a dark reckoning. But we have time to rest, fight small battles, and experiment before we have to face that.

I am, for now, driven by aversion and not intention. That’s OK. I’m still exhausted, and it’s going to take time to recover from many decades of trying so hard to be who I’m not. No use to the world broken, depressed, paralyzed by anxiety. Just breathe, rest, heal.

With all the sorrow and grief I carry, the trauma I’ve worked through, bewildered and alone, it’s no surprise I’m fearful, settling for contentment instead of real happiness. No wonder I choose the numb addiction to analgesic endorphins, bliss-inducing norepinephrine, ecstatic phenylethylamine, deceiving oxytocin, calming serotonin, rewarding dopamine, and stimulating testosterone, over any real connection, real presence. Safe in my garden. Hard to imagine being any other way, when you’re under the influence of such disarming drugs.

Yet my instincts know there is another way of being, one that is more truly me; I catch glimpses of it sometimes when I’m not trying too hard.

I know this time of exhaustion and disconnection and indecision will pass. I must have the patience to wait for courage. We will all find courage when we must; that’s the nature of our species. No heroes before their time. No heroes, period. Just looking after the needs of the moment, which will become clear as they become overwhelming. When it’s time to take risks, to let go of everything, to tear down the walls, to fly, we will know, and we will do what we must.

Things I will do when I am no longer fearful: move to a warmer, wilder place (my body craves this); flirt shamelessly and joyfully; fall in love dangerously; write, invite and fight courageously. What difference all this will make I do not know. These are not my choices, but things the me-that-I’ll-become will have to do.

There are some practices that are not hard or hopeless, that will help me prepare for what’s next. Practices that evoke that magic merging of relaxation and awareness. Night walks. Quiet conversations about things that really matter, with people who understand. Lights: candles, path lights, lanterns, street-lamps, moonlight, sunlight through the trees and bouncing off the water, infinite starlight. Sad songs. Play. Laughter. Time with wild creatures and young children. More of all these, please. Put them in the calendar; don’t just wait for them to happen.

My instincts are, it seems, always right. They are ‘me’ more than my intellectual self or my emotional self or my physical self are, so I suppose they must be right, for me. I may not yet be quite ready to follow them, but it won’t be long. Change coming, ready or not.

Breathe, concentrate, focus. Let go, and slowly rise.

Themes for this meditation/reflection: Self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-acceptance, attention, appreciation, imagining possibilities, patience, openness, trusting intuition, acceptance, healing, anticipation without expectation, practice.

Deep breath, that turns into a sigh. Walk back up the hill to prepare supper.

April 27, 2014

A Discussion on The Art of Hosting and the Group Works Deck

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:02


Recently, Janaia Donaldson and Robin Mallgren of Peak Moment TV, an online ‘channel’ of insightful video interviews with leading progressive, permaculture and post-collapse thinkers, interviewed me for the third time. Janaia and Robin had been staying at my house, so I got to know them well and learned to appreciate their consummate skill at interviewing, video production and editing. This time around, they interviewed me alongside fellow Bowen Islander Chris Corrigan on the subject of group process facilitation.

The first part of the interview explained The Art of Hosting, a training and collaboration program that explores and integrates a spectrum of facilitation methods, of which Chris is one of the acknowledged global leaders. The second part introduced the Group Works card deck, a facilitator’s “pattern language” that is now being used by over 2000 professionals around the world, published in 2011, which I am immensely proud to have been involved with as a co-author and co-producer.

Here’s the full 35-minute video of the interviews:

And here is a 10-minute edited version focused specifically on Group Works, that actually uses the cards, shown being “played” to a tableau, a visual ‘recording’ of patterns, by yours truly, to show which patterns were either invoked or discussed during the group process of our three-way conversation. We call this mapping of an event to the patterns invoked by it by using the cards “cardography”:

To learn more about the cards, or acquire a copy, please visit the Group Works site. And if you live in BC or Washington State and would like to attend a Vancouver workshop on improving group processes using the cards, to be held at the end of May, here’s your invitation!

PS: My previous interview with Janaia, which also featured Carolyn Baker, is here. My previous interview on complexity theory and collapse is currently being edited, and I will let you know when it’s up. Humble thanks to Janaia and Robin for their amazing work.

April 26, 2014

Elselien Epema Interviews Dave About “Finding the Sweet Spot”

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 00:03

Elselien Epema5427 2 diffuse glow

 image of Elselien from her website; image of Dave by Bowen artist-photographer Debra Stringfellow

I was delighted and flattered to learn, last year, that Elselien Epema, an instructor at the University of the Hague in Nederland, has been using my book Finding the Sweet Spot as a text in her course on entrepreneurship (thanks to Nancy White for making the connection).

Since then Elselien and I have been talking about a lot of common interests — she’s also teaching a course in facilitation, for example, and has been using the Group Works cards. She interviewed me via Skype about my book, and has now edited the interview into six parts, which she’s allowed me to offer to readers as MP3 files. Here they are (just click on the time links to hear the segments, opened in a new window/tab, or right click and “save link as” to download for listening later):

1. Introduction: Meet Dave Pollard: Tell us a bit about yourself. (4:15)
2. Why is finding your Sweet Spot so relevant now? (4:31)
3. Can you find your Sweet Spot within an existing organisation? (9:11)
4. How is Natural Entrepreneurship affected by current developments in the world? (4:29)
5. Three stories about entrepreneurs who found their Sweet Spot. (33:36)
6. Answers to student questions. (20:57)

Hope you find the interviews interesting; comments welcome.


April 25, 2014

Writing a New Story

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 01:24

This is an article I wrote for Earth Day that was just published in our local newspaper. It’s a little different from my usual stuff, intended to engage traditional newspaper readers who are probably unfamiliar with the alternative press, and unaware of the energy, economic and ecological crises we face.

Taro Kaua'i

It takes a lot of courage to tell a story that isn’t the story of your culture. Just ask Galileo, or Salman Rushdie.

In his celebrated 2003 Massey Lectures, First Nations writer Thomas King told us “The truth about stories is that’s all we are”. If he’s right, it’s no wonder that those who deny the story of our culture are vilified.

Our now-global civilization culture’s story began as the mostly Judeo-Christian story of our fall from grace to a life of struggle, but it hasn’t really changed. Our culture’s story tells us that we must work hard, compete, struggle against scarcity and evil both without and within, and that if we ‘succeed’ in this struggle we will achieve endless progress and prosperity.

This story has brought us resource exhaustion, looming economic collapse, runaway climate change, species extinction, endless cycles of war, violence, suffering, disease, trauma, personal exhaustion, poverty, distrust, cynicism, and despair. Yet still we cling to it. It is the only story we know, and drives how we live, what we believe, and everything we do. Everything we read, hear and see reinforces it.

Perhaps Earth Day could give us the courage to recognize that our story is a story of illusion and disaster, and to start to craft and offer a new one.

The first step might be to give up our denial that something will rescue us from the precipice we now stand upon, all of us on this tiny, fragile Spaceship Earth. Denial that we can expect rescue from better leaders, or better technology, or a sudden upswell of coordinated global consciousness, or better laws or freer markets or a second coming.

In his book Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton says his extensive study of the latest climate science research has led him to this conclusion:

“We now have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.”

If your response to reading this is anger, or disbelief, or fear, that’s understandable: Like many climate scientists, economists, and students of our culture, Clive is starting to tell a new, and heretical, story, one that flies in the face of all we believe, and hope. You won’t find politicians, businesspeople, or news reporters telling this story — it’s too complex, too scary, too unbearable, too uncertain, too much out of our control.

Beyond the denial that our culture can be ‘rescued’, is only, now, the terrifying acceptance that within, at least, the lives of our children, the affluent, industrial world most of us have known for two centuries will be gone, and we have no idea what will, or can replace it.

What can help us move past this denial is a new story, one that will bring clarity and hope to what we must now face, and what the extraordinary legacy for future generations will be if we do so courageously and intelligently. That story is ours to write. It will begin when we learn about what happens when (not if) runaway climate change occurs, when an economy collapses permanently, and when a society’s accessible, affordable resources run out. These are world-changing events, but they’re not unprecedented and they’re not “the end of the world”.

Like a patient diagnosed with a life-altering disease, once we’ve learned and accepted the facts, we can start planning for what we will likely face and shift to a new way of living. Many patients receiving such news say it was the best thing that ever happened to them, that learning about the unsustainability of their ‘old’ way of life has led them to a joyous transformation to a new and more meaningful life.

My own ‘new story’ is one of a Great Migration of billions of people (and other creatures) from devastated equatorial areas to the poles, an astonishing journey that will re-teach each of us what it really means to be human, and to be connected to all other life on Earth, and of a new, peaceful, graceful, staggeringly diverse and smaller role of humans aboard Spaceship Earth several millennia in the future.

Your ‘new story’ will probably be different, and that’s fine. It’s enough that you start thinking about what that new story might be, in a way that lets go of hope of continuing our existing civilization in any form.

Whatever it is, it will be, at its heart, a story of liberation. It’s not too early to be writing it, and talking about it with everyone you know (especially your children). Earth Day would be a great day to start.

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