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.



July 27, 2014

How to Make Love Last

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 00:35

masks

I told her I loved her.
Your love is all about you, she replied;
it has nothing to do with me.
You love who you imagine me to be,
because no one can know who someone else really is.

I told her I would work to discover who she really was,
as much as possible, and love that person.
You can’t choose who you love, she replied;
your body chooses which bodies it loves,
and you’re just along for the ride.
Emotionally, any woman you perceive to be attractive,
energetic, fit, intelligent, creative,
thoughtful, independent, present — you’re going to love her.

I told her I would try to be more discerning,
more conscious of who I love, and love her more deliberately.
There are a thousand kinds of love, she replied;
you have them all conflated, mixed together
in one messy, undistinguished chemical blob.
Soon, the chemicals will stop flowing,
and all that will be left is your body wanting my body,
and then that will end and there will be nothing, only loss.

I told her I would study the works of Tom Robbins,
who said the only important question
is how to make love last.
Love is making you crazy, she replied;
you have important work to do, and these addictive feelings
are distracting you from it, making you foolish
and fearless and reckless and dangerous.

I told her it was the absence of love that makes me crazy;
When I’m not in love I’m disconnected, buried in my head,
and I don’t care enough about anything.
Then get a dog, she replied;
there are many kinds of love more grounded
and less exhausting than what you claim to feel for me.

I told her I loved her abundantly and unconditionally
and that I could also love other people, creatures,
places, music, ideas, activities. I had room for it all.
Then you don’t need me, she replied;
you are free.

Yes, I know, I told her. But I still love you.
Then there is no hope for you, she replied;
so go ahead and love me.

So I stopped telling her I loved her,
and showed her how I loved her instead.

One day she was talking with me, wandering along the beach,
telling me what she cared about,
what she was afraid of, what she loved doing,
what she craved and longed for and hoped for and mourned.

And I realized that, all along,
as she was telling me how she couldn’t love me,
she was showing me how much she did.

(image from a post by Nick Smith, believed to be from the collection of John Wareham, artist’s name unknown)

July 25, 2014

Them, You, Then, Now, Always

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 17:22

 

The latest edition of SHIFT Magazine is now online and available for download or purchase. It features a new interview with Noam Chomsky, and my latest short story, set long after Collapse, several millennia from now:

wallpaperstock.net  freeone.ru

 

THEM, YOU, THEN, NOW, ALWAYS

“50 blackbirds nest in a tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.” – story taken from the writings of Orlov|Dmitry, c. 2014 Old Calendar

Cultural Anthropology Visit, 6462 New Calendar: Notes

The Tsilga people cannot tell you their story. At least, not in words.

Like many of the survivors of the Sixth Extinction, now thriving all these millennia after the Great Burning of the Earth, they have no need for words. They have gestures and sounds for the important concepts to communicate: danger, love, joy, anger, pleasure, grief. What more is needed? Their faces will express more to you than you can imagine, or ever hope to say. If you visit them, they will not tell you about themselves; instead, they will show you.

(read the rest on SHIFT)

photo credits: left, photoshopped image from wallpaperstock.net; right, image of body painting by evgeniy freeone at freeone.ru

 

July 10, 2014

Nodding With a Smile to the Sacred

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 13:32

avebury

stone circle at avebury uk; photo by the author

I had the great pleasure to meet and spend an evening with Ben Brangwyn, who co-founded the Transition Network with Rob Hopkins, during my recent trip to Totnes UK.

Rob has just posted the interview that came out of that meeting, on his Transition blog. The blog’s theme for this month is “Celebration”, so the questions wove around that theme. In times of collapse, the definition of celebration that came to me was a somewhat muted and understated one, the idea of ‘nodding with a smile to the sacred‘. Have a read and let me know what you think.

July 1, 2014

Through the Dark Mountain: A Harvest of Myths

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 18:09

schumacher college

I spent last week at a Dark Mountain retreat at Schumacher College in Dartington just outside Totnes, UK. Along with the brilliant authors of the Dark Mountain Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, 16 remarkable artists, an equal number male and female, from 7 countries around the world, and all but three from what I could ascertain much younger than I (age 20-38), explored our shared worldview of the coming collapse of civilization, the myths of our culture and the possibility of creating new stories that might be of better service to us in the challenging decades ahead. The main building in which we met, Postern House, is pictured above; it was built in 1380. (While I was there I also had the pleasure of meeting Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of Transition Network and Isabel Carlyle, the Transition Network’s education coordinator, and later, by chance, Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition and author of several books about Transition, and his wife.)

A myth is a story that many people believe to be true. It may or may not be true.

The danger with myths is that if people live their lives as if a myth is true, when it is not, they can destroy their lives, the happiness of everyone they know and care about, the world, everything.

At this week’s Dark Mountain retreat, we collectively attempted to identify the dominant myths of our time, in the belief that many of these myths are no longer serving us well, if they ever did. It might be more accurate to say these are prevalent myths in different circles of power and influence, since there are so many of them — seemingly competing for our attention and belief, some of them directly contradictory to others, and some growing in influence while others are losing their hold.

Here is the Harvest, in alphabetical order (grouping seemingly related myths, and some of their opposites):

  • Activism: that well-coordinated activism at the right scale can change the world. Or that activism beyond the local scale is futile, that our future is fated and unalterable.
  • Beauty: that anyone can be perfectly beautiful. That beauty is goodness. That everyone is already beautiful.
  • Centralization and Globalization: that by centralizing, globalizing, homogenizing, standardizing and scaling human systems, they necessarily become both more efficient and more effective. Or that small is necessarily beautiful, and through decentralization and true anarchy, human activity can be optimized.
  • Choice: that we have real choices in our lives, and the quality of our choices determines our degree of self-realization.
  • Collapse: that collapse is a sudden, dramatic and final event that occurs simultaneously everywhere to everyone in a society. Or that collapse is a gradual and healthy response to a complex system failure and will lead to the emergence of a better system.
  • Commensurability: that we get what we ‘deserve’, as a result of our valiant effort or good character.
  • Conflict: that life is inevitably full of conflict and resolution, struggle and the overcoming of obstacles. That a story without conflict and obstacles that are overcome is not a story at all.
  • Control: that humans are or can be in control of our own destiny, and that we have the power to change things. Or that our destiny is controlled entirely by gods or fates, and that we have no power to change anything.
  • Cycles: that everything in life is cyclic, so everything that’s good, and bad, will come around again.
  • Doing is More Important Than Being: that doing everything we can to try to deal with the world’s intractable problems, even if it’s inevitably futile, is our responsibility and duty, and failure to do so is slacking, giving up.
  • Duality: that the complexity of understanding and decision-making can be usefully simplified to pairs of often polar alternatives.
  • The End of Myths: that the myths of the human world have all been smashed, and there are no new ones, and that we no longer have need of them anyway, since our new stories are scientifically ‘true’. Or that there are some good myths. Or that human mental models and function require myths.
  • Failure is Bad: that success, no matter how achieved, is laudable, but failure is shameful.
  • The Fall and Redemption: that humanity once was perfect, but fell from grace, and now our lifelong and primary duty is to redeem ourselves.
  • Free Will: that we have it. Or that there is no such thing.
  • Good vs Evil: that in every struggle there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side, and those who are evil will always be provoking new struggles.
  • Happiness as Purpose: that a happy life is a good life, and that achieving it is a worthy goal in life.
  • Hierarchy and Order: that human society requires hierarchy to function effectively, and that there is a ‘natural’ order of things, with humans at the top/centre, and with the superior/strongest/fittest humans at the pinnacle.
  • Heroes: that the great changes in history were inspired and made possible principally by the work of exceptional individuals (or the Margaret Mead variation, by very small determined groups).
  • Human Centrism and Dominion: that the world, and Nature, were made or inevitably evolved to bring our species to the fore, and hence are there to tame and conquer for our purposes. Or that Nature rather than humanity is central to our world (ecocentrism), is inherently sacred (biophilia) and should be studied to learn how to live better (biomimicry). That Gaia and the other-than-human world cares about the plight, success and survival of the human species. And that all humans are damaged by our culture and spend their whole lives trying to heal.
  • Immortality: that we do or might somehow live on in some form forever, so death need not be feared. Or that death is utter and final, or evidence of our failure.
  • Individualism & Separateness: that we are separate and apart from other humans and all other life on Earth, and that we are “all of a piece”, rather than a complicity of our component cells. Or that we are merely “the collaborative open source project of a trillion cells”, and an integral and inseparable part of the organism of all-life-on-Earth (Gaia).
  • Inevitability: that things are the way they are for a reason, and that we can’t change them until/unless we understand that reason (Pollard’s Law of Complexity). And that certain occurrences, once a tipping point is passed, are inevitable no matter how we intervene.
  • Information: that having the right information is essential to effective action, and that more information is better. Or that all information is propaganda and we should trust our intuition, or our traditions, or our leaders, to tell us what to do.
  • Ingenuity: that human ingenuity is unlimited and can solve all problems and predicaments.
  • Linearity: that history moves forward through time in some coherent and inevitable way.
  • Mate for Life: that we and all admirable species are meant to love just one other for our whole lives.
  • Meaning: that all human activity is driven by the search for meaning and purpose. Or that life is meaningless and the search for meaning is futile.
  • More is Better: that sufficiency is not sufficient.
  • Near-Term Extinction: that because of multiple positive feedback loops, all complex life on Earth will be extinct by mid-century.
  • Necessary Politeness: that outrage is always an inappropriate and excessive response, even to atrocity.
  • Necessity of Conflict and Struggle: that the world and our species are so terrible that anything of value can be achieved only through struggle, conflict and sacrifice. Or that the way to peace is one of acceptance and non-struggle.
  • Noble Savage: that the important truths of how to live optimally can be found by listening to and learning from ‘uncivilized’, aboriginal peoples. Or that humans are by virtue of our nature and/or large brains always fated to destroy the world.
  • Objectivity: that there is an objective, rational, absolute truth.
  • One Right Answer: that there is one for every situation.
  • Original Sin: that humans are inherently sinful, lazy, evil, and in need of controlling. Or that humans are inherently good, and that people who cause pain and suffering do so only because they are ill, damaged and traumatized.
  • Perfect Markets: that deregulation and non-interference in individual attempts at self-optimization will produce a perfect collective outcome, or at least the best possible one.
  • Perpetual Growth: that through human ingenuity it is possible to make and do more and more with less and less forever. Or that through human ingenuity it is possible to shift our global economy to a steady-state, sustainable one.
  • Progress: that the natural direction of human civilization is toward a collectively better and better world for humans.
  • Rationality and Knowability: that the complexity of the world can be simplified or made merely complicated and hence completely known and predictable. Or that the world is utterly unknowable, and we have to accept our lot as inevitable, and have faith it is in some way necessarily good.
  • Salvation: that if we live a good life and work hard, we will be saved from suffering and misfortune, by the gods, by a righteous elite, or by our own ingenuity and collective efforts, either with, through or despite technology.
  • Scarcity, Sacrifice and Struggle: that everything is scarce, and our task is to struggle, sacrifice, compete and mete out what little of everything there is. Or that everything is abundant, if only we can see it, and the illusion of scarcity is manufactured.
  • Self-determination: that with hard work and a little good fortune, anyone can accomplish anything they set out to do, and be whatever they want to be.
  • Self-improvement: that we need to work hard to personally grow and improve. Or that we are who we are and cannot ever be otherwise.
  • Urgency Trumps Importance: that things considered urgent will always get done before things that are merely important, and that merely important things will never get done because once the urgent work is done, we are too exhausted to do more than what is easy and fun (Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour).
  • Urbanization is Natural: that the natural migration of settled human society is from farm to town to city.
  • Wealth is Happiness: that happiness depends on and is proportional to material security, or at least that the lack of material wealth precludes happiness. Or that “money is the root of all evil” and “can’t buy happiness”.

~~~~~

What do we do with such a list? Here are some possibilities:

  1. We can acknowledge both the myths we believe to be true, and the ones we dismiss as false. We can compare our myths to others’ to understand their different worldviews and what those differences mean in terms of mutual understanding and openness to change.
  2. We can ask, Byron Katie style, whether we believe the opposite of each of the myths on the list that we dismiss as false, and whether the opposite of each of the myths we believe is true might, instead or equally, be true.
  3. We can then question and reassess both our beliefs and our doubts. We can ask ourselves whether the myths we believe, and our doubts about those we do not, are of service or disservice (or neither) to us in our work and connection with the world. We could earmark the myths that are of service when thinking about what stories we want to tell, and how to tell them. And when we tell stories, we could acknowledge, at least to ourselves, the myths that underlie them.
  4. We can explore whether our propensity to believe a radically different set of myths from those of the majority leads us to feel smug or superior, or (when we find others who agree with us) simply (and perhaps falsely) reassured “we aren’t crazy”.

Later in the week we began to identify, via brainstorming, a set of candidate stories that might serve us better, while trying to avoid jumping on the antitheses of the myths from the list above that we found most objectionable and dangerous. In my view we didn’t get far enough in this process for a meaningful consensus to arise, but perhaps it is enough that we have started thinking about it.

I believe that the adoption of stories as ‘true’ (turning them into myths) by a large group of people, is an emergent process. As such it is terribly slow, as people have to be ready to believe a story, and that’s a process that (as the media have learned) cannot be rushed or controlled. There is some truth to the Goering claim that “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself”. But that’s a fragile way of myth-creating — if people don’t really feel it, ‘know’ it deep down, all it will take is someone else to repeat the opposite often enough and people will start believing that. There is some value in telling our truths, loudly, repeatedly, clearly and passionately, and in the case of truths about collapse, courageously. But the impact of any one doing that is inevitably going to be small. Paul, I think, believes that the Ecocentrism story (see under Human Centrism in the list above), is ready to go viral and might become a new prevalent myth; while I agree with him, and hope he’s right, I’m not sure a few more of us telling that story will make a significant difference in its spread.

On the other hand, although the acceptance of stories is, I think, an emergent process, the creation of stories is, well, a creative process, not an emergent one. And what group could be better equipped to create such stories than an informed and sensitive group of artists?

Therefore, what I am hoping will come out of this past week’s connection, work and reflection will be some continuing small-group conversations (probably using Hangout etc.), and then some invitations to creative collaborations (hopefully of the calibre that produced the Dark Mountain Manifesto), that will result in the creation of some entirely new stories that explain what is happening, or what seems ‘real’ in the world or in our culture, in a way that has never been articulated before, and which offer some powerful new insights, ideas, understandings, appreciation, perceptions and perspectives that will affect how those stories’ listeners think and feel about the world, what they believe, and ultimately what they do and even who they are.

Story and art can do that. Darwin did that, with his dangerous new story about how humans evolved, just one of many species, adapting to ever-changing circumstances. Stephen J. Gould did that, with his unpopular story about the emergence of life and then vertebrates (let alone humans) on our planet being an incredibly improbable accident, a random walk. Lovelock and Margulis did that, with their mind-boggling story about all life on Earth being a collective self-managing organism, Gaia, looking to balance the interests of all her inseparably connected and interdependent parts, just as our bodies do. These are myth-makers extraordinaire.

I hope for nothing less from us collapsnik artists — new stories that will make us say “ah!” New stories that will make us smile and fill us with the recognition and realization of what should have been obvious, but somehow was not. New stories that will change our appreciation, in fundamental and useful ways, of what it means to be alive and to be human. New stories that will make the challenges ahead of us more bearable, more joyful, and guide us in making decisions on what to do, and how to be. New stories that will want to be told, again and again.

~~~~~

At the risk of this being an anticlimactic end to this post, I want to proffer a half-formed story that came to me as I listened to my amazing new artist friends talk about what brought them to Schumacher College this past week and what they see their role as, beyond simply chronicling civilization’s collapse. This story occurred to me as I realized that (a) since the sixth great extinction actually began many millennia ago, we are not now going in to a dark time, but rather coming out of one, and (b) we are not climbing or descending a dark mountain, so much as passing through one (perhaps one that looks suspiciously, from above, like a ‘normal curve’).

It needs a lot of care and attention, and perhaps collaboration, but I think there is something in this that wants to be told:

You are on this journey, through a great dark mountain. All the living creatures of Earth are with you, travelling alongside, or at least they seem to be — it’s hard to tell in this dim light what’s real and what’s imagined, or what’s just wishful thinking. It seems as well that there are more humans but many fewer and less diverse other-than-human creatures marching along each day. You don’t know your purpose, here. Some time ago, for some reason that must have made sense at the time, your ancestors decided to enter this dark mountain, and you have never known any other life, any other way to live. When you look back, miles back there seems to be some dim light. And behind you, holding hands through the dark all the way back as far as you can see, are your ancestors and the ancestors of all the creatures that now travel with you. And when you look ahead, miles ahead there seems to be some dim light as well. And ahead of you, holding hands through the dark all the way forward as far as you can see, are your descendants and the descendants of all the creatures that now travel with you. Where the light is, so far ahead you do not expect to reach it in your lifetime, or even expect your children to reach it in theirs, you cannot see well enough to see what creatures, if any, are emerging into the light at the end of the mountain.

What is your role on this seemingly-endless and possibly ill-fated journey? Are you a healer, helping others to cope with the mounting diseases and accidents of darkness? Are you a mentor and teacher, humbly recalling and demonstrating and passing on the skills and preserving the memories your ancestors passed on to you? Are you a student, acquiring the knowledge and capacities that may be needed on the road ahead, in darkness and, perhaps, in light? Are you a facilitator and peacemaker and community-builder, helping your fellow travellers to self-manage each day’s journey so they do their collective best? Are you an artist or story-teller, filling your fellow travellers with pleasure and trickster wisdom? Are you a scientist or philosopher, helping others to make sense of what seems impossible, unbearable? Or are you an exemplar, showing others by what you do, and how you are, a better way to live and be? How are you of service to your fellow travellers, those you’ve come to love or have always loved, those you’ve left behind, those you don’t know, marching quietly or not-so-quietly alongside, those running ahead, impatiently. And, perhaps most importantly, those you will never meet, far beyond where you can see, striding ever-closer towards the light?

Thank you, Dougald and Paul, and thank you my fellow travellers of the past week. You are awesome beyond words and I am honoured to have shared your company.

June 30, 2014

A Pattern Language for Effective Activism

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 18:15

I‘m delighted that Generation Alpha — long one of my favourite FB pages — asked me to write an article for their new blog. The article I chose — A Pattern Language for Effective Activism — is now up. Please go over and take a look, and sign up to be notified about future Generation Alpha posts while you’re at it. Teaser:

Even if you’re not aware of it, you’re probably an activist. If you’ve been involved in a letter-writing campaign, a demonstration, a boycott, a Transition initiative, a Sharing Economy program, or an Occupy activity, you qualify, and you probably have a story about something that went really well, or really badly. This article is about how to improve our activism, to make it more effective at achieving its goals. To start, the chart below shows the five main forms and 18 main categories of activism, adapted from the book Deep Green Resistance:

direct action

(to read the rest of the article, visit Generation Alpha)

Bonus teaser: Here’s what a “pattern language” for effective action might look like:

effective activism

 

June 27, 2014

Why I (Still) Blog

Filed under: _ Uncategorized — Dave Pollard @ 09:32

Leunig news

cartoon by the amazing Michael Leunig

Reminiscent of the early-blogosphere Friday FiveMarc Hudson of Manchester Climate Monthly asked me 5 brilliant questions and posted my responses on the site. I thought I would repost them here for anyone unaware of and curious about how and why this blog got its start:

1) When did you set up the blog and why did you call it “How to Save the World”? Was it a bit tongue in cheek?

I started the blog in 2003, in the early heyday of blogs. At the time, if you wanted to get attention online, in the blogosphere, you needed a catchy name, so that’s what I chose. Little did I know how many bizarre e-mails I would get from all over the world as a result of that choice! Over the years, I’ve alternated between believing that some of the things I was writing about really could ‘save the world’, and believing, as I do now, that the ‘world’ can’t be and needn’t be ‘saved’, and that civilization, which we often mistake for the ‘world’, shouldn’t be saved.

2) You no longer believe it is possible to “save” the world – was that the result of an epiphany, a sudden shock, or more a gradual unfolding awareness? What, in either case, was it that made you think “uh-oh…”?

I think what look to be epiphanies are more just a case of certain information, viewpoints, ideas or insights being presented to you at just the right time. I read John Gray’s Straw Dogs in April 2005 after someone recommended it to me and I picked it up at a bookstore near my hotel in Montréal. I was staying there in preparation for a major work assignment the next day, but I got so enthralled in the book I stayed up nearly all night reading it, pacing the floor of my room, just saying “wow!” over and over again. Gray wrote:

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. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…

Political action has come to be a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition. However radical, political programmes are expedients — modest devices for coping with recurring evils. Hegel writes that humanity will be content only when it lives in a world of its own making. In contrast, Straw Dogs argues for a shift from human solipsism [belief in our aloneness and our disconnection from everything else]. Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair. It does not need saving. Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making…

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.

When I woke up the next day, everything seemed different; my entire worldview had shifted. But it wasn’t because John Gray is a genius; I just found his book at a time when I was precisely ready for it. Several other books had paved the way.

3) What do you enjoy about blogging on such terrifically difficult (some would say terrifying!) subjects? What has made you keep going?

I keep blogging because I owe just about everything about my current situation to my blog. My writing and my readers’ responses have shaped and radically altered my worldview. I quit my job because of it, and found my next (and last) two jobs through it. My book publisher found me through it. I’ve fallen in love because of it, and found many of the people who have become the most important in my life through it. So I can’t not blog. it’s part of who I am. It’s my auxiliary memory, my means to think out loud and figure things out when there’s no one I can talk to in person about things. By writing these terrible realizations about the inevitability of civilization’s collapse on my blog, I was able to formulate them and generate the courage to say them out loud, unapologetically. And I found lots of people who, rather than thinking my ideas were (as one reader put it) “doomer porn”, came out and said “Yes, that’s what I think and feel and sense and intuit too! I’m not crazy! You’re not crazy!”

4) If you could give your much younger (16? year old) self some advice – about anything (you choose the topic) – what would it be?

Probably EE Cummings’ advice about the importance, if you want to be a writer, or even a fully realized human being, of having the courage to be “nobody-but-yourself, in a world which is trying its best every day to make you everybody-else”. The big problem about being “nobody-but-yourself”, of course, is that for most of us, before you can be that, you need to discover, or remember, who you really were, which takes, in my experience, a lifetime of learning about yourself, by which time most of us have forgotten who we once were before we started to become everybody-else anyway. Still, somehow, it’s good advice to try. I wouldn’t listen to any other advice if I were 16, so I usually have the good sense not to proffer any.

5) What will it take for the myths we live by – of infinite growth on a finite planet, of the ‘naturalness’ of industrial civilization – to be overthrown/rendered non-functional? Do we have much/any power to shape what comes next?

I don’t think we have any power to change anything on a large scale. Even individuals who seem to have accomplished great things only did so because they built on what came before, and were in the right place at the right time when the world was ready, and in any case I think the change was probably inevitable by the time they did their famous thing or said their famous lines — they just “named” what was already happening. We humans are very culturally malleable, and it is possible, when the aforementioned circumstances are just right, to get people to change their minds quite drastically and quite quickly. But getting people to change their behaviours is something very different. It takes much longer, when it happens at all.

What we can do, I think, is to change our own behaviours, and exemplify what we believe, to “act in accordance”. We can’t know what difference that will make to the world, but instinctively I think our own personal actions, seen by others one-on-one, can have enormous ripple effects. Not enough to save the world, but enough to make a lot of people’s lives just a little better.

As for changing myths, the problem with that is that myths are a retrospective view of truth. They only become myths in hindsight, when a lot of people collectively agree “oh, yeah, that’s what happened”. You can’t change myths any more than you can change the past. When civilization is past, and that won’t be too long now, the current myths about it will be dashed because people will say “oh, infinite growth and the belief that civilization was the best and only way to live — what preposterous ideas; how could people back then have been foolish enough to believe them?”

6) Anything else you’d like to say/wish I’d asked you?

Just a message to your readers: Thank you, everyone, who is questioning, hurting, grieving, struggling, trying to understand, trying to make things better. Thank you for caring, and for what you do. Whether our collective resistance makes a difference or not in easing the pain and damage of civilization’s collapse, people millennia hence will at least know that there was resistance. To the extent we shape the myth of civilization as it’s understood by our distant descendants, we just might help them avoid repeating our mistake, and that I think would be the greatest gift we could ever hope to give to this world.

June 23, 2014

Visit to Totnes

Filed under: _ Uncategorized — Dave Pollard @ 04:55

20140622_204724

I’m in Totnes UK for a 5-day writing/story-telling workshop with Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, authors of the masterful Dark Mountain Manifesto. Also home to Rob Hopkins and the gang from Transition Network. Not a bad place to spend a birthday (and thanks for the many notes about that).

June 21, 2014

Just Begin: A Meditation

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:59

why we do what we do

I spent today outside, among the trees, silent, naked, just paying attention. It’s part of my rather clumsy presencing practice. This is what occurred to me during this meditation-inquiry-contemplation session.

There has been a conversation going on inside me almost my whole life. But at some point in childhood, around age 7, I became unable to hear it. The conversation was among four ‘factions’ that make up the complicity of me: the intuiters, the sensers, the feelers, and the thinkers.

None of these factions is located in any particular part of my body. Living creatures are more complex than that. In fact these factions aren’t really ‘things’ at all. In a real sense, we are made of processes, not components. What we perceive as living ‘stuff’ — tangible collections of atoms or cells or other components — are merely vestiges, images, imaginings, at a point in time. But time is just a concept, unreal (as any informed physicist will tell you), a made up convention, so “points in time” are similarly unreal. So this ‘stuff’ we imagine “we’re” made up of is just an abstraction, a convention, a model to make sense of this staggeringly complex world.

So these four factions that make up me are just processes, ways of knowing, ways of perceiving, ways of making sense.

What’s more, the convention of calling the collection of stuff and processes that are/happen within our bodies “us”, is just another unreal model, a simplification. Most of the cells within “our” bodies are genetically unrelated to “us”, though without them “we” would quickly perish. And most of the processes that affect us transcend in every sense the boundaries of our bodies: they are the processes that are making us “everybody-else” as EE Cummings put it, processes that are collective, associative, neither initiated nor controlled by us, yet very much part of the processes that make us “us”.

Unfortunately, our brains are not cognitively capable of appreciating this beyond an abstract level. We cannot ‘see’, except perhaps under the influence of ayahuasca, that we are not individual, not a ‘thing’ or set of ‘things’, not a ‘self’, not in any way separate from all-life-on-Earth. Our ‘being-alive’ may express itself through our bodies, but it is not our bodies, nor is it the part of us we abstractly call our ‘minds’ — those plodding, oversimplifying pattern-seeking organs invented to coordinate our bodies’ movements and sense-processing functions, that now imagine themselves to be ‘us’.

So, in this conversation, the thinkers and feelers and sensers and intuiters are talking among themselves, trying to make sense of all this, despite our brain’s interfering and increasingly dangerous oversimplifications. Trying to do their best, in good Darwinian style, to ensure that the actions of, and upon, our cells and organs are ‘healthy’ — good for ‘us’, us being the complicity of our components and processes and inseparably those of all other life on Earth.

So what happened to me at age 7 that this amazing conversation was lost to me, or at least to the parts of me that I came to recognize as ‘me’?

I think what happened first is that I became afraid to feel. Unlike how I was during my idyllic first few years of life, by age 7 feeling had become too risky, too unsafe, too painful. The joys and the pleasures just weren’t enough to compensate for the suffering that came when I allowed myself to really feel. Too often feeling meant falling victim to the terrible negative emotions of fear, anger and sadness that were triggered almost non-stop in my interactions with other people and our culture. I couldn’t bear all the suffering that came from witnessing the cruel reality of this hard, terrible, unfair world.

But we can’t, of course, just stop feeling, unless we’re one of those rare and unencumbered psychopaths who have mastered not-feeling.

So instead, what I think happened when I was 7 was that the thinking faction of me cut itself off from the feelers, pretended they were unessential, unimportant, weak. What I was feeling became ‘divorced’ from what I was thinking. This is because, as Eckart Tolle describes, our large brains can easy push us into a vicious cycle (the red circle in the chart above) of egoic mind (fictional stories that our culture has told us are true and ‘factual’) and pain-body (the negative emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, shame and grief that these stories invoke in us). This is shown in more detail in the chart below:

triggers

So, returning to the top chart again, it’s perfectly understandable that my thinker and feeler factions, at age 7, should try to divorce, to separate my thinking from my feeling, to short-circuit the vicious cycle. My thinkers didn’t want my distressing stories to trigger painful negative emotions, and my feelers didn’t want my negative feelings to recall and reinforce traumatic stories. So “I” stopped listening to their conversation.

My intuiters and sensers were quickly rendered incoherent by this disconnection. Sensers can’t make sense of what they’re sensing, and intuiters can’t integrate what they’re intuiting, without the holistic feedback of a conversation that integrates all four ways of knowing/being. So now when I see beauty (as I did today) I feel good, and I appreciate it aesthetically, but the feeling-good is thoughtless and the aesthetic appreciation is unfeeling. Likewise, my intuitions can’t be trusted as long as what I intuitively ‘feel’ can’t be rationalized, and what I think intuitively reasonable can’t get emotional confirmation. So my sensers and intuiters have become discouraged and disoriented, and, all thanks to those damned childhood fears, all-of-me has become, essentially, incoherent. Damaged. Disconnected.

Guess which ‘side’ my brain took in the ‘divorce’? The safe, ‘rational’, trying-to-be-unemotional side, the side of the thinkers. So I lived inside my head for much of my life. Avoiding my emotions (except for brief periods of fearlessness when I was madly in love). Ignoring my senses. Distrusting my emotions.

Note that our language sees these four factions as so integrated it overlaps the words used to describe them. Sense is a word that describes what both our thinkers (“making sense of” and “sensible”) and our sensers (the five “senses” and the word “sensual”) do. And feel is a word that describes what both our feelers (“how are you feeling”) and our sensers (“feel this”) do. And then there are the phrases “makes intuitive sense” and “gut feel”. When these factions of our knowing/being become incoherent, so must our use of these words.

As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of “self-improvement”, so I don’t have expectations of reconciling and healing this disconnect and re-becoming coherent. I’m still afraid to feel. “No use to the world broken”, I say.

But it seems to me that these four factions are still talking, still sending messages, still trying to communicate. That’s a part of their, and our, prime directive of being healthy, and my brain’s short-circuiting of the conversation doesn’t change that, though I imagine the unanswered messages are probably a little confused by now. Here is what I think they’re saying, that I’m not hearing, at least most of the time:

Intuiters and sensers:

Just begin. Go outside. Do stuff. Little, non-scary things. Moonlight walks. Scented candles. Path lights. Sound of the surf. Every day. Just be, as attentively as you can. No pressure. Breathe. Let yourself not think so relentlessly. Close your eyes, feel the sun, hear the birds, smell the rain. Listen to us, just a little bit. You know everything is wonderful, amazing, magical; forgive yourself for not feeling it, not yet. It will come back. It will come again. It’s OK to be discouraged. It’s OK to be afraid.

Now, open your eyes. Look, and keep looking. If you get tired, rest and then try again. You remember what it’s like to really see. You can still do that. You’re not that damaged.

Thinkers:

Ask yourself why other people’s happiness is more important to you than your own, why the only way that you can be really happy yourself is when you’ve made someone you care about happy. And you call yourself a misanthrope! And try this, you’re smart: Imagine coherence. Imagine what it’s like to be really present, what you would be doing, how you’d be feeling and acting. And imagine (since you probably can’t remember) who you really were, and imagine you are that again, imagine and picture what it’s like to be a process not a thing, to be a complicity not an individual, to be an inseparable part of all-life-on-Earth, not apart.

During a previous presencing exercise you wrote this, and several people wrote and said you were really on to something. Awesome writing, man! Writing on all four cylinders. Think about it. Use it next time you are trying to become more present:

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.

Vanishing.

 Feelers:

When you’re dead you won’t feel anything. You’ll be safe, then, you’ll be free, free from the bondage of your fears. But in the meantime, you’re running out of time to really feel, fearlessly. Yes, you could fall in love again, but that euphoria, that ecstasy, is transient. Too easy. How much do you still have to lose by listening to your feelings? How much do you have to gain? You remember, don’t you, what it feels like to really feel. To really be alive. That’s the story to remember, to recall, to tell yourself and tell others. Why not take a chance, a calculated risk? No hurry, whenever you’re ready. But you know you’re nearly ready, don’t you? Your impatience could set you free.

 

June 15, 2014

Getting Ready for the Fall

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:39

new political map

It seems it is both too early and too late for us to do much to prepare for what James Kunstler calls The Long Emergency — the gradual collapse, over the coming decades, of our global economic/political, energy/resource and ecological/climate systems. These systems are so complex and so interrelated, and the number of variables affecting them so vast, that it’s impossible to predict what crises will hit, where or when. All we know is that we’ve created a perfect storm, and that the systems that comprise our amazing but unsustainable and teetering civilization are soon going to fail on a scale unseen since the last great extinction of life on Earth.

So what, we ‘collapsniks’ are continually asked, should we do?

The answer, of course, depends on your point of view. If you’re a salvationist (a member of the groups on the right side of the chart above) you’re probably not a regular reader here, and you’re probably going to invest in whatever form of salvation you believe will save civilization from collapse. If you’re a transitionist, a deep green activist, a communitarian/neotribalist or an existentialist, or one of the growing number of humanists who are now doubting that a great upswell in globally coordinated human collective effort will be enough to stave off economic collapse, resource exhaustion and runaway climate change, you’re more likely to be working on projects that support those specific worldviews — creating local renewable energy systems, blockading the Tar Sands and its pipeline tentacles, starting an ecovillage, or helping Occupy block foreclosures, for example. If you’re like me, you find yourself moving between these ‘camps’ and thinking about all of these types of projects.

These are all worthy projects, but they each depend on a certain level of faith that the enormous effort, and in some cases risk, entailed in them will be justified by the result. Or they depend on a somewhat perverse but perfectly human and understandable belief that “we can’t just do nothing”.

Are there some “common denominator” projects, I wondered, that all of us leaning to the left side of the chart above can agree upon as worthwhile, and work on together? Projects that will have been worth doing even if we are preposterously wrong about the severity of crises awaiting us in the next ten or twenty or thirty years?

I think there are four such ‘projects’. I’ve written about them on my blog, and in my articles for SHIFT Magazine, and I’m now starting to talk about them at public events because they seem to resonate with a lot of people. This will be my first attempt to explore them in a bit more detail. Here are the four projects:

1. Relearning essential skills. We have become utterly dependent on centralized economic, health and education systems, global supply chains, expensive specialists, corporate employers, manufacturers, repairers, agents and intermediaries. As systems continue to collapse, and as we start to create alternative community-based systems to replace them, we’re going to have to relearn many capacities, skills (hard and soft) and practices that our ancestors took for granted.

I’ve distilled an earlier long list of essential capacities and practices down to these 21 categories:


  1. Acceptance, acknowledgement, self-acceptance, appreciation, gratitude, letting go, letting come, humility
  2. Adapting, shifting, agility
  3. Analysis, researching, differentiating, synthesis, foresight
  4. Attention, listening, sensing, intuition, presence, self-awareness, authenticity, vulnerability
  5. Caring, empathy, healing, nurturing, honouring, self-caring
  6. Collaboration, building-upon
  7. Collective self-sufficiency: to make/provide/manage our own food, clothing, shelter, water, energy, resources, tools, livelihood, infrastructure, health, education, art, recreation, stories
  8. Connecting with people and place, partner-finding
  9. Conversation, articulation, invitation, story-telling, naming, clarification, eliciting, translation, visualizing, non-verbal communication
  10. Creative thinking, connecting ideas, curiosity, improvisation, foresight, pattern recognition
  11. Critical thinking, questioning, provoking
  12. Exemplifying, modelling, demonstrating, mentoring
  13. Facilitation, consensus-making, holding space, patience, perspective
  14. Generosity, offering, sufficiency, modesty, biomimicry, non-possessiveness
  15. Imagination, invention (quite different from ‘creativity’ above)
  16. Knowledge: appreciation of history, culture, nature, human nature, local ecology
  17. Playfulness, humour, releasing tension, celebration
  18. Reflection, contemplation
  19. Self-directed learning
  20. Self-management, self-control, self-knowledge, self-awareness, intention
  21. Taking responsibility

It’s not essential that everyone in a community have all these skills, but the more present they are in community members, the more resilient the community will be in challenging times. I rated myself, and my community of 3800 people, on each of these categories of capacities, and came up with the following:

capacities map

So my focus now is on improving my capacities and practices in the left column of this chart. I think it’s too early to be trying to get others in my community to do likewise, and to start developing and improving collective capacities — there’s not yet a sense of urgency to do so, and besides, I have no idea whether, when these crises hit, I will still be living where I am now, nor who will be living in my community with me. At the same time, I suspect the bottom row of this chart (the missing essential capacities of communities collectively) is pretty consistent from community to community. I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge at this point, but it’s useful to know your vulnerabilities nevertheless.

There’s nothing magic or scientific about the above list, which is probably incomplete in any case. The important thing, I think, is to take stock, and to decide what will be most useful to learn, and practice, to be liberated from dependence on civilization when it no longer serves us, and to be of service to those in your community who will urgently need these capacities as it falls.

2. Learning to create and build community

My late friend Joe Bageant famously said “Community is born of necessity”. Efforts of idealists to build ecovillages and model intentional communities have been, with some remarkable exceptions, pretty unsuccessful. I think that is because the situation for many of us in affluent nations is not yet bad enough to force us to create community with the people who are here, rather than the people we imagine we’d like to live with. That includes living in community with some people (who happen to be neighbours) who we really don’t like at all. There is not yet the “necessity” to create the kind of communities that will enable us to weather collapse.

Nevertheless, some interesting things are happening already. The homeless in our own countries, the displaced, and the billions living in makeshift ‘unofficial’ homes in struggling nations’ slums are showing us how to build community, because for them the necessity is indisputable. We can learn a great deal from visiting with them and studying them, about what works and what doesn’t when centralized systems no longer serve us.

The endless recession that began in 2008 has also jump-started the Sharing Economy, as hundreds of millions who once owned, or aspired to own, their own homes and cars and other ‘stuff’, have shifted their mindset to renting, borrowing, and gifting to/from others in their community. That mindset will serve us well as we move from isolated ‘private’ homes full of ‘private’ property on ‘private’ land to a more communal, sustainable style of life.

The Syracuse Cultural Workers poster at left provides some more essential ideas on building community, things that you can practice right now, no matter how fractured your community is.

One form of community-based living that is thriving is co-housing. Under this model, people own their own home unit and share in a much larger common area that provides a shared large-event kitchen and eating area (for potlucks), guest bedrooms, workshops, kids’ play areas, hot tubs etc. This means individual homes can be much smaller while the co-housing community still provides all the amenities of a much larger home.

Two organizations that provide lots of information on how to create more sustainable communities are the Fellowship of Intentional Communities and the Global Ecovillage Network.

Another initiative that helps people trying to establish stronger communities is the network of Resilience Circles. While this group was originally designed to help people struggling with unemployment and basic security needs in their communities, it has a complete, well-thought-out facilitator’s guide for establishing local circles, and has recently begun to work with the Transition Network.

There’s a simple first step: Invite all of the people in your immediate neighbourhood to a potluck. That may mean finding out who they are, first. No agenda, no exclusions. Just start, and see what happens.

In the introduction to his new compendium Communities That Abide, long-time student of collapse Dmitry Orlov tells the story of a flock of birds that nested in a dead tree and then, after it was cut down by a thoughtless neighbour, quickly regrouped and established themselves in another. His three essential qualities of a sustainable community: Self-sufficiency, the ability to self-organize and recover in the face of crisis, and mobility (not being tied to any one place). I don’t know many communities today that have these qualities. The birds can show us the way.

3. Living an exemplary, self-aware, purposeful, joyful life as a model for others

It’s one thing to tell people what they “should” do to prepare for collapse. But I’ve always found “show, don’t tell” to be useful advice if you want to bring about real learning, engagement and change.

So what does it mean to be a model? I think an important precondition is self-knowledge. A good model is someone who is authentic, transparent, vulnerable and honest, rather than a poseur pretending to be what s/he wishes to be but is not. You can only pretend for so long before the mask falls and your audience feels they’ve been had. Being a model, I think, more than anything else, means knowing and being who you really are. We are all, I believe, doing our best, and what will help us most is seeing others candidly and articulately talking about their struggles and their anxieties, as well as their successes and joys. Despite the image of the term ‘model’ — of ‘perfect’ representations of beauty on raised catwalks or pedestals — I think models, to be of any use (other than selling us stuff we don’t need) have to be accessible, caring, and real. In science, in art, in any field other than fashion, a model is as true a representation as possible of some reality.

And a model must be of use. We should be able to pick up things from ‘playing’ with a model that are interesting and useful in our own lives. I’m not talking about leadership, but rather setting an example, not to be followed or emulated, but adapted by each observer to their own circumstances.

I describe myself as a “joyful pessimist” and I try to model that, to show that it’s not oxymoronic. I’m not a very good model, but I’ve learned that not being very good at it can be useful to others as well. My honesty about my failure to be truly present, my paradoxical love and fear of the wild, my moments of self-doubt, I have been told, all have helped others to see that their struggles are not unique, that it’s OK to fail, that “self-improvement” is a fool’s goal. My blogging, which has progressed and become less aimless since I began it over 11 years ago, has also become less popular as it’s come to offer fewer easy answers and more difficult questions. What it offers of value, I’m told, is a contextual reassurance to people that they’re not crazy, that the thoughts and feelings they have that they are uncomfortable talking with others about, because no one else is talking about these scary things, are perfectly rational, understandable, and appreciated: It’s OK: You’re not alone. It’s an essential part of the imperfect, evolving model of me.

The people who I see as my models are not charismatic, but they do have several qualities that I try to practice and learn from. They’re very aware to what’s happening, and self-aware. They’re pragmatic and unpretentious. They’re humble but happy, not martyrs for their cause. They’re articulate, each in his or her own way, both intellectually and emotionally. They do things locally to make others’ lives easier, more joyful, less of a struggle. They are generous — they give without the expectation of reciprocity or recognition, and they sometimes give even when they’d rather not. They don’t dwell on the past or the future, but don’t pretend not be be affected by what has happened or what might be to come. They perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities” and carry themselves with what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude”.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how you can be a model for others is to ask others what they value in you, and what they value in other people they admire and have learned from, and then figure out how you can be “nobody-but-yourself” in a way that still exemplifies as many as possible of those qualities and values.

4. Healing ourselves and helping to heal others

We all have to heal from the trauma that parents, teachers, adults, peers, employers, co-workers, lovers and friends have inflicted, to some extent, on each of us, mostly unintentionally — they were damaged and didn’t know better, and so were we. Our civilization culture’s chronic stresses have taken their toll on all of us, and the healing will be for all of us a lifetime’s work.

On top of the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, we are now struggling as well with the fear, the dread, the guilt and the grief that comes from realizing what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.

We have a lot of healing to do, and we can’t do it alone. And the task is far beyond depending on ‘professional’ healers.

James Truong has written a chapter on “resilient health care” in the aforementioned book Communities That Abide that describes what we as individuals and communities can do to heal ourselves and others, both to supplement what ‘professionals’ do and to replace them when centralized health care infrastructure and systems collapse (caveat: James is not a big fan of alternative medicine, and IMO dismissive of some forms of ‘modern’ psychological suffering). Some of the key means to more self-sufficient, community-based health care are, he suggests:

  • A healthy diet, hydration, hygiene, exercise and lifestyle and other illness/accident prevention actions
  • Adequate rest, freedom from stress, social interaction, meaningful work and recreation
  • Learning to self-diagnose and self-treat non-critical acute (e.g. minor injuries) and chronic conditions
  • Democratizing knowledge of how to treat critical acute conditions through self-directed learning, so that every community has broad lay skills in health care (and being aware that the people in our community, people we care about and who care about us, are the most important part of our ‘first aid kit’)
  • Shifting to a mindset of taking personal responsibility for and experiential learning about our own health
  • Maintaining community toolsets of supplies, medications and equipment that can help us self-treat many illness and accident conditions (and frequent use of their contents, hopefully mostly in non-critical cases, to familiarize us thoroughly with their use)
  • Realizing that some acute illness and accident conditions, even those that may seem innocuous, may not practically be treatable at all in a sustainable health care system, and coming to grips with the limits of what any sane health care system can reasonably offer

The chapter, and another in the same book by another Canadian doctor, Peter Gray, focus principally on physical illness and accidents. What about psychological illness, both acute and chronic?

Just as many of us are moving (either out of necessity or out of a desire to be less dependent on unsustainable centralized health care systems) to self-managed, alternative and peer- and community-based physical health care models, so we are moving to more peer- and community-based psychological health care. Many in the ‘alternative’ culture have adopted programs like NVC and Co-Counselling to help each other cope with grief, depression, trauma, stress and other emotional challenges. Even skeptics of such programs appreciate that we have a responsibility to be more aware of effective ways of coping with the emotional damage we all, to some extent, suffer from, as part of our self-care practices and as a means of strengthening relationships with others and being of more value and support to them.

We can benefit from learning to self-monitor, self-diagnose, and self-manage both our physical and emotional health, and support others in our community to do likewise, to wean ourselves off dependence on an increasingly dysfunctional health care system, so that we can manage without it when it is no longer there.

~~~~~

I wish I’d known about these options when I worked, for the better part of a year, on a large government emergency preparedness project a few years ago. The sentiment then was that we couldn’t depend on citizens to do anything to prepare for or cope with crises like pandemics or earthquakes; citizens, they said, were too preoccupied and disorganized, so governments would have to take charge and tell them what to do. If you’ve ever had to scramble for an emergency first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, or a back-up generator, you’ll know how well ‘just in case’ tools and processes work if you’re not familiar and practiced using them. I knew then that such top-down projects were doomed to fail, but didn’t know what might work better. Now I do. We have to do it for ourselves.

There is perhaps a fifth type of activity we can all undertake to prepare for crisis and collapse: supporting radical activists who are fighting the systems’ most grievous and dangerous activities — the Tar Sands, fracking, coal extraction, offshore and arctic drilling, pipelines and tankers, nuclear reactors, foreclosures, the plundering of the third world, corporatist corruption, ever-growing inequality, and more — hopefully mitigating the degree of suffering our inevitably collapsing economy will cause, or the rapidity and extent of now-unstoppable runaway climate change. They are doing this work, mostly, without expectation of significant success, undermining these systems even as they crumble. We don’t have to join them on the front lines, or in the prisons and hospitals many of them will spend time in fighting this good fight — we can support and help them by providing them with information, funding, asylum, legal and moral support, and safe harbour. We owe them no less.

Re-skill, build community, exemplify, heal, and help undermine. Those of us who know, and care, about our teetering civilization and what its collapse is leading us to, should at least be able to agree on these common actions. These are things we can do, ways we can be, no matter what we face in the decades ahead.

June 14, 2014

Systems Thinking and Complexity 101

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 23:08

This is a synopsis of a talk and mini-workshop I gave recently in Vancouver. It introduces a model for identifying and dealing with both the complicated and complex aspects of issues we face in our own lives, in our organizations and in the world, and presents an elementary method of thinking about and diagramming systems (both complicated and complex) as a means of better understanding and appreciating them.

~~~~~

complex systems model

There are four main purposes for learning about complexity and systems thinking:

  • To appreciate how organic (complex) systems (bodies, organizations, cultures, ecosystems) really work
  • To appreciate why mechanical, analytical approaches to change in organizations usually fail
  • By studying and diagramming complex systems, to be able to anticipate how they might respond to interventions
  • To be able to embrace complexity in all its ‘unknowability’, instead of fearing it as most people instinctively do

The book I recommend for studying the nature of complex systems and how to think about and diagram systems is Rosalind Armson’s Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations. If you buy the Kindle edition, you’ll find the illustrations unreadable, but you can download and print them in legible format free from her website.

Rosalind is a British engineering PhD, and what makes her book exemplary to me is the accessibility of her examples, that run from the destruction of downtowns by big box malls to the challenge of coping with an ill and aging parent living in another town. She uses the term “messy situations” where many of us refer to “complex predicaments”, and doesn’t specifically differentiate between “complicated” and “complex” the way Dave Snowden and others do (she calls all fully-solvable problems “simple” rather than separating them into “simple” and “complicated”), but otherwise we’re totally on the same page. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction, which includes a wonderful definition of complex predicaments and some excellent examples:

This book is about dealing with messy situations. Sometimes known as ‘wicked problems’ [or complex predicaments] they are fairly easy to spot:

    • it’s hard to know where to start
    • we can’t define them
    • everything seems to connect to everything else and depends on something else having been done first
    • we get in a muddle thinking about them
    • we often try to ignore some aspect/s of them
    • when we finally do something about them, they usually get worse
    • they’re so entangled that our first mistake is usually to try and fix them as we would fix a ‘simple’ problem

Examples of messy situations might include: the healthcare system in your country, dealing with a family break-up, exploring change and making it happen in your organisation, and worrying about how to look after your elderly parents. [Other examples include coping with poverty, addiction, inequality, a fragile economy, and runaway climate change].

The ‘butterfly’ model above includes elements of Dave Snowden’s ontology of systems, Rosalind’s approach to dealing with complex predicaments, and some of my own thinking about complexity and systems thinking. It differentiates between

  • Complicated systems: those that are not so obvious as to be ‘simple’, but are fully-knowable with study, where it is possible to thoroughly understand the causality relationships between the variables, which are finite in number, and to use that understanding to predict the outcome of interventions in the system with some degree of reliability, and
  • Complex systems: organic systems, such as the human body, organizations, cultures and ecosystems, which are not fully knowable, have an infinite number of variables affecting them, and cannot be understood with sufficient precision to assess causality with any certainty or to predict the outcome of interventions reliably. Studying complex systems and issues will allow you to appreciate them (see why they are the way they are, how they probably got that way, and what keeps them going), but you can never fully understand them.

Many of the issues we deal with in our lives involve both complicated and complex systems, and hence have both complicated and complex aspects that need to be teased apart. I use the terms ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ in dealing with the complicated elements, and the terms ‘predicament’ and ‘approach to addressing’ in dealing with the complex elements, since predicaments by definition cannot be ‘solved’ or ‘fixed’. The approaches to addressing them often entail accepting and working around them, or adapting to them. Trying to intervene to change them in a desired direction is usually ineffective and can often lead to paradoxical results that make the situation worse.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success in changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

The left side of the model describes the steps involved in dealing with a complicated problem (or the complicated aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). If my car won’t start, for example, this model would instruct me to, first, analyze the situation (what are the possible reasons for it not starting, how do I diagnose the problem by testing each possible reason etc.), by imagining what might be wrong, questioning why and how it failed to start and whether each possible diagnosis makes sense, and conversing with others who might have useful insight or experience with the problem.

From this, I can understand the situation and deduce the most logical causes of the problem and the appropriate solution to each possible cause. And finally, through collaboration with others, and through accepting offers from people who know and care about the issue, I can intervene ‘systematically’, until the right solution is pinpointed and my car starts again. It may be an iterative process, but it is not a complex one. There are only so many variables, causes, and things that can have gone wrong, and there are only so many ways to rectify the mechanical malfunction.

The right side of the model, by contrast, describes the steps involved in dealing with a complex predicament (or the complex aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). As an example, I suffer from a chronic disease called ulcerative colitis. Although the incidence of the disease is soaring and globally it seems to correlate closely with affluence and stress, its causes are unknown (and, despite medicine’s hubristic claims, probably never will be known), so we can only treat the symptoms. Unlike my car problem, I can’t analyze and understand the possible causes and ‘fix’ the problem. All I can do is explore what is known about the symptoms, and the hypotheses about how some treatments appear to alleviate symptoms in different sufferers, and appreciate the complexity of the predicament and the options available to me.

Then, by imagining what might have happened to make me vulnerable to this disease (e.g. taking high doses of oral tetracycline as an acne treatment in my teenage years), questioning theories and options (e.g. will taking a ‘maintenance dose’ of an anti-inflammatory help or hinder), and having conversations with people who have studied the disease and people who know my lifestyle, and by rigorously tracking correlations between my diet and lifestyle and my feelings of well-being (something I’ve been doing since it was first diagnosed), I can begin to make sense of its sudden occurrence in 2006 (after I received some extremely stressful news), and its non-recurrence since then (except for two mild flare-ups in 2007 and 2013).

And then, by collaborating with and accepting offers from others (e.g. acknowledging the wisdom of my GP’s recommendation to immediately quit my high-stress job, discussing my situation with other sufferers and seeing how they have dealt with it, and accepting a low-stress job that came to me most fortuitously late in 2006) I can adapt my diet, exercise regime, work life and other aspects of my lifestyle to try to reduce the risk of flare-ups and work around this disease that will be with me the rest of my life.

Here’s an example of how this model might be used by an organization which is going through a ‘culture transformation’ process to deal with a lack of knowledge-sharing and collaboration among its people. This is a predicament that has both complicated and complex components:

  1. First, the issue at hand must be separated into its complicated and complex aspects. One of the complicated aspects might be poor IT systems that don’t provide a means to capture and disseminate what people know and have learned. Two of the complex aspects might be cynicism that useful knowledge can be ‘captured’ at all in a database that lacks context of the situation, and a performance assessment system that rewards individual achievement and provides no incentive for sharing or collaboration.
  2. The complicated aspects of the issue are then addressed using the analyze to understand / imagine, question, converse / deduce / collaborate, offerintervene process. Why don’t the existing IT systems have a mechanism to capture knowledge? What is the most useful knowledge to capture and what are the options for structuring it so that entering it into the system is easy? How does this new database fit with existing IT architecture and how might it most effectively be accessed? What technical problems does this present? Who do we need to talk with to understand how this will be used, updated and maintained, and whose ‘job’ will it be? Who will we need to promote this new resource, and how will this be done? Who has real passion for testing this, and whose collaboration will we need? It’s not simple, but it’s not a complex process. It should not be hard to deal with these ‘merely complicated’ aspects of the issue.
  3. The complex aspects of the issue are more perplexing; they need to be addressed using the explore to appreciate / imagine, question, converse / intuit & ‘make sense’ / collaborate, offer / adapt & workaround process. Why aren’t people explicitly sharing knowledge already? The exploration might reveal that knowledge is already being shared generously, through mostly-informal iterative context-rich conversations. Then what? Should we tell the boss that trying to capture this in databases might seem to be efficient but is actually very ineffective? How might we, instead, enable and encourage more such conversations? Is it fruitful, and practical, to try to record and ‘reuse’ such conversations? The exploration might help us appreciate that most of these conversations are based around stories that don’t lend themselves to capture in rigid data entry formats. How might we then capture and organize stories in a way that would be useful, or can we do so at all? Rather than capturing stories, should we be training our people how to be better story-tellers? How do we deal with the fact that we grade performance individually on the curve, which necessarily provides a disincentive for collaborating and helping others improve their performance? How do we ‘make sense’ of the fact our people collaborate and share generously despite this disincentive? As you can see, this is a very different process than the one that worked for the complicated aspects. It generally leaves us with a greater appreciation of why things are the way they are, and how people have worked around the existing formal processes to do their jobs as well as they do. It can be a pretty humbling process, one that leads more to actions around “how can we help you do what you already do more easily and effectively” than “how can we get you to change your behaviour”.

It’s no surprise that, for many organizations that have tried to introduce a ‘knowledge-sharing’ culture, the job quickly focused on the easier merely-complicated aspects — it became all about IT, and in fact many people began to see Knowledge Management as being just an aspect of IT (all about content and collection). No one really wants to deal with the complex aspects (having the hundreds of challenging conversations necessary to appreciate the status quo and the very human motivations behind it, and helping people in modest ways to do their best work better) because this work is hard and thankless and difficult to measure meaningfully.

Because of that, and the lack of insight, imagination and courage by executives in charge of such ‘culture change’ programs, most such programs, in my experience, fail. It requires a very different skill set to deal with the complex aspects, a skill set that in most organizations is in short supply, and is much underrated by the mostly-analytical left-brained thinkers who make the final decisions. Sadly, the only truly successful large-scale culture change programs I have seen entailed the firing of a large proportion of the staff and the hiring of new people who already embodied the desired ‘new’ culture. For the same reason, many organizational ‘consolidations’ and ‘mergers’ (takeovers), both in the private and public sector, end up with almost all of the acquired organization’s people leaving.

This incapacity is equally true, unfortunately, in our attempts to deal with complex predicaments like poverty, inequality, our fragile economic system, the exhaustion of cheap energy, and runaway climate change, in our larger society. And in this larger society there is no one ‘in charge’ to make the decisions that would be needed to bring about large-scale imaginative adaptation to the challenges we face.

So we’re left to deal with such predicaments personally, and in communities that are sufficiently small-scale and sufficiently enlightened to appreciate both the predicaments and how imaginative adaptations and workarounds can alleviate their pain and their harm, at least locally. Most people don’t want to hear or believe this; they want to believe there are miraculous ‘fixes’ to these now-global predicaments. But the more you study complex systems, the more you realize there are none. Geoengineering proposals now being made to ‘fix’ our atmosphere are a classic case of trying to ‘solve’ a complex predicament as if it were a merely complicated problem, and its outcome will almost surely be disastrous.

[At this point I gave participants their first exercise: Thinking about some of the challenges facing them in their industry currently, what are the complicated vs. complex aspects of each? We drilled down into 5 such challenges, and they all had both complicated and complex aspects; the complex aspects were the harder ones to deal with in each case.]

Systems diagrams are a useful tool to help with both the analysis and understanding of complicated systems and challenges (and the complicated aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects), and with the exploration and appreciation of complex systems and challenges (and the complex aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects). Here are the basic steps in using such diagrams:

  • Identify the elements (variables) in the system
  • Show the apparent or possible causal connections with arrows
  • Discover reinforcing loops (“vicious cycles” and “virtuous cycles”) in these systems
  • Identify the balancing elements that keep the system in stasis
  • Consider how interventions, adaptations and workarounds might affect the system and what outcomes they might produce

These diagrams are used differently in complicated vs complex systems. In complicated systems, they can be used to analyze, understand, predict, and intervene optimally. In complex systems, many of the benefits of diagramming emerge from the process of diagramming rather than the finished diagram, i.e. from the exploration and appreciation of the predicament.

The diagram, and the system, are models of reality – they are inherently incomplete and flawed. The map is not the territory!

There are many different ways of documenting systems and challenges, and Rosalind’s book explains a number of them. For purposes of this workshop I introduced just one systems diagramming technique that’s easy to learn and quite intuitive and robust. Here’s an example of this technique, looking at the complex predicament of introducing a big box mall supermarket into a town and its impact on the downtown (called the ‘high street’ in the UK) retail stores:

sys diagram 1

The chart shows two ‘vicious cycles’ shown as A and B on the chart. The first of these leads to the bankruptcy of downtown food stores, and the second to the bankruptcy of other downtown stores and the deterioration of the downtown as a whole.

The next exercise for the group was to watch or read the Jack Kent children’s story There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon. The synopsis of the story is:

This is the story of Billy Bixbie, who finds a tiny dragon sitting on the foot of his bed. His mother is firm in her assertion, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.” Yet, the more she denies the dragon and, in turn, convinces young Billy to ignore the dragon, the bigger he grows. By the story’s end, the dragon is filling the Bixbie’s home, with his head and tail spilling out of the top and bottom windows. Finally, Billy can no longer deny the dragon and points this out to his mother. As soon as they acknowledge that there indeed is such a thing as a dragon, the fire breathing fellow returns to his original size–small, like a lap dog. Mrs. Bixbie asks how it was that he grew so big. To which Billy ends the book by saying, “I guess he just wanted to be noticed.”

The group was asked (1) to identify and diagram the “vicious cycle” (a type of reinforcing or “resilient” loop) in red, then (2) to add the “balancing element” that pulled the system out of the cycle before it collapsed, then (3) to identify a possible “virtuous cycle” (another reinforcing or “resilient” loop) that might result in the dragon disappearing entirely, in green, and finally (4) to add another “balancing element” that might pull the system out of the virtuous cycle and back into the vicious cycle. The finished diagram looked like this:

sys diagram 2

This is a simple example of a system in balance or stasis, where the cycles that might tend to collapse it are held in check. Because it’s a complex system, and we are only identifying the more obvious variables, it’s a delicate balance, and another variable of which we’re unaware, or a “black swan” event, could pull it out of stasis. You could substitute the word “addiction” or “trauma” or “urban decay” or “economic inequality” or “climate change” for “dragon” and the model would still more-or-less work.

There are three reasons why such system diagrams are useful, especially for complex predicaments:

  • To appreciate why something is happening that might not be obvious or intuitive
  • To appreciate why well-intentioned interventions are failing to work
  • To identify possible workarounds and other interventions that might be useful, and their possible consequences

The next exercise was to draw a system diagram to appreciate the challenge of never-ending annual budget cuts, a predicament in both the private and public sector. The task was to diagram the “vicious cycle” in both sectors, and then to explore possible ways to imaginatively adapt or work around the predicament. The vicious cycle diagrams looked like this:

sys diagram 3

We discussed the fact that because of oligopolies in the private sector, and because government employees often can’t just leave and find comparable work when their job gets difficult, the kind of ‘market factors’ that might end this vicious cycle and produce a system in stasis just aren’t present. So both sectors add user fees endlessly without improving service, and eliminate or cut back or outsource or offshore services to reduce costs. Customers and employees are both unhappy but have nowhere else to turn in oligopoly markets, so the demanded profit increase and cost cutting are achieved. And since it was achieved, shareholders and citizens believe it can be achieved again each year, and keep demanding it. Such a cycle can only end in collapse.

We discussed possible collapse ‘end games’ that could result if this cycle continues — complete privatization of government services, for example, or, to introduce another variable, wide-spread business (government) failure if customers (taxpayers) are no longer able to pay for the industry’s products (their taxes) because of a continuing stagnant economy. We also came up with some imaginative adaptations and workarounds that might pull us out of these cycles (the ones we came up with were industry-specific and not particularly useful to document here).

We briefly looked at climate change as another complex predicament, studying the vicious cycles in the systems charts I developed for my SHIFT magazine articles. There was an appreciation, I think, that most of the current “solutions” to climate change (cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, sequestration etc.) can’t be expected to work because they’re defeated by the reinforcing feedback loops in the system, and there was an appreciation of why saying that “if we all just did x it would solve the problem” is mostly wishful thinking, and an improbable way to get out of the predicament.

Finally, I discussed six other tools that I’ve found useful in systems thinking:

  1. Visualizations, especially other kinds of systems diagrams, such as the famous Lawrence Livermore graphic showing all the sources, uses and losses of energy in the US.
  2. Cultural anthropology and specifically ‘business anthropology’ to observe and document behaviours in organizations as they actually occur rather than as the ‘procedure manuals’ say they should.
  3. Future state stories to imagine how things might work x years in the future, and then, after collecting current state stories, and engaging a cross section of participating and affected people in iterative conversations, devising a realistic ‘map’ to get to that future state from the current state.
  4. Games and simulations and ‘table-top’ exercises to explore more deeply the variables in play in complex systems and how they are correlated, and to envision the impact of attempted interventions, adaptations and ‘black swan’ events.
  5. Whole system in the room exercises — that allow multiple perspectives on how the system really functions and what diverse ‘stakeholders’ think would make a difference, leading to some convergence and viewpoint shifts.
  6. Biomimicry: the appreciation that nature has been adapting to and working around the predicaments and challenges of complex systems for billions of years, and the value of studying natural systems to appreciate how that has happened.

It was a challenging session, and obviously just touched the surface of this difficult subject. I’m grateful that the audience was an exceptionally bright and animated group, and not too large, and would like to thank them for their participation and helpful suggestions. They seemed to appreciate it and find it enlightening, so I may get called upon to talk with others on this subject. I would welcome any thoughts on how to tweak or add to this workshop.

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