Paying Attention, and Imagining What Could Be

BLOG Standing Still Until I Really See

Avon River
Avon River, at Upavon, Wiltshire, UK (photo by Dave Pollard)

West Woods, Lockeridge, Dave Snowden
West Woods, Lockeridge (photo by Dave Snowden)

Avebury Manor
Avebury Manor (Photo by Dave Pollard)

Lockeridge Thatched House Dave Snowden
Lockeridge: Thatched Roof House (photo by Dave Snowden)

Part of Avebury Stone Circle
Part of Avebury Stone Circle (photo by Dave Pollard)

“History is now, and England”. — TS Eliot

I‘m sitting on a bench beside the Avon river in a village called, appropriately, Upavon, in Wiltshire, England. Yesterday I visited with Dave Snowden in nearly Lockeridge and Avebury, and we hiked for miles around one of the oldest settlements on the island, and through one of its oldest old-growth forests. Some of Dave’s pictures, and some of mine, are above. Mostly we talked about complexity, and the economy. Dave is more optimistic than I am about the future of civilization.

Today is my day for thought, reflection, unwinding, before I head off tomorrow for London and a conference on sustainability. Although it is unimaginably cold, it is a wonderful place for such activity. This is a place that changes slowly, and accepts that Gaia, not humanity, determines how things unfold. Two days ago there were flash floods all over the country, and the people adapted, as they always have. It’s not the most naturally hospitable place, England — the cold seeps through your bones and the dampness is so pervasive that nothing ever seems to dry, even in the high winds blowing through the hills. The greens that you see here are a deep, rich green that you normally see only in rainforest, which is what this country was before it was discovered and razed, a mere few thousand years ago. Moss grows everywhere, because it can, and because any creature that would eat it would almost surely prefer some place warmer to graze.

The bird life is much more subdued than what I remember as a child — the industrial era, pollution, deforestation and overpopulation have taken their toll — but if you pay attention you discover that many creatures other than humans have learned to adapt to this cold, wet, still-beautiful (outside the cities) land. The wild creatures here seem much less wary than those in North America, as small flocks of birds, ducks, sheep, and rabbits (and the occasional schoolchild heading home from class) all look at me, this strange bundled-up foreigner tapping away on a keyboard by the river’s side, with curiosity and bemusement. The sheer ruggedness of the place shows on the weather-worn faces of the people I see, but not on those of the wild creatures, much better adapted due to hundreds of millions of years’ more practice.

There is a respect here for wildness, for nature’s way of doing things. Britain has a substantial vegetarian population, and a disdain for factory farming and genetically manufactured species of any kind. The sheep come right up to you, if you’ll let them, and so do the birds (perhaps because they’re used to being fed and admired by the citizens). In this land made of fences and stone walls and ramparts and barricades, there is more tolerance of “foreigners” and eccentrics, and a more genuine diversity, than I have seen in most places in North America. In short, this is a resilient place, and I sense it will weather the coming storms and the collapse, later this century, of our civilization, much better than newer, more affluent countries.

This is a nation (a set of nations, in fact) that, at least outside the cities, has always had a sense of the importance of community and self-sufficiency, and that will continue to serve it well.

I am returning to my work on my novel The Only Life We Know, and to other creative work — composing music and now, creating videos — because I think I have largely said what I needed to say about how the world really works. Looking at the “credo” I wrote two years ago on this blog, I’m surprised at how little my views have changed since then (after changing utterly in the five years before that). Most of what I worried and feared would happen as a result of the fragility of our world, our excesses, and our loss of critical knowledge and capacity, is starting to happen in more and more obvious and alarming ways. I had hoped was wrong, and take no solace in knowing that, so far, I’ve been mostly right.

Beyond helping people (myself included) understand how the world really works, the purpose of this blog — and my purpose — is to imagine a better way to live and make a living. My book Finding the Sweet Spot imagines — based on my knowledge of real Natural Enterprises — a better way to make a living, and spells out extensively how anyone, with the right amount of work and self-knowledge, can create such an enterprise.

But imagining a better way to live is a more difficult undertaking. I had hoped to discover or create a Natural (Intentional) Community that would be a model of how to live better, and while I haven’t given up on this search, I am starting to see that such models are being held back by our society’s terrible imaginative poverty. While we change slowly, and only when we must, we are capable of doing just about anything we can imagine when that time comes. The problem is we have largely lost the capacity to really imagine, thanks I suspect to our hopeless education system, the dumbing down effect of the information and education media, and, more than anything, a simple lack of practice at imagining that stems from being too busy doing the urgent but unimportant things that consume most of our days and lives.

So I think I need to spend more of my time imagining, and sharing those imaginings with my readers, and with all those I love. And I need to spend more time organizing real-time events, in virtual and physical space, that allow us to imagine collaboratively. Both at work and in my personal pursuits, these practices in collaborative imagining and collaborative innovation are now my priority, my Job One.

To provoke these events and practices, I intend to start writing more imaginative and creative stories about what could be. They will be stories about ways of living that will strike most people as impossibly different from how we live now, and how we have lived for the last few thousand years. But my study of prehistory and natural evolution suggests we are more than capable of such transformative change, if we have the knowledge, the imagination, the experimental examples, help to make the change simpler, and, most of all, the awareness that continuing to do what we do now is impossible.

My leaps of imagination always start with paying attention to nature, listening to Gaia’s voice, because what she has done, if you really look, when you really look, is staggeringly imaginative, far beyond anything we could concoct in our heads.

And that is what I am doing now: Just looking, watching the wild spaces I find everywhere, to discover, to learn, what is possible. If we can’t imagine, we can do anything — we can tolerate atrocities, create and consume the ghastly product of factory farms, enslave nations and children, encourage soul-destroying abusive behaviours, allow genocide and endless war, create an economy build on scarcity and poverty and suffering, and even end the world by altering its climate.

But if we can imagine… we can change anything. We can change ourselves, and then our communities, and then our whole society, into one that works, one that is responsible and sustainable and joyful. And if we imagine together, just think what we can accomplish. Not means to perpetrate the existing unsustainable ways, but astonishing new ways to live, in balance with all-life-on-Earth. In peace. In ways that allow each of us to do what we love, what we are brilliant at, what is needed.

What we were meant to do, and to be. Imagine that.

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6 Responses to Paying Attention, and Imagining What Could Be

  1. Nicola says:

    Hi Dave, this is really inspiring, re-energising post and just wonderful ideas re imagination, thanks!

  2. Dale Asberry says:

    You keep talking about “imagining” how you want to live. What a lot of bunk! You LIVE how you want to live. If you imagine you want something else as you’re living, change!

  3. Nicola says:

    Hi Dale, I have to disagree, in order to act I have found it is helpful to visualise possibilities too, maybe not all of the time – I’m no expert but I can’t see how just jumping in without thinking (as someone has done this a lot) is always a wise move. Sharing imaginative insights with others is valuable too IMO

  4. EJ says:

    “Here in the UK, we were clobbered by the most dunderheaded EU legislation which not only failed to recognise the value of heritage varieties but made it illegal to distribute them. From the 1970s onward, our vegetable biodiversity has haemorrhaged. It’s not surprising that so many of the varieties familiar to British gardeners a century ago have disappeared. In the US, however, the heirloom seed movement has always thrived.”From

  5. SB says:

    I agree with Dale. You have to jump in and start a movement sometime, how do you think ways of thinking become ways of acting? If they are good then they will survive. You can brainstorm all you want but unless you move, you go nowhere.Nicola, are you saying that you are unwise? I can think of many friends who are spontaneous and have given me a lot of encouragement with their spunk.

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