The Work That Seems Worth Doing Now

conversation by pam o'connell
painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

“It’s about negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living,” writes Dougald Hine. Dougald was the co-founder ten years ago of the Dark Mountain project he is now leaving behind, and he’s just written a poignant and thoughtful essay titled After We Stop Pretending, his Dark Mountain swan song. “Negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living” is his current answer to the question: What is the work that seems worth doing now?

I had the pleasure of meeting Dougald and Paul a few years ago in Totnes, and then fell out of touch with both of them. I sensed they were being sucked back into useless debates about collapse (what was being said about it; what could or should be ‘done’ about it), and I was disappointed that what I’d read of the contents of their writing anthologies never approached the brilliance of their original Manifesto. But I still agree with the original Dark Mountain mandate: to simply chronicle civilization’s collapse, through whatever our media of choice may be, without prescribing what to do about it, since nothing can, or need, be done. It is enough to witness it, articulately and compassionately.

It is enough to point out what is so obvious few can see it, as Dougald does again in this essay, writing from Sweden about his co-venture called Home, which is “a gathering place and a learning community for those who are drawn to the work of re-growing a living culture”, and reminding us of Vinay Gupta’s observation that “What you people call collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee”.

Still, all collapsniks keep getting asked the same question What do we do now?, so I thought it was interesting that Dougald has seemingly learned to sidestep that answerless question by instead addressing the more sensible question What is the work that seems worth doing now?

Dougald, like me, has become intrigued by the Extinction Rebellion movement, which seems a much younger, more radical, more intent and less idealistic movement than the Occupy movement, somewhat more akin to the Idle No More movement. He admires their energy, their doggedness, their Direct Action work that dares to say no to a culture that no longer serves us, and predicts “there will be other movements along soon, other kinds of rupture and other kinds of work to be done”.

I’m not so sure. Dougald’s new venture of “re-growing a living culture” resonates with the mandate of Extinction Rebellion to co-create a “regenerative culture”, and that of the latest generation of food system activists to promote “regenerative agriculture”. Sustainability and resilience are dead, apparently; long live “regeneration”!

I find reading about these ‘new’ terms depressing: it’s all about “improvement”, “design”, and (etymologically) “making things over”. Whereas permaculture and complexity science teach us about observing and learning humbly from nature and adapting accordingly, “regeneration” (literally “being born again”) is about humans once again front and centre doing things a better way (than nature?) When will we ever learn?

I think part of the problem with sussing out the work that seems worth doing now is that anyone’s answer will be contingent upon their personal story of what has been, of where ‘we’ are now, and of what the future will hold. As I have argued before, stories are convenient fictions. They are what we want to believe, not what is true — no story can convey what’s really true. 45, who is now certain to be remembered in history as the most incompetent businessperson in the history of the planet, is a master story-teller, spinning tales that so many desperately want to believe to be true that it is now quite conceivable that this incoherent, clueless sociopath will actually be re-elected. How can we persuade ourselves, after looking at his example, that changing our world is as absurdly simple as “changing our story”? Damn stories.

Dougald’s answer of “negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living” is likewise laden with his story, one that many affluent progressives obviously sympathize with and relate to. It’s a poetic and lovely statement, one I wish I’d come up with. But what does it mean? To what or whom are we surrendering exactly? What does it mean to surrender when you only do it when you have no other choice?

And given the chasm between ‘our’ way of living and our coffee grower’s, is it just us, the mostly northern and western beneficiaries of this obscene and destructive culture, who should be surrendering our way of living? Most of the world’s people would love to surrender their way of living, if there only were one on offer that was easier to cope with than the precarious way they’re living now.

So, I sense that, while the new question What is the work that seems worth doing now? is at least more honest and useful than the old question What do we do now?, my answer to both questions remains the same: There is nothing to be done. What we do each moment, in the deluded belief we have some personal choice about it, is the consequence of our conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and it’s beyond our control.

I could spend hours talking with Dougald — he’s a brilliant, imaginative, and unusually articulate guy. But I wouldn’t be interested in talking about regeneration, or about surrender, even if we could agree on what those hubris-laden terms actually mean.

What I’d rather talk about, I think, is how we might hone our capacity for paying attention, which I think underlies all great art, as unbearable as paying attention in a world in collapse can often be. I’d rather talk about how we might foster an attitude of “contemplative gratitude” — reflection, acceptance, compassion, kindness and equanimity — that might enable us to be of more use to others in these challenging times, and might allow the great ‘works’ of art that are waiting for us to get out of the way so they can be expressed through us, to emerge.

And I’d rather talk about what JA Baker in The Peregrine might have been getting at when he said, after spending a lifetime trying to see the world as a falcon saw it, “The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.”

There would be no plan of action, no ‘work plan’. Just a conversation. Fun, actually. Play, not work at all. Play, perhaps, that seems worth doing now.

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5 Responses to The Work That Seems Worth Doing Now

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very well said, I only found your site yesterday but you are the first person exactly on the same page with me, same thoughts. Everyone high on hopium is understandable given our phychological wiring, and we can not be credited with our more realistic view as it is due to our circumstances, our past. It is what it is. I have a very curious mind, had the time too, so I always searched for answers. I found my knowledge and understanding very liberating.

  2. Paul Heft says:

    Dave, thanks for sharing Dougald’s essay. It’s useful to compare views. Let me offer my own interpretation of “negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living.”

    Ideally the negotiation would be among all the humans of the world, while also trying to capture the needs of the non-humans (as Joanna Macy recommends, reflecting the viewpoints of some indigenous peoples). Only in a fairy tale, we might say. It’s very hard to imagine anything approaching that level of mutual respect and cooperation, even in a representative body (such as the UN). Lacking something approaching a worldwide effort, “negotiating” is merely bargaining among the most powerful players, the futility (and cruelty) of which we have already witnessed.

    Surrender would be to reality–in other words, understanding and acceptance of our dire situation, and humility in the face of civilization’s failures (including its misleading stories) and its limited ability to act in “reasonable” ways. Again, improbable, since most of the stories we tell ourselves (as individuals or as a society) are aimed to buttress identity, to build up self-conception, to affirm our value, to reassure.

    “Our whole way of living” would refer to our entire culture: our goals as individuals, nations, etc.; our political, economic, and other institutional mechanisms; our worldviews. We would reconsider our aims and our values, our relationships with other humans and the rest of the world around us. This is necessary because practically every aspect of our culture has developed, over millennia, to maximize self-aggrandizement and ignore the harm to others. The culture has spread globally and is pretty damned good at that by now, even at the cost of possible extinction of the human species (and many others) and likely collapse of civilization. It’s amazing what a self-organizing system can do.

    Dougald, and anyone else who wants to “live out some of those possibilities” and “have some beauty before the story is over,” is probably thinking about all of this and realizing that we cannot solve the world’s problems (or hope that someone else will do so). He is probably making some changes in his life to feel better (not flying, avoiding meat and plastics, bartering when possible–he already changed light bulbs years ago). He is grateful for the comforts and enjoyment that he can manage to have, and he is probably apologizing in his mind to the coffee growers for what they cannot have. And he is conceiving of his own version of beauty–which he hopes to share with some others. Seems good to me.

    “Beauty” is one of the best stories we can tell ourselves, something to nurture our “souls” while we work, play, think, survive. As you point out, “we might hone our capacity for paying attention” and find beauty where it wasn’t expected.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    I suppose everyone involved in regenerative agriculture has their own definition and idea about what they are aiming at. But to me, it means using a lot more nature and a lot less of the products of human culture. For example, understanding and restoring the soil food web so that the web does most of the work…which implies the destruction of the chemical farming industry.

    Things get more directed if we move to Bates and Draper’s book Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. Bates and Draper describe ‘carbon cascades’ where multiple products are produced as the carbon in the wood is exhausted and finally takes the form of biochar, which sequesters the carbon for a very long time. The process was described by James Lovelock as diverting some of the carbon which would otherwise have been cycled back into the atmosphere by the soil critters into long lived carbon in the soil. Even if all of Bates and Draper’s schemes work, the rich societies would be looking at a lot less energy than they have now. BUT, a lot more than they would have if we all revert to hunters and gatherers.

    Bates and Draper’s proposals can be seen as ‘regenerative’, in that they have the potential to restore carbon back into the soil from whence it came. As I see it, the struggle is between the Odums’ Maximum Power Principle and the notion of living well on what we can afford…with different people having different ideas about ‘living well’ and ‘what we can afford’.

    Don Stewart

  4. Libby says:

    After reading your posts, I always feel a sense of relief in a way. A reminder that we don’t need to worry about what will happen, what to do, or what we should anticipate. Having a good time has shifted into my focus more so these days while releasing my grasps on planning and prepping for a sense of control for what is to come seems far less important to me now. I dig your work, I have read nearly everything you post since I found your blog about half a year ago. I’d just like to say thanks.

  5. Brutus says:

    I puzzle briefly over posts like this one and then move on. (I started reading Dougald’s post but tired quickly of the storytelling groundwork.) Perhaps I’m not a deep enough thinker to dwell too long on lengthy, utopian conjecture about the other side of collapse. Or maybe I’m simply too busy still to have the time to read and ponder these issues.

    Either way, I expect none of us here now will survive to see it. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting set of ideas, the principal one being how to assert agency (hubris much?) over a complete and absolute historical discontinuity over which no one has control. The fatalistic notion that nothing can or need be done seems right. Libby’s comment reinforces that, which I appreciate. For me, that doesn’t exactly release me from anguish to simply “having a good time.” There is still much struggle and discomfort wrestling with our foreknowledge (thus, mostly psychological), but I’m sorta grateful for that as well. There is perhaps one thing left to do still worth doing: make peace somehow with our having wrecked everything before we go. I don’t yet know how that’s possible except through rationalization.

    Leaping right over the bad part (will it be merely a single generation [um, nope] or tens of millions of years [um, yep]?) to run the thought experiment of redesigning human culture and civilization optimally (sans fossil fuels) is a heedless task others can pursue. I’ve got other better things to do.

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