Facing Collapse: Ten Important Questions for the 2020s

Image of Ken Ward in 2016 Valve-Turners action, from the film The Reluctant Radical

It has been a year of terrible news and terrible realizations. A year of justifiable outrage and bewildered astonishment. A year of dashed hopes, false expectations and growing alarm and despair. A humbling year.

My response to being sad about all this is, as usual, to try to learn something new, and to recognize that offering us endless hope is just the establishment’s way of keeping us all in line.

That has me listening to some unusually bright, thoughtful, imaginative, realistic people — Zeynep Tüfekçi, Daniel Schmachtenberger, and Frédéric Laloux, among others. I’ll be writing more about some of Zeynep’s and Daniel’s fascinating ideas soon, but today, since I’m overdue for a “top 10” list, I thought I’d describe some of the interesting questions that came up in Frédéric’s most recent interview.

Frédéric is best known for his writings about self-managed organizations, but his many years studying such organizations have led to his asking questions that apply to what we do, individually and collectively, in our communities and in the world at large as well.

As I was listening to the questions he was posing, I began to realize that as recently as a decade ago, you would almost never hear these questions asked. It was, until very recently, considered bad form to ask a question without some sense of at least one “correct” answer at hand to answer it. And asking questions that acknowledged that there was likely no good answer at all was just unheard of, except among “doomers” (and, quietly, among the more knowledgeable climate scientists).

It was also very rare to hear questions asked that suggested that those with lots of experience, wealth, power and influence, and the capacity to deploy them, were just as racked with dismay, uncertainty and helplessness as the rest of us. Especially in business organizations, such acknowledgements were (and usually still are) considered a sign of weakness, rather than as a sign of maturity, candour, authenticity, curiosity and integrity.

Suddenly, quietly, it’s become OK to at least imply that “we’re fucked; so what do we do now?” It’s OK to say we don’t have all the answers, or that there are no answers. It’s OK to say most of what we’re struggling with are complex predicaments that can’t be even close to fully understood, controlled, or “fixed”, and that our best bet is to learn how to adapt to them as they play out. And it’s OK to be afraid, to be angry, and to be filled with grief. Frédéric says that over the past decades “social permissions” have changed to make these once-tacitly-taboo things OK.

Frédéric is now turning his attention from dysfunctional organizations to climate and ecological collapse. He’s discovering that these predicaments share a lot of the same attributes and symptoms, and the approaches to adapting to and coping with them are analogous. And he suggests that many of these approaches start with self-awareness and with cultivating and practicing excellent thinking, imaginative, attention and empathizing skills personally as a prelude to exercising these skills in group and collaborative work.

Although I’ve paraphrased them, here are ten “revolutionary” questions that Frédéric is now asking himself and others to consider in trying to deal with the terrible crises now facing us, and the growing likelihood of large-scale collapse. All of these questions apply at both a personal and societal level:

  1. Accepting unhappy truths: How can we recognize the wilful blindness we each have to “inconvenient” truths, and how can we re-train ourselves to appreciate and accept what is true even if it is not what we want to believe? It takes some intellectual courage, honesty, openness and patience to move to such a mindset.
  2. Sitting with not knowing: How can we learn to admit we don’t know, and that there are no simplistic answers, so that we can then create a safe space to just sit with not knowing, with incomplete understanding, with uncertainty and ambiguity, and let possibilities emerge as we learn more, think more, and interact more, instead of rushing to resolution?
  3. Admitting our powerlessness: How can we allow ourselves, especially if we’re in positions of authority, to admit that we are simply unable to solve the complex predicaments we are facing — that they are larger than all of us. That also entails breaking the co-dependency between “powerful” decision-makers (parents, bosses, preachers, and presidents) who thrive on that power and the fame and self-satisfaction it provides, and the “powerless” rest of us (who are often content to let the “powerful” shield them from any sense of obligation to make any decisions or take any actions to address what is happening).
  4. Moving to blamelessness: How can we train ourselves not to blame complex predicaments on others’ actions or inaction, and to acknowledge that we’re all doing our best and that no one (and no group) is “responsible” for the crises we face? This requires letting others, and ourselves, off the hook before we start to work to address these crises. And it requires the terrifying acknowledgement that firing the boss, or the president, will not fix the predicament that has seemingly arisen under their watch.
  5. Overcoming the fear of failure: How can we enable ourselves to push forward and not be paralyzed by the fear of what could go wrong and the potentially awful consequences? This need not require either exceptional courage or indemnification, but rather a collective shift in what we define as failure and how we assess others’, and our own, value, intentions and actions.
  6. Giving ourselves permission: How can we move past waiting for the permission of “authorities” to take whatever action we (individually and collectively) feel must be taken to address big scary issues we care about?  [And do that while still recognizing that others are scared, conflict- and confrontation- and risk-averse, and that’s OK.]
  7. Appreciating that waking people up isn’t enough: Now that many people are aware of the existential crises facing us, what more will it take to get all of us actually working on addressing these crises? It’s been a decade since Al Gore showed us beyond all doubt that merely waking people up to the reality of an “inconvenient truth” is not sufficient to lead to any meaningful action.
  8. Understanding what we long for: Personally and collectively, how can we come to a better appreciation of what really matters to us, what on our deathbeds we will be most proud, or rueful, about, and why it matters, so that we can’t not act on achieving it?
  9. Consciously and continually reassessing our role and purpose: How can we keep considering, every day, what else we could, individually and collectively, be doing right now that would be more useful, more joyful, more “on purpose” than what we’re currently doing? And, of course, then, why aren’t we doing that?
  10. Reimagining our future as the journey of a lifetime: How can we overcome our resistance to thinking and acting on plans for a better future, when it seems so scary and hopeless, and see our future instead as a great adventure? If we’re inevitably into the sixth great extinction of life anyway, why not approach it with gusto and give it everything we’ve got? What have we really got to lose? What’s really holding us back?

Asking these questions, first at a personal level, and then collectively, in our communities, in our workplaces, and as citizens of a world in collective peril: It’s a lot to ask!

We might well add an eleventh, meta-question: How can we learn to craft great questions? Great questions can help us, personally and collectively, engage in the conversations (the word conversation literally means “turning with”) needed to help the system (at whatever scale/scales possible) to self-correct. In other words, sometimes it’s enough just to ask the right question.

I confess I’m of two minds about all this. I find both subjects (facing collapse, and asking the right questions to prompt the best possible responses to deal with it) exciting, even exhilarating. But I also believe we have no free will. Our conditioning will dictate what each of us will do, individually and collectively, in the increasingly precarious circumstances that lie ahead.

We will ask, and attempt to address, important questions, or we won’t. We will act, or we won’t. Whatever we do, or don’t do, we will all be doing our best. That will either be enough to make a difference, or it won’t.

It’s out of our control, and has always been so. Fasten your seat belts; it’s getting bumpy.

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8 Responses to Facing Collapse: Ten Important Questions for the 2020s

  1. Paul Heft says:

    A perennially tough one for me to answer is “what really matters” to me, which is connected to my “role and purpose”. I hardly see myself as helping to “save the world” or anything close to that. (Even if there’s no free will, it probably affects my attitudes, moods, and so on, so it’s interesting to think about.)

    Here’s another interesting meta-question: After reading the ten questions, if few of them interest you, what would you conclude from that? (I’m very curious about that.)

  2. realist says:

    Have you read “The Collapse of Complex Societies” from Joseph Tainter?
    Collapse is a rational response to decay of societies, which benefit survivors (otherwise it would not happen).

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Paul: I think it would signify that the person is closed down, which is perfectly understandable.

    Realist: Yes. Though I would say it’s a sensible response rather than a rational one. Reason is so overrated.

  4. Don Schuman says:

    Do not assume we have no free will. You had the free will to make that assumption. If you look, you will find many cases of people rising above their conditioning, rejecting it or just leaving it behind. If we had no free will, it would be impossible to debate whether or not we have any.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Nope, I had no free will to make that assumption; it’s in my conditioning. It’s impossible for anyone to choose whether or not to debate whether we have free will.

    My point is that these questions are interesting to me because I have a propensity to think and want to do these things anyway, based on my conditioning. Others have no choice but to find these questions completely uninteresting and uninspiring. Those who are disposed to think about these questions already were so disposed; I’m just providing some questions for them to think about. That won’t change anyone’s behaviour except to the extent it gives them another data point for their conditioned selves to consider before making the only “choice” they could possibly have made, given all the data they’re aware of.

  6. Brutus says:

    The point made prior to the ten questions, the point that speaks to me, is that there probably are no good answers or solutions to intractable problems. Each of the ten questions contemplates that possibility. The paradox is that the lack of solutions means it’s impossible to be correct, only possible to fail, and instead of creating fear and paralysis, it frees us to do what is right, what is just. And, of course, it frees others to burn it all down. I haven’t exactly adopted a program in either direction, but I want to go toward the former.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Beautifully put, Brutus, thanks.

  8. Paul Heft says:

    Brutus noted that “the lack of solutions means it’s impossible to be correct, only possible to fail,” but that’s just at the level of the predicament, such as the inability of nations to take effective climate action, which (among other factors) will lead to collapse of civilization. But if our aim is to act at a lower level, such as nurturing a sense of community that will help people living here deal with climate change and civilizational collapse, and if we emphasize intentions rather than impractical goals, then perhaps it’s possible to “succeed” in some sense.

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