Archive for the 'Sharon Astyk' Category

Monks and missionaries

By David Parkinson

Yarrow flowers in a summertime rain shower.

Yarrow flowers in a summertime rain shower.

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and and utterly vast spaces between us.
(Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p. 197)

A number of things I’ve read recently have made me focus more than is usual on how public discourse works — and more frequently doesn’t work — to open a space for honest conversation about where we are, how we got here, and what choices lie ahead of us. The latest epicentre of this is a fascinating conversation between Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins, with — the internet being what it is, a big sprawling free-for-all where everyone’s contribution is welcome and recorded for posterity — plenty of contributions and comments from kibitzers. The whole thing got started when Astyk posted a two-part post about permaculture, the Transition movement, and some of her concerns about the aspects of these two social movements which make them unlikely to connect with the mainstream population (part one here; part two here). Hopkins replied with a very civil post, and as of this writing there have been 72 comments to Hopkins’ reply. My guess is this conversation will reverberate around one tiny corner of the blogosphere for a little while, since it touches on some pretty important themes.

I won’t got through the whole she-said and he-said of it all. Anyone interested in Transition or permaculture, and particularly in the task of bringing these promising but (let’s face it) fringe movements more into the public sphere, should read the three posts. Many of the comments are also worth looking at, if only to give a lively sense of what some of the people are thinking who concern themselves with resource depletion, climate change, generalized economic uncertainty, and the real possibility of social decline or collapse (slow or not-so-slow).

The conversation between Astyk and Hopkins and the wider one among the members of the peak oil community has many threads, but the one I want to pull out here is: how can we be most effective at communicating the need to change, and how can we start making the change happen? (Or do we even bother?)

Viewed from one angle, the conversation boils down to a debate between two camps:

  • one which feels that collapse is so imminent, will be so drastic, and the general public will be so slow to adapt to changing circumstances, that the most effective response is to retreat and work on solutions for rescuing one’s own self or family;
  • one which believes either that the prognosis is not so dire, or that it is dire but that the most effective response is to engage the whole community.

Members of the first camp are sometimes referred to as ‘doomers’ or ‘survivalists’. (Some refer to themselves this way, so it is not a completely pejorative label.) There seems to be no agreed-on name for members of the second camp, but this is where Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins, and most if not all people in the Transition movement are to be found. Transition is very explicitly devoted to the idea that the resource scarcities and the economic upheaval which are expected to come with the end of cheap oil call for a coordinated response involving all parts of the community, from individuals up through families, neighbourhoods, organizations, businesses, on up to local governments (and maybe further). And it is devoted to the idea that this can work, even in the face of public ignorance, denial, or indecision.

A very important conversation lies in the tension between these two poles and in the subtle shadings of belief that lie in between them. Once we accept that peak oil is real, once we take climate change seriously, once we start to connect the dots and see how our actions contribute to the problems and can instead contribute to solutions, then we start to think about what action we can best take. And the two poles can be seen as corresponding to two strains in religious engagement with the larger community; hence the title of this post. Simplifying considerably, monks seek the salvation of the world through retreat and strict observance of religious dictates, and missionaries seek to save the world by direct and forceful recruitment of the whole community.

I see this dichotomy over and over in discussions of permaculture, Transition, and in many other little pockets of countercultural discussion on the internet and in the real world: one side wants to save themselves, pull the ladder up after them, and let the world go to hell. The other side wants to save everything, be fully inclusive, and let none be saved if all be not saved. And like all arguments which are based on very personal and primal views of human nature, there is really no resolution. Much heat, little light.

And it might sound academic, but much depends on having a clear understanding of what is at stake. Some prominent thinkers in the peak oil community believe that a social and economic collapse could happen quickly. If that turns out to be the case, what is the best course of action?

  • Do we retreat to small-scale action at the individual or neighbourhood level and take resources away from public education and recruitment? This might result in tangible solutions in a short period of time, but at the cost of a rip in the social fabric, with some people in the vanguard and others left behind. The risk is that this will worsen existing social unrest and create conflict within the community, endangering any progress made and (in the worst case) leading to survivalist enclaves and so on.
  • Or do we put our resources towards engagement in the community, the laborious process of dialogue, discussion, and consensus, before we feel we can head in any one direction? This might unite the community (accent on might), but at the cost of losing precious time when those who are ready to act are able to act. The worst case is that we spend our days and nights in conversation while the world falls apart around us.

Right about now, if you’re thinking that I shouldn’t even be talking in this way, then you’re experiencing another one of the roadblocks in our way. These are difficult and painful subjects to contemplate. We have made it difficult — socially unacceptable — to talk openly about the crises we face. To do so is to be a downer, to be the ghost at the wedding, the first grey hair that whispers of mortality.

If Transition is going to work, then we need to break through this conspiracy of silence. It’s daunting to think about making headway against such entrenched social norms. As far as I can see, most people out there are blissfully unaware of the seriousness of our situation. Who wants to be the bearer of bad news? When I consider what we’re up against with the local Transition effort — when I consider that a post of mine in praise of bicycles is interpreted as an attempt to make car-owners feel guilty — when I contemplate the degree and all-pervasiveness of denial and willed ignorance that we have made the hallmark of advanced industrial civilization — I can see the appeal of the monk’s position.

And yet that doesn’t sit right. I welcome the opportunity for us to change the equation, to see if we can’t creatively and compassionately open up a space in the region for a genuine and honest discussion of what is really happening. Too often we defer to those among us who are the least able to handle difficult or unhappy thoughts, but I suspect that we are coming into a strange new time when this deference will no longer be in our interest, and that we will acknowledge this to be the case. We may find ourselves having to deal with some tough realities, and no one’s interests are well served by pussyfooting around the truth and pulling punches.

It won’t be easy to change the public discourse. Next to that, the prospect of ensuring an adequate local supply of food, water, affordable housing, meaningful jobs, etc. in an age of declining fossil fuels looks like a walk in the park.

By their fruits ye shall know them

By David Parkinson

Almost ready to be picked and savoured...

Almost ready to be picked and savoured...

Anyone who accepts that the threats posed by peak oil (and general resource depletion), climate chaos, and economic meltdown are threats to be taken seriously must wonder how we’re supposed to get from here to there. Here means a society deeply dependent on fossil fuels and committed to endless economic growth. There means… well, that’s the big question, right? Anything other than the status quo — or the status quo only more of it — is hard for us to imagine. Much of the long and complicated work of our local Transition effort will revolve around the re-imagining of the future of this region; and to make that re-imagining happen, we first need to understand that we have the power as citizens to design the future we want to see and then work together to build it.

This is a massive task, and in order to be successful it will require collaboration and the creation of many new projects designed to strengthen our ability to provide food, affordable shelter, water, jobs, education, medical services, and all of the other goods and services which support the life of our region. To the extent that providing these goods and services now depends on excessive use of fossil fuels or other scarce materials, to the extent that they create excessive atmospheric pollutants, and to the extent that they actually undermine the local economy, we will want to create alternatives out from under the current system.

I admit that it’s hard to know what this is even going to look like. And my reading of many of the leading ‘post-peak’ thinkers (e.g., Sharon Astyk, John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, among others) tells me that none of them knows much more about what to expect than I do. The solutions they are advocating are all about preparing for as much as possible, given some reasonable assumptions about what we can expect to be coming at us. The idea is not to prepare for this or that specific thing so much as it is to become resilient in the face of whatever might be headed our way. And much of that preparation is pretty basic stuff, good common sense, and falls into what Sharon Astyk has written about under the name of “The Theory of Anyway“, which is to say: the things we should be doing anyway, whether or not there are crises forcing us to change our behaviour.

One of the very basic things which we should be doing anyway is being good stewards of all of the assets in our community. That we are not succeeding at this is obvious in every clearcut, every polluted waterway, every improvised roadside dump. We are going to have to reduce the amount and impact of our wasteful and environmentally destructive behaviour as resources become scarcer and more valuable.

One community asset which is currently being wasted more than it ought to be is fruit. There are countless abundant fruit trees throughout the region, and many of them drop their fruit each year because no one cares enough for the fruit to gather it and preserve it. After all, apples, pears, and other fruits are easily available year-round in our grocery stores, and cheap — especially when you consider that often they come from halfway around the world — so there is no huge impetus to make sure that we scavenge every last fruit from every last tree in the area.

But it is sad to see good food wasted, especially when people are going hungry around us. So for the last four years the Powell River Fruit Tree Project, a small but scrappy community initiative, has been working on a next-to-zero budget to see that as much fruit gets saved and used as possible.

Here’s how it works: the owner of fruit (or nut) tree who wants the fruit harvested contacts the coordinator of the Fruit Tree Project, Anne Michaels. Anne arranges for a team of volunteer pickers to go to the property and pick the fruit. The standard arrangement for distributing the fruit is that one-third goes to the pickers, one-third to the owner of the tree, and one-third to a local food pantry or other charitable organization to be distributed to those in need. But that arrangement is flexible, since sometimes the owner of the tree is happy simply to have the fruit picked and taken away, if only to reduce the risk of having a bear come and do it.

Anne is working hard to see this project expand. She is hoping that the Community Resource Centre in Powell River will be home to some fruit-preserving workshops and work parties this year. One of the difficulties in past years has been that the charitable organizations struggle to give away fresh fruit during the summer months, and there has been no way in previous years to can, freeze, or dry the harvested fruit so that it can be stored and distributed year-round. Now that the Community Resource Centre has a fully operational and inspected kitchen, the Fruit Tree Project can use that kitchen to preserve fruit for later use. Anne is planning to dehydrate a lot of the harvested fruit, in the hopes that dried fruit and fruit leather will be a product that can bring a little money into this perpetually cash-strapped project.

Anne also talks about expanding the project to take in more than just tree crops. What if we could arrange for crews of gleaners to swoop in when homeowners have more lettuce, beans, or (most likely) zucchini than they know what to do with? What if those crews could be sure that this fresh local food could get to those in need, via local soup kitchens or food pantries? And what if enough money  (or another form of exchange) could flow through this project to pay for a coordinator, for some equipment, or for the use of the kitchen facilities?

What if there were a whole regional network of gardens producing food which could be assured of not going to waste, because all homeowners knew that the community gleaning team were just a phone call away? If the volunteers could be paid either in gathered food or in some other form, such as a local food-backed currency which could be exchanged at any time and not just during the time of harvest? What if more people in the community were able to learn the skills involved in safely preparing and preserving the summer harvest against the long cold wet winter months?

And what if all of this activity were generating true economic value? How could it not? This would be food produced in the region by people who live here, harvested and shared among other people in the region, producing jobs and stores of food for anyone willing to work.

Somehow we have to get from here to there. And the only way to do that is to start with what’s here, now, and try to make it get a little bigger and a little better each time around. So if you’re interested in getting more involved with the Powell River Fruit Tree Project, feel free to contact Anne Michaels at prfruittreeproject@shaw.ca or (604) 485-4366. If you have fruit or not trees which you anticipate needing to have picked this year, let her know. If you would be willing to go out into the community as a volunteer picker, let her know. And if you have ideas about how to make this project even better, Anne is looking for a committee of supporters to brainstorm and work on expanding the project. Let her know if you’re interested in being involved.


Post facto

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