Archive for July 6th, 2009

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.

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