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.


6 Responses to “Monks and missionaries”

  1. 1 Tom Atlee July 7, 2009 at 05:55

    There is another perspective, one in which transformation is higher on the list than survival. For permaculturists, this looks like “How do we apply the principles of permaculture to the differences and difficulties among us in ways comparable to what we do with the differences among entities in our gardens and sites? What are the social analogs of gardening?” For evolutionaries like myself, this looks like “What are the evolutionary dynamics that have operated for billions of years that we, as evolution becoming conscious of itself, can apply consciously to our situation that will result in a more viable human presence on earth than that which created this situation? If evolution is diverse entities interacting in nurturing and challenging contexts, what does that look like here, if it is life-serving?”

    At a meta-level, it is the permaculture principle of observing thoroughly before taking action, guided by deep principles that do not trump the reality before us.

    I see the existing conversation as an emergent manifestation of that, which you (among others) are attempting to help us make conscious choices about.

    How do we use our diversity creatively — in the “movement” and in our larger communities and societies?

  2. 2 David Parkinson July 7, 2009 at 07:51

    Thank you, Tom. It’s hard to do justice to all the ramifications of the conversation in a short introductory post. And you’re touching on a level of the discussion more profound than the ones I was on. But I think that what you’re saying is one (neglected, downplayed, maybe even marginalized) view of the situation: some people don’t feel we have the time — or that the return on time invested will be too slight — to merit slowing down, taking the long view, and really coming to grips with the situation before acting. Others will argue that if we move too quickly, without a solid understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish, we will reproduce the mistakes of the past, or worse.

    And maybe your final question is saying that we don’t need to settle this dilemma, but find a way to accommodate both/all positions: to take maximum advantage of the people who simply want to act, to do, to build; and to find a place for the people who are better suited to reflection. (And to do it without reinshrining peasants vs. royalty or proletariat vs. intelligentsia!)

    At any rate, better to be having these conversations out in the open. That’ll be a big step forward!

  3. 3 Tom Read July 7, 2009 at 09:06


    This is one of your best posts to date, and I hope you’ll return to this topic again from different angles as you find further insights.

    Two thoughts:

    1) I see no inherent conflict between monks and missionaries, thus peaceful co-existence between the two should be quite possible. A hybrid monk/missionary approach is also possible, whereby I make emergency preparations for my own household while also contributing to my community’s preparedness. Also, if I feel secure at home, perhaps I’ll be more effective in helping others throughout the community.

    2) I believe that it’s time to start using Peak Oil, climate change and economic contraction as explicit filters for discussing current public policy in this region. It just makes sense to ask our local elected officials how, or whether, a proposed policy takes into account the global changes occurring in environment, energy and economy (what I’ve called “Triple-E” in a previous Slow Coast post).

    Perhaps a good opportunity to start using these filters could come with the regional solid waste management plan still under contemplation at the Powell River Regional District. Release of a draft plan for public consultation is six months late at least in part because last fall’s collapse in recycling commodity prices made it obvious that “business as usual” lacked credibility. Seems like an opportunity to stop feeling like a ghost in the room and start asking pertinent questions.


  4. 4 David Parkinson July 7, 2009 at 09:55

    Thanks, Tom.

    1) I agree that there is no inherent conflict between these two approaches, in the same way that there is no conflict between classical mechanics and quantum physics. Two frameworks suitable for solving problems in two distinct domains. But, humans being the contentious creatures that we are, these discussions tend to become polarized. And the extreme ‘monk’ position is the survivalist one, which basically says that the community can go to hell, because efforts to bring everyone along will be futile. In its extreme version, this is fairly repugnant to most people. But I think that the last 50+ years have seen people in the industrialized countries become more monklike, as individualism has been trumpeted and people have become more independent of reliance on social networks. This worries me, because solutions are more likely to be individualized (e.g., change your lightbulbs), and the harder work of creating social networks gets left behind as something we don’t need or something we no longer understand how to do. The urge to monkishness can undermine missionaryness, whereas I don’t see the converse as being so true or so worrisome. Dmitry Orlov had some typically pungent things to say about social inertia in a recent post, and I’ll remember to haul those out when I continue this thread.

    2) Agreed! In spades. But how, o how? Maybe this is a leverage point for the new Transition group, but it is still finding its feet and recruiting and maybe this is too much of a political ‘hot potato’ topic for an early campaign. If not the Transition group, then some kind of ad hoc group out of the community.

  5. 5 transitionpowellriver July 7, 2009 at 12:10

    Hi David, and Tom

    The older I get, the more I find myself coming back (and in some case being dragged back!) to “both/and” rather than “either/or”. My own natural tendency is towards monkishness, and I came up here to PR partly to do my monkish thing in the way of growing and selling vegetables. Doing concrete practical stuff is very important to me.

    But, coming to PR from North Van, I discovered that I enjoyed being connected up to people doing the same kinds of things, and that community was more than just a buzzword. So, I’ve ended up being actively involved in a variety of groups, and now in starting up the Transition group.

    So yes, I want to be preparing for my family’s survival as well as building community resources. Doing only one or the other seems to me counterproductive. Likewise at a community level, there are enough people (in theory, at least) to be able to work on a lot of different projects and different levels at once.

    About 2)… I don’t see TPR getting involved in specific issues like this just yet – we’re not yet solid enough to do so without the real danger of being sidetracked, as V8A perhaps was with the Sustainability charter.

    That doesn’t mean individuals involved with TPR can’t get involved off their own bat though.


  6. 6 David Parkinson July 7, 2009 at 16:36

    Thank you, Kevin.

    Certainly it’s not either/or. When we moved here from Vancouver, we were motivated also by a desire to get it together on the personal/household level and also try to work at the scale of the community.

    I think that many of us who end up writing comments in blogs like this have spent considerable time thinking through our feelings about retreat and personal ‘salvation’ versus engagement and commitment to ‘world-saving’. Like most dichotomies, it’s artificial when pushed to the limit; but it’s a useful way to frame one’s thinking.

    What I was trying to address in this post — and will likely return to in future posts — is that a lot of retreating or (less likely) engaging might start happening without so much forethought, as the crises accelerate. I hope that we can find ways to put the discussion out there more, so that people don’t feel as though they’re coming unglued just for thinking along these lines. I know that when I first started encountering peak oil and collapse websites back in 2005 I spent some time wigging out. No wonder there is such silence surrounding these questions: I don’t see how you can be exposed to peak oil etc. without realizing that (as the Firesign Theatre put it) Everything You Know Is Wrong. It’s tough spiritual and intellectual work to get through it without a social support network. And we do no one any favours by pretending otherwise or letting the silence continue.

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