Celebrating our successes and recognizing our failures

By David Parkinson

Rain on sunflower petals

Rain on sunflower petals.

Any chance of real global change must start at the ground level by correcting the true sources of the problem and spread virally.
(Jeff Vail)

When Giovanni and I returned from traveling in mid-2006 and started to realize that we needed a bigger change in our lives than just moving from an American city in the Pacific Northwest to its closest Canadian counterpart, we both did a lot of reading and thinking. I started to explore the internet for information about growing food, permaculture, natural building techniques, and other aspects of a more grounded and simpler life. Somehow during that time I stumbled across Dave Pollard’s ironically-titled blog How to Save the World, which continues to inspire and challenge me.

The subject matter of Pollard’s blog wavers between personal and spiritual growth, community development, civilization and its discontents, and the development of a more natural and localized economy — with many digressions and explorations along the way. He is one of the most fearless bloggers I know of; there are not many other people blogging who are as willing to expose their true selves so openly, to take such risks in an atmosphere of easy judgment and anonymous attacks. He talks about what he is thinking about and is not afraid to write very frankly, knowing that many people who read his blog might be put off or mystified or upset by what they find there.

There are so many good posts over there that I could point to, but one that caught my eye recently is closely related to the sort of thing that I have been trying to write about here at Slow Coast: namely, trying to understand where we are as a community, where we are trying to get to (or maybe where we are being led to whether we like it or not), and how to get from here to there. Like many of Pollard’s posts, it makes its point by embedding the information content in an imaginative thought experiment: in this case, as the title of the post suggests (“2110: A Dispatch From the Future”), the post is framed in terms of a reflection from the future back onto the present. Pollard uses poetry, short stories, dialogues, and other artistic devices to talk about very difficult subjects, and this is something that makes his blog a rare and precious thing.

The main point of the post is to set out what some of the measures of success might be for a community living in the post-petroleum era, in this case a hundred years into the future. I think a lot about how we as a society reflect on what we do, and for the most part I think we do a terrible job of it. Our notions of success and failure are so far off the mark at times that they come out looking backwards, and sometimes we would do better to reward what we see as failure and to punish what we see as success. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to develop and apply meaningful standards at all levels of our behaviour, from the individual on up to the society as a whole.

As we get closer to having a regional Sustainability Charter, and as we begin to develop a local Transition movement, it is helpful to look at all the possible metrics for a healthy regional environment, economy, and community. Here are Dave Pollard’s ideas for a vocabulary with which we can talk about what is going well and what is going not so well:

Individuals’ Self-Sufficiency and Well-Being:

  • Attainment and learning of valued personal capacities: is each individual in the community acquiring the capacities s/he thinks are important?
  • Self-knowledge: does each individual understand what drives him/her?
  • Personal health and comfort: is each individual physically and emotionally healthy and content?
  • Freedom from need, stress, and anxiety: is each individual free from unmet needs, stresses (including those caused by conflict, coercion and restriction), and physical and emotional anxieties?
  • Freedom of choice: is each individual free and unconstrained in being able to think, believe, do, and not do, whatever s/he chooses, provided that does not cause unreasonable harm to others?
  • Realization of, and time and space for, personal gifts, passions, and purpose: does each individual appreciate what s/he is uniquely good at doing, enjoys doing, and what is needed in the community that s/he cares about and the exercise of which gives his/her life meaning?
  • Connection with others: does each individual have deep and meaningful relationships with others in the community?

Community’s Self-Sufficiency and Well-Being:

  • Freedom from reliance on other communities for essential products and services: is the community self-sufficient such that if other communities failed, its well-being would not suffer?
  • Quality and sufficiency of our food, clothing, recreation, security and collective capacities: does the community live well and get what it needs, without extravagance or waste?
  • Innovation and diversity: does the community collectively surface, evolve and institute new ideas, and encourage and embrace diverse ideas and ways of being and doing?
  • Egalitarianism and generosity: is the community free from bias, discrimination, inequitable distribution of resources and wealth, and are all members of the community naturally generous and accorded equal consideration, respect and authority?
  • Peace: is the community at peace with and respectful of all life within its territory, and its neighbours’?
  • Self-management: collectively is the community competent at running its affairs and dealing with conflicts and challenges that may arise?
  • Leisure: does the work of the community allow generous time for pursuit of artistic, philosophical, non-essential learning and other leisure activities?

Community’s Sustainability:

  • Freedom from debt: does the community live within its means, never borrowing or taking from the land or others what cannot be immediately repaid or, within one migration cycle, replenished naturally?
  • Permaculture: do all gardens planted by the community consist solely of native or otherwise non-invasive species, and do they reflect permaculture principles of natural succession, variety and viability without the need for artificial fertilization, poisons or irrigation?
  • Freedom from illness: do the community’s practices help to prevent, quickly diagnose and effectively treat physical and emotional illnesses?
  • Simplicity: does the community live lightly on the land, such that no other life forms or future generations are adversely affected by its presence and activities?
  • Zero growth: is the community’s aggregate human population and use of resources substantially unchanged from year to year?
  • Adaptability and balance: does the community collectively know how to cope, and practice coping, with environmental changes and events, and work to stay in balance with all other life that shares the land to which it belongs?

Can you think of anything we should add to these?

Of course, some discussions along these lines are happening already, although some of them take place in dusty out-of-the-way corners of the community. And we are always plagued by the pervasive habit of trying to spin everything in a positive direction, even when we know that things need improvement or drastic change. Too often, if we try to start a frank conversation about the problems we face, we wil be accused of negativity, of not understanding the problem, of not knowing how things are done, of interfering in places that are none of our concern.

One of the real challenges for anyone who wants to change the world — or some little part of it — is to find ways to expose the real situation without turning people off and without being seen simply as a professional complainer. Sometimes it’s not worth sugar-coating your message, and sometimes it is. We need to get better at picking our battles and navigating the tricky waters between being honest and being heard.

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