Finding our way to the centre and back out again

By David Parkinson

A labyrinth in the intertidal zone; a zone of instability between sea and sand

Last week I wrote about brainstorming gone wrong. I was trying to understand why it is that people often react fearfully and negatively when a space opens up for a discussion of possibilities and ways forward. I have noticed a similar reaction in other contexts, so it is not unique to the two specific meetings I talked about. My reason for bringing it out into the open was to think my way around it, because it is very worrying to me.

Activists work to change the world. More than just that, they are usually trying to change the world — or some little corner of it — in a direction other than its present trajectory. They work against the grain of prevailing political, economic, and social trends. (If they work with these trends, we call them something else, like ‘politician’ or ‘businessperson’ or ‘marketing guru’.)

Activists usually acknowledge that a mass movement will be more effective than a one-person crusade. So they put lots of effort into enlisting public support and finding like-minded people willing to apply their time and skills to achieving some vision of a better world (or a piece of a better world). I spend much of my time thinking about public outreach for various projects I’m part of, and sometimes I question the value of it, especially when — as it inevitably does — it takes time away from the work itself.

Let me be clear: when I say “I question the value of it,” this is not code for “I think it has no value.” I’m saying that we need to take a good hard look at where we are spending our time and energy and make some tough choices. We should do this as individuals and also on behalf of the organizations we belong to and work for. It might be that outreach is the most effective use of our time; it might not. This probably varies from time to time and from project to project.

I’m also saying that this is not an empirical science. There are no right or wrong answers and people should feel free to differ amicably. One person’s feelings on this question might shift around over time. The only wrong answer is: “I haven’t thought this through carefully.” If one person wants to spend all of her time getting people on board, and another person wants to spend all of his time working quietly on tangible projects, what matters most is that they’re both happy with the choice they’ve made and feeling effective and satisfied doing what they’ve chosen to do. I think we focus too much on building consensus of technique and not enough on consensus of vision. Which means: rather than have everyone doing their own thing in the interests of a larger set of goals, we often try to bring people together around the same actions and fail to talk about the bigger questions. Sometimes I’d rather see us agreeing more on the problems we’re trying to solve, and agreeing less on the solutions — so long as we’re moving in the same direction roughly.

Here’s how this shaggy preamble relates to the subject at hand: at a rough guess, I would say that about 25% of the local population is aware of the growing challenges of resource depletion and climate chaos and has some inkling what to do about it. I would say that about 1-3% of the local population is aware and is taking serious steps to prepare for the real possibility of shortages, disruptions, and social or economic upheaval. (Growing food, going off-grid, learning to live without a car, building a strong social network, and so on.) Roughly, these latter are the people who consistently show up at events concerned with sustainability, Transition, and protecting the environment. (These numbers are the result of what we call a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess, or ‘swag’ for short. Feel free to quibble.)

The activist’s task is to move the 75% portion of unaware or unready folks into the smaller group which has the facts and has some serious solutions in mind. And then to move all of those folks into the pretty tiny group of people actively creating solutions and leading the rest of the population into awareness and action.

It’s overwhelming when you consider it in its entirety. A huge hurdle — and this is what I was writing about in last week’s post — is that people are naturally resistant to new information, especially information which threatens their worldview and compels them to change their thinking or their behaviour. That’s why getting people to become more aware and take action is so difficult: even when people consciously know something to be true, and acknowledge that it is important to change their behaviour, we’re creatures of habit and prefer to amble along until a crisis forces us to change.

The negative reaction to brainstorming that I have witnessed  is, more generally, a reaction against conversations that threaten people’s worldview and make them question their habitual behaviour. It’s always easy to make the things we do and the way we do them seem like the only things worth doing and the only sensible way to do them; after all, otherwise why would be doing the things we do and doing them the way we do them? Social inertia means that the burden of proving a new idea falls squarely on the dissenter. It means that the untried but promising ideas get squeezed out of the conversation. The conventional prevails unless we fight hard. The people who champion unconventional ideas feel marginalized and may lose interest in the conversation. We lose some of the most promising sources of creative thinking if we’re not careful.

Given that our time is finite and precious, the real questions we need to be asking ourselves and each other are: how much time should we spend creating tangible solutions for ourselves and others? how much time should we spend trying to get the message out and bringing people in? how do we know whether time spent acting is more fruitful than time spent recruiting? can we measure this? can we talk about it? If so, where, when, and how?

Some of us will believe that the single most important action is to connect with people, to spread information, to let people know what they need to know in order to be better prepared and to work to bring them in on the action. (We might be assuming that no action is meaningful if it does not have broad-based support and involvement, or that the situation is not urgent.)

Some of us will want to create tangible solutions and build infrastructure that they believe we will need, whether or not the mass of the population understands or is ready to adopt these solutions yet. (We might be assuming that most people will not take action until ready solutions are in place, or that we must act quickly before the situation becomes drastically worse.)

Probably most people who think about these things fall somewhere in the middle and believe that some proportion of our time is best spent doing outreach and recruiting and the rest spent taking direct action. I’ve always felt pretty close to the middle, but lately I feel that I’m drifting gradually towards the action end of the scale. I see the value of continually working to find the people who are ready to hear the message I’m sending, but I worry about losing time which might be better spent doing the things we already know need doing. It’s gratifying to see the solutions getting up and running, but I’m worried that we’re only getting started and we have a long way to go before we are close to ready for regional resilience or self-reliance.

I do not disparage the work of recruiting and educating and drawing people into the network of activism and action. I do wonder, though, about untapped resources in the form of people who have little interest in talking and planning and prioritizing but simply want to get on with it. I’m not sure that their interests are fully represented, since they have a way of fading into the background. They may not show up for meetings (they’re not really ‘meeting people’) and they have no patience for listening to reasons why some new idea won’t work — they want to brainstorm creatively, with an open mind, welcoming challenges rather than admitting defeat before even beginning. They are the makers, artists, hammerers, tinkerers, builders, planters, and growers. People who bend problems to fit the materials at hand. Lateral thinkers.

How can we engage the creativity of these folks? Do we have the right tools for finding them and supporting them to do what they’re best at? I don’t think we do, yet.

As we move towards a future whose outlines are unknown until we map them, we need to attend carefully to the whole community. We need to try to create a language of engagement and passion and we need to understand that there is no one way to do things. We need to launch a diversity of solutions in keeping with the diversity of challenges and the diversity of people we want to have alongside us as we face these challenges. We need to ask ourselves how effective our techniques are, who we draw in and who we leave out, what we ignore, and who might best be able to take charge of the projects which are not in our area of expertise or passion.

More than anything, we need to brainstorm in the real sense: where there are no bad ideas, only possibilities opening up to the right set of people willing to take them on.

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Post facto

March 2010
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