Archive for May, 2011

Lesson VI: Assume that change is going to take time

By David Parkinson

A cherry, someday. Patience!

The slow pace of a cool lingering springtime is starting to accelerate into the lazy rush of summertime, when the coast retreats to lakes, mountains, and gardens and sees after its own psychic well-being. The milestones marking off the next few months are becoming visible after a few months when it seemed as though the summer would never properly arrive; but here they come: weekly market days; the fruit-picking season, from cherries and early plums through to late apples; my annual excursion to the Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network, this year in July instead of on the same weekend as our Fall Fair; the Edible Garden Tour in early August, kicking off the fifty days of the Fifty-Mile Eat-Local Challenge; the Fall Fair; and I hear early rumours of a harvest feast in October. After that, the long decline into wetness, to the making of plans, the dreaming of a summertime that seems so far away it might almost never come again.

Each time the same round of events and projects comes around, each one is slightly more complex and connected up with other people, groups, and projects. Little outposts of action become a network. After some time spent waiting for things to change, for people to climb onto a bandwagon, or for actions to catch up with good intentions, suddenly it all lurches forward and slowly finds its pace. It takes patience — or impatient persistence — to stay the course and wait for a project’s potential energy to manifest itself, through the down times when our efforts appear to be spreading out like ripples into a huge blank expanse of still water.

Even as our patience is rewarded in one quarter, any number of new initiatives are cropping up like newborns unable to fend for themselves, sucking up time and energy out of all proportion to any reasonable expectations of the good they’ll do. It takes the fecklessness of parents to bring these things into existence in the hope that they’ll survive at all. And yet, the miracle is that, despite the odds, most of the community projects that I have been involved with — even the most tenuous and shaky ones — manage to thrive. Even the ones that didn’t make it always manage to set seeds before they expire; I’m often reminded of some past project which never quite came to fruition but which has been transmuted into something else while no one was looking. The not-so-long-lived V8A group sprouted into an email list for dissemination of news of local interest, and pieces of the original concept for V8A are still going forward as Transition Town Powell River, the Chamber of Commoners, our regional Sustainability Charter, and a few other groups and projects.

These are the comforting thoughts that come to me when I take time to contemplate the slow pace of change; a pace so slow that it can look as though things are going backwards, erasing progress and making a dark joke of our efforts. I’m not naturally patient, especially when it comes to building the structures that we need in this region in order to be better prepared for continued fraying of the economy or major disruptions in the food supply (which, no surprise, many sources are predicting in the coming years). Progress has its own pace and all we can do is keep applying pressure as best we can and find our allies. We ought to keep reminding ourselves that we are in no position to judge the effectiveness of what we’re doing, and that it’s worth remembering that we can never predict what will come from our experimental projects with groups of people. We do the best we can, cling to as little of the outcome as we can, and hope.

When it comes to forcing change, money is the great accelerator; much of what we see around us travels at a fearful pace because it rides a great wave of cash in search of more cash to mate with. It takes real discipline to tolerate the pace of stimulant-free change, which moves at the pace of the seasons, coming round again and again, wearing disguises and taking its time. The difference between no change at all and total metamorphosis is hard to see while it’s happening — or maybe not happening. Hard to know until we know.


This post is the sixth in a series based on the essay Seven Lessons for Leaders in Systems Change by Michael K. Stone & Zenobia Barlow, published by the Center for Ecoliteracy.


Lesson V: Facilitate — but give up the illusion that you can direct — change

By David Parkinson

Comfrey leaves

We do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis.
(Milton Friedman)

For anyone who feels that our current systems cannot continue for much longer, two important questions are: how will change come about? and what part can and should we play in bringing about change? When we ask the first question, we implicitly refer to some kind of radical change in existing social configurations — something that will draw a sharp contrast between current (unsustainable, unsatisfactory) conditions and some future situation whose outline is obscure to us now, with our limited ability to predict where things are heading. Some people make a career out of forecasting, but it’s certain that they’re wrong more often than they’re right (if only because they are never right, except by virtue of making general predictions which are bound to come true one way or another.) The rest of us project our hopes and fears onto the future and use that to give us some sense of direction. Or we blunder along from one day to the next, never worrying much about much of anything, let alone what part we might have to play.

If we get around to asking the second question, there the answers are even harder to discern. Anyone attuned to the eco/green/Transition/collapse corner of the world is getting a cluster of messages about reducing one’s carbon footprint, producing less waste, creating infrastructure for regional resilience, trying to reweave some of the broken strands of community solidarity, and so on. The reason for doing all of this is so that our future actions will be more in tune with an increasingly widespread (but still not consensual) set of predictions about the ways that our lives are going to be organized in the future. Eventually, if enough people willingly adopt these out-of-time behaviours, we might create some kind of tipping point and usher in a new enlightened age. If people don’t adopt our prescriptions, we might have to use the blunt instruments of policy and law. But that’s comfortingly far off, so for now we prefer to think that a mysterious convergence will take place — more likely we don’t think of this bit at all.

The unknown ingredient is that no one knows how or whether these various predictions about resource depletion, climate chaos, and economic meltdown will play out. The timeframe is similarly unknown. This means that, humans being what they are, we collectively cling to our current system as tightly as we can, preferring inertia to the tough work of doing things differently. The momentum of industrial civilization is enormous and likely to keep things rolling, no matter how erratically or destructively, for some time yet. And every day spent desperately trying to hold a dysfunctional system together is one more day diverted from the necessary and unpleasant work of finding and testing alternatives. We are a culture of procrastination, hoping for the all-time snow day to save our asses. Well, this week we missed the Rapture, but we’ll think up another reason not to deal with things. Mayan calendar? That’ll do.

The lucky thing is that people are always off in all directions in idiosyncratic searches for meaning, for answers to unaskable questions, for ways to stand out from the herd. This means that there are always enough members of a community deliberately turning their backs on the consensus picture of reality and carving out a tiny sphere of private reality where they can experiment along some dimensions of their lives, sometimes skating along the edge between fitting into the society around them and seizing enough autonomy to satisfy their need to be individuals. For many of these people, there is a thrill in being ahead of the curve, in being in the right place when the future catches up; the same urge to control the world through prediction and preparation that crystallizes everywhere into culture, religion, and technology.

Many people perform these experiments in obscurity and don’t think about what it takes to connect with other people and turn the individual into the social. No doubt this is because of the hassles involved in any collective project and the sometimes intangible benefits of tangling up one’s own efforts with the agendas of other people. Often it’s also the result of a sense that one’s own choices are private and that everyone has the right to define their own allegiances and resistances with no interference from others.

At all times, though, there is a force that tends to coagulate individual intuitions and actions into social movements whose assumptions, goals, and techniques can be described and labeled: hippies, Jesus children, back-to-the-landers, yuppies, Tea Partiers, and so on. Setting aside to the degree to which any of these movements had real internal coherence, the fact is that we have labeled them, have attributed motives and interests to them, and have catalogued the social changes we claim that they have been responsible for. In some cases it’s hard to know whether the same degree of social change could have taken place in the absence of a clearly identified group or movement playing the role of the agent of social change; our media-driven self-reflexivity is such that nothing of significance — and even more of no significance whatsoever — can take place without the ritual of knowing who is behind, and what they are after.

The question of how we can rightly locate the source of mass social movements is one of the themes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in which he constantly asks whether responsibility for the war lies with the great historical figures (Napoleon, the Tsar, the generals and nobles) or whether these figures are only the most visible manifestations of the popular will, composed of millions of atoms of human life adapting to the world and expressing urges that no single person could have been aware of or could have articulated. Tolstoy’s arguments are sometimes obscure, removed as they now are from the philosophical context of the time when he was writing; we may also find it hard to imagine how social change can spontaneously arise from a population, since the media are so enamoured of the simplistic storyline in which every effect has one big cause, every rescue one hero, every crime one perpetrator. I am drawn to the idea that the origins and forces driving social movements are systems much more complex than the usual storyline would have us believe, and more like natural forces than the consequences of human will imposed on masses of people.

It’s tempting to think that our actions are heroic, and that we can influence others by our example, and maybe in our own small way we can create what we see as positive change around us — where “positive change” probably means “more people acting the way I do”. The two pitfalls in this style of thinking are that we risk thinking of other people as instruments in our campaign to shape the world to our desires, and that we falsely give ourselves credit for creating a change which might have taken place regardless of our efforts. The former distorts our relationship to others, and the latter to ourselves. Any perspective other than the standard one is worth pursuing, so it is a good discipline to turn things around and try to understand how our actions arise from the events in the world we might otherwise say they cause. A little humility never hurt anyone.

We have created a world in which the interests of the individual are so far above any other needs that we no longer hesitate to project our will onto the world around us, including onto our fellow humans. This lets us accomplish great things, but arguably it also diminishes our understanding of the processes by which change manifests itself continually through us and around us. The more we direct change, and focus on our part in these changes, the less we are present to what is really changing, and why, and how we can participate in that change. The more we take ourselves and our perceived responsibility out of the picture, the more easily we can see how to include others not as passive consumers of the great show that we’re putting on but as co-participants in something whose direction is not under anyone’s control.


This post is the fifth in a series based on the essay Seven Lessons for Leaders in Systems Change by Michael K. Stone & Zenobia Barlow, published by the Center for Ecoliteracy.

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