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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May 2011
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