Archive for the 'John Robb' Category

Lesson IV: Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise

By David Parkinson

Profuse blossoms of cherries, possibly of the variety "Royal Ann".

The idea that something new is possible is spreading. Most favorably, it is giving rise to a new type: the cultural entrepreneur.

For these people, the slow motion failure of the global system hasn’t resulted in capitulation, depression, or isolation. They don’t have a blind faith that things will auto-magically get better. In contrast, to these entrepreneurs, the failure of the global system is a call to arms. An open invitation to build something new. A better social and economic system and not merely another patch on a wheezing status quo.

For entrepreneurs of this type, the goal isn’t isolation or withdrawal into the wilds to build communes or stock cabins with ammo. It also isn’t about taking control of the current levers of power and of forcing compliance. A clue: it’s not about bankrupt ideologies or the politics of the 20th Century.

Instead, this effort is about competition. It is to build new social and economic systems that can compete with the current political and economic monopolies and if successful, force them to compete in order to stay relevant. It’s about building something new from the ground up, a start-up culture of independence and sanity, that attracts participants faster and delivers more results than any other alternative.
(John Robb)

Of course, the real point here is to recognize the breakthrough opportunities when they arise. Either that or to seize every opportunity that passes by in the hope that some decent fraction of them will turn out in retrospect to have been of the breakthrough variety. We’re passing through a time when many of the old standbys are falling away, and it’s not so easy to know what sort of education we should seek, where we should be living, what we should be doing, to what extent we should continue to rely on the infrastructure that provides our supplies of food, water, electricity, and the other essential ingredients of civilized life.

People’s responses to early — and not-so-early — distant warning signs range along a continuum from absolute unawareness at one end to various flavours of extreme engagement at the other. I see this very clearly in my own community: many people see no reasons to be concerned, and this can be the result of having completely tuned out or of being so committed to the status quo that they cannot imagine alternatives. Tuning out is the result of stress, and anyone paying attention can see countless reasons to find life in the modern world stressful. Our endless ability to generate stress for ourselves and one another is one of the central features of human existence, along with pretending that life cannot be lived any other way. I find it hard to imagine what the lived experience is like of constantly running just to fall no further behind, but it is clear that many people around me live like this and can’t find a way out that makes sense to them. For people living like this, there is little to no chance of indulging in luxury activities like imagining a better future or getting involved in efforts to create it. This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.

One of the more amusing and rewarding sidelines in my life recently is that I get to act as one of a crew of unofficial Powell River greeters for people thinking about moving here. During the past year, I’ve probably met or spoken with a half-dozen people in this situation; usually they are relocating to find affordable land, start up some kind of farming or growing operation, and get involved in various alternative projects. More often than not, the word permaculture is involved. These are people who have managed, through a combination of good luck and hard work, to get themselves into a position where they can afford to do what would look to many people like going backwards: a retreat to a smaller, quieter community to create a simpler and more humble life less dependent on the cash economy and much more connected to human interaction and the desire to step away from various dead-ending cultural trends. They have the precious luxury of time to indulge their imaginations and devise their own ambitions. Every community needs people like this, to infuse it with fresh perspectives and to challenge its settled habits.

In the same way that we all enjoy visits from friends who find this region stunningly beautiful, letting us look on it again with less jaded eyes, I always enjoy these welcome-wagonesque conversations, since they allow me to re-experience the opportunities of this place through the eyes of someone giving it the once-over as a potential new home. The people I meet with are not focusing in on only one opportunity here either: they are not typical entrepreneurial types whose business plan is clearly defined and has little room for variation. These are people whose senses are attuned to places with constellations of opportunities, any number of which might turn out to be good gambles. The Upper Sunshine Coast (really the whole Salish Sea) is clearly one of these constellations, and for the past few years we have been — wittingly or not — sending out signals to draw in the explorers and wanderers looking for a place to stop moving and start building something.

If anything, these people are looking for places with a polyculture of possibilities. Like me, they seem to distrust the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket approach that seeks a unique solution. What they hope to find here is a place where a number of shoots are breaking through the soil, any one of which is interesting and might produce something valuable, and the totality of which represents a good gamble against possible failures and dead ends. There are people who excel at single-mindedly pursuing one thing to the end, and we need those types among us for sure. But most people are more easily distracted, unable to resist the appeal of following numerous threads at one time, unsure which ones will end up somewhere productive and which might prove only to have been entertaining diversions. Sometimes this multi-semi-tasking approach looks like dithering or dilettantism, but for a lot of people it’s the strategy that makes the most sense. Or the one which is the hardest to resist, especially for people who are curious and can’t help wanting to be here the action is — or where it might be in a while, if they can hold out and wait for backup.

I don’t think many of us are any good, really, at knowing which opportunities are the breakthrough ones. So we seize as much as our arms will hold and hope like hell that others might come along to help us hang on. Some might break through. Some might break apart.


This post is the fourth 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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July 2018
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