A couple of recent events have got me thinking about how we’re supposed to start working together as a community in order to produce positive changes in the way we consume, travel, eat, and generally live our lives here in (possibly) the final hurrah of the growth phase of industrial civilization.
The first was the City of Powell River‘s public consultation meeting last Monday evening (October 19, 2009) at Dwight Hall in Powell River. This was an Open Space event where those present got to determine the agenda in the context of a shaping question, which in this case was something to the effect of “Given Powell River’s future economic uncertainty, we need to pay attention to…”. Attendees were invited to fill in the ellipsis at the end of that sentence, until we had gathered up three sets of twenty-five potential things we needed to pay attention to as we move into an uncertain future. Some of the subjects for discussion were very much on the economic side of things (e.g., taxes, rates of pay for City employees, the cost of transportation and shipping), while others were much more concerned with the general livability of the region (e.g., accessibility for people with physical disabilities, green space).
Once we had created the ‘agenda’ of topics for discussion, we had three sessions of about 20 minutes during which we were free to find the group discussing the topic we found most interesting and contribute to that conversation. At each of these groups someone was documenting the main threads of the conversation as a record of the event.
The subjects which struck me as most interesting were those which were oriented towards the creation of a resilient region: food security, local currency schemes, micro-credit and the spawning of many small businesses, better transportation options, and so on. Of course, as always happens at an Open Space event, there were more things to talk about than time in which to talk about them, so the attendees had to focus on the three conversations of greatest interest or urgency to them.
The first of the three conversations I took part in was on the topic of “focusing on where we are now rather than where we have been as a region”, and this drew a group of about ten people. It was clear that the person who had originally proposed that topic intended it to spark some creative thinking about how this region can move forward and prosper economically, even if we lose the large employer which has traditionally defined this community (i.e., the paper mill).
I was the designated note-taker for this group, and I quickly became overwhelmed as the conversation spiraled off into a heated debate over the best way to create wealth in the community: by bringing in a small number of large employers from outside the region, or by encouraging a large number of smaller employers to spring up from within the region. Then we went off into a tangent focusing on the merits (or not) of Plutonic Power‘s run-of-river project in Toba Inlet, and things got a little tense for a few minutes.
The thought that came to me, as I sat trying to distill the conversation into notes, was that in this culture we have very few good methods for identifying the challenges we face, for talking about these challenges honestly but respectfully, and for working together on good solutions even in the face of disagreement. Obviously, a group of ten random strangers are not going to solve the problems of the world — or even those of their own region — in a few short minutes; but what is always slightly sad to observe is how quickly we harden our positions and defend them against all contrary opinion or facts. We thrive on controversy and conflict, to the extent that many of us would rather rail against the wrongs we see than imagine a better future and work backwards to figure out the positive steps we can take now that might get us there. Opportunities for genuine dialogue tend to hit dead ends quickly and dissolve in mutual distrust.
There is nothing wrong with conflict arising from differences of opinion. What is unfortunate, and what is really damaging our prospects of designing a decent future, is that our main means for settling conflicts is by applying the principle “money talks”. Increasingly, the mechanisms we use to determine our direction as a society is by selling the decision to the highest bidder. Anyone with an alternative vision is free to stand on the sidelines and kvetch, but that’s about as far as dissent goes.
I believe that less kvetching and more positive action is what we need now. We could all spend the rest of our short precious lives identifying all of the things in this world which we abhor and working to overturn them — and any successes we had would be wiped out by any number of new atrocities to seize our attention. But what kind of life is it to be always pitted against, never fighting for? We are going to have to become better at imagining creative alternatives to all of the lousy idiot ideas destroying our world, ignoring as best we can the junk and the rottenness, and pushing forwards into our own dreams. We need to learn to work with those who hold different visions, when this is possible without sacrificing our vision and our dignity — this might not come around too often, but we need to continue looking for those opportunities.
Which brings me to the second event, which resonated with these reflections about conflict and conversation. From this week’s mailbag, someone writes in to say this about my colleague Tom Read, who helps manage this blog and contributes a weekly column:
He [i.e., Tom] is using your site as a soapbox to promote his vision which is highly inappropriate for Texada–his dominance on the site has discouraged other contributions, surely, you must know that on the logging stats, so SlowCoast has become non-relevant. He supported the Westpac LNG plant and now the Texada South Quarry. So not the best eco stats.
Tom has publicly expressed his belief that the proposed quarry development at Davie Bay is a potentially critical piece of Texada’s economic future. For the record, he did not support the proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal. If anyone wants to know more about Tom’s position, they can contact him easily enough. His opinion is nuanced and expresses his genuine concern for the fate of the place he calls home. And of course you can feel free to disagree with him. Sadly, though, it’s always seems to be more fun to make these intra-regional and inter-personal conflicts as black-and-white as possible; to start drawing up the list of enemies; and to backbite and shun the ideologically suspect. Perhaps our correspondent hopes that I will ditch Tom from Slow Coast so that my ‘logging stats’ (whatever the hell that might mean) will improve and Slow Coast once again becomes relevant. That won’t be happening. This project is an equal partnership and does not require a loyalty oath. I can’t ditch Tom anymore than he can ditch me — thankfully.
What I find especially irritating about this is that Tom has written directly about the Lehigh quarry proposal precisely one time, back on July 10, 2009. The rest of the time he writes about all kinds of things having to do with living on Texada: small-scale farming and animal husbandry, canning and food preservation, living in a remote location, and all sorts of other posts which I would file under the general heading of ‘sustainability’ or ‘regional resilience’. When he’s not writing for Slow Coast, he’s out there working on a number of worthwhile community projects. We need more of this; not mere ideological purity and monocultural thinking.
If anyone out there has something to say, please send your comments or your contributions. Better that than try to tear down the things you disagree with. This site is no one’s soapbox, but is intended to reflect the variety of opinions in the region. If we can no longer express our truths without someone trying to shut us down or shout us down, the conversation is over.