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Preparing for the unimaginable

image from FlaSunshine on Flickriver

One of the lessons of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is that the events that have caused the greatest changes (and collectively most of the substantive change) to our civilization and our way of life were completely unexpected, unpredictable “black swan” events. His new book argues that rather than trying to plan and prepare for a future we can’t predict, we should do things that improve our resilience, and create systems that are “anti-fragile”. Unlike most fragile, complicated human-made systems, “anti-fragile” systems (such as evolution and other complex natural systems) actively adapt to, learn from and benefit from upheaval and dramatic change.

I have often said that that I believe the key to resilience in the coming decades will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for, and then navigate them.

So now I am sitting down with a small group of colleagues here on Bowen Island, starting to think about creating what the Transition Movement calls an “energy descent” plan for our island, and wondering how we can hope to plan for the unpredictable, unforeseeable, and unimaginable future we face.

I’ve been part of several scenario planning and simulation exercises over the years, and studied them extensively, and what stands out for me from these exercises are five systemic human predilections that render the product of such exercises more or less useless:

  1. Believing the future is predictable: What actually happens turns out to be well outside any and all the scenario ranges that were planned for (not “better” or “worse” than the scenarios, but utterly different in unforeseen ways).
  2. Believing the future will continue and accelerate current trends: We have an irresistible tendency to predict that the future will be much like the present only much more so (the “Jetsons syndrome”).
  3. Believing change will come soon but overall will be modest: We tend of overestimate the speed of change in the short run and underestimate the full extent of change over the longer term.
  4. Believing we can prevent, mitigate and otherwise control future events: We tend to wildly overestimate the degree of control we (including our ‘leaders’) have over the changes (political, economic, social, behavioural, ecological, educational, medical, scientific, even technological) that sweep over us. No one is in control.
  5. Believing that centralization works: We tend to believe, irrationally and in the face of their record of colossal and continued failure, that centralization and unification will make things better, when it only makes them less agile, less democratic and more vulnerable. Even now the Wilber cult is calling for a “World Federation” that mirrors Cheney’s “New World Order” (and, fortunately, is just as unachievable).

I’m not surprised, therefore, that several of my Transition colleagues are skeptical of the value of a long-term Transition and Resilience Plan for our island. How can we possibly plan for a future we can’t begin to predict, that we have no control over, that we probably can’t even imagine?

Despite the cleverness of Taleb’s insights on ‘anti-fragile’ systems, they’re not very useful: Humans can’t create complex ‘anti-fragile’ systems. It’s taken nature billions of years to evolve them, and even then there have been at least five major extinction events that wiped out most of the life on the planet. We only just realized after several millennia that we have precipitated the sixth, and we are utterly clueless on what to do about it (and don’t get me started on geoengineering, the latest control fantasy by the people who brought you GMOs).

The only thing we can say for sure is we won’t be able to live as we do today. Since we can’s and won’t know how or when the coming economic, energy and ecological crises will unfold, and there’s no evidence that we can prevent, significantly mitigate, or long forestall these crises, what if anything can we do now to prepare for the unimaginable?

In the process of developing Collapse: The Game, I’ve been playing with various scenarios and mapping how various economic, energy and ecological crises (at least insofar as I can imagine them) might affect the various aspects and systems of human life — governance, food & water, energy, health/well-being, learning, transportation, communication, building, security, livelihoods, recreation, arts & crafts, science/technology/innovation, and ecology. The game simulates how, in a relocalized world, we would invest in new personal and community learning and capacity building, local resources, and community infrastructure, to anticipate and cope with various crises ranging from currency collapse and the end of cheap energy to pandemics and refugee crises.

For anyone who’s kept up with their Transition and Collapsnik reading (see the links under ‘Post-Civ Writers’ in the right sidebar), these scenarios have been sketched out at length in both fictional and non-fictional accounts. But although it’s clear that some of these crises are likely to occur, how and when they will occur is unknowable, nor is how they will manifest themselves at the local and national level, nor how the complex interrelationship between all of our systems will compound or mitigate their effects. It’s your guess against mine, and the debate is fruitless, since we’re all going to be mostly wrong.

So lately I’ve been thinking: Rather than trying to lay out specific ‘forecast’ scenarios for the future, would it be more useful to develop an illustrative story that would convey a sense of the degree of change to our lives that we might face in the future? That way we might get a visceral sense of how much our lives will (have to) change, and begin to think about, in general, what might we do to enable us, when changes of this magnitude occur, whatever they be, to be more ready for them than we are now?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about; it’s a story about how I could envision some of the people currently living on Bowen Island might be affected by the types of economic, energy and ecological crises the Transition Movement and Collapsnik writers (including me) have been speculating we could face:

The biggest impact of the economic crisis on Bowen Islanders was psychological — the shame of losing jobs (as half of us did), the pain and dread of seeing a lifetime of savings disappear along with the prospect for retirement, the awkwardness of retired Islanders coming out of retirement after admitting their pensions and retirement savings were gone, the terror of foreclosure on homes as house values plunged far below the mortgages on them. The levels of stress, anguish and fear were palpable and many of us were badly scarred by the Great Deflation — we mostly tried to heal ourselves, or each other, using whatever therapies we could draw upon, though quite a few unfortunately took it out on family, friends and neighbours.

A lot of Islanders quietly moved — off-island to live with family or friends, or in with relatives or housemates. Most homes had multiple families living in them, in makeshift separate suites or improvised co-op arrangements. Homeowners took in boarders to make monthly payments, and renters took in sub-tenants. The poverty was subtle but apparent — the sudden appearance of homeless people on the island, in the woods and parks, the number of people asking for money by the ferry, people knocking on doors asking if they could do odd jobs, and asking if they could quietly tent in the back yard “until they got back on their feet”, many trees illegally cut for firewood. When the currency collapsed, Bowen Bucks became a real currency, though a Gift Economy largely prevailed, with people doing things for others, and giving ‘loans’ as they could afford, with the knowledge they would probably never be repaid. When you know everyone in the community, you do what you can.

The shame drove quite a few “breadwinners” to suicide, and the stress and poverty caused addiction and theft rates, and physical and psychological illness rates, to soar. Government cutbacks meant almost all civil service workers were unemployed, and cutbacks in health and education meant Islanders focused more attention on illness/accident prevention, self-diagnosed and self-treated many illnesses, home-schooled or unschooled their kids, and focused on palliative/hospice care rather than life prolonging in old age.

Energy rationing meant the end of daily car commutes to Vancouver, so those still working organized bus-pools. Ferry service was cut by three fourths and doubled in price, so the Cove was filled with “pitherers” — people, many on bicycles, offering to run errands or pick up supplies on the mainland for a fee or a return service. Because the Island is so hilly, bicycles were a challenge for many, so in addition to impromptu taxis and buses, organized by Internet, there was a black market for gasoline (and much gas siphoned at night from those without garages); there were even a few horses pressed into service. The Internet, a major energy user, was a shadow of its former self; streaming and file-sharing were gone, but basic communication services were still affordable and maintained. Cell phones were for emergencies only.

Thermostats were regulated by BC Hydro and energy audits became mandatory; up to the ration maximum, energy prices were subsidized to keep heating and lighting affordable. Some Islanders, to save money, kept their thermostats at 60F and wore coats indoors. Many others installed personal solar and wind energy generators, and a wind farm on Mount Collins was being studied. The high cost of energy had a huge impact on food costs, and almost all available growing space on Bowen was now being used for gardening; canning bees had become the most popular social events on the island. As endless avian flu outbreaks had made poultry farming uneconomic, many Islanders had gone vegetarian or vegan, as had most of the Island restaurants.

Climate change had had little direct impact on Bowen, but the indirect effects were extensive. The horrific US droughts led to political animosity over sale of so much Canadian water to Americans, using the abandoned Tar Sands pipelines, and almost led to war. Canada’s vast reserves were dwindling quickly. But the biggest climate impact was the arrival of thousands of boat people on our shores, climate change and economic refugees from dozens of countries devastated by drought, storms, soil exhaustion, civil war, famine, and desperation-induced despotism. Islanders were split between those wanting them expelled to almost certain death (the refugee internment camps were closed when the sheer flood of people overwhelmed them), and those wanting to take them in even as levels of hardship of our own people increased. A surge in Bowen’s murder rate was attributed by some to “criminal illegals” but was mostly due to increased stresses between long-time locals and over-zealous protection of private property by angry xenophobes.

So the idea would be that, rather than thinking about the need for each of us to learn technical skills such as how to grow our own food (or perhaps move somewhere where growing food is possible year-round), stories like this, customized to the unique circumstances of each community, would prompt people to start to think in general terms about preparing for major change, and asking broad questions about change resilience and change capacities such as:

  1. Building Community:
    • How can we start to create a local ‘community’ capable of self-organizing and doing things competently, collaboratively and autonomously?
    • To start with, how can we get to know our neighbours and their skills and needs, at least well enough to know whether, if/when we have to create a true community with them, we’ll be able to (and even know whether this is the neighbourhood we want to be in if/when that happens)?
    • Who is our ‘community’, anyway (especially if it’s embedded within a big city with no coherent boundaries), and how cohesive could it be if it had to become much more collaborative and autonomous?
    • What’s the right size for organizing a community — big enough to have a good mix of skills and capacities, but small enough to be manageable?
  2. Reducing Our Dependence on Centralized Systems:
    • How can we become less dependent on the current systems – government, corporate (employment), financial, health, education, food, energy, transportation, communication, clothing and equipment manufacturing, construction, entertainment and recreation, police and justice etc. – especially those that are currently highly centralized, vulnerable or far-away?
    • To start with, how can we as a community learn more about how these systems work, so if/when we need to recreate them locally (if the established large-scale systems fail), we’ll be able to do so?
    • And at the same time, how can we find out more about the community we now live in — its resources, where it gets its food and energy from, who has what skills etc. — to appreciate how well our community will fare if it has to rely much more on its own resources?
  3. Increasing Our Self-Sufficiency:
    • How can we become more self-sufficient as individuals and as a community, less reliant on travel to/from, and purchase and sale of goods and services from/to other communities?
    • To start with, how much of what we buy and sell now (our goods, services and labour) is currently, or could be if necessary, sourced and used right in our community?
  4. Increasing Collaboration and Sharing:
    • How can we, through careful buying, maintenance and sharing, learn as individuals and as a community to buy less and waste less?
    • How can we come to accept that we probably won’t like everyone in our relocalized communities, appreciate and get along with those we don’t, and learn to resolve conflicts and reach consensus amicably?
    • How can we learn and practice doing things (from cooking to mentoring our community’s children to fixing our houses) more collaboratively in our “do it yourself” culture?
  5. Psychological Preparedness and Resilience:
    • How can we learn, as individuals and as a community, to cope better with whatever crisis may come our way; and to deal effectively with panic and with ideological differences?
    • How can we become better prepared psychologically to deal with change and adversity, and the negative emotions it can stir in us?
    • To the extent we are already intuitively aware of coming threats and crises, and how they might affect us and our children and grandchildren, how can we learn to accept and deal honestly and effectively now with this awareness, and the grief and anger and fear it brings?
    • How do we talk honestly with each other now about all of this as a community, and move past denial and procrastination when talking with loved ones and/or neighbours?
    • How do we become more self-aware and self-knowledgeable so we really become conscious of how we feel now, and how we might handle the stress of events to come and the changes they will require?

I believe it’s far more important for us to start answering these questions than to start learning about permaculture or solar panels. In fact, I think answering these questions will lead to a shared appreciation of what technical skills we will need, as a community, to acquire (we don’t all have to be technically expert at doing everything), and when we’d be wise to start learning and implementing these skills and this knowledge.

I’ve met quite a few people who live in co-housing, and they have, in the process of establishing themselves as true communities, broached and answered the questions in points 1-4 above. It wasn’t easy for them, and I believe that, in the process, they’ve moved far ahead of most of the rest of us in their level of preparedness and resilience for future economic, energy and ecological crises.

When I started to develop the outline for the Bowen Island Transition and Resilience Plan, I expected it to have a current state analysis, and a whole spectrum of future scenarios, followed by a timeline with specific action plans to achieve food security, post-descent energy self-sufficiency, our own currency, wellness and learning capacities and facilities, electric powered transport, green building, and so on.

I still think these are admirable goals, but I am coming to believe that trying to map a course from where we are now to that future is like trying to strategize how to win a yacht race to a specific destination without knowing either the course or the possible weather. When it comes to our civilization’s future we cannot know the course, and all we know about the weather is that it will be stormy.

Best then to focus on our preparedness for whatever we might face, the resilience, capacity and cohesion of our crew, and our readiness to act, in the moment, whatever comes, and to imagine and navigate ways around the obstacles as they present themselves. And fare forward.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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