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How our narratives inform our hopes for change


dust storm, texas 1935; image from wikipedia

When co-founder of the Permaculture Movement David Holmgren recently suggested it might be better for the world if we were to try to precipitate global economic collapse in order to mitigate runaway climate change, he received a harsh response from Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins, and somewhat more sympathetic responses from Dmitry Orlov and Nicole Foss. The second article (due out next month) in my series for Shift Magazine will talk more about this, but in the meantime I wanted to recommend to you Agency on Demand, a fascinating take on this debate, written by Eric Lindberg.

Eric’s point is that the markedly different positions staked out by well-meaning, informed people on this issue stem from their different worldviews — the way they see our human culture operating and functioning, how they perceive the world really works. What underlies those worldviews, he says, are our narratives, our stories of how we believe humans got here, and how humans think and act, individually and collectively, which is largely a conflation of our own personal stories and the stories of others we have chosen to read and integrate with our own.

A critical factor differentiating these diverse worldviews and narratives, Eric argues, is our perception of human agency — what humans are capable of doing, individually and collectively, when they share a worldview and when they do not. The more I study history, and the more I learn about complex systems and their intractability, the more I am coming to share Eric’s view that our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

My friend Paul Heft wrote a good synopsis and reflection on what Eric has said, to some of his Transition colleagues, and he’s given me permission to publish it here.

Paul’s post:

Erik Lindberg’s essay on analyzing collapse narratives is insightful. Basically he’s questioning, do the assumptions behind our narratives still seem sensible, or are they merely comforting myths? Can people really make history the way we hope, especially given what we know now? Are we the conscious ones, or are we still deluded? Are we ready to give up our beliefs and move toward reality, or is that too uncomfortable?

I count myself as a radical, because for decades I have believed that the problems of the world are system problems–they’re not just isolated events, the consequence of particular circumstances or the decisions of particular people–and therefore the solutions require radical changes to the systems (economics, politics, etc.) by which we live. But radical changes to existing systems are difficult, they are constantly resisted by the existing institutions, by the powerful people that benefit most from the status quo, and by the masses of people who fear they will lose something if the systems in which they are embedded were to be altered. As Lindberg points out, the radical changes of the past, the political or economic “revolutions” or wars, have failed or have spawned terrible regimes or have had devastating unintended consequences.

Lindberg’s “Liberal” histories have a long tradition of rationalizing negative consequences, so that in hindsight we can claim to see continual progress with a few unfortunate episodes thrown in for color. It’s a very handy point of view for the ruling elites, but I don’t buy it. Lindberg rightly points out how many critics of the status quo, such as myself, are left feeling powerless to make the radical changes we feel are necessary, because we don’t see a path without the possibility of even greater harm; and I would add that we’re dispirited (for various reasons) by non-radical campaigns such as those the environmental movement and the Democrats conduct.

Lindberg states that the Transition Movement holds a kind of belief in the inevitability of radical change due to the inevitable decline of oil and other fossil fuels. The belief is that “people will find the joys of community and simple purposeful living far more compelling than the collapsing and increasingly alienating industrial structure of society,” so they will be eager to give up on the existing economic and political system.

Clearly [Lindberg] no longer has faith in “this sort of historical necessity” of a positive “revolution”. He sees the peak oil problem being too easily ignored; the energy descent it forces is too gradual, while the economy continues to support rather high prices for oil. My belief is that the rising cost of production of oil (and liquid fuels in general) definitely constrains the global economy, but not enough to force it to crash or to change its basic mechanisms. For decades there will be plenty of money to be made (by the wealthy) by keeping the economy running in its profit-generating mode, though we might be stuck in a perpetual depression. What Transition sees as opportunity “to build a better alternative,” most of the world will see as the opportunity for a higher standard of living slipping away. Lindberg doubts the chances “for a small and relatively obscure movement to gain widespread support and rework the wants, wishes, and expectations of the industrialized world, especially when the vested interests that control most media and spend trillions of dollars a year on advertisements will do everything in their power to stop it in its tracks.”

Lindberg sketches out how increasing numbers of people who are aware of the predicaments and injustices of the world feel themselves forced into a radical dilemma. They see the dangers threatened by climate change increasing in the direction of gross habitat destruction and even, possibly, the extinction of humanity (and perhaps most other species we are familiar with). They see that political leaders are unable to deal “rationally” with climate change and peak oil–all decisions are economic decisions and money is the only measure of value, preserving the economic system in its present form is the top priority, their charter to maintain the near term profits of the wealthy overshadows the “greatest good”–in every powerful nation, of every political stripe. They are beginning to see that the worldwide capitalist economic system is prepared to grind every bit of value out of the earth and our labors, regardless of the effects on habitats or on human welfare, for the sake of continuing to accumulate wealth and maintaining the powers that be. The great machine will grind on, more slowly or more quickly, and will brook no opposition. States are expanding their powers to control their populations, knowing that some resistance is inevitable. The quest for power, and the money to exercise that power, takes precedence over all other considerations. If revolution is needed, is that even possible?

At this point, many people in the Transition Movement might object that I ought to have a better attitude. In Lindberg’s terms, they argue that “a free and independent people must learn how to impose limits on their freedom and power” in a “possible triumph of free will”. We must choose to believe that people around the world can influence their leaders (cf.’s efforts) to lead us in sacrifices to halt climate change and deal with peak oil better–even though the politicians are paid by the wealthy to keep the economic engine grinding away. My own opinion is that this is a pipe dream, a delusion. A similar, common response is a call for faith, a belief in miracles (delivered by technology, or evolution, or movements, or whatever) as against cynicism: Yes, the situation looks grim, no solution is simple, maybe none is obvious, but if we give up then of course the results will be bad. This isn’t Lindberg’s attitude, and it’s not mine, I’m too much a believer in a “reality” that we need to discover by questioning, not just letting our desires lead us. But if you can develop this faith, this better attitude, you can continue campaigning, with hope, for many more years.

David Holmgren suggested a different way for us to radically influence the economic system: to bypass the leaders and the political process, and instead undermine the economy by stepping out of it. (Some localization efforts are a way to step out of the global economy, one consequence often being to reduce the contribution to its destructive activity.) He hopes that if enough of us around the world turn our backs on the global economy, it will crash (since it is presently built on a fragile foundation of enormous debt); the economic engine will grind to a halt and thus habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions will reduce tremendously.

Lindberg, despite his article’s title, doesn’t address this particular strategy much except as an example of the radical, morally ambiguous choices we are starting to feel forced to make. It’s unclear how practical Holmgren’s suggestion is. Would an economic crash really stop the global economic engine, or just interrupt it briefly? What would the state’s response be? Would Transition’s localization efforts be villified and even legally limited? How great would the suffering, and thus the backlash, be in the developed nations and the rest of the world? Might an economic crash–for any reason–usher in a fascistic political system and large scale war as it did in Europe during the Great Depression?

Lindberg warns that we “may have a series of unbearable decisions in the days and years ahead.” The collapse we foresee includes “predictable violence.” Our own planned actions will have results that are “neither controllable nor predictable.” Even nonradical actions, such as “just planting trees” or “building community”, are decisions not to engage in radical actions such as resistance to the system; such negative decisions will have unpredictable consequences too–Chris Hedges, for example, warns that impending fascism must be opposed. I don’t think Lindberg argues for no action, I think he is asking us to check reality and realize the dilemmas we face.

In the course of making such “unbearable decisions”, what delusions are we ready to give up?

    • Do we need to believe that the economics of oil production will be the key driver in changing our economy and how we live?
    • Do we need to believe that climate change can be stopped through political action?
    • Do we need to believe in “the responsibilities of a citizen of a democratic society”?
    • Do we need to believe that we can foresee the effects of our action or inaction, that we are confidently working for good and avoiding harm?
    • Do we need to believe that the “bad guys” are the reason for the world not working as we desire?
    • Do we need to believe that we are doing God’s work, or that humanity has a purpose as a species, or that Nature has a plan or key role for us?
    • Do we need to believe that our activities now are building the better future we are desperately trying to imagine?
    • Do we have faith in capitalism to “green itself” and make a better world, or do we demand that others have faith that undermining capitalism will make enough room for us to make a better world?
    • Do we need to believe that consciousness is evolving so that there is a growing proportion of people who are as aware as we are?
    • Do we need to believe that we understand people’s motivations?
    • Do we need to believe in rational decision making?
    • Do we need to believe that mass movements are necessary? that individual virtue is necessary? that our own contribution is important?
    • Do we need to invent a new narrative that clarifies how we fit into the great sweep of history, that explains how we contribute to progress?

Questioning these things makes us anxious; we have grown up believing that we should be able to figure everything out, that there are right and wrong answers, that the world can be understood and explained (often according to rules and mechanisms), that reasonable people can come to agreement.

When Lindberg concludes that “Moral philosophy and deep spirituality may be our solace and salvation,” I think he is implying the need to step back and seek a larger perspective. Of course that just leads to more questions, but perhaps less anxiety, as we learn to take these things less personally: who are “we” that feel responsible for the world? Can the world get along without me? Who demands that my decisions be correct? Can I be open to others’ ideas, without judging them or myself as right or wrong? Do I need to feel in control of my future, or the world’s future?

Certainly I am anxious about the world and my role in it. Sometimes I’m sad or angry. Sometimes I’m depressed, feeling utterly small and powerless. Increasingly I’m able to accept the world, even though it will never fit with my ideals; it’s not an object made to my measure. Blaming myself or others doesn’t seem helpful. I practice meditation, hoping that I can avoid the domination of thought and learn to honor feeling, as a path to better knowing reality and realizing what actions to take.

. . . . .

I don’t have a lot to add to what Paul has said, since his worldview and mine are pretty congruent. Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming. The Map above, from my post last spring, shows some of the worldviews of different groups in the 21st century, and what they each “need to believe”.

A number of my collapsnik friends believe that brutal fascism is inevitably what happens when those with wealth and power are threatened, as they certainly are by the global economic collapse we will surely face whether we try to precipitate it or not. So, they say, if some of us try to precipitate it sooner, we might end up being the scapegoats for its occurrence. Depending on your worldview, your narrative, and your sense of the potential for human agency, it may or may not be worth doing anyway.

My worldview, perhaps naively, is that economic collapse will sap the ability of the rich and powerful to bring to bear armies, militias, legal and media stormtroopers to try to hold off collapse or control the rest of the populace. And, also perhaps naively, I believe that in times of mutual struggle and despair most people can and do care about and look after each other, and that hence Mad Max collapse scenarios are highly unlikely. Perhaps that is just something I “need to believe”, and I am constantly re-examining it.

What is at the heart of many worldviews is a “need to believe” both in human agency, and in a better future. In the bullet points above, Paul might seem to be questioning this need to believe, but he’s actually saying, I think, that we would be well-advised to become aware of what is our own “need to believe”, and what is the “need to believe” of other informed and caring people, and how those different “needs” reflect different narratives of the human story (and of our own personal story), and different senses of human agency. And then to appreciate and respect those differences, rather than arguing about (or trying to change) them.

My worldview, narrative and sense of human agency have evolved greatly over the past decade, and continue to do so. But, as Beth Patterson pointed out in a comment on my last post, a shift from a salvationist to a collapsnik position may only be possible after a deep and painful process of dealing with the overwhelming grief that is often a prerequisite of such an acknowledgement of inevitable loss. We have to allow that process of our fellow caring, anxious human colleagues, and give them time until they are ready to ask themselves and listen to challenging truths, and until they have at least begun to process the commensurate grieving.

I believe that collapse (economic collapse, runaway climate change, and perhaps energy/resource exhaustion as well) is coming or cannot be averted, and that it will be unpleasant for most. But these days I am beginning to see collapse as a natural and inevitable process that will lead, in time, to a new equilibrium of life-on-Earth, with the much-smaller human population becoming, as it was for its first million years on the planet, a small and incidental player in the panorama of life on Earth, living joyfully in places we are naturally adapted to live.

For now, at least, that’s what I need to believe.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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