That title was a tease. I have not made nor will I ever make full sense of me, but I want to connect the dots of my disparate – sometimes desperate – projects over many years and reveal the wholeness and practicality that links them all.
Some of these I’ll review here (and then offer lessons at the end) are:
Here’s the weave. For most of my life I’ve had my eye on a prize even I could barely see – some happier inclusive ingenious out of the crackerjack box treasure. When I organized my summer camp into a birthday costume parades each July 6, it was my kind of fun beyond the daily round of boating and bed-making. When I started a newspaper in middle school, produced on a mimeograph, I wanted the kids to pop the buttons of being spoon fed information. I engineered a junior year of study in Spain even though Brown University didn’t offer it because I just needed out. Much later, it was official. Yes, there’s a general grandiosity behind my projects and yes I’m a bit bipolar though my manias are these kinds of good games – not self-destructive behavior. My mother one time said, “You’ve got to get your feet into the mud of humanity,” and I took it like a curse. Why – when you can fly?
In my 20’s I did the standard crazy stuff – sex, drugs, on the road, back to the land. It wasn’t an advanced degree but it definitely gave me a very useful education for surviving in these current times of coming apart.
In 1980 Joe Dominguez, myself and others I began to proselytize the good news of frugality-as-freedom through the 9-step program for financial independence Joe invented for his own early retirement. We wanted to liberate all the good people trapped in 9-5 jobs so their souls could blossom and their true purpose could express. Joe would have been content with sharing our secret with a few friends. Not me. The grandiosity here, innocent enough, was: if everyone were liberated from the life-distorting requirements of the economy, there would be more light, more love and more service.
In 1989 – and I’ve told this story many times – I attended the Globescope Pacific Assembly which introduced the new concept, sustainable development, to the environmental and appropriate technology and other forward thinking movements. In the back row of a packed, dimly-lit auditorium I listened to all the heads of all the major environmental organizations and the commissioners from the UN Commission on Environment and Development speak about the pickle we were in or heading towards. They all pointed a finger at “consumerism” as a cause of our woes – and I had an epiphany. If moderating consumption could save the planet, then Joe and I and our group had a solution. People who followed our program lowered expenses by 20%, on average, precisely the percent reduction in consumption we needed to squeeze back into the ecological limits of the earth. Ms. Mildly Bipolar was off and running.
Two years later, Your Money or Your Life debuted to great acclaim – appearing on Oprah and on the NYTimes Best Seller list. We calculated the numbers of people reached through the audience numbers for the media outlets that featured us, reaching, give-or-take, a hundred million readers and viewers. We sold close to a million books. We were sure this was enough to tip the balance, that Americans would abandon the beast of consumerism and it would wither and die. But as you know, that didn’t happen. After a decade, Joe had died and I quit, quite disillusioned and confused.
The next foray into “changing everything” came after 9/11. Susan Partnow and I designed and built a simple dialogue method that could hold people with divergent views in a respectful conversations about anything. We believed this method, if used widely, could build understanding even as the society polarized. Eventually there were Conversation Cafes around the world using our simple process and agreements, yet our conviction that “if everyone talked to everyone, everything would change” proved preposterously idealistic. We had a great time, opened our hearts, developed the skills of presence, served many and that is to be celebrated. But “it” – that thing that feeds on consumerism and polarization, just got stronger.
My next inspiration came in 2004 from reading Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over. Our dependence on a limited resource, fossil fuels, dooms us to a bumpy ride down the energy staircase, less and less over a few short decades. Relocalization became my new north star, and I soon discovered the Transition Towns methodology fresh from the first experiment in Totnes, UK. Friends and I organized Transition Whidbey in 2008 and for several years we made great progress. We mapped our agricultural lands, hosted monthly potlucks for a hundred folks each time, launched working groups, built relationships and made a film about it all. In the end, though, our volunteer leadership could not keep up with demands, and TW faded away. Later I served on the US Transition Board and learned that many groups hit the same wall – some folding, some prevailing. What prevented this idea from scaling up in a way that could actually move my island, other towns, to some happy tipping point? I was left with this question. The global, national and local initiatives are still alive and well, but that big brass ring has yet to be grabbed.
I was also left with a very cool next step: a thirst or should I say hunger to build food self-sufficiency on Whidbey. A month experiment of eating within 10 miles of my home – and blogging about it – lead to writing another book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us. From encouraging others to replicate my experiment through the 10-Day Local Food Challenge to working on understanding food systems enough to see how they might shift to favoring regional food, I engaged enthusiastically with this new moon-shot. I did a TEDx talk, tended the 10-Day Local Food Challenge for 2 years, and formed bonds with the farmers on Whidbey Island who still feed me, body and soul.
Something I could not have anticipated, though, changed the food equation. Not global markets, not subsidies, not crop failure. No, it was the Naval Air Station at the North end of Whidbey switching from the Prowler jets to the much louder Growler jets. Their low altitude training flights bouncing down and up for hours on an old WWII grassy airfield in the middle of our best farmland threatened to make local food production almost impossible. We organized and fought a 4-fold expansion of training flights… and lost. I could smell the breath of that thing that prevents wholesome ideas about better living from being fruitful and multiplying.
… and so what?
My experiences offer many lessons, some learned, some resisted. However, I want to draw from this narrative life lessons unrelated to success or failure – or how we even measure those.
Everything I’ve attempted for 30 years has been informed by the implacable math of overshoot and collapse. We have been heading towards our ecological doom resolutely for half a century and I’d hoped to stop this in my own small ways.
Now it’s clear that the industrial growth way of life is indeed collapsing. You don’t need the litany from me. If you can face it, here’s an excellent round up of our folly and our fate.
However, there is a middle ground between “everything’s fine” and “everything’s f*cked.” Many talk about the inevitable extinction of all life on earth, or at least most life including humans. They say it’s not somewhere in the far future but rather within the lifetimes of people alive right now. We see it so clearly in storms, fires and refugees. Our minds cannot grasp this. For sure, human population will be decimated. Billions will die somehow, somewhere, through floods, fires, crop failures, water scarcity, toxins, failed nuclear plants, a plume of methane being released from melting permafrost. Our minds cannot grasp this either.
in that middle ground between “fine and f*cked” you and others you know or don’t know may find yourselves surviving, by luck or wit.
Let’s take a clear-eyed dispassionate look at that possibility of being alive in that messy middle, and through the lens of my hapless experiments in making life better or at least preventing the worst.
Imagine you’ve taken Your Money or Your Life to heart. You’ve minimized what you need from the money economy. You’ve built networks of mutual aid. You’ve learned how to make, repurpose and fix things and have a lifetime supply of duct tape, baling wire, and chewing gum. You’ve resettled somewhere with the most beneficial climate possible because you are not tied to a job. You have a bicycle or electric scooter charged by solar cells. You’ve invested in home production of energy and food, and insulated your house. You have an income sufficient to your needs from investments aligned with your values – maybe in credit unions or local businesses or green energy or cooperatives or property you can rent. You’ve minimized your exposure to the money economy and financial system, and probably have enough of most things to see you through. People who have not done what you’ve done will panic as the scaffolding of their lives proves fragile. You will be flexible, able to help yourselves and others make the transition.
Imagine you’ve hosted Conversation Cafes in your community or classrooms or conferences. You’ve learned that most precious skill of listening with respect and speaking with honesty. You’ve learned to ask for clarity when you don’t agree, rather than jumping down another’s throat. You’ve become a learner rather than a self promoter or a know-it-all. You can hear the meaning behind the words. You’ve been able to watch your mind in a conversation, and recognize reactions and projections, lifting the burden off others for triggering you. In other words, you’ve grown beyond your ego into a more universal self. You’ve learned from every person who sits at your table. Your mind has broadened until it’s open and discerning. Imagine you are in a community struggling with supply lines or environmental challenges. Your capacity to listen, connect, tell the truth, be compassionate will surely serve you and everyone well. Not panicking is a big survival skill.
Imagine you’ve done the 10-Day Local Food Challenge and mapped your food sources, in fields, forests and farms. Imagine you’ve worked to build local capacity to feed local people. Imagine you’ve made that shift from depending on grocery stores to being part of local and regional food trading systems. Imagine you’ve gone from a personal experiment to working on local food systems, supporting laws and infrastructure and businesses that encourage local sourcing and regional sufficiency. You’d be very glad to live in a food rich region, even if a wheat crop fails elsewhere.
Imagine you’ve worked in your county to map food and water resources, to anticipate how climate change will impact your way of life. Maybe you’ve managed to put in a few local energy systems (wind or solar), or calculated the capacity of your aquifer and moderated use, or anticipated climate changes by funding high tunnels and drip irrigation for small and large farms.
Maybe, like me, you will have built up relational networks from neighborhoods to global allies. Staying curious and connected, you know who to call (if the phones and internet work) to give or receive help, to let the adaptations we each make skip like rocks around the world, helping.
None of this will stop our destiny locked in the plastics-dense ocean or greenhouse gasses dense-atmosphere. None of this guarantees that you will not be caught in the crossfire of consequences, feeling like an innocent bystander who did everything right but were in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of this, however, helps you and yours to be seeds of communities that survive and can help others emotionally and materially.
So this is the rucksack I’ve packed for you, friends. Others have important knowledge and practices – like permaculture and natural building and systems thinking – any approach that relies on working with the grain of nature.
Like Pascal, I’ve made a wager. If these practices actually are a lifeboat, great. If they are just elements of an adventurous, empowered life, I’m good with that. If they help you, great. The world is so complex that the idea we could change it was a chimera all along.