Act: Inspiration

Our future isn’t a problem to be solved

February 9, 2023

You have your way.
I have my way.
As for the right way,
the correct way,
and the only way,
it does not exist.

— Friedrich Nietzsche
(in the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2023 Planner)

I do not agree with Nietzsche on many things. Big surprise there, I’m sure. So when I saw this alongside the entry for 8 February in my daily writing planner, I felt it was a sign. Or at least a minor portent.

Recently, in the conversations I have been having here and there with many people, there has been a running theme — what we (universal) need to do (also universal). One of the professors who comes into our store each day held forth on this subject for so long that there was audible eye-rolling from the kids. This is also a trope on many of the blog sites and podcasts I favor, even those that ought to know better. Ought to have read Nietzsche anyway.

I am going to trot out another quote, often ascribed to Einstein (someone I do agree with regularly). “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Or there is this impression of the same sentiment from Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

And I will add this of my own making: our future isn’t a problem to be solved.

We do not face one broken thing that we can put back together. We face many things that are working more or less properly — though many aspects of that proper functioning are not going our way — and we can’t solve any of it. But even if there were problems to solve, there would never be one solution. One solution thinking is the tool of the global elite, those who want to retain control through top-down fixes. One solution thinking is the master’s tool. It is also the thinking that led us to this point where we are mired in an interconnected mess of our own making.

If we push a boulder up the hill to an unstable position, eventually it will roll back down. It is not the boulder’s fault if we are standing in its path. It is no fault at all. It is not a problem. Nor is there a solution that includes the boulder. There is only our own response. And this response is as varied as the conditions that led to each individual reaction. Some of us might just step to the side. Some might try (probably with less success) to outrun the rock. Some might flamboyantly jump onto the boulder and run against its spin all the way down the hill. (I suppose that works.) Then there are inevitably some who never pushed the rock and who are not standing in its path (though that last is not totally true of anyone on a single, bounded planet). Or if they did once stand in harm’s way, they are now more or less comfortably out of danger somewhere away from the path of greatest destruction. (These last are the folks who are choosing to collapse early and beat the rush, to use John Michael Greer’s very useful aphorism.)

We’ve done things that have created a situation that will cause a great deal of harm, to ourselves and a great many other beings. We can’t do more of the same things and expect the damages to be lessened. Nor can we undo the things we’ve done. We are here with the boulder perched precariously on the ledge. Indeed, there is solid evidence that it is already toppling. There will be collapse of many systems, but particularly the ones that led to this destructive state. Now, we respond. Each of us in our own best way.

This leaves quite a lot of room for some to continue doing things that cause harm. But the thing is, the harm they are doing is undermining their ability to do that harm. The boulder will fall on them if they insist on pushing it to where it is unbalanced — and then just stand there like ninnies, prattling on about all the clever ways that they could keep the boulder from falling down… as it is rolling towards them.

In any case, the messes we’ve made are far more complex than one boulder on a ledge. Or even dozens of boulders. We have set most of our own life support systems spiraling into disaster. We could hardly choose one part of this mess that is the most crucial. Nor could we tease one part out of all the rest.

Further, like our boulder thought experiment, we are all experiencing this mess in different ways, in different places, and in different times. Some of us are already daily coping with interwoven disasters. Real. Visceral. NOW. Largely unmitigated. Some of the disasters have effects that are strong in certain ecosystems and completely absent in others. Desert dwellers in the American Southwest are running out of water, for example, while in Iowa that is not a result of our past actions. Iowa gets floods instead. There is no “solution” to either drought or flood. True, they are effects of our causes, but these are just things that happened as a natural course, completely predictable and irreversible — and unsolvable. But there is also no way to ameliorate the hurt suffered in both Arizona and in Iowa with the same salving actions. These are different hurts, unrelated except that we caused both in our ignorance.

I am writing this blog to spread around my ideas of tools and salves that might be useful in many places and many situations. Here’s another quote from someone I don’t agree with (really on anything except this): “When crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” (Milton Friedman, one of the nastier boulder pushers…) One thing we (universal) do need (also universal) is lots of ideas lying around so that we can choose what might help us to survive whatever part of the mess we inhabit. I am curating a collection of ideas.

While there are some general ideas that might be usefully applied in many situations, many may turn out to be most practicable only where I live simply because I don’t live elsewhere to try out their effects in different situations. This does not mean they can’t be used elsewhere, with or even without adaptation. These ideas might not be widely tested, but they exist, they are out there lying about, waiting for someone who might transform them to meet some other particular need. Indeed, some of the things that I talk about may not be helpful anywhere to anyone but me, but still… even those ideas are floating around, ready to inspire other ideas, other ways of considering the situation, other responses to the falling boulder. What I am not doing is insisting on the primacy of one tool. (Except perhaps communication of ideas…)

Abraham Maslow, he of the very apt hierarchy of needs, once quipped that “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In our current multi-issue, there are many people (yes, probably men… mostly) holding hammers — and only hammers. They are, moreover, loudly squawking to any and all within hearing distance that hammers are the only tool that will “solve the problem”. The problem they see is not a multi-dimensional and monstrously mutating process. The problem they see is not a complex interweaving of natural processes. The problem they see is a nail. And only a nail. Because they are limited in their perception by the hammer in their hand. The hammer they can understand and can use… unlike the confounding and difficult responses that might be necessary to mitigate real harm.

There are many tools. There are many tools that I will never even encounter, but that will work quite effectively in some setting, somewhere, somewhen. There are many tools that can inspire the creation of new tools. (I happen to believe that these are the most productive and useful tools, but that might just be my opinion…) Some tools are even deliciously elegant in their simple efficacy, just like a hammer. However, there is, probably, no “hammer”. (Because there is no nail?) A hammer is more of a cause than a response — though hammers will be quite useful as we find ourselves lacking in shelter and transport and therefore in need of causation…

All these accumulated ideas — this wisdom gained in time and experience — point to the same general idea: there is no one path and on no path is there a problem we can solve. We are responding. This is an ongoing being-state, not a thing we do and are done. We are adapting to many different situations. We will never be done adapting. Because the future is not a nail that we can beat into submission. It is a mutable being of many beings. And one that we generally can’t comprehend. The best we can do is have lots of ideas, lots of tools, lots of ways of thinking, all ready at hand when crises of whatever flavor come barreling down that hill.

Because it will come… both crises… and future… and the only thing we (universal) can do (also universal) is respond.


Photo by Moritz Mentges on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient societies, Future Scenarios, polycrisis