06 March 2011

Considering the Heroic

"Currently I feel as if the habituated sense of the heroic may actually erode something about 'sustainability' efforts. A socialized heroism often consolidates and sublimates what is 'unsustainable' in a lived system." - excerpted from a correspondence with a permaculturist and proponent monomythology (willi Paul), who then asked me to say what I meant by that.
The image is from "Orpheus and Linead" by Adi Da Samraj

Two years ago when I was in Beijing a Chinese NGO contacted some friends of mine and asked us to consider a dilemma they had. Some years prior to that, a local district in Yunnan had decided to engage in a local sustainability effort. Such efforts around the world are often undertaken with the purpose of 'raising the standard of living' of some particular group of people. Often this intent is held by someone not actually from that group of people, on behalf of those people. This particular example did not suffer from all the complications of that sort of formulation.

This district in Yunnan undertook to improve their own standard of living through an entrepreneurial effort to create a local dairy farm. They imported about 100 dairy cows from Australia with the intent of creating a dairy business focused on yogurt. Of course this is already problematic since they are importing a non-native species. They distributed the cattle among the farmers of the district. This is also problematic since is constitutes a shift in the social fabric. These are the types of things that are often simply not considered in the formulation of 'sustainability' efforts, but that is only the beginning of this particular story.

When I talk about this I often refer to it as the 'Cow Shit Case.' It turned out that the pH balance of the cow manure from the Australian cows was inconsistent with the pH balance of the local soil. Not only could it not be directly used as fertilizer, it was actually toxic to the local produce, which was still the primary means of local economy, since no dairy farm or business yet existed.

Of course this now constituted a fairly major problem. Add to this that it turns out there was not actually a local yogurt market sufficient to support the costs of a dairy, as of yet to be built. We have not gotten to any of the heroic dynamics yet. I want to point out that it is easy to criticize, even at this early stage in the story, all the things they were doing 'wrong.' It is important to recognize that what they were doing in each moment of this story made sense to them in that moment, given their pre-existing mental models, intent and information. Were you them, it would have made sense to you. It is not entirely out of the question that we are involved in something structurally similar, that differs formally, in this moment.

In order to solve the problem they now had with locally toxic cow manure they decided to shift the intent of the enterprise from a dairy to the production of high quality organic produce for urban markets. This is about when the NGO got involved and they were involved in helping them think these things through. They learned to process the cow manure to make locally usable fertilizer. They consolidated the cattle, another shift in the local social fabric. They did crop planning based on high end organic produce, such as organic cucumbers, for urban markets. I should say that this NGO is one of the most successful Chinese NGO's and at the time the only Chinese NGO with international projects and experience. This is not a story of stupidity or incompetence.

In the process of working through the problem of how to benefit from the investment in the Australian cows, the NGO took the role of distribution in the system of organic produce. This is where the obvious heroic dynamic begins. Clearly they are doing good work and the right thing. They wish to insure the prosperity of the district and the farmers. They set up a local organization in Yunnan. They create a seasonal, fixed contract with the farmers. They set up variable contracts in urban markets. Perhaps you can see some of the likely outcomes of this?

They are in Yunnan in the far south of China. The viable markets for their produce are Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The produce must be flown from Yunnan to the markets. It must be quality controlled, processed, refrigerated, packaged, etc. The NGO, acting heroically in this case, assumes responsibility for all of that. In other words, they assume the cost base for market reality of the produce, 'shielding' the farmers from all of that in the process. Very shortly, due to changing market conditions, they have a season where the market will not buy their produce at the prices they must ask. They lose an entire crop. Of course they have fixed contracts with the farmers and they honor that. It is about this time that they talk with us about it all. My friends there collaborated with the NGO over time to redesign the system and distribute the costs in a cyclic way. There are still issues, but it no longer has this 'heroic' consolidation of the 'unsustainable' aspects of the system.

The NGO is 'heroic' in the process, but also serving as the aid to the village's 'heroic' effort. I understand this can be re-contextualized to be understood as a journey. Many different interpretations of the events are possible and very different stories can be told. The desire to 'raise the standard of living' of some group of people can be a 'call', etc. It is the consolidation of the non-sustainable parts of the system as a response to that call that is of interest to me.

Let me give another example from a completely different sort of context. I was working for a large multi-national. This particular system was having safety issues. This is not particularly surprising since our entire system of trade and consumption is based on an artificially produced and maintained form of contained explosion. This particular company did a global safety audit of all it assets. In that audit it identified three particular assets they considered the most dangerous, highest risk locations. I was contracted to work with one of these assets to address this condition. The particular asset often had dangerous things occurring there, but they had never had a major incident. They were always able to cope with the event in the moment of its arising. They were very creative in the ways they dealt with these events in the moment and the workarounds they employed to deal with the apparent causes for such events. This was often done heroically. They celebrated this spirit of heroism as part of the site's culture. As a human system, this spirit of heroism was one of the leading contributors to the lack of safety.

You can see how this might work. Heroism becomes the working means for averting disaster. People are rewarded for heroic acts. In such a system people individually and collectively become self-identified with the heroism. Crisis is almost required to feed this. If they are not heroic who are they? How will they been seen and valued? Life and the activity of life only have meaning in the context of the heroic. The most heroic are the most valued. We seek the heroic based on an implicit assumption of return. All the while, the deeper causes of the on-site risks are not only unseen, but reinforced. The heroism actively perpetuates the most dangerous qualities of the system and is at the same time one of the most explicitly valued part of the system. In terms of a mythology, it is very hard to reward and celebrate the actions that successfully produce the absence of crisis and emergency. These are typically invisible and made more so by the explicit heroism.

Consider it in your own life. To what extent are you known to be heroic in some context? Where in your life do people count on you to be heroic? Where in your own life does heroism become a dependency? We often think of the heroic journey or process as something epic, but the dynamics can be seen to be occurring all the time. We are constantly called to action. That is the norm, as opposed to say, contemplation or non-action. We perceive an asserted and conditional necessity about this. The call is the call of such an asserted necessity. This call is so ubiquitous that we may not even hear it as a call. Who would you be in the immediate local context of your life without such a call or the perception of such a call?

This is an exploration of the typically unexamined shadow involved in heroism. In the heroic culture and undertaking this shadow is often strategically deleted. We do not account for it in our actions or those actions we celebrate in others. How does that shadow work? Consider a collaboration or team. In that process we often identify roles. People are 'known' for certain qualities. They can be counted on to demonstrate these qualities. We relate to the people in the team based on these. We may even relate to ourselves in this way. Dependency arises in the presence of this sort of role lock. Our sense of functionality, competence and value become embedded in this dynamic.

I had a client 15 years ago or so who was always angry. She wanted to stop always being angry. We worked on this for a few months and the core condition of it shifted for her. Her own self narrative and way of identifying no longer required this frequent presence of anger. When doing that sort of work in relationship to a community or 'human system' there are three frames we might want to consider. The first is the work we do with ourselves to come to understand the nature of our own narrative. In this case the anger was often a kind of righteous indignation about injustices that were occurring in the community and organization. There was a 'call' to action for the anger itself and the anger served as a kind of 'call' within the community. This becomes habituated. She can be counted on to be angry in these situations. In her own narrative, who is she when she does not respond to that call? Her attention becomes 'fixed' in the habituation of this role. It is a kind of 'role lock.' She must respond, whether she wishes to or not in some sense. In this case she started to feel something about the consequences of this and wanted to interrupt, dissolve or transform this pattern. Work to do that is done at the level of personal narrative. In that work we might explore the full ecology of some habituated, unexamined heroism. The work is done in the disposition of contemplating one's own actions as the source of that ecology; all the consequences, intended and unintended; the strategic investment; the self identification; the 'being seen' as social process; etc. Of course this is only part of the story.

We must also consider the heroism as situated with the human system. How does the perfect functioning of the (imperfect) human system produce the apparent need for heroism? To what extent is the lived human system producing circumstance and phenomena that require the heroic? To what extent is the heroic response to this symptomatic level of the lived system celebrated? Such celebration constitutes a kind of feedback or learning loop that keeps the conditions requiring heroism in place and even amplifies them over time.

So my friend stopped being angry. This involved things like seeing something about the whole pattern and then 'fasting' the appetite for what the anger was giving her, without simply disabling the capacity for anger, etc. It becomes a chosen expression. What happens in the lived system around her? In this case what happened is that many people around her got angry at her. They were 'betrayed' by her lack of anger. The had an (unexamined) expectation that she would be angry in a way that would 'right wrongs' and such. The cost to her, and them, of this expectation were strategically deleted, individually and collectively. The people who were now betrayed by and angry with her had been 'outsourcing' their own responsibility and participation in the lived system. They did not have to take the risk of expressing their own anger or carry the dynamics of that since they knew she would do so. In the first instance of confronting this, they got angry with her, rather than express something about the anger they felt about what was occurring in the system. Their hero had failed them, even as she was liberated.

In addition to a 'personal' frame and a human systems frame we might also consider a frame of memory or perceptual residue in such a case. We make some shift in the contextualizing myth of our own action and moment. We then understand this in terms of our participation in and as a 'larger' lived system. What is the ecology of that? We must then consider in ourselves and that system the nature of the perceptual reality. We feel we have made such a change. The mythology surrounding us and in which we live does not recognize this. It is usually the case that no amount of data, no matter how persuasive, authorized, etc. will cause a shift in the nature of this mythos. The basic reason for this is that the mythos does not self exist for the enactors of the system as a myth. It exists as the truth and therefore contraindication will either be deleted, or the mythos itself will be made more complex to account for the contraindication. Perhaps this is true even in the moment of reading and considering something together? There are many ways to work with all of this, but maybe, as with many things, that is a subject for another time.

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