29 March 2011

Reflecting on Transition Towns

Transition Towns are based on one insight and one question. The insight is that the fundamental challenge of this moment is how to successfully address climate change, energy descent, and social inequity. The question is how can life be better in the process and as a result of addressing this challenge.

The challenge is not one of these three conditions, but the occurrence of all three at once. The assumptions about our economic condition are included in and may even precede beliefs about these conditions and challenge. With respect to that challenge it may be necessary to go through a kind of process of inquiry. Such an inquiry can involve traversing an emotional and cognitive landscape that does not itself necessarily lead to insight into how such a process can lead to a better way of living together. Including the question of how life can be better, even in and as a result of the process of transition, as we inquire into this moment and our shared future, is one of the distinctive qualities of the Transition Town approach. The approach also seems to have a deep appreciation of the potential for emotional and cognitive incongruence along the way.

Perhaps we can consider this together. Perhaps we can consider something about the process of inquiring into this. What does it involve? Maybe we could start by asking about each of the elements, though one of the major aspects is that all three are occurring at once. In general with respect to these conditions there are two extreme views: Doomers and Skeptics. Because of the way in which our 'mental models' function, neither a Doomer nor a Skeptic hold their view as a belief system in which they are participating, but rather view it as a type of self evident truth.

Doomers believe that climate change, peak oil, the collapse of the industrial era are already occurring. Essentially they believe that is already too late to address these things and that the resulting consequences are going to be of a scale and dynamic that tears the social fabric of our living together such that many of us will die from famine, disease, etc. and that none of the current local or global institutions will be able to mitigate or adapt to this. Doomers might be politically, morally or even religiously motivated. Doomers might be involved in a nihilistic view of humanity or understand their view as just, based on the assumption of humanity as unjust or at least unbalanced with respect to itself as a whole and the environmental systems in which we live. They may self validate their view based on a belief in scientific findings and formula. They may validate their view based on a spiritual or religious belief. They consider themselves realists.

Skeptics more or less refers to climate skeptics, but tends to include a view about energy and social equity as well. There are two types of climate skeptics. One type believes that climate change is not occurring. They believe that all the science and dialogue about climate change is politically or economically driven, for selfish and immoral reasons. Roughly half the US population falls into this category, but it seems to exist in other countries, such as China, as well. Skeptics are often involved in protecting a 'way of life' and may also be politically, morally, economically, or religiously motivated in upholding their view. Skeptics may be involved in a moralistic view of humanity in which the moral prosper and therefore the impoverished deserve there condition. The natural environment is there to use and be profited from. They may also validate their view based on investment in a belief in science or a religious system. They consider themselves realists. (Such Skeptics are distinct from 'scientific skeptics' who acknowledge that changes are taking place, but question the details of the science and assertions of causality involved.)

Clearly these views have a lot in common. In particular both are often held in a way that simplifies the current condition and allows the holder of such a belief to justify their own actions, in so far as they understand those. Holding a belief as a closed system in this way validates the identity of the belief holder, in part through the active negation of some "other" as enemy. Interestingly both Doomers and Skeptics are active participants in the survivalist bunker mentality. People from both ends of the political spectrum are Doomers. One of the things this reveals is that both views are fear based and have an investment in fear. The argument between Doomers and Skeptics is so positionalized that the structural similarity of the views is not apparent to the participant in such a system of belief. In such a participation we can be easily fooled by the self defining act of negation (I am not that). It is this unexamined structural similarity that leads to the odd condition of Doomers and Skeptics functionally doing many of the same things for entirely different reasons. Of course such a suggestion, as well as the unfair categorization of some person as a Doomer or Skeptic is all pretty offense. Consider instead Doomer and Skeptic as a system of thought and belief, with many different expressions, in which people participate in many different ways. These extremes represent an artificial and strategically convenient duality. The investment in such a duality allows us to ignore an actual inquiry into our condition, even as we assert that it is based on a factual and realistic view of our condition. Considered as the extreme poles of a kind of spectrum, of course their are all sorts of points of view, beliefs and positions in between. This is all further complicated the view that not holding a particular view which can be advocated for and defended is itself viewed as immoral.

How then would an inquiry take place? We would have to ask what is meant by climate change? When you hear that term, what does it mean to you? How do you feel that you are related to such a term or not? What is the overall structure of relatedness on the planet with regard to such a term? We would even have to examine how we are asking the question itself. Who are we in the moment of asking such a question? Truly, it is so difficult.

In my view in order to even begin such a consideration we must first be aware of the conviction we hold about the future, the source of that and how it arises and is maintained. In order to consider that we will have to consider something abut our view of mortality and the human condition and do so in the context of the greater realities in which that takes place. We must understand something about how we hold that and the antecedents of our view. Of course to many of us, such a consideration seems a waste of time. In many cases really considering such things, in the absence of a prefigured, authorized answer is considered heresy. It may be the case that we feel we do not have time to consider such things. It is a luxury we cannot afford, particularly in the face of looming crisis (whether we feel that crisis is actually occurring or whether we feel the real crisis is a threat to our way of life based on people spreading propaganda about such supposed crises). This means that in order to consider our conviction about the future we must also actively consider the historical context of our moment and how such beliefs as we hold have come to be.

But, why? Why would we have to consider such things? Must we really? Well, no. Of course not. And that is where our real inquiry might begin. Many people are not willing to be in such a consideration or entertain such a starting place. The result is that we instead argue about the particulars, from within our prefigured point of view. We do this in great part because we feel that we will not be able to function if we do not. Much of this is held in place by the unexamined assertion of necessity.

If we cannot engage directly in a consideration about our conviction of a future, perhaps we can consider something about necessity. Perhaps we could agree a very simple taxonomy of necessity and consider that together? What if we were to consider food, water, clothing and shelter as basic necessities? We might then also consider the social fabric and situated, localized living consistent with the provision of such necessities. In order to consider these we would have to consider something about the source and 'means of production,' distribution, etc. for such necessities. We would need to reflect on the scope. Do we mean food, water, clothing and shelter are necessary for some of us, or do we mean they are necessary for all of us? In developed and emerging economies we might imagine that these necessities come from the economy, as such. I would like to suggest for the purpose of this conversation that we are having together that we allow ourselves to imagine something simpler. These necessities come from the planet and our way of living on the planet. The planet is not a separate thing.

It can be difficult to go straight at such a consideration. We end up in a consideration of the particulars. This can be useful, if we can remember the context in which such an inquiry is taking place. Let's look more closely at a sort of spectrum with regard to climate change. What happens when I hear this phrase? Do I dismiss it out of hand? Am I apathetic, or feel that it is not connected to me? Do I feel that it is a 'hoax' of some sort? What is my narrative for that, and how is such a narrative strategically useful to me? Do I feel the assertion of climate change is a threat to something? What are the details of that? What exactly is threatened and how? Why do I feel that particular thing as a threat? What am I trying to defend, protect or conserve? Why? Perhaps I feel it is happening, but has nothing to do with me, or human beings in general. What is the basis for that? If I felt I could do something about it, would I? If I feel that climate change is taking place, but do not feel that it is in any way related to my own actions, or the actions of human beings, how then do I account for it? What assumptions are involved in that account? Perhaps I feel that climate change is occurring and it has something to do with me, but it is primarily 'their' fault. What is the basis for that? What are the implications in my own life? What is my relationship to 'them?' What assertions am I making about 'them?' Where am I engaged in acts of negation to identify them? What is the strategic value of that to me? Perhaps I feel it is happening, even catastrophically so, but have no sense of possibility or agency about addressing anything about that occurrence? How then do I live my life? Given this, what constitutes meaningful action? Perhaps I feel it is happening and understand such an occurrence as directly related to my own life and choices? Maybe I see something about this as an expression of humanity as a whole living on the planet in a particular way? How then might I respond?

Going through any aspect of such an inquiry is emotionally and cognitively disruptive, if the inquiry is taken seriously. What is meant by such seriousness is that we entertain the possibility of something changing or expanding about our historical view and assumptions. This may or may not happen, but we maintain a lived openness to this possibility. This then implies an openness to change in the emotional, cognitive and enacted landscape of our lives individually and collectively. Such change also asks the question of what we wish to conserve, or preserve. Much process or interaction that imagines itself to be such inquiry lacks these qualities and is instead a kind of endeavor to prove what we already believe to be true. In more extreme cases the dialog is merely a kind of rhetoric meant to persuade groups of people. The idea of such persuasion is often simply grounded in some expression, or even morality of self gratification. It is strategic. The strategic component is not made explicit or rationalized. As such, it is more or less inauthentic. Often it is unethical. It always poses as moral.

These dynamics are not limited to one particular position, but are a dynamic of the 'debate' altogether. I find myself particularly disinterested in such 'debate.'

For myself, I feel that collapse is well under way and that we merely lack the acuity to perceive this at the institutional level. We are often so identified with these global institutions that we also lack the sensitivity to perceive such changes personally. This is just my feeling about the matter of course. It leads me to ask a different sort of question. How would I want to live anyway? Collapse or not... What sort of principles, commitments and sense of service might I wish my life to be expressed as my lived life? I recognize this is already assuming an immense amount. Perhaps it is clearer to say that I feel my life is an expression of where my attention, as a whole, is turned both in a moment to moment way and as a whole. What is the quality of that? Where am I authentically attracted, not as a compensation for something missing, or felt as a fear, but rather as a simple and authentic attraction? Where do I feel resonance? Where I want my attention to be given is only a very small part of it, but it is a part.

Such a question is based on the assumption that attention has a kind of structural nature that conditions emotional, cognitive and enacted reality for us. Such a question assumes that attention is the domain of point of view arising at all. It assumes that attention itself has a source, though this is not a mechanistic, linear sort of assertion. You might notice that I am not defining attention in some reductionist way. Of course this is possible, but from my point of view, less than useful.

How would I want to be living in any case? Do I understand that way of living as connected to climate change, energy descent, social inequity and 'economic' collapse? What is the nature of the social fabric for that lived life? Who or what is included or excluded and in what ways? What is the context for meaning in such a life? How do I understand it as meaningfully coupled with a morphology of unfolding phenomena? In the current context of developed 'economies' and the associated social contracts people will often play the 'what if you won the lottery' game. That is they associate the freedom to live the way they wish in their hearts with financial freedom. They associate financial freedom with a number. In the current 'economy' such a number is itself the artificial basis for generating more wealth. This can all be useful to work through.

This is the other side of the consideration in which we realize we are inevitably dead, the whole of our actions more or less meaningless... now what? We are dead, how 'should' we live? The other side of this is imagining we have everything thing we think we want or need to be happy. OK. We have all of that. We have all the material wealth we could possibly want or imagine. Every bit of it. Let's suppose we have explored that so incredibly thoroughly that we have moved on. We have engaged teachers and gone to workshops all over the world and attained some degree of wisdom, love, enlightenment, effectiveness, etc., etc., etc. All of that has happened. Now what? How would you live then?

I have mentioned it before. I feel this is the purpose and meaning of the myth at the end of "The Republic." It is of particular note to me that this takes the form a myth told at the end of a long dialog. Why is that, I wonder?

I hope you can forgive my profound hypocrisy in all these things I write. My own life feels liminal, at best. There still seems to be a kind of 'here and there' to me and I find that for the most part I am neither here nor there in my relationship to that artificial distinction. I hope it is clear that I am just working through these things for myself and not doing a particularly good job of it. I am currently dreaming a dream about this in some ways.

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