The Schizophrenic Dance of Hope & Fear

nappingMy son is three and, true to his age, a handful. His favorite thing these days seems to be calling me or his mom stupid, just to see the steam come out of my ears. He’s clearly discovered a power he didn’t know he had, and considering how much his life is bounded by endless rules and the whims of adults, I can’t really blame him. Even if it does want to make me scream.

He’s never been a cuddler but this new sense of power is scary to him, I think, and so he’s formed another new habit–pretending he’s a baby, seeking comfort in our arms. Honestly, I can’t complain. This morning he climbed into bed with me and we snuggled as the light of a warm spring morning spilled over us. Maybe a grown man shouldn’t admit such things, but I was in heaven.

It’s these moments–those stolen seconds of stillness with my son, the sound of bees buzzing through a bobbing sea of purple wisteria, the pure joy of a Clifford Brown and Max Roach album–that push away the dark clouds of a frightening future, if only for a minute. The future of which I speak? How bad will it be, I don’t know. But I’m certain that it will be hard, it will be painful, it will be scary, and many people will suffer. As a great musician once said, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

I try to remind myself that these are the things worth living for, worth protecting, worth fighting through the blanket of foreboding that seems ready at times to drown me. And they are. But I also sometimes get this strange sensation–a weirdness akin to déjà vu–when I question, for just a second, if I’m right. I wonder… All of us who see our industrialized, globalized, consumer-based, suburban lives as destined for the dustbin of history… What if we’re wrong? What if we’re just the latest in the procession of Chicken Littles who have foolishly cried “the sky is falling” for millenia?

Of course, this is all just wishful thinking. Believe me, I’d rather be wrong than right in this case. And on a beautiful day like today, who could blame me? It’s hard to hold onto a truth that has yet arrived, or even been sniffed at by the vast majority of people, while the trains are still running.

movingstairwayI once heard someone present a metaphor about this predicament, comparing it to that of a person who has one foot on each of two moving walkways, going in opposite directions. Sounds hard to do, no?

She was talking about the tension of living in world of great social complexity and relative efficiency that still works quite well, while knowing that it won’t for much longer. A perfect example is buying food in a modern day supermarket.

But it could easily serve as a metaphor for the psychological struggle of those who get the enormity of the challenge and change ahead–the schizophrenic dance of hope and fear.

The person who shared this metaphor was Sophy Banks who, at the time, was traveling around the world to conduct trainings for local activists and other would-be-trainers on implementing the Transition Town model.

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a lengthy article on the relatively recent arrival of the Transition Town movement to the United States, focusing on organizing efforts in the small, town of Sandpoint, in the very northern tip of Idaho. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of Transition US, the support arm for transition efforts in the United States, and Post Carbon Institute is a close partner of the organization.)

The journalist, who interviewed Richard Heinberg and I together back in February, spent several months working on the piece–traveling to Sand Point a couple of times and interviewing a number of people working on the local, national, and international levels.

Unfortunately, he got a lot wrong, starting with the title: “The End Is Near (Yay!).” Through my work, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who are concerned about Peak Oil and climate change and not a single one of them–not even those who reject our current way of life–ever said “yay” at the prospect of what’s to come.

The article attempted to portray the larger network as somehow corporate:

At the Panida, the keynote speaker was Michael Brownlee, the director of the Transition effort in Boulder and a representative of Transition U.S. — an even newer group that is forming to help the movement spread in America. He was like the Transition equivalent of a middle manager flown in from corporate.

This despite a later statement that “Transition insists that initiatives be completely bottom-up organizations. There’s no central oversight, and the movement is expected to evolve slightly differently wherever it springs up.”

I just had to wonder, how can Transition US be called corporate when it has exactly one full time staff person and Michael Brownlee is a volunteer for Transition US? I don’t see many volunteers wandering around corporate headquarters, do you?

And then, of course, there’s the almost requisite media photo treatment. Maybe the Kühnels, two of the initiators of Transition Sandpoint, don’t own a shotgun. So I guess they had to be pictured sitting up in a tree, those treehugging hippies.

Despite all that, I think the article is quite valuable, and for one reason… the descriptions of what I believe are very healthy, very human tensions between hope and fear.

Transition’s message is twofold: first, that a dire global emergency demands we transform our society; and second, that we might actually enjoy making those changes. Most people I met in Sandpoint seemed to have latched onto the enjoyment part and run with it. The vibe was much more Alice Waters than Mad Max. (Jeff Burns, a local food activist who joined the food working group, was a conspicuous exception. “Some people on the food group want to feel good,” he told me, “and some people want to figure out how to feed 40,000 people in case the trucks stop rolling.”)

I’m not sure that I would characterize worry about feeding people as straight out of Mad Max, but for every person who holds on with both hands to a vision of a better future there is another person deeply doubtful. And I’ll bet that for every two of them, there are ten who suffer, like me, the schizophrenic dance of hope and fear.

This tension is real and I’ve seen it again and again in community organizing, between groups of people.

I would venture to say that those who helped shape the Transition Town model fully intended to focus on the positive. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was a reflection of their personal temperaments, but I think it is far more than that–a strategic decision aimed at engaging those who would otherwise never participate in such organizing efforts.

The growth of the movement since its origin in 2006 has perhaps evinced this decision. But I predict that it will not succeed in the ultimate task–helping communities transition to a post carbon world–without making space for fear and those who see a dark future ahead. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn here; every person I’ve spoken with who’s involved in Transition networking efforts is keenly aware of both the tension and the need to look at emergency responses. If nothing else, the economic collapse has engaged people in this discussion.

I can’t speak for all those working in communities across this country and the world because I simply don’t know. But, for what it’s worth, I hope those out there doing the hard mobilization work of Transition Initiatives take this as a challenge: Reach out and make space for everyone, including those who envision a different future than you.

The key, in my mind, is not to always reach accord when envisioning the future but rather to create the space for mixed viewpoints, mixed personalities, mixed emotions. Ideally, to focus on joint actions that meet common priorities. It’s not just about creating a big tent for all kinds of people. It’s also about having a big tent for all kinds of solutions and responses. If people take their energies in a different direction–as long as they aren’t in competition for resources and share the fundamental value of community–well, maybe that’ s for the best. After all, redundancy and diversity are key components of a resilient system.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s