Here are twelve reasons why I remain optimistic in spite of all the bad news and scary stories. I am not in denial about the bad news, nor do I think we shouldn’t note and comment upon the situations coming upon us, but I also think that it’s important to keep such things in perspective.
1. Reality is very complex. . . . and there are limits to what we can know. I don’t understand why the system didn’t collapse 30 years ago. I don’t understand why the US and Russia did not have a massive nuclear war. As much as I want to be a “know-it-all”, my lack of understanding is a commentary on the limitations of my observation and knowledge. We can’t see all the details of our threats and how they interact to create a dysergistic downwards spiral. . . but we also can’t see all the details of the solutions at play, and how they interact to mitigate dysergy/dystopia. Complexity theory is, well, complex, but one thing that is evident is the ability of seemingly small and insignificant actions to have far-reaching effects (cf the “butterfly effect”).
2. The mainstream media report a distorted version of reality from the perspective of the ruling authorities. While there are occasional exceptions to the rule, the mainstream media are as dominated by our ruling authorities as the media of the old Soviet Union. Perhaps the primary difference is that our mainstream media are controlled by various factions of ruling authorities, so what we are getting as “news” is actually arguments among the ruling authorities. Why is this good news? Because we know it is so, and it’s not just “we” as in “those actively concerned about sustainability”. Mainstream news media credibility is low and getting lower all the time.
3. We have a “sidestream” media that tells us the rest of the story. A million flowers of hope are blooming out there, but you will only find them by looking for them in the sidestream media. They won’t be fed to you on the evening national news.
4. The powers that be are not nearly as smart and omnipotent and omniscient as they want everyone to believe they are. Here again, a good example is the old Soviet Union. Their ruling elites had massive state resources at their control. They could literally do anything they wanted with their natural and economic resources. The Soviet Union had a well-established system of terror complete with concentration camps to compel obedience. Yet, the day came when the inherent contradictions of their system overwhelmed them, and they collapsed of their own stupidity, greed and venality. In our present situation, the evidence is abundant that the various factions of our powers that be are as clueless as the Romanoffs in 1917 or the French aristocracy in the late 18th century. We are full-on in the middle of a classical case of imperial over-reach, and as it is said, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. Our aristocracies are not learning from the mistakes of history, so they are repeating them, and that means that they are doomed. They have been weighed in the balances and found wanting, their days are numbered, their kingdoms will be divided and given to others.
5. We have a dense and robust civil society system that provides an alternative source of authority and direction as an alternative to the powers that be. While certainly some parts of that civil society are core members of various factions of our ruling authorities, there is a tremendous amount of non-ruling authority organizational activity at play in our system. The historical tragedy of the Soviet collapse is that they had no civil society to step into the breech and point the way to a better future, so they got stuck with a form of gangster capitalism that is slowly evolving back to a Soviet-style political tyranny. In our situation, as the establishment crumbles, alternative structures are being created all around us. We are learning what we need to do right now, before major crisis/collapse comes upon us. That gives us the opportunity to possibly stage a managed recovery, and to mitigate the risk of outright collapse.
6. We have the internet. The internet and its quick and ubiquitous global connections is a structure whose invention is as much a turning point in history as was the creation of the first printing presses, and for many of the same reasons. I am a nobody, a pissant Oklahoma rednecked peasant with an education and an attitude, yet every year, more than a million people from 108 different countries find their way to one or more of my websites and download an average of three pages of information, and this has been going on for years. My printable flyers alone have been downloaded more than 150,000 times. And there must be ten million or more folks just like me, using the internet to organize, agitate, activate, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Consider the phenomena associated with Wikileaks. One tyrant has already been deposed, and more are reportedly at risk, all because of the bravery of one soldier in the trenches of the Middle East, and the distributed internet structure of the Wikileaks organization. That’s inspiration!
7. We know more about the actual details of living more sustainably. We are recovering from the almost complete collapse of the generational transmission of cultural knowledge and wisdom of the past 100 years, and are advancing our knowledge of how to live more sustainably at a rapid pace. As new ideas are tested, they spread very quickly across the globe. China now has CSAs, the sidestream media reported this week. The design discipline of permaculture offers a growing body of theory, knowledge, and praxis regarding the design of human habitations and systems that care for people, care for the planet, and have a care for the future.
8. We know about our approaching threats — peak oil, climate instability, economic irrationality, and their associated consequences. We can see them coming and people worldwide are taking action to adapt, avert, mitigate, stop, slow down, repair, recover. All of these issues are players in the public debate. And while it remains true that these issues and our response to them are hotly contested by powerful ruling factions, the fact that they are being contested at all is a triumph of the ability of civil society to place something on the table and force a hearing. That is the first step to structural change for the better.
9. Despite the best efforts of ruling authorities, the fact remains that structures of economics and governance can grow from the ground up and replace existing systems. Even as we speak, a new “super-structure” is being grown, spreading organically with the tenacity of Bermuda grass, utilizing rhizomes, runners, and abundant self-seeding. Every time an organic garden is planted. . . a food cooperative is organized. . . a CSA gets started. . . a permaculture class is taught. . . a family voluntarily decides to limit their consumption . . . a new structure is started to replace the collapsing ruins of the old, indeed, these are structures that will protect us from being caught amidst the falling debris of the old.
10. Much has been made of the possibility of Black Swan Events that can cause major systemic problems. But since we are speaking of random events in complex processes, we can also think about the potential for White Swan Events that can drive major progress for the structures of sustainable living that we are all involved with. A recent example of a White Swan Event is the Wikileaks event. The collapse of the Soviet Empire was another such a White Swan Event. With the Soviet Union’s rapid demise, the forces of goodness and wisdom were not organized enough to have a significant impact on the direction of subsequent events. But with Wikileaks, the situation is completely different. One tyrant has already been deposed, and more may be on that list as the situation develops.
11. The credibility of the existing system is at an all-time low. All over the globe, the corruptions and oppressions of ruling factions are being exposed, in detail, with chapter and verse, in often glittering technicolor. Tens of millions of people trusted the stock market and lost everything. They trusted the real estate market and lost everything. They trusted the corporation they worked for, and they got laid off. They trusted the academic system and bought a useless degree at a high price. One of the early steps to fundamental change is that people come to understand that their existing systems are failing them, indeed, that they are being exploited by their existing systems in order to enrich and benefit others. That’s happening right now, 24/7/365, and that process has increasing velocity.
12. We — that is to say, people concerned about peak oil, climate instability, economic irrationality — are everywhere. The United States has about 186,000 election precincts, each with an average of about 1600 people. Does anyone doubt that within the overwhelming majority of those little “villages” there are people intentionally involved with sustainable living? No, I don’t have a mailing list handy, but I think this claim is likely true. If a crisis occurs, whether it be a Black Swan or White Swan, or simply the fact that unsustainable systems by definition do not continue indefinitely, we are in position to get there the firstest with the mostest, with knowledge, organizing ability, and successful examples. The fact that we are not nationally organized to do this doesn’t mean squat. Indeed, a national organization would likely get in the way of effective and rapid action. Change is created one neighborhood at a time, by the people who live there. This is why I don’t worry about the fact that 100 million people have not signed up for sustainable living. As event unfold, there will be a morning when a hundred million and more wake up and decide they need to do something different. Our historical task right now is to get ready for that crisis awakening. When people are ready to storm the Bastille, organizers will be critical, and that’s our job. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and if we who embrace goodness, beauty, and wisdom don’t get there the firstest with the mostest, someone else will, and we might not like what results thereafter.
So, as it turns out, it’s not over until its over, and in spite of all the tumult and rage, I remain an unreconstructed optimist about how this will play out over time. I doubt I will see this process to its conclusion, but the strong foundations being laid right now will serve us well in the earthquakes of the future.