- Date published:
12:35 pm, January 1st, 2022 - 11 comments
Categories: climate change, sustainability - Tags: Alexandra Rowland, Barry Lopez, Fred Bahnson, hope punk, how change happens, powerdown, regenag, rob hopkins, south dunedin, what could possibly go right?
The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.
It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done though”
This story is about how the kind of stories we tell matter*.
We’re at the stage with climate change where we are inundated daily with the bad news, yet truthful reality, of the climate and ecological crises. Thanks to the long work of the green movement, indigenous peoples, climate activists, scientists and journalists, and, in recent years especially XR, awareness of climate change as crisis is now part of our everyday landscape.
This is both good and dangerous. Good because the only way forward to some kind of meaningful future is facing the crisis honestly. Dangerous, because if people get overwhelmed and see no way out they will give up, or use denial and cognitive dissonance to cope rather than acting to prevent the worst of the crisis and build resiliency and adaptation.
Fortunately, the counter cultures are full of climate solutions already being practiced. Outside of the COP and governmental processes that are dragging the chain on climate action, there are many sectors of society just getting on with it. Some are cutting edge, some are hands in the earth localised. I’ve written about the Powerdown and regenerative agriculture in particular, posts that show us a way home because they address prevention and adaptation as part of the same picture.
When we let go of rigid ideas about what the future should look like and
accept trust that we can have good lives even if they are radically changed, the options for averting the worst of climate change blossom.
In the circles of people leading the way on this, one of the themes regularly repeated is that useful and meaningful responses to this massive, long haul crisis involve proactive pathways. In the face of catastrophe, humans need clear ways to take action that they feel makes a difference. If we don’t have that, people give up. Proactive pathways are life affirming, give meaning, pleasure, and reward as well as saving the earth.
(if you don’t think of yourself as a storyteller, what is being meant here is how we think about the world and how we talk about solutions)
Signpost one: We have to be able to envision the good future we want. Once we understand the seriousness of the crisis, we have to be able to see a way out.
‘It’s very easy to think of the dystopian ideas,’ McKay told me. ‘It’s almost lazy. Thinking of the good future is actually really hard because you have to envision something that is qualitatively different. Everyone knows what dystopia looks like. It’s also exciting, in a dramatic way.’
‘As soon as you have even just a rough sketch of something that’s optimistic’, he told me, ‘you then have something that people can react to. The visions can be tremendously powerful in terms of motivating people to make some real changes because they can then start to see there are things that are achievable, and it doesn’t have to be the dystopian, lazy thinking that most people have in their minds’.
Signpost two: The problem is the solution is an adage from permaculture, whereby the problems we face often contain the solutions we need. Artist and graphic novelist James McKay again,
sea level rise … of a couple of metres means we’ve got a giant lagoon in the middle of Yorkshire … rather than that being a disaster, people have learnt how to live on the water and use aquaculture and various things that mean they are utilising that new geographical feature. I put a lot of work into trying to see where there were problems, issues that some people might say were a disaster, and what an optimistic society would do to adapt to that.
Signpost three: Bring it home and imagine where we live, our neighbourhood, our rohe, in a climate future where things worked out. Hopkins,
Think about this the next time you are walking around your neighbourhood. Find a place you pass every day, sit down, and imagine it in the future – a future in which things turn out OK. What would it look like? Smell like? Sound like? Feel like? What would stay the same? What would change?
Let’s bring that home for a moment. Think South Dunedin, one of the places in New Zealand already at the sharp end of climate change. We know it’s going to flood more often and eventually be inundated from the sea. What if we started transforming South Dunedin now, not just as a pre-emptive retreat, but we proactively redesigned the area in ways that work with nature instead of against it, and create something most excellent, both a restoration of the landscape suited to the realities of the new world, and as a beacon of what we can do positively in response to climate change.
If the area is going to be a swamp again, can it be recreational? Wetland sports? An opportunity to restore native and other ecosystems that bring intense biodiversity within the city? Local iwi and university collaboration restoring a food basket and developing a new set of processes for salt marsh/wetland food production?
Less major, costly, high GHG emitting infrastructure attempts to hold back the sea, and more meeting humans needs within the natural limits of the systems that exist.
Basically give up trying to assert dominance over the natural systems and learn how to work with them.
(for the engineering/high tech bods in the room, there is a great need for innovation as well as making best use of current knowledge and technology, and doing that within a regenerative and sustainability frame)
We can do this for every problem we face. What is the problem, how does it already contain the solution? Permaculture is particularly adept at this, but many other parts of human society hold these skills.
I’d like to end with an excerpt from An Unbroken Grace, by poet, essayist, and permaculturist Fred Bahnson. Talking about the life and work of the late nature writer Barry Lopez, he describes Lopez’s vision of the stories we tell providing the templates for our way forward to a future that works out.
In Horizon, Barry suggested that the culture hero—Prometheus or Siddhartha Gautama or Odysseus—is no longer relevant in an age when humanity is exceeding ecological limits. The scale of the problems we face in the Anthropocene, the era in which humans have altered the very bone structure of the planet, are simply beyond the lone hero’s ability to fix. I asked him what stories should replace the lone-hero story.
“They haven’t been written yet,” Barry said. “We need new narratives, at the center of which is a concern for the fate of all people. The story can’t be about the heroism of one person. It has to be about the heroism of communities.”
It’s a profound idea—that our world is changing too quickly for the lone-hero story to be of much use any longer—and yet how to tell a story that puts community at the center? “A story is merely a pattern that signifies,” Barry told me. “The blueprint for our story is before us all the time.” Like a murmuration of starlings, for example. Barry recalled driving beneath the ample skies of California’s Central Valley and being witness to starlings by the hundreds “carving up open space into the most complex geometrical volumes, and you have to ask yourself, how do they do that?” Each bird looks to the four or five birds immediately around them to coordinate its movements, he explained. “To behold starlings is to take in something beautiful, a coordinated effort to do something in which there’s no leader, no hero.”
Starlings show us a way around the dilemma of scale, a model for human cooperation and deference toward others. A murmuration shuns the idea of genius residing in one individual, and recognizes that genius is actually possessed by the community. Human genius “might rise up and become reified in a single person in a group,” Barry said, “but it doesn’t belong solely to that person.”
Wishing us all the best for 2022.
*everything here also applies to the covid-19 pandemic.
Front page photo by Stephen Jaquiery via the ODT: starlings gathering at Shiel Hill, Dunedin, before murmuration.