Transition Training Week Three – Visioning as Opposed to Wishful Thinking

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
~ W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems

For those of you new to my blog, I am in transition…transition from what? To what? I am in transition from a completely unsustainable, unhealthy, unjust and enslaving society to something nobody really knows how it will look like, but that for sure will include unpredictable impacts caused by Climate Change, resource depletion, energy and food crises, decreased biodiversity and unhealthy ecosystems…among many other things nobody wants to talk about openly and seriously with the exception of a few “transitioners” like me.

I am also in transition to something I hope (as many like me do) will eventually mutate to a more sustainable, just, healthy, localized and resilient society.

As part of my own “transition” I decided to embark in “Transition Training” and this is my third week. Here is my report on what we did yesterday:

We started the session with “gratitude”: in our current lifestyle we give so much for granted that we rarely acknowledge or express gratitude to those around us who make our lives easier, happier or fuller. It was noted how many aboriginal and ancient cultures use gratitude as a starter for gatherings.

As this training happened yesterday, just a day after the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, I also want to express my gratitude for all the wonderful people I met through Village Surrey(our local transition initiative) and the Food Action Coalition (Surrey/White Rock) , to our terrific CSA at Sun Dog Vegetables  who fed us with great and unusual vegetables for six months, the extraordinary people I met through the BCFSN   (and from Richmond Food Security Society ), all my Permies friends and ex-classmates from the PDC, my caring and infinitely patient co-workers, my beautiful two sons, my always supportive husband and the friends at O.U.R. Ecovillage , where my family and I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving and Harvest Feast weekend.

Going back to Transition Training, we reviewed some concepts for the topic of the day: visioning.

Naresh Giagrande explained how our current mindset tends to do “forecasting”. Forecasting is linear and assumes that things would continue more or less the same or “better”, based on whatever situation we have today. This tips of thinking supports “business as usual”: more growth, consumption, we need more jobs, etc.

Then we reviewed the process advocated by transition: “back-casting”: back-casting is not exactly linear as can go back and forth and uses feedback and re-assessment to adjust the plan. We start with “the end in mind” and then plan for it from our current situation towards a “desirable” future.

Visioning, as Naresh explained, is based in this last concept: you vision (envision?) together as a group or community and then start projects and plan for strategies that may become organic and overlap, change and transmute to other things as they move forward, are re-visited and re-evaluated by all. “B prepared and ready for crises” Naresh said.

We also reviewed how the stories our culture tells us about ourselves shape the way we think and behave, as well as the way we create “visions” about our future as a society.

One of this “stories” is based on the mainstream/Hollywood-wise belief that the future tends to unlimited growth (The “StartWars” vision) where we continue expanding, exhaust the Earth resources and move away from it to colonize and exploit other planets and even other galaxies…in this “vision” the sky (or the universe?) is the limit, if limits are allowed at all.

In the second mainstream/Hollywood vision, the “MadMax” vision, we consume all the resources and collapse into energy and resource wars, morals disappear and survivors fight for whatever is left. This collapse may be Natural or man-made or a mix of both.

Trapped as we are between these two (unrealistic? Undesired?) extremes, we “need to address our collective inability to vision the future we actually want” said Naresh. I would add: the future we want and the future that is realistically possible, even if we don’t like/want it.

Where are we going?

Naresh presented four visions/options that I have also seen reflected in “Future Scenarios” a little book by Permaculturist funder, David Holmgren:

  • Techno-fantasy: this one dreams of continuous growth, expansion, more and better, even if that means moving away from Earth. This option assumes infinite resources and exceptional technology that will magically “save” us from anything and will “magically” extract resources from where there is nothing left.
  • Green-tech stability: this option is the one “winning” these days and assumes that we can continue more or less with the same lifestyles, just “greener”: we can still have cars, but electric or hybrid ones, we can still consume as crazy, as long as it is “green”, “biodegradable”, “organic” and “local”, we can still develop thousands of buildings as long as they are all green and “sustainable”, we can still use tones of energy as long as is solar or wind or any other type of “renewable” (the green economy doesn’t take into account the cradle-to-grave process or the resources or energy required to extract/process/treat/discard many of these “renewable”, “biodegradable” or “recyclable” wonders…it doesn’t address the consumption or the unfairness of our detached-from-reality “economy”…etc.
  • Earth Stewardship: here is where most Permaculturist and Transitioners would align themselves: taking care of the Earth and its other inhabitants, restoring its ecosystems and creating local and socially fair communities that truly care for all.
  • MadMax: this, as seen before, speaks about terrible collapses and suffering caused by Climate Change, resource depletion, soil degradation, food and water scarcity and the consequent wars, famine and pestilence.

Now read this carefully: all the above “future” scenarios or options, all of them, are already here: we have people living in surreal and majestic buildings floating in the middle of the ocean or travelling to the space for dinner (or a picture). We have people spending incredible amounts of money buying three and four houses together to ensure “privacy”. We also have people (thousands of us) studying “sustainable urban planning” and “sustainable economic development”, LEED technology and other similar trends. We also have millions (if no billions) switching to recycling, buying organic and local, hybrid cars and electric bikes…we have millions (or billions?) already suffering the ravages of war, famine and pestilence or surviving in enslaving situations or eternal debt, terrible living conditions and never-ending injustice and abuse.

Thankfully, we also have thousands (I would like to think millions, but I am a realistic person) living with Permaculture principles and dedicating their lives to Earth stewardship and real production instead of green-washed consumption. And many others in “transition” between the “green-economy” and what is necessary and possible as a future…

Naresh discussed how the extremes (techno-fantasy and collapse) represented denial (it won’t happen, technology and human ingenuity will save us) and anger/refusal to enter any kind of creative change (we are doomed, nothing will save us, we are a pest and maybe deserve to become extinct)

We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” ~ Wangari Maathai  (Nobel Peace Prize 2004)

After this excellent presentation, Naresh guided us through “visioning”. We were asked to close our eyes and imagine for a second that we wake up in this “new world”, where transition have already happened: what do we see? What do we eat, smell, hear? Where do we go and how? Who do we meet and what do we do for a living?

People were invited to meet in pairs or trios after this and discuss their experiences…and here is where my vision and experience (as well as that of my partner for this discussion) was completely different from that of the others, or at least the ones who could share, as not all of the groups did.

Here is what we discussed in private: none of us worked well with these types of “visioning” exercises. None of us have had good experiences or have found these visioning helpful. The reason? Most people confuse “vision” with “wishful thinking” or “fantasizing”. And this is not only terribly unhelpful, it is also counterproductive if we actually want to do something to prepare for what it may be a very difficult and mixed-up, complex future.

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.
~ William Gibson

Let me explain: we agree that nobody can know the future, right? We also agree that all the four possible scenarios are already here, just happening at different levels and in different areas of the planet at the same time, right? So why it is so difficult to accept that we won’t be able to create a perfect “heaven” for us all (7 billion and growing of extremely diverse and complex people who cannot agree on basic everyday things)…no matter whether we change the rules of the game and absolutely everybody (how unlikely?) studies and practices Permaculture or joins/starts a Transition group?

I come from an EP (Emergency Preparedness) background and circumstances in my life made me live through various real “collapses”: I lived through dictatorships, a coup d’état, an economic and social collapse, a quasi-civil war, an abusive regime and many mini-collapses that included water and energy rationing, food scarcity and high unemployment. Through all these “scenarios” I met extremely and extraordinarily resilient, ethical, caring and supportive people as well as extremely cruel, greedy and completely unmoral people.

Visioning, where used correctly, can be incredibly helpful: when you ask survivors or resilient people what saved them, they usually mention that they were somewhat mentally “prepared”: if you imagine what could happen during a crash, an earthquake or if you get lost in the forest, your brain starts thinking (even unconsciously) about what to do and what resources you may have available. In EP, we encourage people to imagine all possible scenarios: “what if you are alone”, “what if your children are separated from you when it happens”, “what if you are sleeping”, etc. This allows people to think on the potential risks and hazards, but also on the needs, the gaps, the strengths and possibilities: what is available, what needs to be learn or stoked up.

When I envision the future, I don’t dream about “happy small communities where everybody is a friend and all live in harmony with Nature”. That is not just unrealistic give the present state of affairs, but is also terribly unhelpful and disempowering (some sort of childish fantasy). It is easy to get discouraged, frustrated or disillusioned if we start “visioning” this way.

But, on the other hand, if I envision all the potential problems (small and big) that the current status of things may bring, then I can apply the same principles of EP I have learned and teach to others: “be prepared, not scared”.

This way of “visioning”: what do we expect, what do we want, but also what may likely happen when fuel becomes too expensive to drive our cars and public transportation can’t keep up;  or when water and food or electricity are rationed, unemployment becomes chronic and “growth” is no longer possible? What could likely happen when we are forced into jobs we hate with no benefits and abusive employers, or when Climate Change starts ravaging our cities and lands with unpredictable patterns of floods and draughts, storms and heat-waves? How can we prepare ourselves, our families and communities for that? Can we, with our preparedness, prevent or avoid some of these?

 “That looks like a tree, let’s call it a tree,’ said Coyote to Earthmaker at the beginning, and they walked around the rootdrinker patting their bellies.”
― Jack Kerouac, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity

While I liked the session and I’m sure that people with the experience Naresh has may probably agree with (if not all), some of my viewpoints on “visioning”, I truly encourage all of you to be courageous enough to “vision” realistic possibilities as well as difficult scenarios, because that is the only mature and responsible way we can both change and face whatever the future will bring to us.

When you make a choice, you change the future.”
~ Deepak Chopra

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