"After it's too late" — the Bodhidharma Strategy Revisited

Did you know that, paradoxically, a secret key to sustainable optimism is the practice of imagining, and finding acceptance for, worst-case scenarios? This blog post is about how calmly considering terrible disasters can expand your sense of hope and empower more effective activism.

A couple of years ago, in a key blog post "Evolutionary Activism- A Bodhidharma Strategy", I pointed out that an important kind of effective activism is NOT about creating reform "before it's too late". Equally (or even more) important is positioning ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities that only appear "after it's too late"!

I was pointing to how critical windows of opportunity for more fundamental systems redesign are created by disasters and calamities.     

On the surface, this may sound depressing, but looking more deeply, I think you’ll see that it actually creates huge openings for realistic hope — and grounded long-view activism.

It can often seem that we face challenges that are so urgent that there’s no way they’ll be met by the slow process of cultural, social and political reform. (Notice that this is the unstated subtext of many anxious “progressive” political communications!) Well, take heart. Some of the most powerful change will come after it’s “too late”!

Last month, on a teaching trip in Europe, I met a man who recently participated in a classic success story of just this kind — one that created a huge practical change — with both Switzerland and Germany formally choosing, amidst wide popular support, to completely phase out nuclear power in the wake of a horrific nuclear disaster. 

As a refresh, here's what I wrote in A Bodhidharma Strategy in August of 2010: 

Our Evolutionary Dilemma

The very idea of a strategy for evolutionary activism may appear naïve, grandiose—or even dangerous, considering how frequently such grand idealistic aspirations have fed totalitarianism. Nonetheless, the continued survival and evolution of human culture may now depend upon us making a critical transition to sustainability—one that’s not spontaneously emerging via the market’s invisible hand, nor the wise decision-making of our economic and political elites.  The hardwired motivations of “the selfish gene” aren’t designed to meet threats like the depletion of fresh water aquifers, the resolution of culture wars, or global warming. And the transition before us requires evolved leadership and an organizing rationale.

Therefore, responsible citizens need a credible strategy for enlightened action. In most of the world, and egregiously in the United States, vested interests and political parties are locked in zero-sum power struggles between traditional, modern, and postmodern value structures. To resist the abuses of one inadequate, partial approach often seems impossible except by contributing to another.

During the George W. Bush presidency, for example, I repeatedly found myself stirred to political action only to the déjà vu experience of my voice being drowned out by the roar of disappointing “progressive” (postmodern leftist) rhetoric. Resistance often seemed futile.

Efforts to enact enlightened reforms are necessary and laudable—but often extremely frustrating. To enact an integral evolutionary commitment we need a vision of how we can get past (or around) the current political and cultural stuckness that seems to make adequate responses to escalating crises impossible.

A “Soft Landing” for our Overheated Global Culture.

What’s the evolutionary objective for our activism?  I suggest that THE political issue of our time is doing what we can to create a path to sustainability with minimal catastrophic disruptions. We should focus on optimizing global human culture’s passage through an epochal adaptive transition. Since our current social patterns and habits are overheated and unsustainable, the goal is to transition as quickly as possible to more sustainable modes of living, while minimizing traumatic disruptions—it’s especially important not to trigger cultural regression (small or large “dark ages”).

Preparation is everything. Realistically, most well-informed observers believe that big disruptions are probably inevitable — huge shocks, disasters, and crises seem not only likely, but maybe even necessary to catalyze the political will for us to change human choices and behavior. The “silver lining” is that these crises will punctuate our current deadlock and stuckness. Each will present “windows of opportunity” for more fundamental systems redesign.

In October 2008, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke, facing a liquidity crisis that threatened a meltdown of the world financial system, had an opportunity to consider heretofore unthinkable policy moves — even nationalizing the nation’s biggest banks.

But they had to act fast.

That’s the way it is when a crisis hits. All of a sudden, huge changes are possible, but urgency and fear are off-the-charts, and there’s little time or bandwidth for deliberation.  

  • What if, among Paulson’s and Bernanke’s circles of respected advisors, there had been a network of enlightened thinkers who had already thought long and hard about these issues? What if they had written white papers describing the kinds of solutions that could be considered, and what if they had thought deeply not just about how to successfully address the short-term crisis — but how to do it wisely, with a view toward long-term transformation?
  • What if, using grounded, well-informed, complex, nuanced, higher vision-logic, they had looked for solutions based on the following key criteria?
    • Seek policy solutions that would gradually move the US and world financial systems—at least incrementally—toward sustainability, increasing the likelihood of smoother transitions.
    • Avoid approaches that would merely delay key moments-of-reckoning, increasing the likelihood or inevitability of more disruptive adjustments.
    • Do so in a way that’s politically feasible given the current climate, but also pushes the body politic (and media) to grow in its capacity for more profoundly sustainable approaches to our most challenging problems.

The Bodhidharma Strategy In Action Today

What I recently learned is that a group of Swiss advocates for sustainability did something very much like what I advocated for in Evolutionary Activism- A Bodhidharma Strategy — with inspiring success — just two years ago. 

They anticipated a predictable disaster — a major nuclear accident — and they prepared for it. When the Fukushima disaster occurred, 

  • They had already built relationships of respect and influence with people at the highest levels of Swiss politics. 
  • They had already quantified the cost of the premiums for a private insurance company to have insured Switzerland's nuclear industry against public liability. (Like the US and most nuclear nations, Swizerland had passed laws indemnifying the owners and operators of nuclear power plants from public liability. Their research had carefully quantified and documented the size of this large public subsidy.)  
  • They had already computed the (lower) costs of subsidizing other clean energy technologies in preference to nuclear power. 

Thus, they were able to reach the decision-makers and supply the white papers that built a carefully-reasoned argument for dramatic policy decisions while the inertia of the status quo was interrupted and a window of opportunity for more fundamental reform was open. 

Only two months later, Germany made the same decision, and for similar reasons. This is an inspiring example of an important kind of "political acupuncture" that deserves additional serious study. 

This principle is showing itself in our own country too: Look at what has happened to the public debate over gun control following the horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It took this heart-breaking disaster to prompt the kind of powerful, creative outrage and concern necessary to implement change.

Visionary activists would do well to notice that we have many opportunities to do proactive research so that we are poised to take advantage of future "predictable disasters".

Despite the gruesome nature of some of the examples below, I suggest considering them in the spirit of having clear, open eyes. And whatever you do, don’t confuse this with “negative visualization”. But consider the opportunities for fundamental systems redesign that might be created by the following catastrophic events. And then consider what collaboration among experts, activists, researchers, and policy wonks could prepare the ground to take advantage of the opportunities that will be created if these types of disasters occur. Here is a very partial “first draft” list of scenarios worth preparing for: 

Disasters brought on by global warming, including:

  • Devastating droughts bankrupting key businesses and/or regions  
  • Wildfires of extreme destructive size and scope
  • Additional "superstorm" hurricanes doing unprecedented levels of damage
  • Social unrest (in particular countries/regions) following big spikes in food prices

Other Environmental disasters:

  • Additional dramatic plagues or population collapses of important species (key trees, songbirds, dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, salmon, etc.)
  • Nuclear disasters
  • Disastrous outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria 
  • Other "new plagues" involving human-animal vectors (e.g. Mad Cow, SARS, or bird flu)

Failures of Infrastructure:

  • A long blackout after a massive failure of portions of electrical power grids in a wealthy Western democracy
  • Partial or total losses of cell phone transmission 
  • Partial or total losses of sections of the Internet

Financial disasters (very general; planing requires targeted scenarios):

  • Liquidity crises
  • Monetary crises (Euro collapse? Run on US dollar?)
  • Bubbles bursting (not just real estate, tech, etc., but many others, e.g., China, India, and more.)
  • Food shortages (centered in particular geographical areas)
  • Stock market crashes (localized or generalized)
  • Financial panics (of various kinds)
  • Trade wars

Wars:

  • Acts of war that breach the firewall protecting educated Western civilians
  • Uses of chemical weapons
  • Uses of biological weapons
  • Uses of nuclear weapons 

Large-scale acts of terrorism:

  • Breaches of the air travel safety system
  • Explosions on public transportation systems (e.g., London & Madrid)
  • Large-scale attacks in major cities (e.g.,Bombay)
  • Explosion of a dirty bomb or nuclear device in a major city

Social unrest:

  • Populist mobilization in a "stable" Western democracy
  • Exacerbation of culture war polarization into clashes and riots in America
  • Repression and loss of civil liberties ("police state" responses)

This is NOT about a fearful and grim process of negative visualization. Nor is this whole consideration an “I told you so”. Rather this is a practical invitation to embrace a very big reality, and to creatively leverage projected crises and disruption. (After all, what is more predictable than unpredictable disasters?) Yes, these types of events are horrible, but they also crack open the possibility for creative interventions; let’s not forget that!

The key is liberating our thinking and our activism without triggering our paranoia. We can prepare well to take advantage of the windows of opportunity for more fundamental systems redesign that disasters will bring. And this can and absolutely should be done in tandem with pre-emptive kinds of activism. For sure! But let’s expand our thinking. This is an important kind of perspective-taking and creativity that I suggest we are all called to draw upon now.

Don’t forget the key ingredients: faith in the goodness of life itself, trust in the power of progress, the human spirit, and evolution, and confidence in your own capacity to creatively respond. Don’t question that the sun will keep rising, always bringing a new dawn.

I am tremendously inspired and heartened by the Swiss and German nuclear initiatives as they offer powerful proof that the Bodhidharma Strategy will not only work, but that already it is emerging as an skillful, creative evolutionary strategy.

 

Comments

Critical windows

Dear Terry

I couldn't agree more.

The League of Nations resulted from World War I

The United Nations (more potent than the League) resulted from World War II. So did, in a sense, the premise of the European Union.

It is as if only such huge schocks could relax the grisp of old ways, old believes and structures. Wilson, Roosevelt, Schumann (& Jean Monnet) could use this in order to bring in new structures.

In the last 20 years, the numerous plans to reform the UN could practically not move forward. Veto powers just block most of them. I think visionary leaders, like Obama, could bring about movement "before it's too late". But the resistance they have to overcome is huge.
If disasters are needed, let's hope they will be as small as possible.

For wars, I would not only put the West in the picture. Other veto powers are very problematic too. France and UK may be the most willing, among the 5, to relax some of their prerogatives, because they already have to compromise. The 3 big others may need more.

I see one difficulty with your proposition: the number of possible disasters is huge,... and the scenarios for each are very numerous. Who could have thought of the Arab Spring coming? What could have been prepared?

What you can do is prepare grand structures, and present them when a crisis occurs. But planning specifically for a specific type of crisis seems difficult. Fukushima (NPP accident) seems a relatively straightforward case.

Your invitation is interesting. Really.

activism

I like the path you are advocating but I think your path should follow the guidelines for enlightenment. My understanding of Buddha's enlightenment was reaching the level of understanding(knowledge) where we provide information without expectations allowing the receiver to interpret that information at his/her level of understanding.

An informed society will make the morally correct decision. My opinion, but history has taught us this is in fact true. During the last election you raised money to support your beliefs which I agree with. I think this was commendable but misguided. You have the followers with technical skills which enable them to research information and determine its accuracy. I think you would be more affective if you followed the example of Bill Moyers. He debunks political motives.

During the crisis caused by the flooding on the east coast, the Senate added a provision providing a Drug manufacture with a 500 million dollar grant. This same drug company had recently plead guilty to charges in court and was ordered to pay a 750 million dollar fine. Mitch O'Connell, Warren Hatch and another Senator added this provision after it was passed. My numbers may be off but you get the picture. A Senator from Vermont tried to get this reversed and could not get support to have it brought up in the Senate. This is a common occurrence and both parties look the other way. You have a great force for enlightenment (political) if you utilize it to pass on this type of information directly instead of relying on media to not report of spin information. It requires time and dedication not money. I am not being critical. I am offering an idea for consideration.
Thanks, Jim

Bodhidharma Strategy

Good post and where does one go from here? My take-away is that in order to model what the Swiss did in your sited example, a type of Bodhidharma Strategy Think Tank would need to be in place.

The think tank would be developing those white papers, make the connections, make cost analysis, and have a network of people ready. That is how the current power structure in politics works.

Is there really a difference between what happens today and what you are advocating besides developing an agenda that those reading this blog would be likely to support? Just asking because I want make sure there is not some other take-away that may have escaped me.

On a personal level, I try to do this. For instance, how will I react if the present or future administration really ratchets up the war making machine to take on Iran or North Korea in a preemptive move like Iraq?

Do I empower their efforts which my protesting of the Iraq War just seemed to do? Am I apathetic and try to give the argument no energy? Do I focus my energy in some new unthought of way? It is easier to do these thought experiments when not so wrapped up in the emotion of the heated moment

Green and Gold reclaiming

Please look at this
http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/green-gold/

What is possible in just 3 - 5 years if there is the will and liberation

Values in America

Terry,

As a British-American resident in the US for 46 years now and keeping in touch with what goes on in Europe as well as in the US, I am struck again and again at how difficult it is to get rational agendas off the ground in the US. There just isn't the coherence or will in this country to envision the common good and act accordingly. And things seem to fragment more and more from decade to decade.

As a reader of Ode, a green magazine coming out of the Netherlands, I am continually struck by how rational and reasonable the Europeans, especially the Germans, are. They and others have taken many steps toward sustainability that are inconceivable in our country.

It has occurred to me many times that the US has not developed the kind of will the Europeans have because it has not gone through cataclysms anywhere near like what Europe has. I know this is a bit heavy, but I cannot avoid the conclusion. Europe has had to build itself up after the horrendous cataclysms of the twentieth century, and I feel it has learned in the process.

Not sure how we can mature in the US without having to face some very, very difficult stuff. For now, I support the Union of Concerned Scientists, who pre-eminently are working on very rational and practical answers to most of the problems you discuss and are making some headway with the American government on at least some of them.

But until Americans get the kind of altruistic will and unified action that is needed to bring about major change, it is going to be very difficult. Maybe this struggle is the one that will make the US mature! Perhaps the key is to work toward that maturity, rather than to get involved in a plethora of political actions. I would think the Integral Practice approach could be very important here.

Gayatriprana

disaster

All thought and belief that comes from fear brings the thing feared to you. All predictions of doom will be realized. All preparations are counterproductive.

Prototyping

Another important preparation is "prototyping" at a smaller scale solutions that may be adopted later on. This is good time to see what works, and what doesn't work, work out the bugs, address the issues that need to be solved at a micro level. I'm thinking of companies going green (or more green) such as Apple going 100% renewable energy for their data centers. At the state level, e.g. California pioneering on policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Transition towns or networks look not only to sustainability, but also "resilience" to shocks due to globalization and centralization in a system for such critical resources such as food, water, energy, and even currency. At least in theory, more locality, self reliance, more robustness and resilience in the system should also appeal to even the more conservative mindset. (But nowadays, who knows). Technology can also enable more local options such as 3D printing to help in local manufacturing, falling cost in solar PV. (We still need a cheap solution to grid level storage.) By themselves, none of these will solve the climate change problem. But they can provide ready made, demonstrated solutions that can be scaled up for the future.

Hope and Heartbreak

This is very good material, and leaves me feeling hopeful. However, after reading your blog entry, I was cleaning my bathroom (chop wood, carry water, clean toilet!) and a thought popped into my head re: the children and adults who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary. Any "fundamental systems redesign" arising from this heartbreaking experience is too late for them and their families. It's a cosmic / spiritual question to ponder why the victims had to give their lives in order for fundamental systems redesign to occur. The same could be said for other disasters and acts of violence. Hasn't there been enough already? Why aren't enough people waking up?

This past year, I have learned a tremendous amount about trauma through working with a trauma therapist -- finally starting to get the help I needed thirty years ago (I am now 47 years old.) Disasters and acts of violence are traumatic, and yes, these events are "destined" to keep happening. Adequate trauma support needs to be on-the-ready for when these events occur. Yes, there are many aid groups to help with providing food, medical needs, etc. But trauma creates a deep mental-emotional-psychological-soul dissonance, resulting in many, many symptoms that can easily be misdiagnosed. This is NOT a matter of "systems redesign." This is a need that must be met. We can pray all we want for the people affected by disasters, upheavals and violence, but people who are trained in trauma support and resolution are needed on the ground, as soon as possible. Peter Levine is a gifted person who has made a huge contribution to understanding and resolving trauma. Anyone who is interested can explore his work on the internet and in his books and talks.

Also, with respect to hope, I recently revisited material by Pema Chodron who teaches that we need to abandon hope! I'm sure you are familiar with her book "When Things Fall Apart."

Things are definitely falling apart. "The selfish gene" -- isn't this another name for ego? Read all about it in the book "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle. How much more pain do we need to keep experiencing -- collectively -- before we get with the program?! There is still too much of a "them" and "us" mentality. Yes, most people feel bad when it happens to "them" -- but then people just go in with their usual lives (which includes lots of aches and pains). It's not until the disaster happens to "us" that we are pushed to inner change.

I hope I am not infringing copyright with this quote from "A New Earth" :

"...action, although necessary, is only a secondary factor in manifesting our external reality. The primary factor in creation is consciousness. No matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world, and if there is no change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference. We would only re-create modified versions of the same world again and again, a world that is an external reflection of the ego."

So he is saying that action is indeed necessary. And I am saying that a crucial necessary action is trauma support --- by people who understand trauma and how to resolve it. We need trauma support teams as much as food-aid, medical teams, etc.

I don't pretend to have any answer(s) and am simply adding to the conversation with these thoughts. Thank you for inviting and receiving comments.

Blessings!

Bethany

planning for the disasters

Terry,
I love the vision displayed in this blog. Thanks for running it through again as I missed it the first time. I'm a psychoSpiritual counselor in Portland OR and I'm doing my darndest to support the awakening of my clients while also being married and raising two boys. I find the interface between the human experience (family life) and a global/historical/spiritual perspective is incredibly dynamic and I'm always looking for creative ways to impact consciousness-primarily locally at this point. I appreciate that you are putting this out on a mass scale.
I find that the ability to respond creatively in the space opened up by a breakdown in existing structures works well for individuals and couples as well as the social/cultural level that you are pointing to. Keep up the good work. The sun does always rise (or is shining just above the clouds)
Tom Fuller, Portland

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