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
- 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
- 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.