The Art of the Potential

Otto von Bismarck once astutely said that “politics is the art of the possible.” Yet as our various political systems prove themselves increasingly incapable of solving – or even honestly discussing – the many problems facing the globe, we are in desperate need of something more than what is commonly assumed “possible”.

For the vast majority of us born into the industrialized world, we live incredibly institutionalized lives. Indeed, we are literally born into an institutionalized hospital system, separated from our mothers almost instantly. We are then ‘educated’ through a system of institutionalized schools for a minimum of 9 or 10 years, and often up to 16 years or more. Nearly everything we need is provided by one institution or another – from getting a driver’s license to getting married, we are continuously passed through an incredible universe of seemingly benign institutions.

Thus, it is no wonder that we have come to expect institutional solutions to the plethora of problems we see unfolding around us. The institutionalization of our consciousness, though, is often so pervasive that its difficult even to recognize or see beyond the narrow options given to us through such a controlled system.  Institutional dependence thus limits our vision of what is possible and erodes our sense of agency in the world.

Politics, of course, is so deeply ingrained in an institutional framework that it seems silly to even suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, our current institutionalized bureaucracies have historically brought order to the political process and protected the rights that many of us hold so dear. Yet in the face of such a clearly broken and inadequate political process, amidst questions about whether these rights are now protected or undermined, can we dare to dream of something different?

The late systems theorist and visionary Donella Meadows once wrote of the power of visioning to free ourselves from unexamined assumptions and conceptual constraints. In our industrial society, she wrote, “particularly in the cultures of science and economics, envisioning is actively discouraged.” For her, “the process of building a responsible vision of a sustainable world is not a rational one. It comes from values, not logic.” And hence, it is a necessary and transformative antidote to our overly rational, reductionist approach to facing the future.

True visioning – learning how to imagine a future that we want, not merely what we expect is possible – is an art, a skill that must be cultivated and nurtured. It is a process which opens us to our own potential, but can take us to a very vulnerable place. Realizing the distance between our envisioned world and the world we actually live in can be a painful process.

However, without a compelling vision of where we want to go – as individuals, as communities, as societies – how can we ever expect to get beyond what we actually have? This is not to deny reality in any sense; in fact, it is to recognize and embrace the uncertain nature of reality. In an ever-changing and uncertain universe, potential is nearly infinite.

The art of visioning is not a rational process, but neither is it an exclusively mystical or flaky new age practice. It is increasingly being used by policy makers, business, and civil society organizations to help plan for an uncertain future. Even the UK government is engaged in future scenario planning. However, visioning a different path forward is useful only when there is a genuine engagement with the process and the outcome is shared with others.

Einstein was probably on to something when he said, “you cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” Only once we have dared to see a different world will we be empowered to live it.


On energy systems and worldviews

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world has just 5 years in which to radically transform its carbon-intensive energy infrastructure before the “lock-in” effect will make runaway climate change inevitable. A rather somber and urgent warning from one of the world’s most respected – and conservative – energy bodies.

Given the scale and design of our industrial energy infrastructure, high-carbon energy generation – coal plants, oil refineries, natural gas fracking wells, and “unconventional” tar sands mining – will continue to emit large quantities of CO² for many years after they are built. This “lock-in” effect means that the emissions of already existing or newly built carbon-burning energy sources will persist in the environment for years – centuries in fact – even once switched off. All of this makes the recent debate over whether to further exploit dirtier, more carbon-intensive forms of energy such as tar sands all the more ludicrous.

The message from scientists and energy experts could not be clearer: according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, “if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

An opportune time then, for the global Occupy Movement to focus on the links between a violent, unsustainable economic system and the continued exploitation and pollution of our environment. On Friday the general assembly of Occupy LSX reached preliminary consensus on an official acknowledgment of this link, adding a tenth point concerning climate change to the Occupy LSX Initial Statement. Along with the recent commitment to installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels and bicycle generators at the St. Paul’s camp, these actions go a long way towards emphasizing that it is the same underlying worldview which results in increasing concentration of wealth, corruption of the democratic process, and degradation of the one earth which all else relies upon.

People are starting to question and speak out against this entrenched economic materialism in increasing numbers. In a major victory, sustained non-violent actions against the Keystone XL pipeline in the US and Canada has resulted in the Obama administration delaying approval of the pipeline until at least next year, effectively killing the project according to Bill McKibben and A network of activists and ordinary citizens worried about the health affects of fracking are currently organizing a large protest in New Jersey on November 21 to prevent fracking in the Delaware River Basin, the source of drinking water for 16 million people. And of course, the global Occupy Movement has galvanized action against the pervasive corporate influence that has so entrenched the fossil-fuel and finance industries perpetrating these crimes against the earth.

A solidarity action in front of the US Embassy in London protesting the Keystone XL pipeline (Nov 6)

What the mainstream media misses though, is that opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and other similar projects is not simply about avoiding potential environmental and economic disasters like oil spills; it’s about preventing inevitable environmental and social disasters like irreversible climate change and increased privatization of the commons. Even if the pipeline does its job perfectly, ‘safely’ transporting crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US gulf coast, in simply consuming the resulting oil we will knowingly and consciously do more harm to the environment than any single oil spill could ever do.

It is the fundamental set of assumptions behind this pipeline – that the earth is for our exploitation, that increasing consumption will lead to higher wellbeing, that neoliberal economic policies are what is best for all – that people are beginning to reject in critical numbers.

The fact that this pipeline, like all other carbon-intensive energy projects, is painted as a savior for unemployed workers proves how untenable our current economic system really is. Yes, millions of people desperately need jobs – but not ones that will systematically destroy job opportunities and the potential to flourish for all future generations. In fact, the rapacious and extractive capitalist economy which depends on these types of massive projects necessitates systemic unemployment to keep labor costs down and maintain a surplus of workers willing to compete for any task offered to them.

Ultimately, long-term solutions designed to prevent climate change and restore the environment are also the only long-term solution to the systemic unemployment embedded in our industrial economy. And more crucially, they are solutions that restore the intrinsic dignity and meaning of work.

The transition to local, distributed, and restorative energy systems will not only drastically reduce carbon emissions and reduce environmental degradation, it will also redistribute economic and political power away from corporations and large-scale bureaucracies to communities and bioregions. Already several Transition Towns across the UK, including an ongoing project where I live in Totnes, have funded and built their own community power stations using entirely renewable energy sources. This simultaneously frees communities from dependence on fossil fuels and gives them complete autonomy over their energy supply.  The installation and maintenance of small-scale, community-owned energy systems also keeps jobs and money in local communities.

What we are talking about is not simply a matter of reconfiguring our energy infrastructure or reforming the financial system though. In the words of Joanna Macy, this is about shifting from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society – a shift in values which places people and planet over profits and recognizes the intrinsic value of all life. This is the shift at the heart of the Occupy Movement because it represents the deepest challenge to the status quo. When our energy systems (and all other social systems) reflect a different, life-sustaining worldview, we will live in a much more just and healthier world.