My friend Richard Delany sent me a piece called “There has to be a Big Crises” by Michael Kane about what it will take for Americans (and I would say Canadians too) to wake up to Peak Oil. The article paints a disparaging picture about the ability of North American leadership to wake up to the creeping decline – James Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency” – before it’s too late.
Having spent the past two weeks in the States, and the better part of next week there too, I agree that the signs are not good. In Maui the radio is filled with ads for loan companies and car dealerships aiming to finance or sell you the “sharpest looking trucks and SUV’s on this Island.” Even as Americans are dying for hegemony in the Middle East, as the country bankrupts itself for a war to secure oil, conservation seems the last thing on the minds of the mainstream. The American way of life keeps chugging along, hastening the decline rather than seeking to stave it off.
So perhaps it will take a crises to change minds, but if that’s the case, I don’t like America’s chances at the moment. Katrina was a wake up call, if ever there was one, for how America might handle a big crises, and it didn’t fare too well. One of the big things that was missing was an active community sector that was able to take care of itself. The centralization of FEMA, the States and the local government was a bottle neck for action, and eventually the stories of real help and coping came from people that took it into their own hands to steal buses, distribute food care for children and tend to the sick and elderly.
That was in contrast to the way in which parts of Sri Lanka survived the tsunami last year. In two talks (mp3s at audiodharma.org), Joanna Macy told the story of Sarvodaya, a Buddhist organization that cultivates a spiritual practice of giving and community building called Sharmadana. The lessons learned from how Sarvodaya dealt with the tsunami include the fact that biggest way they had prepared was simply but cultivating these practices over years and years of work. When the tsunami struck, they simply went to work as usual, able to cope with the massive demands on organizers because of their training and practice.
I have spoken with David Korten and others about this, and all agree that practice of community is the thing that will mitigate the inevitable emergency. As facilitators this can become our prime responsibility. After Katrina hit, Peggy Holman, Tom Atlee, Mark Jones and I convened a series of conversations with leaders in the dialogue and deliberation community to see what could be done about helping people in the Gulf Coast implement wise action. Since then, a larger group of people have done all kinds of work down there, using conversation cafes, appreciative inquiry and other processes to bring the community into a space where it can participate in rebuilding its own future.
America in particular has a grand tradition of helping in community. Traditionally Americans helped each other out when times were hard, raised barns together, shared food with one another, created great institutions of philanthropy, charity and care. But in the last century these quaint customs were sacrificed as the country became more urbanized and as a result, there is a loss of knowledge about what it’s like to live in community. Suburbs and exurbs and car and consumer culture do not contribute to this community. Mega churches and gated communities are examples of a “turning in” to help, not “turning out” to lend a hand. The fragmented and insular nature of American (and Canadian) urban and suburban life is the Achilles heel of dealing with crises that the leadership says is coming.
So let’s not wish for this crises before its time, and let’s not expect the leadership to be prepared. Anyone who works in community, be they helpers, facilitators, or others has a treasure to offer, and that is to seed and practice the art of community now. Whether you invite people to come together to build something, play music, feed people, improve things or just talk and muse upon things, these practices are the key to communities surviving. Cultivate intimate connections and community locally RIGHT NOW and then let us turn together to face the crises. By then, as the Sarvodaya teachers tell us, we’ll be able to handle it.