What Could Help in Tough Times?

08/03/2017 07:09 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2017
The Deep (used by permission)
Shoshanah Dubiner
The Deep (used by permission)

Leaving aside the debates about just how challenging the future will be, let’s go right to the perplexing question of “what will help?” We don’t know what will happen, but for everyone except deniers who want to continue business as usual, the goal now is shifting from only preventing trouble to learning how to deal with the new situation, from a solitary focus on “mitigation” to a necessary broadening of focus to “adaptation.”

This broadening is fiercely and understandably resisted, because it suggests defeat, a turning over of the future to such dubious saviors as geo-engineers. And there is the dreaded question: “if we can't prevent disaster anyway, why go to the fuss and bother of change?”

It's not necessary to rehearse scenarios of disaster. The question is, to the extent that trouble comes, how do we respond? Recently New York magazine presented a worst-case scenario about global warming, which brought a rebuke from Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, on the ground that (a) fear doesn't work, and (b) some aspects of the disaster sketched remain speculative not scientific. What was not noticed is that Mann’s own account of the science is terrifying.

Fortunately,the trouble can still be made less extreme, or less rapid in manifesting, but it’s time to ask what will help with whatever happens.

I’m not talking about making a fast transition to a renewable energy system, away from the fossil fuels timidly and partially opposed by the prior U.S. administration, and now again enthusiastically supported. Of course we should shift the huge subsidies now received by purveyors of coal, oil, and natural gas, to technologies that harvest renewable sources such as current sunlight, wind, and the motion of the seas. But that is not my subject here.

Imagine that we have already waited too long and will be feeling malign effects of existing greenhouse gases for decades and then centuries, even if a fast transition were made. Imagine that in the future people will be facing challenges bigger than the heat waves that afflicted France (2003 and again now), storms such as Katrina in New Orleans (2005), floods as in Pakistan (2010), droughts such as the one that worsened the Syrian civil war (a drought starting in 2011), and Hurricane Sandy in the New York area (2012). What will help?

Obviously “humanitarian aid,” will help, as long as countries capable of it are moved to act, the need is not overwhelming, and the government of those suffering is not labeled as “unfriendly.” But what else?

So far, those expecting tough times have acted mainly as individuals or immediate family units. In the tradition of “rugged individualism” they have moved to defensible locations, bought guns, stored food or learned to grow crops (or both), learned other skills, perhaps bought generators, got woodlots, and hoped. What we have seen less of are community efforts or new forms of community.

One exception are small groups that seek emotional intimacy. In my town that includes a “tribe” championed by Bill Kauth and Zoe Alowan, who proposed not a shared residence or a return to the land, as in the 1970s, but rather a commitment to the area and a weekly gathering around a shared meal. Of course, such a group lacks some of the features of a traditional tribe. You chose it as an adult rather than being born into it. You follow separate careers rather than sharing your supply of food, whether achieved by gathering, agriculture, or hunting. You see each other for a weekly pot-luck (and special events) rather than every day. But as compared with our culture of “each man for himself” (itself a sexist phrase), the new tribe is almost radical.

Another local social invention is the “heart circle,” an effort led by Tej Steiner. Here the focus is on a frequent meeting, in which the members sit in a circle and feel free to say what is on their hearts and be heard. They receive not attempts to “fix,” but a hearing, emotional support. These circles are smaller than the “tribe.” Steiner suggests an ideal size of five, while the existing local tribe is around twenty, and Kauth imagines that the form could accommodate as many as a hundred. In contrast, Steiner feels the best way to start a circle is for one person to approach another, to become, as we used to say, “close friends.”

Kauth and Alowan have a book, We Need Each Other and a website, timefortribe.com Similarly, Steiner has written Waking Up With Everyone Around Us, and can be found at heartcircle.com Both offer trainings in how to create their respective forms.

Apart from forming groups, how can people in tough times get not only necessary support, but also supplies (energy, clothing, food, shelter, transportation, water, for starters)? In the heart-wrenching film about Mayans (“Ixcanul Volcano”), the U.S. is seen as the land of big houses, plentiful food, reliable electricity, and private cars. What happens if power ever becomes unreliable, if food or gasoline becomes scarce? What social forms and other preparation could help?

It is tempting to deny that trouble can ever occur, but eventual panic is a hard situation in which to work. People concerned with climate change have several nightmares: (a) that a society based on “everyone for him or herself” will be unable to band together, (b) that our society will go directly to panic from vague unease plus denial, (c) that last-minute attempts at “geo-engineering” will be ineffective or make matters worse, even much worse.

Dmitry Orlov, who grew up in Leningrad before emigrating to the U.S., observed that his native society was much better prepared for trouble than his adopted country is. Why? A different culture there, plus the the experience e of Stalin’s regime, plus invasion by the Nazis. We’ve been much luckier, but what happens here if things start breaking down? What forms that we could devise now would help? Some of the forms may also make life better in conditions of normality.

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