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10 Jul 2014

Dave Pollard: Celebration: nodding with a smile to the Sacred


Transition Network’s Ben Brangwyn interviewed author, social entrepreneur, thinker, blogger and systems thinker, and also member of Bowen in Transition, Dave Pollard, while he was at Schumacher College recently for their Dark Mountain course.  Our month’s theme of Celebration ran through their discussion. 

Dark Mountains aren’t really the kind of places many of us would choose as places to have a celebration, and the theme of Dark Mountain (civilisational collapse) is perhaps not a subject that immediately brings up thoughts of celebration. Can you tell us if celebration featured at all in the course and how it might help us navigate through the Dark Mountain (or not)?

The term ‘celebration’ is interesting in the context of movements like Dark Mountain and Transition that are substantially in opposition to prevailing popular thought — etymologically and originally it meant a ‘large and solemn gathering to honour something’. So, I don’t think Dark Mountain was celebratory, either in the original sense or in the current sense of a collective and congratulatory acknowledging of some happy event. 

What we did practice, I think, is Tom Robbins’ advice, to “insist on joy in spite of everything”. Dark Mountaineers are, by profession, artists, and TS Eliot, writing of poetry, one of his forms of art, said:

“Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.”

DiagramIf that is our purpose as artists — to give both pleasure and the kind of fresh understanding that makes a difference to people’s lives — then I think we need to come at our work from a place of joy. And we certainly did that at our recent course. It is amazing and exhilarating to find a group with which one can speak fearlessly and unapologetically about collapse, who appreciate worldviews as diverse and complex as those of John Gray, David Abram, Guy McPherson, Charles Eisenstein, Paul and Dougald, and you and Rob. 

As recently as five years ago talking about collapse was lonely and difficult work. But now, the New Political Map (see right) is populated with at least seven “camps” of past-denial thinking about our future: Humanists, Transitioners, Radical Activists, Communitarians, Dark Mountaineers and Voluntary and Near Term Extinctionists. There’s a growing appreciation, I think, that all of us who are ‘beyond denial’ can and must work together, that we share a common purpose, and that our numbers are growing. All of that is a cause for joy, and perhaps even celebration. 

You and some of the team of Bowen in Transition (BC, Canada) have run a successful 1-day “Intro to Transition Course”. To what extent did celebration feature in that course, and did you cover the “when” of celebration?

Our course was designed to give our 3800 Bowen Island residents a sense of the energy, economic and ecological challenges we will face specifically on the island, and some of the things we are doing and might do to prepare for that. It also includes an “inner transition” session and a set of exercises to help attendees see how much work remains to be done. 

While the first part of the workshop is pretty sobering (there are, always, some tears), the exercises in the second half, which focus on identifying our preparedness for living in a relocalized, post-growth, post-cheap-energy, post-stable-climate world, have taught us that we’re better prepared than we might think. In these exercises we’ve discovered that our neighbours have skills we would never have imagined, we’ve practiced dealing with crisis scenarios and gained a sense that we’re less helpless than we thought, and we’ve envisioned a future for our island that is highly resilient in core areas like food security, local livelihoods, and health & wellness.

When you’re on a small island, there’s a sense that you might be cut off in a crisis, and it’s comforting and energizing to realize that, when we must adapt, we will probably do remarkably well.  And of course our workshops include a potluck meal, which is always a type of celebration. 

You very deliberately retired from the Industrial Growth System not that long ago. How did you celebrate that retirement in the short term and also the longer term?

I wanted to imagine myself as having resigned like Patrick McGoohan did in The Prisoner. But the truth is that none of us can resign from civilisation; I am as dependent on it as the next person. And I am immensely grateful for the enormous good fortune I have been blessed with all my life, and specifically for the opportunity it gave me to critically explore and learn how the world really works and to imagine better ways to live and make a living. This is kind of what it felt like to me to retire from civilisation; a bewilderment that will probably last the rest of my life, wondering what ‘uncivilized’ life might really be like.

One of the things I did immediately was to move to Bowen Island, a more sustainable place in a more sustainable part of the world than where I worked. The view out my window, of forest and ocean with little evidence of civilisation’s existence, is an endless source of joy.

I take every opportunity to celebrate the freedom I have now — to wake up in the morning with nothing that must be done that day, and do whatever I feel like doing; to walk naked in the quiet forest beside my home; to talk about the state of the world without fear of being silenced or subjected to violence; to eat local, healthy, organic food and drink fresh well water; to surround myself with natural beauty; to connect with bright, inspired, caring people here and all over the world. It is such a privilege to have such freedoms.  If being grateful, every day, is a form of celebration, then that’s what I do. 

You’re focusing heavily right now on “presencing”. Can you explain what that is, and to what extent celebration is a feature of “being present”?

Perhaps I’ll be able to celebrate if I can ever actually achieve it! I think that because I am fortunate enough to have the capacity (time, knowledge, skills, intelligence, and access to resources) to be of service to others I have a responsibility to do so. Like so many humans coping with our industrial civilisation culture, I have been damaged by it. I have dealt with depression much of my life, and still suffer from far too many fears and anxieties for my own good. I also have ulcerative colitis, one of the many chronic autoimmune diseases that are epidemic in our culture.

My purpose for trying to become present is to enable me to heal and hence to be able to be of better service to others. I also hope it will bring me more clarity about exactly what my role is, going forward, how I can best be of service. That’s a theme of my book, Finding the Sweet Spot, but I am still learning about it, and I expect it to be a lifelong process.

In those rare moments when I feel myself fully present, whether it be when I’m really “on” in some mentoring or collaboration with others, or in a moment of meditation when I feel time stop and my ego vanish and the separation between ‘me’ and all-life-on-Earth fall away, that very presence is, I think, a celebration of connection, what I think wild creatures must feel most of their lives. 

As a systems thinker, you’re often producing excellent diagrams that depict systems (social, ecological, inner personal) that show actions, reactions, impacts and feedback mechanisms. Have any of your diagrams included “celebration” or similar? 

Thanks — my systems diagrams are all part of the thinking-out-loud process on my blog, my attempt to make sense of the world and what it means to be human, and I’m delighted others have found my ‘diary’ of that process useful to them.

If celebration has not factored into these diagrams, I suspect it’s because I’m drawing what I perceive to be the current state of things, and my experience and sense of things is that there is not much cause for celebration, either external or internal, in most of our lives. This is a celebration. When such events occur to us personally, or when we are instrumental in helping such events happen, then we can celebrate. 

That’s why I think most of our work, most of our occasions to celebrate, will be small scale and local, what Joanna Macy calls “holding actions” against a tide of growing atrocities aimed at keeping civilization culture alive. In my suggestedPattern Language for Effective Activism (pattern languages being another way of documenting and making sense of systems) I showed “Celebrate” as one of the patterns.

And I’d like to thank all of those reading this who are doing that “holding action” work — rescuing, liberating, blocking, disrupting, seizing, undermining — and those who support them, and those building alternative systems and models. In short, all of those who are making a small, real difference now, putting themselves on the line, taking real, personal risks. 

As a chronicler of civilization’s collapse, I do not foresee much opportunity for celebration myself. But the other, related approaches to dealing sanely with the knowledge of what is to come — insisting on joy in spite of everything, giving and taking pleasure and meaning from our creative and other work, discovering new and unexpected areas of resilience and possibility, breaking bread together, being grateful for this magnificent life and all that we have — are small ways of ‘nodding with a smile to the sacred’, which is perhaps a more modest definition of celebration, one that we can all partake of, every day.

Dave Pollard retired from paid work in 2010, after 35 years as an advisor to small enterprises, with a focus on sustainability, innovation, and understanding complexity. He is a long-time student of our culture and its systems, of history and of how the world really works, and has authored the blog How to Save the World for over ten years. His book Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. He is one of the authors of Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings, published in 2012. He is a member of the international Transition movement, the Communities movement and the Sharing Economy movement, and is a regular writer for the deep ecology magazine Shift. He is working on a collection of short stories about the world two millennia from now. He lives on Bowen Island, Canada.