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23 May 2008

What's to be Done? - A Post in Three Parts

Part I - The Parable of the Unsteady Building
Once upon a time...A long long time ago...actually, I think I read about it the other day...There was a great big building. Now the building wasn't always so big; it had grown over many thousands of years until it dominated the landscape and housed thousands of millions of people, and it continued to grow every day. The people inside were comfortable for the most part, but the building had grown so large that it was beginning to fall apart under its own weight.
The people at the bottom of the building saw that it was breaking down, and they tried over and over again to warn the people higher up. The people at the very top of the building, however, had an awful nice view which they didn't want to give up, so they didn't listen, and told the people in the middle floors not to worry - the building would be fine, and, in fact, it must continue to grow. Even when the whole building began swaying back and forth in the breeze, the people at the top continued to say that the building must grow, and that only by growing bigger could they ever hope to overcome the current instability.
The people on the bottom could see that the building was going to topple over any day now, so they gave up trying to convince the people up above. Instead they began taking apart the building so that when it did fall, it wouldn't hurt as many people on the way down. They also began to build smaller buildings right below the big one (because there was nowhere else to build unfortunately) so that they would have someplace to live when the big one fell.
Soon some of the people on the middle floors began to get worried. They felt the swaying all too much and saw the people on the lower floors taking the building apart and constructing new ones in its place, so they began to go down to live with the people on the lower floors in their new buildings. The people on the top saw this and, sensing that their beautiful view was threatened, sent armies to keep people from leaving and to stop the others from dismantling the building and constructing new ones. However, all of this running up and down the stairs only made the building sway even more.
Then one day, as everyone knew it would, the building fell, crumbling into a billion pieces destroying much of what was left beneath it. Most of the people who remained in the building didn't survive, unfortunately, but many of those who were living in the smaller buildings beneath it did and many of their buildings remained intact or were only slightly damaged. Now these buildings would never grow as high as the big building - in fact, many of them were designed not to - but they were strong, built on firm foundations, and would last for a very very long time. Soon the people were able to clean up the mess left by the fall of the big building and fix up their own buildings that were damaged in the wreckage. They even found new ways of constructing buildings that had never been thought of before or had been forgotten over the years. The people lived very happily for a very long time to come.
The End, for now anyway....

Part II - Dismantling
There are two general categories of action that I think need to be taken to preserve some portion of humanity and to limit the destruction caused by the fall of our civilization. The first is Dismantling and the second is Constructing. I'll talk about the Latter in a moment, but for now I want to discuss Dismantling.
Dismantling is mainly geared toward limiting the spacial and temporal scope of civilization's harmful tendencies. It asks the question, "How can we stop the violence and oppression caused by this destructive system?"
Large scale, abstract, and hierarchical power structures are inherently oppressive, violently destructive and fundamentally unsustainable. In order to create a freer, healthier social system these structures must be abandoned or destroyed through any means necessary. They are all around us, dominating our lives and dictating our actions. Fighting back might be as simple as refusing to carry out their demands, or it might involve taking up arms - it depends on the circumstances, of course - but we must fight back.
If we don't fight back, if we don't take down this system, then it will fall on its own. However, the larger we allow it to grow and the longer we allow it to exist, the harder it will fall and the more damage it will do - the more people it will hurt. Conceivably, if we work hard enough and fast enough we could dismantle the whole system with only minor damage done to those around it. In other words, the more we dismantle now, the easier the transition will be later and the less damage will be done all around.

Part III - Constructing
When the current system falls, people will need a lot of support. In fact, social support structures will be more important than ever. But they can't simply replicate the old structures or they will suffer from the same limitations. Instead we have to build new structures that will help people survive and persist, with built in mechanisms for preventing them from growing beyond a human scale. Most of this work can be done within the confines of the larger system so that when it does fall the new structures will already be in place.
Constructing involves finding out what people need or will need and figuring out how to provide those things without large scale power structures. Building a localized food system, decentralized energy, localized social networks, support groups, self-defense - all of these are good places to start. The important thing is to recognize that there is no one way to do any of these things and no one thing that needs to be done. We'll have to experiment with new ideas and be innovative.

In reality, the dichotomy I've created between constructing and dismantling is not so clear cut - it serves the purpose of explanation, but they can't really be separated. The fact is, any act of dismantling will require the construction of social networks that are small scale and localized, whose role could easily be expanded to include some of the support systems that will be needed. Also, constructing localized, community based organizations is itself a subversive act that threatens the prevailing power structure. So, as I've said many times before, do what you can, what you know how to do best. Don't let the burden of fixing everything fall on your shoulders alone - do your part and trust that others will do theirs. We're all in this together! :)


btmc said...

Thank you for expressing in parable form what I perceive and find words to describe so difficult. the act of storytelling is so important to the passing of information. the creating of social networks is so much more enjoyable with some good storytelling, and so the building of new structures may be dependent on this simple act of spinning a yarn. I've been wondering about the benefits of storytelling versus technical discussion or bullets or lists, or that school text book format that just lays info out there with no context or comparison or care. I like the story, as a way to persuade and educate, I like the story as a way to entertain, I like the story as a way to understand. I applaud your use of storytelling. I'll share it with my friends.

Jeremy Trombley said...

I'm glad you liked it Brendan, somehow I knew you would. :)
While it's a bit off topic I will list (textbook style) a bit of information that you (and others) might find interesting about storytelling. I recently heard about some research that shows that when people receive information in a narrative context, they remember it better than they do other wise and are better able to integrate it into their lives. Also, it seems to me, and this is why I regret having missed out on that Metaphor and Meaning class, that metaphors are able to carry much more information than linear language. For example, if I were to say that the war in Iraq was a bad idea then I'd be conveying one piece of information (war in Iraq=bad). However, if I were to say that the war in Iraq was like diving into a pool of quicksand (technically a simile, but under the same general category as metaphors) then I would convey a whole lot of other information as well (War in Iraq=bad, stuck, sinking, etc.).
In any case, I think it's a good writing strategy to use metaphors whenever possible (unfortunately I forget this most of the time and just end babbling information or opinions - I'll try harder from now on) and to incorporate narrative style into any writing (I'll work harder on this one too). I never liked the style of writing they teach at school (introductory paragraph, thesis, body paragraphs, conclusion) - it's uninteresting and dry to me. I like essays that start on one subject and then subtly switch you over to another - I've always had trouble doing this, but I think starting with a story is a good device.
My friend Chris kind of helped me realize all of these concepts. He's a fantastic writer, on a level that I can only dream of, and is always willing to offer some good advice. I owe him a lot just for getting me interested in poetry. Maybe he'll chime in on the narrative style and metaphors, if he's reading and not too busy.

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