Saturday, April 24, 2010

Power Down - Trade Up

The daughter of one of the Ecovillage Training Center staff arrived home from the Farm school last week and exclaimed, “I HATE Nonviolent Communication!”

According to Wikipedia:

Nonviolent Communication is a process developed by Marshall Rosenberg. It is a way to communicate with greater compassion and clarity. It focuses on two things: honest self-expression— exposing what matters to oneself in a way that's likely to inspire compassion in others, and empathy — listening with deep compassion.

The girl had been studying honest self-expression and empathy at school, and apparently it's tedious stuff. Even so, if you plan on living with other people, and if you imagine that the day may come when you cannot or choose not to rely on authoritarian institutions to resolve disputes and ensure domestic tranquility, then expanding your communicative repertoire might be just the thing.

I see myself as living a little ways into the future here at the ETC. Compared to how I was living just a short time ago, I use far less energy and engage in far fewer economically quantifiable activities on most days. Yesterday, I broke that pattern and spent a couple of hours driving to and from the town of Spring Hill where I lingered in a bookstore, ate in a restaurant, and got my hair cut. That's a lot more travel and commerce than I engage in most days here at the ETC, but yesterday would have seemed like a normal day for me as recently as last December when I worked nearly an hour's drive from where I was living. Now, I live on a reduced energy budget that might soon be the North American norm. It turns out that a seemingly modest amount of energy can power a rich and fulfilling existence, particularly compared to the quality of life of a corporate debt-serf.

Here in the ecovillage pseudo-future, I use cars, computers, and the internet. I'm recording podcasts and writing for blogs. I'm also packing shipments at a mail-order business and doing household and outdoor chores, but more than anything, or so it seems to me, I'm living and interacting with people far more than I'm accustomed to doing.

When I arrived here, I was accustomed to eating alone while reading a book or listening to a podcast. Now, I eat at a table with other people where we have a formalized arrangement concerning who was to prepare the meal and who will clean up afterward. I'm coordinating with people to get chores done and to pick up the mail in town.

In the past, when I kept chickens, if I didn't put them up at night, they didn't get put up. Not so at the ETC. Here, several people share the chicken-care duties, and that requires communication. Some of that communication has become routine and is accomplished with logs and sign-up sheets, so it's not a matter of constantly having to be tuned into someone else's pyschological needs, quirks, and tics, but being here shows me the degree to which mainstream life enables and encourages us to run on emotional autopilot.

Having to marshal my psychic energy to deal with the people around me can be a drain, but in the absence of the normal standardized roles and scripted exchanges of life in the mainstream mode, there's no getting around it. Working stuff out with people can be a pretty complicated affair, and most of us are out of practice. Formalized techniques like Nonviolent Communication would have us say things that we would feel more comfortable leaving unsaid, at least in the short term. It might have us talking about feelings and judgments when really the other person just needs to get some facts straight. It can seem absurdly touchy-feely or new agey, but it beats Mad Maxy, and it beats getting your doctor to write you a prescription for a pharmaceutical aid to get you through one more cycle of scripted interaction with other alienated debt-serfs.

When I interact with a person as a person, I have to summon up more psychic energy than I do for an automatic exchange with an anonymous stranger playing a standardized role. Who deserves the benefit of my full emotional engagement and consideration? Are there times when it is morally permissible to deal with some people according to a role they play?

When I think of the people I deal with on any given day here at the ETC, I understand that some of them, like the ETC staff, will be here indefinitely. The apprentices have been here a month and will be here for a month longer. Then there are the eco-hostel guests who stay overnight or a few days at most.

The people who will be gone in a month seem like members of my community; people with whom I really need to stay tight, but not so people who will only be here a few days at most. I don't want to say that I ignore or tune out the itinerants, but at the same time, I make no effort to remember their names. I know that some other congenial but equally temporary face will occupy that same role shortly.

I wonder if this mix of practically permanent, short but significant, and largely ephemeral relationships will prove typical in an energy-descent future. I can imagine a scenario in which some people have found their workable, long-term living arrangement, and a lot of other people are still looking for their own long-term gigs and are traveling around checking out the various arrangements on offer.

This scenario comes in two distinct flavors. One is the “just how it all shakes out” flavor in which the old way of life becomes increasingly unworkable for more and more people who do what they have to in order to survive while corporate and governmental entities continue the program to sustain the unsustainable and continue doing everything in their power to deny the need for new modi operandorum. This makes for an exciting period of historic transition, but its the sort of excitement that is the acquired taste of the war correspondent or disaster first-responder.

The other, more quixotic flavor is the “let's see what we can do if we decide to do it right” flavor. In this possible future, corporations and governments recognize that a spontaneous, bottom-up, phase change is inevitable and decide to help people explore the space of possible alternative living arrangements without desperation driving people to accept whatever marginally livable situation presents itself first. It may smell a bit like hobbit holes and unicorn horns, but I can see a future in which people have the leeway to sample a variety of post-petroleum lifestyles before committing themselves.

This second flavor is definitely within our technical means, but it's not anything you can vote for. It's not a message that a politician can use to get elected, but it is a message that people can nurture and share and use to inspire each other. There are different ways of living both sustainably and within our means. Seeing a diversity of living examples, hearing about them, trying them on to see how they fit, all help to erode the facade of conditioned expectations that keeps us going through the stressful and alienated motions. The transition is upon us. What's needed is the understanding that in powering down we can trade up.

1 comment:

  1. KMO,
    Thank you for a terrific post! Your writing is beautiful and your expansive thoughts are inspiring. One of my favorite lines is:

    "It may smell a bit like hobbit holes and unicorn horns, but I can see a future in which people have the leeway to sample a variety of post-petroleum lifestyles before committing themselves."


    It is strange for me to read about your increased interpersonal interaction , of late, and wonder, will these rich experiences at ETC separate KMO from the alienated people in his audience? I think the answer is, no. Yet, I write from the land of wage-serfdom and the view from here is often distorted.

    Keep up the good work,