One of the ways I see the Coronavirus as having brought to us some new possibilities in the midst of a growing crisis is that it calls into question one of the deepest and most pervasive narratives of modern life under liberal democracy-style capitalism: that every problem originates in an individual and can, and should, be fixed by individuals for themselves.
The pandemic has called this into question in at least three ways. One is that there is no one to blame for the problem, not even ourselves. While there was some finger-pointing towards China and people of Chinese origin in the US, this isn’t the main thing going on. In addition, everyone knows they can’t, entirely on their own, attend to the situation, because it’s affecting all of us and because everyone else’s behavior affects us as well. Thirdly, given that the trajectory of the pandemic has been dramatically variable in different places around the globe, for anyone who looks, it’s pointing to an uncomfortable reality: that how things unfold is way beyond individuals; that some problems can only be addressed systemically, no matter how much many of us would wish to separate ourselves from the whole and just protect ourselves; that even the source of problems may lie far away from what we can control individually.
The reason I feel excited about this is that when stories change, and change sufficiently on a large enough scale, larger changes also become possible. This is what I focus on in this, the fourth entry of the series I started posting back in mid-April. April was early in the trajectory of the pandemic in most places. April was before George Floyd’s killing triggered a worldwide mini-uprising. We are in a different moment now. In this way, each of these pieces gets written based on what I know when I write it, and subject to the mystery of what I don’t know. My question in this post is simple: what changes when we realize, collectively, that we are in the midst of systemic problems and that individual solutions simply won’t work?
Social Orders and Narratives
One of the ways any social order continues to exist is by propagating narratives about itself, about life, about human nature, and about what it means to be a decent human person. Such narratives exist in any social order, not only in oppressive ones. This was one of the key insights I learned from Marshall Rosenberg; the simplest way I ever found to make sense of the relationship between social structures and individual behavior. Here’s a diagram that illustrates these relationships, based on what Marshall drew on flip charts in workshop after workshop. This particular rendition was created by my late sister, Inbal Kashtan, as part of our incessant work to document and codify everything we knew about Nonviolent Communication.
As you see, there is a thick interrelationship between each element and the others, even more multi-directional than the arrows in the diagram. One such missing arrow connects stories directly to socialization, since what we believe about what human beings are like will influence how we raise our children.
If we believe, for example, that our natural flow is at odds with society – as the entire Western civilization project has held – then it will make total sense to control our children and aim for them to be obedient. We also pass available narratives directly through what we tell our children about life and about other people. In that way, both how we are treated directly – and what we are told about life and people – shape who we become. If we are told that other people are going to be greedy and selfish, because everyone is motivated by self-interest, and that therefore we must watch out for ourselves, then we will, ourselves, become much more suspicious of others and focused on our own self-interest. In this way, we will tragically confirm to everyone else the story they, too, hear about people.
I didn’t pick these specific stories randomly out of thin air; they are, sadly, some of the ideas that provide the justification for the current social order that’s been destroying life on planet Earth at rates that now threaten our very survival.
Individual and Systemic Frames of Reference
One of the most significant and formative narratives within our current capitalist system, especially in its US version, is the placing of an isolated, atomized individual, untethered from any relationship or community, at the center of making sense of everything. The emergence of states as described, for example, in Thomas Hobbes’ writing about the social contract, is the result of individuals deciding that they are better off giving up their individual liberties in exchange for being protected from the excesses of others. The existence of communities, the commons, and relationships of mutuality and collaboration, and of the force through which states have established themselves, are completely erased from this account. And although entirely false, this account of the “state of nature” in which we are individuals fending for ourselves in a hostile world has won the day.
And even though the original abstract individual was white, male, and propertied, the narrative has expanded quite beyond this narrow frame into seeing everything through the lens of individual cause and effect. My own experience, clearly not scientific evidence, is that this view, and its companion inability to see systems, is most extreme in the US, less so in Europe, and variable in other parts of the world I have been. It appears to me, also, that the less access to resources people have, the more open they are to see systemically. This is exemplified by the recent experiments in rigged monopoly games: the player that gets more money and thus invariably wins attributes their success to their skill, while the one who loses immediately sees through the obvious external constraints.
One of the Coronavirus clear examples of this tendency is the way that the dramatically higher death rates within Black and Latinx communities in the US have been attributed to a much higher proportion of underlying health conditions which, in turn, have been attributed to individual (or cultural) bad habits. Such stories, in turn, can intensify already existing tendencies to “otherize” people of color and subtly reassert the superiority of white culture.
A systemic lens tells a different story: people in such communities have entirely different life experiences than white people, and those differences are systemically driven, unrelated to individual variability. Black and brown people in the US are more likely to experience stress and discrimination due to direct and indirect impacts of racism leading to a variety of serious health conditions; more likely to be exposed to toxins and pollution in their neighborhoods; more likely to have “essential jobs” that increase their exposure; more likely to lose their jobs as their jobs are more likely to be neither “essential” nor possible to do from home; and less likely to have access to adequate health care when they contract Covid-19.
Additionally, they are also more likely to know these realities than white people, because of direct impacts. They can’t not know that they are discriminated against; that their bodies are more likely to be the target of violence; that they are not getting the same treatment in a hospital as whites do. White people, on the other hand, need to think, ask questions, and be in a critical relationship with their society and their location within it in order to find out. It won’t be obvious. It takes effort and conscious attention. And life in conditions of extreme capitalism leaves none of us with too much attention to spare to do the thinking beyond how to deal with all the stressors that every day brings.
This is one of the ways the current social order, then, maintains itself: keeping as many of us as possible over-busy, preoccupied with survival, debt, or the incessant striving to succeed. For most of us, this means that our attention has no room for what’s beyond our personal lives. When a problem arises, even when we can see a systemic source, most of us have no communities or movements we are part of to aim to address the problem on a larger scale, and we then look for individual solutions. Those with access to resources are used to being able to solve many problems individually through the use of money. Those with less access to resources learn to make do. And while all are preoccupied, the stripping of people from land, the tearing down of what communities still remain in the world, and the extraction of the remaining minerals and fossil fuels continue – all in the name of progress.
Even when people turn their attention to problems beyond their own lives, the focus often remains on the symptomatic and the individual rather than the root systemic causes; on charity and service more than systemic changes. A story that has circulated for decades speaks of the challenge. In the story, a man sees a drowning baby and jumps into the river to rescue the baby. Soon another drowning baby appears, and the man jumps into the river again. By the fourth or fifth baby, the man enlists the willing support of others to save the babies that keep appearing. And meanwhile no one is asking why there are so many drowning babies in the first place. Few of us know how to go upstream even when we are concerned about what is happening.
Enter Coronavirus, Police Brutality, and Global Awareness
As I said at the start of this piece, I believe one other way that the Coronavirus is giving us an opportunity is that the narratives that reproduce our current unsustainable ways of living are showing cracks.
Had I written this piece some weeks earlier, I would have now turned to tying loose ends and offering pathways to move towards embracing a systemic perspective and actions that point systemically. However, since May 25, 2020, we are now in a very different moment as a wave of mass protests sweeping the entire US and many other countries is cresting, calling attention to police brutality and to the degrading conditions of so many people’s lives across the planet, especially Black and brown people. In the US, many of the protests have been visibly interracial, and spreading to rural towns in parts of the country that are known for their support of Donald Trump.
For protests to happen on the scale that they have, something needs to have changed in the narrative thread that holds so much together most of the time. For any kind of change to happen, the first step is recognition that something is not working well. In this case: the role of police is being seriously questioned, more so than before. The idea of defunding the police was on the radical fringe of society. Police were seen by many – though likely not most Black people – as a benign force serving communities and keeping them safe. The official narrative about the role of the police is deeply embedded, and solidly intertwined with the overall narrative I’ve introduced before about what humans are like. Here’s from a teen magazine: “Without police officers our country would destroy itself. We cannot trust humans to do the right thing all of the time. If we had no one to enforce the law, it would be basically nonexistent. The streets would be run by gangs, full of crime and violence. People already break the law knowing that there is a possibility of getting caught and going to jail, just imagine if that wasn’t a possibility. What would keep you from doing something wrong if there were no repercussions to your actions?” The story right below the surface of these words is the one that says that humans, fundamentally, are self-interested, uncaring, and would do anything if there were no mechanisms of control. From this emerges the logical extension: the police are there to do that job of protecting all of us from this tendency and its consequences. This is precisely the narrative that is now being questioned.
The second step of change is to be able to imagine a different reality. It’s one thing to defund the police. It’s an entirely different thing to imagine how to attend to needs that the police ostensibly attend to, without the police. As is often the case, I sadly see more by way of protest and opposition and less by way of vision, even as vision is so vital to the possibility of change. In looking for such alternatives, I found the following directions that such thinking takes, which I list below from least to most radical and systemic (my own assessment):
- Improving relationships between police and communities through more dialogue and more involvement of communities;
- Reducing the role of police by having other agencies respond to many calls that unnecessarily involve the police, such as mental health crises;
- Unarmed, well-trained community patrolling instead of police patrolling, often staffed by former violent offenders;
- Decriminalization of nonviolent offenses such as drug use (with a big caveat that without redirecting the resources, such changes may become quite problematic, as is the case with the monopolization of the marijuana market in the US, as it became decriminalized instead of creating programs such as those in Portugal where community-based addiction programs have reduced overall drug use by 50 percent);
- Restorative justice instead of retributive justice in response to offenses, including violent ones (technically, this is an alternative to courts more so than to police, and yet I’ve seen it named in several places as an alternative to policing);
- Preventive measures that care for the overall well-being of neighborhoods to reduce the incidence of events that usually end up with police response;
- Local self-governance in all communities that leads to restoration of local economies, a sense of meaning and purpose, and the establishment of a web of support that reduces the fundamental reasons why, what are now seen as, criminal behaviors emerge in the first place, including violent ones.
The third step of change is to be able to mobilize resources to create the change. This is where the presence of Black Lives Matter as a movement that offers capacity, willingness, and leadership makes a difference. Enough people, in enough places, know that this movement exists, as well as the larger, though slightly less known, Movement for Black Lives of which it is a part, and it provides confidence in the possibility of taking action.
The final step of change is taking the action; being willing to accept the constraints and costs that action signifies; taking the step to translate longings into action that is sufficiently aligned. In this case, the action looks like masses of people, the largest number in US history for any movement, and many more across the world, taking to the streets in wave after wave of protests, and linking police brutality in the US to struggles across the world, such as the treatment of Palestinians under occupation of, and even within, Israel. A budding global awareness seems to be making its appearance, taking stands that go at least a tad beyond pure opposition.
Is it possible that the Coronavirus crisis has created the conditions that make it possible for more people to now question what is happening? We won’t know. Is it possible that the sprouting of mutual aid groups in many communities around the world is giving people more courage and capacity to imagine alternatives? More broadly, the pandemic is showing us that we are interconnected, and bringing us to see and participate in the bending of our social realities towards more interconnection and solidarity than before. After almost 200 years since modern police was established (in London first, 1829), it’s not surprising that there may not be – yet? – a clearly articulated and thought through alternative. And yet there seems to be enough vision and obstinate commitment that defunding is being considered and even adopted as a policy in some places. Why would we assume that the response to George Floyd’s killing isn’t informed by the many changes that the pandemic and the response to it have brought to us?
Why Systemic Transformation
One of the biggest lessons for me of the entire experience of the last number of months is a perpetual return to not knowing, to humility, to the inability to predict anything, let alone to control it. As a variety of countries begin to loosen the lockdown measures, some are experiencing second waves of the pandemic, while others are managing to mostly be unaffected by the pandemic and it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in terms of the flow of resources in the world – what is usually called “the economy.”
To many individuals around the world, this pandemic has already been a disaster, and they hang their hope on a quick economic recovery. Before looking at possible alternatives, I want to spell out what that would mean. If there is going to be an economic recovery, it would require restarting the entire consumption machine after a period of dramatic reduction in consumption. Here’s what John Turner, an economics professor Queen’s University in Belfast says about it, in stark terms: “If people aren’t going to spend money, that is going to dampen the economy for a long, long time to come.” He is clearly concerned about that. And, it seems, much more so than about the cost. Because restarting consumption likely means intensifying already stretched supply chains that span the globe, and practices that are at cost to untold numbers of humans and to life beyond humans.
The overwhelming majority of us in the global north don’t grasp the intensity and vulnerability of the supply chains on which we depend even for our most basic staples, and only vaguely know of their existence at all. We are used to showing up at a supermarket trusting there will be food there, without awareness of where it comes from. Whole regions of the world have become beholden to our consumption, having lost their subsistence economy base. They have become dependent on many practices – from dangerous extractive activities to tourism – that are stripping ecosystems and impoverishing the many, keeping them trapped in cycles of growing poverty even as they valiantly aim to exit. And all this is done in such a way that most of us in the global north don’t know about it, unless we cultivate dogged determination to find out.
Insanely enough, it is also those very practices that brought us the current pandemic, and threaten to bring about ever more unknown pathogens as ecosystems are destroyed and exponential population growth puts growing pressure on the shrinking remaining ones (see here, for just one example). Plus, in the absence of adequate global health systems, pandemics are rarely going to be contained where they start because of lack of infrastructure and sufficient trained healthcare workers. This last point was made by Alanna Shaikh in a Ted talk, where she also proposes a way “to make outbreaks less serious [which] is to build the global health system to support core health care functions in every country in the world so that all countries, even poor ones, are able to rapidly identify and treat new infectious diseases as they emerge.” Alas, although this is, indeed, a systemic solution, it is one that plugs that last hole at the level of symptom without looking at the even larger questions I am posing here, which are at the level of root cause. As Charles Eisenstein said in his Coronation article, even if we implement what she envisions, “the danger is that we lose ourselves in an endless succession of short terms, fighting one infectious disease after another, and never engage the ground conditions that make people so vulnerable.”
In the second piece in this series I spoke already of how capitalist market economies are unable to attend to needs. Here I am stressing that, in addition, they are actively undermining attending to needs for the many and for life as a whole. This is why I feel no attraction to thinking about how to bring about an economic recovery.
Again and again I come back to a completely different question: what would it take to shift out of this short-sighted, individualized approach, and into taking a different path forward that isn’t dependent on the current neoliberal methods? Now that many of us in the global north have reduced our consumption dramatically, I find the prospect of restarting consumption of what we clearly don’t need and continuing the exploitation of all else wrenching to contemplate. In the sixth piece in this series, still in the future, I plan to look more closely at the question of consumption itself. For now, I want to offer a broad stroke picture of what a different pathway could look like, even if none of us quite know how to bring it about.
Living within the Means of Our Planet
Ancient wisdom and Gandhi’s convictions combine to assert that if everyone takes only what they need, not more and not less, there will be enough for all life. Our current ways are overwhelming planetary limits. The Covid-19 pandemic is but one example. What would living within planetary limits look like, and what would getting there look like? How to bootstrap this process? What can bring humanity together to create such a massive shift when so many of us are in constant survival mode, even those with significant access to resources? Why do I even have faith this is possible, however unlikely that possibility is?
Here are some examples of what sustains my faith:
- In times of crisis, we regularly come together and act outside the predictions of economists. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen an outpour of solidarity, with some documented in part 3 of this series.
- The real life story most similar to the infamous Lord of the Flies resulted in collaboration, not deadly viciousness. This story is part of a book that speaks of human nature as cooperative. More and more research is pointing in this direction.
- Whenever I ask people to think of a time when they gave something to someone without any expectation of receiving anything back, there is a very similar smile that gets painted on their face.
- Tiny pockets of pre-patriarchal societies still exist, in which gifting, sharing, and care for the whole are completely and effortlessly the norm.
- Multiple solutions to most of our existing problems already exist, both in terms of material technology and in terms of social processes. All we miss is collective, political will.
All this, and much more that I have shared here, in other articles, and in my books over the years, points to our current ways of being emerging from systemic causes, not from our human nature. This means that changing our systems is very likely to result in entirely different behaviors and capacities.
In my book Reweaving Our Human Fabric I have a collection of twelve stories that describe a possible future in which principles of putting needs at the center, moving resources based on willingness, and engaging all in the decisions that affect them are anchored in real practices that make them possible. However much people find it unbelievable, I can only say that it seems to me simple and easy, if we only figured out how to transition. Three of those stories are available here. All the stories encompass real-life challenges and how they are addressed in that imaginary future world. I invite you to read them and contemplate your state of mind and heart when you imagine that as possible. As I said earlier, envision an alternative is critical to being able to create change, and I know this to be one of my roles at this time: to tell a story of practical possibility as part of contributing to that possibility. Time and time again I see social movements and writers clear on what’s not working, lacking on what to do instead.
A few years ago, I was approached by a Hollywood director who learned of my work and was eager to create a film based on those stories. One of the early things she told me, emphatically, was that it was a no go to just imagine the future without imagining a transition story. With this post I am releasing the synopsis of the potential movie which includes that kind of story. Astonishingly enough, some small version of the story I conjured up was played out two years after this director and I recognized that we didn’t have, between us, the resources and capacity to make this project happen. Specifically, the story features a high school girl initiating a massive movement of high school students that culminates in a global student strike being the turning point. If you think Greta Thunberg, you’re not far. Unlike the actual Greta story, the imaginary Ozioma from Nigeria has a vision in addition to opposition. Massive numbers of young people, in this story, came together to map out the entire world into ecoregions, then to take stock of all the needs and resources everywhere, and then to come up with a plan for how to access and distribute them as locally as possible, with as little trauma as possible when reducing consumption, and while engaging as many people as possible in the world in making it happen. It was a movement of the 100%. Their strike was about being joined by adults in implementing their plan. This year is when that global strike was going to happen, on Gandhi’s birthday on October 2nd. I doubt that will actually take place, though I am guessing that if there is anyone reading this who is a talented and experienced screenwriter, this movie project may yet become a reality. It’s far larger than just the transition, as most of it takes place decades beyond that transition, in an entirely reconfigured social order designed to work for all, including life beyond our human existence.
While I still believe this scenario is plausible, I assign it very low probability. Since I came up with it, I decided to have two more plausible and ideally more probably transition scenarios. One of them is implicit in the global governance model that a group of us submitted to an international competition three years ago. I hope in the not too distant future to write an actual story about it, similar to the story about Ozioma. It is much more probably because it has concrete steps, even if each of them is difficult. I also have the third, though I haven’t yet fleshed it out in full: it is based on a call-in radio program designed to involve listeners in solving real-life problems in their town, a program that becomes so successful that it spreads like wildfire to other locations around the world.
What all three transition scenarios share in common is that they point to people coming together to solve practical problems that they face as the way to work out what governments and corporations alike have failed to address, repeatedly. Not alone, not using current divisive methods. Rather, facilitated by people equipped with methods and visions such as Convergent Facilitation, which bring people together in solutions that work for all of them. Yes, I still have faith that this is possible. And I am bit by bit more willing to step forth and expose my faith despite the fear of being ridiculed. If there is anything we can all do, starting today, it’s to live from faith, to allow ourselves to become naïve, to learn and share the solutions that exist, to lead from generosity and trust rather than self-protection, to absorb potential ridicule and attack, to find each other, and to proclaim that possibility of turning around the madness into a world that works for all.
Child reading: Pixabay, free to use, https://pixabay.com/photos/toddler-reading-kids-fashion-3995508/
Homeless man: WallpaperFlare, free to use, https://www.wallpaperflare.com/grayscale-photo-of-man-sleeping-on-floor-near-grass-people-wallpaper-uiokq
Portland, police, protest riot, PXFuel, free to use, https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-qgtyh
Coronavirus face mask: Pixabay, free to use, https://pixabay.com/photos/facemask-coronavirus-mask-covid-19-5194929/
Child labor: by Shresthakedar, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_bondage#/media/File:Child_Labour_in_Brick_Kilns_of_Nepal.jpg
Crowd of people, PickPic, royalty free, https://www.pickpik.com/crowd-of-people-crowd-people-blur-movement-group-5091