Seize the Day - Threshold Moments and the Hope for Change

Sharon February 14th, 2008

It is common to respond to plans for radical change by stating that it is impossible to get this or that change enacted. This, of course, is manifestly wrong. We have only to look at historical events to see that it is perfectly possible, for both good and ill, to radically change circumstances in a host of ways that looked completely impossible not very long before.

The question is, how does that happen? And is it possible to imagine that we could, in fact, change things, and for example, bring about a relocalized economy, or 100 million farmers? Is that even feasible? More importantly, could it possibly happen before it has to? That is, we all know that we’d be a lot more secure if the transition to a sustainable agriculture happened a little before we were all out of food. Is that within the realm of possibility? I think so, but it requires a change in our perspective.

Now generally speaking, radical change is enacted one of two ways. The first is by revolution of one sort or another – a violent (not always warlike, but always violent), and deeply disruptive overthrow of what has gone before. In a very short time – the casting off of what has always seemed inviolable – slavery, colonialism, the divine of kings – transforms the landscape.

The problem with revolutions is that the costs are extremely high. Even a non-violent revolution means that large chunks of the existing population in power are simply cast out, and often come back to haunt you (think Cuba’s wealthy landowners, for example). Revolutions are vastly destructive, and anyone who simply isn’t ready, either adapts, or is overrun.

The other option is culture change – the gradual transition of a society from old values to new ones. It starts as a small movement, growing gradually, until ideas permeate the culture. Most of those who resist are given the chance to acclimate, and eventually come to accept, if not like, the dominant culture view. Eventually, cultural norms make it impossible even for those who espoused previous views to acknowledge them or to express them – think, for example, of the American Civil Rights movement. While racism was once a cultural norm in the US, now if you ask around, there are only about 4 people in the US who will admit to ever having expressed racist views.

The difficulty with this method is that it is far too slow for our present purposes – the major advances of the Civil Rights movement, for example, came over a period of 20 years. We simply don’t have 20 years of marching and gradually changing cultural norms.

Now it is necessarily the case that every movement contains elements of both of these – that is, the Civil Rights movement did include revolutionaries, and revolutions often begin with demonstrations. It is impossible for me to describe historical courses in any detail in a five page essay – but most such changes are dominated, either by a moment of overthrow, or by the lack of that moment.

Are those our only choices? That is, are our only options taking up arms, or marching and singing? Both might work or they might not – we may well be able to transition our culture, given enough time or enough will and anger – to a society that can adapt to the new environmental norms. But we do not have multiple decades to make such a transition. James Hansen, for example, notes that most of our environmental changes will have to come rapidly over the next decade. And because almost all our changes take some major lead time, that means that the period we have to change attitudes is very short.

As for revolution, it is simply too destructive, even were it not a bad idea for a host of other reasons. The human costs of radical, sudden transformation are resistance – lots of it. And lots of resistance means either the failure of overall goals or repressive responses that destroy what is created from the inside out.

So are there any other choices between the complete rupture of prior experience and the gradual transition to a new way of thinking? I think there is another option, but it depends upon being prepared to take hold of a moment, and claim it as your own.

The third choice is something I’m calling (for lack of a better term) “threshold moments” – those points at which history intervenes, and something that was unimaginable the day before becomes entirely possible. At those moments, it is possible to make a larger step forward than could previously have been imagined – people are poised for radical change.

Now such moments occur in two ways. The first is when events demand a particular change – for example, as in Cuba when the cutoff of oil supplies demanded a rapid fire deindustrialization of agriculture and the transition to a new economy. In this case, cause and effect are direct – that is, the systemic response to food shortages is the institutionalization of a new system. The bombing of Pearl Harbor leads to a military response and US participation in the World War. While it can never be said that there is no other response possible, the response is the logical, successful addressing of a problem

But there is another kind of threshold moment, one in which we perceive we are at a transitional moment, and at which it is possible to imagine a number of possible responses – where what matters is that the populace is poised for response – and multiple possible successful responses are possible. Here is the moment at which it is possible to advance a new agenda – and possible to override other public agendas by laying claim to that moment and advancing one’s agenda as a logical response.

The obvious example here is 9/11. If you are not American, I think it is hard to understand how desperately Americans were casting around after 9/11 for some way to make their own response match up to the radical change in their world that they experienced. And there is nothing logically contiguous with the event about, say, invading Iraq or going shopping – that is, what was most notable about 9/11 was that people were willing to make massive changes, had they been asked. They were not asked – and no one made a strong attempt to wrest the narrative of 9/11 away from the government – individuals resisted the story we were being told, but there was not a fully formed attempt, say to recast our response to 9/11 in terms of oil and energy, and to use it as a major call for renewable growth. Some attempts were made, but there weren’t enough people working together.

Such threshold moments come around fairly often in history, and are likely to come more often as we enter what has been called “interesting times.” In the last decade, we’ve had large-scale threshold moment, 9/11, and a smaller one in which some significant cultural changes might have been enacted, Hurricane Katrina.

Does that sound strange and unlikely? I think it is true that had Americans been told after 9/11, “We want you to go out and grow a victory garden and cut back on energy usage” the response would have been tremendous – it would absolutely have been possible to harness the anger and pain and frustration of those moments, and a people who desperately wanted something to do. Even after Katrina, it would have been possible for a concerted narrative that ran the pictures from the superdome over and over again saying “And if you never want this to happen again, you must…” Katrina would not have been nearly as effective as 9/11, but a great deal of change could have been made with it, regardless. And making use of the momentum of such events could have enabled us to be that much further along in the adaptation process before a moment comes at which a particular response is truly necessary.

Naomi Klein notes that this is precisely the claim of Milton Friedman’s “Shock Doctrine” which says that at a moment of crisis, you can sweep away the old and transform things utterly. Up until now, such a system has been mostly used for ill, for market reforms that are utterly destructive to our public life. But since such events will be used, it only makes sense for us to use them for good.

Moreover, as Klein points out, the Shock Doctrine’s essential message, overthrowing the past, is destructive to the ordinary people who are victims of a crisis. That is, those who live through such threshold moments in history and are directly affected by them want to cling to what they have of the past, to restore what they have lost. The Shock Doctrine model destroys, rather than reclaims the past.

Here, sustainability advocates have an enormous advantage in being able to claim the narrative from those who want to overthrow the past. Because ultimately, our propositions are always tied to the past, to previous successful responses to hard times and disaster. We are tying our propositions to what people dreamed of in suburbia, the small slice of personal eden that never was, and saying you can have that thing you once sought, as part of the promise of restoration. Those who claim that we are merely advocating a return to the past are missing the point – it is never possible to go back, but it is feasible to anchor the future in the past, to offer a narrative in which we do not have to give up what we value, but can retain it, and take it with us into a new and radically different world.

To do this, we will have to prepare and watch for the next such threshold moment. The peak oil and climate change movements were simply not organized enough 7 years ago at 9/11, and we mishandled Hurricane Katrina – there were plenty of individual attempts to tie it into climate change, but there was no unified attempt to create a single narrative account of Katrina.
If we are to imagine Relocalization and steady state economics taking over, if it is possible (and I do not say that it is, merely that we cannot fail to try), we must be absolutely prepared for the next threshold moment, and to explain how it is (and it will be, we won’t have to lie) about the oil, about the climate, and how it demands a particular response, not blowing up another country far away, but a change in us.

I have no idea when that moment will come, and neither does anyone else. It could happen tonight, and have us wake up in a changed world. Or it could leave us hanging for years, and the next such threshold we cross could be the transition into a real disaster, one in which our options are limited. But regardless, since it is always possible to fuck things up worse than necessary, sustainability advocates of every kind must be prepared to take one story and echo it back across media and blogs, to tell it and tell it, and teach others to demand a particular kind of response.

One of the things about this that is important is to remember that this doesn’t work in a linear way. That is, the process involves going along making small changes, and adding a few new recruits and tiny incremental alterations for a good long time. At first it seems like you aren’t making any progress at all – that the change is so vast that the little moves can’t get you there. But it is important to remember that you are doing the advance work for something that is likely to alter, not with a gradual building, but in a moment. That is, we’re doing what we can now, so that when the right time comes, we can do vastly more.

Kurt Cobb observed at Community Solutions that the best example of this narrative claiming is the 9/11 Truth Movement – regardless of what you think of their claims, they have been enormously effective in changing the official story about what 9/11 was. There are more of us – Paul Hawken has called the sustainability movement the largest movement on the planet, and that may well be true. There are tens of millions of people all over the world who care about this. And we have to be able to tell the story, the true story, of how climate change and peak oil have created a disaster to which we must now respond.

In the meantime, we grow our victory gardens and build our movement and educate our neighbors and plan and wait. It won’t be too long in coming. And then it will be time – to pass the word, and make our move – to try and take control of the narrative and say “This is what is needed as a response, to make us better.” And everything we do in the meantime, everything we start, every working model we create, every program we start, every change we make in our homes and neighborhoods, gets us that much more ready to seize the day.

Sharon

15 Responses to “Seize the Day - Threshold Moments and the Hope for Change”

  1. helwenon 14 Feb 2008 at 8:05 pm

    L and I had a ’shock’ moment before 9/11, when our company merged with 4 others from around the country - different cultures, and a very different attitude to the employees. We both ended up leaving - me permanently, and him for a couple of years, until they realized just what they were missing. And the company culture has improved since the initial merger. But our attitudes in regard to how much we ‘need’ them, or any other company, has stayed changed.

    When 9/11 happened, I predicted that a lot of people would review their lives and make some changes. And many did, if only on a personal, individual level.

    You’re right, it would have been a incredible moment to take advantage of, to put forth a plan for a great change in our society — one that would have embraced wiser ways of living, and one that was based on being participatory members of this world, instead of fearfully hiding away from it.

    I’m thankful we at least had some people - family and friends of some of those who died on 9/11, who refused to accept the public line of going shopping, etc., who refused to allow the deaths of their loved ones to be used by Bush et all, unquestioned.

    When the moment comes, we must speak out.

  2. helwenon 14 Feb 2008 at 9:23 pm

    For the person asking in a previous post about coppicing and geothermal.

    Coppicing:
    I like the Wikipedia entry for info, and they have some links to sites at the bottom too. For the U.S., that’s harder to find.

    Here’s one:
    In California

    I wish I could find more, but I think the best bet may be to get a book on coppicing and then find an online forum if you have questions. That’s likely what we’ll be doing — it’s a rather long-term thing, but it can be done.

    Geothermal: How useful it is depends on where you are. Although if they’re working on it in Alaska, that may bode well for us here in Massachusetts…. or not — we both have cold temps, but I think MA’s greater swing in temps could be a problem. Currently, geothermal here works pretty well to help with cooling in summer, and heating as long as it isn’t _too_ cold. The systems here require a thermostat outside the building, and when it gets down to freezing the motor for the system doesn’t work properly. Geothermal systems here are usually set up with an electric backup, which is a very expensive bill to pay.

    Alternatively, it could be set up with a wood furnace for backup instead. Understanding that the system is only ideal for colder temperate areas for 9-10 months out of the year, in the long-run it’s still a pretty good system for heating/cooling a house. You just want to have a reasonable backup system for the rest of the time.

    And, it doesn’t help with providing power for lights, cooking, computers, etc. For that you need active geothermal, which isn’t available in most of the Northeast (Technically you could get active geo in North Adams, MA, where they have hot springs).

    Heather G

  3. daharjaon 15 Feb 2008 at 4:48 am

    9/11 was a tragedy. As an Australian with close ties to the US, I remember being shocked when it happened.

    But I am even more shocked by the fact that the vast majority of American citizens *still believe*:- That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (they didn’t).

    - That 9/11 was engineered by Iraqi terrorists (it wasn’t - 15 of the 19 were Saudis).

    - That Iraq was proven to have close ties with Al Quaeda (it wasn’t, and no such ties have been proven).

    Change for the better must first start with education. As long as we stand blinkered by lies and misinformation, we will continue to be pawns of those who will lie to us and abuse our trust.

    I find freedom of the press and spread of control in the hands of the many key issues in supporting real education for the general population.

    As long as our populations (in the US, Australia and elsewhere) gain our ‘news’ from only a couple of tightly controlled viewpoints and sources, we will not be easily able to think independently and freely - two keys to real, meaningful change in society.

  4. Anonymouson 15 Feb 2008 at 10:50 am

    Sharon

    i’ve been reading your postings here and there for years

    i find them tedious

    or really, verging somewhere between tedious and frustrating

    i know that you feel you have something of worth to convey

    and i know also that many love your writings

    but i have never been able to digest them

    it’s a case of knowing that you have it all, everything anyone could want

    and that, somehow, consequentially you feel that your wisdom is of worth

    frankly, really, at the bottom of it all

    you lack humility

    you reek of a feeling of superiority

    and i tire of it

    m

  5. martaon 15 Feb 2008 at 11:46 am

    Sharon,

    I have noticed you have a certain admiration for Cuba and its current regime. Ok, they have some good stuff - from the outside it looks so, at least. But all that is being done at a high cost for liberty, freedom of speech and such and, I’m sorry to disagree with you thouroughly on this (re: the first lines of this post of yours) after a very violent revolution and revolutionary process. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths.

    Anonymous

    I’ll be asking the la palisse-ian question but I can’t help it… why do you come here then? Masochism?

    Marta from Lisbon

  6. jewishfarmeron 15 Feb 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Marta - I’m aware of Cuba’s limitations, although it is harder and harder to be superior about them. After all, which of your criticisms couldn’t be applied to America under the Bush regime - they are certainly responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths, for example.

    But it isn’t so much that I “admire” Cuba in general as I admire (and I believe we should learn from) Cuba’s *response* in the special period - and in that case, I think everyone should be admiring. If American lost more than 80% of its oil imports virtually overnight, do you think we’d respond as well? I don’t have endorse the whole of their government for the last 50 years (in fact, I can safely say I don’t endorse everything or even most things any nation has done over the same period) in order to say that we’d better learn from Cuba, and posthaste.

    Daharja - You’ve put your finger on a large part of the point. The Iraq war was in no way a logical response to 9/11. But it became the response because the narrative of the events was so tightly controlled by the wrong people. No powerful counter-story was offered - and thus, Americans largely accepted Iraq.

    That’s precisely my point - someone is going to tell the story of the next threshold movement - if we are wise, it will be us, if only because we’ll tell a better, more productive and truer one.

    Sharon

  7. Cindy in FLon 15 Feb 2008 at 3:38 pm

    While 9/11 should be a good example of a jumping off point that wasn’t taken, how could it have *really* been one. From what I have read the whole thing was contrived from the towers being hit to the response of attacking Afganistan and then Iraq. There was no room in there for anything other than war. I think the Bush administration had been planning these wars and were waiting for the right moment to launch them. Did you see Oil, Smoke and Mirrors?

    So in my opinion Katrina would have been our best option. Atleast you can’t blame a particular group for the actual hurricane. What happened after, yes, but then that could be your platform for relocalization.

    With all the horrible winter weather and small regional catastrophies, maybe something could be formed around that.

    Cindy in FL

  8. Anonymouson 15 Feb 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Here’s a theshold moment if you have the courage to go there and read Allies of Humanity at http://www.alliesofhumanity.org

    No matter what you are doing or not doing in regards to Climate change, enviromental degradation, peak oil, peak soil, resource wars, etc, unless
    you realize that we are not alone and that we do not reign supreme over this planet or the galaxy you do not have the full picture of humanity’s biggest threshold. It is here. Humanity is emerging into the Greater Community and we need to be prepare. This is humanity’s greatest threshold and it could be yours if you accept it.

  9. Anonymouson 15 Feb 2008 at 5:29 pm

    9/11 was an inside job!

    After thoroughly researching the topic, I came to the conclusion two years ago that 9/11 was a false flag operation used by our corrupt government. The government rallied the masses into supporting the war and occupation of Iraq for the control (or so they thought) and distribution of Middle East oil.
    Imperial governments have employed similar tactics throughout history to rally the masses in favor of war and imperialism. Remember Hitler’s Reichstag fire?

    Yes, the corporate media connived with the government to deceive the people. And “the people” were too preocuppied with bread and circus and addictions to pursue the truth on their own.

    Now more and more people are skeptical about the official 9/11 government story. However, it is a bit too late. Patriot Acts and executive orders, along with Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the like, have practically eliminated our rights.

    Here’s a thought-provoking piece by Carolyn Baker:

    “Celebrating Un-President’s Day: WHY I WILL NOT VOTE FOR A PRESIDENT IN 2008.”

    http://carolynbaker.net/site/

    ~Vegan

  10. tkon 15 Feb 2008 at 7:57 pm

    such a gorgeous essay, as usual. last fall my husband and i were talking for hours about how 9/11 could have galvanized us politically, globally, ecologically — if only we’d had the right leader. which would have been al gore. alas, it all got upgefucked.

  11. Brian Mon 15 Feb 2008 at 11:14 pm

    I am a huge fan of the Strauss-Howe saecula model of history (especially the mature version in their book The 4th Turning) and think it has a really nice discussion of what you are calling Threshold moments. Like them I think that threshold moments work slightly differently at different stages of the historical cycle. The Oklahoma City Bombing could have been a threshold moment much like 9-11, but the US wasn’t quite ready to enter crisis mode yet, and there were too many Silent Generation types still in power putting a dampener on reactions. A few years later and a very similar stimulus was able to provoke a very different reaction.

    Once crisis mode has been entered, much matters on exactly how the crisis is framed. But it is hard to keep up a single framing over a very long haul. Is it still going to look to Americans like our crisis is basically about fighting Terrorism and rogue states, in another few years? If not how will the crisis be framed next? As our markets implode (failed bond auctions anyone?), it might be easy for conservatives to frame Americas troubles as primarily economic ones, and again push peak oil, climate change, or sane monetary policies into the background. The point of bemoaning past framing problems is to prepare for the next framing problem.

  12. Anonymouson 16 Feb 2008 at 9:35 am

    Another good one, Sharon. (Re-posted it at Energy Bulletin yesterday).

    Please keep it up.

    Bart
    EB

  13. Anion 16 Feb 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Important issues to be sure. I too was so frustrated after the events of 9/11- to have the population told to go shopping of all things! And yes, I never trusted what happened and I do believe it was a “false flag” event- orchestrated to allow for the plans to invade in the Middle East that were already prepared-but the masses could have/would have used it to do something great had there been leadership in place that asked for greatness.

    This is why, although I have litle faith in our political leaders in Washington to actually “lead”, I am supporting Obama-I do feel he is the most likely out of all of them to reach out to the masses and ask for their efforts-not at shopping either I pray……. I still hold out a touch of hope that we will somehow get political leadership that will rise to the occasion, although I know that the forces in power, not only political but also corporate and wealthy elites, do not want to see this happen and will work to prevent it. If Obama can become the sort of president that I think he could be- well- we need to be sure he has some amazing Secret Service protection basically. I’m not too worried about racist KKK types- I’m more concerned about the actions of those who don’t want to see change as they are doing too well with the status quo-and would seek to eliminate someone who has the intellect and charisma to harness the imagination of much of our population and work for change.

    As for anonymous “m”- too funny dude- do you fancy yourself a poet?? Why torture yourself reading these lengthy tomes anyway when you could just go listen to AM talk radio or something anyway?? Thou dost protest too much I’m afraid- you must be getting something from it that keeps you coming back for more :)

  14. Anonymouson 16 Feb 2008 at 4:16 pm

    no one will know when the ‘crisis’ hits. your tv will have no power to run it. same for your radio. newspapers will be gone forever . ever try to run a hundred year old type machine ? the internet will be no more. forget the post office. the feds will be long gone to the bahamas. better buy a couple of long and short range weapons. the murder rate is going to skyrocket. no one will know about it except by people bullshitting . humans will contract into small neighborhoods. land for growing food will be the biggest target. millions of people from the northern lattitudes will be walking south to escape the cold of winter. we are going to run out of places to bury the dead. there is your ‘threshold moment’ .

  15. Anonymouson 16 Feb 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Lets hope the precipitating crisis is LACK OF LIQUID FUEL.

    If we want change our message must be short, succinct and sweet.

    As you said we could have used 9/11for positive change, but the traditional localisation - transition town message is complex and it is easy to get bogged down in the detail.

    We need a crisis where the response is STOP: Stop using fuel;
    Stop eating distant food; Stop wasting resources…

    If we can’t convey a short message the bad guys will win the day and either it will make matters worse or we will become dependant on the remnants of the existing system - some form of fuedalism..

    As for Cuba - Marta and her ilk are Free to Starve - Cuba is a good a case as any for socialism, whilst Katrina hold capitalism up for the greedy creed that it is!!

    Sololeum

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