Where are we headed? (‘physics doesn’t negotiate’): Shaun Chamberlin
At Lowimpact we’re interviewing people who are working to build a new kind of world. We want to promote what they’re doing, and find ways to work together. Today I’m talking with Shaun Chamberlin.
Shaun left the board of the Ecological Land Co-op as I joined. He’s been involved with the Transition Network – he wrote the Transition Timeline. His website is Dark Optimism. He took on the work of David Fleming after his death, and produced the wonderful ‘Lean Logic: a dictionary for the future and how to survive it’.
This is an overview of our conversation (more detail in the video).
I wanted to know where Shaun thinks we’re headed, as a species. People like Jem Bendell tell us that we’re headed for some sort of collapse, so we’d better get ready for it, emotionally and in terms of physical preparedness. People like Jordan Peterson and Bjorn Lomborg tell us not to worry – we’re better off now than we’ve ever been, and human ingenuity, technology and economic growth will see us through.
Shaun: I’m closer to Jem Bendell. David Fleming helped start the Green Party and the Soil Association in the 80s. He didn’t think we were going to change direction. He saw ecology and culture being damaged. He saw too much economic and cultural momentum for growth and economics obsession to change direction easily. That’s when he started work on Lean Logic. He wanted to think about how to prepare for the crash that’s inevitably coming.
Now – radical change is inevitable. Either we do it ourselves or nature will do it for us. The starting point for him was what a post-collapse world will look like and how do we start to prepare. The natural world supports us, but is being destroyed; and the informal, non-monetary economy supports us – and that’s being destroyed too.
People like Peterson and Lomborg tend to pitch themselves as logical and scientific, but with every discipline except ecology. Ecologists are telling us we’re destroying life on earth, but it’s ignored.
We face a rift in realism. People on both sides paint themselves as realists – but there seems to be different realities. One reality states that humans are as they are, and unlikely to change, and the other sees ecological and physical reality, and states that unless we change, things will be done to us that will damage us. Physics doesn’t negotiate.
In Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, he describes ecology as ‘animal economics’. I like that because it brings home what economics is. It’s how we meet our needs. The non-human world has those same processes and needs. When we realise that these are economic questions, they seem more real and pertinent.
People like Jordan Peterson seem to gloss over the fact that we’re absolutely, in a very scientifically-proven way, undermining the basis of all economic wealth.
Some people are scared to question the status quo. They can’t see any alternative. They saw what happened in the 20th century, and there scared that it might happen again. So let’s not rock the boat – let’s just have tweaks and reforms, without questioning the status quo.
There are people who are not afraid to question things, and recognise how fundamentally wrong things are – but don’t see what we can do about it. This is rational when faced with such huge problems – to ignore them and focus on things we can have an effect on (e.g. Peterson’s ‘tidy your room’). The question is – can we really not do anything about these huge problems?
Your website – Dark Optimism. That’s the dark bit. Where’s the optimism? So what do we do about that? What are you going to do, and what do you think we should do as a species – and is it achievable, and how?
Bright shiny optimism winds me up – these are not bright, shiny times. But we can still have beautiful stories and existences. My approach is positive about the kinds of lives we could create, but realistic about how far away we are from that.
I’m less focused on what to do as a species. I can’t operate at that scale. We’re told that the things to do are 1. personal lifestyle change and 2. lobbying political representatives. There’s a lot to be said for lifestyle change but nonetheless, I don’t see it as an effective way to bring about wider change. It’s depressing to change your life, but still see the world charging in the opposite direction.
A lot of people believe that we can solve our problems by electing the right party, or by consuming from or investing in the right corporations. Do you hear that much, and how do you respond?
It comes down to scale. Lifestyle change is too small-scale, and if you try to lobby politicians, you get ignored – again, because you’re too small. For me, operating at the community level is most effective – the human scale. It’s large enough to affect your locality and the people who live there, but small enough for your voice to be heard.
My favourite line in Lean Logic is: ‘Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions. They require small-scale solutions within large-scale frameworks.’ It’s those frameworks that allow the diversity of small-scale solutions that are appropriate to their local context. Since understanding this, that’s what I’ve been doing – helping to build those frameworks. So – the Ecological Land Co-op is a framework that allows individual families to get on the land; the Transition Network is a framework that allows a diversity of local action. Lean Logic is another of those frameworks. It’s not prescriptive – it just contains a range of principles for people to use in the context of their own lives and communities – that they know best.
At the moment, I’m most focused on an online educational programme called ‘Surviving the Future – conversations for our time’ – offering frameworks for people to engage with David Fleming’s work, but also with each other – creating a global network of ‘superheroes’, doing work in their communities, and supporting and connecting with each other.
We’ve been doing it for 2 years, and we’ve had participants from every continent – including Antarctica (a scientist working at an Antarctic research station)! The age range has been 9-93. We’re aiming at people who are sick of turning a blind eye, but also sick of green dreaming. They want to acknowledge problems, but who are realistic about solving them. Often participants are feeling burnt out, finding it hard not to just give in. We have very honest conversations about despair and grief about the situation that we’re in. Rather than burying their despair, which is very draining, my experience is that if you look things square in the face, and accept how hard it is, it can feel as though it will crush you, but it doesn’t. If the reality seems to be that we won’t stop damaging ecology, and that’s going to end in a very dark place, if you can face that, you still have to work out what you’re going to do with your day. Once you’ve faced it, there’s no information that can come in to make you feel as though you’re wasting your time. You can still do what you know is right, no matter how bad things get. A huge energy is released by looking at the world as it really is, rather than live in denial.
That seems very similar to Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation approach.
I know Jem. I think his original paper was a work of despair at the sustainability world and how far it was operating from reality. He didn’t know it was going to go viral in the way it did. I don’t recommend people read the orginal paper, as I don’t think it deals with that despair particularly skilfully. But – where Jem and the movement has gone since has been very skilful in dealing with that initial impulse of despair. Many people from the Deep Adaptation movement have been on our course.
We posted something from Jem – how to deal with people who say that things aren’t as bad as ecologists are saying it is, or that technology will get us through. Really interesting.
It is a narrow path though – between unrealistic green optimism and feeling that we’re doomed and we may as well kill ourselves. It’s the path worth working.
It’s worth a shot. Who knows what might come of conversations you have, or the things that you do.
It’s not necessarily predicated on outcomes. You do what you can to generate the outcomes you’d like to see, but ultimately, there have been people born into, or who have found themselves in far worse situations than we could imagine – in concentration camps etc. They’ve written about finding meaning in those situations, so for people in our situation to say that things are so bad that it’s not worth getting out of bed – it’s quite indulgent, really.
The first time I came across this type of approach was when I interviewed Mark Simmonds – a co-operative development worker. I asked why he was interested in co-ops, and he said ‘because we’re going to crash, and I want to help build lifeboats’. I wasn’t expecting it – I thought he was going to talk on a very local, practical level about creating jobs, building workplace democracy and strengthening communities – which he was, but in a context of collapse.
Movements that catch the zeitgeist have room for people who want to make society better, and people who are preparing for collapse. Nonetheless, the things that it makes sense to do are very similar. They’re not opposing camps. Protecting ecology and community makes sense whatever you think will happen.
- We face a rift in realism. People on both sides paint themselves as realists – but there seem to be different realities. One reality states that humans are as they are, and unlikely to change, and the other sees ecological and physical reality, and states that unless we change, things will be done to us that will damage us. Physics doesn’t negotiate.
- Lifestyle change is too small-scale, and if you try to lobby politicians, you get ignored – again, because you’re too small. For me, operating at the community level is most effective – the human scale. It’s large enough to affect your locality and the people who live there, but small enough for your voice to be heard.
- Movements that catch the zeitgeist have room for people who want to make society better, and people who are preparing for collapse. Nonetheless, the things that it makes sense to do are very similar. They’re not opposing camps. Protecting ecology and community makes sense whatever you think will happen.
NB: You can join Shaun’s course here: ‘Surviving the Future – conversations for our time’
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1The Walrus January 12th, 2022
I like the idea of using small solutions [lots of them] to solve big problems – that way we all move easily the way we should be going. as for the idea of “voting the right political party” to the “Dance” surely we have seen enough of Political Parties and there corruption to last the world forever ~ we need a new way, or rather an Old Way Restructured.
The big problem as you say [more or less] is getting everybody to start moving in the same direction; if we don’t do it soon we certainly are doomed, but I’m convinced that Mother Nature will solve the problem for the world – just that next time there will be no humans involved.
Let me ask you a simple question to show how we seem to be solving the BIG problem – In most Cities, Towns and Villages the street light etc. tend to be on ALL night, even tho’ a lot of the time there is nobody there to use them – this wastes power, creates extra CO2 and unwanted heat. This must end (a small thing to help solve a big problem). So people need to start protesting LOUDLY to get most if not all of those lights turned off when not being used! Actually at night time without to much light pollution you don’t need all that light – it’s called night vision! Did I mention the use of fossil fuel to both generate this extra electricity or lubricate the wheels to make sure they keep going round?
Like the new style site Dave, very professional.
2Tony Haslam January 13th, 2022
Having been involved with the Transition Movement for the last ten years and with Jem Bendell since he first came to Lancaster to teach at Cumbria University, I have followed the change in Shaun Chamberlin’s ideas as well as the growth of the Deep Adaptation movement with keen interest. I feel deeply that we should never give up hope. Yes, in the mainstream media and in the financial centres of the world, nothing really changes and we seem to move relentlessly on with using our fossil fuel cars and building more housing estates and new roads. Yet, below the surface there has been positive change. There are many people living in communities setting up community renewable energy schemes. There are many of us working in ways that Focus ON the Doughnut and not the hole ( Google ‘Doughnut Economics’ if you don’t know what I mean. My own latest website, https://fondbusinesses.co.uk seeks to provide a community resource for businesses that are, what I call, these FOND businesses and for people who want to find them and support them. We must change and we must co-operate to build an alternative future. This is not optimism. It is recognising that human beings are not intrinsically stuck in something called ‘human nature’. We have the power to choose our future and build it together. This is what all species do when they face extinction – they adapt and change.