I remember well the day I “woke up” to the prospects of collapse and social disruption in the United States. It was the day I first saw the documentary End of Suburbia. This film highlighted the issue of oil depletion and the many impacts it would have, particularly in oil-dependent countries. It sucked me into doomer culture, not unlike how people today get sucked into QAnon or similar groups. Something in me fed on the anxiety and anticipation the talking heads in that film doled out. I suspect the misanthropy I harbored helped this along.
After that fateful day in 2005 I immersed myself in media that explored the nuances and impacts of energy depletion. Though I initially succumbed to catastrophist leanings, my viewpoints moderated over time. While the Richard Heinbergs, Kenneth Deffeyes, and Colin Campbells of the Peak Oil movement eagerly wrote and spoke about the end of the industrial world as they knew it, I backed off. By the time I finished my doctorate in May of 2011 I had largely talked myself out of the prospects of immanent, cataclysmic doom brought on by a peak in global oil production, or by peak anything else.
That said, I am not bullish on industrial society. Between climate change, growing wealth and income inequality (which has undermined its share of past civilizations), depleting soils and fisheries, and depleting non-renewable resources, there are plenty of reasons to expect industrial civilization’s growth to be near its end. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic will serve as a black swan event that shifts the trajectory of global development. Maybe we will bounce back from the pandemic, only to see climate disasters whittle away at whatever robustness and resilience remains. There are many things that can send our global civilization into decline. I am not wedded to any of them being the straw that breaks civilization’s back, but I will not be surprised if future historians look back and decide one of them did exactly that.
With that in mind, a question I have been pondering as of late is: How do we coax more people to seriously discuss the prospects of social disruptions brought about by the decline of industrial civilization? Put another way, How do we overcome the wall of denial and willful ignorance that springs up for most people when these issues are raised?
I pose this question for the simple reason that the more people who explore it, the more likely we are to discern what Howard Odum termed a prosperous way down. Or if not prosperous, at least compassionate. To find such a path, or perhaps a few paths that fit the bill, we cannot shy from serious conversation about the prospects of collapse or social disruption.
Part of the answer to the questions I posed emerges from an understanding of how our nervous systems are wired. The resting state of our nervous system is the activation of our ventral vagal complex. Polyvagal theorists refer to this as our social engagement mode. When this segment of our nervous system is activated, we can think rationally about issues, connect with people, and understand the broader consequences of our actions. Social engagement mode is precisely the realm of nervous system activation we want to be in when discussing collapse and the potential for social disruptions that accompany it. Social engagement mode creates for us the opportunity to perceive and promote the compassionate, pro-social responses we so desperately need.
We do not spend all of our time in social engagement mode. Our nervous system is constantly gathering data from our surroundings and assessing whether we are safe or in danger. This happens largely outside our conscious awareness, owing to this function resting within our autonomic nervous system.
When our nervous system identifies a significant but not life threatening threat, it activates our sympathetic nervous system. This suite of nerves emerges from our spinal column to connect to many of our internal organs. It plays an important role in maintaining our body’s homeostasis, but when activated it triggers what is often called our fight or flight response. The results of this activation can take many forms, including aggressive reactions or running away. If the threat that our nervous system perceives happens to be information about potential social disruption caused by climate change, for example, the result might be fierce argumentativeness, shutting the conversation down, or retreating into denial.
If the threat is judged to be life threatening, we bypass our sympathetic response and activate the dorsal vagal complex in our parasympathetic nervous system. This triggers aspects of our autonomic nervous system to shut down, to varying degrees. For some this might take the form of fainting, depression or dissociation, the latter of which entails cutting off our capacity to feel body sensations and emotions. If a conversation about climate change triggers ventral vagal activation, the person might ignore any evidence put forward, feign powerlessness, insist it is not worth discussing because no one can do anything about it, or simply not respond. This freeze response attempts to minimize the person’s experience of pain and suffering in preparation for death.
From this understanding of our nervous system’s wiring emerges the realization that when we invite discussion about social disruption or collapse, our primary goal must be to allow those we engage with to remain in their social engagement mode. If we approach the conversation in a way that triggers their sympathetic response or dorsal vagal activation, the conversation is over. One strategy we might use to help others remain in social engagement mode is to carry a strong ethic of care into these conversations so that we help people feel safe in the face of challenging topics. How exactly this is done will vary from person to person, because our life histories will influence the particulars of our nervous system wiring. That said, I have been experimenting with a few strategies that seem promising.
The first is to center the skill of tracking our nervous system activation patterns. We might introduce those we wish to engage with to the nervous system model I noted above, and invite discussion on how we can discern which activation mode we are in at any given moment. We can also learn how to discern others’ activation modes, so we know if our patterns of engagement are pushing them towards sympathetic or dorsal vagal activation. We might even introduce an element into our dialog that includes practices that can help root us, and others, in our social engagement modes.
The second aspect of this ethic of care is to cultivate a willingness to slow our inquiry down and take our time. My experience has been that a topic that is too challenging to tackle quickly might be better handled slowly, over the course of multiple conversations perhaps spanning days or weeks. While it is common to feel a sense of urgency around issues related to collapse and social disruption, the reality is that we can deal with these issues better in groups than as individuals, and we can better deal with them in groups when we are all on the same page and trust one another. Cultivating a willingness to slow things down, build trust, and prioritize relationships aids this element significantly.
Finally, to support this ethic of care we must let collective interest guide our conversations rather than forcing them in directions others find triggering. This might seem like it allows people to avoid challenging issues, but it does not have to. For instance, we can invite a conversation about a particular topic, but if a person perceives it to be too triggering they can name that. We might respond by acknowledging their need to stop, while also acknowledging we think the topic is very important and that we hope we can find a way that the conversation can continue soon. Working together to create a safe container for the conversation is a far more useful approach than forcing it, in my experience.
These strategies are works in progress. I use them in the courses and workshops I offer through Quillwood Academy, an online institution for higher learning dedicated to navigating the many challenging issues we face in today’s world. I assume that I will adjust them over time. I may add additional elements, or expand some of them. Regardless of what they look like, I am convinced we must incorporate them somehow, lest important conversations keep getting derailed because people perceive them as too threatening.
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