The two faces of January: looking back, while thinking about the new

Welcome to the sixth blog post in the Enough is Plenty Series from Anne Ryan, hosted by Feasta. If you like the post, please share it with your networks. You may also find it interesting to browse the Feasta website for other related articles. And please comment or get in touch with Feasta if you want to contribute to the discussion. We are at [email protected], @feasta_tweets and our Facebook page is here.

As I write, we are still in January, the month that gets its name from Janus, the Roman god of doorways and thresholds. He has two faces and is traditionally portrayed looking backwards and forwards. As the days go on in January, I am increasingly embracing the new year and anticipating Imbolg on Feb 1st. Imbolg, in the Celtic calendar, marks the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. With the days lengthening notably, I and many others I know have a sense that it is the ‘real’ new year. I am reminded too that nature is bigger than all of us humans and that we depend entirely on it.

One thing I’ve been looking back on is our Feasta workshop on mental health and wellbeing in Dec 2019, where I made an input based on Enough is Plenty. I also drew on the work of Anne Goodman, Joanna Macy, Ursula le Guin, Thomas Berry and Edmund O’Sullivan, among others. I’ve since been reflecting on the contributions of the activists present and on the discussion with all the participants.

The aspect of enough that I highlighted on Dec 7 event was the simultaneous actions of coping, critiquing and creating. We know what is wrong and we would love it to be made right with an overnight revolution, but we also know that that is not going to take place. These actions can sustain us personally in this situation and they are also at the heart of many collective efforts to bring about social, political and economic change. The path of enough is integrative – it promotes progressive personal change and progressive social change as mutually constitutive of each other and focuses equally on both.

The activists who spoke to the gathering on Dec 7, as well as those who participated from the floor, are all doing these simultaneous actions of coping, critiquing and creating, even though they may not use that language to describe what they do. Woven in with these three are the related actions of actions of resistance, restoration, renewal and repairing.

I thought it would be useful to devote some blog posts to each of the actions of coping, critiquing and creating. In this post, I give some general thoughts on they are interrelated and in subsequent posts I will treat each element separately, while also showing how it relates to the other elements.

Cope, critique, create

In Ireland right now, we are looking towards a general election on Feb 8 – looking back at the old government, wondering about the new. If our culture were much more shaped by understanding of our dependence on nature and our interdependence with all other natural systems, we could be approaching the election with some hope that sufficient candidates with the required vision and policies would get elected.

Ideally, government would put in place good upstream system interventions that are ready to go, such as cap and share, basic income and land-value taxes. Several interdependent factors could change all at once and many further upstream interventions could be developed.

Downstream, many things would work themselves out in agriculture, food, transport, work and ways of living. But that’s highly unlikely to happen this time round. We are left, in civil society, working with others to create the culture change and eventually a political climate where beneficial system-interventions will be welcomed and legislated for.

That’s not to say that activists should not try to get elected this time round. Nor is it to say that people should not vote. It’s all grist to the mill of the conversations we need to develop a shared imaginary about culture change.

As we work towards this new culture, we experience frustration, fear, anger, grief and many other dark emotions, not to mention physical exhaustion. In these uncertain circumstances, which are unlikely to end any time soon, we need spiritual and intellectual courage, as well as persistence and patience. We need a good balance among the actions of coping, critiquing and creating.

Coping is about managing as well as possible in the present moment, finding conviviality and beauty, amidst the despair and fear we may experience. It may become even more important as things get worse. It is about the quality of attention to oneself and to others, taking on an appropriate load of work and commitments, getting enough rest and maintaining good physical health. Coping also has important social and collective forms, such as supporting people, social systems, animal populations and ecosystems that have been damaged by the present economy and society.

Critiquing includes showing what is wrong with the current system, understanding the past and what has happened to the earth and to living systems. Resistance, protest and striking are all part of critique. It also includes writing, podcasting, artistic work, popular education, and refusing jobs and other paid work that are personally, socially or ecologically harmful. It involves paying close attention to what is really going on: not denying or playing down the seriousness of our situation.

Creating is about making the new economy and culture through hands-on projects and enterprises. It’s about doing all these things in the here and now, even while the dominant systems are so wrong.

Each action affects our personal and social lives at the same time. To simultaneously engage in coping, critiquing, and creating may seem impossible, because they involve contradictory actions of involvement in the present moment, while trying to transform the things that make the present what it is, so that the future can be better.

It is very important to understand the interactive, inseparable, sometimes contradictory, sometimes paradoxical nature of the actions of coping, creating and creating. None of the actions exists alone, no one of them is sufficient by itself, nor is it self-sufficient; they all relate to each other in different ways, at different times and in different circumstances. And they sometimes come together in unexpected ways.

One of the young activists on Dec 7 talked about being involved in a referendum campaign in Ireland in 2018 to repeal the 8th amendment to our constitution, prohibiting abortion. She mentioned that having a clear date for the vote, when the campaigning would end, gave a sense of a destination. But she pointed out that the work of change she is now engaged in is very different.

This work is messy and multiple; it has care at its heart and it never ends. It is like the work if the household – simultaneous attention to multiple tasks and concerns – such as watching a toddler, while keeping an eye on a pot on the stove, and perhaps making a phone call or text or writing an email, all at the same time. This work also involves knowing when to give singular attention to somebody or some issue. There is ongoing concern with good functioning for the household as a whole. At the same time, there is support for the individuation and uniqueness of each individual member.

The household is also one of the places where people can learn about democracy, good communication, participative decision-making, morality, appropriate responsibility and appropriate connectedness. In this way, essential skills are developed for being a useful member of social systems outside the household, in the ‘wider household of being’ (Ursula le Guin). As many people now are aware, the prefix ‘eco’ – found in the words ecology and economics — means home or household.

Engagement

Engagement is at the core of the actions of coping, critiquing and creating. As with household skills, if we collectively and personally practice these actions, we understand them better and make them real rather than abstract.

In addition, as Joanna Macy’s work reminds us, hope cannot be based on specific outcomes. If we focus only on outcomes, something important is lost. Attending to cope, critique and create works on the principle that how we act is as important as what our goals are – there is no real separation between means and ends – means are ends. We do what we do because we believe it is the right thing, regardless of whether is it going to avert disaster or not. Moreover, factors that are not obviously contributing to change may prove to play a significant part in the way the future unfolds; the future is not predictable.

We are in a threshold moment in the history of the world, poised between the extractivist systems that have caused the current climate and ecological breakdown, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of change. Enough and the related actions of coping, critiquing and creating are about embracing possibility, which is different from prediction. The future is not knowable and predictable, despite the claims of futurists. But possibility remains open to us because when large numbers of people, working and communicating with each other, develop in their daily lives new ways of formulating problems and responses to those problems, then cultural change takes place.

Featured image: Statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7404342

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