Lifeboats — the Backstory

I have made it my personal mission to launch a Fleet of 100 Lifeboats in response to the multiple global crises we now face. Recently, a friend asked where this idea came from.

As I was talking through a possible response with one of my collaborators, we realized it’s a challenging story to tell because it involves loops in space-time — the current idea is the result of a previous one that evolved from the one before that, etc. — so how many versions do you need to go back to get the full backstory? Somehow, no matter where you start it feels like you’re already jumping into the middle of the story.

So maybe we should start at the end and work backwards. Ultimately, through all these different iterations, we’ve become convinced that the multiple crises we face are the result of applying mechanistic / analytical thinking to a relational world. The problems are very deep, indeed, in the form of foundational beliefs.

How do you describe water to fish?

We noticed that despite the work of so many well-intentioned, motivated, and energized people, our social and environmental ecologies were and are falling apart; all the indicators are moving in the wrong direction. So, we started to ask ourselves why is that? What’s really going on here? Soon, it became clear, as Einstein said, “you can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created.” We keep looking for superficial solutions to systemic problems, attempting to use the logic of the current system to heal the problems that very system has created.

So the real solutions require moving people from mechanistic/disconnected to integrated/relational ways of thinking and acting. But how do you invite people into a process that can’t be explained until after you’ve engaged it long enough to develop a new language to explain what you just experienced?

How do you tell the story of a solution that is simple yet complex, that has developed organically, iteratively, collaboratively, from the ground up, synthesizing and juxtaposing interdependent and often dynamically tensioned elements to an audience brought up on mechanistic, reductionist and radically individualistic thinking?

I haven’t the faintest idea. Not coherently. Not concisely.

But not knowing how to do something never stopped me from trying before.

Actually, I suppose that’s the main point. None of us know what we are doing! We face a challenge like none we’ve faced before — a challenge created by our taken-for-granted habits of thought and action. Therefore, relying on our taken-for-granted assumptions and reactions will likely make things worse, rather than better. That’s what’s been happening so far. Lots of folks with the best of intentions have been making things worse rather than better because our reductionist and disconnected ways of thinking keep leading us to make the same mistakes over and over then ignore the obvious consequences of our actions.

The situation forces us to face a basic epistemological question: How do we know if what we think we know is actually true? How do we know what’s really real?

My favourite answer comes from the American Pragmatists: something is true if it works. Of course, that leads us to ask “what does it mean for something to work?” William James uses the metaphor of an archer honing their skill as a model. The goal is straight forward — hit the center of the target with an arrow. The archer “knows” archery to the degree that they can hit the target reliably.

The Reflex Arc

James describes the learning process as a “reflex arc” — a process through which:

  1. we select the target,
  2. imagine the actions necessary to achieve success,
  3. take those actions in the real world, then
  4. reflect on the difference between expectations and experiences, and
  5. refine the actions we see as necessary to achieve success.

In this way, we learn and improve subsequent actions; things work better.

The archer moves from absolute beginner who is happy to simply hit the target through to a skilled archer who can begin to account for additional factors such as wind direction or variations in equipment to improve their accuracy by constantly using recent real-world feedback to refine mental models.

While it’s a useful metaphor, most actions in the world don’t have as clear a goal as archery, so we have to go further and apply the model to itself. This was Dewey’s contribution. We make “learning” the skill we aim to develop. We use the system to develop better tools for defining goals, imagining complicated actions and measuring results to allow us to refine our efforts around complex goals. In other words, we learn how to learn. This leads to a sort of meta-process at the core of the Lifeboat Project, an idea taken from Sociocracy 3.0 (S3.0) — treat all decisions as a series of experiments designed to maximize learning.

The basics of treating actions as experiments are simple. We short-hand it as “aim-act-reflect-repeat.” It’s an endless, self-motivating feedback loop in which each step in the cycle references the one before it and suggests the next. So, for example, as we take aim (again), we reference the lessons learned in reflecting on previous actions to clarify the aim itself, which suggests new actions necessary to achieve that aim, which inspires a natural curiosity to take those actions to see what happens.

This is actually easier to do in practice than it is to describe in theory. The reflection process is simply a matter of comparing what we expected would happen with what actually happened in order to refine our expectations and actions moving forward. In other words, the major learning comes from responding to what doesn’t work more than what does (though there’s still valuable information in what works consistently). It’s the gap between expectations and experiences that presents the best areas for learning. In S3.0, we define the gap between expectation and experience — between how things are and how they could / should be — as a “tension.” The gap that causes the tension draws our attention to the richest potential learning.

In the case of the Lifeboat Project, the core persistent tension is the gap between known, validated, patently obvious information about the urgency, severity, and risk of the climate crisis and the complete and utter lack of meaningful action on the part of the social institutions that are purportedly responsible for ensuring our well-being — government, “the market,” media, etc. Our expectation is that these social institutions are there for our protection, but the empirical reality is that the decision-making class are doing everything in their power to prevent solutions from happening while simultaneously working actively to make things worse (for us).

How do we shift our expectations, then, to come closer to match our experience and what are the implications when we do?

Social Transformation

All societies are, in effect, a sort of mass delusion. Society is a set of stories about “how the world works” that often allow amazing things to happen. But sometimes these delusions just don’t work — or rather, they work really well at some things, but cause more problems than they solve overall. They get weighed down by a debt of bad decisions. Healthy societies are malleable and adaptive. They contain feedback loops that allow their stories to transform as their environment shifts. They know the map is not the territory, recognize the negative consequences of choices and adapt accordingly.

Unfortunately, it seems that most (probably all) societies reach a point where they lose their adaptability. They become old, brittle, and fragile. When that happens, the society must re-invent itself to survive, but before that can happen, it must first fall apart.

Of course, societies ultimately exist inside the head — the belief system — of the members of that society. So when societies transform, it only occurs through a fractal process of individual transformation, which feels very much like an existential crisis — because that’s exactly what it is.

So, that’s where the “Lifeboat” idea comes from: a recognition that we need transformation at the person/place/community level. Transforming the world and our communities from an extractive, top-down, capitalist framework to one that is relational, reciprocal and materially-focused starts with our individual transformations, actions and relationship-building in the face of climate crisis and social breakdown. It starts with the individual choice to do things differently, and the more of us there are who make those choices together, the greater impact we have.

How do we re-focus our efforts to care for our spirits by growing deep happiness and resilient mental health; our place — the physical/material health of our local environment; and our hearts through meaningful relationships? We realized that none of these things were possible by trying to do it alone, therefore the health of our relationships and the community are crucial. The Lifeboat Project is all about finding ways to make it easier for people to reach out and connect with the people who are already in their world, to start talking about what’s really real. What really matters, when it comes right down to it?

Because we are coming right down to it.

The Happiness Project

It’s not accidental that our mid-winter celebrations are marked by three related holidays — Solstice, Christmas, and New Years. They symbolically represent the arc of a near-death experience.

Imagine our ancestors migrating north from our native African home where mid-winter and mid-summer have little impact on the cycles of life. Suddenly those first explorers to northern latitudes faced what must have been a terrifying mystery. The predictable balance of light and dark, of relatively even day and night, is upended. The powerful, ever-constant Sun begins to fade and dwindle.

Surely, they considered that maybe this meant The End. They knew that all life depended on the sun’s light and warmth. If day faded to endless night, we — all life — would perish.

Imagine the people huddling close to the fire as the days grew shockingly short, the trees died, and a cold, killing wind blew. Hear the silence as each person stared into the fire to fathom what The End might mean. By now, we all knew that death waited for everyone. It was a constant companion and present reality. But The End felt different. Not simply the loss of a loved one, but maybe the loss of Life itself. And here we sit, impotent to change our fate.

Solstice marks the darkest dark; the longest night. The moment when we come face-to-face with our small and puny nature.

But in that moment of grief, profound gratitude is born. When all is lost, we suddenly realize all that we had to lose. We see the beauty and the bounty as if for the first time. So Solstice also marks the birth of existential joy. Is there a word for a crying out in equal parts joy and regret— joy for all we have been given, and regret for how shabbily we treated that gift?

And then a reprieve. Or maybe just a hint of a reprieve.

“Is it just me,” I hear my ancestor saying, “or, um… does it feel like today was maybe just a little longer? Or at least, no shorter than yesterday.”

I always puzzled over the fact that Christmas was clearly a Christian cooptation of the pagan Solstice celebration and yet it happened days later. Was it just to keep up appearances that is was something different? Eventually it occurred to me that there must naturally be a delay between the longest night and the dawning realization that light was returning again. I think of it as a sort of incubation period of hope: a breathless pause after the last bomb blast.

And so Christmas marks that exhalation of relief. The angels sing glory to God or whoever — our salvation has been secured! At least for another year.

It only makes sense that the hallmark of Christmas is gift-giving. Not the tawdry sort of gift-giving we do these days — a sort of quid pro quo giving as much out of obligation as care. Imagine what it was like for our ancestors, having just sat through the Longest Night after months and months of ever longer ones. To contemplate the end of everything without the fantasy of redemption and then miraculously — without effort or merit — to have been given reprieve. How else would you respond but with generosity?

I see my ancestor touching the shiny beads that they so jealously guarded before as a sign of their status and worth and thinking “these are just trinkets to amuse children. Let me give them to a child who will find them fascinating.” Because in that dark night, we all have the same epiphany: we suddenly see what matters most in this life. What makes life worth living? In those dark hours, I bet my list and yours are the same.

So, we give our token gifts to honour the true Gifts — those shining souls that attach us to the great Web of Life; those moments of connection that make us feel truly alive.

But this is a three act play. There is always a reckoning. A brush with mortality leaves us changed; matured. Solstice — the possibility of losing it all — brought to light our callousness, our thoughtlessness, the failure to honour our obligations and the Gifts we have been given. We are humbled and inspired to make amends for all that we had taken for granted; for the harms we caused in our delusions.

And so the New Year offers us the chance to try again, to repair the damage, to start fresh (sorta).

Enter the dreaded New Years resolution. Just as we have debased the sacredness of gift-giving, so too have we bastardized the “New Year’s Resolution.” Loose weight! Eat better! Cross off your bucket list! All the chatter of small egos vainly defending themselves against the reality of Ultimate Reality.

The true meaning of a New Year is a chance to start again putting first things first. What really matters? What is really real? How do we learn to live with such mindfulness, gratitude and awareness that even if we face The End or only our trivial personal end, we do so with joy, reverence, and peace?

A wise teacher once shared the Coyote Principle with me. It’s like the story of the three pigs, but with a twist. The Wolf is actually the Coyote in disguise; a satan there to return you to the true path. There is a lesson you need to learn and Life will send you the teachers — the Coyotes or situations — necessary for you to learn this lesson.

At first, the Coyote will tap lightly at your door. If you welcome the honoured teacher, you can learn the lesson over tea and cookies. If you ignore the knocking, the pounding will grow louder. If you continue to ignore it, Life will blow down the door. If you continue to hide in fear, Life will blow down the house.

You can choose when you learn the lesson, but not the lesson you have to learn. You only ever choose how much destruction you will endure before accepting the lesson.

So, as we sit in the middle of our mid-winter holy days, moving from Solstice — the longest night — to New Years — a chance at a new beginning, it is not lost on me that we also sit in the middle of a pandemic trying to teach us about a collapsing climate trying to teach us to live again with integrity and wholeness and connection to the Web of All Life.

Here is the only choice you have: resist the lesson and endure total destruction or accept the honoured teacher and learn to live again in integrity and wholeness.

Let us reclaim the sacredness of this season by sitting honestly with what it means to be face-to-face with the possibility of The End of all Life through the careless and thoughtlessness of our own actions. What does it mean to you, personally, to be responsible for your share of the collapse of ecosystems and extinctions (or are you still in denial about the destructiveness of your consumptive life style)? What really matters to you when you think about the future your children and grandchildren face? What tawdry beads are you finally ready to give away to honour your true Gifts?

And what different choices are you willing to make if you are given a chance at a fresh start?

I invite you to take on the Fair Share Footprint Challenge, a pathway to living with integrity.

We face a very real and immediate shared human threat. A global social system based on extraction, exploitation and oppression is reaching the material limits of a closed-loop terrestrial system based on interconnection and interdependence. We have been living a multi-generational Ponzi scheme and all such schemes inevitably collapse. This is the reality we face.

We have been treating the environmental / climate / political crises we face as though they have been about technology or policy, but at the root we face a spiritual / moral / psychological crisis. It will not be solved “out there.” This is a fight for the very soul of humanity that can only be accessed through your soul and mine.

We must all finally learn to be happy with what we have rather than living under the delusion that happiness can only be found on the far side of more. Our discontent is pushing Life on Earth to the very brink. So, how can we all learn to be happy with the abundance that is already available to us?

In part, this requires questioning even our most basic assumptions. Our language is so corrupted and impoverished that words like “happiness” have lost their roots. Our current notions of happiness have more to do with advertising than experience. We don’t really have a word for the kind of happiness I have in mind anymore.

The happiness I have in mind is the experience of going to bed feeling like the day was well-spent; feeling the kind of contented exhaustion that allows you to fall into the comfort of sleep knowing you did what Life asked of you, looking forward to what tomorrow holds in store. I want to reclaim the phrase “Quality of Life” to describe the experience. What is the true quality of Life — its defining characteristic? What makes Life worth living? What makes it good to be alive?

And what would a community look like if we made this our shared goal?

Even a moment’s reflection on what makes Life worth living reveals it’s all about connection. The root meaning of integrity is wholeness. How do we connect with the wholeness of Life? At the very least, there are three aspects calling out to us.

We must reconnect:

  • our spirits with the land on which we depend to keep us healthy and alive;
  • our hearts to our human and more-than-human relations who are woven into our very bodies; and
  • our actions to that sacred voice of consciousness who whispers in our ear to guide us towards Flow and away from the delusion of separation.

This involves paying equal attention to learning to live well within the material limits of Life on Earth (described by Jan Jeffermans as a Fair Earth Share) and growing those experiences that reconnect us to the land and all our relations, allowing us to know in our bones that we are part of something much larger than our small egos comprehend. We will know we are on the right path when we find we are far happier with less stuff and more connection; less greed and more gratitude.

We are working to make this way of living and working a reality at the Lifeboat Academy at Spalding Valley Farm on Pender Island, BC. Our mission is simple: maximize the Quality of Life within a Fair Share Footprint. The goal is to create a model of resilience and regeneration at the person, place and community level. To us, this means applying regenerative agricultural practices to steward what we estimate are our 16 footprint “shares” to create a complete and healthy diet supported by a thriving ecosystem and applying sociocratic practices to create a truly collaborative and humane working and living environment.

That’s what the Happiness Project is all about and we invite you to join us.

Whether you are ready to make a commitment to increase your personal quality of life while moving towards a fair share footprint and looking for support or are just curious and want to follow along with the Happiness Project, add your name to the list and we’ll follow-up with project updates and opportunities to connect with others who are working to live these challenging times with integrity and wholeness.