Work For Nothing

It occurs to me that the time and effort many of us have put into the process of moving the county toward a new relationship with its future (one that is proactive and consciously chosen rather than one that evolves spontaneously with predictable, and undesirable, consequences) will produce, if we are successful, nothing. That is, the result of months of work will be invisible; no one will see or notice anything different.

Here, enormous work is being done to convince the citizens of the county, virtually all of whom already agree with the notion, that collectively we should, basically, keep things (read: the population size) more or less what is here, now.

Usually when an individual or a group chooses to do something, there is a tangible, visible result: men land on the moon; a nobel prize is awarded for literature, a new antibiotic is developed. Here, if we are successful, nothing (much) will appear to change.

What's going on? Why so much work to achieve what people say they want anyway, and if the work is successful, there's nothing to show for it? Obviously, we (all) have to overcome some powerful impulse guiding us to do the wrong thing. To actually end up where we already are, we have to work hard to redirect our energies away from doing something we apparently want to do, or think we want to do, or actually don't think we want to do. We're chipping away at something, by habit, by not-thinking, where each little chip seems small and inconsequential to the whole but is apparently helpful (that is, not obviously harmful) to us as individuals. A simple example is smoking. For many people it is a habit. If you ask them why they keep doing it, knowing what they know about its health consequences, they'll say they know they should stop and indeed many say that they wish they could stop. I believe them. I suspect that it is hard to stop. Very hard. My mother smoked for 50 years. She got lung cancer and after half a lung was removed, she still smoked. Redirecting that energy is not something one does 'intuitively' or 'spontaneously.'

I am reminded of an article I read decades ago by a professor of engineering at MIT. It was entitled "On the counterintuitive behavior of social systems". The professor was asked to be a consultant to large companies who were trying to solve manufacturing problems, and every time they thought they knew what was the bottleneck, located the problem area in their manufacturing process and 'solved' it, the system got worse! The article pointed out that complex systems are counterintuitive, that doing what is 'apparent' or intuitive almost always makes things worse. The conclusion: spontanaeity, 'natural' behavior, 'just going along', intuition, will take you somewhere, of course, but generally not where you think you want to go, especially if 'you' are a system (like a county).

Part of the problem here is the same one faced by Hamlet in his soliloqy on suicide: no one knows, and for certain things, like killing yourself, there's no coming back to report on what its like. So people often keep doing what they know, since that is easier (or is it merely safer?) than trying something that they don't know (and might not like). Suicide is an extreme example, since most other things you can recover from. Take food. Do you try that new asian food that you can neither pronounce nor recognize or do you go for the hamburger? If you do try it, you can be fairly sure before you take your first bite that you won't die. The downside risk is a bad taste. What's the upside? Something delightful!

Now let's move to something both bigger and more serious. What about redirecting the habitual energy, the nonthinking energy that ratchets us toward a more expensive, more crowded, less diverse, less beautiful community? We've obviously got an impulse to keep on truckin', even if we say that we don't like where we're going! Are we nuts?

No. Like the smoking example, it's hard and we've got no models, no inspiration, no success-stories to help us make the mental transition from one set of habits to another, healthier set.

Journey of a Thousand Meals

Every journey into new territory has to begin somewhere. Generally that somewhere is in the brain, where the idea is hatched and the means to implement it is noodled. But ideas are wisps that disappear like morning fog unless they express themselves in the feet. Redirecting the impulses to chip away at San Juan County does not have to mean destroying lives, ruining economic value, hurting people, or a host of fantasized (but never demonstrated, much less proven) negative consequences. It's not the problem that Hamlet faced. It's more like the problem my mother faced. It might even be thought of as the problem the diner faced when deciding whether to try a strange food. It's not going to kill you. You might actually find that your secret fantasy ("I've always wanted to go to Japan, see the country, experience what it's like to live there, even eat the food") could be realized, even with a small, tentative start. Rephrasing this, you might actually find that your secret fantasy ("I would love it if San Juan County could somehow stay this small, this beautiful, this special") could, with tentative, careful, and consensual cooperation, be realized.

Your job: take the first bite.

© 1995 Joe Symons

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