The Genius of Crisis

Last night, at dinner with friends, the question arose of how to get people to walk, bike, take the train, when motor-weapon infrastructure is so ubiquitous, so “easy” to access (if your idea of ease is paying thousands of dollars a year to finance, maintain, insure, repair, and store your vehicle; being taxed to fund both the highways themselves and the wars fought for the oil they eat; and spending countless hours locked, nearly immobile, in a metal box that could at any moment become the instrument of your death and/or someone else’s). I said, it’s not gonna happen. “We” are not gonna get “people” to do anything. What brings about big change is our good buddy crisis.

Some communities who value relationship over money generate their own crises – gentle shocks that avert harm.

According to Martín Prechtel, the Tzutujil (among whom he once lived) did this, in part, by using natural materials to build beautiful huts not meant to be permanent: When a family’s hut fell down, the rest of the village would gather – with great enthusiasm – to repair it. “Then,” he said, “the missionaries and the businessmen and the politicians brought in tin and lumber and sturdy houses. Now the houses last, but the relationships don’t.”

The founders of Earthaven invited a kind of crisis, when they chose to settle off grid and honor their land’s water budget. If my water supply, at home in Beacon, were dramatically reduced, such that I couldn’t bathe at will, or flush the toilet – if my Internet cut out at home – if I lost my cell-phone signal – I’d freak. Yet all these conditions were both present for me, at Medicine Wheel, and not a problem. Why? Because the collective weave held them, embraced them. Because each of these conditions promoted interaction.

The genius of crisis is to make us do stuff we want to do anyway but can’t decide to do because we’re bound by hostile patterns. What do I and my fellowbeings want to do anyway? Get the fuck out of our boxes. Reconnect. Relate. Weave a new social fabric whose threads are not financial transactions, but human ties. (Imagine asking your friends for help, when your roof caves in, and laughing with them while you join to make it whole – instead of gnashing your teeth over whom to hire for the job, and the number of arms and legs it’s gonna cost you.)

In the wake of disaster, we marvel at how so many came together, to help each other; we lament returning to “normal,” once the aftershocks have passed. Some of us look ahead with dread to a world of guns and bunkers, brought on by collapse in the face of scarce “resources” (if you were water, if you were soil, if you were air, would you want to be called, considered, a “resource”?). Yet there may also be yearning, among us, for an alternate path out of the bunker we already live in, crafted of lonely rapacity – the path of Getting Back Together (Robert Houriet wrote a book with this title, about the burgeoning commune movement, in the 70s; it’s rare enough that I was not permitted to remove it from the reading room of the library lions guard).

Extraction can’t last. We know it can’t. And deep down, we too value relationship over money. Which means we want out.

We may reclaim the art of generating gentle shocks that lessen harm. We may not. Either way, we will create – we are creating – a healing crisis.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

2 thoughts on “The Genius of Crisis

  1. I’ve been living in the desert without tap water for almost two years. I haul water by bicycle and collect rain off the roofs in buckets. It’s changed how I think and feel about water and also has led to my becoming much more aware of the relationships different plants have with water.

    I could get this changed if I wanted to, but there is something very interesting in how this project has changed me, and I don’t regret it. I might even miss it.

    There is a lot of moisture around here right now from a tropical storm that came up into Baja. I was out biking the other evening after a thunderstorm, rain piled up in the streets, giving my shoes a good washing 🙂 I was thrilled by being around that much water, it seemed miraculous.

    I think of those women in Africa who get stuck doing all the hauling on their heads, and while I would never have the arrogance to compare myself to them, as I am much more privileged, I still doubt I would think of them so often if I had easy access to tap water. And we should think of them.

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