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Human Finitude, Expansive Possibilities

abundance of vegetables at a city farmer's market

Recently I found myself feeling hopeless, surrounded by news of the concentrated power of concentrated wealth. How, I think, can we ever thrive in the face of such richly resourced opponents? But in fact, we know how change in complex systems really happens. Even as concentrated wealth dominates conventional political processes, people everywhere are busily, skillfully, and creatively making a different future. They are writing the narrative, building the relationships, mastering the skills, and solving technical problems.

Last week I attended two presentations by people who have been at this work for more than twenty years. They reminded me that this work is happening all over our planet.

On Wednesday I was at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum for a panel discussion to launch the book Beyond Conflict. One of the panelists was Roelf Meyer, the government representative in the negotiations that ended apartheid in South Africa. He is white, a one-time believer in the apartheid system who saw the suffering it caused and committed to end it. Another panelist, Jose Maria Argueta, braved the Guatemalan dictatorship to develop open discussions that led to the end of the long civil war. They spoke of their experiences of working toward peace in what seemed like intractable situations of civil conflict.

What was most remarkable was not the content of their presentations, but their manner. They did not boast of winning. They talked about respect, trust, fear, humility, the common good. They talked about exclusion as a source of conflict and the necessity of inclusion if there is to be peace. They talked about dissent as a crucial component of democracy. They talked about the process of enemies meeting one another as persons and about how long the process of ending a conflict can take. They spoke of getting over the fear that peace is a sign of weakness.

Through the organization Beyond Conflict, they and dozens of other leaders who have worked from conflict to peace offer their stories as resources for other rebels, guerrillas, dictators, terrorists, freedom fighters and dissidents who are ready, maybe just barely, to try something different.

I could feel my resistance rising as they talked about sitting down with dictators. I am quite sure the dictators have a hard time imagining themselves sitting down with guerrillas. I want to say that “they” must be defeated if we are to have justice. Listening to these practitioners speak of transcending their own state of enmity, I am reminded of the both the value and the difficulty of my own peace practice of non-enmity.

Is their organization perfect? Far from it. Women are underrepresented in their ranks. Their work does not overthrow the dominance paradigm utterly. It offers no magic formula, just laying down arms where they are, and generally growing humanity’s skill at figuring how to do so.

The next night I listened to Brian Donahue, an associate professor of the history of agriculture and a farmer. He is one of a growing community of food activists who not only envision, but plan and create a food system based on sustainability and on food as a human right. He practices the rigor of a scholar, suspicious of stories of a golden past, working to calculate how food self-sufficient New England could be, and what that might look like. I was impressed at how free his thinking is of neo-liberal market assumptions, dogmatism, and apocalyptic predictions.

He is clearly calculating a future with little fossil fuel use, yet he approaches it as neither utopia nor dystopia. It is simply as another set of variables to be tested for a picture of how we might live well. I appreciated how he combines scholarly rigor with farmerly pragmatism. The future he imagines is present in how he does his work now, in harmony with the earth, as part of a team, cooperating with others whose vision leads in the same direction.

Brian’s demeanor, like that of the panelists the previous evening, was both humble and hopeful. A future like this is possible, he points out. Let’s work together to develop it, he invites.

I am reminded that peace and abundance are possible. The head to head power struggle is not the only or even the most important point of change.

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances and Publications
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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