The transition from what we know

It’s hard to make the transition from what we know. Even when you think you’re managing it, old ideas will pop up and trip you.

Let me start by sharing a conversation I was in from a few days ago. The other person is someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about urban affairs, and about urban sustainability. They’re aware (which most aren’t) just how fragile most of our systems of survival actually are (and how it wouldn’t take much to make them far more robust).

So when I mentioned that we need to undo zoning restrictions to make it possible for people to work where they live — and work in more ways than “I’m a consultant” or “I’m a writer” working from home — he stopped and just blurted out “that’s not possible”.

That’s a bit of old idea popping up to bite you.

Our ideas are formed into a framework, that we seldom notice, but nevertheless limit us.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his book “Being and Time” (Sein und Zeit), talked about how we perceive things either as being ready to use, or merely present. Most of the time we think about things as they are to be used: we don’t actually notice the hammer we pick up to drive a nail, we don’t notice the razor we pick up to shave with, and we don’t really notice our socks as we put them on.

He also, in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, talked about frameworks, and he pointed out that in the technological framework whole suites of other ideas become closed off and simply never thought.

Three centuries ago, people worked all the time. But few had jobs. The word “job”, in fact, meant something very limited in time. Picking apples in the orchard at harvest time was a job — something you left your work to do.

As technology made it possible to organize work at larger scales, the job became the norm, and work faded from view for most of us, at least in the sense of doing something not as an exchange of money for time.

What a community needs is work, and that means it needs work places. If you watch the documentary A Convenient Truth, about Curitiba in Brazil, you’ll see that one of the five initiatives was to build new urban housing with workplaces included. This allowed the inhabitants to make their living while having a place to live.

Try doing that in the typical city here! It just wouldn’t be possible under all our current rules. What’s more, most people wouldn’t understand why you’re proposing it, since, “as everyone knows”, jobs come from someone else, somewhere else — or you need a business plan, capital, and customers (and one day employees) that will earn money as an entrepreneur.

There’s more to work than the entrepreneur-as-job. There’s more to life than money.

This — the idea that if money’s not changing hands it’s not “real” — is what caused my conversation last week to stumble over the hidden framework underlying this.

For those of us that have understood enough of the changes going on around us to recognize that the society we live in is headed toward a reckoning — call it a collapse, call it a deep structural change, call it an economic revolution, it doesn’t matter — and that we’re going to have find new answers to old problems, the challenge of making a new future has to encompass how we live, how we work, how we trade, and how we do all of this without necessarily having all the supports we’re used to.

If, for instance, our money system is destroyed (whether that’s by hyperinflation, so that we just don’t want the stuff any longer, or by having too many people outside of it looking in, as with Europe’s “half the youth and nearly a quarter of the total population not working”, or by having credit seize up so that although money still has value not enough moves through the system to spend it on (a Great Depression type of period), or even some other problem not seen here (perhaps the collapse of the government that underlies James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand?), then we’re going to have to work (because, frankly, we’ll have things that need doing) but we may not have “jobs” as we knew them.

The framework will have to change. Just like other elements of that framework will end up changing.

It will be exceedingly hard (for all of us) to let that go. This morning, for instance, I wrote a post for one of my other blogs, Getting Value from IT. I’m no longer a researcher, nor a consultant, nor certainly employed in IT — nor, looking forward, do I see myself doing that in future. Yet up popped that post in my mind, pressing me to write it, and so I did rather than let it go. A touch from a framework not yet replaced but merely overlaid by my thinking about the future and what it means.

That’s why, for all of us, our journey into a sustainable future will be two steps forward and a step back — and occasionally punctuated by a step forward and two steps back. Everything around you still reinforces the framework you grew up with, internalized as “the way things are”, and makes it easy for you to see the world as ready to use (and be used) within its bounds instead of seeing what’s present before you as it is or will be.

So don’t despair if, for instance, you find yourself “going back” once you start out. It’s all part of the transition — because until the framework changes we’ll continue to be between old and new.

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6 Comments

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  1. Yes, there is more to life than money, just do not tell that the people of the finance “district” (sic!) …
    And the idea of working where you live is a good idea – economically, ecologically, with more quality time for you and – still more time spent at work. Some people achieve that at the cost of their private life with electronic equipment – that is the gross variety of working where you live. But if you cut out the driving, you have some time to spare for more life AND more work. And your work would naturally fit into your life again – and not be a distraction from things we love to do more.
    The only “thing” I would miss would be my colleagues, humans are interesting, my little human stories on my way to work (mostly annoying, but they make a good laugh afterwards) – and the friendly newspaperseller. 😉

    • There’s no reason either of those has to go away. I go out every afternoon for a walk, which includes a visit to my neighbourhood independent coffee shop. Not only am I giving a little business to my neighbour who owns it, it’s a chance to go and “meet the locals” (it’s becoming more and more like Cheers every week). I also use it as a “meet me” place when there is work to do, such as when my partner in Personal Due Diligence, Neil Morris and I meet up at my end of the city. I did similar things when I lived in Vancouver, with several “meet me” spots around the city.

      • Doesn’t this depend strongly on the type of work you are doing? Can you imagine a barber, a medical doctor or somebody depending on a great variety of tools going out and working there?

      • Yes, it does. There is a barber in our neighbourhood who also sells antiques to increase “regulars” to stop by and chat. A doctor, harder, especially given our provincial health care system doesn’t pay for house calls or neighbourhood “surgeries” (small clinics), but then my doctor does take time during the day to sit at the coffee house across from his office just to chat to others. How you manage it depends on how you want to fit it in, no?

      • Well, barber and doctor still have clients coming TO them, so I think they are ok working from home. But the mechanic?

      • They can, too (if they have what they need: it’s amazing how little really needs a hoist, and that’s the big unmovable item. But better to have a garage on premises (which raises the zoning issue).

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