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The Dam and the Canal: A Parable
On Programs, Stories, and New Minds
“If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with new vision. It will not be saved by people with old minds and new programs. It will not be saved by people with the old vision but a new program.” - Daniel Quinn, The Story of B*
Audre Lorde coined the famous and oft repeated phrase, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Jeff Gibbs, in his film Planet of the Humans said, “Will the tools of industrial civilization save us from industrial civilization?” And Derrick Jensen told us, “What do all of the so-called solutions to global warming have in common? What they have in common is they take industrial capitalism as a given, and the natural world is having to conform to industrial capitalism.” “Fighting fire with fire,” is an expression we all know, yet, we have a hard time recognizing the nuanced ways that we try to solve problems under the same pretenses that created the problem. This is because the nature of how this culture understands itself and humanity’s place in the world stems from an epistemology that is largely unquestioned and taken for granted as perfectly normal and reasonable.
Only it isn’t. It is a novel experiment which has had the power to terraform and alter an entire planet in the span of only a few thousand years. Therefore, our solutions derive from certain assumptions about ourselves and the world we live in. These assumptions, however, are largely incorrect or lacking in context.
In The Story of B by Daniel Quinn, he discusses difference between “vision” and “programs.” “Vision,” he says, “is the flowing river. Programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede the flow.” When we think of the many current predicaments our species is facing, it’s tempting to want to spring into action immediately and try to create programs that will improve our current conditions. As we can see, many of these programs are short-sighted or narrowly focused. We solve one problem, only to create a dozen more. Shifting vision, however, is akin to changing how we see the problem itself. It broadens our context beyond putting out fires and attempts to imagine something we’d like to move toward.
The solutions we seek as we move toward a future that humanity can flourish and sustain within, with justice, peace, and reverence for our relations outside of our own species, must go deeper than what seems easy and obvious. We must transcend the familiar. The problems we face are extra-mathematical and irrational, and the responses we have must be able to hold more complexity than we feel capable of holding. We have to break free from the conditioning we have all inadvertently acquired and unlearn all of the nonsense that impedes our ability to imagine a new vision of the world.
Imagine human society is a river, whose headwaters have been dammed and straightened into a canal. For a long time, most of the time, we had been gliding down the river, around its many bends. There were few of us, and there was room for all in the river. We sang songs and laughed. At some point, a handful of people decided that this was all wrong. These people thought they were very smart, and they knew that at some point, we would reach an incredible lake of not only abundance and prosperity, but also the Elixir of Life. They felt it was backwards and disorderly to follow the current where it wanted to take us when there was such a noble pursuit ahead. They grew impatient. “I’ve got it! What if we stopped this meandering down the mountain and instead made this river into a straight line?” They swam ahead and constructed a dam. It was a lot of work, so they enslaved some people from other parts of the river to construct it. They enslaved even more people to construct the canal below. It took hundreds of years, and eventually, nearly all of humanity found themselves at the reservoir: a colossal dam had been constructed before them. They were shocked to see that the water was bright green with algae which surrounded them. Many people grew ill and died. The men who created the dam pointed them toward a tube and told them this was the way out. Many people looked back up the river and struggled against the current that would lead them back to this terrible place. The dam creators were angered by this display of resistance against their innovation. As they led people through the tube, they also hunted the detractors down.
Eventually, all of humanity had passed through the tube, whether they wanted to or not. The bones of ancestors were left behind, and with it, stories of a different time. Only a few elders held onto the stories, from before, but they knew in order to survive, they had to stay quiet until the time was right. They watched the dam builders kill their kin, so they passed the stories down the generations in secret and prayed in whispers. Though many didn’t see it, their resistance was strong.
The world of the canal was strange. We could sense that this world was nothing like what our species had known previously, but most of us couldn’t remember what it had been like before we crossed the threshold. It was always on the tip of our tongue, though, that this isn’t how things always were. Concrete walls shot up on either side of us as we floated down. Things were okay for a while. On the peripheries of the canal we could see birds and trees and all manner of creatures. They helped us remember where we came from. Slowly at first, and then very, very suddenly, the width of the canal grew and extended across the horizon. We stopped seeing as many birds, and only rarely saw wildlife. We started to forget even more rapidly than before. This distance between the creatures outside of the canal and us began to concretize in our minds. We talked amongst ourselves and invented a term called “nature” as a way to distinguish between that world and the world within the canal. Even as the creatures drank from the waters and the birds flew overhead, we saw ourselves as separate: in totally different domains. Children were told that nature was a chaotic and dangerous place, and they grew up believing that the only way they could find safety was to stay within the canal, no matter what. The canal kept getting wider and wider. The forests and grasslands around the canal were clear cut and stripped of everything they had to keep growing the canal.
We started to get more crowded and we stopped singing. Instead, we began to fight amongst each other at worst, and merely tolerate one another at best. People killed people every day. Diseases spread between us, and many people died, but many were also being born. People began to wonder what the point of this world is. Why is there so much sickness and murder? There was something within so many people that said, “Something isn’t right. This isn’t the world that my body expects.” The men who created the dam noticed these whispers of discontent. They devised a story, and began to whisper it into people’s ears as they slept. The story spread around, and people started to say, “This world is far better than where we came from. Where we came from was like a hell on earth, where every day was a struggle to survive. We are lucky to not live there anymore. We are lucky to be protected from the world outside the canal, and anyway, where we are going is a paradise where no one ever dies.”
For the most part, people tread water, trying to stay afloat. This story helped them continue living the way they were, but even if they wanted to live another way, most people couldn’t. The current was too strong and omnipresent. Still, there were some people who look around and could not believe that there could be a time worse than this. They felt deep within themselves a sense that something had been taken from them long ago. Some of these people chose to end their lives, and the body count grew.
A few despairing and privileged souls decided to swim ahead for a very long time. When they came back, exhausted from swimming upstream, they warned of something horribly dire. The men who constructed this canal ages ago did not pay attention to where it was leading. They hastily built it, believing it was heading for the beautiful lake, but no. The canal is leading all of humanity right off a cliff in which all of us will perish. “We must stop floating down this river!”
Many people didn’t hear the warnings. Their paddling, trying to stay afloat, was too noisy and they were too exhausted to focus on anything other than that. Others just didn’t want to listen. Their parts of the canal were cleaner, and they enjoyed benefits that many others didn’t. They declared, “That’s ridiculous. This is how life has always been. We’ve always been headed towards a beautiful and idyllic lake where things will be better.” They called those who swam downstream Cassandras and turned away from them.
Others heard the warnings and were rightly alarmed. They started shouting at people, saying the end is nigh. Much splashing around ensued. They started building barriers along the canal in an attempt to divert the flow. Certain areas of the river were sacrificed to these efforts, and the people in those areas were sacrificed, too. “Perhaps if we slow the flow,” they said, “we can reroute the canal to the lake of abundance, prosperity, and the Elixir of Life.” They cut down trees and built little dams, but the flow of the current was too strong. It just washed everything away.
Many of the younger people heard these warnings and despaired. Not only did the canal feel alien and artificial to them, but now they hear the news that it’s headed for a cliff? Many took their own lives. Many more subjected themselves to slow deaths of self-annihilation. Others continued treading water as their parents before them had done, and their parent’s parents had done.
Some of these people saw this splashing around and suicide and couldn’t help but to ask, “How will we stop the flow of the canal from within the canal?” They looked around at all of the failed attempts to stop the flow. This was perceived by many as a blasphemous thing to ask. To most people, the canal was the only thing that had ever existed. The idea that there was anything beyond it was simply insane.
Those who still carried the old stories spoke up, and they spoke of the time before, when the river was a river and the water was clean and there was enough food for everyone. They talked about the history: how the dam came and all people were forced into the canal. Some people stopped treading water long enough to listen. Some people refused to believe their stories. Others found no value in it. The despairing youths, however, said, “Yes! I thought I was crazy… I thought that there was something horribly wrong with me for feeling that there was something wrong with this canal.” They started to share these stories, and other people called them “romantics” or “anarchists.” Some of these people plotted swimming upstream and blowing up the dam. Others looked around at all of the innocent people treading water, just trying to survive, and feared the downstream consequences of such an action. Many of these people swam to the edges of the canal, at the behest of the elders. To their surprise, the walls were shoddy and cracked. They looked over the concrete walls. What they saw surprised them even more than the crumbling walls.
Much of the land was scarred, but a resilient sort of beauty could be seen sprouting up through the dirt, and the small green promise of new life swayed sweetly in the breeze. Eyes peered at them from behind the trees. Prairie dogs stuck their heads out of their holes. The birds were singing songs that somewhere, deep inside them, they already knew. The land breathed and the people peered through the ferns and past the willows and they heard, faintly, the roaring of another river. Rushing down from the same headwaters, the same world we came from: a new and ancient place to belong.
The rest of the story remains to be written. Granted, this is my mythic story, and a rather flattened and generalized one at that. I have an idea where I want it go, and plan to spend the rest of my life trying to work out how we get there.
That’s the thing about “vision” though. It’s a movement toward something, even if that story hasn’t been written yet. The future is inherently unknowable, but vision assists in the creation of the future we desire, whereas programs generally don’t challenge the status quo sufficiently. In Beyond Civilization, Quinn puts it more succinctly: “If the world is saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all.”
“Programs” such as precision fermentation, “green” energy, carbon markets, and even economic reforms are insufficient because they do not tackle the issue of vision. They merely take for granted the current vision, and all of its pathologies, and attempt to resolve certain details that are causing strife. What undergirds all of these programs is a vision that is incapable of persisting into the future due to it’s fundamentally fragile pretenses.
As Daniel Quinn says in The Story of B, programs such as these are not inherently bad, but they are inherently reactionary. “They always follow, never lead.” They are reactions to a problem whose genesis is beyond the narrow vantage of the program.
“Recycling is a program,” B said. “Supporting earth-friendly legislation is a program. You don’t need new vision to engage in either of these programs.”
“Are you saying these programs are a waste of time?”
“Not at all, although they do tend to give people a false sense of progress and hope. Programs are initiated in order to counter or defeat vision.”
Taking the example of recycling: recycling doesn’t attempt to solve the problem of plastic pollution: on the contrary, it justifies the continued creation of single use plastic objects. As is described in The Conscious Universe Revisited by Robert W. Astrue, recycling is known as a “quasi-solution” and the affect of continued plastic production is a “residue problem.” The fact that most plastic from the West is in fact not recycled, but rather dumped in China or Indonesia is also a residue problem. Quasi-solutions are often techno-fixes, that is, a bandaid on a gaping, gushing wound. Quasi-solutions invariably lead to residue problems due to their inability to address the problem at its source, usually because our conceptualization of the problems are understood through the filter of the “vision” upon which all of our assumptions are predicated, or to continue the metaphor, the canal we are floating down.
The “vision” we are currently operating under is complex and multivalent, but it can be flattened in a number of words: the belief in Man’s ability to control the universe. The allegory of the canal is meant to illustrate the hubristic need to order and straighten out the Earth for what we consider to be rational pursuits: in our case, the arrival at some utopian future where we are in total control of life. This vision has been carried from generation to generation via the education system and other mandatory facets of civilization. In many cases, this story has been enforced as a tool of colonialism. Masked as it was in Christianity, this “vision” has become secularized under the language of scientism, rationalism, and other very respectable points of view, but the essence remains the same: Man has the power to control the world. That is his ultimate destiny
We have been sucked into a seemingly inescapable current that is leading us towards a cliff. It’s not hyperbole to say such things. While most people are sufficiently versed in the concepts of tipping points as it relates to climate change, far fewer people are aware of the other, much more catastrophic tipping points this “vision” has created. Whether it’s insect armageddon from pesticides, loss of languages from colonialism, nitrogen pollution from fertilizers, ecosystem destruction from development, or the growing divisions between human societies, we have a million problems that will not be solved by fixating myopically on climate change indicators such as CO2 emissions, and in some instances, will only be worsened by the attempts to lessen them. We rightly fear things such as the collapse of the Doomsday Glacier (the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica), but we turn off our brains when we’re offered EV’s, 3D printed meat, and sustainable fashion as “quasi-solutions” to such a gargantuan problem, of which this glacier is only one small facet. We consume the new programs with our old minds, and residue problems proliferate from them. Products labeled “climate-friendly” or “future-proof” sell us the illusion that we are doing something meaningful to shift the direction of the canal. What we don’t want to face is that the canal itself is what is causing the carnage.
What is the canal? Communists will say the canal is capitalism. Anarchists will say the canal is industrial civilization. We say, rightly or wrongly, that all of these things are merely manifestations of a particular quest: the quest to defy death via the totalitarian control over nature. Rather than living in the hands of the gods, and the uncertainty that that brings, we have attempted to banish the gods and have decided to live in our own hands. We chose order, certainty, and deathlessness, all while pretending that those things can ever actually be achieved. We have attempted to control the uncontrollable.
In order to demystify the living world, you have to desacralize and depeople it. You have to start to believe that the world is not a living organism in order to treat it like a commodity. Industrial civilization and capitalism alike share this same particular neurosis, which justifies expansion, conquering, and treating the living community as resources to be extracted rather than relationships to step into. Both have separated man from the rest of the world and latched onto the concept of “the environment.” Both have justified the colonization of the hinterlands and all of the people within them, and both have posited those people as barbarians at the gate who need to be civilized or exterminated. But beneath both is this quest toward something beyond the greed that most people assume to be an inherent aspect of human nature: a striving for control of the world, borne of fear.
Regardless of whether humanity is able to climb the walls of the canal (and maybe even start blowing up the concrete from the other side), we have a considerable amount of repair to do. The devastation wrought by the creation of the canal is by far our most pressing concern, and without asserting our will to live outside of it, it will come back to subsume us all. The power of this story is immensely enticing and it has the propensity to corrupt everything that we do moving forward if we aren’t diligent. We cannot jump in the new river with one leg in the canal.
What I believe is imperative for us to get clear on now is how much we don’t like living in the canal anyway. Movements like “anti-work,” the rise of people returning to subsistence and communal living, and the masses of people refusing to send their kids to mainstream schooling indicates, to me, that many people have already peered over the crumbling walls of the canal. While some movements are more reactionary than others, the overwhelming disgust with the current paradigm has allowed these people to move forward toward something different.
In this way, “survival” must be more than a thrashing against what we don’t want to see. We cannot rely on reactionary programs, to which Quinn writes, “Vision doesn’t wait for something bad to happen, it pursues something desirable. Vision doesn’t oppose, it proposes.” In order to not be reactive, we must be proactive. In order to be proactive, we must be responsible. In order to be responsible, we must be ready.
“Is it so easy to change a cultural vision?”
“The relevant measures are not ease and difficulty. The relevant measures are readiness and unreadiness. If the time isn’t right for a new idea, no power on earth can make it catch on, but if the time is right, it will sweep the world like wildfire.”
We don’t know what awaits us in that other river, but we know where the canal is leading us. Perhaps, if enough of us start to notice the cracks and enough of us abandon the waters we’ve come to know, we might find something far more incredible than the paradisiacal, death-denying promised land of the canal’s vision.
Perhaps we’ll find life.
Written by Maren Morgan
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