People spend a lot of time and energy trying to achieve consensus, and worrying when they can’t. (Take the climate-change debate, for instance. Many environmentalists are still spinning their wheels trying to convince people who are never going to be persuaded. But even if we could all agree that climate change is real and that it is caused in large part by human excess, it’s doubtful we’d reach consensus on what should be done about it.)
Anyway, consensus is not necessarily a good thing, because sometimes the consensus turns out to be wrong. (And even if the consensus turns out to be correct, dissenting views often contain valuable input for solutions.)
In his appropriate-tech living guide Green Wizardry, John Michael Greer has a section on “dissensus.”
Dissensus, says Greer, “is exactly what it sounds like, the opposite of consensus. More precisely, it is the principled avoidance of consensus, and it has its value when consensus, for one reason or another, is either impossible or a bad idea–when, for example, irreducible differences make it impossible to find any common ground on the points that matter, or when settling on any common decision would be premature.”
If you believe, as I do, that human civilization may have fatally overshot the resources of our home planet — or even if we haven’t hit that marker yet, we are on the verge of it, then living in mainstream society can feel unsettling or downright exhausting, because we are surrounded by so many people who don’t believe any such thing. In fact, many people have never even considered the possibility.
So how are we supposed to go about life? Inhabiting a split-screen universe that seems to require us to keep one foot in business-as-usual mainstream society and the other foot in “preparation mode” — it’s surreal, and at times frightening and exhausting.
How do we know where to invest our attention; how do we know we are making the right choices? Answer: We don’t know. But there are ways of dealing with the uncertainty, and one of the best ways is to try as many things as possible so we have a better chance of hitting on what works. People with different ideas of what’s the right course of action form a vast laboratory; the more people there are trying different things, the quicker we might land on something that works. And what works gets replicated.
One example of something that’s working well right now for both people and the planet, is the “wild yard” fad. People get a break from mechanized noise and the tyranny of lawn maintenance, while the soil and wildlife (and the air and water) get a break, period. If all goes well, the recent vogue for transforming clipped lawns into lush mini-paradises of native wildflowers and tall soft grasses will become an enduring widespread practice.
Bill Mollison, who founded the permaculture design movement together with David Holmgren, used to tell students at the end of a permaculture design course, “Now go out and make as many mistakes as possible!” I think that is the very spirit of dissensus. We just have to get out there and try stuff like mad, and not let our fear of making the wrong choice paralyze us.
In an upcoming post I’ll talk about some of the specific kinds of decisions we face as eco folk, and how embracing “dissensus” can help us, both collectively and as individuals.
This book and its writer have been on my radar for some years. I stumbled on the book in the public library the other day, and after devouring it I ordered my own copy. I have already made a couple of blog entries inspired by this book, and will very likely do more in the near future.