Answering the Call of Epic Times
Even casual observers of our world have figured out all is not normal and well. Some futurists have even coined a new phrase: “Post Normal Times” (PNT), to describe what is happening. They say PNT is characterised by issues and dynamics that defy normal behaviour and normal categories. They argue three Cs dominate: complexity, chaos and contradictions. It signals an in-between period, where the rules of the past no longer hold, but a new order has yet to emerge. Some might argue that we’ve been through many disruptive periods, but it is hard to deny that this period has radical implications for the future of humanity, and we are going through major transitions that are unprecedented and fundamental.
- We’re experiencing a planetary ecological crisis, precipitously driving a 6th mass extinction event and (if sufficient changes are not made) is on the cusp of making Earth unliveable / miserable for humans — the Holocene (a period of relatively stable climate) is ending.
- The future of work is is at a crossroads, with automation, robotics, AI and cosmolocalism set to transform work, production and industries.
- The idea of intelligence is no longer the providence of humans, but now of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and many other species — we see a decentering of humanist presumptions.
- Rights are no longer just human rights, there are now Earth rights, rights or rivers, dolphins, ecosystems, and even some say the moon, ready to be protected by lawyers.
- Ideas of gender and sexuality are changing and forcing us to rethink assumptions about identity.
- Our economic systems and models are in crisis, typified by employment precarity, inflated land prices, rising inequality, fragility, financialization, legalized ponzi schemes and crypo/NFT-scams.
- The nation state system not only lacks the capacity to deal with global scale problems, in many respects it generates them: tax havens, globalized mafia, nuclear proliferation, economic (industrial) competition, state backed risk generating technological innovation. And we see the emergence of transnationalism and planetary response strategies.
- We see a relative decline in the power of the USA and West and rise of China, Asia, BRIC nations and along with this latent feelings of white supremacy are also being challenged. Beyond ethno-nationalism a new story of what is means to be human is emerging.
These changes might elicit excitement in some, but for many they just experience an “existential terror” that lead to what educator David Hicks calls the “psychology of denial” — meaning that instead of engaging with these issues constructively, people use defence mechanisms to cope with them: denial, minimization, conspiracy theories, entertainment, Othering (creating “enemies”), nostalgic / back to the past reactions. These coping mechanisms are like a drug, they make people feel good while the problems remain un-addressed and get bigger. The populism that has swept the world over the past 6 years, Trump in the USA, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and many other examples, are a clear expression of this.
Therefore despite the unprecedented crises we face, there is often a personal and collective inability to face up to and deal with these challenges. Despite the untenability of the present situation in many domains of life, many pretend that all is as it should be, what can be described as “hyper-normalization.”
Hyper-normalization is a documentary by British filmmaker Adam Curtis, which drew on the ideas of professor of anthropology Alexei Yurchak. Yurchak hypothesized on the contradictions he saw of living in the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s. Even though everyone knew the system was broken, people could not discuss, let alone imagine, another system. This created a shared denial-delusion, as people pretended things were normal, this pretending reinforced the appearance, belief and enforcement of a false normality — what he called hyper-normalization.
Hyper-normalization describes what we are experiencing today all too well. The status quo is vigorously maintained by advertising, incumbent institutions and by our collective instincts to avoid the pain of change. We are being told that things are normal or to act normal even though we see mounting evidence that the present is untenable or unjust.
Hyper-normalization also reduces the temporal context to only the present. There are two aspects to this. First, many people are just absorbed by things that focus us on the here and now and that stop us from questioning the status quo. Jobs and children are demanding, and at the end of the day we often just want to turn on the streaming channels and let the algorithms take over — temporal exhaustion.
“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future” — Elise Boulding
For others the power of the present is expressed through the thing we want to buy next, whether a gadget, home appliance, or some other pleasure fix. But there is also an ideological aspect. People can be afraid of change. Despite ample historical evidence, some people might prefer to believe that things have always been this way and will always be “this” way. Or people might also believe that despite some of these contradictions, this is still the best or only possible system.
Fundamentally however, hyper-normalization relies on a taboo in questioning and challenging the status quo, (and implicitly a taboo on imagining and articulating alternative futures), such that each of us is quasi-sleepwalking (and complicit) through a situation that we silently know to be untenable or wrong, and yet everyone pretends it’s all fine, further enforcing the shared illusion.
If hyper-normalization is a state in which there is no past to draw from and no future to reimagine (making the present unproblematic), then temporal conscientization is its opposite. Temporal conscientization describes the process of understanding social change knowledgeably, and reimagining oneself and community / society through an expanded sense of time. Temporal conscientization means becoming sensitive to ‘epochs’, the unfolding of history and contemporary social change processes, and becoming aware of what our collective role is in the transformation of our society and our world.
Elise Boulding was one of the great conceptual pioneers of the 20th century, one of the founders of Peace Research and Futures Studies and was one of the early innovators of the idea of an ‘extended present’. She developed the idea of the 200 Year Present to address this contraction in temporal imagination.
“A favorite concept of mine is the 200-year present, a way of thinking about change. The 200-year present began 100 years ago with the year of birth of the people who have reach their hundredth birthday today. The other boundary of the 200-year present, 100 years from now, is the hundredth birthday of the babies born today. If you take that span, you and I will have had contact with a lot of people from different parts of that span. So think in terms of events over that span and realize how long change takes. You can see how difficult it has been to create these bodies and new ways and how in many ways we are slipping backward; but in other ways we are not. I take comfort to know that super-power hegemony has a very limited lifespan (decline and fall of Rome, the Ottoman Empire).”– Elise Boulding Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Ideas of temporal expansion and conscientization both predate and post-date Boulding’s 200 Year Present. It’s well know for example that the Haudenosaunee / Iroquois believed that we should consider the consequences of our actions and decisions seven generations ahead. The great social movement champion Paolo Freire wrote that: “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world, from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform” (Freire 1970,34). A better future can be fulfilled to the extent that historical trends, issues and themes are grasped by people. For Freire ‘critical consciousness’ meant awakening to the key themes of the time, and thus being able to intervene ‘actively in reality, to humanise and transform it’ (Freire 1973, 7). Freire believed that the human as an “object” has been moulded by the forces of the present to serve its ends. The human as a “subject” has distinguished him/her/them self from time, and understands the era in exhaustion and the era emerging, and themselves as an actor and agent in historical and social change.
We often find it difficult to reimagine ourselves in Time because imagination is bound up with story or “narrative”, a compelling telling of how change has happened or will happen. Narratives are sticky, often hard to see (unconscious) and bound up with our identities — so they can be hard to change. This is the role of methods and approaches like Causal Layered Analysis, Narrative Foresight, Macrohistory and geological / planetary / cosmic time-scales, to help us to shift the narratives we imagine ourselves in. One of the gifts of the Futures Studies field is the rich study of alternative futures images. Each of these images of alternative futures provides us with an opportunity to imagine a new story or narrative, and to help us to reimagine who we are and might be.
The Meaning of Epic Times
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who lived through The Holocaust. He experienced true horrors at the hands of the Nazi and SS and in the concentration camps. The Nazi and SS were truly despicable. As described by Frankl, not only did they subject Jews and others to horrific physical brutality and abuse, that often ended in death, they also intended to mentally and emotionally break, demoralize and destroy them — which meant destroying their will to live. They would stop Jews doing things that would emotionally help other Jews, stop them from singing songs together, practice their religion, and stopped them from providing basic moral support to each other. If someone wanted to kill themselves, the Nazi‘s would prohibit anyone from talking to them and dissuading them to do so.
Frankl’s insight, which he documented in Man’s Search for Meaning, was that the only way to survive such a horrific experience was to generate a sense of meaning and purpose, even in the face of a horrific experience, seeing one’s loved ones and friends killed, and being told by the camp SS that their lives were worthless and meaningless. Frankl’s purpose in the camps became to observe and document the psychology of the camps and inmates. As a trained psychologist, he had the educational background for this, and it is what drove him to persevere. And, again, what he discovered was that the one thing that allowed people to survive in such horrible circumstances was a sense of personal meaning, and that even this unimaginable situation required a sufferer to give meaning to it.
Epic Times is a way of giving meaning to what we are experiencing in the 21st century and beyond. Of course this is incomparable to anyone who experienced The Holocaust, but we can still learn from Frankl. Epic Times is fundamentally about meaning, about generating meaning in the context of the great challenges, transitions and changes we are undergoing. His insight tells us that we need to unpack and create the meaning of this era for ourselves, personally and collectively.
An “Epic” is a story that is often grand in scale, with a complex of characters, heroes and heroines, friends, allies, obstacles, villains, and monsters. Epics are of course fictions and are not to be believed as real history, and yet they provide us with some important clues and narrative elements for creating personal and collective meaning for our times.
Using the Notion of Epic Times to Generate Meaning
Epic Times is a framing for who we might be and become in the context of the great challenges and changes we face. Epic Times provides a meaning structure to reframe who we are from meaningless receivers of change and circumstance to meaningful agents of change and shapers of new circumstances.
Fictional epics are “heroic or grand in scale or character.” And yet we can also say that the non-fictional challenges we face are great in scale and character, and will require us to rise to a challenge that we currently do not know how to solve. Our challenges are indeed “epic”. Epic also does not imply that resolving any one of our challenges is easy, like a super hero who singlehandedly uses superpowers to make it all good. However, like an Epic we have a meaningful role to play, personally and collectively, as real agents of change, to engage with and help resolve the challenges that we decide to engage and participate in.
We can also say the “epic” issues that we decide to address have a historical origin, a present situation and possible / alternative futures (which are still unresolved / unfulfilled). There is a story there that is still unfolding, people involved, forces at work. It is a rich space of change, filled with tensions, conflicts, obstacles, challenges, synergies and complementarities. The timeline element is significant and powerful. It tells us what has happened, how we got to where we are at, and what is lacking and needed to progress the situation, in story terms what is next in the plot-line.
In his great work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell showed the outlines of what he called “the heroes journey”. In historical epics, typically a problem emerges in the community that draws the hero or heroine away, in the hope of discovering a solution. The story of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grain is one example of this. Trouble stirs and a quest ensues to find a solution, what Campbell called the “elixir” — that which heals the wound felt by a person or a community.
Being Called Forth by Epic Times
Eco-psychologist Joanna Macy writes that when our hearts break open to the world, when we can feel the pain or challenges of the world, we are called forth into a journey, or as Campbell suggested a quest, to find a solution to that pain or problem, and to play a part in healing the world.
Epic Times is a narrative space that says a number of things: 1) there is a great story of change which is unfolding, 2) there is a real challenge or problem that needs to be addressed that we feel in our hearts, 3) we are/you are/I am being called forth to address that, to heal that, to participate in the change, 4) we/you/I have a role to play in addressing X, Y or Z issues, as part of a broader process.
Epic Times cannot be presumptuous. In Epic Times we are not all-knowing or all powerful, but rather feel vulnerable and precarious. There is definitely a challenge that we don’t know how to solve. It requires guile, cunning, inventiveness, creativity, boldness, courage. This journey will test us. We may fail stages, but must get up and persevere through the journey.
The Mutant Futures Approach
Epic Times is the temporal context for the Mutant Futures Program that I have been running since 2016. Mutant Futures practice is about bringing forth and mutating selves, futures and methods from opening our hearts and answering the call of Epic Times. Epic Times demands two things from us: 1) new selves and 2) new strategies / tools / methods. It requires us to be different and do different.
First, Mutant Futures asks us to consider what new selves the future is asking us to grow, nurture, bring forth. Epic Times tells us that the selves we use now are not adequate to address the challenges our hearts have broken open to. These selves are not adequate to the plot line and the task. It is asking us to examine our identity (self-image) and persona (expressed image) and consider what selves we may have disowned, and what new configuration of selves are needed to play a useful role in the story of our Epic Times. What new selves, persona and role is Epic Times asking us to bring forth?
Mutant Futures also asks us to consider what new methods/tools/strategies need to be developed to address the challenges of Epic Times, as we define them. Here Einstein’s aphorism (roughly paraphrased) holds true, that the solutions of the past will not be adequate to address the problems of the future. Such are the challenges of Epic Times, it is calling forth a new level of creativity, innovation and experimentation in finding novel solutions. What new methods / strategies / approaches is Epic Times asking us to develop to adequately address its challenges?
Qualifying the Call of Epic Times
Does Epic Times mean we take on all the challenges and crises of the 21st Century? Of course not! That would make most of us crazy and overwhelm us. Epic Times as a meaning framework allows us to define the dramatic shifts we want to play a role in on our own terms. It can be limited to playing a role in a sector or theme (public health), or playing a role that is multi-theme but based on approach (the design space, etc), or really any way that we define a change that is grand in scale or character where we want to play a part. Epic Times only work if the framing is empowering for us. If that is within a community setting, then that is perfect, if it is across government, or business or other, perfect again. It must be defined by each of us in a way that is useful and empowering.
Even though Epic Times takes on the narrative structure of the Epic, it does not mean one is all by themselves, a solitary hero or heroine. I consider this notion to derive from a misinformed understanding of how change actually happens, or derived from core cultural stories (e.g. the Jesus / messiah complex). Throughout history, we can see that change has required an ecosystem of actors / change agents to play a part together. Systems are complex, full of resistances and inertia, vested interests, multiple worldviews, often conflicting or even contradictory forces. When we answer the call of Epic Times we are deciding to play a part in the plot line and story. There are multiple other actors, some which may be friends and allies, and others that may play other roles. We decide the type of Epic we want to play a role in and the definition of these roles, but we will still be in a “theatre of change” with other actors. An empowering way to consider this might be through the words “fellowship”, “movement”, “community”, “team” or “ecosystem”, any other term that helps to bring us into relationality in respect to Epic Times.
Finally how can we insure that the changes we represent are beneficial for the world? There have been many people through history self confident in the idea that what they were doing was good, but in fact created vast messes and harms. The engineer Thomas Midgley, Jr. was confident in inventing and promoting lead gasoline and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but which helped to drive lead poisoning crisis and ozone layer depletion. Edward Teller was hell bend on inventing ever more powerful nuclear weapons, which led to the hydrogen bomb, and contributed to the geopolitical standoff of Mutually Assured Destruction between the great powers.
There are ways to ensure what we are creating will do more good than harm. How does our solution work within a systems view of the world, and how does it impact or influence the web of life, the living systems that we are a part of? Does the solution fall into “used futures”, old visions that lead to solutions working less and less effectively? We can also test our ideas, assumptions and experiments within the community of stakeholder that will be influenced by them, to see where the bind spots are. In general, creating an experiment is a safer way of testing the influence of an action, model, etc. to see how it plays out. Finally, does what we are creating generally conform to conventional Ethics?
We live in extraordinary times, however it can be hard to see this in the day to day hum-drum of life. Or we may see it but it can be hard to act in accordance with this knowledge. We therefore oftentimes get the feeling of being “split”: climate change is an existential threat but what am I doing about it? Social media is driving polarization but here I am trapped in the same path dependent ecosystem of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin etc.
Epic Times and Mutant Futures provide conceptual and narrative frameworks and methodologies for considering the epic stories we want to play a role in, and for mutating selves and methods in service to these Epic Times and the alternative and preferred futures we want to create.
*Info on the Mutant Futures Program can be found HERE
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