Originally published on 4th August here.

Suspended in time. She was reading another one of those Medium articles that pop up on the radar, something about futures and systems change. “What a juicy combination of topics”, she thought to herself. “Maybe this time I’m going to come across something I haven’t seen before”.

She paused, realising she had been reading and re-reading the same sentence over and over. Her mind was wandering, and she couldn’t catch enough of it to focus on the actually meaning of the sentence. She read it again.

“We have an opportunity to re-imagine human and planetary flourishing, and to achieve this, we need radical hope.”

Mmm. Yes. We definitely need to do that. She felt the small dopamine spike happening somewhere in the murky waters of her mind-body-awareness on reading the words “radical hope”. Radical hope is so much what we need. Yes! These words feel familiar and right, like something she has thought about many times. She thinks back to how many times she has talked about the ‘need to reimagine’ something.

And then suddenly she heard a voice in her head interrupting:

What does that actually mean?

What does it mean that ‘we have an opportunity to re-imagine…’ — like we didn’t have an opportunity before? Or people have not been constantly re-imagining everything throughout time? And that it is possible to “achieve” human and planetary flourishing?” Suddenly the mirror broke. She could almost hear the sound of shattering as something cracked.

The voice continued, “It doesn’t mean anything. You just go round and round…. Face it. You’re all stuck. Stuck in a hall of mirrors.”

“What do you mean?” she asked the void. Intuitively, in the space beyond language and reason, she felt that this voice was right. But why?

Surely, these things are important. If we could just create the perfect combination of words… To inspire change… If we could just tell a big enough story, it would wake people up. (The words already sounded hollow before she’d thought them). We definitely need inclusive progress… But inclusive progress towards what? Surely what we actually need to do is stop a very large proportion of the things we are doing, instead of yet more progress?

Again, the voice. “You’re all going round and round in a weird delusional matrix of social change speak and flourishing and thriving and re-imagining and renewal and all sorts of bullshitspeak (think of it like newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, but for social change). All of you who have dedicated yourselves to social change, got to this place because you’re in a mass state of dissociation from the trauma of realising that it’s almost impossible to ‘change the world’ on the scale that’s needed, and the timeframes available. You know that. I know that.”

The voice paused momentarily, but then continued, “Really, what it looks like is getting on your knees and planting trees. There’s really nothing to be done instead of most of these fake change-projects”

There was a silence. What could that mean? It’s so romantic and easy to imagine everyone just planting some trees, what about the huge systems of power and structural inequality and decision making? And then she realised something:

It’s scary to think about that because it feels like if we as changemakers take our hands off the wheels it’s going to crash. If I don’t do this work who will? If I go and plant trees for the rest of my life what if I miss the opportunity to really change things? What if I can find the lever or leverage point in the system?

The voice continued, as if still in conversation, “That’s exactly the problem. You think you will find a magical “leverage point” that will magically change everything. You sound like those who became sick looking for the elixir of immortality. You are sick with how desperately you want to save the world. And it’s not a bizarre response at all. You have every right to feel desperate to make this world better… The systems of oppression you are complicit in by being alive are hellish. But this desperation is also what is leading you to be trapped in dissociated loops of pseudo-change.” ……

Her eyes re-focused. There it was again.

“We have an opportunity to re-imagine human and planetary flourishing, and to achieve this, we need radical hope.”

And then she caught herself. She took a deep breath, closed her web browser, switched off the screen, and went outside.


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Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.

Some of the comments I have received on this article:

“It’s what goes through my head 20 times a day. Uncanny.”

“Person A: Feels a bit defeatist. Individuals have achieved great things.
Person B: This is somebody who has achieved great things, in deep reflection. I like the pragmatic take and I do think there’s a secret negative optimism at the centre.
Person C: I feel it reflects the scale of the challenge that someone like Phoebe is trying to take on. Sometimes, together, with support, we can imagine and start to lever these big changes (e.g. regenerative agriculture). Sometimes, when alone, when you’re just Zooming and reading articles about ‘imagining the great turning’ etc etc, it feels impossible. They just feel like words. Someone like Phoebe (and I identify with the ‘she’ in this) constantly asks ‘what does that mean? what does that look like?’ when we hear those words. And it’s exhausting.
Person A: Well, I’m doing this too!”

“The ending says it!
“And then she caught herself. She took a deep breath, closed her web browser, switched off the screen, and went outside.”

“Whoa. One of those articles that crystalises existing half formed thoughts into something tangible. Excellent.
Solidarity evoked in bewildered desperation.
There is clarity as to what to disengage from when hopelessness cuts through. Active hopelessness.
There are less levers than shovels — but there are levers.. and a shovel is essentially a lever.
A necessary invitation to catch oneself.
Deep breath. Off.

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.