Starting Assumptions

I attended the first hour and a half of today’s PSU Community Solar-on-State workshop, facilitated by John Boecker of 7group, based on preliminary planning by Jeffrey Brownson, Rob Cooper, Susan Stewart, Tom Keiter, Sarah Klinetob-Lowe, Mike Prinkey, Mark Wherley and Alexander Wiker.

I left when it became clear to me that the unstated assumptions underlying the event didn’t align with energy, environmental, technological and social history facts as I understand them. It seemed to me that I had boarded a train headed somewhere I wasn’t interested in going, and don’t believe exists anyway. So I disembarked.

In my view, if starting assumptions don’t align with reality, the odds of being ready when we get where we’re going – a destination which is largely out of our hands at this point – drop significantly.

If, later in the day, the group discussion returned to the underlying assumptions to identify, question and revise them, I hope someone in attendance will send along an update.

Starting Assumptions of PSU CSoS Event Planners:

  1. The “negative” tone of a room in which people have recently been engaging in tense disagreements is fundamentally different, and less “positive” and “energizing” for people, than the tone of a room in which people have recently been engaging in creative activities. Creativity is “good” and tension is “bad.”
  2. There’s a fundamental difference in character – when analyzing past experiences on projects to which someone was passionately committed – between projects that are deeply fulfilling and projects that are agonizingly painful. The former are “positive;” the latter are “negative.”
  3. There are nine steps to any project: Belief – Philosophy – Principle – Concept – Strategies – Design – Test/Implement – Audit – Evaluate
  4. The planners of the August 23 workshop developed a plan for the meeting including group work to identify the group’s “Purpose,” “Products,” “Process” (including the agenda), and Functional Capabilities.
  5. Shaping the “being-state” of meeting participants – in terms of defining and then shaping their “positive” rather than “negative” feelings about the proceedings – is both necessary for an effective meeting and within the control of event planners.
  6. Humans have the technological capacity to solve global environmental problems. The only reason it hasn’t yet been done is because there hasn’t been sufficient “will.”
  7. Directing the right amount of “will” toward the right goal or “product” will allow us to sustain “our way of life;” “we” are in control of the project, the process and the habitat.
  8. Thus, with a “positive” framing, we can work together to help the “system” achieve a higher level of potential defined as human activities and structures that don’t harm ecosystems.

Different Starting Assumptions

  1. Tension and creativity are the same thing – life moves in the creative tension between what exists right now, what’s dying and what’s being born.
  2. There’s no fundamental difference in character – when analyzing past experiences on projects to which someone was passionately committed – between projects that are deeply fulfilling and projects that are agonizingly painful. If you are passionately committed to something for any period of time, you’ll go through a large range of emotional responses to the work, between the two extremes of deep fulfillment and profound pain.
  3. All projects start in often unspoken assumptions, combined with facts, that together underpin the first set of beliefs. An oft-skipped step is: checking to make sure the verifiable facts support the working assumptions, and revising the assumptions as needed.
  4. Shaping the “being-state” of meeting participants – in terms of defining and then shaping their “positive” rather than “negative” feelings about the proceedings – is neither necessary for an effective meeting nor within the control of event planners.
  5. Establishing the list of tasks to be completed at a meeting, such as identifying the project “Purpose,” “Products,” and “Process,” is itself establishing the “Agenda.” By definition, the people at the meeting are precluded from establishing the agenda for a meeting whose procedural elements have already been planned and scheduled without them. In other words, once a train has left the station from an origin point to a destination selected by the railroad company, passengers can only shape the journey in a binary sense: they can choose to get on the train and, if so, when to get off.
  6. Humans do not have the technological capacity to solve global environmental problems, nor do the vast majority have the political power to override the decisions of the small minority who control political agendas, select goals and implement policy changes to work toward those goals.
  7. “Our way of life” is inherently unsustainable, depending, as it does, on a fossil fuel energy subsidy which is declining in quality, quantity, technical accessibility and ecological and economic affordability. “We” are subject to limiting processes – resource depletion, climate change, economic contraction – that we can’t and don’t control.
  8. The most we can do, at this late hour, is adjust to a lower level of potential – creating a community in Central Pennsylvania that is as resistant as possible to hunger and hypothermia – as the larger systems collapse around us from forces set in motion several centuries ago.

For another interesting perspective, see Peak Oil Bingo as proposed by John Michael Greer.

My responses to some of the early mental exercises led by John Boecker:

1) What is your role “the project?”

Maintaining and stoking creative tension in the community.

2) What is “the project,” as you define it?

Public acknowledgement of the energy predicament, and public engagement in cutting energy use by at least 75% by 2040.

3) What is your greatest area of unrealized potential?

Lack of access to Penn State’s Energy System Master Plan, which I would like to use to foster creative tension within the community.

4) What is the biggest thing standing in the way of you realizing that potential?

Penn State’s institutional culture of power dominance/control, paranoia and secrecy, and the parallel community culture of disempowerment: the sense that resistance is futile.

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One thought on “Starting Assumptions

  1. Katherine,

    I think that in your brief time at the Solar On State conference, you captured the gist of what was happening – that the train’s starting point had already been set in motion without the participants’ input.

    It seems that PSU’s destination, however, is not quite 100% pre-determined – I believe their idea for the conference was to “allow” the community a token couple % points for a say in the journey and end result.

    If Penn State could only see the true power in being completely vulnerable – totally empowering the community to have a veto on whether to move ahead or not, from the very beginning to the very end, for any of Penn State’s ideas, then they would see how that vulnerability could go the distance in building community trust . . .

    Near the end of the conference, after direct questioning by Sarah Klinetob, Walt Schneider and one or two others, Dr. Brownson explained that Penn State (OPP) had already applied for a PEDA grant for solar energy. I remember John Boecker’s comment that maybe these types of items should have been disclosed at the beginning of the conference.

    David Stone and I asked for a copy of the PEDA grant but Susan Stewart and Rob Cooper questioned why we would want to see it since the grant has not been awarded yet. I mentioned that I thought it was public property and that is as far as the request went.

    I spent a lot of time praying for the conference participants and the organizers, and I hope positive things come out of that event.

    -Mike Rybacki

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