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Surviving + De-powering + Thriving

Surviving + De-powering + Thriving

Many people are stuck in survival mode. We need to slow down, to the relational speed of life. By definition no one is able to do this in isolation. It also can not be achieved by training. It requires lived experience, imagining alternative de-powered social operating models, and educating ourselves in critical thinking tools and de-powered forms of transdisciplinary collaboration.

A thought experiment: Think about everything you have learned about the organisations and institutions of our civilisation, not from what you were taught, but based on what you have encountered and observed first hand – based on your own lived experience. Now take this personal wisdom about how specific corporations, industries, and governments actually operate, and extrapolate it to all the organisations and institutions of our civilisation with which you don’t have any first hand experience. Then reflect on whether this increases or decreases your level of trust in the institutions of modern civilisation, your confidence in the abilities of these institutions to learn and improve, and your overall outlook on the human predicament.

If we all do this thought experiment, some of us may lose all faith in humanity, others will extrapolate from a mix of positive and negative examples, and a few would be quite optimistic, but the statistical averages of all our assessments, across all of us, would actually provide an accurate picture.

I recommend this experiment because over the course of many years of working as a knowledge archaeologist in the digital sphere, I have seen the operational logic of many industries from the inside, in terms of the way in which

  • new services and products are developed,
  • pricing models are developed,
  • some customer segments subsidise others,
  • regulation is developed and implemented,
  • contracts are engineered.

For more than ten years I actually resisted the above thought experiment, assuming that surely things are not quite as bad in the sectors and industries that I had not yet seen from the inside. But you can only do this for so many years before having to conclude that actually the dominant economic paradigm consistently plays out in predictable ways across the operational models found in virtually all sectors and industries.

The common underlying themes that emerge as the main problems across all sectors are the corrupting influence of social power dynamics, the blindness to human individual and collective cognitive limits, and the delusional belief in technological progress that is baked into the simplistic and misguided neoliberal economic paradigm.

For bare survival we need to become pain-fully aware of our collective cognitive limits and the context in which we find ourselves.

For basic human wellbeing we need to identify and clamp down on all established and emerging social power gradients.

To thrive, we need to replace the delusional belief in technological progress with humility and with comprehensible local ecologies of care beyond the human.

To embark on this path of discovery and collective (un)learning requires us to simultaneously pay attention to three complementary time horizons. This article provides a synopsis of important ingredients, but it does not provide a recipe. The most appropriate recipe(s) vary greatly between contexts, and need to be discovered and refined through lived experiences in good company at human scale:


Focus on the here and now


  • Cope on a daily basis
  • Mask and perform within the current social operating model

Arguably the answer to the question of why the mental health and suicide statistics for Autistic people are what they are is staring us in the face – because many of us quickly realise that the best we can ever hope for in this hypernormative civilisation is acceptance of our existence in bare survival mode, performing the function of a mindless busy cog and consumer in the sensory hell of the industrial machine.

More and more people today, and especially intersectionally marginalised people, including traumatised Autistic people, are stuck in survival mode. We all need adequate support to survive, but this is far from adequate for maintaining human wellbeing, healthy communities, and a thriving planetary ecosystem. The need for coping strategies won’t ever go away completely, but if we also collectively find the spoons to work on the other two time horizons, the need for coping strategies will substantially reduce over the coming years and decades.

The following interview of Sheldon Solomon by Ashar Khan does a beautiful job of explaining how the disciplines of a performance oriented culture train us and lock us into operating in survival mode.

Core ingredients for survival:

Peer support – to cope with trauma

Mutual aid – to meet basic needs

Access to healthcare – to recover from illness

Important disciplines

  • The neurodiversity paradigm – to nurture a non-pathologising and re-humanising language
  • Meditative practices – to reconnect our mental and sensory capabilities with our local context
  • Physical exercise – to maintain our physical capabilities
  • Nutrition – to recharge our physical and mental capabilities
  • Sleep hygiene – to recharge our mental and emotional capabilities
  • Biology – to understanding our basic needs as well as cognitive and physical limitations
  • Psychology – to assist our minds to cope with and survive emotional stressors
  • Medicine – to assist our bodies to cope with and survive biological stressors
  • Economics – to become street wise and become aware of systems of oppression
  • Training – to develop skills to perform jobs that allows us to survive within the system


Focus on the year(s) ahead


  • Rediscover the beauty of collaboration at human scale
  • Rediscover timeless patterns of human limitations

To exit survival mode, we need to slow down, to the relational speed of life that is compatible with our evolutionary history. This is hard. By definition no one is able to do so in isolation. It requires us to extend our sphere of discourse. It requires imagination and creative collaboration. It is highly context dependent. It can not be achieved by training. It requires the courage to ask better questions, and to leave behind discipline-specific best practices. Life is not a performance, it is the active participation in an ecology of mutual care.

Some of us have many years of experience with the art of de-powering. Collectively we need to scale up these efforts substantially via education as part of the neurodiversity movement and intersectional solidarity on the margins of society. Even over the long-term, the timeless art of de-powering will remain relevant, to clamp down on social power gradients wherever they start to (re)emerge.

The current level of cultural inertia in neuronormative society can be understood as a profound crisis of imagination. This discussion with David Graeber can serve as a starting point for imagining alternative de-powered social operating models, and for educating ourselves in critical thinking tools and de-powered forms of transdisciplinary collaboration.

The arrow of progress is broken beyond repair. Instead of rearranging the seating order in a powered-up bus, it is time to board a de-powered lifeboat. The chances of survival in a powered-up bus driving over a cliff are slim, and the chances of having fun along the way are zero.

Core ingredients for de-powering:

Open Space – to provide training wheels for developing safe spaces and relationships

NeurodiVentures and Neurodivergent whānau

Sharing the burden of interfacing with the powered-up external social world – to reduce the time spent masking and performing

Nurturing depowered cultural organisms & species into existence – to reduce the need for coping skills

Important disciplines

  • Depowered dialogue – to nurture genuinely safe relationships into existence
  • Daoism – to understand timeless patterns of social power dynamics
  • Buddhism – to practice compassion and non-violence
  • Anthropology – to expand our sphere of cultural possibilities
  • The neurodiversity movement and Autistic culture – to genuinely appreciate the diversity of human ways of being
  • The arts and humanities – to catalyse our imagination and to nurture creative collaborations
  • Sociology – to diagnose and address social diseases
  • Political science – to analyse current systems of oppression
  • Evolutionary theory – to understand life and culture as dynamic processes
  • Ecology – to understand the complexity of life beyond species boundaries
  • Education – to learn how to think, ask better questions, and to develop thinking tools


Focus on the 7 generations ahead


  • Participate in comprehensible local ecologies of care beyond the human
  • Live meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously no matter what

The more communities are gaining experience with de-powered forms of collaboration at human scale as the only viable survival strategy response to climate chaos and ecological challenges, the more the training in masking and performing will fade intro the background, giving way to timeless Daoist, Buddhist, and indigenous wisdom about about the diversity of life, and about the suicidal consequences of tolerating, normalising, and cult-ivating social power games.

At this point in time it is hard to imagine a world where de-powered forms of collaboration are as ubiquitous as powered-up forms of competition are in today’s world. But in good company our sense of humour goes a long way in terms of rediscovering how to thrive whilst continuously eroding the support base of powered-up systems of oppression.

It is time to slam on the brakes, stop at the cliff, and get out the climbing gear, and to have some fun along the way. As the old system is dying, new systems are being birthed as part of the big cycle of life. We can learn a lot from the Congolese forest people and from the life affirming philosophy of Michael Dowd.

Core ingredients for thriving:

Remember who we are and how we got here – to stay clear of anthropocentric hubris

Accept the inevitable, honor our grief – to become part of the big cycle of life

Prioritise what is soul-nourishing

  • to heal from trauma
  • to experience the joy of life

A fierce and fearless reverence for life and expansive gratitude – to be grateful for every day in good company

Important disciplines

  • Humour
  • Indigenous cultures – to build on ancient knowledge and wisdom
  • Non-human cultures – to reduce anthropocentrism
  • Interspecies communication – to nurture compassion beyond the human
  • The art of niche construction – to frame cultural evolution as a creative and collaborative process
  • Earth systems science – to integrate the global knowledge commons

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