• Fyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Dr. Chong Kee Tan: a Collective Narrative

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, June 15, 2022, a group of systems change practitioners gathered for the seventh peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Dr. Chong Kee Tan.

Participants’ reflections were recorded and processed according to the Collective Narrative Methodology to create a balanced summary of key ideas that showed up in group discussions using participants' own words and giving every participant an opportunity to ensure that their ideas are included.


We would like to thank Dr. Tan for all his thoughts and for the brilliant articulation with which he shares them. In our conversations, we especially shared appreciation for his post “Are you in denial about the impending collapse?” which names a lot of important things that need to be named, like the fact that on the large scale—the scale of societies, cultures, and nations—we say that we are going to act, but we do not actually back it up with real plans most of the time and even when we do, there is no legal mechanism to ensure that these plans will be executed.

Some of us have been following Dr. Tan’s work for many years and have been really enjoying talking with him, reading his articles on Medium and Facebook posts, and learning about issues that he articulates and presents in a way that those of us who know him find very helpful. Others in our group are just learning about Dr. Tan’s work and while we had different opinions about how his ideas can be applied and how they are communicated, all of us really appreciate his work. One particular reaction that resonated with some of us was that so much of Dr. Tan's thinking, so much of what he is saying resonates for us from a language that is not ours, and we spent a considerable amount of time unpacking that.

Is “doom and gloom” a helpful tone for prompting effective action?

Discussing the article on the impending collapse, we talked about getting more concrete answers about what we should do from now on given the upcoming disaster that Dr. Tan so vividly describes. For some of us the tone of the post felt very doomy, like, “Oh, things are going to be really bad”, and while there was no doubt that they are going to be bad, some of us thought that it would be more productive to tap into what we can do in the face of harsh things. How do we survive? How do we build resilience? How do we tap into the power of collective intention and collective will to move through this very challenging time and not point fingers at each other, but say, “You know, we're all in this together. The only way out, the only way through is together”?

At the same time, others argued that we see value in this “doom and gloom” because we are so interlocked with the global systems that are driving us towards collapse that the false hope of techno-optimism or even social optimism basically allows a lot of people, especially in privileged positions and in privileged places, to keep living the lifestyle that is actually ruining our collective future because it feels like the problems will be taken care of collectively or simply by some other people. We can even see ourselves as part of the solution because we recycle or do other similar things and it is tempting to think that since generally we have hope, there is no need for us to do anything beyond something that is convenient or fun. So some of us think that embodied awareness of the practical inevitability of a civilizational collapse could really compel a lot of people to make the sacrifices we need to make.

It is not really clear though how we can find language and strategies to do the work of transition or adaptation on a necessary scale with collaboration across different constituencies, across different locations. How do we use the facts of science and find the right tone to make sure that we are clear about people acknowledging the responsibility for not doing things? If someone is standing on the railway and enjoying the sunset while the train is coming at them not doing anything is not the best choice. And it is a choice. So how do we make people aware of the train that is coming but at the same time do it in a compassionate way so they do not feel like we are just envious of them being in good mood, enjoying the wonderful view?

Is homesteading the best answer for 8 billion people?

We also wonder if knowing all that Dr. Tan knows he thinks that homestead is the best possible answer to our challenges with climate for 8 billion people or if it is only relevant for certain groups of people. And if it is the latter, then what should the rest of us do? If it is the former if he thinks that the homestead is relevant for everybody, that this is the best solution out there, then how does he think it should be organized?

One popular metaphor that we discussed is humanity being like an airplane in the air moving at a very fast speed but this airplane cannot stay in the air for any much longer, so the best we can do is land it as safely and with as few casualties as possible. We need to reduce emissions and make our life simpler, more sustainable, and more realistic because currently, it is out of touch with reality. So if we have billions of people on this airplane, is homesteading the best answer?

Who can benefit the most from Dr. Tan’s specific background, location, and experience?

One idea that we discussed in this context was that Dr. Tan’s approach can be really useful for people that are in similar kinds of situations or have similar pasts. He is coming from a very specific orientation: before the last five years, his biography is full of other kinds of experiences that are very urban, very tech, very management, etc. so we talked about how grief processes, naming that grief, and really moving through it in some ways could be helpful for some people who have these kinds of experiences.

This perspective that Dr. Tan’s work is really oriented toward a very specific audience made some of us especially appreciate the article about his personal learning from the transition from being a consumer, buying food from a supermarket to now being able to produce food for his own consumption. In this article he was able to lay out a real learning process, the process of what it was like for him to have that experience and how it transformed his own thinking, yet some of us would still love to hear even more about how this transition feels on a personal level and also whether Dr. Tan encountered any institutional challenges implementing his approach to producing food for self-use such as quality check required to ensure that the food he is producing meets certain standards set by the state or federal government.

So how does Dr. Tan think he is able to speak to, be heard by, or be a reference point for other people who may have similar experiences to him? What are the benefits of his work for the other people that he can reach? Who does he think those other specific people are? What pieces of what he is doing are actually available to a specific constituency? How is his location really different from a lot of people and really specific?

What does Dr. Tan’s message mean for people living in very different circumstances?

The consequences of the climate catastrophe will be unequal for people in different places. People who need to make most of the sacrifices actually will be less impacted by the consequences than people who have very little if any sacrifices to make because they already live under harsh conditions and consumed very little, and when their place becomes inhabitable, they will have means to relocate and find a new life on their own.

People who now live in Hong Kong or in certain areas of India and Pakistan, for example, are not only dealing with high population density but also with the fact that those places will become much hotter within 20 years so people might not even be able to live there, let alone farm. What is the best solution for those people?

And even thinking about the United States, what can work for those of us who do not have the resources to buy a piece of land and begin farming our own food? What if someone is living in a city working two jobs to keep a roof over their head? How can ordinary people in those kinds of circumstances move towards sustainability? How many of them can move to Oregon to join Labishire Homestead Commons or other similar communities? What does it look like to create green permaculture cities where food is readily available so that we do not have to depend upon transporting grain for 1500 miles. Is that even possible?

Which elements of our current systems can we leverage and how do we work together?

How can we think about not just ourselves and our own sustainability, but also about our communities and about people, in general, moving from self-sustainability to community sustainability? This is important because depending on oneself can work, but for how long can it work if everyone else around you is not able to accommodate themselves? So how can we get from the point of thinking outside the box to literally putting the box aside and thinking of new ideas to produce a sustainable ecosystem for ourselves if not on a global scale, but on a communal scale?

Collaboration is not unique to our global Capitalism, humans collaborated for a long time. And collaboration is a good thing because while not everybody can be totally 100% sustainable and self-sufficient, through collaboration we can support each other. How this can be done and at what cost to our planet is an important question though, because at least trans-regional collaboration has traditionally been associated with air travel that produces huge carbon emissions but recently we have developed technologies that make cross-regional collaboration possible without travel.

So while we need to let go of what is harmful or useless, how can we select things from our current reality to be able to leverage what is actually useful for either transition to a radically better future or for deep adaptation to the climate catastrophe? Do we leverage certain technologies? Institutions? Capital? Political power? If we think that we are stronger as a collective and we can achieve certain things as a collective because we are a political and social subject this way, what are, from Dr. Tan’s perspective, the best and most efficient collective actions that we can try and what are the potential roles of harsh authoritarian measures versus sacrifices and contributions made by aware and motivated individuals given that we have practically no time left?

We also discussed how the specificity of Dr. Tan’s experience can be considered not only a limitation but also a benefit because those people who he might be able to reach are a critical constituency. How do they get supported in making their own transitions? And how do we find commonalities in languages, in discourses that are emerging in very specific groups of people and how do we use them? How do we support each other in the learning that is happening in all of our different communities similarly to what this TLST environment is intended and designed for?

What can we learn from civilizations that collapsed in the past?

Finally, we also had a question related to ancient cultures: has Dr. Tan studied civilizations like that of Easter Island and other civilizations that disappeared? Does he know why this happened and if there is any relation to what is happening with us now?

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