by Gene Miller, November 2010

Mike Littrell viewed history as the story of a culture’s effort to confront and heal its wounds.

Mike Littrell, cultural mythologist, died in hospice at the Royal Jubilee Hospital late in September, a month short of his 62nd birthday. He had a good death, though still a grief-filled loss to his friends and a loss to the world; but, then, time runs out for all of us and nature has a habit of being annoyingly vegetative and indifferent to sainthood.

Mike was a student of the history of conflict: a war historian. To talk with him was to be taken on a journey through time—the long arc of human history—filled with references to Greek and other myths, the Roman wars, catastrophic events and more, as he toggled between the deep past and the present. He was in a state of perpetual intellectual fever. You had to climb down to normalcy and the everyday after a talk with Mike, but tatters of your conversation with him would stay in your thoughts for days.

He gave you a way of understanding what the human mob was all about, and central to his thoughts was the idea of social and personal safety and security—relevant concerns then and now (and an elegantly simple explanation of the basis for social conflict). He painted in big circles and struck me as a cautious pessimist: someone who understood human wiring and knew that we repeat our tragic patterns, but who hoped we could order our current conduct in ways that would make us more stable and safe in the future.

He was president of International Operations for the original Earth Day and more recently was advising the Obama campaign during the presidential election and offering formulations—key phrases and strategic ideas—that would enable Obama to tap into the deep worries of the electorate in these messy times. He lived long enough to savour Obama’s victory and then to witness the plunge of hope into the political swamp. I can remember Mike and 30 others, crowded into my living room the night the election results poured in, cheering as the good news accumulated and voters in state after state signed on to a fresh page in American political and social history. I also remember him deeply involved in “Resilient People”—a sub-conference within the 2009 Gaining Ground/Resilient Cities conference in Vancouver a year ago—already in crippling pain as a tumour grew inside him. It was his thought even then that the best humanity could hope for was an adaptability in the face of ecological and other stresses it seems helpless to correct.

I’ve written about Mike in previous columns, and described his belief that every society and human community has a kind of creation myth, a narrative mixing its history and values…its idea of why it exists and what its mission is. It was his view that a culture accumulates wounds—unresolved conditions in its past—and that history is in part the story of a culture’s effort to confront and heal these wounds, or its failure to do so. He believed there was no shortcut to safety and that these were arduous missions, difficult in their broad social telling and their execution. A US expatriate, he saw the American Civil War, the Vietnam War and the more recent misadventures in the Middle East as prime examples. He was able to make the events and policies leading to 9/11 comprehensible as inevitable ideological outcomes of economic colonialism and cultural mastery. He could explain the destructive, self-reinforcing spiral of American belief in a biblically sanctioned destiny of personal freedom, and limitless consumerism. He made your culture and history live in you.

In his last weeks in hospice he was in steady communication—face-to-face and by telephone—with Eric Rasmussen, a US-based expert on the subject of catastrophic public health events who advises the likes of Hilary Clinton and presidential hopefuls. Mike was transmitting the ideas of his MPAN theory (the acronym stands for motivation, proportionality, alignment, narrative), a formulation for understanding how people react to conditions and opportunities in states of change, and to high-level threats like pandemics, natural disasters, economic collapses and all-gathering human conflicts.

He and I were working on the draft brief for the October 2011 Gaining Ground conference, subtitled: Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us. It was a source of some regret to him that he would not be alive to participate in that event, and I would joke that he was “letting the side down” by dying inconveniently. Strongly influenced by Mike’s ideas about how to foster conditions for change, Massive Collaboration is concerned with: Decoding social norms and our tolerance for brinksmanship; the search for powerful common language and narratives of safety and security that will promote the shift toward community, consumption modesty and mutuality; promoting strategies for linking communities and constituencies with different belief systems but common interests to each other to build more powerful and effective networks; designing campaigns for large-scale social change.

In a world filled with baristas, accountants, carpenters, store clerks and scribblers like me, Mike was something rare: a political philosopher. His work was thought. He lived modestly in a small, anonymous studio suite in James Bay and his days were measured by ritual coffee and lunch dates with various friends—principally at his haunt of choice, the Days Inn on Belleville. Most of us are tossed about by the news of the day: events are hard to contextualize. Mike had the comforts of history and his ability to reach into the long past to make the present coherent.

I wonder what Mike would have made of the future that’s rushing toward us. Glimpses of that future were revealed by two speakers at the recently concluded Gaining Ground conference: Gordon Feller who represents Cisco, a global market leader in urban systems information management, who talked about the emergence of “an Internet of all things,” and Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue and author of the recent Whole Earth Discipline, who painted a future before a horrified and restive audience of energy from nuclear, terraforming, genetically modified food and geo-engineering of weather systems to manage global warming. 

Into this projected future of fresh risks and novel opportunities for calamity (Brand privately told me he doubts we’ll make it as a species), Mike likely would have invoked old metaphors and narratives minted early in our long history, and relevant again as we tempt the fates anew.

Mike, sorry you’re gone. Tomorrow definitely would have caught your attention.


Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.