May 14th, 2002

The Chinese word for crisis is written by joining two ideograms together. When these ideograms, are presented separately they stand for danger and opportunity.

Crisis-chinese word:

DANGER–Danger of injury if we humans fail to understand. Danger of extinction if we humans act in ignorance.

OPPORTUNITY–Opportunity for growth if we humans understand. Opportunity for survival if we humans act in knowledge.

The following radio address was presented on Radio National, a part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in 1998. 


Grasping Our Opportunity in Time

Robert Theobald

The purpose of this set of six programs is to bring you a message of hope. I shall argue that we are capable of making a profound positive shift in our thinking over the next few years. The heart of this shift would be for us to conceptualize the twenty-first century as the healing century just as the twentieth will certainly be defined in the future as the economic century. I shall prove that only a change toward a more caring and compassionate culture at all levels from the personal to the ecological can avoid massive breakdowns.

I am all too well aware, however, that the message of hope I intend to send will only be welcome to those who are aware that the current directions of the global culture are unacceptable and unsustainable. If you still believe that our current commitment to maximum economic growth and international competitiveness, based on ever-increasing technological competence, will solve our problems then my message will seem pessimistic and, indeed, highly negative.

I am convinced that we face a set of unavoidable crises which are already visible to those who care to look beyond the dominant headlines. These crises are due to our past successes rather than our failures. We have achieved what we wanted to. We have, unfortunately so far failed to recognize that it is now time to move on and to seize the new opportunities which are currently available to us. We urgently need to rework our concepts of success.

Fortunately, the Chinese have taught us that crises bring both danger and opportunity. Danger predominates when we ignore changing realities as our dominant mass communication systems are doing today. Opportunity emerges when we commit to breaking the psychic trance that numbs us at the current time. The internet is proving an increasingly powerful tool for this work. I hope during these programs to support the mindquakes we need if we are to understand the radically different world which is already emerging around us.

I shall start the development of my ideas by talking about the economic, social, environmental, moral and spiritual crises of our time. I shall show that there must be profound shifts if we are to avoid the breakdowns that threaten our future. I shall move rapidly through this part of this first talk realizing that I shall not convince you by my arguments if you are not already in sympathy with what I am saying. The second part will deal with the processes that will support the discovery of a radically different future.

But before I can even start on the description of the crises I need to say why we are forced to move rapidly in new directions. The core reality of our time is that we live in a period of rapidly increasing stress. It has developed because the twentieth century has seen a profound change in all the realities of our world but neither our institutions nor our visions have kept up. I believe that we should have a clearer view of our situation if we defined the last twenty years as the “decades of stress.” This stress is occurring at three levels. First, the increase in hours on the job. Second, the fundamental changes in the way the world works, most of which are currently being ignored by decision-makers. Finally, the fact that our deep understandings of reality are shifting under us in ways which make industrial era institutions seem increasingly irrelevant.

What are some of the primary changes we have seen in the last 100 years? At the beginning of the century, the population of the world was 1.6 billion. It is now 5.85 billion. We have moved from an empty world to one which is already pressuring space and resources and will do so more severely even if the most hopeful assumptions about population growth are realized. And yet there are still powerful voices that refuse to support the need for decreasing births as rapidly as possible. There are also major efforts to lengthen life expectancies: if this should occur then current estimates of the likely world population are much too low.

Each of us has seen this shift in our own lives. We have moved from predominantly rural living to the cities – projections argue that we shall see 35 million people within cities across the globe. We need to ask if this is possible without major social, health and environmental breakdowns when a large percentage of these 35 million people will certainly be poor?

In this same century, we have moved from a world where natural resources, especially air, land and water were relatively abundant, to one where shortages loom and are already causing havoc in certain parts of the world. At the same time, it is clear that the wastes from our technological, industrial culture are having severe impacts on the quality of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe: many diseases are becoming more frequent such as cancer and asthma. Nevertheless, many powerful institutions still refuse to recognize the need for more intelligent development and growth strategies.

The capacity of humanity to increase the availability of resources continues to increase: we may be able to find substitutes for the natural resources we are using up so rapidly. Our ability to manage the wastes we are producing is far more problematical. And we cannot, without moving off the planet, find more land, water or air.

In this same century, we have moved from a world in which access to information was still severely limited to one in which we are all drowning in infoglut. And yet we act as though it is desirable to publish still more words which few people read and even fewer absorb. I am convinced that when information doubles, knowledge halves and wisdom quarters.

The question for the twenty-first century is access to the needed knowledge and wisdom — not the generation of more words and concepts. People need to be able to find the information they need to make sense of their own context and realities. The challenge is not to find a master theory but rather to enable people to develop the skills which enable them to make sense of their own lives at the individual, family, neighborhood, community, bioregional and global level.

In this same century, most of those in the developed countries have seen their standards of living increase to the point that more “stuff” does not add to our satisfactions. There is a growing commitment to breaking out of the consumption race – a trend which has shown up over recent Christmases as people refuse to buy, buy, buy. However, given the way that our socio-economic system is currently organized, a surplus of supply inevitably leads to unemployment and, eventually to a depression.

In this same century, more and more people are recognizing that there can be no single correct view of the world. Competing viewpoints now strive for acceptance. None of our traditional understandings enable us to deal with these radical divergences of view. We are now learning to explore the skills of dialogue and common ground work in order to close the gaps in understanding. This will prevent conflicts from escalating into violence.

These new skills do not mesh with traditional top-down methods of organizing societies. Our current institutions are based on the belief that people at the top should have the power to coerce and dominate. These institutions are now increasingly ineffective because people no longer accept that traditional leaders have the ability to decide how they should live their lives. The ability of governments, business and the media to control the evolution of thinking is diminishing rapidly. Grassroots opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment is one example of this. The inability of the Clinton Administration to hide opposition to its Iraq policies is another. The internet is slowly organizing as an effective instrument for the expression of alternative views.

In this same century, our understanding of how the world is, and should be structured, has changed dramatically. Scientific theorists no longer believe that Newtonian models of reality can be used to describe complex human and natural interactions. They are moving to new explanations such as those contained in fractal, chaos and complexity theory.

It is this last shift which is perhaps the most dramatic, although largely unseen solvent, of past realities. We have lived in a world which we saw as mechanical and predictable. We are discovering that interactions are far more complex. Large efforts can have no effect if conditions are stable. Small shifts can create massive changes if systems are instable. As we shall see throughout this series, our culture is radically out of balance. This means that the choices each of us make, individually and collectively, can have more effect than we would normally think would be possible.

It is these shifts, and many others, which are bringing about the crises I shall now describe briefly. These changes are irreversible. A new world is already being born around us. We can choose to ignore its imperatives and suffer terrible costs. Alternatively, we can work with the positive forces that are already developing to create the higher quality of life which is possible for the future.

The Economic Crisis

Economists have managed to hide the most basic economic reality from the public. To listen to current discussions, one would think that the real issue is how to produce enough. In reality, the core problem for over a hundred and fifty years has been how to ensure that demand kept up with production so that factories could keep humming and services would be purchased.

The solution in the nineteenth century was for the colonial powers to send goods to their dependencies and to accept debt in return. The United States and Australia also benefited from this strategy. The early twentieth century approach was to provide workers with a living wage.

The late twentieth century strategy has been to encourage people to go into debt. Demand has also been generated by the movement of people in many poor countries into the middle class. On the other side of the equation ever-increasing inequality makes it more difficult to maintain levels of consumption.

Demand has also been maintained by high levels of investment in certain developing countries, notably the Asian tigers. The current Asian crisis has exposed the dangers of the strategies which have been used over recent decades. There is now massive overcapacity in the world in many areas of production such as computers and automobiles. Many of the countries of the world have far more office buildings than they will need for many years.

It is now possible for Asian countries to sell goods at prices far below those achievable by Western producers. The consequences of this reality seem potentially far more serious than most analysts seem willing to recognize. We may well see deflation rather than inflation: this can carry acute dangers for economic systems.

I am not predicting a recession or slump; there are far too many variables to be sure about the future. I am arguing that the comfortable assertions we have so far heard about economic fundamentals in the developed world being sound seem to me to contain a high level of wishful thinking. Unemployment rates in most of the rich world are at levels which would have been seen as unthinkable as little as ten years ago. In the United States, which is the apparent exception, the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor continues to broaden very rapidly.

The Social Crisis

Regardless of our economic future, it is now abundantly clear that the existing social system is currently producing profoundly dangerous trends. The overwhelming world-wide direction is the development of a super-rich class in all but a few countries. At the other end of the income ladder more and more people are becoming mired in poverty:

Within this overall pattern, there are different developments in various parts of the world. Growing unemployment in many parts of the world is leading to increasingly acute xenophobia and the dangerous increase in the acceptability of extreme right-wing nostrums which deny the fact that we live in an interconnected world.

In the United States, levels of unemployment have indeed fallen to levels which were considered impossible at the beginning of the nineties. But more and more jobs are at low income levels and do not provide benefits. Poverty problems are hardly being touched by the apparent prosperity of the country and the demand for food is outrunning the potential of food banks. Hardship continues to spread and charitable giving is falling rather than rising.

Some countries previously poor are growing rapidly in economic terms. But the current pattern is that most of the population remains mired in poverty while a small proportion enters the middle class and some people become super-rich. The social contracts in these areas are being disrupted by the growth patterns and discontent is growing rapidly. The euphoria in the Asian Tigers is turning to disillusionment in many cases.

Finally, there are all too many countries where poverty has worsened over the last twenty years. The gap between the wealth of the rich countries and the penury of the poor nations has become even more extreme. At the same time the amount of money that the rich countries have been willing to provide in aid has declined.

It is my judgement that these trends will intensify so long as we maintain the paradigm in which we currently think. It is also my judgement that these trends must lead to massive breakdowns not only through social unrest but also because of massive epidemics of old and new diseases. The threatof the four horsemen of the Apocalypse riding again is all too real.

The Moral Crisis

I do not personally understand how anybody with a moral conscience can accept the trends which are currently developing. Many of you will have seen the coverage of the Calcutta slums which were shown in the period before the Mother Theresa funeral. Is there nothing which will shock us into a realization that we already live in an intolerable world?

I am told that things have to get bad enough before we shall be prepared to change our thinking and our actions. On my worst days, I fear that human beings can accustom themselves to anything. We are prepared to turn our eyes away from the massive tragedies in the world and hope that they will not affect us.

There are some people who argue that there are no absolute standards of morality. While I agree that the West has all too often aimed to impose its own beliefs on the rest of the world with disastrous results, I do not accept that there are no standards which transcend national boundaries. Finding out what these are is one of the core challenges of the next years and decades.

There is a positive vector to human behavior. Survival in the twenty-first century will require that we move forward, not backward, in our commitment to each other and to the natural order.

The Ecological Crisis

The response from most economists, politicians and business-men to what I have said so far is, of course, well known. All we have to do, we are informed, is to be more committed to what we have been doing for the last twenty years. The medicine we have been taking is good for us: the doses have just not been large enough.

Fortunately, I am an economist and I can tell you that this attempt to demand unquestioning obedience to a set of destructive dogmas is based on blind faith rather than reason. The strategies which are being tried will not yield positive results however ferociously they are applied. We have been hoodwinked.

At some point, our increase in population and production will overstrain ecological systems. The argument about when this happens is not yet settled but this statement is unarguable. Some believe we have already moved beyond sustainability. Others think that there is still some flexibility in the system.

The harsh truth, however, is that we shall exceed ecological limits at some point in the next century unless we move beyond an economic system which is only viable on the basis of materialism and maximum economic growth. And as we do not know where the real limits are, the only prudent course is to move as rapidly as possible to limit population, production and wastes.

The Spiritual Crisis

Those people who concentrate on economic statistics are seeing the end of the nineties as a golden age. Those who look more broadly at the overall realities of our time bemoan the fact that leaders are not taking advantage of the current economic prosperity to deal with the crises I have described above. They argue that the failure to look beyond the immediate is undermining our capacity to produce a high quality of life for the twenty-first century.

There is broad agreement on one issue among those who look at the future – there will be enormous change in the next decades. It is the direction of this change which is not agreed. The argument is between those who believe that economic growth, supported by technological change, remains the wave of the future and those who are convinced that the true crisis lies much deeper and can be best described as spiritual.

I am one of those who holds this latter view. I am aware that the word spirituality is still booby-trapped for many people. The essential point I want to make is that our current emphasis on what can be measured and owned is disguising what we all really want and need from life. I believe that we are hungry for authentic relationships with other individuals and with the natural world. I believe that we are mammals and that we cannot escape our long evolutionary history.

This does not mean I am a technophobe. But I believe we can no longer assume all technologies will automatically benefit us. Rather we must learn how to make decisions in ways which will enhance the quality of life of this and future generations. Our challenge is to find the future which will enable the continuation of the extraordinary journey which has taken place on this planet over millions of years.

Technology is a powerful tool for dealing with specific issues. It is so powerful, indeed, that it is all too easy to forget that all changes have second, third, fourth and further level effects. Our society has all too often been blind to the consequences of the technologies that we have blithely introduced seeing only the positive first level impacts and not the further implications.

Discovering the Future

It is easy to fall into despair when one recognizes that the current ways we think and act are disastrously flawed. Indeed some spiritual counselors would argue that a black night of the soul is necessary to move to a point where one is willing to contemplate the level of changes which are required to shift our consciousness sufficiently to discover an alternative way of facing the future.

I want to propose to you this afternoon that the only way to break out of this monstrous set of problems is to conceptualize the world in which we live in a totally different way. I want to talk now about four overlapping steps we have taken over the last fifty years to understand the need for fundamental change. People are at different stages of this shift and, depending on where they are, react differently to material which they see or read.

I am doing to concentrate on recent dynamics. I am very well aware that the challenge to current ways of thinking goes back for decades, centuries and indeed millennia. There have always been those who have denied humanity’s attempt to dominate nature and its belief that we lived in a controllable universe. Goethe and Ruskin, Blake and Morris are only four names from an illustrious heritage. There are many books which will provide this background for those who want to get a fuller sense of the historical record.

I am going to suggest that there have been four “acts” in a drama which is increasingly taking center stage. These acts overlap and interpenetrate but it is helpful to keep them separate. The first of them has been the challenge to the dominant industrial-era viewpoint that determines our ways of thinking. In 1964, a group of us sent a document called The Triple Revolution to President Johnson: it argued that weaponry, computers and robots and the drive toward human rights would force fundamental changes in the culture. The novelty of the approach, coupled with a generous helping of luck, led to a blizzard of publicity. I believe that we advanced the inevitable debate by about a couple of years and opened up the issue of alternative futures.

Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave continued the challenge, picking up on an idea in The Triple Revolution. The thesis was that there had been two major previous shifts in the way humanity saw the world: from the views which prevailed in hunting and gathering times to agriculture and from agriculture to industry. He suggested that a third wave was bearing down on us which would inevitably alter all of our assumptions and behaviors. Today, there is a growing tendency to argue that there has been one dominant mode in human thinking which started when it was assumed that it was possible to dominate nature.

Both of these statements were made in the sixties. The seventies were dominated by the oil embargoes which threatened the dominance of the Western world. Into this supercharged atmosphere came a report from a new group called The Club of Rome. Entitled, The Limits to Growth, it set out the reasons why growth could not continue for an unlimited time.

I was at the press conference and meeting which launched this document. Indeed, I knew the person who worked on its release in Washington, DC. We had a major disagreement. I argued that the message which people would take from the book was a deeply pessimistic one. He hoped that the ending would cause people to recognize that the predictions of the volume could be altered. My experience over the decade convinced me that I was right.

Human beings cannot live with pessimism. They inevitably look for potentials. The inevitable reaction to the challenge to the growth model was to reinforce it and to come up with rationales for continuing the current system. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan were prime movers in reestablishing the faith in current systems. By the nineties, those who challenged the current belief patterns were told firmly that there were “no choices” and that we needed to stay the course in order to be successful, and indeed even to survive in an increasingly competitive world.

But now the voices being raised to challenge the dominant view are increasingly vociferous and influential. United Nations Conferences on population and the environment have made it clear that current directions will be disastrous. Increasingly eminent groups of scientists, including Nobel prize winners, politicians and academics call for new directions.

These challenges, dating back to the sixties, have opened up Act 2 in our current drama. More and more groups are no longer controlled by the apparently dominant rhetorics of the power elite. Indeed, there has never been as large a gap between the views of those who dominate formal communication channels and the general public. This gap is beginning to become visible as the connectivity of the internet becomes more and more effective.

Act Two emerged as people realized that the dominance of a single viewpoint – that of white males could no longer justified. I remember the first time I became fully aware of this reality. I was reflecting on the motto of the New York Times “All the news that’s fit to print.” And I saw that the view from Black Harlem, which was close to where I was living at the time, would be profoundly different from that of the editors who made the decisions about what would appear in the paper.

It was indeed the Black community that first demanded a different view of reality in the United States and elsewhere in the world. They argued, and continued to argue, that their history had produced a profoundly different pattern which needed to be understood. It was Martin Luther King who became the icon for this understanding. I was fortunate enough to know him, although not well, and preached to the members of his movement shortly before his death.

Until this point in time history had always been written by the victors. Alternative viewpoints had been lost. Now a clash was emerging between two radically different understandings of it what was important to understand. These two versions of reality were incompatible. The difficulties in finding a place to stand became greater as other groups also insisted on the validity of their own unique understandings of how to perceive the world around us.

The next movement was the women’s movement. They argued that the contribution of women had been systematically devalued. Given that they were over 50% of the population of the world, the progressive spread of this understanding radically changed the nature of the world in which we currently live. Another strong thread has been the growing understanding that traditional societies, which have often been devalued by calling them primitive, have considerable wisdom to offer us as we attempt to rethink our attitudes toward nature.

In later years, even more movements have emerged. There have been the efforts of the homosexual community to obtain the same rights as heterosexuals which has created great resistance among those who see homosexuality as a sin. There has been the movement of those with handicaps to force the society to provide them with the tools to live full lives. And an ever-growing number of racial and ethnic groups are insisting that their view of reality is correct and should be given priority over those of others.

Many white males now feel under siege. The automatic assumption that history was made by them is no longer accepted. The resulting attempt to write a more equitable view of history is broadly dismissed by calling it “political correctness.” While it is true, that the process of rethinking has often gone to ridiculous lengths, there can be no doubt that a correction of the overemphasis of the role of the white male is long overdue. It is particularly appropriate for me to say this because I am a white male rather than one of those who have been disadvantaged.

But, having made this point, it is still necessary to face a massive dilemma that has developed at both the community and the theoretical level. If each group in a community is entitled to its own views, how then can decisions be taken? What are the patterns of judgement which enable cloture to be achieved? Failure to answer this question in any satisfactory way is one of the primary reasons for the current decline in citizenship activities. There is a sense that processes go on for ever and that nothing final is ever achieved.

At the theoretical level, there is a fascinating clash over the concept of postmodernism. All those involved in the debate agree that the “modern” is changing. One group argues that we have to accept that there are no standards which make it possible to judge between the realities advanced by these different groups. They argue that the position of Blacks and Whites, of various nations and ethnic groups, of the young and the old, of men and women are valid in terms of their own points of reference and cannot be compared. The alternative position is that there are ultimate realities and that these can help us make choices.

This disagreement is one of the factors which has brought us to Act Three of the current drama. In addition, however, there is the clash between those who still uphold the traditional industrial era view as compared to those who accept the viewpoint on which these talks are based. To make current conflicts more difficult to resolve, most people are aware that there are profound differences of opinion about today and tomorrow but are not able to sort out what these differences are or why they have developed.

Today’s decision-making processes are based on the assumption that we are conducting an argument in which all the players accept the same basic view of reality. They are ill-designed to help us deal with a world in which the real clash is between profoundly different worldviews. As I speak and consult I am fascinated by the fact that most institutions, and communities, are being torn apart by these fundamental differences without understanding what causes them or how they can be healed. I am increasingly surprised by the fact that it continues to be possible for today’s systems to operate given these increasingly massive underlying shifts.

David Bell, who keeps up with the direction and pace of technological change argues that “Bizarre changes are happening today in our cultures. Many of the shifts are “seismic” – that is to say “subsurface” – the surface icons are still in place. Macro theorists have done an absolutely brilliant job of disguising – and providing dismissive language for these subsurface changes – to avoid freaking out the customer and the electorate.” The problem, of course, is the time is coming when all of these shifts will add up to an overall pattern which cannot be disguised or ignored.

At this time, society will face a critical choice. As it realizes the extent of the challenge, it can decide to deny the evidence and continue to aim to maintain current patterns. If it chooses this route it will inevitably fail. In addition, we shall lose any possibility that we can benefit from the new world emerging around us. The best case would then be massive breakdowns throughout the world. The worst case would be that these cumulate into a new dark ages.

This result is fortunately not inevitable: indeed avoiding it only requires an effort of will on the part of those who are aware of the need for change. If everybody who sees that the present culture cannot continue would decide to act on this belief, then a process of positive change could develop with extraordinary rapidity. Today’s problem does not emerge from a failure of understanding but a failure of nerve. We need courage and commitment: qualities that seem to be in short supply these days.

It is this drive to positive and fundamental change which is causing Act Four in our drama to develop around the world. There is far more activity designed to change the world in more positive directions than we currently recognize. This work involves a fundamental break with the industrial patterns which have constrained our thinking up to the current time. It requires us to emerge from the cultural trance which has dominated humanity for decades, centuries and in some senses millennia. Whether this act can be completed positively is the core question of our time.

In the middle ages, we learned that the earth was not the center of the universe. This understanding was traumatic and widely resisted. However, human beings maintained their sense that their role was central by placing their species outside the web of nature. We continued to assume that we were in charge and that the world would adjust itself to our wishes. It is this hubris which is now recognized by science as being dangerously wrong.

We are now learning, slowly and painfully, that the underlying dynamics of the universe cannot be understood in mechanical cause and effect terms. We live within a far more complex web of interactions which defy analysis. Sometimes, systems shift rapidly as a result of a minimal impact: for example, an avalanche can be set off by a loud noise if the conditions are right. On the other hand, systems can be so stable that huge efforts will be absorbed without any impact at all. Understanding which leverage points are most effective is one of the higher-level skills.

One of the primary results of this shift in our fundamental thinking is to necessarily destroy our current faith in the ability of technology to lead us out of our current crises. Jacques Ellul, a remarkable French thinker of the twentieth century, illuminated the result of our current technological emphases. He showed that it resulted in a belief that there was “one best way” to deal with challenges. His book “La Technique” was one of those that demonstrated how our thought patterns gave us no space for alternative ideas.

Technology is often a remarkable answer to specific problems. But it always has multi-level consequences of which we cannot possibly be aware. We need to use technology intelligently for it can buy us time to make the overall changes in direction which are necessary – but the core processes which will enable us to live well on planet earth are not to be found at this level.

Technology is a high-level “expert” system: those who understand it can usually impose their beliefs on those who do not. Technologists are, however, part of a much broader industrial era pattern which expects others to make sense of the world in which we live. The others may be defined as experts who have knowledge not available to the general population. They may be professionals who are trained in particular areas and believe that they can choose the appropriate courses of action for clients. They may be politicians who claim the right to mold public opinion so it fits their perceptions of the world. Or they may be Media Barons who have a left or right wing agenda and want to impose it on their readers.

The most remarkable result of the first three acts of our twentieth century drama is that they have loosened the ability of these powerful groups to force agreement with their views. Act one has led people to make up their own minds about the realities they confront. This is one extraordinary and still little understood shift that is driving our culture today. Coercive power of all sorts is being increasingly resisted. People are demanding the right to make up their own minds. Neighborhoods and communities challenge the current power of governments to impose their vision on them while denying the perceived needs of citizens.

But there is also increasing frustration with the apparent alternative which emerged in Act Two. If coercive power is not appropriate, how do decisions get made at all? This issue shows itself at both the practical and the theoretical level. At the practical level, it is all too often impossible to reach cloture. Decisions are hashed and rehashed endlessly. Even after a decision is apparently taken, those who were unhappy feel the right to continue to challenge its legitimacy. It is this frustration with the current processes which is leading many to withdraw from citizen activities – or to long for the good old days when decisions were made in smoky rooms and could be imposed on the community and society!

There is a theoretical basis which supports this failure to create effective decisions. There is a quite powerful school of thought which argues that there are no realities or standards which should constrain behavior. If this is true then there is no way to argue that one response is better or worse than another. Each group then can feel justified in pushing for its own agenda and, if it is denied, becoming more and more vociferous – and eventually violent – if its demands are not met.

The clash between coercive power tactics and the denial of any ability to set standards has led to massive confusion within institutions and the culture in general. This had led to high, and growing levels of stress. The stress is still further increased by the fact that people are working longer hours and have less time to take advantage of their family and community opportunities.

We must address this stress if we are to move forward. Coming to grips with its fundamental causes requires us to dig deeper than is usually the case at the current time. The intellectual work which is going which aims to move us out of the industrial era culture provides a range of fascinating, and competing models, to explain what needs to change if we are to deal with emerging crises. Many people are aiming to provide broader and broader theoretical frameworks which can explain all the extraordinarily complex interactions and understandings of our world. Ken Wilber is one of the most brilliant exponents of this approach.

Unfortunately, this effort does not really reach the heart of the current issues for two reasons. The broader the framework, the more difficult the arguments necessarily become. While a few people are able to deal with this level of explanation, most people do not have the skills or the energy to do so. In addition, the fact that there are more and more competing theories means that no one set of ideas can be expected to become the way in which we think in the future.

This pattern which leads to ever-greater complexity has occurred frequently in the development of ideas. A model becomes more and more difficult, with more and more exceptions, until it clearly becomes unmanageable. At that time a new, and simpler, explanation is postulated which enables reality to be explained more fully and successfully.

Current theoretical models are an extension, although a profoundly useful one, of current industrial era patterns. They assume that there is a right way to look at the world and are thus part of the expert/professional dynamic which is currently dying.

Are we at the point that we can state a simpler view which enables us to see reality more clearly? I am convinced that we are. The alternative view is that reality is strictly situational. Each of us necessarily struggles, individually and within the groups of which we are a part, to find our own understanding of the patterns which surround us. Each of us has to choose our own unique view that will evolve as conditions change around us.

Each of us necessarily chooses those behaviors which seem to serve us best. While our views are necessarily subjective, the choices we make will only be satisfactory if they are informed and constrained by our knowledge of the feedback loops in which our lives are embedded. The better we are at sorting out the essential from the trivial, the more likely it is that our choices will lead to our satisfaction and that of others.

There are basic realities which we ignore at our peril. If we behave badly, we can expect to create bad behavior in others – if we behave well then we create good behavior. If we overstress the environment it will respond in unpredictable ways.

This concept of people making sense of their own lives seems highly unrealistic to those who still accept industrial-era beliefs. The industrial era saw people as machines which could be honed to serve as factors of production. In return for giving over their lives to the productive system, they would be rewarded with goods and services. More critically, we assumed that most people most of the time would behave badly if they were not constrained by the law.

This confined and negative view of human nature has left a void in our lives. We attempt to fill it with drugs, smoking, alcohol, shopping and a myriad of other addictions. But the hole remains and, often, worsens. And it will continue to do so if we cannot break out of the current cultural trance which provides no space for the importance of mystery and the spiritual.

For those who, like myself, see the absolute necessity for a new way of looking at the world the essential requirement is that each of us is provided with the opportunity to learn who we are. We need to discover our strengths and our weaknesses. We need to find what satisfies us. We need to learn how truly different we are from each other while still being united in a web of life which links us all.

The real challenge for those of us who would be fundamental change agents is to help people and groups find a purpose which fulfills their need for a sense of meaning. This is not done by theory, or expertise or professionalism. Rather it enables people to deal with the realities they confront in their own lives. It demands, in addition, that we convince people they can make a difference through their own choices.

As we learn to actualize this direction, the styles we choose become profoundly different. We no longer aim to provide a body of knowledge to people. Rather we look at where they are stuck and hope that something we say or write will provide them with their next step in their journey. We are delighted when people say to us: “I already knew what you said but you gave me new language to express what matters to me.” Or “It gave me more courage to know that somebody else is thinking along the same lines as I do.” Or “I always thought I was crazy to think the way I do. Finding somebody with similar ideas gives me the courage to act on my beliefs.”

We even manage to swallow our frustration when somebody comes to us and tells us their new idea which turns out to be something we suggested a few days or weeks ago! We grasp, with difficulty, the fact that one often has a choice of getting change or getting credit for it.

The central challenge we face today is finding ways to provide large numbers of people with the opportunity to discover how to feel good about themselves through making sense of their own lives. The next four programs in this series will take specific issues and see how the general thesis Ihave set out above translates for areas that are of particular concern to citizens at the current time. I have chosen to tackle the issues of health, learning, work and family/community. It is fortunately relatively easy to state a new starting point for discussions in these areas. These four programs will be interviews with people who have high levels of understanding and skills.

Health. We need to start from the assumption that human beings normally have the capacity of heal themselves and that medicine should promote, rather than undermine, this capacity. Any exceptions need to be justified.

Learning. Our learning patterns need to provide people with the skills to make sense of their lives from conception to death. The challenge is to give people a sense of self-esteem and competence.

Work. For the first time we could arrange work so that most people, most of the time, do work that they enjoy. This vision would enable us to move beyond the job structures that currently constrain us.

Family/Community. Families are no longer only based on blood and marriage. They are defined by a commitment to care. Neighborhoods and communities are also being defined in new ways.

When we have developed our thinking in these four areas, we shall then be able to examine how we can most effectively make a transition from current approaches to those that will be more effective. We shall be able to tell which current developments are moving us in the right direction and those which are counterproductive. In addition, we shall be at the point where we can see how our overall culture will need to change.

This is the subject I shall take up in my last talk. I shall suggest how we must shift our basic thinking. I shall show how the drive to find our own center and balance forces us to think about our lives in profoundly different ways from those which have dominated the industrial era. At the end of each program in this series, I shall state one or more questions which I hope you might find of sufficient interest that you will reflect on it either with friends and colleagues or by yourself. Here’s my question of the week:

Are the emerging crises of such magnitude that only a fundamental change in our thinking can resolve them?

If you answer yes, you are agreeing that we are facing a fundamental discontinuity in the way we think, act and organize. It is the nature of this discontinuity that these programs will explore in coming weeks. You may want to think of friends and colleagues you want to get to listen to these programs so you can explore with them your agreements and disagreements with what is said.


Read more about Robert Theobald

Reworking Success