By Julio Olalla and Robert Dunham
Major dislocations in how our societies operate in the world are coming, and we have seen a preview with the global financial recession of 2008. Despite widespread scientific analyses of global issues including the causes of global warming, depletion of fisheries, reaching peak oil while energy demand is spiking, and the consumption of resources approaching the limits of the planet, there have not been significant changes in global consumption patterns or economic policies. We seem to be trapped in the current systems with no real options to a new game. Demand and consumption increase, and the economic policies are to expand growth. In fact no other alternative seems possible.
The consequences that are coming are unavoidable, will be massive, and will happen very quickly. Our economic growth policies are exponential, which means that the changes they produce are growing at an ever increasing rate, like compound interest. For example, if we have a steady increase of population of only 1% a year, at a population of 6 billion it takes only twelve years to produce another billion people, down from 18 years for the prior billion.
To show how the time shortens for changes in such conditions, imagine putting drop of water in the palm of your hand, and then doubling the water every minute. In six minutes, there would be enough water to fill a thimble. How long would it take to fill a major sports arena, say like the Astrodome? Only 50 minutes! And at what point would the stadium be 97% empty? At 45 minutes. The major changes of such exponential growth happen at the end, are massive, and happen quickly[i].
That such large scale disasters can happen is amply demonstrated by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. He reviews cases of the collapse of whole societies as a result of their cultural dynamics and choices. Easter Island changed from a well-populated and prosperous island society to being barren and uninhabitable. Ninety nine percent of the population of the Maya culture in Central America disappeared between approximately 900 AD and 1524 when Cortez arrived, from a vibrant civilization of 3 million or more to a population of 30 thousand[ii].
Although our current issues can be seen as global and systemic, they are side effects of the very logic, stories, and choices of our culture. These outcomes are manifesting based on the choices that we make individually, and in our associations in towns and nations. What are other choices do we have other than to continue the exponential road to disaster? And what do new choices demand of us as individuals and as a culture? Why would we make such new choices?
The consequences of our current trajectories into the future will require a response at some point. Why are we not preparing with more urgency and are instead continuing the current trends? We believe that this is due to the very common sense and stories that we live in, and that these are based in our current fundamental view of what it is to be human, and what is a good life. Although the response to the problems we face will be worked out one way or another, our concern is what kind of human beings will we become in the process and what kind of life will we create when our current visions are no longer possible?
We see several reasons why we remain in unsustainable drifts to the future, and these open possibilities for designing and adopting new choices for our future, choices of new stories, ethics, and purposes. One reason that we stay in the current drift is the story that “there is no other positive choice for the future other than growth.” The logic is basically if we do not grow economically, we will not have jobs, and then a growing segment of the population will sink into poverty. This is a story that produces the mood of resignation, that there are no other choices. Another reason is that as human beings we are used to living in local conditions without looking ahead beyond the near future. An important reason is that we have lost the question of “what is a good life,” and the question has been preempted by the answer that a good life requires more consumption. And yet another reason is that culturally we have largely lost the experience and narrative of the core meaning of life, what we can call our soul. And we consider that we will have to rebuild our cultural narratives in the reverse order of these reasons. We need to find our soul again.
When we speak of soul we mean that part of our being and our experience that has been honored in all ancient traditions, that part of life with connection and respect for that beyond ourselves, the depth of meaning and experience beyond mind, emotions, and body; the sense of the space of life itself in relationship to world, meaning, possibility, and eternity. The Sufis say that we can never fully know what we are, but that we can experience that we are Love, and explore the richness of life. But even this narrative focuses on our experience in life, not just the material circumstances we find ourselves in. We have largely lost the belief in and respect for an inner life, and it has largely been preempted by the drug companies. We have lost the traditions of facing life itself in its richness, challenges, and depths, and along with it the dimension of self-cultivation as a good life. We find the good life outside ourselves instead of inside ourselves.
The materialist story will argue that life has been improved through the development of material wealth and ease. Yet research shows that after providing for a safe, healthy, and basic material existence the acquisition of more wealth does not provide an increase in happiness, wellbeing, or meaning, and in fact the indicators show that wellbeing tends to decline with ever increasing wealth[iii]. We agree with the ancient wisdoms that life is a journey of becoming, and it is in this journey that we find meaning and wellbeing. Through learning, self-cultivation, and deep engagement with life and living we will find ourselves, meaning, value, satisfaction, and even joy. We must engage from our soul, find the sacred, and find our way in the inner dimensions of life. We cannot fill the spirit shaped hole in our being with wealth, drugs, distractions, or accomplishments. We must connect to life as aliveness and living itself.
We also must rediscover that our soul, our very being, is not separate from our world, the reality of nature, and our relationships with others. We are social creatures, made for connection. In our connections we find ourselves and our lives, we learn to fashion our relationships with ourselves, others, and our worlds. And today our culture has taken us in a drift to separation, from the privileging of the rationalist perspective through science abstracting us from our experience, from the stripping of literal validity from religious narrative, and the disparaging of spiritual reality by the materialist demand for cause and effect. We have not only lost our souls, we have lost our heart connections, and our connection to even our experience due to the habit of requiring the mind to explain everything.
We have another unique challenge in our historical era, the scale of technology. Technology is not just the development and use of tools. Our tools shape what we do and how we think. Our tools use us, and control us. If you use email, you see that your practices and even how you think and organize your life is fundamentally shaped by email. We have seen the stupendous and rapid evolution of smart phones, texting, and social media. In the guise of better connection and access to each other, research shows that this technology is also producing greater disconnection, where people would rather text each other than speak to each other.
Technology not only shapes our thinking, but it currently arises out of a foundational attitude that everything is a resource to be used. We use nature, and even ourselves. Used for what? We need to put the human being and our lives back into the center of our concerns. We must recover our valuing life and a good life as more sacred that our projects and our measures.
Our experience with students over the last decades is that these are not insurmountable barriers to our way of being. In a matter of days we can begin to shift our experience and rediscover our hearts, our emotions, our bodies, and our care. We can begin to see the world with new eyes. We can begin to walk a new path, a path with heart.
We can then begin to reflect in a new way. We can allow our concern to pay our bills to exist without it stopping reflection on what is happening in our world, what is happening in our own experience, and what a good life really is. We do not claim that we, or anyone else, have the final answers to our challenges. But we do say that honest reflection will open a new way to the future for us. When we look at our own standards for a good life, a meaningful life, and look at the common stories of needing more wealth or consumption, we can begin to authentically feel what is needed.
Our view is that what is needed is health, meaning, and taking care of what we care about. So many of the decisions made today are not producing healthy people, healthy organizations, healthy communities, or a healthy world. Why? Why would we choose anything other than a healthy future? Profit is not valuable if we produce an unhealthy world, an unhealthy life. We need to re-center our values around a healthy future, and face the stories that demand sacrifice of that health. We cannot live a good life sacrificing health for “more.”
We also see that as a culture we must open and honor new central conversations. We must take responsibility for the reality that our choices in the aggregate create our global future. With new public conversations we can better understand the future that we are creating, the interconnectedness of our choices, and open new possibilities for our choices. This is a matter of voice, and we cannot wait for others to have the right conversations, we cannot wait for our leaders to have the right conversations. We must take our conversations seriously, and look to design them since they create our future, rather than assume they are just impotent chatter. Education should fundamentally be about developing these voices, creating these conversations, and opening these questions whose answers will shape our futures.
With new conversations among people who bring heart, who call for a standard of valuing the gifts that life provides, we can open a new conversation of the future where “growth” is not the only answer. We can organize for a good life, harmony with nature and each other, and a rediscovery of meaning in the cultivation of human virtue, celebration of human excellence, and the joy of connection and community.
By reviving the question “what is a good life,” we can begin to look how to have our technology, our systems, and our economics support a good life rather than just increased consumption. A new economics can measure value-creating transactions supporting the self-cultivation of a meaningful life, where the inner life again has value, and we value our social activities of taking care of what we care about.
We hope to promote new conversations for creating our future that not only addresses the coming predicaments, but also the presumptions of what it is to be human and what is a good life. We cannot produce a new future with the old common sense, with the old answers. So we cannot rush into our new answers, and we can’t afford the old answers. We don’t have time to rush. We must reflect deeply and commit to new conversations for our future.
This will also revive another missing conversation. The conversation of citizenship – what is a citizen, and what are the responsibilities and practices of good citizenship? We will next address that concern in the context of a good life and healthy future.
Julio Olalla is founder of Newfield Network, a leading school of coaching in the world, and is considered one of the best coaches in the world. He is author of From Knowledge to Wisdom.
Robert Dunham is founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership, and delivers programs in leadership around the world. He is co-author of The Innovator’s Way.