By Julio Olalla and Robert Dunham
We live in a historical era confronted with unavoidable issues of global scale, issues that have never been faced before in the history of humanity.
Global warming is shifting weather patterns, with many warnings about severe consequences. In the face of urgent calls for global reductions of carbon dioxide emissions China is building two coal fired electricity plants a week. The debate about “peak oil” – when we will have consumed half the oil reserves of the planet – is only about whether it has already happened, or will happen soon, while global energy demand skyrockets and new sources are not ready. The “progress” of development is resulting in the extinction of approximately 150 species per day, reducing biodiversity, which is a key measure of ecological health and resilience. Many of the world’s fisheries are so depleted that there is concern for the possible extinction of key food fish species. Increases in population are pushing the limits of the planet’s supply of drinkable water. Modern farming techniques are resulting in massive losses of soil, and soil fertility. We are running out of planet.
The distribution of wealth worldwide – as of 2000 1% of the population owned 40% of the wealth[i], with the trend continuing very fast to concentrate wealth in the hands of the wealthy – is continuing to widen the gap between rich and poor, a trend towards future instability. An increasingly large segment of the population cannot afford health care and health insurance, currently including around 44 million Americans. The dominant paradigm of “knowledge” is of knowing in mechanical and analytical forms, leaving out wisdom and the human soul. Increasing wealth and development in societies correlates to significantly higher rates of depression, mental illness, and teen suicide. One report in 2000 showed that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in 1950.[ii]
Our efforts to address these issues have so far only resulted in continued increases in the problems. Our solutions are inadequate. We believe that we are experiencing Albert Einstein’s dictum: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
What is the kind of thinking that we are trapped in, and what new thinking will enable us to productively address the challenges of our age? In a series of articles we will address these questions and share with you the result of decades of inquiry into these questions by ourselves and our colleagues. We invite you to a conversation that is a serious inquiry, not just a theoretical discussion of opinions – it is too late for that. The world and the future are at stake.
We must look beyond our quick, obvious, comfortable, and common answers. We must look with new eyes, with new thinking, if we are to find what our old thinking cannot show us. The spirit of this exploration must begin with the simple declaration that we do not know what the solutions are. It is the arrogance of our past successes and past thinking that is most in the way of our facing the real issues behind our growing crises in the world. But not knowing is the place to start when something new has to be invented, revealed, or discovered. We must learn to lead with not-knowing as our starting point.
Although we do not yet know the solutions to the major problems of our age, we can begin to expand the space of possibilities for addressing them by looking at the limitations of how we currently understand these problems and their possible solutions, by exploring what is really at stake, and looking for new foundations for our thinking. In thinking anew, we can look for new directions for our actions.
We can begin with a couple of observations of what is happening around us. First, the very existence of such global scale problems are problems never faced before in history. All such problems were previously localized, and the entire history of ethics never had to face the possibility of putting the entire world in jeopardy. Our capacity to do so arose only in last seventy years, with nuclear weapons, environmental degradation, global use of resources, global warming, population growth, and so on. We do not have any historical standards of ethics for preserving the world and the future for our future generations. We must not only develop them and live by them, we must generate a new capacity to produce global solutions to global problems. We are not organized to produce global alignment among nations and peoples, and so far global problems are regarded as secondary to local interests.
Second, the dramatic scale of expansion of consumption, populations, and expectations for living standards is meeting a finite world of resources. Our answer to meet the demand for growing consumption is still “economic growth.” Growth is the solution that comes from everyone’s lips, yet it clearly is increasing many of our problems. We currently have widespread faith in the religion of growth, the magic of growing production to meet the demand for increasing consumption and jobs for a growing population. Growth has produced many of our problems of global scale, yet we still think of “more” and “growth” as the solution to these problems. We see that this thinking that generated our problems will not solve the problems, only make them worse. We need to think from a new direction.
Our view is that the religion of Growth is a threat not just because it causes the very problem it is to supposed to solve, but because it reveals something even more threatening – the shift in our culture’s thinking that economic values have unquestioned supremacy over any other values in our society. The current answer to all our problems is “growth.” Yet in the biological world, that which grows without limit and without fitting into its environment is a cancer, a threat to the entire ecosystem.
The imperative for More and Better has overcome the Good – the good life is sacrificed for the addiction to the better life. The Aymará people of Bolivia have said it well, that before the Westerners came to their land they lived a good life. And the Westerners destroyed the good life in the constant drive for a better life.
We have confused “more” and “better.”[iii] The data shows that the US the economy has doubled over the last 30 years. Over this period the real income of the bottom ninety percent of American taxpayers declined as the wealth concentrated in the hands of the already wealthy. However, indicators of happiness and a healthy society have steadily declined or been stagnant over that period, with dramatic increases in alcoholism, suicide, and depression. This pattern is seen in other developed countries as well, including Japan, the UK, and Chile. We have mistaken “more” for “better.” Then, what is better? What is a healthy economy without being growth addicted? What is a good life?
Although we are raising more questions than we can answer in this article, we will address them in future articles and unfold our exploration of the assumptions that have driven us, the limits of this thinking, and new and old ways to see new paths to a healthy future. What we can say is that our historical era calls for a new level of leadership, leadership that takes responsibility for the consequences of its use of power at the global level, and that takes responsibility with other leaders and citizens for the world that is being created from our collective action.
Next, we will explore how our modern analytical thinking about nature, science, prediction and control is a dynamic of thinking that generates the very problems it tries to solve. We will look at other possible paths for engaging with our challenges.
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.
[i] A 2006 study on The World Distribution of Household Wealth by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University shows the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth. The most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken also reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.
[ii] McKibben, Bill, Deep Economy, Holt paperbacks, 2007.