Dancing With Systems
by Donella Meadows
Donella Meadows, a professor at Dartmouth College, a long-time organic farmer, journalist, and systems analyst, was working on a book titled Thinking in Systems at the time of her death. Though she was not able to complete the book, what she did write is a treasure of wisdom, and will be published by the Sustainability Institute, which Dana founded.
Here are excerpts of one of the book's chapters, called "Dancing With Systems."
People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mindset of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.
I assumed that at first, too. We all assumed it, as eager systems students at the great institution called MIT. More or less innocently, enchanted by what we could see through our new lens, we did what many discoverers do. We exaggerated our own ability to change the world. We did so not with any intent to deceive others, but in the expression of our own expectations and hopes. Systems thinking for us was more than subtle, complicated mindplay. It was going to Make Systems Work.
"But self-organizing, nonlinear feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionistic science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can't optimize; we don't even know what to optimize. We can't keep track of everything. We can't find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.
"For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can't understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?
"Systems thinking leads to another conclusion, however-waiting, shining, obvious as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says that there is plenty to do, of a different sort of 'doing.' The future can't be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can't be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can't surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can't impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.
"We can't control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!"
Dana learned dancing from the "great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavors require one to stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people.
"But there it was, the message emerging from every computer model we made. Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than an ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity-our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality."
Dana then presents her "systems wisdoms," which she says also apply to all of life.
1. GET THE BEAT.
"Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it's a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it's a social system, watch it work. Learn its history." Keep good records, Dana advises, because you can't always rely on memory. "Focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others....I have been told with great authority that the milk price was going up when it was going down, that real interest rates were falling when they were rising.
"Starting with the behavior of the system directs one's thoughts to dynamic, not static analysis-not only to 'what's wrong?' but also to 'how did we get there?' and 'what behavior modes are possible?' and if we don't change direction, where are we going to end up?
"And finally, starting with history discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system's actual behavior, but by the lack of our favorite solution."
2. LISTEN TO THE WISDOM OF THE SYSTEM.
"Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself. Don't be an unthinking intervener and destroy the system's own self-maintenance capacities. Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what's already there."
3. EXPOSE YOUR MENTAL MODELS TO THE OPEN AIR.
"Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible. Consider all of them plausible until you find some evidence that causes you to rule one out. That way you will be emotionally able to see the evidence that rules out an assumption with which you might have confused your own identity."
4. STAY HUMBLE. STAY A LEARNER.
"Systems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring-out rationality less, to lean on both as much as I can, but still to be prepared for surprises. Working with systems, on the computer, in nature, among people, in organizations, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don't know.
"The thing to do, when you don't know, is not to bluff and not to freeze, but to learn. The way you learn is by experiment- or, as Buckminster Fuller put it, by trial and error, error, error. In a world of complex systems it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. 'Stay the course' is only a good idea if you're sure you're on course. Pretending you're in control even when you aren't is a recipe not only for mistakes, but for not learning from mistakes."
5. HONOR AND PROTECT INFORMATION.
"A decision-maker can't respond to information he or she doesn't have, can't respond accurately to information that is inaccurate, can't respond in a timely way to information that is late. I would guess that 99 percent of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of faulty or missing information."
6. LOCATE RESPONSIBILITY IN THE SYSTEM.
"Look for the ways the system creates its own behavior. Do pay attention to the triggering events, the outside influences that bring forth one kind of behavior from the system rather than another. Sometimes those outside can be controlled (as in reducing the pathogens in drinking water to keep down incidences of infectious disease). But sometimes they can't. And sometimes blaming or trying to control the outside influence blinds one to the easier task of increasing responsibility within the system. 'Intrinsic responsibility' means that the system is designed to send feed-back about the consequences of decision-making directly, quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.
"Dartmouth College reduced intrinsic responsibility when it took thermostats out of individual offices and classrooms and put temperature-control decisions under the guidance of a central computer. That was done as an energy-saving measure.
My observation from a low level in the hierarchy is that the main consequence was greater oscillations in room temperature. When my office gets overheated now, instead of turning down the thermostat, I have to call an office across campus, which gets around to making corrections over a period of hours or days, and which often over-corrects, setting up the need for another phone call. One way of making that system more, rather than less, responsible, might have been to let professors keep control of their own thermostats and charge them directly for the amount of energy they use. (Thereby privatizing a commons!)"
7. MAKE FEEDBACK POLICIES FOR FEEDBACK SYSTEMS.
"President Jimmy Carter had an unusual ability to think in feedback terms and to make feedback policies. Unfortunately he had a hard time explaining them to a press and public that didn't understand feedback.
"He suggested, at a time when oil imports were soaring, that there be a tax on gasoline proportional to the fraction of U.S. oil consumption that had to be imported. If imports continued to rise, the tax would rise until it suppressed demand and brought forth substitutes and reduced imports. If imports fell to zero, the tax would fall to zero.
"The tax never got passed.
"Carter was also trying to deal with a flood of illegal immigrants from Mexico. He suggested that nothing could be done about that immigration as long as there was a great gap in opportunity and living standards between the U.S. and Mexico. Rather than spending money on border guards and barriers, he said, we should spend money helping to build the Mexican economy, and we should continue to do so until the immigration stopped.
"That never happened either.
"You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy. It's easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but metafeedback loops-loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process."
8. PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT IS IMPORTANT, NOT JUST WHAT IS QUANTIFIABLE.
"Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can't measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live....Don't be stopped by the 'if you can't define it and measure it, I don't have to pay attention to it' ploy.
9. GO FOR THE GOOD OF THE WHOLE.
"Don't maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. As Kenneth Boulding once said, don't go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability-whether they are easily measured or not.
"As you think about a system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system, not just the problem that may have drawn you to focus on the system to begin with. And realize that, especially in the short term, changes for the good of the whole may sometimes seem to be counter to the interests of a part of the system. It helps to remember that the parts of a system cannot survive without the whole. The long-term interests of your liver require the long-term health of your body, and the long-term interests of sawmills require the long-term health of forests."
10. EXPAND TIME HORIZONS.
"The official time horizon of industrial society doesn't extend beyond what will happen after the next election or beyond the payback period of current investments. The time horizon of most families still extends farther than that-through the lifetimes of children or grandchildren. Many Native American cultures actively spoke of and considered in their decisions the effects upon the seventh generation to come. The longer the operant time horizon, the better the chances for survival....We experience now the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago."
11. EXPAND THOUGHT HORIZONS.
"Defy the disciplines. In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you're an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from-while not being limited by-economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians. You will have to penetrate their jargons, integrate what they tell you, recognize what they can honestly see through their particular lenses, and discard the distortions that come from the narrowness and incompleteness of their lenses. They won't make it easy for you."
12. EXPAND THE BOUNDARY OF CARING.
"Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time horizons and thought horizons; above all it means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.
"As with everything else about systems, most people already know the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe what they know."
13. CELEBRATE COMPLEXITY.
"Let's face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That's what makes the world interesting, that's what makes it beautiful, and that's what makes it work.
"There's something within the human mind that is attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery." One part of us, Meadows says, "designs buildings as boxes with uncompromising straight lines and flat surfaces. Another part of us recognizes instinctively that nature designs in fractals, with intriguing detail on every scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic. That part of us makes Gothic cathedrals and Persian carpets, symphonies and novels, Mardi Gras costumes and artificial intelligence programs, all with embellishments almost as complex as the ones we find in the world around us."
14. HOLD FAST TO THE GOAL OF GOODNESS.
"Examples of bad human behavior are held up, magnified by the media, affirmed by the culture, as typical. Just what you would expect. After all, we're only human. The far more numerous examples of human goodness are barely noticed. They are Not News. They are exceptions. Must have been a saint. Can't expect everyone to behave like that.
"And so expectations are lowered. The gap between desired behavior and actual behavior narrows. Fewer actions are taken to affirm and instill ideals. The public discourse is full of cynicism. Public leaders are visibly, unrepentantly, amoral or immoral and are not held to account. Idealism is ridiculed. Statements of moral belief are suspect. It is much easier to talk about hate in public than to talk about love.
"We know what to do about eroding goals. Don't weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. And keep standards absolute.
"This is quite a list. Systems thinking can only tell us to do these things. It can't do them for us.
"And so we are brought to the gap between understanding and implementation. Systems thinking by itself cannot bridge that gap. But it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond-to what can and must be done by the human spirit."
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The Unconquerable World
by Jonathan Schell
Reviewed by Winslow Myers
In a foreword to Albert Camus' The Rebel (1956), Herbert Read stated: "With the publication of this book a cloud that has oppressed the European mind for more than a century begins to lift. After an age of anxiety, despair, and nihilism, it seems possible once more to hope-to have confidence again in man and in the future."
Now a book by Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, addresses with equal rigor, realism, and hope the deepest questions of political structure in our troubled world. And this time the "cloud [that] begins to lift" is one that covers not just Europe, but the planet as a whole-the grim challenge of terrorism allied with weapons of mass destruction.
Over the years Schell has built up a solid body of work, with a special focus on the absurd uselessness of nuclear weapons to enhance security. His earlier book, The Fate of the Earth (1982), energized many a worker for peace in the 1980s. The Unconquerable World integrates his thinking about nuclear weapons into a more comprehensive discussion of the meaning of power. What exactly is political power in a world where a super-power possessing thousands of nuclear warheads was unable to impose its will upon a tiny nation like North Vietnam?
Schell begins by outlining the direction and growth in violence in what he calls the "war system," asserting that the technological advances of the last two hundred years have resulted in a fundamental change in war: "Winning" a nuclear war would almost certainly incur such high costs in loss of life or environmental degradation as to make victory meaningless; nuclear weapons deter neither terrorists nor the national aspirations of the people of non-nuclear states; and nuclear fission cannot be uninvented, meaning that proliferation can only be slowed but not easily stopped. Schell's analysis, especially of the Cuban Missile Crisis, describes the dilemma of the leaders of nuclear nations.
The awesome reality of nuclear holocaust is something we have been living with for over half a century. However, Schell traces a parallel and complementary development in the history of war, which he calls "people's war." People's wars arise from multiple motivations and result in many outcomes, not all of them democratic. As we know from Vietnam, they can be inspired by a reaction to colonialism or fueled by nationalism. But Schell sees them in the context of a broader movement toward self-determination that began with our own revolution against the British.
The failure of American policy makers to understand Mao's people's war strategy in China, Schell writes, led directly to the disaster of Vietnam. When the people are politically behind the military, as they were not only in Vietnam but in many other cases, extending from the separation of America from Britain to Afghanistan's successful resistance to the U.S.S.R., even overwhelmingly greater military force rarely wins, simply because it has not bothered to convert "hearts and minds." A nation can be defeated militarily, but its people still have the power to refuse a program, however well-meant, that they experience as an imposition from outside. Schell uses our own revolt against the British as an important case in point: even if King George had prevailed militarily, the colonists would never have knuckled under and in the long run independence would have arrived anyway. It is hard not to think of Iraq today. Schell's book was finished before the war there started, but he predicts its effects with uncanny accuracy.
Having argued that it is the hearts and minds that are the primary factor in people's wars, while the violence, though significant, is not the deciding one, Schell connects the disparate phenomena of nuclear war and people's war:
"One was a strategy of the powerful, the other a strategy of the wretched of the earth. One was geopolitical in scope, the other local. Yet in some respects the two strategies were interestingly akin. In both, a certain dematerialization of power occurred. In deterrence, it was the decline of actual war-fighting in favor of creating fearful appearances-credibility-that became the coin of military might in the nuclear age. In people's war, it was the eclipse of the power that flowed "from the barrel of the gun" by the political power that flowed from the hearts and minds of the people. In both shifts, violence became not so much an instrument for producing physical effects as a kind of bloody system of communication, through which the antagonists delivered messages to one another about will....It is because of these developments, somehow occurring simultaneously at the apex and the base of the world's system of military power in the middle decades of the twentieth century, that it is more than a paradoxical phrase to speak of a kind of nonviolence, or at least a turn away from violence, that was occurring within war at this period.
"Both strategies evoke admiration and horror. Even as we are pleased with the peace that deterrence takes as its goal, we are revolted by the unlimited slaughter it menaces. Even as we are awed by the epic of human courage that people's war represents and the nobility of its goal of serving the interest of the least fortunate, we are disgusted by its frequent use of terror and by the totalitarian governments, with their various gulags and 're-education camps,' to which it has often given birth."
Schell then adds: "And yet, I suggest, in reaching each of these ambiguous extremes, we can, for the first time, catch a glimpse of a true rejection of the twentieth century's terrible legacy of violence, as when climbers, upon reaching a mountaintop and unable to climb no higher, first see the new land beyond, and turn their steps down the other side."
The "other side" is represented historically for Schell by the remarkable number of circumstances in the last century, popping up amid the general carnage of two world wars and innumerable smaller wars, where positive political change has occurred without violence, or at least without war. Gandhi's movement for independence in India; Martin Luther King's civil rights movement in the U.S.; Gorbachev's dissolution of the Soviet Union; Mandela's opening up the franchise for blacks in South Africa; and most especially the work of Eastern Europeans like Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel to create alternative political structures at the very heart of existing totalitarian systems, which resulted in the nonviolent implosion of those systems. Schell is careful to preserve the particularity of all these circumstances, asserting that each was designed to suit a special case-for example, the strategy that Gandhi used with the British Raj might not have worked against Hitler.
But in all this he sees a spectacular opportunity for new thinking about international security, war prevention, and the immense political power that people possess to take their governments in new directions. For one of these- the need to abolish nuclear weapons-Schell has made a convincing case in previous books. Maybe Americans need to have a clearer idea of how ridiculous we look when we, the proud possessors of thousands of such weapons, exert our blunt will all around the world to try to prevent other entities from obtaining them. This hypocritical stance is doomed to failure. Likewise doomed is any attempt on our part to conquer the unconquerable: the hearts and minds of nations who will no more take to an American imperium than America took to a British imperium two centuries ago.
Schell doubts that our identity as a republic can survive if we continue on our present imperial path. Implicitly, he is really taking on the thinkers responsible for current policy, the major premise of which is that America can only preserve its security by taking full unilateral advantage of its strength to enforce its own will worldwide. He quotes George Kennan: "There is a naivet‚ of realism as well as a naivet‚ of idealism." Instead, Schell suggests the obvious need for us to strengthen, not pull out of, international agreements that will not only not compromise our own sovereignty and security, but enhance them.
By searching out the underlying structures of the present political/historical landscape and making them accessible to the lay person, Schell has written an important book, one which lays the foundation for a "realistic idealism" to flower worldwide in this new century. Having read it, one can easily imagine a much more creative response to terrorism than the United States has made so far-one that relies much less on military solutions and much more on medical, educational, and economic initiatives-given in the spirit of regarding our neighbors' gain on this small planet as our own gain.
Read this book-enjoy the hope it will stimulate in you-and then send a copy to your representative!
The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People by Jonathan Schell, Metropolitan Books, New York, NY. 2003. $27.50.
Winslow Myers, a long-time volunteer for the Foundation, lives in Worcester, MA. He is retiring in June 2004 after thirty years of teaching art and art history at the Bancroft School, Rhode Island School of Design, and Assumption College.
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Americans are Awash in Goods, Not in Insight
by Michael Zielenziger
After my return home from seven exhilarating, challenging years as a foreign correspondent, nothing seems more intimidating about American life than negotiating the juice freezer in the neighborhood Albertson's.
Dealing with security checkpoints on Israel's West Bank, or bargaining a real estate contract with a thieving landlord in Kabul is surely stressful, but navigating through staggering abundance triggers a cold sweat.
When I left this country, the juice choice was simple: orange or grapefruit. Now, the unsuspecting consumer must decide from among 10 different choices of orange juices alone-low acid, high calcium; no pulp, lots of pulp; fresh squeezed and flash pasteurized. Oh, and can someone please tell me the difference between "grove stand" and "home style"? Or explain why we need 20 varieties of balsamic vinegar and six brands of organic eggs?
This dizzying, paralyzing array of competing niches, market segments, and brand extensions symbolizes much of what has changed in the seven years since I abandoned California for a life roving the Far East.
An expatriate's first encounters with his homeland after a long separation offer an unusual chance to see quirks and personality changes in society that the locals may not notice, much the same way you realize how a young cousin has grown up in the three years since you last met.
In my absence, the Internet economy spiked, then collapsed, creating renewed fears of a lagging economy. Monica Lewinsky became a household name. And Americans abandoned any restraints over loudly trumpeting themselves as No. 1-perhaps the unintended consequence of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
In this strangely outsize America I've returned to, we drive SUV behemoths, live in huge houses we've remodeled to make even larger once the kids move out, and commandeer giant shopping carts to buy massive heaps of large-sized foodstuffs that cram our double-wide refrigerators. We obsess over our digital cable and our DSL. Yet we don't really seem to be enjoying the largess-or appreciating how truly mammoth and unusual our appetites are when compared with other peoples around the globe.
And it isn't just that Americans grew significantly heftier around the middle. The nation shed its humility, exuberantly proclaiming itself the world's only global power, a hegemonic creature whose military strength and economic might far outstrips any other combination of potential competitors. The Iraq war demonstrated that America can now unilaterally reshape the globe, no matter what the United Nations or traditional, long-term allies might think.
WHY ALL THE HATE?
Yet amid all this abundance of good living, Americans seem unable to comprehend, even for a moment, why much of the rest of the world-beyond just the French-hates us and our ham-fisted reach.
It's true, of course, that I lived in Japan, where a homogeneous race of island dwellers specialize in what food critic M.F.K. Fisher once described as "making much of little, and little of much." Material restraint is an essential part of the culture. A single yellow ginkgo nut, a fragile shiso leaf, and a mound of miso paste often constitute a course in a typical Japanese restaurant. Space and privacy are ultimate luxuries.
But still, the spectacular quantity of meat and potatoes Americans are served after ordering restaurant food leaves me breathless. The amount of green space and parklands we effortlessly enjoy remains beyond the imagination of most of the world's masses. And yet we constantly complain, about taxes that are significantly lower than in many parts of the world, and about gasoline prices-which are cheaper today than they were in the 1970s, once inflation is factored in.
Of course, my perspective on the outsize scale of the contemporary American life-style is shaped by my own recent experiences. Witnessing a pulverized Afghanistan struggle to emerge from the rule of the Taliban, seeing hard-hit South Koreans sell off their gold fillings while recasting their society after a sharp and agonizing economic crisis, or reliving the massacres that tragically scarred East Timor does present a stark picture of how other, less providence-starred peoples endure and rebuild after being dealt a bad hand.
GOAL OF HAPPINESS
Undoubtedly this remains a nation blessed with liberty and free expression. Our country was, after all, launched with a Declaration of Independence that practically instructs us to pursue happiness. None of my friends in Japan or Jakarta could possibly understand what that really means. In most of the places where I lived and worked abroad, sheer survival or a web of social obligations forced people out of bed each morning. Even in Japan, a developed and wealthy nation, only a rare few imagined the sort of personal fulfillment that yields the American form of happiness.
It is also truly wondrous to return to California and see people of so many different races and colors, working and living together, mixing in and using their separate, innate talents to explore new means of creativity, of getting a job done. The crew that helped move me into my new home in Oakland was Japanese, Burmese, Mexican, and Dominican. Somehow they understood how to work as a team.
Yet so many Americans I have run into since coming back seem intensely focused on narrowing their worldview-not broadening it to better comprehend how others feel. Instead of coming to grips with our unparalleled influence and the responsibilities it brings, most people want to concentrate on what is comfortable and convenient while shutting out what doesn't coincide with their unschooled prejudices.
They don't really want to know why Russians or Germans or Japanese might not want to or can't live as we do, or why the Iraqi people haven't fallen over themselves thanking U.S. troops for liberating their homeland.
It's also rather shocking for someone who has been intensely focused on covering the news for decades, to come home and find most of my neighbors choose to tune out as a way of coping with a mad world. I mean, nearly two-thirds of us don't vote. No wonder so many of those I met abroad thought the world's single most powerful nation was being run by a secret cabal that engineered policy for the business profits of their cronies, hijacking national interest in the process. Maybe those foreign critics weren't totally wrong about the shallow moorings of American democracy?
Our country is Leviathan. Yet we seem to have short attention spans-consider the lack of focus on Afghanistan-and almost no patience for details despite an endless appetite for trivia. I didn't know what "American Idol" was a few weeks ago, but quickly learned it commanded more media attention than North Korea's dangerous nuclear buildup.
LACK OF INDIGNATION
Our comfortable indifference is the only reason I can fathom for the lack of indignation, or even intense media coverage of the nagging fact that U.S. forces have yet to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq-the whole premise for launching the war against Saddam Hussein. The fiery indignation boiling up in Britain against Tony Blair even within his own party is nearly absent here.
Yes, these are scary times in the world. I was not here on Sept. 11, 2001, so the deep pools of trauma and tears Americans experienced after that confrontation with domestic terror is something I could not directly share. Maybe it's lingering fear that keeps Americans from clamoring for more answers about what we knew about Iraq and those weapons of mass destruction before we launched into war. Still, it seems as if too many Americans have emerged from Sept. 11 convinced that the world is too dangerous and too complicated and too scary to really understand, so please pass the organic salsa, the authentic, handmade chips, the microbrew, and the remote control. I've got a movie to watch on satellite TV.
Yet I wonder: If we don't try to come to grips with the rest of the world, will we really wind up any safer?
Here in California, I've been struck by the rugged contradictions that shape what we proudly call the Golden State-contradictions that seem more stark after living in Japanese society, which emphasized the harmony of the group. So many of us live so well here, yet our school systems are broken, our social services face crisis, and our state government is in hock. Even after a half decade of unparalleled prosperity our social contract with our neighbors continues to fray.
But as Americans empowered by individualism, we each have to try to cope, for better or for worse. I was stunned to learn when applying for borrowing privileges that my local library has taken up the collection plate so it can start buying books again. Sympathetic readers from as far away as Chile and Norway are now helping out by donating to the library's wish list on Amazon.com.
Wait a minute. We are the world's wealthiest nation and our libraries can't buy books? Can you explain that to me? I'm new here.
Michael Zielenziger, formerly Tokyo bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers, is a visiting scholar at the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. Reprinted by permission of the San Jose Mercury News.
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Matters of Consequence
by Copthorne MacDonald
Reviewed by Mac Lawrence
In his new book, Matters of Consequence, author Copthorne Macdonald extends this invitation to the reader: "Have you heard the quiet pleading of future generations to leave them a world worth inhabiting? Action is needed, but in today's ultracomplex world, the only action that has a chance of succeeding is action guided by a deep understanding of the human situation and a broadly compassionate heart. In the pages to come, join me in exploring the human reality, the deep-understanding approach, and where all that might lead us."
The world has changed, Macdonald says. Humanity needs help. We know more than we ever did about where we come from, what kind of beings we are, what we're doing right, what we're doing wrong. His theme: "The better we understand what is really going on-intuitively and rationally-the better we can guide our own lives and the more we can benefit our world."
In his book, Macdonald covers a huge range of subjects to help us gain the new worldview he believes the future demands. Understanding is key, he emphasizes. "Those who understand deeply end up influencing others. On the one hand, their clear-seeing is infectious. On the other, those who see are inclined to act. Some become leaders-perhaps political leaders, enlightened corporate leaders, or leaders of private-sector organizations involved with aspects of the world problematique. Others become communicators and teachers-writing, creating art, or becoming involved in existing organizations- and in those ways, attempt to share their understanding with others."
Though Macdonald writes in a relaxed style when the subject permits, overall the book requires concentration. As he warns in his introduction, "No author wants their readers to give up on a book because they get bogged down in some section of it; I certainly don't. If you get frustrated because you're not understanding something, please move on to the next topic. Then, after reading all or most of the book, go back to the material that caused you trouble and try reading it again. With the additional context acquired from reading what you do understand, it might now make much more sense."
It's obvious why Macdonald warns his reader when you begin chapter one, "The Nature of Primal Reality." At first, it didn't seem clear where the author was going as he moved rapidly from Einstein and quantum theory, to Hindu teachings and quotes from the Kabbalah, to computers and algorithims. But one soon realizes that all these subjects are there to help appreciate the many different perspectives of reality. One also soon realizes that Matters of Consequence is, as the author says, an exceptionally wide-ranging book.
Macdonald's own life has been wide-ranging. In the pre-Internet 1970s, he developed a slow-scan television system that allowed amateur radio operators to transmit pictures over long distances using their short-wave voice communications equipment. Realizing that this worldwide voice-and-picture capability could be used for personal growth and societal change, he founded New Directions Radio. More recently, Macdonald established The Wisdom Page, an Internet-based compilation of wisdom-related resources. As an engineer, he has worked extensively in the field of energy alternatives and energy conservation, has been a Project Manager at Westinghouse, Director of Research at Vidcom Electronics, and Manager of Electronic Design at Ball Brothers Research Corporation. Macdonald has authored seven books and more than 100 articles and reviews, and is currently on the editorial board of Integralis: Journal of Integral Consciousness, Culture, and Science.
In the author's own words, his book presents "the amazing picture of where we are today-as a universe and a species- and where we are heading....Part I discusses the nature of physical and mental reality and the question of cosmic purpose. Part II focuses on three close-to-home realities: the sociocultural, the economic, and the biospheric. Part III looks at our inner lives: self-knowledge, freedom, responsibility, identity, developing ethical sensibility, and creating a life characterized by meaning, purpose, and significance."
In Part IV Macdonald deals with the future and answers the question, "Where must we go from here?" His hope and vision for a world in the year 2050 "is characterized by economic equity, physical sustainability, vibrant local cultures, an electronically facilitated world culture, and sufficient time in people's lives to pursue a full, rich life of the mind." We now know enough, he maintains, that this vision is not a na‹ve one, but one achievable if we work toward it.
To produce a book of this scope, Macdonald has obviously read widely-the bibliography lists some 300 books and articles he used as source material. Throughout, he presents the ideas, views, and theories of key people, adds background and relevant facts, and offers interpretations of his own that he believes fit best with how things really are.
Macdonald also includes some choice quotes, such as this from author Ken Wilbur: "If you identify only with you, you will treat others narcissistically. If you identify with your friends and family, you will treat them with care. If you identify with your nation, you will treat your countrymen as compatriots. If you identify with all human beings, you will strive to treat all people fairly and compassionately, regardless of race, sex, color, or creed. If your identity expands to embrace the Kosmos [Wilbur's term], you will treat all sentient beings with respect and kindness, for they are all perfect manifestations of the same radiant Self, which is your very own Self."
To pique the reader, Macdonald often asks questions such as, "What is consciousness, how did it arise from matter, how is it involved with brain function, what are the contributions of science and philosophy to the mind-body problem?" In the chapter, "The Question of Cosmic Purpose," Macdonald asks, "Why something rather than nothing? Is there a cosmic purpose? Is evolution heading somewhere?" In discussing the subject of the environment we live in, he explores the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere, and talks about the food situation, resource extraction, humanity's wastes, global warming, the ecological footprint, species problems.
In the chapter titled "Self-Knowledge and Other Bad News," Macdonald lists twelve unhelpful characteristics our cobbled-up brain/mind system creates for each person as a mental model of reality, some of which, he notes, are serious distortions and outright lies. Though troublesome at times, he believes most unhelpful characteristics can be transcended, or at least lessened, through various psychological/spiritual practices, which the author then covers in the following chapter, "Freedom, Responsibility, and Ethical Sensibility."
The last part of the book is devoted to developing deep understanding ("The quality of our doing can only reflect the quality of our understanding"), how we can both predict and change the future, and an upbeat 90 pages detailing Macdonald's vision for the year 2050 and "doing what needs to be done."
Paul Ray, an expert on culture and values, writes in the Foreward to the book that, as a college student, he had searched through whole libraries without finding adequate answers to basic questions like what's really important in life and what really matters in the world. Ray notes that he has finally found what he so long sought in Matters of Consequence. "Get it. You need it," he advises. "Between these two covers is a model of responsible inquiry into many of the big questions that we really need to encounter, whether as youths or adults, not only for our own personal benefit, but for the good of our civilization. At the level of our own personal inquiry, this is a tasty, chewy, energy-bar book designed to accelerate good thinking in new ways, not one of those castor-oil books that some desiccated scholar would insist we need for our own good. It's a compass as we step into an unknown land."
Matters of Consequence: Creating a Meaningful Life and a World That Works by Copthorne Macdonald, Big Ideas Press, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. 2004. U.S.$24.95.
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A Patriotism of the Land
by John Daniel
The Pledge of Allegiance is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Where in that standard expression of patriotism are the mountains and rivers? Where are the deserts, the Great Plains, the eastern hardwood forests? Where are the particular places in the American land that we call home, and where are the other places we love, those places that have earned the allegiance of our hearts?
One such place for me is the Blue Ridge of Northern Virginia, where as a boy I hiked short stretches of the Appalachian Trail and imagined walking clear to Maine or Georgia. There was a certain stony height where I liked to sit and look out on the folded blue Alleghenies receding into the hazy west, dreaming myself into the country beyond, where I knew I would live one day.
That part of the Blue Ridge crest had no houses or farms, none of the "Posted" signs I encountered on hikes near my parents' cabin lower on the ridge. I took this for granted. I couldn't have told you which government agency managed the land, but I knew it was a special place that was meant to stay as it was. Anyone willing to walk had the right to come there and find it unspoiled. That's what a free country was all about.
In my late teens and early twenties I hated the war my government was waging in Vietnam, but I didn't hate my country. I was in love with it. I was backpacking, fishing, and climbing mountains in the national parks and forests of the Oregon Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the California Coast Range, and Washington's Olympic Peninsula. In later years, as my taste turned drier, I rambled the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, the bouldered beauty of Joshua Tree National Park, the startling elemental expanses of Death Valley.
I didn't know who I was in those years, but by exploring where I was and what I loved, I trekked and sweated and reveled my way into the beginnings of a sense of self. Love of country led me to the threshold of self-knowledge. I can't imagine my life without those wild public lands where I got lost and eventually found myself, where I still go to remember who I am.
In finding myself I found the awareness that those lands are much more than recreational playgrounds. They are safeholds for the wild communities we have torn and scattered in the lands we have subjected to our human purposes. To love our country is to love those wild lives as well as our human lives. They too are deserving of life, liberty, and-in their mysterious ways-the pursuit of happiness.
The public lands are owned by all Americans, but truly they belong to no one. We belong to them. They comprise a continental commons of which all of us are members and for which each of us is responsible. This commons preserves the upper reaches of the watersheds that sustain our lives, the open spaces that sustain our spirits, and a rough benchmark of what North America was before the rise of our industrial economy. Our own welfare depends on its well-being.
Outside of wilderness areas and national parks, it is appropriate that the commons be used for limited economic purposes. There can be no doubt, however, that in the twentieth century those purposes were favored disproportionately above the land's other values, and that the land has suffered as a consequence. The American economy has proven to be a weapon of mass destruction. Allegiance to our country, if we take it seriously, calls us to recognize and curtail our own violence against our homeland.
There are many who freely invoke the national interest whenever doing so suits their purposes, whatever the cost to the land and its life. What kind of allegiance to country would sacrifice a unique wildlife refuge for petroleum, cut yet more old-growth trees in the name of "healthy forests," or lop the tops off mountains and turn deserts upside down to mine minerals or coal? Only a cynical, or at best a thoughtless, allegiance.
To those self-styled patriots, let us say this: Homeland security means watersheds intact. It means clean air and water and soil. It means a decent respect for wild lives. It means an energy policy based on conservation, and on sources whose procurement does not injure or deplete the commons.
We all belong to the commons, and we all belong to the economy. We are all responsible. Let all of us, then-environmentalists, ranchers and loggers, public land managers, political leaders, corporate chiefs, urban and rural dwellers alike-let all of us pledge to do better by the country we love in this century than we did in the last.
John Daniel, author of the award-winning books Looking After and The Trail Home, has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford. He recently held a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is presently the Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at St. Lawrence University, New York.
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The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life.
by Lynne Twist
Reviewed by Joe Kresse
I loved this book! It is inspiring, informative, moving, transformative, and is full of personal stories and insights gained over the quarter century the author has been an activist and fundraiser. You may have to look in the business section of your bookstore to find it, but this book is for everyone because we all have a relationship with money.
As a fundraiser, Lynne Twist has traveled all over the world and raised more than $150 million in individual contributions for charitable causes. All too often, she finds, there is a single, pervasive, underlying approach people have towards money. "Whether we live in resource-poor circumstances or resource-rich ones, even if we're loaded with more money or more goods or everything you could possibly dream of wanting or needing, we live with scarcity as an underlying assumption.
"It is an unquestioned, sometimes even unspoken, defining condition of life. It is not even that we necessarily experience a lack of something, but that scarcity- as a chronic sense of inadequacy about life-becomes the very place from which we think and act, the lens through which we experience life. Through that lens our expectations, our behavior, and their consequences become a self-fulfilling prophecy of inadequacy, lack, and dissatisfaction."
As a result of this, our relationship with money becomes an expression of fear, a fear that drives us to continually seek more and to compromise our wholeness and integrity in that pursuit. But, "Scarcity is a lie. Independent of any actual amount of resources, it is an unexamined and false system of assumptions, opinions, and beliefs from which we view the world as a place where we are in constant danger of having our needs unmet." The author has found this across nearly every culture, and in every economic condition.
Underlying this myth of scarcity are three related beliefs. The first is that "there's not enough." This drives us to work hard to ensure that we're not the ones left out or marginalized. We put our own material desires and those of our loved ones ahead of others' needs.
The second belief is: "More is better. It's the logical response if you fear there's not enough. But more is better drives a competitive culture of accumulation, acquisition, and greed that only heightens fears and quickens the pace of the race." And this is a race that never ends, because there is always more to be had, and always someone else who has more than we do. In fact, the pursuit of wealth has become the game we play in our society, and how much money we have defines our value in many ways. If we choose not to play the game at all, we are seen as quitters or losers.
As a country, we also pursue having more than other nations: more oil, more military might, more power. "The unquestioned, unchecked drive for more fuels an unsustainable economy, culture, and way of being that has failed us by blocking our access to the deeper, more meaningful aspects of our lives and ourselves."
For example, Twist was asked to address senior women executives at Microsoft, and found in a small group conversation with ten of them that all of them were disturbed by the compromises they felt they had to make in their personal and family lives because work necessarily had the highest priority at their levels of responsibility. Later, speaking to a larger group of one hundred women executives, she talked about how third-world women survive through their appreciation and gratitude for the little they have, and also through a community of support, in which partnering, collaboration, and caring are the norm. She gave the Microsoft women an opportunity to reflect on how much they already had, and on whether the quest for more was worth it. In the years that followed, Twist heard from several of them about changes they had made in their lives after that evening-retiring, going to work for the Gates Foundation, becoming more involved in social action, and so forth.
The third belief is that "that's just the way it is." In other words, we resign ourselves to this way of living. This is the toughest and most important belief to challenge, because if we don't change it, we will remain stuck-stuck with greed, prejudice, and inaction.
Twist argues that the truth is there is "sufficiency." She gives several examples of cultures having this view, from the Achuar people of Ecuador to Senegalese living in the Sahel Desert. "I am not suggesting there is ample water in the desert or food for the beggars in Bombay. I am saying that even in the presence of genuine scarcity of external resources, the desire and capacity for self-sufficiency are innate and enough to meet the challenges we face. It is precisely when we turn our attention to these inner resources-in fact only when we do that-that we can begin to see more clearly the sufficiency in us and available to us, and we can begin to generate effective, sustainable responses to whatever limitations of resources confront us."
What are the principles of sufficiency? Twist posits three. The first is to treat money like water. It should flow through our lives rather than accumulate and stagnate. When we are in a "condition of scarcity, money shows up not as a flow, but as an amount, something to collect and hold on to, to stockpile. We measure our self-worth by our net worth, and only and always more is better. Any drop on the balance sheet is experienced as a loss that diminishes us.
"Grounded in sufficiency, money's movement in and out of our life feels natural. We can see that flow as healthy and true, and allow that movement instead of being anxious about it or hoarding. In sufficiency we recognize and celebrate money's power for good-our power to do good with it-and we can experience fulfillment in directing the flow toward our highest ideals and commitments."
She learned this lesson when she was speaking to a group of women in Harlem about The Hunger Project. It was in the basement of an old church, and about seventy-five people were there. Twist knew the people there didn't have much to give, and felt nervous asking them to do so. After she did, there was a long silence, after which an older woman near the back stood up. She said: "Girl, to me, money is a lot like water. For some folks it rushes through their life like a raging river. Money comes through my life like a little trickle. But I want to pass it on in a way that does the most good for the most folks. I see that as my right and as my responsibility. It's also my joy. I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned from doing wash and I want to give it to you." She was followed by others, and Twist felt the $500 or so she received that evening was more precious to her than any she'd gotten before, because of the sense of integrity and heart with which it was given.
The second principle of sufficiency is "what you appreciate appreciates."When our attention is on what's missing or scarce, then that becomes what we're about. But, says Twist, "If your attention is on the capacity you have to sustain yourself and your family, and contribute in a meaningful way to the well-being of others, then your experience of what you have is nourished and it grows. Even in adversity, if you can appreciate your capacity to meet it, learn, and grow from it, then you create value where no one would have imagined it possible."
The third sufficiency principle is that collaboration creates prosperity. "Collaboration and reciprocity are natural, and yet in the world we inhabit, competition and fear of scarcity often block us from seeing these ways of being with one another. In a you-or-me world, reciprocity and collaboration don't fit. A you-and-me world is full of collaborators, partners, sharing and reciprocity. In that world, our resources are not only enough; they are infinite."
The last part of this book is titled "Change the Dream." In it, Twist gives many examples of how people can change their situation through the power of conversation, by creating a legacy of enough, and by taking a stand for sufficiency.
In one powerful example, she relates how she and some of her compatriots were invited to meet with a group of women from a village in Dharmapuri, one of the poorest regions in India. In that region, the killing of newborn girls was common because they were held to be of little value, and if they were to be married their family would have to provide a substantial dowry. Each of the Indian women in the group had killed at least one daughter herself, and had helped other women do the same. In the meeting, they shared for the first time these horrendous experiences and how they wanted to save other babies and mothers from the same experience. They had felt the need to have "outside ears and eyes" to gain the courage to draw a line and end the cycle forever. They promised to tackle the crushing dowry system, and vowed to begin with the steps they knew would be most difficult-talking with the men.
The concluding chapter, "The Turning Tide," gives evidence that the you-and-me world of sufficiency already exists. Right now, the author suggests, we are in the middle of a transformation to "a world in which we treasure that there is enough, steward it wisely, and live in a context of sufficiency and prosperity for all." Lynne Twist encourages us to live in that world by the company we keep, by what and how much we purchase, and by supporting institutions we believe in.
Read this book: it will almost certainly change your relationship with money and give you reason for hope as well.
The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Life by Lynne Twist. W.W.Norton & Co., New York, NY. 2003. $25.95.
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From Terry Tempest Williams:
I remember being in Mexico City at a symposium and one of the writers who was there was a South African poet, Brighten Brightenbach. One day I asked him, 'If we are interested in this revolution, this evolution of the spirit, what do we do?' He looked at me dead center and said, "You Americans, you've mastered the art of living with the unacceptable."
I think that's what we're all writing about-what is acceptable and what is not. Is there a place for beauty in this culture? And if we destroy everything within the natural world, what does that say about us as human beings?
Her most recent books are Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert and Leap.
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