Leading Nowhere

It is time to come clean about what we believe leadership to be - a term that we use so casually and apply to almost everyone in a position of authority. In spite of the many millions of dollars spent on the development of ‘leaders’ annually, the strategies we adopt have failed to deliver the kind of results (i.e. ‘leadership’} we expect and so urgently need. What does leadership actually mean? Why do so few people in public life inspire us with their morality, their courage, or their vision of how things could improve? Is leadership a rare gift after all – impossible to learn and consequently out of reach to the rest of us?

Or is it a flickering ember resting deep within the soul of every man, woman and child, waiting for oxygen to ignite it? Perhaps we are simply looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Is extrinsic leadership the solution to the crises we face? Or is leadership as an intrinsic impulse the key? Is there a thread linking Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Yara Shahidi, Malala Yousafzai, and Isra Hirsi - apart from the coincidence they are all young women?

Part of the difficulty lies in our stories about leaders and leadership. These narratives trap us in past reveries - romantic nostalgia from a Boy’s Own world, they tell almost exclusively of daring heroics and the superhuman prowess of a select band of men. You won’t find too many female tales in this stereotypical male domain. Nor do more spiritual and softer aspects of our humanity get in the way of a good yarn. This is a world in which physical strength, endurance, and courage are prized, where bold actions speak louder than words, and the expression of feelings, other than passionate convictions bolstered by assertiveness, is considered weak, fragile and overly sensitive.

And so we are taught from an early age that true leaders possess the kinds of bravery, wealth, power and status that mere mortals can only dream about. This cultural archetype generates an expectation that we are all merely players in a story being directed by the innately powerful. We even fall for the notion that the world must be designed and managed by men if it is going to work efficiently. All of which is arid nonsense of course.

Another myth concerns the relationship between leadership and management. As management science sought legitimacy during the latter half of the 20th century, the new consulting industry extended its influence and earnings potential by declaring leadership a management competency. This is absurd. The inherent difference between managers (who channel any resources at hand in their efforts to achieve measurable, predetermined results) and leaders (who harness imagination and energy in the pursuit of inspired dreams) will forever remain in creative tension. Confusing the two, however, degrades management while thwarting true leadership, which is much more of a collaborative phenomenon.

A third alternative is that the nature of leadership itself is changing. Perhaps the charismatic style of celebrity leadership we have come to expect - and for which we still yearn if opinion polls are anything to go by - is no longer relevant or sufficient for our needs. In that instance, perhaps leadership is morphing into something less evident, yet more pervasive, than before. That does not necessarily mean leadership has disappeared. Rather, it is adopting a new guise. After all, the world is constantly changing. Old certitudes are continually swept away. So why not leadership?

Astonishing breakthroughs in knowledge are undermining almost everything we once held dear. New technologies are disrupting long-established patterns of human activity, banishing the familiar and eroding certainty in our minds. Traditional value systems - centered on family, friends and faith - are mutating. Our most venerable institutions are threatened as, through the rapid fusion of ideas, technologies, markets and cultures, entire belief systems collide and ricochet - indifferent to established boundaries and social norms. 

At the same time, new communications gadgets plug us into the diverse clamour of the global village. What it means to be human (its ideals and its anguish, its joys and its horrors) confronts us constantly. It is in our faces, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The intrusion of the mass media and propaganda into our most life-shaping patterns ensures there can be no escape. Trapped in prisons of our own invention, yet able to interact instantly with people in different lands, and from utterly dissimilar cultures, we happily impose our opinions on anyone silly enough to listen, wherever they happen to be. In this technospheric realm of selfies and avatars, the need to be heard and to be liked matters much more than anything else, or so it seems.

Certainly the pressures on business and government officials appear overwhelming, giving them no place to hide. Technology has changed what we do, how we do it, and even how long we can go on doing it before we must do something else. Today governments react nervously to fluctuating conditions. Clinging to the coat-tails of either American or Chinese militancy, their own authority evaporating with the steady decline of national sovereignty. 

Companies stick to business models that are becoming rapidly obsolete because that is all they know - apparently unconcerned or oblivious to the risks they face in remaining the same.  Spin-doctors talk up growth and profitability, glossing over the look-alike plans they know will stifle innovation and strip value out of the enterprise. The landscape has become littered with mindless trivia, and short-term survival tactics. And, just to add a further frisson of insecurity, a rising tide of scandals is shaking world markets as cryptocurrencies refuse to die, state-backed terrorism kills far more people than Islamic fanaticism, the Catholic Church staggers from one crisis to another, hackers use the Internet to manipulate elections, and the crossing of critical planetary boundaries threatens our very existence! No wonder our so-called ‘leaders’ are in such a state of indecision. They are totally out of their depth. Still we demand more from them.

As these dynamics acquire a seemingly unstoppable intensity they are giving rise to instability and an environment where the rules - and much of the knowledge - of the past 400 years has become irrelevant. How can we possibly know what matters any more? What must a ‘leader’ do in times such as these? So ambiguous and volatile is today’s environment it seems almost impossible to do anything much. Chaos and anxiety have usurped certainty.

Yet seemingly almost anything is possible. Gene editing promises to eliminate disease. In less than a decade machine intelligence will match that of humans. Google's self-driving cars have already driven over a quarter of a million miles without human intervention in actual cities and towns. Vertical farms produce greater yields of food by using far less space and water. We can print buildings and human organs, and are edging closer towards non-invasive, Cloud-based computation and communication devices in our brains. Robots write and perform music that is almost indistinguishable from that composed by the great masters. Space is in the news again as SpaceX launches thousands of mass-produced miniature communications satellites into low Earth orbit and Virgin Galactic aims to provide suborbital spaceflights for space tourists. Why we can even create new generation mRNA vaccines in months, rather than the years needed to invent and trial conventional serums. The world is rapidly changing.

In the final analysis though, changing the world is not about deploying new gadgets. It is not even about having a vision, instituting controls for its realization, and then trying to persuade others of its virtue. That process is precisely how we got ourselves into this predicament in the first place.

On the contrary, transformation of our world at a deeper level requires that we first transform ourselves. Herein lies the real challenge of leadership: letting go of our old self-serving scripts and creating new stories that allow a regenerative spirit to emerge whole once again. If it so happens that we are currently governed by the least among us, intellectually and emotionally, we cannot expect that transformation to come from incumbent ‘leaders’. They are simply incapable of transforming themselves given that their public persona is fixed. Transformation must inevitably start somewhere else.

The story that has dominated Western civilization for well over three centuries has been one of servitude, conformity, and efficiency. It invigorated an age of progress in which consumerism flourished and self-interest was confined to the notion of material gain. This story is no longer sufficient to generate a sense of meaning and well-being for most people. It has led inexorably to an impoverished view of the self, and an ethos of dependency within society. Furthermore, because it fails to remind us of our dependence on the environment in which we live - so often seen merely as a store of resources we can use for production - we have willfully damaged Earth's assets, losing any sense of affiliation with the planet that sustains us. That script is now used up.

The new story, gradually emerging - instinctively felt but not yet clearly understood - is about communality, inclusion, and empathy. At some point, we have to know, accept, and express gratitude for who we really are, rather than being content with what others want us to be, or demand that we should be.

In this evolving story we must each accept responsibility for our own actions and the world in which we live. As long as we can tap into the realms of our imagination, liberate our ingenuity, engage authentically with others, foster greater integration in our everyday lives, and discover more sustaining and meaningful stories, we are capable of transforming who we are and what we do. And when we change ourselves we change the world.

I have no doubt that new forms of leadership are needed in order to interrupt the continuous cycle of desire and consumption, along with envy and avarice, that drive our more acquisitive impulses. That leadership meme will emerge from alternative ontological perspectives regarding what actually matters, who we are, and who we are becoming as a species, as well as more complete expressions of the world we share with all other life forms and the realities we must face.

An appreciative society, and an empathic civilization within an ontology of ‘interbeing’ is waiting to be born out of the ashes of industrial economism. Once that meme is accepted, transformational energy will radiate from within the collective soul of the pioneers whose new story will change the course of history.

To Touch Eternity

Has humanity's progress been hijacked by a pervasive scientific rationalism that trades spirituality and communality for cold efficiency? If so, does this cultural meme promise anything more than sterile technological miracles that, while at least partially solving past problems, ambushes our ability to imagine how we might avoid civilized society descending into the barbaric once again?

Have we permitted economic growth, wealth creation and the financialization of almost everything we cherish to become an all-consuming obsession, superseding any higher moral purpose? What will it take to curb our sanctification of industrial economism by reinstating more compelling and empathic narratives as a keystone strategy for the future advancement of the human family?

As old age beckons, many things become clearer. Memories occasionally rearrange themselves in curious ways. But in most respects the fog of uncertainty lifts. Subjects considered urgent and important become profoundly entangled. Cultures, customs and events, distinct in times past, fuse into patterns so dynamic that they resist further compartmentalization.

Solitude comes too - mostly unpredictably, yet always welcome. And, above all else, empathy for others. Incredibly I find myself comforted by the thought of reincarnation in its most literal sense. The fact that while I breathe the dust of previous generations the atoms comprising my own body, loaned by the ecosphere for a few brief moments in a span of millennia, will decay and endlessly recycle in the provision of nutrients for other creatures in generations to come. This seems to me to be the most perfect way to touch eternity.

But a serene empathy can bring dissonance with it. Seeing in new ways and stepping lightly into unfamiliar epistemologies has led me to one discomforting conclusion. The future story of our species is held captive by a form of cold scientific rationalism in which visions for a better world are most often portrayed as a grand yet sterile technosphere we are privileged to inherit.

While contemporary life has deterred many from venerating archaic deities and other convenient fictions, this new technocratic utopia seduces whole societies into shifting their allegiance away from prelates, monarchs and politicians to a distributed general artificial intelligence. This digital spirit is held to be redeemer of past ills and liberator of an incipient promise: nothing less than the genesis of an omnipotent Homo sapiens.

The alternative story, a gentler yet compelling narrative of compassion, inspiration and amity in which diversity and difference are virtues to be nurtured, is lost to all but a few enlightened souls - individuals who refuse to consign the joy of what it means to be human to computer programs or antiseptic numbers. These individuals are the true guardians of humanity.

For the most part these poets, philosophers and indigenous elders, are scorned or ignored; treated as misguided fools by those who do not possess such clarity of insight or who are alarmed at what seems like spirituality on steroids. But when fear shrouds the truth we remain deaf to these voices who warn of impending catastrophe. All but invisible, their cries are becoming fading echoes in the sanctuary of human conceit.

The West chose a technically-dominated course in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 - tethering society's fate to a mix of industrial mechanisms and arcane financial devices that individual corporate greed and self-interest would later unravel, usurp, and use to plunder in the name of progress, freedom and democracy. Almost by default, the rest of the world is following suit - so irresistible is the Occidental promise of a consumer paradise.

Liberating for some, yet tyrannical to so many, the ideology of industrial economism is the epitome of scientific rationalism. Thriving on growth, competition and adversity, this ideology is bent on the willful destruction of our most fundamental needs - love, affiliation, kindness, friendship and gratitude.

We are disinclined to admit this fracture in the human story for fear of appearing weak or foolish. Consequently this system, branded disaster capitalism by Canadian activist Naomi Klein, is entrenched within our daily routines to such an extent that we are totally blind to alternatives. Our capacity to pursue a different direction is thus drastically curtailed. It is like inviting a fish to swim without water or a bird to fly without air. So our penchant is to linger as long as we can, addicted to a desire to consume more and more stuff, and seldom concerned that the future we have set in motion and which we embrace with so much zeal will probably destroy more than it can ever hope to create.

The fact is we have spawned a civilizational apocalypse - one that continues to deliver the illusion of increasing wealth and well-being even as it gnaws away at our collective soul and the resources we need to prosper. Safeguarded by a relatively small number of influential individuals, corporations and financiers, all of whom extract enormous personal wealth from their activities and are therefore disinclined to change their minds, industrial economism is the most terrifying of legacies we are bequeathing to our youth. Why? Because nobody can grasp the full impact of its end-game. We can only guess.

What we do know is that while many human beings suffer from starvation, oppression and various forms of deprivation, from which escape seems barely possible, the rest of us live in relative luxury - enjoying a vicarious existence and embracing an assortment of diversions in the hope they will distract us from a reality we cannot bear to confront.

Let us speak the truth as if it mattered and cannot be tainted by unawareness or self-interest. The human race is on a destructive path. We are forcing changes to Earth's biophysical systems with unparalleled power and at an unprecedented rate. In spite of this it is highly unlikely there will be a single devastating tragedy that brings us to our senses. Our ruin is advancing by stealth.

This was not the plan. There were no predetermined intentions - no divine power perched in the heavens declaring an inevitable outcome for our species. There is no elitist-led conspiracy, not even an alien life-form manipulating events for their own evil ends. On the contrary we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We chose the path and what we are creating is entirely of our own making. We are our own worst enemy. The sad irony is that much of what we have created has been astonishingly enriching and beneficial.

The power of language and scientific invention, for example, opened up possibilities that are unavailable to other species. But an inherent flaw in human nature meant we were oblivious to unintended consequences. Behaving as if omnipotent, we willingly engineered a path to self-destruction and are now stumbling towards an end-game that we could still avoid if we take our foot off the accelerator.

But we are doing nothing to alter our course. In some ways we seem to be embracing our demise with the kind of insane euphoria observed during the collapse of empires.

Where did we go wrong? What critical decisions were so impetuously taken and why did we abide by those decisions when we saw them to be corrupt? What forces did we knowingly unleash that, with hindsight, should have been contained? Could it be that our technical knowledge has far surpassed our ability to apply it wisely, the nature of the tools we have invented, or simply a lack of foresight in how to use them to benefit humanity?

Has it anything at all, do you suppose, to do with a population of almost eight billion people competing for limited resources in ways that assume those same resources to be infinite? If so, what should we do about that? Are the more convoluted problems the result of leadership deficiencies, religious fundamentalism, political incompetence and corruption, or deep-seated tribal inequities? Or is it possibly the sheer complexity of modern life that seems to extend far beyond the bounds of our capacity to imagine and comprehend, let alone manage with any degree of harmony or flexibility?

I suspect it is none and all of these. Human beings now dominate this planet - of that there can be no question. But we are changing our home in ways that threaten Earth's ability to sustain us and other life forms. Furthermore we have stopped caring for each other to the extent that our lives have become one prolonged saga of narcissistic preening and of proving ourselves better than our neighbours.

Within this context there are at least three civilizational acupuncture points, together with their related activities, the impact of which we should be analyzing far more seriously and with greater granularity - ultimately with a view to reinventing their essential qualities and propositions. These acupuncture points are best envisaged as universal belief systems and can be summarized quite simply as:

  1. Our readiness to compete, to the death if necessary, against nature and each other.

  2. Our proclivity for placing economies and the pursuit of individual wealth above that of assuring ecological resilience.

  3. Our macabre fascination with money and the politics of self-interest.

None of these constraints are particularly novel. Indeed they have been enshrined within our moral architectures from time immemorial. But they only began to forge a step-change spin on the civilizational worldview following the Industrial Revolution. The main causes for this extreme expansion of our world-system orthodoxies were a series of factors we can group under the collective banner of globalism. In particular:

  1. A sudden exponential growth in the size of the human population. This provoked a surge in the demand for goods of all kinds which then intensified and advanced the importance of competition. Today competitive behaviour is regarded as both virtuous and necessary - a key pillar of any capitalist society and an inherent part of human nature. Although the latter view does not stack up from a purely scientific perspective it is used as the militaristic rationale for why armies should be kept on a constant war footing and to justify why some of us are ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ than others.

  2. Access to low cost, easily accessible, manufacturing and distribution technologies meant that more goods could be produced faster than ever before and shipped to countries half way around the world with relative ease. The demand for goods put unprecedented pressure on small-scale local industries and regional economies, sending many of them to the wall, while dramatically increasing the amounts of energy used and waste generated. This substantially altered humanity's ecological footprint.

  3. The rise of individualism as a moral stance created conditions in which the desire for personal affluence, together with its achievement - whatever that takes, now warrants more consideration than ensuring public prosperity. This has had multiple unplanned consequences. Among the more detrimental impacts, two are especially relevant:

    • A shift away from customary social obligations governments accepted in caring for their citizens, to a primary role of facilitating commerce and trade, has effectively delegated public well-being to impromptu charitable gestures boosted sporadically by cynical populist schemes mostly aimed at keeping political parties in power. Politicians have outsourced compassion.

    • Permitting private corporations to own and control assets that are vital for human survival - including water, seeds, lakes and forests, and even space - is a laissez-faire recipe for discrimination on a massive scale. Given that the responsibility of corporations, as they are currently constituted, is to make money for their shareholders, it is absurd to believe these enterprises can also act altruistically on behalf of the community. Meanwhile we must deal with the strategic ambitions of multinational enterprises attempting to control every aspect of our most life-critical systems, such as the food chain.

  4. The acceleration and international integration of cultural and economic activities creates unparalleled levels of interdependence at every scale - from the individual, to the state, to the entire human family. But because the universal driving force is still primarily economic this interdependence has also hastened growing disparities between the wealthiest in our society and a poor underclass. If these continue to morph into discriminatory practices it is possible a new form of transnational class warfare might result.  

  5. The ability to communicate instantly with almost anyone, anywhere, for any reason whatsoever has generated massive opportunities to collaborate and innovate. At the same time an all-pervading digital reality seems to be alienating large numbers of people who yearn for greater human contact and intimacy, a trend exacerbated by cyber-bullying, cyber-shaming, online tribalism, and the like. We do not know what the outcome of this trend might be. In the meantime anxiety, depression and suicide rates are escalating, while children as young as five have smartphones and Facebook pages but experience difficulties participating in normal healthy relationships.

  6. The dominance and motives of the finance sector in the sum total of economic global activity allows financial markets to dominate industrial and agricultural markets. Because profits arise increasingly through financial channels, rather than through traditional trade and commodity production, a new financial elite comprising private equity firms and investment bankers effectively govern operations of the economy at national and international levels.

Recently, all these factors have converged and interacted in ways we could not possibly have anticipated. Or so our leaders continue to insist, thereby excusing their lack of moral courage.

Regardless of where we sit on the continuum between technocratic optimism, like inventor Ray Kurzweil, and humanitarian pessimism, like scientist James Lovelock, it is impossible to deny that these factors, and possibly many more than these, have conspired to generate the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

Regardless of perspective there is a far more distressing issue with which we must come to terms. It is one combining consciousness and conscience. Fallout from the toxic mix of motivations and activities listed above is rapidly poisoning life on our planet. Yet we still cling stubbornly to the past, refusing to admit the damage we are doing to each other and to the environment, continuing to endorse the same beliefs, and taking no urgent remedial action or even to make minor adjustments to our path. Furthermore, rather than trying to slow things down we are doing exactly the opposite. We are now hurtling to the edge of extinction.

In the year I was born there were around two billion inhabitants on this planet. By the end of this century I fully expect human numbers to have collapsed to that level once again, accounted for by the impacts of climate chaos, rapidly declining sperm counts, and warfare. Unless we can learn to live with each other more productively than in the past, setting aside partisan views for the common good, conflict, homelessness, penury and starvation will overwhelm those without access to sufficient food, water, compassion and justice.

Trapped on a tiny planet catapulted way beyond the so-called Goldilocks Principle that generated conditions not too cold, not too hot, but ‘just right’ for human habitation, we will be forced to adapt to a situation never encountered by human beings. Today we are living in conditions that are hotter than any in the past 800,000 years. Should present trends continue it is probable that one half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in less than 100 years as a direct result of habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. We have no idea if we can survive such a transition, much less thrive in it.

So how should we be thinking to forestall that possibility? What can we propose, even now, to avoid crossing critical thresholds that would precipitate planetary-scale phase shifts in the planetary ecosystem - thus extinguishing the civilizational paradigm and sending humanity back to a new dark age?

In order to present any kind of sensible suggestion in such matters we must examine our three initial acupuncture points to determine how we might nudge these into a more viable state.

1. Fighting nature and each other

Setting aside the idea we are separate from, and superior to nature, and exchanging it for a more realistic credo, requires a total transformation in how we think, plan, and act. Similarly, replacing the notion that some of us are inferior in some way and that certain cultures are therefore more advanced than others, with a more empathic view demands a paradigm shift in how we relate to each other in the first place.

Exceptionalism of this kind is irrational hubris. Such beliefs are naive - untenable in an age where science has substantiated the genetic equality of all humans as well as our dependence, along with all living creatures, on nature for our continuing existence.

Unfortunately, we have been living as if biophysical resources are infinite, and that we can do pretty much as we please with other ‘less advanced’ cultures, for so long that we have only the faintest clue what it might look or feel like to act otherwise. Judaic, Islamic and Christian scriptures all teach us that it is our God-given right to conquer the Earth - in return for which we gang up on each other in God's name.

But while challenging entrenched societal beliefs such as these has always been problematic, we now have one huge advantage over previous generations. Digital social media give us the ability to transcend boundaries and to connect with each other across all strata of society in campaigning for an awakening to new values.

2. Putting economies before ecologies

In the beginning was ‘The Word’. The Word meant purpose. Purposeful intentions directed human activity. Originally just a matter of the tribe's physical survival, human purpose later grew to encompass more mature goals - such as security, affiliation, love, self-esteem and personal accomplishments - and later more aspirational objectives like reaching for the stars. At the same time social development traced a path ranging from communitarian obligations to the fulfillment of individual needs and self-determination. And there it seems to have stuck...

In Greek philosophy, purpose is logos. The wisdom of knowing one's purpose - our ecology - meant comprehending how everything that is important fits together in a form that benefits everyone. When the logos is clear, comprehensible, and shared by the community as a whole, nomos - the laws and rules that enable society to sustain and manage efficiently - can take its rightful place in service of the logos.

This sequence is important. Logos is purpose. Only when purpose has been clearly established can nomos act in ways that optimize this purpose. At some stage in our history we forgot this and inverted the natural order. Nomos, or the economics of managing the house, became an end in its own right. We lost our way. We lost our purpose. In so doing we neglected what it means to be human and empathic. Now we stand to lose far more than that. Natural resources critical for our survival are under threat.

The only solution I can envisage is one where we all take responsibility for restoring the original order. We must lobby those in positions of authority to reinstate the natural order in which economics plays a necessary but subservient role to ecologies. We must then also determine a revitalized purpose.

3. The politics of self interest

Most contemporary governments are deficient - in the sense they are no longer able to keep the promise made to their citizens concerning basic public services - including security, full employment, an adequate education and welfare for those in need of assistance, for example. The reason is pretty straightforward. Governments have forgotten their prime purpose. Instead they constantly patch up the present, preferring to pander to the media and meddle in affairs in which they have no competence or legitimate role. Yet we put up with it.

Most Western-style governments have been corporatized. While key advisers drift to and fro between government departments and industry, bureaucracies have been forced to abandon their traditional impartiality, morphing instead into agencies acting on behalf of their political masters and, by implication, big business. This shift has allowed the wealthiest corporations to buy and exercise control over humanity's most life-critical systems. It allows companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, to monopolize and privatize the supply of seeds. And it permits a mutually-beneficial relationship to be preserved between governments and defense-minded enterprises like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

In the former case we need to understand that biodiversity and economic diversity are linked. They are key to providing a large, diverse, genetic pool that enables organisms to withstand and adapt to new conditions. To restore both means we must combat the shameful economic and political power of agri-business. The need for governments to legislate laws of ecocide, thus preventing large-scale industrial agriculture and agri-food corporations accelerating the loss of genetic diversity, eroding biodiversity and undermining global ecosystems, is paramount.

In the latter case the military industrial complex has constructed an unholy alliance in which war planners receive the tools necessary for waging effective war and furthering their political interests abroad, while defense contractors are the recipients of massive lucrative deals. This relationship must be dismantled as the first step in declaring a halt to conflict.

A few years ago tobacco giant Philip Morris sued the Australian government to try and overturn public health laws aimed at reducing teenage smoking. They failed. Chevron hired 2,000 lawyers to avoid paying Ecuador $9.5 billion in damages due to dumping of toxic waste in local lakes and rivers of the Lago Agrio region. They succeeded. Bayer sued Europe to overturn a ban on bee-killing pesticides, at the same time as investing millions with Monsanto to defeat an effort to label GM foods in the US. They lost.

Since then the monstrous power of large corporations has gone feral. It seems the world’s largest and most profitable corporations are determined to defeat any efforts to hold them to account. By investing billions of dollars in dirty legal battles, corrupt backhand payments, data mining activities, tax avoidance and lobbying campaigns, big business is attempting to take over our democracies. In many cases they are winning.

As powerful as these companies may appear, their arrogance will be their downfall. They are ultimately at the mercy of consumers and the general public. Community action can hit these companies where it hurts - their profitability. By withdrawing our patronage we also put them out of business.

I find no personal consolation in speaking these truths. I am especially culpable in that I have given life to so many children and grandchildren who must now cope with a situation worsening by the year. My shame is multiplied many times because I had foresight of this future. Mine is a terrible burden. And yet I bear it in the hope that I can play a small part in diverting the human family from its current suicidal course.

Addressing these three acupuncture points that allow current toxic belief systems to persist is crucial. Finding solutions that are socially, culturally and economically viable, within frameworks derived from entirely new ontological possibilities, will require all the ingenuity and imagination we can muster.

So massive are the issues facing us it may seem impossible to know where to start. In truth anywhere will do. Thoughts, plans or actions aimed at shifting the civilizational framework of beliefs away from their current trajectory will be more acceptable than the alternative. Inaction is no longer an option.

Inviting Extinction

Almost every day we hear rumours and scuttlebutt concerned with the extinction of humanity. Anxiety and fear from various factors fuels this sense of foreboding. The potential for a nuclear accident, climate chaos, pandemics like the one in which we are currently immersed, creeping authoritarianism, conflict, economic disparities, technological disruption, and geopolitical jostling for power are just a few of the circumstances concerning us.

Unsurprisingly Hollywood and Netflix pick up these themes, shaping a narrative that holds many of us spellbound – or traumatized. After watching documentaries like Seaspiracy and David Attenborough's A Life on this Planet it seems as though we are inviting extinction with open arms.

Most people tend to dismiss such claims as implausible. Just look at the world we have crafted through generations of ingenuity and determination, they assert. It is unthinkable that major coastal cities could be under water by the end of this century. It is equally unthinkable that we might empty the oceans by commercial fishing by 2048, destroy most top soils from industrial agriculture by 2060, or accidentally trigger a nuclear war that would destroy all life on the planet.

Be that as it may, humans share a deep cognitive inability to face up to existential crises of this nature. We willingly ignore the facts, clinging to the hope that scientists are wrong or their models inaccurate. We convince ourselves that corporations are not selfish and governments would take instant action to protect us if any of these issues could put humanity in clear and present danger. And if, by any stretch of the imagination, any of them did turn out to be true, then we would just invent a new technology to solve the problem. Case dismissed.

But what if we are not up to that task? What if it all happens so quickly that we are caught napping? Surely it would be best to exercise the precautionary principle used in medicine and to address any doubts we might have by changing what we do and how we do it – especially if it also generates a safer, cleaner, healthier and more sustainable society?

Others will insist we are already taking sufficient action in any number of ways. They will point to the pledges by various nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. They will argue, as in the past, that possessing stockpiles of nuclear weapons on active standby is a deterrent against their use. They will see gene editing, and gain-of-function trials on viruses as legitimate ways to cure disease. They will argue that industrial fishing and agriculture is the only way to feed a population of more than 8 billion people. They will bow to the billionaires as they plan their escape routes. And if they want to live longer lives they might even see the dream of digital immortality by 2048 as a bonus.

But all of these events without exception, including the most virtuous and well-intentioned, alongside most entrepreneurial initiatives that simply add to a stockpile of stuff we do not need, skirt around the main dilemmas that trap us in prisons of our own invention:

1. Everything we do is underpinned by an assumption that the laws of science cannot apply to us, or that we are able to conquer nature because we are much smarter than that. The reality is we cannot bargain with physics. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic could be seen as nature giving us a chance to prepare and plan for something far worse. But no. All we want to do is to defeat this virus. So we have no compunction about shutting down the global economy and quarantining healthy people until we eradicate the threat. Not only is our thinking pathetically short-term – the language we insist on using keeps us from breaking out of a cognitive trap that remains silent and unseen.

2. Everything we do to prevent or alleviate systemic risks and threats is characterized by 1st-order change. Incremental improvement is the extent of our ambition. But 1st-order change does not fundamentally transform the games we play, or even alter the rules. The reality is that we need radical 2nd- and 3rd-order change – metamorphosis – if we are to resolve effectively the various crises facing us. This will depend on constructive disruption of the status quo, re-perceiving our world through different ontological frames, contesting our most deeply-held beliefs about who we are, how we relate to each other and to nature, and finally reinventing our most life-critical systems. Transformation, as opposed to tweaking at the edges, is needed and we are not good at that.

3. Societal transformation by design and at scale has never been tried or achieved by any species. That is not to suggest it cannot be done. Usually we prefer to adapt to changing conditions. We have been remarkably adept at this typically gradual process. But today we have run out of time and options. The ambient global conditions we have ourselves created over the past two or three centuries have turned noxious. In protecting herself, mother nature has turned rogue. Urgent and wise action must be taken between now and 2030, if we are to reverse the most harmful of the forces we have unleashed. That must comprise not just process re-engineering, and the redesign of entire systems from first principles, but the deliberate use of alternative design criteria.

4. The design criteria we routinely (yet unconsciously) reach for within the context of 1st-order change are so ingrained into our sense of normalcy that alternatives are almost impossible to imagine. Replacing competition with cooperation, for example, challenges every aspect of contemporary urban living – from making and selling to schooling, travelling, surveilling and policing. Equally, rejecting economic growth in order to pursue zero or even negative growth appears to be insane. GDP is government gospel after all. Yet growth is a cancer on developed society and many pre-industrial societies found alternative ways to subsist.

5. Narrative is the most potent and indispensable agent of 2nd- and 3rd-order transformational change. The code for unlocking radical change is to be found deeply embedded within the stories we tell each other as well as the elemental beliefs, themes, underlying intentions, and repeated motifs that comprise the stories. At a societal level we call these stories worldviews.

6. Worldviews determine the world-systems of reality that we inhabit on a daily basis, as well as the activities we conduct in response to any changes in these world-systems. While worldviews remain intact, there can be no transformative change triggered, for this depends on palpable shifts to the beliefs, motives, and language used in the overarching narratives. Of course this is why narrative management is so crucial in determining how we view reality. For example, the opinions we might have of China-US relations is totally dependent on how the narrative in both societies is constructed, conveyed, and utilized.


Transformational societal change at scale is a pre-requisite for avoiding extinction of our species. We do not have much time to act. The most critical element informing radical change of any kind is story: narrative composition and management. That does not necessarily mean imposed top-down change from governing bodies to the community will work. Indeed one of the assumptions we keep pushing to inevitable miscarriage is the idea that others with expertise and knowledge must tell us what to do.

For example, given what I am saying about the importance of narrative, it might be assumed that one of the first tasks in any kind of radical change initiative would be to craft an alternative narrative to give to the population. This is precisely what the UN must have wanted to achieve in crafting the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. They must have thought that sharing this knowledge of what needs to be done (even without the how) would be sufficient to stimulate informed action. But how? Without an understanding of how these goals might be conveyed, and no funds available for actual deployment, the ambition was bound to fail from the beginning. There are three main reasons:

• A global population of almost 8 billion people has far too much 'requisite variety' for imposed aims of any kind to be heeded, particularly where there is no authoritative mechanism in place to monitor and assure implementation. The goals, even if they were comprehensive, are far too easy to neutralize at a grassroots level. In any society the flexibility of behaviour to control both social and political systems is with the people.

• The catalyst for change 'at scale' is circumscribed by sovereignty – its interpretation within the context of the nation-state and the immediate commercial imperatives of those in power. The impulse to enact radical change, in collaboration with others who may well, at other times, be branded 'rivals' must be utterly compelling to overcome such inherent power structures and cultural diversity.

• The media has a critical role to play in societal change of any kind. In societal transformation at scale, the voice of the global media would be charged with conveying consistent and coherent messages in repeated reinforcement of the official story. That would entail a stream of strategic intelligence being fed through radio and television outlets, continuous briefings, and ongoing provisioning, none of which were available to the UN for this endeavor, or forthcoming from those who might have funded the initiative.

In the light of these comments it might seem obvious that unless one or more planetary authorities are established, charged with the pluriversal application of narratives for systemic renewal, the likelihood of any top-down approach working will be infinitesimal. Social activism and civil disobedience in the society, meanwhile, will become ever more intense as systems continue to fail and break down.

In contrast, a sequence of decentralized, tiny, benign, globally coordinated but localized experiments, informed by a system of strategic intelligence feedback loops aimed at raising people's consciousness for collaborative action across a range of activities (from regenerative farming to citizen budgeting, for example) would not raise the ire of citizens, but could relieve the stress on world leaders while getting better results faster.

This 'acupuncture-like' approach to transformational 2nd-order societal change could conceivably trigger a profound metamorphosis in sustainable manufacturing, construction, and agriculture; a much more equitable global economy; political justice, holistic governance, and higher moral standards; as well as how we relate to each other, the environment, and all other forms of life.

The accumulation of these activities against a backdrop of a more sustainable and inspiring version of the human story might just serve to nudge the world-systems upon which we rely for our physical and mental wellbeing, into ones that are far more healthy and viable in the longer-term.

From Multilateral to Planetary Governance

Reflecting on political excursions and realities

I find myself constantly pondering aspirational political statements from the past and how they continue to resonate with meaning today - especially in terms of the demand for some form of planetary authority to manage the existential issues impacting Homo sapiens - a field where we are falling far short of what is so desperately required.

In his opening address at the gathering of world leaders in the United States on 22nd September 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon advanced five imperatives the international community should focus on to ensure the welfare of future generations:

  1. Sustainable development - including lifting people out of poverty and advancing economic growth

  2. Prevention of conflict as a framework for international cooperation

  3. Building a safer, more secure world, by standing up for democracy, human rights and peace

  4. Supporting countries in transition

  5. Working with and for women and young people.

He also intimated, probably justifiably from his perspective given the empirical habits of some Western nations, that this was an opportunity for all countries to set aside their differences and narrow, short-term interests, in order to cooperate in addressing humanity’s long-term needs.

Anyone who knows the man would immediately appreciate the sincerity behind Ban Ki-moon’s proposed forging of a common agenda targeting prosperity, freedom, peace, and justice. On the surface these five imperatives appeared to be a consistent, well-intentioned vision, possessing all the gravitas one might have expected from someone in his position.

However, in this instance, behind the sincerity of the individual, skulked a lumbering behemoth, an international agency in utter disarray. Other than a few iconic brands, like UNICEF for example, the UN today is even more confused and cumbersome than it was a decade ago.

It was because of the inefficient, incoherent and frankly lacklustre organization behind Ban Ki-moon that I challenged whether such priorities were part of some genuine plan for a coherent societal transformation - or just another of those ill-feted public-relations exercises that appear and evaporate so frequently from within our various political and diplomatic auditoria.

Personally I doubt such grandiose aims can achieve anything much, at least within the framework of global officialdom; certainly no more nor less than has already been tried with other initiatives like the eight Millennium Development Goals and their successor the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

But on what basis can I possibly make such a claim? Setting aside the issues of whether these goals, individually and collectively, reflect a true underlying causal state, or are just symptoms of the predicament in which we find ourselves today, and whether they are, in themselves, appropriate acupuncture points for instituting effective 2nd order structural change, I am puzzled and confronted by some fairly obvious responses:

  1. How can development be 'sustainable' if it includes conventional expectations regarding the advancement of economic growth in addition to preserving the natural environment in its ambit, or without making any attempt to reframe our understanding of what 'development' might become in the context of today's dynamically complex conditions? Surely the nature of 'development' depends on local conditions and can therefore never be accurately defined as an absolute policy framework applying everywhere equally?

  2. Surely international cooperation has to be the framework for preventing conflict between nations, rather than the other way around? And if so, was that not the intended role of the UN? This statement is either and admission of failure or a coded plea requesting greater legal authority to override national sovereignty when the occasion so demands.

  3. Is democracy, as it is currently conceived and practiced, the only means capable of building a safer and more secure world? Or are we at risk of using democracy as a convenient substitute for something far more aspirational? Also, are we to assume that non-democratic states are necessarily opposed to peace or the protection of human rights? If so on either count that could prove to be very limiting.

  4. Do 'countries in transition' need to demonstrate they are heading towards the adoption of Western styles of democracy in order to receive support from the UN or do alternative models reflecting emergent democratized ideals also qualify?

  5. If one goal is to liberate women and young people, why are these demographics not sufficiently represented in UN forums convened for making the decisions that will determine their fate?

There are two additional points that bother me relating to this set of imperatives:

  1. Are those individuals and institutions currently in positions of influence the right people and institutions to instigate and lead change? In that context, then, is the UN the most appropriate agency to be tackling societal transformation? If not what alternatives should we be seeking and installing?

  2. If these imperatives do genuinely offer the opportunity to shape the world of tomorrow by the decisions we take today, what is it about the decisions we are currently taking that have failed to create the world we most desire?

Naturally all of these questions demand comprehensive consideration. There are other equally valid questions one could pose. But for me the crux of the issue is to be found in my final two questions. Those responsible for taking policy decisions today are the same people, in the same institutions, who designed the world-system to function as it does. One must assume that they designed the system to meet their goals. Imagining that these individuals and institutions can now design a system capable of achieving such different outcomes is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy.

But let us be kind and review the situation, keeping in mind that reality and truth have become mutant hybrids in this continuously morphing world of ours. To contemplate the contextual implications of my questions, we must set contemporary society, in all its various facets and flaws, against the broader sweep of our civilization’s past 2,000 years.

That is not an easy thing to do. Individual and collective realities are determined and shaped by our 'window (weltanschauung) on a world that is so dynamically complex it is almost impossible to pause any aspect of it long enough for it to make sense. To make matters even more complicated that 'window on the world' comprises myriad implicit sets of filters driven by fleeting instincts and self-righteous emotions.

For example, if you trust the boundaries you see unerringly portrayed on maps, if you believe political ideologies endure in abstract purity, if you imagine still that national agencies shape international diplomacy and that elected political parties control a nation’s destiny, then you may find my questions offensive or simply crazy. What 'was' in the past, you might argue, remains intact today.

If, however, you believe like me, that no two nations are alike - some thriving yet in decline, others impoverished yet making astonishing advances; some vulnerable to the forces of change, others inexplicably resilient; a few posing as empires alongside empires posing as nations; city states such as the Vatican and Singapore; countries in name only like England and Puerto Rico; and even a territory such as Palestine that has no universally-agreed state mandate as yet - and that, as a consequence, it is all but impossible to propose an all-encompassing definition of the nation-state, then you could be forgiven for perceiving current globalized conditions as being closer to those that existed during the Middle Ages. Albeit on acid or cocaine! In that context my two questions would be entirely relevant and you would now, no doubt, be lauding my exemplary sapience.

But let us play with this notion and bring these two weltanschauung together. Viewed through a polyocular lens our globalized society is incredibly chaotic and hard to pin down, yet also astonishingly abundant in its diversity. Power functions asymmetrically in different ways via multipolar interactions that constantly wax and wane. Pluralistic social networks, online activism, and lobbyists for big business wield considerably more political influence than national governments, which find themselves in unending antiphonic modes of reaction and readjustment. Unlikely conjunctions of public and private interests generate novel yet potent forms of innovation. Billionaires influence the agendas of social enterprise… This topsy-turvy world exists like a thinly-disguised membrane over the more formal world of competitive global trade and international policy making.

In this extraordinary multifaceted global setting conventional borders and standard taxonomies are now almost meaningless. Multinational organizations and universal governance structures, such as exist with the UN, can quickly become sterile and lethargic in such chaos. What do work seem to be greater levels of connectivity and collaboration at a local level, more fluid strategies and much less bureaucracy. And this of course is precisely why I question whether the UN (or any equivalent agency) is responsive and adaptive enough to elicit rapid universal cooperation at scale.

Having described, if ineloquently, the incredibly convoluted nature of the context in which we find ourselves (i.e. the contemporary human condition) we can now bring greater degrees of granularity to my question as it concerns nation-states.

An agreed definition of the term nation-state remains elusive. Let us suppose the state is the government and its institutions, while the nation is the summation of the relationships we have with others who live in close cultural, ethnic, linguistic or geographical proximity to us and with whom we choose to identify. The nation-state is the marriage of these two (partly discrete) ideas.

Now let us consider how, over the course of the past 60 years at least, national devices for homogeneity (such as partisan ceremonies and rites) versus statist mechanisms for coordination (via civic and political engagement) plus control (though legislation and administration) have often subverted the potential for these two ideas to harmonize in ways that would enable continuing relevance for the nation-state.

We have witnessed the outbreak of extremes of nationalistic fervour (e.g. the pro-Trump storming of the Capitol in the US ), brutal oppression (e.g. Syria under the Assad regime), and military coups against democratically elected governments (e.g. Thailand and Myanmar). But where there is oppression of any kind the people will eventually rebel. Recently, the sense of injustice that triggered student protests against the monarchy in Thailand can be compared with Hong Kong's umbrella movement and the growing civil unrest in Myanmar following the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, on three counts. In all three cases the protests are about the brazen misuse of power. In all three cases civic disruption has been greeted by overwhelming support from alarmed citizens around the world. And in all three cases the supposed raison-d’etre of the nation-state in caring for its citizens has been rocked to the core.

The UN currently comprises 193 member states. The invention of the sovereign nation in or around the 19th century was designed - and further refined within the framework of globalism - as a mechanism for protecting discrete interests, and furthering explicit agendas, most often those of the elite within each nation state. Because of this history it should come as no surprise that the primary inclination of the nation-state apparatus is to compete with other nations rather than to cooperate. We have seen precisely this predisposition hinder successive climate change meetings where the scale of the task to overcome national and sectoral interests routinely dashes any hope that a simple, universally-binding, consensus to lower carbon-dioxide emissions and thus combat global heating, can be crafted. All eyes will be on the UN's Climate Change meeting in Glasgow later this year to see if the increasing urgency of the climate crisis plays out any differently than before.

While one could argue that this competitive nature of the state served society well enough during the industrial age, contributing enormously to productive efficiencies, and raising living standards in many countries, it is hardly an energizing idea for our times. Recent events and new technologies have exposed the state's inability to adjust to contemporary realities fast enough. It has also grown more corrupt and inequitable.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II the interests of most states started to align more with the motives of wealthy industrialists and corporations than with the needs of citizens. The promise of nurturing civic life and protecting human rights (through the provision of education, employment and healthcare) started to unravel. As a result, the gap between the rich and the poor widened exponentially. Today the state finds itself liable for a range of escalating inequities that have become even more starkly evident with the advent of new information and communications technologies.

Against this dynamic of societal change, old institutions and their stewards will whither and die if they cannot shift course to reinvent inbred assumptions, and transcend past habits. While the UN has had some limited success with collaborative ventures in some diplomatic theatres, such as peacekeeping, the levels of cooperation needed to create a worldwide common agenda of the form Ban Ki-moon envisages, which also assumes the voluntary suspension of some aspects of sovereignty, is unprecedented and highly improbable. The underlying assumptions and dissimilar habits in this unwieldy league of nations are gravitational in their inability to adapt in this way - unless they were all to agree to a new universal authority, backed by international law, to assume control over matters of vital concern to humanity, such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and food security, for example.

For while I harbour serious misgivings that the UN is an appropriate forum for whole-system change, the fact is no other formally-instituted forum currently exists that has sufficient credibility (and thence buy-in) from the world’s citizens. That vacuum is also the reason we are going to see an increasing number and intensity of insurgencies and demonstrations around the world.

Citizens in some countries are outraged by what they interpret as dithering from their own governments on a range of critical issues. Others are fatigued by the constant bullying and sanctions imposed by the US in its futile attempt to retain some form of global hegemonic power. In that respect all eyes are currently on US-China relations, and the demands America is continuing to exert on Iran in terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal. At this early stage of the new administration there is no evidence to suggest US policy towards either of these problems is about to take a different course.

Civil non-compliance won some incredible battles in the past, swaying official policies and in some cases ousting governments. The situation today is different. States seem to have gained a greater appetite to resist the demands of their citizens, prepared to fight back with a range of new surveillance and policing mechanisms. The exhilarating prospects earlier revolutions opened up for the emergence of new kinds of imagined communities that were at once more strategically appropriate and systemically viable for the issues they were needing to confront, have been quashed by authoritarianism. The greatest danger now is that we will simply bow to authority, and fail to learn vital lessons regarding the need for transformative change.

The UN was originally established to help sovereign states deal with distinct problems for which it had conspicuous (indeed obvious) solutions. It now finds itself increasingly out-of-touch in an international system experiencing cascading institutional collapse.

Indeed even the notion of a coherent international community seems more and more antiquated in a multi-polar world-system where such a variety of physical hubs, private corporations, billionaires, and fluid networks of online communities, coexist in a hyper-dynamic ecosystem. The world map of circumscribed geographies no longer precisely represents this fragmented reality. Indeed the very concept of the nation-state is now threatened – unless it can use its penchant for competition in ways that confront global challenges (particularly those identified by Ban Ki-moon) rather than other nations.

Meanwhile, weighed down by bureaucratic inertia, home to technocratic hordes more intent on setting targets and establishing new agencies than resolving complex issues or advancing humanity, the UN exists in spite of itself - and not because it actually does anything transformational. Faced with wickedly complex issues in a progressively more borderless world, largely incapable of perceiving lithe connections in this world-system, the latest tendency has been to proclaim every issue - including food, energy, climate, population, health, terrorism and poverty - a matter of security. This crass attempt to bring almost every issue of contention within the purview of the UN is great for fund-raising but not very useful for resolving complex, multidisciplinary dilemmas.

At a time when all governments are seriously struggling to find their role in this messy, fracturing world, where no two states are the same, and at a time when more diverse modes of governance, and indeed democracy, are emerging around the world, the supposed function of being a surrogate for multilateral governance is not a happy one. Especially for a UN lacking adequate funding, legal authority, tools and skills.

Of course it is always easy to find fault with any list such as this. However I suspect not much thought has been given to the implicit assumptions behind these so-called five imperatives nor, indeed, what it will take that is contrary to what is already being done – by the UN and similar bodies.

The greatest danger always is that the usual suspects will continue to do what they have always done, perhaps with more enthusiasm or resources than before, expecting that the results will be different. Or, if I was more cynical, that they will appear to be trying to change things when their real motivation is to maintain the status quo.

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