Community building

Scientists find visions of a benevolent future society motivate reform By Eric W. Dolan, Washington Post, March 21, 2013  – Activists, take note: People support reform if they believe the changes will enhance the future character of society…people support a future society that fosters the development of warm and moral individuals…explore Noam Chomsky’s dictum that “social action must be animated by a vision of a future society” — a proposition they said had not been investigated by social psychologists… “On climate change, we have other research showing that support for action was higher when people focused on character, but also on opportunities for economic/technological development.”…“One challenge is to work out how to design policies to actually promote warmth/morality…“The whole idea may sound a bit implausible, but if you think of it as ‘community building’ (bringing people together to promote social bonds) then it becomes more tangible for policy makers, as this is something they are able to consider in policy design.”…“If you can communicate how a policy will serve its primary function and help community-building, our research suggests you will gain broader public support.”


 

Scientists find visions of a benevolent future society motivate reform

By Eric W. Dolan, Washington Post, March 21, 2013

Excerpt

Activists, take note: People support reform if they believe the changes will enhance the future character of society…people support a future society that fosters the development of warm and moral individuals…explore Noam Chomsky’s dictum that “social action must be animated by a vision of a future society” — a proposition they said had not been investigated by social psychologists… “On climate change, we have other research showing that support for action was higher when people focused on character, but also on opportunities for economic/technological development.”…“One challenge is to work out how to design policies to actually promote warmth/morality…“The whole idea may sound a bit implausible, but if you think of it as ‘community building’ (bringing people together to promote social bonds) then it becomes more tangible for policy makers, as this is something they are able to consider in policy design.”…“If you can communicate how a policy will serve its primary function and help community-building, our research suggests you will gain broader public support.”

Full text

Activists, take note: People support reform if they believe the changes will enhance the future character of society, according to a study published online this month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Namely, people support a future society that fosters the development of warm and moral individuals.

“There are implications for communication, but also for policies themselves. The ‘easy’ answer would be to promote a policy or cause in terms of how it will make people more warm/moral,” Paul G. Bain of the University of Queensland, the lead author of the study, explained to Raw Story via email. “But I think for this to really work it needs to be authentic/real and not just rhetoric – the policies themselves need to promote this.”

Bain, along with four colleagues, sought to explore Noam Chomsky’s dictum that “social action must be animated by a vision of a future society” — a proposition they said had not been investigated by social psychologists.

The researchers conducted eight separate experiments to investigate how people’s vision of society’s future affects their willingness or unwillingness to support particular reforms. The eight studies asked participants to reflect on how society would change by 2050 if climate change was averted, abortion laws were relaxed, marijuana was legalized, or various religious groups obtained political dominance.

Using meta-analyses, a procedure that statistically summarizes multiple studies, Bain and his colleagues determined what particular projections about the future motivated people. The strongest common element that emerged was “benevolence.” In other words, people were willing to actively support policies that they believed would result in a future where people were more friendly and moral.

“While a focus on character is more likely to be effective, this cuts both ways – if someone can persuasively argue that legalizing marijuana will harm morality/warmth in people, this might effectively turn people against legalization,” Bain explained to Raw Story. “So the main point I’d make is that we’ve helped identify dimensions that people are most likely to respond to, but these dimensions can be used rhetorically by both supporters and opponents of change.”

Implications for the climate change debate

Visions of future technological progress and crime reduction also motivated people, but only in certain contexts, such as climate change and marijuana legalization, respectively.

“While benevolence (character) showed consistent effects across studies, other dimensions emerged in particular contexts,” Bain added. “On climate change, we have other research showing that support for action was higher when people focused on character, but also on opportunities for economic/technological development.”

Previous research conducted by Bain found that skeptics of climate change could be coaxed into pro-environmental positions if the issue was presented as creating a more benevolent society and increasing technological progress.

“One challenge is to work out how to design policies to actually promote warmth/morality, and I’m discussing this with academics engaged in policy design and advice,” he told Raw Story. “The whole idea may sound a bit implausible, but if you think of it as ‘community building’ (bringing people together to promote social bonds) then it becomes more tangible for policy makers, as this is something they are able to consider in policy design.”

Bain noted the success of a community-driven effort in the deeply conservative city of Salinas, Kansas. By changing the conversation from climate change to enhancing the city, the Climate and Energy Project was able to convince residents to conserve energy and adopt renewable sources of power.

“So my advice would be to incorporate community building into policy proposals, even if the policy concern is not directly about community building,” Bain said. “If you can communicate how a policy will serve its primary function and help community-building, our research suggests you will gain broader public support.”

The study was co-authored by Matthew J. Hornsey, Renata Bongiorno, Yoshihisa Kashima, and Daniel Crimston.

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/03/21/scientists-find-visions-of-a-benevolent-future-society-motivate-reform/

President Obama’s speech at prayer vigil for Newtown shooting victims

By Washington Post Staff, Published: December 16

Full transcript of President Obama’s remarks at a Dec. 16 prayer vigil for victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

OBAMA: Thank you.

Thank you, Governor. To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests, scripture tells us, “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day.

“For light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all, so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.”

We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America.

Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts.

I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight.

And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown, you are not alone.

As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch. They did not hesitate.

Dawn Hocksprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Russeau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy, they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances, with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.

We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms and kept steady through it all and reassured their students by saying, “Wait for the good guys, they are coming. Show me your smile.”

And we know that good guys came, the first responders who raced to the scene helping to guide those in harm’s way to safety and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and their own trauma, because they had a job to do and others needed them more.

And then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do, one child even trying to encourage a grownup by saying, “I know karate, so it’s OK; I’ll lead the way out.”

As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other. You’ve cared for one another. And you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered, and with time and God’s grace, that love will see you through.

But we as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. You know, someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around.

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.

They will suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments, and we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. And we know we can’t do this by ourselves.

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?

Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

You know, all the world’s religions, so many of them represented here today, start with a simple question.

Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?

We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.

The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger, we know that’s what matters.

We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

That’s what we can be sure of, and that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, God has called them all home.

For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory. May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort, and may He bless and watch over this community and the United States of America.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/president-obamas-speech-at-prayer-vigil-for-newtown-shooting-victims-full-transcript/2012/12/16/f764bf8a-47dd-11e2-ad54-580638ede391_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

The Freedom of an Armed Society

By FIRMIN DEBRABANDER, New York Times, December 16, 2012

In the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the resulting renewed debate on gun control in the United States, The Stone will publish a series of essays this week that examine the ethical, social and humanitarian implications on the use, possession and regulation of weapons.

The night of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., I was in the car with my wife and children, working out details for our eldest son’s 12th birthday the following Sunday – convening a group of friends at a showing of the film  ”The Hobbit.” The memory of the Aurora movie theatre massacre was fresh in his mind, so he was concerned that it not be a late night showing. At that moment, like so many families, my wife and I were weighing whether to turn on the radio and expose our children to coverage of the school shootings in Connecticut. We did. The car was silent in the face of the flood of gory details. When the story was over, there was a long thoughtful pause in the back of the car. Then my eldest son asked if he could be homeschooled.

That incident brought home to me what I have always suspected, but found difficult to articulate: an armed society – especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country – is the opposite of a civil society.

The Newtown shootings occurred at a peculiar time in gun rights history in this nation. On one hand, since the mid 1970s, fewer households each year on average have had a gun. Gun control advocates should be cheered by that news, but it is eclipsed by a flurry of contrary developments. As has been well publicized, gun sales have steadily risen over the past few years, and spiked with each of Obama’s election victories.

Furthermore, of the weapons that proliferate amongst the armed public, an increasing number are high caliber weapons (the weapon of choice in the goriest shootings in recent years). Then there is the legal landscape, which looks bleak for the gun control crowd.

Every state except for Illinois has a law allowing the carrying of concealed weapons – and just last week, a federal court struck down Illinois’ ban. States are now lining up to allow guns on college campuses. In September, Colorado joined four other states in such a move, and statehouses across the country are preparing similar legislation. And of course, there was Oklahoma’s ominous Open Carry Law approved by voters this election day – the fifteenth of its kind, in fact – which, as the name suggests, allows those with a special permit to carry weapons in the open, with a holster on their hip.

Individual gun ownership – and gun violence – has long been a distinctive feature of American society, setting us apart from the other industrialized democracies of the world. Recent legislative developments, however, are progressively bringing guns out of the private domain, with the ultimate aim of enshrining them in public life. Indeed, the N.R.A. strives for a day when the open carry of powerful weapons might be normal, a fixture even, of any visit to the coffee shop or grocery store – or classroom.

As N.R.A. president Wayne LaPierre expressed in a recent statement on the organization’s Web site, more guns equal more safety, by their account. A favorite gun rights saying is “an armed society is a polite society.” If we allow ever more people to be armed, at any time, in any place, this will provide a powerful deterrent to potential criminals. Or if more citizens were armed – like principals and teachers in the classroom, for example – they could halt senseless shootings ahead of time, or at least early on, and save society a lot of heartache and bloodshed.

As ever more people are armed in public, however – even brandishing weapons on the street – this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.

And yet, gun rights advocates famously maintain that individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty. Deeper reflection on their argument exposes basic fallacies.

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence – and the threat of it – is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name – that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly – not make any sudden, unexpected moves – and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment – they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate – though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech – and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate – definitively.

The very power and possibility of free speech and assembly rests on their non-violence. The power of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the Arab Spring protests, stemmed precisely from their non-violent nature. This power was made evident by the ferocity of government response to the Occupy movement. Occupy protestors across the country were increasingly confronted by police in military style garb and affect.

Imagine what this would have looked like had the protestors been armed: in the face of the New York Police Department assault on Zuccotti Park, there might have been armed insurrection in the streets. The non-violent nature of protest in this country ensures that it can occur.

Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases – these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism – I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings – and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that – community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power – and one another – and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly – and everything conducive to that.

Firmin DeBrabander is an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore and the author of “Spinoza and the Stoics.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/the-freedom-of-an-armed-society/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121217

Bubble on the Potomac

By ANDREW FERGUSON, Time,  May. 28, 2012

The passenger bar, about 12 blocks from the White House, is just beginning the first seating of the night in its Columbia Room, a semisecret speakeasy behind an unmarked door in the back. Speakeasies are very fashionable in Washington at the moment–bars within bars, inner sanctums set aside for the most discriminating palates. But the Columbia Room is a particularly hot ticket. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a reservation a few days in advance. For $67 a head, an expert bartender serves a three-course tasting of cocktails. He carves a thick slice of lemon rind, places his hands slightly above and 10 inches back from the cocktail glass and with a snapping motion sends a scattering of lemon drops across the icy surface of what one magazine calls “the best martini in America.”

The Passenger’s motto? “God save the district.” The sentiment is easy to understand, for these are good times in Washington and the seven counties that surround it. Even as the nation struggles, the capital has prospered, making it a magnet for young hipsters but leaving its residents with only a tentative understanding of how the rest of the country lives. “It’s nice,” goes the old joke about Miami, “because it’s so close to the United States.” Well, Washington is very nice these days.

Every week brings fresh evidence of continuing prosperity: a new restaurant, a new nightclub, another restored 19th century townhouse in a previously dodgy neighborhood selling for $1 million or more. Start-ups are hiring through Craigslist, and just opened lobbying firms have no trouble collaring clients. Storefronts that stood abandoned five years ago fill with pricey gourmet-food shops like Cowgirl Creamery, a cheesemonger that has opened its only store outside Northern California on F Street downtown. Its Mt. Tam cheese goes for more than $25 per pound. It’s organic.

Another Northern California import, a limousine service called Uber, launched in December after great success in San Francisco and New York City. “The growth here has been unique in our experience,” says Rachel Holt, who oversees Uber’s burgeoning D.C. operation. Uber is Web-based and cashless: customers call for limos with a smart-phone app and pay with a credit card on file. It’s also deluxe. Riders expect nothing lower on the limo food chain than a Town Car, with offerings going up to Mercedes and beyond. Holt says with some surprise that locals are using Uber as everyday conveyance for commuting and shopping. Uber exploits Washington’s unique combination of heavy use of social media, a young and often carless population and customers with fistfuls of disposable income. When the D.C. taxi commission made a move to shut down Uber earlier this year, Twitter erupted in indignation under the hashtag #Nevergoingback. Welcome to ber-Washington.

The Good Life

Other big cities, of course, have made it through the recession in one piece. But few eased through the crash as lightly as D.C., much less prospered so widely on the rebound. The local unemployment rate, at 5.5%, stands well below the national figure of 8.2%. The region’s foreclosure rates have always been significantly lower than those elsewhere, and now housing prices in D.C. and across the river in the Virginia suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria are close to their precrash peaks. The Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate–in Washington, everyone has an association–ranks the region as one of the best investments in the world, right after London and New York City. The cost of office space in Washington rivals New York prices, averaging $50 a square foot.

How’s a country to make sense of a national capital whose day-to-day life is so much more upholstered than its own? Increasingly, it cannot. Recently Washington passed San Jose in Silicon Valley to become the richest metropolitan area in the U.S. Since the 1990s, says economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University, the region has led the nation’s metropolitan areas in overall employment rate. The median household income in the metro area in 2010 was $84,523, according to calculations by Bloomberg News, nearly 70% over the national median household income of $50,046. Nine of the 15 richest counties in the country surround Washington, including Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5. Per capita income in D.C. is more than twice that in Maine. All this explains why Gallup’s Well-Being Index rates D.C. as the most satisfied large metropolitan area in the U.S. The pollsters were especially impressed with the region’s low smoking rate (15%) and the 72% who visit the dentist annually for a checkup. Washingtonians are skinnier, exercise more, eat more vegetables and are more likely to have health insurance than the average American. They’re also more optimistic–about the economy and about the future in general.

The riches reflect a regional economy as resilient–and as strange–as any in the world. “We don’t make anything here,” Fuller says simply. Washington is one of the few metropolitan areas in the country that have no significant manufacturing sector, placing it alongside Atlantic City, N.J.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Ocean City, N.J. “There isn’t any single major industry,” says Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “We’re just very diverse.”

The District of Contracting

Yet the diversity of the Washington economy is an illusion, for each of its business sectors is to some degree a creature of the region’s single great industry–the federal government. According to a 2007 report by the Tax Foundation, for every dollar in taxes Washington sends to the federal government, it receives five in return. Fuller says that over the past 30 years, the federal government has spent $860 billion in the D.C. region, two-thirds of that since 9/11.

Why the boom? The size of the nonmilitary, nonpostal federal workforce has stayed relatively stable since the 1960s. What has changed is not the government payroll but the number of government contractors. It’s estimated that, thanks to massive outsourcing over the past 20 years by the Clinton and Bush administrations, there are two government contractors for every worker directly employed by the government. Federal contracting is the region’s great growth industry. A government contractor can even hire contractors for help in getting more government contracts. You could call those guys government-contract contractors.

Which means government hasn’t shrunk; it’s just changed clothes (and pretty nice clothes they are). The contractors are famous for secrecy; many have job titles that are designed to bewilder. What is it, after all, that an analyst, a facilitator, a consultant, an adviser, a strategist actually does to earn his or her paycheck? Champions of the capital’s Shangri-la economy like to brag of Washington’s knowledge workers.

Peter Corbett isn’t so sure about the wisdom of D.C.’s version of the knowledge economy. Corbett heads a social-media marketing company, with corporate clients that have famous names. Most of his work involves nonprofit foundations that have flocked to Washington to be close to the fount of grants and tax breaks. He did a single project for the federal government and then swore it off for good. He describes his first meeting at the Pentagon. “There are 12 people sitting around the table,” he says. “I didn’t know eight of them. I said, ‘Who are you?’ They say, ‘I’m with Booz Allen.’ ‘I’m with Lockheed.’ ‘I’m with CACI.’ ‘But why are you here?’ ‘We’re consultants on your project.’ I said, ‘You are?’ They were charging the government $300 an hour, and I had no idea what they were doing, and neither did they. They were just there. So I just ignored them and did my project with my own people.”

Aside from its wealth, the single defining feature of ber-Washington is its youth. Most of the people who have moved to Washington since 2006 have been under 35; the region has the highest percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds in the U.S. “We’re a mecca for young people,” Fuller says. One recent arrival says word has gotten out to new graduates that Washington is where the work is. “It’s a place where a liberal-arts major can still get a job,” she says, “because you don’t need a particular skill.”

The Conveyor Belt

The young fill entire neighborhoods with an undergraduate air. On a warm night in Clarendon in northern Virginia or in the H Street NE corridor, with the crowded sidewalks and lines outside the door-to-door bars, you might think you’ve landed on fraternity row in Chapel Hill, N.C., or Charlottesville, Va. They’ve brought the college lifestyle with them–group houses, hookups, late-night cram sessions and lots of drinking. The local drugstores seem to devote more shelf space to condoms and pregnancy tests than diapers and formula. (Another big seller at pharmacies: Pedialyte, used as the ultimate hangover cure.)

No one doubts that the kids are changing the city. When Shana Glickfield, founder of a social-media firm, arrived in Washington in the early 2000s, one of her ears was triple-pierced. “I had to go up on [Capitol] Hill, and everybody said, You can’t do that, not if you’re going to the Hill!” she says. “Now I see Hill staffers with nose rings.” The 20-somethings have helped Washington shed its image as an uptight, work-first, party-later town. “Happy hour is the most important hour of the day,” says Emily Schultheis, a Web editor and recent arrival. “It’s how you meet people, how you get jobs, how you find roommates, how you get tips for stories and how you get in trouble.” Hill staffers devote Thursday nights to “wheels up” parties. “Congress goes out of session on Thursdays,” says Abra Belke, a lobbyist and blogger who calls herself Belle and writes the popular blog Capitol Hill Style. “Most of the bosses go home for the weekend. So you put your boss on the plane, wheels up, and then–freedom!”

ber-Washington has its own career pattern that is becoming as routinized as that of a 1950s organization man. A student graduates and goes to Washington for an internship, usually unpaid, which qualifies her for another internship, perhaps paid, until an entry-level job is offered, as it almost always will be. “Then you work for a few years,” Glickfield explains, “and then you go off and get the next degree, law or business, and then you come back for a better job.” Colleges and universities have figured this out and moved quickly to get a place on the conveyor belt. Big state schools and smaller liberal-arts colleges occupy office buildings in the city, where they run sophisticated internship programs designed to place their graduates (and soon-to-be graduates) in one of the country’s few hot job markets.

As national politics makes it impossible to expand government explicitly, these interns–often underpaid, usually overworked and frequently subsidized by their parents–have become vital to keeping government going. At the same time, they contribute to a feature of ber-Washington that too often goes unremarked: the capital has one of the most lopsided distributions of wealth of any major metropolitan area in the U.S. Along with a higher per capita income than any state and one of the nation’s lowest rates of unemployment, Washington has a poverty rate of nearly 20%, above the national average of 15%; a public-school system that is often called the worst in the nation; and a crime rate that remains higher than in any other rich community. In the district, whites enjoy a per capita income nearly three times that of African Americans.

You can often see the maldistribution of Washington’s riches block by block–even on the same block, row house by row house–as young, well-to-do high achievers move into neighborhoods that real estate agents label hot, buying up properties, planting flower boxes and tending little squares of lawn behind wrought-iron fences, next to an abandoned building or a vacant lot or a home where a fatherless family is just scraping by. Most ber-Washingtonians say they like the urban grit. The crime and decay amid the plenty, says local activist Danny Harris, “are the price you pay if you want to live in an urban environment.” The disequilibrium especially bothers Harris, he says, when it signals a civic detachment among his fellow young strivers. “You can have people who know every nuance of our policy toward Burma,” he says, “but they don’t know the name of the public school down the block.”

Greener than Thou

Socially and culturally, life in ber-Washington can seem as insular as its economy, and the insularity has consequences for the rest of the country. ber-Washingtonians, for instance, are intensely concerned about the environment. The local economy bristles with company names like GreenBrilliance and SkyBuilt Power. But the unreal character of that economy makes it easy for Washingtonians to overestimate the ability or the desire of their fellow Americans to live as they do. In ber-Washington, the private automobile is looked on as at best a necessary nuisance and at worst a morally suspect source of sprawl and climate change. Many Washingtonians are eager to tell you they don’t own one, preferring a highly subsidized commute on the Metro system’s carpeted (if often unreliable) subway cars. Even Uber, the limo service, has been hailed on blogs as a green innovation, notwithstanding its emanations of conspicuous consumption. Bike-share racks have sprung up downtown and in the close-in suburbs to take advantage of the newly painted bike lanes that have squeezed grand thoroughfares like 14th Street down to two lanes. Local authorities have reserved hundreds of parking spaces exclusively for Zipcars, which customers rent for an hour or a day in place of buying a car of their own. The Zipcar motto: “Cars with a conscience.”

No doubt the conscience thrives as much in Youngstown, Ohio, as it does in Washington, but you don’t see many locals there trading their minivans for Zipcars or rent-a-bikes. Fracking for natural gas is regulated from Washington, where it is viewed with suspicion; in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, it is a source of potential riches and a better life. The sight of an oil platform may lift the heart of a worker struggling on the Gulf Coast; ber-Washingtonians have a different impression. In D.C., if in few other places, half a billion dollars lost to a solar company like Solyndra can seem to be the price of being conscientious. At the same time, life in Washington is so comfortable that it is easy for those living there to imagine that the rest of the country is doing just fine too. Aren’t restaurants in your hometown packed at 10 p.m. on a Monday? No? Really?

No End in Sight

How long can such a culture of complacency last, even one as heavily subsidized by a country as rich as the U.S., in the face of awesome government debt?

It is a soft spring evening. The office buildings downtown are emptying out, and the bars are filling up for happy hour. Uber cars are out in force, Town Cars and Benzes rolling down 14th, up Ninth, under the overspreading oaks of Logan Circle and back down Vermont, past the Churchkey, where 555 kinds of beer are on offer. Its list gives each beer’s alcohol content and country of origin, the hops used to brew it and the temperature at which it will be served. The menu offers nibbles from the other America, served with the requisite irony: disco fries, a staple of the Jersey Shore, and a deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese stick familiar to fans of Midwestern state fairs. There’s also pricey charcuterie for those who don’t get the joke. Seven blocks east and a few blocks south, at the edge of the Penn Quarter neighborhood, six diners take their places at Minibar. In a city quickly becoming famous for tony restaurants, they are the luckiest feeders of the night: Minibar takes reservations a minimum of a month in advance for six seats from supplicants who must call precisely at 10 a.m., usually for several days in a row, sometimes for weeks. The meal they savor has 25 to 30 courses. The cost: $150.

The optimism of ber-Washingtonians so far survives the unspoken worry about a coming age of austerity, in which government spending cuts would end the high life that Washingtonians have come to expect. They are right to be optimistic. The two most plausible deficit-reduction proposals–one by President Obama, the other by the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee–each calls for the government in 2021 to spend a trillion dollars more than it spends today.

 

Why We Need New Ways of Thinking by Barry Boyce

from the Shambhala Sun, September 2008

Excerpt

The same old thing doesn’t work… because when it comes to complex, tough problems…we have to go beyond the approaches that got us there in the first place… a loose but growing collection of thinkers, activists, academics, and social entrepreneurs who are searching for the “unthinkable”—the new ways that we can’t see because of our old ways of looking… they all firmly believe that the good old world we’ve come to know and love is coming apart at the seams. Systems of all kinds are breaking down and will continue to do so. In response, they champion ways of seeing and acting that acknowledge that the world is a chaotic, deeply interdependent place, a place that won’t yield to attempts to overpower it. We must come to understand, they argue, the nature of complexity, chaos, and interconnectedness—and to train ourselves in ways of acting that embrace this unmistakable reality. full text

Full text

In 1988, Kurt Schmoke, the young firebrand mayor of Baltimore, shocked the U.S. Conference of Mayors by proposing the decriminalization of drugs. Advocating an approach he would come to call “medicalization,” Schmoke argued that drugs ought to be a matter of public health, not law enforcement. Schmoke’s radical—and compassionate—attempt to demilitarize the war on drugs earned him the label “the most dangerous man in America” and ruined his political career. In a fictional treatment of the controversy, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, in the HBO series The Wire, cast Schmoke himself as a public health official and depicted a police commander as the spearhead of the medicalization approach.

Simon wanted to show how entrenched thinking—reinforced within the organizations created by that thinking—makes creative approaches almost impossible, because they are literally unthinkable. At a critical moment in the show, the police commander meets with his top officers. They tell him that his approach, while noble, just won’t work. Harsh, violent enforcement—war—will be the best policy. “You mean the same old thing?” he asks. His most loyal sergeant replies, “Yeah, boss, the same old thing—but better.”

The same…old…thing…but better. This is so often the approach we take—in our own lives and in our communities—when we face what leadership consultant and facilitator Adam Kahane calls, understatedly, “tough problems.”

The same old thing doesn’t work, Kahane says, because when it comes to complex, tough problems—global warming, food crises, civil war, terror, drugs, urban decay, persistent poverty—we have to go beyond the approaches that got us there in the first place. Kahane, who was a key participant in the Mont Fleur process that helped bring about the peaceful transition from apartheid to democratic rule in South Africa, is one of a loose but growing collection of thinkers, activists, academics, and social entrepreneurs who are searching for the “unthinkable”—the new ways that we can’t see because of our old ways of looking.

These thinkers and advocates have not formed any formal association or movement (the very looseness of their association is seen as a virtue, in fact), but they all firmly believe that the good old world we’ve come to know and love is coming apart at the seams. Systems of all kinds are breaking down and will continue to do so. In response, they champion ways of seeing and acting that acknowledge that the world is a chaotic, deeply interdependent place, a place that won’t yield to attempts to overpower it. We must come to understand, they argue, the nature of complexity, chaos, and interconnectedness—and to train ourselves in ways of acting that embrace this unmistakable reality.

Adam Kahane says our approach to the future must meet three criteria. It must simultaneously be systematic (not piecemeal and divided into silos), participative (involving many people’s ideas, energy, talent, and expertise), and emergent (able to move and adapt nimbly in a minefield of uncertainty). The hope is that we will act with courage and creativity; the fear is that if we don’t, the world will face debilitating collapse on many fronts.

Over the past several months, I have been poring over the books and papers of four thinkers looking for new ways to solve global problems: Kahane, who wrote Solving Tough Problems; Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down; Paul Hawken, who wrote Blessed Unrest; and Meg Wheatley, author most recently of Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. I interviewed each of them about the very difficult challenges the world faces today and what we can do that doesn’t simply amount to “the same old thing—but better.”

Adam Kahane was working as an analyst in the strategic planning department of Royal Dutch/Shell in 1991 when his career took an unexpected turn. Kahane was doing “scenario planning,” a sophisticated tool for navigating a complex future that was pioneered in the 1970s by Pierre Wack, head of Shell’s economic forecasting group inFrance. Because of Shell’s expertise in scenario planning and its long involvement inSouth Africa, the company was asked to send a planner to facilitate an exercise in charting the future of a post-apartheidSouth Africa.

The exercise brought together twenty-two influential South Africans, leaders from both the anti-apartheid opposition and their adversaries within the white community. Over the course of a year, they held four intensive meetings at theMontFleurConferenceCenteron a wine estate in the mountains just outsideCape Town. “They saw this as an opportunity,” Kahane says, “to participate in giving birth to the ‘New South Africa.’ ” The hallmark of Mont Fleur was that people with very different perspectives and power bases were able to envision the future together. This helped immeasurably during the radical transformation the country underwent.

Inspired by this success, Kahane has continued to travel the world at the behest of parties groping their way through intractable problems and crises. He has worked on post-war rebuilding in Guatemala, contested elections in the Philippines, civic rejuvenation in the United States, judicial reform in Argentina, and child malnutrition in India, to name a few. Kahane knows that none of these initiatives in solving problems through dialogue has been an unqualified success—and some have been utter failures—but he believes his thinking, and that of the many people he’s been working with, has evolved in helpful ways. Now he has taken on one of his most difficult projects to date: climate change.

Climate change, Kahane says, is the paramount example of a tough problem, and before offering any prescriptions, he insists on a diagnosis. The problem with climate change, like the many other tough problems we face, is our response to complexity.

“There’s a way to deal with simple problems on a small scale,” Kahane says. This for the most part involves directing and controlling: if you want to fix a broken table, you roll up your sleeves, take charge, and repair it, brush-slapping your hands together in accomplishment at the end. But it’s different when a problem is complex. “If you try to do the same thing,” Kahane says, “you will get disastrous results. You end up either getting stuck or resorting to some form of violence.” It becomes “the war on…” fill in the blank.

A problem like climate change, Kahane says, is complex in three different ways. It’s dynamically complex: the causes and effects are far apart in space and time (carbon generated fifty years ago is affecting the climate today). It’s socially complex: different groups have widely divergent aims and interests (the developed world implores the developing world to join in sustainability initiatives at the expense of their economic growth). And finally, it exhibits generative complexity: it’s new to us (there are no analogous situations and off-the-shelf solutions for massive climate change; we have never been here before).

Kahane has spent most of his consultancy since Mont Fleur focusing on dialogue, what he calls “opening,” or even “love.” But he has come to see that power is just as important. He’s been inspired in this view by something Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a speech he delivered just six months before his assassination: “…power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Kahane says an approach based on “opening up” and creating connection is half-right, “but dangerously so.” Power is integral to life, he says. We start with “power-to,” such as the power to have a house and a car and all the appurtenances of the modern lifestyle that enable us to get on with our lives, but insidiously this becomes “power-over,” because something (and often somebody) has to be exploited to make it possible. That leads us to a complex problem.

The kind of power we need, says Kahane, is “power-with.” This kind of power, which King said is nothing more than “the ability to achieve purpose,” applies force and influence but with a vigilant awareness of its effect on others and how their power will manifest. We need to “act with connection,” Kahane says. “We don’t have a choice between power and love. We have to do both.”

Doing that is not straightforward, though; it involves feeling and listening as much as thinking and talking. Kahane feels that something the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said captures this spirit perfectly: “We need to cross the stream by feeling for stones.” He also likes to quote Trevor Manuel, the first black minister of finance inSouth Africa, who said about the country’s great transition, “There was no paradigm, no precedent, nothing. We had to carve it, and so perhaps we were more willing to listen.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a political scientist who is not content to remain within the confines of his chosen discipline. His books, while intricately detailed, do not read like abstract recitations of pre-digested ideas. They’re travelogues of inquiry. He visits people and places, listens and observes, and carves out a new way of seeing, one that’s tentative but driven by a strong belief that “we can do better.”

For several decades, he’s made it his business to research humanity’s capacity to deal with the complexity it has wrought. Long-time director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the Universityof Toronto, he was a frequent visitor to the Clinton White House and an adviser to Al Gore. In his 2002 book, The Ingenuity Gap: Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?, he presented evidence that the demand for ingenuity arising from the ever-increasing complexity of our world is far outstripping our capacity to supply it.

Heretofore we’ve been able to come up with technological fixes—and in Homer-Dixon’s words, “throw huge amounts of energy at our problems”—to keep our ever-expanding Rube Goldberg contraption together. But now we will almost certainly find it necessary to accept some large breakdowns in human and natural systems and to develop radical new ways of running things as a result. Homer-Dixon’s appetite for innovation has led him to take a position as the CIGI chair of global systems at the newly formed Balsillie School of International Affairs inOntario. (CIGI stands for The Centre for International Governance Innovation, a think tank recently formed by Jim Balsillie, whose company invented the wildly popular Blackberry.)

“There are a couple of areas where I sometimes despair about our capacity to deal with what lies ahead,” Homer-Dixon told me. “One is our cognitive characteristics and the other is the self-reinforcing nature of our economic system.”

When Homer-Dixon speaks of our “cognitive characteristics,” he refers to the fact that we adapt easily to small-scale, incremental change. It’s what makes it possible to get up in the morning and not feel we’re in a strange new world. It’s part of our survival apparatus. And yet, Homer-Dixon says, this very capacity is “a real handicap when it comes to dealing with slow-creep problems. We just don’t see the change, and the thing about slow-creep problems is they may be slow-creep for a while, but then all of a sudden there’s a non-linear shift and we find ourselves in a crisis.”

Our economic habits link up with every other problem we face, since at bottom economics is about how we choose to use the resources of the planet—in what ways, in what proportion, and at what rates. “We simply don’t have a vision of an alternative economic system that isn’t oriented toward unending material growth,” Homer-Dixon says. “Until we have an alternative vision, or theory, we won’t give up the one we have.” Rather than a mere study of stock markets and gross national products, real economics is the interface between human beings and the world all around. And we are evermore out of touch with that world.

“Seduced by our extraordinary technological prowess,” Homer-Dixon writes in The Ingenuity Gap, “many of us come to believe that … the reality outside our constructed world … needs little attention because, if we ever have to, we can manage any problem that might arise there.” But we are numb to the messages from our surroundings. “On a day-to-day basis, most of us in rich countries are increasingly sealed within the hermetic and sometimes illusory world of the human-made, the human-scaled, and the human-imagined,” he says. This narcissism weakens our sense of awe and “our receptivity to critical signals … that might awaken us to our deep ignorance of the potential consequences of our actions, and warn us against hubris.”

In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Homer-Dixon explores new ways of thinking about the world that might lead to new ways of acting. “There is a temporal order in dealing with our big problems,” he told me. “First we have to change how we view the world, and that will cause us to change how we act.”

Like Adam Kahane, Thomas Homer-Dixon asks us to take the time to appreciate complexity. He points out that with each passing decade we build more complexity into the conduct of everyday life, which requires ever more energy and maintenance. While “connectivity” is generally thought of as a virtue, in complexity theory, systems with many close connections are said to be “tightly coupled.” Tightly coupled systems can act like the proverbial chain of dominoes: a breakdown in one location sends rapidly cascading effects throughout the world. For example, if the few large food-growing areas we rely on suddenly experience breakdown at the same time that transportation costs spiral upward, a food crisis can develop within days.

Breakdown is one problem, Homer-Dixon says; debilitating collapse is another, and it’s much worse. Breakdown is someone close to us getting a bad disease; collapse is when we become so distraught about it that we wreck our car and kill five people. Drawing on something called panarchy theory, he talks about learning to build more resilience into our systems through decoupling (striking a better balance between self-sufficiency and interdependence, you might say). Another form of resilience is the collaboration of diverse interests, and Homer-Dixon sees promise in open-source activities, like Wikipedia, in which we “suddenly have a worldwide-network technology, where we can basically all have a conversation together.”

Above all, we must accept breakdowns as inevitable parts of cycles large and small. After a breakdown, rebirth and renewal can occur, in a process he calls catagenesis: the adaptive, creative, reformative period that follows the breakdown of a system. Although this proves the resilience of the larger system, we haven’t done well in embracing a larger cyclical view. Since we cherish our systems and we want them to be permanent, he says, “we haven’t really understood that our challenge isn’t to preserve the status quo but rather to adapt to, thrive in, and shape for the better a world of constant change.”

The answer, Homer-Dixon writes, is to develop a “prospective mind,” a mind not fixed on the status quo, one that instead is “comfortable with constant change, radical surprise, even breakdown…and must constantly anticipate a wide variety of futures. With a prospective mind, we’re better able to turn surprise and breakdown, when they happen, to our advantage.” We will, in short, be better able to achieve catagenesis, which he defines as “the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions, and societies in the aftermath of a breakdown.”

While Homer-Dixon is not certain about the exact nature of “prospective mind” and how precisely to cultivate it, both individually and communally, he is clear that we need to know in our bones that we ride on the razor’s edge between order and chaos. To truly know that we inhabit such a world makes us more resilient. But, I point out to him, we really, really like things to be ordered and predictable.

“Well, you know what?” he responds. “Get over it.”

Paul Hawken is the patron saint of the participative. Almost forty percent of his new book, Blessed Unrest, is devoted to an appendix listing non-profit groups that work to address the environment, indigenous rights, and social justice. Hawken is the consummate “social entrepreneur,” someone who colors outside boundary markers of change like “charity” and “protest,” and applies the ingenuity of entrepreneurship to social development. He has written six books; founded a variety of companies, including Groxis, a portal and search engine interface software provider, and several natural food companies relying solely on sustainable agriculture; and is now heading the Natural Capital Institute, a research organization inSausalito,California.

In the spirit of open-source, wisdom-of-the-crowd collaboration, the institute has created a “hub for global civil society” on the web. The World Index for Social and Environmental Responsibility (www.WiserEarth.org) provides a database of over 100,000 organizations in some 250 jurisdictions. It’s collaboratively written, in wiki style, but organized using a very sophisticated classification scheme to “map the social landscape.” It’s a well-ordered free-for-all, evincing the blessed unrest, the balancing on the cusp of chaos and order, that is the centerpiece of a new worldview.

Hawken, like the others I spoke with for this story, is nothing if not reflective. He can speak in a quiet, ruminative voice about our body being “a backstory of the Earth four billion years ago, the molecular chains, elemental compounds, simple bacteria, and salty fluids that wash our eyes and surround our cells, forming a compendium of life that preceded us.” He’s a storyteller who recalls his boyhood days on his grandparents’ farm, a waste-free world from a time before “recycling” was a movement, where “the barn was full of used washers, bolts, wire, and doodads,” where “paper lunch bags were brought back from school and neatly folded for use the next day,” where a “toy was a bald tire swinging from a sycamore.”

But Hawken also has a forthright, declamatory voice that exhorts people to change. He writes that we’re moving “from a world created by privilege to a world created by community,” and that global themes “are emerging in response to cascading ecological crises and human suffering.” Among these themes are “radical social change, the reinvention of market-based economies, the empowerment of women, activism on all levels, and the need for localized economic control.” To Hawken, this is not a list of separate efforts; it’s an interconnected, self-organizing web, the response of humanity’s immune system to an assault on its life force.

Hawken is very busy meeting with as many members of this web as he can, so our interview had to take place by e-mail, some of his answers written from an airplane seat. I asked him about the paralysis that many people feel when they consider all these very tough problems, and on top of it all that they must struggle to meet the daily needs of their family. He replied that paralysis “is a sign of unexpressed grief,” and he quoted the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who said “we should all feel sick in some way, experience some sense of despair, because that is normal.” When we experience this, it is a sign we are sensitized to the world around us. “The sense of loss,” Hawken wrote me, “makes us human and brings us more deeply in touch with our heart. The enormity of what is passing away is almost unspeakable. It’s not just species and ecosystems, but entire cultures, the seasons, civilization itself.” Such a prospect can “freeze us in our tracks.”

One of our central sticking points, in Hawken’s view, is ideology—rallying around a fixed view of things, which sounds the death knell for diversity. In Blessed Unrest, he quotes historian Arnold Toynbee, who “cautioned that civilization is a movement, not a condition, and the rise of uniformity consistently marks its decline.” He also notes that theologian Karen Armstrong “strongly emphasizes that the early expressions of religiosity that arose during the Axial Age were not theocratic systems requiring belief, but instructional practices requiring action.” Just so, Hawken says, the movement that he sees emerging “coheres into a values system but not a belief system.”

“The most important step to take is to feel,” Hawken told me. “Our courage and reverence and will are locked up in paralysis, released when we feel what we see and allow it in.”

If we are able to get beyond centralizing so much on ourselves, we can find solutions in nature itself, Hawken says. “We are turning to nature, not merely as balm but as designer, mentor, guide, and muse. Kenny Ausubel of Bioneers puts it aptly when he says, ‘The solutions in nature surpass our conception of what is possible.’ Moreover, this is equally true about our human nature. What to do? Engage one’s community, become more generous, cooperative, and enthusiastic. Creativity abounds, and our imaginations are limited only by what our mind believes.”

Margaret Wheatley began her professional life as a high school teacher and then administered educational programs for disadvantaged youth. The challenges she encountered there led her on an educational quest of her own, into systems thinking and organizational behavior and change. Having seen so many broken attempts by well-meaning people to effect change through organizations—schools, health care institutions, governmental bodies, and non-governmental organizations—Wheatley felt there must be “a simpler way to lead organizations, one that requires less effort and produces less stress than our current practices.”

A breakthrough for her came when she noticed that the view of the world emerging from the so-called “new science” did not square with how we actually run the world. New science— embodied especially in quantum physics, chaos theory, and the theory of self-organizing systems—showed her that even the idea of “running the world,” as if it were a machine, was ill-suited to the way the world really works. Leadership and the New Science, her book that came out of this line of thought, was first published in 1992 and has been published in two revised editions since. She is also the co-founder of the Berkana Institute, which is dedicated to “serving life-affirming leaders.” To Wheatley, a leader is anyone who wants to step up and help.

Like Paul Hawken, Wheatley takes nature as her “designer, mentor, guide, and muse.” We’ve acted like we want to be God, she tells me. “We need to play by the rules of the planet, and you don’t need any religion to tell you what they are. They are clear principles that you find in science, but also in spiritual traditions in the form of understandings such as interconnectedness and impermanence.” We’ve constructed “unnatural mega-systems that don’t work. They are crumbling and collapsing around us, and we are the casualties—stressed-out, disconnected from each other, moving too fast without a moment for reflection or a really good conversation.”

When Wheatley looks to nature as her guide, she sees “emergence” as the salient property. “In nature,” she writes in a Berkana paper written with Deborah Frieze, “change never happens as a result of top-down, preconceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas.” That’s how birth happens; that’s how all larger-scale systems come about. If you could sit on a mountainside for many decades, you would see a tree here or there sprout up in the valley below, and then more and more, until you would see something you might call a forest. But you’d be hard-pressed to find the blueprint.

What can we learn from this? According to Wheatley, we learn that the world “doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.” They realize all of sudden that they make up a forest, an ecosystem—a community.

“Community is the answer,” says Wheatley. “Community is the unit of change. The only way we get through difficult times is together. Yes, you work at the level of the individual, but particularly today, people are so caught up in small personal and interpersonal dynamics, a downward spiral of narcissism and egotism, that they just can’t get over themselves.” As a consequence, Wheatley thinks the small group, not the large group or the individual, is the most potent focus. The best place to begin is in having a good conversation and cultivating relationships. According to emergence theory, these are the bonds that lead to change, growth, and influence. For Wheatley, all of the truly marvelous changes wrought by humans can be traced back to “some friends and I started talking and….”

I asked her whether there wasn’t important work to do at the individual level. She responded that one of the most important things we need to do is find time for reflection. “This kind of time has disappeared from our lives, and we need to reclaim it,” she says. “Whether it’s through rowing or running or meditation, we must have time where we start to feel centered, peaceful, focused.” Out of that space, we can cultivate a real relationship and start a conversation.

Like the others I spoke with, Wheatley sees all kinds of breakdown as inevitable, and there will be casualties. There already have been. But the cataclysms we face in the future, Wheatley says, may lead us to more local focus, to self-sufficiency, to coming out of our isolated shells. Adam Kahane likes to repeat a distinction Wheatley taught him. She sees a difference between giving up, throwing your hands up in exasperation and frustration, and surrender, embracing the power of that which has overtaken you. When you’re faced with a problem of great complexity, you can either give up (retreat into your own world) or you can surrender (take the reality for what it is and feel your way along, crossing the stream by feeling for stones). Wheatley is not certain how many people are ready to surrender. “The kind of breakdowns we’re experiencing may force more collaboration and community on us, but I have to say, I haven’t seen it yet. As things break down, it’s either going to force us into community, or we will kill each other more.”

It’s daunting to talk to knowledgeable, insightful people who are so sure things are going to fall apart, and also sure that a little better version of the same old thing won’t be enough. Yet each of them, and each of the many people they cite, sees promise. Not a dewy-eyed, mushy kind of promise, not love without power, or a grand ideology to rally round, but a realistic promise that in crisis we will find resilience, that we will be thrown back on ourselves and our communities and what counts. That’s the way of nature, including human nature.

What I find striking is how close their view is to the core Buddhist principle of interdependence, the teaching that there are no self-sustaining, permanent, inherently existing entities; that everything emerges as part of a great web of interlocking relationships. Suzuki Roshi referred to it as the interplay of “dependency and independency.” Environmentalist Stephanie Kaza wrote in the March, 2007, issue of this magazine that “the experience of a systems thinker, who brings awareness to all their relationships with specific human and non-human beings” is equivalent to what a Buddhist might call the “penetrating experience of interdependence.”

In Buddhism, however, the philosophical understanding of interdependence is coupled with the practical understanding that we need a mind discipline to break the habit of treating entities as permanent and independent. To get us out of our mess requires more than an intellectual understanding of what’s wrong and what’s right with civilization.

Mindfulness-awareness meditation, which allows us to quell the anxious roiling of our mind and to see the world and ourselves in all of their slow-creep splendor, is precisely the tool to cultivate Homer-Dixon’s “prospective mind,” to help us act “emergently,” and to attune ourselves to the rhythms of our surroundings and our fellow community members. Frankly, it’s hard to conceive of how we can genuinely change our view and way of acting without such a discipline. Without it, how, in the face of chaos, uncertainty, and fear, will we not fall back into fighting for dominion over what we imagine to be “our world”?

Working with the mind through such practices reveals connectedness and unlocks caring and compassion, which these thinkers say is the very driving force of positive change. When I asked Thomas Homer-Dixon where he finds hope, in spite of his despair about how deeply ingrained our self-defeating habits are, he talked about our children’s children’s children. “We don’t need complete agreement on a way forward,” he told me, “but human beings know what they want at bottom. It may sound trite, but across all the divisions of race and ethnicity, religion and civilization, class, caste, and rule, one thing we all agree on is that we care about our kids. We want the best possible future for them and we have a pretty clear conception of what that good future means. It’s not a future full of material stuff, but a future in which our children are secure and safe and can develop their potential and flourish as human beings.”

Barry Boyce is senior editor of the Shambhala Sun and co-author of the recently published book The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict—Strategies from the Art of War.