By Julio Olalla and Robert Dunham
Major dislocations in how our societies operate in the world are coming, and we have seen a preview with the global financial recession of 2008. Despite widespread scientific analyses of global issues including the causes of global warming, depletion of fisheries, reaching peak oil while energy demand is spiking, and the consumption of resources approaching the limits of the planet, there have not been significant changes in global consumption patterns or economic policies. We seem to be trapped in the current systems with no real options to a new game. Demand and consumption increase, and the economic policies are to expand growth. In fact no other alternative seems possible.
The consequences that are coming are unavoidable, will be massive, and will happen very quickly. Our economic growth policies are exponential, which means that the changes they produce are growing at an ever increasing rate, like compound interest. For example, if we have a steady increase of population of only 1% a year, at a population of 6 billion it takes only twelve years to produce another billion people, down from 18 years for the prior billion.
To show how the time shortens for changes in such conditions, imagine putting drop of water in the palm of your hand, and then doubling the water every minute. In six minutes, there would be enough water to fill a thimble. How long would it take to fill a major sports arena, say like the Astrodome? Only 50 minutes! And at what point would the stadium be 97% empty? At 45 minutes. The major changes of such exponential growth happen at the end, are massive, and happen quickly[i].
That such large scale disasters can happen is amply demonstrated by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. He reviews cases of the collapse of whole societies as a result of their cultural dynamics and choices. Easter Island changed from a well-populated and prosperous island society to being barren and uninhabitable. Ninety nine percent of the population of the Maya culture in Central America disappeared between approximately 900 AD and 1524 when Cortez arrived, from a vibrant civilization of 3 million or more to a population of 30 thousand[ii].
Although our current issues can be seen as global and systemic, they are side effects of the very logic, stories, and choices of our culture. These outcomes are manifesting based on the choices that we make individually, and in our associations in towns and nations. What are other choices do we have other than to continue the exponential road to disaster? And what do new choices demand of us as individuals and as a culture? Why would we make such new choices?
The consequences of our current trajectories into the future will require a response at some point. Why are we not preparing with more urgency and are instead continuing the current trends? We believe that this is due to the very common sense and stories that we live in, and that these are based in our current fundamental view of what it is to be human, and what is a good life. Although the response to the problems we face will be worked out one way or another, our concern is what kind of human beings will we become in the process and what kind of life will we create when our current visions are no longer possible?
We see several reasons why we remain in unsustainable drifts to the future, and these open possibilities for designing and adopting new choices for our future, choices of new stories, ethics, and purposes. One reason that we stay in the current drift is the story that “there is no other positive choice for the future other than growth.” The logic is basically if we do not grow economically, we will not have jobs, and then a growing segment of the population will sink into poverty. This is a story that produces the mood of resignation, that there are no other choices. Another reason is that as human beings we are used to living in local conditions without looking ahead beyond the near future. An important reason is that we have lost the question of “what is a good life,” and the question has been preempted by the answer that a good life requires more consumption. And yet another reason is that culturally we have largely lost the experience and narrative of the core meaning of life, what we can call our soul. And we consider that we will have to rebuild our cultural narratives in the reverse order of these reasons. We need to find our soul again.
When we speak of soul we mean that part of our being and our experience that has been honored in all ancient traditions, that part of life with connection and respect for that beyond ourselves, the depth of meaning and experience beyond mind, emotions, and body; the sense of the space of life itself in relationship to world, meaning, possibility, and eternity. The Sufis say that we can never fully know what we are, but that we can experience that we are Love, and explore the richness of life. But even this narrative focuses on our experience in life, not just the material circumstances we find ourselves in. We have largely lost the belief in and respect for an inner life, and it has largely been preempted by the drug companies. We have lost the traditions of facing life itself in its richness, challenges, and depths, and along with it the dimension of self-cultivation as a good life. We find the good life outside ourselves instead of inside ourselves.
The materialist story will argue that life has been improved through the development of material wealth and ease. Yet research shows that after providing for a safe, healthy, and basic material existence the acquisition of more wealth does not provide an increase in happiness, wellbeing, or meaning, and in fact the indicators show that wellbeing tends to decline with ever increasing wealth[iii]. We agree with the ancient wisdoms that life is a journey of becoming, and it is in this journey that we find meaning and wellbeing. Through learning, self-cultivation, and deep engagement with life and living we will find ourselves, meaning, value, satisfaction, and even joy. We must engage from our soul, find the sacred, and find our way in the inner dimensions of life. We cannot fill the spirit shaped hole in our being with wealth, drugs, distractions, or accomplishments. We must connect to life as aliveness and living itself.
We also must rediscover that our soul, our very being, is not separate from our world, the reality of nature, and our relationships with others. We are social creatures, made for connection. In our connections we find ourselves and our lives, we learn to fashion our relationships with ourselves, others, and our worlds. And today our culture has taken us in a drift to separation, from the privileging of the rationalist perspective through science abstracting us from our experience, from the stripping of literal validity from religious narrative, and the disparaging of spiritual reality by the materialist demand for cause and effect. We have not only lost our souls, we have lost our heart connections, and our connection to even our experience due to the habit of requiring the mind to explain everything.
We have another unique challenge in our historical era, the scale of technology. Technology is not just the development and use of tools. Our tools shape what we do and how we think. Our tools use us, and control us. If you use email, you see that your practices and even how you think and organize your life is fundamentally shaped by email. We have seen the stupendous and rapid evolution of smart phones, texting, and social media. In the guise of better connection and access to each other, research shows that this technology is also producing greater disconnection, where people would rather text each other than speak to each other.
Julio Olalla is founder of Newfield Network, a leading school of coaching in the world, and is considered one of the best coaches in the world. He is author of From Knowledge to Wisdom.
Robert Dunham is founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership, and delivers programs in leadership around the world. He is co-author of The Innovator’s Way.