A collaborative blog written by Bob Dunham and guest blogger, Julio Olalla.

Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.
T. S. Eliot

We live in an era of global scale. Our technologies and our massive global population accumulate and magnify our decisions and choices until they affect the entire planet. At the global level, we now have concerns about changing the weather through global warming, running out of water, destroying arable land, bringing thousands of species to extinction, and consuming resources at an unsustainable level. We believe we can throw garbage “out,” but there is no “out” from the planet – we are living next to our accumulating waste. We have filled the planet and are at or beyond the edges of its capacities. Many say we have exceeded the “carrying capacity” of the planet [i].

At the same time, our human systems are in a breakdown. The current financial crisis is the result of massive government borrowing against a future that must continue to grow and consume to carry the debt. Fundamental standards of responsibility, risk management, and honesty have been thrown out in the pursuit of localized greed. For example, the real estate bubble that caused the current global recession was created by a system that allowed ridiculous loans that could never be repaid to be made by lenders for the sake of the transaction fees because the lenders sold the loans and would never be held accountable for the consequences of the loans’ performance. Consumers took easy credit in a frenzy of consumption and speculation [ii]. Taxpayers vote for government services that they will not pay for [iii].

How did we arrive to such a state? We are in a moment where the current human being faces the reality of the finite planet and nature in which we live and of the consequences of the systems we have invented. Yet the predominant answer to our problems is “growth,” more of the same thinking that led us to our current situation. The authors believe that growth, in the way that it is currently thought about, is an aspect of our problem, not our solution.

Our Cultural Blindness

We must look more deeply into our current cultural blindness, to the roots of how we came to act the way we do and to create the world we have. If we are to change our world and create a new future, we must first look in the mirror and see what kind of people we have become, what kind of thinking we fall into, and what kind of relationship with our world we have chosen. The world has become this mirror to the kind of human beings we have become, and we must first reflect on how we became who we are if we are to see a possibility for real change. Although there are new awarenesses and new interpretations arising in the world, we must face the common sense that led to our current situation. That is what must change.

What can we see in looking at the world and the way we are in it, beyond our current inadequate and automatic explanations? We see that the main theme of our civilization is that we ignore nature and our environment as something we must take care of.  We see the natural world only as raw material to be used, and in fact, see people as “human resources” in the same way – raw material to be used. We still think and operate as though the world is much bigger than our impact on it, and have not awakened to the scale of impact that we have. We have been so steeped in the interpretation that everything is for our use that we even use our “selves” as raw material to be used.

Used for what? For whatever project will produce profit, growth, and financial return regardless of the consequences. We have placed financial and economic growth as our ultimate value, our only solution, and the driver of our societal purposes. We also see this as an area of mysterious technical problems, to be solved by the technical experts. Greece and Italy have just chosen to put “technocrats” in charge of their governments to fix their financial situations. Other concerns of our societies are considered secondary to our financial requirements, and the intent is to renew economic growth and consumption.

As we look at our world, we do not see the populations of our countries acting with responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We have turned into a society of consumers getting what they can, willing to receive benefits that they take no responsibility to pay for. The choices of the individual have been disconnected from the consequences they produce in the aggregate, and we have largely lost the responsibilities of the citizen, only acting from the appetites of the consumer. We do not think globally and act locally, we tend to act locally and the global consequences are someone else’s problem.

If we look again in the mirror at who we are, we see that we are a culture that has lost meaning and virtue, and we no longer have the notion of a good life as one in harmony with nature, with each other, and for the sake of a healthy future. We conceive of the good life as a permanent expansion of consumption. Yet, we never stop and ask for the sake of what do we want to consume more? We must transcend the common sense that more is better and look for what is good, not just more.

We have lost public standards of what is important rather than growth, that we must have respect and gratitude for the gifts of life and nature, and not just destroy them in our consumption. We have lost the place of the sacred, whereby “sacred” we do not mean any religious meaning, but we refer to the sacred as those aspects of life that we revere, respect, bring gratitude to, and place higher than self-interest. For example, our society currently allows companies to put chemicals in our environment that are shown to affect the development of fetuses because profit is more important than a respect for the health of our children and environment.

How Did We Get Here?

How did we come to value our abstractions more than our lives? How did we come to have numbers dictate our choices rather than our connection to life and meaning? How did we come to give up our personal and social responsibility to take care of the future and the world we share? Some would tell a story of the loss of religious life and the advance of secular logic. But, we see a more fundamental interpretation that shows the journey to disconnection in our culture and the shift that must be addressed.

We live in an era of modernity (some call post-modernity) after 500 years of the increasing focus on and celebration of science, rationality, and the powers of prediction and control. It has been such a long and deep immersion in this common sense that we can’t see how it has changed us, as people. We live in the story that the universe is just material and without inherent meaning, and that the only source of meaning is our own purposes and desires. We see reality as raw material for our use, not a place of relationship.

How else can we destroy and befoul what sustains us, physically, emotionally, and spiritually? How else can greed become a virtue and a standard for our entire system of living together? And this has happened because we have exiled the power of emotions from our thinking, and relegated them to the internal, personal world with no relevance in the external world of action. In fact, science took as a first principle that only what can be replicated without bias by an observer, without influence by feelings, was worthy of being held as true and valid. In this logic, we are most effective when we separate from our emotions and our care is only a personal prejudice distorting true dispassionate and rational thinking.

We now have a tremendous problem with these unexamined assumptions that make up our current cultural common sense.  First, the assumption that emotions are not relevant for effective action has been shown to be false. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that rational behavior is not possible without the involvement of the emotional circuits of the brain [iv].  The field of emotional intelligence shows that 90% of the difference between high performing leaders, managers, and organizations and average performance is their emotional skills [v].

The second problem is that our lifelong training in abstraction and rational techniques of thinking has left out the most important part of our thinking and choosing – the ethics and choices of meaning, of what we care about, what makes a meaningful and good life, and a good world to share. We have lost the valuing of what is most valuable, of the gifts of life that we cannot replace.

On a pragmatic basis, the environment gives us air, water, and the capacity for food. Since the environment has been given, rather than produced, it has been taken for granted and not valued. It has been used in ways that produce tremendous downstream costs that are not paid because our accounting only values human action, not the essential actions of nature. This is true at the level of ecology and sustainability, but also at the level of soul and meaning. When we see that nature gives us beauty, which is the basis of our own physical vitality and aliveness, then we realize that our embodiment gives us the capacities for love, connection, and meaning. But we sacrifice these as well on the altar of economics.

A New Way of Seeing

To show our perspective as one of practical action, and not just of fuzzy philosophizing, we must share with you that our life’s work over the last 30 years has been with the pragmatics of developing skills in the cognitive power of emotions, and employing them in order to produce a higher level of capabilities in leadership, management, organizational performance, professional coaching, as well as relationship and living a good life. We believe that our culture has the insights to not only look in the mirror, but to reengage with the questions of “what is a good life,” “what is a good person,” “what is a good citizen,” and create new answers, actions, and outcomes for a healthy future and a good life.

We must recognize that we cannot impose prediction and control on all of life, and these approaches must not become the foundation of our relationship with life, with each other, the future, and the world. We must give up our consumption addiction, we must give up the ethics of cancerous growth, we must recover our responsibility with nature, each other, and the meaning that feeds our souls. We must honor again what our deep care shows us about our choices, we must become emotionally competent to be wielders of the powers we have to reshape our world. We must take responsibility again for the consequences of our choices, both individually and together.

Although we do not claim to have the solutions to our global issues, we do know that in addressing them, we must look at what kind of human beings we have become, and we must reconnect and reintegrate our emotional capacities into our thinking. We must recover our capacity to connect with and care for what is most meaningful and harmonious in life. We must recover our sense of living in a world with which we have a relationship, and that this world takes care of us only to the extent we take care of it. We must look in the mirror and reshape ourselves first if we are to shift how we shape the world.

Next, we will explore how our modern way of thinking has separated us from our soul, that part of us that most deeply connect to our care and meaning in life, and later we will explore the need for the revival of citizenship, a reengagement with our humanity, and a re-grounding of our thinking in the health of our relationships with each other, nature, and our future.

Julio Olalla is the 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 the author of From Knowledge to Wisdom.

Robert Dunham is the founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership and delivers programs in leadership around the world. He is a co-author of The Innovator’s Way.

If you’re interested in reading more from these authors, check out Julio’s book HERE and Bob’s book HERE.

[i] McKibben, Bill, Deep Economy, Holt paperbacks, 2007.

[ii] Lewis, Michael, The Big Short, Norton paperback, 2011

[iii] Lewis, Michael, Boomerang, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

[iv] Damasio, Antonio, Descartes Error, Avon Books, 1994.

[v] Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam, 1996, 2006.