About Context Institute

This page describes the mission, history, approach, and values of Context Institute. It is also the start of the Foundation Stones’ Main Thread.

Context Institute is an independent non-profit (501(c)(3)) organization, founded in 1979 by Robert and Diane Gilman, devoted to helping all of us create the best possible 21st century we can — for each of us, for our communities, and for all of life. We are one of a handful of organizations that have focused on sustainability as a central theme for more than 35 years, and we are internationally recognized as an authority in this area.

History

We began as a local living-lightly organization, with a mission “to develop, disseminate, and facilitate techniques and skills for low cash-flow, low environmental-impact lifestyles that make efficient use of personal, social, and planetary resources.” We are still pursuing that same mission, but over the years our understanding of that mission has grown deeper and more systemic. Today we describe it as “exploring whole-system pathways to a thriving sustainable planetary future.”

In 1983, we broadened our focus out to the planet as a whole and began our quarterly journal IN CONTEXT. In the succeeding years, Institute staff have published, spoken, and consulted in such diverse areas as community development, cultural history and cultural change, systems thinking, education, ecological living, sustainable economics, and the built environment.

We are best known for our journal, IN CONTEXT: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture. in print from 1983 to 1995 and now available on this site. We have also been involved in a variety of other publishing and collaboration & consulting programs. Please see Context Institute’s History for a more complete description of these varied activities.

Midwifing the transition to the Planetary Era

Central to our approach is our sense that the world is now going through a process of cultural change that is as profound as the shift, over 5000 years ago, out of hunting and gathering and into agriculture and cities. We refer to that previous shift as going from the Tribal Era to the Empire Era. We see ourselves as now in the transition between the Empire Era and the Planetary Era. (For more detail on this perspective, see “What Time Is It?”.)

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We recognize the great dangers of our times, yet, because the underlying momentum of change is so great, we also see these as times of great opportunity to develop humane and sustainable cultures for the Planetary Era, cultures that could provide a quality of life for all that would make today’s societies look like the dark ages. It is this positive vision of the possible, together with a keen awareness that time is of the essence, that motivates our work.

While we address some of the same issues as those addressed by environmental, political, social-action, and personal-growth organizations, our approach is different. As much as possible, we approach these issues from the context of the emerging Planetary Era, rather than within the context of the waning Empire Era. This leads us to focus on yes rather than no, on voluntary human-scale innovation, and to integrate the full gamut of human concerns — environmental, social, economic and personal — into a long-term, whole-system, constructive perspective.

Much of the Institute’s work focuses on encouraging the sustainable redevelopment of the industrialized world. We focus here because we feel that most of the world’s unsustainable practices have their roots in these globally dominant societies. Any real solutions must address, and help to transform, this cultural core. Indeed, we feel that such sustainable redevelopment, with all the profound cultural change that will entail, is the central challenge and task facing the industrialized world, and humanity, during the coming decades.

Assisting cultural leaders

The Institute directs its work towards those who are willing and able to help move their organizations, their communities, their personal lives, and their societies in a more humane and sustainable direction. We think of these people as cultural leaders, some of whom are in positions of institutional power, and others who are simply influential through their own initiative and sensitivity. We focus on these early adopters because experience shows that the most effective way to promote lasting cultural change is to educate and empower cultural leaders who then influence the rest of society.

We assist these cultural leaders in a variety of ways that enable them to discover:

  • a whole-system understanding of the new human context in the early 21st century
  • practical, experience-based approaches to the perplexing issues of our times consistent with this emerging context
  • strategies and skills for effective change
  • realistic vision, hope and empowerment

Core values

In addition to expertise in particular topic areas, our work is characterized by a way of thinking which we feel is important for the development of humane sustainable cultures appropriate for the Planetary Era. While there is no simple name or description for this way of thinking, it includes the following elements:

Systems Thinking – We draw on our background in systems theory to ask, and help those we serve to ask: How do the pieces in the puzzle fit together? What’s going on beneath the surface? What are the significant feedback loops that tie a system together? What are its dynamics in time? At what points in a system can change most fruitfully be introduced?

Solution Orientation - We start where many others leave off: with a vision of a preferred future (humane and sustainable) and a critical awareness of the problems of the present. With this as our starting point, we see our primary task as searching for those constructive, experience-based, promising solutions and approaches that could provide a path from today’s problems to that preferred future. While others provide the necessary “no” to the dysfunctions of business-as-usual, we focus on providing the necessary “yes” that provides a viable and desirable alternative.

Ecological Thinking – Our ability to survive as a species requires an understanding of human interdependence with each other and with all life and a recognition that we must find solutions that work for the whole. The ecological system is both the basic reality in which we need to function and a fruitful metaphor for more sustainable human systems, such as production systems in which the wastes from one process become resources for another.

Long-Term Orientation – A deep sense of history, going back thousands, millions and even billions of years, helps us to more richly understand the character and possibilities of cultural evolution. A long-term commitment to many generations into the future provides the moral foundation for the basic principles of sustainability. Taken together, they enable us to focus on essentials and avoid being distracted by the fads and short-term news of the day.

Compassion and Forgiveness – We are all in this together. We are all a part of, and to varying degrees collude with, the unsustainable systems in which we are embedded … and we all have something to contribute toward a positive future. Context Institute is committed to a clear-eyed understanding of the problems of today, but we are not motivated by an interest in finding individuals or groups to blame. We work instead to remind ourselves and each other of that more spacious spirit in which compassion and forgiveness are natural responses, and healing is the natural result.

By applying this way of thinking to a wide variety of social, cultural, and ecological issues, we have helped with building a vision for a sustainable future among a small but influential group of opinion leaders and innovators. We intend to continue to extend the range of people involved in exploring these issues and building this vision.

(The next piece in the FS Main Thread is Robert Gilman’s biography.)