A Foothold In A World Of Chaos

A framework for conscious participation in change

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 54
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Change involves being open to and holding a multiplicity of contradictory ideas and actions together at the same time. There is no one way to change – it is a central quality of life, and it is happening spontaneously within us and around us all the time. Below is a personal framework we are developing to help us participate more consciously in the process of change.

The Dance of Co-Evolution

We feel a deep yearning to live our lives with more heartfelt collaboration and closeness both with other humans and other species. We found it helped us to acknowledge that we are already active participants in a co-evolving world. In addition to having dynamic relationships with other humans, numerous other species, and our shared physical environment, we also have a less tangible relationship with the mystical, sacred, and holistic world.

Accessing this world requires opening, giving up control, being in a state of wonder and also playfulness, and noticing paradox. In this state we may start to see the world as a kaleidoscope of self-organizing systems that are both authors of and respondents to deep evolutionary impulses.

Responsible participation in co-evolution also requires us to be open to the possibility that we may have to abandon some of our treasured ideas – such as the idea of ecological balance, our role as stewards of nature, and the notion of there being a grand purpose – and instead embrace unpredictability and creative discovery.

This conscious dance of co-evolution requires being aware moment to moment, choosing to act collaboratively, and learning from the outcomes.

I Care, Therefore I Am

Acting on our values and making ethical choices that are supportive of sustainable co-evolution requires that we go beyond the usual notion of rights and responsibilities and emphasize reverence for life, the uniqueness of each situation, equity of opportunity and access to resources, participation, and the qualities of care, compassion and nurturing. We are with Heidegger in preferring "I care (to I think) therefore I am."

What is central to all of these positions is awareness and concern for the implications of our thoughts and actions for the well being of others and the biosphere. The ethical imperative then is to think and act, aware of always being in relationship, and to take into account a particular context.

An example that illustrates neglect of these ideas is the "Circle of Poison" in which chemicals banned in the USA are shipped to countries that do not have restrictive legislation. Some of the poison is then carried back through food imports and through atmospheric currents from these countries, and so the circle of relationships, both human and natural, are contaminated.

Paradox, Uncertainty, and Complexity

Among most professions there is much emphasis on logical explanations, predictability, control, and associated simplification. Happily, the latest developments in disciplines as divergent as physics and psychology have brought a greater openness to paradox, uncertainty, and complexity. Indeed, we have found these conditions to be essential components of a framework for sustainable co-evolutionary thinking and action. We shouted "yes," for example, when we first read Kierkagaard’s statement that "paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion" and Jung’s comment that "only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life."

If we want to be more effective in helping ourselves and our world, then we have to learn how to live in it more intimately, and this requires that we live with the paradox of being more decisive and proactive moment to moment, while at the same time acknowledging the immense complexity of everything. We need to live with ambivalence yet not be ambivalent, do without answers and live in the questions. Often we become involved in complex undertakings that we don’t fully comprehend and we must improvise from the depths of our souls.

Similarly, as we embrace and give up trying to control nature’s complexity, we may find ourselves appreciating more and more the absolute wonder and beauty and, perhaps surprisingly, the profound simplicity of it all. An example of working with paradox and complexity is sometimes choosing to do nothing by providing degraded land time to regenerate naturally.

Another example is choosing to listen actively, rather than advising or taking charge.

Designing with Nature

The designs of non-human nature have stood the test of time – they have been selected from moment to moment for millions of years – so surely it makes sense that we should pay more attention to the incredible diversity of form, function, and interaction in non-human nature when we set out to generate our own designs.

Because so many human designs are contrary to non-human nature, it is not surprising that we so often waste money, energy, and material resources trying to do with complex, inelegant technologies what non-human nature has been doing elegantly for millions of years. Then when things go wrong, we label them as problems and waste more resources trying to fix them with curative back-end solutions. Rather we should see the problems as indicators of inadequacies in our designs and remedy them as part of a front-end approach to such situations.

We must base design decisions for our future, our communities, organizations, and our lives on valuing diversity, symbiotic interactions with others and the ecosystem, respecting limits, using renewable resources and non-human nature’s processes wisely, connecting to a place, and recognizing that all plans must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate non-human nature’s quality of constant change.

We need to open our senses to the paradox of both the strict limits as well as apparent infinities of non-human nature, recognizing that this is the pool that we must drink from to nurture our creativity and dreams.

Maintaining Self and Home

One of the things that distinguishes aboriginal cultures that have not been colonized is that much of their time and many of their rituals are devoted to maintenance activities – caring for one another, the Earth, and the Earth’s spirits. In western societies, whereas productivity is universally rewarded, maintenance activities remain largely marginalized and unrewarded. Examples include recycling organic matter, conserving water, caring for children, soil care, gardening, involvement in community events, creative pursuits, and ritual activities.

It is time that life-preserving maintenance activities be valued, along with the people who tend to carry them out – especially women, children, indigenous people, immigrants and "alternative" practitioners. This can begin in the home and with the self. Examining our personal sustainability can provide a solid basis for expanding our attention to the wider notions of both home (our planet) and self (being in sustainable relationship with all other beings).

The multiple benefits of valuing and paying attention to maintenance activities is exemplified by England’s Peckham experiment in which the provision of access to a wide range of health-promoting activities within a community center and complete freedom to choose when to participate led to significant improvements in health, lifestyle, and behavior in over 1,500 families during the eight-year period of the Stallibrass study. There was no bullying between children, little interest in competitive games, and no marriage breakdowns!

Valuing Diversity

Diversity is both a starting place and an outcome of evolution. Thus, any loss of biological or cultural diversity will reduce the possibilities for evolutionary unfolding. With uniformity comes intolerance, prejudice, oppression, a loss of personal boundaries, and a loss of recognition of the importance of difference. These losses, in turn, reduce our security and stability in the face of change.

It’s interesting how many of those who have made the greatest conceptual contributions in science have been people who have changed disciplines, thereby bringing in fresh perspectives that could not be seen by the homogeneous group of discipline-bound scientists.

It is fascinating how social change has often been seeded by one individual bringing forward his or her uniqueness, or how one group, such as feminists, has – with a unique perspective – created the impetus for important social change.

Act Now

The time is now! Sometimes we procrastinate, thinking excessively before we act, waiting for others, feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, and helpless. It is sometimes important to be willing to act our way into clearer thinking, liberating ourselves and others along the way. Start! Begin in the middle of the mess!

We can never know in co-evolutionary processes the best solution, but we can transcend perfectionism, fear, and the unknown through intentional acts that reflect our aliveness and values. Action can be indirect, subtle, and anonymous, or gregarious, forthright, and attention getting. Sometimes being alive can be impetus enough for acting, and at other times we get involved in issues because they will bring us to life!

Wonder, Compassion, and Humor

This is serious business. But unless we laugh with the kookaburra (a much loved Australian bird whose laughing call can be heard from dawn till dusk), gaze in wonder with the child, and have compassion for ourselves and others, life will become a joyless and burdensome task, instead of an amazing, mysterious journey.

When we take appropriate risks, we usually learn, gain new wondrous insights and appreciations, and are free to exercise our humor when things don’t go exactly as planned. This cycle of learning is the key to genuine development and change, and it includes both pain and joy. We agree with Adrienne Rich (1978) who proclaimed:

"My heart is moved by all that I cannot save. So much has been destroyed. I have cast my lot with those who age after age, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world."

Judy Pinn is a lecturer in the School of Social Ecology, University of Western Sydney – Hawkesbury in Australia. Stuart Hill is an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences of McGill University in Canada and director of Ecological Agriculture Projects, (EAP) Canada’s leading resource center for sustainable agriculture. (See IC #34 for an article by Stuart Hill on life in the soil.)

For information about the School of Social Ecology, write UWS-Hawkesbury, Richmond. NSW 2053 Australia. You can get a list of EAP and Stuart’s publications from EAP, Macdonald Campus, Ste Anne de Bellevue, QC, Canada H9X 3V9

Photographs in this section are by Gary Braasch. Some of them were originally published in his 1990 book, Photographing the Patterns of Nature, published by AMPHOTO, an imprint of Watson-Guptill, New York.

The Change Game

The adoption of an innovation in any given population follows a fairly predictable pattern. Whether it’s a new consumer product like the CD player, or an environmental innovation like recycling, new ideas follow similar patterns as they spread across the population.

The process is called innovation diffusion, and is based on a theory developed by Everett M. Rogers. Drawing on this theory, former IC executive editor Alan AtKisson developed the Innovation Diffusion (ID) Game.

The ID Game is a role play game in which players act out the various parts of the change process. The game shows how an innovation starts with an innovator, often a single individual with a new idea. An innovation spreads slowly at first – usually through the work of "change agents," who actively promote it – then picks up speed as more and more people adopt it. Eventually it may reach the point where such a large percentage of people have adopted it that it becomes the new norm.

In the ID Game, 20 or more players take on one of eight personas within the change process. These characters include transformers, unwilling laggards, reactionaries, iconoclasts, and mainstreamers.

The goal of each player depends on his or her assigned role. One may be working hard to bring a change into the culture (change agents), another may be trying to stop the change cold in its tracks (reactionaries), and others may be open to being convinced by other players (mainstreamers). The wild cards are the spiritual recluse and the curmudgeon, who may or may not help move the change process along.

In real life, we all play various of these roles at various times. For example, you may be an unwilling laggard when it comes to CDs (just can’t give up those LPs!), and a transformer when it comes to recycling (you started a recycling program at your office).

Whatever their role in the game, players get an inside look at the obstacles facing any new change. By giving people a chance to play out these roles in an imaginary change process, the ID Game gives insight into effective strategies for initiating and facilitating cultural change.

The Innovation Diffusion Game is available for $60 from Context Institute. The game includes a facilitator’s guide, role instruction cards, and transparencies illustrating the concepts of innovation diffusion theory. To order, call us at 1-800-IN CONTEXT or write P.O. Box 11470, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110.

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