Living the Questions

[…] have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and do try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. — Rainer Maria Rilke (1903)

Our culture is obsessed with quick-fix solutions and immediate answers. Time is at a premium and we don’t want to waste it dwelling on questions. The credo is: let’s get practical and not waste time with theory or philosophy! But how can you waste time with the ‘love of wisdom’? Is it not wisdom that will help us chart our path into an uncertain and unpredictable future? Do we not desperately need wisdom to respond wisely to the multiple converging crises around us?

With wisdom we can see these healing crises as the drivers of a deeper cultural transformation that is already occurring in many places around the world and spreading rapidly, challenging us to let go of outdated mental models and a narrative about who we are that no longer serves us.

Questions, more than answers, are the pathway to collective wisdom

By living and loving the questions more deeply we can rediscover the beauty and abundance around us, find deep meaning in belonging to the universe, deep joy in nurturing relationships with all of life, and deep satisfaction in co-creating a thriving and healthier life for all. Questions, more than answers, are the pathway to collective wisdom. Questions can spark culturally creative conversations that transform how we see ourselves and our relationship to the world. With this in mind, everything changes instantly.

In a culture that demands definitive answers, questions seem to have only a transient significance; their purpose is to lead us to answers. But in the face of constant and rapid change and uncertainty, might not questions rather than answers offer a more appropriate compass? History offers many examples of yesterday’s solutions becoming today’s problems, so perhaps answers are the transient means to help us ask better questions.

Should we not pay more attention to asking the right questions, rather than become obsessed with quick solutions? Equally, in favouring practice over theory, are we not demonstrating how we have become blind to the fact that any practical action is based on our ideas and beliefs about the world whether we are conscious of them or not? The separation of theory and practice is false; they are not opposites but two sides of the same coin.

We cannot act wisely without making sense of the world and making sense of the world is in itself a profoundly practical action that informs how we experience reality, how we act, and the relationships we form. Without questioning our worldview and the narrative that has shaped our culture, are we not likely to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Virtually every structure and institution around us is in need of innovation, redesign and transformation. At the local, regional, national and global scale we need transformational change in education, governance, industry, transport, infrastructure, energy systems, water management, agriculture and food systems, health systems, as well as social systems.

In order to enable transformative innovation to unfold its creative potential we need to redesign the financial and economic system at all scales from local to global. But the most up-stream transformation that has to take place before we set out to ‘redesign the human presence on Earth’ is to deeply question our way of thinking, our worldview and our value system. Up-stream changes in our mental models, basic beliefs and assumptions about the nature of reality will affect how, what, and why we design, the needs we perceive, the questions we ask, and hence the solutions or answers we propose.

I believe a profound cultural transformation is already on its way. Humanity is waking up to the complexity of the challenges ahead. A new kind of individual and collective leadership is emerging in business, civil society and governance. After centuries of seeing scarcity and competition everywhere, we are waking up to the abundance that is revealed through collaboration and sharing. In the course of this book we will explore ways in which many people around the world are already working on technological, social, economic and ecological solutions that serve all of humanity and regenerate damaged ecosystems.

On an over-populated planet, facing the threat of run-away climate change and the depletion of many non-renewable resources we currently depend upon, we are increasingly becoming aware of our interdependence. For our species to not just survive, but to thrive, we depend on each other and on the planetary life-support system.

While most of our current economic and political systems were designed with a win-lose mindset (zero-sum), we are beginning to understand we will all lose in the mid-to-long-term, if we do not maintain and regenerate the healthy functioning of ecosystems, reduce the stark inequity that exists everywhere, and nurture social cohesion and international solidarity through cultures of collaboration.

To move from a zero-sum culture (win-lose) to a non-zero-sum culture (win-win) necessitates widespread collaboration to ensure that nature also wins (win-win-win) and wins first, as she is the provider of the abundance upon which we depend. Only if we collaborate in creating a healthier, diverse, vibrant and bio-productive planet, will we be able to create regenerative cultures where nobody is left behind and everyone wins.

Win-win-win cultures ensure that life can continue to evolve towards increasing diversity, complexity, bio-productivity and resilience. We can think of the three wins of regenerative cultures as individual, collective and planetary wins created through systemic solutions that nurture social, ecological and economic health and wellbeing.

Humanity is beginning to explore the fertile ground of creating win-win-win solutions that drive cultural, ecological and economic regeneration. Innovating win-win-win, integrative, whole-systems design solutions is about creating shared abundance through collaborative advantage. Such innovations optimize the system as a whole, rather than maximizing short-term economic gains for a few to the economic, social and ecological detriment of many.

Climate change is only one of the converging crises requiring a globally coordinated response that is nothing short of civilizational transformation. Humanity is facing unprecedented challenges and unparalleled opportunities. ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option. Change and transformation is inevitable.

Humanity is facing important questions: will we be able to steer creatively through this period of cultural transformation? Will we manage to co-create a life-sustaining and regenerative human civilization expressed in a vibrant diversity of locally adapted and globally collaborative cultures? The answers to these questions will remain unknowable for decades, yet they will define the future of humanity and the future of life on Earth. Yes, we need answers and we need to keep experimenting with possible solutions. Both are excellent ways to help us learn from our mistakes and ask better questions.

Nevertheless, many of the questions and solutions we are working on are based on erroneous assumptions about our real priorities and true needs. We would do well to follow Einstein’s advice and spend more time making sure we are getting the questions right before we rush into offering solutions that will only prolong business as usual, or patch up the symptoms of a system that is based on erroneous assumptions and will continue to fail until we initiate deeper changes by asking deeper questions.

Living the questions more deeply is the cultural guidance system that will help us unleash the power of transformative social and technological innovation in the transition towards regenerative cultures. Questions are invitations to conversations in business boardrooms, community groups and in institutions of governance. Questions are ways to build bridges between these different sectors and between the different disciplines that compartmentalize our knowledge. Questions — and the conversations they spark — can unleash collective intelligence and help us value multiple perspectives.

Living the questions, deep listening and learning from diverse ways of knowing — these are all ways to transform consciousness and thereby create cultural and behavioural change. Living the questions more deeply can lead us towards a regenerative culture of equity, sustainability and justice. This book is an invitation to a conversation and a call to live the questions more deeply. It raises many questions; where it offers answers and solutions please understand them as invitations to question their significance in the transition towards regenerative cultures.

A first response to an invitation to ‘live the questions’ might be: we don’t have time for that in the face of the urgency of the climate crisis and many other developments that demand changes now. But precisely because of this urgency, we need to take a deeper look at the questions we are asking. Simply doing the wrong thing righter will no longer suffice. We need to question basic assumptions, worldviews and value systems, paying attention to what serves humanity and life and what doesn’t.

If the breakdown and need for change that we see around us is the direct result of an inappropriate way of seeing ourselves — the narrative we tell about who we are and the meaning we give to our existence — then cultural transformation has to start a long way up-stream with the way we see and think. We have to change our cultural narrative, and we can do so through culturally creative conversations that are triggered by asking deeper questions. By living the questions, we will begin to see, think and live differently; and by living differently we can bring forth a different world. We are capable of co-creating a regenerative human presence on Earth.

A young species growing up

A new cultural narrative is emerging — one that unites humanity in our interdependence with the wider community of life. This new and ancient story of interbeing with life and as life is driving people and communities around the world to create diverse, locally adapted, thriving cultures in global collaboration. Regenerative cultural patterns are beginning to emerge as an “expression of life in the process of transforming itself”. Václav Havel saw the need for such a societal transformation when he wrote in The Power of the Powerless:

A genuine, profound and lasting change for the better […] can no longer result from the victory […] of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps […] it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. If it is to be more than just a new variation on the old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed. — Václav Havel (1985: 30)

Humanity is coming of age and needs a ‘new story’ that is powerful and meaningful enough to galvanize global collaboration and guide a collective response to the converging crises we are facing. Transformational responses at a personal and collective level take place when we question deeply ingrained ways of being and seeing and in the process begin to reinvent ourselves. In doing so we also change how we participate in shaping culture through our interaction with the world around us.

From a long-term perspective, as a relatively young species on this planet we are collectively undergoing a maturation process which requires us to redefine how we understand our relationship to the rest of life on Earth — facing the choices of either collapse or profound transformation. The basic story we are telling about humanity — who we are, what we are here for and where we are going — no longer serves us as a functional moral compass.

Just as teenagers coming of age must learn not to just demand from family and society but to contribute meaningfully, humanity can no longer continue to draw down the natural capital stores of the Earth. We have to learn to live within the limits of the Earth’s bioproductive capacity and use current solar income instead of ancient sunlight (stored in the Earth’s crust as oil, gas, and coal) to provide our energy.

In stepping from our juvenile — and at times reckless and self-absorbed — phase as a young species into a mature membership of the community of life on Earth we are called to become productive members of this community and to contribute to its health and wellbeing.

Mature community membership means a shift towards a form of enlightened self- interest that goes as far as questioning the notion of a separate and isolated self at its very core. In the fundamentally interconnected and interdependent planetary system we participate in, the best way to care for oneself and those closest to oneself is to start caring more for the benefit of the collective (all life).

Metaphorically speaking, we are all in the same boat: our planetary life support system, or in Buckminster Fuller’s words: ‘spaceship Earth’. The ‘them-against-us’ thinking that for too long has defined politics between nations, companies and people is profoundly anachronistic.

Humanity as a whole is facing imminent climate chaos and the breakdown of ecosystems functions vital to the survival of our species and many others. We will not find the solutions to these problems by continuing to base our thinking on the same erroneous assumptions about the nature of self and world that created them in the first place.

We need a new way of thinking, a new consciousness, a new cultural story; only then will we be able to get the questions right, seeing more clearly what underlying needs have to be met. If we jump into action without deeper questioning, we are likely to treat symptoms rather than causes. This will prolong and deepen the crisis rather than solve it.

Even just subtle differences in word-use affect how we co-create culture. For example, to refer to the natural processes of cleaning water, capturing sunlight and carbon dioxide into biomass, building fertile soils, stopping erosion, or regulating climate as ‘ecosystems services’ (e.g. Costanza, et al., 2013) is a useful strategy to ensure that these services are included in our economic accounting and recognized as the primary source of value creation in the global economy.

On the other hand — implicitly — the words ‘ecosystems services’ carry a utilitarian attitude towards nature as if these processes were only valuable as long as they provide services to humanity. Using the term ‘ecosystems functions’ acknowledges that they are vital functions that enable the continued evolution of life as a whole. Worldviews are created and transformed by paying attention to how we shape experiences and reinforce perspectives through the words and metaphors we use.

Humanity is facing the terminal crisis of an outdated worldview. This crisis manifests itself in many different ways, for example as an economic and monetary system that is not fit for purpose on an overpopulated planet with dwindling non-renewable resources. In communities everywhere we can witness social breakdown as a result of rising inequality and the cult of competitive individualism.

We are facing a crisis of governance as many of the world’s largest economies are no longer defined by national or cultural identity and have become corporations seeking to maximize short-term profit by externalizing collateral damage. We continue to be challenged by a crisis of religious extremism and war, as we tend to pay more attention to our differences rather than our common humanity and common fate on a planet in crisis.

We will have to redefine how we see ourselves and our relationships to each other and to the rest of the community of life on Earth. Only by changing our cultural narrative can we transform our vision of the future, and heal our relationship with life as a whole. Like a fever that peaks and breaks just before the patient begins to recover, the multiple crises don’t have to be regarded as something entirely negative. We can reframe them as a “good crisis” (Pigem, 2009) if we heed the clear signs that change and transformation are now inevitable and already on their way and come to see the converging crises as creative challenges to grow up and evolve to planetary consciousness.

Changing the idea of our separateness

I firmly believe that the multiple crises we are facing are symptoms of our pathological habit of understanding and experiencing ourselves as separate from nature, from each other and from the community of life. The same crises are also indications that the healing process is already unfolding. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken (2007) described how all over the world tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of civil society organizations, community groups, activist networks, entrepreneurs and social innovators are working towards a more just, equitable and sustainable future in which humanity can thrive and culture is a regenerative rather than destructive force. He aptly calls this emerging and growing global movement our planet’s immune response.

[…] we are at a threshold in human existence, a fundamental change in understanding about our relationship to nature and each other. We are moving from a world created by privilege to a world created by community. The current thrust of history is too supple to be labelled, but global themes are emerging in response to cascading ecological crises and human suffering. These ideas include the need for radical social change, the reinvention of market-based economics, the empowerment of women, activism on all levels, and the need for localized economic control. There are insistent calls for autonomy, appeals for a new resource ethic based on the tradition of the commons, demands for the reinstatement of cultural primacy over corporate hegemony, and a rising demand for radical transparency in politics and corporate decision making. — Paul Hawken (2007: 194)

All of these trends are evidence that in a world riddled by multiple converging crises worsening fast, something new and miraculous wants to be born. As Arundhati Roy said so eloquently: “Another world is not only possible, she is already on her way. On quiet days I can hear her breathing.” If we take the time to get the questions right, to live the questions more deeply individually and collectively, we will not only be able to hear this new world breathing, we will realize that with each breath we take we are participants in the networks of relationships that are giving birth to this world.

Charles Eisenstein recently provided a lucid exploration of many aspects of the emerging ‘new story’ we are beginning to tell about ourselves in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (2013). He contrasts the “story of separation” (p.1) that leads us to feel isolated, alienated and insufficient, and thus to compete with each other and to dominate life for our purposes, with the “story of interbeing” (p.15) that acknowledges our relational nature and interdependence.

As the limits of the perspective of separation become more and more evident, and as we find ourselves surrounded by examples of the breakdown, despair and suffering that its cultural dominance is causing, we are beginning to look for viable alternatives, different ways of being-in-the-world. We are stepping into the ‘story of interbeing’. This story invites us to ask deeper questions: who am I? What makes me come fully alive? What are the deeper needs underlying my perceived needs? What story do I chose to stand in? Who is my community? What is my role? How can I contribute to a more joyful, co-creative, and meaningful world?

Amid all the doom-laden exhortations to change our ways, let us remember that we are striving to create a more beautiful world, and not sustain, with growing sacrifice, the current one. We are not just seeking to survive. We are not just facing doom; we are facing a glorious possibility. We are offering people not a world of less, not a world of sacrifice, not a world where you are just going to have to enjoy less and suffer more — no, we are offering a world of more beauty, more joy, more connection, more love, more fulfilment, more exuberance, more leisure, more music, more dancing, and more celebration. The most inspiring glimpses you’ve ever had about what life can be — that is what we are offering. — Charles Eisenstein (2013: 159)

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures,published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]