A letter to the principled change makers on earth.
We live on an amazingly rare and beautiful planet spinning around a mid-size sun on an outer arm of a spiral nebula galaxy in a vast Universe. And as you know, things are rather complicated.
Climate change. Social and economic inequity. The rise of right-wing nationalist movements around the world. Crisis in the American democracy. The failure of market capitalism. The explosion of technology. The undeniable influence of social media and the digital age. The continuing violence. In schools. Against indigenous people and communities of color. Against women and girls. Against the very earth herself.
“The real problem with humanity is that we have medieval institutions, Paleolithic emotions, and god-like technology”, noted evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. The social philosopher Tom Atlee said: “Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster, in bigger and bigger ways.” Something that is getting better is this: there have never been more principled change makers around the world. In every field. In every sector. From every social and economic class. Of every racial and ethnic background. All across the gender continuum. People who are smart and have dedicated themselves to serious and meaningful change. People like you. There’s a lot to say about changemakers creating meaningful change in a changing world, but one thing we’ve realized is this: change itself is changing. Change needs to change. To evolve. To keep pace with the increasing complexity we find ourselves in. The Cynefin model, developed in the early 2000s by researchers at IBM, had a big influence on our understanding of the problems we face on earth.
A simple problem is serving a meal at a homeless shelter, or providing a bed to someone at a refuge camp. Certainly not a problem you want to have, but something you know how to do.
A complicated problem is running a homeless shelter or a refugee camp. The degrees of difficulty are much, much greater.
A complex or “wicked” problem is addressing the root causes of homelessness or the refugee crisis, of which, by the way, there are 65 million on the planet right now. Success is elusive and difficult to define for complex problems. There is no “right” answer, and approaches to address them shift over time. They involve many different actors with drastically different priorities.
A chaotic problem is dealing with the exploding homeless crises we have right now in Portland and Seattle (our hometowns), or dealing with a flood of imperiled refugees crossing the Mediterranean to escape danger in their home countries. Events in this domain cannot be predicted nor controlled. Organizations and institutions were basically designed to address simple and complicated problems. But medieval organizations and institutions are not well suited to address complex problems on their own. Effective collaborations across many sectors and stakeholders are needed to address problems at the complex level. And to make a collaboration actually effective and not merely aspirational requires truly functional networks that support participants to explore their common humanity, build relationships, learn together, and work together on behalf of common goals. We used to think the ultimate goal of these collaborations should be whole-scale structural systems change. That is until Margaret (Meg) Wheatley kinda burst our bubble In her new book “Who Do We Choose To Be” Meg basically says she no longer feels that wholesale structural systems change is an appropriate goal. That the effort is just driving many changemakers crazy. We’re burning out. We’re depressed. Many changemakers have killed themselves, slowly or quickly. Meg has reframed her aspiration. And now, so have we. Meg wants to create what she calls “islands of sanity”. We prefer to call them “pockets of possibility”. You might call them the seeds of the future.
We may not yet be able to fundamentally alter global economic, political, social, and environmental systems, but we can definitely do something. We can create warm and wise pockets of possibility that can at least start to melt the hard structural ice of these entrenched medieval systems from below. We may not be able to dramatically change the fundamental and flawed structure of the American democracy. But we can elect much better leaders. We can practice good citizenship ourselves. We can build stronger towns and communities. We may not be able to change “the system”. But we can definitely change lots of smaller “systems”. Meg goes on to say something else really important. That those pockets or seeds or islands are not just about external systems change work. They are also about creating pockets of possibility for the changemakers themselves. They are about the joy of doing good work with good people even in extremely complex and chaotic times. She’s speaking to principled changemakers everywhere. She’s arguing for community. What Dr. King called “the beloved community”. For pockets of possibility where principled change makers can connect, learn, and act together. You already know this is a decisive time. A historic time. Socially, environmentally, culturally, politically, economically. Many argue that human civilization no longer has a guiding narrative — we are between narratives, as Charles Eisenstein has written. Joanna Macy would say that there are three narratives coexisting right now — 1) business as usual, 2) it’s all going down, or 3) that this is the Great Turning Point.
You must be pondering, as we are, two central questions: How can we accelerate and amplify the things that are getting better and better? And how can we minimize the damage and turn the corner on the things that are getting worse and worse?
We want to close with a few lines you might have heard from Clarissa Pinkola Estes — the ferocious feminist poet, author and activist, who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves. “My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. Times of almost daily astonishment and righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people. I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Look out over your prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. And though we will meet resistance, we will also meet souls who will hail us, love and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.”