Global Climate Action III:
The Power of Consciousness

Otto Scharmer
Feb 2 · 13 min read

The first two articles in this three-part series explored two blind spots in the response to global climate change: soil and democracy. The third one is consciousness.

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Figure 11 — Leverage Point No. 3: Consciousness

In January, I spent a weekend with 300 biodynamic farmers in northern Germany. The topic of the gathering was Creating from Nothing. The topic struck a chord with me. For one, it resonated with questions I’ve seen asked in many contexts: How do we move beyond marginal innovation that only modifies the patterns of the past, to one that truly creates something from nothing?

What also struck me was how many of these regenerative farmers are struggling to evolve and scale what they do. Only 1% of farmland is cultivated using regenerative methods, and only a small fraction of that with regenerative organic methods. These forward-looking farmers are among the true pioneers of our time, forging a path to the future. They should have all the support in the world to continue and accelerate their work from 1% to eventually 100%. But in reality, the support that they get is highly limited. Instead of supporting them, we continue to pour between $700 billion and $1 trillion per year into an outdated agricultural paradigm — one that is eroding the topsoil, polluting the water, poisoning the bodies, and degrading the lives of future generations.

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Figure 12 — January 2020, Northern Germany: Farmer’s Conference On Creating From Nothing

On the last day of the gathering, I was asked to sum up my take on our discussions over the previous two days. Here is what I shared:

1. First: Action Confidence. All profound change starts with a deep trust in our own capacities to rise to the occasion. My colleague Shobi Lawalata articulated this the other day when she said, reflecting on the larger challenges of her community and country: “This is the moment I was born for.” Thus, the first thing we need is the awareness and courage that makes us turn toward the problem, rather than away from it.

2. The Goal: Reach 100% Regenerative Agriculture by 2040. Anyone who reads the climate science with an open mind will reach the same conclusion: the goal is to be 100% regenerative by 2040, both in our farming and in our energy systems worldwide. Granted, given our institutional realities, it might take a few more years. Maybe it won’t happen until 2050. But the goal remains the same.

3. How: Direct Dialogic Democracy. How do we make progress toward this goal? By building new coalitions — Fridays For Future, Scientists For Future, Farmers For Future, etc. — and by making our democracy more dialogic, distributed, and direct. The problem today is not that we have too many options, but that we have too few. We have private choices as consumers, but we lack true public choices as citizens to debate and decide about the future we want to co-shape. What we need today is citizens’ assemblies, focusing on what will be essential in 2040. Then, after extensive public dialogue, the best ideas should be voted on in a citizens’ referendum. The resulting roadmap would be passed on to the legislative and executive bodies to refine and incorporate into the public policy framework, all in consultation with the relevant stakeholder groups. Much of this is already beginning to happen in a variety of places and communities around the world, including Ireland, France, England, Scotland, Spain, Canada, and Taiwan. But these are tiny beginnings. A lot more needs to happen now…

4. Transforming the Economy from Ego to Eco. Currently, our economies use an operating system based on egosystem awareness. Changing that operating system from ego to eco would transform it in almost every way imaginable, and transform one of the most important root issues of these problems. For example community-supported agriculture (CSA) connects farmers more closely and more intentionally with those who consume what they grow. Rather than getting paid for every apple or carrot, the farmer receives a fixed amount per week or per month from me (and from the other members of the CSA). In return, I receive a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables that are produced using the principles and practices of regenerative organic farming. The model changes how consumers relate to the farm, from transactional to transformative or intentional. This model exists in many places on a small scale today but going forward this model of solidarity-based agriculture could also be scaled to reshape the whole system. Thomas Jorberg, CEO of GLS Bank, a socially responsible bank in Germany, asked: “How can we take what’s working in the CSA model to the regional or the national level of solidarity-based farming? That is where the next wave of social and economic innovation will be coming from.” And that is exactly where we need new forms of direct, dialogue-based democratic decision-making.

5. Vertical Impact. My parents converted to regenerative organic farming some 60+ years ago. For decades, young people visited the farm to learn about regenerative farming practices. Today, many of them have taken these principles and practices to their own farms across Germany, Europe, and the world. You might call this the “horizontal impact.” But some of those farmers also describe a deeper level of impact. They describe a process of being seen for who they really are, of waking up to their deeper purpose or intention in life. The phrase that came to mind when listening to these descriptions is vertical impact or vertical efficacy (vertikale Wirksamkeit).

The vertical impact of regenerative organic farming in this context, even though it’s a subtle process, may well be its most important role in the long run. In society today, we lack places that help people wake up to their true aspirations, to their highest future potential, to what they really want to do with their lives going forward. Vertical impact farming connects people to the living beings that are the farm’s ecosystem: the soil, the plants, and the animals. This deep sensing and listening experience could serve as a gateway to the deeper territories of human development and with that to the deeper dimension of leadership and self-leadership. That subtle impact, allowing people to sense and listen deeply beyond the boundaries of their own bubble, and to wake up to their deeper intentions in life, may well be one of the most important functions that the “farmers for future” can deliver for the healing of people and the planet today.

Innovation happens in places. The same is true for civilizational renewal. Where are these places? Regenerative organic farms could serve as one type of place for societal renewal.

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Figure 13 — Five Core Points For Moving Regenerative Farming Forward

These five points, particularly vertical impact, seemed to also resonate with the experience of many of the farmers in the room.

Upgrading Societal Operating Systems

Reflecting on that gathering of farmers, I realize two things. One, we see quite similar patterns of systems change in other sectors as well. One way of thinking about them is in terms of “updating the operating system” (OS) that our society works with. We know from our smartphones and computers about the importance of upgrading a system, but upgrading a societal system is so much more difficult.

And two, upgrading a societal operating system requires a mindset shift — an evolution of consciousness of the key players in the system from ego to eco: from ego- to ecosystem awareness. Figure 14 shows how different sectors of society have been upgraded over time (and where they still need to go):

Figure 14 — Matrix of Systems Evolution: Upgrading Societal Operating Systems

As the mainstream slowly moves from OS 2.0 (output- and efficiency-centric) to 3.0 (user-centric), and from there to 4.0 (ecosystem-centric), we realize that each transition requires a specific support and response structure. To respond to the pressing 4.0 type challenges of our time, we can’t use response mechanisms that operate on levels 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0.

Innovations in Infrastructures

Communities and social systems need three infrastructure innovations to transition to OS 4.0: deep learning infrastructures for transformational learning; deep democracy infrastructures that make democracy more dialogic and direct; and deep economic infrastructures that introduce pre-market areas of collaboration among stakeholders to innovate at the scale of the whole system.

In summary, the transition to 4.0 hinges on two enabling conditions. One is structural and requires collaborative economic and democratic infrastructures. The second is a cultural condition that consists in building new collaborative leadership capacities that move stakeholder groups from ego to eco, from a silo to a systems view.

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Figure 15 — Infrastructures for Activating Generative Social Fields

Figure 15 visualizes this second condition: the planetary healing and civilizational renewal that is necessary today requires the activation of generative social fields — that is, 4.0 types of co-creative fields involving all the key partners and stakeholders. A specific support structure is needed to build these capacities at scale.

A Bauhaus for Vertical Transformation Literacy

Access to what the Wuppertal Institute’s Uwe Schneidewind calls “transformation literacy” is highly restricted, which is even more true for vertical literacy, as I have argued before. Both of these capacities happen to be in the blind spot of higher education today. Yet access to them is more critical than ever before. What could scale, and amplify vertical transformation literacy at a level of scale that is commensurate with the challenges we face? What might be a real game changer in addressing this blind spot of our learning and leadership systems today?

An inspiring impact example that comes to mind when contemplating these questions is the Bauhaus school, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius and his colleagues. The Bauhaus school got started by a small core group of people in a small town right in the midst of the chaos of post-World War I Germany. And it ended up reshaping the architectural design of urban landscapes and the industrial design of consumer products worldwide. What happened? How come such a small group of people ended up having such a profound impact on the next 100 years?

The Bauhaus core group started with a bold vision — to make good design accessible to everyone by linking three things that were usually thought of separately: design and aesthetic theory; crafts and materials; and industrial-style mass production technology.

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Figure 16: The original Bauhaus Curriculum

Figure 16 shows the original Bauhaus curriculum. The outer circle was the so-called Vorkurs, the preliminary course. In this course, design principles and theory were studied, as well as the different materials in Meister-led workshops. The Vorkurs took at least half a year, and only after it was completed were you eligible to immerse yourself in workshops that provided experiential and hands-on exposure to materials, fabrics, colors, construction methods, and tools, as well as nature studies. Only after several years of deep immersion in the Bauhaus curriculum would you be considered for work in the inner core (depicted in the innermost circle): the building site, testing site, and design of new architectures, of BUILDINGS.

Fast-forward one century from 1919 to 2020. Today, our main issue is no longer how to bring cutting-edge design into the construction of physical architecture, but how to bring state-of-the-art systems change methods to the evolution of new social architectures — social architectures that would be critical to accelerate the civilizational renewal and planetary healing called for today.

What if we reimagined a 21st century Bauhaus for transformation literacy? What if such a social Bauhaus would focus on the development and dissemination of vertical transformation literacy, that is, on methods and tools for awareness-based systems change? What if such a school, unlike the one a hundred years earlier, were available for not only the few, but in principal for each and everyone? What if all the prototypes for such a new school were already here? What if the methods and tools, the living examples, the inspired pioneers, the ecosystems of hubs, the innovation labs and all the new platforms for high-quality online-offline learning — what if all these strategic assets of a new Bauhaus school were already here?

What if the only thing we needed to do to activate this dormant school of transformation were the following three things: a set of intentional places that would host the inaugural regional hubs of this school; a small core group that would refine and clarify the conceptual cornerstones; and some seed funding that would allow for creating an infrastructure that is built for purpose — to support the civilizational renewal and planetary healing — and designed for replication at all levels of scale.

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Figure 17 — Sketch of A Possible Social Bauhaus for Vertical Transformation Literacy

Figure 17 sketches some possible dimensions of an open-source-based school for transformation. The purpose of such a school would be to support civilizational renewal and planetary healing by teaching methods for activating generative social fields. In other words: the school would integrate science, social arts, societal transformation, and consciousness.

The core curriculum of vertical transformation literacy focuses on awareness-based “social technologies” for effecting societal change by shifting the inner place from which we operate. These social technologies help change makers shift their attention, deepen their listening, transform conversations from debate to dialogue, design major systems interventions, and hold spaces for multi-stakeholder groups to progress on their ego to eco journeys of change.

The learners and change makers would immerse themselves in the crucial areas of societal transformation, including: transforming our economy by addressing the seven acupuncture points; evolving democracy to make it more dialogic, distributed, and direct; and transforming our learning structures by integrating head, heart, and hand in the context of the whole (fig 17).

But unlike elite institutions that tend to attract only the richest and smartest students, the school for vertical transformation literacy would attract the most committed change makers of all ages, those who are already co-pioneering amazing initiatives. Thus, the role of the school would be to make generative support structures available to them, to help these change makers connect with each other across systems and sectors, and to equip them with methods and tools for moving forward into uncharted territory.

At the Presencing Institute, an outgrowth of the MIT Learning and Leadership Centers, we have already been prototyping new whole-person, whole-systems learning environments for many years. These free and open-source-based, online-to-offline learning infrastructures have attracted more than 150,000 registered users over the past five years and have activated a global ecosystem of change makers for awareness-based systems change (see MITx u.lab, Societal Transformation Lab).


Where might there be a landing spot for this new university based on social transformation literacy? We hope in many places. Our first two formal outposts in the making are in Bali, Indonesia, and in Berlin, Germany, next to Tempelhof, the old airfield that supported the Berlin airlift some 70 years ago. The Presencing Institute’s “Global Forum: From Ego to Eco 2030,” will take place on that emerging campus next to Tempelhof later this year. Forum participants will be able to create their own “action hubs” online so that they can attend with their own community without resorting to air travel.

Another upcoming movement building event in Berlin that has the potential to blend the deeper leverage points at issue here — soil, democracy, consciousness — is the Olympia 2020 event on June 12, 2020, that, co-inspired and supported by Fridays For Future Berlin and Scientists For Future, will bring together 70,000 or so citizens and change makers in the Berlin Olympia Stadium. Even though the place has some deeply dark page in its history, like so many places in Berlin, it might be quite an interesting venue to stage such a radically new type of event. The intention of the event, as I understood from the organizers, is to create a blend between a cultural festival and a citizens’ event that activates collective action around climate change, biodiversity, social justice, and the future of democracy. The intended results include three to four specific petitions that will be delivered to the German Bundestag. Personally, I hope that events like this and the ones mentioned earlier, will help to explore new formats of deep learning-based movement building to activate the awareness-based agency that is called for today.

The main conclusion I hope you take from this three-part essay is very simple: soil matters; our democracy matters; and our consciousness matters. Soil matters because it’s the source that nourishes us — and that, if cultivated in the right way, it can help us to massively reduce the CO2 levels in our atmosphere. Our democracy matters because it is at the very foundation of our societies and it will facilitate the profound changes necessary in the decades to come, which seems quite possible if we evolve democratic structures to making them more dialogic and direct. Our consciousness matters because none of these ideas will work unless we shift our consciousness from ego to eco. And most important of all: You matter. Each of us matters. Any of our actions, connections, and moments of attending — all of that is part of our collective journey, of crossing a threshold, of rising to the occasion now.

For more information:

Return to Part II or Part I

I want to thank my colleagues Becky Buell, Katrin Kaufer, Sarina Bouwhuis and Rachel Hentsch for commenting on and editing an earlier draft of this column, as well as Olaf Baldini (fig. 17) and Kelvy Bird for creating the figures (fig. 11, 13, 15)

Field of the Future Blog

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Thanks to Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis

Otto Scharmer

Written by

Senior Lecturer, MIT. Co-founder, Presencing Institute.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

Otto Scharmer

Written by

Senior Lecturer, MIT. Co-founder, Presencing Institute.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

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