A lesson coronavirus is about to teach the world
17 March 2020
If a disease can teach wisdom beyond our understanding of how precarious and precious life is, the coronavirus has offered two lessons.
The first is that in a globalised world our lives are so intertwined that the idea of viewing ourselves as islands – whether as individuals, communities, nations, or a uniquely privileged species – should be understood as evidence of false consciousness. In truth, we were always bound together, part of a miraculous web of life on our planet and, beyond it, stardust in an unfathomably large and complex universe.
It is only an arrogance cultivated in us by those narcissists who have risen to power through their own destructive egotism that blinded us to the necessary mix of humility and awe we ought to feel as we watch a drop of rain on a leaf, or a baby struggle to crawl, or the night sky revealed in all its myriad glories away from city lights.
And now, as we start to enter periods of quarantine and self-isolation – as nations, communities and individuals – all that should be so much clearer. It has taken a virus to show us that only together are we at our strongest, most alive and most human.
In being stripped of what we need most by the threat of contagion, we are reminded of how much we have taken community for granted, abused it, hollowed it out. We are afraid because the services we need in times of collective difficulty and trauma have been turned into commodities that require payment, or treated as privileges to which access is now means-tested, rationed or is simply gone. That insecurity is at the root of the current urge to hoard.
When death stalks us it is not bankers we turn to, or corporate executives, or hedge fund managers. Nonetheless, those are the people our societies have best rewarded. They are the people who, if salaries are a measure of value, are the most prized.
But they are not the people we need, as individuals, as societies, as nations. Rather, it will be doctors, nurses, public health workers, care-givers and social workers who will be battling to save lives by risking their own.
During this health crisis we may indeed notice who and what is most important. But will we remember the sacrifice, their value after the virus is no longer headline news? Or will we go back to business as usual – until the next crisis – rewarding the arms manufacturers, the billionaire owners of the media, the fossil fuel company bosses, and the financial-services parasites feeding off other people’s money?
‘Take it on the chin’
The second lesson follows from the first. Despite everything we have been told for four decades or more, western capitalist societies are far from the most efficient ways of organising ourselves. That will be laid bare as the coronavirus crisis deepens.
We are still very much immersed in the ideological universe of Thatcherism and Reaganism, when we were told quite literally: “There is no such thing as society.” How will that political mantra stand the test of the coming weeks and months? How much can we survive as individuals, even in quarantine, rather than as part of communities that care for all of us?
Western leaders who champion neoliberalism, as they are required to do nowadays, have two choices to cope with coronavirus – and both will require a great deal of misdirection if we are not to see through their hypocrisy and deceptions.
Our leaders can let us “take it on the chin”, as the British prime minister Boris Johnson has phrased it. In practice, that will mean allowing what is effectively a cull of many of the poor and elderly – one that will relieve governments of the financial burden of underfunded pension schemes and welfare payments.
Such leaders will claim they are powerless to intervene or to ameliorate the crisis. Confronted with the contradictions inherent in their worldview, they will suddenly become fatalists, abandoning their belief in the efficacy and righteousness of the free market. They will say the virus was too contagious to contain, too robust for health services to cope, too lethal to save lives. They will evade all blame for the decades of health cuts and privatisations that made those services inefficient, inadequate, cumbersome and inflexible.
Or, by contrast, politicians will use their spin doctors and allies in the corporate media to obscure the fact that they are quietly and temporarily becoming socialists to deal with the emergency. They will change the welfare rules so that all those in the gig economy they created – employed on zero-hours contracts – do not spread the virus because they cannot afford to self-quarantine or take days’ off sick.
Or most likely our leaders will pursue both options.
If acknowledged at all, the conclusion to be draw from the crisis – that we all matter equally, that we need to look after one another, that we sink or swim together – will be treated as no more than an isolated, fleeting lesson specific to this crisis. Our leaders will refuse to draw more general lessons – ones that might highlight their own culpability – about how sane, humane societies should function all the time.
In fact, there is nothing unique about the coronavirus crisis. It is simply a heightened version of the less visible crisis we are now permanently mired in. As Britain sinks under floods each winter, as Australia burns each summer, as the southern states of the US are wrecked by hurricanes and its great plains become dustbowls, as the climate emergency becomes ever more tangible, we will learn this truth slowly and painfully.
Those deeply invested in the current system – and those so brainwashed they cannot see its flaws – will defend it to the bitter end. They will learn nothing from the virus. They will point to authoritarian states and warn that things could be far worse.
They will point a finger at Iran’s high death toll as confirmation that our profit-driven societies are better, while ignoring the terrible damage we have inflicted on Iran’s health services after years of sabotaging its economy through ferocious sanctions. We left Iran all the more vulnerable to coronavirus because we wanted to engineer “regime change” – to interfere under the pretence of “humanitarian” concern – as we have sought to do in other countries whose resources we wished to control, from Iraq to Syria and Libya.
Iran will be held responsible for a crisis we willed, that our politicians intended (even if the speed and means came as a surprise), to overthrow its leaders. Iran’s failures will be cited as proof of our superior way of life, as we wail self-righteously about the outrage of a “Russian interference” whose contours we can barely articulate.
Valuing the common good
Those who defend our system, even as its internal logic collapses in the face of coronavirus and a climate emergency, will tell us how lucky we are to live in free societies where some – Amazon executives, home delivery services, pharmacies, toilet-paper manufacturers – can still make a quick buck from our panic and fear. As long as someone is exploiting us, as long as someone is growing fat and rich, we will be told the system works – and works better than anything else imaginable.
But in fact, late-stage capitalist societies like the US and the UK will struggle to claim even the limited successes against coronavirus of authoritarian governments. Is Trump in the US or Johnson in the UK – exemplars of “the market knows best” capitalism – likely to do better than China at containing and dealing with the virus?
This lesson is not about authoritarian versus “free” societies. This is about societies that treasure the common wealth, that value the common good, above private greed and profit, above protecting the privileges of a wealth-elite.
In 2008, after decades of giving the banks what they wanted – free rein to make money by trading in hot air – the western economies all but imploded as an inflated bubble of empty liquidity burst. The banks and financial services were saved only by public bail-outs – tax payers’ money. We were given no choice: the banks, we were told, were “too big to fail”.
We bought the banks with our common wealth. But because private wealth is our era’s guiding star, the public were not allowed to own the banks they bought. And once the banks had been bailed out by us – a perverse socialism for the rich – the banks went right back to making private money, enriching a tiny elite until the next crash.
Nowhere to fly to
The naive may think this was a one-off. But the failings of capitalism are inherent and structural, as the virus is already demonstrating and the climate emergency will drive home with alarming ferocity in the coming years.
The shut-down of borders means the airlines are quickly going bust. They didn’t put money away for a rainy day, of course. They didn’t save, they weren’t prudent. They are in a cut-throat world where they need to compete with rivals, to drive them out of business and make as much money as they can for shareholders.
Now there is nowhere for the airlines to fly to – and they will have no visible means to make money for months on end. Like the banks, they are too big to fail – and like the banks they are demanding public money be spent to tide them over until they can once again rapaciously make profits for their shareholders. There will be many other corporations queuing up behind the airlines.
The banks that nearly tanked the global economy had to be bailed out because they were ‘too big to fail’. Now we’re about to do the same with airlines, even as they help to destroy the planet. Time to rethink our profit-driven priorities? https://t.co/kDjqSsITC1
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) March 16, 2020
Sooner or later the public will be strong-armed once again to bail out these profit-driven corporations whose only efficiency is the central part they play in fuelling global warming and eradicating life on the planet. The airlines will be resuscitated until the inevitable next crisis arrives – one in which they are key players.
A boot stamping on a face
Capitalism is an efficient system for a tiny elite to make money at a terrible cost, and an increasingly untenable one, to wider society – and only until that system shows itself to be no longer efficient. Then wider society has to pick up the tab, and assist the wealth-elite so the cycle can be begun all over again. Like a boot stamping on a human face – forever, as George Orwell warned long ago.
But it is not just that capitalism is economically self-destructive; it is morally vacant too. Again, we should study the exemplars of neoliberal orthodoxy: the UK and the US.
In Britain, the National Health Service – once the envy of the world – is in terminal decline after decades of privatising and outsourcing its services. Now the same Conservative party that began the cannibalising of the NHS is pleading with businesses such as car makers to address a severe shortage of ventilators, which will soon be needed to assist coronavirus patients.
Once, in an emergency, western governments would have been able to direct resources, both public and private, to save lives. Factories could have been repurposed for the common good. Today, the government behaves as if all it can do is incentivise business, pinning hopes on the profit motive and selfishness driving these firms to enter the ventilator market, or to provide beds, in ways beneficial to public health.
The flaws in this approach should be glaring if we examine how a car manufacturer might respond to the request to adapt its factories to make ventilators.
If it is not persuaded that it can make easy money or if it thinks there are quicker or bigger profits to be made by continuing to make cars at a time when the public is frightened to use public transport, patients will die. If it holds back, waiting to see if there will be enough demand for ventilators to justify adapting its factories, patients will die. If it delays in the hope that ventilator shortages will drive up subsidies from a government fearful of the public backlash, patients will die. And if it makes ventilators on the cheap, to boost profits, without ensuring medical personnel oversee quality control, patients will die.
Survival rates will depend not on the common good, on our rallying to help those in need, on planning for the best outcome, but on the vagaries of the market. And not only on the market, but on faulty, human perceptions of what constitute market forces.
Survival of the fittest
If this were not bad enough, Trump – in all his inflated vanity – is showing how that profit-motive can be extended from the business world he knows so intimately to the cynical political one he has been gradually mastering. According to reports, behind the scenes he has been chasing after a silver bullet. He is speaking to international pharmaceutical companies to find one close to developing a vaccine so the United States can buy exclusive rights to it.
Reports suggest that he wants to offer the vaccine exclusively to the US public, in what would amount to the ultimate vote-winner in a re-election year. This would be the nadir of the dog-eat-dog philosophy – the survival of the fittest, the market decides worldview – we have been encouraged to worship over the past four decades. It is how people behave when they are denied a wider society to which they are responsible and which is responsible for them.
Covid-19 is a real test of whether we continue to let politicians play us. They can support proper medical care for all, making our societies stronger; or like Trump they can race for exclusive rights to a vaccine in the hope of buying re-election https://t.co/H2uFAVW6aG
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) March 16, 2020
But even should Trump eventually deign to let other countries enjoy the benefits of his privatised vaccine, this will not be about helping mankind, about the greater good. It will be about Trump the businessman-president turning a tidy profit for the US on the back of other’s desperation and suffering, as well as marketing himself a political hero on the global stage.
Or, more likely, it will be yet another chance for the US to demonstrate its “humanitarian” credentials, rewarding “good” countries by giving them access to the vaccine, while denying “bad” countries like Russia the right to protect their citizens.
Obscenely stunted worldview
It will be a perfect illustration on the global stage – and in bold technicolour – of how the American way of marketing health works. This is what happens when health is treated not as a public good but as a commodity to be bought, as a privilege to incentivise the workforce, as a measure of who is successful and who is unsuccessful.
The US, by far the richest country on the planet, has a dysfunctional health care system not because it cannot afford a good one, but because its political worldview is so obscenely stunted by the worship of wealth that it refuses to acknowledge the communal good, to respect the common wealth of a healthy society.
The US health system is by far the most expensive in the world, but also the most inefficient. The vast bulk of “health spending” does not contribute to healing the sick but enriches a health industry of pharmaceutical corporations and health insurance companies.
Analysts describe a third of all US health spending – $765 billion a year – as “wasted”. But “waste” is a euphemism. In fact, it is money stuffed into the pockets of corporations calling themselves the health industry as they defraud the common wealth of US citizens. And the fraudulence is all the greater because despite this enormous expenditure more than one in 10 US citizens has no meaningful health cover.
As never before, coronavirus will bring into focus the depraved inefficiency of this system – the model of profit-driven health care, of market forces that look out for the short-term interests of business, not the long-term interests of us all.
There are alternatives. Right now, Americans are being offered a choice between a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, who champions health care as a right because it is a common good, and a Democratic party boss, Joe Biden, who champions the business lobbies he depends on for funding and his political success. One is being marginalised and vilified as a threat to the American way of life by a handful of corporations that own the US media, while the other is being propelled towards the Democratic nomination by those same corporations.
Coronavirus has an important, urgent lesson to teach us. The question is: are we ready yet to listen?
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Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action
16 March, 2020
As 100 million people in Europe are in lockdown, the US seems to be completely unprepared for the tsunami that is about to hit. “We’re about to experience the worst public health disaster since polio,” says Dr Martin Makary, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Don’t believe the numbers when you see, even on our Johns Hopkins website, that 1,600 Americans have the virus. No, that means 1,600 got the test, tested positive. There are probably 25 to 50 people who have the virus for every one person who is confirmed. I think we have between 50,000 and half a million cases right now walking around in the United States.”
Having returned to the US from Europe on the last plane before the travel ban kicked in two days ago, I feel as if I have traveled backwards in time. Which is exactly what people report when they arrive in Europe from East Asia now. You feel as if you’re moving backward in time, back into an earlier state of awareness, which the country of departure had already moved past. Here are my eight takeaways.
1. The Coronavirus Disruption is a Harbinger of Things to Come
COVID-19 has further opened up our current state of disruption and, interestingly, has accomplished more to reduce CO2 emissions within weeks than all climate conversations combined have done in years. While some disasters, like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, tend to bring out the best in people (pulling folks together), pandemics tend to do the opposite, as columnist David Brooks argued recently. The virus holds up a mirror in front of us. It forces us to become aware of our own behavior and its impact on the collective, on the system. That mirror gently invites us to make a few personal sacrifices that benefit the whole — to shift our inner place from ego to eco.
2. Your Behavior Changes the System
If the coronavirus crisis has brought home anything, it’s that we — each of us, separately and together — can change the system. Remember how distant that strange virus from Wuhan seemed to many of us when it first hit the headlines in early January? That was just a few weeks ago. It’s a powerful demonstration of our current global condition of interconnectedness. We are many. We are one. Now we need to slow the spread of the virus, to flatten the curve, to avoid the massive, unnecessary suffering of those among us who happen to be the elderly, the uninsured, the working poor who live from paycheck to paycheck, the folks who are alone and without any safety net. Self-isolation and social distancing are not about you; they’re about protecting the people who are especially vulnerable. In short: Your behavior changes the system. Your mindful behavior is needed to avoid a breakdown of the system.
3. Two Levers: Timely Government Response and Data-Based Citizen Awareness
To slow the spread of the virus we need to change our collective behavior. We can accomplish this in two ways: through (a) timely government response and (b) testing-based citizen awareness and action. China, after a slow start, navigated the pandemic by relying mostly on the former (draconian lockdowns, quarantine, and social distancing, including movement surveillance of the entire population), which worked surprisingly well. Italy (and now also Spain) pursued an approach that for an extended period was weak on government action — both in terms of control measures and testing. But if you have no effective regulation and no reliable data when facing a pandemic, it’s like running in the forest while blindfolded. The result is massive suffering and death among vulnerable people, for instance when older people in need of care are turned away from hospitals. That is the very path the US now appears to be on.
A third group of countries, however, seems to have found a middle way. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea all have had noteworthy success in navigating the pandemic without imposing draconian controls or citizen surveillance. South Korea significantly slowed the spread of COVID-19, and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan succeeded in preventing a massive outbreak in the first place. As of today, March 16, Hong Kong has 141 confirmed cases, Singapore has 212, and Taiwan has 53. How did they do that?
It seems they succeeded in different ways that, nevertheless, share three strategies: (1) reduce arrival of new cases (travel restrictions), (2) prevent transmission between known cases and local population (quarantines), and (3) suppress silent transmission by reducing contact in the community (increased hygiene, social distancing, self-isolation).
Because Singapore is an island, travel restrictions were relatively easy to impose. Only three days (!) after the Chinese authorities alerted the world about the outbreak in Wuhan, Singapore started to refer incoming travelers from Wuhan for further assessments and possible isolation. Later, travelers from affected areas were placed under mandatory quarantine, facilities were swiftly converted to serve this function, and all who lost workdays were compensated by the government. Much effort has been made to trace the contacts of people known to be infected. Large gatherings have been suspended, yet schools and workplaces remain open.
Taiwan, also an island, first continued to allow travel from China, inspecting and screening travelers on incoming flights. Only after the first case from China was reported did Taiwan ban (most) incoming flights from China. Taiwan recommends self-isolation and home quarantine, even when public facilities remain available. School was canceled, but only for two additional weeks after the holidays.
Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, shares a border with the mainland that used to be crossed by approximately 300,000 people per day. It chose yet another approach. Rather than entirely blocking people from affected regions from entering, it focused on preventing transmission within the community with mandatory self-quarantine for all travelers from China, among others. It also mandates social distancing. Civil servants work from home. All schools remain closed and all classes are conducted online. Plus, the Hong Kong government proactively shares information with its citizens. For example, the government is publishing building-level maps showing where people were infected, when they were there, and how they contracted the virus, so that everyone can see the unfolding social map and adjust their behavior accordingly.
In summary: These countries have navigated the epidemic using a combination of testing, transparency (active citizen information), and citizen awareness guided by a timely and proactive government response. In other words, by not running while blindfolded. Instead, they slowed down, paused, and took off their blindfolds in order to see what was going on. They are sharing information transparently. And they are moving together more mindfully, more intentionally, and as more collectively aware populations.
Figure 1 summarizes these observations. The two axes track the two approaches: timely government response, and data-based citizen awareness. You can see China’s journey at one end of the spectrum (led by government action). And the journey of the US (and Italy) on the other (led by citizens, due to the lack of timely government action). But what’s interesting is the middle path: the journey taken by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. One thing that sets them apart is their history; they had the “benefit” of the SARS outbreak in 2002–2003, which led them to upgrade their institutional readiness.
Another beneficial factor may be less evident. They all share a Confucianist cultural background. For centuries they have placed a premium on quality education and on sending the most talented people of each generation into government, not into business. The famous essay by Confucius, The Great Learning, articulates this foundation by observing that, in order to change the world, you first need to cultivate your interior condition as a human being. They share a cultural context that focuses on harmony between the external and interior. That is precisely what’s at issue when you think about how to integrate government action with individual action. What are the interior conditions that, if in place, could integrate both of these levers or axes and move our disaster response pattern from the bottom-left to the top-right?
4. We Are Faced With a Choice
The coronavirus situation provides an opportunity for all of us to pause, reset, and step up. COVID-19, like any disruption, essentially confronts each of us with a choice: (1) to freeze, turn away from others, only care for ourselves, or (2) to turn toward others to support and comfort those who need help. That choice between acting from ego or acting from ecosystem awareness is one that we face every day, every hour, every moment. The more the world sinks into chaos, desperation, and confusion, the greater our responsibility to radiate presence, compassion, and grounded action confidence.
Figure 2 summarizes this choice by depicting the two different social fields that we can choose to embody through our actions, through our relationships, and through our thoughts. In the upper half of the figure you see the “freeze” reaction, which tends to amplify ignorance, hate, and fear. In the lower half you see the “opening” response, which tends to amplify curiosity, compassion, and courage.
Video by kind courtesy of Ctgn
Even though the physical social distancing is necessary now, it doesn’t mean that our interior condition should be frozen. In fact, over the past few days we have seen very moving examples from Italy and Spain of how physical distancing can be responded to by inspired compassion and empathy. As a citizen from Spain shared over the weekend: ”Earlier today there was a call on social media in Spain to go out to balconies and windows at 22:00 [10 p.m.] to give a huge ovation to thank and support hospital workers. It’s 22:05 and I can hear the roar from the other side of the closed double glass windows.”
5. The Decline of Trump and Far Right Populists
How one responds to disruption — by freezing and turning away or by opening and turning toward — is both a personal choice and a collective one. Over the past four years, we all have seen an enormous uptick in the freeze reaction by whole countries, brought on by Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, Salvini, Modi, Johnson. The list goes on. Although Trump has gotten away with telling more than 16,000 lies since taking office, this time it may be different. In “normal” times, you can get away with a lot of nonsense because for some it’s less consequential and sometimes even a bit entertaining. But in times of disruption, the very same behaviors (denial, desensing, absencing, blaming, destroying) come together as a powerful engine of accelerated self-destruction. When that dynamic becomes apparent, when catastrophic breakdowns will result as a direct consequence, the mood will shift and the Trump presidency may soon be history — if the election takes place on schedule this year.
Even though I will use Trump to illustrate these behaviors below, I do not mean to imply this only goes for America. Boris Johnson and many others embody similar blind spots of their leadership. My general point is about the underlying mindset, which is one of avoiding reality — that is, science and data — rather than embracing it when the going gets tough. Clearly, this mindset is on a collision course with reality as we speak.
According to Andy Slavitt, Medicare and Medicaid administrator in the Obama administration, hospitals in the US could be overrun by coronavirus cases in little more than a week and result in a “tsunami-like” escalation that would leave tens of thousands in need of inpatient medical care, but unlikely to receive it. Some experts even suggest that more than 1 million could die in the US from the coronavirus.
Here is how we can view this leadership failure through the lens of Absencing (see figure 2):
Denial: “The original sin is Trump’s months-long denial and his dismantling of public health and response infrastructure,” said Andy Slavitt. While it took Singapore and Taiwan about three days to respond to the virus outbreak in early January, Trump didn’t take action until this last week. Testing kits are still mostly unavailable. In other words: we are still tightening the blindfold instead of ripping it off. In contrast, Angela Merkel has bluntly warned that two-thirds of Germans will likely contract the virus.
Desensing: Trump refused to provide necessary care for American citizens on the luxury liner Grand Princess so that “his” coronavirus numbers wouldn’t grow once those passengers left the ship. He continues to keep demonstrating this complete lack of empathy and compassion.
Absencing: All disruptions enable profound moments of “letting go” and “letting come.” Any leadership that activates this deeper level of humanity is completely missing in the case of Trump. Recent examples include his initial refusal to buy existing testing kits that were developed by Roche and that would have solved the testing problem months ago, as well as his attempt to offer “large sums of money” for exclusive access to a Covid-19 vaccine, developed by the Germany-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac. The leadership of the company declined the offer citing the ethical aspiration to serve the entire global community, rather than just one country exclusively.
Blaming others: All Trump’s announcements so far have been guided by the mindset that the source of the problem is “them,” not “us” — despite the strong evidence that the virus has long been spreading domestically in the US. Calling the outbreak a “foreign virus” has helped him justify a number of travel bans, which in the beginning have certainly been helpful. However, the same mindset also made it increasingly impossible to leverage the other two critical strategies: to prevent the transmission between known cases and local population, and to suppress silent transmission by social distancing and self-isolation.
Destroying: Trump continued to lose the trust of European allies by blindsiding them with the announcement of the travel ban and by trying to buy exclusive access to the vaccine, which would have excluded the rest of the world from accessing it. Trump has been very reliable in his attacks on governmental and multilateral institutions — from dissolving his own CDC task force in the White House because it originated from the Obama years, to pulling out of the Paris Agreement, eroding the trust in these institutions exactly when we needed them most.
All these behaviors add up to a pattern of decision-making that moves us towards accelerated self-destruction. The more this becomes visible, the more likely this old model will hit a wall, and the more possible it will be for a new pattern of social collaboration to emerge. It doesn’t mean that Trumpism is already done. But it’s about to hit a wall far more visibly and tangibly than we have ever seen before.
6. The Rise of Data-Driven Awareness-Based Collective Action
The coronavirus crisis is prompting us to improvise new ways of collaborating and coordinating. Data-driven Awareness-Based Collective action (D-ABC) operates by attending to a situation together, and then adjusting one’s behavior accordingly. Another way of describing this type of governance is to coordinate by letting go and letting come, based on what we are seeing together: letting go of previous plans, and letting come what is about to emerge.
In 2008, during an earlier moment of disruption in the financial world, we saw most major organizations suddenly switch to a different mode of operating. They had to abandon the annual plans and quarterly targets that were set before the financial crisis, and instead pay full attention to the situation as it unfolded and adjust their behavior accordingly. It’s a skill and capacity that we urgently need in many other areas of social and environmental crisis today.
In times of business-as-usual, we tend to “outsource” the coordination of our systems to external mechanisms, such as the visible hand of government regulation or the invisible hand of the market. In times of disruption, however, these mechanisms tend to break down. When that happens, we, the key players in the systems that we co-enact, need to come together to co-sense and co-shape the future as it emerges. In other words, our attention and intention need to quickly align with what is actually happening in the moment. Learning to connect in a more conscious and intentional way may well be the most significant gift that emerges from this crisis. The functioning of this new way of fluid coordinating seems to require two important enabling conditions:
- Accurate information about what is happening in the moment; and,
- A holding space that helps people to act for the well-being of the whole, allowing them to move from ego to eco.
This new collective capacity will be crucial in addressing many other areas of crisis in the years to come, from climate action, biodiversity, and refugee questions to social justice and well-being for all.
7. The Conversation We Need To Have Now: Reimagining Our Civilization
Each disruption has two sides: the things we need to let go of, and the things that are about to emerge. On the letting-go side of things, it’s interesting to see how quickly we can adjust as a global community. Suddenly, we find that more than half the meetings we tended to fill our schedules with, may not be as necessary, as essential as we deemed them, after all. So why do we keep ourselves busy with stuff that is not essential? That’s a great question to ask.
The next question might be: If we let go of everything that is not essential — what’s left? It’s another great question (or “mantram”) to meditate on. Whatever the answer is that emerges for you from this contemplation, keep it in your heart.
And then, a third question to contemplate might be this: What if we used this disruption as an opportunity to let go of everything that isn’t essential in our life, in our work, and in our institutional routines? How might we reimagine how we live and work together? How might we reimagine the basic structures of our civilization? Which effectively means: how can we reimagine our economic, our democratic, and our learning systems in ways that bridge the ecological, the social, and the spiritual divides of our time?
That’s the conversation we need to have now. With our circles of friends. With our families. With our organizations and communities. If there is anything that I have learned from previous disruptions I’ve witnessed, such as the 2008 financial crisis, it is this: the same disruption tends to have a dramatically different impact on different organizations, depending on how the leadership — and people or change-makers in general — respond to that situation. Whether it’s by turning away and freezing (i.e., operating from the upper half of figure 2) or whether it’s by turning toward and opening (i.e., operating from the lower half of figure 2). I have also found that even within one single organization some leaders might exhibit one of these responses (i.e., hiding from the situation), while others exhibit another (i.e., connecting to people in the moment of vulnerability). The difference in impact is tangible and profound: the first set of teams grow apart, while the others tend to grow together at levels of collective resonance not seen before.
Which brings us all the way back to the Confucianist roots of the Four Tigers: that the outer changes necessary today require us to tune into and activate our inner sources, the deeper levels of our humanity. Of course, these deeper roots are not bound by Confucianism; they are inherent to all our cultures, and they are dormant in each and every human being.
But are we able to activate these deeper sources of knowing? And how can we activate them not only at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the whole system? How can we upgrade the operating system in our various key systems? This clearly requires us to upgrade:
- our learning infrastructures toward whole-person and whole-systems learning;
- our democratic infrastructures by making them more direct, distributed, and dialogic; and
- our economic infrastructures toward shifting from ego-system to eco-system awareness.
How might we use our present situation to slow down, to pause, and to connect with our deeper sources of stillness? Maybe what’s called for now is a global moment in which everything and everyone stops for a moment of stillness, for a moment of connecting to source.
Whatever it is you choose to do — and we choose to do — in this moment, whether we freeze and turn backward or open up and lean forward, let’s not forget that, in the words of the German poet Hölderlin, “where the danger is, the saving power also grows.”
Where the danger is, the saving power also grows. It’s something I have experienced on several occasions. But it only works collectively if we slow down, pause, and take off our blindfolds to attend to the now. What actually emerges from the now? We may see the beginnings of a new wave of hyper-localizing our economies, of supporting small farmers and producers who may be more resilient to supply chain disruptions. We may see the beginnings of a more intentional economy, one that — similar to CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) — is based on aligning economic activities around a shared intention for the future, namely, co-creating an ecosystem-centric agriculture, as opposed to extending the past based on ego-driven transactions.
8. School For Transformation: Activating Generative Social Fields
Many of us feel that we live in a time of profound change — change not only in terms of things ending, but also in terms of seeding and cultivating and growing a new civilization for the decades and centuries to come. That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will be true after. The question is how to respond to the current situation in ways that help this enormous potential for positive change to manifest?
How can we reimagine and reshape our various forms of movement-making in ways that allow them to embody the principles of planetary healing and societal renewal? How can we reshape our learning and leadership structures in ways that move the focus of learning from the bottom left to the top right of figure 3?
At the Presencing Institute, we have prototyped various proven formats for transformational ecosystem-based learning and leadership. Yet, to make these formats accessible at the scale necessary today will require a new platform and network of places — think of it as a School For Transformation — that focuses on activating generative social fields through providing vertical transformation literacy.
This column has discussed the first learning experiences that we see emerge from the corona crisis and our responses to it. The landscape of our collective responses form an interesting field of possibilities. I identified the responses of the Four Tigers as interesting from a systems perspective, because it blends proactive government action with data-driven citizen awareness. From there, I explored the various interior conditions that can give rise to either a social field of co-creation (presencing) or one of self-destruction.
Which leaves us with the question: Now what? In my view, one of the most urgent priorities for the coming years is to cultivate these deeper conditions for our individual and collective actions in ways that are highly accessible, scalable, and modularized so that everyone can integrate them into their own movement building and learning infrastructures.
It is for this reason that, starting next week, my colleagues and I are going to offer an impromptu global learning infrastructure that is free, online, Zoom-based and yet designed in ways that will activate generative social fields among all of the participants throughout the coming weeks. The idea is to offer this infrastructure as a journey for change-makers from all sectors, systems, and cultures — a journey that will eventually result in a global, multi-local, multi-regional Forum, co-created among the participants later this year in July. The actual format of this journey and the Forum will evolve with and adjust to the situation that keeps unfolding around us, between us, and within us. It’s an infrastructure that invites you to join with your whole Self and that is designed to be accessible to all, whether you want to join from home while in self-quarantine or in concert with friends and fellow change-makers in your local organization or community. If you are interested to join, check out this landing page for the journey: Global Activation of Intention and Action (GAIA) and sign up for the first session next week. The time to pause, to sense, to connect, and then act together is now.
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I want to thank Becky Buell, Eva Pomeroy, Marian Goodman, Katrin Kaufer, Sarina Bouwhuis, and Antoinette Klatzky for their super helpful comments on the draft — as well as Olaf Baldini and Rachel Hentsch for creating the above visuals.