Robert Theobald - The Healing Century - why change is needed

I am sending you today a statement of why fundamental change is needed. This is a significantly revised version of the first half of The Healing Century speech which many of you have already seen.

Talk 1. The Inevitable/Impossible Transformation: Grasping our Moment in Time.

The purpose of this set of six programs is to bring you a message of hope.

I shall argue that we are capable of making a profound positive shift in our thinking over the next few years. The heart of this shift would be for us to conceptualize the twenty-first century as the healing century just as the twentieth will certainly be seen in the future as concentrating on economics and technology. I shall show that only a change toward a more caring and compassionate culture at all levels from the personal to the ecological can avoid massive breakdowns.

I am all too well aware, however, that my message will only be welcome to those who know that the current directions of the global culture are unacceptable and unsustainable. If you still believe that our current commitment to maximum economic growth and international competitiveness, based on ever-increasing technological competence, will solve our problems, then my message will seem negative and pessimistic.

I am convinced that we face a set of unavoidable crises which are already visible to those who care to look beyond the dominant headlines. These crises are due to our past successes rather than our failures. We have achieved what we wanted to. However, we have failed to recognize that it is now time to move on and to seize the new opportunities which are available to us. We urgently need to rework our concepts of success.

Fortunately, the Chinese have taught us that crises bring both danger and opportunity. Danger predominates when we ignore changing realities, as our dominant mass communication systems are doing today. Opportunity emerges when we commit to breaking the psychic trance that numbs us at the current time. I hope during these programs to support the mindquakes we need if we are to understand the radically different world which is already emerging around us.

We are facing economic, social, environmental, moral and spiritual crises. There must be profound shifts if we are to avoid the breakdowns that threaten our future. I shall move rapidly through this part of my talk, realizing that I shall not convince you by my arguments if you are not already in sympathy with what I am saying. My purpose is only to remind you of what you already know. The second part will deal with the processes that will support the discovery of a radically different future.

I am engaged in a running discussion with a number of my colleagues about the right balance in a talk of this kind. Many of them tell me that I should concentrate all my attention on the potentials of our times. My response is that our bodies, our minds and our cultures tend to repeat past patterns: we do things that we have done before on the basis of habit. To put it bluntly, we need to be shaken out of the ways we are used to behaving. And this means that we must look at the reasons why we cannot continue to think and act as we have done up to the present time.

Knowledge of the developing crises can provide the energy to shift our ingrained patterns. But any positive dynamics we create do not result from concentrating on how to resolve current problem: indeed fighting problems reinforces rather than ends them. Rather the crises provide the energy required to look at the world in profoundly new ways. Akaido, which translates the energy of one's opponent into one's own, provides a parallel which helps us understand how to use crisis thinking effectively in fundamental change work.

Contrary to what is generally believed, facing reality frees up energy: hiding from it increases fear and depression. The last two decades have seen an unparalleled effort by the elite to deny the need for profound change. As a result the last twenty years have been the "decades of stress."

This stress is occurring at three levels. First, the increase in hours on the job for full-time workers-coupled with levels of unemployment which would have been totally unacceptable a decade ago. Concurrently, there has been a shift in the nature of the work contract that is still largely unseen and, when it is noticed, is largely misunderstood. Second, fundamental changes have taken place in patterns of social and ecological realities, most of them are currently being ignored by decision-makers. Finally, our deep understandings are shifting under us in ways which make industrial era institutions seem increasingly irrelevant.

Our crises have been created by the rapids of change in which we currently live. They have developed because the twentieth century has seen a profound change in all the realities of our world, but neither our institutions nor our visions have kept up.

What are some of the primary changes we have seen in the last 100 years? At the beginning of the century, the population of the world was 1.6 billion. It is now 5.85 billion. We have moved from an empty world to one which is already pressuring space and resources and will do so more severely even if the most hopeful assumptions about population growth are realized. And yet there are still powerful voices that refuse to support the need for decreasing births as rapidly as possible. There are also major efforts to lengthen life expectancies: if this should occur then current estimates of the likely world population are much too low.

Each of us has seen this shift in our own lives. We have moved from predominantly rural living to the cities-projections argue that we shall see several cities of 35 million around the globe. Are mega-cities of this size possible without major social, health and environmental breakdowns when a large percentage of these 35 million people will certainly be poor?

In this same century, we have moved from a world where natural resources-especially clean air, land and water-were relatively abundant, to one where shortages loom and are already causing havoc in certain parts of the world. At the same time, it is clear that the wastes from our technological, industrial culture are having severe impacts on the quality of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe: many diseases such as cancer and asthma are becoming more frequent. Nevertheless, many powerful institutions still refuse to recognize the need for more intelligent development strategies.

The capacity of humanity to increase the availability of resources continues to increase: we may be able to find substitutes for the natural resources we are using up so rapidly. Our ability to manage the wastes we are producing is far more problematical. And we cannot, without moving off the planet, find more land, water or air.

In this same century, we have moved from a world in which violence was accepted as a means of settling international disputes to a dawning understanding that weapons of mass destruction have made war too dangerous. We are struggling to understand the implications of this radically new situation. What are the ways in which we can prevent the awesome powers of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons from being used not only by nation states but also by terrorists?

In this same century, we have moved from a world in which access to information was still severely limited to one in which we are all drowning in infoglut. And yet we act as though we could save people by pouring another bucketful into the sea of information. I am convinced that when information doubles, knowledge halves and wisdom quarters. The quest for some Theory of Everything that will explain it all, distracts us from developing our own skills and applying our deep wisdom.

The question for the twenty-first century is how we can access the needed knowledge and wisdom-not the generation of more words and concepts. People need to be able to discover how to make sense of their own context and realities. The challenge is not to find a master theory but rather to enable people to develop the perceptions and skills so they can make sense of their own lives at the individual, family, neighborhood, community, bioregional and global level.

In this same century, most people in the developed countries have seen their standards of living increase to the point that more "stuff" does not add to their satisfactions. There is a growing commitment to breaking out of the consumption race-a trend which has shown up over recent Christmases as people refuse to buy, buy, buy. However, given the way that our socioeconomic system is currently organized, a surplus of supply inevitably leads to unemployment and eventually to a depression.

In this same century, more and more people are recognizing that there can be no single correct view of the world. Competing viewpoints now strive for acceptance. None of our traditional understandings or decision-making strategies enable us to deal with these radical divergences of view. We are now learning to explore the skills of dialogue and common ground work in order to close the gaps in understanding. This will prevent conflicts from escalating into violence.

These new skills do not mesh with traditional top-down methods of organizing societies. Our current institutions are based on the belief that people at the top should have the power to coerce and dominate. These institutions are now increasingly ineffective because people no longer accept that traditional leaders have the ability to decide how they should live their lives. The ability of governments, business and the media to control the evolution of thinking is diminishing rapidly. Grassroots opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment is one example of this. The inability of the Clinton Administration to hide opposition to its Iraq policies is another.

The internet is slowly organizing as an effective instrument for the expression of alternative views. It is showing how differently the same events and realities can be seen by people. The monolithic views of the past are crumbling under the impact of radically different perceptions. Arguments are no longer contained within a single way of seeing the world - rather people start from varied sets of premises which lead to radically different conclusions.

Our understanding of how the world behaves has changed dramatically. Scientific theorists no longer believe that clockwork models of reality can be used to describe complex human and natural interactions. They are moving to new explanations such as those contained in fractal, chaos and complexity theories.

It is this last shift which is perhaps the most dramatic, although largely unseen, solvent of past realities. We are discovering that interactions are far more complex than we had previously thought. Large efforts can have no effect if conditions are stable. Small shifts can sometimes create massive changes. Given that our culture is radically out of balance, this means that the choices each of us make, individually and collectively, can have significant effects at this moment in time.

I am often asked whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future. I state that I am deeply concerned about the next century if we permit ourselves to be driven by the inertia of past structures. It is these structures which, when challenged by the new trends I have described above, are bringing about the crises I shall now describe briefly. These changes are irreversible. A new world is already being born around us.

We can choose to ignore its imperatives and suffer terrible costs. Alternatively, we can work with the positive forces that are already developing to create the higher quality of life which is possible for the future. There are enough people who know and care about a more humane future that they could alter the directions of the world rapidly if they chose to do so. The choice really does depend on each one of us individually, and collectively.

I shall now take up the various crises which confront us, starting with the economic crisis.

Economists have managed to hide the most basic economic reality from the public. To listen to current discussions, one would think that the real issue is how to produce enough. In reality, the core problem for over a hundred and fifty years has been how to ensure that demand kept up with production so that factories could keep humming and services would be purchased.

The solution in the nineteenth century was for the colonial powers to send goods to their dependencies and to accept debt in return. The United States and Australia also benefited from this strategy. The early twentieth century approach was to provide workers in the industrialized countries with a living wage.

The late twentieth century strategy has been to encourage people to go into debt. Demand has also been generated by the movement of people in many poor countries into the middle class. On the other side of the equation ever-increasing inequality makes it more difficult to maintain levels of consumption.

Demand has also been maintained by high levels of investment in certain developing countries, notably the Asian tigers. The current Asian crisis has exposed the dangers of the strategies which have been used over recent decades. There is now massive overcapacity in the world in many areas such as computers and automobiles. Many of the countries of the world have far more office buildings than they will need for many years.

It is now possible for Asian countries to sell goods at prices far below those achievable by Western producers. The consequences of this reality are potentially far more serious than most analysts seem willing to recognize. We may well see deflation rather than inflation: this can carry acute dangers for economic systems.

I am not predicting a recession or slump; there are far too many variables to be sure about the future. I am arguing that the comforting assertions we continue to hear about economic fundamentals in the developed world being sound contain a high level of wishful thinking.

Unemployment rates in most of the rich world are at levels which would have been seen as unthinkable as little as ten years ago. In the United States, which is the apparent exception, the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor continues to broaden very rapidly. Let me now turn to the social crisis. Regardless of our economic future, it is now abundantly clear that the existing social system is currently producing profoundly dangerous trends. The overwhelming world-wide direction is the development of a super-rich class in all but a few countries. At the other end of the income ladder more and more people are becoming mired in poverty. Within this overall pattern, there are different developments in various parts of the world.

Growing unemployment in many rich countries is leading to increasingly acute xenophobia and proposals for extreme right-wing nostrums which deny the fact that we live in an interconnected world. In the United States, on the other hand, levels of unemployment have fallen to levels which were considered impossible at the beginning of the nineties. But more and more jobs are at low income levels and do not provide benefits. Poverty problems are hardly being touched by the apparent prosperity of the country and the demand for food is outrunning the potential of food banks. Hardship continues to spread and charitable giving is falling rather than rising.

Some countries previously poor are growing rapidly if one uses economic measures. But the current pattern is that most of the population remains mired in poverty while a small proportion enters the middle class and some people become super-rich. Social contracts in these areas are, therefore, being disrupted and discontent is growing rapidly: India is one primary example of this trend. The euphoria in most of the Asian Tigers is turning to disillusionment.

Finally, there are all too many countries where poverty has worsened over the last twenty years. The gap between the wealth of the rich countries and the penury of the poor nations has become even more extreme. At the same time the amount of money that the rich countries have been willing to provide in aid has declined.

These trends will intensify so long as we maintain the paradigm in which we currently think. They will inevitably lead to massive breakdowns not only through social unrest but also because of massive epidemics of old and new diseases.

From my perspective these trends also lead to a severe moral crisis. I do not personally understand how anybody with a moral conscience can accept the trends which are currently developing. Many of you will have seen the coverage of the Calcutta slums which was shown in the period around the Mother Theresa funeral: human beings trapped in levels of squalor and degradation that should be unacceptable to us. Is there nothing which will shock us into a realization that we already live in an intolerable world?

I am told that things have to get bad enough before we shall be prepared to change our thinking and our actions. On my worst days, I fear that human beings can accustom themselves to anything. We are prepared to turn our eyes away from the massive tragedies in the world and hope they will not affect us. One of the now-well-known stories is that one can put a frog into cold water and if one heats it up sufficiently slowly, it will not jump out.

Some people attempt to escape from these moral dilemmas by arguing that there are no absolute standards of morality. While I agree that the West has all too often aimed to impose its own beliefs on the rest of the world with disastrous results, I do not accept that we cannot define standards which transcend national boundaries. The challenge is to recognize our commonalities and to extend them as our levels of consciousness and commitment grow. Survival in the twenty-first century will require that we move forward, not backward, in our commitment to each other and to the natural order.

This leads me to the ecological crisis. The response from most economists, politicians and businessmen to what I have said so far is, of course, well known. All we have to do, we are informed, is to be more committed to what we have been doing for the last twenty years. The medicine we have been taking is good for us: the doses have just not been large enough. Fortunately, I am an economist and I can tell you that this attempt to demand unquestioning obedience to a set of destructive dogmas is based on blind faith rather than reason. The strategies which are being tried will not yield positive results however ferociously they are applied. We have been hoodwinked.

At some point, our increase in population and production will overstrain ecological systems. The argument about when this happens is not yet settled but the statement itself is unarguable. Certain studies have shown that human beings are using some 50% of the available natural growth. A further doubling is therefore impossible for it would mean that human beings would use all of the earth's production leaving nothing for other species. We shall exceed ecological limits at some point in the next century unless we move beyond an economic system which is only viable on the basis of materialism and maximum economic growth. And as we do not know where the real limits are, the only prudent course is to move as rapidly as possible to limit population, production and wastes. This approach is now being called the precautionary principle.

Finally, let me turn to the deepest crisis of all which is at the spiritual level. Those people who concentrate on economic statistics are seeing the end of the nineties as a golden age. President Clinton has been extraordinarily successful at maintaining an obsolete set of success criteria. He boasts consistently about low rates of unemployment and inflation and fails to face the underlying seismic shifts that require changes in success criteria. Those who look more broadly at the overall realities of our time bemoan the fact that leaders throughout the world are not taking advantage of the current economic prosperity to deal with the crises I have described above. They argue that the failure to look beyond the immediate is undermining our capacity to produce a high quality of life for the twenty-first century.

There is broad agreement on one issue among all those who look at the future-there will be enormous change in the next decades. It is the direction of this change which is not agreed. The core disagreement is between those who believe that economic growth, supported by technological change, remains the wave of the future and those who are convinced that the crucial challenge lies much deeper and can be best described as spiritual.

I am one of those who holds this latter view. I am aware that the word spirituality is still booby-trapped for many people. The essential point I want to make is that our current emphasis on what can be measured and owned is disguising what we all really want and need from life. I believe that we are hungry for authentic relationships with other individuals and with the natural world. We are mammals and we cannot escape the long evolutionary history which has shaped the human spirit.

This does not mean I am a technophobe. But I believe we can no longer assume all technologies will automatically benefit us. Rather we must learn how to make decisions in ways that enhance the quality of life of this and future generations. Our challenge is to find the future which will enable us to continue the extraordinary journey which has taken place on this planet over millions of years.

Technology is a powerful tool for dealing with specific issues. It is so powerful, indeed, that it is all too easy to forget that all changes have second, third, fourth and further level effects. Our society has all too often been blind to the consequences of the technologies that we have blithely introduced, seeing only the positive first level impacts and not the further implications. Our adoption of nuclear technologies under the assumption that they would provide "electricity too cheap to meter" is a classic example of our blindness.

It is easy to fall into despair when one recognizes that the current ways we think and act are disastrously flawed. Indeed some spiritual counselors would argue that going through a black night of the soul is necessary before we reach the level of consciousness from which we can see new ways of facing the future. It is easy to live on auto-pilot. It is hard to face the fact that one's life patterns may need profound change.

The only way to break out of the monstrous set of problems I have described is to develop a profoundly different vision of what exists in the present and what is worth while for the future.

Blessings and Peace,

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