Various thought leaders have much to offer our exploration. We begin with reflections on the work of four luminaries: Donella Meadows, Meg Wheatley, Peter Senge and Joanna Macy.
Dancing With Systems (Donella Meadows)
In her article, “Dancing with Systems,” the late and beloved Donella Meadows (2001) speaks to the mystery at the source of quest for wholeness.
Self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable . . . . As soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control . . . there is plenty to do, of a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being . . . . We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!
The overarching themes of Meadows’ Dancing with Systems principles include:
- Respecting the wisdom of the system,
- Exposing your mental models to the open air,
- Open, quick and accurate information and feedback,
- Sharing, learning, and caring with each other, and
- Whole systems thinking
In Meadows’ words, “go for the good of the whole. Enhance creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability, whether they are easily measured or not. Keep expectations high. Talk about love” (p. 58).
Paradox and Promise of Communities (Meg Wheatley)
Meg Wheatley defines successful communities as those that connect to others through their diversity, creating long-term, sustainable ecosystem webs of relationships. She describes the inherent paradox in life’s two imperatives to be both free to create and to belong to community. Her observation is that individuals are learning how to be together in ways that support themselves. They make choices that serve themselves while considering their neighbors.
When an individual changes, its neighbors take notice and decide how they will respond. Over time, individuals become so intermeshed in this process of coevolving that it becomes impossible to distinguish the boundary between self and other, or self and environment. Rather than defining what’s inside and what’s outside, boundaries in living systems become the place where new relationships take form.
Clarity of purpose transforms the tension of belonging and individuality into energetic and resilient communities. One junior high school Wheatley describes bases all behaviors and decision on just three rules: Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Take care of this place. She relates the story the school principal tells of being the last to come back into the school after a rainstorm evacuation, only to discover 800 pairs of shoes in the hallway. The students had decided on their own how to best take care of their school .
Wheatley’s core community principle is that the solution to anything is each other. If we can rely on one another, we can cope with almost anything. Without each other, we retreat into fear. Suggested practices to build these strong relationships include:
- Nourish a clear organization identity. . . .
- Focus people on the bigger picture. . . .
- Communicate honestly and quickly. . . .
- Prepare for the Unknown. . . .
- Keep meaning at the forefront. . . .
- Use Rituals and Symbols. . . .
- Pay attention to individuals. (pp. 118–122)
The Fifth Discipline (Peter Senge)
Peter Senge’s five principles of the art and practice of learning communities resonate with those above: systems thinking, personal mastery (proficiency), mental models, building shared vision, and team learning. He offers many detailed systems and practices for each principle, including models for feedback-loop design, creative tension, dialogue, and zero waste. In his closing reflections, he writes of his eventual realization that the core principle underlying the others is simply to develop a system of management consistent with nature—human nature and the nature of the larger social and natural systems in which we always operate. When he asked a young Chinese woman why his book was so popular in China, she told him that we see it as a book about personal development . . . . So much of management theory from the West contradicts our basic belief in developing our deepest nature as human beings. Your book reinforces this belief and gives us hope that this can be consistent with building successful organizations. The oldest Chinese symbol for business translates as life meaning.”Senge believes that when we rediscover organizations as living systems, we will also rediscover what it actually means to us as human beings to work together for a purpose that really matters.
Great Turning Forms of Activism (Joanna Macy)
Navigating our passage through the labor pains of climate change and peak oil requires each of us to be the Hercules and Hera of our age of the Great Turning. Joanna Macy defines the Great Turning as the process of shifting from the current Industrial Growth Society through the Great UnRavelling to a Life Sustaining Society. She describes three main types of activism as simultaneously necessary for its success:
- “Holding actions” in defense of life on Earth: the actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings. Examples include direct action, environmental protection legislation and lobbying, and providing for the poor and homeless.
- Creating “Gaian” life-sustaining ecosocial structures: analysis of structural causes and creation of structural alternatives such as study groups, integral economic indices, green living, nonviolent communication, and the Internet.
- Transforming our cognitive and spiritual perception of reality: a fundamental shift in worldview and values through systems theory, integral spirituality and learning, simple living, and holistic art.
The first form of “Holding actions” preserves the best of the past, acting as a resistance force to stem the tide of ecosocial destruction. Holding actions were the earliest, most visible form of wisdom-society healing, garnering the broadest public participation.
The second form of Gaian life-sustaining structure development refers to what Chris Riedy (change the message or change the people? 2010 online article) might call translation activism: those activities which people can relate to from within their current worldview. This second wave has become more visible in the past few years as an astounding multitude of working, sustainable, ecosocial systems have entered mainstream consciousness. Gaian life-sustaining structures have largely been driven by the grassroots and community sustainability movement and are rapidly becoming a more active concern of the broader metamovement.
The third form consists of transformation in our perception of reality: the multiyear process that Riedy concurs is necessary but not sufficient for wisdom society development. The third wave has historically been driven by the personal-growth process supported by faith, therapy, and education communities: a phenomenon of the interior I realm in the integral AQAL model. Wisdom society architects agree that this process must expand to become a collective phenomenon of the interior WE realm in the integral AWAL model. Collective wisdom must become as valued, sought, and socially acceptable as personal wisdom. Collective therapy must become as valued, sought, and socially acceptable as personal therapy. Taboos about talking about our feelings and what’s important to us in public need to end.
Birthing a resilient wisdom society requires the full spectrum of activism. Collective wisdom requires an emergent shift in learning to “co-think” as partners in a personal–collective holoconscious living system. Macy calls this shift in decision-making from a personal to a personal-collective level of self-interest the holonic shift. She believes that learning to think together in holoconscious rather than competitive ways is crucial to human survival. Present modes of collective decision-making, like the ballot-box or consensus circles, are simply too corruptible and too slow for the swift, responsive self-guidance that we as societies need now. She reminds those who fear fascism that self-organizing social systems fail without diversity and open communication. The holonic shift does not sacrifice, but instead requires, the uniqueness of each part, the distinctiveness of its functioning and its perspective.