Monday, August 26, 2013

Navigating the Transition

By Chris Thomson

Learning to Survive and Thrive in the Emerging Global Paradigm

All the signs are that we are right in the middle of the transition from one global paradigm to another. The one we are leaving is often called “modernity”. The one we are entering does not yet have a name. But we already know enough about it to be sure that it will profoundly affect all aspects of our lives. If we wish to survive and thrive in what will be a very different world, we need to learn how to navigate the transition. This will mean major systemic changes in all our socio-economic institutions. It will also mean major change in each one of us as individuals.

The End of Modernity

It is not generally known that the current global paradigm, modernity, has many of its roots in my home country, Scotland. There was a time when Scotland punched well above her weight in thinking and creativity. Many things that we now take for granted had their origin in Scotland. The list is long – television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, tarred roads, pneumatic tyres, golf, the steam engine, radar, modern banking, antisepsis, antibiotics, quinine, the fax machine, ATM machines, genetic cloning, logarithms, iron bridges, and many other things. For reasons that need not concern us here, Scotland used to be the most inventive country in the world.

Scotland’s inventiveness is relatively well known. What is not so well known is that much of the intellectual basis for the modern world was developed in Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-90). Of the personalities involved, Adam Smith and David Hume are the best known, but there were many others who made important contributions, such as Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson and John Millar, as well as notable pioneers in medicine, science, education and civic life. It is difficult for us today to appreciate just how influential Scotland used to be. Indeed, Scotland’s intellectual leadership was so powerful that Voltaire was moved to write: “...we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”

Of course, the Enlightenment was by no means confined to Scotland, but I think it is useful to look at Scotland’s contribution because it helps us to see what the Enlightenment gave to the world. Scotland was very active in the development of modern economics, modern medicine, modern science, modern education, modern technology and modern government. To express this another way, the Scotland helped to give us modernity - the set of ideas, beliefs, values, institutions and practices that have shaped, and continue to shape, the modern world.

Few would deny that, for a long time, modernity made life better and easier. It raised the material living standards of many; it increased life expectancy; it enabled us to address many forms of ill health that had gone unaddressed before; it brought education to the majority; it vastly increased our knowledge of the physical world (i.e. science); it has given us a lot of very useful technology; and, in theory at least, it allowed many adults to participate in the big decisions that affect them. All in all, we have much to be thankful for. Any criticism I am about to make must be tempered by my belief that there are many aspects of modernity worth retaining. The bathwater must go, but the baby must stay!

Although modernity brought us many good things, something has gone very wrong. We have just come through the most destructive century in human history, with major wars on nearly every continent, in which over 100 million people were slaughtered, and with more damage to the planet and the biosphere than ever before in human history. And the present century has not begun well. As the 21st Century gets under way, wars are raging on three continents, inequality within and between nations is very high and rising, mental and emotional illness are epidemic, the financial system is in permanent crisis, and nature and the planet are more seriously threatened than ever.

There is a growing sense that modernity has outlived its usefulness and that the benefits it still brings are now greatly outweighed by the problems it causes. The economics, medicine, science, education and politics ushered in by the Enlightenment served us well for a long time but, in some important respects, they are no longer fit for purpose. What we have long assumed to be the main solution to our problems - modernity - may have become one of their main causes. While it is true that many of us are materially richer, we are in some important respects poorer. We have more money and things than we ever had, yet how many of us are truly happy? We receive more schooling and training than ever, yet greed and superficiality are the hallmarks of modern culture. We have more technology and scientific knowledge than ever before, but we struggle to use them wisely. And although we continue to call ourselves “democracies”, many of us wonder what the point of voting is when the outcome of elections can be determined in a few marginal constituencies, when there is little to distinguish the main parties, when big money determines policy, and when leaders ignore the people’s views on major issues, such as war. Since it has been, and still is the dominant global paradigm, modernity must be seriously implicated in all these problems.

The time has come to replace modernity with a set of ideas, beliefs, values, institutions and practices that are appropriate to the very different conditions of the 21st Century. The time has come, in other words, for a Second Enlightenment that will take us beyond modernity to a new paradigm, and provide us with an economics, a medicine, an education, a science and a politics that are better suited to the conditions of today. But what will these be, and how will we create them?  In an attempt to answer these pressing questions, I am going to ask not what modernity has given us, but what it has taken away from us.

Unintended Consequences

At the very heart of modernity is a set of core beliefs that is, effectively, the worldview of modern science. I think it fair to say that these beliefs are as follows:

The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical. All those things that seem to be “non-physical”, such as consciousness, can ultimately be explained in terms of the physical
The universe and everything in it is essentially a lifeless “machine”…a very sophisticated machine, but a machine nonetheless. We human beings and the universe can best be understood as “mechanisms”

Matter is primary and consciousness is secondary. Consciousness is a product of matter, and not the other way round. For example, consciousness is understood to be an “epiphenomenon” of the brain

            We human beings do not exist before conception or after the death of our body

Causality is upwards. This means that “ultimate reality” is at the sub-atomic level and that all other levels, including our everyday experience, are secondary derivatives of this

The universe has no intrinsic meaning. On the contrary, it is full of “chance” and “chaos” and “randomness”

Religious and spiritual traditions may be useful as a moral compass, but they are no basis for “real facts”. The only real facts come from science.

Although we might not realise it, these beliefs have become so powerful and influential that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict them tend to be rejected. This has effectively devalued and marginalised many important discussions and much potential knowledge. And it has, to a significant extent, relegated religions to the role of providers of a moral compass. The strange thing is that the classic science worldview persists despite profound discoveries in physics, cosmology and biology that suggest that the universe is anything but a machine, that “chance” may lie only in the eye of the beholder, that the universe is rich in intrinsic meaning, and that some aspects of the human being may survive the death of the body. The “near death experience”, for example, has been extensively documented. Yet if, as science continues to insist, the universe began suddenly for no reason (the “Big Bang”) and life on this planet emerged by chance, then the world that science wants us to believe in must itself be totally meaningless. The fact that this statement, as part of that world, must also be meaningless is little consolation!

In my view, then, one of the big unintended consequences of modernity has been loss of deeper meaning. Although it is true, of course, that religion provides a sense of meaning to many people, it is equally true that many others are struggling to find meaning in their lives. Some are lucky enough to find it in their work. For too many, however, work is a meaningless drudge, often poorly rewarded. By removing deeper meaning, modernity has unwittingly created a vacuum. Many people feel that something big is missing from their lives. They may not be able to put this into words, but they feel an empty space inside them that cries out to be filled. They experience this in many ways, such as anxiety, discomfort, insecurity, despair, or a sense of pointlessness. Understandably, they try to fill the emptiness, and they do this in a huge variety of ways. They eat too much, they drink too much, they shop until they drop, they watch a lot of television or play a lot of video games, they rush around too much (no surprise that being busy is regarded as a virtue today), or they use sex, drugs or alcohol as pain-killers. These behaviours, worrying in themselves, often lead to other problems, such as alcoholism, obesity, addiction, depression, and anti-social behaviour. So long as there is a vacuum of meaning, people are likely to resort to desperate means to fill it.

If I seem critical of science, that is not my intention. Science has given us a great deal and will no doubt continue to do so. What I am talking about here are the unintended consequences of what science has become, and of the paradigm it spawned (modernity). Another of these consequences is loss of wisdom. But what do I mean by this? As Martin Luther King once pointed out: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles, but misguided men.” We know how to create wonderful cars, planes and mobile phones, but we do not know how to use these and other technology wisely, in ways that cause no damage to ourselves and the planet. Indeed, many of the big problems of our time – such as climate change, pollution, and stress-related illness – can be traced back to the unwise use of technology. This is what I mean by loss of wisdom. We have lost much natural wisdom, common sense, if you like, because we have devoted too much of ourselves to one kind of progress – economic and technological – and not enough of ourselves to another kind – spiritual and ecological. The consequences of this imbalance are plain to see.

With the decline of wisdom and common sense, “experts” in science and economics have become today’s high priests. As a result, we pay too much attention to them, forgetting Bernard Shaw’s perceptive observation: “An expert is a person who knows more and more about less and less, until, eventually, he knows everything about nothing.” In the modern world, the “truths” of experts outrank all other “truths”, and we have become overdependent on them. This dependency has extended into other areas of our lives too. One of the hallmarks of modern societies is their increasing dependency on business, government and experts for goods, services and knowledge that, in many cases, individuals and communities would be better providing for themselves. As a rule of thumb, dependency is unhealthy and self-reliance is healthy. Although we sometimes think of indigenous tribes as “primitive”, the fact is that they are self-reliant, empowered communities. They are living cultures, rather than vicarious cultures. They do things for themselves, rather than having things done for them. They recognise the central importance of basic human capacities, such as caring, growing their own food, cooking, healing, educating, creating, and entertaining, and would not dream of having these things provided as commodities and services by government and big business.

I believe that modernity has had one other big unintended consequence, and that is loss of ecology. The few societies around the world that have retained wisdom and deeper meaning at the centre of their lives know just how important it is to live in harmony with each other and with the planet. How many of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that we truly live in harmony with each other, let alone the planet? On the contrary, the modern world has made many of us feel desperate and insecure. It is little wonder that we engage in frenetic activity, such as work, shopping and travelling, when we should be finding ways to live gently and simply, with ourselves and with the world around us.

Modernity and Economic Growth

When we add together loss of meaning, loss of wisdom, and loss of ecology, there is not much left going for us, apart from making money and spending it. This is almost certainly why we live in an era of unprecedented materialism. For many people, acquiring and consuming material things must seem like the only meaningful thing left for them to do. Our economics, our politics, our medicine, our education, our science and our culture have become steeped in material values and beliefs and the behaviours that flow from these. It is surely significant that schools and universities have become little more than training centres in how to participate in the economy, while hospitals in the USA and elsewhere are often referred to as “profit centres”. We are paying a high price for our obsession with material things, as we exploit and damage each other and the planet. Meanwhile, it is short step from materialism to economism, one of the more recent and toxic additions to modernity.

 Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics, to regard a country as an economy rather than as a society, and to believe that economic considerations and values rank higher than other ones. Economism is clearly evident all over the world these days and is a powerful influence in business, political and media circles. It is an extremely narrow way of seeing the world, and it prevents us from seeing whether we are making genuine progress. We assume that if there is more money and economic activity (economic growth), things are getting better. In reality, they might be getting worse and our devotion to economic growth and money is probably one of the main reasons for this. Since the pursuit of economic growth has become such a central feature of modernity, I make no apology for discussing it at length.

There is an almost universal belief that economic growth is highly desirable. China, for example, is thought to be doing “very well” simply because its economy has been growing rapidly in the last two decades. This fact trumps all other considerations, such as human rights, corruption, pollution and breathtaking inequality. Indeed, the belief in economic growth runs so deep that it has a quasi-religious feel to it. Any serious questioning of it is seen as heresy in government and business circles. The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically desirable about economic growth. It simply means that more money was spent this year on goods and services than was spent last year. It does not tell us anything about the desirability or quality of these additional goods and services. It does not tell us anything about the human, social and environmental costs of providing them. It does not tell us anything about income distribution and social justice. Most important of all, it does not tell whether we are getting happier, wiser, and healthier and more fulfilled, which is surely the point of it all.

The principal measure of economic growth – GDP (Gross Domestic Product) - treats the good, the bad and the ugly as if they were all good. So long as money legally changes hands, it counts towards GDP. If there is more crime to be dealt with, more divorces, more pollution to be cleaned up, more illness to be treated, and more debt being incurred, then all of this counts towards economic growth. In fact, nothing boosts growth more than a war or a natural disaster. GDP gives us the impression that things are going well when they may be going badly. There are several good alternative indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). In essence, this subtracts the costs of economic growth from the benefits, to give us a truer picture of progress. It is significant that while GDP in all western countries has been rising more or less consistently in the last 50 years, GPI has been falling or static since the late Seventies. Adopting a more accurate flagship indicator would be a major step in the right direction. Meanwhile, it is worth examining the main arguments normally made in favour of economic growth.

The advocates of growth tell us that if GDP is not moving, we have “stagnation”, and that if it is declining, we have “recession”. These are both emotive terms. Yet, there is surely nothing wrong with a society that is not consuming excessively. And there is surely nothing wrong with a society that actually chooses to spend less money on some types of goods and services. Imagine a world where people walk and cycle more, where there is less divorce and less crime, where people take more care of their health and need less medical treatment, and where there is more self-reliance and cooperation. In such a society, there would be less spending on goods and services. But, in conventional terms we would be in “recession” and considered to be doing badly, such is the Alice in Wonderland world of topsy-turvy values we have created for ourselves.

Then there are those who constantly remind us that less spending leads to unemployment and the closure of businesses. In the short term this is often true. But it is worth pointing out that what we regard as “stable levels of employment” is based not on sustainable production and consumption, but on excessive production and consumption. That excess cannot continue forever. It is causing too many problems, including record levels of personal debt. That is unsustainable. It is much better to spend wisely and moderately and work out the consequences of doing so.

Finally, many people believe that economic growth is a kind of universal panacea. They believe that if we have problems – poverty, inequality, unemployment, injustice, disease, crime, whatever – then all we need is more economic growth and the problems will eventually disappear. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Far from being a universal panacea, economic growth may be a universal problem because, in one way or another, it seems to be at the root of much ill health, crime, social breakdown, inequality, and environmental degradation. As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Growth Fetish:  “Growth not only fails to make people contented; it destroys many of the things that do. Growth fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakens social cohesion and corrodes character. Yet we are told, ad nauseam, that there is no alternative.”

Real Meaning of Sustainable Development

Of course there is an alternative. It is sustainable development. But it is not the kind of sustainable development that many people seem to have in mind. Contrary to widespread belief, “sustainable development” does not mean economic growth, while keeping a weather eye on the environment. Growth means “getting bigger”, but development means “getting better.” These are two very different things. Of course, we have to sustain and enhance the natural environment, but we also have to sustain the other systems that sustain us, namely our health and the fabric of society. Just as the natural environment is under serious threat, there can be little doubt that health and society are under just as much threat, yet this is rarely mentioned in the sustainability debate. If we take the view that “development” means “making things better” and that there are several things we have to sustain, then the concept of sustainable development begins to look very different. It can be redefined as:

Sustainable development is the development of people, communities and planet in ways that sustain the three vital systems that sustain all of us – our health, the fabric of society, and the natural environment

Expressed in this way, it stands in stark contrast to economic growth, which is increasingly identified in public consciousness with exploitation and diminution of people, communities, nature and planet.

To be fair, economic growth itself is not the only problem. It is the set of values and pressures that lie behind it. As a society we seem to value money and things more than we value people and nature. And many of us feel under constant pressure to perform and compete and consume. Such values and pressures wreak havoc on our health, our families, and our communities, not to mention the planet. Whatever else it does, economic growth does not bring health, happiness, wisdom and meaning. And trying to use economic growth to solve problems is like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it. It is true that some things have improved over the years, but there seems to be an increasingly high price to pay for this. For example, we have more speed, but less time for reflection; more choice, but less satisfaction; more competition, but less sense of being at ease; more schools and universities, but less education in the true sense; more doctors and hospitals, but less health; more communications, but less listening; more public services, but less self-reliance; and more police and prisons, but less security.

Signs of Emergence

There are many compelling signs that we are in a transition to a completely new paradigm. These signs fall into three broad groups – death throes, deeper currents, and new institutions.

Death throes

When something is dying, it sometimes becomes more active than ever, almost as if this extra burst of activity will prolong its life. This seems to be happening to modernity right now. Faced with great uncertainty and a succession of serious crises, many people are becoming more materialistic than ever. In a situation where it is abundantly clear that rampant consumerism and the drive for yet more economic growth are putting unsustainable pressures on people and the planet, government and business leaders continue to advocate even more consumerism and even more growth. When set alongside the sudden popularity of atheism, modernity does seem to have acquired a new lease of life. However, I believe that this is simply its death throes.

It is clear with all those with eyes to see that humanity and the planet are in serious crisis. By any standards, we have unprecedented problems in the world today, in terms of their seriousness and their global reach. The list is uncomfortably long, but it surely includes:

1. All the planet’s life-support systems are in decline – i.e. clean air, clean water, forests, topsoil, aquifers, fisheries, wetlands, biodiversity (World Resources Institute)

2. The climate is changing dangerously

3. Inequality within and between nations is now as high as it was in Victorian times. This is both unsustainable and destabilising. (

4. Mental and emotional illnesses are at record highs (

5. Corruption and dishonesty are epidemic (

6. We are running out of energy, in more senses than one

7. Unemployment is epidemic – in a world where so much useful work needs to be done. In several African countries the unemployment rate is over 80%

8. Global and national crises and problems have become the norm, rather than the exception. Of course, we have always had problems and crises, but their seriousness and frequency seem to be increasing.

Although we may feel that our problems are too big and too difficult to solve, one thing is very clear – we are the cause! All our problems are caused by our behaviour. It is not as if we do not try to solve them. We do, on an immense scale. In fact, it must be significant that the problem solving industry is now one of the biggest in the world. Just think how many people are involved these days in problem-solving jobs. These include doctors, nurses, police, social workers, therapists, coaches, counsellors, and lawyers, authors of self-help books, and many local and national government workers. And they include people who work in the thousands of NGOs across the world. The more we think about, the more people appear on this list. A very large number of people in the world today rely for their income and job security on a huge and predictable supply of problems for the foreseeable future. It begs the interesting question of what they would do in a problem-free world.

All these signs suggest to me that modernity is on its last legs.

Deeper Currents

Just as modernity has its roots in the now outdated classic science worldview, the new emerging paradigm seems to have its roots a new, very different worldview. However, this worldview is not yet well known. The great majority of those who, one way or another, are engaged in new paradigm activities are doing so, not because they are trying to put a new worldview into practice, but because they know that things cannot continue as they are, and that fundamental change is needed. That said, there is clearly a fresh energy in the air, and presumably this reflects the more accurate picture of reality that the new worldview presents. I am acutely aware that you may find some, or all, of the ideas outlined below unlikely or even impossible. The fact is that all of them are supported by solid scientific evidence. In essence, the new world view is:

The universe and everything in it, including us, consists of energy, and nothing but energy. Although all things consist of energy, energy itself is not a thing. It is simply the inseparable combination of order and movement. This permits it to manifest in physical forms, as well as non-physical forms. In other words, the universe, and ourselves, are both physical and non-physical at the same time

The universe is an organism, not a mechanism. As with all other organisms, it is alive, it grows and changes, it is able to sense, and it is here for a reason. As an organism, the universe is likely to be conscious and intelligent in ways we have yet to fathom

Because the universe consists entirely of energy (i.e. order-movement), there is no such thing as inherent disorder, chance, randomness or chaos. We continue to believe that there is, only because we do not yet have the information or perspective to see the order and meaning inherent in everything

Everything, whatever its size or nature, is connected to absolutely everything else. This includes us too. Some of this connectedness takes time – e.g. light and other electromagnetic radiation. Other forms, such as gravity and “non-locality”, take no time at all - connection is instantaneous, regardless of distance. So interconnected is the universe that everything in it owes its very existence to the existence of all other things. Again, this includes us. This is one of the powerful implications of Mach’s Principle, which says (without actually saying so) that all matter exists only because all other matter exists. Another implication of the Principle is that everything influences, and is influenced by, everything else. It is the “butterfly effect” on a cosmic scale

Since there is no inherent chance in the universe, life on this planet can be no accident. It happened for a reason that is somehow connected to the deeper meaning of the universe. The fact that we human beings may not yet know the reason or the meaning is no reason to negate them

Consciousness is primary, and matter is secondary. This means that matter is the result of consciousness, and not the other way round. This is supported by the concept of “implicate order”, first developed by David Bohm. Quantum physics strongly suggests that our familiar, everyday world is an “explicate order” that is underpinned and constantly informed by a deeper, invisible order that is uncannily similar in nature to consciousness

One of the many consequences of this, especially when set alongside the nature of energy, is that we are “beings of consciousness” who temporarily clothe ourselves in physical bodies. This lends much weight to the growing evidence that we exist before birth and after death

Causality is downwards as well as upwards. This means, to give one example, that because we are “parts” of planet Earth, we are also part of its meaning and purpose, whatever they turn out to be. And “reality” is at all levels, and not just at the sub-atomic, as used to be thought

Given all the above, there may be much more to spiritual traditions than we thought. They probably contain important knowledge of mankind and the world that, until now, science has denied itself

This is, I believe, a reasonable summary of the emerging worldview. However, it is far from established, not least because many scientists do not subscribe to it. They are unwilling or unable to see the implications of the revolutionary insights and discoveries that have taken place in the last 100 years. So, it is only a minority of scientists who subscribe to all, or most, of these beliefs. That said, the trend is undoubtedly in the direction of this new worldview, and that is largely because so many non-scientists are embracing it in one way or another. They do this as part of their spiritual or personal or ecological development

New Institutions

There is no doubt that modernity has given us a lot, but it has come at a price. There are many who believe that the price is too high. Individuals, communities and organisations all over the world are therefore finding their own ways to go beyond materialism and bring meaning, wisdom, spirituality and ecology into their lives. As they do this, a new kind of economics, a new kind of healthcare, a new kind of education, a new kind of science, and a new kind of politics are being created, from the ground upwards. It is impossible to predict exactly what they will be, but they are already looking something like this…

The new economics will be about enhancing people and planet, rather than exploiting them. At the heart of the new economics will be a new central purpose for humanity, and a radically different understanding of the meaning of “progress” and “wealth”. This will bring with it new kinds of relationships, and new kinds of businesses

The new healthcare will be about self-reliance, common sense and healthy living. It will treat the whole person, rather than the disease. Medical treatment may become the exception rather than the rule, because the main focus will be on staying healthy

The new education will be about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, rather than schooling them to believe certain things and to behave in certain ways, which is what often happens today in our schools, colleges and universities. At the heart of the new education will be the development of wisdom, spirituality, meaning and ecology

The new science will be about two things: using the whole of the human being to explore the world; and, as we go beyond materialism, focusing as much on the non-physical aspects of the world as we now focus on the physical

The new politics will be about the return of power to people and communities, rather than having power concentrated in the hands of politicians and the very wealthy. At the heart of the new politics will be two ideas - the idea that most power stays at the local level, where it belongs, and the idea that everyone has something useful to say and contribute.

None of this is to suggest that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many aspects of modernity worth retaining. For example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with market economics. What is wrong is the values and culture that have come to inform it. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with modern medicine. What is wrong is its belief that it can address the whole spectrum of health problems, when in practice it is good at addressing only parts of the spectrum, such as mechanical repair, emergency intervention and infectious diseases. It is the same for modern education, modern science and modern government. Each has useful aspects that are worth preserving, but each, in its current form, is causing at least as many problems as it purports to solve. It is worth adding that the problems caused by modernity are exacerbated by politicians who, with few exceptions, are wedded to modernising, which is modernity in the form of government policies.

The problems caused by modernity, such as climate change, stress-related illnesses, gross inequality, overpopulation, and social disintegration, will probably just get worse so long as modernity remains the prevailing way of understanding and doing things. We will be able to solve the big problems of our time only when we replace modernity with a set of ideas and practices that are kinder to us and to the planet. None of the above will be easy. People will not willingly give up the habits of a lifetime, and many in power will resist tooth and nail. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, engaging in the kinds of changes I have suggested here will be the most difficult thing we ever do. Transformation may seem attractive in theory. In practice, it can be messy and painful! Yet if we wish to survive and thrive in the new paradigm, we will have to equip ourselves to do so.

Navigating the Transition

Unless you are familiar with the new world view and paradigm, or are actively engaged in some form of personal or social transformation, you probably fall into one of three categories: (a) you have little or no idea that the world is changing fundamentally; (b) you know it is changing, but you do not think you have to change; (c) you know you have to change, but you are not sure how to. In the first case, you are in for a big shock. In the second case, you are in for a lot of work on yourself. And in all three cases, I hope that you find what I am about to say helpful.

I have chosen navigation as a metaphor because it contains the essence of the skills and knowledge that you will need, to be able to survive and thrive in the new paradigm. These are, in my view, (i) a sense of direction, (ii) knowledge of the deeper currents, (iii) being adaptive and responsive, (iv) economy of effort, and (v) your natural intelligence.

A Sense of Direction

You have to know where you want to go, and you have to know that you are on course. This is not as straightforward as it might seem. Typically, we are not very clear where we want to get to, and our “indicators”, which should tell us whether we are on course, leave much to be desired.

One way of expressing our direction is to ask what our “central purpose” is. There can be little doubt that the current central purpose of humanity today is material growth. For nations, this is perpetual economic growth. For businesses, it is ever increasing profits. And for large numbers of individuals, it is having more money and things. Although economic growth has been useful in some respects – it raised the living standards of billions of people – it is well past its sell-by date, because it now brings more problems than benefits. It is clear that we urgently need a new central purpose. This is no idle matter. The central purpose of any system, be it a society, a company, a health service, a tree or a colony of ants, determines everything about that system, because all aspects of the system have to serve the central purpose. It is a little known fact that the most effective way to change any system is to change its central purpose. If, for example, the main purpose of a business is to make as much profit as possible, then everything about the business will be in service to money, and all other considerations, such as society and the planet, will be secondary. But if its main purpose is to provide excellent services to its customers, then it will be a very different business and it will attract very different people to it.

Similarly, if we wanted to fundamentally change a national health service, then we should change its central purpose. Looking around the world at various national health services, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the central purpose of all of them is “to provide medical services”. This explains why nearly all the money and energy is channelled into medical treatment (doctors, drugs, nurses, hospitals, surgery), and it is why the people with the highest status in the system are those at the top of the medical profession. If, however, the central purpose was “to maintain the population in good health”, then money and energy would be put into very different things. Medical treatment would be a last resort, not a first resort, as it so often is today. And there would probably be no concept of high status people!

It is clear that many of our major systems today (economic, political, business, education and health) are just not working. They are producing more problems than solutions. We urgently need systemic change. Just to be clear, this does not mean trying to make current systems function more efficiently. That would be reformation. It means replacing them with completely new systems. That would be transformation.

Imagine how different things would be if the central purpose of society was to develop people to their highest potential and to care for this planet as if it really mattered. If this was our central purpose, our lives would change completely, as would the way we work, the way we govern ourselves, and the way we relate with each other. It would be a very different world. There is important work to be done here, in developing and promoting a new central purpose.

As to how we get there, I will be saying a few things about this in a moment. However, it should be clear that the means should be the same as the ends. Paul Ekins expressed this beautifully in his book “Wealth Beyond Measure” (Gaia Books: 1992)

“Many enlightened capitalists, and socialists who connive with them for the sake of economic growth, believe that solving the problems of production will lead people, once they have enough, to turn towards the higher things of life: beauty, spirit, art, love. They are wrong. Making the market the principal instrument of human development has transformed it - in the form of shopping - into society’s principal cultural expression. It is no use changing the goals from economic growth to basic needs or sustainability, for example, if the means, the economics, remains the same. It is the means that determine where we end up. The challenge is not only to decide on another destination…but also to design an economics, and a development process to go with it, that is as sustainable, participatory, equitable and satisfying as the end that is in view.”

Clearly, making the means the same as the ends implies many things. One of them is “leading by example”. Many people in positions of power and influence do not know how to lead. For them, leadership consists in “do as I say, not as I do.” This is why people across the world have lost trust in business and political leaders. If they hope to regain trust, leaders will literally have to lead the way, from the front. If, for example, they are asking people to tighten their belts and accept austerity, they must first tighten their own belts at least as much as they expect others to. Leaders will have to be the change, rather than just talk about it.

Deeper Currents

When we try to understand things or try to solve problems, we rarely go deep enough. The link between loss of meaning and problem-causing behaviours, which I mentioned earlier, should make us stop and think. In our attempts to solve problems, we do not go far enough back along the “chains of causation”. More often than not, we treat the “symptoms” rather than the causes. Although they might deny it, many people and organisations try to solve their problems by addressing the symptoms rather than the causes. This is neither effective nor sustainable in the long run. Treating symptoms may make things seem better for a while. It may even give the impression that the problem has been cured. But if the causes are not addressed, the problem will return, often worse. The analogy with medical treatment should be obvious. It is rare that we identify and treat the deeper, root causes of ill health, which might turn out to be cultural, emotional or spiritual in nature.

We deal with ill health, poverty, crime and pollution as if they were the problems themselves, when in fact they may well be symptoms of things going wrong at a deeper level. They probably reflect a deeper malaise. We may not fully understand the deeper malaise, but if we want to solve these things once and for all, we will eventually have to deal with it.  Crime, for example, is typically addressed by recruiting more police, building more prisons and imposing tougher sentences, all because criminal behaviour is seen as the problem rather than as a symptom of something deeper. The same is true of health policy. The main focus is on the medical treatment of symptoms after people have fallen ill. That is an extremely costly and inefficient way of doing things. It would save a lot of time, money and suffering if our main focus was on promoting good health and preventing people from falling ill in the first place. And if people did slip through a better health promotion net, it still makes more sense to identify and treat the underlying causes of illness. Meanwhile, comparatively speaking, we continue to spend negligible sums on promoting health and preventing illness.

What is true for crime and illness is equally true for other problems, be these at the organisational of societal level. Prevention is better than cure, but if you have to cure, make sure you are addressing the root causes. Having said this, the symptomatic approach is undoubtedly appropriate when the symptoms have become life threatening or otherwise intolerable. But we should remind ourselves that it is we who have allowed them to reach that point.

The “symptoms approach” to solving problems is ineffective in the long run because:

  • It is the most expensive way of trying to solve problems, partly because it waits until they get serious, but also because addressing symptoms tends to be technocratic, managerial and legislative in nature, and these can to be very expensive, inefficient ways of doing anything

  • It creates dependency on experts and thus discourages self-reliance. That is unhealthy and disempowering, and it discourages people from taking responsibility to behave intelligently

  • It is unsustainable in the long run, because the problems inevitably return, sometimes in another form, so long as their causes remain unaddressed 

  • It makes the problems seem to be the fault of others, rather than raising the possibility that you and your organisation may be part of the problem

  • It requires a lot of people. Just look, for example, at the huge industries that “health” and  “security” have become

In contrast, the “deeper causes” approach wins on all counts:

1. It is more effective, because it gets to the underlying causes.

2. It is less expensive in terms of money, time, effort and other resources, because it is based on simple common sense and thoughtfulness, and may not need much technology or legislation or management.

3. It is empowering and healthy, because it encourages people to be self-reliant and knowledgeable and to take responsibility for their own lives.

4. It is sustainable in the long term, because the symptoms (i.e. the “problems”) will not keep on recurring.

5. It puts you at the centre of the equation, because it forces you to examine the consequences of your own behaviour and that of your organisation.

Of course, the reality is that many of us are resistant to this approach, for understandable reasons:

Concern about job security – although they might deny it, people are probably aware at some level that their current way of doing things (the “symptoms” approach) will guarantee a steady and large supply of problems to deal with for the foreseeable future. Can you imagine doctors, lawyers and police wanting to work themselves out of a job?

Distrust of simplicity – some people are unable to accept that seemingly complex, intractable problems can have simple solutions. Yet the simple way is often the most intelligent way.

Sense of meaning – there is undoubtedly a sense of meaning and purpose that comes with working in perpetual crisis mode. This is no small thing. People need meaning and purpose in their lives. It is interesting to note the rise in prominence and status of the “emergency services” in the last 25 years or so.

Unwillingness to go deeper – the deeper causes approach necessarily involves asking uncomfortable questions about oneself and about society. For example, are we currently part of the problem rather than part of the solution? Many people do not want to go out of their comfort zone

The ways we measure “progress” and “success” – people often think that they are successfully dealing with problems because of they way they understand and measure “success”. Things may seem to be getting better (e.g. GDP is rising) when in fact they are getting worse

All of these are difficult, complex issues that people need to work through before they are likely to be willing to deal with deeper causes. They may need help to do this.

If we are serious about solving our problems – be they societal, organisational or personal – we have to ensure that we are addressing their deeper, root causes, however uncomfortable this may be for us. That will not be easy. A lot of us will resist or find sophisticated arguments to convince ourselves that we are doing the right things. But, the fact is that we will solve the problems of the modern world only when we adopt a different approach. Better to adopt it sooner rather than later.

Adaptive and Responsive

There are three trends in the world today that affect everything we do, as individuals and as organisations:

1. The world is increasingly interconnected, not just in the obvious ways - e.g. telecommunications and transport, but in less obvious ways too - e.g. values, hopes and ideas.

2. The world is increasingly complex – in the special sense that it is becoming more difficult for us to understand it

3. The pace of change itself is increasing. That brings with it a new set of challenges

There was a time, not so long ago, when the world was much less connected, much less complex, and much slower than it is today. Change happened at a more leisurely pace, and most individuals and organisations interacted with the world in a particular way, known as “predict, command, and control”. That may have worked in some circumstances in the past. It certainly does not work today. If we hope to survive and thrive in today’s very different world, we must learn to “sense, adapt, and respond”.


Many people still see the world essentially as a machine, whose behaviour can be predicted as if it really were a machine. So, if you want to know what is going to happen in the future, you simply extrapolate from the present. Although many people have abandoned the idea of the world as a machine and replaced it with the idea of the world as an organism, which does not easily lend itself to quantitative, mechanistic understanding and prediction, many have still to learn this, which may be why they often fail to spot what is coming their way and end up in trouble.


They apply the mechanistic perspective not only to the external world, but also inwards, to the organisation itself, for example. It, too, is often regarded as little more than a machine, in which people are basically cogs. Just as a machine does what you expect of it when you give it the appropriate commands, so does the organisation. The commands come from the top and are passed down the hierarchy. That leaves very little freedom for intelligent creativity on the part of those whose role it is to receive and obey commands. This has the effect of keeping the intelligence and creativity of the organisation to a minimum. Not surprisingly, mistakes are made, opportunities missed, and many in the organisation feel restricted and frustrated.


If you believe that you are accurately seeing the world (and predicting the future), and that you are effectively commanding the organisation to act in response to what you think is happening in the world, the only other thing you need to do is to try to control as much as possible of the world. You can do this, for example, by controlling suppliers, and retailers, and prices, and consumer preferences, and the regulatory environment (by influencing the legislators). This is what many businesses and organisations still try do, often while simultaneously preaching the virtues of competition and freedom from control! Yet the fact is that world is simply not controllable, and people seem to respond best to minimal control.

The predict-command-control model can usefully be thought of as “organisation-as-machine” interacting with “world-as-machine”. It is a model that no longer seems to work, if indeed it ever did.

A very different model has begun to replace it. The new model flows from the recognition that:

Many things in the world are unpredictable

People can be trusted to exercise their natural intelligence and creativity

Not much of the world can be controlled


We in the West are not accustomed to being highly attuned and sensitive. It is just not part of our culture. These are qualities that are often associated with Eastern cultures. In practice, it means being sensitive, open and aware in ways that we are not used to. It means being able to recognise the significance of something long before that becomes obvious to others. It means being sensitive to the “tides and currents” of the world, including those that are still small and apparently insignificant. And it means being aware of the subtle and taking the subtle seriously.  However, an organisation can “sense” only if its people are open and sensitive and if its culture is equally open and sensitive. “Sensing” is considerably more useful than prediction in this complex, interconnected, rapidly changing world, for two compelling reasons. You notice much more, and sensing gives you much more accurate information than quantitative, mechanistic prediction.


The ability to adapt and go with the flow is also an Eastern characteristic. Martial arts in their pure, unwesternised forms are about adapting rapidly and wisely to constantly changing situations. The martial arts expert is trained not to respond in a “painting by numbers” way to any given situation, but to respond flexibly to the uniqueness of any situation, by training himself or herself to be sufficiently sensitive and open to do so. Applying this idea to an organisation, when it senses a situation or the future, it does whatever is necessary to adapt intelligently to that situation or future. It does not try to resist or change the situation or future, as happens under the predict-command-control model. Instead, it bends to the wind rather than being broken by it. It is open to the possibility of fundamental change, however uncomfortable or counterintuitive that might seem at the time.

Just to be clear, sensing and adapting have nothing whatsoever to do with bullet points and formulaic processes. They are states of mind, which have to be acquired over a period of time. Some people may find this difficult, but the benefits of being sensitive and adaptive are immense, both to the individual and to the organisation.


This is what you do, once you successfully sensed and adapted. You may decide not to respond at all, because sometimes the appropriate response is no response. However, if you do decide that some action is appropriate, you action will be proactive, rather than reactive. In other words, you will be the courageous leader, as distinct from the conservative follower. That can make all the difference.

In essence, the new model is “organisation-as-organism” interacting with “world-as-organism”.

Clearly, there is a lot to this, because it implies new mindsets, attitudes, beliefs, values and structures and behaviours. But here is some idea of what “sense, adapt, and respond” tends to look like in practice:
Better sensing

            Paying attention to unconventional information

            Learning to see through the eyes of others

            Being able to adopt different viewpoints

            Paying attention to things that, at first sight, might seem insignificant

            Getting yourself into “sensing mode”

Adapting effectively

Being aware of anything – in you and in the organisation – that blocks change…it could include limiting beliefs, fears and prejudices, restrictive structures and processes, unrealistic expectations

Being able to distinguish between reformation (superficial, temporary change) and transformation (deep, lasting change)

Knowing that any outer change must be matched by corresponding inner change

Avoiding box-ticking at all times!

Responding creatively

            Leading by example – as an individual and as an organisation

            Understanding that “innovation” goes far beyond technology

            Having a very clear, shared central purpose

            Encouraging and valuing initiative and creativity in everyone

Economy of effort

Very skilled people often seem effortless. They make difficult things seem easy. We sometimes refer to this as “being in the zone” or “flow”. I like to think of this as the “law of reverse effort”. And I see it as part of a powerful movement that is taking root all over the world. That movement is sometimes called “less is better”.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that “more is better” has become one of the strongest beliefs in the world today. It influences what we think, say and do. At the national level, it is reflected in the overwhelming importance given to economic growth. At the business level, it can be seen in the desire to maximise sales and profit, and in the imperative for businesses to keep getting bigger. And at the individual level, many people continue to believe that having more money and things will make them happier.

The fact is that in this fast-paced world today, we do too much, we want too much, we say too much, we rush too much, we try to control too much, and we expect too much. Being “busy” is seen as a virtue, so we do too much. Advertisers take advantage of our weaknesses and keep us in a state of constant dissatisfaction, so we want too much. We email, text, and talk on the phone as if the world were about to end tomorrow. We go too fast, when going a little slower might bring benefits right across the board. We often put too much effort into things, when easing up might give us better outcomes. We try to control too much, with the result that things are getting more and more out of control. And, despite the finite limits of this planet and our own time and energy, we always expect more.

The belief that “more is better”, and the behaviours it generates, is proving disastrous. The big problems of our time can all be traced back, one way or another, to the powerful belief that “more is better”:

The planet’s life support systems are in decline, because we overuse and abuse them. We do this because we do too much and want too much

The climate is changing dangerously for precisely the same reasons

Inequality is high and rising, because a “more is better” economy creates big winners and many losers

Mental and emotional illnesses are at record highs, because people are under immense pressure to work longer and harder, and to shop more and more, and because they feel there is no real meaning to this

Corruption and dishonesty are epidemic because people want even more than they already have, and think they can do this by cutting corners and being dishonest

Crises and problems have become the norm, because “more is better” has caused major systemic failure in our socio-economic institutions – economics, finance, business, government, health, and education

It is very clear that this state of affairs is unsustainable and that something big needs to change. If, as it seems, the belief that “more is better” is at the root of these problems, or at least a main cause, then it is time to replace that belief with something very different. Try replacing it with its opposite – “less is better”. Just stop for a while and try to imagine how your life, and the world, would be if the following were true:

Ø  You do less, but you would “be” more. This means that you would feel less rushed, quieter inside, probably more alive, and more engaged. You would be a human being, rather than, as is so often the case these days, a human doing

Ø  You want less, but you enjoy more – because you are focusing on the quality of things and experiences, rather than the quantity

Ø  You say less, but you communicate better. You make fewer calls and use fewer words, and you speak less often, yet you are able to touch people and influence them, because you give them the space to listen to you. This may give you fewer “friends”, but at least they will be real friends

Ø  You rush less, but make better progress. All of us can think of examples when we are in great haste, but this seems to get us there no faster

Ø  You make less effort, but get better results. By “easing up”, you bring into play the “law of reverse effort”, which is well known to the best practioners of Judo and Aikido

Ø  You stop trying to control everything. By doing so, you allow things to happen more naturally. This makes things easier and more successful

Ø  You expect less, yet, surprisingly, you start receiving more. This is because when you drop your expectations, you automatically allow more things to come into your life

Although all the above is clearly applicable to your personal life, it is equally applicable to businesses and other organisations. Here are a few things for you to think about if you work in any kind of organisation:

It is possible for you to achieve much more by doing less. This seems counterintuitive and strange, but it is true

It is possible for you to improve your communications, by using fewer words and speaking less often. By creating this “space”, people will start to listen to you

It is possible to make real progress (in any sense you want) by slowing down and by applying the “law of reverse effort”. Again, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, yet it has repeatedly been proved to be true

By stopping some of the redundant controls you have in place, your people will become much more creative and effective. In other words, give up control to gain control.

Your natural intelligence

As a species, we do not behave nearly as intelligently as we could do. The gap between our intelligence potential (what we could be) and our intelligence reality (how we actually behave) has to be a significant reason why we cause so many problems. So, the big question is: what can we do to close the gap? The short answer is: a lot. But first we have to understand what intelligence is, because there are many misconceptions about it.

The most widespread misconception is that our level of intelligence is fixed throughout our lives. In fact, this is simply not true. Our intelligence grows when we learn from experience. And it grows when we acquire new skills or knowledge. This much is well known, or least it should be. Much less well known is the fact that we can train our intelligence, by working on it in a structured way. When we do this, it can change our lives.

Another misconception about intelligence is that it means being “brainy” or “clever” or “intellectual”. It does not! While mental intelligence is obviously important, it is just a small part of the very wide spectrum of human intelligence. That very wide spectrum covers the whole range of our abilities. In addition to mental intelligence, it is also about how well we know and use our body (Physical Intelligence); how well we manage our feelings (Emotional Intelligence); our ability to know without knowing how we know (Intuitive Intelligence); how good we are at cooperating with others (Social Intelligence); and how deeply we understand and relate with ourselves the world (Spiritual Intelligence). If, as many organisations now acknowledge, there is a good case for training people in emotional intelligence, then there is an even more compelling case for training people in the whole range of their intelligence. The benefits of doing this are too numerous to list, but I hope that what I am about to say gives you a sense of them.

When we meet highly intelligent people, we are usually impressed. There is something compelling about the way they look, the way they speak, and even the way they move. They tend to be economical in their use of words and their use of energy. They seem to be able to get things done without really trying. And it is reassuring to have them around, because they always know what to do when something goes wrong. We feel good when we are in their company, because they are cheerful and friendly, but also because they seem to understand us at least as much as we understand ourselves. If we were able to look inside highly intelligent people, we would see that they are acutely sensitive to the world around them. They notice a lot and miss very little. And we would see that they are masters of their feelings, and are able to tune into, and empathise with, the feelings of others. They have exceptionally good minds, which enable them to think clearly, and see, at a deeper level, why things are the way they are and how they are likely to be in the future. They have learned to trust their intuition, and they have learned to transcend many of the conventions and beliefs that restrict human development and creativity. They are very obviously mentally and emotionally intelligent, but it goes far beyond that. Everything about them is intelligent. And we have a sense that everything they do and say makes the world a better place.

All this is significant, because it means that highly intelligent people excel at an exceptionally wide range of things, including the things that are valued by organisations and by society in general. For example, they make good leaders, because they have a clear vision and because they are good at inspiring and encouraging people. They are very effective communicators, because they think clearly, but also because they know how to reach out and touch people. They are good at solving problems, because they know, at a deep level, why things happen. Better still, they are good at anticipating and avoiding problems. They are good negotiators, because they are empathic and understand people. They are economic in their use of time, energy and resources, which is good news for any organisation! They are excellent at scanning the future – they see what is coming more clearly and sooner than most. They tend to be creative and rich in new ideas, because their minds are open and flexible. They are authentic – there is no contradiction between what you see and who they really are. For example, they stand up for what they believe when there are pressures on them to conform. And, just as important, they are a pleasure to be with. On all counts, they are priceless assets to any organisation or community.

Of course, I recognise that all this may sound too good to be true. It is rare that we come across the kind of people we are talking about here. But there are good reasons for this. We live in an age of extreme specialisation, with a strong emphasis on technology and on the skills and knowledge that can be used profitably in the economy. In such circumstances, intelligence, in the sense I am speaking about, is rarely discussed, let alone taken seriously. Yet if an organisation trained its people to be more intelligent, it would bring benefits right across the board. For example, it would be a healthier, happier organisation, because well-rounded, developed people tend to be happier and healthier, but also because they are a positive influence on all those around them. The organisation would be more economical and effective, because this is how highly intelligent people behave. They really do get things done quicker and better! And it would be a more responsible organisation, socially and environmentally, because highly intelligent people would tolerate nothing less. All in all, the organisation would be much more attractive – to its stakeholders, to the public, and to NGOs – and this would bring valuable benefits, financial and otherwise.

It is worth pausing to think through the implications of this. Typically, a business or other organisation trains its people skill by skill, subject by subject, and this may be appropriate when the skill or subject is very specialised or technical. There is, however, a strong case to be made for a “one-stop training”, in which many skills and qualities can be developed at the same time. This is exactly what intelligence training is designed to do. It seeks to improve the full range of intelligence in a balanced, integrated way. In practice, this involves “removing impediments”, and improving awareness, understanding, capacity, and competence in each of the six intelligences (physical, emotional, mental, intuitive, social and spiritual). This needs a little explanation.

Removing impediments

There are many factors that stop us from being as intelligent as we could be. Arguably, the most important are poor health, fears and anxiety, emotional patterns, a cluttered mind, limiting beliefs and prejudices, and being in a rush. If we are able to remove any or all of these, we automatically become more intelligent.


The more conscious we are of what is happening inside us and in the world around us, the more intelligent we are. It is as simple as that. Working on our awareness enables us to see and hear more, and to feel more. We notice more things, but we also notice more about the same things.


This is what we are able to do at present, as well as what we could do in the future if we decided to do it and learned how to do it. When our capacity grows, we are able to do more things, not only because our range of skill increases, but also because we find the courage and will to do things that we resisted doing until now. Because you have the knowledge and skills to do more things, you are more likely to act intelligently.


This is how well we understand ourselves, others and the world. If we work on ourselves to increase our understanding, many things that did not make sense before will start to make sense. For example, we will understand at a deeper level why problems occur and what to do about them.


This is a measure of our wisdom and effectiveness. As we grow in competence, whatever we do and say will be more effective and influential than before. We do things better, but also do better things!

Just to be clear, when you become more intelligent, it does not mean that you will suddenly be able to understand obscure philosophy or solve complex mathematical problems. And it does not mean that you will be able to compose like Mozart or paint like Rembrandt. But it does mean that you will be wiser and more effective in your life and work and that you will be  more likely to know when and how to act (or not act!) in any given situation. You will find it easier to relate with people. And you will have a much clearer idea of who you are and what you want to be and do in life. Being more intelligent means that you and your life will improve in many ways and, just as important, that you will improve the lives of those you come into contact with. Of course, there is much more, but this is the essence of it.

From everything I have said, I hope I have conveyed the crucial point that “intelligence is as intelligence does”. There is absolutely no point in being intelligent in theory, if your behaviour does not reflect your potential. You either behave intelligently (your actions and your words), or you are not intelligent. It is as simple as that. Being intelligent means only one thing – you act wisely, in ways that enhance people and this planet.


I am aware that I have taken you through many issues at some speed. My purpose here has simply been to give you an overview of the situation, as I see it, as well as a sense of what I believe you will need to do, if you wish to prosper in the world that is emerging.


Blogger Karl Iver Dahl-Madsen said...

Yes, we are living in an age of transition. From scarcity to abundance. From a few billion people to 20 billion very rich people living 100-200 healthy years. Giving more and more space to nature by using wonderful smart technologies like GMO's etc.
Only Neo-Malthusians mystics like you, Mr. Thomson can hinder this by trying to kick the world back to dark medieval ages.

September 24, 2013 2:14 PM  

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