A Journey of Reconnection
On being Earthlings, inner transformations and the web of life
In my previous article, I told the story of a moth and of a butterfly. Both were in a process of struggle and metamorphosis; one broke free, one stayed blind. I used these examples because we tend to understand the world through symbols; metaphors are useful doorways into our psyche.
I’d now like to delve a little deeper and bring this closer to home by approaching the concept of struggle and metamorphosis through the lens of mental models. These deeply ingrained, subliminal pictures of the world are like a shadowy charioteer that holds the reins of our views on ‘reality’. Our paradigms, mindsets and world views — the way we see and live the world every day — are often dictated by his strong hand. As such, part of our task for systems transformation is to develop the ability to stop the chariot for a second and hold him up to rigorous scrutiny.
When we do this, we may often be surprised by what we find.
Consider the ‘fight’ against climate change. The climate is not something ‘out there’ that we have to battle and win; in reality, we are the problem and not the climate. We often fail to perceive that at the root of our climate crisis lies a real crisis of what it means to be human. There exists within our minds an inability to perceive (and viscerally feel) our interconnectedness to the rest of life, of our precarious place on the planet and what that really implies on an intuitive level.
For example, emission offsetting is a useful tool that certainly mitigates some of the damage caused, but there is a fundamental shift that occurs in our thinking when we move from believing that an externality can be offset to when we make an extra stretch in realizing that, in reality, we can’t ever offset anything. All outcomes are inherently contained within the sole stratosphere of our planet. Damage to any part of the Earth’s web ripples out to the whole. Thus, we are rather like diligent skippers changing the colors of the sails and rearranging the deckchairs on a ship whose hull is full of holes.
We all live on one rock, suspended in a vacuum of outer space; its precious resources cannot be divided up into convenient isolated independent parts and territories. It is all one cell, one ecosystem, interrelated in subtle ways we are only beginning to fully comprehend. Astronauts who have soared into the cosmos and observed our green-blue marble from the stars understand this all too well. They recognize that cutting down a forest in Bangladesh and replanting it in Madagascar is still, in essence, a corrupted relationship with our living ecosystem.
It also implies that we have an inherent right to dictate what gets destroyed and what gets reborn — an overly assertive hand of God.
Another example is that of biodegradable plastics. As the swelling tides of plastic in our oceans reaches a critical mass, we need to remember that not all solutions are made equal — and will overlay onto our mental maps. A biodegradable straw is still in essence an unnecessary, single-use straw (and often prone to dubious recycling infrastructure). Biodegradable goods are handy in the interim, but they do not fundamentally shift our consumption patterns. If we are not careful, these patterns of convenience will just continue and we will have done nothing to solve the underlying issue — which is that of unchecked growth, that we are simply using/creating/making too much “stuff”.
To tap into our butterfly superpowers, we need to change our very relationship to the root cause of our problems, not just their symptoms. This happens, for example, when we just. Stop. Using. Straws. I do not wish to undermine the notable innovations, advances and efforts that are being made in these fields — I am just conscious of the fact that certain things should be recognised as temporary solutions that do not shift our real behaviour and mindset of separation.
The seminal systems thinker Donella Meadows once said,
“No part of the human race is separate, either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.”
To transcend our moth-like status, it is imperative that we embark on a deep process of introspection, of reconnection with our place on Earth, its wilderness and nature, and therefore, our own nature. I am talking about a dual inner and outer process. True systemic transformation will only occur if we commit to change at a personal level and examine our own attitudes and behaviors. It is the very Kant-ian perspective of the link between respect for ourselves and respect for the world. As Otto Scharmer of MIT so aptly puts it, “The success of any external intervention depends on the interior condition of the leader”.
As the outer world will always reflect our inner state, we’d better take one hard look at the state of our planet today and then another one in the mirror.
Some etymological fun which makes an interesting point: The root of the word ‘humans’ comes from the Latin humus, which means ‘earth’. We are, quite literally, Earthlings. In Navajo, humans are nihokaa dinee — Earth surface people. We are not, as the dominant paradigm has had the pleasure of portraying for quite some time, at the centre of the entire universe. The authors of the Book of Genesis got it wrong when they told us to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over… every living thing that moves upon the earth”.
Dear reader, we must recall that humans are and always will be nihokaa dinee — surface citizens, entirely dependent and of the world.
It is both fortunate and unfortunate that ‘finding yourself’ has become so in vogue today. Unfortunate, because capitalism has hijacked spirituality, and therefore ‘looking within’ can come off as being a little obnoxious and self-serving. Fortunate though, because the ground has never been as fertile for us to cultivate the courage, sensibility and insight to delve into our internal states and move towards a necessary transformation. It will take a lot of time, work and integration, and it will need to ripple across all stakeholders and value chains. We are in effect trying to consciously rewire the software of a much more ancient, reptilian hardware and its strongly ingrained evolutionary perception of “other”.
On a final note — this isn’t just a pretty thing that we can attend to once our other targets and quarterly results have been met. It isn’t either about making daisy chains in a field and staring up at the clouds (but I encourage you to do that too). For businesses, it means the development of an entirely different definition of the terms “value” and “purpose”. Larry Fink, the Chairman of the BlackRock Group, prudently recognised this when he sent a letter to his investors and CEOs earlier this year, calling for a new model of corporate governance:
“To prosper in the long run, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will succumb to short-term pressures… Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment?”
How many organisations are actively and genuinely asking themselves how they will innovate and adapt, incorporating networked systems thinking? Does their strategy acknowledge their existence within a complex, interconnected web of actors, where tugging on one piece they will find it attached to everything else? As we enter into an ever increasing VUCA global landscape (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), those who fail to seriously consider these questions will have missed a great opportunity to thrive and to regenerate their core business model… And may be left hanging at the altar.
Progress is occurring at a hopeful rate. I am inspired by the steps we are collectively taking in the right direction — the creation of circular economies, the scaling up of renewable energy, the inspiring projects of thousands of social entrepreneurs, decentralised finance, greening cities. Drawdown solutions are everywhere. If we manage to combine this with the inner transformation and mindset of symbiosis mentioned above, applied through practical and tangible means, then we’ll break free into something glorious, just like that butterfly.
In my next article I’ll explore how we can open up to these powerful internal questions on life, values and leadership. In particular, I’ll talk about the magic of cultivating new paradigms through deep, transformative experiences out in the wilderness, because the wild is the doorway into our own wild nature. In nature, we put down our masks, suspend our disbelief, open our senses to wonder and surrender to a greater sacred wisdom. We are brought back into our interconnectedness with life itself and an intuitive understanding that we are gently nestled within infinite wondrous shimmering webs.
Nature has unbounded gifts to teach us, and we should learn to listen.