The most colossal mother of all change programs ever

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from Kuala Lumpur

I have just finished watching the most thought provoking documentary I’ve ever seen: Zeitgeist – A Way Forward.  If you haven’t heard already, it’s a lengthy film that presents an irrefutable train of logic to show that our economic systems are at the root of the world’s poverty, hunger, health, crime and environmental crises.  It was as if bell had rung in my head when I realized, while watching the film that connecting these world issues to money as a root perpetuator, was of course a simple truth.   Somehow I had just not seen it like that before.

Like being given a terminal illness diagnosis, the conclusion is that our future is definitely not going to get better.  But what could be possibly suggested as the solution?  Surely we would all know about a way out of this by now, if there was one…

The film illustrates how computer-based global resource management, the abolition of money and ownership, and new way of life for all could achieve a central worldwide goal: efficient use of resources for the sustainability of life.  New cities, designed from scratch, would incorporate infrastructures of intelligent systems to dispose of waste, supply water, transport people and goods, as well as grow local food produce. All goods would be designed to last and most would be built by automated machinery – all of this drastically reducing the need for labor.  People would live as equals in standard, efficiently designed homes with naturally sourced power.

What would this give us?  It would make free healthcare, housing and education available to every single person on the planet and it would eliminate crime, poverty and unnecessary harm to our environment.  It would give us all an attractive future.  Wow…  And there is nothing preventing us from taking this course of action – except ourselves.  If it went to a vote of the world’s population, we would have a majority ‘yes!’ and we’d be on the case tomorrow.  But for many reasons, there are millions of people who wouldn’t be able to comprehend participating in such a radically changed world such as this.

As a communicator, I felt a whole aspect of this vision was missing from the film.  Assuming that somehow, every country did agree to adopt the Zeitgeist way, how would we actually manage the change?  Imagine 2050 as being the year assigned to the ‘cut off point’: the collapse of all monetary systems and legislative ownership.  How would people behave in the years leading up to that deadline?  Would it be an all out show of indulgence and hoarding, of doing all the things we will never be able to do again? Or would extravaganza seem pointless?  How long would it take to arrive at our new physical world after 2050?  Maybe it would take 250 years to demolish, design, rebuild, and re-landscape high-spec living provisions…for 6 billion people?!

Then what about human nature?  Could we be happy in a global society like this?  What about our need to keep busy discovering, differentiating, rebelling and satisfying our vanity and egos?  Would the arts and education keep these wants at bay?   The film was clever to show that human behaviours are learned, not genetically predetermined.  Behaviours are contextually triggered – or not, so perhaps just the first one or two generations in this new world will have the most behavioural challenges – before it becomes normal not to be greedy, ambitious and competitive.

The ‘old world’ will seem like immature history and the decision to manage resources together, quite commonsensical.  The mind boggles.  I hope we take this direction – it seems like the best possible future we could carve out for ourselves and I’m in.  And I’d also like to be involved in implementing the most colossal mother of all change programs ever.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Colorado

Read this in Colorado and just landed in London, which gave me some time to think about this on the plane.   I think this is a topic that most of us ponder pretty regularly – and wiser heads than mine from Hegel to Milne and many others have philosophised about human beings and their nature.

One part of me, the cynical side, says “No way.” The adage that “If you can’t change your people, change your people” might play in a company of 10,000 or 100,000 people, but is such change scalable? Has it ever been attempted? (Al Gore has had a pretty good run at it I suppose). And of those 6 million folks who might want to drive (and benefit from) such change, how many of them will really be able to buy into this vision – whether due to their government, their access to information, their education, their literacy…  The accumulation of wealth and therefore power has been relentlessly moving in the opposite direction for some time now.

One part of me, the idealistic side, says, “Well, maybe.”  Social communication has been enabled by technology on a scale never seen before, so it is hard to predict its longer-term impact – but events in Egpyt, Libya, Bahrain etc. demonstrate that movements can gain momentum once they hit a tipping point.  The real question is sustainability – in both its narrower and broader sense.

My conclusion?  Everyone probably thinks this is a good idea in theory, but in practice will believe that everyone else should change (the tragedy of the commons).  Until an economic model that works with 0% growth that is 100% sustainable, we’re kind of screwed.

Mike Klein – Commscrumming from Zeitgeist (er…Denmark)

The distinction between quantity and quality of life is a big one.  Systems that are designed to be “fair” usually end up degenerating into repression, be it of the active brutality of the Stasi in East Germany or the passive brutality of Scandinavia’s “Law of Jante” or the Dutch admonition to “just be normal, that’s crazy enough.”

Aside from the fallacy that “fairness” can work as a viable social model, it’s also worth questioning the basic definition of “sustainability” at play.  Indeed, all discussion of “sustainability” internally or externally warrants giving the inferred definition a good kicking.  “Zero environmental impact” vs “continuing the business for another 100 years” are two entirely different sustainability ball games.  Indeed, alarmist propaganda like Zeitgeist can actually detract from more sustainable sustainability approaches, while hardening internal opposition to world-friendlier ways of doing business.

Dan Gray – banging his sustainability drum in London

Hmmm… How to contribute without descending into a major polemic (you have, after all, strayed into my pet area)? I think the best answer is probably just to provide a couple of links…

Firstly, speaking to Mike’s point on definitions, I humbly direct you to the ‘executive summary’ of my own position on what it means to be truly sustainable here – A better way to bigger profits. In addition, I’d point you to Umair Haque’s brilliant HBR blog for a customarily provocative portrayal of the battle ground – what he frames as The Capitalist’s Paradox.

I will allow myself one additional parting shot…

KK, it’s not about growth or no growth, but what do you want to grow?

Mike’s right about the distinction between quantity and quality of life (at least if I’ve understood him correctly).

It’s long been my view that what the economic orthodoxy has yet to grasp is that their kind of growth has not done one jot to actually make people *happier*, largely because they’ve similarly failed to grasp that wealth is not an absolute concept but a *relative* one.

Thus, whilst in absolute terms, economic growth may well have lifted people out of poverty, in *relative* terms they have actually become worse off, since the proceeds of growth flow so disproportionately – as most perversely illustrated by the extortionate bonuses being paid once more to the bankers, while Mr and Mrs John Q. Taxpayer are still carrying the can for their thirst for the quick buck.

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7 thoughts on “The most colossal mother of all change programs ever

  1. From Montreal on a glorious spring day [they do happen despite our apocolyptic concerns]

    It’s so strange that you would bring this up Lindsay. I’ve been thinking about this question but from a bit of a different angle for the past week or so.

    I’ve been attending workshops on urban farming and hanging out pretty regularly with food security, food systems, environmentalists and sustainable business types as part of an urban agriculture project I’m literally trying to get off the ground here in Montreal. And, I’ve been struck by how much the rhetoric hasn’t changed since the 70s when I was getting my first degree in Biology.

    As the earth is pushing back in horrific ways, markets are collapsing, food prices in developing countries are soaring, I’ve been wonder what we can learn from the past 40 plus years. The warning signs have been there for even longer than that. There are “limits to growth” and “small is beautiful”.

    What do we need to do to make the compelling case for changing behaviour?

    We’ve heard. Here in Canada we’ve listened to eloquent spokespeople like David Suzuki have been highly visible for four decades – weekly national radio, tv, film, speaking tours.

    We’ve seen. We’ve celebrated the visually compelling case put to us by Al Gore in an Inconvenient Truth. And, we see the impact on the environment every day.

    We’ve even felt. Physically we’ve noticed the change in the sun, the way the wind blows during storms like we’ve never experienced before. Emotionally our hearts are broken by images of starving people in sub-Saharan Africa; drowning communities in Australia and Bangladesh.

    But what have we done? As individuals – that’s you and me? As families? As communities? As cities? As provinces? As nations – as a Canadian do not get me started on this one. I’m ashamed? Not enough.

    From a communications point of view I’m fascinated. What will it take to bring this message, this conversation to life in a meaningful and sustainable way [Inconvenient Truth, let’s face it is so yesterday in people’s minds]? What will it take to radically change our behaviour? What will it take to make sure the next 40 years sees the change you’re calling for. And how can we as communicators be part of the answer?

  2. commscrum says:

    Hi Deborah – Lindsay here

    Perhaps communication plays less of a role here than we might have thought. You’re right – we’ve heard, seen and felt the impact of things ‘going wrong’. But the whirlpool of our economic systems (and everything they are dragging with them) is so strong and powerful that it is really quite futile attempting do anything practical that goes against that tide, in my opinion (such as unplugging your mobile phone lead when you are not using it).

    We’re going to have to get desperate before a major turn of direction will be necessitated out of demand: we’re going to have to experience a whole load more pain and a major thinning of the rather fake worlds we live in, where we can believe everything is currently ok. There would be a tipping point in there somewhere. When that happens, everyone will be communicating about it themselves.

    The communication piece then, would be slightly in advance of that point – providing a vision of how each stage of the change can work that people can hold on to. My guess is that in about 20 years’ time things will start hotting up…

    The communication stimulus provided by Al Gore, Zeitgeist etc meantime is building some kind of momentum it seems…

  3. Hi again Lindsay. Bill Maher is far from my favourite, but there’s something here – The Climate “Debate” is Scientists vs. Non-Scientists [http://bit.ly/fsVrLZ]

  4. G’day all, Lindsay I hope you’re enjoying KL. I couldn’t believe how much it had changed in the 30 year gap between my visits and what a city it has become.

    Every so often, we need to look at the vision for the future. We need to examine why we want to get where we are going. However we also need to look at where we’ve come from.

    A case in point – Deborah is right that the rhetoric of agricultural communities is still around, but what about the actions? There will always be some people at the extremes to continue the talk, but there are many more people taking the actions. We have far more sustainable and productive grain crops, much better agricultural practices, strong awareness (if not acceptance) of carbon footprints and major food suppliers looking to reduce food miles and to buy more locally.

    All great steps and actually pretty world changing, but not a total Zeitgiest so we think we aren’t doing well. We aren’t doing brilliantly but we aren’t doing awfully either.

    If you want a major success barrier and passion bleeder, I think KK came closest when he wrote “Everyone probably thinks this is a good idea in theory, but in practice will believe that everyone else should change.”

    I don’t accept this at all. I actually think we have demonstrated a desire to change and a willingess to take action.

    I believe the problem for us is that we know as a matter of absolute certainty that those who must change, those who control the golbes resources and power, will not change. Can you seriously see Rupert Murdoch accepting Zeitgeist?

    The good news is that we seem to be taking actions in spite of them, instead of throwing up our hands in despair.

    I’m not sure that Zeitgeist outlines a desirable end point, but it and other shows like it plus the actions and communication we are doing are giving us incremental successes towards a more desirable world.

    Cheers, geoff

  5. mrhibbert says:

    Goodness, someone hasn’t read their copy of “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” in a whiles … [blows dust off little-visited shelf]. I’m all for reading a bit of sci-fi (Iain Banks’ Culture series springs to mind, here) but ‘money is the root of all evil’ as a political position? C’mon, folks, money is simply a token of social power – a more peaceful form of power than direct physical force.

    Critiquing money for poverty is like blaming ballot paper for Mugabe – ie, kinda missing the root causes. There will always be social power. You can’t kill it by confiscating its toys. The point is to figure out how to turn it to constructive purposes.

    All that said, what’s interesting to me about this trend in polemics is that Michael Moore, Al Gore, John Pilger, et al, seem to be incredibly bad at admitting dissenting voices into these pieces – they’re impressive, because they’re so bombastically one-sided. A quick dose of contrary opinion (say http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xgv6gk_zeitgeist-moving-forward-a-reply-to-peter-joseph_news ) rapidly deflates the rhetoric, ensuring it will have almost no social impact. There’s a lesson in there for one-sided corporate communications, somewhere.

    (PS: Dan, not sure I buy your ‘relative inequality increases’ point: see, eg, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo )

  6. commscrum says:

    Ah Mr Hibbert – you haven’t seen the film then. It advances perspectives on our social, economic, political and psychological dispositions in a whole systems way and entirely from a sustainability standpoint. No dust on this cover…

    When I said that I hadn’t quite seen the world through this lens, that’s why. It’s just a shame the file is so long – we can hardly expect everyone to absorb it from beginning to end.

    Lindsay

  7. Dan Gray says:

    I’m going to come back to something I’ve raised in the past on the LI group concerning how we’re taught (or perhaps more accurately *not* taught) how to think.

    Where sustainability is concerned, there seems to be this ridiculous fallacy that solving our problems requires some hitherto undiscovered quantum leap in technology when, in fact, much of what’s required exists in the realm of what Stephen Johnson refers to in his brilliant book, Where Good Ideas Come From, as “the adjacent possible”.

    Companies like Interface have proven that radical reinvention is eminently possible by simply reconfiguring resources already at its disposal and – not only that – but that doing so is extremely good for business.

    And as Ray Anderson says in his fascinating TED talk, if a petrochemical reliant company such as his can do it, *anyone* can. Further, it follows that, if anyone can, then *everyone* can.

    So what’s stopping us?

    My feeling is that the barriers are far less practical than they are *conceptual*. Not for the first time on this blog, what we’re really banging our shins against here is the general inability of folks to break out from the grip of linear thinking and deductive/inductive logic.

    Going back to something else I posted on the LI group a while back – a wonderful article by Mark Morford on way thinking in straight lines just ain’t natural (http://bit.ly/fdfzbe) – you have to wonder what it is about human psychology that so worships the linear and so blinds us as to the possibilities of the cyclical.

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