The sweet assassin

16/12/2014 § Leave a comment

Hello Mr Andrews, this is Amanda from the [ABC] Building Society.” The voice on the phone is charming. “This is just a courtesy call to see if you got our recent mailing.” “Yes thank you” I respond politely. “Do let me know if you’d be interested in increasing your borrowing with us.” the voice continues. “ If so, I can pass you through to our mortgage adviser.” “If I do want to borrow money, you will be my first port of call.” I assure her. The voice takes this as a no, and politely terminates the call.

Do we really need more growth? It is more than 40 years ago since the Club of Rome produced “Limits to Growth”, forecasting that if we carried on as we were, promoting economic growth as a primary aim, global collapse would inevitably come at some stage. Recent research  shows that many of the forecasts made in the original report, about population, pollution levels, resource constraints and so on, are looking rather accurate.

And yet as a society we continue to repeat the mantra that what we need to fix the problems caused by excessive growth (social fragmentation, ecological devastation, spiritual unease) is more growth. With the honourable Jinx-bond-girl-Halle-Berryexception of the Greens, all political parties across the spectrum continue to push this (“growth is our priority” said Ed Miliband in his first speech as Labour Party leader).

And how does this push for growth manifest itself? Very often in unexpected forms. It is the alluring packaging of the fair trade chocolate bars. It is the earnest and caring mothers on the PTA stall at school, asking if you will donate some sweets or toys so that they can sell them back to your children and pay for more computers at school. It is those clever people at Amazon saving you the huge hassle of having to click more than once when you want to spend some money online. It is the charming Amanda, or Dawn, or David, calling you to make it as easy as possible for you to increase your overdraft. You won’t feel a thing, honest! Just sign here.

I like it when, in those secret agent movies, the deadly spy is someone unexpected. The Bond movies have worked this one to death – there is always some beautiful woman who turns out to be a martial arts expert and can kill you with a single blow to the neck. There must be a bittersweet quality to being killed by an assassin you are attracted to. This is what we are being killed by, slowly but surely. Sweetness.


The mystery of mastery

04/12/2014 § Leave a comment

The concept of mastery is a very appealing one, isn’t it? No longer subject to the whims of our emotions, or trapped in the rigid logic of our rational mind, we can step into a truly creative space, making choices about how we live our lives. “The master takes action by letting things take their course. She remains as calm at the end as the beginning. She has nothing, thus has nothing to lose.” Tao Te Ching.

But is it for you and me, or is this some mythical state reserved for a small handful of people in history? How can we realistically expect to transcend our limitations, all the influences which seem to tie us down to this mortal plane – our upbringing, our family, our friends, our acquired habits and the rigid social structures which surround us in our society and in our working lives? And what exactly does mastery mean at this time of planetary upheaval, when the challenge of sustainability confronts us like some huge unconquerable mountain, its distant heights obscured by clouds.

Maybe the starting point is to accept the fact that we are all these things, and trying to reject them is just as constraining as blindly accepting them. Choosing to accept who we are, to look ourselves and life squarely in the eye, is a bold and powerful thing to do. It allows us to make more conscious choices starting from where we are, rather than where we sentimentally would like to be. This is part of the mystery of mastery – that the starting point for attaining it is to let go of the need to pursue it. It starts with mindfulness not wilfulness.

Debbie Warrener and I have run a 6 month Mastery in Sustainability course for the last two years, and a new course starts on 4 February. It runs on Tuesday evenings in central London, over 10 sessions. There is a lot of mystery about the course – how it came about, why people are drawn to it and why it works. “Works” is of course a relative concept. Some people find healing “This was one of the most healing trainings I’ve ever done – and that’s saying a lot.” said one participant. Some people love the chance to do some deep work on themselves in a safe space in the company of others. “There were so many wonderful exercises and challenges that offered me an opportunity to do some deeper work on my life.” said another. Many dream of being more powerful in the world, bringing their whole being to making a difference at this time of crisis and transformation, and find the course to be a sort of practice ground – a place to celebrate failure as part of the path to becoming more fully human. “This [workshop I ran] was a huge stepping stone for me, in all kinds of ways. One that I absolutely owe to my participation in the Mastery in Sustainability course.”

Debbie and I have devised the course as a series of exercises, drawing on a variety of sources including deep dialogue, embodied work, spiritual practices, deep ecology and action learning. For us, sustainability is not something to be talked about but to be lived and experienced. Another participant described the exercises as “challenging, moving, thought-provoking, and wonderful. I would thoroughly recommend this course to anyone.”

Is it for you? Only you can know. If you are intrigued or drawn, you can find out more information on the website. Or contact me or Debbie. You can book your place on the course, for a deposit of £60, here. If you want a taste of our unique and unconventional approach, come along to a taster session in London on Tuesday 20th January. You can reserve your place on the taster here.

To conclude with the words of another participant, Mastery in Sustainability is “a fascinating voyage across some stirring seas of self-enquiry that you’ll be pleased you boarded, navigated as it is by two such passionate and caring guides.” I look forward to encountering some of you on the voyage.


A new story of business

17/09/2014 § 2 Comments

Charles Eisenstein says that the world we see around us is built on a story (you can see an inspiring video illustrating his talk here). Every culture answers the fundamental questions about who we are and what it means to be a human being in different ways – the story is what holds it all together.

The part of our shared story (in the rich West at least) that I have become especially interested in is the part that says that businesses are motivated primarily by profit. I choose not to “buy” that story (in a consumer society, buying something is the primary way in which we engage with it!). I think it is as misguided as the now debunked notion that we are all “homo economicus” – making choices designed to maximise our financial returns. We are far more complex than that. And so is a business. A better way to think about it is as a field of forces – the directing minds of the business need to balance the interests of customers, staff and investors if they are to succeed. What’s more, the more powerful the business, the more it needs to serve the needs of less visible interest groups – their community, the planet and future generations.

The idea that businesses are motivated primarily by profit is a part of our accepted story that is extremely harmful. It justifies all sorts of predatory behaviour that results in environmental degradation, social fragmentation and unhappiness. As someone who doesn’t choose to buy this story, I feel obliged to tell a different story whenever I can. So I intend to write a few blog post about this alternative story over the coming months. I haven’t written a blog post for quite a while – it was summer, and a lot of my energy was going into a book which, not surprisingly, is all about this alternative story. But the book is taking some time and I don’t feel like rushing it. Besides, writing blogs about it helps me think. I hope you will join me for story time 🙂

Taking on our industrial-scale human systems

07/10/2013 § 1 Comment

There were tears and tantrums on the way to school the other day. Lucas wasn’t too happy either… We had left home a bit late and I was intent on getting to school quickly whilst Lucas couldn’t conceive of passing the large horse chestnut tree near our house without stopping to pick up conkers. The inevitable clash of wills and priorities happened. We did get to school, we were late and it was messy.

Who was right? Well, I don’t want to take sides but have to say there was something incredibly endearing about Lucas’ sheer delight in the bounty of the natural world. And what at school could possibly be more important than that? School, like many of our large-scale human systems, has its own drivers, which rarely seemed to coincide with what feels natural and right for a child to do. Lucas wants to play, to run around outside, to climb trees to potter around with his Star Wars figures, to giggle with his playmates. He enjoys things like maths, reading and painting but at his own pace and a lot of his joy is taken away when he is crammed into a room and forced to sit down with 29 other children and learn together.

Like him, I want to rebel against our education system, even though I respect many of the teachers. It is a Procrustean system.  In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a rogue blacksmith, a bandit who forced people to fit the size of his iron bed by either stretching them or cutting off their legs. Isn’t this what our education system seeks to do with our children? They enter the system as wildly different individuals and, like sausage meat, are fed through the system to come out all the same shape and size, all thinking the same. Those who are particularly interesting, thoughtful, lively or artistic tend to suffer the most from this process.  Schools are packed with systems designed to persuade, encourage or compel our children to fit in, to conform. Bells to tell them when to work, when to eat, when to play. They get a gold star if they eat all their lunch (hungry or not – no wonder our children have so many food disorders).  Their parents get warnings if they arrive late too often.

All this is understandable from the system point of view. If you sit in Whitehall and worry about value for money, then you want to maximise output (teaching time) and minimise input (teachers pay, and other costs like food).  You want to minimise “waste”, like children not going to school, or classrooms not being full, or food not being eaten. So you issue directives designed to achieve these goals.

Having a centrally controlled and funded system has other effects. You need information at the centre in order to “manage” the system and so you compel teachers to spend inordinate amounts of time filling in forms. One school has an issue with a teacher abusing a pupil, and as a consequence all teachers are banned from touching a child,  and barriers are set up to prevent other adults coming on school grounds. This is an unbalanced response to a valid concern, and  It is one example of a case where issues that can be dealt with locally are over-regulated from on high.

This is industrial-scale education, and similar dysfunctionalities can be found in other centrally-controlled human systems such as the health service, police, highways departments and multinational corporations.

So what, I hear you ask?  What do you want to do about it exactly?  It seems to me there’s four basic stances you can take (they not necessarily self-excluding), shown in this matrix.

quadrant chartOne is to effectively shrug your shoulders and say “What can I do?”  This might be accompanied by a bit of denial “It is not that bad really” or avoidance – simply distracting yourself until time has passed. Or you passively resist (I have tried a bit of this) where you refuse to co-operate with the system but don’t actively engage with the challenge.

The second way is to try to fight the system,  Write strong letters to your MP, to the teachers, you try to rally others to your cause.  Or you blame individuals. I think of these first two options as negative, unconstructive.

A third way is to simply escape.  Seek another school, another system (Steiner, Montessori), another country (Denmark, say). You don’t threaten the system but seek to minimise its impact on you.

The fourth way is to get creative. You seek to dance with the system, to hold onto what you know to be true while refusing to blame others.  This may stretch to setting up a new school or an entirely new system.

It is clear where my preference is – to actively engage with the challenge. That’s where the life is – beyond denial or blame. It requires an honest  look at both the system, with all its merits and defects (including acknowledging that what we have represents a significant step forward compared to the old system it replaced) and at ourselves. Do we have the qualities to take on this challenge and what is the best way for us as individuals to go about it? Should we leave it to others to creating new system and work at making the best of the current one.

I will let you know how I get on.

And do let me know what’s your way. How do you engage with this dance?

The tortoise and the hare – a parable for our times?

31/10/2011 § 1 Comment

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes.

I think I am starting to understand the parable of the tortoise and the hare.

The other weekend we went for a family walk near Fritham, an unspoilt part of the Forest where we don’t go very often. We haven’t had great success with going on walks with Lucas – he tends to complain, as I suspect many five year olds do when dragged on a walk by their parents. But it was a lovely day and we decided to give it go.

Sure enough about 10 minutes into the walk, it started: “I’m tired”, “Are we going back now?” It would have been easy for us to get frustrated and either ignore his complaints or simply give up and head back to the pub. Instead we tried to adjust to meet his needs – we took a more interesting path, we engaged him in the occasional race, we stopped when he found a particularly interesting stick or leaf. In the end, we walked for 2 ¾ hours (partly because we took a wrong turn). Remarkably he only started complaining about being tired towards the very end, by which time we were tired too.

This got me thinking. How many times in life, when encountering resistance of some sort, do we either ignore it and plough on regardless or give up. Seeking instant or at least rapid gratification, we are not ready to deal properly with difficult situations. Yet most of the best experiences I have had have come when I have persevered. This is certainly true in relationships.  Many of my most important relationships with others have gone through a sticky patch at some stage. Working through the issues that come up are a necessary part of strengthening and deepening the relationship.

And I am starting to see there is a universal theme here. I have always liked the quote that I introduced this post with. It seems to me that the complexity he is talking about can be experienced as some sort of internal or external resistance, a practical obstacle or a complex emotion that arises. If you simply treat this resistance as an obstacle to be overcome, you may hurry to clear it, or you may give up, and either way you are missing the point.  These are foothills that must be scaled before you can start the true ascent of the mountain. Not only are they an essential part of the journey, they are a great opportunity to learn, to gather skills and knowledge that can prove invaluable in the greater tests ahead. You come through the foothills in better shape, with deeper understanding of what you have taken on. Or, equally usefully, you learn that this is not the mountain for you.

Perhaps the key insight I have taken from this is that finding the right pace is critical. Dragging Lucas on a forced march, trying to get him to keep up our adult pace, simply wouldn’t have worked; being willing to slow down allowed us all to keep going far longer than we would have expected. It reminds me of the time I climbed a 4000m mountain a few years ago. We were accompanied by a highly experienced guide, who had a mantra to help us get to the top. ‘Slow is steady, steady is fast.” In other words, find the right pace, one that you can keep at all day, and stick to it. If you do this you may achieve far more than those who are fitter and stronger but who start off at a rush.

And why do I think this is a parable for our time? Because our adolescent society, powered by cheap fossil fuels, continues to act like the hare, rushing into challenges (health care, education, international peace, you name it), seeking the quick solution, and ending up repeatedly disappointed, while the approach of the tortoise, the slow, steady, patient approach, is the only one that offers the prospect of providing long-term, proper solutions.

Is there such thing as a good company?

05/10/2011 § Leave a comment

“Things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes them so”. William Shakespeare, Macbeth

In his speech to the Labour party conference last Tuesday Ed Miliband proposed, in essence, that companies be labelled as “good” or “bad” and taxed and regulated accordingly.

You can see where the thinking comes from – it is pretty much how our foreign policy works. If you are considered “good” (e.g. Kazakhstan, which allows our bombers to use it airfields) then you can get away with murdering your citizens. If you are considered “bad” (think Iran or, in the case of the US, Cuba) then you will be punished no matter how you behave. At one time Iraq under Saddam Hussein was considered good – we trained their soldiers, accepted their investments and traded with them. Then they became “bad” (i.e. stopped doing what they were told) and so we bombed them.

Maybe the next step will be to apply this thinking in the criminal justice system. We won’t wait until people have committed a crime – we will simply label some people “good” and others “bad” and tax and punish them accordingly. That seems fair.

But enough fun. There is of course a serious point that currently the state is failing in its function of holding corporations to account for their actions. Ed Miliband is to be applauded for daring to say this, even if his way of saying it lacks sophistication.

There is growing awareness of this problem and its links to the existential global crises we face (such as economic volatility, environmental crisis, resource shortage and social fragmentation).  But it seems no one is quite sure what to do about it.  Since I am not shy, I am going to have a go at making sense of the problem.

It might help to start with a metaphor.  Large businesses often remind me of overgrown teenagers. They’re always growing, they are insensitive to their effect on those around them, they can do a lot of damage to themselves and others, and they’re eating us out of house and home!  They are not necessarily acting maliciously, with intent – they are simply unconscious.

Fortunately most teenagers grow out of this phase. They reach adulthood and start to behave more responsibly, more sensitively. Yet corporations don’t – they seem to be trapped in a state of eternal adolescence. This is because, unlike teenagers they are not structured for learning and self-regulation – it wasn’t in the original design brief.

Think how humans are designed for responsible behaviour and moderation. When they are tired they take a rest, when they have eaten enough their stomachs tell them so, they are sensitive to others and their surroundings through their senses, they have a conscience to tell them when they are going wrong and ultimately they can be locked up if they exceed the normal boundaries or do outrageous things.

The corporation, by contrast, although made up of human beings is not structured like a human and doesn’t behave like a human. It has no conscience to tell it when it is doing wrong, no stomach to tell it when it is full, no limbs to get tired, no body to put in jail. It has no physical location so it can be all over the world simultaneously. It can grow without limit, having no sense of appropriate size.

If the corporation is a human then it is, as Joel Bakan put it in his book “The Corporation”, a pathological one. Generally a healthy human being pursues profit as a means to an end – to feed his or her family, to provide warmth and shelter and, once those needs are covered, to exercise creativity or whatever. A human who pursues wealth as a highest value becomes like Fagin or Scrooge and is generally shunned by society. By contrast, corporations are expected to obsessively pursue growth and profit. Executives who do this are rewarded with more money, even when they fail (think Fred Goodwin).

Part of the problem is that corporations are not free agents. They don’t have the freedom to take their own decisions since they are in servitude to their masters, the shareholders. Like slavery this is an immoral, unsustainable, inherently abusive relationship , one in which the master has power but no responsibility. The relationship itself overrides the slave’s natural behaviour – his fear of the master is greater than his conscience or his tiredness, and he does everything he can to maximise profits for his master’s benefit.

This is a teenager who is apprenticed to a miser and who lives in constant fear that his master will come and call him to account – where’s my money! And no matter how much he gives his master he knows it won’t be enough. Next year the master will want more.

By the way this is not to judge the people who make up the corporations, not even the board or the shareholders. The system is bigger than them. What I am trying to describe are emergent properties of the system.

If we are to improve these teenagers’ behaviour, it is no use labelling them, or trying to use the blunt instrument of external regulation. There is work in many diverse fields (e.g., Elinor Ostrom in management of commons resources, and many scientists in the field of complexity) that shows the inherent superiority of self-regulation rather than external regulation.

Rather, we have to engage with these individuals and seek to educate them, and we have to re-wire their brains, re-structure their bodies and re-adjust the way they relate to the wider world. There is lots that can be done by activists, within and outside the corporations, to help bring this about, but ultimately the game-changing action will be at government level, with the introduction of new laws.

These are the measures I would prescribe to deal with these unruly citizens:

– Ensure that the board is appointed by a range of stakeholders, not just one elite grouping of investors. We cannot reasonably expect a board of a company to serve society when it is appointed solely by representatives of shareholders.  They will naturally favour the interests of those to whom they are beholden for their jobs.

– Change the fiduciary duties of directors so that they are required to balance the interests of all stakeholders, rather than prioritising the interests of one interest group.

– Ensure that the company has an effective, semi-autonomous conscience. In legal theory the company secretary is the conscience of the organisation, but the secretary is appointed by the board or the CEO and cannot be considered autonomous. Like the board he or she must be appointed directly by the stakeholders.

Of course these are just the headline changes and there is lots of detail that would have to be sorted out. I am available for consultation on implementation 🙂

I have no doubt that our society is not ready to make such radical changes. Not just yet. They are too controversial and would be attacked from all sides because, fundamentally, I am questioning property rights, one of the corner stones of our legal system. But I have a feeling that as we go deeper into the economic crisis we will start to understand that we need to think radically if we really want change. We will start to understand that it is by placing economic interests first that we have caused this crisis.

And if Ed Miliband were to propose such measures, I might even vote for him!

Can the ends ever justify the means?

09/09/2011 § 1 Comment

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving” Tao te Ching

I could be wrong but it seems to me that the statement “the ends justify the means” is the absolute antithesis of sustainability. Faith in this mantra, explicitly or implicitly, underlies an awful lot of what is done in our society in the name of progress.  Overpaying bankers is justified because they will deliver a more healthy economy (ha ha). We invade countries because we want peace. We lobby for more nuclear plants because we want green energy. We let rich criminals (tax evaders) off the hook as part of a shady deal with the Swiss banking authorities because it may (possibly) bring in some unpaid tax. No wonder we find ourselves in a state of fragmentation, economic volatility, and relentless ecological destruction.

The folly of this approach first occurred to me when I was protesting against the second Gulf war. I noticed a fellow marcher with a wonderful banner that read: “Bombing for peace is like shagging for virginity” (my other favourite was “Make tea, not war.”).  Later on I read a comment on-line that has stayed with me “The trouble with using a peaceful end as a justification for destructive means is that you may not achieve the peaceful ends you want, and so all you are left with is the destruction.” This is of course pretty much how the invasion of Iraq has turned out. Is Iraq, or the world, really better off, more secure, happier, after all this killing and bombing?

I thought about this again the other night after convening another dialogue session at the Royal Festival Hall.  I am really enjoying these sessions – it feels very creative to explore different ways of being with and relating to other people.

What I found particularly interesting this time was that I didn’t experience anything new, that we didn’t reach great depths. We had a good conversation – we sat round in a circle, listened to each other respectfully, shared insights we had picked up from reading or speaking to others. But was it dialogue, I asked at the end? No, we all agreed, although we felt that we may have “dipped into it” once or twice. It is a subtle thing, commented one participant, and is hard to pin down.

So what did I learn? Firstly that dialogue doesn’t just happen if you simply create the space and bring some people together, even if those people have experienced this sort of work before.  It would surely have helped if I had spent more time at the beginning reminding us all of the practices that encourage dialogue – deep listening, voicing (speaking up for yourself) and suspending (temporarily letting go of your need to be right).

What I also noticed, on further reflection, is that there were at least a couple of occasions when I could have spoken out and invited the group to go deeper. But I chose not to, mainly because I felt uncomfortable about challenging the group in that way.  It was easier to go with the flow. Yet in doing so I missed an opportunity for a richer, more profound experience.

This led me to think that we probably all, every day, get these inner promptings – to speak up for what we believe, to reach out to an estranged friend, to challenge someone close to us, to challenge ourselves, to turn down (or say yes to!) that extra piece of chocolate cake. Yet too often we let those opportunities pass us by.

And it seems to me that the path to sanity, to wholeness, to integral health, to peace, to a life worth living, is to pay more attention to that inner voice that calls us out.  So long as we allow ourselves to be carried along with the rush of day-to-day existence, making it a priority not to upset others or ourselves, then we are going to miss out.

Thus my surprising (to me) conclusion is that if we genuinely seek environmental sustainability as a goal, we need to pay less attention to the goal itself and instead pay attention to the means. And by means I don’t mean wind turbines, or solar panels, or hydrogen powered cars, important as these may be. I am talking about the ways in which we live, work, talk, think and make decisions together.  After all, how can we expect to establish a healthy relationship with the planet if we have unhealthy relations with each other (this, by the way, is not an original insight. The German philosopher Theordo Adorno in 1955 explicitly linked the exploitation of man by man and the exploitation of nature by man, as indeed did Karl Marx before him.  But I suppose I am just starting to understand it properly.).

The conclusion?  Don’t spend your time fretting about recycling your bottles and paper – spend your time reaching out to that neighbour you rarely speak to, that business colleague you dislike. Pay less attention to your organic vegetables and more attention to how you interact with your family. Focus less on what you communicate with others about, and more time on the way in which you go about your communication. We will never achieve environmental sustainability without social sustainability. It is as simple as that.

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