Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 2: Emergence

The reason I initially reserved from the library Wheatley’s Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity is because I found a reference to her writing on emergence, and this has been a theme of my research for fifteen years. Her book offered more than I anticipated in terms of leadership for today’s world, though her sections on emergence were not necessarily new. Nonetheless, they are central to her argument.

I usually use water to illustrate emergence, which is the idea that reality comprises various strata and that each new stratum has powers, mechanisms and properties that were not present in its building blocks. New levels of reality “emerge” out of those beneath them. So, when two hydrogen atoms bond with one atom of oxygen, you have something completely new – water – and it has powers and properties not available at the previous scale. Wheatley uses cookies for her more delicious central illustration (227). A cookie comprises various ingredients, none of which result in the mouth-watering goodness of this well-baked delight. Life itself is emergence – the stream of consciousness enabling you to read this blog is mysteriously emerging from over 37 trillion cells as well as highly complex systems and processes. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I used emergence in the social sciences to consider how churches emerge from congregants and denominations emerge from churches. More recently, I’ve been looking at emergence in terms of broader degradational trends in culture, especially the mental health crisis among youth and young adults and aspects of racism and polarization. I believe emergent powers materialism offers a helpful lens to consider how we may create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world – or so I hope.

Wheatley’s perspective is not as initially optimistic. She recognizes that life does change through emergence and is firm in her analysis that once a culture has emerged, it cannot be reversed through any form of reductionism. Changing the players at the table, focusing on behaviours, or creating new incentive systems will not work a culture backwards. For Wheatley, all we can do is start over – and this is part of her leadership approach in our troubling times. 

“We start over by turning to our identity, the source of self-organization, reclaiming what we still believe in, what description gives meaning to who we want to be… This is our work as leaders, to focus within our sphere of influence, accepting the harsh reality that we can’t change the global culture that has emerged. There is no way to unwind where we are. We could have changed the ‘growth is good, extract everything you can’ mindset when we were first warned of the impact this was having on the planet… We didn’t.” (228)

The new emergent culture of global capitalism is in control. The only option for Wheatley is rebellion – walking out and beginning again with new values. Moving forward means working with emergence to be “fully engaged, carefully observing what’s going on as we do our work, learning from experience, applying those learnings, adapting, changing. In other words, behaving like everything else alive does.” (231) Wheatley is essentially arguing for an ecological approach that mimics systems in the environment and asks fundamental questions such as:

  • “What are the values, intentions, principles for behaviour that describe who we want to be? 
  • Once established, are these common knowledge, known by all? 
  • As we work together, do we refer to our identity to make decisions? 
  • How do we respond when something goes wrong? 
  • Do we each feel accountable for maintaining the integrity of this identity?” (232)

Her approach is highly relational, and this jives with the view I take as well. Through our relationships, we can come back to a flourishing culture and environment. “We are not broken people. It’s our relationships that need repair. It’s relationships that bring us back to health, wholeness, holiness.” (240)

Wheatley does not get into the more advanced mechanisms that social scientists such as Margaret Archer delineate for wrestling with how individual human agents can change the culture. Archer’s morphogenetic approach involves mindfully subjugating our internal conversations to transform the culture within and around us rather than replicating it. But without the in-depth analysis, Wheatley grasps the spirit of the morphogenetic approach. The critical application requires consideration of scale. Changing culture is not done at national and global scales – it happens intra and interpersonally. 

“If we are working well with emergence, these questions (listed above) become part of our everyday perceptions. We don’t ask them occasionally or once a year at a retreat. We all have to become more observant, more open to differing perceptions, more open to new interpretations. However, only the leader is in the position to see the whole organization. No matter how willing people might be, everyone is overwhelmed and consumed with their own work. Sane leadership is developing the capacity to observe what’s going on in the whole system and then either reflect that back or bring people together to consider where we are now.” (232) 

And this brings us to the next, final part of the review of Wheatley’s insightful leadership book: creating islands of sanity. She argues that we cannot reverse our society’s collapse at higher scales by our leadership no matter how good and sane we are. Amid collapse, we see that “the loss of complex systems pushes people back on their own resources; they retreat into clans and ethnicities. Historically, people revert to the worst human behaviors, struggling to survive such great dislocation. A few people step forward to do what they can, acting heroically and embodying the qualities of compassion and insight.” (249)

In my next post, I’ll reflect on sane emergent leadership in a time of collapse.

Part 1: Collapse
Part 3: Islands of Sanity

Hope in Troubled Times, Part 2: Ideology

My son Brendan and I are reading the book Collapse together while we are social distancing. (Look for a recommendation on this one down the road). His favourite chapter thus far has been about Easter Island, where the population used all the resources at their disposal in a tribal race to honour their ancestors through what Brendan calls Yum-Yum heads. Author Jared Diamond queries what the person who cut down the last tree might have been thinking. Likely they were so entrenched in the ideology of the time they were not cognizant of the consequences: starvation and the loss of 90% of the population. 

This post is part two in a longer than usual recommendation for the book Hope In Troubled Times by Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst. Yesterday I addressed idolatry through the lens of the book and recent opinions that the US should jump-start the economy by Easter. Today I’m looking at how this may reveal one of the dominant ideologies of our day.

In the volume, ideology is defined as “the entire set of conceptions and beliefs subscribed to by a specific group of people.” (32) It can also mean “a deliberate political attempt to systematically regulate or manipulate people’s currently held ideas in order to achieve certain societal ends.” (33) Ideology has three primary components:

  1. Absolutized political or societal end goals.
  2. A redefinition of currently held values, norms and ideas to such an extent that they legitimize in advance the practical pursuit of the predetermined end.
  3. Establishing a standard by which to select the means or instruments necessary for effectively achieving the all-important goal. (33)

The core idea is that within an ideology, the end goal becomes paramount, and anything getting in the way of that goal is ascribed as evil. The authors use the French Revolution, Nazism, and Communism as examples, demonstrating how each was crafted toward a non-negotiable end and had specific people or ideas that were considered evil. In Nazism, for example, the Jews were declared to be evil itself because they opposed the overarching end. (34)  The authors go into considerable detail on the phases of ideological development: conception, actualization, (re)construction, domination, terror, dissolution. (52-55) There is more on ideology than I’m going to describe here, which is why this is a book recommendation. Check it out!

Of interest today is one of the four ideologies that Goudzwaard et al. argue exist in our current era: “The pursuit of more material wealth or prosperity and the opportunity for continued material progress.” (38) To be fair, the authors are not entirely convinced material progress and prosperity are full-fledged ideologies in the same sense as Communism or Nazism. They call for caution. Nonetheless, they cite some interesting trends that point to the existence of an ideology, beginning with socioeconomic paradoxes that border on absurdities.

  1. The poverty paradox: “Despite an unprecedented expansion of wealth, recent years have witnessed unpredicted increases in situations of deepening poverty.” This is the case not only in developing nations but in the world’s richest countries. “If material prosperity expands in a country, then why has poverty not been alleviated in tandem with that expansion?” (87)
  2. The care paradox: “Opportunities for extending care are steadily eroding in increasingly wealthy societies.” We are seeing the realities of this right now in the pandemic. Countries like the US should be the most financially prepared for such a disaster. Clearly, this is not the case. (87)
  3. The time paradox: Prosperity should bring more free time for leisure and the enjoyment of wealth. However, at least before social distancing measures, our pace has accelerated, and the effects of stress and burnout are evident.
  4. The environment paradox: “The application of improved technologies, more economic resources, and a series of international agreements has not been able to turn the tide of environmental destruction.” (88)

The authors root these paradoxes within the tensions between dynamism and production – “the tension between what can progress and what can scarcely progress.” (90) Poverty results because many in society cannot keep up with the pace of change due to structural, educational, or economic factors. Care as an economic activity cannot keep up because the costs and prices of service increase proportionately faster than productive sectors. Society tends to view anything economically stationary as regressive. This means the only real response available to the care sector in this paradigm is to find ways to increase efficiencies, which means less staff and equipment (as continuously seen in the news this very day). Things are worse for the time paradox and environment paradox as these are impediments to increased productivity. These paradoxes cannot be solved by more money, technology or science precisely because they flow out of “the excess of the forces of unlimited development.” (91)

The ideological conclusion: “The spreading scourge of paradoxes in our society is a sign or signal that our society does not allow the negative and even risky consequences of paradoxes to overrule the belief that, above all, else, the current dynamism must be sustained and expanded.” (91) More succinctly, we live within an ideology of endless progress. The means of this progress are the economy, technology and science. The idea that we must keep progressing has become an absolute end that seems irrefutable to many. Progressives arguing for the preservation of the environment or social justice become evil opponents in this ideology. It is not surprising that we are willing to sacrifice 1 to 3% of the population in America if those individuals, who are not economically productive, put the ultimate end of the ideology at risk. The economy simply must grow, and we must become more prosperous. There is no alternative.

Tomorrow I’ll look at how the realization of and repentance from this ideology can lead to hope in these troubled times.