Written by Bob Doppelt
Everywhere we look today, joblessness continues to haunt us and economic inequity remains excessive. Will new policies solve these problems? Are new technologies the ticket? Does the answer lie in conclusive victories for conservative or liberal political ideologies?
Actually, none of the above will do the trick. More of the same type of technologies and policies, no matter what their ideological bent, will only make things worse.
To resolve a problem you must first understand its cause. The roots of our troubles are simple, yet for most of us completely hidden from view. We have been living in a dream world. Our behavior and the actions of society as a whole have been shaped by with fundamental misjudgments about how the planet functions and what it means to live a good and decent life. To address today’s escalating suite of challenges, we must overcome the erroneous perspectives that have led us to this predicament. At the most fundamental level, this requires a shift from responding to the world exclusively through the perspective of ‘extreme individualism’ – the lens of ‘Me,’ which includes acting only to satisfy our personal and organizational goals and desires – to meeting our needs by caring for an expansive ‘We’ – the many people, organisms, and natural processes that make life possible and worthwhile. Five interrelated commitments can help us make the shift from ‘Me’ to ‘We.’
First, always strive to see the ecological, social, and economic systems of which you are part. One of the reasons things seem to be falling apart is that many people pursue their individual self-interest without considering the context in which they exist. An indisputable fact of life is that our survival, and the survival of all other life forms on Earth, is possible only because we are enmeshed within a complex web of interdependent ecological and social systems. The air you breathe, water you drink, and the food you eat are created by complex ecological processes that are driven by the Earth’s climate system. Your mental health and personal wellbeing are determined by your social relationships. Yet, too often we ignore or deny this reality. This always leads to trouble. The first commitment each of us must make to undertake the shift from ‘Me’ to ‘We’ that is required to stabilize and eventually restore the climate, economy, and social wellbeing is to see the systems we are part of.
Tip: How can we do this? Systems are not easy to quantify. But you can map them. On a piece of paper sketch out the social, economic, and ecological systems you depend on for life. This can be great fun. It and can also greatly expand your awareness of the interdependent nature of life.
Second, be accountable for all of the consequences of your actions on those systems. Given the precarious conditions of the planet today, almost every action we take affects the interlocking systems we are part of in some way, now or in the future. However, few of us spend much time considering the many ways in which our actions might affect the systems we depend on for life. Instead, like bulls in a china shop, we pursue our own self-interests without regard to their direct and indirect, immediate or long-term impacts. This, we are told, is natural and good. If everyone does it, so the mantra goes, everything will magically turn out for the best. But climate disruption, economic collapse, and growing inequity have unequivocally shown this cultural belief to be wrong. We must always acknowledge the law of cause and effect and work hard to account for all of the possible consequences of our actions on the systems we are part of.
Tip: As with systems, cause and effect can be difficult to quantify. But it can be mapped. By using ‘fishbone’ diagrams you can project the possible consequences of your actions. As you play with this tool, your capacity to account for the effects of your actions will dramatically improve.
Third, clarify the moral principles you will abide by when responding to the impacts on the systems you are part of. As your awareness expands of how your actions might affect the social and ecological systems that make life possible, you must decide how to respond. What do you stand for and how do you want to live your life from this point forward? Answering these questions requires the adoption of a clear set of moral principles. Morality isn’t about sanctimonious preachy stuff. It involves real-world decisions about what your duties and responsibilities are to other people, which behaviors are fair and unfair, and which are just and unjust. The most universally held moral precept is to ‘do no harm.’ This means that any action that causes unjustifiable human suffering and death is morally wrong. It is also illegal. Making a commitment to ‘do no harm’ to other people and the natural environment help focus our attention on the need to control our selfish and aggressive urges.
Tip: A simple way to remind yourself of the moral axioms you choose to live by is to post them somewhere obvious, such as on your bathroom mirror. If you stick with it, all sorts of opportunities will become obvious to ‘do no harm’ to the systems you are part of.
Fourth, realize that you are a trustee of the planet and take responsibility for the continuation of all life. The pressures on the planet today are so extensive that many scientists believe humanity has entered a new geological era called the ‘Anthropocene.’ This is the first epoch in history when human activities, not natural processes, will determine the fate of the Earth. If our actions now will decide the future of our planet, we are each a trustee with the responsibility to ensure the continuation of all life on Earth. While the previous commitment emphasized ‘doing no harm’ by controlling your self-focused and aggressive qualities, this one focuses your attention on magnifying your innate selfless, cooperative, and caring instincts to ‘do good’ to all other people and organisms on the planet. The Golden Rule succinctly describes this commitment: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”
Tip: From a practical perspective, accepting that you are a trustee of the planet and taking responsibility for all life this means you must strive to relate to other people fairly and with respect, purchase only what you need, and use goods and services that are environmentally benign or restorative and that can be completely reused or recycled.
Fifth, break free from the false beliefs that control your life and your organization and choose your own destiny. Even though your perceptions and behaviors are strongly influenced by your upbringing, today’s dominant cultural worldview and the physical, political, and economic infrastructure they have produced, it is important to realize that you have the capacity to change your thinking and behavior at any time. You are not forever committed to outdated, harmful beliefs and habits. This is incredibly empowering knowledge. It means you can start to ‘do no harm’ and ‘do good’ to the social and ecological systems you are part of any time you like.
All social change happens one person at a time. This means the place to start to address climate change, the economic downturn and growing inequity is with you. As many other people make a similar pledge to abide by the five commitments, the tide will turn, and effective practices, technologies, and policies will emerge that will set the world on a more stable, secure, and sustainable path.
About the Author: Bob Doppelt is the Executive Director of The Resource Innovation Group (TRIG) and an adjunct professor in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon where he teaches systems thinking and global warming policy. He is the author of From Me to We: The Five Transformational Commitments Required to Rescue the Planet, Your Organization, and Your Life. For more information, please visit www.me-to-we.org.