I’ve been traveling lately, talking with people about creating a culture of possiiblity in their own arenas—organizations, communities, companies, movements, and beyond. The idea that animates this work is very simple: we are suffering greatly from the conventional understanding that has suppressed essential ingredients of our species’ astounding capability; we need to bring our whole selves fully into all that we do, amplifying the pleasure and value of our lives.
I have my ways of going about this, and more and more, I encounter others who also see what we are missing and what we can recover, who desire just as keenly to enact the vision of a society in which every member truly matters to the whole, and who pursue their desires by their own paths. Let me give you a taste of both.
In New York, I started my Culture of Possibility workshop with a musical experience designed to give people a glimpse of how much the old order I call Datastan has us miss: willingness to open ourselves to all of the information embedded in experience, and the ability and will to make use of all our capacities to understand and act.
On that occasion, I chose Sam Cooke’s song, “Change is Gonna Come.” People listened to it once, opening their bodies, emotions, intellects, and spirits to whatever might be evoked, then listened a second time as they made notes. In a little over three minutes, the song generated a remarkable complexity of sensation, emotion, and thought. People heard echoes of all the contradictions that shaped it: the big, lush orchestration in a kind of dialectical interaction with the simple, heartfelt lyrics and sweet melody; the mingled hope and despair; the individual and the many. I know the story of this song—how and why Cooke came to write it, what it meant in the sweep of his too-short life. I wrote about it in The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future, and quoted some of that material in a blog last May. So I was able to explain how all of the impulses, ideas, and states woven into the recording reflected Cooke’s story, even for those who didn’t know the details.
In the emergent world—the one I call The Republic of Stories—we don’t have to shrink ourselves to the scale of widgets to interact with corporations and institutions, modeling our own ways of being on the machine logic of our inventions. At any moment, we can open the gates of perception and understanding. We can treat each other as whole beings. We can assess and consider the full price of our actions, then act accordingly.
That world already exists; it’s just that the way is sometimes blocked by those so loyal to Datastan’s values that they can’t imagine an alternative. It’s a matter of time before enough people bring the new reality into focus, and I am determined to put my energy on the fulcrum of paradigm shift. It’s amazing how much even a single exercise—allowing a piece of music to enter us fully—can help engage the tipping-point.
In Vancouver recently, I spoke at the Zero Waste Conference, a gathering of scientists, officals, academics, and activists devoted to eliminating waste. I was deeply impressed to encounter Michael Braungart for the first time. His talk was frank and amusing, calling into question many of the aims implicit in zero waste and other action focusing on environmental impact reduction. Braungart’s points sounded obvious once you heard them, generating mind-changing implications. For instance, he compared the goal of “zero emissions” to the reality of a tree, which emits helpful substances into the atmosphere and earth. He questioned sustainability as a value, suggesting that it sets the bar pretty low: “Would you want to answer a question about the quality of your marriage by saying, ‘It’s sustainable’?”
Braungart is best-known as a thinker for Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which calls out the shortsighted way conventional manufacturing takes pride in generating a crade-to-grave product. What if everything was created with the idea of infinite reuse with no loss of quality—upcycling—whether organic or technological? He and his colleagues have worked on many projects that meet this standard, and in fact, they’ve developed a certification that goes with the encompassing vision of a future that is thrilling to contemplate, rather than a self-greased slide into oblivion.
I’m reading Braungart’s and William McDonough’s new book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance, and I love the way they point out the nakedness of Datastan (without ever using that word, of course). I’ve written often about “the metrics syndrome” (scroll down on this page to find a link to download my 2008 essay of that name) in which measuring something stands in for actual observation, analysis, and deep understanding. Braungart and McDonough describe the usual sequence of considerations in designing something, using housing for earthquake survivors in Haiti as their example:
1. Metrics of efficiency: House the most people at the lowest cost.
2. Tactics: Reduce the amount and cost of material needed for construction.
3. Strategies: Compress dimensions to save square inches and feet of materials.
4. Goals: Create the smallest habitable structure for a human being.
5. Principles: Apparently missing —it’s too late to be talking about principles when you have already developed your metrics and your tactics and your goals.
6. Human values: Unexpressed.
Thus, something believably motivated by compassion ends up dealing out misery. This is our dilemma, writ large. I was so happy to read their sequence in which values come first, just as I always recommend:
1. Establish the value or values for your company’s [I would add community's, government's, organization's] engagement with the world.
2. Then work with teams to establish your principles.
3. Then develop goals to realize those values.
4. Then develop strategies to meet those goals.
5. Then develop tactics to execute those strategies.
6. And, finally, develop metrics to measure the effectiveness of those tactics.
Why can’t we upcycle our abundant creativity, so that all our efforts to dream and enact a more vibrant, loving, and just future feed into new and better ways of doing it, rather than counting them as failures and dumping them into history’s landfill?
If the corporations and government agencies the authors work with can shift from allowing themselves to be driven by unmoored metrics, there is no reason why the rest of us can’t do it. There is no reason why we can’t move from Datastan’s grip into The Republic of Stories, where data serves our values and principles, not the other way around. Such ideas are gaining force, rolling down the slopes of history to land in a much more possible present and a future that is a pleasure to imagine. How can you integrate them into your own work and life?
A live version of Leonard Cohen’s anthem, “Hallelujah,” by Brandi Carlile.