“Human beings have never before lived in a condition where our actions today literally affect people all around the world."
Peter M. Senge
American, author of "The Fifth Discipline" and Senior
Lecturer for Organizational Learning at the MIT
One of the things that I am very mindful of today is living in the United States. I am aware how problematic the American culture is and how isolated and how insular. My reflections this morning are those of an American, but I would like to touch on several things that keep striking me again and again. Maybe
I can also use the American culture as a kind of icon, not a model, but an image that we project around the world. Of course, this is a Eurocentric icon. We are much more European than Chinese. Ironically, we are much more European than American.
It is not unusual for our Eurocentric culture to think of intelligence as somehow having to do with the brain. The oldest Chinese symbol for the mind is actually a drawing of a heart. It is important to remind ourselves that this kind of brain-centered concept of intellect is a particular narrative. It is a particular story. Our intellect is both collective and individual, and it is most definitely embodied in all of who we are, that which we can see and that which we cannot see. It is not the brain; clearly brains do not understand the spirit very well.
Hearts seem to do a much better job and perhaps even bodies do a much better job. My background has always been in trying to understand systems. It is a bad word, I always feel to need to apologize just a little. I do not know a better word. It does not mean computer systems, although we have used computer models and simulations. It does not mean management systems either. When someone is unhappy in an organization, whether it is the Abbey here or a business, they all say, 'It's not my fault, it's the system. "We often use "system" to point to a vague collection of rules and constraints that does not let us be who we are. But that is not the core. The core of systems thinking is understanding how we live in a world of interdependence.
What is in the foreground of my mind-as an American travelling to Europe this week-are the tragedies in America. Almost everybody I spoke with in Europe this past week started off their conversations by expressing their concerns and condolences. Obviously, crises and tragedies bring out something in us. Ironically, this was short term. What we need is something that endures, not just something that comes and goes with emotional events.
As a systems person, what I found myself thinking about this last week, is how difficult it is in the middle of something like this not only to be caught up in the compassion of reactiveness, to help people in need. That is a very important type of compassion. But there are other types of compassion. There is the compassion of deeper understanding. That is the compassion for the future. That is the compassion for the children that they might not have to suffer what the children in New Orleans have had to suffer this last week. That is not just a reactive compassion; it is a thoughtful compassion. Few Americans are capable today of thinking and saying "Maybe we had something to do with this. Maybe this is not just bad luck." Of course, it is bad luck when the hurricane or the typhoon lands here, not there. That is bad luck. But the deeper causes are not bad luck in the least.
We warm the oceans. For years, scientists have talked about the increasing instability of weather patterns all around the world. I know that the insurance industry spends a lot of time looking at this. This is their business. Swiss Re, the largest reinsurer in the world, has been convening private meetings among heads of state and CEOs to discuss the problem of increasing unpredictability of turbulence in global weather patterns for almost a half a decade now. They can see it in their business. But we cannot see it-and that is the question! Why do not we see it? What is keeping us from saying, "I had something to do with the tragedy of this week"? Not in the sense of having to criticize myself and flagellate myself about it, but more in the sense of that compassion for the future. Trying to understand the world of interdependencies is about trying to understand at multiple levels what's going on around us.
We live in a historic time. But what do we mean by "historic?" The simplest way I have tried to make sense of it is this: Human beings have never before lived in a condition where our actions today literally affect people all around the world. This is a simple biological reality, which is obviously augmented by our techno-sphere, our technology. I think it is probably safe to say that no village has ever been able to sustain itself for very long until people came to appreciate this sphere of interdependence that defines their living together. We have never lived alone. But now we are living in each other's backyards around the world-and that has never happened before. A couple of years ago, I was doing a presentation in Taiwan with a very successful entrepreneur. He was very famous in Taiwan. I could see that there were some deep differences in our views of the world. I really respected him, he is a wonderful man, he has accomplished a great deal. But there was something vexing me. I was sitting there, thinking, "What is it that he sees so differently than what I see"?
Then an image popped into my head. The dotcom collapse was a fairly recent event. People had got caught up in an extraordinary world, the dotcom world, a narrative that was very powerful and very dysfunctional.
For years, historical economists have used the term "bubble" to describe this. This is quite a beautiful metaphor. Inside the bubble, there is a worldview. There is a way of seeing the world, a way of talking, a way of thinking, a whole set of reinforcing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. And they seem to make sense. In the dotcom bubble, people who had been in business for sometime were saying, "I don't understand how you have a business that does not make a profit!" But inside the bubble, they all say, "Profit does not matter, we have the best Web site!" Of course, the bubble burst as financial bubbles always do.
All that was flashing through my mind in an instant when I was talking with my friend in Taiwan, and I said, "You know, I think the Industrial Age is a bubble." By the way, this is the Industrial Age; the industrial age is not over. All this stuff about the Information Age, not the Industrial Age! Take a look! Take a look at the energy we use, take a look at the materials we use: take a look at our lifestyle. But most of all, take a look at our thinking. The Industrial Age is the age of the machine, the Industrial Age is the age of technology. We still define our world by our technology, and we define progress, most tragically, by our latest technology. This is the Industrial Age; it has not changed. He looked at me, and that was the instant when I knew, that was the difference that was trying to come up through me.
Inside this bubble everything looks pretty cool, but outside the bubble people look and ask, "What are these people thinking?" Now one of the things that is difficult right now is that in the Industrial Age it is difficult to find people who are outside the bubble, because the bubble has spread around the world. But you can. I give you two easy places to look. You go into the developing world or into societies that have not been fully drawn into the industrial world. That you can do. But you actually do not have to travel that far. Talk to an eight-year old, talk to a ten-year old, talk to a young person who feels sucked into this screwy world we have created.
All ages are defined by their assumptions. There are three core assumptions underlined in the Industrial Age. The first assumption is that our technology will conquer nature. It is a core assumption of the Industrial Age. Whatever problems life may present, technology will solve those problems. Technology will conquer nature. It is a rather screwy, bizarre kind of image, if you stood today in New Orleans and said, "I wonder how we have done conquering nature!" But it is a core notion.
Embedded in it is a whole set of assumptions about what nature is. Nature is a machine. Newton called it "God's clockwork." It is a crucial assumption in the early stages of the formation of the Western scientific world. By the way, a small reminder: Science did not start in the West. Science is universal. All people have science. Native peoples have profound science. It is just a different kind of science.
The second assumption: Materialism defines progress. On a personal level, it tells us how well offwe are. When we look at our lives, we always define our lives by our relationships. Is it not ironic? A good life is defined by how much I have got. Yet none of us actually thinks that. We are caught in this huge inner conflict continually. My accomplishments, my achievements, how well I did in school, what degrees I have got, what job I have got, what position I have. It is something that does not mean terribly much compared to who I know, who knows me, who cares about me, who I care about. Those are the things that define our life.
So that is the bubble. And the bubble is bursting. The question all this leads to is very simple: How do we shepherd, how do we steward, how do we live, how do we be, how do we help as the bubble is bursting. And it is bursting.
Of course, this is a very traumatic time and it probably will be a very traumatic time for a long time. It will probably get harder, not easier, more wrenching, not more comfortable. There is no reason in the world that I see why we could expect to be more comfortable. We have to work together and we have to find ways to shepherd this transition.
Peter Senge received a B.Sc. in engineering from Stanford University, a M.Sc. in social systems modelling and a Ph.D. in management from MIT. He has been a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a fairly long time. He is also founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), a global community of corporations, researchers, and consultants dedicated to the "interdependent development of people and their institutions." Senge's work articulates a cornerstone position of human values in the workplace; namely, that vision, purpose, reflectiveness, and systems thinking are essential if organizations are to realize their potentials. His areas of special interest focus on decentralizing the role of leadership in organizations so as to enhance the capacity of all people to work productively toward common goals.
In 1990, Senge published the much-lauded book The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Since its publication, more than a million copies have been sold worldwide. In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified it as one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years. The Journal of Business Strategy (September/October 1999) named Peter Senge as one of the 24 people who have had the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years. The Financial Times (2000) named him as one of the world's "top management gurus." Business Week (October 2001) rated Senge as one of The Top (ten) Management Gurus.
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