As Systems Collapse, Citizens Rise

09/07/2015 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2016
  • Otto Scharmer Senior Lecturer, MIT; Co-founder, Presencing Institute

As we see pictures of German citizens cheering tens of thousands refugees arriving from Syria and other war zones, we may be witnessing an emerging pattern of the years to come: bureaucracy is failing (EU), systems collapsing (millions of Asylum seeking refugees in urgent need of helping hands) -- AND: citizens rising to the occasion!

In the context of ever increasing national egoism and political hypocrisy on the side of many EU (and non-EU) politicians, the outpouring of solidarity from citizens of Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin and elsewhere is a profound sign of hope. If the EU is going to break down in the years to come, it will not be because of the millions of refugees now beginning to streaming in. It will result instead from a cold-hearted response to a humanitarian crisis that makes all the EU declarations look like a stream of empty phrases and hypocritical statements. At the moment, we see this is exemplified by the cynical policies of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, designed to increase refugees' suffering and thereby deter additional refugees from seeking Asylum in EU countries or by the governments of Poland and the Baltic States that declared that they would only accept refugees of Christian faith (putting Europe back almost 400 years to the time prior to the Peace of Westphalia).

In that general context, sadly mirrored through a race to the bottom in the U.S. election primaries these days, we can see a perfect microcosm of the disruptions to come. Here is the pattern that we can discern now:

1. The old body of past rules and regulations is increasingly out of touch with what is actually going on (EU Asylum policies out of touch with the actual humanitarian crisis of refugees dying while trying to get to Europe).
2. As the crisis intensifies, systems move towards breakdown and collapse.
3. As systems move towards collapse, people and leaders from across all sectors react with one of the following three responses:

Regression: revert back to old behaviors that activate the Amygdala part of our (instinctual) brain: using direct violence (like burning houses) or structural violence (building walls) against foreigners and refugees to keep or move them out. Examples: Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, and most of the far right in Europe and the United States.

Muddling through: More of the same. More meetings. More words. More declarations. More hypocrisy. Examples: Prime Minister David Cameron, who finds eloquent words but does remarkable little to help in the refugee crisis, especially given his country's involvement in the Iraq war.

Empathic-human response: attending to the emergency situation, stopping and letting-go of our old body of routines and behaviors (that may have outlived their usefulness) and letting-come of human generosity that arises from co-sensing the kind of help that this situation is calling us to co-create. Example: Chancellor Angela Merkel and the crowds at German train stations offering SIM Cards, toys, food, and their own homes. As the Mayor of Munich said:

Every day I am asking myself how can we accommodate these people, these refugees, how can we give them a feeling that they are safe here in Munich, here in Germany. I am not really thinking about how many people can we afford and can we take here in Munich. That is not the question...

When you see the responses from the public in Germany these days you can see that at this point, the third response is shaping how people respond collectively. That does not mean that there aren't right wing people who believe that the first response (regression) is the only way. It does not mean that there aren't many mainstream politicians who prefer to do more of the same (second response), more meetings, more words, more hypocrisy. Both responses do exist in Germany, as they also exist in all other Western countries today.

The point is this: these days, they are increasingly irrelevant. What matters more is that the logic of collective action has suddenly shifted to the third response. Moving to the third response is ending the fruitless back and forth between the two other views. The logic of collective action is suddenly shifting from the head to the heart. Or, put differently: from applying yesterdays rules onto the current situation, to co-sensing from the current situation what response is needed from us, right now.

What's interesting is that this shift in the logic of collective action not only happens on the level of civil society (citizens of Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin had to be stopped because they over-donated things in excess of what the refugees actually needed) but also on the level of politics. Consider the example of the conservative regional government leader in Bavaria (Regierungsprasident of Oberbayern) who stated in passing that

[in this situation] I consider legal questions no longer that important, my primary focus is now more on humanitarian management.

For a high ranking, conservative German government official, where rules and questions of legality tend to be EVERYTHING, to make such a statement, documents a profound shift of mindset from abstract rules to co-sensing what the humanitarian crisis is calling us to do. What a shift!

Germany has accepted almost half a million refugees during the first seven months of the year - a number that is expected to rise to at least 1 million until the end of the year. That figure equals more than 1 percent of the current German population - in just a single year. Even though it's a smaller percentage than what Sweden does, it nevertheless is a significant shift that will change Germany more than the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification did in 1989/1990.

To summarize, the refugee crisis is a microcosm of the future that we all face over the next 10-20 years. The social grammar of that crisis looks like this:

• As rules and regulations (that always reflect the past) are increasingly out of sync with the actual reality on the ground, we see

• Systems starting to fail, break down and collapse, which leads to...

• People, politicians, journalists/media rising to the occasion or not--and accordingly...

• The logic of collective action arising from either the past (muddling through or regression) or from the present moment (co-sensing by tuning into what the emerging future calls us to do).

If the latter happens, we begin to see that the crisis and breakdown of our larger systems are actually a phenomenal opportunity to renew and update our old bodies of rules and regulations to be more fluid and in sync with the actual situation on the ground.

If the former happens we will see an enormous magnification of human suffering and amplification of the system breakdowns on an unprecedented level of global scale.

It would also serve us well to take a step back and ask why again it is that we are facing the refugee problem in Europe right now. Why are so many people forced to leave their home countries in the middle East? Who sold all these weapons that are now being used to kill innocent citizens and children? Who armed and trained the militants that now murder, in the name of Al Qaida and ISIS, whoever crosses their way?

Both groups were in part supported (and armed) by the US and much of the current breeding ground for ISIS in the Middle East directly resulted from the catastrophic decisions that the Bush/Cheney administration took after 9/11--effectively responding to a crisis by reverting to regression rather than by opening up and leaning into the future wanting to emerge.

Thus, opening our doors to refugees is not only a moral-human but also a historic closing-of-the-feedback-loop type of imperative for the West. Closing the door to problems that we helped to create in the first place means that we are unwilling to look into the mirror of our own collective past (according to the Guardian, the US took only a total of 1500 refugees from Syria since 2011 -- less in four full years than the city of Munich did on a single morning last weekend).

If the people and politicians of Germany can do it, roughly a hundred years after sleepwalking into World War I and roughly 70 years after having led all of Europe into total moral and physical destruction -- WE ALL can do it too. That third response already IS happening all around us. Particularly on local levels, as we can witness in many countries around the world.

But now is the time that all these (often disjointed) local seeds of the future start to connect and become aware of what they really are: the seeds of a new global movement that, if it became more aware of itself, has the capacity to reshape 21st century collective action, not only for one weekend in Germany, but more distributed, more multi-local, and more sustainable all over the place (check out u.lab as one of the vehicles for that).

The call of the future is already here. Are we able to listen and rise?

Thanks to Adam Yukelson and Lukas Beckmann for their helpful comments.

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