It's been quite a year -- and it's only March. Extreme political unrest is underway throughout the Middle East. Earthquakes rock New Zealand, China, California and Japan. Shifting plates and tsunami waves in the Pacific Ocean have nuclear power plants perched on the edge of explosion.
Like many, I track these global events through social media. I'm overwhelmed by the graphic images that are communicated through video links and real time postings. The Twitter feeds about the earthquake in Japan move so rapidly I can't follow more than fragments of what is being shared. Fearful talk of the next Armageddon is couched in language of 2012 and divine retribution. I feel breathless at the pace of horror and destruction. I'm reminded of that old joke about the conflict between the pessimist and the optimist. The pessimist says, "It can't get worse." The optimist responds, "Oh yes it can."
Looking to both science and spirituality, how can we find what Stanford psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo calls the "heroic imagination"? What do we need to avoid the slippery slope of despair? Avoiding groupthink and the negativity of the media can be tricky as we seek the hero within us to overcome fear and affect positive change.
Our cultural stories -- and the images we hold about possible futures -- shape the path we take forward. As noted in a report called "Changing Images of Man," written several decades ago by former IONS President Willis Harman and his colleagues at SRI International:
Images of humankind that are dominant in a culture are of fundamental importance because they underlie the ways in which the society shapes its institutions, educates its young, and goes about whatever it perceives its business to be. Changes in these images are of particular concern at the present time because our industrial society may be on the threshold of a transformation as profound as that which came to Europe when the Medieval Age gave way to the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution.
Such sage insight speaks to the dominant image that drives economic growth and our efforts to control the forces of an objective world "out" there. Now, well into a new era of information, globalization and quantum interconnections, the dominator image has lost its focus. Events like the recent tsunami shake our certainty. We are being forced to examine our deepest assumptions about what is real and true.
In this process, new images are emerging to guide us. Research shows that crisis is a great catalyst for positive transformations. Even when painful, we have the capacity to make shifts in our worldview and calibrate our belief systems. We may begin to see ourselves as part of a living system, moving with the flow of evolution rather than thinking we can dominate over it.
Futurists today tell us we are at a kind of tipping point. It's just not clear which way things are tipping. On the one hand, we may be on the verge of a full systems collapse. On the other, we may be heading for the rebirth of a sustainable society. To find our way to this second option, we are well served to follow the advise of former writer and aikido master, George Leonard to "take the hit as a gift."
Futurist Oliver Markley has long been calling for a new image for our shared humanity. In a recent essay in the online journal Noetic Now called "Staying Resilient in a Wild-Card World," he argues that we need to keep a 360-degree perspective when anticipating trends and types of change. Most futures research focuses on relatively probable future patterns. These relate to outcomes that are either feared or desired. But another important catalyst for change is what is called "wild card" events. These include low probability events (Wild Card I) that are unlikely to occur (a massive earthquake and tsunami ravaging Japan), or high probability events that don't fit into current thinking (Wild Card II) and so carry low credibility (as was the case with climate change, and now could be argued for the unanticipated crisis of Japan's nuclear plants). Each can lead to unanticipated consequences that result in highly disruptive impacts.
A soft-spoken but big-vision futurist, Markley argues for the importance of guiding images to shape these possible futures. In his words:
Such shifts are increasingly being seen by experts as unlikely to emerge unless profound crises first occur that disintegrate the orderly functioning of existing societal systems. At the same time, it is hypothesized that the avoidance of profound civilizational collapse and evolution toward more benign alternative future possibilities, where resiliently sustainable socioecological systems can flourish, will be strongly shaped by the extent to which appropriate new guiding images quickly become an essential part of the zeitgeist.
Markley identifies resilience as a key transition-informing principle. Grounded in complexity theory, the focus on resilience addresses natural cycles of growth and dissolution. Markley draws on the Resilience Project, an interdisciplinary effort that uses diverse approaches to the study of how families, children and youth can develop resilience in the face of adversity. The focus of this program is the study of the social and physical ecologies that make resilience more likely to occur.
Resilience research is grounded in what futurists call panarchy theory. At the core of this theory is an adaptive cycle, which shapes the responses of individuals, institutions and ecosystems to crises. Reaching a stage of vulnerability can lead to historically significant global transformation. But will this transformation be one that supports the future of life on our planet?
As noted in Markley's article, Duncan and Graeme Taylor are futurists who have considered this question. In their article, "The Collapse and Transformation of Our World" (Journal of Futures Studies, 2007), they argue that we may be facing two possible futures. One involves an inclusive (sustainable) solution that can lead to a constructive reorganization of society. The other is a solution that will lead to conflicts over scarce resources and the disintegration of global civilization.
Which future manifests is based on how credible people find the cause to take action and in their trust of their own self-efficacy. The threat of disaster, without an image of better possible outcomes, can lead people to shut down and deny the problem or its positive resolution. The barriers to positive transformation are real and problematic. But history is a good indicator that we are a resilient species, filled with creative insight and the potential for life-enhancing breakthroughs.
In the face of our current global crises, an expanded sense of perspective, grounded in pragmatic hope, is what is called for. We need to create images that mark a new beginning, expressed in shared intention and collective action. We can do this by finding the hero within each of us. By harnessing our inner capacities, though meditation, contemplation, prayer and time in nature, we can cultivate the resilience to navigate the challenges of our outer world. Out of catastrophe can come the renewal of civilization. Moving away from reactivity, fear and panic and toward emotional balance and positive collective actions allows us to apply the time-tested tools for sustaining our well-being. In this process, we can promote deep healing -- both individually and for our shared humanity.
An invited contribution to the Ervin Laszlo Forum on Science and Spirituality.