Ours is a world of increasing control. Control over our environment, our citizens, and the very building blocks of life. Culturally we learn to think of control as a good thing. Yet I put to you it is exactly this pursuit of control that creates most of the world’s systemic problems, climate change included. That means at its root, climate change isn’t a technological or economic problem but s a problem of cultural philosophy.
Let me begin with a story.
A few weeks ago I had my final class of SAIL, or Somerville Academy for Innovative Leadership (which I wrote a little bit about here). Near the end of the day we engaged in a very interesting exercise that began with our teacher Hugh O’Doherty asking the 22 people in class stand in a circle. He then described the game: as a group we were to count to 22, but each person could only speak a single number. There were no assigned numbers and no signaling allowed to assist in coordination. The trickiest bit was that if two people spoke at the same time, Hugh would shut us down and make us start over.
What came next was a delightful comedy of errors. People began blurting out numbers very quickly, stomping all over one another in a mad rush to climb the ladder and finish the exercise. I believe the highest we ever made it was 8, and many of my classmates became visibly frustrated. Through all of this I remained silent, as somewhere in my mind I had chosen the number 12 as my own, figuring it wiser to let things settle down a bit first before joining the fray. After a dozen failures Hugh stopped us, and asked us to return silently to our seats. He said nothing and made no judgments, merely turning on the classroom projector to play this movie clip.
Watch it, it’ll be good for your blood pressure!
When the video ended, Hugh bade us remain silent and remake our circle to try the exercise again. And magically, in a few more tries, we had it! In our post-video attempts the group was noticeably calmer — the scene had seemingly touched us in a way that made us slow down and stop blurting out numbers to complete the task as soon as possible. For myself, I abandoned my ”claim” on the number twelve and instead closed my eyes and really tried to feel the dynamic of the group. After a time, a pause fell and somehow I knew it was mine, so I confidently uttered “fifteen.” Much as in the video clip, when the moment was right it felt like the number chose me more than I chose the number.
After we succeeded, the group was understandably excited and proud of itself. In the discussion that followed we admitted to being too focused on the task and had been ignoring “the field ” — the energy of the room, the breathing of our neighbors, and the subtle cues of posture and body language we all give off. Success had evaded us because we plunged forward unheedingly, following a path too rigid to allow for error or inefficiency. Conversely, when we allowed ourselves to slow down, when we loosened our grip and really listened, then the answers simply came to us.
As this example illustrates, control was the enemy — the harder we pushed for success, the more we failed.
Is it possible from this exercise to find larger lessons about life in general? Take for example the modern consumer’s attempt to control germs by buying “anti-bacterial” products, even though they’re terrible for us and produce more resistant strains of bacteria. What about the rise of “helicopter parents” who rigidly schedule every moment of their child’s day, even though numerous studies have shown that free play for children is tremendously beneficial? Finally, consider the arms race happening on industrial farms, as chemicals kill pests today only to create tomorrow’s superpests. Each of these examples exhibits an attempt at control that ultimately makes things worse, not better.
Is it possible to identify these patterns of self-defeating control at a societal level as well? Take security — the United States maintains military bases all around the world, in an attempt to further its interests and control perceived threats. No doubt at some level most of us feel stronger and safer for it. Yet this projection of control creates a feeling of resentment from the citizens of other nations, who often see their sovereignty trampled and their natural resources exploited while the people receive little or no benefit. Add to that the frequency with which your friends and neighbors are being blown up by remote control sky robots, and wouldn’t you be pissed? Pissed off enough to become a terrorist?
Better yet, consider economics. Our system is founded on the premise that we should all go out and make as much money as we can (“rational self-interest”), and the rest will sort itself out. At first glance of course, this sounds logical and proper. Yet in pursuing this strategy, businesses often become so focused on financial goals that they don’t realize the systemic weaknesses they’re introducing as a result (I’m looking at you, derivatives traders). It’s this mentality that encourages junk food companies to ignore the damage their products inflict on public health, and encourages fossil fuel companies to ignore the impacts of their pollution on the climate. Luckily for them, our society tends to put the onus for fixing systemic problems not on businesses but on the consumers themselves (Control your tummy and eat healthy! Resist your wallet and buy “green”!). Yet inevitably this fallacy of personal choice results in failure, and the ugly consequences of our short-sightedness manifest in ways like market crashes, obesity epidemics, and catastrophic climate change.
And for all our heroic attempts at control, do our lives even improve? Every day humanity brings more and more of the world under its sway, and yet we become only more unhappy and insecure. Each increase in control produces negative feedback which raises our anxiety level. This pushes us even harder to subdue our environment, in turn producing more negative feedback. And the cycle continues.
In the back of our minds the voice of culture whispers, “Once we control everything we will be happy, safe, and secure. But we’re not there yet, so keep pushing”. As our anxiety grows we’ll sacrifice anything to make it go away including our individual rights, our privacy, our moral foundation, our compassion.
And yet it is only our fear that drives us to try to control things. But thinking of a world without control makes us anxious still, doesn’t it? If we don’t have control, aren’t we talking about a world engulfed by and anarchy and chaos?
Letting go can be scary, there’s no question, maybe as scary as the first dance with someone you like. Yet despite your anxiety over the steps, how your breath smells and where to position your hands, hopefully you would resist the urge to control your partner’s movements. Instead you would give and receive subtle cues, and your partner would react accordingly to produce mutual enjoyment. If you’re enjoying yourself, it will feel natural.
And that makes perfect sense when you consider nature is, after all, the ultimate lesson in letting go. Nature has no controller — what works works, what doesn’t doesn’t, and each actor in the system is responsive to each other actor, in the end producing a lush vibrant world full of beauty and abundance.
So I put to you: to preserve that world, to reduce our anxiety, and to ensure the continuation of the human race, we must learn to abandon our lust for control. We must conquer fear, loosen our grip and learn dance with our environment, rather than subjugating it and treating it only as a resource to be spent. If we do those things, I promise you that we will thrive in ways that a path of control could never give us.
Reposted from Science Pope. Slideshow image by Son of Groucho/Flickr.
— Eric Krasnauskas, Transition Voice