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5.9 Human impotence and potential


1. Organizational and intellectual impotence

Despite the many obvious successes of the past decades, there is much to suggest that humanity has lost its capacity to respond appropriately to the conditions that it engenders. Whilst its power to act continues to increase, its ability to act non-disruptively continues to decrease. As noted by Ervin Laszlo: "We are applying piecemeal solutions to global problems and are fighting a holding action. We tend to forget that we are living in the midst of one of the most fundamental transformations in history." (The Inner Limits of Mankind, 1989)

The policies envisaged by institutions to improve the quality of their response are successful to the extent that they are isolated from the environments that their success impoverishes. Policies of wider scope and greater sensitivity are not viable under present circumstances nor under those that can be foreseen. They are undermined by political, resource and other constraints, but especially by the dead weight of an ever increasing population.

Corresponding to this bankruptcy of policies, there is an even more disappointing intellectual bankruptcy. The plethora of insightful recommendations for appropriate transformation fails to recognize the implications of such incoherence. The most powerful insights tend to acquire significant only to the extent that they ignore others that take into account different factors and dimensions. Interdisciplinarity has proved viable only in very specific cases.

Over the past decades hope has been placed in general systems, policy sciences, intergovernmental action, cooperation, development strategies, telecommunications, and other such approaches. They have accomplished much, but it is clear that the scope of such initiatives is inadequate to the challenge.

Although there are many "answers" to the dilemma of the times, the very richness of proposals disguises humanity's essential impotence at this time (except ironically with respect to reproduction). Michael Marien, in a critical guide to 350 items of literature on social change proposals, noted that "The great majority of the views on social change and alternatives are posited with little or no reference to any other views, past or present." (Societal Directions and Alternatives, 1976). In the 1980s this is seen in the lack of substantive linkages between the Brandt Report (1980), the Brundtland Report (1987) and the South Report (1990). In 1990, Marien reviewed some 36 purportedly comprehensive agendas proposed for the USA alone. There is little interest in how people should comprehend or respond to such competing perspectives.

In this context it is to be expected that the way forward will emerge through the lowest common denominator amongst the extant proposals. The challenge of interrelating competing answers as necessary complements, to provide the requisite richness of an appropriate response, would seem to attract little interest.

2. Potential shift of perspective

Increasing frustration with the inappropriateness of intellectual and organizational responses has engendered many calls for "quantum leaps", paradigm shifts, radical changes of mind-set, and the like. Different levels of expectation are associated with such calls. For some the shift appears relatively straightforward -- merely a matter of acting with "common sense". For others it is a question of a "change of heart", leading to a more caring attitude. It may also be seen as a "shift in priorities", so that resources can be allocated more appropriately.

In response to the plethora of unrelated proposals, some see the way forward through the cultivation of consensus, especially on values. Marien (1976) argues that: "Basically, our society lacks a comprehensive and inspiring vision, widely understood and supported, that can guide the formation of our basic policies." Many would argue that their own group's vision should be accepted by others as the most appropriate guide to future development.

One of the core issues would seem to be not whether particular approaches, initiatives or visions are "right" or "wrong". Rather the question is how to interweave the initiatives and visions, and their advocates, such that the diverse insights into what can be understood as "right" can complement and enhance one another. But this process also needs to ensure that what is "wrong" in each initiative is counter-acted or constrained by others. The current notion of "checks and balances" is a very pale reflection of what is required. A new approach to complexity is required, although many assume that it will not be especially challenging.

Ervin Laszlo (1989) argues that: "Regrettably, much current effort has been wasted: it has identified the wrong problems and identified them on the wrong scale...It is forgotten that not our world, but we human beings are the cause of our problems, and that only by redesigning our thinking and acting, not the world around us, can we solve them. The critical but as yet generally unrecognized issue confronting mankind is that its truly decisive limits are inner, not outer....On the personal level inner limits are constituted by the "hardening of the categories" of an age that is now behind us...On the cultural level inner limits reside in the atrophy of positive images and visions of the future of human society, and in the unwillingness to allow new realities to modify traditional conceptions of how to realize whatever ideals still hold sway today...And on the political level inner limits manifest themselves in the failure of the political will of the majority of the world's governments when it comes to actively implementing the objectively needed cooperative policies..."

3. Addressing inner limits effectively

The challenge is to address these inner limits more effectively. It is they which constrain: the way in which strategies are envisaged; the way in which disciplines elaborate their patterns of categories and limit their integrative responses; and the possibilities for collaboration between organizations with supposedly complementary strategies.

These inner limits may be addressed: through novel approaches to human development (Section H); through exploring non-dualistic, pattern-oriented thinking (Section K); and through the pattern-exploring potential of interactive computer graphics (Section Z). But in all these cases, the strong suspicion remains that these approaches will remain inhibited by the pattern of categories through which such work is initiated -- "hardened categories" are indeed the issue. Such efforts may be insufficient and too late.

4. Metaphor as an unexplored resource

It is for this reason that this Encyclopedia echoes others who perceive in metaphor (Section M) a major unexplored resource appropriate to the nature of the challenge. The argument here is that it may well provide a cognitive short-cut through which more powerful, complex and subtly appropriate initiatives can be envisaged. It may be used to by-pass the constraints of the conventional educational system, especially in developing countries and in the retrogressing areas of industrialized countries. People can learn to redesign, as they see fit, their perceptions of their environments so as to empower them to act and collaborate in new ways. Metaphors can provide the cognitive spectacles through which appropriate uses of new technologies can be envisaged.

The desperate pleas for more encouraging social visions can be usefully seen as the search for new metaphors to provide a connecting pattern in an increasingly fragmented society. Metaphors offer an acceptable, but underdeveloped, way of operating cognitively on, and within, an increasingly oppressive reality. In this light many of the current initiatives can be challenged in terms of the adequacy of the metaphor they imply.

What metaphors are implicit in the institutions and programmes of the United Nations? What metaphors are used in the effort to reconcile centralized planning and market economies? Is there a more powerful and appropriate metaphor for sustainable development than "having one's cake and eating it too"?