If, as described by Kurt Vonnegut, the Second World War was “Western Civilization’s second unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide,” anthropogenic climate change would be the third one. On the other hand, it is a step up because what we are witnessing today is how Business as Usual is making this Western Civilization’s third attempt global.
You have probably already heard of the fable where a frog, when put suddenly into boiling water, jumps out immediately, whilst, when put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. Climate change would be that same slow boiling water, and we humans, the frogs. However, the difference between frogs and humans is that, due to being considerably more rational animals than frogs, we are spending the cooking time debating what would be the worst-case scenario. The debate is so triggering and passionate that no one wants to miss out. No decision-maker in power thinks of jumping out from the pot to put the fire out. Instead, few smartasses have decided to start flying out to space, hoping to create their private humanity.
No suicide is ever involuntary. Especially when it’s collective. But not until now have I heard of a bunch of people choosing the slow boiling water as a means to commit one. This masterfully devised plan is the result of many decades of our best brains put working together. It was conceived systematically, transnationally, and, above all, rationally, through techno-managerial efficiency while ending the history in the process.
Despite being “unsuccessful,” the “second suicide attempt” led to spreading the “Western Civilization” beyond its historical, cultural boundaries. It pushed it to the Far East, to Japan. There were undoubtedly better ways and opportunities for the Empire of the Rising Sun to come out of their voluntary centuries of isolation. Still, its leader(s) chose to join our “suicide attempt.” Luckily, the attempt failed, but it has succeeded in stretching “Western Civilization” and securing the ground for making this third “attempt” global. By combining western technology and misinterpretations of Adam Smith with eastern commitment and devotion to ritual, we got management practices that have inspired business practices worldwide for many decades.
We got kaizen, a concept referring to business activities that continuously improve all functions and focusing on applying small, daily changes that result in major improvements over time. In the obsessive attempt to reduce uncertainty, organizations became skillful in defensive routines and dislocating problems occurring in fragmented processes further away in time and place. “Let someone else deal with those. I already have too much on my plate”, became part of the burned-out leaders’ culture.
With standardized programs and processes fragmented into manageable units and their corresponding KPIs, the whole is nowhere to be seen in the picture. After all, one of the central teachings from systemic thinking is that it is much easier to focus on elements than on their interactions. Hence, “thanks” to this fragmentation, our ability to extract natural resources and create greenhouse gases improved daily through tiny, almost unperceivable changes. Similar to those that arise through the slow boiling water.
For many decades now, kaizen, which refers to “improvement” in Japanese, has settled down in techno-managerial vocabulary. However, now that globalization has spread the “Western Idea” into each corner of our planet, hara-kiri would perhaps be a more accurate concept to use given the latest IPCC report.
If we stick to the “plan,” this time, we will end up being successful in the “attempt.” But the good news is that we don’t have to. It is up to us. It is up to us to acknowledge that the worst-case scenario has already begun. The plot is slowly developing through global warming, and we all play our part in it. Envisioning future environmental scenarios is a powerful collective exercise for developing shared vision. However, without motivating people to act accordingly, it remains fiction. We need action!
Fear and aspiration are two fundamental sources of energy that can motivate action. From the systemic thinking perspective, “The power of fear underlies negative visions. The power of aspiration drives positive visions. Fear can produce extraordinary changes in short periods, but aspiration endures as a continuing source of learning and growth.” (Peter Senge). From the evolutionary biology perspective, while facing imminent danger triggered by fear, human repertoire reduces to 3F: fight, flight, or freeze. The self-preservation instinct guides all three responses, and neither of them is cooperative. Aspiration is and it promotes dialogue as team discipline. It facilitates the visioning process through the gradual emergence of a shared vision from different personal visions. It facilitates cooperation and trust. (More comming in the next post)
Eventually, it comes down to asking ”Why do you not commit suicide?” This provokingly direct and aparently absurd question was often used in his work with severely depressed patients by Viktor E. Frankl, the founder of logopedy. In return, Frankl (who used his experiences as a prisoner in German concentration camps in World War II to write (my personal favourite) ”Man’s Search for Meaning,’) obtained responses containing motivating power emerging from love of one’s children, a talent to be used, fond memories and other reasons to live that his patients triggered by the question would retrieve from beyond the clouds of depression.
Today, while witnessing a growing sense of anxiety caused by climate change fear-related narrative, we should ask ourselves this same question. From the responses we give patterns of meaning will emerge. Alarming messages of fear, that are disproportionally more represented than the motivating and inspiring ones, will give space to aspirational ones. Active Hope and shared positive visions that uplift people’s aspirations towards salient solutions for climate action, will orient us in building sustainable and resilient society. It will lead us towards those pro-active shared visions that take us further away from becoming passive spectators in this Civilization’s third attempt to commit suicide.
Just imagine what we can achive if this time we put our best brains working together towards our sustainable future. Imagine the power of sustainable kaizen! The power of doing the right things (efficacy) instead of just doing the things right (efficiency).