Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Beyond words – reflections from a 4-day gathering in Svalbard

A few weeks ago I participated in an amazing 4 day gathering of about 100 people from all over the world in Svalbard – way up North.
I was invited by The Aurora Borealis Foundation, a Swedish-Chinese organization, which works to explore ways in which human civilization can adapt to the rapidly changing conditions we live in.
It was one of those occasions where you run out of superlatives. It was very intense, touching, inspiring, scary and beautiful.

I have tried to assemble my reflections in the following page, starting from the in-adequacy of our words to express and capture the challenges we face.

The Svalbard gathering was very much about words. Listening, discussing, and searching for words to create a new narrative from which we can understand our situation and act to pursue a better world.
Given how acute it seems to create change, and how complex the challenges we face are, the words we can come up with may seem inadequate, even banal. Clearly, words alone are not enough to convey the depths of what we are trying to express – it takes music, images, dancing… and action, of course.

Never the less, the language we use is important. Words and categorizations define and delimit our thinking. An important part of the change we need is to move beyond old categories and to re-define some central terms.

Words like ”growth”, ”productivity” and ”development” are losing their usual meaning, changing from positive to negative as more conventional growth increasingly seems like less real growth.

Likewise, in our new narrative, we need to acknowledge that ”value” and ”money” are not the same. Certainly, there is overlap, but much of what it most valuable to us has very little monetary value - like love, community, harmony, joy, trust, or the beauty of nature.

The economy is an immensely powerful engine of creation – but there’s a bug in the operating system: Money is the only value it can measure. The economy is set up to maximize the production of money, and that is what it single-mindedly delivers, even if it means neglecting and destroying other values that give our lives meaning. Now, we must fix the algorithm to make the system create values beyond money. We must demand that, which we really want the economy to produce.

The split between rationality and mystery is another core issue that we lack words to reconcile. Science can wrestle solid facts from the fog of mystery, gradually turning what used to reside in the metaphysical realm into laws of nature, which can be predictably calculated and operationalized. Still, there is always another layer below, which we simply don’t understand.

Compartmentalizing our worldviews into either being atheist or religious seems to prevents us from addressing and seeing the world as it is. Can’t we insist on scientific reasoning and demand hard facts as the basis for thinking and decision making – while remaining in awe of the mystery and beauty of it all? Can’t we have agency and assume our responsibility to act to improve the world around us – yet realize that, ultimately, we are completely at the mercy of much greater powers beyond humans?

The narrative of our future is about co-existing with paradoxes and opposites. We are becoming ever more connected and interdependent. We should see diversity and increased complexity as an enrichment, rather than a threat to our conventions.
Yet, how do we then insist on preserving that, which we will not compromise on? Are all values relative and negotiable – or are there absolutes; values which we know are right and which we will defend without compromise? What is so sacred that you cannot question it? And what shall we do if we find that others do not agree?

The yin/yang symbol beautifully shows how every element carries its opposite within. There is no renewal without destruction, no life without death, no victory without the seeds of future loss. Up and down, round and around. Inching our way up the evolutionary ladder.
Scary, but hopeful, too.