Standing Up to The Sixth Extinction
Is it the pandemic or something more that is leading me to write my first blog of the new year about what ecologists and scientists call “the sixth extinction?” It is definitely not my rational mind, or my practical mind. In fact, it is my dreamer mind. My dream was so powerful this morning that I awoke feeling called in a way that is still strong. I’m writing about it because I have come to honor these kinds of transpersonal insights when they come and support them by giving them expression in word and image. (This photo by my colleague Alan Briskin seems appropriate).
In my dream I was at a gathering of about 15-20 colleagues in a conference center that included many other people. We were getting to know each other with introductions. After a number of them, and before my own introduction, we took a break to eat. People came with buckets of chicken and come creole cooking. When we returned, the conference staff had arranged some chairs in an outside area for our group. Before long we were back in a full group and introductions continued.
It was my turn. I found myself saying the following. “I am a professional facilitator and am currently focused on our sixth extinction. I want to help bring forward the new ways of thinking and behaving that will be required to survive it.” I remember feeling surprised in my dream at what I was saying, but continued. “You will get to know me as someone who both draws and listens, guiding people to visually design processes that allow them to change and adapt.”
At this point a young man rose up and said, “I was at an institute recently where someone was doing that, and the charts zig-zagged all over the wall in a way that felt like a breakdown.”
“That is often what happens when people look closely at their own thinking and information,” I said, feeling calm and grounded. “It is this breakdown that allows them to break through.”
I remember in the dream that the group applauded! I turned to a young man sitting beside me and said, “this is the first time I’ve ever introduced myself this way!” I was feeling both startled and strangely alive and excited. And then I woke up.
It was 7:05 Sunday, the last day of a long holiday break that my partner and I described as our “digital vacation”—no Zoom, email or social media. Because of the pandemic, and a steadily worsening number of cases along with the news that a more viral version was already spreading in California, we cancelled a trip to a local hot spring where we hoped to have some renewal time, and instead stayed home. The renewal idea carried over.
There were some other faint signals that I’d been getting that felt connected to the dream.
Searching for Signals
At a GLEN Community Winter Solstice Gathering call before our reflective week started, Karen Wilhelm Buckley, a dear colleague, read a poem I’d written at a Summer Solstice gathering of colleagues in 2004. I had no memory of it. So I went back to journal number #134 and there it was. (Journaling is one of my reflective practices). But more relevant were some other journal entries that turned out to be connected to my dream.
2004 was the year I turned 60. I had planned several “rites of passage” for myself, beginning with a week visiting all the vision quest sites I’d experienced on the East side of the Sierras. I was deeply questioning what it means to be an elder, and to begin that journey had called a council of friends I’d know for more than 20 years to answer that question by reflecting on the elders in their life that had made a difference. I didn’t have answers but was charged. Later in the summer I carried the question into a new vision quest on Mt. Shasta with my teacher, Chayim Barton, and a small group. There I had one of the most significant visions of my life up to that point. I had journaled extensively there.
For a while I’d been being “worked” by an upset feeling about the dominance of “extractive” industries that pay no attention to biology, local communities, or the hidden costs of their work. “Why don’t you work on it here,” Chayim suggested as he counseled me before heading out on a three-day water fast. He invited me, in my solo time, to build a monument to this “beast,” as I called it, reflect on it, and practice tong-lin (a Tibetan practice where you take in pain and breath out compassion), and then take the “beast” apart as a conclusion. Here is a picture of what I created.
I don’t need to describe my full process here but can easily remember how powerful it felt. Building it took many hours. So did disassembling it. Most importantly, I kept trying to imagine what could stand up to it—represented by the little wand with a feather. I ended up writing some of my core values on the wand and concluding I needed to stay tuned to the light. But I hardly felt resolved about this.
Working for RE-AMP
Later that year in December, it was this vision led me to accept the facilitation of a new environmental organization called RE-AMP in the upper Midwest. The name stands for the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project, initially a group of 25 environmental non-profits and 12 foundations, who, discouraged by results to date, wanted to work collaboratively to support the growth of renewable energy. They concluded that they had to work on four fronts in a systemic way.
- Reduce the impact of coal pollution from the 70 plants in the eight-state region
- Stop the construction of new coal plants (34 were in the pipeline)
- Increase energy conservation
- Increase renewable production.
The consultant who had helped create a causal-loop system diagram of why renewables were not taking off had concluded that these factors were all inter-related and needed to be dealt with in parallel. They needed a facilitator to help create the strategies of the four working groups.
At the meeting where the consultant, Scott Spann, handed off the project to me, he presented his system analysis, and at the end of several hours, turned to the RE-AMP steering committee and said – “Remember, this is a mindless beast.” I can still feel the goosebumps. Oh my. Here I was standing in front of it again.
I and my company, The Grove Consultants International, spent four years working with RE-AMP with the agreed-on goal of cleaning up global warming pollutants in the eight-state region by 80% by 2050. The goal was not considered practical. But all of us believe anything less wouldn’t matter. RE-AMP did stop the coal plants. It didn’t get far on cleaning up old coal. It did stimulate energy conservation in the region. It encountered roadblocks regarding developing wind energy. And it expanded to more than 150 participating organizations and over two dozen foundations “thinking systemically and acting collaboratively.” It is one of the most successful environmental collaboratives in the country and still it is not enough. The full story is for another time (See RE-AMP.org). Reflecting back, I realized it was my boldest experience of taking action on a “dream” without knowing the outcome.
While it probably seems obvious why I thought this experience was connected to my dream I was fascinated that I had started my current reflective “vacation” with this retrospective, by accident. It was not “planned.” What guided that impulse?
I remembered that for several years now when asked about my core motivation—my life purpose— I’ve found myself saying that it is to “help midwife the coming ecological paradigm,” which I think is already being born but hardly dominant. I perceive that we are in a shift that historians will eventually compare to the Copernican revolution—moving from engineering oriented/materialistic thinking to a more biologic, open systems approach, which will include but transcend the old paradigm, as new ones do. I also suspect that the shift will take years or centuries, as all such shifts have taken historically. “We will live into this new way of thinking and relating, or we won’t,” I can remember saying in various workshops.
Reading The Sun
And then I remember that two weeks ago I was clobbered by an interview article in the Sun Magazine with Eileen Crist about her new book, The Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. She is an associate professor at Virginia Tech in the Department of Science, Technology and Society and has written extensively about biodiversity and the mass extinctions taking place. I know this to be “factually” arguable and have been reading about this for years. But her reflections on how much more serious the extinction process is than the pandemic got through this time. “It takes 5-10 million years to recover the same levels of biodiversity” she wrote. I know that reading information doesn’t really change me. But having a full, integrated systemic embodiment of the understanding at a feeling does (like the vision quest experience) and I was having that feeling reading this interview. Since the pandemic is no longer an abstraction, but a loss I deeply feel, I think it ignited the same feeling about the extinction. I ordered the book, and for several days was talking about how big an impact this article had. I didn’t think at the time think that it was a breadcrumb of what I’m to do in 2021 going forward.
Could There Be a Sustainability Source Code?
In writing up this blog, I was working at a computer over which I have posted printouts of my latest work with conceptual modeling, looking at sustainable organizations through the lenses of Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process. It’s work that began in the 1990s with a full formulation of a new model with the help of my French colleague Meryem LeSaget. Other projects have taken precedence. I’ve written some white papers, conducted a few workshops, and continued to think about it, and hope to work on it more this year. I think that outlining our choices for sustainable organization could serve as a kind of source-code for process and organization designers.
But after this morning’s dream I realized that this “source code” idea might be the scaffolding for a direct engagement with the sixth extinction “problem.” The same feeling of impossibility washed over me that I felt on Mt. Shasta.
I put “problem” in quotes to signify that the real problem isn’t the biological problem of a die-off of 50% of the world’s species in this century, as hard as that will be to cope with. The “problem” is that the vast majority of people don’t have the perceptual or thinking tools, or motivation to even imagine a different way of living that is actually ecologically sustainable. This lack will accelerate the extinction as a result, and for sure ensure that anger and mistrust accompany the change.
I’m not sure I have the tools either. Will I be part of the acceleration? Crist argues we don’t have time this time.
Inspired by Gretta
I notice as I write that I keep thinking about Gretta Thunberg, the young Swedish girl who has ignited a youth revolution in response to the climate crisis. Did she know what she was doing? I don’t think so. She simply had the courage to speak her feelings and do so in a public forum, and open to a movement, a collaboration that would far transcend her.
If she can, why can’t I? Why can’t we? I don’t believe that knowing how to respond to the sixth extinction is required to stand up to it, and in it, with full awareness and readiness to ask fundamental questions and learn what we need to learn to change, any more than I knew what standing in front of the beast on Mt. Shasta would mean. I do know that context matters, and as complexity theorists have discovered, a small change in the context of a dynamic system can affect huge change.
So, I begin my new year sharing this dream. We are in a time of enormous turbulence. Will we be ones who stand up? I hope it strikes a responsive chord. I intend to explore it further through our Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN). You are invited to join our inquiry there if you like. I and many committed colleagues will be there.