Attitude of Possibility

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator,  February 16, 2019

Jigsaw Puzzle

Putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle seems an appropriate metaphor for the challenges ahead of us as a human family. This one took my wife, Ellen, and me, about a week of coming and going. It was a good activity for some frigid, snowy days and evenings. We didn’t count the hours, we simply hovered over the table when the spirit pulled us, either separately or together. We began, as is our practice, by enclosing the frame or establishing the boundaries. From there it was looking for connections of color and shape, using the photo on the lid of the box for clues. It was interesting how many times one of us would hold a piece and not see where it fit, and the other immediately did. I think this approach has some merits to our current challenges.

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. (Earth Charter, “Preamble”, 2000)

Nearly twenty years ago people of many nations came together to produce theEarth Charter that emphasized humanity was at a critical moment. It was also at the cusp of launching the Millennium Development Goals, and three years later the release of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  A few trends have been slowed or redirected, but as recognized when the new Sustainable Development Goals were agreed to by all member states of the United Nations in 2017, we are losing the race to sustainability on many fronts in most every nation.

United nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Those 17 Global Goals, with their 169 targets and 232 indicators, give us all much to do. In their sheer number and breadth it can certainly seem like more than any of us can comprehend or handle, even if we were to take them each up separately. Thus it might be easier if we could somehow consolidate them in a useful way without losing the necessary detail.

Unbeknownst to me and I suspect 98% of the human family, there has been an international team of scholars wrestling with all of this for years.

International Panel on Social Progress book covers

Late last year the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) laid out in much detail a possible direction to head. IPSP is an international effort of more than 200 social scientists from every continent representing all the social sciences to try to find a way forward for the entire human family together.  I have not read the three volumes, Rethinking Society for the 21st Century.

A Manifesto For Social Progress book cover

In fact, I wouldn’t know it existed had I not stumbled on A Manifesto for Social Progress: Ideas for a Better Society, which is a shorter overview of this colossal enterprise written by some of the principal leaders of the effort.

“We cannot simply undertake minor changes, small fine-tuning of policies, and avert the looming crises. A more fundamental transformation is needed. We believe that this transformation is possible… Three main goals must be pursued and achieved in conjunction, and they relate to three fundamental values:

  • Equity: reduce inequalities of development between countries and social inequalities within countries;
  • Sustainability: put the planet back on a track that preserves ecosystems and the human beings of future generations;
  • Freedom: expand and deepen basic liberties, the rule of law, and democratic rights for all populations.”

 ( A Manifesto for Social Progress, Cambridge University Press,  2018, p.85)

The authors immediately concede after pointing us in this direction that there will be a natural tendency to attempt to work on any two of the three goals. They go on for several pages with scenarios for any combination of two goals sought while one is missed, whereby all of the scenarios end badly.  While there is consensus in the “direction” the human family should go for true social progress for all, the route they agree on must be worked out. But even getting our communities to support these basic three goals would be a huge step forward.

Wholeness Of Nature book cover

While we delve deeper into the individual goals we are apt to lose the importance of their collective wholeness. Recent revival of interest in Goethe’s notion of“wholeness” in nature shows some hope that we might begin to grasp its importance, that in focusing on the parts we miss the whole.  Scientific reductionism has led to many important breakthroughs, discoveries, and new understandings of our world and our place in it, but it has left in its wake an increasing array of largely unintended consequences which we are handing down to current and future generations to struggle with – ecological destabilization and extreme inequality being two prime examples.

Rigging The Game book cover for 2008

Sociologist, Michael Schwalbe, wrote what I believe is a sadly overlooked book about change, especially as it addresses inequality:  Rigging the Game: How Inequality Is Reproduced in Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2008).  ( A new edition was published in late 2014, which I have yet to read.)

Following a long dissection of how the existing rules further increase inequality, Schwalbe offers in his final chapter, “Escaping the Inequality Trap,” a few possibilities.

Of coursone danger of diagnosing a problem is the possibility of discovering that it has no solution. No doubt some readers feel this way about the persistence of inequality. It might seem that the game is so securely rigged that it can’t be changed. But then history should tell us that this is not true; the social world is always changing (just look back and see where we came from). What’s more, the only thing worse than a grim diagnosis is no diagnosis at all, because then you have no idea where to look for a solution.

In previous chapters I’ve shown where some of the problems lie. Now I want to use that analysis to suggest how inequality could be greatly reduced, if not (yet) abolished entirely. I don’t mean that I can offer a blueprint for change. But what I can do is to suggest, in general terms, what needs to be done to nudge change in the direction of equality rather than away from it. If we can see what holds inequality in place, we ought to be able to figure out something about how it can be shaken loose.

Schwalbe believes that a key starting place to replace the rules of a rigged game begin with “freeing the imagination”:

The problem, from the standpoint of trying to change a rigged game, is getting a critical mass of people to believe that change is possible and that better alternatives can be created. If only a handful of people venture to imagine alternatives, TINA (There is No Alternative) will prevail and the rigged game will go on.  That’s why people interested in analyzing the status quo and thinking about alternatives form communities in which to share ideas and information. That is what happens, or is supposed to, in colleges and universities and in social change organizations. The problem, from the standpoint of elites who want to preserve the rigged game, is keeping ideas that challenge TINA from catching on beyond a handful of activists and intellectuals. (pp. 241-2)

Schwalbe also argues that two other conditions must be established if the rules of the rigged game that have given us increasing inequality are to be revised —humanizing others and questioning contradictions. As long as we see others as distinct and not connected to our situation we will be all too likely to ignore their suffering and will not be inclined to work to alleviate it or its causes. If we could think of others as family, the likelihood is we would roll up our sleeves to help address the suffering. Similarly, he notes, “Imagination is often driven by questions, especially those of the What if? variety. Such questions tug our minds beyond the confines of the ordinary and familiar.” (p.244)

Imagining The University book cover

In his book, Imagining the University, emeritus professor of higher education Ronald Barnett (University of London) calls on us to reconsider a feasible utopia and to place the idea of the university within it. Barnett lays out the need for such ”freeing the imagination” exercise, challenges the recent and dominant ideas of a university, and provides the scaffolding for constructing approaches to the positive possibilities that are called for as the human family stares into an increasingly complex and fragile future.

Ideas of the university in the public domain are hopelessly impoverished. ‘Impoverished’ because they are unduly confined to a small range of possible conceptions of the university; and ‘hopelessly’ because they are too often without hope, taking the form of either hand-wringing over the current state of the university or merely offering a defence of the emerging nature of ‘the entrepreneurial university’….

      Why does this matter, and why does it matter at this particular time? At the very moment when the idea of the university should be opening out, it seems to be closing in, at least in the public imagination. The idea of the university has, of course, undergone many shifts and been subject to varying conceptions over time. For some hundreds of years, the idea of the university was – as it might be said – that of the metaphysical university, reflective of inquiry that enhanced humanity’s connections with God, or the Universe, or Truth, or Spirit, or even the State. That conception gave way to the research university, which is now giving way to that of the entrepreneurial university, which in turn is closely allied to the emergence of a tacit idea of the corporate university.

    What is striking about this conceptual journey that the idea of the university has undergone – over nearly one thousand years – is that it has gradually shrunk. Whereas the metaphysical university was associated with the largest themes of humanity’s self-understanding and relationships with the world, the idea of the university has increasingly – and now especially in its entrepreneurial and corporate incarnations – closed in. The entrepreneurial university is expected to fend for itself, and attend to its potential impact on particular segments of the economy, and become distinctive. This university has abandoned any pretence to be associated with universal themes.

     The idea of the university has closed in ideologically, spatially and ethically. Ideologically, the contemporary envelope of ideas encourages the university to pursue quite narrow interests, particularly those of money (in the service of a national – or even a global – knowledge economy); spatially, the university is enjoined to engage its region, especially with industrial or business organizations in its environs (increasingly its students are also ‘local’); and ethically, the university has become focused on its own interests. It will, as a result, close departments of chemistry or physics or modern languages or philosophy because it sees such closures as serving its own (usually financial) interests rather than their being laced in a set of public interests. (pp1-2)

Barnett argues that “imaginative ideas of the university are in short supply and that there are – if only embryonically – many ideas of the university close at hand.” He claims that the powers that be resist opening it up to alternative ideas. While his aim is specific to the idea of the university, I find his insights into the usefulness of imagination and the birthing of new ideas particularly compelling. In fact, the need to use his approach for rethinking our economic and political systems in the face of globally shared dilemmas seems perhaps even more essential at the moment.

Change Everything book cover

As has been my practice for a few years, three years ago (almost to the day) I was browsing the new-book shelf at my university library– they shelve perhaps 100 new titles a day and leave them up for a week. So my chances of even seeing them there is quite iffy. And I certainly don’t look at every book. I skim by call number (subject) and then by title.  The title of one paperback that caught my attention was Change Everything.

Bookshelves full of books

It was classified in economics.  As I pulled it off the shelf and opened it, I discovered the subtitle that convinced me to give it a chance: Creating an Economy for the Common GoodPart of me was resistant to try yet one more economics book as there are now close to two dozen I have consumed in the past few years. I had never heard of the author, Christian Felber, although it became apparent from the back cover that he was a European economist. One quote claimed Felber “is one of the most brilliant economists in Europe.”

Well, I get this far with lots of books. But after reading the rest of the salutary blurbs, a few from names I knew and respected, and reading the forward and his preface, I determined that this was at least worth some investment of my time. Felber, it turns out, is an Austrian economist who writes in German. So the book in my hands was a translation by Susan Nurmi. Boy, am I glad she agreed to do this!! As is my inclination, especially in fields where I have some reading experience, I like to glance at the bibliography to see whom the writer reads and cites. While there were a few economists in English I was familiar with – Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, E.F. Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, Elinor Ostrom, Thomas Picketty, Milton Friedman–the majority were from German and French authors I was unfamiliar with, a real bonus.

As he says early in his preface, “One of the main objectives of this book is to demonstrate, in concrete terms, that there are in fact alternatives to the current economic order” (p. xiv).

But this is not simply a checklist of what we might do to create an economy for the common good, although there are plenty of specific examples already shared in the book.  This is a deeply reflective analysis of why we have the system we have. Felber clearly examines the supposed tenets of our current system and then shows how they are responsible for the shortcomings we see all around us.

Felber then begins to construct an alternative set of tenets, shoring them up with evidence of a better outcome employing a systemic understanding of the interaction of the principles and practices. At the foundation is, of course, a discussion of key values. And it is here the wrestling match must begin with those who believe the system we have only needs a little tweaking to repair the damages that have resulted from its application. As Felber makes clear,

Two crucial questions pose themselves: what does the “common good” mean and who defines it? As a guiding concept, the Economy for the Common Good has no preconceived meaning except that it signifies how important the well-being of all human beings and the natural world is… the only immanent meaning of the common good concept is that everyone’s well-being counts. Otherwise the concept constitutes nothing more than an umbrella term in the sense of a constitutional goal which sums up the key values of democratic societies. The precise meaning of its individual components can and should be determined democratically. The “common good” is neither divinely handed down nor does it derive from the grace of any emperor.

It should be clear that Felber doesn’t see the system he envisages as some detailed system designed by experts but rather a direction driven by local democratic processes upon shared values. He has a whole chapter on ”advancing democracy” which is central to his thesis. Following that is a chapter on real world examples, and concluding on how we might ”put it into practice.” He begins that last chapter with this quote from Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Felber has not only given us some refreshing ideas; he and his colleagues have begun to put many into practice. By the end of 2014 there were efforts afloat in numerous countries, regions and municipalities involving businesses, government, organizations and individuals to employ the ideas for an Economy for the Common Good and the brilliant Common Good Balance Sheet all businesses and organizations should use to assess their performance for the common good.

Common Good Balance sheet

Anyone dissatisfied with the current state of affairs will be pleased to see that another world is possible and is being born. You might even want to join the efforts. There is no better place to begin than with this very important and inspiring book. If you don’t have the time to read the full book there is a video of a talk Felber gave last year in Amsterdam that will provide a cursory introduction to ideas and the guy behind them. Although the  video is almost two hours, his presentation from around 6:00 minutes to 46:00 minutes should give you a clue to what we could do to replace the madness of our current economy rules.

Felber isn’t alone in imagining a new set of rules for the economy. Check out some of the following new economy sites. The possibilities are plentiful!

New Economics Foundation

Next System Project

New Economy Coalition

Association for Heterodox Economics

If there is an author/thinker who always nudges me to rethink possibilities, to question contradictions, and to see things in a new light it’s Charles Eisenstein.Charles Eisenstein, who has the uncanny ability to look at the world with fresh eyes, has penned an urgent read in my mind: Climate – A New Story (North Atlantic Books, 2018).

Climate A New Story book cover

As author David Abram writes,

What a blast of sanity! Eisenstein’s corrective is a bracing piece of work, dazzlingly  thorough and eloquent in its articulation. He writes from within an uncannily woke worldview, enacting a full-bodies way of thinking that discerns and feels into the complex entanglement of our lives with every facet of this breathing biosphere. This book is visionary and prophetic, achingly grounded and useful to the max.

As Abrams suggests, it is packed with perspective you just won’t find anywhere else. I stumbled upon Eisenstein when he was speaking at a conference I attended in 2012 where he spoke on “We Are Relationship: The Transition to a Collaborative Society.” I was stunned at the wisdom oozing out of this guy and immediately ordered Sacred Economics, which he had just published. It was indeed, like his talk, transformative.

This book has a similar feel but comes to us from concerns with the climate as the North Star for thinking about how we might address our human predicament. He begins with a look at the spectrum of how folks think about climate change, from what he labels “Climate catastrophism” = we’re doomed and it’s too late, to the other end, “climate skepticism” = that it’s not happening, or if it is happening it has little to do with human activity, or if it is attributable to human activity, it isn’t dangerous. Eisenstein looks under the covers of all of these points of view. What he suggests is truly eye opening.

As one reviewer notes,

Flipping the script on climate change, Eisenstein makes a case for a wholesale reimagining of the framing, tactics, and goals we employ in our journey to heal from ecological destruction. With research and insight, Charles Eisenstein details how the quantification of the natural world leads to a lack of integration and our “fight” mentality. With an entire chapter unpacking the climate change denier’s point of view, he advocates for expanding our exclusive focus on carbon emissions to see the broader picture beyond our short-sighted and incomplete approach. The rivers, forests, and creatures of the natural and material world are sacred and valuable in their own right, not simply for carbon credits or preventing the extinction of one species versus another. After all, when you ask someone why they first became an environmentalist, they’re likely to point to the river they played in, the ocean they visited, the wild animals they observed, or the trees they climbed when they were a kid. This refocusing away from impending catastrophe and our inevitable doom cultivates meaningful emotional and psychological connections and provides real, actionable steps to caring for the earth. Freeing ourselves from a war mentality and seeing the bigger picture of how everything from prison reform to saving the whales can contribute to our planetary ecological health, we resist reflexive postures of solution and blame and reach toward the deep place where commitment lives.

Given my own work in recent years it would be especially remiss of me to ignore the specific emphasis Eisenstein offers in the last of his suggested policies and changes he urges us to pursue: Demilitarize society.

The environmental crisis invites us to change our priorities and put earth healing first, make ecological-social healing the primary conditioning parameter on every political  decision. The military mind puts defeat of the enemy first instead. More tangibly, the military sucks up prodigious amounts of energy, materials, money, and human talent. Tens of thousands of the best scientists and engineers devote their lives to developing weaponry. Millions of healthy, capable, idealistic young people join the military. And of course, the money squandered on weaponry is enough to fund probably all other proposals in this book. (p,276)

For a video interview with Charles that explores his ideas see here.

Green New Deal banner

In recent months, an example of this kind of possibility thinking has come forward in the proposal for a Green New Deal. Like the International Panel on Social Progress it points direction not the route. It addresses several of Sustainable Development Goals at the same time. It is based upon freeing the imagination, humanizing others, and questioning assumptions. In short, it has the spirit and attitude of possibility.

The point of this blog has been about conjuring up new ideas and possibilities that might nudge us all toward a better life on a single, finite, and magical planet together. There are no certainties. We really don’t know what is possible until we try. What each of these authors has led me to believe is that there is some deeper harmony between reason, emotion and intuition that makes us human. When we tap it all and find other voices to deepen the harmony we’re better off.

Speaking of harmony, if you don’t believe change is possible, the story of Playing for Change that started simply with a videographer finding street musicians in various places around the world and then connecting them is a moving antidote to that hardening of the mental arteries. This initial travel experience has now evolved into a global band with live performances and into an inspiring launch of music schools in the developing world. If the story doesn’t move you, the music should.

Perhaps the anthem for the new age is best represented in one of the Playing for Change Band’s version of this song, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Or this just released, “Seeds of Freedom.” Change is inevitable, so be the change you want to see in the world. It’s possible!!!



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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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