Letting Go to Let Come

A call for radical collaboration in the field of unknowing

There’s an old adage in the scientific world. It suggests that significant change in any field of thought comes with the death of a leading light. It’s only then that new and different approaches open up new avenues of exploration and experimentation. Death precipitates a paradigm shift. As an aside, I’ve come to believe that the same is true in life generally: each death is also a liberation, even if we don’t realise it at the time.

It’s beginning to feel like we’re at this point in human civilisation. We need current ideologies and ways of thinking to die if we are to transcend the multiple crises that now face us. The data are in and so far everything we have tried has only made the situation worse. Climate change, species extinction, wealth inequalities. It’s all pointing towards catastrophic collapse. Arguably this is because we are attempting to solve the problems by using the same thought patterns, ideologies and technologies that caused the problems in the first place. And as yet we have not been able to shift into new ways of thinking or acting at sufficient scale.

Let me share a short anecdote to illustrate the point. Recently I took part in the 8th International Conference on Sustainability and Responsibility in Cologne, Germany. Like many there, I was eager to see two headline speakers – Ed Freeman and John Elkington. These are central figures in the sustainability world – inventors of The Triple Bottom Line and Stakeholder Theory respectively. I use their materials when working with students on MBAs. I admire their work and feel it has contributed considerably to the field of sustainability.

Both definitely had something to offer. John was demure and thoughtful. Ed funny and irreverent. And yet for me, both put forward arguments that appeared to be stuck. There was nothing new on offer. Nothing that would help humanity overcome the cataclysm of systemic crises heading our way. Both speakers were locked firmly into the mindset, theoretical paradigm and technologies that have fuelled the crises.

Participants on the other hand, or at least the ones I was drawn to, were in a completely different place. They were only too aware, emotionally and intellectually of what was coming. They were thinking laterally, were informed by practice from multiple disciplines and had absolutely zero investment in the status quo. The contrast between stage and floor could not have been starker. And I knew where my allegiance was.

Here are a few illustrations – because I think they speak volumes about what’s needed at this critical point in human history. Here’s what I saw amongst my newfound soul-mates in Cologne:

  1. Openness to letting go. We’ve reached the point where we can no longer cling to capitalism and hope that we can reform it enough to save the world. We are well past the point of no return. We have to accept that we have been trying this since at least the end of the Second World War. The Social Compact has failed to deliver on a global stage and the evidence suggests that all our well-intentioned efforts have actually made matters worse. There is nothing for it but to let go. And this is what the next generation have done. They have no allegiance, no commitment, no attachment to capitalism as a system. They are awake to its shadow side and the way it brings out the shadow in humanity.
  2. Comfort in Emergence. So what next I hear you ask? Of course the answer is, we do not know. The task is to invent the new civilisation as we go. This requires being comfortable with a sense of not knowing and being open to allowance and emergence. Without this we will continue to cling to old outmoded solutions – and we can see from Authoritarian Populism where that leads. Again, this is what the younger generation are doing. They have grown up in the shadow of species extinction and the threat of catastrophic climate change. They are adept at living with uncertainty. They do not crave control, certainty or a plan. They know these are psychological crutches, illusions.
  3. Inner AND Outer Transformation. Change will not come from either personal or institutional transformation. One does not lead to the other. There is no linear cause and effect at the systems level. Instead, systemic transformation requires both. Simultaneously. It is the organic metamorphosis of a way of living human life, from one mode to another. Transformation at all levels – individual, family, community, organisational, global. This is a spiritual, holistic, economic-political-social global revolutionary moment in the history of the universe.

These were the themes being passionately debated in participatory workshops, in corners of the coffee area, on walks into town and back. They were the subjects that consumed the young and vigorous and the older ones with enough time and will to listen intently. Social entrepreneurs, facilitators, inventors of apps and educational games, human rights lawyers, advocates, all huddled together for warmth talking at one minute about grief and trauma at the next about the gift economy. First about collaboration beyond leadership, next about structures to hack hierarchy. Climate change was not a set of figures, it was animals burnt to death in forest fires, coral reefs dying an acid death. Leadership was not a theory, it was a state of power relations. Hierarchy – an anachronism that held no interest and is certainly not the model for organisations they want to work in.

It was not just that the folk at the leading edge were talking about a whole different set of issues. It was that the way in which debate was conducted was qualitatively different. There was as much listening as talking. Curiosity, synthesis and integration were the methodology rather than dialectic, competition and winning. There was no stage or talking-head, just a shared inquiry by folk who all had an equal stake in the outcome.

And as I write these words I can hear some of you nod in agreement. But this is beside the point. The point is not whether we agree at some level. It is that we start to embody this in the way we work. We are beyond debate now. We have shifted into taking on new ways of being in every interaction we have, every event we stage, every conversation, book, paper, project. Every learning opportunity we share.

What does this mean for us, for people who care deeply about systemic change? The time of individual intervention to trigger change is long dead. We are beyond thinking that we can impact the system in our own small way. We are being invited to give away our egos for the greater gift of human evolution. The time for radical collaboration in the field of unknowing is upon us. We are being invited to all step in together.

So to finish, how about a few questions:

  • What is your ego holding onto that’s limiting your capacity for collaboration?
  • What beliefs, values or principles are keeping your mindset locked into the status quo?
  • What does your deepest desire tell you is part of humanity’s brightest future?
  • What is the world your actions are leaving to the children of seven generations hence?
  • Who are the folk you could work with, across boundaries, to really step into a new paradigm (even if you have no idea where it might lead)?

Pick a question. Clear some time. Sit; hold it softly at the back of your mind. See what arises. Then do whatever that calls for – no matter how big or small, shallow, selfish or foolhardy.

The future’s calling. It has a place for you.