Reality check…

The first step in recovery from anything is facing the facts, recognizing the reality of the situation we are in, acknowledging where we’ve arrived in life.

Here’s where we—the humans of the world—find ourselves in this summer of 2020. We are in a…

  • plight = a condition, state, or situation, especially an unfavourable or unfortunate one
  • quandary = a state of perplexity or uncertainty, especially as to what to do
  • dilemma = a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable  alternatives
  • imbroglio = an intricate and perplexing state of affairs; a complicated or difficult situation; a confused heap
  • quagmire = a situation from which extraction is difficult

It’s no coincidence that these are unfamiliar words. They’ve fallen out of use because so far we haven’t experienced life events this way. We’ve been used to identifying problems and coming up with solutions when something isn’t working the way we think it should. Not always easy but pretty straightforward.

This problem-solving strategy has been serving us well for many years..until suddenly it isn’t.

The big shift of this time…

We’ve transitioned to an era when problem-solving is not able to help us.

Look back at the meanings of plight, quandary, dilemma, imbroglio, and quagmire, which are all synonyms of predicament. They describe a state of affairs that is much more far-reaching than any one problem. We are in a predicament, and the challenge of this time is to figure out how we can navigate our way through it.

Navigating is not the same as problem-solving. To sailors, wind is not a problem. It’s a fact of the environment they are moving through, and they have to figure out how to work with it to get where they want to go. This involves harnessing the wind’s energy and avoiding missteps that capsize the boat or otherwise get them into trouble or take them off course.

I started my reality check after I’d been feeling cranky about the pandemic and social unrest for a couple weeks. I didn’t know why I felt that way or what to do about it. I just knew I didn’t like feeling that way.

Then I came across a Carolyn Myss video in which she brought up the idea that this is more than a problem to be solved, and she identified our current situation as a predicament. That rang bells for me and I wanted to get a clearer distinction between problems and predicaments—which is what got me looking up the synonyms. It shifted me out of the crankiness to have that understanding, but left me wondering…what can we do about it?

A couple weeks later, I found insight in an interview on an online coaching summit about leadership in times of uncertainty. The speaker was leadership coach Steve March on the topic of Adapting and Thriving in Times of Uncertainty. Although he was speaking to people who coach business leaders, the information applies to all contexts in life. His approach filled in the missing piece about what is the way, if not problem solving will no longer work. And it clicked together pieces of living systems theory that I’d studied with Fritjof Capra at Schumacher College in 1994.

And so…

What can we do to find our way through this predicament, this unpleasant, confusing situation that is difficult to get out of? First, we need to accept the realities of our predicament. Here’s the way I see it.

  • We are in the midst of a quantum leap of consciousness.
  • Our old systems of operating don’t fit with where we’re going.
  • We are in a situation that is messy and complex, and problem-solving can’t help us because problem-solving takes only a narrow view of what is possible.

Complexity is not bad…

In systems theory, complexity is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s how all natural systems work. And, as you’ll see from the following distinctions, a complex  system is actually the one where  the most possibilities exist.

A Simple system is one that has a single path to a single answer. If you want to get to the solution, there is one, and only one, way to do it.

A Complicated system is one that has multiple paths to a single answer. To get to the answer, you have multiple different choices you can make. However, there is only one correct solution.

A Complex system is one that has multiple paths to multiple answers. When you toss in the word “adaptive”, you end up with a system that changes based on the choices that you make, and as a result of these choices, the answers change.

If that sounds discouraging…

Multiple paths and multiple answers that change depending on our choices. My grandma would have said, “That’s a fine kettle of fish!”

Take heart. As Steve March explained in the interview I listened to, there is a means of dealing with change that goes beyond problem-solving. It harnesses the principles of living systems theory and allows solutions to emerge and unfold in a natural way.

This way of engaging with life does require some things of us.

  • We need to reorient ourselves and our understanding of how life on this planet works, to understand that we, like every other living thing on this planet, are governed by certain principles of nature. And that these are not impediments to our growth and progress. In fact, they are the way through.
  • We need to bring internal awareness to the situation rather than being totally focused on external events. Our inner deeper knowing is the compass that will  help us navigate through what we face in the world outside us.
  • Internal awareness requires us to dial back our busy-ness to a level where we can feel and hear our deep inner being and act from the human virtues that live there: trust, love, value, strength, compassion, will, joy, passion, stillness.

In fact, it’s quite simple. It just won’t be easy.

And in case you’ve forgotten where those words come from

There’s got to be a better way.

As I described last week, a butterfly forms from a caterpillar because the caterpillar contains imaginal discs that are the blueprint for the new form. I also indicated that there are forward-thinking citizens who have developed models and projects that are the imaginal discs for society as we move forward from the intense disruption we’ve experienced.

Today I’m introducing one of those imaginal discs, but first let me summarize why we need to imagine a better way.

The topic is our economic system…

If you don’t need this background information, scroll directly to the video. It’s not to be missed.

An economic system is the method used by society to organize the production and distribution of goods and services for its citizens. In Medieval Europe it was feudalism, a system in which each feudal domain was self-sufficient. It was a barter economy, in which lords owned the land and serfs (peasants) worked in exchange for a place to live and a bit of land to grow their own food. The lord got everything he needed from his serfs—labour, agricultural products, and finished goods such as yarn, cloth and clothing. Wealth was mainly land and agriculture, with money only used for paying taxes to the king.

By the 15th century, feudalism was on its way out as a result of several sociopolitical factors. With the rise of towns, cities and then nations, a merchant class evolved and money became the medium of exchange in the daily life of citizens. In this way, feudalism was gradually replaced by a system of mercantilism. Cottage industries arose to provide the goods needed. And before long, the Industrial Revolution was under way. Large factories were built in the cities and people moved from rural areas to work in them. The system was then based on wage labour rather than obligation, as had been the case in feudalism.

In the latter half of the 18th century, a Scottish professor of moral philosophy became interested in the workings of the mercantile system. According to Investopedia, Adam Smith “noticed that mercantilism was not a force of development and change, but a regressive system that was creating trade imbalances between nations and keeping them from advancing.”

In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, proposing an alternate economic system. It was based on the idea of free enterprise, in which the marketplace itself was left to determine the price of goods through the action of supply and demand, without interference from authorities. He also introduced the concept of the invisible hand, suggesting that individuals, all working in their own best interests, would collectively do what was best for society. Therefore, he believed, the market did not require regulation or interference.

Adam Smith’s ideas for a free market opened the world to capitalism“The term ‘capitalism’—originating from the Latin word ‘capitalis,’ which means ‘head of cattle’—was first used by French socialist Louis Blanc in 1850, to signify a system of exclusive ownership of industrial means of production by private individuals rather than shared ownership.” (Investopedia)

Changing times…

The world has changed a lot since 1776, and the workings of capitalism have been tweaked along the way. Search for types of capitalism and you’ll find a long list that includes free enterprise capitalism, industrial capitalism, digital capitalism, crony capitalism, democratic capitalism, finance capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism, state capitalism, corporate capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism, welfare capitalism, turbo capitalism, responsible capitalism, advanced capitalism, and vulture capitalism. They vary in degree of market freedom, public ownership, and social policies.

However, all capitalist systems share certain common characteristics ncluding economic freedom, private ownership of property, voluntary participation, capital accumulation (profit motive) and competition. These and a few more are described here.

There are distinct theories within the field of traditional economics, Philosophical biases divide economists into two main camps—the Keynesians and the laissez-faire (free market) economists.

Keynesians believe that the best way to stimulate the economy is to increase government spending and cut taxes, putting more money in the hands of people and driving higher consumer spending. Advocates of the opposing theory, laissez-faire economics, believe that the economy works best when supply and demand operate in a free market without government intervention. For more, go to Why Can’t Economists Agree?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Despite all the tweaking, we have not yet evolved capitalism into a fully sustainable and equitable system. We managed. We coped. We hoped.

And then…

A few months ago, the economy ground to a halt during the pandemic and ensuing lockdown. For the first time, we could see clearly that our economic system—which evolved from the need to move away from feudalism—is not workable any more.

Emphasis on growth has led to rampant consumerism. Priorities, spending, and expectations are way out of balance. High levels of debt keep individuals beholden to their employers—not so different from the serfs of old, when you think about it.

The environment can no longer comfortably provide what we are demanding and absorb the waste we create. It could in the beginning—when our needs were modest, population was small, and technology had not yet arrived. But now, we have exceeded the limits by putting our focus on profit rather than balance.

Competition for profit has caused companies to push farther and farther out of their locale to obtain raw materials, workers who are cheap enough, and new people to buy the ever-increasing output. This has brought us to our current state of mega-corporations and globalization. We thought this was our strength. COVID-19 showed us the extreme vulnerability and lack of resilience that had crept up on us.

And many of us are now thinking, there has to be another way. The problem is, most of us don’t know what a better way would be, especially when we’re talking about something as all-encompassing and inscrutable as the economic system.

Meet Kate Raworth…

Oxford economist Kate Raworth has a vision, an imaginal disc ready to come into being as we move forward in the post-pandemic era. This is the first TEDtalk I’ve seen where the speaker got a standing ovation…

Here’s a one-minute recap of the doughnut model of economics…

There are  six more of these animated short videos, based on Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.

Application of the doughnut model…

Kate Raworth says:

Since the first iteration of the Doughnut was published as a discussion paper by Oxfam, it has had traction in very diverse places – from the UN General Assembly and the Global Green Growth Forum, to Occupy London.  Why such interest?

I think it is because the doughnut is based on the powerful framework of planetary boundaries but adds to it the demands of social justice – and so brings social and environmental concerns together in one single image and approach.

It also sets a vision for an equitable and sustainable future, but is silent on the possible pathways for getting there, and so the doughnut acts as a convening space for debating alternative pathways forward.

April 8, 2020 was the launch of the Amsterdam City Doughnut. Before that…

Doughnut was first published in 2012, proposing a social foundation and ecological ceiling for the whole world. Ever since then people have asked: can we downscale the Doughnut so that we can apply it here – in our town, our country, our region? Over the past eight years there have been many innovative initiatives exploring different approaches to doing just that – including for the Lake Erhai catchment in China, for the nations of South Africa, Wales and the UK, and for a comparison of 150 countries.

Kate Raworth’s concluding thought: “As we all start thinking about how we will emerge from this crisis, let us seek to be holistic in how we reimagine and recreate the local-to-global futures of the places we live. I believe this newly downscaled Doughnut tool has a great deal to offer and I look forward to seeing it turned into transformative action, in Amsterdam and far beyond.”

Other economic visionaries…

She’s not the only one imagining a better way. You might also like to check the websites of…

  • Mark Anielski  An Economy of Well-being: Common Sense Tools for Building Genuine Wealth and Happiness
  • David Korten  Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth
  • Herman Daly  From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy

With fresh eyes…

This video isn’t about what you might initially think.

Unravel from Aeon Video on Vimeo.

The familiar blunts our perspective…

We get so used to how we live that it seems normal.

Seeing with fresh eyes…

We can interrupt this pattern by seeing our society through other eyes, as filmmaker Meghna Gupta gives us a chance to do in her video. When I taught consumer issues, students did a discovery exercise that elicited insightful observations about the consumer culture.This was the task:

Imagine you landed here from another planet. You know nothing about this civilization except that it is populated by  beings that are called humans. You are able to be invisible and observe their daily life without disturbing it. Your home planet has sent you on this mission of discovery so you can report back about what kind of beings these humans are—what they do, how they spend their time, what seems to be most important to them, what personal characteristics are most evident.


What would you report back if you were that visitor from outer space?

P.S. Just before I posted this, I heard a radio report about a website where you can “Book personalized video shoutouts from your favorite people.” What does it say about us that we are willing to pay up to $500 to do this?

What if we saw it differently?

Choose to rethink!

Assumptions become deeply entrenched, affecting all our decisions. It takes deliberate effort—or a crisis like a pandemic—to put us in a frame of mind to reverse our assumptions.


Choose to rethink and make the world a better place…


Food for Thought

Further to last week’s post about rethinking…

We were flying to the moon.
We were finding life on Mars.
We were dropping bombs with drones.
We were getting bigger cars.

We were building finer homes,
Flying out to warmer lands.
We were busy buying clothes.
We were brushing up our tans.

We were throwing out good food
While we watched the starving poor.
We kept burning fossil fuels
And our air became less pure.

We were warned by our Pope,
Need to mind our Common Home,
Need to watch our Carbon Footprint,
Try to save our world from doom.

But we didn’t want to listen
And we didn’t want to hear.
We just watched TV and tablets,
Drank our wine and quaffed our beer.

Corona virus image

Then Corona chose to visit.
We were all caught unprepared.
This wee microscopic VIRUS
Has our whole world running scared.

So our hands we keep on washing
And we’re careful when we cough.
We stand six feet from our neighbour
‘Cause this virus might jump off.

Now we live in isolation
While our hearts are full of fear,
And we fill our fridge and cupboards
Just in case it lasts a year.

Pubs and cafés are forbidden
And we dare not go to Mass.
Nursing homes we must not visit
Hospitals we have to pass.

But this enforced isolation
Gives us lots of time to think,
Time to clean the kitchen cupboards,
Time to make our wardrobes shrink.

Could it be that this Corona
Is a blessing in disguise?
Makes us think about our lifestyle,
Makes us open wide our eyes.

We thought we were all important,
Greatest beings on this earth.
So we used it and abused it
As if it were ours from birth.

But Corona is a challenge,
Makes us take a different view.
Helps us see what really matters,
What it is we need to do.

We must watch out for our neighbour,
Doing everything we can.
We are all in this together,
Let us love our fellow man.

God is with us every moment,
Minding us with loving care.
Now we know how much we need Him,
Let us talk to Him in prayer.

So Corona, thanks for coming.
Truth to tell, we needed you.
But don’t overstay your welcome.
That, alas, would never do!

Corona virus image

If you’re curious about how this iconic image of the COVID-19 pandemic came to be, check out this article in The New York Times:  “The Spiky Blob seen Around the World”


For many years I taught a college course called Issues in Consumer Economics. Based on that experience, I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life: An Uncommon Guide to Navigating the Consumer Culture. Here’s the first paragraph of the introduction to that book:

It is one of the illusions of these times that we can control our world and the people in it—an understandable desire, certainly, because it’s comforting to think we can make everything go our way. For many people, being in control gives them a feeling of security. And truthfully, it is possible to live that way for awhile. But eventually we encounter something beyond our control—an extreme weather event, a dramatic economic downturn, or a serious illness.

At the time, I was thinking of individual money management and being prepared for the unexpected. I certainly had no idea that we would, in my lifetime, experience two of these events at once and collectively—all of us, together, across the world.

I wanted my students to recognize that navigating the consumer culture is challenging, and requires us to be aware, to skillfully use our tools and resources, and to master ourselves and our impulses.

The consumer culture fosters none of that. In fact, it is structured to get us to act mindlessly. Encouraging students to think for themselves—rather than responding in knee-jerk reaction to cultural expectations—was one of my themes.

We are all being invited to rethink…

The double whammy of a pandemic and economic disintegration has shaken our culture to the core. Even the cleverest of us is not able to avoid it, so what are we to do? From my point of view, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity for thinking more consciously about the choices we make. If we don’t embody what we can learn about ourselves in a crisis, we slip back into habitual thought patterns as soon as things begin heading in the direction of normal.

What is “normal”?

Being normal means conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. It refers to the usual, average, typical, or expected condition. In essence, “normal” is what we get used to, our expectation of the way things are or should be. But notice, nothing in the definition says that normal means the only or the best way.

As we navigate life in a world shaped by COVID-19, we are experiencing an intense disruption of what used to be considered normal. This is the perfect time to ask ourselves if we want to go back to those previously-normal ways of being when this pandemic is over. We might—or we might not—but at least we should think about it rather than default mindlessly to how things were.

If you have an inkling that your answer is “no”—that there are aspects of your life that you do not want to return to—then this is your chance to set the stage for some rethinking,

Steps for Constructive Thinking….

1  Become aware.

Open your eyes and your mind. See what’s going on, even if you don’t like it. See how you are responding (or not) and don’t judge yourself. Feel what you feel, but don’t wallow in it.

Ask yourself questions to help you zero in on what you value. What do you miss? Why? What do you like better in your life now? How might you make the situation better in some small way? Now? In the future? Here’s a question to get you started…

Taking for granted

2.  Capture your insights in writing.

Make a list of your insights…so you remember them when the crisis is over. Without conscious attention, it’s too easy to lapse into previous patterns, losing sight of the new way you’d rather be.

It’s a human tendency to default to what we’re conditioned to consider normal. Examples from two recent interviews of people who were in major cities during and after life-changing events. Author Adam Gopnik has lived in New York for much of his adult life. When asked if he thought things would be different after the current crisis, he said that, based on his experience of 9/11, he guessed not. Apparently, after things settled down, people largely went back to life as before. The same happened after the SARS epidemic in Asia in the early 2000s, according to Mark Machin, President and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, who lived in Asia at the time.

Obviously, then, change requires our conscious effort. And capturing your insights is the first small step you can take in the heat of the moment.

3. Get a sense of your “new normal.”

Create your “new normal” by being intentional about it. Imagine it. Feel it. Picture it. Give it a chance to become your expected state of affairs.

Rethinking normal…

In our daily lives, we are not often intentional about our future. Businesses, on the other hand, often use formalized processes to spark creative thinking to keep the business thriving. One of these techniques is “assumption reversal,” described this way in the Business Survival Toolkit:

Assumption reversal was developed by Stephen Grossman, a creativity consultant… The purpose of this technique is to deliberately question your underlying assumptions about a problem to help spark new ideas for addressing it.

…By turning your assumptions on their head and creating a mirror image view, you can generate new ways of approaching problems and issues. …Your original assumptions are not necessarily wrong, but in reversing them you can generate new approaches. There is also the possibility that you may be harbouring false assumptions. If so, this technique will also help you to discover that this is the case and avoid the limitations that this can cause.

Assumptions become deeply entrenched, so much so that we are often unaware of the extent to which they dictate our actions and decisions. It takes deliberate effort—or a crisis like a pandemic—to put us in a frame of mind to reverse our assumptions.

If I were asked what could possibly be beneficial about the experience we’re having now, I would say it is the deep disruption of our assumptions about what is true, necessary, and constructive in our lives.

For further exploration about applying assumption reversal to everyday life, see this recent article from BBC News by Matthew Syed, British journalist, broadcaster, table tennis champion, and author of Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking. He writes, “Our world has changed immensely in the last few weeks but amid the upheaval and distress, there are reasons to believe we can emerge from the crisis with some human qualities enhanced.

Think about it, talk about it…

In these days of physical distancing and staying home, there are a lot more telephone and video chats happening. After you’ve caught up on the news of how family and friends are doing, you might be looking for other topics of conversation. Talking about some of the philosophical issues that are coming up for you is a good way to increase your own perspective.

Conversation starters might be observations or questions such as…

  • I’ve been thinking about…
  • Since I’ve been home more, I’ve noticed that…
  • Do you find you have more time to think these days?
  • In the midst of all this, I’ve been surprised that…
  • After this is over, I think I’ll…
  • What will you no longer take for granted?

I have even found this time of upheaval an opening to talk about death and dying, which was the theme of my writing last year. If you have insights or conversation starters to share, or other comments about any of this, I’d love to hear from you.

If you missed it last week…

A free digital version of my book is available until April 20 as part of Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale. Download your free copy using this link which takes you directly to my book page. Click on the orange button in the right-hand column that says “Buy with coupon.” It will take you to the cart and show a price of $0.00. You can download the book in whatever form you prefer (epub, mobi/Kindle, pdf, etc…)