Selected Readings

Book cover for A New Republic of the Heart

Chapter 1 Part 1 - Our Wicked Predicament and the Consensus Trance

Our Wicked Predicament

Setting the Context

You all know that with each passing year wildfires consume larger expanses of territory, the hurricane season starts earlier and causes yet more tragic loss,record shattering temperatures are constantly being recorded,and more species are declared extinct. Forever.

Have you ever wondered, perhaps lost sleep while wondering who is in charge? Who is allowing our Mother Earth, the only home we will ever know, to become so sickened that soon she may no longer be able to support us and all life that would follow?

We are the Voices Blog Team of the New Republic of the Heart reading our favorite excerpts from A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries by Terry Patten. We will be zeroing in on these perplexing questions in a two part recital of selected passages from Chapter 1: Our Wicked Predicament and the Consensus Trance

In this, our first segment of excerpts from Chapter 1, we will revisit our faltering ecological systems and expose the built in road blocks which team up to impede our efforts to recognize and address this runaway crisis which threatens our very existence.

Selected Readings From A New Republic of the Heart

Recitations by Anneke Edson, David Chasteen, Sallie Justice, Phil Justice, and Ed Prell

Chapter 1: Overview

(p.10) Chapter 1 surveys our critical evolutionary predicament and crisis, including both its perils and promises—from the state of Earth itself to the trickiness of understanding our situation clearly, including the wickedness of the problems themselves as well as how our own brains and psyches make it maddeningly hard to fully understand and effectively respond to them.   

Chapter 1, Part 1: Our Wicked Predicament and the Consensus Trance

(p.15) It is hard to imagine a threat that is better able to elude our understanding and response—one that is more abstract, insidious, inconvenient, and spectral—than the presence of too much human -originating carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. It is colorless and odorless—utterly invisible. The biggest sources are distant from our own locus of control. The worst effects are still in the relatively distant future. The identities of the victims and their dates of reckoning are unknown, yet we need to act now if they are to be spared. 

(p.16) Full understanding of the problem requires scientific sophistication far beyond that of most citizens, politicians, and journalists—and any action taken against this threat will require the agreement and understanding of politicians, business interests, and the electorate. 

(p.16) Meanwhile, amidst simmering culture wars, vested interests are already using and will continue to use sophisticated disinformation campaigns to turn voters and decision makers against such actions, intensifying polarization and gridlock, and blocking our collective capacity to comprehend and respond proactively to any aspect of our ecological predicament (which, as we’ll see, goes well beyond climate). . . 

(p.17) Climate change is only one facet of our enormous ecological predicament. Meanwhile, contemporary culture is focused on more “immediate” concerns.

(p.17) In addition to the elusive nature of global warming, a tangle of additional causes and effects conspires to further distract, divert, numb, or dull human beings into incomprehension of our actual situation and of the full scope of our wickedly complex challenges.  

A Global Tipping Point

(p.18) In a 2009 article in Nature, a team of natural scientists tried to quantify our overall situation. They identified nine interconnected planetary thresholds that, if crossed, risk disrupting the “unusual” ecological and climatic stability that has marked the last ten thousand years. We’ve already passed three of the boundaries, are close to crossing four, and two can’t really be measured. We may be approaching multiple tipping points that may affect Earth’s capacity to support human life. 

(p.19) Continued acceleration is inevitable, and is winding us up faster and faster in a whirlwind of change from which there is no way out. Yet any notion of a long-term future for humanity implies the acceleration has ceased. You cannot have it both ways.

(p.20) Earth and its biosphere are so alive, dynamic, and unpredictable that no one knows exactly how things will unfold—which leaves us ample room for hope. 

(p.20)  Nobel physicist Ilya Prigogine studied the levels of order in open systems, and discovered that as they become more and more chaotic, they reach a bifurcation point, where they either collapse into chaos, or spontaneously reorder themselves, “escaping to a higher order.” Prigogine believed human societies were reaching a bifurcation point.

(p.21) Let’s begin this journey into hope and inspiration by facing the reality of our sobering, shocking predicament.

A Life-Support System is Not Optional

(p.21) A healthy future for humanity requires a healthy living planet.  

(p.21) This requires whole system transformation—including a healthier,more creative, more compassionate and engaged humanity than we have ever seen up to now. 

(p.22) To respond effectively to the urgency of our predicament calls for us to develop and deepen our capacity to hold contradictions—and discomfort. But for this to begin to happen, we need to bring our hearts to the material, not just our minds.

(p.21) Let’s take an unflinching look at the ways that we humans are hardwired to engage in modes of denial or disoriented states of upset. By understanding these issues, we can get past the state of gridlock that paralyzes us, individually and collectively.

Why Is Addressing This Problem So Difficult?

(p.23) The complexity and enormity of our current predicament set it apart from any other problem humanity has faced in its history. Every systemic challenge is intertwined with a host of others, all highly dynamic. 

(p.23) Without an understanding of the nature of this territory, we run the great risk of assuming we can solve our current problems in the same ways—and as easily—as we’ve eventually solved most of our other challenges historically. That would be a grave mistake.

Wicked Problems and Black Swan Events

(p.23) Social science theorists define a problem as “wicked” when it:

  • is multidimensional; has multiple causes, symptoms, and potential solutions;
  • cannot be definitively delineated or demarcated because its many stakeholders frame it within different worldviews;
  • can be considered a symptom, as well as a cause, of other problems;
  • is unprecedented, complex, and consequential, yet solutions are hard or impossible to test accurately;
  • and has a tendency to fester or get more severe, with nothing automatically stopping the vicious cycle or intensifying feedback loop.

(p.24) Some have categorized climate change as “super-wicked” because,additionally:

  • there is no central authority;
  • those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • current policies have increasingly negative future implications;
  • and time is running out.

(p.24 ) Additionally, we are increasingly aware that the whole landscape will probably be periodically transformed—dramatically and suddenly—by events we have little hope of predicting. Unpredictable and seemingly unlikely events—sometimes with positive and sometimes with negative cascading effects —periodically transform everything. 

(p.24) These have been called black swans because of their unpredictability. (At one time all swans were presumed to be white, and sighting the first rare “impossible” black swan defied all expectations.)

(p.24) There are many examples, negative and positive, of black swan events—from World War I to the impacts of the internet and the rapid dissolution of the Soviet bloc, and, more recently, the 2016 U.S. election cycle.

(p.24) A black swan, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is defined by three criteria:

  • It is an outlier, far outside the realm of regular expectations. Nothing in the past pointed clearly to its possibility.
  • It has extreme consequences and impact.
  • Human nature leads us to concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, creating the illusion that it was explainable and predictable.

(p.24) This has further confounding implications for planners, including activists: the future is quite likely to be shaped to a significant degree by events that are right now beyond our imagination. 

(p.24 & 25) The wicked problem/black swan convergence describes conditions that bring to mind another term used by military and corporate planners—an acronym for a special category of planning challenges: VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex, and Ambiguous. 

(p.25) These are among the most difficult circumstances in which to plan and strategize, and they apply fully to our ecological predicament. Action is clearly urgent, and yet finely refined strategies need to be constantly adjusted; because the situation is VUCA, strategies are wickedly difficult to keep on target.

(p.25) The nature of the problem demands a kind of thinking that we mostly don’t yet know how to do. As Einstein is quoted as saying, “We can’t solve our most pressing problems with the kind of thinking that created them.”

(p.25) We are being called to make a transformative leap to a whole new paradigm not only of thinking but of being human—a new consciousness and a whole new stage in the evolutionary trajectory of our species.

Data Smog and Aperspectival Madness

(p.25) More than ever in our history, today we are all inundated by an avalanche of information. Ironically, today’s unprecedented quantity and ubiquity of information have obscured what is important, rather than making it obvious. The result is less certainty about our world and even about ourselves. 

(p.26) We are at the far end of a great game of Telephone. By the time we find out about a news event on television or radio, in newspapers or magazines, online, or from friends and peers, it may have been unrecognizably altered out of context, oversimplified, and “spun,” perhaps even to the point of being downright false. In fact, increasingly, it may actually have been false to begin with.

(p.27) So many overwhelming threats loom on all sides that there often seems little to be gained from thinking about the world’s urgent problems, or life’s deep questions—or from preparing, materially and spiritually, for potential disruptions of our current lifestyle.

Cornucopians, Malthusians, and a Growth Economy

(p.28) The term “cornucopia” is derived from the “horn of plenty” ofGreek mythology. Cornucopians generally argue against limiting economic and population growth. They believe that advances in technology can take care of society’s needs. 

(p.28) An increase in population is good because it drives economic growth and generates more creative ideas. These ideas drive new technology, procedures, systems, and models that will address any problems associated with sustaining human life on the planet.

(p.28) Malthusians are named for Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), an influential British cleric and economist who popularized a pessimistic view of population growth and its associated  problems. Malthusian theory is predicated largely upon the idea that exponential growth, in population and consumption, demands more and more of certain inherently finite resources, eventually leading to collapse. 

(p.28) The ultimate Malthusian scenario predicts that the exhaustion of resources will result in wars,famine,and environmental degradation or destruction—hardly foreign or unthinkable ideas today.

(p.29) With the exhausting of all unexplored terrestrial frontiers and the advent of “peak oil” (the migration to extracting inaccessible, offshore,and inefficient tar sands and shale fuels), we are now encountering the beginning of the end of our era of unlimited cheap resources.

(p.29) Those facts are persuasive. And yet the much more palatable Cornucopian viewpoint is also powerfully persuasive, not only because it is comforting, not only because it fits nicely with all of the other tendencies and social pressures previously described—but also because proponents can point to so much history during which it has proved true. 

(p.29) And it’s true that brilliant scientists are hard at work on breakthrough technologies they hope can open up yet another era of expansion.

(p.29) Growth is necessary in an economy based on interest-bearing currency,but it also has become a deep psychological and cultural presumption: “We have always grown, and we need to keep growing.” If we can’t keep growing, we’re in trouble. 

(p.29 & 30) This presumption about growth—this association of growth with thriving and success—functions in the lives of every individual, every country, and every culture as a bribe. If you participate, you can have wealth and respect. There is comfort. There is convenience. There is mobility. 

(p.30) But a civilization so addicted to growth that it cannot slow down without crashing is caught in an unsolvable predicament if there are any limits to any aspect of growth. 

(p.30) Global capitalism has worked miracle after miracle, and continues to be our most prolific mechanism for manifesting the new miracles we so badly need. And yet it has also been a blind “machine of more,” consistently wreaking terrible destruction across modern history, and has not proved quick or efficient about cleaning up its own messes. 

(p.30) A transition to a radically new economic model (perhaps neocapitalist or post-capitalist) will clearly be necessary. And yet it is almost impossible for most of us to imagine how that can happen, short of a global collapse.

Summary & Preview of What is Next

Terry Patten is certainly getting right to the point in the opening pages of his book: humanity is making a big, runaway mess that mortally threatens us all, and isn’t getting it under control. And he goes on to identify sources of our paralysis, many of which we have been unaware. Next, he will reveal yet deeper factors at play, lurking inside of us, which further frustrate us. This is not a scare tactic; he is alerting us to the severity and scope of our predicament so that we may effectively address it. Terry will conclude Chapter 1 with reminders that we have within us vast untapped resources of resilience, creativity and teamwork which remain dormant until the chips are down. They are down, as never before.

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