Leading leaders to a grand vision
By James Keye
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jul 28, 2008, 00:21

Over the last seven years much of the world has been traumatized into worrying about what was happening in the moment: war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, genocidal violence in North Africa; the list is long and depressing.

The USA, often a hedge against the worst of human behavior, at least in political mythology, had become a major malefactor and the �middle way� people of the world were looking (stunned and dazed daily by random, mindless, often deadly, world events) to a confusing Europe, weak nations such as Brazil and even the inscrutable China for guidance. The US had been like a teenage Soccer star, self-centered and cocky, though with a good heart and many times willing to help out, but suddenly having become a monster.

The coming political changes, especially in the USA, and the shifting power relationships in South America as well as other power centers are exciting a rising vision of new possibilities. People are more ready than usual to hear new ideas. Certainly the self-interested will be quick to offer their own programs and solutions, and it is most likely that we will, as a world, continue on the same trajectory toward our mindless collision with ecological reality, but it is in times such as these that perspectives can be shifted.

Most of what I am hearing from presumptive world leaders are those small changes in detail that are supposed to impress us with their grasp of issues and breadth of vision: reduce troop strength in Iraq and increase numbers of soldiers in Afghanistan; if people don�t have the money to pay for medical care force them to buy medical insurance (presumably with money that they don�t have?); continuation of tax policies or minor changes in tax policies; and the always appealing, reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons.

One of the excuses from the Bush administration for the narrowly self-interested management of our government and foreign policy was a �failure of imagination.� This was presented as though no one could have imagined the cascade of events that befell them; the �failure� part of the formulation was intended to be �tongue-n-check.� Only a few pronouncements of this administration have been simply true and honest; this was one. We as a nation, the greater �We� of the world can no longer tolerate a �failure of imagination� in discovering what to do about the problems that face us.

There needs to be a clear presentation of those problems, triaged for importance in both the short term and the longer term. And we must not look first to solutions. Solutions will always gore someone�s ox, and to the end of self-protection a constituency will be formed to deny the problem. As soon as this pattern is established, imaginations fail as a matter of course. Options for action are then limited to those that cannot possibly work since to be effective means that some real change will occur.

What do we face as a class, ethnic or religious (tribal) group? What do we face as a nation? What do we face as an economic system? What do we face as a species? Ten thousand years ago the first question, and generally the second, would have been the vital one and yet it is still the one that has the most powerful appeal. Most of us don�t strongly identify with an economic system, except in a sort of tribal way. The most important questions of all for us today are considered effete and too abstract, too distant; this is a prejudice that we will have to overcome to survive.

The population of the earth is rapidly approaching 7 billion people, half of whom live in the most abject poverty -- no people in the history of the world have lived in such deprivation and anxiety. The other half of the earth�s human population begins, at the least wealthy end, to use material and energy at levels that, if equaled by everyone on earth, would not be sustainable. As individual wealth increases the use of material and energy increases to levels clearly available to only a tiny few -- one person�s consumption can be equal to that of thousands of the poorest.

Combine this population reality with the increasing costs (read: energy requirements) of acquiring the materials and energy to maintain our numbers, physical infrastructures, agricultural, economic and military systems and it is clear that we cannot continue on as we have been. Our greatest difficulties do not come from the failures of the earth to supply in sufficient amount, but in our failure to inhibit our demands from the earth.

Every other life form on the earth lives in some homeostatic balance with its available resources and its needs; we must come to understand how it is that we do not and we must use that understanding to find a way to do so. That must be our preeminent concern; its consequences run through all of our other issues. It will not do to say that �we are humans and therefore are not subject to the biological and physical principles of other living things.� Our question has to be: What allows us to believe that we are not subject to the rules of all other living things and that we, more and more clearly, must adapt to?

If from the species perspective it is mandated that humanity must reduce its total consumption while increasing the consumption to survival levels for nearly half of our population, a number of changes in both how we see and act in the world would be required. We need a leadership that first acknowledges the issues and analyses our options in these terms.

Our first concern should be that we have some good chance to survive as a species; that we have grown in number from one billion 200 years ago to nearly 7 billion today and that we have increased per-capita consumption by orders of magnitude in that same time is not evidence for our success and solid future, but seen from a distance and biological perspective is evidence of disorder. Realizing, diagnosing and responding to such a disorder is presently incumbent on us. Our attachments to economic and political systems have to be reexamined; our social arrangements, values and beliefs questioned in light of growing understanding of our place in the ecology of the earth and our possible relationships with each other.

There may be those who would suggest that we shouldn�t make any effort at change, our behaviors will run their course and the chips will fall where they may -- this is, in fact, what is most likely to happen. However, a simple, back of the envelope, calculation makes it pretty clear that we are increasingly in danger from economic and ecological instability. Only our thoughtful action can reduce the danger. Our billions will not starve gently when it comes to that; the total ecological devastation should billions of people be forced to graze directly off the land is truly unimaginable.

Bridging the great gulf between this level of analysis and the more common and expected detail of economic, political and social intrigue is the work of great leaders. It also can only be done at certain times, when people have been jarred by something like the disrepute and incompetence of the Bush administration.

Details can contain excitement, pathos or outrage, but the details must be under the control of larger ideas or we act ad hoc from moment to moment. Lincoln once spoke disparagingly of a man who held the views of the �last man he talked to.� Since this condition is more true of most people than not, leadership has as one of its major roles the keeping of a vision. The tendency is to speak of high purpose in one breath and argue for details that violate that purpose with the next.

If it is agreed that humans wish to survive as a species and that the killing off of a few billion people is not an option, then there are things that must be done. All people need the knowledge and wisdom to live in ecological balance with the world immediately around them; this requires education, education requires resources. If it is agreed that world population must stabilize and reduce, then education in �family planning� and the empowerment of women are required, again with resource requirements. Also, if population is to be reduced and if consumption is to be reduced, our economic system will have to be rethought and reformed: capitalism, as presently functioning, will fight against the details of consumption and population reduction. It is impossible to follow the wisdom of an essential vision using the elements of detail that conspire to defeat the vision.

A growing body of knowledge, both scientific and experiential, is forming about how we humans act, about our natural history as an animal, along with new understandings of the power and dangers of the adaptive tool of consciousness. This is the time to press on those who would be leaders the need to recognize the larger visions and honestly present the implications to their constituencies.

Vast resources will be needed to educate and re-educate us all and to reform our economic and political designs. Redistribution of the wealth that has been extracted from the earth and accumulated into fewer and fewer hands will have to seen as essential for the vision of species survival and not just for personal pleasure and aggrandizement. I am not saying that this is our last opportunity, but it certainly will be among the last and is one that, at the very least, those who have an inkling about these matters should attempt.

James Keye publishes the blog, Keye Commentary. Email him at

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor