Intent: Existential Challenge
- Proliferation of explanations and injunctions
- Simplistic responses
- Paradigmatic entrapment
- Failure to act on knowledge
- Unchallenged self-image
- Unchallenged relationship to the environment
- Need for a different mode of thought
- Existential sacrifice
- Change vs pseudo-change
- Distorted value of life
- Value sacrifice
- Personal transformation
- Existential discipline
- Transformation of perspective
- Unacknowledged circumstances
Corresponding to the contextual challenge in responding to their environments,
individuals are faced with an existential challenge in redefining their self-image
and the mind-set with which they respond to the world. The following are
some of the features of this challenge.
1. Proliferation of explanations and injunctions
The hyper-development of the ability to explain and to label has fostered
the pervasive illusion that this necessarily ensures that an environment
so treated is somehow under control. Much effort is devoted to this process,
whether by researchers, educators, legislators, administrators or managers.
There is a resemblance to the enthusiastic reliance on pesticides by the
agri-business. This process does appear to freeze portions of the environment,
since readily comprehensible explanations tend to be in static terms. Not
only does this render invisible any dynamic relationship to other aspects
of the environment, but it also defines the explainer at the same reduced
level of complexity -- at least in the relationship to what has been so explained.
2. Simplistic responses
Action on the environment, perceiving and responding to problems, is then
viewed primarily as a question of reordering explained categories into a
more appropriate pattern -- "sustainability" being the latest criterion. "Profitability" is
a competing criterion. Irrespective of the criterion, there is a resemblance
to the procedures by which radioactive products are handled in laboratories
through "glove-box" manipulators. The person controlling the manipulators
is of a much higher order of complexity than that aspect which is manifest
through the possible movements of the manipulators. And yet problems are
perceived and acted on at the level of complexity of the manipulators. The
glove-box delimits the reality to which society is prepared to respond and
constrains the manner of that response. But above all it protects the users
of the glove-box from exposure to the invisible challenge of the products
3. Paradigmatic entrapment
Action on problems thus becomes a matter of shuffling categories and institutional
elements, combining and recombining them in an effort to increase the effectiveness
of response. New categories and institutions are invented within the same
pattern. Blame for problems is reallocated in a similar manner. In this way
much change is apparent, together with many explanations as to why such change
is sufficient to the challenge of the times. And yet this perception tends
to remain unchallenged.
4. Failure to act on knowledge
Explanations do not respond to present (or future) suffering, although they
may reduce anxiety about it. A physician, fully informed of the dangers of
smoking, may continue to do so, irrespective of the recognized effects on
his own health or the indirect consequences for others. Similarly a factory
may continue to discharge pollutants, despite the manager being fully informed
of the consequences for the environment. A walker may point with complaint
to a piece of rubbish in a forest but not feel called to remove it. Such
examples are indicative of the protection offered by the existential glove-box.
It permits those using it to feel uninvolved. The pattern of explanations
and injunctions has a numbing effect by which individuals are protected from
any challenge to their own pattern of behaviour.
The professionalism of international responses to the challenges of the
times also protects individuals from any need to be personally concerned
whether a programme succeeds or fails (provided explanations can be found
to deflect any negative consequences for career advancement). But how to
distinguish between the necessary detachment of a surgeon whose skills are
unable to save a patient, and the indifference of a surgeon whose inappropriate
action is aggravating the condition of the patient?
The quantity of explanations and injunctions, and the eminence of those
offering them, disempowers non-specialists. Those who are not mandated to
provide authorized explanations are forced into a position of dependency
for the construction of the reality in which they live. Imagination is crushed
by the weight of explanations and by those who are empowered to impose them.
Imagination itself is only acknowledged in those who have proven their commercial
worth. As such it has become a product for consumption. In the glove-box,
images are generated which trap the unwary into belief in their reality.
7. Unchallenged self-image
There has been much concern voiced about the need for a new paradigm and
for non-linear approaches to the complexities of the environment. This seems
to address the simplistic, even mechanistic, pattern of category shuffling
-- a recognition that the glove-box only permits a restricted pattern of
movements. But much of that discussion still seems to be calling for what
amounts to a more complex set of manipulators for the same glove-box. The
relationship of the user of the glove-box to the manipulations therein is
not called into question. The dualistic relationship is not challenged. However
rich the paradigm, to what extent will it call for a new self-image on the
part of the user of the glove-box implying a new involvement in action? To
what extent do perceived problems become existential challenges rather than
merely a flavour-of-the-month?
8. Unchallenged relationship to the environment
The fashion for "holographic" paradigms, with the implication that everything
is reflected in everything else, is an intellectual challenge calling for
a broader and richer understanding. The Gaia model is of this kind. But whilst
these call for a higher degree of responsibility and accountability on the
part of individuals, they fail to render explicit the challenge to the articulation
of the individual's relationship to the environment. A non-dualistic framework
continually questions both what it means to be and act as an individual and
what is the nature of the environment in which action is taken.
9. Need for a different mode of thought
It is indeed possible to avoid this challenge. It is possible to assume
that one does not need to change and that the paradigm of "development decades" and "international
organizations" is sufficient for the times. It may be assumed that "win-win" solutions
are possible and that there need be no losers -- gain without pain. But there
is increasing recognition that unless the life-style in industrialized countries
is radically changed, the current system will become increasingly unsustainable.
This calls for a different mode of thought.
10. Existential sacrifice
The prevailing mode of thought makes no explicit call for existential sacrifice,
since sacrificing a category within the glove-box is not an existential operation.
And yet in the larger reality people are indeed sacrificed through the imposition
of austerity programmes -- structural adjustment with an "inhuman" face.
A non-dualistic approach sees winning and losing as complementary phases
in necessary learning cycles. Like inspiration and expiration, they are both
necessary processes in a growing organism. To what sacrifice do administrators
of programmes expose themselves in order to comprehend more subtle approaches
to the environment?
11. Change vs pseudo-change
It is ironic that it is only those who are least appreciated who consciously
expose themselves to being sacrificed in contemporary society. The dramatic
examples are terrorists on suicide missions, self-immolating protesters,
and soldiers in a jihad. However society also requires human sacrifices before
legislative changes are considered necessary: children have to die before
dangerous foodstuffs are prohibited by law, and demonstrators have to be
willing to suffer, or lose their lives, before their cause receives attention.
Real change is accomplished when people expose themselves to an existential
challenge, thus becoming agents of change. Pseudo-change occurs when the
initiators engage in manipulations within the glove-box which leave them
totally untouched (other than through any loss of status or pride, as in
losing a wager).
12. Distorted value of life
Again it is ironic that there is less and less in modern society that people
are prepared to die for, or to allow others to die for. Whole societies can
now be held to ransom for a single known hostage. Millions can be spent to
maintain a comatose, brain-damaged patient on life-support for decades. Euthanasia
is illegal, no matter what the desire of the person concerned. Exposure to
risk is progressively designed out of society, to be replaced by vicarious
experiences through videos or with the protection of required safety devices.
The paradox is that unknown numbers are however sacrificed through carcinogenic
products, abortion, structural violence, massacres, gang murders, cult rituals, "snuff" movies
and associated perversions, or a failure of food and medical supplies.
13. Value sacrifice
The attitude to life has become as immature as that to death. Millions are
spent on efforts to maintain youthfulness, whether through cosmetics, cosmetic
surgery or attempts to reverse the ageing process. Every other value is sacrificed
to save lives in industrialized societies, whilst allowing others to die
elsewhere. Individuals in industrialized societies are prosecuted for life-endangering
neglect. But these same societies fail to apply the same standards in their
policies towards other societies. Reproduction is tacitly encouraged without
any provision for the resulting population growth or the effects on the environment.
Society evokes problems to provide solutions for its own irresponsibility
-- a control mechanism for the immature lacking the insight for a healthy
relationship to cycles.
14. Personal transformation
The challenge of the times would seem to involve a call for personal transformation
through which social and conceptual frameworks can be viewed anew. Willingness
to sacrifice inherited perspectives is an indication of the dimension of
the challenge -- most dramatically illustrated by willingness to risk death.
However physical death is not the issue, and may easily be a simplistic,
deluded impulse lending itself to manipulation. Destruction of frameworks
valued by others is equally suspect. Such dramatics provide rewards within
the very frameworks whose nature the individual needs to question, but by
which he may need to choose to be constrained.
15. Existential discipline
What are the existential disciplines by which an individual can progressively
redefine what he or she is in relationship to the environment -- at present
and in response to the emerging future? What does this imply for the organizations
through which individuals may work or for the conceptual frameworks appropriate
to that work? How does this understanding affect the individual's relationship
to the piece of rubbish at his feet? The many spiritual traditions provide
clues for further exploration. But their advocates are often dangerously
enthusiastic about their own insights and disparaging of others. Insight
is buried in dogma. The letter obscures the spirit and denies the awareness
by which they may be distinguished. Instant faith is demanded to avoid the
long-term challenge of disciplined acquisition of insight. This suggests
that any such disciplines must also be applied in response to the purveyors
of insights and to their products. But where there is no exposure to risk
and the possibility of error, there is no learning or possibility of meaningful
16. Transformation of perspective
There is an irony in the call to ensure humanity's continued existence on
the planet. It is a challenge to our existence, but it has not yet been recognized
as an existential challenge. As with suppositions about the life hereafter,
it is assumed that no change is implied for our understanding of ourselves.
And yet it may be that such transformation of perspective is the key which
the nature of the crisis will force us to recognize. As the Sufis suggest,
the trick of insight required may be to remove the point from which we currently
view. There is an illusion of who we are that needs to be sacrificed to give
birth to a sustainable future.
17. Persistent personal egotism
There are many admirable advocates of change, whether involving social transformation
or personal transformation. The most eminent, whether in the world of science,
art, politics, or religion, have made striking contributions to this process
and will continue to do so. And yet the level of egotism among those with
most insight remains a major challenge, as illustrated by the following comment
made by Richard Gardner and quoted by Michael Marien (Societal Directions
and Alternatives, 1976): "We are afflicted not only by national
but by personal egoism. That is what could eventually destroy us. Many of
these eminent people have such big egos that their principal preoccupation
in life is to establish a piece of intellectual turf and preserve it against
all comers, whatever the consequences. They're prepared to sacrifice truth
-- perhaps not consciously, but sub-consciously -- to the pursuit of ideology
and the pursuit of ego."
18. Unacknowledged circumstances
As stated by Donald Michael: "Arguably, the most profound threat to
the development of planetary civilization is the inability of leaders to
admit that there are fundamental circumstances with which we must deal
that cannot be acknowledged." (Leadership's shadow: the dilemma of