Rationale for an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
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Why would anyone want to produce an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential -- and how could one get to the point of believing that it was appropriate to do so? Satish Kumar saw these as much more intriguing questions than any review of the result of such an exercise. Hence the teasing challenge to clarify the why's and wherefore's of a programme which has just produced the third edition of such an Encyclopedia.
As anyone knows who has explored the universe of associations and special interest groups, whether charitable or not, there is a vast ecosystem of bodies to be discovered - a veritable social rainforest. Such bodies come in all shapes and sizes, of widely ranging colorations, and with antennae sensitive to an incredible range of issues. Many can only be found in highly specialized niches with unusual dependencies on other bodies. Some may be very difficult to detect because of their need for protective camouflage in contexts in which the ideals of symbiosis and cooperation are often the exception rather than the rule. Some of these bodies appear quite nasty, preying on one another to the point of eliminating those perceived as threatening their territory.
An odd combination of circumstances brought me to work with an organization that has dedicated itself to documenting both the existence of these bodies at the international level and the web of working arrangements between them which defines the larger social ecosystem in which they function. A coelacanth in its on right, the nonprofit institute was created in 1910 in Brussels (in the early years of "international organization"), under the name of Union of International Associations. Since that time it has functioned as a clearinghouse for information on international bodies from Amnesty International to Zonta International, and including the Ancient Astronaut Society, IUCN, WWF and the United Nations agencies. The database currently covers some 28,000 nonprofit bodies linked by a web of 71,000 relations to one another, and through a further web of 200,000 membership links to specific countries. All this information gets published annually in a 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations.
But it is the exposure to such a range of information which has a subtle influence on the way one thinks. In my early years there I was fed a regular diet of periodicals from bodies with an extraordinary range of views. How does one learn to think when one is confronted successively by: the Early Warning Genocide Network, the International Association for Humour in International Relations, the Fourth World General Council, the International Esperantist Naturist Organization, the International Flat Earth Society, the World Congress of Poets, and the World Union of National Socialists? How does one cope with information from one body violently hostile to everything emanating from another? And what about the various subtle forms of organizational apartheid practised by organizations (especially intergovernmental bodies) who perceive others as academically, spiritually, ideologically, culturally or financially inferior to themselves?
I became extremely sensitive to the ways in which one form of information implicitly established the "irrelevance" of some other form. But at the same time I became very sensitive to a certain legitimacy in even the most apparently absurd perspectives, at least within their own context. The current tendency of the EEC to attempt to define what seeds should be traded and grown can be seen as a metaphor for subtle influences on what forms of organization can take root and flourish. It is as though only various "standard" forms of organization are really considered desirable - others are readily labelled as "parasites" or a "cancer" on society.
Whereas biologists tolerate the existence of millions of species, the social sciences prefer to deal only with organizational "big game", namely the "elephants" and "lions" of the organizational ecosystem. It is only very recently that there has been much interest in the smaller associations, and then only where they have some obvious connection to larger social issues. There is little sense of how large and small organizations and issues weave together in a complex web of interdependence - as has become so important to understanding of the natural environment. There is no organizational equivalent to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So, when the elites of this world formed the Club of Rome and produced their famous study Limits to Growth(1972), I was much disturbed by the limited range of issues which it addressed. It was a big game hunting exercise par excellence. Such studies tended to acknowledge only 5 to 10 world problems, at a time when I was exposed to information from organizations dealing with hundreds, if not thousands, of problems, of which few were widely known. It is as though knowledge of selected species at the top of the foodchain was sufficient for understanding of the nature of the foodchain.
Then came the intriguing question: To what extent could "world problems" be documented? If thought of in isolation ("famine", "torture", "road accidents", "inner city decay", etc), such an exercise could indeed be undertaken. But within prevailing schools of thought this approach remains quite questionable, since there is no theoretical basis by which "problems" can be defined. In one sense they are rather like anti-theories or anti-concepts - as the defiant antithesis of any definition.
For some, problems could only be grasped locally as concrete cases. For others, most specific problems could be more readily explained through those vague, general mega-problems of which they were considered a part, why bother with the detail - even if it was by the detailed micro-problems that people were directly touched? For others, any focus on "world problems" was a misguided exercise in negativity, when all energy should be devoted to the solutions of problems - often left unidentified. For the more superstitious, such an exercise could only attract bad karma.
Whilst reflecting on these possibilities, I was also exploring various approaches to human development. And as such things tend to happen, I met James Wellesley-Wesley who had been active in promoting futures studies at the international level through a small foundation called Mankind 2000. These efforts had given rise to the International Futures Research Inaugural Conference in Oslo in 1967. His concern was how to ensure a "human development" focus in the midst of the techno-forecasting emphasis of the futures movement of that time.
In our discussions it was agreed that any "world problems" project needed to be given a positive dimension and any "human development" project needed to be grounded in relation to the problems to which people were exposed. Hence the idea of marrying the two initiatives in an Encyclopedia which would endeavour to map out the fuzzy domains which were being conveniently ignored by the establishment thinking of the time. Mankind 2000 funded the editorial work and the Union of International Associations funded publication of the first edition in 1976.
It was an unusual privilege to be offered the opportunity of documenting both the "world problems" preoccupying thousands of international organizations and the modes and forms of "human potential" which people and groups of different cultures find meaningful. Any such exercise can only be presumptuous, especially for relatively underfunded organizations to undertake. It is definitely a case of "fools stepping in where angels fear to tread". But when the angels choose to treat as irrelevant a vast range of problems with which active international bodies consider themselves legitimately concerned, and when such angels consider that most of the human development interests with which people identify are delusions, then it would seem that there is a place for fools and creative naivety.
It is a strange process going through literally tons of international documents searching for descriptions of the problems with which organizations claim to be concerned. We have found over 13,000, and have registered some 80,000 links between them. Few organizations identify clearly the problems to which their programmes are designed to respond. One major agency charged with responding to the challenge of illiteracy claimed that it had no information on "illiteracy" since that was not its concern - it only had information on "literacy" programmes. Another major agency claimed that problems only "existed" for as long as there was sufficient political pressure to keep them on the agenda of that organization. In general "world problems" are disguised in a variety of ways: as procedural items on conference agendas, as remedial programmes, as research programmes, as laws (crimes), as news events, as insurance risks, as sins (religion), etc. One major reason for this is that it is important in most organizations to focus on successes, irrespective of the dimensions of what has not been accomplished. Upbeat reporting is essential to the survival of programme directors.
But to what extent is the collection of information on problems an exercise in mapping the shadowy illusions of society? The problems of great concern to one body, may be denied as total misconceptions by another. "Over- population" is not a problem to some, for whom the planet can provide all the food for many more - if only it were properly distributed. "Invasion by extra-terrestrials" is a dramatic problem for a constituency that considers itself very well-informed. And more resources are probably allocated to the problem of "wrinkles" than to that of "refugees". So we endeavoured to reflect the ambiguity surrounding problems by introducing counter-claims.
To what extent do problems really exist? For some "evil spirits" are of greater concern than "polluted water supplies". The solutions of one group, may be the problems of another - as is so clearly seen in the construction of large dams. "Immortality" would be extremely problematic. When then is a problem not the consequence of another group's "solution" in pursuit of its own vision of human development? Even more worrying is the extent to which many problems are in effect distinctly unpleasant solutions which humanity has somehow invoked in response to issues with which it fails to deal. Disease thus becomes one "solution" to over-population. The merit of this Encyclopedia programme lies in large part in clarifying the contrasting opinions which underlie the dynamics subverting consensus-based initiatives. Is consensus too simplistic? Is the challenge to displace our concerns onto more subtle problems rather than to endeavour to create a problem-free society?
In exploring "human potential", we ventured into even fuzzier territory. Whereas everyone recognizes "problems" - - the word is common to many languages - what can be usefully documented across cultures concerning human potential? The wisest counsel against endeavouring to trap subtle insights into verbal form, although many have endeavoured to do so. It is therefore possible to obtain indicative descriptions of some 1,300 forms of human development, and of some 2,800 modes of awareness, which are meaningful to different disciplines and spiritual traditions. And this we did. But to an even higher degree, much of this is perceived as dangerously misleading,
If not total rubbish, by adherents of other schools of belief. And yet one can argue that it is precisely because of people's deep commitment to a particular mode of human development, however misguided, that problems are created for those who do not subscribe to that system of beliefs.
Another line of approach to human potential is through "values". But here, to our amazement, although the literature on values is vast, there has been little effort to identify the values in question. Beyond the standard values flourished in international discourse, such as 'justice', 'peace', and "freedom", there is no sense of the range of values to which humanity can respond. Values have become equated with the beliefs which dominate in a consumer society
One of the exciting features of our approach to values has been the discovery that greater clarity is achieved by exploring "value polarities". Most values occur in clusters with which an "anti-value" is associated: "peace-war", "beauty-ugliness", "justice-injustice". It is the destructive value which can be most closely linked to a world problem, whereas the constructive values tend to be associated with many peak experiences. We found some 960 constructive and 1,040 destructive values which could then be grouped into 225 value polarities. In the terms of certain traditions of human development, it is the dualism of these polarities which has to be transcended in our understanding. And there is the delightful possibility that such polarities can be mapped onto the kind of tensional integrity structure which is basic to Buckminster Fuller's architectural innovation, namely the geodesic dome (a kind of 3-D mandala). This would give real meaning to "thinking globally" - and suggests that "tensegrity" organizations might prove more appropriate in response to networks of problems.
One of the delights of this long-term programme has been the opportunity to benefit at each stage from the computer revolution. Linking together cheap Taiwan computers using sophisticated software has enabled a team of people to edit complex networks of concepts in ways which could never have been achieved in the past. And there is a certain subtle humour to processing information on samadhi, bhakti yoga and genital maturity stored, on five disks whirling around at 3,000 rpm - the modern equivalent of Tibetan prayer wheels. Never were human problems and potential more thoroughly intertwined.
Our principal failure has been the inability to represent the complex networks of information in graphic form. We would have liked to have been able to use software to structure the information into an "atlas" of many maps - rather like subway maps or ecosystem foodwebs - to show the relationships between problems, between modes of awareness, and between values. The technology exists but we lacked the financial muscle to pay for the software brainpower to process the data in meaningful ways. What rules do you give a computer to facilitate the design of a foodweb map so that it becomes "meaningful"? What is the cognitive distinction between a subway map and a mandala - can one be "massaged" into the other?
The immediate challenge is the "so what" question. Large, expensive reference books are as much & part of the problem as part of the solution - especially if they do not enable us to transcend the linear mode. Large corporations will soon take advantage of their ability to design strategically valuable maps from such data. Is there a low-cost, left-brain response to match the sophistication of such costly, right-brain information processing?
The challenge that has emerged from this programme lies in how to make sense of complex patterns of information. Beyond the challenge of information overload is that of insight overload. It is in this respect that we have been excited by metaphor as a major unexplored resource. Its special advantage, over many techniques advocated by the sophisticated, is that metaphor is not only extensively used at every level of Western society, it is also extremely common in the cultures of non-Western societies. And like humour and rumour, it travels well, often bypassing functional illiteracy. People are free to generate metaphor to reconfigure their cognitive environments to create their own realities - as can be seen in many jargons and argots. Unfortunately the university literature departments, who hold the establishment monopoly on the use of metaphor, have never sought to empower people in this way - hence the appeal of films like Dead Poets Society. The literary world has reinforced the trivial uses of metaphor as a purely rhetorical device.
Many have remarked on the tendency of politicians to encapsulate complex policy options in metaphor - obviating the need to read reams of documents. There is Harold Macmillan's classic criticism of Margaret Thatcher's privatization policy as "selling the family silver". To which she agreed, with the remark that she was however "selling it back to the family". Boris Yeltsin zapped Michael Gorbachov's economic proposals as being an effort to "marry a hedgehog to a snake". These are intriguing examples of the use of metaphoric language in practical politics. There are even more dramatic examples in the corporate world where extensive use is made of military, sporting and sexual metaphors (with or without expletives) to articulate management tactics and strategy. It is ironic to hear those seeking to advance peaceful causes speak of 'ammunition' to be used in 'campaigns' against precisely "targeted" audiences. Are the current strategic successes of the Japanese due to their use of fluid, poetic metaphor from the martial arts - in which insights from flower arrangement and warfare are interwoven?
The question we have therefore explored in one important section of the Encyclopedia is whether the metaphoric language we are using in response to the crises of the time is adequate to the challenge. The above examples could well be considered striking because of the simplistic, manipulative terms in which people are endeavouring to convey complex insights. Are there richer and more appropriate sets of metaphors we could explore to empower us all to respond to the complexities of our world? Clearly hedgehogs and snakes do not need to "marry", they have successfully co-existed for millions of years in appropriate ecosystems. Gorbachev could have responded by opening a dialogue on the nature of that ecosystem.
What are the guiding organizational metaphors of the Green Movement? Is it using the most appropriate metaphors to counteract its degree of factionalism, which remains a tragic symptom of our times? Would it be possible for the Green Movement to articulate (and heal) its organizational relationships by exploring its own structure as though ft were an ecosystem of species? Within a healthy ecosystem a range of species is required - perhaps the factions should be looked at in this light. Maybe not enough have emerged for a viable ecosystem I It may also be argued that to "manage" the environment appropriately, a language replete with ecological metaphors would provide a rich conceptual "gene-pool" of guiding images adequate to the organizational and policy challenge of "stewardship", ft through a more sophisticated language that the mechanistic strategies of the corporate world can be effectively encountered.
"Sustainable development" is basically a call for a new language, to take us beyond the naive belief in the possibility of 'having one's cake and eating ft too'. But ft would be politically naive to think that it is either possible or desirable to elaborate a single sustainable policy in response to the complexity we face. Maybe it is through metaphor that we can evolve a sustainable ecology of development policies as a more realistically appropriate strategy. Without such guiding images, can the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) be more than one more exercise in minimalistic diplomacy?
One of the nicer things about the cognitive function of metaphor is the link that it provides to poetry and a sense of rhythm. It would be good to believe that through this would emerge an understanding of how to weave policies into rhythmic interlocking cycles. Crop rotation is one of the most intriguing metaphors for such a future cyclic approach to policy-making. There is obvious merit in rotating crops to prevent any one crop depleting the soil and to ensure sustainable production from a field. There is a similar need to recognize that every policy, whatever its merits, has negative side effects which need to be remedied by subsequent policies. For development policies to be sustainable, do they not need to be elaborated as a succession of policies in a cycle, each compensating for the weaknesses of its predecessors until the first can be used again? Sustainabilfty lies at the cyclic level, not at the level of any one policy, however brilliant. The Chinese Book of Changes, the classic policy guide for the Emperor of China, was reinterpreted in the Encyclopedia as a pattern of non-Western insights into such sustainable policy cycles.
For those who work on this long-term programme, a good question is what it does to us personally. And, in the light of Satish Kumar's curiosity, what prompts us to stay with ft? In a tightly budgeted exercise there is considerable pressure.It is therefore difficult to tarry over any entry, whether 'corruption of government officials' or "cosmic consciousness'. Whatever one's feelings or special interest, a high degree of editorial detachment is necessary - rather like a surgeon in a hospital or a lawyer preparing a brief. But some complex networks of problems or insights, such as the many forms of human rights abuse or the 900 modes of awareness recognized by Buddhism, require much time. So yes, one becomes infected, affected and intrigued. But this is quickly swept away by the tasks which follow. Editorial indulgence is a financial luxury we could not afford. Often it is an agonizing decision to leave an entry incomplete, when much more effort would have been appropriate - especially when the entry represents the apotheosis of one's own beliefs.
Does such work have a cathartic effect for those unwilling to confront their personal problems? Is ft a perverse substitute for concrete action? Does ft lead to personal learning? Does ft change us? Perhaps one response is that it seems to lead to more personally meaningful questions. The obvious answers to the problems of the world lose their appeal: if one does not understand how one is part of the problem, one cannot understand the nature of the solution required. There is the possibility that what we seem to need to understand may only be expressible in a language that we do not yet know - hence the excitement with metaphor as providing insights into that language. The "re-enchantment of the Earth", as Morris Berman put ft, requires a re-enchantment of the language through which we respond to ft. As such, Resurgence is basically in the "language business". What we need are 'metaphors for survival", namely those metaphors which will enable us to reframe the problems and possibilities with which we are confronted, and to empower us to create more appropriate forms of social organization.
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.