Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos


In Quest of Uncommon Ground

Beyond impoverished metaphor and the impotence of words of power

-- / --

Common ground
Peace and non-violence
Consensus and agreement
Leading edge
Universal values
Manifestos, declarations and charters


Many good people and groups have sacrificed much over the past centuries to gain recognition for certain fundamental values, principles and approaches to collective initiative. These are now basic to the ways in which society is organized and governed. All new initiatives are presented and debated in terms of this language.

But the unquestioning manner in which these terms are treated has made of them an ideal pattern of camouflage to disguise initiatives which, deliberately or inadvertently, serve only to reinforce the individual and collective paralysis by which society is presently bedeviled. Many who sincerely believe in the profound significance of this new mode of organization tend to be unskilled in their ability to see how they are duped by those who only pay lip service to them.

Key values are systematically perverted in practice. They are widely and skilfully used to promote initiatives that are totally incompatible with their purported significance. Advocating such new modes of organization is now in the interest of those who can most effectively disguise their real concerns through using them. In the desperate search for evidence of support for particular values, much is permitted in their name by those who support them unthinkingly, believing that they should be supported at any cost. Any effort to question such initiatives is stereotyped as typical of the problems they purport to alleviate.

As noted by Edward de Bono in a book entitled Words of Power, certain words are selected by society for purposes which verge on the magical. The international community, and those concerned with social issues and transformation, also tend to attach particular importance to certain words. They are now part of the language of social change through which all initiatives are discussed. As a consequence their significance and relevance as transformative agents goes unchallenged. Many of these words have a metaphorical dimension. As metaphors they often demonstrate the challenge of metaphorical impoverishment and the impotence of approaches to change that derive from such conceptual dependency.

There is therefore a case for re-examining these core approaches to discover what they conveniently conceal if approached simplistically, as it is usually necessary to do if they are to be effectively presented through the media. The limitations of their value base, as absolute criteria, need to be openly recognized. Many acknowledge the cynicism with which they are used, especially by the self-serving, and the realities to which they are completely insensitive.

The purpose here is to challenge existing thinking on the basis that maybe the way forward lies, paradoxically, throughrecognition of the shadow cast by such modern icons. That shadow may well be associated with a fundamentally unhealthy repression of valuable features of the polar opposite of the favoured value. As it is said in fundamental physics, it is not a question of whether radical new thinking is required, it is a question of whether it is radical enough.

In what follows, a number of words are explored to attempt to identify the metaphorical traps and the opportunities which may lie behind them, or be obscured by them in some way. The statements below are not a denial of these values but a recognition of the constraints through which their deeper significance needs to be understood

Common ground

Challenge: Many initiatives in response to potential conflict are now based on a search for "common ground". What ground is implied by this phrase? Where such ground is sought based on an implicit metaphor such as a "town square" or "village common", this objective needs to be challenged in terms of its over-simplicity. The use of "common" suggests that, as in the town square, it is a space well-known to all and naturally shared in some way. There is even a note of condescension implying that such ground may be common to the point of being banal, if not vulgar. It is readily assumed that the only challenge is to acknowledge its commonality and use it as a central place of reference in responding to differences that emerge. This approach is applied optimistically to intractable conflict situations such as Jerusalem, Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Given the dramatic rise in organized crime, notably in Eastern Europe, what common ground to be sought in articulating civil society?

Potential: Little attention is paid to the possibility that the transformative potential of "common ground" may be associated with a form of "ground" which is a major challenge to understanding. Whilst what can be fruitfully understood may indeed be "simple" in its commonality, it may well be simple in the sense that fundamental theories of physics, or spiritual insights, are simple. That kind of simplicity is only understood after extensive exploration and experience -- and the exclusion of misleading interpretations which may appear satisfactory from some perspectives. In this sense, the much sought ground with transformative potential is distinctly uncommon, although once recognized its commonality is readily acknowledged. However, simplistic approaches to "common ground" serve only to obscure the nature of this common ground, facilitating premature conceptual closure on what is a continuing challenge to human society. Representing and communicating the nature of this uncommon ground will continue to be a challenge to the most creative in society -- however readily individuals may intuit its existence. (Aspects of the conceptual challenge are illustrated by the fact that Uncommon Ground is the title of a book, edited in 1996 by William Cronon, concerned with rethinking the human place in nature; to further confuse the issue, it is also the title of a 1994 report by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith concerned with links between anti-semitic extremist groups)

Example: Jerusalem is characteristic of a situation in which claimants claim the totality of the common ground -- in contrast to the many simpler negotiating situations in which some sharing may be envisaged. It is precisely what makes the ground "sacred" to a given faith that undermines simpler approaches to "common ground" -- in a special sense it is an ethnic "homeland". These dimensions take "common ground" out of its metaphoric two-dimensions, so easily enshrined in legalese, and call for other levels of understanding.

With respect to Jerusalem, given, its profound and fundamental symbolic significance, the key question is how the Jerusalem which is commonly held to be of such great symbolic importance is related to the land measurable by a surveyor. Is the symbolic Jerusalem to be solely understood through what are effectively Euclidean and Newtonian perspectives? Or does that Jerusalem call for a depth of understanding which is more closely analogous to concepts associated with complex geometries and fundamental physics -- which are a real challenge to the understanding? In this sense, does not the conventional Euclidean/Newtonian approach effectively demean what is essential to the symbolic and spiritual significance of Jerusalem and all that it represents? Can those who would defend the profundity of insight underlying the importance attached to Jerusalem truly believe that this insight can be validly expressed through conceptual frameworks that are many orders of magnitude less complex than those required for fundamental physics (in understanding atomic structure) or for astronomers (in understanding cosmic phenomena)?

The question is whether there are not multidimensional understandings of Jerusalem which totally legitimate a number of seeming incompatible or incommensurable understandings of Jerusalem. Such richer multidimensional understandings would justify particular interpretations, each apparently incompatible with the other. In the case of physics, an example is the "wave vs. particle" understandings of light. Both are correct at one level, but their reconciliation is a fundamental challenge to comprehension -- even for those with long training in physics and mathematics. Given the symbolic importance of Jerusalem, is it to be expected that comprehending its psycho-cultural significance should be less or more complex than that required to understand the nature of light? It is in this sense that the "common ground" is highly "uncommon" -- although this representational complexity does not deny the simplicity with which its commonality may be intuited.


Challenge: The "vision" metaphor, so characteristic of future strategy making and corporate training programmes, implicitly excludes insights which might be suggested by other senses. This metaphoric reliance on single-sense strategy, fails to recognize the strategic strengths associated with others senses and is insensitive to the strategic vulnerability of the sight metaphor itself. In the confusion of the present times, for which metaphors such as "darkness", "obscurity" and "fog" are commonly used, vision has little long-distance penetrating power. For those who claim clear-sightedness, the vision metaphor also begs the question whether they unknowingly suffer from myopia or presbyopia, as the short-term focus of policy-makers and the long-term focus of futurists would respectively suggest. Are corrective lenses required? What are vision's blindspots? Visions are often articulated through visual media, including videos and roadside billboards -- portraying some future construction. After implementation, what would hindsight suggest had been absent from such displays? In a world of political correctness in language use, what does the focus on "vision" communicate to the visually handicapped? Might there be other senses to which the visually unchallenged are insensitive -- such as the Japanese sense of "wa"?

Potential: Although vision and foresight are apparently given the highest priority in articulating new initiatives, the strategic value of the other senses is not lost to practitioners:

In navigating an uncertain future, is vision to be valued under all circumstances -- however deaf, or incapable of touch and smell, leaders may effectively be? Animals in the natural environment survive by using a combination of senses and exploiting the sensorial weaknesses of their enemies and prey. No single sense provides guarantees, however positive a message it appears to convey. Strategies effectively based on a single sense condemn societies to relearn the evolutionary lessons of nature. Leaders who promote vision to the exclusion of other senses are deliberately, or inadvertently, rendering their followers vulnerable to those who use other strategic senses.

Peace and non-violence

Challenge: It is difficult to deny that the level of violence is increasing in society. Individual and collective insecurity is a major issue, even in those countries that most vigorously advocate the need for peace. The situation is not expected to improve. Those who have laboured honourably in the cause of peace need to acknowledge that many are now being ill-served by the manner in which it has been possible to give form to their understanding of "peace" in practice.

Examples: Bosnia has dramatized the dilemma. Consistent with this belief in non-violence, the international community acted "peacefully" over many months in failing to constrain the aggressors. It withheld arms from people, deliberately handicapping them in their ability to defend themselves. Aggressors, for example, were systematically appeased in the pursuit of "peace" at any cost, because nothing could be worse than the loss of a single life. But as many died there as in the Gulf War, where the much-criticized "unpeaceful" approach was taken.

This dilemma is also apparent at the individual level in many countries, where self-defence has been effectively criminalized without provision for the adequate protection of people. Increasingly, under the aegis of "non-violence", the cost of effective personal security guarantees that it is only available for the few. Perhaps the most comprehensible expression of this is the inability of modern parents, abhorring any form ofviolence, to prevent their children jumping on the sofa with muddy feet when all reasoned persuasion and inducement has failed. Those holding to "non-violence" as the most fundamental value have been unable to demonstrate in practice how it can be used in societies characterized by fundamental differences, or (more symbolically) amongst policy-making factions torn by infighting. Pleas for peace are now skilfully used by those who wish to do some form of violence to each other, if only in the form of structural violence.

Potential: It is dangerous to deny the positive features of vigilance and courage in honourable combat with which so many continue to identify and which have been key dimensions of human culture. The understanding of peace that is required by the future may incorporate far more of the dynamics between discord and concord that are so richly explored in the theories of musical harmony -- as yet unexplored by those extolling the virtues of peace.

Consensus and agreement

Challenge: Most collective action is now made conditional upon consensus: no consensus, no action. This requirement has been very effectively used as an honourable excuse by those who seek to avoid action. Under social and political conditions characterized by intractable differences and the pursuit of collective identity, the only consensus that can be realistically expected to emerge is either tokenistic or of the most temporary duration. Consensus must necessarily be unstable in a turbulent society. This is well exploited by those who know that as the consensus decays, or before it is achieved, they can pursue their own ends, whilst benefitting from their perceived willingness to be an enthusiastic participant in the consensual process. Effort is only devoted to the management of consensual situations and programmes and these are necessarily of a short-term nature. This prevents development of the skills required with the non-consensual situations most evident in society, especially from a longer term perspective.

Potential: Creative responses to difference at present concentrate on "resolving" any such differences. There is a dangerously naive belief amongst professional mediators that differences, vital to people's sense of identity and culture, can be respected within a simplistic consensus. And yet this is seemingly all that these skills are currently concerned to bring about. The striking rise in the level of divorce is an indicator that the skills of relationship counsellors are at present inadequate to the tasks of managing differences, even at the family level. The blind pursuit of consensus is inhibiting the ability to explore management of differences experienced at every level of society. Again the understanding in music of the relationship between concord and discord suggests a richer and more fruitful approach to higher orders of consensus.


Challenge: This term is now highly favoured in any effort to associate groups that may be instrumental in ensuring particularchanges relating to social or other issues. Here however the implicit metaphor is that of the stake used to establish territorial or mining rights. Each stakeholder stakes out, or lays claim to, a particular piece of territory. This may be especially challenging, as in the case of Jerusalem, where all stakeholders make exclusive claims to the totality of the territory.

Potential: Little thought is given to building on this metaphor to suggest notions of links between stakes, as in fencing an enclosure -- fencing the commons? Nor is thought given to the ways in which stakes may be used (for the attachment of guy-lines and as poles) to ensure the erection and stability of a "tent" within which all can shelter and interact in new ways -- a three-dimensional spatial arena. Strangely stake "holding" implies that people will continue to cling to their respective stakes --however a project takes form. It might even be asked whether the term is better understood as "steakholders", where each grabs a piece of "meat" from an ill-defined whole -- which might have otherwise been able to live. Far more interesting is the metaphorical exploration of the role of stakeholders in the construction of scaffolding through which social contexts of higher dimension can be created.


Challenge: Increasing concern with competition has led to increasing emphasis on "winning" -- notably with respect to global market share. In response to recognition that in consequence some must necessarily "lose", there is some exploration of "win-win" possibilities. There are many reasons why this is a useful notion, and why there is useful mileage in it. Judgement Day could even be usefully understood as the day when every profoundly held belief system gets to say "I told you so" -- the only twist being that at present it is impossible to understand how each needs to understand how they were wrong in order to accommodate the rightness of others. It is at this level (which in biblical terms "passeth all understanding") that Win-Win does indeed hold in reality. It also holds as a useful slogan. The question is whether this is an appropriate metaphor through which to create a sustainable bridge between reconciliation in principle and the savage daily reality of competition.

Potential: Study of ecosystems demonstrates that "everybody is somebody else's lunch". It would be nice to test designs of sustainable social ecosystems where this does not hold. This has not yet proved possible (especially since any such experiments are themselves considered suspect). Kenneth Boulding has a statement to the effect that people only learn "through losing". From this perspective a win-win society as currently conceived is essentially a non-learning society. How learning can be ensured remains to be explored. Careful review of social change shows, that real change only occurs through human sacrifice. Indeed it could be shown that most legislation is passed only after people have died as a consequence of its absence. The careers of most social innovators are marked by personal sacrifice.

These points show that there are several implicit understandings of "winning". People respond readily to the "gain without pain" interpretation. There is a danger that "win-win" will be praised by such people, although there may indeed be value in this. But such appreciation will obscure other levels of interpretation which are where the real breakthroughs lie. It may be necessary to lose in order to win. The key to sustainable development may lie in developing the cycles of winning and losing. Attachment to winning may prove fatal.

Leading edge

Challenge: In a world where most values are subject to challenge, being at the "cutting edge" is widely considered a highly desirable condition and a mark of achievement. What might this attitude conceal in a society challenged by violence at every level? In a competitive society, where being "at the top" is the only non-monetary achievement that is valued, it is convenient to draw attention to the few (the "winners") and to value them disproportionately in relation to the many ("the losers"). Where financial resources are involved, this reinforces the income gaps within society -- which community initiatives purportedly endeavour to reduce. In other cases, such as the academic, sport, cultural or religious sectors, the contributions of the few are then similarly overvalued at the expense of the many. The "cutting edge" is then associated with efforts to occupy the moral or intellectual high ground. How does this differ from various efforts at one-upmanship?

What then does "cutting" imply? In order to effectively exert their impact, those imbuing themselves with momentum may find it necessary to "cut their way through" -- in a manner of hacking a path through jungle undergrowth. This raises questions about the status accorded to that undergrowth by those doing the hacking. A security force finds it appropriate to "cut its way through" a force of rioters in seeking to enforce law and order? Here, although knives would not necessarily be used, force would definitely be considered an early, and necessary, option.

These considerations raise questions in a violent society, where many have recourse to arms and to knives, whether for protection or to exert their will. When the "cutting edge" metaphor is used in connection with social change, is that understanding of social change to be considered as trapped in the same metaphor as that which it seeks to transform? Related issues have been raised within segments of the peace movement which found themselves using military terms to elaborate their strategy: marshalling resources, selecting targets, and the like. Who exactly gets "cut" by a "cutting edge" and what is the effect upon them? Do they perceive themselves as having been wounded -- wounds which those on the "cutting edge" define to be for the greater good?

Potential: It is helpful to consider growth boundaries in nature. A growing tip of root or shoot does not "cut". There is therefore an interesting distinction between the mechanical "cutting" metaphor and "growth" metaphors characteristic of nature. Any such "growing edge" is characterized above all by its proprioceptive nature -- it has a heightened sensitivity to whatlies before it and draws it forward. A cutting edge has no such sensitivity, being driven by the strength of what lies behind it (other than in the case of self-mutilation). It achieves its sharpness at the price of total insensitivity. This is in fact its greatest weakness in that it may encounter unforeseen resistance and be damaged by it -- a phenomenon used in spiking trees to prevent their being cut down.

Is it therefore appropriate for the proponents of social change, and notably in sustainable communities inspired by nature, to adopt the "cutting edge" metaphor? Should communities seek to be at the "cutting edge" with all that that may inspire in others? Few can be at points of growth, for many are required to supply the infrastructure to sustain them in their growth. Growth takes place for society as a whole, not at its expense -- at least one would hope.


Challenge: Leaders are expected to make assertions and affirmations. Leaders are also expected to establish priorities and in doing so must effectively deny realities which some consider of vital importance -- but which, because they "confuse the issue", may be too much for many (including the leaders) to deal with. In this way leadership could be considered as management of the interface between the acknowledged and the unacknowledged. Such "management" may unfortunately be largely an attribute of the unconscious personality characteristics of the leadership for whom particular forms of denial are needed for a measure of psychic stability.

Whilst much can be achieved through leadership, there are dangers in "delegating" to leaders functions which should be carried out by others. For then the leadership engages in activities which distract from less tangible functions, and the ability to perform the more tangible functions becomes valued more than the skills in the less tangible ones. These lead to a confusion of leadership with competence and followership with incompetence. But there is also a complicity of followers in the patterns of denial and dysfunctionality of leadership (in a pattern familiar to counsellors of alcoholic families).

Potential: In a dynamic society it is precisely this shifting pattern of assertions and denials that needs to be framed more appropriately for comprehension. It is utopian to depend upon people moving out of denial to ensure effective governance --especially when to be perceived as an adequate leader a person may have to take on or reflect the forms of denial of the followers. But provided one group asserts what another denies (or a single group alternates over time between denying one thing and denying another), then society as a whole has a means of responding to the many facets of its reality. The question is how to frame this pattern to allow for what cannot be acknowledged or known whether by a particular leadership group or at any one time. There is also the vital question of whether such patterning provides for adequate social coherence.

In the fluid social structures of the future, the challenge willbe to work with shifting patterns of assertion and denial, of leadership and followership. It is how the many forms of assertion and denial are configured together which offers a way forward, not the tendency to deplore denial as a favoured scapegoat. The assertion-denial complementarity needs to be reframed as a resource whose paradoxical qualities define the door to a genuinely sustainable future.

Sustainable communities, emerging through processes of self-organization, may turn out to based on complex forms of co-dependency, defined by many complementary forms of assertion and denial, as phases in a dynamic learning process. When does such co-dependency impede sustainability as opposed to enabling it? In such a community functions of leading and following may need to be constantly redistributed, in relation to assertion and denial, in ways that remain to be understood.

It might be asked whether the metaphorical implications of "being lead", with all the deadening inertia this suggests, do not call for substituting "goldership" for "leadership". Where change and social transformation are the intention, it is "being gold" which followers could usefully expect from their "golders".


Challenge: Cultivation of a positive attitude has empowered people and groups to act in situations where they might otherwise have been inhibited by doubt or overwhelmed by the obstacles that confronted them. In an information- and media-oriented society, the progress of any project or career is increasingly dependent on the positive image through which any action is portrayed.

There is a rapidly developing fashion (notably in North America) which requires that everything be "positive". It is automatically assumed that "positive" equates with "good". Conversely, any expression of reservation or criticism is readily equated with "bad" -- or that the bearer of the message has a problem and needs help. This fashion, like political correctness, has reached a point that it could well be possible to market a word-processing macro (or grammar check equivalent) to eliminate any negatives from a text. However, like a special kind of "sound-barrier", this has to be broken through -- since it was precisely such positive, upbeat reporting which directly resulted in the Challenger shuttle explosion.

Obsession with positive information, and rejection of negative feedback of any kind, is undermining the ability of people and groups to adapt creatively to constantly changing conditions. Vital information on new environmental threats, for example, is concealed for as long as possible because of the fear of panic if people are faced with such negative information. Bearers of such negative information fear for their careers in many institutional environments where positive information is associated with career advancement. "Whistle-blowing" is often criminalized or subject to peer group penalties.

As with the inappropriateness of exporting "touchy-feely" training to cultures without special touch inhibitions, it mayprove more important to recognize how the positive is an aspect of the level of denial in those cultures where negativity is so prevalent in daily life that special measures must be taken to protect social coherence. Few skills have been developed to debate, let alone respond to, conditions viewed as positive by one group but as negative by another. Groups are becoming dependent for the identity on their ability to demonize what they perceive as opposing their positive perspective. Where only positive interpretations are sought, people lose the ability to transcend challenges and reach new and more appropriate levels of integration.

Potential: The question is not whether "positive" is "good", and "negative" is "bad". Opportunities lie rather in discovering more appropriate ways of balancing "positive" and "negative". This may be illustrated by electrical wiring as a metaphor. Normally two wires are needed -- positive and negative. Stripping out one from an electrical system will ensure that any light goes out and motors cease to operate. Perceived in this way, the emphasis on the "positive" in social projects is tantamount to endeavouring to design a social system based on one "wire" only -- or, in cybernetic terms, without negative feedback loops. This electrical metaphor also points to the value of exploring how a dynamo works to generate electricity, with both positive and negative being necessarily generated simultaneously. As for the electrician, the challenge lies in discovering how to ensure the appropriate relationship between positive and negative.

This suggests a much healthier approach to "positivity" as a slogan and "negativity" as an anathema in society today. The more responsible approach is well-illustrated by the following: "What does it mean, to be whole? It means that we must be willing to conceive of, to contain within ourselves, whatever is "other than" any limited idea. It means knowing that when we emphasize a positive, we are at the same time creating a negative. When we choose an ideal of knowledge, then we must deal with the ignorance that is other than the knowledge. When we emphasize an ideal of holiness, then we must live with the sin that is its companion, and accept our responsibility for having awareness... If we allow that ugliness is always within us, then we are free to create beauty. If we know that stupidity is always within us, then we are free to emphasize this intelligence." (Thaddeus Golas, 1971)


Challenge: Whether through the emphasis on loving relationships, an extended family, a circle of friends, a neighbourhood, a team, a gang, an ethnic group, or a nation, the bonds that bind people together have been vital to the emergence of society as it is now known. The sense of "we", as opposed to "they", is central to the present understanding of group identity. Development of such bonds is promoted as vital to family, community and organizational development. But it is precisely such bonding that continues to be a major factor in discrimination between groups and against others perceived as different.

The obsession with togetherness and bonding as a good, incontrast with the regrettable condition of those not similarly bonded, has resulted in a complete inability to handle adequately those many situations where such bonding is absent or oppressive. In an increasingly fragmented society where circumstances force many to live alone, their sense of isolation and alienation is reinforced. At the simplest level, couples are threatened (even to the point of divorce) when one partner seeks privacy from the other. Groups are threatened when a member seeks to act independently of other members. Coalitions of nations are threatened when one wants to act in a manner different from the others.

Potential: Togetherness at all costs directly inhibits the ability to deal with difference at a time when the diversity of views and needs in society is threatening its coherence. The trends towards self-segregation on campuses suggest that there are lessons to be learnt from "apartnership" which obsession with partnership and apartheid has served to conceal. What are the merits of significant separation? Under what conditions does it facilitate learning? How is complementarity to be nourished when its value derives from the distinctness of those who constitute it?

Further investigation may suggest that the more apartness than can be appropriately built into a psycho-social structure, the greater its ability to carry disparate insights coherently --unity within diversity. The structures may be seen as conceptual gene-pools (meme-pools) of different complexity. However such structures then constitute an increasing challenge to comprehension, however well particular sub-elements may be understood.


Challenge: This value has been fundamental to the long struggle against the tragic abuses that have characterized human societies. It remains fundamental to present understanding of representative democracy: one man, one vote. It is vital to the feminist struggle. And yet most individual and collective effort is designed to increase inequality and even to value most that which is especially unequal. Nations strive for greater power and influence and disparage "second class" nations. Their enterprises strive for greater "market share" and are contemptuous of "small outfits". Most societies are organized around systems that recognize and reward inequality, whether it be based on wealth, intelligence, power, beauty, saintliness, courage, age, sex, or special gifts and achievements. Groups manoeuvre to position themselves on the moral "high ground". Religions continue their tragic disparagement of each other's truths which is at the root of so many conflicts. Fruitful relationships are based as much on inequality as on equality. People are also profoundly frustrated by how unequal they feel when measured against the standard of equality.

Potential: Due to the obsession with equality, there is little understanding of the nature of the complementarity that makes inequality fruitful. Beneath the banner of equality, the skills in managing the inequality to which all are exposed remain as crude and unexplored as in the past. Although recognizing that it takes millions of species to sustain the ecosystems of the biosphere, it is naively assumed that a desirable global society can be sustained by a single kind of "human" being. This understanding is rigidly embedded in simplistic legal, political and institutional systems through which it is hoped to govern the planet.

Beyond the traps and superficialities of racism, sexism and speciesism, there may be a case for identifying the communication webs linking millions of species of person or role through which the global society actually functions. The so-called human species may effectively have long been "speciating" at a great rate, and beyond any useful meaning of equality, in response to the variety of niches offered by a complex social ecosystem. It is in such terms that the real dangers of global monoculture can be identified. Policies based on equality may effectively be legitimating the destruction of cultural rainforests vital to the survival of civilization. "Individuals" too might benefit from recognition of themselves as ecosystems, namely as the many quite unequal facets of the personalities through which they interact with each other.


Challenge: It is under the banner of development that a multitude of initiatives have been undertaken to alleviate the condition of the underprivileged of past decades. Much has been achieved. But it has also become increasingly apparent that "development" is the term used with greatest enthusiasm by those whose projects have systematically exploited the underprivileged and the natural environment. Ironically it is they, with their short-term financial interest, who are known as "developers" -- not those who strive for long-term improvement to social conditions. Dubious development programmes have exploited this ambiguity with the connivance and support of intergovernmental institutions. It is the activities of developers in the name of progress which have resulted in a blight of insensitive construction (whether in the form of dams, highways, housing estates, or golf courses), whose disastrous social and environmental consequences are becoming more and more evident.

Increasingly it is apparent that the most developed countries are engendering new forms of undevelopment, notably in their major cities where supposedly the development logic has been most assiduously applied. As a partial response, concern has recently shifted to "human development". This is now being used as a convenient disguise for initiatives to adapt individuals to the economic needs of certain sectors of society. Again, and despite claims to the contrary, there is little sensitivity to whether this actually improves the quality of life of the individual through the development of human potential. "Development", as currently practised, contributes significantly to the inhibition of individual and collective well-being.

Potential: If the process of "development" is such a dubious strategy, maybe it should be asked whether the prefix "de" could be more fruitfully associated with that of the "de" in "degrading" or in "destruction". What is the elusive present condition which is the subject of "de-gradation", "de-struction" or "de-velopment"? Is it possible that the sustainable process people could most fruitfully explore is better captured by "veloping" rather than "developing"? Veloping would then be the art of recognizing and sustaining the significance of what individuals already have. "Developing", in contrast, is the then the process whereby some people claim that things would be better if everybody subscribed to a particular strategy which is guaranteed to take them to better places -- it is those who make such claims who do best out of that process.

Maybe the future will clarify the art of veloping. It calls perhaps for a new kind of social architecture. How is a space to be subdivided to retain its coherence, allowing the parts to express themselves uniquely? How can the organization of such a space continue to emerge through processes of self-organization? Can it only velop by budding and exporting micro-communities? Does it have to attempt to design the rest of the universe into its own image? How does it learn from other initiatives? Hopefully computer graphics and exploration of metaphors will give rise to new ways of working with, and through, categories -- working from the whole down to the detail, without either constraining the whole or inhibiting the expression of the detail. But again, how to prevent any such system from losing itssignificance? How should such a system velop?

It is within the context of such a system of categories that the many fruitful initiatives could position themselves. We could then see how they complement each other. We could understand how together they contribute to the velopment of the whole.


Challenge: It is democracy that is held up as the ultimate goal and criteria of political development, most recently in Eastern Europe and South Africa. And yet, in those countries with a long tradition of democratic government, there is increasing concern at the degree of political apathy on the part of citizens and especially the young. Voters have been educated by a multitude of political scandals to view the democratic process with an extremely critical eye. Many have been exposed to the abuse of political power in democratic societies. Much information has become available about distortions of the democratic processes through dubious campaign financing, influence peddling and lobbying by vested interests. The impoverishment of political debate and the mediocrity of politicians, typified by the childish behaviour of opponents in parliamentary assemblies (and obsession with photo-opportunities, sound-bites and media ratings) has left few illusions. Disillusionment with democracy has been extremely rapid in Eastern Europe.

Potential: Despite these indicators, no efforts are made to explore more appropriate approaches. Democracy is seen as the desirable end process of political evolution. Social experiments in alternative decision-making systems are required. They should cease to be viewed as dangerous and deliberately associated with the excesses of certain ideologies and sects.


Challenge: Science has been vital to the many advances which make modern civilization possible. It broke the thrall imposed by the many negative features of institutionalized religion of past centuries. Knowledge has taken on a wealth of new meanings. And yet institutionalized science is repeating the historical errors of institutionalized religion. Expert views are adapted to the policy requirements of the highest commercial bidder. Directly or indirectly, the majority of scientists have used their skills and insights in the service of the defence industries and questionable industrial ventures. Scientific factions and priesthoods are totally unskilled in negotiating their differences or concealing their contempt for each others methodologies or preoccupations. In the academic world concerns of tenure and prestige far outweigh any concerns for the advancement of knowledge. Whether in the social or the natural sciences, there is relatively little concern for the messy problems of society other than as data to further progress along a personal career path. The degree of self-interest in pleas for funds for the "advancement of knowledge" or "monitoring" some emerging environmental problem is increasingly evident, especially with regard to the largest projects. And yet scientists, like their religious predecessors, aremethodologically incapable of any evaluation of their own limitations and abuses within a social system in crisis. Scientific arrogance, as with religion, has reinforced the insensitive technocratic approach that is increasingly questioned at all levels of society. Knowledge, as pursued by science, is increasingly recognized as contributing as much to the problems of society as to alleviating them.

Potential: The nature of knowledge "after science" remains to be discovered. A new method is called for that is sensitive to the psycho-social traps of the old and is capable of circumventing them. Ironically such sensitivity is greatest in the un-natural sciences -- those lowest in the pecking order of the sciences.

There are still vestiges of other forms of knowledge which provide clues to alternative perspectives. These include the knowledge of non-western cultures, notably in the case of China and India. There is also the knowledge of indigenous communities and that associated with folk traditions. Other kinds of knowledge are developed and explored in new social movements, as well as in secret societies of various kinds. The criteria of modern science are inadequate in the face of such knowledge and the manner in which it merges into the content and function of belief systems essential to individual and collective well-being.


Challenge: In a global society which has been progressively monetarized over the past centuries, acquisition of skills and contacts, permitting gainful employment, has become of increasing significance to survival, quality of life, status and self-esteem. The development of a skilled labour force has been a key to the development of flourishing national economies and competitive advantage. But recent decades have demonstrated that available economic models are totally incapable of offering ways of managing society without a significant level of unemployment. Having drawn people into a monetarized economy, and especially with the increasing vulnerability of social security systems, the survival of individuals and their dependents is now at risk because of the apparent need to "get a job at any cost" at a time when the availability of jobs is expected to decrease dramatically. Jobs have been institutionalized and protected by unions. Many are specifically prohibited from fulfilling employment by union attitudes. Little attention is therefore given to how people can thrive without a job, in the sense in which economic models have defined them, namely to be exploited as a "labour pool" or rejected as unemployable. Because of the status attached to conventional employment, people have been disempowered in their ability to seek fulfilment in "uneconomic" roles in society. Having avoided political totalitarianism, globalization has become its economic equivalent.

Potential: Employment has been narrowly defined to serve the economic interests of society rather than the social survival of those who compose it. The possibility of fulfilling "jobs" independent of the economic system remains unexplored -- with attention focused on remunerated jobs as the key to such fulfilment. At the family level, household work or growingvegetables are not accorded the respectability of significant employment. Forms of social engagement, in which financial remuneration is secondary or absent, have not been explored. No attempt is made to provide a positive image for "uneconomic" roles, or for the nature of the community in which they could be mutually supporting, despite the many clues in traditional societies. What are the forms of non-monetary exchange which could ensure sustainable community? Where are the social experiments in new forms of community engagement to match the experiments in technology which deprive people of jobs?

The few alternative self-supporting communities are deliberately marginalized, or even criminalized, rather than carefully studied as social learning experiments. It is how people engage and support themselves and thrive in social networks and belief systems that calls for further exploration.

Universal values

Challenge: There is a continuing belief that a universal set of values can be formulated for the global community, possibly elaborated in the form of a hierarchy. This view is echoed in a study of the Club of Rome for UNESCO (1987):

"It seems strange that we should be obliged today to proclaim, at the most acute stage in the transition towards a new civilization, the obvious fact that no culture is possible without agreement on a foundation or solid base of common ethical values. This search for fundamental guidelines has been a constant feature of our historical and probably prehistoric past....The most recent form of this need to have a consistent set of mental images is represented by "human rights". It is interesting to note the similar concerns expressed by the sacred texts of the Vedas, the Gita, the Bible and the Koran....If there is no basic system of reference, there is no possibility of consensus and not even a possibility of challenge or rejection: discussion necessarily takes place in a vacuum. It would therefore be a tragic backward step to lose such basic values or not to replace them by more effective ones....That is why, whether we like it or not, we must give special prominence as the fundamental data base, to a "system of ethical and moral values". However, the sharing of a common base is not yet enough. We must add the availability of a set of models representing the rules that will enable communication to take place..."

However, the same report of the Club of Rome to UNESCO continues: "Meanwhile, in many societies we find a growing antagonism between some of these new values, conveyed by the mass media, and the traditional values inherited from the past."

The history of the relations between traditional value systems (exemplified by those of the major religions), as well as the present stresses between fundamentalist interpretations of them, is not encouraging for those believing that a universal set of values is emerging. The report is obliged to acknowledge the continuing presence of conflicting values.

There is little recognition in the discussion of universal values that society is likely to remain complex and that this complexity is necessary to the long-term viability of society. Theimpression is frequently created that an updated set of "ten commandments" could be based on worldwide consensus on ten universal values. There is even concern as to how such values should be "implemented". This raises the question of the treatment to be accorded to those who do not subscribe with equal enthusiasm to that same set of values. It also raises the question of how those values are to be refined if simplistic efforts to institutionalize them are not challenged.

Potential: The Club of Rome report accepts that the harmonious co-existence of very different values is nothing new and asks the question of how co-existing and contradictory value systems are to be reconciled. It suggests, hopefully, that:

"We should not attach too much importance to the problem as value systems do not function in the same way as logical systems. The human mind is capable of absorbing systems which include traditional elements and other more modern or future-oriented elements as well as individual and collective criteria." On this point it concludes that: "the interesting and important point is that different systems of values do in fact co-exist even though their co-existence is sometimes coloured by opposition and mistrust. Indeed it is not so much a question of the co-existence of contradictory value systems as of the values being interpreted in different terms. When all is said, the factor that makes such co-existence, the plurality of interpretations and the society of uncertainty, possible is the capacity for dialogue."

This said, it is not simply a question of accepting value relativism. As Kenneth Boulding (1978) points out:

"There is not, of course, a single set of human values and each human being has his or her own set. There are however processes in the ecological interaction or society by which these differing values, though not reduced to a single set, are at least coordinated in an ongoing evolutionary process."

Explorations are required on how the holding of any particular value fits into some such dynamic framework through which it is transformed by learning processes. Particular understandings are then better conceived as local way stations on learning cycles composed of complementary value sets. What is as yet far from clear is how such cycles are interlinked and how the transition to cycles encoding greater uncertainty can be accomplished. This question have been explored in relation to sets of human needs.

It is quite amazing that efforts to articulate value sets or systems seem to limit themselves to the simplicity of checklists or simple hierarchies. Whilst structural reductionism of this kind may be possible by collapsing rich structural detail, it is totally inadequate to the task of demonstrating how the ecosystem of values is woven together. Such simplistic structures totally fail to incorporate any degree of dynamic challenge to counteract the naturally tendency towards simplistic interpretations of values such as "peace", "love", etc. It is for this reason that a structure based on the natural challenge of value polarities opens up richer possibilities of embodying greater variety.

In such polarities there is truth and falsehood in both extremes.The polarity itself reflects the lived dilemma of acting in terms of the values represented. The polarities signal the existence of learning arenas in which individuals and societies respond to the tensions of the dilemma. Through experience of the dilemma comes understanding of the hidden weakness in "constructive" values and of the hidden truth in "destructive" values. There is then recognition that "constructive" initiatives are not always appropriate. As many religious traditions and mythologies recognize, appropriate renewal may well need to be preceded by "destruction".

Manifestos, declarations and charters

Challenge: There is much emphasis on formulating new declarations, manifestos, charters and resolutions, especially with a "universal" or "global" focus. Many have been formulated in the past on topics which continue to be the subject of new efforts -- even though no reference is made to the outcome of the earlier initiatives. This process absorbs much energy and diverts attention from consideration of why so little is achieved in consequence. Increasingly such efforts are tantamount to New Year Resolutions.

Traditionally such documents have taken the form of checklists. Usually absent is any sense of the functional co-dependency of the items, namely how they form a comprehensible pattern of checks and balances. Their legalese lacks the mnemonic coherence and resonance provided in poems or songs -- and as such they are essentially unmemorable and lacking in motivating significance. Is there not a case for exploring more appropriate forms, especially when religions have traditionally supported multi-media vehicles?

Potential: Many perspectives need to interact to clarify the content of global declarations and render them appropriate. But there is also a need for expertise in new forms of order to clarify the dimensions which could influence the conceptual framework within which that content is presented. Such formal properties are a challenge to ways of thinking that have proved inadequate.

They might include: Consensus / Contention where the challenge is to move beyond superficial expressions of consensus and solidarity. These obscure the real differences that reflect complementary functional preoccupations vital to the survival of any complex global system. The "conflict" between such preoccupations needs to be articulated in the form of shared tension ("contention") or strain ("constraint"). This then limits the destabilizing excesses of each of them.

Analogous arguments might be made for: Continuity /Discontinuity, Simplicity / Complexity, Completeness /Incompleteness, Enfolding / Unfolding, Comprehension /Incomprehension, Constraints / Freedoms.


Challenge: What "global" framework is required to guide actionin a global society. Clearly people can only be adequately motivated by the values they fully understand. Local values necessarily avoid the uncertainty inherent in global values (to which local communities may have an equivalent of the body's immune response reaction). Until such local values are acknowledged, respected and given a place within any global value framework, it is not to be expected that local communities will respond, other than in token form, to global values.

This response is effectively a built-in safeguard. Local "shoulds" are a response to local conditions. Global "shoulds", as society is currently able to define them, are insensitive to the variety of local demands and are therefore effectively disempowered. They would engender a highly vulnerable society if expressed locally in their present form, aside from the possibilities of abuse.

Potential: At present the need is therefore for different local groups to act in terms of the different local values they perceive as meaningful within a global framework to which they may be insensitive. "Local" then includes the "peace" movement(s), the "human rights" movement(s), the "green" movement(s), the "development" movement(s), etc, whose fundamental differences are an indication of the non-global nature of their specialized preoccupations -- except in the purely geo-political sense. The spastic or paralysing global consequences of such differences may be overcome when values can be embodied as phases in learning cycles, with a local/global dimension, rather than perceived as static categories invoking territorial dynamics.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For further updates on this site, subscribe here