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15 January 1997

Veloping: the Art of Sustaining Significance

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After many years of exposure to claims and injunctions regarding "development", a certain weariness sets in. So many examples of "development" have become soulless disasters -- as tourism to the most distant parts of the planet rapidly makes evident. It could be argued that 'development' has been a prime cause of environmental degradation. Where it has reduced earlier constraints, it has encouraged further increases in population. It is claimed that development is the prime strategy to reduce birthrates. But little attention is paid to the fact that those amongst whom it is reduced then draw many times more heavily on non-renewable natural resources -- especially over succeeding generations. The United Nations has compromised itself through failing to distinguish what the property "developer" does from what some would claim to be genuine development. Why are there only "developers" and no "developees"? Does any remaining credibility of development derive from the cultivated ambiguity between what "developers" want (and intend to get) and what "developees" naively assume they are going to achieve as a result?

If the process of "development" is such a dubious strategy, maybe it should be asked whether the prefix "de" could be most fruitfully associated with that of the "de" in "degrading" or in "destruction". What is the elusive present condition which is the subject of "degradation", "destruction" or "development"? Is it possible that the sustainable process we should be exploring is better captured by "veloping" rather than "developing"? Veloping would then be the art of recognizing and sustaining the significance of what we already have. "Developing", in contrast, is 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 the process.

There have been many development plans for people, countries, regions and the planet. Attention is now shifting away from such plans, and their failures, to a range of new initiatives. These focus on such agendas as: rights of future generations, planetarization of consciousness, global ethics, transdisciplinarity, education in the 21st century, eco-psychology, common ground, new forms of renaissance, spirituality in business, consensus politics, and the like. Good people with good insights are associated with all of them -- some of these people are acknowledged as "wisdom keepers". Hopes are being successfully projected onto their initiatives. There is indeed mileage to be got from them.

But reading the programmes of their future conferences, or the papers assembled from those gone by, is there not a real sense of deja vu? Is not each a reframing of what has gone before? Possibly this is appropriate. But it is also possible that -- like the need of the automobile industry to produce new models every year -- itis just the same vehicle with a few minor "improvements" to justify the appelation "new". For those who want to trade in the old model, this is good news. For those who are more interested in whether the vehicle is taking them to meaningful places, the changes are largely irrelevant. Worse, the fact that so much is made about the newness of the model directly obscures the many inadequacies it shares with earlier models.

How is significance sustained? This is a challenge in many domains. It is a challenge for religion, with the possibility of loss of faith -- met largely by practice in the form of song, prayer and ritual. It is a challenge in fashion --where designers explore outrageous possibilities in order to be able to return to classic designs. It is faced by inveterate tourists and party-goers -- constantly obliged to strike a balance between the tried-and-true and the risks of places offering something different. Even the very rich find themselves obliged to migrate between their various abodes. It is faced by families at Christmas or similar occasions -- what ensures that the occasion remains special? It is evident in married life -- and notably in sexual relationships. It is faced by the especially cultured -- when they have "read all the books". It is often most evident in cooking for a family group -- what sustains the significance of meal-times? But it is also a challenge for a discipline or school of thought, or even an ideology --how can it be kept meaningful over the years for new generations. It is a challenge for intentional communities -- where, as for the kibbutzim, children are attracted elsewhere as they grow older. It is even a challenge for a dialogue --why does it eventually lose its flavour?

Let us imagine a place where each of the most potentially fruitful present day initiatives -- those with which one would most choose to be associated -- was represented by their key figures. Perhaps this could be like the ideal campus of an ideal university, each group with its own hall -- covering the arts and the sciences. Imagine that each of these was fully resourced and unrestricted in its ability to communicate with colleagues elsewhere, or to invite them to visit. If necessary surround, or blend, it with communities of less privileged as a challenge to the appropriateness of the university. Add to this, if you will, a student body of the truly gifted and talented. How would such a place work? How would the parts work together and cross-fertilize each other -- bearing in mind the distance that they normally tend to maintain between each other? How would it tend to lose its significance? What could it do to sustain that significance? How should it velop?

One can play such a game for oneself. Surround yourself with that which you find most meaningful: books, people, art, music, food, drink, scenery, workshop, etc. How is signifiance sustained? How does one velop? Is the secret to engage in a practice -- whether a spiritual practice, the discipline of an artist or writer, the routines of a gardener, or exercises of the body or the mind? Is it to care for others? Or is it an appropriate combination of a mix of some of these things --orchestrated into the rhythmns of the day or the year? Is it 'composing a life'that gives rise to a "life composed"?

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 its significance? 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. Why do we use the present system -- so dependent on forceful positioning, unjustified and inflated claims, undermining positions of others, and competition for scarce resources? The degree of information overload is such that most people are obliged to cut off any effective communication with other parts of the veloping whole. The people who shout loudest rule.

But is such clarity appropriate to the veloping process? As with any ecology, one part needs to be concealed and disguised from another. If the bird of prey could always see the rodent, the rodent could not survive. And, although the lion may roar and appear to rule, his actions are irrelevant to millions of species in the same area. So how is it that the lion and the rodent velop with the bird of prey and the mosquito?

There is a prevailing panic about information overload and information stress. Many seek certainty concerning the future, whether through expensive advice, sophisticated systems of prediction, or by substance abuse. What kind of certainty is called for in the veloping process?

Does velopment require a "grasping" of the future? Maybe the art of sustaining significance is far more related to ways of relating to the present -- to more fruitful ways of living in the moment. Perhaps some future system of categories will enable us to understand how to skip playfully from frame to frame -- each frame a style of understanding the present condition. Perhaps life could then be lived somewhat like the children's game of hopskotch? The I Ching could even be seen as providing one such map interrelating frames -- couild one but understand it as a whole. The art of the game would be to avoid undue attachment to any frame -- and to gain a sense of what it means to move. Is it in this way that we would discover the nature of velopment?

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