In a Time of Change

by John Whitmore


We are living in extraordinary times. Fear is in the air, change is everywhere, the animals are dying, the oceans are rising, the ground is shifting, and people are on the move as never before. The rich are getting very rich, and the poor are getting very poor. Disaffection, disease, fanaticism, terror and the frequency and force of natural disasters are all increasing.

What is happening? How are people responding? What are "they" doing about it? What are we doing about it? What are you doing about it? What am I doing about it? What can I do about it?

For most people the answer is, not much, and certainly not enough. Many know little about it all, through ignorance or by choice. Some are too busy with today to think about tomorrow. Our leaders are hopeless, and followers are powerless. Humanity is in denial, an invaluable survival mechanism, but one that has now become an incapacitating epidemic. As if this was not bad enough; for the first time ever, we have acquired the power to destroy all life on earth. So that is the bad news, but is there another side of the coin? Could the glass be not just half empty, but half full too?

Yes, it could, and it is. Also for the first time; we now have the knowledge, the technology, the transport, the communication and the wealth to provide everyone on the planet with sufficient food, clean water, healthcare, education, and housing. What we don't have yet is the willingness of the controllers of that wealth to use it for such a collectively beneficial purpose.* But this may change faster than we think. The very problems enumerated above are generating an unstoppable force for change. What an exciting time to be alive!

What is urgently called for is mass education and information dissemination, not simply at the intellectual level but with the emotional depth essential to galvanise people out of denial and complacency. This is already occurring in many ways, in many places. Even the conservative media have picked up the environmental cause, and rock stars are adopting social causes in far away places. Films like The Inconvenient Truth, Supersize Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11 are having an impact, and books on every aspect of the need for change are proliferating.

It is into this arena that a small group of people in the UK formed a not-for-profit communication organisation called Be the Change, from a call by Mahatma Ghandi for people to "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." Starting in 2004, they held three annual three-day conferences in May in London to audiences of some 500 people each and they have spawned many other similar initiatives around the world including Australia.

Keynote speakers at these events have been world experts in climate change (Tim Flannery), the new economics (Bernard Lietaer), corporate social responsibility (Frank Dixon), conflict resolution (Scilla Elsworthy), global water shortages (Lucien Gill), leadership (Norman Drummond), personal and spiritual development (Deepak Chopra), culture transformation (Don Beck), new education initiatives (David Orr), new science discoveries, healthcare and more. The breadth of subject matter covered is not just in order to have something for everyone, but to reflect and stimulate the whole system thinking that is essential for a sustainable future. It is undeniable that issues can no longer be successfully addressed in isolation on our shrinking interdependent planet.

Be the Change seeks to go beyond information to engage with and empower their participants not only to take action in a personal practical sense such as exchanging their car for a hybrid or recycling their grandmother, but also to awaken others to the issues. Between annual conferences and with a similar objective, Be the Change now also delivers a series of one day symposia entitled Change the Dream, and trains others to do the same, something they are free to do anywhere, anytime.

The symposium was originally inspired by a meeting between indigenous tribesfolk in Equador and John Perkins, an American anthropologist. It was they who drew his attention to the false assumptions that we Westerners make and that result in our destruction of the earth's natural life systems. Subsequently one of the tribal elders said to another visiting Westerner, "If you come to help us, don't waste your time. If you come to explore how we can work together to save the planet, then let's talk." And talk they did. This symposium was one of the happy outcomes.

Change the Dream addresses three inseparable issues, environmental sustainability, social justice and fulfilment in life. It progresses through exposing the current situation of all three, to the misguided assumptions that have led to the fault lines in each. It goes on to explore what is possible for the future and concludes by encouraging participants to be innovative and courageous in their quest for remedial initiatives.

Along the way, the symposium reveals some startling facts such as that in the past 60 years, 90% of all lions, tigers, elephants and big fish have vanished from the earth. We are apparently already into what is called the sixth extinction, the fifth being the one that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. In the area of social justice, it reveals that the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay in the US has grown from 43 to 1 in 1973, by ten times to 431 to 1 in 2003, and similar elsewhere. And in terms of life fulfilment, it reveals that in the US one in each four people has significant mental disorder, and in the UK that "6 out of every 10 people are miserable at work."

It quotes the finding of the conservative business magazine, Fortune, that major disasters such as earthquakes, drought, floods, epidemics and hurricanes that had occurred at roughly 20 per year worldwide from 1900 till 1960, have risen exponentially thereafter up to some 400 occurrences per year now. One explanation for this is that a small rise in sea water temperature causes a breakdown in the earth's resilience, resulting in a considerable increase in the violence of natural events.

In the seminar section on, "How did we get there?", the great cultural historian, Thomas Berry is quoted as saying that since the beginning of the industrial age, we have been in a period of "technological entrancement, a mental fixation, (the dream) that alone can explain how we have come to soil our waters and destroy our environment". We have fallen into the trap of quantitative external progress, and forgotten the qualitative internal which to balance it, and which ultimately is infinitely more important. That is the oldest story in the world - the quest for the Holy Grail in which the warrior hero searches the world for the gold, only to discover on his exhausted return that all the time it lay under his bed.

Another and perhaps the most pervasive and destructive of our false assumptions today is the fear that "there is never enough" which in turn causes us to consume all we can, with hardly a thought for the less fortunate, other life forms or future generations. We are also invited to question the wisdom of infinite growth on a finite planet, the location of "away" when we throw things there, and it reminds us that "consumption" was once considered to be a dreadful disease - it still is.

Throughout the symposium, many video clips are shown of the magnificence of the earth and the wisdom of scientists and philosophers who are striving to preserve it. There are participative exercises to process responses and emotions, and group discussions about positive action. It is definitely not a programme of intractable doom and gloom but one offering hope and opportunity. So much so that after a recent symposium in London, 85 out of the 100 participants asked if they could train to become deliverers, and the response has been similar elsewhere including in Australia.

Be the Change and Change the Dream are but two initiatives in a worldwide movement that can be seen as the planet's immune system kicking in to cleanse itself of the selfish assertive adolescent phase of human development that has been predominant for centuries, and to move us on into the transformational space.

Still to come, but showing signs of emergence, is the time of interdependence and collaboration for the good of the whole. It first put its head over the parapet in the sixties in the US with the anti-war and hippy movement but it was beaten back by the strong conservative power elite. This time the movement is more widespread and less vulnerable and the old guard political leadership in the States and elsewhere is in decline and disarray, thanks in part to the folly of the Iraq war.

Corporate leaders too are under pressure struggling to cope with globalisation, instant communication, staff expectations and the speed of change. Corporate crime is widespread. Never before have the institutions of business been viewed with such public mistrust and even contempt than they are today all over the world with the possible exception of China and India. Elsewhere capitalism is showing its systemic inadequacy as the planet is degraded under the weight of CO2 produced by the consumer culture.

However the planetary immune system response is spreading fast and everywhere with a remarkably consistent set of common positive values and purpose. On the other hand, it is not centralised, it has no leader, it is both bottom up and top down, it has little ego and a lot of passion. The old world leaders were clever but cleverness is no match for the consciousness so present in the movement and so powerful in the long term. It is indeed a grass roots movement. It has so quickly become too big and too widespread to be stoppable. Maybe that is what was meant by the injunction that "the meek shall inherit the earth".

Evolution can be seen as the purpose of life and as inevitable. Evolution is always towards higher levels of benevolence, compassion, caring and trust. Forward movement usually attracts some resistance; that is to be expected but not feared. The state of the world and the habitat of life, as we know it, is under threat, but the stream of consciousness is flowing in the right direction. Be the Change and Change the Dream are molecules in that stream in which every atom counts. The atom is you.

It was anthropologist Margaret Mead who said, "Never believe that a small group of dedicated and committed people cannot make a difference, indeed it is the only thing that ever has". In fact the greatest barrier that most of us have to overcome is our limited and limiting self-belief. "If you believe that you personally are too small to awaken people, then you have never been in bed with a flee." It's time to Be the Change.


© John Whitmore December 06

* Global military spending has reached a trillion dollars a year. That is three times the amount required to meet the basic needs listed above. One can't help speculating that if that $330 billion were so spent, would it not reduce the military requirement by far more?