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Four System Conditions of The Natural Step

In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically:

• Subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust

• Subject to increasing concentrations of substances produced by society

• Impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting or other forms of ecosystem manipulation

• And resources are used fairly and efficiently in order to meet basic human needs globally

As I got out of bed this morning, turned on the news, and started feeding the cats, I received the phone call from my sister. Distraught and wanting to talk with someone she loved, she told me of the horrendous events occurring at the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Four airliners hijacked to be used as weapons of mass destruction. Three apparently found their mark. As we talked, the second tower was hit.

My plans all changed. My meetings in Santa Fe, New Mexico were rapidly cancelled. Radio interview postponed; luncheon at Los Alamos National Laboratory cancelled due to the Lab being closed and on highest alert, and the NxLeveL entrepreneurship class graduation at Santa Rosa Prison cancelled due to lock down there.

Hours later, I turned off the news for a moment of reflection. The only thing I could concentrate on was to continue editing this article. The thoughts and intentions here are all the more relevant to me now. With this horror in the past, it seemed even more important to think about the future and how we can shape it.

What Prompted This Idea?

I started thinking of the time, about two years ago, when I was working under contract to the New Mexico State Human Services Department (one of seven participating New Mexico departments). My job was to form a Welfare Reform Community Council to come up with a strategic plan for implementation of welfare reform in Santa Fe County. As a Welfare Reform “Encourager” in the State Capital’s county, I studied local and statewide challenges around the issue of welfare reform. I found myself knee-deep in understanding the need for “the fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs” as described by the Natural Step. [See sidebar.] Taxpayers have come to realize that paying welfare money is too expensive. It may look like we’re helping those who are mandated to come off welfare, but it is really for ourselves that we do it. We don’t want to pay for welfare anymore. We want and need the former welfare recipients to become participating members of society… and taxpayers!

I saw that although getting people off welfare is federal law, those in power are often very fearful about welfare reform. Some members of the Santa Fe County Welfare Reform Community Council even felt that some of those in power were purposefully stopping or slowing welfare reform at every turn, in an apparent fear of losing power or being proven that they’ve been wrong all these years. If our changes were too successful, then what had gone before could be easily interpreted as being wrong, despite our best efforts.

Although welfare reform is law, the fair and efficient use of resources (with respect to meeting human needs) is still being stymied by some. As a result, laws supporting those efforts are difficult to enforce and much less graceful to deliver.

Another View: Your Wisdom Is My Goal

Our Community Council’s conclusions led me to the possibility that for the hope for sustainability on the planet to increase we must take certain steps.

Individual and group fear must not systematically increase. (Including fear for safety, security, survival, and monitoring for the goodwill of others when there is no actual threat to the individual.)

In other words: We must systematically promote the emotional health and spiritual wisdom of every individual and group on the planet.

This wisdom is sometimes hard to come by. If my family is going to freeze tonight, I will chop down the last tree in order to keep the fire burning and help them survive. It is in your best interest to be sure that I don’t chop that tree down. Standing, that tree will metabolize waste and utilize sunlight to produce oxygen and other benefits for your family, my family, and many others.

However, looking more deeply, the fear that my family won’t have enough firewood to keep them warm tonight will ensure that I chop down that last tree, even if that is not the actual truth. It is still in your best interest to be sure that I don’t chop that tree down… no matter what I may say!

Indeed, those who have overcome compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, and other similar compulsive behaviors attest to the emotional feeling of not having that precedes their consumeristic behavior.

Remember how people responded to the Y2K problem. , Many responses were obviously more based on emotion than rationality. Some people moved out of their homes, bought all kinds of equipment, hoarded supplies in preparation, or started farms while others didn’t see it as a problem at all, and did not prepare. Whether it would actually be a problem or not was virtually immaterial to the individual’s response. What I see as a far more accurate indicator of what they did was their emotional response to the potential problem. In other words, arguing Y2K-facts was like monkeys arguing in the leaves of a dying tree.

With 20/20 hindsight, we see how little preparation was actually necessary! How long did it take for you and your family to use up all the food, water, batteries, and other materials and supplies you stored away?

When we see people hoarding or those who are in fear for their position or job, they are doing just the same as if they were cutting down that last tree to keep their family warm tonight.

What This Means for Individuals

So what am I promoting? What is my positive vision? I am supporting each person’s fullness of self-expression.

Promotion of each individual’s self-expression is one definition for non-violence. By promoting each other’s emotional and spiritual health, we are, in fact promoting each other’s diversity.

Systematically initiating our children into adulthood can be seen as part of helping to increase wisdom and emotional maturity. Rick Ramirez of Rites of Passage quotes Malidoma Somé, “Initiation is remembering why we were born… of understanding a sense of ourselves... A person's greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated and valued.” According to successful, former welfare recipients, improving their self-esteem was key to their success. How sorely lacking in rituals of positive initiation is our western society! Instead, children flock to gangs for their emotional belonging and sense of self.

Rick Ramirez goes on, “When we initiate children into adulthood, what are we holding up to them as the values to which we all aspire? Trust, safety, unconditional love, grace. We show them that, by practicing, one improves, until improvisation is possible. Ultimately, there is no one, right way. Only to listen well to myself—my calm, peaceful self.”

Each of us has gifts or talents that, when fully expressed, provide greater diversity to human creativity. And it is our human creativity that offers the hope for the solutions we so desperately need to solve our increasing global problems.  Oren Lyons, Onondaga Elder asks, “Are you raising your Elders? Do you know how to solve your problems? If not, are you raising children who will?” If we don’t raise our children to be good leaders and creative problem solvers, where will solutions come from?

From the Individual to the Culture

Cultures, religions, and therapies through the millennia have offered other definitions of, and ways to, reach emotional maturity and spiritual wisdom. They offer many philosophies and methods to cope with the trials and challenges of life. Prayer, initiation, ritual, counseling, meditation, and many more models exist for how humankind has moved toward maturity and wisdom. Joseph Campbell summarized many of them in his writing on “The Hero’s Journey.”

Campbell describes how the hero takes the critical step in humankind’s move toward maturity and wisdom by the ability to look at the dark side, including death and rebirth rituals. We fear for survival when our lives are not actually threatened. Is this hard wiring from millennia past? Regardless, our fears—both real and imagined—are the threshold we most pass on our own hero’s journey.

To heal our fears, we ironically encourage each other to look at our dark side… our deepest fears and pains. Like the Reevaluation Counseling model, where we encourage each other to discharge pain while someone is paying good attention to us, we can heal, like children who run to the nearest adult. “Tommy took my toy.” The child expresses that feeling until it is all gone… until it is healed. When the child is finished discharging they are finished with the pain and it is forgotten. The key element is that the child receives good attention when it is expressing pain. Pain that is not healed in this way festers and solidifies over a lifetime, becoming more complex, more painful, and more likely to be expressed in uncontrolled ways.  When multiplied in a culture, the beautiful aspects of that culture become so linked with the pain, as to be apparently inextricable.

In this model, however, instead of moving away from the uncomfortable aspects of our lives, we are encouraging each other to look at and express our dark, painful sides to each other. What we come out on the other side with is healing and clearer thinking. Paradoxically, by looking at our pain with someone paying good attention to us, we can move toward sustainability.

Of course, when we shine the flashlights of conscious thinking into our closets of emotions and fears, it is a very scary thing. But for those who have systematically shone the flashlight of attention into their scariest closets, they have found more dust-bunnies and shadow monsters than real life-threatening occurrences. The more we look, the smaller the problems get, and the better we are able to think more clearly and less fearfully. The Reevaluation Counseling model works. Ironically then, by encouraging each other to look at and heal our violent/ugly/dark/painful sides, we are actually promoting non-violence and … oh, by the way…helping to promote sustainability and restore the planet.

On the other hand, if we don’t, we know from our own experience that violence creates more violence. Studies in the 1940’s and 1950’s concluded that children who watched the 3 Stooges television show acted more violently. Other studies show how domestic violence perpetuates itself. Even the Bible talks of the sins of the fathers cursing the third and fourth generations. The cycle of pain, acted out again and again like a growing spiral, so easily increases with each act.  Instead of solving the problem, as the retaliation is meant to do, it increases the cycle. And now, we see an escalation of terrorism within U.S. borders.

Reminds me of a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity:  Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.”

And what will the terrorist acts on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon today beget? What did those who planned this, and those obviously well-trained pilots who flew the suicide flights, see as harm that had been done to them—or their fathers? What heinous crime did they perceive against them that this was a reasonable punishment? No one plans this complex and costly a premeditated act without intense anger and fear. For those innocents who died today and their families—it matters not whether the attackers’ fears and angers were imagined or real.

The cost of this terrorist act, beyond the cost of human life, stretches beyond the imagination. It is truly mind-numbing to think of the other consequences—rebuilding infrastructure, the cost of emergency services, disruption of commerce and disruption of business as usual, the challenges over time of falling dollar values against world currencies, falling stock markets around the world, and all the challenges we will face in the days, weeks and months to come.

What This Means for Cultures and Groups

On a group level, confusion comes into play when cultures or religions codify fear (and the accompanying oppressions) into their beliefs. Cross-cultural trainer Lillian Roybal-Rose has done excellent work on helping us to discern the difference between culture and oppression: What we call culture often contains confusing portions that are really oppression. For example: the oppression of women in many cultures is not cultural, it is just oppression.

To promote clearer thinking in cultures, her view supports the elimination of all the “isms” in cultures: racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, militarism, and so forth. She encourages us to see value in and nurture the clarity of our cultures, and to identify, heal and release all aspects of oppression—both individually and culturally. We should also promote the creative depth of the parts of cultures that do not embody oppression.

With cultures we used to fear, Roybal-Rose shows us that we can identify virtually- exterminated cultures (or species) by how we much we romanticize or glorify them. Since they are no longer scary to us, we feel safe enough to glorify them (for example, wolves, eagles, and portions of cultures such as African-American or Hispanic where we now romanticize parts of their culture such as their music or their food, or Native American spiritualism). Some people, to reduce fear of war, would say wars are a part of the sustainability of the planet: they help eliminate members of populations when the planet gets overpopulated. I would posit that just as in economics, wars may have a short-term benefit, such as increased war-time manufacturing, or rallying a country together. In the long-term, they drain the economies and strain the emotional “keel” of those in them. So many Vietnam Veterans struggle with their emotional demons—still lingering after decades.

Vision of a Sustainable World

A sustainable world, then, would have people thinking much more clearly about what and how much they consume. They would be educated so they could make good choices. They would find more respite and understanding in the natural world. There would be less terrorism, fewer police, fewer jails, fewer emergency rooms, fewer courts, fewer gated communities, fewer locks on doors, fewer lawyers, less graffiti and less consumption.

Studies have even shown that more educated women have higher self-esteem so have lower birth-rate. Over-population would no longer be as enormous an issue.

In this better world, there would be more brilliant minds clear enough to think well about excellent solutions to our problems, instead of worrying about their school-mates shooting them.

The view of the world here is not prescriptive: it neither dictates how the wisdom is to be learned, nor what the individual will do with their wisdom. It supports clearer thinking among individuals and cultures. This view promotes re-framing events that we once saw as judgmental, seeing them instead as informational. It promotes diversity of thinking and each individual’s gifts. It encourages a wide range of perspectives.

What if it could actually be true that, by promoting and encouraging each other’s wisdom and emotional well being, we could build a more sustainable future? Welfare would not be a government program, but the well-being of all. We could build a world, little by little, where acts of terrorism become less likely to occur. Where people feel loved, and have no desire to hurt another. Where we are restoring, rather than terrorizing the people, the planet, and the biosphere upon which we depend for our very lives.

May we make that future!

Margo Covington is a Systems Change Coach and Facilitator working out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She specializes in entrepreneurship, environment, and economic development. Contact her at margo@covingtonconsulting.net.

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