Everyday more bad news. Deaths around the world have reached into the hundreds of thousands. Economies have shut down, leaving millions unemployed. I was born in the middle of the Great Depression, and certainly never expected to see anything like that again. But here it is. One might ask of anything good can come out of this crisis. The best answer to that question that I read about is some return to normalcy. But when and how close to the old status quo is a big unknown.
Fewer people are asking a related question, “Why should we return to the status quo?” After all, that is not so wonderful for the Planet and for a large fraction of the US population, who have been living at the margins of our society, with little expectations of finding a better life. In terms of my criterion, flourishing, the whole global population is a long way from that state. Many of my colleagues who have been arguing for some great transition to a sustainable Planet are looking for ways to start movement towards that end.
But, virtually to a person, they are thinking about ways to get there from within the current belief and institutional structures that have gotten us to where we are. Ideas for designing new institutions, a top-down strategy, are limited by the embedded abstract knowledge currently residing in individual and institutional left-brains, but it a wholly new paradigm is needed.
I have been tuned into the “progress without growth” community for a long time. Its members and those in other similar groups are looking at these global shut-down as an opportunity to make big changes. Economic growth seems to be an unnecessary luxury in the already affluent nations, like the US and much of Europe, and perhaps a few oriental nations, but not for those societies where many still lack the basic capabilities to protect health and safety. Maslow’s hierarchy might be a good standard to sort those with not enough from those with too much.
Given the complexity and interconnectedness of the modern world, any such redesign, based on top-down, theoretical knowledge, has little chance to fit the real world. Capitalism, as an idea, may be adding to the total wealth of the world, but is creating unacceptable and unsustainable levels of inequality at the same time. Trying to fix it is just that—tinkering or, as some might say, re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Socialism is equally unlikely to fit. None of these systems of thought and their worldly manifestations factors in their causal connections to climate change and other undesirable features.
The sheer complexity of it all requires a fundamentally different approach, one based on pragmatic thinking and acting. And that, in turn, demands a different scale, one that fits the methodology. Pragmatists can learn only by becoming connected to the system they are trying to understand. The only way to determine the “truth” of any sort of pragmatic finding is through the consequences of acting on the basis of that truth. Their only proof is in the pudding, or, as both C. S. Peirce and William James wrote, in their “cash value.”
Pragmatists, at higher rungs in any authority structure, are in very short supply these days. Business management, once inhabited by people who learned on the job, is overwhelmingly populated by professional managers, trained in management schools. The same is true for people in government or non-for-profits enterprises; they also come out of professional schools. Any lasting change far enough away from the status quo to produce fundamentally different kinds of outcomes has to bubble up from below from changes in individual beliefs, norms and whatever new normal behaviors that ensue.
Rather than seek big changes, small, paradigmatic changes, if they persist, can work their way up into the institutional structures that produce the unintended consequences that are dogging the world right now. Sociological models like those of Anthony Giddens or Eric Olin Wright tie changes at small scales to changes in the whole system. Wright argues that changes in the interstices, that is, places in the institutional structures that are largely overlooked, have better chances to persist than those aimed at higher level structure.
The massive breakdown that the virus has caused offers an opportunity to initiate such changes, but has to be used deliberately to allow the caring side of human nature to regain its proper place. I have to make some assertions at this point before proceeding. Based on the work of Iain McGilchrist, I join him in claiming that the woes we face today are largely due to modernity’s left over right dominance of the two brain hemispheres balance. The needy, isolating, controlling aspect of human “nature” (left-brain) has pushed aside the right-brain’s connected, caring ways of attending to the world.
My arguments are elaborated in my book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, based on McGilchrist’s oeuvre, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The basic left-brain’s way of being is deeply ingrained into all those western institutions that shape societal norms, and is rapidly shaping those in the rest of the world. The best shot at real change towards a flourishing (sustainable) world is to reverse the balance so that caring, not control, becomes the primary behavioral norm. If people, everywhere, begin to connect to the world in a meaningful, empathetic way, the continuous production of untoward unintended consequences, as it is now, should lessen and the positive emergent outcome, flourishing, begin to show up. Pragmatic learning would follow, such that institutions could be redesigned to promote these new behavioral norms. This is the nub of my book and my prior explorations of flourishing.
But so what. Right now the immense societal breakdown is exposing beliefs and norms that are largely unseen and unthought in the hurly-burly of normal social life. We are learning how to do with less and experiencing the loss of human and worldly contact. As in all breakdowns, awareness of what lies below the surface makes change possible, but only if the opportunity is seized upon. This sequence of breakdown followed by some positive step is the basis of most therapy, organizational learning, and other similar change processes.
But we are being bombarded with messages pointing us back to the status quo ante. Every such message shuts the door to real change and forward progress. The masses of folks do not listen to our small community’s call for change. They are grappling with masks and hand sanitizers. Others are claiming their rights to the same libertarian, individualistic, pre-virus behaviors they have grown accustomed to.
Instead, we should be explicitly cheering on those who are discovering their caring, connected side. Encourage more mindfulness of what is actually going on, rather than continuously bombard people with a movie of the past. Help them discover new aspects of life together that have been buried in the routine. Reinforce the simple truth that, by taking safety measures, one is protecting others as well. Convert the news about the lightened burden on the environment from page 8 to the front page. Encourage all those taking walks to stop and talk to others they meet along the way. Play up the shifts in human encounters as positive. If we do learn the values of connecting and caring from this huge stoppage in our lives, then, maybe, the learning will creep into the way we educate and socialize our young, change that is absolutely critical to the process of hemispheric shifting.
We have always possessed the right-brain’s ability to engage empathetically with and care for the world, but it has been captive of the manipulative, controlling ways of the left-brain, itself maintained as the false master by the institutional structures of modernity. McGilchrist argues that the long ascendancy of Homo sapiens has been mostly guided by the right-brain. The institutional structures that follow from new beliefs and norms determine which side will be the master, and, if those structures are changed, so will the hemispheric balance.
I cannot, as a good pragmatist, guarantee that the kind of actions I have just proposed will result in the changes I look for, but they do seem right. But we have to try them, that is, raise our voices above the din so that they can be heard through the cracks the breakdown is producing. As people rewrite their own stories how they be and the world is, new societal stories can come forth, stories that are about taking care of and preserving our Planet and all who inhabit it. A good crisis should not be wasted, but it needs to be used with special care.