In ancient Jerusalem there was a gate called the Eye of the Needle which was so narrow that when a fully loaded camel approached it, all the bundles had to be removed so that the camel could pass through. Referring to this well-known image of his day, Jesus said,
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
This is what comes to mind as I contemplate images of the Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal. Fully loaded with containers on their way from Asia to Europe and North America, the cargo ship caused a traffic jam of about 400+ vessels waiting to pass through the canal.
“Why don’t they pull out one of those containers,” asked a nearby villager who had been looking at the Ever Given for a few days, according to the New York Times. “Maybe it could feed our town.”
Isn’t that our global predicament in a nutshell?
The image of the Ever Given — needing to unload its cargo in order to get unstuck — represents in a microcosm the collective impediment that rich countries and Western civilization embody today: holding on to stuff and refusing to share with those who are on the other side of the social divide.
Examples abound of rich countries failing to:
— share access to COVID vaccines in an equitable way with the Global South (90% of the roughly 400M vaccinations to date went to wealthy and middle income countries);
— make good on funding pledges to help countries of the Global South adapt to the climate crisis (most of the promises have not been honored to date);
— address root causes related to mass migration to the North.
Facing the Eye of the Needle (Image by Kelvy Bird)
In all three cases, the rationale for sharing resources is not just an ethical imperative. It’s also a systemic imperative, as all of us have learned over the past year from our primary systems-thinking teacher: the COVID pandemic. The only way you can protect yourself is by protecting your neighbor. If you keep all the vaccines for yourself, then you will likely be hit by the next mutation of the rapidly spreading virus (like the P1 variant in Brazil today or something even worse tomorrow) that could nullify all of your earlier vaccination efforts.
If you keep all the economic resources for yourself, then you will likely be hit by waves of mass migration from countries suffering the unbearable consequences of structural violence and climate change. If you think you can solve climate change by just focusing on technologies funded, developed, and used by the North, then you have never seen a climate simulation model for the remainder of this century, which would quickly convince you otherwise.
Upgrading Our Societal Operating Systems
The only way of addressing any of these challenges is to rethink and reimagine the operating systems of our economies, by moving from an ego-system to an eco-system logic — that is, from an economy that is organized around oneself (or one country) to one that is organized around the wellbeing of all.
For example, consider intellectual property (IP) rights regimes, which result in most countries and most people having no access to vaccines (though they could have if IP rights were designed to optimize for maximum societal benefit). Most people also have no access to the key technologies for decarbonizing our economies or to the resources of a possible global Green New Deal. If these resources were widely available, countries could upgrade their learning and green tech infrastructures and apply the principles of climate justice at the scale of the whole.
Armed to the Teeth — Yet Helpless
While the image of the stranded Ever Given can be seen as an outer embodiment of an inner condition in most rich countries today, another image that also sticks in my mind reflects another deep-seated issue that has risen to the top of our news cycles of late.
I am talking about the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Unpacking that event, what do we see?
On January 6, the world’s mightiest military superpower — with a defense budget bigger than that of the next ten countries combined — turned out to be utterly helpless against a few hundred insurgents who emerged from its blind spot: White-supremacy-based domestic terrorism, ignited by the then inhabitant of the White House.
Yes, you can operate 800 military bases in other countries. Yes, you can have the world’s mightiest military machine. But when all your attention is pointed in the wrong direction — toward dangers that originate outside our own boundaries — then all that power won’t do you any good.
The Ever Given predicament and the attack on the Capitol exemplify two critical syndromes of our current collective condition.
First: we disrupt our own system by holding on to the patterns of the past, by refusing to let go of possessions that effectively prevent us from moving forward.
Second: we disable our learning and response capacity by operating with a mindset that can locate the source of our problems only outside of ourselves and our own systems, blinding us to all the issues that arise from within our own blind spots.
Entering the Anthropocene
We know that we live in times of a planetary emergency that has been described in numerous studies and reports — most recently the 2020 Human Development Report. Climate destabilization, life-shattering levels of polarization and inequality, the rampant spread of mental health issues across communities. The Report points at a recent discussion among scientists about whether the earth has entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, the age of humans. The defining characteristic of this epoch is that the root cause of all these issues and the primary threat to the survival of our species is us, our own behavior.
How can we learn to look into the collective mirror by applying systems thinking? How do we learn to see how our own behavior affects the whole? How can we shift the dominant mindset in our systems from an ego-system to an eco-system awareness?
As an action researcher at MIT, I have spent the past 25 years investigating these questions through practical experiments. What I have learned is that in order to change systems you need to change the awareness of the people in these systems. And in order to do that you need to make the systems sense and see themselves.
Leading by Letting Go…
Building these types of deep learning infrastructures is a critical prerequisite for leading transformational change in the age of the Anthropocene. If we don’t invest broadly in the wellbeing of everyone, if we don’t illuminate our blind spots and transform some of our old shadows — including the ones of White supremacy — we will keep getting stuck in these eye-of-the-needle situations that keep coming our way. In the language of money: We need to reallocate our financial resources from one place where we have too much (speculative casino capitalism) to another place where we have too little (our ecological, social, and cultural commons).
Just as travelers to Jerusalem learned to unload their camel in order to pass through the gate, we as citizens, change-makers, and leaders in the Anthropocene need to learn how to facilitate transformational change by letting go and letting come at all levels of scale: personally, in our organizations, and also on the level of our whole society. Leading by letting go? Letting go of what? Letting go of the past behaviors that have outlived their usefulness.
As we continue our journey into the age of the Anthropocene, we will continue to be confronted with eye-of-the needle situations at all levels. We know that passing these thresholds is not going to be easy. But we also know that we can do it because the place of letting go is in truth the place of possibility: the place of letting come.
As the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin put it so beautifully:
But where the danger is, the saving power also grows.
That ‘saving power’ is not a distant dream. It’s a very real possibility of the future that many people across the entire planet can sense and feel at this moment. It’s a possibility that depends on us to manifest. Are we paying attention?
If you wish to explore these ways of operating and to reimagine our path forward, please consider joining us in one of our upcoming GAIA sessions.
I want to express my gratitude to Kelvy Bird for creating the image and to Rachel Hentsch, Antoinette Klatzky, and Eva Pomeroy for commenting on the draft.