An Interview with a Modern Visionary
by Molly Stone
John Renesch is an evangelist for a better world. Whenever he has the opportunity – whether sitting in Starbuck’s with a journalist from Fast Company magazine, delivering a keynote speech to hundreds, or in his many writings – he promotes the global transformation of society. In contrast to those cynics who might consider this possibility a bunch of “new age clap trap,” as one of his critics labeled it, Renesch insists that we humans can indeed create any future we want. With the religious fervor of an old-fashioned tent revivalist, he emphasizes this potential – a reality he sees as very achievable if enough people embrace the possibility.
There is no doubt that Renesch believes what he’s preaching. His fervor has grown stronger and stronger over the fifteen to twenty years since he left his life as a traditional entrepreneur doing local businesses in the San Francisco area and started working on social transformation on a global scale.
“So many people are living lives of ‘quiet desperation’ – resigned to accepting whatever future that falls out of the current trends we are all caught up in these days,” says the businessman-turned-futurist. “We have an epidemic of cynicism in our world, resulting in people avoiding any talk about our long-term future,” he continues, “and things will never change unless we shift the way we think about the future. We are at a time in human evolution when, for the first time in history, we can create the kind of future we want rather than merely accepting projections based upon the past.”
Renesch points out the growing acceptance that the future is no longer really predictable yet so many futurists continue to offer predictions. “Since we cannot accurately predict the future anyway, let’s stop wasting our energies on guessing what kind of future we might have and start looking at the kind of future we actually want,” he says with great passion. “All we need to do is engage the creative process with a can-do attitude and stop wallowing in hopelessness and cynicism.
“Time after time, leaders from the business community express themselves differently in private conversation. Their public personas keep them from engaging in any meaningful discourse about the future we are headed for, yet privately they express concern for the world their grandchildren will inherit. They know that their business practices are contrary to a sustainable environment. They know that we are selling violence to our children, that our educational institutions are failing to do their jobs, and that there is growing disconnection between people and their elected officials. They know that they are contributing to growing disparity between rich and poor and that these trends cannot continue indefinitely. But these concerns are only expressed privately, as virtually all of these corporate leaders don’t want their peers to know that they are thinking this pessimistically.
“Isn’t this incredible?” asks Renesch, “that these powerful men – and these are all men I’m speaking of – actually fear any open discussion about their concerns about the future! If they only knew that, on more than one occasion, each of their peers had shared the same concerns privately. They all are concerned but none of them want the others to know it. This happens with groups of investment bankers in Europe, high-powered CEOs in Britain, and corporate leaders in the U.S. This head-in-the-sand attitude borders on insanity!” Renesch almost leaves his chair over this incredulity. “They all see that the train is headed for a derailment up ahead but no one wants to betray what could be the greatest case of collective denial in history.”
He points out that throughout history major shifts in human consciousness – like the Copernican Revolution, the Divine Right of Kings, and the realization that the world was not flat after all – were preceded by ridicule and stalwart denial of the emerging “reality.” So, he points out, what was once thought to be absolutely true by popular consensus becomes false and a new “truth” is born. “Once people realized they were operating on the false assumption that royalty was endowed by God, democracy was born,” he explains as one example. “There is so much power in how we think about our reality that a small shift in our thinking – a paradigm shift in our consciousness – can make a huge difference in the way we experience the world.”
He mentions the fall of the Berlin Wall as a more recent example of a shift in consciousness – an event that was neither predicted nor predictable. “It happened ‘out of the blue’ without any warning,” he reminds us. “It was the result of a critical mass of people coming to the same conclusion at the same time, and then taking action. Even the East German soldiers knew there was no point in trying to stop what was happening, so their ‘action’ was doing nothing instead of opening fire on the people taking action. I still remember those television pictures of those young men looking on with their rifles slung over their shoulders, watching wide-eyed as civilians chipped away at the artificial barrier that had been erected a couple of generations earlier. They weren’t even born when the Wall was built. It was simple part of their reality all their lives and they didn’t even know why it was there anyway!”
Renesch insists that one of the false assumptions that dominates all so-called “civilized” cultures is the idea that we are all separate and disconnected beings, parts of some big machine called society – a point of view reinforced by our scientific, mechanistic culture. This assumption plays out in how we objectify each other – like “things” instead of real human beings. Yet, he asserts, we know in our hearts that we are all connected and part of one large whole. “We even claim to understand this connection “under God” in our prayers,” he reminds us, “yet our actions are inconsistent with what we know in our hearts to be true.”
He tells “the story of five apes,” which he first saw in an email from a friend who doesn’t know who the author is. He likes the story so much that he included it in his last book – Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. “This story demonstrates how assumptions are born, how cultures are developed and how limiting some belief systems – and the assumptions they are based upon – can be,” he explains.
“Put five apes in a room. Hang a banana from the ceiling and place a ladder underneath the banana. The banana is only reachable by climbing the ladder. Have it set up so any time an ape starts to climb the ladder, the whole room is sprayed with ice cold water. In a short time, all the apes will learn not to climb the ladder. Now, take one ape out and replace him with a sixth one. Then disable the sprayer. The new ape will start to climb the ladder and will be attacked unmercifully by the other four apes. He will have no idea why he was attacked. Replace another of the original apes with a new one and the same thing will happen, with ape number six doing the most hitting. Continue this pattern until all the original apes have been replaced. Now all of the apes will stay off the ladder, attacking any ape that attempts to climb it, and have absolutely no idea why they are doing it.”
“We aren’t used to being so proactive about the future,” states this evangelist for a better future, “We are more used to passive acceptance, which has devolved into the passive resignation that is so prevalent today.” He points out that whether we are proactive or passive, we deserve whatever future is created. “Either way,” he says, “it will be a future that we have created – whether we did something and chose a better future or sat there and allowed the present trends to unfold.”
Like all evangelists, Renesch offers hope. The “salvation” he promises comes from each of us taking personal responsibility for the future. Like the partial list of things we can do which are included in his book, there are hundreds of ways we can begin changing the future we are headed for. Overall, we can take a “ruthless inventory,” as he calls it, about how we empower and condone systems in which we find ourselves. “Each of us is part of many systems – our families, our jobs or schools, our localities, our media, our circle of friends – and all systems have enormous influence on the people within them. Mostly, we are unaware of these influences, like the apes in that room. The more aware we become, the closer we are to what humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow calls ‘self-actualization.’ Once we have the awareness, then it is time to take the actions that bring about change – or stop taking actions that add to the systems’ dysfunction. This awareness combined with responsible action is what I call ‘consciousness’ and that’s how we’ll create the better future – the kind of world we’ll be proud to call our legacy.”
Once seen as new age idealism, Renesch’s ideas are now gaining acceptance from the mainstream. A recent review of his book Getting to the Better Future by the leading strategic planning journal in the world calls his book “a synthesis of compelling ideas whose time has come.” His vision for a better future is a powerful one, and quite compelling to be sure.
2002 © Molly Stone