December 1, 1999
As the countdown draws near for the year 2000 and grandiose associations are being tossed about relative to the new millennium, I was recently asked what I thought might be unique about life after December 31. In contrast to the avalanche of claims that this product, this idea, or this book is the product, idea or book of the new millennium, I’m only able (or willing) to look ahead for a small fraction of the next thousand years.
I’m amazed at the audacity that so many people demonstrate who think they have anything that will be standing tall after another thousand years, given the rate of change we are currently experiencing in the course of human evolution. It’s hard enough to think about what might be highlights of the next century much less the next ten centuries.
But, since I was asked, I found that I did have something to say about the next several decades – something beyond what my new book will be focusing on – the “better future.”
I believe that we are in a window of opportunity whereby we can choose the better future rather than just leaving it to chance and probabilities. As I state in my book, we are presently at a “choicepoint” where the opportunity to transcend the existing conditions and global trends is available by choosing a new consciousness – a “global mind change” as Willis Harman called it. But, I’ve already written that; so what new thoughts do I have?
It occurred to me the other evening, after thinking about the question asked of me about life after the end of this year, that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the new century versus the old one will be the integration of all those disciplines and technologies that we discovered, developed and perfected over the past 100 years. After all, the 20th Century gave birth to the “age of specialization” – to such a degree that we don’t even think about it like we did when it was first recognized over half a century ago. Specialization – or compartmentalization – is simply the way things are nowadays.
While compartmentalization has led to enormous strides in science, it has also fostered an ‘us vs them’ mindset. There’s so much focus on the area of specialty that people, disciplines and ideas from outside that specialty can be seen as “foreign” to it. This perception of foreign or different-ness had led to conflict, disrespectfulness of differences and intolerance of others’ viewpoints. It is obvious in religion, as most armed conflicts seem to be rooted in whose idea about God is more correct. It is obvious in politics, where partisanship reigns supreme, often to the detriment of the common good. And, it is obvious in business, where pitting workers against each other for the sake of productivity reinforces the ‘me vs you’ attitude that resides in the ‘us vs them’ mindset which is part of the larger ‘win-lose’ paradigm.
The leading-edge thinkers in science, education and even business are beginning to see the pitfalls of a too-isolated focus on one’s specialty or going too far down the tunnel in any one discipline. Scientists are recognizing the value of crossing the boundaries into the realms of other sciences; physicists are learning from chemistry and engineering; chemists and economists are learning from biology. Borders are blurring among the specialties as learning and inquiry reinforce the interface among all elements in the larger system we call reality.
Like researcher Paul Ray discovered when he and his colleagues identified the “Cultural Creative” sub-culture in the U.S. a few years ago, this large and growing segment of our society shares an integrative mindset that allows them to look for answers anywhere and everywhere. They number more than a quarter of the adult population and can think without focusing on any one discipline as “the way” for problems to be solved, answers to be discovered or innovations to be realized. Hence they are also called the “integrative culture” by the researchers.
If the 20th Century could be called the decade of specialization (among all its other labels) then the 21st Century might be the integrative decade where webs are woven among all disciplines and the “whole” becomes more of the focus that the “parts” and we begin to think from the whole system perspective. After all, the parts have been pretty well examined thanks to all the great strides we’ve made in this Industrial Age. And, I’m sure, there are plenty more things to learn and discover. But we’ve focused on the “parts” for so long we are in danger of thinking the parts are the reality, like the classic five blind men feeling the elephant.
While I think this integration will be a good thing, I’m not proposing it; I see it beginning to happen. So, I’m calling attention to it rather than predicting it.
Business can learn much from the other disciplines in this regard. Business leaders have much to learn from philosophy and other “soft” sciences. The number of business books about values and soul published over the past decade are some of the early indicators of this blurring of boundaries. Business leaders also have much to learn from the hard sciences like biology, quantum physics and complexity theory. Books that take lessons from these disciplines are also beginning to be found in the executive offices of business leaders who are open to new thinking and new ideas.
As multi-disciplinary integration becomes more commonplace, learning across different disciplines and micro-cultures, society will be the beneficiary. Humanity will benefit as greater understanding and appreciation of the whole – the entire “system of systems” – grows. We can begin thinking from the place of the whole while we deal with the parts on an everyday basis. It’s like the old bumper sticker that read: “Think Globally. Act Locally.”
When we have a better appreciation for the whole, we have a deeper relationship with it. When we have that deeper relationship with it, we care more for it. Then its easier to see our small but unique part in it, and our responsibility for and to the whole. We will want to contribute to making the whole better, for the common good of all its parts, not just for the betterment of “our” part at the expense of the whole.
This is how our “better future” will be created and co-created.
John E. Renesch is a San Francisco writer, futurist, and business philosopher. His forthcoming book – Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing – is due out in mid-January, 2000. To contact him call 415-437-6974 in the U.S. More information about him and his work can be found on the Web at John Renesch.
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