Jonathan Rowson


Part 5: Resolve - Get Real! Philosophical and strategic reflections on Emerge.



The Emerge network is mostly worldcentric in outlook. That is not a status claim. I just mean that most of the people converging under its auspices tend to feel ‘bigger than self’ challenges as if they are our own and talk about them as if we could influence them. From the perspective of the millions of people struggling to survive it looks like a peculiar source of angst, and from the perspective of those focused on the consensus reality of digitally mediated consumerism, it looks like a minority passion. It is a rarefied blessing and burden to feel like we are carrying the weight of the world, but so it goes. 

Most people drawn to Emerge are professionally lost and found, a curious bunch of renegades, social entrepreneurs pretending to be philosophers and vice versa, most of whom are in valued but lateral relationships with conventional institutions, whether they are universities, NGOs, or businesses. We share an intuition that the major problems of our time lie in some tantalisingly fundamental sense within, between and beyond people, and we share a desire to articulate that, and to show it in action. We meet to update each other on what we’re doing and why. To feel seen, known, and perhaps even understood.

To make sense of Emerge becoming a new field I have tried to establish some of the premises and patterns that characterise the field, including the nature of the epoch we are working in, the kind of method we need to employ, and the ethos that characterises it. We are now ready to think about our resolve – what we have to commit to in spirit and practice. This post establishes a key premise for the subsequent two posts on goal and entelechy. The idea that our resolve should be to get real is not as generic as it might sound, and stems from our apparent inability to speak of ‘We’ in a way that makes sense and inform constructive action, which is rather important in a time of multiple converging collective action problems. (Much of this post overlaps with a prior essay on Emerge called The Impossible We?).
We meet in a convivial spirit, but in a tragic context. Getting real means attending to some of the following: Total global deaths from COVID-19 are well over six million now and a resilient return to our prior sense of normal seems unlikely, because bio-precarity has become our ecological default. Climate change will remain an indefinite emergency, likely to be worse in its effects than most dare to imagine. I say this partly because impacts have been worse than expected so far, partly because total carbon emissions are still projected to go up rather than down in the near future, partly because new words are entering our lexicon like ‘nuclear hurricanes’ and ‘wet bulb temperature’, and partly because, as a recent documentary indicated, some scientists have started to cry about climate collapse in public. That’s a different kind of data, but possibly the most persuasive kind. Some combination of store-able and transport-able renewable energies combined with modest policy resolve could conceivably keep our habitat viable, for a while; but uptake and coordination issues (also known as ‘politics’) are far from trivial. Technological change is exponential; change in governance is glacial. And clamouring for changes in how power is distributed and wielded is not working, mostly because the public realm is shaped largely by private interests and smart phones, the new axis mundi, are addictive by design. And then Russia invades Ukraine with what looks a lot like genocidal intent, global energy is diverted, and a world food crisis seems likely. We are beyond clamouring.

The point of this litany is that there are worlds beyond European and American consciousness culture and they feature battles for power, competing interests, failed projects, anxiety-inducing poverty, corruption, realpolitik and war. Whatever we think we are doing in our talk of transformation and systems change, that’s the world we contend with while ecological collapse intensifies. We have to find whatever joy in life we can, but some of that joy can and perhaps now must arise from contending with the brokenness we are implicated in. 
Many progressive visions of the future are premised on heroic assumptions about widespread cooperation and shared interests aligning at scale. There is abundant good will and ingenuity in the world, no doubt, and I believe in giving our better natures every possible chance. Still, the only pathways to a viable future for humanity that seem credible to me now are those that acknowledge the enduring realities of self-interest, competition, conflict, defection and corruption. 
I have been feeling this point acutely in relation to ecological collapse in particular, where ‘we’ are called to act. The core problem is the absence of any locus of shared power to generate cultural sensibility and policy coordination commensurate with our collective action challenge, and to see it through in the context of widespread political divergence and resistance. That indicates a different pattern entirely may have to emerge, but for that to happen the words we use will have to pre-figure it better than they do today.
Since language is one of the main active ingredients in social change, and since our most pressing ecological challenges call for unprecedented collective and coordinated action, we have no choice but to attend more carefully to the way we conceive and speak of ‘we’ – the most problematic pronoun of them all. I am not referring to a postmodern directive to be more diverse and inclusive. Rather, in the style of the best warrior-pedants, I seek to highlight that the problems we think of as economic or political or epistemic or technological or spiritual may all in some fundamental sense be problems of our grammar too.

The mostly unreflective way we use ‘we’ in our discussions of societal direction very often ignores varying perceptions, competing interests and power dynamics and thereby obscures the nature of the work that needs to be done. A figure/ground reversal is called for, in which there is a shift from assuming our collective perception, understanding and interests of the world are a stable vantage point; while the figure or situation we look at together is what remains in question. 
I think the challenge is the other way round. The challenge is to immerse ourselves in our predicament in such a way that we see the We in question more clearly, and to prioritise acting on that. The main limitation with the idea that we face a climate emergency, for instance, is that there is no ‘we’ as such to address it. The We that wants to say there is an emergency is not the same We as the We that needs to hear it, and the We that needs to hear it has several different ideas about the nature of the We that should do something about it. 

The non-trivial problem at hand is that we is a term that leads by implicature to the presumption that there could be an optimally cooperative form of collective agency at a global scale. That kind of democratic (‘we the people’) and global we (humankind) is presupposed in questions like: 
·      What do we need to do to address climate change? 
·      How do we co-create a more conscious society? 
·      What can we do to strengthen the epistemic commons? 
·      How might we save democracy from itself? 
·      Why can’t we channel technological innovation in a way that benefits everyone? 

I’m beginning to think these questions are fundamentally back to front. Consider this alternative framing of these kinds of conundrums: 
·      How might the reality of incipient climate collapse be conceived and acted upon in ways that help us transform the We that has failed to prevent it? 
·      How might the institutions and norms of democracy be strengthened in ways that help to forge a We that is worthy of the ideal and not one that is destroying it? 
·      How might technology best be designed, owned, regulated and perhaps even in some fundamental sense dethroned, to foster the kind of We that makes a good society possible?

The intellectual function is humiliated today in many ways, but one of the main reasons we are struggling to make sense of our plight is because we are obliged to invoke a We does not really exist, and talking as if it does evokes widespread dissonance. Perhaps this is part of the breakdown of the mental/rational mode of consciousness that visionaries like Jean Gebser prophesised.

I say this mistake in perception and understanding is grammatical because We is used as a descriptive pronoun implying everyone, but it should be used in a more dynamic and hybrid form, perhaps an abstract noun characterised as a living question. I am grateful to Minna Salami for suggesting ‘Wewho’ as an alternative framing, as in “Wewho have to act urgently on climate change!” I don’t expect anybody to start talking like that soon, but it may not be a bad thing if they did.

I am reminded that love, according to Iris Murdoch, is “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real”. If love is indeed the answer, the extremely difficult realisation is also the answer. The Beatles (no less) suggested that “All you need is love”, and they might be right, while The Fetzer Institute, one of Perspectiva’s main supporters, continues to place a strong emphasis on love as an underlying reality, a moral lodestar, a spiritual inspiration. I am all for that. And yet, clearly the love needed at a global scale is not about everyone converging on the same sweet flavour of emotion.

The extremely difficult realisation is not just that there is a world beyond our heads, or that people have different values and personalities and priorities. We can navigate collective action problems, and we can manage various kinds of commons in principle, as Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to have won the Nobel prize in economics, has shown. Yet the population typically features about 3-5% who are sociopathic and an alarming proportion of people lean authoritarian, and these days their voices are amplified in ways that make others afraid. You would think the clear ecological collapse of our shared planet would galvanise cooperation, but this feels more like a time of polarisation and fragmentation than convergence.

We have form. It’s not as though the world hasn’t tried already to develop some sense of itself as one organism, one family, and this is indicated institutionally over the last century at least. The League of Nations (1919) led to the UN (c1941) and there was something like a post-war international order based on The Bretton Woods agreement for the global macroeconomy (1944) and the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). During the Cold War (1947-1991) there was a fundamental division, but major international covenants on economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights (1976) happened nonetheless and there have been many waves of Globalisation that we started talking of as ‘a thing’ by the 1990s. When I travelled playing chess in the nineties and noughties I became familiar with the Latin motto of the world chess federation F.I.D.E: Gens una Sumus. It means ‘we are one people’. And yet we are not, yet.

The question for me is in what way might the Emerge network help us to at least move in that direction. As one of our Emerge hosts and facilitators, Pamela von Sabljar, put it to me recently, in the terms of the problematic but useful heuristic of spiral dynamics: We know how to do ‘we’ at some contexts of cultural development including red (power/tribe) and blue (order/convention) and orange (success/corporation), but we don’t really know how to do it at green (relativism/family) and we definitely don’t know how to do it at ‘yellow’ (post-conventional/systemic) or beyond. 
This maturation of our we-ness is not at all the same as increasing unity of perspective and purpose. On the contrary I believe it amounts to a deep awareness of our enduring differences and an acceptance that perennial struggle is a feature of the human condition, and that our fate is not the worse for that. Our challenge is to ensure that the struggles that define us lead to creative generativity rather than conflict and mutually assured destruction. That, for me, is where our resolve should be, rather than the pretence that we can always agree, or always be friends. 
Our resolve should be to build the We that we need to be, by properly reckoning with the We that we are. 
Yes, that’s ambiguous. That’s the point. That’s the work.


Links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1. Introduction: Field-Creation.
Part 2. Epoch: Time between worlds.
Part 3. Method: Third order change.
Part 4. Ethos: Post-conventional.
Part 5. Resolve: Getting real.
Part 6. Goal: Survival of open societies.
Part 7. Entelechy: The future within us.
Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.