Jonathan Rowson

The Impossible We?

A bigger 'we' is often called upon to take collective action to address our burning global emergencies. But 'we' is the most problematic pronoun of them all: 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.



In about a fortnight, two hundred and fifty people will be meeting over a weekend in Berlin for the third Emerge gathering. Why?

To get together, of course. The active ingredient of any gathering is shared experience, and that has been in relatively short supply in recent months. We meet not so much to talk, because we’ve been doing lots of that online, but to savour moving together in the three dimensions of well-ventilated space, to share moments of time as future memories, to be part of an atmosphere, and to remind ourselves what we are doing here on planet earth in the year 2021. People are converging because they want to, and because, with all due COVID precautions in place, they can. And because we invited them. And because they sense it’s the place to be.

So what is emerging? To be honest I’m not sure. People seem to sense the Emerge network has some intriguing people with sensibilities that fit the demands of the moment, and with sufficient network influence to help each other figure out how to act in the world with greater discernment and impact; and they want to be part of that. Most of us 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.

The Emerge network is mostly worldcentric in outlook. That is not a status claim. I just mean that most of the people converging in Berlin 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 those actually 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 peculiar blessing and burden to act like we are carrying the weight of the world, but so it goes. We meet in a convivial spirit, but in a tragic context, and because we like to see ourselves as context creators, there is an appetite to coalesce around something other than schmoozing.


Total global deaths from COVID-19 approach five million now and a 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. Technological change is exponential, and 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. We are beyond clamouring.

There is a risk of valorising change for its own sake, and undervaluing inertia, but in any case immunity to change is part of the predicament. I was twenty-four when the US-led allies went to war in Afghanistan to root out Al-Qaeda in 2001, and am forty-four now as it ends in an anti-heroic departure in 2021. I noticed a peculiar feeling. For the first time in my life I had witnessed a cycle of international activity with a discernible beginning, middle and end. I was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s line: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” After two decades of time, many trillions of dollars and abundant bloodshed, the country was in many ways back to where it started. 

I am not saying the educational and democratising initiatives in Afghanistan were all in vain, but the outcome does exemplify a broader point for the Emerge network. There are worlds beyond European consciousness culture and they feature battles for power, competing interests, failed projects, anxiety-inducing poverty, corruption, patriarchy and realpolitik. Whatever we think we are doing in our talk of transformation and systems change, that’s the world we have to contend with while ecological collapse intensifies. We all 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. 

Post-Tragic Sensibilities

Our orientation then should not be naïve positivity that says ‘we have the technology’, nor a growth-to-goodness fallacy that confuses individual development in our niche for cultivating virtue within systems of power at scale; nor even the ecumenical thinking – ‘we need a new narrative’ – that there could be a single clear imaginative pathway ahead for eight billion wayward human beings.  The challenge for the Emerge network is that we are obliged to speak within contexts that are mostly pre-tragic and reality-avoidant in nature, so of course our narrative offerings err on the side of positivity. I am all for being positive, but the case for acknowledging tragedy today is timely, because it is both latent and manifest everywhere, and because it is through tragedy that we know meaning and mattering and ensoulment. The knowledge of tragedy gives us the courage to take life seriously, and to love it, in spite of how it is, and because of how it is.

In the Greek myth, the hope that remained in Pandora’s box after all the bad stuff flew out of it was a kind of expectation (most scholars translate the Greek word elpis as “expectation") but the hope we need today has to be enactive. Our sense of power and possibility arises through action, and we literally cannot conceive what we are capable of until we find the courage to act. But action that stems from delusion will quickly encounter countervailing forces from its own shadow material, whether that’s mother nature batting last or AI moving beyond human control – arguably both are already underway. Techno-optimism in general and green growth in particular exemplify this kind of delusion, but Liberalism more broadly suffers from it too. Geoff Mann speaks of ideologies as ‘reality management systems’ and argues that in light of apparently inexorable ecological collapse Liberalism can no longer help us to manage reality: “The tragedy of liberalism is its inability to narrate the end of progress”. Another way to look at this issue is that the climactic conditions of the Holocene that persisted for about ten thousand years are what made the modern possible, but now we really are in a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene (more precisely the Capitalocene) and another form of society is just necessary. In that larger context, hope does not mean waiting for things to get better within the world as we’ve known it, but playing our part in bringing about something new.

The disposition we seek to work through in Emerge is therefore the post-tragic, which lies beyond the naïve optimism of the pre-tragic and the debilitating despair of the tragic. Zak Stein refers to the post-tragic epistemically as “a station of the self ... a dark knowledge ... what we sometimes call wisdom”. Marian Partington puts it poetically in terms of learning to hug a skeleton, and Bayo Akomolafe in terms of ‘meeting the monster’. The spirit of inquiry is to encounter reality in a way that reorients perception, helps us to consider where our individual and collective power lies, and then to channel that disquieting renewal into many different kinds of work in many different kinds of places after the event. To put the point in the therapeutic language of Carl Rogers: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

With that in mind at a personal level, here’s the issue at a collective level: 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, namely 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 work together to 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. 

Three Shifts of Perspective

So what to do then? Is the We sought and needed today in some sense impossible? Do we enter the next few decades without any plan to forge a We worthy of our times? Will the Glasgow COP in November 2021 prove this once and for all? My hope for our gathering in October 2021 is that we can use our time to face up to the particularity of that challenge, and help each other glimpse and introject three shifts in perspective that help to deal with it. These shifts take decades rather than minutes, but they have to begin somewhere, and they correspond loosely to the patterns of being, doing and imagining that have helped to give the Emerge programme structure and traction.

1.    From the Struggle between Individual and Collective to Collective Individuation (Being)
Whether the issue is vaccines, or tax rates, or carbon budgets so much political noise is about unresolved tension between the claims of the individual, and the demands of the collective. And yet a more subtle appraisal suggests that the individual and the collective are profoundly co-constituted, and our predicament calls for a planetary-scale response that is both profoundly collective and deeply personal. In this sense the distinction between I and We is an illusion we have to see through. This challenge of collective individuation applies across contexts but it is part of the philosophical underpinning of Bildung, and can be thought of as what happens when Elinor Ostrom’s work on cooperating on commons resources meets Carl Jung’s emphasis on discovering our unique selves. In essence, collective individuation is about differentiating yourself from the collective but doing so through your experience of, with and for it; that means transcending and including cultural norms and conventions in such a waythat you become more fully yourself. That process can lead to newfound clarity of purpose, allowing you to go beyond, for example, recycling like every household should, and to contribute in a way that is uniquely your own. This is the terrain of some spiritual practice and psychotherapeutic work and it might be a feature of the experience of emergent dialogue practices and forms of prescencing at the gathering, where the aim is to experience unity and diversity simultaneously. The idea is described in more detail in part three of the essay, Tasting the Pickle. There are also closely related ideas in forthcoming work of Thomas Steininger and Elizabeth Debold, who are facilitators at the Emerge gathering; for instance they describe ‘the transindividuated self’ as the individual reintegrating into wholeness, and offer practices to experience that in real time. 

2.    From Agency to Hyper-agency (Doing)
What matters today is not merely being able to change the world but to change how it changes.  If agency is the capacity to make choices within conventional social processes, hyper-agency is the capacity to be a creator or producer of those processes. Philanthropists have this power in theory, but don’t always use it well. At its most successful, around April 2019, Extinction Rebellion showed signs of hyper-agency. One of the Emerge facilitators, Indra Adnan, is also working with Community Action Networks (CANs) in an attempt to create hyper-agency through a new kind of people power too, what she calls The Politics of Waking Up. The question becomes: The Emerge network has plenty of agency, but what does it have to be and do to establish or galvanise hyper agency? 

3.    From Vision to Method (Imagining)
There is a need for a new collective imaginary beyond consumerism, and we need not just sci-fi and technological but moral imagination more than ever, as one of our hosts and facilitators, Phoebe Tickell, will highlight in Berlin. No doubt we need to look and see differently, invite in a new set of norms and symbols and metaphors and values and practices, and images. But how will we get from here to there? I am pretty sure this is ultimately a matter of grace rather than will, something invited and gifted rather than something planned and claimed. In that spirit, getting there might mean realising that the North star to guide our way is not, after all, in the sky. I suspect we need a richer alliance between visionaries of transformed cultures and those who are actively making and building new forms of life in practice. Together, this combination of theory and practice – of being, doing and imagining – is necessary to undermine and ultimately overcome the governance ‘regime’ that keeps the world in a kind of sclerosis (some of the theoretical basis for this approach can be found in Geels et al). How can Emerge showcase the best illustrations of what is already emerging in practice, in ways that inform and begin to engender new social imaginaries? Is that the right question? If not, what might be? 

The impossible We may not be impossible after all.

Our programme of activities has been planned with these points of emphasis in mind. But to get to a viable we, this is a time to work for collective individuation, to build hyper-agency and more clearly to establish the relationship between imagination and practice. Along with some good schmoozing, the point of the gathering is to try to do that.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Executive Director of Perspectiva which is one of the founding organisations of the Emerge network. He is co-editor of Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and Emergence in Metamodrnity (Perspectiva Press 2021).
**An earlier and in some ways fuller treatment of this idea of the impossible we, and the related idea of collective individuation, can be found in part three of the essay, Tasting the Pickle under Section1. The Meta/Crisis of Cosmopolitics: We don’t have a viable We. (Page 30 of the downloadable PDF). 
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.