What about the conversations we don’t have?


Along with Pam at Surefoot, I’ve been having a great time this summer holding a series of conversations about climate change with around 10 people invited off the street to take part. It’s been really fascinating – but that a story that will have to wait until we’ve written up the project for the Scottish Government.

But it also got me thinking about all the conversations I don’t have about climate change – and other things that matter. And then an interview with Kio Stark about her book When Strangers Meet caught my eye:

…research has shown improved moods among commuters who chat on the subway, and happiness and creativity among people who talk to strangers.

Kio Stark always has and does. She was born in a New York family and doesn’t think it’s rare. Her reasons are many, but among the most compelling is essentially boredom. She writes that a stranger-encounter is “an exquisite interruption” to whatever expectations you had about your day. Go to work, and you know who you’ll see. Hang out with friends, and you know what to expect. But engage with a stranger, and at least something interesting might happen.

“It’s not only about novelty,” she added when we spoke. “It’s about feeling connected to my block, my neighborhood.”

At a grander scale, in an increasingly polarized society, it can require concerted effort to break out of sociocultural strata and online algorithms that are constantly pairing us with like-minded people.

Stark suggests some simple strategies for those of us who don’t routinely talk to strangers. The first is simply saying ‘hello’ to people you pass in the street. The next is to find something neutral about the place you’re in to comment on – though this is best done when sitting rather than walking.

It’s got me thinking about how this might be a starting point for conversations that touch on deeper issues – perhaps I need to order the book to find out.

Read more in How to Talk to Strangers, The Atlantic

Or, watch Stark’s Ted Talk:

Image by Ed Yourdon, used under Creative Commons

Energy crops have been a major flop with farmers – here’s why

Source: Energy crops have been a major flop with farmers – here’s why

We found that most farmers in the area were not interested in planting the crop – even if it meant increasing their profit margins. One third told us they couldn’t imagine anything that would persuade them to grow it. The farmers saw themselves primarily as food producers and saw energy crops as an alien practice. They were strongly and even passionately attached to their way of life.

Fascinating study that shows why policy and indeed change management must go beyond naive assumptions of ‘rational economic man’. As one farmer said:

No amount of money would ever encourage me to grow willow because I am a farmer. I can’t think of anything more unattractive.

Time to get out Shifting Normal or the ISM tool!

Read the original article…

11 suggestions to make conferences a space for great conversations

fieldsofconversationIt seems to me that too many conferences are designed to only transmit information – hence the default choice of presentations followed by Q&A. Of course transmitting information definitely has it’s place, but when you’ve got a room full of knowledgeable, enthusiastic and skilful people, is it really the best use of their time?

Is it not better to try and create the conditions for dialogue, where people can connect with each other more deeply, in ways that are open and inquiring? And perhaps, if you’ve given enough time, some of those really powerful, creative conversations where new ideas and new projects are born, might happen.

Of course, most conferences and seminars do aim to have engaging conversations between participants, and between participants and the main speakers. But unless you’re very lucky not many great conversations will happen unless the schedule is intentionally, and carefully, designed, to encourage and support not just an exchange of information or opinions, but deeper dialogue.

The four fields of conversation from the Presencing Institute, above, are helpful to distinguish between different sorts of conversation. So often the traditional Q&A session after presentations gets stuck in the second field – debate: talking tough – with people just wanting to get their ‘point’ across, rather than having any true spirit of enquiry. While coffee breaks – often said to the best part of a conference – languish in level one.

Here are eleven suggestions based on my experience that you might consider when designing an event for dialogue (in no particular order):

Continue reading “11 suggestions to make conferences a space for great conversations”

Shifting from Me to We will increase personal and social wellbeing…

…in a climate-disrupted world, argues Bob Doppelt in Transformational Resilience

Walking along the Water of Leith a couple of years ago, Dave Key, Margaret Kerr and I wondered if we were the only people who were fearful of what a society affected by climate change might be like – how would people individually and collectively respond to what was likely to be a challenging situation? It seemed to us that questioning the “one more push and we’ll crack climate change” orthodoxy was rarely welcome, perhaps because it opened up all kinds of personal fears and dissonance.

That conversation came vividly to mind as I read Transformational Resilience, where Doppelt writes:

it seems difficult to see how the rise in global temperatures will be limited to the 1.5° threshold. To the contrary, as of now, temperatures seem likely to rise by at least 2°C, and possibly much higher.

and that the negative impact of climate change on society and natural systems:

will be indisputably traumatic and exceedingly stressful, producing significant effects on the human mind and body.

He argues that this will lead to:

unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicides, and other mental health problems for individuals worldwide. These woes will, in turn, produce a boatload of psycho-social-spiritual maladies, such as increased interpersonal aggression, crime, violence, hopelessness, and more, that undermine the safety, security, and health of people all around the planet.

He then draws on his experience as both a consulting psychologist and environmental scientist to explain that:

traumatized individuals and groups exist in a fear-based self-protective survival mode that turns their focus inward, inhibits their ability to learn, and can all but eliminate their concern for the welfare of others or the natural environment. This will make it even more difficult to motivate people to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, prepare for climate impacts, and do their part to reduce climate impacts to a manageable level.

So far, so depressing.

However, Doppelt offers hope, presenting a range of evidence that: Continue reading “Shifting from Me to We will increase personal and social wellbeing…”

“I’m compassionate, they’re selfish” Why this misconception matters so much 

As this spiral gathers energy, people are left tragically and needlessly less civically engaged and more socially alienated. Your misperceptions of others, in other words, may hold you back in helping to mount collective responses to the major challenges that confront UK society today like child poverty, care for the elderly and climate change.

Source: Values, voting and volunteering | Common Cause

Do you know what the world is to me?

I’ve just finished reading A World of Becoming by political theorist William E Connolly. I’m very grateful to whoever recommended the book – if I could remember who you were, I’d thank you!

I’ve found the book illuminating and re-assuring as Connolly explores some complex relationships between systems theory, philosophy and spirituality. That said, it is so rich, so dense, so multilayered, so exact and so nuanced, I believe I’ll need to return several times to not just ‘make sense’ of it, but to also tune in to the feel of it, the intuition of it.

But in the meantime, I feel moved to share the postlude which resonates strongly with me…


Do you know what the world is to me?

A colossus of diverse energies, without beginning or end, with each flowing over, through, and around others, generating new currents and eddies.

A play of waves, forces, and perceptions on different scales of complexity, endurance, and time, with some swelling as others subside, with perhaps long cycles of repetition, but none that simply repeats those preceding.

You and I are drops in the sea of flows, feelings, and surges, my friend. So, if you die before you wake, well I pray your God your soul to take.

And Yahweh, Hesiod, Jesus, Moses, Sankara, and Buddha? They send out ripples of passion that persist, sometimes flowing into each other, before melting into larger waves.

And that mosquito buzzing around, sensing you as heat, movement, and food? Are you a god to it? A demon?

It, too, perceives, hopes and acts, living long and intensely on its temporal scale and briefly on yours. It too makes a difference, as when it alters your DNA while feeding, or deposits a virus.

As does the the yeast fermenting into the dough.

And those bursts of laughter, bouts of sensual heat, workers’ movements, consumption habits, hurricanes, geological formations, climate patterns, contending gods, electrical fields, spiritual upheavals, civilizational times, species changes, and planetary rotations–they, too, participate in this veritable monster of energies, making a difference before melting down, to be drawn again into new currents, and again.

And the monster itself? It never completes itself, always rolling out and rolling in, with no outside or end-times, like a Möbius strip or Möbius current, never simply repeating, eternally evolving, and dissipating.

A monster that feeds on its own excretions, that knows no joy, existential resentment, weariness, or horror, even as it houses all these, and more.

Many strive and connect to others in such a world, seeking to amplify existential gratitude for the world as they comprehend it.

Others resent either this world or the different account of it they embrace.

That is the world to me. And you, my friend and rival?

What is it to you?

Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a social psychologist and humanist philosopher who concluded that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

A person who has not been completely alienated, who has remained sensitive and able to feel, who has not lost the sense of dignity, who is not yet “for sale”, who can still suffer over the suffering of others, who has not acquired fully the having mode of existence – briefly, a person who has remained a person and not become a thing – cannot help feeling lonely, powerless, isolated in present-day society. He cannot help doubting himself and his own convictions, if not his sanity.

[via the ever excellent SENScot Bulletin]

Don’t give me that middle class bull$h!t

In the absence of men we could trust to guide us from boyhood to adulthood, we initiated ourselves. And that was only ever going to end badly

Despite having been hunted all my life and in turn hunted others for what I needed, I had never actually hunted a living creature for food.

Environmentalism, tree hugging and all that middle class, hippie crap. Yes, I suppose I am middle class, but it’s not, absolutely not, a middle class thing. Read Casper Walsh who believes that by taking a life he saved his own.

The state of the climate movement

A long, but interesting perspective on the emergence, and necessary next steps, of the climate movement by Alex Evans of Global Dashboard:

Climate activists are now speaking with a strong, morally grounded voice that’s totally different from the old, leaden, technocratic language we used to hear. But it’s still what George Marshall calls an “enemy narrative”.

We need epiphanies – possibly, but by no means necessarily, of the religious variety – that create the sense of being part of a larger us, of living in a longer now, and of wanting a different good life to the one that’s been sold to us.

Climate campaigners can sometimes seem to believe that if they can just make everyone feel guilty enough about climate change, results will follow. But people already feel guilty about climate change – and it’s a big part of why they don’t want to think about it. Guilt is only helpful if we can do something with it; otherwise it turns toxic and ultimately debilitates us.

So we need ways of recognising and expressing where we’ve screwed up, and of being forgiven.

…and much more: The state of the climate movement

What is ‘systems thinking’ anyway?

I’ve read a lot about systems thinking over the years and I can confidently say my ways of working are strongly influenced by this approach. But when someone asks what actually is systems thinking, I find it difficult to give a succinct and useful definition. And much of what’s written on the subject is pretty impenetrable at first sight.

This short video from Peter Senge, from MIT and the Society for Organisational Learning, is, I think, a pretty good introduction:

“[The fundamental rationale of systems thinking] is to understand how it is that the problems that we all deal with, which are the most vexing, difficult and intransigent, come about, and to give us some perspective on those problems [in order to] give us some leverage and insight as to what we might do differently.”

One of the leading advocates and thinkers on systems thinking is Fritjof Capra. I’ve tended to be wary of the parallels that he has long drawn between eastern mysticism and quantum physics, but I’ve been bowled over by his more recent book (with biochemist Pier Luigi Luisi) The Systems View of Life, which focusses on systems biology to explore:

…how modern biology, in trying to understand the self-organising, adaptive and creative aspects of life in all its forms, has by necessity turned to a holistic, systems view emphasising pattern and organisation.

Continue reading “What is ‘systems thinking’ anyway?”