Whereas the world has probably never been a better place for human beings in historical perspective, it is facing formidable challenges. Among those, I put on top of my list the exhaustion of environmental resources, climate change and the persistence or increase of inequality of income and of access to a broad range of resources and opportunities. Addressing those challenges is not only urgent but also complex as human societies have become more and more interconnected and technologically sophisticated thanks to scientific evolution and also the efforts of our predecessors in promoting international cooperation.
A guiding star
Designing solutions to those problems requires first of all a guiding star that will help us evaluate trade-offs and keep us on track. Mine takes the form and shape illustrated in the Figure below.
Ideally, what we would like to achieve on planet Earth is to find an enduring, dynamic equilibrium for this structure made of three triangles, something that we could label “harmony to the cube,” or “happiness to the cube,” for humans as individuals, for humans in society and for nature. When one of those triangles is under-sized or over-sized, the structure shatters or crumbles and the future of humanity is in danger. This is clearly today’s reality. Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U and head of the Presencing Institute at the MIT, speaks about three major divides: ecological divide, social divide and the spiritual divide, that is, in my framework, there is work to do on each of the three triangles.
The past is of little help
When facing problems, many, if not most, of us tend to look backward in search of inspiration or solutions. Indeed, a common perception is that once upon a time things were better. Is this of any help for our concern with three-dimensional harmony? It is difficult to think of times when such a harmony could have existed. Maybe it was the time of Homo Sapiens back in the Rift Valley when life was about hunting and gathering. Nature was respected, there were few interactions between groups of humans but we do not really know if life was very fulfilling for individual human beings. Maybe it was at the end medieval times in Europe with the wind of freedom brought by the reformation process and when the destructive power of men on nature was relatively limited. Humanism, to borrow the expression from Yuval Harari, became the new religion, and there were attempts towards peace consolidation.
For sure, each of us could come with other potential candidates but none is very likely to be convincing. Indeed, a simple and super-fast reading of history could be the following: what has happened through time is the continuous focus on one or two triangles - in general the human focused ones with nature tamed to allow for a better life of humans and human societies. Things have never fully worked out yet with either repression of individual will and wholeness, or collective disasters, such as wars, revolutions, famines and epidemics. But history has been a succession of corrective moves in one direction or the other and progress has indeed occurred. For many centuries, though, the Nature triangle has been neglected. Men have moved from taming the nature to destroying it at increasing rate and scale, a course that we are still pursuing despite growing, and louder, warning signs in the five last decades.
The need for a new narrative and new mind-sets
How can we stop, or at least slow down, this deviance, and avoid the complete crumbling of the triangular structure? To borrow inspiration from Yuval Harari, we need a new narrative that would replace the globalisation-liberalism one. Is sustainable development as embodied in the UN Sustainable Development Goals this new narrative? Most likely not, as the SDGs do not offer a harmonious solution to the tension between economic development and environmental protection. But they do provide us with new, and brighter, opportunities for action to bring the triangular structure in equilibrium.
Given the complexity of tasks ahead of us, action toward our guiding star should be driven by individuals with a culture of collaboration, a taste of experimentation and with a humbling conviction that we live in a world of unknown unknowns. Quick fixes do not exist and we will have to revisit most of the current givens, from education programs to purposes and structures of organisations through economic models and individual values. As an additional year of fruitful exchanges with hundreds of participants in courses and workshops in Geneva and elsewhere comes to a close for me, I remain hopeful that we will get closer to the elusive equilibrium with the growing number of change-makers among us.
This article is part of my series "The Director's words" which features in our Executive Education newsletters. Follow us on LinkedIn>
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Graduate Institute, Geneva.