Part 1: If We Are To Survive This Century
If we are to survive this century, what changes have to be made? This dilemma is far from trivial. The change goes far beyond laws and states. The entire apparatus of how the global social order operates would need to be questioned. Capitalism, neoliberalism, and state communism have intensified inequalities and increased global impoverishment. Such systems have failed to create a world that works for all or even the majority.
What if we embraced human and planetary needs as the primary organizing principle? We would have to radically change the way we treat each other and the resources available to us. All of our human relationships would have to be based on autonomy and interdependence. Cultural and institutional arrangements would have to be based on prosocial principles. We would need to create conditions that enable human beings to balance their well-being with others and of the planet spontaneously and gracefully. Taking a direct and insistent focus on needs can provide a blueprint for creating economies that nurture life. Where do we start?
Here I take insight and inspiration from my professional and academic experience with two dear friends, Paul Atkins and Exmond DeCruz.1 While I have written in the first person, Paul and Exmond are included as collaborators because many of the central ideas emerged in conversation with them. Paul is currently elaborating and extending on these in his forthcoming book tentatively titled, The Practical Idealist: Consciously Evolving A New Story of Participation and Collaboration. So, look out for it if you’re moved by what you read! I have also taken insight and inspiration from authors such as Miki Kashtan,5 Kate Raworth,8 Tony Biglan,2 and David Sloan Wilson.11
So, where do we start? Let’s unpack this question. It is fundamental!
What Are Needs?
The word “needs” is tricky because it has so many different meanings in different contexts. For our purposes, a need is anything an organism requires to thrive; the essential categories of what motivates us and what is necessary for life, not the almost endless strategies of attending to those needs.
Simply, there are four basic categories of need – physical well-being (e.g., food and shelter), freedom, connection, and meaning. These same four basic needs apply equally to the collective – environmental health (i.e., sustainable resources), sovereignty, partnership, and shared purpose. This is precisely where I see a link between autonomy and interdependence as two intertwining dimensions. We cannot have complete autonomy if we need to escape connection to have it, and we cannot have full connection if it means giving up on freedom to have it. We need lifestyles and systems that get the balance right.
Needs are also understood to be universal aspects of experience that apply to everyone irrespective of culture or circumstance. It is this latter characteristic that makes them so useful for our purposes. Focusing on needs automatically brings us towards a sense of shared identity and purpose. In this way, needs reframed as purpose and values define an essential aspect of ‘what matters to us (including me)’. Understanding what we need in this way will serve us well in our endeavors to reclaim our common ground of being human.
Rather than cultural and institutional arrangements that embrace human and planetary needs as the primary organizing principle, what have we got? Authority-based societies operate on one core principle: in the family and society at large, some people have the authority to make decisions, and others are primarily expected to respect and follow those in authority. In such societies, most often, some people have more resources to meet their needs, especially their material needs, while other people’s needs are not being met. Some assumptions intrinsic to this dynamic include:
- People are selfish and greedy. Or, at least, everyone but me is.
- People attend to other people’s needs only out of self-interest.
- There isn’t enough for everyone.
- We are separate from each other.
- Some people are endowed with more authority, either by virtue of divine decree, filial inheritance, sheer military power, economic power, innate skills and talents, or acquired expertise.
The inevitable conclusion is that some form of authority is needed to create and maintain order and safety; in its absence, society cannot function.
When the prevalent theories of human nature suggest that human beings are separate and selfish and that there isn’t enough for everyone, the institutions created are likely to be based on control, domination, and obedience. Implicit is the notion that those in positions of authority are more capable of making responsible decisions. Everyone else needs to be told what to do for everything to function. Thus, the use of power in authority-based societies tends to be over other people.
Socialization Within the Authority-Based Paradigm
In authority-based societies, whatever life looks like; it is always the task of parents, teachers, and other adults to prepare the next generation for life as it is. When institutions are based on power and control, children get prepared for living in these institutions through training for obedience, with a heavy emphasis on punishment and reward. Indeed, obedience is such a key element in parenting that the notion that children may be human beings in their own right, with their own designs and intentions, is foreign to many.
For example, in most societies, the prevalent guidelines would include not trusting people, watching out for oneself, striving for financial success, and becoming entirely self-sufficient. Similarly, while most children grow up hearing of the iconic self-made men (and very few women) who shaped modern capitalism, few, if any, learn about the Commons, the role of communities more generally, or stories from around the world that demonstrate instances of extraordinary generosity and people coming together in support of each other.
When we are raised with reward and punishment, we learn to act based on extrinsic motivation: fear of punishment, desire for reward, obligation, shame, or guilt. We are creatures of convention and practice, and we become what we practice. In the case of our liberal, capitalist societies, since we have internalized the framework of separation, scarcity, either-or thinking, and fear of consequences, our behaviors end up “proving” that humans are selfish, competitive, suspicious, and greedy – the very dogma that leads to the creation and perpetuation of authority-based systems.
In blunt terms, having structural power means having the option of attending to my needs without including others’ needs. Structural power means access to resources based on my position within a structure, not on relationships or personal resources. In this way, structural power enables the privileged to exploit resources, including people, in the service of a chosen agenda, be it the ‘party line’, the accumulation of wealth, or further privilege. Consequently, we become accustomed to using power over others, knowing the answers, and leading our affairs in a way that continues to perpetuate the status quo. Even without intending harm, just following our habits and what’s familiar, we create conditions that reinforce the power dynamics that are invisible to us and subjugate others.
Even when we want to embrace compassion, structures of domination are deeply ingrained in us. According to theologian Walter Wink, we are all indoctrinated into the myth of redemptive violence: the fundamental belief that violence can create peace. We are trained to enjoy watching the “bad guy” get “what he deserves.” Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Centre for Nonviolent Communication, believes that our use of language reinforces “enemy images” of others.
This raises many questions, with few answers. Can we transform power dynamics so that the statement that “power corrupts” no longer appears so completely like a truism? Another way to ask this question: what does it take for any of us to become “incorruptible,” meaning being so strong in our inner practice that we can withstand the allure of power? I want to believe that we can operate in a way that diminishes and eventually makes obsolete the responses of submission and rebellion.
Being the Change
Even though “being the change” is not enough, it is indispensable. Without it, we do our work in the world with an internalized version of the very structures we wish to change. Even if we succeed in overturning whatever structures are currently there, we are unlikely to create anything fundamentally different from the past. For example, suppose we want to create a world where everyone’s needs matter and, internally, we continue to experience separation and polarization. In that case, we will bring this division into our work, and whatever new structures we create will be infused with it.
Because there is so much that needs to be changed on the outside, there is equally much to be changed within us as individuals. We can do this whilst continuing to work in the world. What changes when we take on doing social change work is that the nature of the circumstances within which we operate changes. The work itself is remarkably similar to what we do in our everyday life. Our goal can only be managing to maintain our commitment to prosociality, a concern for the rights, feelings, and welfare of ourselves and other people, and behaving to help them, even in the difficult circumstances of campaigns and endeavors designed to create change, even where risks may be literal and physical.
Accepting this call to principled non-violence and love and applying it when we are a part of a movement for transformation extends beyond our daily relationships with other people and invites us to a deeper look at the places where we need to transform our consciousness and liberate it from the legacy of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness that have been the mainstream in our world for several millennia. This transformation requires considerable commitment, courage, and love.
Shift From Convincing to Listening
Activists are trained to speak, not to listen. The idea remains solid in many movements that the path to change involves convincing people to change their minds.
A conversation focused on convincing is dramatically different from a dialogue. Philosophically, entering dialogue entails a willingness, however small, to be changed by the process. Convincing presupposes that my position is right and unchangeable. Dialogue is a conscious invitation into mutuality and exploration, leaving the outcome unknown until sufficient connection has been established.
Practically, the attempt to convince without integrating the other’s perspective rarely works to create true and willing change. The other person almost invariably doesn’t have a sense of being respected or acknowledged, let alone heard. It might lead to compliance, which can foment resentment in the future and potentially lead to intense conflict. I have come to believe that listening empathetically is, in most situations, a condition for fruitful dialogue.
A key element of what makes a conversation about power dynamics and privilege possible, particularly when diversity and power difference is experienced, is slowing down and truly listening to what is being said, no matter how uncomfortable that experience may be. Even where there is significant disagreement, the focus on an empathic presence can immediately contribute to building a deeper connection, trust, and mutual respect. The experience of being heard often results in emotional settling, inner peace, and curiosity about the other person. While listening, we support the other person in wanting to listen to us
Tip: Listen and reflect before expressing your point of view. Focus on reflecting on what you believe is most important to the other person. Go as deep as necessary to look for commonalities in your reflection, something the other person expresses in their position that you also want or care about.
Speaking Truth With Care
The most productive kind of dialogue develops when we speak authentically based on what we want (need & value) rather than on what we consider to be “right” or “fair” or “just.” In choreographed dialogue, every expression ends in a question mark. The radical potential of this is the constant reminder, built into the practice, that we are interdependent, always in relationship with others. Asking a question invites us to listen for the response, thus taking us out of the prison of self that statements leave us in and inviting us into the relationship, caring for self and others through dialogue.
A particular aspect of learning to make requests at the end of what we say is a focus on ‘connection requests’: requests that help us understand how successful we are at putting the needs, impacts, and resources on the table so we can decide, together with others, how to best attend to those needs and minimize harmful impact, with the resources available to us collectively. For example, rather than asking someone if they are willing to do what we want, which is more focused on the solution, a connection request could be to ask instead about how they’ve understood what I’ve said or for information about how my proposed action might impact the person that I am in dialogue with.
These kinds of requests move us from the individual to the relationship and community and thus have the potential to directly reweave community and relationship into our lives, undoing the ravages of authority-based dominance structures.
Tip: when expressing your position, link it to you instead of making it what should be. What is in your heart, what do you value, what matters to you that is expressed in your position? Articulate that, as vulnerably as possible, and the other person will have an easier time listening to you.
Why Is Collaboration Challenging?
Collaboration is a very exacting discipline and, for our purposes, rests on only one uncompromising commitment: to attend to everyone’s needs. This commitment challenges our habits of separation and scarcity and thus requires conscious choice at every turn. Put differently; collaboration is the purest antidote to ‘either-or’ thinking because it rests on the assumption that, in addition to a solution that works for all involved being possible, it is also a potentially better outcome. The biggest obstacle we encounter is our habit, often deeply ingrained, of seeing our own needs as separate or even opposed to what someone else wants, even if we are philosophically attuned to collaboration.
Grounding In Vision
It is important to be grounded in a vision. In the absence of a vision, social change work runs the danger of becoming an ongoing struggle against whatever the latest horror happens to be. Continually working against something leads both to burnout and a loss of effectiveness.
Vision plays a vital role in mobilizing and sustaining our work. When we create and work toward a vision that is attendant to everyone’s needs, in some small measure, we begin to live in the world we are creating and experience the beauty and sense of possibility that come with that dipping into the future. That, in itself, takes us out of the anguish and grief of living in a world that doesn’t work for most people and buoys us toward a possible future in which we can rest.
Read the entire three-part series "Reclaiming Our Common Ground of Being Human"
- Also see Paul W. B. Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steve C. Hayes, ProSocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2019).
- Anthony Biglan, Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone (USA: Values to Action, 2020).
- Luke Georghiou, Jennifer Cassingena Harper, Michael Keenan, Ian Miles, and Rafael Popper, The Handbook of Technology Foresight: Concepts and Practice (UK: PRIME Series on Research and Innovation Policy, 2008).
- Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. 2nd edn (New York: Guilford Press, 2012).
- Miki Kashtan, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future (Oakland, CA: Fearless Heart Publications, 2014).
- Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
- Robert Phaal, Clare Farrukh, and David Probert, Roadmapping for Strategy and Innovation: Aligning Technology and Markets in a Dynamic World (UK: University of Cambridge, 2010).
- Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (London: Random House Business, 2017).
- Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003).
- Robert Styles, The Conversation. ed. by Exmond DeCruz. 2nd edn (Canada: Leanpub, 2021).
- David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (Vintage, 2020).
- Steven Wineman, Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change (Steven Wineman, 3003).
- Robert D. Zettle, Steven C. Hayes, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, and Anthony Biglan, The Wiley Handbook of Contextual Behavioral Science, Wiley Clinical Psychology Handbooks (USA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016).