Interview with Nora Bateson about Systemic Leadership- this is a little bit radical.

Here is the interview for the Systemic Leadership Summit. I hope you enjoy it.

Nora Bateson & Jennifer Campbell Interview on Systemic Leadership.

Leadership? Look around.

There are many people trying hard to repurpose their understandings of existing systems into change. But alas, we are now faced with a history that brought us precisely to this moment, riddled with inability to see changes we cannot understand –And a future that is pulling us into a process of evolution rapidly in which every thing we now know as “practical” is deadly.

Keeping the existing systems going, however green, is methadone for heroin. Systemic change is needed, and soon.

Epistemological shifts are hard, but we now have to get to a new level of making sense of our world that groks the interdependency, and shakes off the habit of short circuiting complexity. That is going to bring us into change that is transcontextual… culture, genetics, language…. We are going to need a lot of art to shake our frames of sense making. We need new science. Mostly, I really hope the aesthetic of this shift is not militant. Hoarding our canned food and buying farms is just a repeat of the thinking that got us into this mess.

Leadership that promises strategy, solution, goals, deliverables, higher profits, direct corrections and purposeful purposes… will dig us deeper into silo-ed solutions to match our silo-ed problems. No existing versions of success, heroism, influence or wealth will come of the form of leadership I am suggesting. Instead we go together… into a way of living we have not yet imagined.

“Since we don’t know where we’re going, we’d better stick together in case someone gets there.” – Ken Kesey (Thanks for re-posting this quote John Perry Barlow)

Thanks to: Jennifer Campbell, Creator and Host of the Systemic Leadership Summit” as well as the link to the summit: You can see more of interviews on leadership with other Systemic folks there.


Art to Get Us Out of this Mess.

Where are we going? photo N.Bateson

What I am witnessing around the world right now is a desire and simultaneous resistance to new ways of thinking, of seeing, and of imagining a change in the way we live, learn and make sense of our world.

For me, this means we need more art. All forms of art, in all parts of our lives. Art is not luxury, it is the probiotic ecology in the digestion of what is “now” into what will “be”. This is not an essay of 100 pages, and it certainly could be, it is just a quick touch upon my itch for loosening the knot around art. The art world can be exclusive, so let me be clear, this is not about the art world, it is about the world with art in it.
My work has always had a foot in theory, a foot in science, a foot in communication and foot in art. I think I might be a giraffe on roller-skates. I am kidding of course. But the point is that I see art as a way to engage epistemological shift, and to experience understandings in ways that are indirect, multi contextual, and multi textured. It takes complexity to perceive complexity. It takes many voices, many forms of expression, many ways of receiving. To “be” in new ways requires playing with our frames of perception, and loosening the grip that prevents the blurring between intellect and emotion.
In the Moderna Museum, Stockholm

Art gives us an entry into developing and exploring sensitivities we have not habituated into our mechanistic thinking. Art is an entrance into the liminal space, and a warm bath of expressing that which cannot be said in logical terms. I am curious in this moment about what we consider rational, and how that rationality rationalises all the destructive and false separations in our descriptions of the world. The possibility for possibilities as yet unseen, lies in that which has not been claimed by the rationale of our world. Change, is going to feel non-rational… trans-rational… and will come, at least in part, from art.

Painting By Ray Gwyn Smith


To play with our perception and expression is to find new forms, new forms that inform in new ways. There is no existing language for the changes ahead, and try though we may to tame this unknown territory into fitting into known description, we will fail. Procrustes, the old Greek gatekeeper, had an iron bed he measured all visitors to Athens upon. If they did not fit in the bed, he made them fit. He trimmed them here and there, stretched them when needed. His job was to commit horridly violent conforming manipulations to make the unusual into the predictable.

In the Canterbury Cathedral
We do not need an iron bed to homogenise perception though, we have language and money and culture to measure against. Breaking though is not a gradual process, it is sudden and sensory. The boundaries of our understandings are strung between cognitions, intuitions, premonitions, superstitions…
Think about all the ways in which African American life in the inner cities of the US was un-expressible through white academic English.The experience would not fit in that mode of expression.. until Rap gave it a form in which to be communicated. So too, so much of the interdependency that gives us life, gives our biosphere life, is un-expressible in existing terminologies.
We need art. We need the slow-truth that long-honed skill together with accidental connectivity and the very intimate perceptions of an individual can render. In a post-fact, post-trust world… it is the honesty of multiple ways of knowing that will hold water. Facts that live in contexts of relation are not merely facts alone. They need their bits, the parts that hang off the bed, the too short, too long inconvenient complexities. They need more room to be contemplated. “Real time” and big data will only ever offer fragmented information without this necessary element of qualitative time, sensory exploration of many contexts, and multi-textured expression. It takes art to feel complexity.
We make art, art makes itself through us. It waits.
But art is not necessarily benevolent.
It can be used toward fascism. It has been. Do not underestimate the shifting ground in the invisible worlds that art enters. We make art, and art makes itself through us. It waits, like Michelangelo’s David, who stood inside the marble for a million years before the artist let him out. We need art now to get us out of this ruthless, truthless stuckness.

River’s Muscle

(River’s Muscle, is a poem from my book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles. I post it today to celebrate Valentine’s Day, as a reminder to myself and anyone one else who needs reminding, that love requires reflection and stillness.)



Rivers coursing over landscapes meet and fold their molecules in muscles of current,

Without yield, without stacking one sandbag against the surge.

I ask you to be strong, strong enough to release your hold against turbulence.

A forest of trees, each leaf a receptor for the caress of the wind, is wealthy in sensations.

I ask you to be rich, banking each whisper of affection against the poverty of numbness.

I am a pool of water, cupped in your palms, your reflection flickers on my surface, wobbly in the movement of light.

I ask you to have courage to see yourself there, transparent, clean, as I see you.

For one second, for a million years. A city skyline of jagged grace is held against the same clouds the dinosaurs pondered,

I ask you to be loyal to your own transformations, while I shift and twist in mine.


An Ecology of Assholes

photo by Indiana Vatikiotis-Bateson

(This piece has a different tone than most of my work, it is a little bit of satire and grit, and given the times, I think some measure of spunk is needed. Not to be negative, but to avert numbness.) -NB


The world is a beautiful place, full of souls that want only to be loved. Humanity has achieved wondrous feats of elegance, humor, grace and poetic creativity… but there is also the asshole factor. By asshole I mean jerk, I don’t mean murderer. Certainly murderers are assholes, but not all assholes are murderers. With all the name calling and finger pointing right now why not take a minute to apply the axioms of systems thinking and ecological patterning to something closer to home than saving the world. We all know a few assholes, and those that can admit it might confess to having even occasionally joined in on the assholery. That much is given.

Commonly, and paradoxically… assholes are thought of as individuals. This is a mistake that should be untangled. For that reason this piece is a short exploration in to the way in which assholes coexist within frames that are larger than their own sphincters, even though they may not realize it. This is a moment perhaps to look at an ecology of assholes.

It is all very well to say we are all interconnected, but what about the implication of being interconnected to all the assholes? And what does that say about the non-assholes? Are we all in the oneness? Oh no.

An “ecology” has a couple of important characteristics that we would do well to keep in mind for our analysis. First as Webster says ecologies are found in:

“The totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment.”

Is the asshole really an isolated island of their own dickwadery? Or is their relational interaction taking place within the larger context of communication that the asshole is responding to? Is the asshole-ness within them? Or is it in their relationship with either you or the world.

Interacting with someone who is prone to: humiliation of others, to lying, or displaying the arrogance that comes when they believe their own life to be more valuable than that of other people… can cause one’s faith in humanity to falter. They cannot be trusted, they judge others, they are blamers, they hold them selves to be “right” and clever while others are stupid, they boast about the way they’ve shamed someone else, or made them suffer, — they go on and on about how others are jerks.

Ummm wait a minute… am I an asshole for making this list?. Judging, blaming, etc.?

No. Self-reflection is not a quality of an asshole so I am ok. (Or maybe it takes one to know one?)

In other words, you ask, “Who do those assholes think they are?” You might confirm your suspicions by making a list of their characteristics: of personality, politics, profession, family, nationality and so on. You can then point to them, personally, and individually and say with some evidence in hand, “That asshole is an asshole”. In that sense the asshole is indeed an individual with their own cluster of personal choices that have resulted in their being a douchebag. Part one of the paradox is that in this way, the assessment is correct. The way that person makes sense of their world is uniquely their own. Their family, their culture their job, their friends and acquaintances their sleep habits, their micro biome, their …holistically speaking all of those things come together to form the filters through which that person experiences the world are uniquely theirs and no one will ever be exactly the same as they are. No one will experience the color blue like they do, or see the same meaning in a poem. (Maybe assholes don’t read a lot of poetry… I don’t know.) They are their own lens, and no one else has the same one.

But how did they get that way? Part two of the paradox is asking if there is any aspect of them that is not influenced by their family, their culture, language, food, etc.? Is there a definable part of them that is outside of the great interconnectedness? In this sense they are a combining of all that they embody. Ask, what learning took place in their world that contributed to their assholing? Is it really a choice to be an asshole?

I am not suggesting solving this paradox. Living within the interconnectedness of assholes is not something we can opt out of. To be an asshole is both a choice and it is not. Even as non-assholes (or so we might hope) we are all caught in a web of deplorables, and in that sense, we are part of the systemic ass-hating of our world.

The next ecological characteristic is interdependency. Ecologies are relational and interdependent contexts. There is nothing outside of the processes that are continually forming and informing the ecology. Assholes are not stand-alone entities.

So, maybe the nice people are really the assholes because they go around pointing out assholes to make themselves look good? Ever wonder? Is every asshole so wrong when they are asking, “ how is this person trying to screw me over?” Perhaps we all even need a little assholeness to keep from being pushovers?

Or is the asshole identifiable as the one who is constantly pulling things out of context and dissing them? It is the ultimate violence to take one tiny piece of information out of a larger set of conditions and circumstances, decontextualize it — cast it as the TRUTH, and then disavow all other contextual input as “beside the point”… That is certainly what assholes do. And they do it to people in disrespect, but also to other living systems, and to art, ideas, other peoples’ projects and so on.

Assholes don’t get interdependency.

They don’t get that they are in interdependency.

But then I find that I don’t get how it is that they don’t get the interdependent consequences… and in that swift move I become the asshole.

Within this dreaded reflection I see it is me then that does not ask about the ecology we share. It is me that cut the picture and cleaved the context.

The real problem with assholes is that humiliation, disrespect and decontextualized judgmental arrogance contaminate the ecology of our communities. The overtones of life in general can go sour when vile exploitative attitudes abound. Assholes underestimate the profound awe of each remarkable living being. In doing so they escalate trouble untold. Fair enough, you may say, life is a bitch… but just keep in mind that it takes a great deal of collective tenderness to heal ecologies, asshole.

Leadership Within the Paradox of Agency

 Excerpt from my book Small Arcs of Larger Circles  (copyright Nora Bateson. Triarchy Press, UK.front-cover-hi_2_orig 2016)

In this era of multiple crises and global threats, I am increasingly uneasy with the call for leadership. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, and other iconic figures are held up as examples of true leaders: they offered charisma, vision and strength enough to pioneer new eras of thought. The lack of such characters now, we are told, suggests a vacuum in our capacity to generate the old-school kind of hope for the future that these courageous individuals embodied. So where are the leaders of today? This is the question plaintively asked of today’s activists, scientists, politicians, and keepers of the moral fabric.

I would like a moment to call bullshit. This thinking about leadership is not useful. There is no such thing as an isolated individual—we are all interdependent. Period. Our evolution is only in our mutual contribution and learning. Mutual. Leadership is an evolving process and, as such, our understanding of what leadership is must evolve in accordance. In the past the world understood leadership as the great deeds of heroes; now we are in another phase of global transition that requires an understanding of leadership based on our understanding of interdependency.

Is there a part of any of us that we can point to and truly say, “that is me—untouched or influenced by any of my history, my culture, education, family, religion, social life…”? Unlikely. Perhaps, instead, leadership is a product of the context, combined with other influences that seem to culminate in crowning an individual with leadership duties. When we look through the lens of interdependency, it is impossible to separate individuals from their contexts of influence and experience. This blurs the ‘hero’s story.’ Leadership, then, can better be attributed to the town or village that nourished a person than to that person’s individual qualities.

In ecological terms we can attribute the health and vitality of the whale to the ocean not only to the whale, and we can attribute the strength of the lion to the jungle (or savannah) not only to the lion. The environment in which the alchemy of collective need is met with a corresponding alchemical combination of possibility produces new paths to follow. In the combination of community and individual, hardship and support, isolation and belonging, past and future, vision and discipline, there can arise a perfect storm that produces what we have, in the past, called leaders.

The very word ‘leadership’ has become cringe worthy. It reeks of colonialism and lopsided history-book listings of individuals successful in taking, making, and claiming. Celebrating the potency of the individual is an insatiable ghost haunting the endless array of courses and manuals for developing leaders. Our fatal flaw may be the idea that an individual or institution can single-handedly penetrate new frontiers of possibility. This is an obsolete but undead dream of heroes and rescuers pioneering innovations. Lightning bolts of imagination and strength, these so-called leaders are presented as utterly independent of their histories; as though they had fallen from the sky. The haunting seeps into what we call ambition, fueled by our wanting to be important and successful. There are scissors somewhere that slice the ambitious from their comprehension of the mutuality we all inevitably live within. The mutuality is where the imagination is brewing, where the strength is made, where the integrity of the context lies. Can we extract a stand-out entity from that mutuality and call it a break-away? Isn’t the break-away a product of the mutuality? How can ‘leaders’ exist without all the relationships that have culminated and fermented to make them? Should we not point to those mutualities as heroic?


So I don’t want a leader. I am sick of heroes. I look back at how we got where we are now and I wonder what kind of systemic imbalances have been created by the thinking that longs to canonize leaders. What is a leader in a complex system anyway? What is the ecology of leadership?

I think there isn’t one. When we look to nature for models, we find that there is not an ecology that would accommodate the existing model of leadership. Think of trees in a forest. How did the ‘leaders’ get so tall? Were they extra courageous or charismatic? The ecological response would observe that the other organisms mutually contributed to that growth. The ‘king of the jungle’ is a human nonsense that understands nothing of the lion’s relationships in the ever-changing natural order of the many species that extend into the pride of lions. The alpha dog is seen as the ‘leader of the pack,’ presuming that the pack ends with the grouping of dogs, which it does not. The human construct of leadership is projected onto the pack by us who are in the habit of identifying that pattern. Dogs have no such framing. Pack members are in communication and mutual learning with each other and the wider surroundings, responding to information that is funneled through the ‘alpha’ but generated through the pack. This makes the ‘relationship of dominance’ perceived, contextual, and not fixed. What we see as deference is a collaborative, communicational relationship that can be disrupted if the ‘leader’ or the ‘followers’ reorganize the communication.

In fact, I think our notions of leadership are toxic to the ecology of communication and collaboration in a social system. How can there be real communication when there is deference to a leader? This imbalance creates a hold-back of contribution and interaction. Look now at the fascination with celebrity that has infected the globe. The imbalance in the possibility for communication when one individual is placed above others in this way effectively destroys the possibility of true cooperation and mutual learning.

Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong… willing to learn, to explore new ideas, to go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories. That cannot happen if one person is the know-it-all. Even if that person has perfect ‘leadership skills’—they still disrupt the ecology with individualism. ‘Leadership’ often creates competition, ambition, greed and, on the flip side, fosters deference, hopelessness, apathy, and blame.

Being part of a system requires knowing that whatever happens is an expression of the patterns that entire system is involved in—that means, there is no fault, and everyone is responsible. No blame. Everyone must contribute to the shift. The health and the toxicity of the system ecologically manifests in keeping with the trends of the system. Someone with a diet of sugar, alcohol, pesticides and other harmful substances may develop pimples, rashes, tumors, or other illnesses. The manifestations of the system’s toxicity are intrinsic responses—indicators of challenges to the system. In the same way the toxicity of our institutional infrastructure is an indicator of the challenges in our cultural zeitgeist. The tumor or pimple is formed from within the body as a whole, in the same way that the healing of a wound, or embryonic development of a baby is also formed from within the system as a whole, including the father. These forms are not stand-alone.

This means big oil is not to blame, big banks are not to blame, big pharma is not to blame. Big weapons, and bad guys—not to blame. We are all included in a pattern in which those systems are interlocked into our survival and destruction. Whether we like it or not. As uncomfortable as it is, the lens of contextualizing leadership reveals that the responsibility we would like to hold our institutions to, does not in fact lie inside the institutions, but between them. The linkings between institutions, where no governing body lies, is the zone where integrity or corruption actually rests. But there is nothing there; no board of directors, no policy, no by- laws; it is a nowhereland where there is neither authority nor jurisdiction. The injustices that occur are not stand-alone either, they are the tumors, the pimples, and the deadly contextual toxicity in our culture.


One example is the interlocked institutional bond that forms the spectrum of troubles around depression and anxiety. It is all too easy to get bogged down in the current cultural quest for success and to feel unable to measure up. The anxiety and depression of this feeling of failing is often treated with pharmaceuticals that have side-effects, including addiction, further depression, or conditions that need additional medication. The pain of this common story leaks into marriages, family life, professional productivity, bleeding into how the affected family interacts with the education system, and even the legal system. Where is the responsibility? Pointing a finger anywhere in particular is only a small peek of inquiry into the situation. Should big pharma not sell those drugs? Should society not be so competitive? Should government take better care of citizens?

An institution is made of people, each with their own biographies, and it exists within community, culture and, ultimately, the natural world. Margaret Mead noted the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Indeed, the responsibility for the world the child grows to understand lies in the collective impressions that the village provides. In the same way, the behavior of institutions lies in the contextual expectations and valuations of each organization’s relationships within the larger community, as well as at the level of each employee. This is a tricky set of boundaries to draw, influenced at meta levels by lurking habits of thinking that tend to individuate. The responsibility is in the village, and the way the village interacts with its institutions. In the same way, the institutions interact with each other to form the linking zone where the blending of culture, economy and education happens.

In our dissatisfaction with the behavior of our institutional or corporate organizations, we, the village, with our wish for ‘change,’ may feel impotent. Politics, business, law, education, medicine, and media are all substantiating each other. Politics needs business to thrive, education is the link to employment and scientific importance, medicine and law try to support both the political and personal codes of health and justice in respect to business and governmental policy. We cannot after all vote on the board or rewrite corporate policy from the sidelines. We cannot impose transformation on the institutions. But we can change our relationship to them. In doing so we alter relationships between institutions. Collectively, growing systemic transformation is always relational; the ecology is what changes, not the individual bits.

We may learn more about leadership if we study it as an entrustment of context, and not as a twinkle bestowed upon a few select individuals from the heavens above. To trust the context requires a second order shift


in purposing our agendas. Instead of being activists for this or that cause, we need to tend to the contextual capacity for those changes we would like to see. For example, making laws that limit the production and distribution of dangerous drugs does not stop the drugs from being made and sold. Those who see gain in supplying them find a way, either legally or illegally. But if there is a shift in shared tastes and values within the community—a general trend that does not include those drugs—the suppliers will seek other opportunities. So the question is not how to stop the dealers, though this clearly must be addressed to some extent. The more effective inquiry is around how to assist the community overall in valuing its own well-being. The context, be it a society or family or ecology of any sort, will adjust in the ways in which its given circumstances accommodate. The illusion of the leader’s capacity to innovate is created by the success of the one who chimes the bells that were in a sense ready to ring anyway.

We might inquire more broadly (while at the same time trying to change policy)—what kind of civilization we want to live in. What kind of family is this? What sort of person am I? Am I the sort that is numb to the suffering of others? That question is not about which street beggars I may or may not give a coin to, it is about what my children see me do, all day every day and how they make sense of the world they are growing up in. The millions of people who are forced now for economic, ecological, and political reasons to start new lives in new lands, are dangerous not because they will deplete the social services of the ‘developed’ countries they enter, but because in the act of refusal by the developed countries the integrity of ‘civilization’ is being condemned. What kind of civilization allows millions of people to die at its doorstep? The damage this does to the contextual fabric of Europe and North America is likely to reveal itself in a horrifying loss of decency, empathy, and integrity.

The notion of the individual entity having agency is confused by a paradox. The confusion lies with the idea of individuation. The entity (organism, person, or organization) is bound to its unique perspective or epistemology, and in that sense is identifiable as a separate source of responsibility. But, there is no aspect of that entity that is uninfluenced, uninformed, or unbound to the larger contextual interactions. On closer examination we begin to see that agency is diffused into the larger contextual processes that are shared by the entire community. Agency is a paradoxical product of mutual learning within and between people, nature, and culture.

Leadership does not reside in a person but in an arena that can be occupied by offerings of specific wisdom to the needs of the community. So leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual. The individual’s responsibility is to be ready and willing to show up, serve, and then, most importantly, stand back. Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it’s a zone of interrelational process. Step in, step out.

The illusion of the prevailing way of thinking is that there is someone to blame—or to praise—as a leader, hero, villain, tyrant, saint or Satan. And that thinking—that is how we got where we are today. Am I writing this book? Or is it the swirling contexts of my culture and family history, my digesting breakfast, my friends, and colleagues that are collectively responsible for this purple prose? I cannot rule out contextual input or the particular sensitivities of my epistemology. Both are relevant. But are they mine? But are they me?

In the ecology of the interdependence of our world, that individualistic idea is wildly out of sync. With blame, as with praise, the causation becomes singular and linear… The problems we face now are neither singular nor linear. So the solutions won’t be either.

The danger of the world’s fascination with celebrity is that it distracts from our ability to perceive larger interactions in context. In a world in which individualism is a viable illusion, collaborative discovery is unseen.

What part of a jungle is the most important? Water? Soil? Insects? Plants? Animals? Geography? Rivers? Air? The jungle in fact is only alive in the living, growing relationships between the processes…

What part of the body is the most important part? Heart? Lungs? Blood? Muscles? Emotions? Dreams? Intellect?

Maybe there was a time when these notions of leadership were useful – but not any more. This global whirl of interrelations and interlocked histories and futures is not waiting for leaders… it’s waiting for the courage to trust each other and to step carefully into the ‘intentional community’ of the 7 billion people we share the commune of life with. This is our tribe. Just the 7 billion of us… and the animals, plants and micro- organisms. Those who came before, and those who will follow. That’s all.

So, am I saying that there is no room for teachers? That there is no room for the expert? No. But a good teacher, and a real expert, knows that they are in a process of learning themselves. They are not leaders. They are not making the seeds grow… They are fertilizer, tending to the soil.

By definition, leadership is needed when something has to be done that has never been done before. Meeting unknown circumstances requires rapid and spontaneous learning. In the case of today’s leadership needs, that learning is mutual.


A List of Relevant Questions

The world is in trouble. There is serious work to be done. Quickly. What follows is my abbreviated short list of serious questions for this era. Structural change is required. To get there requires epistemological change. This list assumes that profit, revenge, ownership, and any notion of superiority including nationalism are not viable excuses for the destruction of billions of living systems. The committees that are formed, the projects that are funded, the actions taken, the policies made – all are in response to the questions posed. So what are those questions? Here are mine.

All of the questions below are of personal, institutional, and global concern. “We” in this document refers to anyone who will ask such questions with me.

Education: How can we best cultivate curiosity, information, and learning between generations to prepare ourselves to perceive and respond to the complexity of our world with less destruction than centuries past?

Health: How can we support health in human beings by making it possible for each person to eat healthy food, sleep well, know that their families are supported, be respected in their community, have relevant contributions (education and employment), breathe clean air, and drink clean water?

Ecology: How can we interface with the complexity of our natural world so as to create less harm to the interdependence of all living things?

Economy: How can we shift the economic system so that it is not based upon exploitation of nature and humanity –without crashing the globe into chaos? (note: no one gets rich on this version of economy)

Politics: How do we get the policy makers of our world to mandate cross-sector information for their decision making processes so that they have the possibility of taking into account complexity?

Media: How do we get a moratorium on binaries? How do we support public understanding, not trained in perceiving complexity, to become accustomed to it and demand communications institutions deliver cross-contextual information?

Culture: What is the approach to open the global discussion about the pending fate of humanity? What matters? What are we willing change? How can we survive together?

The danger we are in is woven across these contexts, so the questions posed must correspond to that transcontextual process. Possibility, not abstract hope, lies in the spread of contexts considered. Whereas stuckness is a product of fragmented discussion and problem solving, getting unstuck is a benefit of transcontextual analysis. Within this list the refugee crisis, the wealth gap, the ecological crisis, the healthcare crises (addiction, diabetes, cancer), racism, and institutional breakdown are placed within a scope of perception that addresses “the pattern that connects.”


We Have to Get Better at This


“Migrants”, “immigrants”, “refugees”– none of these terms actually addresses the contextual narratives of people who need to leave their homelands.  This is, in fact, not a crisis that will go away, it is the beginning of an era in which large swaths of our planet are becoming unlivable ecologically, economically or politically– or all three. At this moment in history all 7+ billion residents of this planet should be accepting that old notions of nationalism have already changed. Now, we should all be ready to accommodate those who are moved, and also be ready to be the ones moving. But, the transitions ahead of us are bigger than the existing structures to accommodate them. And, the speed of this change is unprecedented. The packing list for the transformation ahead is mostly a list of collaboration and improvisation skills.

Let’s try out this for a baseline: This is a transformational time of desperate movement for survival of families that cannot live in the land they have known as home.

This movement around the globe is not an event, there is no end in sight to the millions of people who will walk over continents to find survival. The trajectory that we are on is in play; denial is merely a dangerous postponement. There is no time to let seeds of resentment against cultural and economic change take root; our children will have to live in the consequential violence thereafter. The way in which we think about this situation matters, and the language also matters.

To refer to the people in transit as “refugees” is to stigmatize and victimize. If you have ever actually been a victim you will know how deeply dehumanizing this defining is in a time of excruciating pain. Some say that without the term “refugee” the infrastructures of aid for those who fit that description cannot be utilized. This demand however leads to the discrimination between types of reasons for moving, and who has the right to determine the motivation for survival? However, to use the term “immigrants” is to harken a history of slow socio-economic integration– when we no longer have that option. “Migrants” is another term that is unsuitable as it implies that there is some sort of economic preference involved in this movement. To prefer to survive is not merely leveraging the opportunities of another land’s freedom for economic betterment. Get over it.

red cross

Somewhere in the midst of the discussion and presumptions around the “crisis” of the human beings that are now needing to leave their homes there is an unspoken leverage of the idea of fairness. What is it to be fair? What is the definition of a civilization? The sentiment of exclusion that is emerging will do irreparable harm to the culture, psyche and economy of those countries who say they “just can’t take in any more people”.– Who are we? What kind of society let’s millions people die at the doorstep?

The future of social collocation is largely determined now upon the way we approach the complexity of this integration, not upon economics or policy. There are underlying stories currently informing political decisions around what action to take, are they of decency, or of viscous small minded short sightedness? Those of us living in this era of history will be the authors of the story of how this transition is conducted. The difference is not abstract. We will know the success of our efforts in living together by what it will feel like to walk down the streets in 10 years. Will the near future be one of violent, polarized societies or one in which there is an understanding of solidarity in the project of learning to live together?  There is not room for the lack of common decency that will give rise to panic and hatred.

immigrant lifejackets

The current upsurge of nostalgia for a sense of nationalism that once was is a fraudulent nostalgia. Besides, it’s useless. The changes are already here. The damage that was done by exploiting nature and other people has long since been heading to this pivot point. The difference is until now, for those living in the relative comfort of middle class life in the “developed world”– it was out of sight. Now, with millions needing new homes there is no more rug to brush the exploitation under. There is no going back to a time of  cultural clarity, and economic security. Was there ever such a time? No. And, now there certainly is no way to fake the complexity of the cultural shifts we are already within.

The level of consumption and wealth we have now is not viable for many reasons ranging from social justice to ecology. There are many who will say it is not reasonable to destabilize the systems in place in the EU or other lands, but I would put forth that they are already destabilized, and any notion of life as it was projecting into the future is an illusion anyway. Will this transformation decrease our wealth and comfort as individuals?- Probably. Arguably that is happening anyway. No point in blaming the wealth gap on anyone but the 1%. Before we say the EU or the US cannot afford the newcomers, we need to ask who has the money? Why is there no money for integration? Ask Apple. Find the money.

There is no reason that the expense of creating housing, medical, education etc should fall upon the lower and middle classes when over half the money in the world is in the hands of a few dozen that could, and should pay. The anger toward the people who are arriving is misguided, and an enormous social risk.

Exclusion is a difficult beginning of a friendship, especially when that exclusion looks like millions of families with nothing but the contents of their pockets traveling across continents to find a new life and being met with rejection. How does it feel to wait in a tent for months to be granted entry to what will be your family’s new home only to learn that the residents do not want you and have burned down the buildings assigned to your fellow refugees to begin their new lives? I cannot imagine how this public display of repulsion leads anywhere but toward a future of resentment. The expense of that resentment is more than anyone can afford, not only in terms of material properties and damage, but more importantly to the shared future which awaits. I cannot fathom the reckless irresponsibility of condoning such public discourse. It is nothing short of a security threat. The genie is not going back in the bottle.

This is an issue that highlights the importance of new methods for approaching complex problems. This is ecological, economic, cultural, educational, political, medical— there is no single sector to turn to for a solution. The actions to take are those that are considered across the spectrum of systems. Where is the mandate for this form of interaction?


In a world in which change is the constant there is some difficulty to be found in making the statement that change is here, that it is now, and that it is next-level-extreme. Yet this is case. Like it or not. The attitude with which we muster the courage and sacrifice to meet this challenge matters. We really have only one choice; get better at this- or live in the social cesspool of our own making.

(Note on photos: All of these photos were taken by me on the island of Lesbos, in February 2016 at a session with the Tallberg Foundation)