by Donella Meadows
— November 9, 2000 —
During the weekend before Election Day, as midgets battled furiously on warped playing fields, two giants fell, both yielding their lives peacefully, knowingly, with dignity, to cancer.
The better-known one was David Brower, the great outdoorsman and thunderer for the environment. Even in his seventies and eighties he was still shaking up the Sierra Club, inspiring Friends of the Earth, galvanizing college students with his passionate message about the inconceivably ancient, living, evolving earth and the blind arrogance of the upstart Industrial Man. I always thought of David as a reincarnation of the fiery founder of our national parks, John Muir. I can only hope that soul will cycle back to us yet again, continuing to thunder, until we absorb its wisdom.
Don Michael was a quieter giant. Much of his career was spent as a professor of planning and public policy at the University of Michigan. He was a revered advisor to corporate, government, and nonprofit managers, with a gentle way of stating difficult truths. One of his books, published in 1973, set the course for the “futures” movement and for leaders everywhere. It was called “On Learning to Plan — and Planning to Learn.”
The key word there is “learn.” Along with David Brower’s reverence for the natural world, the one thing I would most wish to pass on to the newly elected leaders of this split, confused nation — whoever those leaders turn out to be — is Don Michael’s commitment to learning.
Real learning, he said, requires three things: admission of uncertainty, error-embracing, and deep self-understanding. None of them easy for a leader in these times. We have set up almost the opposite standards. A leader must pretend to absolute certainty, never make mistakes, or at least never admit them, and never reveal personal vulnerability. All of which is a perfect recipe for not learning.
“To learn requires recognizing what one wants to learn, and that means recognizing what one doesn’t know,” said Michael. He meant that profoundly, not at the level of not knowing what the surplus will be next year, but of not really knowing how the modern globalizing economy works. Not knowing what a voucher system would do to our schools. Or what global warming will be like. Or how to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction. “You know that you do not know; you know that there is no honest way to put a number on something; you do not understand your situation well enough to be in control of it.”
Many of us urgently want to believe that someone, somewhere, preferably someone in charge, does know. Hence we run our campaigns the way we do and politicians act the way they do. We sense deep down that they are bluffing. If we could only admit that, thereby giving our leaders the space to admit that, we could start to learn.
Said Don Michael: “What if uncertainty were accepted, and shared as our common condition, and acknowledged by leaders rather than being denied? Surely we can tolerate much more uncertainty when we have others to share it with. [That] would reduce the need to act over-cautiously out of fear of being caught in a mistake. It would reduce the need for those defensive, self-protecting, posturings that make it so hard to act responsibly and compassionately.”
“If you do not understand your situation well enough to be in control of it, all you can do is live in it and learn from it and try to create possibilities and see what happens as one goes along.”
That’s learning. Admitting uncertainty. Trying things. Making mistakes, ideally the small ones that come from failed experiments, rather than the huge ones that come from pretending you know what you’re doing. Learning means staying open to experiments that might not work — which Michael called error embracing. “It means seeking and using — and sharing — information about what went wrong with what you hoped would go right.”
Learning leadership takes a solid, self-knowing human being. “Both error embracing and living with high levels of uncertainty emphasize our personal as well as societal vulnerability. Typically we hide our vulnerabilities from ourselves as well as from others. But those who will have the tasks of planning and leading must have a far deeper understanding themselves as selves and as a part of other persons than they usually do today. Without such understanding, and the strength that comes with it, they will too easily succumb to pressures to engineer people rather than to encourage self-discovery — and they will themselves be engineered in the process.”
In 1996, preparing to re-issue his great planning book, Don Michael wrote a paragraph that seems as if it were written for his nation’s confusion in the week of his death. “The depth of learning to be done grows ever more daunting. Whether that learning can be accomplished remains to be seen. But, since we don’t understand the dynamics of complex social change under turbulent conditions, there is no reason not to hope — hence to try. First and foremost, we must accept our ignorance — accept that we must learn, and plan in order to do so.”
Copyright 2000 Sustainability Institute