Systems Change or the sound of meditation

By Malcolm McIntosh -Griffith University, Sustainability Institute, Doshisha University

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity. 

These thoughts have been collected in my mind while cycling in the early morning through the empty streets of the ancient city of Kyoto in Japan on a Sunday morning in October, 2013. I was looking for breakfast, and had read some background thoughts on systems change over an early morning cup of very weak English breakfast tea as the sun rose over Gokokuji temple and the sound of the gong as the Buddhist monks went to work: meditation and chants.

My interest in large systems lay, in the last decade, with complexity, but complexity has become the fertile patina on which other new thoughts now grow. I am interested in questions which have arisen from running a series of roundtables on what the sustainable enterprise economy might look like, on all five continents in 2009/2010 and following this up with lengthy interviews with people of all sorts at the Occupy sites around the world, but particularly in New York and London.  Those questions are: ‘what does it mean to be human now that we know what we know?’, and, ‘acknowledging that nationalism, tribalism and misogyny are the greatest impediments to new global governance, what does it mean to be a global citizen with local identity, today?’.

I also spend a great deal of time in two of the world’s largest economies, Japan and China.  In Japan and China it is possible to argue that systems are how Confucians, Buddhists and Shintoists see and feel life anyway.

So being in this country – Japan – that had to engage in revolutionary evolution in 1868 when threatened by a US blockade and gunfire, and rise again from the ashes post the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs and the end of the Second World War in 1945, is a good place to start with the subject of large systems change.  If change means action, active not passive, then the suggestion is that it is not just analysis that produces an effect, but the actual doing of it. And, while it might be argued that moving together is a prerequisite for any peaceful, successful and society-wide change, for a country like Japan this is just how it is. In 2013 it is still a remarkably cohesive country, with some of the lowest crime statistics in the world, with a universal health care system, and, Japanese live longer that almost anyone.  If one is interested in large systems change it is well worth, as an exercise, starting in 1945 and comparing the changes that have taken place to and in, let’s say, Japan, China, Germany, the USA, South Africa and the UK. In other words context and history are almost everything. The comparative statistics on social cohesion, crime, health care, and longevity are vastly different in the countries mentioned.

Which brings me to my current interest in large systems change. In order to understand why most of my work on corporate responsibility and corporate  citizenship has had at best a minor affect on corporate behaviour and development issues I have become much more interested in transdisciplinary approaches, in natural and social evolution, and finally in cosmology – looking back to the origins of life and the universe.

Parking cosmology for a moment – because it takes us too far away, literally – an evolutionary approach is helpful in understanding why we have the particular economic system and corporate structures today. They are not accidents; they did not come about by chance. They reflect us as human beings, they represent the battle between individualism and collectivism, and they are historical attributes of tribal and national historical atavism from the last few centuries.

Large systems change pieces may be easy as abstraction, but they are a minefield (and a mindfield!) on the ground.

So, finally, in this short blog, can I mention Colm Toibin, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, who has written a short history on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ from his mother’s perspective: The Testament of Mary (2012) and also Julian Barnes’ 2011 Levels of Life which argues that the only truth is to be found in art, and particularly the novel. Given the number of airless academic articles I read for the Journal of Corporate Citizenship, that I edit again, and elsewhere – some of them on systems theory – Barnes’ epistle speaks to me, as does Toibin’s reseeing of the world.

For this reason my current recommendations for reading are, as well as the above books, listed below. None of them say they are about large systems change, but they are all transdisciplinary:

And at the end and the beginning of the day the booming, echoing sound of the gong across the valley is the only whole or holon I need.

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