Surprise, ucertainty, Uncategorized

Lessons Not Learned in a Pile of Books

There’s no art work in this blog post.  That’s partly because it’s that time of year for one last push to clear the house of extra things that might be useful for someone else–and thus could be donated to charity–and I inevitably get side-tracked in the process of sorting.  This year it’s a whole lot of books on my bookshelves dating back from, well, not so long ago that are distracting me.  One by one they fall into my hands, like this one called Superpower:  Three Choices for America’s Role in the World by Ian Bremmer (Penguin Random House, 2015), and I can’t help but take a look at the first page.  It reads:

“America will remain the world’s only superpower for the foreseeable future.”

Reading this in the context of the photos simultaneously coming in from the G-20 meeting this past weekend (December 1-2)  in Argentina made for some cognitive dissonance. I thought: when we did begin to see things differently?  Less than two years after the publication of this book, it seems to me.

Right next to it on the shelf was this book by the former Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, called Beyond the Crash:  Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalization (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 2010).  Ignoring the cardboard boxes of boots and old frames precariously stacked beside me, I opened this one too.  Here again we have someone –a former British Prime Minister–reflecting on the tattered concept of “efficient markets” in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.  He writes:

And now in the first decade of the twenty-first century we have come to realize again that markets too can be shaped by vested interests, that economic players are not always rational, that markets are not self-correcting, that employment does not automatically recover, and that a wholly deregulated, passive model of capitalism and of absentee government cannot cope with extreme fluctuations and the shocks of the sort we saw in the banking crisis.”

This book could just as easily have been tossed into the box with raggedy old sweaters that have seen better days but instead, for some reason, it is the book out of the many on the shelf that I chose to consult more closely later that day on a train trip into town.  What were the lessons that Gordon Brown derived from the Financial Crisis and how do these lessons read in the light of today’s very different era?, I wondered.

Here was another one, for heaven’s sakes:  The Breaking of Nations:  Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, by Robert Cooper (Atlantic Books, 2003).  Going down memory lane now, I decided to sit down and look at this one.  “To understand the present we must first understand the past,” Cooper writes in the first chapter.  Later he foreshadows trouble for the European Union, writing:

“It is striking that monetary integration has been achieved precisely by removing monetary policy from the hands of politicians and handing it over to the technocrats.  This may be no bad thing but, in the deeply democratic culture of Europe, the development of the European Union as a continuation of diplomacy by other means rather than the continuation of politics by other means may in the end exact a price.” He explains:  “International institutions need the loyalty of citizens just as state institutions do; and that can be achieved only by giving the citizen some more direct involvement in their management.”

And, finally, this one from 2014:

“Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings.  The cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions that scientists tell us are necessary in order to greatly reduce the risk of catastrophe are treated as nothing more than gentle suggestions, actions that can be put off pretty much indefinitely.  Clearly, what gets declared a crisis is an expression of power and priorities as much as hard facts.  But we need not be spectators in all this:  politicians aren’t the only ones with the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements of regular people can declare one too.”  This excerpt is from This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster paperbacks, 2014).

Within the last few hours, my pile of charitable donations has been picked up outside my house, but I could not discard these and other books from the last decade or more.  It seems to me that there are some lessons we haven’t quite absorbed from the past that they cover, periods of crisis in the years since the end of the Cold War.  I’m thinking, as I put these books back on the shelf, that finding our way collectively to a better future might involve some real shifts–perhaps to more inclusive concepts of economic wellbeing or security (even “national” security!!).  At the very least, there might be some clues in this pile of books to how we got to now, which our social media-fueled Twitter-verse is usually poor at explaining.  (Without disrespecting the fine minds truly evident out on social media, there surely will be serious consequences if we do not tear ourselves away from Twitter now and then to dig deeper into questions regarding mankind’s current plight today.)

I am going through these books now with our present in mind.  It occurs to me that I cannot imagine a single book coming from the hand of any of our current US policymakers (at least at the cabinet-level) to explain and reflect on the policymaking being carried out in the name of the US since 2017.  It takes a policymaker or someone who cares about policy and its public impacts probably to even want to write a book.  So, therefore, I’ll look at what previous policymakers said, and thoughtful observers said at the time, and perhaps craft some lessons I hope will prove useful in guiding future policymakers –ones who care about the publics they’ve been elected to serve–at the end of this personal project of mine.  The results of my efforts may, meanwhile, be jotted down on a different blog (as this one has become more an art journal in recent years). If so, I’ll be sure to share the new blog’s name and address as soon as it is active.  I hope some of you will want to follow me over there, even as I continue to share impressions of my art journey here!  In the meantime, all the best for a wonderful Christmas and holiday season everywhere!

 

 

 

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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