When do we take action?

By Jim Selman | Bio

The conventional wisdom in Alcoholics Anonymous is that alcoholism is a ‘disease’ of the ego—self-centeredness. Basically the alcoholic becomes trapped in his or her own point of view and denies any other perspective on ‘reality’. The alcohol is a symptom of a loss of control and choice—a condition of cognitive blindness and a self-destructive pattern of behavior. I have distinguished that culture works the same way. That is, the ego is to the individual what culture is to an organization or society—a self-referential structure of interpretation (a worldview) that blinds us to possibilities, robs us of any semblance of choice, and eventually results in some form of ‘hitting bottom’. The belief in AA is that no one really ‘gets it’ and does what needs to be done to sober up until this happens. The only question is where is the bottom?

I introduce this analogy because it has become obvious over the past few years that our way of life (as we’ve known it) is changing radically and at a pace that was unimaginable not long ago. Every day we see more and more evidence that this is nothing compared to what’s coming.

There are at least three major forces driving this kind of transformational change. One is the environment. Two is the economy. Three is the demographic impact of an aging population. All of these are interconnected. There may be other factors. Whatever the case, it is clear that if we don’t take action related to these three areas then we will remain ‘out of control’ for the foreseeable future and in all probability will ‘hit bottom’ sometime in the not too distant future.

There is nothing new in this recognition. People have been sounding alarms about the impact human beings are having on the environment for decades. At some point, it doesn’t matter whether we all agree or disagree about a particular statistic or threat to our water, climate, arable land, ozone, oceans, estuaries. It is all serious enough that prudence would call for strong action sooner than later. The alternative is to wait until the evidence is so strong that it can no longer be denied. The question is whether that will also be too late to take corrective action.  

President Obama is making trillion dollar bets to fix the economy. Even if successful, a recovery will be short-lived unless, as David Korten says, we can build our economic future based on creating real value and real demand rather than playing the kind of self-serving financial games on paper that ‘stack the deck’ in favor of the financial professionals and their clientele at the expense of the average person.
According to The Economist, one in three Americans will be over 60 in the next 11 years and that number will reach more than 2 billion worldwide by 2050. The predictable impact of this number of older people on public spending is unprecedented. More importantly, it is threatening to turn grandparents and grandchildren into constituents competing for scarce resources and further eroding our sense of family and community.

Our idea of ‘Eldering’ as a context for transforming our experience of growing includes the idea of our being responsible elders and putting our wisdom into action. Just as in AA, the question of “Where is the bottom?” is the same question that confronts us with respect to our aging population. Sixty percent of those over 60 are facing some form of economic hardship. Without a different attitude, expectation and relationship with money, this will certainly result in widespread suffering.

Age is not just about individuals. It is about all of us—how we define ourselves and our value and our relationship with each other. We are already seeing that many of our models for ‘retirement’ are changing. We can see the handwriting on the wall: we cannot expect the young to pay 1/3 of their income to care for the old. We need new models for understanding our value and for living together in communities that work for people of all ages.

Each of us needs to be in action today if we’re going to have a choice as a society in the future. We need to ‘sober up’, face reality and find or create a ‘new’ reality. Just as an alcoholic cannot imagine what life might be without alcohol, none of us knows what the world will look like in the coming decade. But we do know this: it will be different than any of us can imagine. And the choice of what it will be is up to us.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.