In this week of the election, I think I am coming to understand what Dave Snowden means when he talks about chaos. Chaos, in his model, is when we cannot see any patterns, when we cannot see any connection between causes and effects—even afterwards. We can see things happening and still not really understand how or why they’re happening, and this tumbles us into confusion and a sense of panic. Humans crave order. In the face of great disorder, we look for causes and solutions—think about the ancient people who created elaborate mythologies to explain solar eclipses or the explosion of a volcano.
Right now around the world, people are looking for that sense of order or explanation as they observe the smoke and burning ash of the American democracy.
Dave Snowden tells us that a leader’s job during chaotic situations is to stabilize the system—to pull us out of chaos and into the complex domain. A leader might not know what to do, but she or he must simply act in ways that attempt to create order and stability. We see the US president-elect doing this, meeting with Obama, beginning to consider his Cabinet. Those in power are trying to bring order to the madness.
Those of us who see the potential appointment of a climate change skeptic to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency as a catastrophe, though, may not like the order that those in power are trying to create. This leads me to think about the properties of chaos that we might want to be taking advantage of right now.
The chaotic space is not simply a space of deep disruption and confusion. It is a space of great creativity. The rules we once felt bound to are now loosened, broken. The things we once thought were impossible are now happening. Something new emerges out of the chaos; that something might be very close to what has gone before, or it might be something quite different.
It’s true that right now the rules that were broken are those we may well have counted on, been proud of, loved. Our sense of democracy, equality, American goodness may have been shattered. Those of us in the US and around the world who have been grieving this week are grieving the loss of their ideals rather than simply the loss of the election. We are grieving that the democratic process in which we have long believed—and of which this country has been a shining beacon—has delivered us a man widely believed to be the least qualified president we’ve ever had. We are grieving that a country founded on principles of inclusion and refuge from hate seems to be now turning toward exclusion and hatred.
Complexity theory talks about “basins of attraction,” and we at Cultivating Leadership have been trying to teach about this tricky but helpful idea. But now we are living it in the US and around the world, so I think it’s an imperative concept for us to understand. You see, in many systems, there are two or more possible stable states that the system can have—as well as a sometimes lurching disruption between those states. When you put a ball in a bowl and then give the bowl a big shake, the ball will gyrate wildly for a while. Then it will either settle back in the bottom of the bowl or, if the shake was big enough, will land on the floor. Each of these possibilities is an “attractor state,” a set of potentials inherent in the situation, only one of which can exist at a time.
Dr. Jonathan Foley at the California Academy of Sciences talks about the Sahel Desert, on the edge of the Sahara, which was once a fertile grassland. When it was wet and lush, the grasses and plants recycled water into the air, the water gathered as clouds and rained, creating better conditions for plants. The more plants it had, the more it recycled the water and the more fertile it was. A small shift in the climate, though, began killing off plants. With the plants gone, water didn’t recycle well—it evaporated and blew away. Less rain meant fewer plants and that in turn meant less rain. It turned out that like the ball in the bowl, the Sahel could have one of two states. It could either be a grassland or a desert. The possibility for both lived in the land. It was about which possibility was fed and watered (as it were).
In the Sahel, there were no people trying to keep the grasslands alive. There was no force other than weather to shape the outcome. The grasslands tipped very quickly into desert, and desert they remain.
Right now, it seems to me that we have at least two states in our country, in our world, in the very essence of our humanity. One moves towards fear, towards protection of our own interests above those of any other—major drives in our neurological systems. We are wired to be responsive to threat and to take action when threatened. We have survived so long on the planet because the forces of threat narrow our focus and call us so directly into motion. Under threat, we become super charged to protect and defend, and we literally lose our capacity for perspective taking, for sophisticated thinking as our bodies prepare to fight (or flee or freeze) to keep us alive. This blind protectionism (build a wall to keep Them out, create a registry of Them, etc.) has been a key piece of the fuel for Trump’s shocking presidential win. It motivated Trump voters who were more wired for threat at this moment, but this drive is in all of us. It is one of the possibilities of the human state.
The other core possibility we have inherently inside us is for inclusion, acceptance, love—major drives in our neurobiology. Our brains are also made for connection and community. One of the most distinct features of the human mind is that we can handle the social connections to more of our kind than perhaps any other animal. We are wired to feel together, too; our pain and pleasure centers are actually triggered by the pain and pleasure of others. This binds us together with others and has created the conditions for great flourishing. One core reason we have become so successful as a human race is because we can expand our boundaries beyond our small family groups and into diverse and productive communities, we can trade with those we don’t know, we can create peaceful and just societies that enable the creation of art, literature, science and technology. Peaceful, diverse, loving connection is one of the other core possibilities of the human state.
Many of us are aghast because Trump stirred up this hateful part of society and made visible something that must have always been there—racist, misogynistic, xenophobic forces. These forces continue to take hold as hate crimes spread across the country. I am aghast about that too. But I also recognize that those forces are actually inside all of us. It’s not that there were some people who were racist and Trump found them and banded them together; we all have racist parts of ourselves, and those parts are likely to be awakened under conditions of threat. Trump highlighted the threat, blew on the embers of the racism, sexism, xenophobia that live in the human condition, and created a fire that we now fear will burn out of control. Trump’s approach is to turn the life-giving grasslands into a desert.
This is where chaos actually may become our friend. In the chaotic space, neither of the possible stable states have been reached. This means that either chance or purposeful intervention will help create the new state that emerges. Snowden suggests that leaders use a “shallow dive” into chaos for the purposes of innovation. The American electorate seems to have bypassed that choice and taken a very deep dive into chaos.
Trump and his advisors will now try to dampen down the chaos and create something that looks like order. Trump’s “order” so far has been to ramp up the divisions, the hatred, the smallness of the human condition—those forces that got him into office in the first place. Those who were ardently opposed to Trump and his messages might now begin to fall into exactly the same patterns we have feared in his supporters—and indeed, friends have told us stories of kids at school who are not adamantly opposed to Trump being physically attacked by other kids who are. Driven by our grief and fear, we might create our own forms of sexism, racism and xenophobia—further driving us into a protectionist mindset, making us smaller and less effective.
The Sahel didn’t get to choose whether to be a desert or a flourishing ecosystem; nature did that without guidance. We get to choose, at least a little. In this time of disruption, I think our place is to work against the dampening down of chaos into an order that calls on our smallness and fear. Our place is to manage our fear—and the bodily responses to fear that are about creating divisions between us, demonizing the other, and creating little bands of alikeness. Those of us who hate everything Trump stands for need to watch out for the walls we are building around ourselves. I feel it in my bones, this desire to stay away from the US and hunker down in New Zealand until the whole thing passes. I think this impulse is the wrong one.
Since Tuesday night, I’ve been flailing around, trying to figure out what complexity theory does to support us to shift this system that so dismays so many of us around the world. It’s not just Trump. It’s Brexit, Putin, Le Pen. These forces in the world look so big and out of our control that we might feel small and impotent. I’ve been wondering what oblique, edgy experiments might make some difference. Complexity theory tells us that it doesn’t matter on what scale you intervene—you can make a difference (or make no difference at all) on any scale. You see this in the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 and started the Arab Spring. Or you can think about Richard Colvin Reid, the would-be shoe bomber who is responsible for the small baggie of liquids and gels you carry through airport security all over the world. The scale of the intervention can have little to do with the scale of the effect.
Of course, there are examples that are less drastic and fiery. My mind has been going back 1843 and to Charles Dickens. Dickens, himself a child of poverty, was so frustrated with the cruelty of the Poor Laws that he wanted to make a difference in an inhumane system. He prepared a pamphlet in order to influence the power elite, and then had a change of heart despairing that the pamphlet would do any good at all. Instead, he wrote A Christmas Carol, a novella designed to pull at the heart strings and help alert people to the plight of the poor. And it worked, bringing money and attention to the situation of poor children. This is an oblique experiment in a divided society that attempts to bring us together in our humanity and connection. It has been made into movies, cartoon sketches, plays; it has never been out of print.
So this is my hope, my intention. I want to find and support others to find the experiments that will make use of what we know about complexity to begin to shift us all—no matter whom we voted for—from the fear and loathing basin into the love and acceptance basin. I want to see how we can work together to quiet the nervous systems of the angry and afraid in us and around the world and deal with some of the inequalities that have brought us to this dangerous chasm. I want us to use what we know about complexity, to resist the coming to Trump-order (surely itself an oxymoron) out of chaos.
I want to be part of the movement that turns this time of bewildering disruption into a time of creativity and rebirth—not destruction. I want this to be the wake up call for all of us that we have gotten too far apart from one another, that we cannot afford even another inch of polarization. I want this to be the time when we did what the Sahel, what the ball in the cup could not do: when we looked at our two possible states of being, and we chose the life-giving over the desert.