Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action

Sebastian Wells/OSTKREUZ
Responsible Leadership

How might we use our present situation to slow down, to pause, and to connect with our deeper sources of stillness? Maybe what’s called for now is a global moment in which everything and everyone stops for a moment of stillness, for a moment of connecting to source.

This is an abstract of an article originally published on March 16th 2020, on the Presencing Institute Field of the Future blog. Read the full article in Spanish — in French — in German — in Italian — in Portuguese — in Traditional Chinese — in Polish — in Vietnamese — in Simplified Chinese part 1 & part 2.

As 100 million people in Europe are in lockdown, the US seems to be completely unprepared for the tsunami that is about to hit. “We’re about to experience the worst public health disaster since polio,” says Dr. Martin Makary, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Don’t believe the numbers when you see, even on our Johns Hopkins website, that 1,600 Americans have the virus.

Otto ScharmerTheory U

Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer in the MIT Management Sloan School and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation and introduced the concept of presencing” — learning from the emerging future — in his bestselling books Theory U and Presence (the latter co-authored with P. Senge et al.). He is co-author of Leading from the Emerging Future, which outlines eight acupuncture points for transforming capitalism. The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt is collaborating with the Presencing Institute and applies Theory U in their leadership programs.

No, that means 1,600 got the test, tested positive. There are probably 25 to 50 people who have the virus for every one person who is confirmed. I think we have between 50,000 and half a million cases right now walking around in the United States.”

Having returned to the US from Europe on the last plane before the travel ban kicked in two days ago, I feel as if I have traveled backwards in time. Which is exactly what people report when they arrive in Europe from East Asia now. You feel as if you’re moving backward in time, back into an earlier state of awareness, which the country of departure had already moved past. Here are my takeaways.

The Coronavirus Disruption Is a Harbinger of Things to Come

COVID-19 has further opened up our current state of disruption and, interestingly, has accomplished more to reduce CO2 emissions within weeks than all climate conversations combined have done in years. While some disasters, like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, tend to bring out the best in people (pulling folks together), pandemics tend to do the opposite, as columnist David Brooks argued recently. The virus holds up a mirror in front of us. It forces us to become aware of our own behavior and its impact on the collective, on the system. That mirror gently invites us to make a few personal sacrifices that benefit the whole — to shift our inner place from ego to eco.

"The virus holds up a mirror in front of us."

Otto Scharmer

Your Behavior Changes the System

If the coronavirus crisis has brought home anything, it’s that we — each of us, separately and together — can change the system. Remember how distant that strange virus from Wuhan seemed to many of us when it first hit the headlines in early January? That was just a few weeks ago. It’s a powerful demonstration of our current global condition of interconnectedness. We are many. We are one. Now we need to slow the spread of the virus, to flatten the curve, to avoid the massive, unnecessary suffering of those among us who happen to be the elderly, the uninsured, the working poor who live from paycheck to paycheck, the folks who are alone and without any safety net. Self-isolation and social distancing are not about you; they’re about protecting the people who are especially vulnerable. In short: Your behavior changes the system. Your mindful behavior is needed to avoid a breakdown of the system.

Two Levers: Timely Government Response and Data-Based Citizen Awareness

To slow the spread of the virus we need to change our collective behavior. We can accomplish this in two ways: through (a) timely government response and (b) testing-based citizen awareness and action. China, after a slow start, navigated the pandemic by relying mostly on the former (draconian lockdowns, quarantine, and social distancing, including movement surveillance of the entire population), which worked surprisingly well. Italy (and now also Spain) pursued an approach that for an extended period was weak on government action — both in terms of control measures and testing. But if you have no effective regulation and no reliable data when facing a pandemic, it’s like running in the forest while blindfolded. The result is massive suffering and death among vulnerable people, for instance when older people in need of care are turned away from hospitals. That is the very path the US now appears to be on.


Theory U

Theory U is based on the concept of presencing. A blend of the words “presence” and “sensing,” it signifies a heightened state of attention that allows individuals and groups to shift the inner place from which they function. When that shift happens, people begin to operate from a future space of possibilities.

Being able to facilitate that shift is, according to Otto Scharmer, the essence of leadership today. He has used presencing to facilitate innovation and change processes both within companies and across societal systems.

More information about Theory U can be found via this edX online course.

A third group of countries, however, seems to have found a middle way. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea all have had noteworthy success in navigating the pandemic without imposing draconian controls or citizen surveillance. South Korea significantly slowed the spread of COVID-19, and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan succeeded in preventing a massive outbreak in the first place. As of today, March 16, Hong Kong has 141 confirmed cases, Singapore has 212, and Taiwan has 53. How did they do that?

It seems they succeeded in different ways that, nevertheless, share three strategies: (1) reduce arrival of new cases (travel restrictions), (2) prevent transmission between known cases and local population (quarantines), and (3) suppress silent transmission by reducing contact in the community (increased hygiene, social distancing, self-isolation).

Figure 1. Coronavirus Response: One Map, Many Pathways — visual by Olaf Baldini.

These countries have navigated the epidemic using a combination of testing, transparency (active citizen information), and citizen awareness guided by a timely and proactive government response. In other words, by not running while blindfolded. Instead, they slowed down, paused, and took off their blindfolds in order to see what was going on. They are sharing information transparently. And they are moving together more mindfully, more intentionally, and as more collectively aware populations.

Figure 1 summarizes these observations. The two axes track the two approaches: timely government response, and data-based citizen awareness. You can see China’s journey at one end of the spectrum (led by government action). And the journey of the US and Italy on the other (led by citizens, due to the lack of timely government action). But what’s interesting is the middle path: the journey taken by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. One thing that sets them apart is their history; they had the “benefit” of the SARS outbreak in 2002–2003, which led them to upgrade their institutional readiness.

"In order to change the world, you first need to cultivate your interior condition as a human being."
Otto Scharmer

Another beneficial factor may be less evident. They all share a Confucianist cultural background. For many centuries they have placed a premium on quality education and on sending the most talented people of each generation into government, not into business. The famous essay by Confucius, The Great Learning, articulates this foundation by observing that, in order to change the world, you first need to cultivate your interior condition as a human being. They share a cultural context that focuses on harmony between the external and interior. That is precisely what’s at issue when you think about how to integrate government action with individual action. What are the interior conditions that, if in place, could integrate both of these levers or axes and move our disaster response pattern from the bottom-left to the top-right?

We Are Faced With a Choice

The coronavirus situation provides an opportunity for all of us to pause, reset, and step up. COVID-19, like any disruption, essentially confronts each of us with a choice: (1) to freeze, turn away from others, only care for ourselves, or (2) to turn toward others to support and comfort those who need help. That choice between acting from ego or acting from ecosystem awareness is one that we face every day, every hour, every moment. The more the world sinks into chaos, desperation, and confusion, the greater our responsibility to radiate presence, compassion, and grounded action confidence.

Figure 2: Two responses to disruption — two social fields.

Figure 2 summarizes this choice by depicting the two different social fields that we can choose to embody through our actions, through our relationships, and through our thoughts. In the upper half of the figure you see the “freeze” reaction, which tends to amplify ignorancehate, and fear. In the lower half you see the “opening” response, which tends to amplify curiositycompassion, and courage.

Even though the physical social distancing is necessary now, it doesn’t mean that our interior condition should be frozen. In fact, over the past few days we have seen very moving examples from Italy and Spain of how physical distancing can be responded to by inspired compassion and empathy. As a citizen from Spain shared over the weekend: ”Earlier today there was a call on social media in Spain to go out to balconies and windows at 22:00 [10 p.m.] to give a huge ovation to thank and support hospital workers. It’s 22:05 and I can hear the roar from the other side of the closed double glass windows.”

Many of us feel that we live in a time of profound change — change not only in terms of things ending, but also in terms of seeding and cultivating and growing a new civilization for the decades and centuries to come. That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will be true after. The question is how to respond to the current situation in ways that help this enormous potential for positive change to manifest?

GAIA: Global Activation of Intention and Action

It is for this reason that my colleagues and I are going to offer an impromptu global learning infrastructure that is free, online, Zoom-based and yet designed in ways that will activate generative social fields among all of the participants throughout the coming weeks. The idea is to offer this infrastructure as a journey for change-makers from all sectors, systems, and cultures — a journey that will eventually result in a global, multi-local, multi-regional Forum, co-created among the participants later this year in July.

The actual format of this journey and the Forum will evolve with and adjust to the situation that keeps unfolding around us, between us, and within us. It’s an infrastructure that invites you to join with your whole Self and that is designed to be accessible to all, whether you want to join from home while in self-quarantine or in concert with friends and fellow change-makers in your local organization or community.

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