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Co-stupidity and our collective problems

Everything has changed save our modes of thinking,
and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophes.
Albert Einstein

Society's biggest problems and catastrophes usually arise from societal co-stupidity.

Interestingly enough, this co-stupidity does not come primarily from the specific people and institutions involved. They aren't supid. Most of this co-stupidity derives from social, political and economic systems that call forth problem-generating actions from well-intentioned, smart people and organizations -- actions which seem to them to make perfect sense. Unfortunately, those actions, when taken together, add up to real problems or even catastrophe for all of society.

We can see this all around us. For example:

  • We are collectively creating global warming by driving our cars and running our air conditioners. Individually, we don't intend to create global warming -- and most of us who are aware that we are doing it fervently wish we weren't. But our society and economy are set up so that it is very difficult if not impossible for most of us to avoid participating in creating global warming. It is ultimately futile to blame and exhort individual citizens about their role in this when the system itself makes it so hard to behave any other way.
  • We are poisoning our children with the chemicals of everyday life. Again, we don't want to. But our society produces more than 75,000 synthetic chemicals, fewer than half of which have been tested for toxicity. As parents, we don't even know which of these chemicals are involved in the things our children do every day, in the air they breathe, in the things they touch. Our children's bodies are affected anyway, whether we know it or not. Childhood asthmas, cancers, brain problems, and other diseases are on a rapid rise. What do we make of this?
  • We are destroying our farmland. We are paving it over. We are wiping out family farms with giant agribusinesses. We are poisoning our aquifers and watersheds with agricultural chemicals. We are removing nutrients from the soil by growing food and then not returning those nutrients through the composting of human and animal waste. Our use of chemical fertilizers undermines the natural fertility of the soil, so that it yields less and less each year unless more fertilizers are added (in other words, the land becomes addicted to fertilizer). Tons of topsoil are washed or blown away by poor soil management practices. And now "we" (in the form of Monsanto and the USDA) are creating seeds designed to poison the next generation of seeds. And all this is happening while every individual and organization involved is doing their job, playing by the rules, and not intending to destroy the capacity of our nation to feed itself.
  • And these three examples are only the beginning of a list that goes on and on.

As a culture, we don't see -- we don't really get it -- that we're doing these things. Individually and institutionally, we may know something about all this. But most of our attention is focused on other problems and other opportunities -- things that are acknowledged, supported, even enforced by the society we live in.

Individuals and organizations who do see what's happening have to struggle mightily against the current of a system whose design -- unless changed -- virtually guarantees that little effective action will be taken to address these problems in time. And this is true of virtually every major social and environmental problem we face.

Such problematic, problem-generating systems have been in place for some time. This fact tells us that

We lack truly effective ways to see and reflect on what's happening to our collective destiny and to take action to change our collective course when necessary.

The institutions established for that purpose -- government, media, and education -- are not dealing well with the great threats we face. Mostly they focus popular attention on things that have little bearing on our collective survival. They reduce complex realities to conterproductive soundbites or unintelligible jargon. They marginalize the most important information we need. They virtually never provide opportunities for real reflection or deliberation to help us embrace the full complexity of our situation, together.

When someone can't put their attention where it is most needed, can't think through their predicament, can't pass the tests of life, we call them stupid. As we have just seen, this capacity for stupidity is not limited to individuals; it infects our collective life, as well. The word "co-stupidity" describes the collective inability of groups, communities, organizations and societies to see what's happening in and around them, and to deal effectively with what they find.

In these times of spiralling human power and danger, when we urgently need more wisdom to guide us, co-stupidity is a dynamic that threatens the survival of civilization.

We are very lucky that we don't have to continue this way.

The know-how exists with which to dramatically improve our collective intelligence. We can build the capacity to be wise together instead of co-stupid.

I urge you to start exploring this subject. If we learn the ideas and tools of co-intelligence, we can work with our societal and environmental problems as they arise, using them to stimulate the development of our co-intelligence. Step by step we can in this way profoundly improve our capacity to deal with each new challenge.

Furthermore, if we deal with such challenges in a co-intelligent way, we'll simultaneously build a decent, joyful, sensible civilization for our grandchildren. After all, we've got everything we need for that project right here and now -- except for the capacity to see, think and act together on what we know would be the good thing, the right thing to do. This is our chance to change that.

It seems to me that the most powerful thing we can do
to deal with the social issues and opportunities we each care about
is to join together to increase our society's ability
to fruitfully deal with ALL the social issues and opportunities we face.
If we do that, then our favorite issues will likely be handled better.
If we don't do that, then the issues we care about will likely continue to be mishandled.

And we will all continue to drift towards unparalleled catastrophes.

Tom Atlee
April 1999, revised November 2003

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