A Far Cry from Christmas
Cover: Black-browed albatross flying over south Atlantic Photograph: Daniel Cox/Photolibrary
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Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworski, C. Otto Scharmer, and Betty Sue Flowers Nicholas Brealey Publishing, UK, 2005, £14.99
THIS EXTRAORDINARY BOOK is partly about synchronicity – and elements of that certainly fed into this review. Various American colleagues had forcefully recommended Presence over the past year; a colleague in our London office even thrust a copy into my hand; and, while that remained unread in a stack of to-reads, Resurgence got in touch to ask me to give the book a spin. The Universe was trying to tell me something. But to be frank – and there’s an old Turkish proverb advising those about to be painfully honest to keep one foot in the stirrup – what had held me at arm’s length was my sense that this is a consciously soulful book, in a particularly American style, an impression confirmed on deeper acquaintance.
Consider this passage, in which one of the authors sits alone on the Baja California coastline, watching whales. He finds himself “just sobbing, ‘Oh God, what if we harm these whales. What if we did that, oh God, what if we harm this coast? What if we did that? Then directly in front of me, about a hundred yards out, a lone whale gave me four spouts. Silence. A minute afterwards, off to my left, a whale rolled over in the ocean four times. And then there was nothing. I knelt there for the longest time. I felt as if I was bleeding from an open wound. I felt my heart was completely open and had merged with those of the whales. There was no separation between us.”
A powerful insight drawn from all this is that we all suffer, to some degree, the ‘pain of separation’, particularly from nature. Indeed, passages of Presence remind me of the deeply engaging – but, it turned out, pretty much fraudulent – encounters with Yaqui shaman Don Juan that the late Carlos Castaneda reported in a series of books long, long ago. Maybe it’s a sign of advancing years, but while I enjoyed Castaneda’s books in the sixties and early seventies, and remain fascinated by the deeply felt human experiences, the epiphanies, that switch people onto radically different paths, nearly 300 pages of people ‘being in the moment’ are like a meal of whipped cream. By contrast, I suspect, many readers of Resurgence will feel the opposite, so I raise the issue, one foot in the stirrup, to make the point that many business readers will not get beyond the first few pages.
Significantly, perhaps, some of the friends who recommended the book were at the incandescently spiritual end of the business spectrum. Yet, if you can wade through – or flip past – the extended passages of communal navel-gazing (and, to be sure, these four have world-class navels), Presence is stuffed with gloriously rich insights for anyone interested in where the future may take us. For example, it views multinational corporations as a destructive new species, albeit with the capacity to learn, to ‘grow’, to evolve. The central concept, ‘presencing’, turns out to be a central element of a ‘U Movement’, a process of deep learning, of which the first part involves “letting go”, the second part “letting come”. My real discomfort, given the increasing urgency of our global challenges, is that much of the book feels like wallowing around at the bottom of the U, in an intellectual hot tub.
That said, I certainly accept that if we embark on change without deep reflection and deeper understanding it will be like taking an aspirin rather than treating the dysfunctional aspects of our lifestyle that create thumping headaches in the first place. Perceptively, Presence notes that since 2001 we have been experiencing a crisis not so much in security as in civilisation. The challenge – and it has been the North America’s genius in previous phases of the evolution of capitalism – has been to understand what needs to be done next, and then do it. This time, though, much of the innovation will come from elsewhere. A fair few social entrepreneurs were interviewed for the book, and will find much of value here, but in my mind’s ear I hear their feet tapping with impatience to get out there and get on with it. Let’s make sure we don’t get stuck in the U-bend.
John Elkington is Founder and Chief Entrepreneur at SustainAbility