Activism and 20th-Century Science:
Think Universe, Act Locally

by Betsy Barnum

Any kind of social change, and especially the broad, deep shifts required to move from our current system to a sustainable one that will support human life into the future, in harmony with other creatures and all of Earth’s systems, is a massive project and requires more and more people involved and committed to the changes.

This can seem overwhelming, impossible, when the change is seen as coming about incrementall, by the gradual addition of more people to the cause until sheer power of numbers turns the corner. The activist asks, perhaps despairingly, how can we ever get enough people involved and committed to enacting these deep changes?

Margaret Wheatley in her books Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe, and A Simpler Way, co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers, has a provocative answer. She takes the knowledge gained from 20th-century scientific fields- quantum physics and chaos, complexity and systems theories- and applies them to organizational behavior. The result is a different model of how people work together and how change happens that is not just hopeful, but downright exciting.

Organizational behavior, while probably not a subject most activists consider scintillating, takes on a fascinating depth and possibility when viewed in terms of the new scientific understanding of how the universe operates and what energy and matter really are. Activists of all sorts, who by necessity work in organizational ways with other people, and who hope to impact existing organizations of society, would do well to consider what Wheatley has discovered.

Briefly, Wheatley says that most organizations of all sorts in the West are still modeled on the machine ideas of 17th-century Newtonian physics, that each task and each person are separate and defined, and that they work together to produce some product, just as each little atom is a separate building block of the universe and joined together they make something bigger. This is not only how organizations are designed, but it is how most modern people think about what an organization is and how people can best work together on any project.

Under a model derived from 20th-century physics, in which relationship and probability are much more relevant than individual particles and structures and everything is connected, an organization would be much less rigid and defined, and much more fluid and responsive- more aware of and open to the moving energy and less wedded to fixed forms and functions. Wheatley calls this a 'boundaryless' organization, to describe its acknowledgement and nurturing of multitudinous connections among everyone involved, not just those highlighted in a box-and-arrow organizational chart.

This new-science model can be helpful to any kind of organization, giving a light but non-limiting structure to any kind of human activity. But it is especially applicable to environmental protection, sustainability and cultural transformation efforts, because the underlying wholeness that the people in any organization are always tapping into is that which underlies the Universe itself.

The Universe has its own way of organizing itself in an organic, apparently chaotic but actually orderly system, in which change and re-organization are constant and equilibrium means death. But humans (modern humans at least) tend to want to impose our own kind of order on natural systems, a static and mechanical order that tries to prevent chaos or disequilibrium—to prevent change! An example is the former practice of fire suppression in forests, which led to build-up of fuels and stymied the natural cycles that depend on regular forest fires.

We tend not to see the underlying order on the natural systems of Earth and the long, slow development of the Universe, partly because we have such a limited view, due to our small size and short existence, and partly because many of us still think in terms of the mechanistic model. It can be difficult to trust that there is order when we don’t see it- or don’t know how to see it.

One of the most exciting aspects of this way of looking at how human activity can be organized, is the idea of non-local causes- the invisible, intangible connections or fields of influence that lie in the spaces between 'things' such as electrons, planets and people. Fields of influence are what explains how two electrons can match each other’s spin direction when they are too far apart to physically influence each other. Modern physics sees what we usually think of as 'empty space' as actually being filled with these connections, these fields. Perhaps the mystics knew this, and it explains why they saw 'empty' space as 'fecund' and as the source of creativity. (Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckardt)

This idea of fields provides a wonderfully hopeful and burden-lightening alternative to the seemingly impossible and endless task of somehow winning over, one or two or ten at a time, thousands and millions and billions of humans, to say nothing of governments and institutions, to a worldview of sustainability. Here is what Wheatley says about working in our own backyard:

"I believe the evolving emphasis in our society to ‘think globally, act locally’ expresses a quantum perception of reality. Acting locally is a sound strategy for changing large systems. Instead of trying to map an elaborate system, the advice is to work with the system that you know, that you can get your arms around. If we look at this strategy with Newtonian eyes, we would say we are creating incremental change. Little by little, system by system, we develop enough momentum to affect the larger society.

A quantum view would explain the success of these efforts differently. Acting locally allows us to work with the movement and flow of simultaneous events within that small system. We are more likely to become synchronized with that system, and thus to have an impact. These changes in small places, however, create large-systems change, not because they build one upon the other, but because they share the unbroken wholeness that has united them all along. Our activities in one part of the whole create non-local causes that emerge far from us. There is value in working with the system any place it manifests because unseen connections will create effects at a distance, in places we never thought. This model of change- of small starts, surprises, unseen connections, quantum leaps- matches our experience more closely than our favored models of incremental change." (pp. 42-43)

I see this as a description of how change within even a single person who adjusts her life and energy to the flow of the Universe, and begins to live according to and in sync with the Universe’s inherent pattern of order, can have impact way beyond the incremental notion of influencing those directly in contact with her. And then when more people join together in connection with each other and with the connecting fields around them, the incremental increases in people working in sync with the flow of universal energy greatly increases the potential power of possible non-local impacts.

I have for many years believed that in what I have called the 'economy of the Universe,' that values actions and intentions and contributions differently than we do in our thinking. Now, science is proving this to be true.

And the resonance with ecopsychology is also clear and exciting. Living, being and acting in conscious connection surely means living in place, sharing some degree of consciousness or communication with other beings, loving and acting out of love. It must certainly mean becoming aware of the diversity in nature and valuing and protecting it. Tuning in to the underlying flow of the natural systems where we live is a way to deepen the human-nature connection, and may even reveal sources of knowledge and wisdom that have been there all along, but inaccessible to us because of our lack of awareness of that wholeness.

Maybe we who are part of a culture that departed so many centuries ago from its mystical connection with the Earth and the Universe have had to take a long journey to rediscover the same truths through science that our ancestors and indigenous people knew in their bones.

Now that we have science to point us back toward the underlying wholeness and systemic connection of the Earth, this knowledge can help us organize our efforts to move human society toward ways of living that are in harmony with how the Universe works.

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