Massive Mind-shifting for Sustainability

Massive Mind-shifting for Sustainability

Massive Mind-shifting for Sustainability

by Thomas N. Gladwin

Thomas N. Gladwin (American, born 1948) is the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and associate director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. His teaching, research, and consulting focus on system dynamics, global change, and sustainable business.

My ‘big idea’ is to induce a large scale, bottom-up and global movement to rapidly and powerfully instill sustainable cognition and perception into the minds of the future business, government and civil society leaders who will be taking over in the 2030s – largely by radically transforming the form and content of education to emphasize  novel thinking capacities.

The idea is not new. Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich issued a clarion call over two decades ago for a process of conscious educated cultural evolution to change the way we think to save the human future. Massive mind-shifting is needed to overcome the profound biases against sustainability posed by:

Cognitively bounded ‘biological minds’ maladapted to the modern challenges of systemic complexity;

Obsolete ‘worldview minds’ guided by outmoded assumptions about how the world works;

Addicted ‘contemporary minds’ powerfully programmed to believe in myths and ideological doctrines that serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many; and

Delusional ‘psychodynamic minds’ that deploy ego-defense mechanisms to ward off any realistic and moral anxieties posed by awareness of ecological and social deterioration (see Gladwin. et. al. 1997 for an extensive review).

Back in 1992, in their book Beyond the Limits, Jorgen Randers and his colleagues wrote:  ‘how to bring into being a sustainable world that is not only functional but desirable is a question about leadership and ethics and vision and courage. Those are properties not of technologies, markets, government, corporations, or computer models but of the human heart and soul’ (p. 217).

The power of this proposition is largely dismissed as impotent in the 2052: A Global Forecast. The emergence of wise leadership is deemed unlikely. The exponential increase in smarter and more connected people is seen as insufficient to significantly change dominant values and behaviours. With a few minor exceptions, the role of moral duties and obligations, spirituality, religion and norms of fairness are viewed as irrelevant in shaping the future, despite predictions of massive human suffering.  Any fundamental paradigm shifting toward sustainability is generally postponed to after 2052 due to the assumed persistence of dysfunctional short-termism, materialism, democracy, capitalism and bad management.

Are we really trapped in such a dark fate in which leadership, ethics and the creation of super-intelligence via the merger of minds and machines[1] will do little to alter the fate of humanity and the rest of life over the next 40 years?

What if we could find a way to radically transform global educational systems (of course with the aid of progressive scientific, media and foundation organizations) to accomplish the following:

Shift cognitive and perceptual heuristics in graduates from mechanistic to holistic to better cope with the complexities of coupled human and natural systems;

Shift from human-nature separation toward mental reconnection with, and emulation of, nature’s time-tested patterns, strategies, systems and processes;

Shift from ingrained short-termism to enhanced anticipatory competencies and future time perspectives in order to respond consciously to long-term trends;

Shift thinking from conformity to novelty, inducing a radical surge of creativity, imagination and trans-disciplinarity to address the world’s most vexing challenges and emergent scarcities;

Shift minds away from optimization to resilience, from efficiency to redundancy, and from homogeneity to diversity to boost adaptive capacities in the face of rising extremities, surprises and systemic risks; and

Shift from amoral to moral minds where leaders know right from wrong, operate with a strong sense of fairness, put civic virtue ahead of greed, and display compassion rather than disinterest?

This is obviously a utopian vision of new-minded human thinking and it is hard to envision how a radical top-down repurposing of global educational systems to bring it about could be accomplished. If it is to happen, it will most likely arise from a bottom-up, networked, collaborative and cascading movement of hundreds of thousands of courageous and engaged educators working to change curriculums for the benefit of a sustainable human future[2].

Let’s assume that this organic educational revolution on behalf of sustainable thinking does succeed. Just imagine what millions of new-minded (systemic, nature-connected, forward looking, highly creative, very adaptive and morally grounded) millennial leaders might be able to accomplish, say starting in the 2030s, when they take over the reigns of directing the world’s organizations.

Might they collectively, interactively and synergistically lead the transformation to a much safer, more just, more verdant and more enlightened world?  Might they speed up the rate of technological and societal change, the emergence of systemic corporate social responsibility and sustainable finance, the taking of the Fifth Cultural Step, the modification of capitalism toward the common good, the shift to a regenerative and solar-based economy, and most profoundly, the transformation toward sustainable well-being arising from the health of whole systems as the dominant paradigm … all of these positive visions offered up by various glimpse authors in 2052: A Global Forecast?

Might the emergence of transformative sustainable leaders become a significant ‘trend breaker’ in the 2030s, helping humanity mend its ways faster than the 2052 forecast predicts?  Should it at least be considered a ‘wild-card’ that could make a huge difference if it does occur, albeit not easily captured in numbers and spreadsheets?

The sustainability literature variously labels these new- minded forerunners of thought, action and spirit as positive deviants, tempered radicals, market rebels, bioneers, zeronauts, unreasonable people, and so on[3]. How many of these new leaders, with these new frames of comprehension, will we need to fundamentally alter the dismal fate of humanity and the earth offered up in the 2052 forecast? We don’t know, but the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once offered a note of hope by asserting that we should ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

[1] See the bold futurist Ray Kurweil’s predictions of the emergence of super-intelligence  over the next few decades in his  book How to Create a Mind, 2012.
[2] For one small contribution, please contact me on to acquire the syllabus for my course on “Sustainable Thinking, Design and Leadership” offered at The University of Michigan
[3] The best work on the emergence of this new breed of leaders has been done by John Elkington, co-founder of SustainAbility and currently the Executive Chairman of Volans, a future-focused business working at the intersection of the sustainability, entrepreneurship and innovation movements.

This Idea is included in Disrupting the Future – Great ideas for Creating a Much Better Future. This book is a remarkable collection of ideas and proposals by a diverse set of thought-leaders, each of which has responded in their own creative way to Jorgen Randers’ concluding challenge in 2052: ‘Please help me make my forecast wrong. Together we could create a much better world.’

You can find more information on this book and a possibility to order here