Creating a thinking environment, for the sake of our natural environment

In August 2012, I returned from running a side event at the Rio+20 with Mark Young , and am still trying to come to terms with the experience. You may have seen some of the reports from the Rio + 20 itself, and perhaps aware that the UN negotiations made almost no meaningful progress (yet again). Commitments seem to get blander and more ‘watered-down’ each time our leaders meet. The prospect of any progress at an inter-governmental level seems less and less likely. Yet the places where agreements do seem to happen are all in the parallel events – amongst communities of people with no legislative power. Given that the majority of the people I spoke with during my trip wanted to avoid the catastrophic consequences of runaway climate change and environmental degredation, it’s astonishing to me that humanity is relying on intergovernmental ‘negotations’ to do this. ‘Negotiations’ make sense if you are starting by framing the problem as one of “who pays and how much?” And the game then becomes how can I negotiate to gain advantage for my country by the end of the process….? It isn’t really surprising that we have intergovernmental impasse if this is the case. Nor is it surprising that communities who can choose a more fruitful starting frame are able to make more progress.

But a dead-end starting point clearly isn’t the whole story.

During my visit I spoke with a huge number of extraordinarily knowledgeable, talented and passionate people (scientists, climate change scenario modelers, activists, politicians, negotiators and many seasoned hacks of the UN conference process). Despite their common goal, those who had been working in the area for more than a couple of years had a weary pessimism about the process of the negotiations themselves. I lost count of the times I heard people say things like, “The process is hopeless, but I keep coming because it’s so vital to that we act – anything is better than nothing.” I left Rio clear about one thing – the discussion processes themselves must be completely and radically revamped. It’s not the hearts or minds of people in the discussions that are the problem. It’s the lack of understanding of what it takes to create the conditions for people to think well.

It’s time for the future of our natural environment to rest in the hands of people in a Thinking Environment.

The idea of a Thinking Environment was developed by Nancy Kline, one of the extraordinary teachers who have shown up in my life when I was ready to learn from them. An American living in the UK, Nancy has dedicated much of her professional life to understanding what it takes for human beings to think with ‘rigour, imagination, courage and grace’. Her motivation comes from the simple idea that the quality of human action is partly dependent upon the quality of thinking that precedes it – so if we want high quality results, we need to attend to the conditions in which that thinking happens. Through action inquiry, Nancy has identified a set of 10 ‘components’ which, when present, create what she calls a “Thinking Environment”. As a facilitator, they are now a core part of what I attend to when working with individuals and groups and I have first hand experience of the breakthroughs that they make possible which traditional ‘negotiations’ don’t… What a difference they might make to intergovernmental negotations. Given this, how can we consciously tolerate our politicians thinking with anything less than rigour, imagination, courage and grace when it comes to something as vital as the future of our planet.

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