Solving Tough Problems

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From the beginning we’ve had a collegial relationship with the Society for Organizational Learning and the Sloan School. Although he doesn’t normally work on projects with me, he has been very active in the Sustainable Food Lab. So that’s the first project I’ve worked on with him.

(Vern’s note: This global initiative is aimed at solving problems in the food system which produces a great deal of food, much of it too expensive for poor people, much of it unhealthy, and much of it negatively impacting the soil, water and atmosphere, while many farmers and farm workers are not able to earn a decent living,) VB: You quoted Martin Luther King Jr.

And in the language of the book I am writing now, climate change represents the ultimate challenge for exercising power with love—because it’s the ultimate example of genuine interconnection amongst us and, in fact, with the planet.

And it’s also a challenge that requires not simply a sense of connection but genuine power. So that’s how I’m currently thinking about climate change. The exercise of the power of love and of actual new power sources is going to be a difficult one. I’m going to write about climate change in the book I am currently writing because it’s an extreme example of the general phenomenon of how to act in the real world with an understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence.

We’ve been working since August 2007 with a group that goes by the name of 3E, the Economy, Energy and Environment Initiative.

It is trying to bring together business people from the industrial, finance and energy sectors, environmental activists, academics, researchers and politicians to shift Canada from being a laggard, which it is at the moment, terribly embarrassing, to a leader in this field. Simply because it can only be addressed through international collective action, and there aren’t a lot of good precedents for that.

When you read his biography it becomes clear that even though he was a preacher and a theologian, he spent ninety percent of every day thinking about power. He was really a bilingual character in my language, and that I find important. VB: When you were young you thought the world’s toughest problems would be solved by the world’s smartest people. The opposite might also have been the case: pessimism, feelings of powerlessness, and being overwhelmed. I think it’s a matter of disposition rather than deduction. I guess the reason I remain hopeful is that I occupy quite a privileged position and, even though the world may be falling apart, my life isn’t. VB: You originally lived in Canada and you worked on the problems facing its aboriginal peoples. Were you shocked at the plight of aboriginal peoples? My whole self image, and the whole basis of my professional identity is that I came from a country where basically everything is sorted out.

Thinking about should we march today, and should I be at the front of the march? (Vern’s note: Taylor Branch’s three books are titled Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, published in 1988; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65, published in 1999; and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, published in 2007.) VB: I guess Martin Luther King Jr. But what he, Mandela and Ghandi did, the reason they’re such well known and revered figures, is they understood both power and love. Do you think it can be rectified or changed in the foreseeable future? So I could go to other countries telling them what to do. A civil servant from Canada said to me last year ‘Canadians are used to thinking of themselves as not being colonial but there is really no other word to describe the relationship between the settler society and the indigenous society in Canada other than “colonial”’.

But it’s sobering to see how that looks up close and personal.

VB: Who are some of the thinkers or authors who have had a significant influence on you and your approach to tough problem solving?


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