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Chapter 1. Thinking in a World of Escalating Change and Complexity

The Nature of the Post-Industrial World Order

The world is swiftly changing. With each passing day, the pace of life and change quickens. The pressure to respond intensifies. New global realities are rapidly working their way into the deepest structures of our lives: economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental realities - realities with profound implications for thinking and learning, business and politics, human rights, and human conflicts. These realities are becoming increasingly complex; many represent significant dangers and threats. And they all turn on the powerful dynamic of accelerating change.

A Complex World of Accelerating Change

Can we deal with incessant and accelerating change and complexity without revolutionizing our thinking? Traditionally, our thinking has been designed for routine, for habit, for automation and fixed procedure. We learned how to do our job, and then we used what we learned over and over. But the problems we now face, and will increasingly face, require a radically different form of thinking, thinking that is more complex, more adaptable, and more sensitive to divergent points of view. The world in which we now live requires that we continually relearn, that we routinely rethink our decisions, and that we regularly reevaluate the way we work and live. In short, there is a new world facing us, one in which the power of the mind to command itself, to regularly engage in self-analysis, will increasingly determine the quality of our work, the quality of our lives, and perhaps even, our very survival.

Consider a simple feature of daily life: drinking water from the tap. With the increase of pollution, the poisoning of ground water, the indirect and long-term negative consequences of even small amounts of any number of undesirable chemicals, how are we to judge whether or not our drinking water is safe? Increasingly, governments are making decisions about how many lives to risk based on the financial consequence of saving them, about whether, for example, to put less money into the improvement of water quality at increased risks to human health. How are we to know whether the risk the government is willing to take with our lives is in line with our willingness to be at risk? This is just one of hundreds of decisions that require that we think critically about the ever-more changing world we face.

Consider the quiet revolution that is taking place in global communications. From fax machines to E-Mail, from complex electronic marketing systems to systems that track us and penetrate our private lives, we are not only providing positive opportunities for people to be more efficient with their time, but also systems that render us vulnerable and wield power over us. On the one hand, we have networks where goods, services, and ideas are freely exchanged with individuals the world over, and on the other hand, we face worldwide surveillance systems that render privacy an illusion. How are we to respond to these revolutionary changes? What is one to resist and what is one to support? When is a new system cost effective? Who should control it? For what ends should it be used? Who is to monitor its impact on human lives and well being? How are we to preserve our traditional freedoms, at home and abroad? How are we to protect our families and ourselves? How are we to preserve our human rights and have lives of autonomy, security, and integrity? What are we willing to give up in the pursuit of greater convenience and ease of communication?

And while we ponder the many issues related to technological advancement, we must also juggle and judge work and child care, efficiency and clogged transportation systems, expensive cars and inconvenient office space, increased specialization and increasing obsolescence, increased state power and decreased civil freedoms.

A Threatening World

We are caught up not only in an increasing swirl of challenges and decisions, but in an increasingly threatening world as well:

Change, Danger, and Complexity: Interwoven

Accelerating change, danger, and complexity do not function alone. They are deeply intermeshed, interactive, and transforming.

Consider the problem of solid waste management. This problem involves every level of government, every department: from energy to water quality, to planning, to revenues, to public health. Without a cooperative venture, without bridging territorial domains, without overcoming the implicit adversarial process within which we currently operate, the responsible parties at each tier of government cannot even begin to solve these problems. When they do communicate, they often speak from a position of vested interest, less concerned with public good than in furthering a self-serving agenda.

Consider the issues of depletion of the ozone layer, world hunger, over-population, and AIDS. Without the intellectual ability to reason through these complex problems, without being able to analyze the layers within them, without knowing how to identify and pursue the information we need to solve them, we are adrift in a sea of confusion. Without a grasp of the political realities, economic pressures, and scientific data (on the physical environment and its changes) - all of which are simultaneously changing as well - we cannot reverse the trend of deterioration of the quality of life for all who share the earth.

Consider, finally, the problem of terrorism and its link to the problem of ever-diminishing freedom. Predictable and unpredictable "enemies" threaten increasing numbers of innocent people. Though the root causes of terrorism almost always stems from complex issues, terrorism itself is often treated simplistically. People routinely, and uncritically, accept their national media's portrayal of world affairs, though national media in every country typically distort why their nation's "enemies" think and act as they do. Similarly, people readily accept their government's portrayal of world issues. When one's own country, or their allies, attack and kill civilians, such actions are defined by the national governments (and their symbiotic media) as 'defensive' in nature. Unethical practices by one's own government are covered-up, played down, or defended as a last recourse. Similar practices on the part of one's enemy are highlighted and trumpeted, often fomenting national outrage. Mob action, national vendettas, and witch hunts commonly result. The words "good" and "evil" are freely used to justify violence and terror inflicted on enemies - whether "real" or imagined.

But the problem of terrorism is inseparable from the problem of preserving essential human rights and freedoms. In "solving" one problem, we can easily create another. Let us look at a very small part of the evidence. Statewatch a European public interest watchdog group, reports on a letter from President Bush proposing a "lengthy list of more than 40 demands to the European Union for cooperation on anti-terrorism measures," many of which indiscriminately cover "criminal investigations, data surveillance, border controls, and immigration policies." Yet Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments: "Many of the demands have nothing to do with combating terrorism...." At the same time, the UK parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, comprised of Ministers and Lords, has issued a report that is highly critical of the British government's proposed Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. The report claims that the bill violates the European Convention on Human Rights, and questions both the definition of "terrorist activity" and the extension of police powers inherent in the bill.

The fact is that governments world-wide seem prepared to abandon traditional citizen rights and protections to accommodate sweeping extensions of police and government power - in the pursuit of those labeled "terrorists." The New York Times reports: "As Americans debate how ruthless a war to wage against terrorism, India's leaders have seized on the Sept. 11 attack to push a draconian new anti-terror law that has stirred furious opposition..." The new ordinance allows authorities "to tap telephones, monitor e-mail, detain people without charge for up to six months, conduct secret trials in jails, and keep the identity of witnesses secret." According to the Times, under a similar previous Indian law, "...more than 75,000 people were arrested, but only 1% convicted...[while] many of the accused languished in jail for years" without hope of bail.

It is, of course, not uncommon for governments touting themselves as democratic to abuse freedom and deny basic liberties. Those concerned with human rights remind us that it is restraints on the government that separate a free society from a police state. We stand in need of the best legal thinking to provide for appropriate police and governmental power while yet preserving the restraints that are the bedrock of essential human freedoms.

This is a glimpse (and very partial analysis) of the world our children and we now face.

The Challenge of Becoming Critical Thinkers

The question of how to survive in the world is a question that continually transforms itself. Accelerating change, increasing complexity, and intensifying danger sound the death knell for traditional methods of learning. How can we adapt to reality when reality won't give us the time to master it before it changes, again and again, in ways we can but partially anticipate? Unfortunately, the crucial need for ever-new modes of thought to adapt to new problems and situations in new and humane ways is ignored by most cultures and most schools. Short-term thinking, which leads to quick-fix solutions, is largely the rule of the day. Great power is wielded around the world by little minds. Critical thinking is not a social value in any society. If we are to take up the challenge of becoming critical thinkers, we face a battery of hitherto unanswered questions that define the detailed agenda of this resource. This question-centered agenda provides the impetus for reformulating our worldview. Through it, we can appreciate the intellectual work required to change our thinking in foundational ways. Through it, we can grasp the need to regularly re-examine the extent of our ignorance. Through it, we can grasp the need for regular exercise of disciplined thinking. Through it, we can understand the long-term nature of intellectual development, social change, and personal growth and transformation.

Every chapter of this resource highlights crucial questions we need to ask about thinking. All deal with essential dimensions of the problems we face in thinking. All challenge our perseverance and courage. In the end, we must face ourselves honestly and forthrightly.


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