How to Progress with Two Questions

Reductionist thinking is killing us and much of life on the planet as we know it. And while we know we need to change the way we’re thinking , I was reminded today that “we cannot take the salt out of the broth ” – reductionist thinking is here to stay. So, how do we add to it to reduce the “salinity” of how we’re acting and thinking?

What then to make of the Hawking Challenge?

The Hawking Challenge : disprove Professor Stephen Hawking’s hypothesis that humanity has 100 years in which to leave Earth and colonize another planet in our galaxy.

In Article 2019-001, I explored why he might be challenging us to disprove his hypothesis.

Now I’m looking at the problem of fixating on a solution. We’ve become so hard-wired into the how, we’re missing Hawking’s real point. It’s easy to assume there’s good reason for each solution. Yet, I’ve found when being presented with a solution – or worse, told to implement one without reason – it’s useful to ask two questions:

  • Question 1: if is a solution, what is the problem?

  • Question 2: if is a problem (or set of problems), why is it a problem?

Note use of the indefinite article because we are engaging in a conversation to find what is the real problem. There’s a systems adage that says, “the first definition of a problem is always wrong.”

Let’s now illustrate that with Professor Hawking’s proposition.

Question 1: If {colonizing another planet} is the solution, what’s the problem?

  • Answer: Continuing to live on Earth as we currently do, is unsustainable to human life. The population is expanding too quickly for the resources available. Economics prevails as the dominant consideration not social responsibility or ecological impact. Greed and self-interest lessen the value of competition as businesses consolidate into huge corporations and concentrate markets to the point of oligarchy.

  • The impact of these problems is best described in the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda which is “a blueprint for shared prosperity in a sustainable world—a world where all people can live productive, vibrant and peaceful lives on a healthy planet.” The 17 Sustainable Development Goals contain a total of 167 targets to shape global action.

  • The set of problems to be addressed in this agenda is huge. Agenda for Sustainable Development web.pdf

Question 2: If {the global challenges outlined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals} cover the problem space, why is that {set of goals} a problem?

  • Answer: Crucially, the 167 targets are not prioritised. Every single one is fighting for attention. Consequently, the lack of prioritisation lets political leaders off the hook.
    There is no pressing need for any politician or decision maker to change the ways in which they think and act. And, that’s the root of the problem.

  • Hawking can’t see these leaders changing in time to address this huge set of social and ecological problems in the next 100 years. After all, the eminent physicist who spent his life extending our knowledge of the universe, can see the systemic failure of the planet and the loss of the human species on this Earth. He’s earned more of our trust than most politicians.

  • The only hope is to escape. And why not? He knows they love to throw money at a technological solution. Another moon-shot, but this one is to another planet.

The next “Moon Shot”

Let’s stay in the how space for a moment and imagine chasing Hawking’s proposition. We would need to find another planet, knowing Alpha Centauri is the next closest star in our galaxy at 4 light years away. Not to worry, we would then need to design, build and implement a way to get there, keep people alive on the journey. And then get enough people there with enough materials to construct a planetary version of Christmas Island (an Australian offshore immigration detention facility) for the community will need to stay close and work together. They’ll need to work quickly, too, as the next ship load of immigrants will already be on their way. And, do all this in a way that sustains life long enough for clever humans to learn what to do, and how to grow and leverage the resources of this new satellite in our Galaxy – hopefully while learning all the lessons from the last time humans inhabited a planet.

What’s the chance of our achieving all that by 2120?

But wait: that technical stuff is all the “easy” stuff.

The technical stuff is easy. In any project, the team working on the project is more complex that the project. Let’s ask ourselves whether we ever imagine the planetary inhabitants setting up a capitalist system because they’ve brought with them a belief that competition is the ‘best’ way of serving the interest of consumers? Or, would we have a tight set of rules for sustainability, codes of behaviours that are at once rigidly enforced and assurance of a culture of collaboration. What if there’s someone – not me of course, but someone else – who doesn’t abide by the codes of conduct. What does one do on another planet in the Galaxy where a person acts to create a tragedy of the commons, where everyone might perish.

Might we also imagine a new capital crime for not collaborating and not accepting responsibility for the actions of an individual on the collective. Imagine a poster around the planet: “collaborate or we all die”. There is no choice.

Survival depends on absolute adherence to the code, first do no harm.

Back here on Earth

Now that’s not new in the medical fraternity. It is their code. Yet, for all the 40 years I’ve spent working in and with big organisations, the notion of ‘first do no harm’ has not been my experience.

For a while, I was a strategy consultant with a global strategy firm. As we were opening a new office in Australia, I went to the Managing Partner at the time to discuss some people development issues. We discussed nothing. I heard just this:

“Richard, we don’t do people development. We get them in. We burn them out.”

Let’s take that CEO attitude up a level:

“People, we don’t do sustainable development. We find a planet. We burn it out.”

Looking around Brazil and Indonesia and other parts of the world (including Australia), the attitude prevails. It’s time to change.

The bottom-line

Asking why helps us to realise that Hawking is not really challenging us to find another planet and inhabit it at all. As an eminent physicist, he knows the real constraints involved. He’s challenging us to change the way we think and act on the planet we already inhabit.

Collaborate or die!

Should we strike for a new capital crime for killing the planet?

This is a deliberately provocative question.

People and the planet are dying because they have no voice.

Why change our thinking? …Because there’s hope and more…

Three inspiring women are setting a wonderful example. They lead three nations joined in the “well-being network” - Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand.

Now, imagine a world where there are more nations in a “well-being network” than out of it, where the health of the nation is not judged on dry economic measures of GDP alone.

I encourage you to spend 10 minutes listening to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland who spoke recently at TEDx Edinburgh. She reaches back to Adam Smith’s work to remind us that the wealth of nations had well-being as a foundation, not just wealth.

We would all do well to look at how we can enact that thinking into our own daily decisions. Check it out:…/nicola_sturgeon_why_governments_shoul…

If we are so stuck with brains locked in “how” then there is nothing better than an example to follow. Right now, there is no better example than that set by these women. Leverage their thinking to change the way we think and act – not just as leaders, but as co-inhabitants of a closed-cycle system we know as Planet Earth.

Call to action

Try your own process of asking at least two questions when presented with, or directed to implement, a particular solution:

  • Question 1: if is a solution, what is the problem?

    • Take time to explore the problem space as fully as possible. Maybe not as extensively as the UN SDGs with so many targets.

  • Question 2: if is the problem (or set of problems), why is it the problem?

    • Take time to explore the context. Use the known spoken problems in Question 1 and explore further what really going on and why that is so. Do not be surprised if the reasons are driven by self-interest, greed or a desire to hide shame and vulnerability.

    • Now use the deeper understandings to describe the context and problem space in ways that address the various world views and deep rationale.

Do or do not, there is no try (Yoda)

Let me know how you get on.

[1]Richard Hodge “The Hawking Challenge” Article 19-001, published in This Century

[1]Nora Bateson quoted in Clare BabbageLinkedIn post:

[1]See Dr Richard Hodge post “The Hawking Challenge”, Article 2019-001, published 1 September 2019