28 April 2011

Survival is Optional: Ensuring mankind has a place in nature’s system

Dr. John Raven

“No one has to change. Survival is optional.” W. Edwards Deming

Dr. Edwards Deming’s typically to-the-point one-liner gives us a wry warning. This was a session intended for those who do care about our survival as a species. For everyone to have the consumer lifestyle we have got used to in the West would require some back-up planets. One estimate puts the figure at five and all of them would need to be given over entirely to food production and waste disposal. It could only happen in science fiction. Yet more of the world’s population aspire to live the way we live.

Survival means such a radical change in our ways that it is difficult to imagine. When people lived as hunter-gatherers they had no idea what an agricultural society would look like, let alone an industrial one. Those things did, however, come to pass and without anyone directing it ‘from above’ according to some blueprint. From where we sit the picture of a sustainable society is sketchy at best. But taking an optimistic view such a society could emerge against the predictions of those who believe that the point of no return has passed.

Helping us to take such a view in this meeting was Dr John Raven. It’s his view that it’s vital to design a system that enables society itself to learn regardless of whether the individuals who live in it do so. Such a society would have no central command structure making innovation happen. He went into more detail about the problems we face and why our common-sense answers are not up to the job of getting us out of the hole. To illustrate his points he used a case-study from education to consider why schools have not provided what everyone says they wanted from them.

The Speaker

Dr John Raven B.Sc., Dip. Soc. Psychology, Ph.D., is the author of many books including The New Wealth of Nations (1995), a radical updating of Adam Smith’s influential eighteenth century inquiry. In this John writes about why there were good grounds for believing that the collapse of the global financial system was imminent. John consults on educational evaluation, psychological assessment, staff development, organisational development, and values, attitudes, and institutional structures associated with economic and social development. He has been involved in the work instigated by the Deming Learning Network to develop a Learning Society in Scotland. The wealth of John’s written material can be found on his website. To promote feedback from readers he has set up an alternative wiki site, which allows you to insert comments into his papers.


You can view John Raven’s slides from the session.

What participants said…

“It was great very interesting and thought provoking.”

“John was an excellent provocateur, but we had little scope to respond.”

“John was very interesting, but assumed quite a lot of knowledge in a wide range of subjects and I sometimes found it difficult to keep up… I found the session enjoyable and it gave me a lot to think about.”

“I had hoped for some group discussion time… I thought the topic was fascinating and found it stimulating, however, I found the acoustics difficult and at times found it hard to hear speaker.”


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