Tsunamis and Wake Up Calls for Change

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan are cold hard reminders of the fragility of life, no matter how secure we might seem at any moment. Our hearts go out to the Japanese people.

While any major event, both catastrophic or celebratory, can yield learning about transformational change, I tread lightly on using the devastation in Japan as a learning tool. So as I make the following points, my heart is heavy with the suffering thousands of people are enduring in Japan, and I am cautious about what may be coming.

A catalyst of transformational change

A catalyst of transformational change

Wake up calls come in many forms. You experience wake up calls for change every day, throughout the day. Every emotional contraction you have is a sign to let go of some attachment, a call to shift your perception. The cough in your chest or low energy you feel may be telling you to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking, or get more sleep. Your child’s lack of interest in school may be telling you to be more interested in her. Your organization’s low employee or customer service scores may be telling you to shift your organization’s leadership style or culture. When something isn’t working ideally, it is a call for change. Our job as conscious change leaders is to discover just what change is being called for.

What wake up calls do an earthquake and tsunami deliver? What necessary change might they be announcing?

It’s easy to discount natural disasters as wake up calls. They are natural. People didn’t cause them. But on a second look, there is something to learn, as always.

All machines break down. We know this. It’s called entropy, and it happens in all mechanical systems. Is nuclear power safe then? Can we keep plants from breaking down, isolated from natural phenomena? Is nuclear power environmentally sustainable when its waste is so highly toxic to any and all forms of life and has a half-life lasting many generations into the future? An egoistic, man-conquers-nature mentality says it is safe, especially when weighed against a country’s need for electricity. And herein lies the rub.

As our (ego) needs rise…we want more gadgets, more technology, more consumption, more economic benefit…our need for cheap electricity goes up. Simultaneously, our concerns about the tenuousness of nuclear power go down. Our ego needs shift the boundary of sensibility, and what was once a concern and questionable, all of a sudden becomes palatable.

I remember in the 1970’s debating with my dad, who was helping build a nuclear power plant, the costs, risks and benefits of nuclear. I was arguing for renewable energy sources like solar; he was arguing for nuclear because it was more efficient and cheaper. And it was. Why? Because our government invested in nuclear and not solar. For every dollar spent on nuclear research at the time, only pennies were spent on solar. No wonder solar stagnated as nuclear power plants were built across the country.

Many challenges in transformational change occur because people don’ t see the big picture. The purpose and gift of wake up calls are their blatant slaps in the face that say, “Pay attention here.” The risk of a nuclear meltdown in Japan is such a slap. It calls us to see beyond the lure of cheap electricity to perceive the underlying dynamics and wider implications.

Transformation almost always entails a radical shift of organizing principles that emerges out of an equally profound shift in worldview. With this shift, we perceive things differently, make different decisions, and take different actions, which deliver better outcomes.

Perhaps the earthquake and tsunami can help wake us collectively up to see that we need a new worldview and way of acting. Rather than man-conquers-nature, we need a worldview of people working with nature. To serve humanity in the most profound ways, technology needs to live within the bounds of what is life supporting and sustaining, not just consumption driving and cheap. We need to invest in technology that supports life and people, rather than what simply promotes economic growth. And it does not need to be either/or, but rather, both/and. We can have both environmental sustainability and economic growth. Investing in renewable energy will produce the same kind of job creation and wealth distribution that nuclear and oil did. It is an easy transformation to conceive, as long as you are not blinded by vested interests and ideology. Had we researched the heck out of sustainable energy back in the ’70’s, the Japanese people (and the world) would not be faced with a potential nuclear disaster today. I hope we get this wake up call.

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