Last week I talked about why love and fear are, at base, our two possible responses to life. I was writing, as I usually do, from a cognitive-emotional point of view. That’s the lens through which I tend to look at everything–what can each of us do as individuals to live more compassionate and peaceful lives and make wise choices for ourselves and on behalf of one another and our planet.
So I was fascinated when Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, sent me an article by Nora Bateson and Mamphela Ramphela entitled, “Finding a Way: Will Peoples’ Responses to the Emergencies of the Coming Decades be Warm? Or Cold?” which offers a more cultural-sociological point of view. The authors begin by writing: “The crises of the moment do not need further description here. …How will the next decades play out amidst these crises? More importantly, what is possible for societies around the world to learn in the process?”
They then offer a metaphor of our options that sounds like what I was trying to get at in the fear/love dichotomy:
There is an old metaphor, introduced by Garrett Hardin in which a lifeboat is featured as a way to ponder the mathematics of survival. The thought experiment is explored through the lens of ethical distribution of resources. It has been applied to population, immigration, natural resources, food supplies and more. High school students are often given this ‘lifeboat ethic’ as an introduction to how hard decisions at structural levels are assessed.
“In the story, there are 50 people in a lifeboat that can hold ten more people, but there are 100 people in the water. It would appear that approximately 90 people will unfortunately be left to die so that any may survive. The project then becomes a collection of ‘difficult but necessary’ questions to justify how the remaining 10 people will be selected to survive.
Who will choose who lives and who dies?
What are the criteria for those choices?
How will the ones who are on the boats be fed?
Is cannibalism a possibility? (Really, this is one of the questions.)
These. Are. Cold. Questions.
The above questions are laced with the thinking of eugenics. They are carrying the darkness of a world in which the icy objectification of how some peoples’ lives are measured, and for some… justified as disposable. They are questions that provide us with ‘information’ about the conditions of the prevailing systems that create the conditions for those sorts of questions to be asked, to be considered appropriate, to be acted upon. And right now those conditions are cracking.
This sort of approach begets cold lines of reasoning and responding. Perhaps it is an extension of the same coldness that has justified the exploitation and extraction of people and nature over the last several centuries. Willingness to objectify by assigning numeric metrics, has allowed for the illusion of control and management to infect even valiant efforts of environmental and social activism. Is it possible to respond with a warmer approach?
Another version of the lifeboat story: Like the first, we start with 50 people on the boat, 100 in the water, and ten more seats. This time the people on the boat start to figure out a way to make it work. They improvise, they learn, they tap into the complexity of themselves and each other as a source of unlimited possibilities. In the Warm Data work this is referred to as “lifeboating” — in direct contrast to Hardin’s version of the story.
People are not numbers. Those 100 people in the water, they are not bobbing numerals, they are human beings with histories, experiences, cultures, and languages. They are complex. Numbers are just numbers, they cannot source possibilities from each other, they cannot find a way when the basic arithmetic says there is none. People can. Abstracting the solutions to numbers inherently dehumanizes, and unnecessarily constrains, the spectrum of possibilities. The metric logic removes the human breadth of experience and relationship. This cold calculation flattens the scope of the thinking. We know that if one of us was in the water with 99 other people each of us would find a way. This is the magic of being a living organism. The quote from the film Jurassic Park says it clearly: “Life finds a way.”
People are not roles. A word of warning: collaboration can easily become a mechanistic allocation of effort according to roles. Alternatively, as it is in life, the living response is one of incalculable, and often surprising alternatives that the reduction of the original question to simple arithmetic completely obscured. The quantitative question eliminated the multiplicity of contexts, while a warm approach invites them back into the relationships.
This is not a matter of assessment of who is good at what and assigning roles according to expertise. On the contrary — ‘finding a way’ is about the unique possibilities that occur in relationship between particular people, in that particular water, on that particular day. There is no formula, no method, this realm of possibility is accessed through a sentiment of human care and imagination.
Perhaps some people would take turns swimming, perhaps others would tie clothing together to pull people, perhaps some would hold other’s hands and pull them. Each grouping of people would of course have a different, particular set of characters, and histories that provide their own potential responses. We are all capable of different things depending on who we are with and what they are finding themselves capable of. Capacity cannot be front-loaded, it is emergent. But it is possible to front-load a baseline perception of self, others and world that assumes the inherent multitude of stories and draws from them. With care and imagination the possibilities are endless.
The cold questions are distracting. Possibility in the Warm Lifeboat story depends upon the likelihood that people will see each other in solidarity to finding a way. If they are asking questions around the cold numbers, they will be worried about who gets to live and who is chosen to die. In life this looks like polarizing societies with each group vying for position in the distribution of resources. Again, this colder version generates a sentiment through which the situation is met. This time the sentiment is one that is infected with the logic of decontextualization and dehumanizing metrics. The cold questions are compelling, even though they are the wrong questions. These questions are a distraction from the process of perception of the complexity of each person, and tuning into the alchemy they produce. As such they can easily hijack the limited time and morale needed to ‘find a way.’
At the risk of sounding simplistic in the face of their beautiful analysis, I believe fear is the generator of cold lifeboat thinking. It shuts down our creative prefrontal cortex, leaving us responding from the primitive threat system of our amygdala where our attention narrows down to see nothing but the threat to our survival and so we respond with kill-or-be-killed dualistic thinking. It’s a powerful reaction—it’s not called an amygdala hijack for no reason. When we choose love, however, we create warm lifeboat thinking. As Bateson and Ramphela point out, this choice gives us access to all of ourselves—to the full range of our caring hearts and ingenious minds. And that’s the only thing that will save us in the end.
Can we, you and me, choose love, warmth, not just in our personal lives, but in our social and political ones as well? Can we as a society choose love over and over? Bateson and Ramphela have much more of critical importance to say. Here is the link to the full article: https://medium.com/@norabateson/finding-a-way-3582b2e0c6a3
Written by MJ Ryan
Photo by Jens Lelie