December 18, 1996
As I’ve wondered about an appropriate topic for the last New Bottom Line of 1996, I find myself returning again and again to a question that has seemed fundamental to me for the last 25 years, since encountering it in Bucky Fuller’s “World Game.” How can we learn–as individuals, families, organizations, companies, governments, societies–to let the “big picture” inform and guide our individual choices? How can we understand, and live by, and thrive within the relation of our self-interest with our Self-interest?
If you’ve read these columns for any length of time, you’ve seen this theme emerge repeatedly, in many forms: life cycle thinking, ecological accounting, relation of price and cost, internalizing externalities, green taxes, and more. But as important and necessary are these mechanisms of implementation is the mind set that underlies them, and mind sets are formed in subtle, sometimes indirect ways. For example, Thich Nhat Hahn, author of Miracle of Mindfulness, suggests an experiment rooted in his practice as a Buddhist monk, that surprisingly also offers deep and compelling guidance to the world of industry and commerce.
As I paraphrased him at the “The Big Picture Summit” in May 1994, “With each mouthful of bread, be present to every element of the web of which the bread is a part. The rain, the soil, the seed, the growing grass, the ripening grain. The farmer, the tractor maker, the iron mines and miners, the fertilizer plant and oil well. The miller, the baker, the delivery van, the grocer. The toaster. The taste. Wrapper to trash can to trash man to landfill. The unused portion passed on to sewage and treatment and waterways. And the rain. The big picture. Mindful of all that sustains us, in every mouthful.”
The same message was conveyed some 20 years earlier by two short films that remain some of my favorite context-busters. “Toast,” based on the work of Joel Schatz in Governor Tom McCall’s Oregon Energy Office in the early 1970’s, is a brief yet powerful visual treatment of Thich Nhat Hahn’s meditation, centered around the eponymous breakfast element. It’s a piece of cinematic poetry in its visual density, guaranteed to make you laugh and learn–suitable, as they used to say, for children of all ages.
The other, “Powers of Ten,” (a/k/a “Cosmic Zoom”) was the opening salvo of World Game 1972–intended to yank us promptly from of familiar concerns into an altogether different perspective of our place in the scheme of things. Produced by noted designers Charles and Ray Eames, the film starts simply enough, with an aerial view from 10 meters high of a 10 meter by ten meter scene–people on a tablecloth at a picnic. Then as a clock ticks off each second, the “camera” pulls back a power of ten–100 meters high, 1,000 meters, 10,000 meters and onward–and the checked tablecloth shrinks as the vista quickly widens to Miami, to Florida, the US, the earth, the earth in its solar system orbit, the Milky Way, galaxies and galaxy clusters, out to the assumed limits of the universe. All the while a second on-screen clock keeps relativistic time, slowing to a crawl as the camera accelerates toward light-speed.
The breathtaking journey takes just a minute or so, but it’s not over. Before the slack-jawed wonder can fade, the camera reverses course and hurtles back through vast, empty space and myriad galaxies to return, slowing as it approaches, to the picnic scene of the opening shot. But still not done, it moves ever more slowly inward, still by powers of then, to a one meter view, one-tenth, one centimeter, ever inward to a person, a hand, some skin, skin cells, cell nucleus, DNA, a constituent carbon atom, and then another breathtaking–in fact astonishing –wait as the camera traverses the vast empty inner space until the atomic nucleus comes into view, and until it settles on a proton at the heart of that nucleus.
It’s a scientific experience for some, religious for others, both for a fortunate few, that offers us up to ourselves in inescapable context, mid-way between atoms and stars, in this great chain of being, much as Toast and Thich Nhat Hahn offer us up to ourselves embedded in a great cyclical process of material exchange and transformation.
Somehow we manage live so much of our lives–especially our business lives–as if this were not true. But it is. Fortunately, there are ways to live our lives–even our business lives–as if it were true. In a context of embeddedness, and humility.
And perhaps even prosper.
(Secret tip: There is a powerful business strategy hidden in this column. But I’m out of space, so more next year.)