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“You can’t solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it.”Albert Einstein
According to conflict resolution expert Guy Burgess, the inability to resolve conflict is the greatest threat to humanity. Conflict is the root of interpersonal disharmony, political polarization, us vs. them mentalities, violence, and all-out war. Our future relies on a workable solution. Yet the current tools we have don’t adequately scale to the ever-growing complexity and interconnection of the world.
Three decades ago Guy was introduced to systems theory by a nuclear physicist at a multidisciplinary conference he hosted on conflict resolution. Seeing conflict as a complex adaptive system moves away from the prominent worldview of mechanical thinking, aligning with the systems of nature, the ecological as opposed to the engineered. This holistic view is a radical shift.
Viewing society as a complex system attempts to answer the question of how we can get along, and create a more peaceful world, despite having many differences in belief, ideology, wants, and needs. It works on principles and rules, not fixed on identifying problems and finding specific solutions. It understands conflict as ever-evolving, dynamic, and often unpredictable.
Guy, and his wife Heidi, launched the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado in 1988, and since then have worked with hundreds of contributors to amass a wealth of multi-disciplinary knowledge. The pair launched Beyond Intractability, a project aimed at finding solutions to conflict that appears impossible to solve. As Guy says:
“We tend to think of social problems in complicated or tool-making terms, like a game of pool. If you line up the perfect shot, all the balls go in the pocket just how you want. With a complex system, you have a giant table, with millions and millions of balls, and a whole lot of different players that are trying to make the perfect shot at the same time.”
Our conversation applies complex thinking to many societal issues. Guy explains the difference between a complicated and complex system, and how conflict is viewed through these perspectives. Guy explains the need for “massive-parallel peace building,” across many disciplines, using big picture thinking to bring together our collective skills and insights.
He also explains the underlying psychology behind conflict, on an individual and societal level, and how vulnerabilities are exploited. We discuss the pandemic through this lens. Why do the media present oversimplified models of the world? Why do governments use “divide and conquer” techniques to stoke polarization, such as vaccinated vs unvaccinated? What are the hazards of not having access to free-flowing information, and the damage of censorship?
We turn our attention to the future of society. That includes the necessity of moving towards a “power-with” and not “power-over” approach, finding the sweet spot of solidarity and innovators who find novel solutions, and why complex thinking moves us into the quantum era. By the end, we consider how this all factors into a wider collective awakening, and the evolution of consciousness across humanity as a whole.
This is a useful and practical approach to what can often seem like an intangible, and impossible goal. Guy acknowledges that there has been no “golden age” of harmony or resolution, and the work on this will continue for decades to come. But, for someone who has dedicated his life to moving beyond the intractable, Guy makes global peace feel more attainable. God knows, we need it.
- Website: Beyond Intractability
- The Best of Both Worldviews: Can Systems Theory Unite Spirituality and Science?
Title music: Monday Morning Wake Up Call by David Birch