How I came to write this book

How I came to write this book

Preface to  Empowering Public Wisdom by Tom Atlee

In March 1986, the cross-country Great Peace March, which had launched two weeks earlier from Los Angeles with 1,200 people, went bankrupt and was thrown into chaos in the Mojave Desert. About 800  marchers and almost all the paid staff left. Most of the support vehicles were repossessed. With no formal leadership or resources, the 400 remaining marchers—myself included—camped out for two weeks in a BMX track in Barstow, arguing and talking in circles, trying to figure out what to do next.

Nine months later—quite remarkably—the March arrived in Washington DC with 1,200 people after self-organizing its way—fifteen to twenty-five miles a day in every kind of weather—all the way across the continent. That’s where I first learned about self-organization, collective intelligence, and collective wisdom.

My concerns about the fate of the planet have remained keen my entire life. Born into the threat of nuclear holocaust, I came of age during the Vietnam War. I matured into growing environmental catastrophes, critical resource depletion and corroding civil liberties. In the last few years I have become an elder in the midst of economic collapse, social unrest, and increasing climate chaos.

Most of these issues and many others are extremely urgent. Nevertheless, I have become less of an issue-oriented activist as I have grown older. It has become quite clear to me that most of our issues and crises come from the way we have things set up—our social, political, and economic systems—and from the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re doing here. Starting in the late 1980s I began to see that what we needed was not so much solutions to our problems as a deep transformation of our faulty systems and stories. After all, I had learned from my experience on the Great Peace March that a healthy living system can and will solve its own problems if it can just organize itself in a way that allows that.

So if that is the case, I wondered, where should I put my energy and attention as a change agent?

For years after the Great Peace March I became fascinated with intelligence as the dynamic capacity we use to align our ideas, stories, and models of the world with the way the world actually is. We make a mental map of reality and then take actions based on that map. When our actions succeed, that suggests our map is a good one. When we mess up, that means our map was wrong in some way. Then, to the extent we’re intelligent, we revise our map and try again. This, of course, is what learning is all about.

I realized that when a society persists in messing up the world it depends on and continues to create more powerful means to destroy itself, it is not only operating on faulty maps of itself and its world. It lacks adequate means to correct those maps. In some important way, it lacks intelligence—collective intelligence—and so keeps on doing collectively stupid, unwise things.

I soon realized that lack of collective intelligence is not related to the intelligence of the society’s individual members. It seems odd, but I learned that really smart people can generate a phenomenal amount of collective stupidity, simply by getting in each other’s way or by having faulty data to work with.

At the same time, I realized that our society has an awesome amount of collective intelligence already. Look at science and the ever-evolving mass of co-created knowledge in libraries, educational institutions, and the internet. So what’s going on here? How can society be collectively smart and stupid at the same time?

I narrowed my target.

I realized two facts: first, different sectors of our society have different amounts and kinds of collective intelligence that don’t always fit together. For example, the collective intelligence of medical science collides with the collective intelligence of millions of people using alternative healing practices, and both of those groups collide with the collective intelligence of the bean counters in health insurance companies.

Second, I saw that intelligence is often applied successfully but very narrowly, creating problems in the areas that weren’t adequately taken into account. We reduce unemployment by hiring people to build more weapons, but end up with wars and skyrocketing debt. We build amazing highway systems to facilitate traffic and end up with unsustainable suburbs and chaotic weather.

We can easily see both of these dynamics—the diverse quality of collective intelligence and its narrow applications—playing out in our politics and governance today. The collective intelligence of science tells us what’s going on with climate change. But that scientific knowledge may have little impact on our public policies. Something breaks down between what “we” know and what “we” do.

Part of the problem is that there is no coherent “we”—no embodiment of the whole society—that is taking in the knowledge and applying it to policy. The left hand doesn’t know (or often care) what the right hand is doing. Another part of the problem is that our policymakers focus on getting reelected every two to six years by majority vote. Most voters focus on short-term self-interest and/or mental models that are continually manipulated by special interests. These narrow focuses then play out in a political culture based on partisan battle instead of collective learning and collaboration. Is it any surprise that long-term inclusive wisdom is not what we get from our decision-making systems?

It became clear that I needed to move beyond general theories of collective intelligence to focus on how our democratic decision-making systems can routinely generate citizen-based collective wisdom that has real impact. I call that ideal empowered public wisdom.

Over the last two decades I’ve learned a lot about where wisdom comes from and how it can be generated by ordinary people so they can use it to govern their collective affairs. In this book I share what I’ve found, including proven methods, leading edge research, and thrilling visions of what is possible now.

Since virtually every issue has to make its way through our political and governance systems before it is addressed by the society as a whole—and because those systems are currently incapable of dealing with those issues wisely—and because our foolish, dangerous policies now threaten the very survival of civilization and life on earth—I basically let go of all the other issues I was concerned about in order to focus on this.

I urge you to do the same.


or your local independent bookstore

or North Atlantic Books … Barnes & Noble … Powell’s 


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