Donald N. Michael
In Search of the Missing Elephant (essays)
Prepared by Michael Marien
On occasion, a non-fiction book will have lasting value, or even become more valuable or timely. The five essays in this slim book, published in the 1973-2000 period, are all noteworthy in today’s climate of ever-growing complexity, and amply deserve re-publication in this attractive little volume. Don Michael (1923-2000), a member of the Club of Rome, moved to San Francisco in 1981, after retiring as Prof of Planning and Public Policy and Prof of Psychology at the U of Michigan. He was greatly beloved and admired by those who knew him. Previously, he worked for many years in policy circles in Washington, after gaining degrees in physics and social psychology from Harvard, and in sociology from Chicago. He is well-known for four books published during the great futures vogue of the 1960s and 1970s: Cybernation: The Silent Conquest (Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1962), The Next Generation (Random House, 1965), The Unprepared Society: Planning For a Precarious Future (Basic Books, 1968), and On Learning to Plan—And Planning to Learn (Jossey-Bass, 1973; second edition, Miles River Press, 1997). His many essays and articles, dense but thoughtful and original, are scattered about. This book has wisely chosen only a few. Italics are added for noteworthy passages.
1st Essay: Some Obervations with Regard to a Missing Elephant (J. of Humanistic Psychology, 40:1, 2000). Prepared on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, Michael begins with the familiar Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant, noting that the story depends on the fact that there is a storyteller who can see the elephant. But the story teller is blind: there is no elephant.
“Less metaphorically, what is happening to the human race, in the large, is too complex, too interconnected, and too dynamic to comprehend. There is no agreed-on interpretation that provides an enduring basis for coherent action based on an understanding of the enfolding context.” We can’t comprehend the kind of elephant-like beast that holds the parts together, because “there isn’t any elephant there.” While not belittling our daily efforts to engage issues, we need “a deeper appreciation of the existential challenge we face.”
Six interdependent contributors to our ignorance and the storyteller’s blindness:
These circumstances make human governance uniquely problematic, thus “the processes of governance can only become less and less effective.” This, in turn, increases unreliability and adds to incomprehensibility.
How, then, do we engage in a human world we don’t understand? Eight ways for responding to the fact of our ignorance: 1) recognize our neurology and the deep need that there be an elephant; 2) acknowledge our vulnerability and finiteness; 3) avoid arrogance and the conviction that we know what is right and wrong, and what must be done; 4) act in the spirit of hope, not optimism; 5) act in the spirit of “tentative commitment,” recognizing that we may have it wrong and have to back off; 6) be “context alert” as a moral and operational necessity; 7) “one must be a learner/teachers, a wary guide in the wilderness; be question-askers all the time, not answer givers”; 8) practice compassion, recognizing that we all live in illusion and ignorance, and we all search for and need meaning; “the blind must care for the blind.”
2nd Essay: Leadership’s Shadow: The Dilemma of Denial (Futures, 23:1, 1991). An address first given to the Club of Rome on its 20th anniversary. “Arguably, the most profound threat to the development of a planetary civilization is the inability of leaders to admit that there are fundamental circumstances with which we must deal that cannot be acknowledged.” Doing so would require confessing that we do not know how to deal with them. “Many cannot or will not face this dilemma: that dealing with the underlying threats to our civilization requires acknowledging them.” Doing so threatens many people in many ways, and would be rejected and denied, as would the bearer of the bad news. “As Freud observed, the first thing that is denied is the fact of denial as a pervasive psychological condition.”
“Meanwhile, societal problems collide, pile up, and gridlock in ever more complex disarray,” and the more complex the situation, the less possible it becomes for leaders to acknowledge that this is so. Some circumstances that cannot be publicly acknowledged: the outpouring of the information revolution that often increases uncertainty, lack of any reliable theory of social change under turbulence, growing evidence that economic theory “is all bailing wire and Scotch tape,” our approach to education that results in a population unable and unwilling to think with the subtlety required for governing a complex and ambiguous world (to acknowledge this is to risk being branded “elitist”), the nation state as an obsolete concept, our unconsciously driven hopes and fears, our lack of ethics for making hard choices in a systemic and interdependent world, and the assumption that we can muddle through because we always have.
Leaders are expected to continue to deny these conditions, thus we can expect “the psychological, social, and economics costs of the pile-up of interlocked complexities to accelerate.” There are still reasons for hope, but not to be optimistic. If we are ever to unravel our “ever-tightening, self-complicating knot,” it will be necessary but not sufficient to acknowledge the intellectual and psychodynamic fix we are in, instead of ignoring it in the name of optimism or positive visions.
3rd Essay: Forecasting and Planning in an Incoherent Context (Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 36:1-2, 1989). “Certainly our society and plausibly our civilization can be characterized as being increasingly incoherent. Its aspirations and activities do not integrate with one another, do not cohere conceptually, operationally, linguistically, or pscyhodynamically.” The chief function of planning and forecasting is to enhance direction and coherence. But because of the incoherences, the sought-after products and processes are unlikely to be either fruitful or enduring. Yet the mythology that has shaped Western culture asserts that the world is controllable because it operates according to lawful cause and effect processes.
“Humans experiencing chaotic processes through the peephole of their consciousness and the depths of their unconsciousness cannot act toward these chaotic circumstances.” We lack concepts of governance, political incentives, and a system of values for undertaking much more than a bits-and-pieces approach in an increasingly interconnected world. More complexity and more incomplete information encourages confusing and uncertain signals. “The number of blind persons and the number of elephants subject to interpretation increase.” Grounds for choice and action multiply, as alternative rationalities claim priority.
Given mounting evidence of societal disarray and lack of success in significantly reducing incoherency, it may become more acceptable to proclaim that we don’t know where we are and that we must become a learning organization. Planning thus becomes the pedagogy for social learning, but the learning curve will be a very shallow slope with many valleys.
4th Essay: With Both Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air: Reflections on Thinking about the Future (Futures, 17:2, 1985). All we have today are endless fragments of theory that “account” for bits and pieces of individual, organizational, and economic behavior. The root of the footless status of futures studies is epistemological: there are many pasts, as well as preferred constructions of the present and the past. “All who create and use thinking about the future do so on the bases of values and myths about what is real, valuable, and meaningful.” In the face of a turbulent and problematic future, existence of a future study provides a comforting protection against the unknown. It can then seem plausible that the future can be controlled, and self-confidence is bolstered by doing what rational persons ought to do. Yet, “much more often than not, futures studies increase discomfort because they expose the recipient to the problematical ramifications of the future,” and denial is a frequent psychodynamic response to anxiety-provoking information.
5th Essay: Technology and the Management of Change from the Perspective of a Culture Context (Technology Forecasting and Social Change, 5:3, 1973). Modernization is an activity that extends into the future, and necessarily becomes a problem in the management of change. But the meaning of this management will depend on the culture characteristic of the society. It is the culturally-guided dialectic occurring among changes in values and behavior that influences change in social process, and thus complicates the task of managing change.
But the present situation is in profound flux as we are increasingly confronted with a turbulent social environment. We presently need “disruptable” organizations that are better able to respond to a variety of rapidly changing demands. Embracing error should be a positive virtue for effective long-range social planning that is responsive to reality. “Planning must include an explicit moral obligation to learn from what goes wrong.” But such an approach, which assumes a highly uncertain future, runs contrary to deep-lying optimism that equates progress and the common good with technological development.
“I can only conclude that, given our problems in the East and the West, and given our primitive social technologies for dealing with them, we are bound to experience more social turbulence and many social calamities.”
The 21-page introduction by Graham Leicester (Director, IFF) credits Michael’s image of the missing elephant as part of IFF mythology (IFF supports a “transformative response to complex and confounding challenges,” and takes on “complex, messy, seemingly intractable issues” characterized by paradox, ambiguity, and complexity). Leicester goes on to comment on Michael’s professional life and early work, the challenge of making sense of a complex human world, the need for politics to be error-embracing and open to learning, and taboos such as a poorly educated population that are not readily admitted in the world of public discourse.
NOTE: This volume is handsomely produced, with whimsical sketches of elephants and butterflies scattered throughout, perhaps to leaven the profound seriousness of the message. Unfortunately, the very stiff binding makes the book difficult to handle. Of related interest, see Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara (Triarchy Press, 2009, 56p; a GFB Recommended Book), which takes a “Michaelian” perspective, and The Techno-Human Condition by Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz (MIT Press, May 2011, 222p; GFB Book of the Month, June 2011), providing 11 basic principles for engaging with our new “Level III” world of “wicked” complexity.