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When you read his biography it becomes clear that even though he was a preacher and a theologian, he spent ninety percent of every day thinking about power. He was really a bilingual character in my language, and that I find important. VB: When you were young you thought the world’s toughest problems would be solved by the world’s smartest people. The opposite might also have been the case: pessimism, feelings of powerlessness, and being overwhelmed. I think it’s a matter of disposition rather than deduction. I guess the reason I remain hopeful is that I occupy quite a privileged position and, even though the world may be falling apart, my life isn’t. VB: You originally lived in Canada and you worked on the problems facing its aboriginal peoples. Were you shocked at the plight of aboriginal peoples? My whole self image, and the whole basis of my professional identity is that I came from a country where basically everything is sorted out.Thinking about should we march today, and should I be at the front of the march? (Vern’s note: Taylor Branch’s three books are titled Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, published in 1988; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65, published in 1999; and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, published in 2007.) VB: I guess Martin Luther King Jr. But what he, Mandela and Ghandi did, the reason they’re such well known and revered figures, is they understood both power and love. Do you think it can be rectified or changed in the foreseeable future? So I could go to other countries telling them what to do. A civil servant from Canada said to me last year ‘Canadians are used to thinking of themselves as not being colonial but there is really no other word to describe the relationship between the settler society and the indigenous society in Canada other than “colonial”’.in your September 2007 speech in Botota—“The Language of Power and the Language of Love: Solving tough Problems in Practice”. Well only in one sense, but that sense is important.
In a way it’s a sobering experience to work in Israel because I get to see what it looks like to be faced with an existential threat.
Mankind is faced with an existential threat in climate change but people don’t quite get that yet.
Last week we learned that the authoritarian approach to solving tough problems, where the expert, the boss or the politician attempts to solve it does not work.
Rather, it hurts and as Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems, learned from his dental nurse, when something you are doing hurts then stop doing it. Vern Burkhardt (VB): What were the most challenging problems you have worked on? At the moment I’m active in my home country of Canada on climate change.
VB: A sense of urgency seems to exist with the issue of climate change, but translating it into actual action, rather than just window dressing, is the challenge.
For example, the whole popular movement of “going green”, recycling, solar and wind power, and other such actions may divert attention from getting at the core of the climate change issue, which is fossil fuel and other serious contributors to greenhouse gases. Yet it’s a genuinely difficult problem, and there are multi-billion dollar interests at stake in preserving the status quo.At least in British Columbia the mood is pretty good.They’re winning slowly but surely, they will say, through the courts.From the beginning we’ve had a collegial relationship with the Society for Organizational Learning and the Sloan School. Although he doesn’t normally work on projects with me, he has been very active in the Sustainable Food Lab. So that’s the first project I’ve worked on with him.(Vern’s note: This global initiative is aimed at solving problems in the food system which produces a great deal of food, much of it too expensive for poor people, much of it unhealthy, and much of it negatively impacting the soil, water and atmosphere, while many farmers and farm workers are not able to earn a decent living,) VB: You quoted Martin Luther King Jr.So it’s definitely—well it’s not definitely—in some ways it’s the toughest of problems anyone has to deal with.You are fortunate to live in Canada’s leading province on this matter. I’m also working these days in Israel, for the first time, in a substantial way.The aim is to mobilize public and private action to address the challenge of climate change. I think within the next few months you’ll be seeing some public statements in the media in Canada, which I’m happy about. Really big changes have to be made by a lot of parties quickly.VB: While you were at Shell from 1988 to 1993 one of the global scenarios you worked on was related to climate change.Somebody said to me in Israel that it’s almost impossible to solve, to create a peaceful solution to, a problem which is characterized by a severe power asymmetry.Because the powerful people can always walk away and say “to heck with you”.