Reflections of Our CEO: “Applied Idealism”

I always look forward to the May board meeting at Hollyhock. It’s usually my first opportunity to visit campus each year and comes at a time when the garden is waking from hibernation, and the shore and forest are so vibrant and verdant. This year, I arrived a day early and found myself in a surprising and inspiring conversation….

Hollyhock is a lifelong learning and retreat centre, where I serve on the board of directors.

In the days before our board meeting, the Holistic Centers Network Gathering was being hosted at Hollyhock. It’s the principal annual meeting of a network of destination retreat, wellness, and learning centers from around the world. Dozens of senior staff and board members attend with the shared intention to strengthen communication, connection and collaboration.

Within an hour of arriving on campus, I was standing with some 40 other participants beginning a two-hour session on ‘Spirituality & Sustainability.’ The session had piqued my interest, because of the role faith communities are increasingly playing in the response to climate change. While politicians seem stuck debating the long-proven science, and businesses too often seem to sacrifice environmental and community interests on the altar of shareholder returns, many faith communities are approaching the climate crisis as a moral issue. It’s a powerful frame, because it reaches across sectors, across communities, and across party lines.

The challenge of moral persuasion….

The moral argument is like a Gordian Knot, nearly impossible to pick apart.

The more one learns about the morality of the climate crisis, the more one must contemplate the multitude of intersecting issues that have brought us to our current historic moment. The climate crisis really cannot be separated from its roots in capitalism, colonialism, systemic racism, and the seemingly relentless growth of the gap between the ‘haves’ and the have-nots.’ The moral argument is like a Gordian Knot, nearly impossible to pick apart. It’s profoundly complex, which is the challenge of the moral approach. How are we to find solutions when the problem appears more complex the closer, we look?

While I had expected ‘Spirituality & Sustainability’ to be a conversation about ‘faith,’ it instead turned out to be a brilliantly structured dialogue that attempted to disentangle the complexity of it all….

Finding the simplicity beyond the complexity….

The workshop used a tool developed by the Global Ecovillage Network—a giant, boardgame-like mat and accompanying cards, each of which presented a conversation-inviting statement. ‘Enhance diversity and build thriving communities’ was categorized in the ‘Social’ quarter of the gameboard. ‘Empower and strengthen local economies’ was categorized in the ‘Economy’ quarter. ‘Ecology’ and ‘Culture’ made up the rest of the board, with a big space in the middle of the mat for ‘Whole Systems Design.’ All in all, the board and the three dozen cards presented a useful picture of the complexity we’re facing. Yet individually, each of the cards was an invitation to discuss one small piece of the problem.

Some participants were invited to choose a card that was compelling to them, and then other participants were invited to join them in conversation if they also found the statement intriguing. Soon we were actively and positively discussing the multitude of cultural, ecological, economic, and social activities we each might undertake to contribute solutions to the climate crisis.

I’ve sat in countless conversations about complexity theory, systems thinking, and social innovation. I’ve grown weary with the intellectualization of the ‘field’ of social innovation and what I feel is a too-frequent distancing from practical, actionable policies, projects, and enterprises that can deliver real impacts. This felt different.

Each of the cards presented a positive potential action, which meant our conversations were focused on possibility.

Each of the statements used an active verb, which meant that each of our discussions was anchored in activation.

Each of the cards mapped to a valuable list of categories, meant that we could see how small actions can lead to big impacts.

As one attendee put it, this was a game of “applied idealism.”

It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve participated in a conversation about climate that was hopeful and positive. As each passing week brings news of another major weather event, another species extinction, or another episode of two-steps-forward and two-steps-back political equivocation, it’s easy to understand why so many who are in the know are also facing despair. (There are even workshops and conferences now to help people work through their anxiety.)

‘Spirituality & Sustainability’ was a conversation of a fundamentally different sort. It was an opportunity to see the whole picture, while at the same time working on its component parts. It disrupted the false assumption that big problems need big interventions: while that’s true, it’s also true that thousands of grassroots initiatives can also deliver ‘the change we seek.’ And it inspired every participant to draw on the deep well of their own expertise, experience, and passion to water ideas that need to grow.

I’ve said before, every time I visit Hollyhock, I take something valuable away with me.

This time, a simple game provided a powerful reminder that my commitment to ‘making my life a juicy, generative conversation in service to humanity’ is good and valuable work.

What’s giving shape to your conversations? Is it morality? Hope? Fear? Or the search for solutions and right livelihood?

How are you drawing on the well of your own learning and experience? And what projects are you nourishing with your attention and your energy?

Are you taking your hopes and dreams into your daily actions?

That’s “applied idealism.” Isn’t that a wonderful and empowering turn of phrase?…

Be well,

Be love,


Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. His monthly Reflections are one way he’s exploring how to “make his life a juicy, generative conversation in service to humanity.” You can reach him via [email protected].

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