Crisis & Opportunity

November 21, 1962

President John F. Kennedy at Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas:

For more than three years, I have spoken to the American people in terms of the New Frontier. That is not a partisan term. It is not the exclusive property of Republicans or Democrats. It refers instead to this nation’s place in history—to the fact that we do stand on the edge of a great new era, filled with both crisis and opportunities, an era to be characterized by achievements and by challenges.

It is an era which calls for action, and for the best efforts of all who are willing to explore the unknown and test the uncertain, in every phase of human endeavor. It is a time for pathfinders and pioneers.

            The times of crisis and opportunity are good for they challenge us to be at our best. It is those occasions when we are called to be more than we think we can be that we feel most alive. But only if we do certain and specific things.

We must understand that we are connected together in a vast and intricate network of relationships that depend upon one another. Pay attention the next time Mother Nature devastates a community: people come together, the rule books are put aside, leaders emerge and leaders change as demands require. Strangers help those in need and a shared purpose unites everyone. We understand intuitively that for the community to flourish, each person must succeed and that relationships are important. Life is not everyone for themselves; at least not a successful life.

Fritjof Capra wrote:

Partnership—the cyclical exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by cooperation. Partnership—the tendency to associate, establish links, live inside one another, and cooperate—is one of the hallmarks of life. In human communities partnerships means democracy and personal empowerment, because each member of the community plays an important role. As a partnership proceeds, each partner better understands the needs of the other. Both learn and change—they coevolve. Our economic systems emphasize completion, expansion, and domination. This is not sustainable. Ecologies emphasize cooperation, conservation, and partnership. This is sustainable.

Flexibility and diversity enable ecosystems to survive disturbances and adapt to changing conditions. In human communities lack of flexibility manifests itself as stress. Stress will occur when one or more variables of the system are pushed to their extreme values, which induces increased rigidity throughout the system. Temporary stress is an essential aspect of life, but prolonged stress is harmful and destructive to the system. These considerations lead to the important realization that managing a social system—a company, a city, or an economy—means finding the optimal values for the system’s variables. If one tries to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing it, this will invariably lead to the destruction of the system as a whole. Organizational flexibility is attained by feedback that keeps the system in balance when the external environment changes and by flexible thinking.

A diverse ecological community is a resilient community. Diversity is a competitive advantage only if there is a truly vibrant community, sustained by a web of relationships. If the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals, diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. If the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all the relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole, as well as each individual member. In such a community information and ideas flow freely through the entire network, and the diversity of interpretations and learning styles—even the diversity of mistakes—will enrich the entire community.

Interconnectedness, empowerment, cooperation, relationships, partnership, flexibility, and diversity lead to the realization of opportunities and to sustainable systems: nations, organizations, and communities.

This is how life works.

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