Developing deep trust: My talk to the Theories of Change hui

This blog is based on an edited version of my talk to the Theories of Change hui held in Auckland on February 19. 

Human society is a complex system. To simplify, it revolves around two key elements: imagination and practice.

Imagination is what we hold in our minds, conversations, stories and theories about how the world works. When each of us woke up this morning we knew what we needed to do to make our day happen. That is, we held the day “in mind” and went about creating it in keeping with our mental image. We got up at a particular time, ate breakfast (or not), checked email (or not), and made our way to the hui using whatever transport we knew to be available.

Collectively we also hold ideas that shape our practices. If we tell each other that “it’s a dog eat dog world” and “survival of the fittest” is a natural law, then it follows that we will put considerable effort into getting a secure job, accumulating personal wealth; and if we have children trying to make sure they have a head start.

So, imagination effects practice, but the reverse is also true. If we are in social circles where everyone is working long hours, getting promoted at work and making their way up the property ladder, then these practices cement the story that survival of the fittest is the natural order. This in turn fuels our desire to win (or at least not to be the biggest loser) and so we put even more time into nailing that promotion.

However, no society is completely stable. Again, to simplify, it is unstable to the extent it misunderstands or ignores the physical world, and thwarts human flourishing.

In relation to the physical world, as we continue to ignore the evidence for climate change and carry on as usual, we destabilise society. Assuming that climate scientists have more or less got the picture right, if we continue with our current practices, change will happen, simply because the physical world will rewrite the rules. Sometimes this happens overnight, as for example with the devastating hurricane in Fiji last week.

Society is also unstable if it ignores the human drive toward flourishing. People crave to be “people like” – that is to express their creativity, to feel control over their lives, and above all, to be part of warm and trusting relationships. If society does not provide the conditions under which people can be people, there will be an underlying restlessness, as well as pockets of extreme anger and social agitation. Of course power structures can act to keep people confused and even complicit in their own oppression. But this takes a lot of effort and it never works completely. Think, for example, of the enormous effort that goes into re-creating the consumer society every day – advertising, shopping malls, a pervasive social narrative that consuming (for the sake of consuming) is fun, natural and so on; and yet many of us know consumption is a hollow substitute for something deeper and more expressive. Furthermore, once you are aware of the human suffering and ecological damage that consumption causes, the glittery surface seems even more bizarre – like an aging rock star who has had too many face-lifts.

Just as the physical world can abruptly show us that we have moved beyond the boundaries of what is possible and an adjustment is needed, the human world can do this too. The graph below shows how US laws, many of which better aligned society with the principles of human flourishing, happened all of a sudden. This is not to overlook the decades of preparatory work that preceded them – gradually shaping people’s imaginations towards the possibility that, for example, to restrict marriage to same-race, different-sex partners, thwarts many people’s deep desire for a partner with whom they feel at home.



Hope, therefore, rests in knowing that to the extent society is ignoring the physical world and keeping people from flourishing, it has fault lines. And when we work to produce a society with ecological systems and people at its heart, we are working with nature. Can there be a better ally?

Increasingly, I am interested in working on an imaginative/practice cycle that builds trust between people. I do not mean a shallow trust – I will pay back the money you have loaned me or take one for the team on the sports field. I mean deep trust – together we will ensure that everyone has access to a home and some land, as well as good food and clean water. We will also ensure universal access to the fruits of our big, cooperative endeavours – education, medicine, political processes and so on. This is in part because we acknowledge that these are social products in which it is meaningless to tease out who “deserves” what, and in part because they are the route by which we can co-create the society we want to live in. You can trust me to really mean it. That is, I am not trying to win a war, sell a product or even leave a legacy. I really mean that I want to live in a society based on radical inclusion and I am prepared – in fact I would be delighted – to swap my excess wealth for this.

So how I am attempting to live by this “theory of change”? First, I seek out and attempt to create networks aimed at promoting human and ecological flourishing. Most recently, I have been appointed to a sustainability leadership role in the Faculty of Science at my university, and I have focused on setting up a network. The network is open to all staff. Members propose projects and work with interested others on these. While I am involved in several of the network’s projects, what I am actually trying to do is provide the setting for a sustainability culture to emerge – a sense that we can work together to sort out the various problems we face. Key to this is feeling that we can trust other members of the network to hold sustainability close – that we really mean it. There are many facets to this which I won’t go into here. Just one is that I have put the extra salary offered as part of my role into an account that we can draw on for our projects. To be clear, I didn’t do this in order to signal that I can be trusted; I did it because it genuinely felt super-weird to get extra money for taking on a role that is all about our collective good, especially when I earn an associate professor’s base salary. I have found it incredibly heartening to subsequently hear of others who have similarly refused to take extra pay – because it “just didn’t feel right”.

There is a delicacy in such networks – we must co-exist with the “survival of the fittest” narrative and all its related practices, and the power behind that is huge. But there is also strength to them, because, as I’ve said before, we crave deep, trusting relationship at the very core of our being. My fantasy is this: if we can learn to trust each other, trust that we really mean it, we have a chance at creating a society that is “good enough”. That, I think, is at the core of all social movements. It is when individuals let go of the struggle to win within the system as it stands and drop back into a collective spirit of trust.

What is wrong with my theory? Well, my theory is based on what I know: as a university lecturer, resident of a suburb in central Auckland, psychologist, woman, mother (and much more besides). It is as much about what I am eager to do, and how I want to live right here and now, as about what I believe “works” in an objective sense. If you wish to say it does not apply to people or situations that are different to mine, then you may be right. I will, however, continue to argue that all people crave to flourish and that includes yearning for creative expression, self-determination and to be embedded in warm, trusting relationships.

My theory is also a slow one. I don’t have a solution to impeding climate doom for example, because developing a trust-narrative will take time as we act, discuss, make mistakes, act again, discuss again and so on. If you have a way of getting international agreements that protect people and the planet through some other means, then I will absolutely come on your march or sign your petition. But I still think, to really get the platform we need for a good-enough society, one that is deeply inclusive and responsive to new problems as they arise, it is going to be slow work and deep trust is critical. 

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