Also see: Sustainable Community Development | Prime Directive | What is Meant by Development? | Choice of Lifestyle | Institutionalized Resistance | Social Service | My History in Sustainable Community | Educating for Sustainability | Giving Children a Voice | In addition, visit "The Commons" in Essays
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. We must think anew and act anew.
OUR INSTITUTIONALIZED RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Please keep in mind as you read the text that what we're doing to our environment in the name of "management" is really a peek into our human inner-workings, the cause behind our environmental crises brought about largely by our institutionalized resistance to change. Whether we like it or not, we now have the technological capability to disarrange and disarticulate the entire global ecosystem. Thus, for the survival of human society as we know it, we must face ourselves, as uncomfortable as it may be, and we must help one another to confront our human failings and our blind spots. We must be willing to risk changing our thinking and our behavior and get back in touch with our repressed feelings, our exiled intuition, and our lost spirituality.
Although I, as an individual, can't change what is written in history, I can change myself and thereby influence what may be written in history when the present becomes the past. In all likelihood, I can't change over night. But, like the man who eventually moved the mountain by carrying away small stones, I can begin.
I've learned, for example, that change is an immutable law of the Universe and is an ongoing process that's always in the present tense. I am therefore writing about the power of the individual human being, the power of choice, the power to effect change in any arena of life, such as a community, agency, or corporation. I'm writing to point out that we, each and every one of us, take ourselves with us wherever we go, that we are the common denominators—the threads running throughout the entire tapestry of our social structure. The irony is that as a species we must actually study ourselves so that we can learn how to survive with ourselves.
If my interpretation of what I see is correct—that the individual is an extension of the family, and through the individual the community, agency, and corporation is also an extension of the family, then society is an extension of the community, agency, and corporation. As such, an individual who is willing to change can change society. If this is true, then the dynamics in a family are similar to the dynamics in the community, agency, and corporation. An understanding of one may thus help us to understand the other, because each is composed of individuals like you and me.
In this context, I'll discuss "coping mechanisms," which are unconscious strategies for survival. Keep in mind, a negative word is but the manifestation of a negative thought, and once spoken, it can never be withdrawn, despite an apology, because words are but the public extensions of our private thoughts. By our thoughts we privately define and by our actions we publicly declare who and what we are.
I write these pages with the hard-won realization that, of all species on Earth, we humans are both blessed and cursed with the greatest of powers, the power to consciously change ourselves, to struggle towards an ideal of being, and to frequently fall short of that ideal. In struggling, however, we must understand and remember that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly for a while.
With these thoughts I offer you an idea, the knowledge that I—and you—have been granted the power to create. We create ourselves with our thoughts, and with our thoughts we create the society and the environment in which we live, survive, or become extinct.
We have control over what we choose to think and do. The outcome is our choice and, therefore, our responsibility. This being so, it is within our creative power to change ourselves, one by one, from collectors of the society's psychological garbage to trustees of one another's dignity, and it's within our power to transform the world from a toxic waste dump into a heavenly garden.
Today, we are at the spiritual/ecological crossroads of social survival, a threshold at which humanity has never before stood, and we must now come to grips with ourselves. This page is therefore written within the context that individuals have the power to change and in so doing to move their community, agency, corporation, and human society in a new and vital direction.
From here on, I will, for the sake of simplicity, use agency as the point of discussion, rather than repeating community, agency, and corporation over and over. I have chosen agency as the focal point because every human life in the United States is somehow touched by an agency—for better or worse.
An agency is a business or service authorized to act for others. When speaking of an agency, we often use the possessive, such as "the Forest Service's point of view," as though it was an individual, and in a way it is. An agency is a collection of people, much like an extended family. Therefore, its benefits and deficits are the collective contributions of both its past and present members.
To change anything, however, requires understanding something about agencies in general:
MY INTRODUCTION TO AN AGENCY
Each agency is an aggregate of individuals, which collectively acts as an extended family, and each agency, through its official doctrine, is the reinforcement of society's perception of itself.
I never thought about the meaning of an "agency" until I went into the Army when I was 17 years old. My first week was at Fort Ord, California. Having nothing to do, we were given something with which to look busy.
I remember a struggling piece of lawn, which should have been granted the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the Almighty's intent for grass. I saw that poor piece of lawn sheared with an old, push lawn mower ten times in one day; I mowed it twice! In addition, I immediately learned about the chain of command.
A man with one stripe on his sleeve told me to mow the lawn, and while I was in the middle of doing it, a man with three stripes on his sleeve came up to me and told me to do something else, whereupon I said, " Sir, I've been told to do this."
The man narrowed his eyes and asked through tight lips, "How many stripes did he have? How many do I have? Who are you going to obey?"
My eyes bugged out and I gulped, "Sir, I guess I'd better do as you say. You have three, and he had only one."
"A damn wise choice, son!" he said as he walked away.
After I got to Fort Lewis, Washington, and started basic training, learning how to kill the enemy for the sake of "God and Country," I found myself confronted with the greatest proverbial wisdom of mindless obedience the military has to offer, "Yours is not to question why; yours is but to do or die," and "If it moves, salute it; if it doesn't, paint it." And then there was the "hurry up and wait" syndrome.
I was also told that "You're in the Army twenty-four hours a day, remember that. We pay you eleven cents an hour twenty-four hours a day, and you'd better damn well be grateful! Where could you get a better deal than that: eleven cents an hour twenty-four hours a day, three hot meals, and a bed? Your ass is ours!" I remember thinking: I know a lot of places where I could get a better deal than that, and I'd prefer twenty-two cents an hour with twelve unpaid hours off this base.
The Army was my first introduction into the collective thinking of a dysfunctional agency. Of course, I didn't recognize my dysfunctional family as belonging to the same category. Nor did I think about the dysfunctional school system, which tried to make me into a right-handed person, which tried for twelve years to make me conform to some preconceived notion of acceptability by attempting to steal my individuality and my imagination.
And yet an agency can serve a useful purpose in society. The problem arises when the agency either "forgets" what its purpose is or the purpose becomes obsolete, while the agency becomes self-serving to its own survival.Topics
THE INCEPTION OF AN AGENCY
An agency not only gives form and substance to a mutually-held ideal during its inception, which is projected into the future, but also gives the individual a sense of participation, achievement, and personal and "family" pride in the furtherance of that ideal, something no one can accomplish alone. Another opportunity an agency holds out to its employees and volunteers is the potential for a "team effort," which makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Although many people tend to be cynical about our public agencies, I believe each began with noble ideals, ideals of service worthy of their time and place in history and worthy of the effort people invested in them. Somewhere along the way, however, we lost sight of ourselves and the collective continuance of our ideals, which allowed the "machine" to take over, much like the theme of Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead.
I came to this conclusion after working in the Bureau of Land Management (commonly referred to as "BLM") for twelve years, while housed with the U.S. Forest Service, and after working for a year in the Environmental Protection Agency. In many ways they were good years and I learned much about myself and about society. I also learned that these agencies have become largely dysfunctional monoliths each of which seems to believe it has the only "True" answer.
WE ARE THE AGENCY
Before we can see how to change an agency, we must understand that there's nothing sacred about it. An agency is merely a collection of people—as good as the best, as bad as the worst, and as mediocre as the average. Further, our individual motives and conduct—the carry-over from life in our families of origin—give the agency whatever meaning, purpose, integrity, foresight, or credibility ascribed to it. In essence, an agency is an extension of our families of origin in that our reactions to our coworkers and authority figures are often symbolic not only of whatever stage of personal developmental we're in but also of the dynamics of our relationships with significant members of our own families, especially in relation to unresolved issues.
We who work in an agency, who set the agency's standard, who determine the agency's budget, who oversee the agency, and who vote—we are the agency. Because we are the agency, we also share in its destiny, and because it's within our power to be authentic individuals, it's also within our power to heal the dysfunction in our agencies.Topics
STAGES IN THE CYCLE OF AN AGENCY
I'm not aware of any reference that describes the developmental stages of an agency as has been done for an individual and a family, and I've not taken part in the formation of an agency. But I can think of four generalized stages of development.
Stage one—The inception of an agency is based on a perceived need that's in the public interest. This perception revolves around one person or a small nucleus of people with a vision, as clearly stated by Gifford Pinchot in his book Breaking New Ground. He saw the "Conservation policy," which he helped to forge, as the guiding principle of the U.S. Forest Service, of which he was the first Chief from 1898 through 1910:
The Conservation policy … has three great proposes.
First: wisely to use, protect, preserve, and renew the natural resources of the earth.
Second: to control the use of the natural resources and their products in the common interest, and to secure their distribution to the people at fair and reasonable charges for goods and services.
Third: to see to it that the rights of the people to govern themselves shall not be controlled by great monopolies through their power over natural resources.
A letter, written by Pinchot on March 5, 1905, concisely stated his vision, the guiding philosophy on which the early U.S. Forest Service was founded: "the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run." Yet even with the clearly perceived need for a guardian of the public interest, the formation of the Forest Service was no easy task. There were many bitter, political battles to be fought with men who wanted all the land put in private ownership for their own personal gain, the inevitable birth pains of that which we today take for granted as our national heritage—our national forests.
Although the ideals, which are seminal in the inception of an agency, may be clearly defined for their time and place in history, such as those of the Forest Service, we now look back and wonder exactly what was meant. In this sense, I've heard the following question raised several times in recent years as we struggle to meet today's perceived "needs" from our national forests. What exactly did Pinchot meant by "the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run"?
We may not agree with what we perceive his motives to have been, as attested by the political actions taken, but we must remember that whatever the ideal with which the Forest Service was founded, whatever actions were taken to implement that ideal, it was new and daring in its time, and it was meant to be a service held in trust for all the people—both present and future.
We can today easily snipe at the "simplistic vision" of the pioneers of the past because we have a greater biological knowledge about our forests, a different perception of desires and necessities from our forests, and a different perception of ourselves as a society. But it's important to remember that those pioneers did the best they could with the knowledge and the vision they had, and that today we're the pioneers of the future. Are we doing the best we can with what we know? Will the agencies in which we now serve or which we now create fare any better than those of the past?
Stage two—After its inception, an agency goes through a period of false starts and apparent fumbling around, often with much political infighting. Such behavior is much the same as an adolescent searching for an identity. Out of this fumbling can come growth, a coming together to fulfill the vision--provided the vision is clearly stated and firmly agreed to in the first place:
Pinchot was a great and electric leader by any standard. Stewart Udall called the Forest Service's Washington headquarters during Pinchot's regime 'the most exciting place in town.' And it was, as Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt successfully conspired against private western ranching, timber, and water interests to set aside 148 million acres, three-fourths of today's system, as national forests.
This is the excitement of growth not only in a project with a clearly articulated vision, goals, and objectives but also in an agency where the people are clearly committed to and empowered to follow the vision of public service for which the agency is being created. "Ideals." said journalist Carl Schurz, "are like the stars, we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them."
Stage three—Growth, with the stimulation of its unknowns, its groping, its many false starts and surprising insights, eventually gives way to maturity in which the outcome seems assured. During the first year and a half of struggling to put the ideas coherently on paper, with many false starts. But then the pieces started coming together, slowly at first and then faster and faster. People from every necessary discipline seemed to materialize "out of thin air" just when they are needed them most, which keeps the interest charged and the enthusiasm crackling.
At some point, people know where the agency is going, and what the product will be. At that point, the agency comes into its maturity, and everyone seems to know it. They have a function to perform, and they begin to accomplish what they're designed to do. They mature into their stated mission, and once this has been accomplished, the turning point has been reached. Thus, the beginning of stage four is pivotal to the life of an agency for here its direction is ultimate determined.
Stage four—Having fulfilled its original charge, it must be re-envisioned, re-orientated, re-chartered, and revitalized, or disbanded. If left solely to its own devices, senescence creeps in. This is the point at which an agency becomes dysfunctional.
The now-declining agency tries to "hang-on," to live as in the past. In reality, however, it becomes a self-perpetuating machine, which, having "forgotten" its original charge and having outlived its function, looks out for its own survival at any cost.Topics
WHEN DYSFUNCTION CREEPS IN
We, as individuals, represent the behavioral strengths and weaknesses of our upbringing, and we tend to repeat the behavioral pattern—be it functional or dysfunctional—over and over again unless we consciously break the cycle. (Dysfunction means that a given system is impaired in its ability to function harmoniously.)
As far as I can see, there are three basic instances in which an agency becomes dysfunctional. The first is when a person (or persons) takes over control as dictator and pays mind simply to vested interests at the expense of the agency's mission, its people, and the public at large. The second is when people in an agency, created for one purpose, try to make the agency into something it's not designed to be, but are either unwilling or unable to change its perceived mission and infrastructure to accommodate the "new identity." And the third is when an agency has outlived its original purpose or has simply lost sight of it and becomes a self-serving, institutionalized machine to perpetuate its own survival.
In any case, the agency no longer serves the constituency it was designed and empowered to serve but instead compels the constituency to serve the survivability of the agency. Here, it must be remembered that individuals are the agency. Therefore, the more dysfunctional the leadership is, the more dysfunctional the agency; the more dysfunctional the rank and file members are, the more dysfunctional the agency. Although the dysfunction of an agency is a reflection of the dysfunction of its individual members in the collective—especially the leadership, there's more to it than this statement suggests.
Complex organizations, such as the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Environmental Protection Agency, are typically composed of people that fall into three, major categories prone to becoming subcultures:
1. Politicians—who expect their futures to lie in appointed or even elected office at large and therefore concentrate on maintaining and expanding their career opportunities outside of the agency, but these days they are often appointed as heads of agencies about which they know little or nothing.
2. Careerists—whose rewards come largely from inside of the agency of employment. They therefore define their primary goals and loyalties within the agency's hierarchical career ladder in a way that maintains the stability of the agency and elevates their own position within it.
3. Professionals—who relate to norms set by others in the same profession, say forestry and wildlife management, norms that generally cut across organizational boundaries. A professional's rewards come independently from peers within the professional society, not from within the agency of employment. The professional role is seldom the most powerful in an agency.
Although an individual often plays two or more roles in daily working life, one is dominant. So it's not surprising that people in these three categories within a single agency often come into conflict when they're brought together to deal with a complex, integrated issue, because they each belong to a different subculture with different supporting structures and different systems of ideals, rewards, and incentives. This is especially true if an agency tries to shift its identity in a way that also shifts the perceived basis of power from one subculture to another.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that, while an agency's formal goal may be sound forestry or social work, its informal, operating goals may differ substantially among the three subcultures based on differing senses of idealism, integrity, and objectivity. Thus, each subculture not only perceives a given situation differently but also defines the problem and envisions the solution differently.
All of the many professionals I've known over the years, including myself, want to keep two professional norms inviolate: personal integrity, which is a sense of authenticity based on sound, sincere, personal and professional principles, and professional objectivity, which in my case means dealing with ecological issues with as little political bias or prejudice as humanly possible. The way an agency is organized can either encourage and nurture professionalism or stifle it.
It takes more than cooperative behavior and a sense of good will to protect integrity and objectivity. Such cooperation and good will must be nurtured by the appropriate organizational design, one that is "safe." In addition, the organizational design must support and nurture integrity and its creative source, as well as differing ideologies, through positive rewards and incentives.
Finally, the U. S. Forest Service, now over a century old, is an example of a public agency that has lost sight of its original charge and has become dysfunctional with age, which points out that our present form of exploitive capitalism is not working for the good of the American people, especially the children who will need healthy forests in their future. When a dysfunctional agency serves the timber industry, who is it that serves the forests and the people of the United States, people who by and large have no vested profit motive in timber from public lands?
The same question can be asked about a dysfunctional Bureau of Land Management, which serves the special interests of a small portion of the livestock industry, mining, oil and gas industries at the expense of the public's rangelands. Again, the American people as a whole have no vested profit motive in grazing livestock, mining, or drilling for oil and gas on public lands.
Dysfunction tends to creep into an agency when the production of a product, coveted by a politically strong special interest group, becomes more important than the process of human interactions that fulfill the agency's original charge. In other words, the product is more important than people, human dignity, or trusteeship of the land itself. The sole focus becomes timber, forage, minerals, oil, gas—or whatever else—at any cost.
What happened? Rather than recognizing that the people of the nation are both the agency's bosses and its customers and therefore treating them accordingly, the agency bows to corporate interests through political pressures and serves the corporate/political bosses. Again, our political system serves the private power base, not the people. Thus, enemy number one to a dysfunctional agency is the very public it's meant to serve—a public that requires a healthy, sustainable ecosystem to produce Nature's free services, such as good quality water, if the people are to enjoy their birthright of a quality of life worth living.
When such dysfunction is pointed out in news stories and court cases, the "views and policies" of an agency become the backbone of the agency's homeostatic defense, a defense that is usually upheld by the courts of the land if legal procedure has been followed—regardless of any other consequences.Topics
THE HOMEOSTATIC DEFENSE
Homeostasis is not only the maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium within a system, such as a family, but also a mechanism through which a family's name is kept pure. A family is a system governed by a set of rules, which determine and control the interaction of the family members in organized, established patterns. The family rules are a prescription for directives of what shall and shall not occur within and without the family, and homeostatic mechanisms maintain the ongoing arrangement among members of the family by activating the rules defining each member's relationship to the whole. As with a family, homeostasis in an agency maintains a dynamic equilibrium through which the agency's name is kept pure.
Once an agency has become dysfunctional, it begins to go through institutionalized rituals to insure its survival and to hide its dysfunction. And like a family, an agency is a system governed by a set of rules that determine and control the interaction of its members in organized, established patterns. As Andrew Carnegie once said: "The organization is the shadow of the man."
In today's dysfunctional agencies (from the office of mayor to the presidency of the United States), those ideas contrary to the established view are termed "heresy," and those ideas implicitly supporting the established view are termed "policy." Policy is therefore the prescription for directives of what shall and shall not occur within and without the agency, and homeostatic mechanisms help to maintain the ongoing arrangement among members of the agency by activating the rules defining each member's relationship to the whole. Homeostasis is thus a mechanism through which an agency's inner workings kept hidden from "outsiders." This is a very important concept.
To illustrate, the Environmental Protection Agency, like any other agency, is only a collection of people who've come together to serve the public—not to make the public serve them. For a blindly "loyal," unthinking, unquestioning agency person, however, this is an intolerable point of view, because the homeostasis of the agency is always in jeopardy from the unknown, impure, questioning, and, therefore, potentially dangerous actions of a thinking "outsider" who's "within" the agency.
Such concern is, to some extent, reasonable in that to function, even within its original charge, an agency must work as a team, and one uncaring maverick can disrupt the whole effort. On the other hand, homeostasis within a dysfunctional agency hides corruption.
Like members of a dysfunctional family who have their roles assigned to them so the family's "good name" will be safeguarded, a dysfunctional agency becomes a self-serving machine that often defines more and more narrowly and more and more rigidly the job descriptions of its employees—and thereby controls its employees. In this case, the description of an employee's job, which is available to the public, directs the employee to do something as an employed professional, but the dysfunction of the agency, through its homeostatic equilibrium, is such that the employee must be prevented from carrying out an assignment in a hundred-percent professional, questioning manner if the agency's deception of the public is to be kept under wraps.
Failure to pass the test of blind loyalty usually has severe consequences. And the situation becomes even more ensnarled when a person's job is specifically to uncover and report waste, fraud, and misuse of government property and in the professional performance of that job a person runs into the homeostasis of a dysfunctional employer. Consider, for example, an Army officer who did exactly as he was supposed to do within his job description and also did exactly as he was supposed to do as an ethical, professional employee.
In the course of directing an inventory, he uncovered improperly diverted explosives that were diverted by his superior officer. Reporting what he found, which was in line with his job description, cost him his career because he broke a bond of trust—he broke "the faith"—by going over his commanding officer (the immediate source of dysfunction) up the chain of command to point out the irregularities. What the officer did was lawful, within his professional job description, and Army regulations. He was, nevertheless, punished for his integrity and courage.
Few people who have the courage to stand up and speak out for what they know is right are rewarded for their honesty and their loyalty to their ideals as professionals, because preventing these kinds of "leaks" is what homeostasis is all about. In some cases the homeostasis fails and change is affected, but in most cases it succeeds, and an untold number of truly loyal people die a slow, unknown "professional death" for their integrity and courage as human beings and professional employees.
To understand this dynamic more clearly, we'll take a closer look at how homeostasis can function in an agency. One key to homeostasis is the job description. Although a job description is necessary and seems harmless in and of itself, it can be used either to relate the work of professionals within an agency to one another and among disciplines or to isolate professionals and disciplines from one another. The danger lies in the isolation of individuals by increasing professional specialization as manifested through the purposeful narrowing of the interpretation of job descriptions and through the careful, rigid, and absolute control of those descriptions.
For example, Mary, a hydrologist, and Joe, a forester, each has been given work assignments. Mary is to determine how to balance the water requirements of young salmon and a local community that rely on the same water-catchment, whereas Joe is to determine the maximum amount of timber that can be cut and removed from the same water-catchment.
Both Mary's and Joe's reports must be done independently. They are not allowed to work together or craft any kind of compromise that would best serve both the salmon and the community. In other words, Mary and Joe are to limit their performances strictly within the narrow confines of their job assignments within their job descriptions—rigid, mental walls neither is allowed to ponder or look beyond, if they want a good job rating.
With the completion of their assignments, both Mary and Joe are instructed to give their individually accumulated information to their superiors in the form of written reports. Once this is done, it will, in all probability, be their last connection with their data. They will have no idea if or how their data are used in the decision of when, where, or how much to will be sold and cut that particular water-catchment until it is done. By then, however, both Mary and Joe will have been immersed in several other assignments. Thus, instead of finding their jobs, through their job descriptions and their day-to-day working relationships, to be professionally enriching and ennobling, both Mary and Joe have fulfilled their assignments in dehumanizing isolation not only of each other but also of the outcome.
I was, for example, told in the Army, in the Bureau of Land Management (where I spent more than twelve years of my scientific career), and in the Environmental Protection Agency to beware of my behavior, because I was serving them twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. What happened to me—Chris Maser? Unknowingly, with the stroke of a pen, I ceased to be an individual and became an expendable, numerical item of government "property" to be controlled and used as deemed necessary to further the machine's purposes. Where is the line, the boundary between the human being and the dysfunctional machine?
Thus, knowing nothing consciously about either dysfunction or homeostasis, I found out the hard way that not everyone in the agencies wanted new or better scientific data with which to manage or monitor the management of our forests or other public lands. I was once told by a Chief of Information and Education in the Bureau of Land Management that he didn't want me to make a particular videotape or to publish a particular book about our scientific findings, because it would make the agency look bad. And the forestry staff in the Washington, D.C., office of the Bureau tried for three years to quash the publication of one of our reports, because our data were perceived to be adverse to Bureau's unstated liquidation policy for old-growth forests.
Even at the highest, national level, one must be aware that unconscious, narrowly focused people in the United States Congress, who lack a sense of personal or professional boundaries, often become the role models for a dysfunctional agency. When, for example, a senator or representative, trained as a lawyer, makes ecologically uninformed decisions about forests, it's about as intelligent as a forester making equally uninformed, legal decisions about courtroom etiquette. The difference is that the lawyer-senator won't even consider the forester's comments, but the forester is supposed to unquestioningly obey the lawyer-senator!
If everyone in an agency performs this way, the homeostatic control is passed up the chain of command to the person with the most to gain from compliance with the wishes of the corporate/political bosses who speak through the Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. In this way, the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, County Commissioners, City Planning Departments, and Mayor's Offices, to name but a few, no longer serve the land and/or the people as they were originally designed to do but rather are made to serve the corporate/political bosses through certain Senators and Representatives who, in turn, have forgotten whom they're supposed to serve in a democracy.
The use of job descriptions as an isolating mechanism is one of the ways an agency protects its members from "unfavorable" information. The institutionalized, internal policies of the agency shapes, for the uncritical employee, his or her perception and belief in ways that protect the agency's dysfunction, even when catastrophic outcomes are involved.
A distortion of information is not limited to willful deceit on the part of an individual, who is perceived as loyal to the agency. Even honesty within a dysfunctional agency is insufficient to prevent the widespread distortion of information. The weakness lies within the job description itself and with an individual's acceptance of a life that involves completing one's assignments without thinking critically about, and without questioning, the consequences.
Granted, this behavior hardly sounds untrustworthy, much less dangerous. Nevertheless, it's just this "functionary" behavior that allows systematic, homeostatic distortions to occur. And this is why decisions are often difficult to deal with in public land-management agencies, regulatory agencies, the military/industrial complex, or even local, governmental institutions—one is seldom sure who makes them. Why? Because almost everyone seems to be afraid of taking a risk. So, if more than one person is responsible for a decision, especially a miscalculation, no one will be at fault. Decisions, therefore, just "seem to happen" when agencies and the military/industrial complex distort unfavorable data affecting decisions in order to further their own, self-serving ends.
One thus becomes a functionary by limiting one's inquiries only to questions of how best to accomplish an immediate assignment, turning one's mind over to the agency and allowing the agency to shape one's perceptions according to its homeostatic needs. The fault, therefore, lies neither in the job description nor in the assignment. The fault lies in not accepting personal responsibility for the outcome of the assignment. This is the seed of dysfunction, the birth of the machine through the loss of identity, individuality, and human dignity.
Performing an assignment (simply taking orders without thinking about them or questioning them) is personally safe and environmentally and socially risky. On the other hand, it's often personally risky—if you want to keep your job—to question orders, but to question the orders that don't feel right is both environmentally and socially responsible.
Most professionals in land management and regulatory agencies and the military/industrial complex, as well as many other governmental institutions, are told what level of professionalism they will practice if they want to stay employed. People therefore trade their dignity and professional ethics for the security and "safeness" of their jobs.
Unfortunately, these frightened employees are often judged harshly for being functionaries, judged by people outside of the "system" who don't have the benefit of understanding the employee's fear and the insidious, pervasive tentacles of the "machine." There are no enemies out there, only frightened people who may have shirked their responsibilities as professional employees and have thus forfeited control of their lives to an ever-growing, dysfunctional machine that uses homeostatic strategies to further dehumanize them in order to maintain itself.
There is another very interesting aspect to the homeostasis of our public land management agencies, which has to do with such laws as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Rare and Endangered Species Act of 1973. Both of these laws were passed not only to control abuses of ethics by dysfunctional public land management agencies but also to correct the dysfunctions. Outside control, however, is the terror of a dysfunctional agency—never a cure.
The problem with such laws as the Rare and Endangered Species Act is that to a dysfunctional agency they are like an unpredictable disease, which can strike at any time and totally disrupt the homeostasis. Take, for example, the on-going battle over the spotted owl and its habitat, the ancient forest. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must legally pay attention to the spotted owl and its habitat requirements, yet people in both agencies have tried to ignore this responsibility with respect to their timber sales, as did the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to listing the owl in the first place.
To ignore the law, however, an agency must set up a "spotted owl S.W.A.T. team" (a Special Weapons And Tactical Team) whose sole charge is to maintain the agency's homeostasis at any cost. Unfortunately, not even Congress is immune to this dysfunctional, S.W.A.T.-team mentality. For example, Republican Senator Mark Hatfield (now retired), who served constituents in Oregon, is quoted in a 1988 United Press International as saying (with respect to listing the spotted owl as an endangered species): "It is an attack on all Oregonians, because they threaten our jobs, our roads, our schools, our ability to meet Oregon's diversification needs for the future."
Western Senators and Representatives often forget that these are public forests—belonging to every citizen of the United States—not their own private, industrial forests. Further, court appeals are the legal right of American citizens on their own public lands, thanks to such farsighted laws as the Rare and Endangered Species Act. And when the appeals are upheld they're justified, and the law to protect our fellow species is working as it was intended.
The S.W.A.T.-team mentality and the Congressional tinkering with morally correct (as opposed to politically correct) laws is founded solely on trading political support for short-term, economic favors based on abysmal ecological ignorance. During my 30 some years as a research scientist, I have repeatedly noticed that at least ninety percent of what we know ecologically about our forests, ranges, deserts, arctic, and oceans is not allowed to be applied to their management. What I find curious is the fact that the vast majority of our hard-won ecological knowledge about the way in which our home planet functions is summarily dismissed—including in court, where I have more than once been an "expert witness," both to the case at hand and the data's dismissal by the judge—if that knowledge interferes with someone's private interest in short-term profits, political support, or both, and that includes Congressional tinkering!
By the same token, Congress passes a law to create a legal principle of reasonable governance of social behavior for the long-term good of society, and then, while the law makers want others to obey that principle in their own parts of the country, certain members want to exempt themselves from that self-same edict in their home districts or states. They each want to be a "special case," above and beyond their own law, to protect their own special interests. The danger of such irresponsible shortsightedness is that we are directing the social-environmental course of from a position of greed, ignorance, illegality, and irresponsibility.
Here, we need to keep in mind that the main thing produced in a university, an agency, or Congress, for that matter, is information, which is translated into laws, policies, directives, management plans, and public relations. Therefore, all "products" are really translations of the information and the system that produces it. The way in which that information is used determines whether or not an agency remains functional or has become a dysfunctional machine.Topics
Although there's a vast array of coping mechanisms, first deciphered and named "defense mechanisms" by psychologist Sigmund Freud, coping mechanisms begin as thought processes that we devise in our families of origin to protect ourselves from that which we deem dangerous to our well being. What begins as a thought manifests into behavior when we're confronted with the perceived, life-threatening circumstances from which the thought process was devised to protect us. If the combination of thought and action is successful, then we have devised a functional mechanism of survival, a "coping mechanism," which is reinforced by a feedback loop every time it works as we expect it to. As we thus unthinkingly use it, the thought process is relegated to our subconscious, and only the behavioral pattern manifests itself.
Coping mechanisms therefore become the unconscious, behavioral devices we learn to use to help us retain, or regain, control in uncomfortable circumstances. This really means we're trying to cope with a Universe in the process of constant change.
Coping mechanisms as a strategy for survival may be functional, positive, and entirely appropriate for a given circumstance when we first develop them, but they eventually can and often do become outmoded and dysfunctional as circumstances change, such as sucking a pacifier to calm yourself when you're 20 years old. Clinging to dysfunctional coping mechanisms when they fail to meet current or new situations in life can lead to a hardening of the attitudes, which in turn can stop inner growth and development.
With this in mind, I'll discuss only a few of the more common coping mechanisms. I selected coping mechanisms, because I know from my own experience that if I choose to replace an outmoded one with a more appropriate one, I not only allow myself to grow as a person but also allow others around me to grow. In this way I can help to change the world for the better.
I'll discuss coping mechanisms only briefly, because you'll probably have a good idea of how they operate and can recollect many from your own personal experiences. I will, however, give brief examples of how I've seen these mechanisms used so that you can see them for what they are—carryovers from the family. I learned this from my own coping mechanisms when I entered the Bureau of Land Management and found myself locked in mortal combat with a dysfunctional machine that sought to control my thoughts, actions, and identity for its own sense of survival.
Before continuing, I'll reiterate that there are no enemies out there, only frightened people who may have shirked their responsibilities as professional employees, and having done so, forfeited control of their lives to an ever-growing, dysfunctional machine, which uses homeostatic strategies to further dehumanize them in order to maintain itself. Remember, I can recognize these coping mechanisms, because they're "old friends" all of which I've used at one time or another:
Anger and Aggression
I've coupled anger and aggression, because anger is the emotion, which triggers aggression as an act. Anger is a feeling of extreme hostility toward someone or something. I see anger as extreme fear, which is violently projected outward. Anger is a temporary insanity, which isolates us not only from the facts but also from ourselves and from one another.
We're never angry for the reason or at the person or thing we think we are. I, for instance, am always angry at myself for being afraid of circumstances and therefore feeling out of control, which has nothing to do with the person or thing at which I level my anger.
Unfortunately, this realization all too often follows my anger, which I've attempted to project onto someone or something else. I feel internal disharmony, which is fear of a circumstance in which I'm feeling out of control, and I'm angry about feeling afraid of the circumstance.
Unless I fully understand the above dynamic, I really think I'm angry for the reason and at the person or thing at which I level my anger. I therefore use my anger as a means of not having to deal with the circumstance I'm afraid of. Let's suppose, for example, that I'm at a public meeting dealing with people from an agency who are presenting a land-use issue and that I'm hearing things over which I have no control and with which I disagree. I get angry and start yelling. "You selfish, greedy bastards are out to rape the land, any idiot can see that! All you care about is the money!"
In the intensity of the emotion, I feel that I'm right in projecting my anger to those who seem to be in control, those who have "taken" control away from me. And in the grip of my anger, I'm unable to see beyond the end of my nose. Under such circumstances, I don't perceive that I have a choice because I feel out of control, and I'm terrified of being out of control. So I'm really angry at myself for being out of control in the first place and being terrified in the second place.
Anger often translates into aggression, which as I'm using it here is the habit of launching attacks, of being hostile. If I show enough aggression toward the person or people I think I'm angry at, I'm coping with my fear by causing them to back away from me. Through aggression, I can avoid having to deal with "their kind," which really means that I won't have to deal with the circumstance in which I'm out of control and of which I'm afraid. But all I have really accomplished is to isolate myself from any understanding of the facts and from the people who are presenting them. If, on the other hand, I'd been patient, open-minded, and gently asked questions, then I may have been able to overcome my fear, because I would have found that there are no enemies out there—only other frightened people like me, people who may or may not have been able to answers to my questions. Individual coping mechanisms
Appraisal is the act of evaluating something, of estimating its quality, amount, size, and other features, of judging its merits. As such, appraisal is an interesting coping mechanism in that it effectively prevents forward motion. It's like being on the platform at the train station and being so afraid of missing the train that I spend my whole time checking and rechecking the schedule. I'm so engrossed in appraising the schedule I don't even see my train come and go.
Another example of an appraiser is the shopper who goes to the grocery store to buy three items and has to read every comparative label in minute detail and then weigh and reweigh the data before making a choice. Thus, what would take one person five minutes to buy takes another forty-five minutes.
Like the shopper, many scientists are so afraid of making a mistake and of being criticized that they get bogged down appraising the scientific details in an attempt to cover all of the bases and thus never say or do anything. I've also seen this happen with government employees, both state and federal. It often seems that no one wants to take the responsibility for making a clear-cut decision.
Appraisers cope with their fear of criticism by checking and rechecking and further rechecking the data, seldom willing to make a decision for which they're accountable. In other words, when in doubt make another study, but refrain, at any cost, from saying or doing anything until all the data are in and carefully and "properly analyzed." This, of course, will never happen, because even if one could get all the data, the appraiser would still define "properly analyzed." And always, the mantra is: Appraisal, always appraisal. But at any cost, no decision was to be made. Individual coping mechanisms
To be defensive means to protect that which already is, to resist a new view, to resist the possibility of change, and to resist the truth about myself. Defensiveness is a limitation to my growth in that I'm arguing for my old self rather than taking a new look and embracing a new possibility. I'm defending the rut in which my old belief, my old behavioral pattern is stuck. I become defensive because at some level I know that what is being said is at least partly true. And I'm afraid to listen to the truth, because I'll have to act on it, which means I'll have to change my stance, something I'm afraid to do. I thus feel obliged to defend my old groove. After all, it's like home. It's a comfortable, known entity.
Defensiveness is a coping mechanism that comes rapidly to the fore when we feel unsafe, when we're losing control of a circumstance. It not only robs an individual of dignity but also isolates the individual from peers and fellow workers. Defensiveness creates a sense of distrust that can spread like an epidemic throughout an organization. Individual coping mechanisms
Denial is a refusal to recognize the truth of a statement; it's a contradiction, a rejection of what is. Although denial as a coping mechanism is part and parcel of almost all other coping mechanisms, it's also an entity unto itself. Think, for example, of your mind as the honeycomb in a beehive, and visualize the feelings you don't want to deal with as the honey put into the comb.
If you stuff your feelings into an empty comb and seal it shut with wax so you don't have to deal with them (out of sight, out of mind, much as a bee stores honey), you're now effectively in denial of the uncomfortable event. The rest of your mind seems to be cleared of your suffering. You're free to live, but only so long as you can continually mend the already full comb, and continually create more empty comb cells to accommodate future discomfort.
I think denial is one of the most pervasive coping mechanisms in the world. The following is a typical example: A young woman explains that she has been sexually abused by a relative from the time she was five years old until she was fourteen. Although she had two miscarriages, her parents still refused to believe her.
We isolate ourselves when we do not accept change. We become defensive, fearful, and increasingly rigid in our thinking; we harden and close our minds. If I become defensive about anything, if I start to form a rebuttal before someone is finished speaking, if I filter what is said to hear only what I want to hear, I'm in denial of what is.
And then there is "informed denial," which means that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whatever the issue is, you deny it. For example, some years ago a neighbor of mine was stirring the rotting vegetation in the bottom of his composer, when he slipped and fell headfirst into the container. His wife and I laughed so hard that our knees grew weak, whereupon my friend extracted himself from the composer, look at us, and denied that the incident had even happened. When I pointed out that some compose debris was clinging to him, the intensity of his denial grew exponentially. Consequently, his wife and I just about laughed ourselves into oblivion.
The oldest argument of denial I encountered while working with the US Government and in court with the timber interests was "informed denial." To wit, despite all the scientific data at hand, the industry's and the government's mantra is: It's inappropriate to do anything until we have all the data. What we have to-date, is inconclusive, which of course, data always are. In other words, deny there's a problem until someone dies or there is an environmental catastrophe, and then it's too late.
Consider the following example: When the tobacco industry usually denied the validity of the data when it was confronted by 50,000 published articles on the dangers of smoking. The president of Reynolds Tobacco Co., for example, is reported to have said, "Honestly, I have not seen one piece of medical evidence presented by anybody, anywhere that absolutely, totally said that smoking caused disease or created it." (White, L.C. 1988. Merchants of death: The American Tobacco Industry. Beech Tree Books, Wm. Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, NY.)
I've often wondered why anyone would preface a sentence with "honestly," or "to tell you the absolute truth," or "to tell you the honest truth" if the person habitually told the truth. It always comes across as if the person is doing me a special favor by assuring me that, because I'm special, the person is willing to be honest with me. The question is: who's being convinced? Individual coping mechanisms
Displacement is used to shift the focus from that which is uncomfortable to that which is safe; it's often referred to as a "smoke screen." I've had attorneys for the federal government try to distract me with this tactic while I was under oath as an expert witness; they didn't want me to complete my answer to a question they'd asked, because they were afraid of what I was saying, so they'd interrupted and asked a totally unrelated question. Recognizing this tactic, however, I always completed my answer to the first question and then answered the displacement question.
Another handy way to cope with the fear of being out of control, is to displace the real reason onto time. I know people who have their lives so tightly scheduled that they have not a second to "waste. " They confused motion and time constraints with accomplishments. In this way, they control what they do, whom they see, and how long they see them without ever having to take the responsibility of saying, "I don't want to see you, because you make me uncomfortable," or "I don't want to see so and so, because I might have fail the test, which I can't handle knowing right now."
The use of time in this sense is another form of displacement, of avoidance embodied in the dynamic of the word "can't." I use time to control those circumstances I wish to deal with and to see those people whom I wish to see for as long as I wish to see them. At the same time, I'm pleading a case for being innocently out of time, out of control—by saying "I can't"—to those circumstances or those people with which I don't want to deal.
Displacement is a common coping mechanism in any dysfunctional agency, not only on the personal level but also on the agency level. The focus on "jobs lost" and "community stability" by both the timber industry and most of the old cadre of foresters in the Bureau of Land Management and the U. S. Forest Service has been used as a displacement for having to deal with the rapidly increasing scientific evidence that the ancient forest has value for something besides woodfiber—or even as habitat for spotted owls. In fairness, the conservationists have often used the spotted owl as the hammer for their arguments to save the ancient forest instead of directly facing the issue of the forest itself. Both sides are not only misleading each other displacement behavior but also misleading themselves and the public at large, because while each side strives to save the ancient trees for its own purposes as a product of the political struggle, society is losing the forest in terms of the processes embodied in the forest itself.
"Higher officials" in an agency often used time as a displacement to achieve their own outcomes. Three examples come to my mind.
The first way time is used to avoid undesirable data or change is to be very stringent with the allotted time for a particular job. An example is an agency's taking two or more years with the full-time commitment of an entire planning team to create a land-management plan and then limiting the public to a 30-day period of review in which they're supposed to understand the plan, the proposed alternative methods of operation, the timber sales or grazing allotments, the ecological and economic consequences of the proposed array of actions on all resources, and submit their reply—all on the agency's chosen timetable.
A second way in which "not enough time" is used is by making time a moving target. I once conducted a weekend workshop with the Forest Service in which the District Ranger and a lady from a conservation group were determined to work out their differences and keep the proposed management plan out of court. The Ranger invited thirty people from the Forest Service, the timber industry, and several conservation groups to meet for a weekend and begin to resolve their differences over the management plans. At the close of the two-day workshop, conservationists were talking with industrialists and Forest Service personnel and vice verse, and there was a general agreement that the process we'd established was working and needed to be continued.
All parties worked diligently for some time, and came to more agreement then ever before. As the parties got closer to working out their differences, which would have altered the management plan, the upper echelon in the Forest Service, prodded by the upper echelon of the timber industry, suddenly shortened the promised time for the plan to be completed, which broke faith with everyone involved, including their own employees who had worked so long and hard to build the bond of trust.
To see how time is used a third way, it's necessary to read the following two paragraphs. Here the Republican Senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield, once attempted to use the allocation of time as a displacement, which is clearly pointed out in the last paragraph:
The premise behind Hatfield's legislative tactic [trying to prevent the public from challenging timber sales in court] is that frivolous lawsuits by environmentalists hamstring federal agencies because courts don't make timely, responsible decisions. Were that actually the case, the answer for Congress would be to enact clearer laws or provide for faster judicial action.
The real threat of lawsuits, of course, is not the time it takes to resolve them. Federal judges can act quickly when time is of the essence. Rather, the threat is that the suits will have merit, that judges will find agencies have acted improperly. That is the very reason that Americans should not be denied their day in court, whatever the perceived urgency of a particular issue. (Editorial. 1988. The Oregonian, Portland, OR. June 27.) Individual coping mechanisms
A filter is a device through which a substance, such as light, water, or thoughts, is passed to remove what we define as "unwanted impurities." In the sense of a coping mechanism, we filter out unwanted information. That way we can accept and understand whatever we want to. Have you, for example, ever tried to explain something to someone and had him or her hear only part of it, the part they wanted to hear?
I often find this to be the case when I speak to a group of people comprised of the timber industry, environmental organizations, land management agencies, city councilors, county commissioners, or personnel in city planning. They each hear what they want to hear in what I say, and they each address these different aspects of my presentation during the question and answer period. The more polarized the audience is, the more predictable are the questions they're likely to ask.
At times we live as though we're in a giant "safe" with filters to control what we see, what we hear, and what we feel. In other words, we hear only what we want to hear, see only what we want to see, and feel only what we want to feel. That way we can accept and understand that which we choose, and we don't have to get out of our comfort zone and be accountable in the world, which is the meaning of the statement: looking at life through rose-colored glasses. Filtering is a common coping mechanism of selective hearing and seeing, as exemplified in two of the three monkeys—hear no evil and see no evil.
But filters can be very frustrating for the person who is trying to communicate with someone who doesn't want to hear what is being said. And yet we all filter information simply because we have different frames of reference.
Filters in an agency are almost always fully engaged. By filtering the information and hearing only what fitted into the homeostatic pattern, agency personnel can dub it "So and So's unproven hypothesis," discount it, and be "safe" from having to confront the dysfunctional agency "machine" by changing policy to accommodate these new data. This type of filtering system to ward off new, imaginative data can't last indefinitely, however, as observed by the poet William Blake in 1793: "What is now proved was once only imagined." Individual coping mechanisms
…and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, and all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness. … The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness. (The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version. Leviticus 16:21-22.)
In biblical times, on the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, all the transgressions of the Jewish people were heaped—projected—onto the back of a "scapegoat," which was then driven away into the wilderness taking all the peoples' transgressions with it. Thus, projection always has a scapegoat.
Although projection is a casting forward or outward of something, I'm using it as a coping mechanism, which specifically means the externalization of my own inner thoughts that I attributed to someone else, such as a motive and its subsequent behavior. Just as an empty movie projector casts only light until a specific film is put in it, we can project onto other people only what we think about ourselves, because without the thought, there's nothing to project. But unlike a movie screen, which absorbs the projected image, people are mirrors, which reflect the projected image. Thus we see in others what we both consciously and unconsciously see in ourselves—nothing more, nothing less. As such, judgment, that which we see in ourselves, is the projectile we cast at the mirror in which we see our own reflection. Individual coping mechanisms
To rationalize in the sense of a coping mechanism is to devise self-satisfying, but incorrect, reasons for one's behavior. For example, I've been told to do something in my job with which I ethically disagree, but if I don't comply, I'll lose my job—a real possibility in days of corporate/political administrations. So, I rationalize that I can do more good by keeping my job and working unobtrusively for change on the inside of the agency than I can by getting myself fired for sticking openly to my beliefs. In so doing, I intellectually rationalize the "okayness" of the order and comply with it, but I've simultaneously repressed the honesty of my feelings. I've thus murdered a vital, creative part of myself.
A few years ago, I put on a workshop for the Forest Service fuels managers who, simplistically stated, are those people who help control and prevent forest fires. I spent an entire day with them, seventy-four men and one woman. We talked about forest ecology, fire ecology, Forest Service policy with respect to the management of ecosystems and fire, and human dynamics.
Finally, toward the end of the day, I said, "Now turn off your minds. I don't care about what you think. I want to know how you feel about what you're doing."
Then an older gentleman got up and said, "I'm going to retire in about six months, and damn it, I don't feel good about what I'm doing. I haven't for some time now."
It turned out that was the general feeling of the audience. So then I asked: "If you don't feel good about what you're doing, why are you doing it?" The answers had the tenor: I do it, because it's Forest Service policy. I can rationalize its being okay in terms of policy and politics if I don't examine it too much. It may sound good, but now that you've asked, it doesn't feel good.
Our truth is how we feel about something, not what we think about it. Those seventy-five folks could no longer just think—rationalize—that something was okay when in fact it wasn't. From that day on they'd have to check in with their feelings at some level, and if they were untrue to their feelings, they'd have to deal with a moral and ethical crisis.
Finally, "can't" is a great word in the arsenal of rationalization, so it's not surprising that it's one of the favorite words in the federal government. What it means is: Just because your request is explicitly permissible in the personnel manual has nothing to do with the fact that I perceive your request as a risk, and there's no way I'm taking a chance doing something for you, whatever it is, for which I might be held accountable. Individual coping mechanisms
Repression can be thought of as a one-way, spring-loaded valve into the unconscious. Any thought or emotion causing us anxiety passes through this one-way valve, building tension in the coiled spring as it does so. Once trapped in the unconscious, neither the thought nor the emotion is allowed to reappear in our awareness.
It might be expressed as follows: John really wanted to slug his brother for having made fun of him in front of Alice, but that wasn't acceptable behavior at the party. So he tamped down his anger, put a lid on it, as it were, and left the room. In other words, he repressed his feelings. Without a release, however, energy continually builds in the spring over time, because repression allows no acceptable "safety valve" for growing tension. How does this translate into an agency?
I've always believed—and still believe—that if I disagreed with how an agency was being run, and I was unwilling to compromise my integrity, I had an obligation to voice my feelings, but inside the agency first and then, if necessary, outside. I believed it was my duty to speak while I was still employed and vulnerable, and if necessary, to lay my job on the line for what I believed in.
That's the rule I lived by for the twelve years I was in the Bureau of Land Management and the year I was in Environmental Protection Agency, and it got me into "hot water" more than once. But I felt that I had a moral and ethical commitment to myself and to the folks in the agency to let them know where I stood at all times. I deserved that, and so did they. After all, integrity is a gift one can only give oneself, but simultaneously owes to others. In the words of Thomas Paine, I resigned because "Character is much easier kept then recovered."
From what I've seen, however, most people seldom express their true feelings. They repress their feelings until they build to unhealthy proportions, all too often carrying an incredible bitterness within them to their graves.
Repressed feelings take their toll in government employees, many of whom drink and eat too much, have high blood pressure and heart attacks, miss days of work due to malingering illness or chronic, low-level burnout. Many a government employee is dissatisfied, unfulfilled, unappreciated, and ends up capitulating to the machine while putting in the required time until retirement. This is a terrible squandering of human potential, dignity, and life's essence.
Yet I do not agree with agency employees who cope with the machine by repressing how they truly feel while reaping the benefits of medical insurance, paid vacations, perceived security, and so on, for twenty or more years and then, on retirement, let all the repressed bitterness boil out by publicly attacking the agency for which they worked and whose benefits they willingly accepted.
In addition to repressing personal feelings, someone in the chain of command often represses, omits, quashes, or conveniently "loses" information for a variety of reasons. Once, while I was in Washington, D.C., on detail with Bureau of Land Management, I heard some of the director's staff talking about "protecting" him from things they didn't think he would want to hear about or know. Here, was the dog's tail deciding what information the head needed.
Well, as it so happened, I met this particular director a year after he was out of office, and I told him that I'd tried in vain to reach him while he was still the director of the Bureau to tell him about an impending crisis and how it could be defused, but that I could never get through his layers of protection. "I sure wish you'd been able to reach me," he said. "You'd have saved me a lot of grief. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't allow myself to become so isolated and inaccessible." Individual coping mechanisms
To resist is to work against, to actively oppose or fight off. Resistance isn't bad in and of itself. It's simply a conservative, stabilizing tendency, which keeps us from overstepping limitations too quickly and rashly.
Problems arise, however, when our resistance becomes over-reactive, obsolete, maladaptive, or in other words, dysfunctional. Then we become stuck and unable to express our potentials or to meet our goals. Resistance, in the dysfunctional sense, is one of the most commonly used coping mechanisms to ward off change, to avoid the responsibility of moving forward, of participating in one's life.
Resistance is like swimming directly against the current of a swift river. The swimmer in such circumstances, despite maximum effort, gets worn out, is carried down river by the overwhelming strength of the current, and is sometime drowned. If, perchance, the swimmer is strong enough and determined enough just to stay even with the current, it soon becomes apparent that while the current doesn't tire from the effort of flowing, the swimmer tires from the effort of swimming and is thus carried away by the current—the tired borne away by the tireless.
Circumstances are the river of life, and change is its current. The individual swimmer can choose to resist the current, become fatigued and perhaps drown, or can choose to flow with the current, and with patience, learn the skill necessary to cross the river easily. Herein lies the secret of the statement: To be in control, one must give up the desire to control. Only when we give up trying to control life can we master navigating its current.
That which we resist persists in the degree to which we resist it, and we become like that which we resist. It cannot be otherwise. What we resist is a lesson in life not learned, and life seems to persist in its lessons until we learn them. Then and only then are we free to go on to life's next lesson. Resistance as a coping mechanism is a subtle inner device that urges us to back away from the difficulties and demands of living. Resistance "begets meaninglessness," as psychologist Carl G. Jung put it.
I find, however, that resistance serves two purposes in my life, one positive and one negative. My feeling of resistance is positive when it's my "inner voice" telling me that what I've been asked to do really goes against my deepest sense of principles. In this case, I feel wonderful when I honor my feelings.
On the other hand, there are times when I simply don't want to do something that I know I need to do. Then my resistance works against me. I almost inevitably end up with a smashing headache, because I'm stepping on the gas pedal of guilt and the breaks of resistance at the same time with equal pressure and therefore spin my wheels in place.
Resistance to things also takes on the disguise of confusion. If I am confused, I have a legitimate reason for not participating in something that makes me uncomfortable, especially with a group of people.
I always found it amazing in the Bureau of Land Management, and I'm sure this is a general trend in federal and state governments, that whenever something "new" or "unexpected" came down from on "high," there was a rush of "applied" confusion and resistance. The immediate reaction was to try to find a way around whatever it was. When that failed, as it often did, the next line of homeostatic defense was to overreact and blow whatever it was out of proportion.
For instance, when an unexpected order or mandate, especially a new law that might have an effect of business as usual, came down the chain of command, there was an immediate scurrying at every level to decode it—read between the lines—and see what the words "really meant." Nothing was taken at face value, although the laws and mandates with which I was familiar seemed perfectly clear and unambiguous. But then, I didn't take into account the agency's dysfunctional behavior.
The reason for all this deciphering was to avoid having to change anything any more than was absolutely necessary because even the bare minimum was seen as a threat to business as usual. The heart of the law or mandate was never considered as a working option, only as an obstacle to get around. When that failed, we would comply, but the resistance wasn't over yet.
We complied through bare minimums in that we never seemed to have the time or money to do whatever was right the first time, but we always had the time and money to do it over—and sometimes over again. Thus, we always dealt with minimum standards of land trusteeship and with maximum opportunities for product exploitation. Anything else was stalwartly resisted. Individual coping mechanisms
All personal coping mechanisms, in one way or another, become the collective coping mechanisms of the agency, because we are the agency. I remember, for example, sitting in one high-level meeting in the Oregon State Office of the Bureau of Land Management while some of the top brass tried to figure out how they could lie to the public about the spotted owl on Bureau lands without appearing to do so.
I also remember an excellent internal report on the spotted owl made by the Bureau's own biologists. It was professional by any standard, but the folks in Washington, D.C., didn't like the data, so they quashed it. Someone leaked it, however, and the Bureau got caught.
But even then, some of the director's staff in Washington, D.C., openly lied about it through a dazzling array of coping mechanisms. All the while, a feverish, sweeping hunt was being conducting for the agency traitor, who would be aggressively reprimanded for leaking the truth. I know; I was in Washington, D.C., when the report was quashed, and I was later interrogated about its having been leaked.
My feeling is that the industrial/political machine has so completely and so insidiously taken over public land management and regulatory agencies (to say nothing of local agencies and organizations) that many people have lost touch with themselves and no longer know the difference between the truth and their coping mechanisms. I see more and more frightened people being chewed up and spat out by the dehumanizing machine, which seeks short-term profits at the tremendous cost of truth, trust, human dignity, and public service. Individual coping mechanisms, Topics
BREAKING THE DYSFUNCTIONAL CYCLE
To break the cycle of a dysfunctional agency, we must deal with all of the pieces in context with the whole, which is something we seldom do. We try instead to fix individual pieces in intellectual isolation, which cannot work. An agency can be restructured, for example. I survived several restructurings, but that didn't fix the cause of the dysfunction in that it didn't heal the people who made up the agency—beginning at the top.
An agency can be given a new charter, but that doesn't fix the dysfunction, which once again is caused by the people who make up the agency. If the basic structure of an agency—such as a corporation—is not remodeled from the top down by inner executive choice, it will revert to its original dysfunction within six months to a year because the agency's culture is in it's walls, so to speak.
I could go on and on, because we are the agency. Therefore, we are the problem, the dysfunctional components. Ergo, we are also the solution.
The main problem I see is the constant struggle to retain one's dignity and integrity in an agency that's become a machine intent primarily on its own survival by maintaining the status quo through putting out "crisis fires." Such an agency is indifferent not only to its real mission of serving the people but also to those who want to carry it forward as it was originally intended.
It's up to the individual to learn how to work within the agency while, at the same time, maintaining personal and professional integrity. We cannot blame externals for our failure to maintain our integrity, and we must beware of using statements that seem to absolve us of our responsibility for our personal behavior, because they can only lead us into the pit of personal powerlessness. Whatever the external obstacles, it's our personal responsibility to face them and retain our empowerment.
Any kind of professional impotence is a condition that feeds on itself. When we, as professionals, as public servants, abdicate our own power, we assume the role of victims and develop the cynical attitude that "we can't fight the system." We thus justify the prophecy that all our efforts are doomed and that nothing we do matters or makes a difference. How often I've heard this refrain! And herein lies the seed of the problem.
When we surrender our power by placing all the responsibility for the failures of our efforts outside of ourselves, we're in jeopardy of having our work devitalize us. If, on the other hand, in spite of the obstacle, we assume responsibility for the professionalism of our work, it can vitalize us.
We simply can't get away from ourselves as individuals. We've all brought ourselves—as the extensions of our familial backgrounds—into the agency or local organization. We must therefore recognize that, in a sense, we've become part of an "extended family" filled with "relatives" both "near" and "distant," all of whom are doing their best to cope with their ever-changing experiences of themselves and of one another.
To break any cycle, we must first be aware of it and how it functions. Admitting, owning, and accepting the problem brings it into the light of consciousness, where it can be recognized and dealt with. The first step of recovery for an alcoholic, for example, is the conscious admission, "I'm an alcoholic." The same dynamic applies to other dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
Thus one of the keys to unlocking the dysfunction of an agency is understanding our dysfunctional coping mechanisms on an individual basis, perhaps by participating in a series of seminars or workshops that help us to: (1) see our relationships with co-workers as possibly similar to those existing in their own families, (2) gain an insight into the workings of our dysfunctional coping mechanisms, (3) be encouraged to examine our coping mechanisms and allow them to fade away in an atmosphere of mutual revelation and exploration, (4) have opportunities to learn about ourselves and one another, (5) learn it's okay to have and express intense feelings we may have repressed, (6) be encouraged to join with our co-workers to recreate our past so we can become liberated from the restricting influences of our early childhood, which we have brought with us into the agency, and (7) experience the support of others in discovering the universality of our struggles, which will help us to become our own persons.
Another key to unlocking the dysfunction of an agency is to understand the dynamics of job descriptions and how they're used to control individuals. A dysfunctional agency seeks to control its employees, because commodity production to satisfy the industrial/political bosses has become more important than the process of cementing human relationships. Yet we must ask ourselves: Is not human dignity more important than commercial products? What's an agency if it's not people? How can we rectify the problem?
We can rectify the problem by having the courage to take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions while working within our job descriptions. And rather than being functionaries for the corporate/political machine, we can question the validity of what we do for the good of society beyond a few special interest groups.
We are our family, and we are the agency. We joined the agency to serve people through our professional expertise. Human dignity must therefore be the foundation and primary product of an agency—especially an agency of public service. But as it now stands, to get any kind of "real" attention in a dysfunctional agency, as in a dysfunctional family, a person must somehow threaten the homeostasis.
I think there are two reasons for this. One is that we no longer know for whom or for what we're working, or so we're told anyway. In the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, I was told by a high-ranking laboratory official that I worked for the Bush Administration and therefore had to comply with the Bush Administration's wishes. "No," I said, "I don't work for the [first] Bush Administration. You may, but not I. I work for the public; in fact, I work for the children." The other reason for this sad state of affairs is that we're lacking—sorely lacking—leadership and are overrun with managerialship.
Leadership is of the heart and deals intimately with human values, with human dignity, because one must lead by example, as noted by Francis Bacon when he said: "He that gives good advice, builds with one hand; he that gives good counsel and example, builds with both."
A leader knows and does what is right with a moral conviction, usually expressed as justified enthusiasm, which causes people to want to follow with action. Essentially, a leader is one who gives people value and can motivate people by sensitive negotiation so that a perceived need is raised to strong desire. A leader leads from the heart as though human dignity mattered. The irony is that such leadership is perceived to interfere with homeostatic control of any politically oriented agency geared to maximizing the of production of an economically desired product. Consequently, we have few leaders today.
Managerialship, on the other hand, is of the intellect and pays minute attention to detail, to the letter of the law, doing the thing "right" even if it isn't the "right" thing to do. A manager relies on the external, intellectual promise of new techniques to solve problems and is concerned that all the pieces of the machine's procedure are properly accounted for, hence the epithet "bean counter."
Good managers are thus placed at a disadvantage when put in positions of leadership, because all such people can do is rise to their level of incompetence and then remain there, in which case an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance. Similarly, a leader placed in the position of managerialship is equally likely to be a dismal failure because the two positions require vastly different skills.
We need excellent leaders who have excellent managers to support them in a team effort, and both are in exceedingly short supply. What we therefore have is primarily agency-oriented, careerist managers, who often are in over their heads in leadership positions—and no leaders.
I my experience at least, a dysfunctional agency carefully, and for the most part unconsciously, screens all candidates and selects careerist managers who lack vision and will do as they're told with little interference from their feelings of right and wrong. If, however, a misjudgment occurs, and the person chosen by the machine does, in fact, have vision and the courage to follow it, the person is soon shunned and thereby rendered powerless—as only the machine can do. I've watched this process many times. It's called "dehumanization," which is just another form of terrorism!
Another point to consider in breaking the cycle of a dysfunctional agency is that we must ask new, morally-right, future-oriented questions, which means that public agencies must restate their visions and missions for the future. To accomplish this, we must clearly define the professional boundaries of expertise in a functionally integrated way—and adhere to them—if we're to have a sustainable planet for human society, present and future.
Although it can be and often is argued that new people entering an agency bring new thoughts and ways with them as older people leaving the agency take once pioneering thoughts and ways with them, this influx of "new blood" doesn't absolve us as individuals from the responsibility of so changing ourselves that we can and will honor the dignity of each and every person with whom we work, whether we agree with them or not. In the end, it's you and I who must learn to value one another and to live by one, simple principle—to accept responsibility for our own feelings, thoughts, and actions. We must learn to be kind and respectful to ourselves and to one another without forfeiting our principles. And each agency must have a clearly stated vision and mission, as well as clearly stated goals and objectives, that honor both the intent and the heart of the highest principles embodied in the laws of the land if we're to replace our dysfunctional agencies with functional ones. Topics
FROM WHERE I STAND
I am but one person; what can I do? The answer is always the same: I can do something. It doesn't have to be much. It only needs to be done with love and it becomes great, no matter how small it seems to me. Ours is not to question the size or value of our individual contributions. Our task in life is simply to give from the essence of who we are. Each gift is unique and valuable, and each adds a necessary piece to the whole.
To understand the value and power of each person in the context of collective thoughts and actions, pretend for a moment that we humans are snowflakes. We're part of the first snow of winter drifting gently out of a quiet sky, touching our neighbors as we whirl and spin to earth. Numbering in the millions, we fall one by one by one. As we fall, we magnify one another until we blot out the sky.
The pioneers, the first flakes to fall, land on soil that is warm and they melt, disappearing without an apparent trace—gone, lost. But are they really lost? Have they really had no effect? No, they're not lost. Yes, they've had an effect. Each flake that landed on the soil, only to melt and disappear, has given its coolness to the soil until, after enough flakes have landed and melted, the temperature of the soil drops.
Finally, because of the cumulative effect of all the flakes that have gone before, the soil has cooled enough for us—you and me—to survive as we land, and still the flakes fall one by one by one. It snows all night, and by morning, a glittering, transformed world greets the rising sun. As far as the eye can see is a world of winter white—one snowflake at a time—as we add our collective beauty to the wonder of the Universe.
From where I stand, I see a multitude of people, each with a gift to give, one that is unique and priceless in and to our world. British philosopher James Allen was speaking of these gifts when he wrote:
The greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn; the bird waits in the egg; and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities.
Your circumstances may be uncongenial, but they shall not long remain so if you but perceive an Ideal and strive to reach it. You cannot travel within and stand still without. (James Allen. 1981. As a man thinketh. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY.)
It's our opportunity in life to give the gift of our love, talent, and skill rather than to judge the effects of our giving. No one's gift is better, more splendid, or more important than anyone else's. They're only different. And each is necessary to the wholeness of the world. Like the flowers on a tree, if one falls, the tree is to that degree diminished of its beauty. Omit one person's gift, and the potential for the world remains a fond imagining. Topics
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