Meeting 2006

The challenge of change: Can individuals change the world?

We invited speakers who offer insight into the work of making change happen in the arts, sciences, business, and politics. Their stories, and the insight of masters of change who can comment on how change takes place, frame a discussion about the power of the individual to create, channel, and direct change in a world that is already in the throes of history making change. What can an individual actually do? What does it take to make change happen? What do we understand about the actual process of creating change? Where are the biggest challenges that lie ahead? These and other questions were taken up at the Meeting 2006.

Executive Summary

For me the question about inspiration presents an interesting paradox. Listening to the speakers and asking them questions over the last two days, my conclusion is, that the real gift of Waldzell is not inspiration – it’s reality, because real change can’t begin until you look at and confront reality. The hard truth is, you have to face reality, look it in the eye, and confront the facts of life as they really are.

What are the hard facts of life? We are living in turbulent and dangerous times and unless we leave Waldzell very much aware of that, I think we will have painted a false smiley face on this experience and go home with a patina of happiness, ignoring the deep underlying problems of our age. It began here with Isabel Allende saying, “The torturers were always there! The torturers were always there, we just didn’t see them!” And they are still among us. There are torturers in my country operating secret prisons in Europe and not secret prisons in places like Guantanamo. There are torturers ready to do their worst all over the world.

Robert Gallo said that the problem with AIDS and HIV began because the schools, the very best and most famous universities, shut down their research facilities, believing that we had solved all the problems of viruses, except for the ones that might bother the people “over there” ‑ and it’s not really important. And that gave AIDS and HIV an additional several decades to wreak havoc around the world. And even today, as he told us, there are deniers who have the microphone around the world, and say, “It’s not a problem!” or “You can solve it with lemon juice in South Africa!” or “It’s really just a myth that’s being spread!”

Walter Link said, “Capitalism, as we practice it, is unsustainable.” His message as both a businessman and a leader of social awareness is that if we continue to treat the environment as an externality and human talent as a cost and not an asset on our balance sheet, we will be practicing capitalism that someday will reap its own demise.

David Goldberg gave a very impassioned talk about what really happened in the 1930s in Germany and in Austria. What became of individual responsibility and individual conscience in the face of collective collapse? He quoted Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It made me think about the question we all want to take home with us, and that is: “How does change really happen?” I believe change happens when we face reality with unflinching eyes – that’s when it starts.

The Architects of the Future began their talks by showing us problems as they really are: leprosy as it really is, children in need as they really are, communities, isolated and unable to make their way in the world. That’s a real part of our world. And when we take inspiration from adversity, that’s when change happens. It was a lesson that came, as well, from the personal stories that some of our speakers shared with us.

Robert Gallo began his career in medicine when he had to face the reality of his younger sister’s tragic death from leukaemia. Isabel Allende had to deal with the over throw of a democratic government in Chile and the murder of her uncle, Salvador Allende, and then later in life, the tragic death of her daughter. And she emerges from this very harsh reality a woman who sits and says, “I love life every minute. I cherish life and I write my books as a love letter.” Elisabeth Lesser sends us a very moving letter because she can’t come to Waldzell because of her own sister’s terrible illness. And she says, “The truth is, change is inevitable and we have to live with it and learn to love it.” And Paulo Coelho told me over dinner, how his career began, after his parents had put him into an insane asylum three times and then he was tortured by the government of Brazil. When he emerged from the insane asylum for the third time he said, “Thank God, they did that. If I’m insane, now I’m free to be exactly what I want to be with no fear.”

Change happens when we find the links that connect us as people, and that’s another gift that Waldzell gives. We are not seeing a world at Waldzell of separate areas of expertise: science, art, politics, spirit and business. What we see at Waldzell is an opportunity to bring these disciplines, these skill sets together in a unified way. We should go home remembering that in the real world where we live, they are not separate. They are only separate when we go to the university or when we separate them in the pages of a newspaper. But in our daily lives we are all artists, scientists, business people, creators, spiritual human beings. We are all interrelating, intertwining and interacting. And it was Werner Arber’s innovation map that says science and politics and society. And Robert Gallo said that science and society have to be intertwined. And that reminds us that it is really only one reality that we have to occupy.

So can one person change the world? I would say the answer, happily, is “No.” One person cannot change the world. And to me that is a huge relief. Each one of us doesn’t have to attempt to change the world, because it won’t work if we try. It will only work if we all change the world together. And I learned from watching the slide show of Jeanne-Claude and Christo that though they are artists, a good part of their art is spent in meeting rooms, working with people and communities all over the world, getting them to buy into their art. Jeanne-Claude said that the only time their art is a failure is when they cannot get the permissions they seek, whether from mayors or farmers, from government officials or average citizens, to attempt their art in very public places. The process of orchestrating that community effort to create art is actually larger than the art that any one individual could create on their own.

As I took my walk in the garden, listening to the music, the first strains of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, The Ode to Joy, began: “Deine Zauber binden wieder, was die Mode streng geteilt, alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.” (The magic reunites those, Whom stern custom has parted; All men will become brothers, Under thy gentle wing) It’s not the music that touched me; it was not the park that touched me. It’s the belief that life is music and a walk in the park and the friends in the park, walking alone and encountering a friend and smiling, walking with a friend for a part on the path and sharing that moment. And realizing that I was only one person – that alone I couldn’t change the world, but that when I share the world with my friends, that is how we create change.

We heard last night the parable of The Plague by Camus: one person can’t change the world and that’s a source of freedom and inspiration and community. I found it paradoxical that I came to Melk to get away from the world and it not only followed me here, it confronted me here – more powerfully than if I’d stayed home. And that to me is the real purpose of the Waldzell Meetings.

I leave with a challenge. I leave with the challenge to act on that feeling. I invite you to take the same challenge. If you want to make a difference after this conference, go to our website, where the websites of the Architects of the Future are linked, click on it and figure out how you can make a contribution to the Architects of the Future. Make a difference by facing reality and thereby making change happen.

Alan M. Webber

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