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Adam Kahane is a director of Reos Partners, an international social enterprise that helps people more forward together on their most important and intractable issues.

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Kahane has emerged as a world class foresight practitioner. This is a core text for anyone who wants to be a foresight practitioner and group facilitator.
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johnverdon | Dec 11, 2018 |
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.

~ Martin Luther King

Of the many wonderful quotes in Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, the one above by Martin Luther King provides the pithiest summary of Kahane's central thesis. His simple argument, elaborated at length in the book, is that we need both power and love to achieve effective social change when faced with tough challenges. When we let either of these drives dominate, we stagger and stumble. Only when they are in balance can we walk successfully and find resolution to complex social challenges.

Some definitions are needed to give this argument its full force. Power and love are common terms with a heavy weight of cultural meaning, so what does Kahane mean when he uses these terms? He draws his definitions from the work of Paul Tillich. Tillich was a Protestant theologian and philosopher. He defines power and love as follows:

Power is the drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity.

Love is the drive towards unity of the separated.

So we are not talking about power in the narrow sense of power delivered through politics, celebrity, position and wealth. For Tillich (and Kahane), power is a universal drive to achieve your objectives and realise yourself as an individual. Love is not merely romantic love but the urge towards community with others.

Those who are familiar with Ken Wilber’s work will recognise these universal urges. Wilber argues that reality is composed of holons, which are simultaneously wholes and parts. As individuals, we are a whole, but we are also part of a community, for example. Wilber argues that all holons have four fundamental capacities: self-preservation (agency), self-adaptation (communion), self-transcendence (eros) and self-dissolution (thanatos). These are some of the twenty tenets that Wilber outlines in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and A Brief History of Everything.

Power, then, can also be seen as the urge towards agency and self-transcendence. Love is the urge towards communion and self-dissolution (i.e. losing oneself in the whole). If we focus too much on our individual agency when trying to create change, we can come across as arrogant, leave people behind and fail to connect with people where they are. But if we focus too much on communion with the group and not enough on actual achievements, then our work can be ineffectual.

The challenge of balancing power and love, or agency and communion, is very clear for climate change. According to Kahane (p.114):

Climate change epitomizes, in the extreme, everything we know about tough social challenges: how they arise, why we get stuck, and what it takes to get unstuck and to move forward. It demonstrates the extreme fullness of our world and the global interdependence this produces. It exemplifies extreme dynamic, social, and generative complexity: cause and effect interlinked and separated by decades and continents; deeply differing perspectives and priorities among the worldwide actors involved; and a situation that no one has ever faced before. And it provides an extreme answer to the question of what it is that belongs essentially together and that is therefore driven to reunification: all of humanity, plus the ecosystems on which we depend.

Climate change demands that we co-create new low-carbon social realities on a scale and at a speed that is without precedent. It demands that we learn how collectively to exercise 100 percent of our power and 100 percent of our love.

Kahane has some suggestions on processes that can help to balance power and love, particularly the idea of change labs (p.124):

The change lab is a controlled environment within which a group of people experience, become conscious of, and then develop strategies for how to cope with the turbulent and fast-moving dynamics of a modern society. In comparison with the "real world", the change lab aspires to be a space within which it is safe to do things differently, be that shifting power relations or fostering a culture where mistakes are the basis of learning. The fast-changing nature of society today means that in some ways the strategies developed within the change lab are themselves less important than having the environment and the capacities with which to continually develop new strategies in response to the ebb and flow of social challenges.

I like this idea and I’m keen to try it out in my own work. Climate change is an issue of such breadth and complexity that we cannot hope to know in advance what will work well in responding to climate change. As such, we need to create spaces where we can experiment with different responses, both technological and cultural, and come to understand what works. Climate change requires us not only to build new techno-economic systems but to create new socio-cultural systems based on different ways of relating to each other.

Kahane’s book is an easy read and quite short, but packed full of interesting ideas, so I recommend it. Has anyone else read it? What do you think? How successful have you been at balancing power and love in your own life?

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criedy | Feb 22, 2011 |

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