12/21 — Robin Lincoln Wood in Conversation with Kathleen Andrews

Fresh Perspective / December 2020

Robin Lincoln Wood, Kathleen Andrews

Momentous leap
Robin Lincoln Wood
Kathleen Andrews

Kathleen: Good morning, everybody. I’m here with Robin Wood. Today is September 25, 2020. I had a talk with Robin Wood earlier this week and we realized he has a lot to say. He’s been thinking about recording some things about his life for many years, so we’re meeting again. We are picking up some time in his late teens when he’s in university, and he’s got a lot to say and so we’ll just keep going with questions for as long as we have. I think we were just picking up when he was in university and walking around with tens of thousands of other people with Free Mandela signs. [paragraph break] So, here we go. Robin, just start talking about what it was like to be with 10,000 people trying to free Mandela and being part of NUSAS, the 14 white and colored university’s campaign to get rid of apartheid.

Robin: Sure. Well, thank you, Kathy. Yeah, as you know I was born in South Africa. I grew up in Canada, and in Canada I assimilated a set of what I would say were fairly advanced values. The Canadians are well-known for that. And when I went back to South Africa as a high school student, I was so shocked because South Africa was like 10, 20 years behind the rest of the world and the white section of the population was very conservative. And so I did my best and became the Junior Mayor of Sandton, and while I was at school I did a lot of good things to raise money for Alexandra, which is the point you came in at in your story from that book that you were reading called The Kaffir Boy. That title, by the way, would get you in a lot of trouble these days because that word is not appropriate. It’s like using the N-word in America, right?

But, the fact is that Alexandra, it really kicked me off because that’s where we were living. We were living in Sandton which is next door to Alexandra Township. So, the point about all of this was that there was a large proportion in the white and mixed-race community that were very liberal. A lot of them were quite religious. Many were very progressive, there was the Progressive Party,  we had an MP in the Parliament, and so on. The challenge was that the center of gravity in South Africa was not liberal and it wasn’t progressive. Just to give you a little bit of a background to the history before I jump into those university years. The Portuguese rounded the Cape in the 1400s, Vasco da Gama and others, they never went into the country. They just stopped, refreshed their supplies.

The Dutch set up a permanent colony in the 1600s, 1652. Jan van Riebeeck, on his way to the East Indies, the Dutch East India company, landed there. They created a vegetable garden and started growing vegetables and wine for their ships, for their sailors. My ancestors arrived in 1750, on my mother’s side, in the Cape, theologian from The Netherlands and some French Huguenots, and people from Lithuania, eventually, and lots of other people from all over Europe. And the same with my father’s family later on, in 1840, on the English side, because the Dutch and the English basically battled for South Africa over about 200 years.

The English took over the Cape Colony in 1805 and one of my ancestors was assistant to the governor general of the Cape, well, the administrator of the Cape as he was called, Borcherds, and so he was half-English, half-Dutch. So most of my family spoke Dutch, Afrikaans and English, which is unusual. You were either one side or the other, or you spoke Xhosa or Zulu, or one of the 22 African languages, Pedi, Shangaan, Tswana, and so on. So, key point: the white colonies battled for control. And then diamonds and gold were discovered in short order in the late 1800s, and the British, in the Boer War of 1903, decided they had to have all that—right? And they did.

They conquered, the Dutch lost, and a very famous general from that war became Field Marshal Smuts. He  worked with Churchill in World War II, wrote the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the preamble to the UN Charter. His name was Jan Smuts. There was still a lot of liberal control in South Africa until there were enough Afrikaans people who generally had big families. They had supported Hilter in the Second World War and took over in 1948. My grandfather was on the English side. They’d gone to fight Rommel with General Montgomery in Egypt. Became a major and was a volunteer.

So, again, there were these two very extreme sides of history, and that’s just in the white people, right? Now, in 1948 apartheid officially began and by the ’50s it became quite draconian. What it basically did was, it said, “Every black tribe has a homeland. You have Zululand for the Zulus, you have Transkei for the Xhosas, you have Bophuthatswana for the Tswanas, and Lesotho have the Sothos, separate countries. Swaziland, you have the Swazis, separate country. Et cetera. And they said, if you want to come to the city to work, you need a pass, a permit. And these “pass” laws were what Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress started their campaigns against in the ’50s.

They said, “Why should we have to have a pass?” Yeah? But the Afrikaners left the Commonwealth in ’63 and said goodbye to all that, and they basically went off on their own. They were then isolated, literally. There was a sports bans, there were arms embargoes, there were sanctions, there was everything you can imagine. The international community rallied round their cause, which is one of the reasons it changed in the ’80s and ’90s.

The other reason was, a lot of people internally didn’t like the system and that’s where we can jump into university politics. There were students, and it’s like the world today, a crucible of the world today. Two-thirds of the people were apathetic. “Meh, you can’t change the system. Go to university, study hard, get a good job, play sports, don’t worry about the politics,” right? And have you heard that phrase today? Oh, it’s the same. And I think it’s generally applicable around the world. There’s people who really want change to happen and there’s people who are very much against change, and they’re relatively easy to deal with because you can at least understand where they’re coming from and maybe discuss things with them.

And then there’s a whole bunch of people in the middle, two-thirds or more, that are apathetic. They just think, “there’s no point… just go do your job, watch television, have some fun on the weekends.” So, I wasn’t one of those people because my family had this background of being activists and theologians and moral, ethical people. So, I became head of one of the campaigns in the National Union of South African Students, NUSAS, and there was a Free Mandela campaign, End Apartheid campaign, and we used to walk, as you say, with the banners down Jan Smuts Avenue, named after that famous field marshal who was a liberal before 1948 and prime minister of South Africa, and who wrote the book Holism and Evolution (1926). This was the very first book on holism. He invented the word.

So you can see there was some enlightened thinking going on in that country all along, but it was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Afrikaners and conservative whites, and then the even bigger numbers of black people. Remember, there were 20 million people in South Africa when I left in 1985. There are now 45 to 50 million people, five million of whom have come in as refugees from Zimbabwe and Angola and Mozambique, and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria, because the whole of Africa has been falling apart for a long time. It’s collapsing. There’s some good things happening, but Africa has been in a bad place for a long time.

So, okay, let’s continue. This campaign really helped. There was pressure from the churches in America. I went to work for Citibank after the university and after two years in the military. In the military, in two years, being on the border where the war was happening with the Cubans and the Angolans and the Russian advisors on the one side, and then the same is happening in Mozambique, and basically the communists were gaining control of the countries around South Africa, Zimbabwe with Mugabe, who only recently got dethroned. Sadly the guy who replaced him is still a crook. He’s called the Crocodile, Mnangagwa, and has a similar situation with Angola where massive corruption has meant most of their oil wealth has disappeared into overseas bank accounts, and now people are being prosecuted there’s a new president.

Then, in Mozambique, there was a lot of corruption as well. One country that stands out is Botswana, but that’s quite an exception and another story. That’s being run well—very exceptionally—and that’s great. So, we campaigned, and then in 1982, I joined Citibank after the army because what the army told me was, “black power and white power, we’re going to kill each other.” There’s already a massive civil war inside the country, war on the borders, and I saw no way that there was a viable future for me with a young family. Not only that, because I hadn’t got married yet and I’d seen what happens when you get married and you have a family: you can’t leave the country.

Plus, I was a lawyer in South Africa, like Mandela and Gandhi before me, I went to the same old school. So, hey, I can’t practice law in England or anywhere else without having to spend another four or five years going to the bar in England to become a barrister. So I thought, “Look, I’ll go into finance with a bank that’s ethical.” And we had an affirmative action policy at Citibank which I was in charge of, and I was also in charge of the anti-apartheid law application.

The churches in America had told Citibank, “don’t lend money to the apartheid government.” So we had to monitor what was being lent for apartheid. We’d only lend money for factories, you know, things that the country needed, pulp and paper plants, that kind of thing.

K: I think I’ve got my Toastmasters Club now with Citibank. There is really a good reason to choose ethically, and it’s hard to sometimes: to know and pay attention to that. But it’s a good decision as far as where to work, where to have your accounts. It’s a really good point that makes a big difference in your life trajectory at that point. Yeah.

R: Yeah, actually. It was huge, because I had a number of offers from a number of banks and other organizations, and I focused on the culture and the values of the organizations at that age, which was a good decision because I did not resonate with so much of what was going on in the country and the government and so on. So, I thought, “I’ve got to work for somebody that’s ethical.” They sent me overseas to London where we were doing some interesting new things in like the Swaps market. When I looked around at all the investment bankers, I thought, “I don’t want to be a rat race-type investment banker. That’s not really who I am.”

I went to work for another bank for a while, became head of electronic banking, then I realized I had to leave the country because it was sinking. The currency had halved in value, 1985, a civil war—it was a terrible situation. I was 29, I had the opportunity to leave and get a job overseas. So I went to London, and from ’86 until the time Mandela was out of jail, I’d be back and forth into South Africa, and I was doing some work in South Africa with Toyota and some other big organizations which had problems with the unions and values and culture. I was also there when the transition was happening. My father was involved in that. He knew all the top executives and I consulted to some of them and we did some strategies for the transition. But-

K: You’re talking about the transition from apartheid.

R: Yeah. Particularly between ’92 and ’94, as we knew Mandela was going to become president, inevitably, and as all the top leadership of all the big organizations, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the big companies in South Africa, the banks—they were all preparing for a transition to what’s called black economic empowerment. They were going to have to hire a lot of senior people, black people, into key positions, and also give them shareholdings in the companies. That was one of the deals that was done to end apartheid.

And that went along with a lot of international systems in terms of running negotiations, which is where, of course, you hear stories from all sorts of people. I know people who were working on the Mont Fleur scenarios which helped South African leaders, including the ANC, take the high road and not the low road, and people like Adam Kahane and Shell who were sponsoring that. Adam was with Shell at the time. I also know other people who were instrumental in the negotiations, like the head of a part of Anglo American called Clem Sunter, and Clem did all that very well. So, everybody came together to try to get the country out of the mess it was in. And it worked, which was a miracle.

However, you’ve got to remember that what I said in the beginning: on the one side you had communists, anarchists, and everybody else. On the other extreme, you had right-wingers, people who would have supported Hitler, right? And ironically that spectrum is all there, all around the world still today. It hasn’t changed. But we’re in this one country with, at the time, 20 million people, now 45 million. We had this incredible variety. 24 African tribes, 20 or so European tribes who’d emigrated there over 300 years and had built a stake in the country, and there were quite a lot more white people in South Africa relative to the other populations than anywhere in Africa, something like 20%. Like Zimbabwe had like 5%.

So there was a much bigger stake for them and they went along with this, although some very right-wing people got shot when they tried to ambush some black soldiers. And quite frankly, a lot of us were pleased to see these right-wingers get their due justice. As much as we see these people marching around with Nazi and Ku Klux Klans flags in the United States today, the Torchlight parades and so on. So that’s a bit of a thumbnail sketch of things to date. So would you like to throw in a few more questions?

K: Interesting what you said about there being 20-some European tribes, talking about it in tribal ways. When you left, and now looking at South Africa today, how do you see the different colors of the spiral playing out and connecting the dots between 1985 and today in South Africa? And how much are you paying attention to South African politics?

R: Well, my mother still lives in Sandton and I have cousins in Cape Town and in Natal, in Pietermaritzburg, cousins and farmers and dentists and people in different parts, and a half-sister and family in the Garden Route. So I stay in touch with a lot of people in South Africa and I see what it’s like day-to-day for them. It’s a good question, what is the difference between 1985 and 2020? I mean, that’s 35 years, it’s a long time. What’s changed?

K: And what’s the connection? Because you say, the history of the place still has a lot to do with what’s possible and what’s happening today. It’s a big time span, but still, there is… The roots are there, and the past is there, and then so, the past is still affecting today, and there’s progress.

R: There is. There’s 250 years of history after white colonials landed. And remember, it wasn’t like America or Australia where they wiped out the Aboriginals and the Indians. Or Canada, quite frankly. Gave them tiny little bits of land. Nobody was wiped out in South Africa. There was a coexistence, mostly peaceful. The Afrikaners did push through into [their lands]. The Zulus, in particular, were a very big, powerful tribe, and when people pushed into Zululand, both the Afrikaners and the British had massive battles with the Zulus. Obviously, when you have guns against spears, guns tend to win out (if you’ve ever seen the movie Zulu, where the British almost get wiped out, but somehow managed to survive a battle in Zululand).

And when you read about the Battle of Blood River where the Afrikaners had a circle of wagons and sort of fire on a few thousand Zulu impis that were invading and trying to kill them. But largely it was a peaceful coexistence and that is something that’s ignored. However, as I said earlier, in 1948 the Afrikaner right-wing Nationalist Party took control of the government and changed the previously reasonably liberal. I mean, there was nothing like apartheid. There was a kind of keeping groups separate but equal type idea, but there wasn’t this idea of racism and repression. Sure, there were racists. There always are. There are racists everywhere we live in the world. I mean, there’s racists in Thailand who hate the Muslims, and they’re Buddhists. I mean, how can Buddhists be racist? But they are racist.

So racism is just a simple horrible fact of life in a lot of pre-modern societies. But the beauty of modernism, in terms of spiral dynamics, integral and all of the other developmental theories like Kegan and Harvard and so, the 400 developmental theories that are out there, the eight stages, the fact is that when you get into post-modernism, sorry, after pre-modernism, you find that the people come around a set of values which are more inclusive. You can still have racism and you can still have liberals, left-wing conservatives, different kind of attitudes to politics and stuff, but modernism tends to lift the tide a bit so that some boats rise. I mean, not all boats rise equally, but some boats rise and most boats rise a little bit, if not all, even though we see the end of modernism now with trickle-down being thrown out as a viable economic theory, we understand we’ve got to do a lot more to equalize opportunity and so on.

So, in 1985 South Africa, there were 20 million people when I left. Six million of them were not people of a black tribe. There were whites, Indians, colored, some Chinese and Japanese. Funny little side note. They named the Japanese honorary whites, so they could travel anywhere in South Africa, because of Toyota and other companies that were working in South Africa. But the Chinese… some Chinese may become honorary whites, as well, but everybody had their classification, which tribe you came from.

There was a massive civil war, there were wars on all fronts in Angola and Mozambique and Zimbabwe going on just on the borders of South Africa. Something like five million people were displaced in those wars. More people died than in Vietnam, okay? But nobody ever heard about it. Why? Because the United States was on the one side backing South Africa, surreptitiously sending arms, and Russia was backing the Cubans, the Angolans and the Mozambicans who were firing missiles into South Africa. Also I can tell you, it was a very bad situation and I ended up in the hospital twice with guys on either side with legs blown off by landmines. Luckily, I was a military legal adviser as a lieutenant so I didn’t get in the front line, but I could easily have been one of those guys.

Then, what happened in the late ’80s was the government woke up. They realized that they were losing the civil war, that the country was in chaos, the townships were on fire. I mean, you think what’s going on in America is bad right now, right? The rioting. Well, there were blacks against blacks, blacks against whites… There were all different groups battling each other, some horrible violence going on. I won’t even go into all of it. They would put tires around people’s necks, filled with petrol, and they’d light them. That’s how they killed people. They burned them to death with a tire filled with petrol around their neck. It’s called necklacing.

Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie Mandela, was involved in a murder or two of people around her. The whole situation became very, very violent and horrible. So the government said, “Okay, we’re losing the plot here. What’s the way out?” They talked to a lot of people, the big businesses like Anglo American [businesses], the banks, and so on. Citibank left South Africa in the mid ’80s as well as Chase and most of the other big banks. They closed everything down. So, they were running out of money, they’re running out of time. This whole thing took a number of years. They had many meetings with the ANC, and by 1989 they decided, “We’ve got to release Mandela,” because he was the only guy that agreed to negotiate with them.

The rest said, “No, we don’t want to negotiate with you.” But Mandela said, “look, let’s be reasonable,” and persuaded the other ANC leaders to go along with it, even though they were still a little distrustful. The South African Communist Party was definitely skeptical. However, Mandela was an amazing person. He spent 27 years in jail and he forgave his jailers. He understood their psychology, and he had developed a long way beyond the young attorney that began marching for civil rights, as it were, in the ’50s and ’60s.

So, he held it all together, which is quite amazing. And de Klerk, who was negotiating with him, and who ironically was one of the harder right-wing prime ministers of South Africa, had a dream. He woke up the next morning and his wife asked him what he was dreaming about. He said, “it was strange. I dreamt that God told me to release Nelson Mandela.” He was quite a religious guy, and he obviously had a conscience of some sort. So he persuaded the other hardline Afrikaners, “maybe we should negotiate.”

And so by 1990, Mandela was out of jail and they were preparing him and negotiating the terms of the transition. By 1994, when the election was held and Mandela was president of the ANC again, and became the new president of South Africa, things looked like they were going very well. They did for Mandela’s two terms. Mbeki, who came after him, did a reasonable job. But then the rot set in with a guy called Jacob Zuma who has eight wives and who used government money to fund all his own luxury homes and did Arms Deals behind the scenes for bribes. He also had a deal with the Russians on nuclear power plants, which South Africa definitely doesn’t need. Again this was done for massive bribes.

That was all destroyed, thank God. Zuma was thrown out and a new guy that I knew, and you’ll see it in that book on South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa became president. Now Cyril was a client of our law firm when I was a young lawyer, and he was head of the National Union of Mine Workers. Very educated and intelligent guy. His wife is a doctor. He is a modernist. Zuma was really a pre-modern traditionalist and was pulling the country back into that kind of state, which is not a good state, because that’s what causes most African societies to collapse under dictatorial leaders. Strong men of Africa is the theme, right?

In the 45-50 countries in Africa since World War II that went independent, about 90% of them ended up with a strongman dictator for life, which is a reflection of what’s called the Purple or the tribal value system. Because in the tribal and then the post-tribal value system, people respect a strong leader and they tend to forgive them for looking after their family and making their sons presidents of this and that, and in giving everybody favors, handing out the goodies to everybody that supports them, for loyalty. That’s the tribal system. It happens all over the world and this country still runs on that basis.

But when you come to the city, a vast number of black people immigrated into the cities and went to Soweto, South Western Townships, went to Alexandra, went to places in the Eastern Cape which I’ve been into to transform hospital systems that were failing in these townships back in the early 2000s. And, again, you see this clash between modernism which forms with a very strong law-abiding conformist, what you might call, divine or basic order. There’s something [inaudible 00:28:24] that’s higher than yourself in this order, whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, doesn’t matter. A Buddhist. Yeah.

You respect that there’s a much bigger system and that’s what enables nation states to exist, is that people feel a loyalty to something bigger than themselves, to their country, not just to their tribe or their gang, which is where you get the Red Power politics, the power guns, that tend to run the Mafia and the gangs and many military systems around the world. Power is all they care about. But now you beget the idea of basic human rights. You get that idea. You get the idea of democracy. And everywhere that America has invaded 100 times where there hasn’t been that layer of blue, what we used to call the British civil society blue, which is what enabled many British colonies to become successful after they became independent, like India, was they had a system of rules.

And people understood that there’s a rule of law that is higher than the rule of man. And that took hundreds of years to happen in England and Europe, because kings was the rule of man. Kings was tribal. But when you get down to modernist thinking, you end up with this rule of law, and that has been the founding basis of all modernist civilizations, from Europe to America, less so in places like Mexico and Columbia, obviously, but they are changing.

And so, key point. The center of gravity of a society, like I said, the history, where the people have come from and where they’re at and what they value and prioritize most in their lives, is a constraint on what you can do in that society. And so they did whatever they could in South Africa. Amazingly, miraculously, between ’85 and ’94, put Mandela in. He was a modernist, he understood the rule of law. He was a lawyer. Generally, apart from ambulance-chasing lawyers and other corrupt-type lawyers, the fact is that most lawyers, 95% of them, value the rule of law.

I’m an ex-advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa, and I value the rule of law. In my life that has been such a big plus for me, compared to some of the people I’ve had to deal with who didn’t value that. As I’ve always said to people like that, “You know what? I’m just going to do what the law says is right in this situation, when there’s a conflict. And I will go with that system. I will accept that decision.” But you know, in a lot of places where you’ve got that gang power-of-God mentality, they’re going to fight each other, and it’s often to the death. And that happens in so many countries today because they don’t honor something bigger than themselves.

Now, South Africa had another thing going for it. It had a fantastic achiever, scientific, technological cast of people, professionals, including people of color, who had learned that science and technology were the way forward. Innovation was the way forward in society, and so they developed many, many great things and took many innovations into South Africa that made it a very successful country. Remember, they had diamonds, gold, fantastic farm land, fantastic… They export oranges, fruit around the world, grapes, wine, so it’s a very great country. 14 different biomes, so very diverse.

But the problem was that the center of gravity, after Mandela, basically fell backwards under Zuma and Mbeki, and what happened was, when the population more than doubled and five million refugees came in from Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, the DRC, Democratic Republic of the Congo… I mean the people living in my mother’s apartments these days come from those countries, in addition to, I think, there’s her, and she’s 85, there’s her and a few white women left living in those apartments, and the rest, it’s all people from all over Africa. Nigerians, you know, you name it.

But they are modernists, right? They’ve got jobs, they’re driving their car to work, they’re doing their thing, they’re following the rules, most of the time, and that’s what’s keeping that part of South Africa going. The challenge is that there’s been an unemployment rate of roughly 30 to 40% since I was a student at university. Now, why is that? Because of the birth rate. When the birth rate is twice the economic growth rate in the country for 50 years, there’s no way, when you just multiply that out, you look at the effects of that, there’s just no way you can ever have enough jobs for everybody.

Overpopulation, a problem around the world. Why Malaysia is way ahead of Indonesia, there’s half the number of people in Malaysia to the number of people in Indonesia. Malaysia can handle its population, can meet its responsibilities. Indonesia is a mess, for other reasons, too, obviously. But when you travel around the world you see this, that overpopulation strains every single system in a place, and when the amount of jobs, money, resources becomes limited, it leads to crime. Massive amounts of crime. And murder. Murder rates go sky-high.

Now, most of the murder in South Africa is black on black, but there’s a lot of… There’s some black on white, and some, very small amount of white on white, and I think the Indians and the other coloreds are kind of in the middle there somewhere. And it’s a similar set of ratios in America, as I see it at the moment. And because of that inner city poverty it becomes entrenched and these attitudes harden. That’s why we see it in America, as we’re seeing now, we’ve seen in South Africa for 35 years since I left. And then they’ve got a real problem because the country’s economic growth is stagnating and they had to borrow money from China. And China pretty much owns a lot of African countries now which has lent so much money to them, not South Africa, but you know… So, they’re between a rock and a hard place.

Now, a lot of good things are happening in South Africa, and I could tell you about that, but what I’m trying to do is give you a thing of the center of gravity is still pre-modern, yeah? And when out of 45 million people, 35 million people are living close to the breadline in an emerging post-tribal society, even if they’re in an urban area, the basic things like garbage, right? There’s garbage everywhere. There’s rubbish. It’s like Mad Max from Thunderdome, with the fires in oil drums scenario in a lot of cities. The center of Johannesburg is a no-go area. It’s very, very dangerous, and everybody moved down to Sandton to run their business and banks now in Sandton. My law firm is right next to Citibank there, Werksmans in Sandton.

So, as we said, in Citibank we said, “When there is a black power takeover,” which there was, eventually, “You will have to accept that the standards in South Africa will go down.” They will lower, because the average critical mass of people in the countryside, you eat a banana or something, you throw the peel and it biodegrades, right? The problem is in the city, you go to McDonald’s, you buy a burger, you throw the polystyrene away, that lasts like 1,000 years, right? And it’s not in their culture. It’s not like bad people, they just don’t think it is. Like, “Oh, yeah, it’s just… That’s the way we’ve done things for ever.”

So that consciousness is changing, too, but you see that in the rest of the developing world where there’s massive amounts of garbage, whether it’s Haiti or Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur, when you fly into KL, you see the rubbish dump. There are people picking stuff out of the rubbish dump in Kuala Lumpur right by the airport. Little kids. That shocked me when I was there in the ’90s. So, what are you going to do? I mean, South Africa is that complex, rich, fascinating place, very beautiful, with some amazing people doing incredible things, and even though everybody’s kind of trying to do their best, they just, most of them, two-thirds of the people, are just barely managing to make ends meet. And there’s a huge criminal element now because that’s the only way they can make a living.

“What are you going to do?” is the question. “What are you going to do?” Now, here’s the thing. It’s a bit like the current global situation in the microcosm. If I look at the global situation, I say, “Well, hell, we’re in a very similar situation globally.” Massive income inequality, terrible environmental negative impact, most people are apathetic, some care, some do stuff, quite a lot are in denial or actively trying to stop the good that’s being done, like the oil companies, coal companies. They’re losing, but they’re trying to slow things down.

K: Right.

R: Saudi Arabia, America vote against everything in the climate conferences.

K: Right. I think I see why… I’ve got a friend of mine that she’s taken up a cause of reduced population growth. There’s something really interesting you said there, it’s like way different from the track we’ve been on about, with the birth rate is twice the economic growth rate, how can you… You’re going to have troubles.

R: It’s inevitable.

K: But it just seems like with the progress we’re at, today, there’s just going to be fewer and fewer jobs, which means that working towards just having a lower birth rate than we’ve got, wherever you are around the globe, as things progress, if you’re going to prevent constant revolt, you’ve got to have people… Jobs are changing, but you’ve go to have a worth… A path for people to feel worthwhile in what they’re doing day-to-day, which kind of means a job. But of doing something about that birth rate.

Keeping that in terms with growth, so there’s kind of a match between what there is for a worthwhile way of making a living and the number of people.

R: Yeah. Look, there’s no question that 7.7 billion people on planet earth is twice as many as we should have. And the UN has finally noted that the population growth rate is slowing because they were predicting nine billion people by 2050, which would be horrific for everyone concerned. Because, here’s the thing that Americans and others are learning now, as California burns and as wine estates and big fancy houses burn, is that rich people can’t isolate themselves from, excuse my French, the shit that’s happening. They can’t. I mean, last time the fires in California, Rupert Murdoch lost his villa near Los Angeles, and I’m very pleased that happened. And I’m very pleased that some of these people have lost something and this time around, but for the rest of the people, they don’t deserve this at all. It’s a catastrophe.

It may be, like the rich in South Africa finally understood, the writing’s on the wall. If we don’t negotiate, if we don’t change the situation, and they did, to their credit, and Mandela was the guy who helped them, lead them out of the Egypt into the promised land, basically, the Rainbow Nation, the fact is that the world is going in a very similar direction and there is no solution, then. There’s no solution when there’s too many people, not enough resources. Look at Syria. All that had happened for Syria was that it had to run out of water in certain places. That’s what kicked the whole thing off. And so, what is Syria today? It’s a complete disaster zone. It’s horrible. I mean, it’s a nightmare for Syrians, and for the Lebanese who have five million Syrians, and the Turks who have another three or four million Syrians living there. It’s a disaster.

K: And I think there’s something in South Africa I think a lot of people have heard of, the wells running dry and…

R: Well, Cape Town came close to running out of water. Cape Town took a few weeks of running out of water, about two years ago. That was the drought, and the dams have now filled up again, thank God. But you know that will happen again. It happened in Sao Paulo last year. Thank God they had some rainfall, but they came within a few weeks of running out of water. You know what? They didn’t have any backup plan. Neither city had a backup plan. These are huge cities. Lots of money.

So, you have to ask yourself, if this is how short-sighted people are, is there some element of responsibility that they should take about this? I mean, who is accountable for this? At the end of the day, ethically, morally, legally— who is accountable for this?

So, yeah, obviously, on a personal level, I find all this very sad. It was predictable. In the ’70s people said, “You know, what we should do is, we should loosen up this apartheid system. We should give equal opportunity to black people, which should create a black middle class that has a stake in the future of South Africa, and that will want to do things by the rule of law, and that will develop that population.” But instead the apartheid government made black education a bad joke, and it was so poor it was terrible.

They wanted to educate blacks to be servants and carpenters and hewers of wooden drawers of water, as the Bible said in their religion, it was Ishmael Shem and Japheth, or whatever, that were outcasts and became black, dark people and then the Jews and everybody else went the other direction. And they were the good people. And so the Afrikaners had this religious things, too. They said, “Well, actually, the blacks, that’s their role in life, you see. They’re meant to do that. That’s what the Bible says.” And I’m sure you could go into various parts of North Carolina and Georgia and Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, and find people who would agree with that right now. Probably 50, 70 million of them, the ones that support Trump, although they might not tell you to your face.

So, this is nothing new. This is nothing new. It’s very sad and it’s very predictable. And so what we need to do is drop birth rates, round the world, ASAP, welcome migrants, especially those who can bring skills, like the Germans have a million Syrians and others, refugees, from a few years ago. Guess what? They’re integrating them. Guess what? They’re investing in their skills, and they need them because the German population is aging.

And same is true in many countries around the world. In Britain. Britain needs immigrants. It’s been proven that they bring more tax in by far than they take off the public personally health care system. But there are racists in Britain. There always have been, there always will be. The little Brexit people who think that Europe is a terrible place, except they love going on holiday there because it’s so nice and half of them want to retire in France or Spain, which is kind of hypocritical, if you ask me. But, they’re there, and a lot of them don’t even know they’re being racist or hypocritical. They just are who they are.

But you come back to that question, responsibility. Who’s going to accept the massive economic damage that’s been done to Britain by Brexit? Who’s going to accept the four years of trillions of dollars of damage done by Trump? And before him, the eight years, six trillion of war money gone in smoke, with a very high price for vets and others coming back with PTSD and becoming homeless and all sorts of other horrible things that have skyrocketed in America recently. I mean I’m shocked every time I go to California and see the number of people on the street. I mean, it’s just mind-blowing.

K: Right. I saw something that kind of stuck with me. I read a couple of days ago. Something like, Americans are trained not to see systems. Like the way you’re looking at it. Like, “Okay, somebody’s got to accept the economic damage of Trump.” But just, Americans are trained not to look at the big picture like that. Like everything is just very piecemeal.

R: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

You look at the billionaires, apart from some good ones like Buffett who wants to pay his taxes and says… And there’s a whole coalition of billionaires who want to pay a reasonable rate of tax, because they have consciences. But there are a lot of billionaires like the Walmart family and the horrific education secretary, what’s her name?

K: Oh, that’s a DeVos.

R: Nancy DeVos, and many, many other billionaires. That horrible man from Las Vegas, Sheldon Aronson, or whatever, who’s already saved a few billion in taxes from the few hundred million he’s given to Trump. I mean, there are about 120 billionaires in America that pay almost no tax, and their wealth has skyrocketed upwards. Meanwhile, the middle class and the lower class in America have been hit hard, as we all know.

K: Right. Right. And then just so an… Being here, you see the same thing, I’m sure, that the people are just like, “Oh, just raise yourself up by your bootstraps.” Take your individual effort, just don’t look at the… Not even, “Don’t look at the big system.” Like, “Oh, yeah, I don’t know what you mean by a big system.” It’s just like, “Just get your education and you’ll get a good job.” Or, your religion is an effort, like, “Pray to God and God will help those who help themselves,” rather than…

Like you said, they’re like… Even having there be information about, say, which banks to invest your money. Yeah, I feel like it’s a rare thing. I saw a movie called Thirteen, maybe a month ago, about the 13th amendment and how there’s a lot of… Just the businesses making money from prisons, and then, part of it is, the different companies… are members of ALEC, that make right conservative regulations.

State Farm was one of the companies that didn’t leave even with public pressure. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to move my auto insurance away from State Farm,” and I did that this week, but there’s so few people that have the information available to them to say, “Okay, Citibank is a country to invest in,” and so forth, which kind of brings us around, which I didn’t know I was heading this way, towards your Balancer app, which I think can [help] people see at least which companies have their values, which might be a way in towards people. Not really seeing the systems, but how to make ethical choices with their business choices.

R: Absolutely. When you come back to the simple center of gravity concept, which is a very helpful concept, and that is if the majority of people in the world today can’t see systems, not because they’re stupid or don’t want to… They just have been educated not to see systems, and that’s the way the education system works. There’s no systemic thinking in 99% of the education system at all. The education system is designed in most countries to produce good workers, right? And most importantly, people who don’t think for themselves.

Like Henry Ford said, “How’s it every time I hire a pair of brains…” Sorry, “How is it every time I hire a pair of hands, I get a brain.” Right? Because he just wanted people to follow the rules. Now, he had a lot of respect and he treated his workers very well, but the fact was, on an assembly line, which is what most of the world uses to make things today, on an assembly line with AI and robots and everything else, you don’t want too many people thinking too much for themselves. You want them to read the guide book, program the computer, program the robot, do exactly what it says, because if you make a mistake it can be wrong. You can screw things up, right?

So, you’ve got this highly technical, sophisticated, complex production architecture of mass production, and as equally highly sophisticated Amazon and Walmart and mass consumption architecture that relies on software and programs and drones and people being paid $10 an hour in warehouses working 10-hour shifts and not allowed to go to the toilet more than twice. They have to stand up all day, can’t sit down. I mean, it’s like slavery, really, there’s modern slavery.

K: Right.

R: And then Jeff Bezos and the like.

K: think, there’s… You’re a systems thinker, I mean, clearly you talk in details and history and personal stories, but you’re very much a systems thinker, and I’m just like, “What would the world be like if we had an education system where people thought in the systems, or just a bigger percentage of people did, and how do we make that available to people? How do we make people interested in learning about systems?”

R: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

K: How do we do this?

R: Well, there’s a lot going on

K: And what does an education look like when, in middle school and high school, that’s what people learn?

R: Yeah, you know, the education system in most countries hasn’t changed for 100 years.

K: Right.

R: As I said, it’s there to train workers, and then higher echelon like lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, et cetera.

K: Which all can do their jobs perfectly fine without any thought about systems.

R: They don’t have to worry about systems. They have to do their job, follow the rules of their profession, well, occasionally be a little creative but not too creative, right? Don’t break the rules. And there’s rule and reasons for that. Like if you’re running a nuclear power plant, you need to know what you’re doing and you need to follow the damn rules. And if you’re flying a plane, you need to follow the systems.

So the systems are out there and they’re just taking care of you. You don’t have to think too systemically about it. You have to follow the rules that have been written in stone, and then evolved over the years. And that’s fair enough. We do need people to follow the rules. However, at a macroscale, that ends up with those people voting for politicians that… And with political systems that do not encourage systems thinking either. They encourage sound bites, PR bullshit.

K: Right. So how do we turn the ship?

R: Well, there’s lots of things. There are lots of societies and initiatives like Society for Organizational Learning which I’ve been involved with for 30 years, since Peter Senge started that in 1990, and we were working with large corporations using systems thinking and modeling and stuff, which was new by the way, which was new in the 1990s, so most companies. And we called it remedial learning. We would take senior executives and we would run them through various programs and raise methodologies and workshops and stuff, so that they would develop systemic thinking, because they were all smart.

And the great thing about systems thinking is you can develop it at any age. And the firm I cofounded, we had a school in Scotland that did that. It was just… It’s a new kind of school. Like that took two kids and they worked in a project basis, collaboratively, they didn’t have a lot of these stupid endless tests. Like Finland has the best education system in the world. Guess what? They haven’t any standardized tests. Guess what the United States does? It scares the shit out of everybody all the time with standardized tests. Same with the UK. It’s getting worse and worse.

K: Right.

R: So, some countries have understood this collaborative work and systemic where it’s a cultural thing. That’s the big thing about education. It’s easier-

K: Yeah. That’s my thought where you talk about next time, I would love to hear about, oh, I don’t know, like labs you can do with people of different ages to help people think systems. [crosstalk 00:55:10] I mean I just brought it up with my partner’s son. [crosstalk 00:55:14] Well, he’s in college right now, and I said something about systems, and he just did not know what I meant. And I know he’s taking some classes in Chicano history or things, which helps him get a bigger perspective, but that doesn’t mean he understands anything about the system at large.

So, I would like to talk again or have you send me some resources about what that looks like to teach somebody not just how to do things or what the history of things are, but the bigger patterns.

R: Yes. And that… Look, at Innocence you learn that by studying a generalist history, philosophy… We’re not being called systems, right? You learn a… You see that there are actions and reactions and interdependencies and trade-offs and dilemmas and all sort of paradoxes that emerge all the time in human history and our evolution, and today, everywhere.

However, there’s not a lot of money in it at that level. I mean, what do you do? Become a teacher of systems thinking, which is kind of like what Peter Senge does at MIT, he’s still an assistant professor. He’ll never get made a professor teaching systems thinking.

So, Peter wrote that book in the late ’80s, and I knew that head of planning in Shell, we were working with him to create a learning systemic thinking organization in Shell at the senior level at the time, which is why he told Peter, “Finish the book, Peter.” So Peter finished The Fifth Discipline, the book, and we got the first copies of it in the world, I think, almost. And I read that book and I just clapped my hands and rejoiced because a lot of the things I’d been thinking about my whole life were suddenly thrust into the foreground and articulated in a very clear, simple way. Personal mastery, team work, all the things that you need to be systemic, ultimately.

And, so they’re all… And this where you come back to Integral Spiral Dynamics and all the values and cultural developmental systems, is you realize that systems thinking only emerges somewhere around the modernist, post-modernist level of development.

K: Right.

R: Yeah? And so, you can teach it.

K: Right, yeah, it’s not going to make you… anybody rich, or maybe, but on the other hand it’s like the people that are in the systems now don’t know it and just how to spread that wider and have people see the benefits of it, because it doesn’t help you, oh, I don’t know, invent or design a better TV.

But it may help you decide where best to put your efforts, from something other than a financial viewpoint.

Actually, I feel like there’s a really good match because the Millennials, they want work that feels worthwhile. They want something at work that’s going to match their values, and thinking about systems might really be the rewarding thing, so targeting people of that age of, here’s how to find things that are worthwhile, even if it’s not going to make you the richest, the fastest. But it’s something you’ll be motivated to stick you. Let’s both think about that for next time.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And let’s talk about that. Now, I can send you some stuff about that as well.

I think I [have been thinking this way] unwittingly, and then later knowingly, because I’ve been a systems thinker most of my life, and because I always ask difficult questions: why? Why does this do that? Why are they doing that? Why does this work? And as a teenager… And actually that education in the ’60s in Canada, the funny thing was that opened up our minds. It was a very open system based in curiosity, open-book examinations, they trusted the students, and they let you go into your own area of project work.

K: You can ask a lot more challenging questions when they’re open-book.

R: Yeah. Because you realize that all the knowledge is already out there. Now you’ve got to put your thinking hat on and spin and understand how that applies specifically in your life, in your world.

K: Exactly. Alright.

R: Thank you Kathy.


Robin Wood advises leaders and organisations world-wide on designing and delivering thriveable strategies. Over 4 decades he has worked with hundreds of Global 1000 clients and also created several commercial and socially innovative startups. He advises the Thriveable Investment Fund and focuses on developing leaders and boards capable of delivering thriving futures. He is the author of eight books, dozens of articles, and has won many awards for his writing and speaking.  

Kathleen Andrews fits quite a few projects around her 8-to-5 as an aboveground facilities expert for California’s state agency that regulates oil and gas production. She is on her way to a second Masters’ degree in energy policy, is on the leadership team of San Diego Integral, is a board member of her city’s Democratic club, and is doing her part to ensure a thriveable future for all.

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