Posted by: chrismaser | November 8, 2011


Every crisis in the world today—whether social or environmental—is a historical archive of human choices, decisions, and their subsequent actions, including those decisions of yesterday. Despite volumes upon volumes of historical evidence depicting their dire consequences, we keep making the same types of decision, each time expecting a new and different outcome. Therefore, we humans—especially those of future generations—face a growing cataclysm of suffering from myriad causes, not the least of which are due to continuing ideological strife and its wonton destruction of irreplaceable resources and the growing threat of global warming and its social-environmental disruptions. Yet those rare individuals who make decisions that would, in fact, further the social-environmental well-being of the Earth are too often thwarted by most—but not all—of the elite, self-centered minority who are afraid of loosing their economic advantage of the status quo.

Whosoever makes a social decision is simultaneously making an environmental decision, and vice versa. This is an inescapable relationship because human society is an inseparable part of the environment, just as the environment is an inseparable part of human society. Therefore every leader, regardless of their hierarchical level in government—local, national, or world—are all social-environmental decision-makers, whether they understand it on not, whether they accept it or not. Thus terming someone a “social-environmental decision-maker,” a “social decision-maker,” an “environmental decision-maker,” solely a “decision-maker,” or a “leader” matters not. They are all the same because society and the environment that cradles it are enveloped in an inescapable, self-reinforcing feedback loop of reciprocity.

Decision-making—which defines all leadership—is an art, and like art, the quality of one’s decisions depends on one’s knowledge, life experience, and perspective based on that knowledge and experience, such as that of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Jesus, Buddha, Golda Meier, or Nelson Mandela. With this in mind, I am the first to admit that anything written on decision-making—especially social-environmental decision-making—is incomplete, and always will be because perfect knowledge, with all its interactive ramifications, will forever elude us.

That said, social-environmental decision-making, which is one of the most multifaceted of human endeavors, is about to get even more so. In the days gone by, decision-making was like playing a classic game of unidimensional chess, which was demanding enough, but those days are ended. As Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey acknowledged, “Leadership [decision-making] in today’s world requires far more than a large stock of gunboats and a hard fist at the conference table.”

The goals and objectives of the past were much simpler than are those facing society today and in the future. Social-environmental decision-making to come is analogous to playing a multidimensional game of chess, where each of the three primary levels encompasses myriad sublevels, all of which are interacting. The three levels are inseparably interactive spheres: the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (all life sandwiched in the middle).

Today’s game is at once a measure of complexity, uncertainty, interdisciplinary acuity and cooperation, social-environmental sustainability, and social justice for all generations. As such, it demands an ever-greater systemic point of view seen with progressive clarity, which comprises the integration of the intellect and the intuition, the material and the spiritual.

Some would argue that my blogs on leadership are too idealistic and impractical in the face of an exploding human population, that human needs are real and immediate, and question what I would propose to do about them. First, I would point out that the ideal is all that is worth striving toward and thus writing about. That said, the purpose of these blogs is to illuminate a peaceful path toward social-environmental sustainability for all generations. Second, we are bankrupting the global ecosystem, not only with our runaway population but also through the destructive wastefulness of social conflicts of all scales, which, nevertheless, are justified by some segment of society as exercising the sound decision-making of responsible leadership. Third, if we are to have social-environmental sustainability, we must accept a new paradigm, one that includes limiting our human population, our material appetites, and our behavior within the non-negotiable constrains of the biophysical principles that govern the universe and our place in it. Nevertheless, many—but not all—of the socially elite will resist any change that means altering their lifestyle and the mythological point of view through which they justify it.

Although mythology as a fundamental frame of reference for how to lead one’s life is variously construed, it is here meant as an intellectual fabrication used to justify existing in one’s fear of change, rather than fully engaging life, which entails a measure of risk. The mythology of abnegating personal responsibility, like a chameleon, assumes a number of guises, of which I will discuss seven. 


A common myth of being stuck, which has surfaced over the years, is the notion of being locked into a certain position or circumstance in life, of being out of control, and thus unable to change one’s current existence. The truth, however, is that we, each and every one of us, always have a choice, that no one is “locked” into anything, that change is always an option. Therefore, a person of psychological maturity will examine first and foremost the opportunities presented by an impending change, be they personal growth or material gain, and will weigh the associated risk accordingly, whereas a psychologically immature person will focus first and foremost on the perceived risk of loosing what they already have and so decline the opportunity presented, no matter how good or important it is intuitively known to be. Thus, as British philosopher James Allen observed: “Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.” Or as author Anaïs Nin wrote: “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

Some years ago, for example, a man, I’ll call him “Bob,” who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, as did I. Bob, who originally worked in a different state with a different government agency, had been sold on the job with the Environmental Protection Agency by a friend, and he took the job only to find out that it was neither ethically planned nor administered. Although Bob could have gone back to work for the agency he left, where he had felt good about what he did, he said that he was “locked in” to his new job despite his better judgment and that, when he allowed himself to think about it, he felt betrayed, miserable, depressed, and dishonest.

When I asked why he did not go back to his original agency, which had gladly offered him his old job, Bob said it was too expensive to move again, that he had just gotten his family settled, that he was just learning the ropes of his new job, which he hoped might get better, but he did not see how it could. Finally, he said it was not fair to let his friend down, while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that his friend had duped him. He had a litany of reasons that sounded good, but when really pressed, it turned out that Bob found it easier to stay, where he knew in his heart he did not belong, rather than risk the potential ridicule of changing his mind and admitting, by going back to his old job, that he had made a terrible mistake.

True, his return would undoubtedly have caused short-term hardships, but it would have earned him his self-respect and the inner peace of feeling good about what he did to earn a living. Instead, Bob prostituted his fundamental beliefs to avoid the short-term pain of taking personal responsibility for what turned out to have been an unwise decision. In so doing, he paid a much higher personal cost over a much longer period of time.

Another spin on this myth is that the “terrible known” is more comfortable than the unknown, even when one can clearly see that it promises to be better. How often I have heard someone say, “I can’t change jobs, even though I know I must do something else because I’m no longer fulfilled by my job nor doing it justice, but I only have a few years left until I can retire.” The real question is how many years of misery is one willing to accept rather than experiencing personal growth, joy, and fulfillment by risking change. 


When I worked as a research scientist in the USDI Bureau of Land Management and later served as an advisor to county government in my home county, I was told by more than one person faced with an uncomfortable decision that he could neither speak for nor commit future leaders to a particular coarse of action, that it was not fair to “lock them in.” In this way, they sought to avoid the risk of making a decision that would be unpopular with the people they feared might have the political power to turn them out of office.

Despite one’s personal trepidations, some decisions (which in fact act as a “lock and key” to protect the future) must be made in the present moment, such as the legal acts that authorized the national parks and wilderness areas, created the national forests, and currently protect endangered species. If the majority of the people responsible for the passage of these acts had not had the individual courage embodied in psychologically maturity to act for the benefit of all generations, despite fierce opposition, our nation and all its people would indeed be culturally and spiritually poorer today, while a very few individuals would have made substantial amounts of money.

Eighteenth-century British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke succinctly addressed the problem of the monetary greed of the few at the cultural and spiritual expense of the many when he wrote:

Men [and women] are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.
. . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men [and women] of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Burke’s statement brings to mind the test every public servant must confront and pass if they are to make socially responsible decisions. Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine aptly described the test, as he delivered the eulogy in 1866 for Senator Foot of Vermont:

When, Mr. President, a man becomes a member of this body he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed;
of how much courage he must possess to resist the temptations which daily beset him;
of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control;
of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty;
of the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends;
the imputations of his motives;
the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice;
all themanifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.
All this, Mr. President, if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be of little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people of whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.

Two years later, his vote to acquit Andrew Johnson brought about the fulfillment of his own prophecy. This is often the price of true social responsibility; unfortunately, few people have the moral courage to pay it because, as James Allen wrote: “Men [and women] are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound.”


It is quite common, I have found, for people afraid to make a decision to rationalize that the letter of the law, the letter of their job description, must be followed at any cost, rather than embrace the heart or intent of either and risk making a conscious choice based on their moral judgment of extenuating circumstances, social responsibility, or the greater good of humanity. And make no mistake, all decisions are based on morality because we humans are subjective creatures; we cannot be otherwise. If you think you are or can be objective, try holding a neutral thought in your mind for one minute.


We will never have enough data, let alone perfect data, which translates into all the data we desire to make an entirely safe decision. But not to make a socially responsible decision is still to make a decision, albeit one that usually proves to be unwise. For those who suffer interminable labor pains while giving birth to a decision, I point out that, in the end, there are but two choices—too soon or too late—because virtually all data are inconclusive. Generally speaking, however, I find that too soon is better then too late.

On the other hand, claims of not having definitive data or enough data to warrant a change has long been used by the timber industry, among others, to justify business as usual. As a research ecologist in forestry and expert witness in the court of law, I encountered this argument endlessly from industrialists. The argument went something like this: We don’t have enough data to prove conclusively that we need to change the way we do business; therefore, we won’t change because it would introduce economic uncertainty into our business and cost us too much. If, however, you can prove definitively that change is necessary, we will consider it.

Although the latter statement sounds reasonable, conclusive proof is, of course, impossible if one does not accept scientific data that goes counter to one’s desired outcome. This refrain is therefore played like a broken record, regardless of how much data are on hand that demonstrate the ecological necessity of change in order to ensure, as much as possible, a sustainable future for all generations.

But not all people plead ignorance because of a lack of data to avoid making a responsible decision. I once sat next to a contractor on a flight from Alaska to Oregon. Knowing nothing about building a house, I asked him how he did it.

“Well,” he said, “before I buy the first nail or board, I build the house a hundred times in my head so that I can see and fix all the potential problems before they arise. As long as the house stands as I built it, I’m the only one who really knows it, regardless of who buys it or how long they live in it.”

Although the contractor did not have perfect data, he did the level best he could with the data on hand, and he took responsibility for his work. It was, after all, his identity as a person and an artisan that went into the construction of each house, and his integrity meant more to him than the money he could make by using cheap materials and cutting hidden corners. 


When one refuses to accept data, no matter how clearly valid it is, one is steeped in an interesting dichotomy—the need to know and the fear of knowing, which can be thought of as “informed denial.” In this instance, a person gathers all the data possible, always hoping it will affirm the cherished point of view, while simultaneously rejecting out of hand any unfavorable data by denying or refusing to believe its scientific validity. To give this notion a human face, I know a man whose refrain to anything that threatens his point of view is, “I’m skeptical.” With this statement, he summarily dismissed whatever he finds to be uncomfortable.

Another colleague of mine used a slightly different approach. He simply went through his professional life ignoring whatever he did not want to deal with on the theory that, if something was ignored long enough, it would go away, including people.

In addition, I once knew a wildlife biologist who worked for a Oregon Department of Fish and Game (as it was known at that time). He was perhaps the most extreme example of informed denial. His professional responsibilities included looking out for the welfare of a herd of elk that used parts of two counties as its habitat. Scientists within the same department studied this particular herd of elk across its geographical range, but the biologist would not accept any data as valid from the neighboring county if it posed for him an uncomfortable decision. This is known as the “NIH factor,” which means: not invented here, thus invalid.

Informed denial is perhaps the most rampant myth when it comes to avoiding the personal risk of making an unpopular but socially responsible decision. I have found this myth in every conceivable bureaucratic closet in every level of government in the United States. If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, read the newspaper with an open mind and a discerning eye or listen to the news with an open mind and a discerning ear.


”What you say is all well and good, but I have to face reality.” or “It’s fine to be idealistic, and it would indeed be nice if things could be that way, but the reality is. . . .” Note how the foregoing statements summarily dismiss the other person’s point of view.

Facing reality, as it is put forth to avoid making a socially responsible decision one feels is risky, boils down staying within the limits of someone else’s intellectual, political, or economic “bottom line.” Reality, however, is what we each make it to be based on the philosophical underpinnings of our individual worldviews. Such views are founded either on the fear of potential loss or on the faith of potential opportunities. Although the choice is ours, the vast majority of people unfortunately elect the former.


“What you’re asking is impossible; it can’t be done.” While I was still working as a scientist for the Bureau of Land Management, I wanted to hire an extremely well-qualified woman as a plant ecologist to help with some work. I went carefully through all the necessary hoops the personnel department put in front of me. After six months, however, the head of personnel told me I could not hire the woman, that it was impossible. When I asked him why, he simply repeated that it was impossible. Finding his answer unacceptable, I went to the State Director and explained the situation.

“Ridiculous!” he exploded.

With that, he picked up the telephone, called the head of personnel, and the woman was hired within fifteen minutes.

As it turned out, the head of personnel had use inappropriate judgment a few weeks earlier and had been reprimanded. So, when my request reached him, he was taking no chances. His problem was that, by not acting appropriately this time out of fear of criticism, he would once again get himself in trouble.

By suggesting that the required decision is impossible, one is pleading impotence from a position of authority, thereby seeking to avoid personal responsibility. When Napoléon Bonaparte was confronted with such a situation, he said, “You write to me that it’s impossible; the word is not French.”

So, in the end, what are these myths protecting? They are protecting our resistance to change by attempting to hide behind the abnegation of personal responsibility for our decisions. In the process, however, we are perpetuating life in the maw of our fears. 


Related Posts:

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• Democracy

• The Challenges Of Leadership

• The Essence Of Leadership: Personal Values And Philosophy Of Life

Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.


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