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Phoenix Conversations --
A Call to Prepare for Profoundly Uncertain Future Crises
January 2008

(Please pass it on.)

An undercurrent of conversations is bubbling in all sectors -- among businesspeople, government officials, futurists, activists, citizens over back fences and blogs... There is a growing sense of crisis that neither mainstream leaders nor the public quite know what to do with. Many of us are talking about it in our own circles, separately, out of the public eye. Very little of this conversation is visible in the mainstream press and political debates, so we don't realize how many other people and institutions are discussing it.

Practically everyone has an opinion about this uneasy topic of crisis. Indeed, there is widespread, legitimate disagreement about the extent to which a "perfect storm" of complementary crises may be emerging in the near future, involving, but not limited to:

  • peak oil
  • accelerating climate change
  • serious economic disruption
  • loss of democracy
  • significant resource depletion (including fresh water and arable land)
  • international instability and terrorism
  • increasingly disruptive technology developments and
  • "wild card" events such as pandemics.

Many people believe that one or more of these or other crises could become catastrophic within decades or less. Some corporations are planning to profit by them, while some activists are planning to use them to push major social change agendas. Most citizens are just trying to get a grip on what's happening, each in their own limited way.

Despite the widespread sense that these are real challenges, hardly anywhere do we find diverse people exploring the full range of possibilities in each of these potential crisis areas, and seriously considering the impacts they might have on each other, for better and for worse, if they happened together.

This is a serious omission. By the very nature of these potential crises, we cannot know for certain how they will unfold. The natural and social systems within which they are emerging are complex, chaotic, vast, and increasingly out-of-equilibrium. Small unexpected developments could turn any of these challenges into minor problems or major catastropes within a very short time ... or change the game entirely. If we could be certain what the future would bring, and how these possible crises would play out, then perhaps we could discover or develop the best approach for dealing with each of them. But we can't. We just can't be sure. And that's the rub.

Now here's the surprise: In these circumstances of profound uncertainty, the fact that we disagree about our collective future and how to handle it could be our most important asset.

Living systems tend to be as resilient as they are diverse. In the same ways that diversified investments are considered more secure than putting all your money into one stock, genetic variation makes a crop more resilient against bugs. Crop species and populations that include wide variation don't tend to collapse when challenged, because they can call on a wide spectrum of strengths and resistances. Some variations may die, but others thrive, with the specifics depending on which environmental challenges show up. The same can be said for ideas and approaches. Since we don't know what will happen, it behooves us to have people and organizations who are researching, advocating, and preparing for as wide a range of scenarios and outcomes as possible.

Well, we already have that. What's missing is that most of these players are not fluent at thinking along that whole spectrum -- or even communicating with others who are thinking about a different set of outcomes. This makes it less likely that the ideas and approaches we need to deal with what occurs -- or might occur -- will be available at the right time and place to choose from. We are talking already, just not with each other. We are people in various sectors -- from diverse officials and experts to diverse ordinary citizens and community members -- who hold different views about what might happen, and who have different knowledge, resources, and connections. It is time we start REALLY talking together across boundaries, stimulating each other's thinking, cross-fertilizing ideas, even collaborating -- because all of us are smarter than any of us.

We can explore various scenarios together, asking, "If that happened, what would that mean? What else would be happening? What kind of response would be called for? What would we do?" We can explain to each other what it is like to be working where we work, living where we live, the opportunities and constraints we know about that might be relevant to how all this plays out. We can share what it feels like to explore the potential disruptions of crisis -- or to talk with other people who feel so dramatically different about it than we do. We can learn from and about each other and store up our deepened understandings and relationships for the future, when we just might need them.

The idea of such conversations -- which we're calling Phoenix Conversations -- isn't to plan, so much as it is to become more fluent and flexible in navigating an unknown, unknowable future together. The more we explore such scenarios and diverse perspectives, the more prepared we become to meet any given future, even ones we haven't thought of before. And when we interact with such scenarios together in a safe, passionate, respectful atmosphere -- whether done through disciplined scenario work, wildly creative emergent processes, or down-at-the-cafe conversation -- we discover more about who each other is, and where it might be productive to think or work together further.

There are many ways -- organized or spontaneous -- to have such conversations. If you are a friend or neighbor talking with others about this, think about how you could explore different scenarios together. If you are a professional conversation host or facilitator, consider suggesting or convening a Phoenix Conversation that engages your community or clients. If you are already engaged in crisis-oriented conversations or preparations of any kind with anyone, you may want to seek out others from other sectors or other perspectives to talk with. If you have relevant expertise or projects, you may want to bring your knowledge and questions into a conversation that includes a wider range of people, a wider range of potential crises, and a wider range of scenarios from mild to serious to devastating. The more diverse people become connected to each other and comfortable with the variety of possible responses to diverse possibilities, the more prepared we will all be in meeting whatever happens (see for one example of a Phoenix Conversation).

The Phoenix Conversations Project is convening conference calls where those of us interested in this approach can talk about what it might mean and what else we might do, separately and together, and learn as we go. If you are interested in joining one of these calls, send an email to briefly describing conversations like these that you are having or would like to have, what you think might help you in the process, your interest in connecting with others, and any relevant experience. We will get in touch with you.

Finally, if you know of any financial or organizing resources which could be applied to this project to help make the best use of whatever emerges from these conversations, do let us know.

We are, after all, all in it together -- no matter what happens.

Jennifer Atlee
Tom Atlee (,,
Susan Cannon (
Peggy Holman (

For diverse approaches to powerful conversations, and to connect with networks of dialogue hosts and facilitators, see the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation website and its Learning Exchange section.

Our purpose is to catalyze conversations that use the power of diversity and interactive imagination to nurture proactive and evolutionary responses to potential crises by citizens, leaders, organizations, communities and nations.

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