Seeing Systems: Loren Cole, Inquiring Systems, and Winter Solstice

Friday, December 21st, 2018 at 5:23 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. That’s the moment the sun stands still way down south at the Tropic of Capricorn, about 26 degrees south latitude. Our star gives its majority light to the southern hemisphere and us our darkness in which to rest and reflect. The solar system is big and has been central to civilizations and the biosphere for eons. That’s a long time. Loren Cole always understood his place in the solar system. He understood systems. He made his life’s work about systems. In the early 1970’s, he completed a doctorate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. His advisor was C. West Churchman, who had published a book in 1971 named The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization. Loren’s life experiences had led him to his own inquiry about his inner worlds and relationships to outer worlds. On Churchman’s advice, rather than compromise his curiosities and bend to academic disciplines, Loren founded Inquiring Systems in 1978. Churchman was a founding board member. I like that relational circle. Whole systems, understanding them without oversimplifying their inherent complexities, and the personal embodiment of them became Loren’s lifetime work. His mission became implementing ethical social change to improve the human condition. He once told me he didn’t keep a personal library. His work was always forward looking, experiential, and grounded in action.

As one of the original Earth Day founders in Berkeley, I recall him saying that he argued for a different sort of activity from the one that became a celebration on one day a year. Instead, he pushed for activities that were carried out daily such as work in soup kitchens, developing recycling programs, and the like. Embodiment may be the best way to describe Loren’s ethos and praxis. Be the change. Don’t celebrate one day per year and backslide the other 364 days. I think now more than ever, many sense a climax, that something is about to change. That something has to change. Emergency is in the air. Maybe many of us are beginning to connect the dots, to see systems more clearly and inquire about our role and responsibility in them. So as the sun stands still on December 21st, there will be a gathering in Santa Rosa, California that Loren instituted on an annual basis years ago. Loren won’t be there but his dream will be. He could be crusty, harsh at times, but I think he always saw things with such clarity when others could not. This must have been a deeper source of frustration. Whether I’m right about that or not, I have that frustration myself. He was ahead of his time but I hope we’re catching up. I hope our sight is improving. I wish I could be at the gathering but I won’t. It’s a long ways from the mountains of North Carolina (and a big carbon footprint too). I will be there in other ways though, pausing with the sun at 5:23 p.m. for that moment to acknowledge my place, but trying to do good work every day of the year.

Related notes:
AIRE is a long-time project of Inquiring Systems. Check out the diverse organizations and projects within the Inquiring Systems family.

I’m eternally grateful to Virginia Hubbell, who was Executive Director of the Mental Insight Foundation at the time, for “strongly recommending” that I bring Loren into AIRE’s work, then, a decade ago, in its infancy.

Arturo Escobar, an anthropologist and author of an important book, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, references (page xii) Churchman as a seminal figure in the systems field, one that Escobar, himself quite brilliant, has devoted his skills to advance– the design of knowledge systems. This “one degree of separation” is a sign that Loren was aiming properly and of the hope that others will advance it.

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