ANU book launch: The human capacity for transformational change

What a list of drawcards—Barry Jones, the launch of a book about the human capacity for change, and University House at the Australian National University [you can see my biases here].

The ANU blurb, advertising the book launch asked us to …

… [j]oin collective thinker Barry Jones and the authors in venturing beyond destructive fragmentation and empty consensus to a new and richer understanding of the world.

The book?

Valerie A. Brown and John A. Harris, The human capacity for transformational change—harnessing the collective mind, Routledge, 2014.

It did sound so good.

And what a monumental disappointment.

I’ll get to the disappointment in a moment; let me say first what was good about this book launch.

Professor Peter Kanowski, the new Master of University House [his first day he said], did a great job in introduction, noting the important part that his institution plays in the intellectual life of the ANU.

So far so good.

The purple-clad Chorus of Women sang for us.

I did wonder what a choir was doing at a book launch but they did seem relevant somehow. Chorus of Women, apart from singing, appear to be the instigators of what are known as Canberra Conversations. They say on their web site that …

… Chorus of Women have started a series of citizen conversations on topics of importance for our future. The aim is to see how community engagement and wise decision making can be helped by a more open dialogue among citizens, scientists, artists, business people and policy makers.These ‘Canberra Conversations’ include artistic expression and facilitated discussion to create an environment for active engagement by the people with important issues that will shape the future of the city and country. The aim is to explore different perspectives on issues and try to find the common ground that will inform wise actions.

So that made sense.

And later [I should say at this point], Professor Stephen Dovers, the director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU thanked Barry and led what passed for questions and discussion. Dovers was good on his feet, clearly a man of energy and humour [always a good combination].

So they were the good bits.

Anyway, back to the book launch.

After Kanowski’s introduction and the choir, Barry Jones came on to [presumably] launch the book.

Then everything turned to custard.

Now I shold hasten to add that Barry Jones is everything that people say about him. He is smart, he is erudite, he is humorous, and he can see a much broader picture than most people. And all the arm waving and gesticulating is, well, Barry Jones.

But this night was not the night to see all that shine.

There was no cohesion to Jones’s presentation, no theme, no all-encompassing point. It was a disjointed series of statements, anecdotes and asides that still left us [me at least] wondering what the book might be about—there was no feel for the scope of the book and what it was trying to achieve.

And worse still, Jones was way too critical of the practicality of the prescriptions of the book. This was not his role, it seemed to me [and I’m not saying he should not raise issues with the book and take part in the conversation, just that this should not have been the main drift of his argument].

Now it seems that there are seven crucial questions, or principles, that are addressed in the book [I found them later and appended them to this post]. Jones never made this clear, no one made this clear, so we were [well, I was] working in a bit of a vacuum—Jones waving his arms, punctuating the air to make some, no doubt, erudite point, but never quite getting to the nub of the matter.

Jones never did launch the book and eventually we had a panel of the authors and Jones ready to answer questions and continue what had passed for elucidation and discussion. But we couldn’t see the panel, tucked away below eye-line and worse still we couldn’t hear them; the belated arrival of a hand-held microphone only made it worse.

It wasn’t until 6.40pm, ten minutes after the scheduled finishing time [and well into the unsatisfactory discussion time] that a student of Valerie Brown’s [perhaps frustrated too] asked the authors to ‘give some oxygen’ to the seven principles–questions.

Valerie, and then John, tried to comply but by then it was too late. We were all listening to the popping of champagne corks in the background and hoping the agony would soon be over.

Professor Dovers, nimbly and with great good humour, tried to head of the train wreck but it was too late.

Cathy McGowan, the new Federal MP for Indi [you know, that knocked off that Sophie Mirabella at the last election using a local version of grass roots democracy] was there, then she wasn’t, gone back to Parliament House and the excitement of what passes debate in this country [and it would have been interesting to hear from her but it wasn’t really her night].

The new Master of University House would have been disappointed, the authors of what is no doubt a very useful and interesting book [and one which could have the potential to change the way we approach issues—desperately needed, let’s face it] would have been disappointed, and the wait [sorry, I don’t like that word either] staff outside watching their champagne go flat would have been disappointed.

I hope the audience of what appeared to be older academic types were disappointed too. If they weren’t I’m way off beam and I’d hate to think that. But then maybe it wouldn’t be politic to think or voice anything of the sort. [Oh, and while I’m at it—it would have been really nice to have seen more young people there.]

And [most importantly to me—it was my time after all] I was disappointed. This was a rat’s nest of a book launch and a great opportunity lost to garner some support, some enthusiasm and some glimmer of hope that the current political morass can be put behind us.

Even the fabulous Chorus of Women, re-appearing at the end, wanted us to join in singing but we were way too gone to understand the words we were supposed to sing or to understand when we were to sing and when to be silent. And there was the memory of those corks popping outside. [Advice to Chorus of Women: don’t ask us to join in, just do what you do. You do it well.]

I’m sure none of this implies the book is not worth buying and reading and considering. I’m sure it is. But by the end [30 minutes late] I just wanted to be reassured I hadn’t died and gone to hell. The clean, cold air outside was the best clean, cold air I’d breathed for some time.


This was the ANU ‘event’ [I do have trouble with that word] information Book launch: The human capacity for transformational change—harnessing the collective mind:

Information on ANU web site.

Information on ANU web site.

And, in case the ‘event’ disappears from the web, this is the text:

Book launch—The human capacity for transformational change harnessing the collective mind

Join collective thinker Barry Jones and the authors in venturing beyond destructive fragmentation and empty consensus to a new and richer understanding of the world.

Welcome: Professor Peter Kanowski, Master of University House, ANU

Launch: Hon. Barry Jones AO, D.Sc., D.Litt., quiz champion, educator, futurist, social activist, lawyer, writer, ambassador, former Federal Science Minister and exemplar of the collective mind.

Reponse: Professor Stephen Dovers, Director, Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU

Discussion: a future for the collective mind


Also for the record, this is from Amazon [and looks a lot like the back cover blurb]:

Pressures for transformational change have become a regular feature of most fields of human endeavour. Master-thinkers and visionaries alike have reframed existing divisions as connecting relationships, bringing together as dynamic systems the supposed opposites of parts and wholes, stability and change, individuals and society, and rational and creative thinking. This reframing of opposites as interconnected wholes has led to realisation of the power of a collective mind.

This book offers ways and means of creating the synergies that are crucial in influencing a desired transformational change towards a just and sustainable future. It describes how and why our current decision-making on any complex issue is marked by clashes between the different interests involved. More optimistically, the book pursues a mode of thinking that brings together government, specialised and community interests at the local, regional and personal scales in a collective transformation process. Practical examples signal the emergence of a new knowledge tradition that promises to be as powerful as the scientific enlightenment.

Written in accessible language, this book will be insightful reading for anyone struggling with transformational change, especially researchers, students and professionals in the fields of administration, governance, environmental management, international development, politics, public health, public law, sociology, and community development.

This, too is from Amazon:

Valerie A. Brown is Director of the Local Sustainability Project, Human Ecology Program, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Health and author of over 12 books and 110 refereed journal papers on collective thinking and the collective mind.

John A. Harris is a university academic, outdoors educator and collective action researcher with the Local Sustainability Project and Alliance for Regenerative Landscape, Agriculture and Social Health in Australia.

The questions
For reference, the seven questions are [lifted from Crikey’s Eco-Health symposium to put focus on collective learning, transformational change and health for all]:

  • Introspective: What is my own position in this topic?
  • Biophysical: What can be reliably observed, described and measured?
  • Social: What patterns, celebrations and symbols interpret the society?
  • Ethical: What principles guide collective personal and group decisions?
  • Aesthetic: What appeals to the senses as being inspirational and creative?
  • Sympathetic: Is there sympathetic understanding among key interests?
  • Reflective: What is the meaning of all this? Reflecting on the answers to all of the questions.

Leave a comment

Filed under Seminars and workshops

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s