• Fyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Dr. Robert Gilman: a Collective Narrative

Updated: Apr 18

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, April 14, 2021 a group of participants from Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, India, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa, Sweden, United States, and Zimbabwe gathered for the first virtual peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Dr. Robert Gilman.


Trained as an astrophysicist, Dr. Gilman decided in the mid-70s that “the stars could wait, but the planet couldn’t.” He turned his attention to global sustainability, futures research, and strategies for positive cultural change.

His on-the-ground sustainability efforts have included developing the Context Institute, co-founding the Global Ecovillage Network, Citizen Diplomacy with the former USSR, serving as City Councilman in Langley, Washington, and working nationally with the American Institute of Architects on issues regarding sustainability and the built environment.

He is currently leading the worldwide Bright Future Network and its Bright Future Now “adventure tour to the future.” His approach synthesizes a deep understanding of cultural evolution, human capabilities, and systems awareness.


Dr. Gilman was among 11 guest teachers confirmed based on the preferences and financial contributions of 40 registered participants of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program. Participants had one week to study Dr. Gilman's materials on their own before gathering for a peer learning session. The peer learning session provided an opportunnity to share individual reflections, identify emerging patterns, and craft a collective message to Dr. Gilman to help him prepare for a live session with the group. Here is the recording of the live session based on this narrative:

Participants’ reflections were recorded and used to produce a collective narrative according to the Collective Narrative Methodology. Christiana Gardikioti, Devapragassen Armoogum, Flora Moon, Frank Noz, Gabrielle Cook Jonker, Joshua Baker, Julius Khamati Kuya, Ken Homer, Kennan Salinero, Klaus Mager, Manuel Manga, Michel Sillion, Moses Machipisa, Naveen Vasudevan, Rafael Calcada, Ray Guyot, Robert Lindstrom, and Tatiana Vekovishcheva participated in the session and contributed to this narrative.


Sensing the Urgency and Harnessing that Energy to Create Change

As we gathered to discuss our reflections on Dr. Gilman's materials, we talked about the transition to the Planetary Era and the sense of urgency that we as humanity experience in that transition. We are starting to realize that we are crossing the threshold of the ecosystems that support us, and if that happens it would mean that we will go extinct. Once we realize that, there is panic and a feeling of urgency that is very complicated.

Recognizing that this feeling of urgency is driven by fear, we discussed the idea that instead of solving problems out of fear we should operate out of curiosity and creativity. At the same time, that greater sense of urgency around how we create change is an opportunity for reflection. This is where we as a collective are looking for a common thread that binds us and we are trying to identify patterns. If we can harness that energy, we can take advantage of the opportunity.

Finding Agency and Ways to Make a Difference

On the personal level, we talked about some of us ourselves being in a liminal space, a space of limbo, or a multi-year transformation where we are also seeking ways to be in the future. As we discussed that, agency became one of the key topics that we saw as a pattern. How do we move towards mobilization? We have to be part of future actions to make a difference in the world. In this context, one way to think about agency is in terms of small successes, small places where people could see that what they are giving makes a difference.

Acknowledging Technology and Nature as Parts of the Solution As a group of people meeting here internationally, we discussed technology as part of the solution (though not ‘the solution’) while some of us brought up the point that we should first and foremost think about being connected to the Earth. The bad thing is that we left the management of the planet to business people and they make decisions that do not include Earth that, as some of us argue, has its own intelligence.

If succession species are to survive, they learn to create a positive symbiotic relationship with everybody, not just the ones in power, and if we are able to create such a positive symbiotic relationship, then we might be able to survive. This insight is based on Dr. Gilman’s notion that there are species in ecosystems that come first and consume all the resources and then they either die out or transition to be successful within the limits of the ecosystem. At the same time, some of us brought up the point that this may not be a natural cycle, that there are some studies showing that these dominant species are always introduced into the system so we engaged in some reflection on that.

Making the Invisible Story Visible

We also talked about agency and connection on a very general level and about how global change and personal change are actually coexistent in the way that Dr. Gilman talks about transformational change and the era that we are in. So the agency that we talked about was not just individual agency, but community agency. How do we actually foster that? Because of the cliff that we are about to go off, we do not necessarily believe we have time for organic adoption, so what is the change strategy?

We discussed the need for new narratives, something people can understand, new stories to guide us forward and act as a translation, a way to engage people, to speak to them, to their spirit, to their needs, to their seeking of meaning. What is the organizing myth or story that is going to help connect us? It would allow us to communicate at different levels and provide us with the agency that we seek but for some of us it feels like we are trying to express a big message that is invisible. How do we actually make it visible? What is the story and how do we actually evolve together? How do we organize to have planetary influence to make the invisible visible?

Dr. Gilman speaks about language as limiting when it is categorized. For example, the English language is very much dominated by nouns, so it feels like everything is a thing and not an action (see ‘organizing’ and ‘organization’). There was a lot of linguistic, contextual understanding of where we are in our place and what part of the system we are working with. We talked about using visualization, visual metaphors and maps to overcome the monopoly of categorization. In addition to that, our perspective of being embodied in ourselves and in our communities was further enriched by the idea of moving from enlightenment to embodiment and from science as a way to answer all our questions to our heart as a way of knowing.

Piloting Actions in Interconnected Communities/Laboratories for Change

We also discussed actions taken by different communities and one of the words that came up quite often, actually, was ‘synchronization’. How do we connect all the efforts that are happening here, there, everywhere in order to bring a very big momentum to this with the goal to shift the mindset and mobilize local resources to bring change globally?

Some of us suggested that instead of asking how to do that, we can ask what it would look like if this new thing that we are creating was to work. Why don't we imagine a thousand communities that are connected and generating ideas on how to make new connections. Let us operate out of imagination instead of fear, explore new ways of piloting actions, make our communities almost like laboratories, and then ask these questions and observe the answers.

Testing the Model in the Face of Inequalities and Attachment to Comfort

Some of us expressed curiosity around whether Dr. Gilman has discovered any evidence in his life or work that does not fit his model and that is niggling for a model change. If he has discovered any such evidence, we would be interested in learning about it.

We also talked in-depth about the equity and equality of the transition and we wonder if Dr. Gilman has any insights regarding how we can work with that. When we are looking at the transition from the Tribal Era and the Empire Era to the Planetary Era, some countries, especially in the Global South, feel like they need to catch up. At the same time, some of us live in very comfortable situations talking about change that is incorporated with comfort while comfort and transition do not always go together. This is why when we talk about knowing the needs it is important to think about what we give up if we change our focus to what is the most important: what are our needs and what do we give up if we focus on something new?

There is also one particular topic that some of us found missing from the self-study materials: how harmony balances/works with the friction that is almost always needed for change and recalibration. Harmony sounds so nice as a solution and yet there are broken systems, greedy power hungry people in this world, and, as some of us argued, almost all of the time transformation is difficult, chaotic, and demands sacrifice.

Also, as Dr. Gilman speaks about individual and collective trauma, we wonder if there are any practices that he recommends to overcome that trauma. In the same vein, as he speaks about the optimal zone that the person can be in and the embodiment of that, what practices can he recommend to achieve that?

Appreciating Dr. Gilman and the Feeling of Belonging to a Planetary Tribe Talking about the transition from the Tribal Era and the Empire Era to the Planetary Era we touched on the topic of a ‘planetary tribe’ and how this group, this circle that we have right now feels like one. Some of us suggested that there are good parts of the first two eras that we would like to keep, to take with us. Reconnecting with those parts, for example, through the concept of ‘planetary tribe’, actually feels quite precious.

These are the insights and questions that we would like to bring to Dr. Gilman. We appreciate him as an evolutionary leader who is really trying to help all of humanity embrace the future that we are living now and we are excited for our conversation with him this coming Friday.

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