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The Age of the Unthinkable

“How can the president of the United States declare a war won just when it becomes more violent? How did China, a country with an average daily income of $7 per person, amass nearly $2 trillion in U.S. debt in less than a decade? How is it that the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, a near-billionaire financier himself, can say that the worst of a financial crisis is over in May and then in August find himself furiously battling its destructive global consequences? Why is it that we can agree on an immense collection of problems, such as global warming or the spread of nuclear weapons that must be solved now, and then make no real progress or only move backward?”

In The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What to Do About It (Back Bay Books, 2010), Joshua Cooper Ramo faces such tough questions without flinching, He challenges us to ponder how we ought to relate to new situations in a rapidly changing world. He urges us to think new thoughts and to be courageous enough to take smart risks.

Ramo claims that many current responses to new developments are not working because they are done with “old ways of thinking.” To make this point convincingly, he draws lessons from history, industry, economics, science and politics. His message is clear and urgent: adapt or perish.

He is well qualified to sound this alarm. Once the youngest Foreign Editor and Senior Editor in the history of Time magazine, he is now the youngest ever Managing Director of Kissenger Associates, a strategic advisory firm, where he specializes in China. He grew up in Los Ranchos, a village of about 5,000 people less than 10 miles away from the heart of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and earned his degrees at the University of Chicago and New York University. He now divides his time between Beijing and New York City. His web site is

Ramo complains that “we have left our future largely in the hands of people whose greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.” He argues that in trying to make the world safer these people have only made it more dangerous.

The war against terrorism has succeeded in creating more terrorists. Global capitalism has widened the gap between the rich and poor. The idea that spreading democracy will prevent war has been proven wrong. Democratically elected leaders have demonstrated that they are more than capable of taking their nations to war against other democracies.

His analysis of the recent war in Lebanon between the Israelis and the Hizb’allah surprised me. Normally I think of superior military power as the way to win a war because this is how wars have been won in the past. But the Israeli army found out that, the more they hit the cities in Lebanon with their bombs, the stronger their enemy became.

Hizb’allah adapted to the new situation with new thinking. They improvised explosive devices and they built a new telephone framework and surveillance system. They lived in the places where the Lebanese people most needed help. They were seen by the people as the ones who helped them keep life afloat by rebuilding bombed houses, unblocking toilets and create lines for electricity. When the Israelis bombed a school, they rebuilt a madrassa which would produce future freedom fighters for the Hizb’allah cause.

In short, the more the Israelis bombed to win the war according to the old ways of fighting, the more their enemies mutated, adapted and won the hearts of many local inhabitants

Ramo argues “the moment you hand power over to other people, you get an explosion of curiosity, innovation and effort.” He calls it “Democratizing Innovation” and claims that a few people controlling the most vital information are “stumbling blocks to progress.” “We can’t control the sort of growth we need to foster; we can’t dictate what it will look like or force it into existing models. Trying to do that would kill the very spirit of innovation we’re looking for.”

He illustrates what he is saying by the remarkable turnaround that came to an engineering firm in Brazil when the employees were given more say in how the firm operated. There was “an explosion of energy, enthusiasm, and flexibility. At a time when the situation was desperate, the management went to those who were working for them and they came up with ideas that caused production to quadruple while other firms around them were collapsing.

As I read this book I kept marking it in the margins while thinking of our need as Seventh-day Adventists to do some things differently. Unfortunately, we tend to centralise and control information and methods of working. We often deliberately stifle what Ramo calls “Democratic Innovation” and we are paying the price.

For example, what we used to call the “publishing work” is struggling, partly because people today are more likely to buy or download books on the Internet than from colporteurs who sell them door to door. Serious attempts to adapt to this new situation are underway and they have met with some success, but not enough. One result is that, in an often vain effort to boost sales, some of our publishing houses are increasingly offering things that are superficial, garish and sometimes even ghoulish. These embarrass many who are SDAs and offend many who aren’t. We need more “Democratic Innovation!”

Yet there are bright spots. The one I probably know best is the Sanitarium Health Food Company in Australia which has been very successful for many years. I’m certain that there are success stories around the world of SDA endeavours that are also doing well despite changing circumstances. “Democratised Innovation,” or something very much like it, is probably one reason why.

This emphasis on “Democratic Innovation” makes this book more useful than some. In addition to telling us that we need “new thinking,” it spells out what kind of new thinking we need. “Adapt or perish” turns out to be “democratise innovation or die.” This, indeed, is a practical and important message!

Although Ramo does not directly deal with religion, he does discuss institutions and how they operate in ways that are encouraging to those of us who are Seventh-day Adventists. It’s a fair bet that if we retained him as a consultant, his first message would be that in running our conference administrations with their multiple layers of leadership and departments, schools, hospitals and publishing houses, we desperately need to democratise the innovation process. We are depending on too few people who are too far away and too stuck in the past and the present to imagine sparkling new ways of doing things.

If we follow Ramo’s advice in all of our denomination’s activities, if we democratise innovation, if we set free the imaginations of those who are closest to our various endeavours, I am confident that important sections of our church and its institutions will come alive with fresh ownership and zeal.

Dr Graeme S. Bradford is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Avondale College in New South Wales, Australia. He is well known around the world as the author of More than a Prophet: How We Lost and Found Again the Real Ellen White (Second Edition: Biblical Perspectives, 2007). He and Jon Paulien, Dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, are the Co-Authors of a new evangelistic series on Revelation. They are also the hosts of a new series of television programs Revelation: Hope, Meaning, Purpose.

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