The Emerging Eco-Economic Crisis: Transitions: the William Bridges Model of Change

I have always liked William Bridges Transition Model in its various forms and have applied it to major changes in my corporate work, as well as to major changes and transitions in my own life. I used it to cope with deaths too….

I thought it would be interesting to apply it to the emerging eco-economic crisis. From my reading and watching the financial news, it is clear that ‘this time it’s different‘. We are not in one of the regular cyclical financial crises that have occurred regularly since market economies emerged 200 years ago. Though of course free market fundamentalists don’t seem to notice them and quants build financial products that assume no downturns. But what we are now experiencing is like the 1930s: profound structural changes in the global economy coincide with a cyclical downturn and so now for something completely different: we are tipping into a crisis in which we will come to realize that ‘the environment’ is not some wilderness or polar bears, but where we live and our market place. Each time the world economy seems to get back on track, rising oil, mineral and food prices will kick in and choke off the recovery. At least that’s my forecast and a lot of other peoples.

So how are we psychologically facing this prospect. That’s where William Bridges model of major change processes kicks in. So here is one of many versions of his model, as I apply it to our current, emerging crisis. We, of course, may be in more than one stage at a time and may loop back to earlier stages. It is not a simple linear model but it helps us understand where our heads and hearts are at any time. It makes the whitewater of change just a bit less scary:

  1. Denial. Most of the world, most people are currently in denial. To us, what we are facing is simply not happening. You see this most strongly in conservatives, who always deny change is either happening, or that further change to respond to the change, is necessary. Look at conservative reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s: business as usual. Look at their reaction to rise of the Nazis: Appeasement, another form of business as usual. And their recent comprehensive climate change denial. In the latter case, it is not really about the scientific data, but a sort of reverse engineering: we don’t like what we will have to do in response to climate change if it were happening; so it can’t be happening. It is all a liberal plot and those satellite photos of an increasingly ice free Arctic Ocean are Photo Shopped clearly….Denial is what humanity does for medium to long term threats. We are wired by evolution to run when we see a tiger, but not to do anything about some merely mental non-immediate threat…And that is where most of us are. And I am no different because I still fly on jets and have all sorts of consumption habits that are going to have to change. I am not arrogantly saying I get it, I have operationalized what is going on. Intellectually I get it; but viscerally, habitually I am in denial too. Aren’t you?
  2. Anger. Of course, you only have to look at the reaction in the media comment columns to each article actually spelling out the latest climate or other environmental crisis research. It is not just denial you see in response, but anger. Rage, denunciations, contempt, and hostility towards the data. Little attempt to argue with it, but cherry picking data to cast doubt, because it is so damn scary if you let it in. Personal Construct Theory defines hostility as the attempt to defend a mental construct that has ceased to have validity in understanding the world. When you have reached the anger stage, your sub-conscious has realized that your world view is collapsing, but it is not ‘going gently into that good night’ as the poet Dylan Thomas put it. It is ‘raging against the dying of the light‘. And anyone who rubs the noses of the deniers in the data, is a suitable target for their rage. Shoot the messenger, shoot Cassandra, cursed with foresight and cursed with not being believed. Now of course, some of us are also in the anger stage because we are so pissed off with the deniers, who are delaying any realism and response. We are also angry because the market is a marvelous mechanism for driving innovation and so many of the free market fundamentalists whose market knowledge could help, are still stuck back in denial because our current crisis should not be possible under their naive world view.
  3. The Neutral Zone. This is the most difficult part. We haven’t yet come to grips with the new reality, but we have realized the old one is now longer viable. We are in ‘no-man’s’-land and it feels disorienting, simply awful. But guess what? This is a necessary stage and a sign of progress. Embrace the ambiguity, the rudderlessness!
  4. Grief. Well of course, we are going to lose a lot of things in this emerging transition. A lot of lives for one thing. The Pentagon (unlike other bastions of conservatism) is on this one and expecting a violent turbulent century ahead of us, with major refugee crises, wars over border and resources, and major civil unrest in response to threats to living standards. So yes, we should spend some time in formal mourning. I suggest that to organizations that are under going major change. You can’t have successful transitions without coming to terms with what is lost, not only the millions of species that have gone extinct, but the losses to our way of life we have grown attached to.
  5. Adaptation. I guess there are some early adopters out there pioneering this phase. The permaculture folk come to mind, the researchers in alternative energy sources, the localization movements. But they are minuscule in numbers and resources compared with what they need to be. Think of the US Second World War effort. We haven’t had Pearl Harbor yet and so we have not swung 80% of the economy to the war footing we will need in the coming crisis to revolutionize how we feed, power, and supply ourselves without societal collapse, avoiding the externalities, the down stream effects on ourselves of our current system. We are downstream of our productive activity. It is in our water supply already and we need to clean up our act, big time.
  6. Moving On. I guess what I am optimistic about, is that once we have ‘got real’ about our critical condition. Once we are making huge, aligned society wide changes driven by smart, lean government and using powerful market forces to innovate the hell out of our productive processes, we can actually look forward to a better life. A less materialistic, less lonely because more connected, more real, more in touch with the natural world and infinitely more creative. And the creativity will have to be widespread at every level of society, every scale. Because what we are doing is ‘leaning’ the economy, taking out the waste, taking out the conspicuous consumption, taking out having our identity defined by branded goods and getting back into a healthier connection with ourselves inwardly and outwardly….I am looking forward to the Moving On  stage. 🙂 And the real test, is when you feel enthusiasm returning to your life, creative juices really kicking in and you are feeling connected to a lot of other people feeling the same thing.
  7. Learning as We Go. I guess it is helpful at every stage to formalize the asking of the questions: what went well, what could have been better, and what would we do differently next time? By mindfully attending to our feelings, by using this model as a compass, as a map, we may improve our navigation of white water skills faster than if we simply fall in the water regularly and learn nothing from the dunking…..

If you are interested in the William Bridge’s Model see:

There is no better time to be creative than in a time of profound societal crisis. Where is the art of our current situation, showing us it more clearly and provoking more breakthrough thinking? Where is the music, the poetry, the painting, the sculpture? What is the point of self-referential art when there is so much more to rage about, in art?

And if you want some data on this issue, I liked ‘The End of Growth’ by Richard Heinberg, and ‘The Great Disruption‘ by Paul Gilding, who elaborate interestingly on the idea that our current financial crisis is intermixed with our ecological problems.

This is William:

william bridges,change management,change managers,change management training

And here is one variant of his model visually. There are lots on the web:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Creativity and Conflict, Economic Conflict, Environmental Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Philosophy of Conflict, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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