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Who Cares?  
Creative Responses to Social Obligations—A Dialogue Series

Monograph 3
A Dialogue with Dr. Jacques Dufresne

May 23, 2001

Caring is a human reflex; it requires no external stimulation.  All that may be needed is the removal of external obstacles for the reflex to freely express itself. 

Jacques Dufresne


The remarks of Dr. Jacques Dufresne set the stage for the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogue group to explore the realm of action in its consideration of creative responses to social obligations.  In addressing the third gathering of the group Dr. Dufresne introduced a set of principles and actions designed to let ‘natural human sociability’ emerge.

His presentation and the ensuing discussion revolved around the idea that human beings and communities are resilient.  He presented a continuum of human activity that informs the pacing and levels of our actions and a typology of ‘Hippocratic Social Intervention’ that guides us to least harmful caring actions.  Dr. Dufresne used these concepts and models to support his point that before implementing new social programs we should think of removing the obstacles to natural caring.

This monograph is organized around Dr. Dufresne’s concepts of resilience, human activity and Hippocratic social intervention.  It also summarizes the group’s responses and explorations of these concepts.  It concludes with a brief comparison and summary of the three ‘Who Cares?’ events to date.


Dr. Dufresne defines resilience as the bouncing back of an ecosystem to its original form after shock or stress.  Dr. Dufresne used the example of the volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa.  Lava completely covered three islands.  Nine months after the eruption a French expedition could find no sign of plant or animal life.  Upon leaving however they found a solitary spider that had somehow wafted there in a balloon of its silk.  This spider was announcing the future.  Today the islands are once again tropical forests with hundreds of species of trees, butterflies, birds, rodents and reptiles.  All of this life has developed without any human intervention.

Dr. Dufresne believes all living systems are resilient.  Individuals, families, communities, societies and even cities can be viewed as resilient ecosystems. In speaking of human resilience Dr. Dufresne described the social hero that lives inside of all human beings.  The 1998 ice storm was a situation that released many social heroes in Quebec.

For human beings, living in community and caring for one another is natural.  Human survival is dependent on this.  Today, consciousness of our interdependence and the interconnectedness of all living systems is diminished. Technology and physical, legal and bureaucratic structures allow human beings to act as if they exist apart from nature and apart from each other.  Dr. Dufresne believes the challenge is to remove the barriers

to the innate sociability of people.  Before thinking of implementing new programs we should think of removing the obstacles that prevent the emergence of our innate capacity to care and to contribute to the common good.  This approach is the opposite of social engineering.

Continuum of Activity

To explore the obstacles to human sociability and alternatives to social engineering, the level, timing and pacing of our actions needs to be considered.  Dr. Dufresne presented a continuum of activity in civilizations.  Stuart Brand (1999), the editor of Co-evolution Quarterly, developed this continuum.  He describes the six significant levels of the working structure of a robust and adaptable civilization as:

  •  Fashion

  • Commerce

  • Infrastructure (schools, roads, etc.)

  • Governance

  • Culture

  • Nature

Dr. Dufresne made the following observations about the continuum.  It is scale of processes.  Each level of activity has its own rhythm.  The higher the activity on the continuum the faster the processes are.  Fashion for example is frivolous and changes season to season.  The lower the activity on the continuum the slower the processes are.  Culture for example moves at the pace of language and religion.  The pacing of these levels is interdependent.

Today the top layers, the faster moving and changing processes, are imposing their rhythm on the lower ones.  As a consequence the lower processes are in danger of being destroyed.  Global markets for example are accelerating commerce.  As a result while commerce can pass on wealth, it needs to listen to the deeper rhythms of the governance and culture levels.

The lower on the continuum the more resilience there is. The social sector serves the larger slower good.  If we want to act in ways that reveal and support human and community resiliency we must be prepared for the results to take time.  Our current systems of care are the result of social engineering.  Dr. Dufresne noted we have chosen social engineering because the processes that stimulate natural resilience are not conducive to political expediency.  When we speed things up however the results may be negligible, non-sustainable or even harmful.

A participant referred to the current dilemma of lawsuits being brought forward by individuals who have been harmed by religious institutions. These lawsuits threaten to destroy the religious institutions.  The dilemma is that while they have caused harm, these institutions have also contributed to the common good.  To what extent are we as a society prepared to sacrifice individual rights for the greater good?  Answers to questions of this nature require reflection and engagement. They require time.  The legal system is usually the stop of last resort when other processes have failed.  Its structure often forces quick, either/or responses when more complex answers and solutions are needed.  

How then do we adjust our systems and structures to respond to the timing of the deeper processes?  Dr. Dufresne stated that human activity at the top of the continuum is sustained through motivation and will.  Activity at the bottom of the continuum is slow moving and sustained by inspiration.  Dr. Dufresne describes inspiration as the spiritual unity of the universe and soul.  It fuels actions based on meaning.  Motivation on the other hand is a material unity and actions require will.  One can imagine the difference between inspiration and motivation by thinking of a person that hikes up mountain trails for pleasure versus one that dutifully exercises because the doctor has prescribed it. 

This distinction is relevant to the ‘Who Cares?’ group explorations. Inspiration will be a crucial sustaining element in the slow processes of uncovering community resilience.  Participants noted that motivation is what is moving us today.  Acts of will to race and achieve are the opposite of the time and reflection needed for inspiration.  The pursuit of power and growth can move us away from inspiration while suffering can sometimes lead us to it. 

In its discussion one small group noted that the population explosion impacts all six levels of Brand’s continuum of activity.  Is this approach to resilience suggesting a romantic return to the past?  Dr. Dufresne responded that our task is not to simply return to the past.  It is to re-discover the oldest traditions and combine them with the finest technology.  He pointed to wind surfing as an example of combining the ancient art of sailing with the high tech of fibreglass and lightweight metals.  The current revival of mid-wifery in North America could be another example of this sort where the millennia old practice of home birth is supported by modern medical practice. 

Interestingly, these old traditions could be equated to what John Ralston Saul described as our foundational ideas.  In exploring creative responses to social obligations what do we need to preserve?

Hippocratic Social Intervention

Dr. Dufresne stated that our actions should be informed by the conceptualization of communities as living entities comprised of social beings.  He suggested that what is needed is a framework of Hippocratic social intervention.  The first principle of Hippocrates' is ‘do no harm.’  Therefore interventions should as much as possible be restricted to removing obstacles to the self-healing powers of people and communities. 

He described five inter-related types of social action that are inspired by Hippocratic principles:

Liberating actions

A liberating action removes the obstacles that prevent people’s natural sociability.  Some of these obstacles can be legal, financial, psychological or institutional.  Our systems of caring have often unwittingly created dependency on services.  Creating individualized funding or direct payments could be an example of a liberating action. 

Group members noted that times of crisis can sometimes be liberating.  In these times we instinctively reach out to each other instead of relying on professional services to care for our neighbours.

Inhibiting actions

These actions are about avoiding or stopping certain behaviours.  For example, boycotting a certain product or socially irresponsible corporation are inhibiting actions. ‘Turn off the TV Week’ or ‘Buy Nothing Day’ are other examples. Producing consumer guides and rating systems promote inhibiting actions. In social services, refraining from using terms like ‘client’ and ‘caseload’ could inhibit the treatment of people as objects within the system.

A member of the group identified the role of law as an inhibitor of action.  Law clearly inhibits certain undesirable behaviour.  However, Dr. Dufresne noted it also inhibits desirable behaviour.  For example, people are afraid to help a stranger in need for fear of a lawsuit.

Catalytic Actions

Catalytic actions could also be considered homeopathic.  They are the small actions of ‘the right dose at the right time.’  When the timing and dose are just right, the effect is large.  Such actions may trigger a breakthrough in how people or communities view themselves.  Our systems of care often override timing or prescribe the same dose for everyone.

A group member observed that a Block Party could be a catalytic action that turns a cul-de-sac into a community of people that know and look out for each other.

Inspiring actions

Inspiring actions connect people to meaning.  They remind us that there is something larger than we are.  Viewing art, writing or reading poetry, engaging in dialogue and walking in a beautiful garden can all be acts of inspiration.  How can our systems of care inspire both those giving and receiving care?

Participants noted that there are many inspiring examples within the group.  These include individual stories and organizations such as Farm Folk/City Folk and United We Can.

Nourishing actions

People and communities need daily nourishment to remain intrinsically at their best.  Nourishing actions consist of planning time and space to make room for the small miracles of daily life.

Group members named eating well, friendship and collective celebrations as examples of nourishing actions.

Dr. Dufresne concluded with a comment about the speeding up of society or generalised speed.  He used the example that about one third of our time is devoted to transportation.  This is the time we spend in our cars and the time we work to pay for them.  All of this time is not available to us for love, inspiration, or nourishment.  Nor is it available to care for one another.

Concluding Observations and Remarks

Each of the three speakers of the ‘Who Cares?’ series to date have had unique viewpoints. However, some themes or strands have begun to emerge across the three events.  These strands have been woven through the individual presentations as well as the comments of the dialogue group participants. 

Some of these initial strands appear to be :

  • Caring is an innate part of being human.  Human beings and communites have the capacity to care. Focussing on what unleashes and what inhibits this capacity is important.

  • The size and scale of our structures impact caring capacity. Going to scale is a challenge.

  • Our systems of care have frequently harmed people in need by viewing them as burdens and creating dependency.  On the other hand, good models and alternative approaches to caring exist.  Meeting our social obligations will involve abandoning some caring responses and reinforcing others.

  • Paying attention to context, timing and different levels of operation in creating and implementing ideas to facilitate caring is significant.

  • All three sectors (public, private and civic) need to be involved in responding to the question of ‘Who Cares?’

June 19 Dialogue  

Reflecting on the first three events, collectively identifying themes and targeting the information and opportunities needed to answer the questions they pose, are tasks that will be the focus of the next gathering.

References Materials/Resources:

  1. Book of interest - referred to by Dr. Jacque Dufresne
    The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
    The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer

    Author:           Brand, Stuart,
    Publisher:      Basic Books, New York, 1999.


Just for Fun…

Dr. Dufresne suggested that a new species of human being is beginning to appear that is driven by time, technology and productivity.  The species is a cross between humans and cyborgs.  He has revised the list of the seven capital sins for this new species.

The Seven Capital Sins for 2001

Sloth becomes hyperactivity

Greed becomes waste

Pride becomes self-hatred

Gluttony becomes bulimia

Anger becomes indifference

Envy becomes resentment

Lust becomes voyeurism

I hope there are no sinners out there among you!  

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