James WeIlesley-Wesley comes from an Anglo-Irish family. Brought up in England with a father he describes as being "more Irish than the Irish", he first visited the Irish Republic during the early years of the Great Depression. Many years later he was based in Northern Ireland while serving in the Navy during WW2 on convoy escort patrols and subsequently as a member of a naval training flotilla.
On demobilization, he emigrated to South Africa. The political situation abbreviated his stay, and two years later, Wellesley returned to Ireland, where he lived for the next ten years, farming. At the end of the 50's, illness and a few extraordinary encounters took him away from the horse and plough into the world of Jungian psychology, meditation and a community of thinkers and activists seriously concerned by the problems facing the international community.
After joining the Centre for Group Studies in London, Wellesley was introduced to the work of Robert Jungk. The influential German writer and broadcaster had launched an impressive new initiative stressing the need for increased foresight in world affairs. Known as Mankind 2000, it suggested that, by identifying the problems affecting the globe and considering alternative futures, viable solutions could be found for resolving them, preventing their recurrence, and forestalling further intractable problems.
"In essence," says Wellesley, "we were saying to the world and its youth, who were staging demonstrations against the continuation of nuclear stockpiling at the time, "Look, you've inherited the present environment and you don't like it, but how would you like things to be? How do you get from the present unacceptable situation to any preferred future state?" It was then that the world of futures came into focus. In collaboration with the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, "Mankind 2000" organized the first international futures conference in 1967, drawing significant participation from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The initiative served to encourage the global development of long-term thinking, futures conferences and workshops, and planning initiatives.
Wellesley, initially the project's executive secretary, became its executive director. In 1972, in collaboration with the Union of International Associations based in Brussels, Mankind 2000 embarked on a large-scale project of information gathering and documenting. The mission had a two-fold purpose: to identify world problems and to assess the human potential, or assets, that could be brought to bear on them by both governmental and non-governmental agencies. The emerging communications technologies enabled an increasing complexity of cross-referencing to be introduced between these two vast fields of information.
After four years, the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential was published. "It was just a start," proffers Wellesley, "an indication of the potential value of the work and of the need for developing three-dimensional comprehensive vision". The yearbook evolved into a 3-volume encyclopaedia that was eventually put online, and today accessible free-of-charge.
Photograph by Jacques Zolty
Throughout his life in futures, Wellesley has been involved in many dialogues attempting to shape the ideas of new generations and to provide accessibility to the pool of vast human resources capable of healing a "deeply wounded world." Now retired and living in St. Barth with his wife, Trinette, what does he see as the challenge of the 21st century? "For global consciousness to develop, which is today's big challenge, reflection and creative imagination are critical," he replies. "Unfortunately, people tend to avoid facing up to the situations confronting them, and in today's world there are many means of dissociating ourselves from reality. Additionally, mirrors distort the world situation and convey to us false images of ourselves and of each other."
In the end, Wellesley thinks the operative word is "health", in the sense of becoming whole, at the individual level over the course of a lifetime, and globally through the concerted practice of mediation in all conflict situations on whatever scale. He calls his preventive medicine for an imperilled planet homeopathic in nature, and urges us to look past the symptoms in order to identify the root causes of the world's malaise.
Wellesley doesn't believe in a magic wand. "No outside agency and no degree of wishful thinking can relieve of us of our personal and collective responsibilities. As I see it, the future of humankind depends on us and us alone." At nearly 80 years of age, Wellesley is convinced that to heal, we must move beyond the power games in which the enemy, so often a scapegoat, must be destroyed at all costs. Instead, we must come to terms with the fact that tension is inherent to every relationship. It is up to each of us to learn to accept, manage, and transform conflict. "When we don't break through," he warns, "we break down." History bears sober witness to the accuracy of his observation.
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