Realism and Possibility

Realism can mean working within existing constraints – or successfully addressing the real issues we face. Unfortunately, trying to be realistic in one of these ways usually means not being realistic in the other way. Wise democracy envisions transforming the systemic and cultural landscape of constraints to enable us to address real issues for long term broad benefit.


I see two kinds of realism:

1.  The kind of realism that operates within the systemic limitations we face (political, economic, social, etc.).

2.  The kind of realism that fully addresses the very real challenges and opportunities we face.

I call the first “political realism”.  The second I call “actual realism”.

Political realists think that actual realists are being unrealistic.  Actual realists think political realists are being unrealistic.

We usually find there’s significant distance between the two realisms.  What actually needs to be done to address the most important situations seems pretty impossible within the systems that are supposed to address it.

Political reform would ideally be aimed at changing this:  We’d have systems and cultures that address our collective challenges and opportunities in ways that improve the quality of life for those involved.  

If our systems and cultures worked to do that for the long term well being of the whole, I think we could call them collectively wise.


A key word in political realism is “possible” – i.e., What is possible, given how things are set up?  Otto von Bismark famously said that “Politics is the art of the possible.”

In an adversarial system or culture where different groups battle to further their partisan goals, artfully done compromise can make more things possible.  

In a collaborative system, generative interactions among diverse people, ideas, approaches and perspectives tend to expand what’s possible.  

A democracy becoming wise expands what’s possible into what’s most deeply and fully needed by Life.

Transformational agents talk about exploring what biophysicist and complexity scientist Stuart Kaufman calls the adjacent possible: “It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next…. they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.”

One such transformational agent, a dear friend, promotes the related idea of plus-one innovation. This means we add a potentially significant innovation to a more traditional approach to increase the likelihood it will have a transformational impact.

The Wise Democracy Pattern Language includes the pattern Possibility Thinking, which says “We are co-creators of all that is happening and will happen and life is filled with potential. So take responsibility in each new situation by thinking ‘What is possible now?’ Prepare for undesirable possibilities but focus on positive developments that are possible, now that things have become arrayed as they are at this moment.”

In political realism, the word “possible” connotes limitations.  It tells us that what we aspire to is constrained by what’s impossible.  And politics is the art of working skillfully within those limits.

In contrast, possibility thinking opens up vistas of what might be possible. It connotes creativity, imagination, and exploration of vast territories of possibility in dozens of ways – vision, scenarios, prototyping, experimenting, welcoming diversity and the fringes, and more….

In broader terms I often wonder what becomes possible as more innovations, ideas, stories, systems and cultures seek to expand our sense of what’s possible, starting from where we are now?  How might we transform our constraining politics of impossibility through incremental improvements, skillful interventions, insightful redesigns, visionary innovations, evolutionary leaps, and collective epiphanies?  

If we change the landscape of constraints towards wisdom, what might be possible then?  What is even possible right now, if we were to wake up to it?




Anything is possible, but not always probable. Innovators increase the probability of the impossible. – Braden Kelley

Pizza makes me think that anything is possible. – Henry Rollins


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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Appreciating, evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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