Xavier Le Pichon is one of the world’s leading geophysicists, and his pioneering research on plate tectonics revolutionized our understanding of how the Earth works. He has also spent decades living in community with people and families facing disability and has emerged with a rare perspective on the meaning of humanity — a perspective equally informed by his scientific and personal encounters with fragility as a fundament of vital, evolving systems.
From Le Pichon conversations we should pay attention to the how materials closer to the core of the earth deform and slide along each other easily. On the other hand, material at the crust is cooler and often only move violently. This is a great metaphor for talking about organizational change. When we are close to the core (vision and mission) change is made easier by our warmth of purpose. When systems become cooler (and the way we have always done it) then the change may be violent and revolutionary.
Ms. Tippett: I think that also you draw analogies between how a whole community works, which is incorporating that fragility as part of its living being and even what you know about how the earth works.
Mr. Le Pichon: Yeah. It’s true that I was very, very impressed by one of these things, which is the way earthquakes are fabricated, which is in the lower layer of the earth where the temperature is high. Then the defaults that are within the rocks are activated, and the rocks are able to deform without fracture, become what we call ductile. You know, they flow.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: But when the temperature is low and cold — it’s cold like in the upper few miles of the earth — then they are rigid. These weaknesses cannot be expressed, and as a result the rocks are much resistant, much more rigid, and they react by reaching their limit of resistance and suddenly, bing, you have a major commotion and an earthquake.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: And so the difference is that in one case, the defaults play a role in putting weakness in that and making things much more smooth, you know?
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Le Pichon: And in the other case, it’s very rigid. And I find in the society it’s very often the same thing in the community. Communities which are very strong, very rigid, that do not take into account the weak points of the community, the people who are in difficulty and so on, tends to be communities that do not evolve. And when they evolve, it’s generally by a very strong commotion, a revolution, I would call them in French.