Jonathan J. Halperin
Jonathan J. Halperin
Designing Research, Communications
and Strategies for Sustainability

Rational Middle and Social Ballast

As an approach to resolving some of the world’s most intractable problems, embracing the “Rational Middle” sounds like a terrific concept. Who could object to bringing together people of diverse views on energy and climate policy to discuss reasonable solutions in a respectful manner?

This was the touchstone notion at one of the opening plenary sessions at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival: “U.S. Energy Future: 'Rational Middle' Will Find Solutions." (The Gregory Kallenberg-directed and Shell Oil Company-sponsored film debuted at the Ideas Festival and is linked below.) But as the distinguished panelists made clear over and over again, we are at a pivotal moment, an historic turning point, a critical stage in managing the energy and climate future or our species. The magnitude of the challenge suddenly seemed far beyond what one might reasonably expect some “rational middle” to resolve.

Confusing the stabilizing middle with the wisdom of balance and harmony was creating an intellectually muddled discussion. The “rational middle” more often than not acts like social ballast, preventing too much rocking of the ship of state. When that ship is sailing well in open ocean, to a clear and worthy destination, then ballast is critical. When we are headed toward an iceberg (released from a glacier melting at unprecedented rates), then ballast will limit our ability to move with needed agility and speed.

As I wondered aloud (see video below), during the Q & A session, when has real innovation ever emerged from the middle rather than from the edge? In another age, “the rational middle” was utterly convinced that the sun rotated around the earth. In another age, it was held as an incontrovertible truth that the earth was flat. In our age “the rational middle” was quite content to deprive millions of Americans of fundamental civil rights simply because they did not have white skin. It seems highly unlikely that Galileo, Copernicus or Martin Luther King, Jr. would ever have been within what we might consider “the rational middle."

We can embrace the rational middle or we can innovate new approaches and solutions. I doubt we can have both.



For video of the entire panel discussion and Q & A session,
visit the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival channel on
(The exchange above appears at 1:22:10-1:22:49 and 1:26:00-1:27:22.)



The Rational Middle Energy Series

For more information on the film series, see the links below and visit

Series Preview

Episode 1: What is the Rational Middle?

Episode 2: Energy 101

Episode 3: What's at Stake

When I began to unhook from SustainAbility in 2008, after 20+ years, to co-found Volans, Jonathan was working with the US end of SustainAbility — and sent the London end of the Volans team a large cardboard box of multi-colored felt rocks, which initially I couldn't make head nor tail of. I thought he was mad, or overly American.

But I have to say that, over time, those felt rocks have become a central feature of the Volans culture, thrown by team members at other team members (or guests) on the slightest provocation. That aside, he's a consummate professional, creative collaborator, skilled communicator, and keen intellect—and I am delighted both to have had Jonathan as a colleague and to now count him as a friend.

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