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This paper argues that, while the imperative to find global solutions to complex problems like climate change and resource management is agreed, dominant ethical and intellectual thought leadership in many western nations impedes progress. The Cartesian binaries of western post-Enlightenment culture tend instead toward oppositional binary divides where each ‘side’ assumes to be the whole and not a part. And the present and future similarly assume precedence over the past. The paper points to systems thinking as both a method and a practice of wise leadership of past western and eastern societies, including their conservation of natural resources. Two historical case studies, one of President Theodore Roosevelt, the other of ancient Chinese sages, explore common features of a social vision and the thought processes that created these.