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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

[Our] unprecedented economic crisis, together with the social breakdown it has helped to engender, reflects a profound error of conception about human nature itself. For the levels of response elicited from human beings by the incentives of the prevailing order are not only inadequate, but seem almost irrelevant in the face of world events. We are being shown that, unless the development of society finds a purpose beyond the mere amelioration of material conditions, it will fail of attaining even these goals.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I will be exploring his ideas about levels of consciousness in the next pair of posts. For the moment it is Emp Civilenough to spell out that Rifkin believes that in the West at least we have arrived at a level of consciousness that he terms ‘psychological’ (page 414). What does he mean by that exactly? This is perhaps best defined for present purposes by the examples he gives of its prevalence (ibid.):

The shift to psychological consciousness resulted in the greatest single empathic surge in history – a phenomenon that swept the world in the 1960s and 1970s at the demographic peak of the post-World War II baby boom.

He lists all the movements that flowered as a result: the anticolonial, Civil Rights, anti-war, antinuclear, peace, feminist, feminist, gay, disability, ecology, and animal rights movements. He feels (ibid) they ‘are all testimonials (at least in part) to the new psychological emphasis on intimate relationships, introspection, multicultural perspectives, and unconditional acceptance of others.’

This is where the pitfall mentioned earlier might be seen to be kicking in at least in places (page 417):

The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.

He quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):

Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.

Following these two threads of description to this point in the book has brought us to a consideration of what Rifkin (page 421) terms ‘the age of empathy.’

He begins to deal in more detail with what is, if we set entropy aside, our Achilles heel. I suppose, as we have two feet, we could extend the myth and say we have two weaknesses, one in each foot: entropy and (page 431) ‘the relationship between empathic and commercial bonds.’ He explains:

While commercial exchange would be impossible without empathic extension first establishing bonds of social trust, its utilitarian, instrumental, and exploitive nature can and often does deplete the social capital that makes its very operations possible.

Commercial exchange operates globally. This has a knock-on effect (page 432):

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations span the planet. Cosmopolitans are the advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. [more of that in the next post]… I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

So, he claims, not only is commercial exchange behind a possible erosion of the trust it depends upon, but also, because it operates to expand on a global basis, it is the godfather of an escalation in entropy. We’re really hobbling now.

He also stresses, as do Bahá’ís, the importance of having a universal language in which to communicate (page 446) though he is seeing this in primarily pragmatic terms, to facilitate this globalising process. Unfortunately, as he also points out, the cosmopolitan current is not carrying everyone with it to prosperity (page 452):

The surveys show that 83% of the high income countries have transitioned into a postmaterialist culture, but 74% of the poorest countries have sunk back into a survival-values culture. So while a minority of the world’s countries and populations are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan in their values, the majority is going the other way.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Chapter 12 examines the ‘entropic abyss’ yawning almost beneath our feet. A problem for me, in the light of Ehrenfeld’s concept of ‘flourishing,’ lies in the terms in which Rifkin poses his opening question (page 476):

The economic question every country and industry needs to ask is how to grow a sustainable global economy in the sunset decades of an energy regime whose rising externalities and deficiencies are beginning to outweigh what were once its vast potential benefits.

Growth may not be sustainable.

He is scathingly sceptical of the capacity of the nuclear industry to plug the gap (page 488):

To have even a ‘marginal impact on climate change, it would be necessary for nuclear power to generate at least 20% of the world’s energy. This would require replacing all 443 ageing power plants currently in use and constructing an additional 1,500 plants for a total of nearly 2,000 nuclear power plants – at a cost of approximately $5 trillion. To accomplish this Herculean task, we’d have to put under construction three nuclear power plants every 30 days for the next 60 years – a feat that even the power and utility companies believe is a pipe dream.

He spells out the problem in the starkest possible fashion (page 493):

First the good news. There is no doubt that at least a sizeable portion of the human race is beginning to take on a global cosmopolitan consciousness, with the extension of empathy to more diverse human and animal domains. Now the bad news. The new global sensibility has been made possible by the creation of more complex, dense, and interdependent social structures, which, in turn, rely on more intensive use of fossil fuels and other resources to maintain their scaffolding, supply chains, logistics, and services.

In other words, our lift in consciousness currently comes at far too high a price and may effectively see the end of us. There is an additional twist in this sorry tale. As the wealthy get richer they become less empathic, a concern that has already surfaced on this blog. He writes (page 498):

. . . .studies show that as personal wealth accumulates beyond the minimum level necessary to maintain one’s basic needs, the increasing preoccupation with the pursuit of wealth makes one less likely to be empathetic to others.

If we look simply at the energy deficit, Rifkin is looking towards the possibility of ‘distributed . . . . energies that are found in the backyard’ (page 518). He sees this as part of a Third Industrial Revolution (page 519):

Renewable forms of energy – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass – make up the first of the four pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution.

To make this work we need, as a second element, buildings that create some, if not all their own energy (page 519). On top of that (page 520) ‘it will be necessary to develop storage methods that facilitate the conversion of intermittent supplies of these energy sources into dependable assets.’ He sees hydrogen as a possible means of storing power (page 521). The last element of his four is the ‘reconfiguration of the power grid along the lines of the Internet, allowing businesses and homeowners to produce their own energy and share it with each other’ (ibid). He concludes (page 526-27s) ‘the ushering in of the Third Industrial Revolution will go a long way toward defusing the growing tensions over access to more limited supplies of fossil fuels and uranium and help facilitate biosphere politics based on a collective sense of responsibility for safeguarding the Earth’s ecosystems.’

For reasons that will become clearer in a later post when I examine the motivating factor he evokes, I find myself less than completely convinced we will be capable of using this escape route in time unless something even more radical changes in our approach. This scepticism holds even in the face of his expectation that open source practices will increasingly ‘speed up new life-saving medical discoveries, spur advances in agriculture, lead to breakthroughs in alternative clean energy, and pave the way to a new generation of sustainable construction materials’ (page 533) and, quoting Tapscott and Williams, of the claim that ‘the ability to pool the knowledge of millions (if not billions) of users in a self-organising fashion demonstrates how mass collaboration is turning the new Web into something not completely unlike a global brain’ (page 543).

He has caveats of his own to share towards the end of his book when he returns to the issue of narcissism (page 575):

The evidence suggests that the new dramaturgical consciousness emerging in the very early stages of the shift into a Third Industrial Revolution and a new distributed capitalism is leading both to a greater sense of relatedness and empathic extension as well as a more fractured sense of self, and increased narcissism.

Efforts are being made in child education to offset this self-centredness. I will be dealing with that in more detail in the post on raising our children. Next week we will explore his ideas about levels of consciousness.

Bahá’í worship, however exalted in its conception, however passionate in fervour, . . . . . cannot afford lasting satisfaction and benefit to the worshipper himself, much less to humanity in general, unless and until translated and transfused into that dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity which it is the supreme privilege of the dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár to facilitate and promote.

(Shoghi Effendi — 25 October 1929)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This time, over the next three weeks I will have republished the whole sequence: this is the fourth post of seven – yes, I know it says 4/5 but two posts are split!

Century of Light quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár (page 23):

The Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is one of the most vital institutions in the world, and it hath many subsidiary branches. Although it is a House of Worship, it is also connected with a hospital, a drug dispensary, a traveler’s hospice, a school for orphans, and a university for advanced studies…. My hope is that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár will now be established in America, and that gradually the hospital, the school, the university, the dispensary and the hospice, all functioning according to the most efficient and orderly procedures, will follow.

There is an indissoluble link between a temple and helping humanity. This goes back centuries, for example, in the monastic tradition of Christianity. However, in the Bahá’í Faith, monks (and priests as well for that matter) have no equivalent: the life of the temple depends upon the whole community, not just a small sub-section of it. It also serves the whole surrounding community regardless of whether a person is Bahá’í or not. The Bahá’í concept of a temple is therefore unique. The Universal House of Justice explains this in a recent letter (18 April 2014):

The Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is a unique concept in the annals of religion and symbolizes the teachings of the new Day of God. A collective centre of society to promote cordial affection, the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár stands as a universal place of worship open to all the inhabitants of a locality irrespective of their religious affiliation, background, ethnicity, or gender and a haven for the deepest contemplation on spiritual reality and foundational questions of life, including individual and collective responsibility for the betterment of society. Men and women, children and youth, are held in its embrace as equals. This singular and integral universality is captured in the very structure of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, whose design as a nine-sided edifice conveys a sense of completeness and perfection symbolized by that number.

So, it is not a resource of the Bahá’í community alone, neither as a temple nor in terms of its subsidiaries. They are there for everyone regardless of what (s)he believes or where (s)he comes from.

It needs to be recognised, of course, that the full development of these institutions will require a long period of time (ibid):

In the Bahá’í writings, the term “Mashriqu’l-Adhkár” has variously been used to designate the gathering of the believers for prayers at dawn; a structure where the divine verses are recited; the entire institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and its dependencies; and the central edifice itself, often also referred to as a “Temple” or a “House of Worship”. All these can be regarded as aspects of the gradual implementation of the law set out for humankind by Bahá’u’lláh in His Most Holy Book.

This process will depend upon Bahá’í communities everywhere beginning to lay down the requisite foundations. How is that sense of communal responsibility to be achieved?

It begins with small devotional meetings in our homes.

This destination, laid down in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, is foreshadowed in the tiny seed of the devotional meeting. The Universal House of Justice writes:

The spiritual growth generated by individual devotions is reinforced by loving association among the friends in every locality, by worship as a community and by service to the Faith and to one’s fellow human beings. These communal aspects of the godly life relate to the law of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár which appears in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Although the time has not come for the building of local Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs, the holding of regular meetings for worship open to all and the involvement of Bahá’í communities in projects of humanitarian service are expressions of this element of Bahá’í life and a further step in the implementation of the Law of God.

(Universal House of Justice, 28 December 1999)

Without worship as a community we deprive ourselves of the food for the spirit of our collective endeavours.

. . . . the flourishing of the community, especially at the local level, . . .  involves the practice of collective worship of God. Hence, it is essential to the spiritual life of the community that the friends hold regular devotional meetings …

(Universal House of Justice, Ridván 1996)

Now these devotional meetings are clearly the early seeds of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár:

It befitteth the friends to hold a gatherings, a meeting, where they shall glorify God and fix their hearts upon Him, and read and recite the Holy Writings of the blessed Beauty, may my soul be the ransom of His lovers. The lights of the All-Glorious Realm, the rays of the Supreme Horizon, will be cast upon such bright assemblages, for these are none other than the Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs, the Dawning-Points of God’s Remembrance, which must, at the direction of the Most Exalted Pen, be established in every hamlet and city . . .

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pages 93-95)

These devotional meetings are not enough in themselves. They need to be aligned with action. The Universal House of Justice quotes the passage at the top of this post from Shoghi Effendi in full at this point (ibid.):

Divorced from the social, humanitarian, educational and scientific pursuits centring around the Dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, Bahá’í worship, however exalted in its conception, however passionate in fervour, can never hope to achieve beyond the meagre and often transitory results produced by the contemplations of the ascetic or the communion of the passive worshiper. It cannot afford lasting satisfaction and benefit to the worshiper himself, much less to humanity in general, unless and until translated and transfused into that dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity which it is the supreme privilege of the Dependencies of the Mashriqu’l- Adhkár to facilitate and promote.

Spiritual Renewal

Spiritual Renewal

Devotional Meetings and Empowerment

Such a high level engagement, of course, does not happen automatically. It starts small and builds up slowly over a period of time.

In various parts of the world, special endeavors to increase the number of devotional meetings often begin with encouraging believers inspired by their institute course on spiritual life to undertake such meetings on their own.

(Building Momentum: page 8)

These meetings are often small scale experiments in ordinary homes and take many different forms.  It is vital though that they happen in some form  because the power of this embryonic institution of the Faith is ultimately immense and indispensable:

When the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is accomplished, when the lights are emanating therefrom, the righteous ones are presenting themselves therein, the prayers are performed with supplication towards the mysterious Kingdom, the voice of glorification is raised to the Lord, the Supreme, then the believers shall rejoice, the hearts shall be dilated and overflow with the love of the All-living and Self-existent God.  The people shall hasten to worship in that heavenly Temple, the fragrances of God will be elevated, the divine teachings will be established in the hearts like the establishment of the Spirit in mankind; the people will then stand firm in the Cause of your Lord, the Merciful.  Praise and greetings be upon you.

(Bahá’í World Faith, page 415)

The yearning for a connection to a higher spiritual reality is far more widespread than many of us imagine: it cannot be responded to by accident. We must choose to act and act persistently.

Responding to the inmost longings of every heart to commune with its Maker, [we] carry out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván Message 2008)

The devotional meeting is an essential component, prerequisite even, for the process of civilisation building upon which we are embarked. It is conducive to the unity which we have seen is essential if we are to be effective:

In brief, the original purpose of temples and houses of worship is simply that of unity – places of meeting where various peoples, different races and souls of every capacity may come together in order that love and agreement should be manifest between them.  That is why Bahá’u’lláh has commanded that a place of worship be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions, races and sects may come together within its universal shelter; that the proclamation of the oneness of mankind shall go forth from its open courts of holiness – the announcement that humanity is the servant of God and that all are submerged in the ocean of His mercy.

(Promulgation of Universal Peace, pages 65-66)

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

How should Devotional Meetings be Conducted?

The Guardian’s statements in Bahá’í Administration will give us a sense of how we should be conducting our devotional meetings, though still only embryonic Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs:

It should be borne in mind that the central Edifice of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, round which in the fulness of time shall cluster such institutions of social service as shall afford relief to the suffering, sustenance to the poor, shelter to the wayfarer, solace to the bereaved, and education to the ignorant, should be regarded apart from these Dependencies, as a House solely designed and entirely dedicated to the worship of God in accordance with the few yet definitely prescribed principles established by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.  . . . .

(Bahá’í Administration, pages 184-185)

There is much in the Writings: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá indicates that they are in effect the Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs of the districts in which they take place if held in the right spirit.

55….  These spiritual gatherings must be held with the utmost purity and consecration, so that from the site itself, and its earth and the air about it, one will inhale the fragrant breathings of the Holy Spirit.

(Selections  from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

It will make our houses heavenly:

57.  We hear that thou hast in mind to embellish thy house from time to time with a meeting of Bahá’ís, where some among them will engage in glorifying the All-Glorious Lord…  Know that shouldst thou bring this about, that house of earth will become a house of heaven, and that fabric of stone a congress of the spirit.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

And they should be open to all, as we know:

Let the friends not hesitate to welcome to their observances, even to those of a devotional character, the non-Bahá’í public, many of whom may well be attracted by the prayers and expressions of gratitude of the believers, no less than by the exalted tone of passages from Bahá’í Writings.

(Universal House of Justice, 25 June 1967)

The Research Department at the World Centre summarises the themes in the many quotations on the subject of devotional meetings and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár as follows, though at this stage of our development we should not allow our incomplete understanding of them to stifle creativity and the spirit of experimentation that characterises much of what we do at the moment:

A number of themes emerge from perusal of the extracts contained therein. For example:

* Care should be taken to avoid developing rigid practices and rituals (extracts 1 and 6).

* Bahá’ís are encouraged to use the revealed prayers of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb as well as those of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. It is permissible to have prayers and readings from the Sacred Scriptures of other religions (extracts 2 and 7).

* The form of programme would appear to depend in part on the setting, the occasion, and the purposes of the gathering (extracts 6 and 7).

* The practice of collective worship is one important ingredient in the flourishing of community life. It also reinforces individual spiritual development (extracts 3, 4, and 5).

In the end we cannot expect ourselves or our communities to rise to the heights of service necessary to transform society without such acts of collective worship. After all, would we  expect to vacuum-clean the house without plugging the hoover into the mains?

. . . . . the flourishing of the community, especially at the local level, . . . . .  involves the practice of collective worship of God. Hence, it is essential to the spiritual life of the community that the friends hold regular devotional meetings in local Bahá’í centres, where available, or elsewhere, including the homes of believers.

(Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1996)

The next and last post in this series will look at the spiritual education of children. It comes last not because it is the least important, but in the hope that it may prove to be the longest remembered.

Beech hedge

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This includes poems such as the one below.

Letter to a dear Friend in Winter

I wanted to see now
Without then between. How
Impossible! Yet hope haunts me.
The colours of regret stain you
And everything. O for the white
Light of outdoors,
Not church colours!
At times, pain forced me into flight
Towards desolate pleasures, through
Bars, packs of shuffling days: each lie
Weakened my hold on any vow.

Now I scribble a lot
Searching for what is not.
The sunrise of autumn hedgerows
Warned me about this mud and stone
Sky. Beech leaves cling like memories –
Dry, brittle, dust-
Coloured. I must
Make sense of what all sense denies.
Cells, nerves, too feeble on their own
To decipher what the snail shows,
Or the corpse whose wheels of mind rot.

Once I held a fledgeling
At point of death – I’d sing
Of death who’d never watched the last
Act’s surrender or victory –
A sigh was all betrayed the change –
No, not sigh – death –
But flight of breath –
Quiet sundering to unhinge
The gate of thought! When our mind’s eye
No longer detects in the vast
Dark the flame to which we cling

What has become of us?
Here is the syllabus.
Where is the teacher and the school?
At this question all our endeavour
Ends. Perhaps it’s better to ask:
‘What if the mind
Fails to find,
On the bleak shore where the dead bask,
The shelter it always yearns for,
Are we to suppose it a fool
As it scours the dark for warm places?’

I’ve no affinity
With God as Trinity
For sure, since my need for answers
Finds finespun theology wide
Of the mark. So, here I stand.
My evidence
Preserved silence
In the question of my still hand,
A small ball whose still feathers hid
Still warm flesh. Nothing reassures.
I felt the infinity

Between fledgling and meat
Silence my every thought . . . .
Until the habit of thinking
Resumed its race to run the truth
To ground. If this opportunity
Beneath the skies,
Though shared with flies
And blind with relativity,
Is not to be wasted like my youth,
From my heart’s earth love must spring
– God knows how I’ll choose to act.

Pete Hulme Text © 1982[1]


[1] This is a poem written in the year I became a Bahá’í and reflects the struggles I was having then which are explored from a different angle in Irreducible Mind (2/3).

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This post was first published in 2009. I am aware that the climate debate has moved on. However, from a Bahá’í point of view the debate that still rages around this issue needs to be conducted in the right spirit, as this piece explains, and also needs to be addressing the most fundamental issues as the Universal House of Justice is keen we should understand. The most important principle here is expressed in its letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran in March 2013:

The deepening environmental crisis, driven by a system that condones the pillage of natural resources to satisfy an insatiable thirst for more, suggests how entirely inadequate is the present conception of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Unless that is addressed we are likely to be applying a sticking plaster to a bullet hole. 

Sometimes experience transmits an insight that should never be forgotten. I have benefited from at least one such insight, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. Until that ‘aha!’ moment,  I had tended to trust much of what I read about areas of which I knew little, prepared to accept that the experts knew best.

When I began to study the mind systematically, in the early days I retained this rosy view of things. As I delved deeper, and also at the same time as I became more experienced in applying what I studied to individuals in great need and great distress, the picture darkened. The more I knew and the more I tried to use what I knew to help those with whom I came in contact, the less I understood. Brains, genes, environments, families, cultures swirled around in my head with competing explanations of what was going on. And when I finally decided to specialise in psychosis, it all got a whole lot worse. I discovered that, even though people saw me as an expert, my hard-won understanding was honeycombed with doubt.

I remember also hearing at that time that, were an ‘expert’ to read the newly published literature in her field at the rate of a page a minute 24 hours a day for a whole year, she would be further behind at the end of the year than she was at the beginning.

Now compared to the planet earth we live on, the human head is pretty small. We shouldn’t let that deceive us though.  Wikipedia estimates that there are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, as many as there are stars in our galaxy. Each of these nerve cells can potentially contact as many as 10,000 other nerve cells. This means that there are something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible connections in the brain (this is 10 to the power of 20, I think: I’ve always had a shaky grasp of the idea of ‘power’ in any context and most of all in this one. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the total atoms in the universe number 10 to the power of 80.)

For source of image see link

Neuronal Connections – For source of image see link

Even though none of us will manage to establish connections between all our neurons, it’s clear the brain is extremely complex. Once we get to that level of complexity in one element of a complex system which involves DNA (the human genome occupies a total of just over 3 billion DNA base pairs), societal variables (I’ve no idea how many: try class, race, nationality, gender, age just for starters) and cultural memes (virtually infinite even if they can be organised into classes), we can see that the hope of achieving absolute clarity about what’s going on overall with absolute certainty is pretty slim indeed. Finding a fleck of gold in the sands of the Sahara would be a doddle by comparison.

As for keeping up with the literature across so many disciplines, we would need several lifetimes, rather in the way that we in the West will need more than one planet to satisfy our idea of our needs. Of course, if everyone else had several lifetimes to write the stuff I had to read, there’d be no hope at all of catching up.

That’s why in Mental Health we ended up with a multitude of different disciplines each looking at the situation from a different angle and generating complementary but not always entirely compatible explanations — models of reality, if you like. There was no way that any one model could justifiably claim it had successfully captured the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Nature of Truth

That was my epiphany. I discovered the full value of Oscar Wilde‘s insight, one that I had in my youth dismissed as a clever joke: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ And I realised that anyone who thought they understood the truth in any of the fields I was familiar with was seriously deluded. At that point as an individual I gave up the quest for certainty about anything reasonably complex even when achieving certainty seemed really important. In fact I came to the conclusion that certainty of that kind is usually dangerous across the board in every specialty.

Only by having sceptical people with divergent views openly exchanging perspectives from a position of humility within a group which is trying to decide what to do in a specific situation was there any hope of doing something helpful rather than destructive. Mutual respect and the ability to listen carefully to those whom you felt might well be wrong even before they opened their mouths to speak, were imperative.

Those factors were all that prevented us from inflicting further pain on those in our care who were already suffering more than they could bear.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognise that a disturbed planet is a touch more difficult to diagnose and help than a disturbed person. And not only are there many more variables to consider, but the time scales that we need to encompass are huge. If I try to use my adult experience of the climate (say, 45 years) to make a judgement on the matter, it would be as though I was trying to assess a complex personal problem and define an effective solution in just over eight minutes. I’d have barely scratched the surface.

Selling out the Truth

There is a spreading sense of unease about how the real complexity of the issues is being sold out by other interests in the climate change debate. Frank Furedi‘s description captures one aspect of this exactly:

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

I am not competent to determine whether the case for man-made global warming has been conclusively proved as against the real possibility that natural processes are contributing the lion’s share to significant fluctuations in the world-wide climate. It’s about as much as we can do as lay people to get hold of one idea, such as man-made CO2 leads to global warming, and be convinced something needs to be done. Reading Nicholas Stern‘s book makes it clear that understanding all the implications even of that one idea is an extremely demanding task. Following the oscillating swings from doubt to conviction and back again in such books as The Sceptical Environmentalist, The Hot Topic and Chill exposes the unprepared mind to a bewildering welter of complex interacting variables whose exact significance lies beyond my capacity to disentangle. You can get a strong taste of the complexity of the issues by looking at Peter Taylor‘s book ‘Chill.’

He also writes about something I can potentially understand –  the unhealthy way dissent has been treated in the debate (page 9):

It is an issue central to the evolution of science and sound policy – in that dissent needs to be acknowledged, respected and given its voice not just at the level of scientific working groups, but at the policy level in the treatment of uncertainty. If dissent is marginalised, science travels down the slippery slope directed by the needs of policy makers for simple single cause answers and targets, and in this, ultimately, the truth suffers.

He concludes (page 10), rather as Furedi does, that ‘[p]olitics had intruded into science on a grand scale.’

Honouring Complexity

This really worries me. In spite of the many uncertainties that attend this degree of complexity,  all too often the debate is not being conducted in the necessary spirit of humble inquiry into the truth and respect for all those similarly engaged. A recent example was when a prominent political figure described as flat-earthers the sceptics who question whether global warming is entirely attributable to human CO2. The use of arguments like that generates more heat than light – surely an undesirable consequence at this juncture if those who use this kind of ploy are in fact correct.

I may not be an expert in the theories whose elaborate structures overshadow our mental landscape at the moment but I can surely smell a rat in the drainage system of the processes that underpin the conclusions that have been reached. For simplicity’s sake I am going to assume that Peter Taylor has been reasonably fair in his description of the flaws in the conduct of the debate on this issue. He tone seems measured and he doesn’t descend into invective. He coolly describes what he sees. The book is not called Chill for nothing.

The individual human mind is not able to grasp extreme complexity and ambiguity. Many minds have to be brought to bear upon the problem, and the search for the kind of simple certainty so often felt to be necessary if action is to be undertaken should not be allowed to dangerously distort our perception of reality.

Our culture is unfortunately founded upon the assumption that competition is healthy and the basis for progressing our understanding and enhancing our prosperity. Michael Karlberg, in Beyond the Culture of Contest, digs deeply into the problems of this world view and questions whether it is the only paradigm available. He argues (pages 36-38):

Normative adversarialism, as I use the term, refers to the assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organisation. This assumption is deeply embedded in the codes of western-liberal cultures. . . . . [M]y intent is not to imply that cooperative and mutualistic practices are entirely absent  . . . . . Rather, my intent is to show that adversarialism has become a normative ideal . .

He sees this ideal operating across the economic, legal and political spheres of activity. Crucially in the context we are considering here he concludes (page 64):

By privileging single perspectives over multiple perspectives, the adversary paradigm favours reductionistic and absolutist thought.

In a complex presentation at the end of his book he offers an alternative model drawn from his experience of the Bahá’í experiment in community functioning which this blog also explores in detail from time to time. He explains (pages 142-143):

. . . Bahá’ís believe that only within an atmosphere of mutual respect, support and encouragement, rather than aggression and intimidation, can clarity of thought prevail and the perspectives of all people be heard . . . These prescriptions . . . do not imply the need to gloss over conflicts by demanding that participants bury their differences and speak to each other in artificially polite civil tones. On the contrary, they imply finding and facilitating modes of expression that allow conflicting perceptions and interests to be critically examined but in an atmosphere of tolerance and a spirit of mutual commitment within which problems become soluble challenges.

With a topic as complex and, to many, as terrifying as global warming, this kind of approach is clearly imperative.

Dan Gardner makes a shrewd point near the end of his book on risk (page 316):

One would think that catastrophists would learn to be humble about their ability to predict the future but there is a noticeable absence of humility in the genre.

When risk rises humility becomes increasingly scarce. That though is the most important moment for humility to trump arrogance in the way we explore and compare our views of reality. We should be doing all we can to ensure that our experts and our politicians remain open to all possible sources of enlightenment as we seek to understand and respond to the immensely powerful and complex forces at work in the biosphere.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is no longer possible to maintain the belief that the approach to social and economic development to which the materialistic conception of life has given rise is capable of meeting humanity’s needs. Optimistic forecasts about the changes it would generate have vanished into the ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of the globe’s population.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Emp Civil

In the last post I shared a somewhat simplified summary of the moral and practical challenges that confront us at this point in humanity’s material ascent from isolated cave to interconnected commerce.

I am now seeking to convey more fully Rifkin’s position in his book The Empathic Civilization on the long-standing interaction he perceives between empathy and entropy in this scenario.

Right at the start he raises the question about whether we have, as the Bahá’í Faith would argue as well, a dual potential (page 18):

Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature – an empathic one – and that all the other drives that we have considered to be primary – aggression, violence, selfish behaviour, inquisitiveness – are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?

If the answer is ‘Yes,’ as he believes then other things follow (page 24):

A heightened empathic sentiment… allows an increasingly individualised population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, extended, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterises what we call civilisation. . . . . When we say to civilise, we mean to empathise.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

He argues (page 91) that Darwin himself came to recognise the inherent importance of ‘cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity’ in the survival of the fittest which, in terms of groups and societies, depends upon our forming ‘cooperative bonds’ with others. He adduces experimental evidence (pages 131-134) to support the idea that empathy is not self-serving in terms of looking good in the eyes of others, gaining brownie points to elicit future favours or even reducing discomfort at the sight of another’s suffering: ‘the primary motivation is pure altruism – that is, caring for the other rather than alleviating their own empathic distress.’

He extrapolates further to discern a possible connection between empathy and democracy (page 161). He acknowledges that effective empathy (page 173) needs to be balanced with a degree of detachment so that we do not end up in the quicksand unable to help either others or ourselves. Interestingly from a Bahá’í point of view, he places great emphasis (page 184) on dialogue, a process which may look essentially the same as consultation within the Bahá’í community, though lacking a spiritual foundation.

At the same time as he is developing this theme he begins to introduce evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

He brings the Roman Empire into the frame later in support of his theory (pages 249-50) though as a psychologist I have always quite liked the lead-piping explanation for their eventually demise: I’m sure you know the gist – lead poisoning, cognitive deficits, military defeats – it’s quite neat really. He is unequivocal though about the way what actually happened confirms his view:

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Shame about the lead hypothesis, but I have to agree that his version makes a lot more sense.

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

He continues to explore the nature of empathy, seeing it as rooted in ‘embodied experience’ (page 273) and fostered by the increasingly empathy inducing artistic creations of myth, epic and, more recently, the novel, which have become accessible to greater and greater numbers of people as time’s gone on (pages 310-12). He brings into the mix the idea, popular with the Romantics and which I have already explored in terms of the work of John Keats, of ‘imaginative identification’ (page 341). He quotes John Ruskin who observed that ‘people would instantly care for others as well for themselves if only they could imagine others as well as themselves.’

He links the development of this capacity to the existence of ‘complex urban environments’ (page 343). He describes the Romantics as extending this fellow feeling beyond human beings alone to include the world of nature and all living beings (page 344).

It is to the mid-nineteenth century that Rifkin dates the use of electricity as a metaphor for describing ‘nature, human nature and the workings of civilisation’ (page 368), something which develops the idea of empathy even further. Electricity was perceived as ‘neither material nor immaterial’ (page 369) and therefore, he extrapolates (page 370):

A new sense of a porous nature helped create a new sense of social fluidity. Bodies were no longer constrained by their corporeality. If the world is both material and immaterial at same time, then the idea of clear-cut boundaries between people is more a social contrivance than a scientific reality.

The developments of first the telegraph, and then the telephone enabled ‘direct, instantaneous communication between millions of people’ (page 375). Interestingly, he adds (page 376): ‘The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone.’

It is in the 1890s that Rifkin perceives another pitfall than entropy emerging that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

The detailed idea of levels of consciousness that underpin these points is something I shall be returning to in more detail in the later posts on that subject. On Friday I will be digging a bit deeper into the entropy issue and its links with commerce.

To Aunt Ann

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This includes poems such as the one below.

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