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Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 1933)

I was definitely beginning to think there was a difficult problem here.

Until The Overstory cropped up, that is. I needed something to fill the gap left by Unsheltered. I scanned my crowded shelves. After a frustrating few minutes, I spotted something.

I had bought Richard Powers’ book in June this year, and made a definite attempt to read it after I came back from the cruise with a strong sense that I needed to build on my connection with nature. It didn’t click at that point and I gave up the attempt after only a few pages. It was far easier to immerse myself in Braggini’s How the World Thinks and McGregor’s Living with the Gods along with Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment.

However, after reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, I was strongly drawn to The Overstory. I went back to it again.

Patricia’s Story

I still struggled a bit with the rather disjointed opening sections. It seemed to be failing to meet the criteria I mentioned at the start of the previous post. I explained there that for me a novel should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative. The story skipped from character to character too swiftly for me to easily engage, at first, disrupting any sense of both narrative and consciousness.

But at page 119 I was hooked. It was Patricia’s story that did it. Whereas before I was just getting glimpses of interest in each short section of narrative, here I found a sustained and deepening exploration. Through the eyes of this character Powers made the existence of trees not only come alive: he made it magical. For example, she and her father had been running an experiment with a newly planted tree and its soil, which they had carefully weighed at the start. A few years later, and two years after his unexpected death, she remembers the experiment they started. She regrets the delay but immediately begins to check out the results. She wants to find out how much soil a tree consumes in growing:

. . . the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two. There is no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air. Her father knew this. Now she does, too.

The book drew me deeper and deeper into the life of trees. Something important was going on here. I was resonating unexpectedly strongly.

There was the issue of interconnectedness, which helped (page 142):

Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavours of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.

And the experience of writing (page 221):

The slow push of graphite across paper reminds [Patricia] of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of gallons of water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk everyday. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.

And much more of course, with many other characters, now more fully developed. But I sensed that at some level there was even more than that.

Passages like the ones quoted above moved me to tears. What was going on, I wondered.

Reconnecting

It felt as though I was reconnecting with something whose importance I had kept discounting. My poems have always been wiser than me, and the ones I’ve written about trees should have been enough to bring the full depth of my feelings into awareness, but somehow they never did.

My Entishness has always been a hint, as was my Hearth dream. But it was the intensity of my feelings in response to the book that took me by surprise. As other posts have explored on this blog, I’ve never managed to link my pool of pain to anything specific. Some of it clearly relates to the atmosphere of grief in my childhood home, but that never seemed an explanation for the whole of it.

I found myself wondering whether this could account for the residue. Just as when I went into hospital as a child that second time and leapt to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on, which had the effect of distancing me from my parents, especially my mother, was it possible that the grief I felt at the cutting down of the companionable tree of my childhood caused me to pull back from nature in the same way, and with equally enduring and destructive patterns of feeling and behaviour that I have not revoked as yet.

On top of that there were further parallels. I was not simply grieving for the tree: I was identifying with it. I knew what it was like to be alone and held down by power against my will, to be anaesthetised and then cut in my case: to be simply held and cut in the case of the tree. I’d learnt that to connect with any other living being risks harm or the pain of loss or both. Connecting so closely is not safe. And yet I knew we cannot live without connections.

It took me decades to rebuild a trust in and connection with people, which even now can be easily damaged in terms of any particular relationship. I have never worked anywhere near as hard to do the same with trees and nature, except for a brief period in Hendon when I took pains to at least identify most of the neighbouring trees by name. Otherwise it has been token gestures such as high-speed walks up hills or in woodlands, more in the interests of fitness than the exploration of nature at close hand and with affection.

It might not therefore be that my idea of hearticulture’s calling is incorrect, but rather that it is seriously incomplete if I do not bring nature deeply into the mix. My emphasis has been on being of use to people rather than trees, intense involvement with which I have probably dismissed as a rather flaky tendency captured by the dismissive phrase ‘tree hugger.’

I was still not sure how this would play out. It was not clear how I could balance my need to respond to people with my need to connect with trees.

The Overstory made it clear that trees stand in need of my protection, and that by protecting them I would be protecting humanity as well from the consequences of an aspect of our folly. It felt as though I might be on the right track.

Then came the final insight triggered when I read on page 321:

‘Is the house on fire?’

A shrug [from Adam]. A sideways pull of the lips. ‘Yes.’

‘And you want to observe the handful of people who’re screaming, Put it out, when everyone else is happy watching things burn.’

Adam is the psychologist visiting the protesters to research, as he puts it later, ‘What keeps people from seeing the obvious?[1]’ He then mentions the bystander effect and I burst into floods of tears.

I spoke to the tree that was cut down in my childhood.

‘I was not there when they cut you down, my friend. I let you down. I knew the pain of being cut and did nothing. I’m so sorry.’

I clutched the book tight as I cried.

The depth and complexity of my largely discounted sense of connectedness with trees was beginning to reveal itself.

I felt I had just reconnected with something of immense importance, far greater than I had so far realised. I’m still not sure how far it extends exactly. It will take time for me to understand this properly. I just knew at that moment how intensely I love, and always have loved trees.

The loss of the tree, my Entishly slow ways of processing experience and reacting to it genuinely (I can fake normal, react faster and betray myself all too easily), my love of clothes with an earth colour, my dream that powerfully linked my heart with the earth, and the way my name echoes peat for me, have always been strong hints.

I never realised until now though just how powerfully certain feelings were running under the surface, generating irresistible currents that carried me away from the fertile ground of this insight. I never recognised they were almost certainly part of the river of pain within, flooding into the cellar of my mind from interrelated experiences of grief – my parents torn apart by my twelve-year old sister’s agonising death, my pre-school self feeling abandoned in hospital a second time, my defenceless tree cut down in minutes by my own family.

I now need to learn how to integrate this insight into my hearticulture calling. I need to learn how to express my love of trees. Ideally I’d like to save a rainforest, but I guess I’ll have to find something closer to home to act on.

Hopefully in the future I’ll at least be able to deal more calmly under pressure of time with a frustrating queue. An Ent would be more patient after all.

Coda

I’ve finished The Overstory now. It was a sandwich. The best flavour was in the middle, but it was well worth reading, even if towards the end it had lost most of its power to move me. It has shifted my consciousness, lifted it –  decisively I think. What more can I fairly expect of a book?

What next?

I was thinking I might buy Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, until I suddenly remembered that I’d already got a book of almost the same title, The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge. I started to read that one but got derailed by Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

More of that soon.

Footnote

[1]. The answer he gives is ‘Mostly other people.’ While this wasn’t a key insight for me right then, it resonates with the Bahá’í emphasis on the imperative need for all of us to independently investigate the truth.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

A Test

As I explained earlier in this sequence, I’m not contending that mapping consciousness is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness, as the mind map above illustrates. I’ll unpack what the mind map is about later.

My ability to apply to ongoing experience what I have learned in theory was about to be tested. How clearly could I catch hold of and write down an experience under pressure?

The day I sat planning at some point to work on this post proved interesting. Two letters plopped through our letterbox. They looked like the ones I had been expecting, telling me when my next hospital appointments were.

I didn’t pick them up straightaway as I was keeping an eye on the pressure cooker as it built up a head of steam, ready to turn it down when the whistle hissed. No, I don’t mean my brain as it coped with all my deadlines. We were beginning to get the food ready for the celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in two days time. The lentils apparently needed cooking well ahead of time.

Once pressure cooker duty was over, I dashed upstairs to tweak the slide presentation for the following day. I’d been enlisted to do the presentation at a friend’s celebration event. While the slide show notes were printing, I thought I’d better check the hospital letters out, not my favourite activity. The first one I opened was as I expected, an appointment for the ophthalmology department. I moved on to the second one. When I opened it I saw it was identical, same date, same time.

‘They’ve messed up,’ I groaned inwardly. ‘I was supposed to go for an MRI scan as well. I’d better give them a ring.’

I stapled the slide show notes together, picked up my iPhone and rang the number they had given me on the letter. A robot answered.

‘Thank you for calling the orthoptic department. We are currently dealing with a new electronic patient record system [I didn’t relish being seen as an electronic patient] and may be delayed in returning your call, [change of voice undermining the impression of caring that was to follow] but your call is important to us. Please leave your hospital number, the name of the patient, and a brief message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thank you.’

I responded after the beep, fortunately also remembering to give them my number as I wasn’t convinced they’d pick that up automatically. Most robots check whether they have absorbed your number correctly.

Rather than waste time waiting, I got my laptop and brought it downstairs to rehearse my presentation. I set up AppleTV and was just about to set my timer and start, when my phone rang.

‘Orthoptic Department. How can I help?’ She sounded pleasant and surprisingly unstressed.

‘The new system must be taking some of the pressure off,’ I thought.

I explained that not only had I got double vision but I was also now getting my letters twice as well. Well, no not really. I told her I’d got two identical letters when I’d expected one to be for an MRI scan.

She checked out what I meant and then explained that the letter I’d got was for my routine appointment. The other was an error on their part. I should also be getting a letter for the MRI scan, I clarifed, but they did not know anything about that. I added that after that I should get an appointment from a consultant about the scan. She couldn’t help with that either, even though he was in her department.

She agreed to put me through to discuss the MRI.

‘Radiology here. How can I help?’

‘Is that where you do MRI scans?’ I asked, not being sure whether they counted as radiology or something else.

‘Yes, it is.’

I began my explanation.

‘I’m sorry. I need your name and date of birth.’

‘Will my hospital number do?’

‘Yes. That’s fine.’

Once she knew who I was, I told her my problem and asked when I could expect my scan to be as were we hoping to be away some time in December.

‘It’ll take 6-8 weeks from the time they sent the request.’

‘So when might that be?’

‘It’ll probably be the week beginning 27 November.’

‘And when will the consultant see me to discuss it after that.’

‘I can’t say because he wouldn’t send out appointments normally until he receives the scan.’

‘So how long is the gap likely to be then?’

‘We don’t deal with that. You’d have to speak to his secretary.’

She couldn’t put me through so I rang Ophthalmology again and got the robot. I hung up and rang the hospital switchboard and they put me through straightaway. Must remember that next time.

I spoke to the same person as before. She explained that she didn’t really know. She was just the receptionist. His secretary was off till next week. She’d leave a note for her and if I could ring back then she might help.

I hung up and made a note in my diary to ring next week.

Before this all happened, I’d jotted down in the notebook I always carry: ‘It doesn’t matter whether I’m enjoying myself or not, as long as I’m squeezing every drop of meaning out of the lemon of the present moment.’ The phone calls to the hospital where a particularly sour experience, so my note was intriguingly prophetic. I had managed to stay calm, and even found the whole experience slightly amusing with its many examples of ‘I don’t know. That’s not my department. You need to talk to…’

At last I was able to settle down and rehearse the presentation before finally returning to my plan to draft this post.

The whole episode highlighted for me the need not only to slow down and keep calm, but also to sharpen my focus. Not that I will ever be able to write as well as Virginia Woolf, but without that combination of skills I doubt that anyone would ever be able to capture consciousness in words on paper, or even in speech.

A Valid Criterion?

So now we come back to the critical question. Is its skill in conveying consciousness a valid criterion by which to judge a work of art? As I indicated earlier, I’m not arguing it is the only one, nor even necessarily the best. What I have come to realise is that it is a key one for me.

I also need to clarify that capturing consciousness is not the same as conveying a world view or meaning system. So, you might argue that when Alice Neel is painting people that the art world usually ignores, just as I gather Cézanne also did, while the act of painting itself is sending a clear ideological message that these people matter, unless the portrait is more than a realistic rendering of the subject’s appearance we have not been capturing the artist’s consciousness. If any distortions of sensory experience merely serve to strengthen the message, these would be more like propaganda than maps of consciousness. Also the culture in which we are immersed, as well as our upbringing and individual life experiences, influence the meaning systems we adopt, or perhaps more accurately are induced into evolving.

Capturing consciousness is also a tad more demanding than simply conveying a state of mind or feeling, whether that be the artist’s own or their subject’s, something which music can also do perfectly well. That is something I value very much, but it’s not my focus right now.

Taking that into account, what am I expecting?

Woolf gives us a clue in her diaries ((page 259):

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – … (18.11.35):

I have quoted this already in an earlier post of this sequence. I also added the date on which she wrote it to emphasise that it was after the completion of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves, as if she sensed that her approach up to that point had been too inward looking. Her question mark after ‘four’ suggests she was entertaining the possibility of more dimensions.

The diagram maps what Woolf said very crudely. Most of To the Lighthouse and The Waves takes place in the top right hand quadrant. They are brave experiments. In places they work beautifully but are uneven and at times disappointing. She sensed that I suspect.

However, other novels she wrote take more account of the other quadrants except possibly the one on the bottom right, although there are places where she seems almost to be attempting to tune into the inscape of natural objects.

Clearly then it might be appropriate to judge a novel by how well it balances the three main quadrants, ie excepting the bottom right.

There is a catch here though. It all depends upon on what the prevailing culture defines as ‘outer.’ Is this to be confined only to the material realm? Mysticism is present in all cultures to some degree, though its legitimacy has been downgraded in the West. The critically endorsed novel has, with some rare exceptions such as John Cowper Powys and perhaps what is termed ‘magical realism,’ been seen as needing to focus on the world of the senses, the stream of consciousness and social interaction.

Is that enough?

Woolf expresses this whole dilemma with wry humour in To the Lighthouse (page 152):

The mystic, the visionary, walking the beach on a fine night, stirring a puddle, looking at a stone, asking themselves “What am I,” “What is this?” had suddenly an answer vouchsafed them: (they could not say what it was) so that they were warm in the frost and had comfort in the desert. But Mrs McNab continued to drink and gossip as before.

Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, for example? Should mysticism be normalised and not be either excluded or presented as eccentric?

Given that I think expanding our consciousness is the key to enabling us to mend our world I am sceptical of any school of thought that would devalue and marginalise novels that attempt to treat outlying ways of thought and experience as of equal interest and legitimacy. It has already been demonstrated that the novel, in its present form, enhances empathy. It helps connect us in a more understanding way with the experiences of others very different from ourselves. Art in general is one of the most powerful means we have for lifting or debasing consciousness. It reaches more people in the West probably than religion does, especially if we include television, cinema, computer games etc.

I must add a word of warning here. Consciousness can be seen as expanding in all sorts of different ways.

Sometimes, though, I feel that just by pandering to our desire for exciting new experiences we might not be expanding our consciousness at all, but narrowing it rather.

Alex Danchev, in his biography of Cézanne, quotes an intriguing passage from Hyppolyte Taine (page 104):

In open country I would rather meet a sheep than a lion; behind the bars of a cage I would rather see a lion than a sheep. Art is exactly that sort of cage: by removing the terror, it preserves the interest. Hence, safely and painlessly, we may contemplate the glorious passions, the heartbreaks, the titanic struggles, all the sound and fury of human nature elevated by remorseless battles and unrestrained desires. . . . It takes us out of ourselves; we leave the commonplace in which we are mired by the weakness of our faculties and the timidity of their instincts.

I draw back instinctively from the elevation of the titanic, the fury, the remorseless and the unrestrained in human life. Exploring those aspects of our nature unbalanced by other more compassionate and humane considerations is potentially dangerous for reasons I have explored elsewhere. To express it as briefly as I can, it’s probably enough to say that I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. Suzy Klein’s recent brilliant BBC series on Tunes for Tyrants: Music and Power explores what can happen when the arts are harnessed to violent ends in the name of some dictator’s idea of progress.

And where does this leave me?

I am at a point where I have decided that I need to explore consciousness more consistently, perhaps more consistently than I have ever explored anything else in my life. It blends psychology, literature, faith as well as personal experience, and therefore makes use of most of my lifetime interests. This object of interest would give them a coherence they have so far lacked. Instead of flitting between them as though they had little real or deep connection, I could use them all as lenses of different kinds to focus on the one thing that fascinates me most.

I have ended up with the completely revised diagram of my priorities at the head of this post, repeated just to the left above in smaller size. The blurring at the edges represents its unfinished nature. It seems to express an interesting challenge. It shows that I am on a quest, still, to understand consciousness. Does the diagram suggest the idea that consciousness is both the driving force and destination of this quest? It looks as though consciousness is seeking to understand itself, in my case at least: that makes it both the archer and the target. Mmmmm! Not sure where that leads!

What is clear is that my mnemonic of the 3Rs needs expanding. It has to include a fourth R: relating. In the diagram I have spelt out what the key components are of each important R.

Relating

This involves consultation (something I have dwelt on at length elsewhere). It also entails opening up to a sense of the real interconnectedness of all forms of life, not just humanity as a whole. It has to entail some form of action as well, which I have labelled service, by which I mean seeking to take care of others.

Reflecting

How well a group can consult, as I have explained elsewhere, depends upon how well the individuals within it can reflect. My recent delving into Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book The Science of Meditation suggests that there is more than one form of meditation that would help me develop my reflective processes more efficiently (page 264): mindfulness I have tried to practice (see links for some examples), focusing I do everyday, using Alláh-u-Abhá as my mantra, and loving kindness or compassionate meditation is something I need to tackle, as it relates very much to becoming more motivated to act. I have baulked at it so far because it relies, as far as I can tell, upon being able to visualise, something I am not good at.

They also describe another pattern, which I’ve not been aware of before (ibid.): ‘Deconstructive. As with insight practice, these methods use self-observation to pierce the nature of experience. They include “non-dual” approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates.’

Reading & Writing

Readers of this blog, or even just this sequence of posts, will be aware of how I use writing and reading in my quest for understanding so I don’t think I need to bang on about that here.

The Science of Meditation deals with the idea that long-term meditation turns transient states of mind into more permanent traits of character. I have placed altruism in the central space as for me, having read Matthieu Ricard’s book on the subject, altruism is compassion turned to trait: it is a disposition not a passing feeling. I am hopeful that insight may similarly turn to wisdom, but as I am not sure of that as yet, I just called it insight.

I am already aware that the diagram inadequately accounts for such things as the exact relationship between the 4Rs, understanding and effective and useful action. It does not emphasise enough that my desire to understand consciousness better is not purely academic. It is also fuelled by a strong desire to put what I have come to understand to good use.

I am also aware that I failed to register in my discussion as a whole that there are distinctions to be made between capturing consciousness in art and other closely related scenarios, such as describing experience in terms of its remembered emotional impact (conveying a state of mind) or giving an account of what happened through the lens of one’s meaning system (evaluating an event). It is perhaps also possible to attempt to convey only the basic details of what happened with all subjective elements removed (a ‘factual’ account).

I can’t take this exploration any further than this right now but hope to come back to the topic again soon. I also said in an earlier post that I might delve more deeply into the soul, mind, imagination issue. However, this post has gone on long enough, I think, so that will have to wait for another time.

Rita and Hubert 1954 (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

(From How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous by David Runciman – Guardian Friday 7 July 2017)

At the end of the last post I shared the hope that my helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until we discover the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups.

What we might do next is the focus of the final two posts.

When people resist therapy the personal price can be high. When cultures resist change the social and environmental costs can be even greater.

At whatever level we consider the matter, counteracting our default patterns requires significant effort, and the more complicated the problem, as in the case of climate change, the greater the effort. Even a simple puzzle can defeat even the best brains if the necessary effort is not taken to solve it. And often no effort is made because no failure in problem-solving is detected. Take this beautiful illustration of the point from Daniel Khaneman’s excellent treatment of what he calls System 1 (rapid fire reaction) and System 2 (careful effortful thinking) in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.I have dealt at length elsewhere with my distaste for the use of the word ‘intuitive’ in this context: I prefer ‘instinctive.’ Now though is not the time to delve into that problem: I’m currently republishing some of the posts dealing with that question.

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

Taking on the difficult problems is clearly going to be a challenge when we don’t even recognise or admit that our default reponses are so wide of the mark.

We need to reach at least a basic level of interactive understanding on a global scale if we are to successfully address the problems of our age. But we need more than that.

Rifkin, in his excellent book The Empathic Civilisation argues the case eloquently. He recognizes that to motivate us to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our civilization to survive its entropic processes we need something larger than ourselves to hold onto. By entropic he means all the waste and excessive consumption a growing population generates.

He doesn’t think religion will do the trick though.

For example, he sees the Golden Rule, a central tenant of all the great world religions, as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), version from the “Butts set” (for source of image see link)

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’ He feels Christianity has warped this ideal, especially in respect of the existence of Satan, the Fall of man, and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap. However, he dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society.

He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

He clearly hopes it does. He describes the exact nature of the challenge our situation creates (page 593):

The challenge before us is how to bring forward all of these historical stages of consciousness that still exist across the human spectrum to a new level of biosphere consciousness in time to break the lock that shackles increasing empathy to increasing entropy. . . .

And he concludes (ibid.):

In a world characterised by increasing individuation and made up of human beings at different stages of consciousness, the biosphere itself maybe the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race as a species.

This position is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his unwillingness to admit the possibility of a theological inspiration. I am astonished even more by a subsequent claim, which is imbued with the same blinkering assumption that Western materialist models of the world have basically got it right. He blurts out, in surprise (page 593-4):

While the new distributed communications technologies – and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. . . .

Does he have no awareness of current trends in holistic thinking, which assert that we are already and have always been interconnected at the deepest possible levels, not simply in terms of these recently emerged material factors? Is he ignoring long-standing spiritual systems such as that of the Native Americans whose foundation stone is this concept of interconnectedness? Does he not know of the empirical evidence being generated by near-death experiences, many of which include reports of just such a sense of nonmaterial interconnectedness? Has he not heard even a whisper of the Bahá’í position, admittedly recently emerged but with a longer history than the roots of holism in physics, that humanity is one and needs to recognise its essential unity if we are to be able to act together to solve the global problems that confront us? The problem is not that no one is offering a reason ‘why we ought to be connected’: the problem is that too few people are accepting the idea, expressed by millions of our fellow human beings in many complementary models of the world, that we are already deeply connected at a spiritual level, not just with each other but with the earth that sustains our material existence.

Naomi Klein makes a powerful case for hoping that the shock of climate change will have just the kind of positive effect that Rifkin looks for in Gaia, though she also is fully aware that shock often narrows our capacity to think, feel and relate and we end up in the tunnel-vision of fight and flight. She is aligned with Rifkin in his hope that identification on our part with the plight of the planet will be a sufficient catalyst to produce the desired shift.

Altruism

Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

There are major obstacles to addressing our challenges effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

Ricard (page 611) raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. Given that evolution has produced a human brain that privileges short term costs and benefits over long-term ones, such that a smoker does not even empathise with his future self sufficiently strongly to overcome in many cases the powerful allure of nicotine addiction, what chance has altruism in itself got of producing the desired effect?

Ricard to his credit faces this head on and quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

Shades of Pettigrew again! This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

According to Ricard, we must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

The last post will take a closer look at that amongst other possibilities.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts appeared on consecutive days: this is the last.

John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.

This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.

Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

The complexity, which both Mason and Ehrenfeld adduce from their different perspectives, also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

1 Earth Heart alone

For one source of this image see link

Dealing with Complexity

Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):

The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .

A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .

A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.

There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):

If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.

This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’

Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):

Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.

William James - portrait in pencil

William James – portrait in pencil

This resonates with what David Lamberth wrote in his excellent book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):

In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.

Combining Pragmatism and Principle

It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed  that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.

The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks..

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.

It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.

But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’

I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.

I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

O YE THAT ARE LYING AS DEAD ON THE COUCH OF HEEDLESSNESS! Ages have passed and your precious lives are well-nigh ended, yet not a single breath of purity hath reached Our court of holiness from you. Though immersed in the ocean of misbelief, yet with your lips ye profess the one true faith of God. Him whom I abhor ye have loved, and of My foe ye have made a friend. Notwithstanding, ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Persian Hidden Words, No. 20)

I think this sequence of posts is looking a bit over-ambitious. It’s not because I’m not sure what to say but because I have too much to cram in. It could be difficult to make it clear and coherent. However, the issues involved keep bugging me and won’t shut up in my head so here goes.

Global Responsibility

Setting spiritual reality aside at least for the moment (but not for that long!), there are still so many influences upon us and impacts from our actions that are almost or completely invisible in different ways for different reasons.

As Timothy Morton points out, in a recent Guardian interview:

‘There you are, turning the ignition of your car,’ he writes. ‘And it creeps up on you.’ Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, ‘let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet.’ But ‘harm to Earth is precisely what is happening.’ Part of what’s so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times – as they are performed by an entire species – they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isn’t just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; it’s happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, ‘everything is interconnected.’

Naomi Klein expands the point to deal with why we do nothing as a collective even when many of us are fully aware of the problem as individuals. The measures we require to take (This Changes Everything: page 21) ‘are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die.’ We shouldn’t discount, as well though, population growth. It’s unfortunate that the idea of growth focuses so much on either the economy or population and so little, at national and global level, with how we grow and expand our consciousness.

Klein adds:

What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.

According to Matthieu Ricard in his thought-provoking book on altruism something that should help is a growing awareness that growth cannot continue (page 658):

In the eyes of the politician Anders Wijkman and environmentalist Johann Rockström, there can be nothing more perverse than an economy that grows at the expense of the raw materials that allow it to exist: ‘The world’s population is growing. Consumption is growing. The only problem is that the earth is not growing.’ . . . .

In short, as the English-born American economist Kenneth Boulding said: ‘Those who believe that economic growth can go on forever are either mentally deranged or they are economists.’

Not all economists though fortunately.

There is, for example, a growing trend, Ricard argues, for economists to discard the treacherously misleading GDP as a good guide to whether we are doing all right or not. Because (page 660) ‘[i]t ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality’ it is worse then useless: it is leads to toxic decision-making. Its fundamental insanity is revealed by its inclusion as positives what are in fact evidences of dysfunction (page 667):

If a country has more crime, pollution, war, and disease, GDP increases as a result of financial transactions relating to expenditure in prisons, policing, weapons, and healthcare. This increase enters the accounts as a positive indicator of a growing economy, even though it represents a decline in well-being.’

Ricard acknowledges that (page 679) ‘we must . . . not underestimate the importance of personal transformation.’ From there we must move to the wider society within which we live and, in Ricard’s view (page 681), learn to balance what Mintzberg calls the three-legged stool of a ‘public sector made up of political forces…, a private sector made up of economic forces…, and a plural sector of social forces embodied by robust civilian conveyances.’ It is in the development of the latter that the UK and America, who over-emphasise the private sector, and China, who places too much importance on the public sector, are seriously lacking.

There is yet another step to take.

We must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

There are obstacles though to the full realisation of the need for this key and our ability to turn it in the lock of obstinate resistance.

Undetected Influences

We may also be subject to undetected external influences that shape our behaviour outside our awareness.

Advertisers have known for decades that subliminal stimuli can influence our behaviour and persuade us to buy a product without any awareness on our part that this has happened. This is why such adverts were banned. This is why drug companies keep spending lavishly on lunch time presentations at GP surgeries, leaving behind lots of innocent looking memorabilia plastered with their logos and drug names to subliminally jolt the memory. Studies comparing surgeries that have been visited in this fashion with those that have not indicate that the beneficiaries of drug company lunches prescribe the drug in question more frequently than they used to whereas the control surgeries do not. The GPs themselves believe their prescribing patterns have not changed.

Hypnotic suggestions, as is widely recognised, can subliminally affect our behaviour long after the trance is over.

Admittedly we do sometimes control our responses to external information but not always in wise or fully conscious ways. Confirmation biases cause us to ignore information that contradicts beliefs we have invested in and swallow uncritically anything we’re told that proves we are right.

Even our memories can’t be trusted. There is a self-serving bias in memory.

For example, when anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying. ‘I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.

These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out, but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

Potential Damage

If we pause to reflect a moment we can clearly see many of these processes at work, some of them in potentially damaging ways.

We now believe the earth both spins, and revolves around the Sun, even though all we experience are the changing seasons, the alternation of day and night and the slow creep of the shadows along the ground.

We now believe that all the solids that we handle and sit on are made of atoms, which, like microscopic planetary systems, are made up of specks and space. More space than specks by far.

We now believe that light is both wave and particle, even though all we see for the most part are constant colours or bright consistent lights.

Most of us in the West do not believe, though, that souls who have passed on can move matter they have left behind, even though the evidence that they can is piled high in libraries worldwide, as David Fontana testifies in his comprehensive survey of the evidence.

Why do we believe the scientist who says most of the chair I’m sitting on is empty space, and not the painstaking investigator who sees a table rise up to the ceiling having proved no human hand or machine could possibly be involved?

Perhaps one of the many possible reasons is that most of us are happy to take the findings of science on trust until we feel they conflict with our perceived material interests.

Is that why climate change and departed souls are met with so much disbelief? To believe in both of those requires us in different ways to step outside our egotistic materialism and accept our interconnectedness, to set aside our personal advantage in the interests of the many, and to make sacrifices for the common good.

In spite of all our blinkers, we behave as though all we do is carefully chosen in full knowledge of the consequences and causes. Such complacency cannot safely be allowed to continue any longer. Our survival now depends not upon our evolutionary heritage of tunnel vision approximations to reality but upon our transcending these limitations as rapidly as possible both as individuals and as a species. If not, extinction beckons.

Can we do that? A consideration of this will have to wait till next time.

 

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.

This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.

Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

The complexity, which both Mason and Ehrenfeld adduce from their different perspectives, also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

1 Earth Heart alone

For one source of this image see link

Dealing with Complexity

Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):

The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .

A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .

A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.

There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):

If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.

This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’

Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):

Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.

William James - portrait in pencil

William James – portrait in pencil

This resonates with what David Lamberth wrote in his excellent book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):

In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.

Combining Pragmatism and Principle

It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed  that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.

The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks..

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.

It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.

But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’

I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.

I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.

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When I set up the post of the poem this morning, I suddenly remembered this one, suggesting that I might just have a weakness for Arctic imagery! This poem is the only poem I have ever written triggered by a prompt. I was attending a workshop on spirituality and how a deeper sense of our spiritual connectedness could change the world. The key word suggested was ‘enkindlement.’ This poem was the result. It poured out breathlessly and has seemed a bit of a mystery to me ever since. Anyway here it is again.

Enkindlement v5

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