Upcoming courses on Ecological Civilization and The Web of Meaning
Wildfires. Floods. Political polarization. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of these harbingers of society’s unraveling. Sometimes, it might seem like there’s nothing we can do to help steer our civilization away from the precipice.
Yes—society needs to undergo deep transformation, much deeper than most people recognize. But it’s not necessarily too late, if enough of us can articulate and engage collectively in the changes we need.
I will soon be offering two series of online classes designed to lay out a foundation for the transformation in our worldview, culture, and society that’s needed to avert catastrophe. I invite you to sign up for one or both series, and join other engaged participants in exploring the pathways toward a flourishing future.
Beginning Tuesday, October 5, I’ll be offering a series of four online classes investigating an Ecological Civilization: what it means, why it’s necessary, and how we might get there:
Class 1 | Ecological Civilization in Historical Context
Class 2 | Ecological Civilization: Worldview and Values
Class 3 | An Ecological Civilization in Practice
Class 4 | Pathways to an Ecological Civilization
Each two-hour class will consist of presentations, breakout groups, and full group discussion. It will be a rare opportunity to explore deeply with others how to engage in helping transform our civilization to one that is life-affirming. It will meet every Tuesday in October (5, 12, 19 and 26) at 10:00 am Pacific time. (More information and registration here.)
Beginning Tuesday, November 2, I’ll be offering a Guided Exploration of The Web of Meaning in a series of six online classes. This course will cover the central themes of The Web of Meaning. Following the book’s design, it will be structured as six investigations into the existential questions asked at some point by every human being: Who Am I? Where Am I? What Am I? How Should I Live? Why Am I? and Where Are We Going?
We’ll meet every Tuesday at 10:00 am Pacific time, with the final class on Tuesday, December 7. Each ninety-minute class will consist of presentations, breakout groups, and full group discussions. Each week we’ll explore the rich and awe-inspiring pathways invited by an alternative worldview recognizing the intricate interrelationships that link our lives to those in our community, to all humanity, and to the entire living Earth. (More information and registration here.)
When we change the lens with which we see the world, another future becomes possible. Please join me this Fall in exploring what that future may look like.
The Web of Meaning feels like a book our time has been waiting for. Those who protest in Black Lives Matter gatherings, who feel at one with the everyday suffering they witness on TV, who are deeply worried about our planet Earth as well as the pandemic, are all reminded every day that we are connected to each other and part of the natural world, and that ‘we are only safe when all of us are safe’. We cannot live if the Earth dies.
But, Jeremy Lent points out, the prevailing ‘worldview’ contradicts these deeply felt sympathies and most of our lives are underpinned by that worldview. We have been conditioned to feel like separate units up against the rest of the world. We have ‘conquered’ nature, as we will conquer the pandemic. The exigencies of a world dominated by this worldview make us machine-like, tied to our grinding routines of making money – often just to subsist, or else to buy more than we need, in some cases thousands of times more.
Our time is confronting us with a choice. Our planet is wearing out – and we, the people, have caused it. Greed and self-aggrandizement stalk the land as surely as the pandemic we can’t shake off. We see the rich countries hoarding the means to live and to defeat the coronavirus. We have seen the sacrifice countless ordinary people have made in caring for the sick at the cost of their lives. But most of us are afraid, with seemingly little choice but to continue with our lives driven by our need to survive and to avoid discomfort.
The timeliness of this book is in its exploration of how to change the long-held Western worldview that urges us not to notice that we are all interconnected. It traces the history of this mindset, based on scientific reductionism, that we are separate from each other and even within ourselves. It encompasses Christianity and the Enlightenment scientists who separate the soul, or mind, from the body, and the modern, influential idea of the ‘selfish gene’ that entrenches the thoughtform that we are genetically programmed to look out for ourselves. The Web of Meaning speaks to those brought up and caught up by this dominant worldview, but who are beginning to realise how it doesn’t fit with their deepest feelings about themselves and others.
Jeremy Lent gives us a thorough and carefully researched account to counter the idea of the ‘selfish’ and separative gene, drawing on a wide range of sources, including science, philosophy, literature, anthropology, poetry. He integrates ancient philosophies, particularly Taoism, Buddhism and Indigenous beliefs, with contemporary systems theory and neuroscience, that demonstrate ‘connectedness’ on all levels – from the tiniest particle and individual cell to whole natural systems, indeed to cosmos. For instance, in the ways that trees and insects ‘think’ and co-operate to mutually survive, and how neurologically we are intricately connected within ourselves, with no separation between our mind and body. Our thinking identity (that Lent terms for the sake of argument our ‘I’) needs to be at one with our deeper, embodied identity that he terms the ‘self’. He explores how the ancient oriental wisdom posited that everything is energy, and the only way to find a deep and lasting well-being is to be in tune with the whole, both inner and outer. The ancient Chinese philosophies and Indigenous peoples have a wisdom about how to live meaningfully that our modern society denies. Lent also suggests that psychedelic and mystic states may reveal a reality beyond the everyday. He urges us to be true to our deepest sense of ourselves and to cultivate the inner harmony that comes from fully embracing all of life experience.
The Web of Meaning, while dealing in detail with difficult subjects, is an engaging and endearing read. It is often addressed as if to an individual reader – and it is designed with a pedagogic, even a crusading intent. It includes an informative glossary and further reading, and most usefully gives a summary at the end of each section. The book is also a beautifully produced object. The style of the writing is direct, and uses analogy, anecdote and story-making. It begins with ‘Uncle Bob’s speech’ (“which you’ve probably all heard”) expounding on how humans have always looked out for themselves (and Uncle Bob also features in the final chapter, more forgivingly) and it ends with an analogy of the Native America legend of Windigo – a monster that is driven by insatiable greed to devour all it encounters, and worse, transforms them into replicas of itself.
The first five sections of the book are mainly expository/explanatory and didactic. But in the final section, ‘Where are we going?’, in just this one chapter ‘Weaving a New story of Meaning’, it is as if the author takes on a new role – he becomes a visionary activist, the passionate advocate on behalf of nature, for every individual to find their own sense of purpose and act to repair the ravages done to our planet Earth by the forces of greed and commercialization in which we are all implicated. It is as though he assumes that the previous 300 pages have done their work of quiet persuasion and the reader is now ready to respond in a new way (or possibly because some readers, from different vantage points –have hardly needed persuading of our Oneness).
Lent shows powerfully the harm caused by our continuing insatiable greed, to the planet and to a society entrenched within inequality. He singles out for particular blame and excoriating criticism the transnational corporations, which have become more powerful than societies and politicians, for their ‘Windigo’ voracious destructiveness: “strengthened by the overpowering corporate compulsion to convert human needs into profit opportunities” (p.357). He vividly details the terrifying state of our planet caused by the climate emergency.
But Lent also makes the case for a new dispensation; for ‘an ecological civilization’ which could “create the conditions for all humans to flourish as part of a thriving living Earth” (p.365). He writes hopefully of the movements that are countering the emergency and makes the case for ‘an ecological worldview’ and for ‘revolutionary love’: “Instead of responding to our oppression with animosity, which merely exacerbates the divisions in our society we can choose what activist Rabbi Michael Lerner calls revolutionary love” (p.379) – both words are important. Above all, Lent urges us to ‘hope’, quoting Vlacev Havel: “Hope is a state of mind not a state of the world, a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times. An ability to work for something because it is good and not because it stands a chance to succeed.” (p.375) Lent urges us to believe this and take it as the basis for our lives, knowing that every move we make will play its part in the whole.
For, although “we have all grown up in the culture of separateness”, on the basis of our interconnectedness that has now been established, we are asked to find and weave our own thread of the cosmic web: our unique sense of purpose and meaning, which now also – inevitably – has a moral purpose. “As we learn to open eyes that have been sealed by our dominant culture we can discern the rainbow that was always there waiting for us. We can waken to our true nature as humans on this Earth, feel the life within us that we share with all other beings … realize the deep purpose of our Existence on Earth”. (p.376)
Finally, then, we have the responsibility, to ourselves as well as to all others, to contribute, however little it may seem, whatever each of us is uniquely able to do. The book ends with the question that brings us back to the title, The Web of Meaning: “What is the sacred and precious strand that you will weave?”
From genetic engineering to geoengineering, we treat nature as though it’s a machine. This view of nature is deeply embedded in Western thought, but it’s a fundamental misconception with potentially disastrous consequences.
Climate change, avers Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and erstwhile US Secretary of State, “is an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” This brief statement encapsulates how the metaphor of the machine underlies the way our mainstream culture views the natural world. It also hints at the grievous dangers involved in perceiving nature in this way.
This mechanistic worldview has deep roots in Western thought. The great pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, believed they were decoding “God’s book,” which was written in the language of mathematics. God was conceived as a great clockmaker, the “artificer” who constructed the intricate machine of nature so flawlessly that, once it was set in motion, there was nothing more to do (bar the occasional miracle) than let it run its course. “What is the heart, but a spring,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “and the nerves but so many strings?” Descartes flatly declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
In recent decades, the mechanistic conception of nature has been updated for the computer age, with popularizers of science such as Richard Dawkins arguing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” and as a result, an animal such as a bat “is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects, as an unconscious guided missile homes in on an aeroplane.” This digital metaphor of nature pervades our culture and is used unreflectively by those in a position to direct our society’s future. According to Larry Page, co-founder of Google, for example, human DNA is just “600 megabytes compressed, so it’s smaller than any modern operating system . . . So your program algorithms probably aren’t that complicated.”
But nature is not in fact a machine nor a computer—and it can’t be engineered or programmed like one. Thinking of it as such is a category error with ramifications that are both deluded and dangerous.
A four-billion-year reversal of entropy
Ultimately, this machine metaphor is based on a simplifying assumption, known as reductionism, which approaches nature as a collection of tiny parts to investigate. This methodology has been resoundingly effective in many fields of inquiry, leading to some of our greatest advances in science and technology. Without it, most of the benefits of our modern world would not exist—no electrical grids, no airplanes, no antibiotics, no internet. However, over the centuries, many scientists and engineers have been so swept up by the success of their enterprise that they have frequently mistaken this assumption for reality—even when advances in scientific research uncover its limitations.
When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the shape of the DNA molecule in 1953, they used metaphors from the burgeoning information revolution to describe their findings. The genotype was a “program” that determined the exact specifications of an organism, just like a computer program. DNA sequences formed the “master code” of a “blueprint” that contained a detailed set of “instructions” for building an individual. Prominent geneticist Walter Gilbert would begin his public lectures by pulling out a compact disk and proclaiming “This is you!”
Since then, however, further scientific research has revealed fundamental defects in this model. The “central dogma” of molecular biology, as coined by Crick and Watson, was that information could only flow one way: from the gene to the rest of the cell. Biologists now know that proteins act directly on the DNA of the cell, specifying which genes in the DNA should be activated. DNA can’t do anything by itself—it only functions when certain parts of it get switched on or off by the activities of different combinations of proteins, which were themselves formed by the instructions of DNA. This process is a vibrant, dynamic circular flow of interactivity.
This leads to a classic chicken-and-egg problem: if a cell is not determined solely by its genes, what ultimately causes it to “decide” what to do? Biologists who have researched this issue generally agree that the emergence of life on Earth was most likely a self-organized process known as autopoiesis—from the Greek words meaning self-generation—performed originally by non-living molecular structures.
These protocells essentially staged a temporary, local reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which describes how the universe is undergoing an irreversible process of entropy: order inevitably becomes disordered and heat always flows from hot regions to colder regions. We see entropy in our daily lives every time we stir cream into our coffee, or break an egg for an omelet. Once the egg is scrambled, no amount of work will ever get the yolk back together again. It’s a depressing law, especially when applied to the entire universe which, according to most physicists, will eventually dissipate into a bleak expanse of cold, dark nothingness. Those first protocells, however, learned to turn entropy into order by ingesting it in the form of energy and matter, breaking it apart, and reorganizing it into forms beneficial for their continued existence—the process we know as metabolism.
Ever since then, for roughly four billion years, the defining quality of life has been its purposive self-organization. There is no programmer writing a program; no architect drawing up a blueprint. The organism is the weaver of its own fabric, using DNA as an instrument of transmission. It sculpts itself according to its own inner sense of purpose, which it inherited ultimately—like all of us—from those first autocatalytic cells: the drive to resist entropy and generate a temporary vortex of self-created order in the universe. In the words of philosopher of biology Andreas Weber, “Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.”
This implies that, rather than being an aggregation of unconscious machines, life is intrinsically purposive. In recent decades, carefully designed scientific studies have revealed the deep intelligence throughout the natural world employed by organisms as they fulfil their purpose of self-generation. The inner life of a plant, biologists have discovered, is a rich plethora of complex experience. Plants have their own versions of our five senses, as well as up to fifteen other ways of sensing their environment for which we don’t have analogues. Plants act intentionally and purposefully: they have memories and learn, they communicate with each other, and can even allocate resources as a community through what biologist Suzanne Simard calls the “wood-wide web” of mycorrhizal fungi linking their roots together underground.
Extensive studies now point to the profound realization that every animal with a nervous system is likely to have some sort of subjective experience driven by feelings that, at the deepest level, are shared by all of us. Bees have been shown to feel anxious when their hives are shaken. Fish will make trade-offs between hunger and pain, avoiding part of an aquarium where they’re likely to get an electric shock, even if that’s where the food is—until they get so hungry that they’re willing to take a risk. Octopuses, one of the earliest groups to evolve separately from other animals about 600 million years ago, live predominantly solitary lives, but just like humans, get cozy with others when given a dose of the “love-drug” MDMA.
The ideology of human supremacy
As we confront the existential crises of the twenty-first century, the mechanistic thinking that brought us to this place may be driving us headlong toward catastrophe. As each new global problem appears, attention gets focused on short-term, mechanistic solutions, rather than probing deeper systemic causation. In response to the worldwide collapse of butterfly and bee populations, for example, some researchers have designed tiny airborne drones to pollinate trees as artificial substitutes for their disappearing natural pollinators.
As the stakes get higher through this century, the dangers arising from this mechanistic metaphor of nature will only become more harrowing. Already, in response to the acceleration of climate breakdown, the techno-dystopian idea of geoengineering is becoming increasingly acceptable. Following Tillerson’s misconceived logic, rather than disrupt the fossil fuel-based growth economy, policymakers are beginning to seriously countenance treating the Earth as a gigantic machine that needs fixing, and developing massive engineering projects to tinker with the global climate.
Given the innumerable nonlinear feedback loops that generate our planet’s complex living systems, the law of unintended consequences looms menacingly large. The eerily named field of “solar radiation management”, for example, which has received significant financing from Bill Gates, envisages spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, such as causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world and exacerbating damage we’ve already done to the ozone layer. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would further increase ocean acidification; and would likely turn the blue sky into a perpetual white haze. These types of feedback effects, arising from the innumerable nonlinear dynamic interdependencies of Earth’s complex systems, get marginalized by a worldview that ultimately sees our planet as a machine requiring a quick fix.
Further, there are deep moral issues that arise from confronting the inherent subjectivity of the natural world. Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the root metaphor of nature as a machine has infiltrated Western culture, inducing people to view the living Earth as a resource for humans to exploit without regard for its intrinsic value. Ecological philosopher Eileen Crist describes this as human supremacy, pointing out that seeing nature as a “resource” permits anything to be done to the Earth with no moral misgivings. Fish get reclassified as “fisheries,” and farm animals as “livestock”—living creatures become mere assets to be exploited for profit. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocropped wastelands, and trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves.
Once we recognize that other animals with a nervous system are not machines, as Descartes proposed, but likely experience subjective feelings similar to humans, we must also reckon with the unsettling moral implications of factory farming. The stark reality is that around the world, cows, chicken, and pigs are enslaved, tortured, and mercilessly slaughtered merely for human convenience. This systematic torment administered in the name of humanity to over 70 billion animals a year—each one a sentient creature with a nervous system as capable of registering excruciating pain as you or I—quite possibly represents the greatest cataclysm of suffering that life on Earth has ever experienced.
The “quantum jazz” of life
What, then, are metaphors of life that more accurately reflect the findings of biology—and might have the adaptive consequence of influencing our civilization to behave with more reverence toward our nonliving relatives on this beleaguered planet which is our only home?
Frequently, when cell biologists describe the mind-boggling complexity of their subject, they turn to music as a core metaphor. Denis Noble entitled his book on cellular biology The Music of Life, depicting it as “a symphony.” Ursula Goodenough describes patterns of gene expression as “melodies and harmonies.” While this metaphor rings truer than nature as a machine, it has its own limitations: a symphony is, after all, a piece of music written by a composer, with a conductor directing how each note should be played. The awesome quality of nature’s music arises from the fact that it is self-organized. There is no outside agent telling each cell what to do.
Perhaps a more illustrative metaphor would be a dance. Cell biologists increasingly refer to their findings in terms of “choreography,” and philosopher of biology Evan Thompson writes vividly how an organism and its environment relate to each other “like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements.”
Another compelling metaphor is an improvisational jazz ensemble, where a self-organized group of musicians spontaneously creates fresh melodies from a core harmonic theme, riffing off each other’s creativity in a similar way to how evolution generates complex ecosystems. Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as “quantum jazz,” describing it as “an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism . . . locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole.”
What might our world look if we saw ourselves as participating in a coherent ensemble with all sentient beings interweaving together to collectively reverse entropy on Earth? Perhaps we might begin to see humanity’s role, not to re-engineer a broken planet for further exploitation, but to attune with the rest of life’s abundance, and ensure that our own actions harmonize with the Earth’s ecological rhythms. In the profound words of 20th century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, “I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live.” How, we may ask, might our future trajectory change if we were to reconstruct our civilization on this basis?
Like all self-organized, adaptive systems, society moves in nonlinear ways. Even as our civilization unravels, a new ecological worldview is spreading globally. Will it become powerful enough to avert a cataclysm? None of us knows. Perhaps the Great Transition to an ecological civilization is already under way, but we can’t see it because we’re in the middle of it. We are all co-creating the future as part of the interconnected web of collective choices each of us makes: what to ignore, what to notice, and what to do about it.
There are many good reasons to watch the unfolding catastrophe of our civilization’s accelerating drive to the precipice and believe it’s already too late. The unremitting increase in carbon emissions, the ceaseless devastation of the living Earth, the hypocrisy and corruption of our political leaders, and our corporate-owned media’s strategy of ignoring the topics that matter most to humanity’s future—all these factors come together like a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut driving our society toward breaking point. As a result, an increasing number of people are beginning to reconcile themselves to a terminal diagnosis for civilization. In the assessment of sustainability leader Jem Bendell, founder of the growing Deep Adaptation movement, we should wake up to the reality that “we face inevitable near-term societal collapse.”
Our civilization certainly appears to be undergoing profound transition. But it remains uncertain what that transition will look like, and even more obscure what new societal paradigm will re-emerge once the smoke clears. A cataclysmic collapse leaving the few survivors in a grim dark age? A Fortress Earth condemning most of humanity to a wretched struggle for subsistence while a morally bankrupt minority pursue their affluent lifestyles? Or can we retain enough of humanity’s accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and moral integrity to recreate our civilization from within, in a form that can survive the turmoil ahead?
An important lesson from history is that—like all self-organized, adaptive systems—society changes in nonlinear ways. Events take unanticipated swerves that only make sense when analyzed retroactively. These can be catastrophic, such as the onset of a world war or civilizational collapse, but frequently they lead to unexpectedly positive outcomes. When a dozen or so Quakers gathered in London in 1785 to create a movement to end slavery, it would have seemed improbable that slavery would be abolished within half a century throughout the British Empire, would spur a civil war in the United States, and eventually become illegal worldwide. When Emmeline Pankhurst founded the National Union for Women’s Suffrage in 1897, it took ten years of struggle to muster a few thousand courageous women to join her on a march in London—but within a couple of decades, women were gaining the right to vote across the world.
In recent decades, history has continued to surprise those who scoff at the potential for dramatic positive change. It took eight years from Rosa Parks being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech inspired the nation—leading to the Civil Rights Act being passed into law the following year. In 2006, civil rights activist Tarana Burke used the phrase “Me Too” to raise awareness of sexual assault; she couldn’t have known that, ten years later, it would potentiate a movement to transform abusive cultural norms.
The rise of an ecological worldview
Might people one day look back on our era and say something similar about the rise of a new ecological civilization concealed within the folds of one that was dying? A profusion of groups is already laying the groundwork for virtually all the components of a life-affirming civilization. In the United States, the visionary Climate Justice Alliance has laid out the principles for a just transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy. In Bolivia and Ecuador, traditional ecological principles of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution. In Europe, large-scale cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model.
Meanwhile, a new ecological worldview is spreading globally throughout cultural, political, and religious institutions, establishing common ground with Indigenous traditions that have sustained their knowledge worldwide for millennia. The core principles of an ecological civilization have already been set out in the Earth Charter—an ethical framework launched in The Hague in 2000 and endorsed by over six thousand organizations worldwide, including many governments. In China, leading thinkers espouse a New Confucianism, calling for a cosmopolitan, planetary-wide ecological approach to reintegrating humanity with nature. In 2015, Pope Francis shook the Catholic establishment by issuing his encyclical, Laudato Si’, a masterpiece of ecological philosophy that demonstrates the deep interconnectedness of all life, and calls for a rejection of the individualist, neoliberal paradigm.
Perhaps most importantly, a people’s movement for life-affirming change is spreading around the world. When Greta Thunberg skipped school in August 2018 to draw attention to the climate emergency outside the Swedish parliament, she sat alone for days. Less than a year later, over one and half million schoolchildren joined her in a worldwide protest to rouse their parents’ generation from their slumber. A month after Extinction Rebellion demonstrators closed down Central London in April 2019 to draw attention to the world’s dire plight, the UK Parliament announced a “climate emergency”—something that has now been declared by nearly two thousand jurisdictions worldwide comprising over a billion citizens. Meanwhile, a growing campaign of “Earth Protectors” is working to establish ecocide as a crime prosecutable by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Is this enough? Can the collective power of these movements stand up to the inexorable force of corporate capitalism that so tightly maintains its stranglehold on the political, cultural, and economic systems of the world? When we consider the immensity of the transformation needed, the odds look daunting. Those nonlinear historical shifts described earlier—while revolutionary in their own way—were ultimately absorbed into the capitalist system, which has the tenacity of the mythical multi-headed hydra. The transformation needed now requires a metamorphosis of virtually every aspect of the human experience, including our values, goals, and behavioral norms. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event, on the scale of the Agricultural Revolution that launched civilization, or the Scientific Revolution that engendered the modern world. And in this case, we don’t have the millennia or centuries those revolutions took to unfold—this one must occur within a few decades, at most.
Is the Great Transition already under way?
Daunting, yes—but it’s too soon to say whether such a transformation is impossible. There are powerful reasons why such a drastic change could come to pass far more rapidly than many people might expect. The same tight coupling between global systems that increases the risk of civilizational collapse also facilitates the breakneck speed at which deeper, systemic changes can now occur. The world’s initial reaction to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 showed how quickly the entire economic system can respond when a recognizably clear and present danger emerges. The vast bulk of humanity is now so tightly interconnected through the internet that a pertinent trigger—such as the horrifying spectacle of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by a police officer—can set off street protests within days throughout the world.
Most importantly, as the world system begins to unravel on account of its internal failings, the strands that kept the old system tightly interconnected also get loosened. Every year that we head closer to a breakdown, as greater climate-related disasters rear up, as the outrages of racial and economic injustice become even more egregious, and as life for most people becomes increasingly intolerable, the old story loses its hold on humanity’s collective consciousness. As waves of young people come of age, they will increasingly reject what their parents’ generation told them. They will look about for a new worldview—one that makes sense of the current unraveling, one that offers them a future they can believe in. People who lived through the Industrial Revolution had no name for the changes they were undergoing—it was a century before it received its title. Perhaps the Great Transition to an ecological civilization is already under way, but we can’t see it because we’re in the middle of it.
As you weigh these issues, there is no need to decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Ultimately, it’s a moot point. As author Rebecca Solnit observes, both positions merely become excuses for inaction: optimists believe things will work out fine without them; pessimists believe nothing they do can make things better. There is, however, every reason for hope—hope, not as a prognostication, but as an attitude of active engagement in co-creating that future. Hope, in the resounding words of dissident statesman Václav Havel, is “a state of mind, not a state of the world.” It is a “deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times . . . an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
This points to the most important characteristic of the future: it is something that we are all co-creating as part of the interconnected web of our collective thoughts, ideas, and actions. The future is not a spectator sport. It’s not something constructed by others, but by the collective choices each of us makes every day: choices of what to ignore, what to notice, and what to do about it.
Coming back to life
We live in a world designed to keep us numb—a culture spiked with innumerable doses of spiritual anesthesia concocted to bind us to the hedonic treadmill, to shuffle along with everyone else in a “consensus trance.” We are conditioned from early infancy to become zombie agents of our growth-based capitalist system—to find our appropriate role as consumer, enforcer, or sacrificial victim, as the case may be, and exhaust our energy to expedite its goal of sucking the life out of our humanity and nature’s abundance.
But, powerful as its hold is, we have the potential to shed our cultural conditioning. As we learn to open our eyes that have been sealed shut by our dominant culture, we can discern the meaning that was always there waiting for us. We can awaken to our true nature as humans on this Earth, feel the life within ourselves that we share with all other beings, and recognize our common identity as a moral community asserting the primacy of core human values. As we open awareness to our interbeing, our ecological self, we can experience ourselves as “life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live”—and realize the deep purpose of our existence on Earth to tend Gaia and participate fully in its ancient, sacred insurgence against the forces of entropy.
There are many effective methods to shed the layers of conditioning. Each person’s pathway is unique. Some choose extended time in nature; others may utilize psychedelic insights, learn from Indigenous groups, engage in meditation or embodied practices, or simply open up to the deep animate nature within themselves. The trail has already been blazed by those who have assumed their sacred responsibilities and developed on-ramps for others in their wake. Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, for example, has developed a set of transformative practices, called The Work that Reconnects, offered in communities worldwide, that helps people navigate the steps of what she calls “coming back to life.” Beginning with gratitude, it spirals into a full acceptance of the Earth’s heartbreak—the willingness, in Thích Nhât Hanh’s words, “to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
Absorbing this pain, however, doesn’t mean wallowing in it. Rather than giving way to despair, it instead becomes a springboard to action. As such, The Work that Reconnects leads its participants to experience the deep interconnectedness of all things, and continue the spiral into conscious, active engagement. As Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming noted: “There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know.” You know when you’ve reached the place of fully experiencing the Earth’s heartbreak, because you suddenly realize you are drawn to action—not because you think you should do something, but because you are impelled to do it.
The somber truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world characterized primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. Underlying this devastation is the ideology of human supremacy—claiming intrinsic superiority over nonhuman forms of life. But is human supremacy innate to humanity, or rather something specific pertaining to our dominant culture?
The nonhuman creatures with whom we share the Earth are being systematically annihilated by the Great Acceleration, as they lose their habitat, get hunted down, or poisoned by our pollution. There has been a 68 percent decline in vertebrate populations worldwide since 1970, with freshwater species such as amphibians registering a jaw-dropping 84 percent loss. Insects have been faring just as badly, with reports of “insectageddon” from some areas that have seen populations crashing toward extinction levels—such as the Monarch butterflies that migrate annually from Mexico to the United States, and have declined by 98 percent over the past thirty years.
There have been five mass extinctions of life in Earth’s history, caused by cataclysms such as volcanic eruptions or meteorite impact. Scientists warn that human activity is now causing species to go extinct at a thousand times the normal background rate, and that if we continue at this rate for a few more decades, we will have triggered the Sixth Extinction. Leading experts in the field, such as biologist E. O. Wilson, predict that half of the world’s estimated eight million species will be extinct or at the brink of extinction by the end of this century unless humanity changes its ways.
Why don’t we react in unbridled outrage to the devastation of the natural world taking place before our eyes? A major reason is that we don’t realize what we’ve lost. Back in 1968, in a song that became an icon of the environmental movement, Joni Mitchell sang about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, making the point that you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. She stirred millions of hearts—but she was wrong. The disturbing reality is that, once it’s gone, people forget they ever had it. Whatever conditions people grow up with are the ones they generally consider normal. This is a tribute to the amazing plasticity of the human mind, but it means that we tend to take for granted things that should never be accepted.
This phenomenon, known as “shifting baseline syndrome,” was first discovered by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who was researching the drastic reduction in the size of catch off the eastern seaboard of North America, which had declined by 97 percent since written records began, although the fishermen remained strangely unconcerned. He realized that each generation viewed the baseline as whatever they caught at the beginning of their career, regardless of how much smaller it was than the previous generation, leading to what he called “the gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance” of fish populations. Shifting baseline syndrome has since been shown to be pervasive everywhere in the world.
The somber truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world characterized primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. It’s only when we read accounts of wildlife from centuries ago that we realize how much is gone. One eighteenth-century writer, standing on the shores of Wales, described schools of herrings five or six miles long, so dense that “the whole water seems alive; and it is seen so black with them to a great distance, that the number seems inexhaustible.” In the seventeenth-century Caribbean, sailors could navigate at night by the noise of massive shoals of sea turtles heading to nesting beaches on the Cayman Islands. In the Chesapeake Bay, plagued today by polluted dead zones, hunters harvested a hundred thousand terrapins a year for turtle soup. In the nineteenth century, passenger pigeons would blot out the sun when they appeared in massive flocks throughout the eastern United States. The last one died in a zoo in 1914.
The Great Dying
In normal times, extinction is a natural part of evolution: new species evolve from prior existing species, meaning that, rather than dying out, “extinct” species are really the progenitors of new ones. When extinctions occur, however, as part of a mass extinction, they represent a grave and permanent loss to the richness of life. Species exterminated by human development are wiped out from nature’s palette, terminating any possibility of further evolutionary branching. The average lifespan of a species is roughly a million years—the unfolding story of each one is, in E. O. Wilson’s words, a unique epic. We’ve seen how life’s prodigious diversity on Earth can be understood as nature’s own evolved intelligence, earned over billions of years. Through extinction, we are dumbing down nature, eliminating the plenitude it has so painstakingly accumulated.
Terminal as extinctions are, the virtual disappearance of most populations of existing species, known as extirpations, are perhaps even more devastating. It’s been calculated that, since the rise of human civilization, Earth has lost 83 percent of its wild mammals, 80 percent of marine mammals, and about half the biomass of trees and plants—a worldwide elimination of life’s abundance that has been aptly named by biologist Norman Myers “the Great Dying.” The species we view as iconic of nature’s magnificence, such as lions, tigers, elephants, and whales—now barely eking out an existence—were once prolific around the world. It’s estimated that, as late as 1800, twenty-six million elephants roved Africa. There are now barely four hundred thousand. The spectacular vista of wildebeest migrating in their millions across the plains of Africa is itself facing extinction, with the few remaining wildebeest finding migration routes blocked by fences, settlements, and roads. And the Great Dying continues at an ever-increasing pace: 2,000-year-old baobab trees that were around when Jesus lived suddenly dying off; three billion animals lost in Australia’s wildfires of 2019–20. In the words of environmental writer J. B. Mackinnon, “extirpation is the great, sucking retreat of the tide of life.”
The next time you go for a hike in nature, and marvel at its beauty, take a moment to realize that you are looking at a pale, shrunken wraith of what it once was. An accumulation of studies around the world measuring the declines of species and ecosystems indicates that overall we’ve lost around ninety percent of nature’s profusion. We live, Mackinnon observes, in a “ten percent world.” Those of us who gain sustenance from the sacred beauty of nature sometimes like to think of it as a temple. But, as Mackinnon notes, “a greater truth should be foremost in mind: Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.”
The ideology of human supremacy
It’s rather stunning to consider that all this destruction has been carried out by a species that has been around for less than 0.01 per cent of life’s history; a species that makes up just 0.01 percent of all life on Earth as measured by biomass. While some, such as Ecomodernist Stewart Brand, may glorify humanity’s ascendance declaring “We are as gods,” there are other ways to see it. Humanity has undoubtedly developed unprecedented power, but much of it has been used for destruction. What would other animals say about humans, if they had the opportunity? The animals that still remain on Earth are suffering an apocalypse unlike anything that has occurred in the history of this planet. Other mass extinctions happened through geophysical events that no-one was responsible for, such as volcano eruptions or meteorites. This one is a deliberate and systematic annihilation of life executed by one species with full knowledge of what it’s doing. It may be the Sixth Extinction, but as some have pointed out, a more apt name would be the First Extermination Event.
With the exception of a few hardy survivors such as cockroaches, rats, and pigeons, the animals that have been spared extirpation or extinction are mostly those which have been domesticated, such as cows, chickens, and pigs. But the word domestication doesn’t hint at the reality of their existence. For the most part, these animals are enslaved, brutally tortured, and mercilessly slaughtered merely for human convenience. The ongoing atrocity of the systematic torment administered in the name of humanity to 74 billion animals a year—each one a sentient creature with a nervous system as capable of registering excruciating pain as you or I—must represent the single greatest cataclysm of suffering that life on Earth has ever experienced. It’s most likely, as ecophilosopher Derrick Jensen points out, that if animals could speak, they would tell us that when they see the face of a human, they don’t see a god—they see the devil.
But, of course, they can’t speak, and that is why this ongoing holocaust continues with barely a mention in public discourse. Ever since the rise of agrarian civilizations, cultures have justified their domination over those they conquered by claiming innate superiority. In recent centuries, as Europeans subjugated other regions, a discourse of white supremacy—one that retains its pernicious power even today—asserted superiority over other races. Among those who recognize its toxic qualities, white supremacy is understood as a form of violence that inflicts suffering on others while simultaneously damaging the perpetrator by binding them to a system of brutality. What is less recognized is that the ideology of human supremacy—claiming innate superiority over nonhuman animals—has a similarly malignant effect.
Human supremacy is so embedded within our cultural norms that it is barely even discussed. As ecological philosopher Eileen Crist describes, “it is indoctrinated into humans from a tender age, without time-out, hammered into the human mind by innumerable conditioning feats of the dominant anthropocentric culture.” It is, however, a specific ideology with origins in the Western worldview that desacralized nature, turning it into a resource to exploit. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to maltreat animals in factory farms, blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocropped wastelands, trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves—while glorying in the Anthropocene, claiming that nature only exists to serve human needs. Because it’s all around us and almost never mentioned, human supremacy is easy to ignore—but once you recognize it, you see it everywhere you look.
Anthropocene . . . or Capitalocene?
Once one becomes aware of the enormity perpetrated by the human race, it can sometimes lead to a revulsion against our own species. “We are serial killers beyond reason,” writes one author. Others occasionally liken the human race to a cancer, which spreads uncontrollably until it kills its host. Is it, however, human nature that has caused this unfolding catastrophe, or something specific pertaining to the dominant culture?
When malignant cancer cells spread, they generally do so on account of abnormalities in their DNA that cause them to ignore regulatory feedback from neighboring cells, leading to uncontrolled proliferation. Some see this kind of dynamic in global capitalism, which requires perpetual growth in production and consumption of resources just to remain stable. Rather than viewing humanity as a species overwhelming nature, they see the system of norms, laws, and power relations instituted by global capitalism as the source of this massive disruption. As such, they suggest that the “Anthropocene” is a misnomer: it unfairly lays the blame for climate breakdown and ecological collapse on all humans throughout history, whereas it’s really only a small minority of humans in the past few centuries. The numbers back them up: the advanced OECD countries, representing only 18 percent of the global population, account for 74 percent of global GDP, and are responsible for 73 percent of the carbon emitted since 1850. On average, a single U.S. citizen emits five hundred times as much carbon as a citizen of Ethiopia or Cambodia. The true name of our era, they argue, should be the Capitalocene.
Many people claim that evolution has a direction toward increased complexity—and that humans represent its apex. Our destiny, they declare, is to break out of our earthly limitations and explore the galaxy. Although an intoxicating vision for some, the rise of human civilization has been a double-edged story. Until humans learn to enhance life on Earth rather than destroy it, we’re not ready ethically to reach for the stars.
Life’s glorious triumph on Earth has been achieved, not just through increased complexity, but also increased cooperation. In fact, the two go hand in hand. When individuals cooperate, it allows them to specialize in what they do best, thus promoting diversity and greater complexity. Whether it was single cells combining to create multicellular organisms, or insects collaborating to form colonies, the great phase transitions of life have all required massive upsurges in cooperation.
Many researchers have pointed out that building cooperation doesn’t come easily. A perennial problem for cooperating groups throughout the history of life—whether bacteria, organisms, or communities—is the risk of freeloaders: those that take advantage of the benefits of the group without making their fair contribution. If there are too many of them, they undermine the effectiveness of the group and may cause it to disintegrate. Genetic relatedness is one way evolution solved this problem: cells and organisms evolved to cooperate more closely with others that share their genes. But cooperation extends far beyond genetic affiliation.
Ultimately, the crucial success factor for cooperation at increasing levels of scale is integration—a state of unity with differentiation. In a fully integrated system, each part maintains its unique identity while operating in coordination with other parts of the system. To do so, the parts must remain in intimate feedback loops of communication with a large number of related parts. Each of the systems we’ve been looking at—cells, organisms, ecosystems, and Gaia—is a paragon of this type of integration. In fact, integration is a defining characteristic of any purposive, self-organized entity.
As life succeeded in integrating ever larger systems, it kept improving its negative entropy (or negentropy): the process of turning entropy into islands of self-organization that is a defining feature of all living systems. Larger animals utilize energy more efficiently than smaller ones, and larger colonies of insects are more effective at staving off entropy than smaller ones. The rise of human civilization itself may be portrayed as a series of enhancements in energy utilization. Agriculture, as anthropologist Leslie White has laid out, harnessed the negentropy of horses, cows, and sheep, who spent their days consuming the sun’s energy stored in plants, and then made it available to humans in the form of work, milk, wool, and meat. Further technological advances allowed humans to exploit the energy of the natural world ever more efficiently.
As with the other great phase transitions of life, underlying humanity’s achievements in agriculture and technology was an increase in cooperation. Humans are by far the most cooperative of primate species, and this—more than any other factor—is the key to our species’ success. As pre-humans evolved in bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, they developed a sophisticated social intelligence, enabling them to collaborate closely with each other. Early hominids also faced the freeloader problem, and the characteristics they evolved to solve it became an intrinsic part of human nature: a powerful instinct for fairness, combined with a drive to punish those who flagrantly break the rules, even at one’s own expense. Many of the qualities we prize in a person, such as compassion, generosity, honesty, and altruism, are the results of our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolving the aptitude to collaborate successfully as a group.
Like earlier evolutionary transitions, enhanced cooperation in humans enabled greater specialization. Soon after the emergence of agriculture, cities appeared, replete with all kinds of specialists—artisans, healers, warriors, and priests—who, by plying their unique trades, together formed the backbone of civilizations around the world. Like insect colonies, cities become more efficient at negentropy the bigger they get. With each doubling of population size, a city only needs about 85% more infrastructure, such as roads, water pipes, gas stations, and grocery stores. In fact, a city can be understood as a form of superorganism, showing many of the self-organized characteristics that we’ve come to see in all living entities ranging from cells to ecosystems.
The scale of human connectivity, of course, extends far beyond individual cities. In the modern era, with instant global connectivity through the internet, humans have woven a worldwide web like nothing Earth has seen in its entire existence. Does humanity’s ascendancy represent the next step in life’s continued evolution toward ever greater complexity? Thoughtful observers of different stripes—scientists, philosophers, and visionaries—answer with a strong affirmative. Evolution, they claim, has a direction. From bacteria to eukaryotes to multi-celled organisms, from plants to reptiles and then to mammals, life, they argue, has a destiny that culminates inevitably in the emergence of creatures like us—possessing complex brains with the ability to become self-aware and perhaps ultimately direct our own future evolution toward even greater complexity.
It’s an intoxicating vision for some. However, if we look more closely into this narrative, we find it contains elements that are not quite as triumphant as we might wish. It’s a doubled-edged story—and those edges form the parameters of much that we’ll explore later in this book.
Eligible for the Federation?
The idea of inevitable progress as a cosmic law traces its pedigree back to seventeenth-century Europe, but it was a twentieth-century visionary, theologian-cum-paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who gave it a scientific tincture, tying it in to modern evolutionary theory. Pointing to the increasing complexity of life, Teilhard triumphantly placed humanity at its apex. “Life physically culminates in Man,” he wrote, “just as energy physically culminates in life.” Teilhard saw this inevitable progression continuing toward what he called the Omega Point—the ultimate stage of evolution in which all distinctions between artificial and natural are dissolved, when humanity’s consciousness will fuse with the entire natural world to form one unified organism of embodied intelligence.
More recently, leading techno-visionaries have taken up Teilhard’s vision but jettisoned nonhuman nature from the grand narrative. In his bestseller, The Singularity Is Near, Google executive Raymond Kurzweil prophecies a future where humanity’s conceptual intelligence fuses with machines, leaving animate existence in the dust. “There will be no distinction, post-Singularity,” he declares, “between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.” Similarly, prominent physicist Max Tegmark views the inevitable appearance of super-intelligent AI as Life 3.0—overcoming the physical constraints of human beings (“Life 2.0”) and the rest of nature (“Life 1.0”). Frequently, these visions foresee a future intelligence leaving Earth behind, expanding through the Milky Way and then into other galaxies, spreading the higher consciousness and advanced intelligence required for converting the entire universe into a font of negative entropy, perhaps even one day, in the far distant future, repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics itself.
There is something wildly inspirational in this kind of vision, yet it contains a foundational flaw that must be identified and fixed before it could ever take off. Since these visions extend into the realm of imagined futures, it seems fitting to approach them from the perspective of one of science fiction’s best-loved sagas—the Star Trek series. As Star Trek fans (I’m one of them) can attest, the future it envisages, with all its challenges and existential threats, is largely benevolent on account of the values of the United Federation of Planets. The Federation only allows other planetary civilizations to join if, after a thorough evaluation, they meet its ethical criteria, which include an affirmation of “the fundamental rights of sentient beings,” and faith “in the dignity and worth of all lifeforms.”
Would our current civilization be eligible to join the Federation if they evaluated us today? The only realistic answer is an emphatic “No.” Quite apart from the extreme inequities among our own species, forcing billions to live without basic rights such as a home, education, or food security, humanity has been systematically destroying the welfare of other sentient beings on Earth without any regard to their dignity or worth. The rollcall of humanity’s depredations against nature is vast. Some of our most egregious transgressions would have to include the willful torture of billions of domesticated animals in factory farms; the vast demolition of wildlife habitat; the pollution of Earth’s waterways and oceans; the indiscriminate use of deep sea trawlers that decimate fish populations; and the massive conversion of vibrant ecosystems into huge monocrop plantations. The list goes on and on. As a result of the boundless havoc caused by our global civilization, Earth is now experiencing the sixth mass extinction of species since life began on our planet. The sorrowful reality is that, if humanity did succeed in developing the technologies to explore the universe, without first changing its ethical moorings, then a dismal fate would await other less powerful sentient beings out there. If Federation officials were to consider us for entry at this stage in human history, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
Far from being the next step in life’s evolution, humanity’s ascendancy in its current form represents a major step in the wrong direction. We can comprehend this better when we consider the importance of integration as the key to life’s success in continually improving negentropy. In a truly integrated system—consistent with Federation ethics—each entity possesses intrinsic dignity and worth, pursuing its own purpose as part of the larger whole. Our civilization, however, has built its relationship with the rest of nature, not on integration, but on dis-integration. It is based on dominating the natural world with no consideration for its wellbeing. Through our irresponsible use of fossil fuels, we have created imbalances in Gaia’s own health that are causing pernicious damage to countless species as well as our own. Through our conversion of ecosystems into monocrops, poisoning of waterways, annihilation of coral reefs, and emptying the oceans of fish, we are quite possibly the greatest force for entropy that Gaia has experienced in billions of years. Rather than integrating with the rest of life, as Teilhard may have envisaged, we are ruthlessly destroying life, eradicating its precious complexity—and are doing so at an ever-accelerating pace.
There are some who, appalled by our species’ impact on the living Earth, consider humanity to be like a malignant cancer consuming Gaia. While this may be a fair depiction of our current civilization, it certainly need not hold true for humanity as a species. The rise of conceptual intelligence in humans has given us exceptional powers that can be used both beneficially and destructively. However, just as we’ve seen how each of us can develop an integrative intelligence that combines our embodied experiences, humans collectively have the potential to develop a far more integrated relationship with the rest of nature. Technology doesn’t have to be used to destroy the complexity of living systems—if established on a different ethical basis, it could be developed to work in harmony with natural processes, promoting Gaia’s overall negentropy.
Through the rest of this book, we’ll explore what it means to live in a way that enhances life’s deep purpose rather than working against it. We’ll discover how, as a civilization, we have the potential to follow a path of integration that could lead to symbiotic flourishing for humanity and Gaia together—a path that just might lead, one day in the distant future, to being welcomed into the United Federation of Planets with open arms.
As our civilization careens toward a precipice of climate breakdown, ecological destruction, and gaping inequality, people are losing their existential moorings. Our dominant worldview has passed its expiration date: it’s based on a series of flawed assumptions that have been superseded by modern scientific findings.
The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe(published this week in the UK, next month in the US), offers a coherent and intellectually solid foundation for an alternative worldview based on deep interconnectedness, showing how modern scientific knowledge echoes the ancient wisdom of earlier cultures.
Here is the Introduction.
Tea with Uncle Bob
We could call it The Speech. You’ve probably heard it many times. Maybe you’ve even given it. Every day around the world, innumerable versions of it are delivered by Someone Who Seems to Know what they’re talking about.
It doesn’t seem like much. Just another part of life’s daily conversations. But every Speech, linked together, helps to lock our entire society up in a mental cage. It might occur anywhere in the world, from a construction site in Kansas to a market stall in Delhi. It can be given by anyone old enough to have learned a thing or two about how it all works. But it’s usually delivered by someone who feels they’ve been around the block a few times and they want to give you the benefit of their wisdom.
Because I grew up in London, I’ll zoom in there to a particular version of The Speech that reverberates with me. It’s an occasional family gathering—one of those events where toddlers take center stage and aunties serve second helpings of cake. It’s tea-time, and a few of us are gathered around, talking about the state of the world. Someone comments on what’s wrong with our system and how things could be so much better—but Uncle Bob happens to be in the group, and before you know it, it’s too late. The Speech is about to begin.
“Let’s face it,” Uncle Bob declares to the group, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Every man for himself. For all your ideas about making the world a better place, when it comes down to it, everyone’s just interested in their own skin. It’s a rat race. That’s the way all of nature works. That’s how we’ve been programmed. The survival of the fittest.”
Does any of this sound familiar to you? It’s only too familiar to those of us at the tea party. Uncle Bob sees some glazed faces looking back at him, so he feels the need to add a few more pointers to his oration.
“Look,” he leans forward conspiratorially, “it’s like this. People like you want to change the world. But when you’ve had the experience I’ve had, you’ll know better. Our society is structured this way simply because that’s what works best. They tried communism—and you know what happened to that. For all the complaining people do, they’ve never had it so good. Look at our amazing technology, look at all the progress we’ve made in the past few hundred years. You can thank capitalism for that. The fact is, it works so well, because at the end of the day people are selfish—they look out for themselves. Capitalism takes that selfishness and turns it into progress—it lets people become entrepreneurs, which makes all of us better off. That’s what they call . . . the invisible hand, isn’t it?”
Game over. Whatever ideas were being floated about improving society just wafted out the window. Uncle Bob pauses. The conversation comes to a halt, until someone pipes up: “How’s little Penny doing with her dancing lessons?”—and the tea party rolls on.
This type of conversation takes place with regularity around the world because it channels the themes we hear every day from those in a position of authority—from talking heads on TV, from successful businesspeople, from teachers, from school textbooks. Even when the Speech is not given explicitly, its ideas seep into our daily thoughts. Every time a newscaster reports on prospects for economic growth; every time a TV commercial hypes the latest consumer product; every time an exciting new technology is touted as the solution to climate change, the underlying themes of the Speech insidiously tighten their grip on our collective consciousness.
The flaws in our dominant worldview
Distilled to their essence, these themes come down to a few basic building blocks: Humans are selfish individuals. All creatures are selfish—in fact, selfish genes are the driving force of evolution. Nature is just a very complex machine, and human ingenuity has, for the most part, figured out how it works. The modern world is the spectacular result of technology enabled by the market forces of capitalism, and in spite of occasional setbacks, it’s continually improving. There may be problems, such as global poverty or climate change, but technology, powered by the market, will solve them—just as it always has in the past.
These basic elements, give or take a few, form the foundation of the predominant worldview. They infuse much of what is accepted as indisputably true in most conversations that take place about world affairs. They are so pervasive that most of us never question them. We feel they must be based on solid facts—why else would all those people in positions of authority rely on them? That’s the characteristic that makes a worldview so powerful. Like fish that don’t realize they’re swimming in water because it’s all they know, we tend to assume that our worldview simply describes the world the way it is—rather than recognizing it’s a constructed lens that shapes our thoughts and ideas into certain preconditioned patterns.
This book investigates the dominant worldview and shows that, in fact, every one of those building blocks is flawed. They were formed, in their modern version, mostly by a small group of men in seventeenth-century Europe, and further developed in the centuries that followed by other mostly European men. This worldview has accomplished a lot. It wrested intellectual control from the hidebound superstitions of traditional Christian theology, and laid the foundation for modern science—one of humanity’s greatest achievements. But it has also been an underlying cause of the horrendous devastation suffered by non-European peoples and cultures, and boundless destruction of the natural world. And the fundamental flaws in its construction have now become so gaping that they threaten the very survival of our civilization—and much of the living Earth.
Many people across the globe are realizing that there is something terribly wrong with the direction our world is headed. The inequities are so extreme that a couple of dozen billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population. Our civilization is devastating the Earth at an ever-increasing pace. There has been a 68 percent decline in animal populations since 1970. Greenhouse gas emissions have caused the climate to lurch out of control, creating conditions that haven’t existed on Earth for millions of years. Fires, storms, droughts, and floods that used to be called “once in a century” have become a regular staple of our daily news.
Look ahead a few decades, and things become downright terrifying. We’re on track, by the middle of this century, to see the annihilation of coral reefs worldwide, 95 percent of arable land degraded, and five billion people facing water shortages—and at the current rate, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Without drastic changes, as we approach the later part of the century, the Amazon rainforest will have become a searing desert, the Sixth Great Extinction of species will be well under way, and as a result of climate breakdown, civilization as we know it will likely be tottering on its last legs.
A new foundation for our civilization
At our current trajectory, humanity is headed for catastrophe. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we want to steer our civilization on another course, though, it’s not enough to make a few incremental improvements here and there. We need to take a long, hard look at the faulty ideas that have brought us to this place, and reimagine them. We need a new worldview—one that is based on sturdy foundations.
Imagine someone laying foundations for a single story house. If there are a few cracks, they will probably get away with it. But suppose generations of people keep adding new stories until they’ve built a skyscraper on the faulty foundation. As the building begins teetering, engineers might frantically attach extra girders and struts, but it will eventually collapse unless they pay attention to fixing the flaws in the foundation. That’s the situation our civilization faces right now.
This book lays out an entirely different foundation for a civilization that could lead us sustainably through this century and beyond. It reveals the flaws hidden within the current worldview, showing how certain erroneous ideas became so entrenched in popular thinking that they simply got taken for granted—and how that has led to our current predicament. Most importantly, it shows how the combined insights of traditional wisdom and modern scientific thinking offer a solid, integrated foundation for a different worldview—one that could redirect human civilization onto a very different trajectory, and offer future generations a flourishing world in which to thrive.
Why worldviews matter
The reason a worldview is so important is that it imbues virtually every aspect of the way people think, what they value, and how they act—without them even realizing it. Worldviews lead different cultures to respond to their reality in fundamentally different ways. If you believe that all living beings are family, you will treat them in a different way than if you think the natural world is a resource to be exploited. If you think other humans are inherently cooperative, you’ll approach a person differently than if you think that, ultimately, everyone is selfish and competitive. If you presume that technology can fix our biggest problems, you won’t feel the need to consider the underlying systems that caused those problems to arise in the first place.
In my earlier book, The Patterning Instinct, I looked at major worldviews through history, investigating how different cultures structured patterns of meaning into the universe from humanity’s earliest days in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to modern times. One overarching theme emerged from The Patterning Instinct: a culture’s worldview shapes its values—and those values shape history. By the same token, the values according to which we conduct our lives today will shape the future. Ultimately, the direction of history is determined by the dominant culture’s worldview.
An integrated worldview
The Web of Meaning takes up where The Patterning Instinct left off, by laying out a framework for a worldview that could foster humanity’s long-term flourishing on a healthy planet. It is a worldview of integration: one that identifies the unifying principles that flow through all things, while celebrating the differences that lead to the richness of our lived experience. It’s a worldview that links together scientific findings in recent decades from such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and complexity theory, showing how they affirm profound insights from the world’s great wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples around the world.
This integrated worldview breaks down many of the barriers that tend to separate different forms of knowledge and activity in modern society. We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain than spirituality. We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.
There are certain existential questions virtually every person asks at some time in their lives: Who am I? Where am I? What am I? How should I live?, and ultimately Why am I? The book is organized into sections according to these questions. For each one, we’ll investigate underlying flaws in the typical explanations provided by the dominant worldview, then explore the richly resonant answers offered by the intertwining of current scientific understanding with the deep insights of traditional wisdom. Finally, we’ll tackle the question many of us are anxiously asking right now: Where are we going?
Uncle Bob and me
These are all questions that I pondered during a period in my life when the structures of meaning I’d constructed for myself seemed to crash around me. For much of my own life, Uncle Bob’s statements had seemed irrefutably true. In fact, like many others, I built my life on their basis. I received my M.B.A at the University of Chicago where the precepts of free market capitalism were drummed into me. Finding myself in the San Francisco Bay Area at the onset of the dot com era, I founded the world’s first online credit card issuer, which I took public as its chief executive officer.
However, shortly after my company’s IPO, my wife developed early symptoms of the serious illness that would eventually lead to her untimely death. I left my executive role to care for her full-time—but the company was not yet firmly established, and within a couple of years it had become another casualty of the dot com bust. With my wife suffering cognitive decline from her illness, I found myself isolated—bereft of companionship, friends, and the prestige of success.
At that time, I made a solemn promise to myself that whatever path I chose for the rest of my life would be one that was truly meaningful. But where did meaning arise? Having traversed a road that seemed like a dead end, I was determined not to rely on someone else’s determination of what was meaningful. I thus began my own deep investigation into the sources of meaning, which launched a comprehensive research project lasting over ten years, resulting in both The Patterning Instinct and this book.
Something I learned on that journey, and which will become clear through the book, is that one’s personal search for meaning cannot be isolated from all that is going on in the world around us. In the pages that follow, as we trace the intimate connections that link our lives to those in our community, to all of humanity, and to the entire living Earth, we’ll discover how inextricably we are all interrelated—and explore some of the profound implications arising from that relatedness.
We’ll encounter many fascinating and unexpected revelations along the way. We’ll come across slime molds with the intelligence to solve mazes and design sophisticated road networks. We’ll discover how Chinese sages from a thousand years ago provided a framework that elucidates the radical findings of modern systems theorists. We’ll explore the stunning virtuosity of a single cell, and identify how the deep purpose of life reveals itself all around us—and within us. We’ll learn what ant colonies and flocks of starlings can teach us about our own consciousness. We’ll find out what Joni Mitchell got wrong in her environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi”—and what Michael Jackson got right when he sang “We Are the World.” We’ll see how our modern society has been consciously designed to sabotage our well-being, and how, by learning and applying life’s own principles, we can build an alternative civilization that could allow future generations to prosper on a flourishing Earth.
As our civilization careens toward climate breakdown, ecological destruction, and gaping inequality, the dominant worldview of disconnection has passed its expiration date. It’s not just dangerous—it’s based on a series of flawed assumptions that have been superseded by modern scientific findings.
The Web of Meaning—which may be considered a “sequel” to The Patterning Instinct—offers a coherent and intellectually solid foundation for an alternative worldview based on deep interconnectedness, showing how modern scientific knowledge echoes the ancient wisdom of earlier cultures.
Weaving together findings from modern systems thinking, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience with insights from Buddhism, Taoism, and Indigenous wisdom, it offers a rigorous and integrated way of understanding our place in the cosmos that can serve as a philosophical foundation for a life-affirming future.
The book has received a number of enthusiastic early endorsements from luminaries such as Gabor Maté, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra, Dan Siegel, Frans de Waal, and Satish Kumar, among others. You can read them all here.
You can read more about the book on my website where you can explore its themes and download the Introduction.
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SELECTED ADVANCE PRAISE
“One of the most essential and compelling books of our time. It invites us to rethink at the deepest level who we are as a species and what we might become.” — David Korten, author, When Corporations Rule the World
“A profound personal meditation on human existence and a tour-de-force weaving together of historic and contemporary thought on the deepest question of all: why are we here?” — Gabor Maté M.D., author, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction
“We need, now more than ever, to figure out how to make all kinds of connections. This book can help-—and therefore it can help with a lot of the urgent tasks we face.” — Bill McKibben, author, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
“The opportunity to plunge into this book will change my life. My gratitude, like spirit, is endless.” — Joanna Macy, author, World As Lover, World As Self
“Lent is one of today’s most eloquent cultural observers. I highly recommend this inspiring book to anyone concerned about the future of humanity.” — Fritjof Capra, author, The Web of Life, coauthor, The Systems View of Life
“Moving from the ancient Tao to modern neuroscience and everything in between, Lent boldly weaves deep insights together to envision a better world.” — Frans de Waal, author, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves
“This thoughtful and passionate work is an important contribution to the urgently needed cultural shift from domination to partnership.” — Riane Eisler, author, The Chalice and the Blade, The Real Wealth of Nations, and Nurturing Our Humanity.
“An important and rationally argued primer for universal flourishing.” — Douglas Rushkoff, author, Team Human
“A beautiful synthesis of wisdom and empirical knowledge, this erudite journey offers an important way to construct a new narrative of our shared lives.” — Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author, Mind, Aware, and IntraConnected
“A good place to sit for anybody interested in binding the wounds of thoughtless progress and allowing the emergence of new patterns of being.” — Tyson Yunkaporta, author, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World
Every Fall, the Credit Suisse Research Institute invites selected experts to present to the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Urs Rohner, & other senior executives on current events.
Last November, they asked me to participate. I gave them this presentation on the climate and ecological emergency, urging Urs Rohner to immediately divest from all fossil fuel financing, and introduced the concept of an Ecological Civilization as a sustainable path for humanity, suggesting Credit Suisse explores becoming a Benefit Corporation, optimizing for multiple constituencies, rather than solely for shareholders.
My primary message was that Credit Suisse has the opportunity to choose to become part of the solution to our civilizational crisis, not the problem.
Will Urs Rohner take up the challenge and respond in 2021?
I recently contributed my view on the moral underpinnings of a Universal Basic Income to a wide-ranging conversation on the topic facilitated by the Great Transition Initiative: “Universal Basic Income: Has the Time Come?” Here’s the question they posed:
“Should society provide every citizen with a basic income, no strings attached? Some proponents of a “universal basic income” view it as a tool for system correction, but the focus of this GTI Forum is on system change. Should a UBI be a central element of strategies for transformation?“
My answer is a strong affirmative. I see a Universal Basic Income as a cornerstone of a transformed economy within an Ecological Civilization: one that is life-affirming rather than wealth-affirming
I WOULD IMAGINE THAT most contributors to this discussion agree, to some degree at least, with the principle that we need deep, structural changes to our current socioeconomic system. It is not enough to tinker with a few parts of the system, no matter how beneficial that tinkering might appear. Our civilization, torn apart by gaping inequalities, is currently hell-bent on a course to disaster. Its suicidal addiction to economic growth paralyzes it from making the changes required to avert climate catastrophe, while it destroys life’s abundance on our beautiful but wounded Earth.
We need to change the fundamentals of our society. We must move from a wealth-based civilization to one that is life-affirming—an ecological civilization. Without this Great Transition, we are leaving future generations to face the horrors of a collapsing civilization on a devastated planet. Can we transition rapidly enough? And can the transition occur without the old civilization collapsing catastrophically around us?
Given this context, I have been surprised by how much the discussion of a universal basic income sounds like arguing how to stack the deck chairs on the Titanic. Can we afford it? Would it be inflationary? Would the right wing use it as an excuse to take away basic services? In my view, the fundamental issues need to be: Does UBI help with the process of transforming civilization from within? Can it help to move us seamlessly into the Great Transition?
My own answer is a strong affirmative. I acknowledge that, by itself, it is not enough to redirect our global society, but I view it as one of the most important trimtabs available that (a) meets an urgent and current need, while (b) helping unravel some of the economic and cultural structures that have set our civilization on its collective suicide pact.
A full-fledged UBI—one that unconditionally provides every person with enough income to meet their basic needs—would fundamentally alter the paradigm of capitalism that has locked workers into the dominant system ever since its inception. Capitalism has endured by commoditizing people’s lives, forcing them to sell the bulk of their available time and energy, or else face destitution and starvation. A true UBI would transform the relationship between labor and capital and weaken the power of the wealthy elite to control the population.
Even more fundamentally, UBI has the potential to shift underlying mainstream misconceptions about human nature. The dominant contract between capital and labor has reified the idea that humans are essentially selfish and lazy, and must be forced to work by a combination of fear and greed, which is effectuated by wages and other monetary “incentives.” However, it has been widely demonstrated (and summarized well in Rutger Bregman’s Humankind) that humans are nothing of the sort. In fact, people have a fundamental need to engage in a livelihood that is meaningful and to feel valued by their community. Work is not something people try to avoid; on the contrary, purposeful work is an integral part of human flourishing. If people were liberated by UBI from the daily necessity to sell their labor for survival, they would reinvest their time in crucial parts of the economy that, as Kate Raworth outlines in Doughnut Economics, have mostly been hidden from view—the household and the commons. They would care for loved ones, build community, and dare to do whatever it is that inspires them. The domination of the economy by the market would inevitably decline while those other, life-affirming sectors would be strengthened.
From a values perspective, UBI elevates the principles of trust and fairness as organizing structures of society, while eclipsing the ethic of cynicism that dominates our market-oriented system. Morally, UBI recognizes a precept of human history that has long been ignored—that the overwhelming proportion of wealth available to modern humans is the result of the cumulative ingenuity and industriousness of prior generations going back to earliest times, including such fundamentals as language, cultural traditions, and scientific knowledge. Once we realize the vastness of the cumulative common resources that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, it transforms our conception of wealth and value. Contrary to the widespread view that an entrepreneur who becomes a billionaire deserves his wealth, the reality is that whatever value he created is a pittance compared to the immense bank of prior knowledge and social practices—the commonwealth—that he took from.
It is the moral birthright of every human to share in the vast commonwealth that our predecessors have collectively built, and I see a global UBI as the most effective way to make that happen. There are many structural changes required to shift our society’s disastrous trajectory and replace our wealth-based, growth-addicted civilization with one that is truly ecological. A UBI, by itself, would not be nearly enough, but in my view, it is one of the most important cornerstones of a future that fosters sustainable human flourishing on a regenerated living Earth.