Complexity, Cooperation, and Civilization

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.

Excerpted from The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe (published earlier this month in the UK, and available July 13 in the US),

Complexity, cooperation, and civilization

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.

The human instinct to cooperate has been key to our species’ success

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 Star Trek United Federation of Planets?

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.


Explore The Web of Meaning further on Jeremy Lent’s website. The book is available for purchase now in the UK and preorder in the USA/Canada.

Introduction to The Web of Meaning

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.

Talking heads collectively reinforce our dominant worldview

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.

Our worldview is like the foundation of a house: if it’s faulty, everything might collapse

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.

An integrated worldview shows how everything relates within an intricate 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.


Explore The Web of Meaning further on Jeremy Lent’s website. The book is available for purchase now in the UK and preorder in the USA/Canada.


Upcoming UK Book Launch Events

Please find the date that works best for you and register online in advance.

Wed 16 June, 18:30 BST (10:30 am Pacific) | 1 hour 
Jeremy in conversation with Anna Murray, co-founder of Patternity followed by Q&A. Register here.

Thu 17 June, 18:00 BST (10:00 am Pacific) | 1 hour
Jeremy in conversation with Indra Adnan and Pat Kane, co-founders of Alternative UK, followed by Q&A. Register here.

Wed 30 June, 20:00 BST (12:00 pm Pacific) | 1 hour
Earth Talk: Weaving a New Story of Meaning hosted by Schumacher College.
Jeremy will give a presentation followed by Q&A. Register here.

Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?

Coronavirus is a political crucible, melting down and reshaping current norms. Will the new era be a “Fortress Earth” or a harbinger of a transformed society based on a new set of values?

Think Bigger

Whatever you might be thinking about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, you’re probably not thinking big enough.

Our lives have already been reshaped so dramatically in the past few weeks that it’s difficult to see beyond the next news cycle. We’re bracing for the recession we all know is here, wondering how long the lockdown will last, and praying that our loved ones will all make it through alive.

But, in the same way that Covid-19 is spreading at an exponential rate, we also need to think exponentially about its long-term impact on our culture and society. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the impact of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.

If Covid-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together; economies disrupted temporarily; people would make do for a while with changed circumstances—and then, after the shock, look forward to getting back to normal. That’s not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, this coronavirus is revealing the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades as they’ve been steadily worsening. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.”

The first signs of this structural destabilization are just beginning to show. Our globalized economy relies on just-in-time inventory for hyper-efficient production. As supply chains are disrupted through factory closures and border closings, shortages in household items, medications, and food will begin surfacing, leading to rounds of panic buying that will only exacerbate the situation. The world economy is entering a downturn so steep it could exceed the severity of the Great Depression. The international political system—already on the ropes with Trump’s “America First” xenophobia and the Brexit fiasco—is likely to unravel further, as the global influence of the United States tanks while Chinese power strengthens. Meanwhile, the Global South, where Covid-19 is just beginning to make itself felt, may face disruption on a scale far greater than the more affluent Global North.

The Overton Window

During normal times, out of all the possible ways to organize society, there is only a limited range of ideas considered acceptable for mainstream political discussion—known as the Overton window. Covid-19 has blown the Overton window wide open. In just a few weeks, we’ve seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. But remember—this is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months.

A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist, and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably. What might the new shape of society look like? What will be center stage in the Overton window by the time it begins narrowing again?

The Example of World War II

We’re entering uncharted territory, but to get a feeling for the scale of transformation we need to consider, it helps to look back to the last time the world underwent an equivalent spasm of change: the Second World War.

The pre-war world was dominated by European colonial powers struggling to maintain their empires. Liberal democracy was on the wane, while fascism and communism were ascendant, battling each other for supremacy. The demise of the League of Nations seemed to have proven the impossibility of multinational global cooperation. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States maintained an isolationist policy, and in the early years of the war, many people believed it was just a matter of time before Hitler and the Axis powers invaded Britain and took complete control of Europe.

The Yalta Conference, 1945: Allied leaders reshaped the new global era

Within a few years, the world was barely recognizable. As the British Empire crumbled, geopolitics was dominated by the Cold War which divided the world into two political blocs under the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon. A social democratic Europe formed an economic union that no-one could previously have imagined possible. Meanwhile, the US and its allies established a system of globalized trade, with institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank setting terms for how the “developing world” could participate. The stage was set for the “Great Acceleration”: far and away the greatest and most rapid increase of human activity in history across a vast number of dimensions, including global population, trade, travel, production, and consumption. 

If the changes we’re about to undergo are on a similar scale to these, how might a future historian summarize the “pre-coronavirus” world that is about to disappear?

The Neoliberal Era            

There’s a good chance they will call this the Neoliberal Era. Until the 1970s, the post-war world was characterized in the West by an uneasy balance between government and private enterprise. However, following the “oil shock” and stagflation of that period—which at the time represented the world’s biggest post-war disruption—a new ideology of free-market neoliberalism took center stage in the Overton window (the phrase itself was named by a neoliberal proponent).

The value system of neoliberalism, which has since become entrenched in global mainstream discourse, holds that humans are individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and because of this, unrestrained free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labor.

The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where (based on the most recent statistics) the world’s twenty-six richest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. It has allowed the largest transnational corporations to establish a stranglehold over other forms of organization, with the result that, of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are corporations. The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.

But even if the climate crisis were somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.

In 2017 over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” They are echoed by the government-approved declaration of the UN-sponsored IPCC, that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disaster.

In the clamor for economic growth, however, these warnings have so far gone unheeded. Will the impact of coronavirus change anything?

Fortress Earth

There’s a serious risk that, rather than shifting course from our failing trajectory, the post-Covid-19 world will be one where the same forces currently driving our race to the precipice further entrench their power and floor the accelerator directly toward global catastrophe. China has relaxed its environmental laws to boost production as it tries to recover from its initial coronavirus outbreak, and the US (anachronistically named) Environmental Protection Agency took immediate advantage of the crisis to suspend enforcement of its laws, allowing companies to pollute as much as they want as long as they can show some relation to the pandemic.

On a greater scale, power-hungry leaders around the world are taking immediate advantage of the crisis to clamp down on individual liberties and move their countries swiftly toward authoritarianism. Hungary’s strongman leader, Viktor Orban, officially killed off democracy in his country on Monday, passing a bill that allows him to rule by decree, with five-year prison sentences for those he determines are spreading “false” information. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu shut down his country’s courts in time to avoid his own trial for corruption. In the United States, the Department of Justice has already filed a request to allow the suspension of courtroom proceedings in emergencies, and there are many who fear that Trump will take advantage of the turmoil to install martial law and try to compromise November’s election.

Even in those countries that avoid an authoritarian takeover, the increase in high-tech surveillance taking place around the world is rapidly undermining previously sacrosanct privacy rights. Israel has passed an emergency decree to follow the lead of China, Taiwan, and South Korea in using smartphone location readings to trace contacts of individuals who tested positive for coronavirus. European mobile operators are sharing user data (so far anonymized) with government agencies. As Yuval Harari has pointed out, in the post-Covid world, these short-term emergency measures may “become a fixture of life.”

If these, and other emerging trends, continue unchecked, we could head rapidly to a grim scenario of what might be called “Fortress Earth,” with entrenched power blocs eliminating many of the freedoms and rights that have formed the bedrock of the post-war world. We could be seeing all-powerful states overseeing economies dominated even more thoroughly by the few corporate giants (think Amazon, Facebook) that can monetize the crisis for further shareholder gain.

The chasm between the haves and have-nots may become even more egregious, especially if treatments for the virus become available but are priced out of reach for some people. Countries in the Global South, already facing the prospect of disaster from climate breakdown, may face collapse if coronavirus rampages through their populations while a global depression starves them of funds to maintain even minimal infrastructures. Borders may become militarized zones, shutting off the free flow of passage. Mistrust and fear, which has already shown its ugly face in panicked evictions of doctors in India and record gun-buying in the US, could become endemic.

Society Transformed

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Back in the early days of World War II, things looked even darker, but underlying dynamics emerged that fundamentally altered the trajectory of history. Frequently, it was the very bleakness of the disasters that catalyzed positive forces to emerge in reaction and predominate. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the day “which will live in infamy”—was the moment when the power balance of World War II shifted. The collective anguish in response to the global war’s devastation led to the founding of the United Nations. The grotesque atrocity of Hitler’s holocaust led to the international recognition of the crime of genocide, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Could it be that the crucible of coronavirus will lead to a meltdown of neoliberal norms that ultimately reshapes the dominant structures of our global civilization? Could a mass collective reaction to the excesses of authoritarian overreach lead to a renaissance of humanitarian values? We’re already seeing signs of this. While the Overton window is allowing surveillance and authoritarian practices to enter from one side, it’s also opening up to new political realities and possibilities on the other side. Let’s take a look at some of these.

A fairer society. The specter of massive layoffs and unemployment has already led to levels of state intervention to protect citizens and businesses that were previously unthinkable. Denmark plans to pay 75% of the salaries of employees in private companies hit by the effects of the epidemic, to keep them and their businesses solvent. The UK has announced a similar plan to cover 80% of salaries. California is leasing hotels to shelter homeless people who would otherwise remain on the streets, and has authorized local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners. New York state is releasing low-risk prisoners from its jails. Spain is nationalizing its private hospitals. The Green New Deal, which was already endorsed by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, is now being discussed as the mainstay of a program of economic recovery. The idea of universal basic income for every American, boldly raised by long-shot Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, has now become a talking point even for Republican politicians.

Ecological stabilization. Coronavirus has already been more effective in slowing down climate breakdown and ecological collapse than all the world’s policy initiatives combined. In February, Chinese CO2 emissions were down by over 25%. One scientist calculated that twenty times as many Chinese lives have been saved by reduced air pollution than lost directly to coronavirus. Over the next year, we’re likely to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions greater than even the most optimistic modelers’ forecasts, as a result of the decline in economic activity. As French philosopher Bruno Latour tweeted: “Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because ‘the economy cannot be slowed down’, they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough.”

Of course, nobody would propose that economic activity should be disrupted in this catastrophic way in response to the climate crisis. However, the emergency response initiated so rapidly by governments across the world has shown what is truly possible when people face what they recognize as a crisis. As a result of climate activism, 1,500 municipalities worldwide, representing over 10% of the global population, have officially declared a climate emergency. The Covid-19 response can now be held out as an icon of what is really possible when people’s lives are at stake. In the case of the climate, the stakes are even greater—the future survival of our civilization. We now know the world can respond as needed, once political will is engaged and societies enter emergency mode

The world needs to respond to the climate emergency with a similar urgency to the Covid-19 response. Source: David J. Hayes, NYU Energy & Environmental Impact Center

The rise of “glocalization.” One of the defining characteristics of the Neoliberal Era has been a corrosive globalization based on free market norms. Transnational corporations have dictated terms to countries in choosing where to locate their operations, leading nations to compete against each other to reduce worker protections in a “race to the bottom.” The use of cheap fossil fuels has caused wasteful misuse of resources as products are flown around the world to meet consumer demand stoked by manipulative advertising. This globalization of markets has been a major cause of the Neoliberal Era’s massive increase in consumption that threatens civilization’s future. Meanwhile, masses of people disaffected by rising inequity have been persuaded by right-wing populists to turn their frustration toward outgroups such as immigrants or ethnic minorities.

The effects of Covid-19 could lead to an inversion of these neoliberal norms. As supply lines break down, communities will look to local and regional producers for their daily needs. When a consumer appliance breaks, people will try to get it repaired rather than buy a new one. Workers, newly unemployed, may turn increasingly to local jobs in smaller companies that serve their community directly.

At the same time, people will increasingly get used to connecting with others through video meetings over the internet, where someone on the other side of the world feels as close as someone across town. This could be a defining characteristic of the new era. Even while production goes local, we may see a dramatic increase in the globalization of new ideas and ways of thinking—a phenomenon known as “glocalization.” Already, scientists are collaborating around the world in an unprecedented collective effort to find a vaccine; and a globally crowdsourced library is offering a “Coronavirus Tech Handbook” to collect and distribute the best ideas for responding to the pandemic.

Compassionate community. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, documents how, contrary to popular belief, disasters frequently bring out the best in people, as they reach out and help those in need around them. In the wake of Covid-19, the whole world is reeling from a disaster that affects us all. The compassionate response Solnit observed in disaster zones has now spread across the planet with a speed matching the virus itself. Mutual aid groups are forming in communities everywhere to help those in need. The website Karunavirus (Karuna is a Sanskrit word for compassion) documents a myriad of everyday acts of heroism, such as the thirty thousand Canadians who have started “caremongering,” and the mom-and-pop restaurants in Detroit forced to close and now cooking meals for the homeless.

In the face of disaster, many people are rediscovering that they are far stronger as a community than as isolated individuals. The phrase “social distancing” is helpfully being recast as “physical distancing” since Covid-19 is bringing people closer together in solidarity than ever before.

Revolution in Values

This rediscovery of the value of community has the potential to be the most important factor of all in shaping the trajectory of the next era. New ideas and political possibilities are critically important, but ultimately an era is defined by its underlying values, on which everything else is built.

The Neoliberal Era was constructed on a myth of the selfish individual as the foundational for values. As Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This belief in the selfish individual has not just been destructive of community—it’s plain wrong. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, a defining characteristic of humanity is our set of prosocial impulses—fairness, altruism, and compassion—that cause us to identify with something larger than our own individual needs. The compassionate responses that have arisen in the wake of the pandemic are heartwarming but not surprising—they are the expected, natural human response to others in need.

Once the crucible of coronavirus begins to cool, and a new sociopolitical order emerges, the larger emergency of climate breakdown and ecological collapse will still be looming over us. The Neoliberal Era has set civilization’s course directly toward a precipice. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices being made, but by a revolution in values. It must be an era where the core human values of fairness, mutual aid, and compassion are paramount—extending beyond the local neighborhood to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life. If we can change the basis of our global civilization from one that is wealth-affirming to one that is life-affirming, then we have a chance to create a flourishing future for humanity and the living Earth.

To this extent, the Covid-19 disaster represents an opportunity for the human race—one in which each one of us has a meaningful part to play. We are all inside the crucible right now, and the choices we make over the weeks and months to come will, collectively, determine the shape and defining characteristics of the next era. However big we’re thinking about the future effects of this pandemic, we can think bigger. As has been said in other settings, but never more to the point: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Press: North America | Profile Books: UK & Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.


Do you want to think even bigger?

Watch Jeremy Lent’s talk on “Living into an Ecological Civilization”

Presented at Civana House, San Francisco, October 3, 2019

Embracing Interconnectedness

I recently participated in a conversation with thought leaders at the Great Transition Initiative on how to shift our society’s foundational ethical framework for the deep transformation of civilization that is needed.

Here’s my contribution, “Embracing Interconnectedness,” which features ideas that will be part of my upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe (to be published in Spring 2021).

I recommend exploring the full conversation at the Great Transition Initiative website.


I BELIEVE IT IS of the utmost importance to establish the right framework of values for the deep transformation of civilization that is needed. As I have laid out in The Patterning Instinct, different cultures have constructed vastly different systems of values, and those values have shaped history. Similarly, the values we choose today as a society will shape our future. The stakes for getting it right could hardly be higher.[1]

In recent decades, neoliberalism has established a dominant pseudo-ethical regime based on a flawed notion of untrammeled, market-based individual freedom. Our overriding task is to substitute this with an ethic of shared responsibility and interdependence. We need a solid, rigorous foundation for this ethic. Where do we find it?

Too much of the conversation on ethics focuses on binaries—materialism vs. spirituality, reason vs. emotions. But binaries simply encourage different camps to put up barricades against each other. We must move beyond binaries to a truly integrated ethical framework—one that incorporates the rational and intuitive, the scientific and the spiritual.

Fortunately, in recent decades, the combination of complexity science, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and systems thinking has given us a platform for the kind of integration we need. Recognizing an evolutionary basis for values does not mean falling prey to the reductionist determinism of outmoded theorists such as Richard Dawkins, whose “selfish gene” myth has been superseded by modern evolutionary biology. [2]

The major evolutionary transitions of life on Earth have, in fact, been characterized by increases in cooperation, the most recent of which was the emergence of hominids. Facing perilous savannah conditions, our ancestors discovered that, through collaboration, they could protect and feed themselves far more effectively. They evolved moral emotions, such as a sense of fairness, cooperation, and altruism, which enabled them—in what has been called a “reverse dominance hierarchy”—to collaboratively restrain the occasional dangerously aggressive male driven by the atavistic impulse for domination that we see in other primates.[3]

These moral emotions formed the basis of the morality that characterizes our species. Sophisticated tests have shown that, faced with a choice, our initial impulse is to cooperate, and only after time to reflect do selfish behaviors emerge. In various experiments, prelinguistic infants show a rudimentary sense of fairness, justice, empathy, compassion, and generosity, along with a clear ability to distinguish between kind and cruel actions. Morality is intrinsic to the human condition.[4]

So why do we live in a world filled with endless examples of outrageous immorality, where dangerous aggressive males still wield power? With the rise of agriculture and sedentism, the power balance shifted to those who succeeded in establishing hierarchical dominance, leading eventually to the rise of patriarchal societies that rewarded machismo and violence—what Riane Eisler has termed “domination systems.”[5]

The world history of the past millennia mostly chronicles conflicts between different domination systems, one of which—European civilization—eventually became globally dominant in the past few centuries, forcing its unique dualistic cosmology on those it conquered. This is the worldview that most people now take for granted—one based on separation and domination, seeing humans as selfish, rational competitors, defined by their individuality, utterly separate from a desacralized nonhuman nature that has been relegated to a mere mechanistic resource without intrinsic value.

This worldview is a far cry from the shared ethical basis of cross-cultural traditions throughout history, and has been comprehensively invalidated by modern scientific findings. Instead, systems science confirms the insights shared by wisdom teachings across the ages: that we are all intrinsically interconnected. The deep interpenetration of all aspects of reality—what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing”—must be at the heart of an ethical framework for political and cultural transformation.

Our expression of morality is, to a very large extent, a function of our identity. If you see yourself as an isolated individual, your values will accordingly lead you to the pursuit of your own happiness at the expense of others. If you identify with your community, your values will emphasize the welfare of the group. When you recognize yourself as part of nature, you will automatically feel drawn to nurture and protect the natural world.

Over the past several centuries, even as European imperialism ravaged the rest of the world, there was also a gradual expansion of identity, from the parochial to a broader vision of shared humanity, which has led to what Martin Luther King famously referred to as the “moral arc” bending toward justice. This has inspired concepts such as inalienable human rights and led to ever-widening attempts to legislate moral justice into national and international codes of conduct. The Earth Charter stands as an exemplary model of this kind of expansive moral vision.

However, in our current predicament, facing impending ecological catastrophe and the potential of civilizational collapse, we must ask whether this moral expansion is a case of too little, too late. What can be done to catalyze it and redirect our terrifying trajectory? Is it possible to develop a cross-cultural global moral vision for humanity that extends to all life on Earth, and could inspire a comprehensive transition toward economic justice and ecological regeneration?

While those of us enculturated in the West have had to rediscover our interconnectedness, traditional cultures have maintained the deeply embedded principles that characterized core human morality from earliest times. Comanche social activist LaDonna Harris has identified four central values known as the four R’s that are shared by indigenous peoples around the world, which together affirm the interconnectedness of all aspects of creation: Relationship, Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Redistribution. They each pertain to different types of obligation that inform a person’s life. Relationship is a kinship obligation, recognizing value not just in family but in “all our relations” including animals, plants, and the living Earth. Responsibility is the community obligation, identifying the imperative to nurture and care for those relations. Reciprocity is a cyclical obligation to balance what is given and taken; and Redistribution is the obligation to share what one possesses—not just material wealth, but one’s skills, time, and energy.[6]

Other sources of wisdom, such as Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, each offer unique teachings into the ethical implications of the fundamental unity of all life. “Everything from…husband, wife, and friends, to mountains, rivers…birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached,” declared Neo-Confucian sage Wang Yangming.

Our crucial task is to incorporate these principles of traditional wisdom into an integrated system of values that can redirect humanity away from catastrophe, and toward a flourishing future. One where our shared identity expands beyond parochial boundaries to include, not just all humanity, but all sentient beings, and the vibrancy of the entire living Earth. Ultimately, it is our values that guide our actions—and will shape our future.

Click to read the entire conversation

[1] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2017).

[2] “New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives,” Royal Society | Interface Focus Theme Issue, 7, 5, October 6 (2017).
[3] Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[4] Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2013).
[5] Riane Eisler and Douglas P. Fry, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
[6] La Donna Harris and Jacqueline Wasilewski, “Indigeneity, an Alternative Worldview: Four R’s (Relationship, Responsibility, Reciprocity, Redistribution) Vs. Two P’s (Power and Profit). Sharing the Journey Towards Conscious Evolution,” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 21 (2004): 489–503.

As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs

As civilization faces an existential crisis, our leaders demonstrate their inability to respond. Theory of change shows that now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it’s too late.


Of all the terrifying news bombarding us from the burning of the Amazon, perhaps the most disturbing was the offer of $22 million made by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders to help Brazil put the fires out. Why is that? The answer can help to hone in on the true structural changes needed to avert civilizational collapse.

Scientists have publicly warned that, at the current rate of deforestation, the Amazon is getting dangerously close to a die-back scenario, after which it will be gone forever, turned into sparse savanna. Quite apart from the fact that this would be the greatest human-made ecological catastrophe in history, it would also further accelerate a climate cataclysm, as one of the world’s great carbon sinks would convert overnight to a major carbon emitter, with reinforcing feedback effects causing even more extreme global heating, ultimately threatening the continued existence of our current civilization.

Macron and the other leaders meeting in late August in Biarritz were well aware of these facts. And yet, in the face of this impending disaster, these supposed leaders of the free world, representing over half the economic wealth of all humanity, offered a paltry $22 million—less than Americans spend on popcorn in a single day. By way of context, global fossil fuel subsidies (much of it from G7 members) total roughly $5.2 trillion annually—over two hundred thousand times the amount offered to help Brazil fight the Amazon fires.

The Amazon is burning, while our global leaders do nothing. (Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

Brazil’s brutal president Bolsonaro is emerging as one of the worst perpetrators of ecocide in the modern world, but it’s difficult to criticize his immediate rejection of an amount that is, at best a pittance, at worst an insult. True to form, Donald Trump didn’t bother to turn up for the discussion on the Amazon fires, but it hardly made a difference. The ultimate message from the rest of the G7 nations was they were utterly unable, or unwilling, to lift a finger to help prevent the looming existential crisis facing our civilization.

Why Aren’t They Doing Anything?

This should not be news to anyone following the unfolding twin disasters of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. It’s easy enough to be horrified at Bolsonaro’s brazenness, encouraging lawless ranchers to burn down the Amazon rainforest to clear land for soybean plantations and cattle grazing, but the subtler, and far more powerful, forces driving us to the precipice come from the Global North. It’s the global appetite for beef consumption that lures Brazil’s farmers to devastate one of the world’s most precious treasure troves of biodiversity. It’s the global demand for fossil fuels that rewards oil companies for the wanton destruction of pristine forest.

There is no clearer evidence of the Global North’s hypocrisy in this regard than the sad story of Ecuador’s Yasuní initiative. In 2007, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa proposed an indefinite ban on oil exploration in the pristine Yasuní National Park—representing 20% of the nation’s oil deposits—as long as the developed world would contribute half the cost that Ecuador faced by foregoing oil revenues. Initially, wealthier countries announced their support for this visionary plan, and a UN-administered fund was established. However, after six years of strenuous effort, Ecuador had received just 0.37% of the fund’s target. With sorrow, the government announced it would allow oil drilling to begin.

The Yasuni National Park is now open to oil exploration, following the Global North’s inaction. (Audubon/Neil Ever Osborne)

The simple lesson is that our global leaders currently have no intention to make even the feeblest steps toward changing the underlying drivers of our society’s self-destruction. They are merely marching in lockstep to the true forces propelling our global civilization: the transnational corporations that control virtually every aspect of economic activity. These, in turn, are driven by the requirement to relentlessly increase shareholder value at all cost, which they do by turning the living Earth into a resource for reckless exploitation, and conditioning people everywhere to become zombie consumers.

This global system of unregulated neoliberal capitalism was unleashed in full fury by the free market credo of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and has since become the underlying substrate of our politics, culture, and economics. The system’s true cruelty, destructiveness, and suicidal negligence are now showing themselves in the unraveling of our world order, as manifested in the most extreme inequality in history, the polarized intolerance of political discourse, the rise in desperate climate refugees, and a natural world that is burning up, melting down, and has already lost most of its nonhuman inhabitants.

How Change Happens

Studies of past civilizations show that all the major criteria that predictably lead to civilizational collapse are currently confronting us: climate change, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and escalation in societal complexity. As societies begin to unravel, they have to keep running faster and faster to remain in the same place, until finally an unexpected shock arrives and the whole edifice disintegrates.

It’s a terrifying scenario, but understanding its dynamics enables us to have greater impact on what actually happens than we may realize. Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.

The Adaptive Cycle model of change

Right now, many people might agree that our global civilization is at the late stage of its conservation phase, and in many segments, it feels like it’s already entering the chaotic release phase. This is a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order. As long as the conservation phase remains stable, new ideas can barely make an impact on the established, tightly connected dominant ecosystem of power, relationships, and narrative. However, as things begin to unravel, we see increasing numbers of people begin to question foundational elements of neoliberal capitalism: an economy based on perpetual growth, seeing nature as a resource to plunder, and the pursuit of material wealth as paramount.

This is the time when new ideas can have an outsize impact. Innovative policy ideas previously considered unthinkable begin to enter the domain of mainstream political discourse (known as the Overton window). We see signs of this in the United States in the form of the Green New Deal, or Elizabeth Warren’s plan to hold corporations accountable. We also see it, disturbingly, in dark political forces such as the UK Brexit fiasco and the increasing acceptability of malevolent racist rhetoric around the world.

The stakes are always at their highest when both the economic and cultural norms of a society begin to fall apart in tandem. When Europe underwent a phase of collapse and renewal in the early twentieth-century, after the devastation of World War I, it became fertile terrain for the hate-filled ideologies of Fascism and Nazism that led to the dark abyss of genocide and concentration camps. The ensuing catastrophe of World War II led to another collapse and renewal cycle, this one providing the platform for the current globalized world order that is now entering the final stages of its own life cycle.

Shifting the Overton Window

What will emerge from the current slide into ecological and political chaos? Will the twin dark forces of billionaires’ wealth and xenophobic nationalism lead us into another abyss? Or can we somehow transform our global society peacefully into a fundamentally different system—one that affirms life rather than material wealth as paramount?

One thing is clear: the visionary ideas that will determine the shape of our future will not be based on incremental thinking within the confines of our current system. Achieving needed reforms within the current global power structure is a worthwhile goal, but is not sufficient to lead humanity to a thriving future. For that, we need bold, new ways of structuring our civilization, and of rethinking the human relationship with the natural world. We need to be ready to restructure the legal basis of corporations to serve humanity rather than faceless shareholders. We need global laws that force ecocidal thugs like Bolsonaro to face justice for their crimes against nature.

You won’t currently find these new ways of thinking in the mainstream media, nor in the speeches of politicians trying to get elected. But you will find them in the streets. You’ll find them in the courage of a Greta Thunberg: a solitary teenage girl sitting for days in front of her parliament, who has since inspired millions of schoolchildren to strike for their future. You’ll find them in the demands of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which calls for elected leaders to tell the truth about our ecological and climate crisis, and to empower citizen’s assemblies to develop truly meaningful solutions.

The Extinction Rebellion movement calls for a meaningful response to our ecological crisis

The changes needed for a hopeful future will not come about from our current leaders, which is why all of us who care for future generations and for the richness of life on Earth, must take the leadership role in their place. We need to shift the Overton window until it centers on the real issues that will determine our future. On September 20, three days before the UN Climate Summit in New York, millions of young people and adults will participate in a Global Climate Strike, taking to the streets to demand the transformative action that’s necessary to stave off ecological and civilizational collapse. Actions are being planned in over a thousand cities around the world, for what may turn out to be the single biggest coordinated grassroots global demonstration in history.

The stakes have never been higher: the threat of catastrophe never more dreadful; and the path to societal transformation never so apparent. Which future are you steering us to? There’s no opting out: anyone with an inkling of what’s happening around the world, but who does nothing about it, is implicitly adding their momentum toward the abyss of collapse. I hope you join us on September 20 in helping steer our civilization toward a path of future flourishing.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

Our Actions Create the Future: A Response to Jem Bendell

On April 10, Jem Bendell wrote a detailed and thoughtful article in response to my critique of Deep Adaptation, “What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren.” I appreciate the care he took to ponder my arguments, note where he concurred, and refute what he felt was wrong. I believe that Jem and I agree on much more than we disagree, and that we share a similar heartbreak at the unfolding catastrophe our world is experiencing.

However, as I read Jem’s refutations, I was concerned that some deeper issues are at stake that need to be brought to the surface, and I’m writing this response accordingly. I hope our public dialogue has so far been of value to those who care passionately about what’s happening to our planet and civilization, and that this article continues to move the conversation forward in a constructive fashion.


Articles referred to in this piece:

What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren? by Jeremy Lent, April 4, 2019

Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation by Jem Bendell, April 10, 2019


Is collapse likely—or inevitable?

Jem implies that I may have “misrepresented the concept” of Deep Adaptation by failing to read his original article. On the contrary, when I became aware of his article, I was driven to read it thoroughly. I’ve spent years researching the topic of civilizational collapse, which I cover at length in the final chapter of The Patterning Instinct. Having read extensively on the topic, I felt I understood the issues reasonably well. (Bibliography below for anyone interested in researching it further.)

Collapse, in my view and in the view of many thinkers I respect, is a real near-term possibility, perhaps even likely, but not certain. For example, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, whose work I admire tremendously, wrote an article in 2013 entitled “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” They concluded: “The answer is yes, because modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats. . . but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small.” Regardless of the odds, they aver, “our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today’s global civilization as we know it.”

Now, Jem was claiming to have discovered that collapse was, in fact, inevitable. I was keen to see what new information or methodology he’d uncovered that changed the picture so dramatically. But after carefully reading his paper, I didn’t find anything new of significance. What I noticed was that Jem kept slipping between the terms “inevitable” and “likely” in his analysis. He introduces his paper with the declaration that there will be an “inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change . . . with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.” Then, about halfway through, he inserts the terms “probable” and “likely.” He opines that “the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.” “The evidence is mounting,” he goes on, “that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within.” On that basis, he declares: “Currently, I have chosen to interpret the information as indicating inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction.”

Quite honestly, I was disappointed by the lack of academic rigor in Jem’s arguments. I greatly appreciate that his article has galvanized many people who were previously numb to the climate crisis, but if I were a reviewer on his academic committee, I would also have rejected it for publication—not because of its “alarmist” character, but simply because it doesn’t adhere to academic standards by constantly jumping from factual evidence to personal opinion without clarifying the distinction.

I respect Jem’s right to interpret the data as he chooses. But what is there, beyond his gut feeling, that should persuade the rest of us that collapse is inevitable? There is, of course, no doubt that the climate news is terrifying and getting worse. However, much of the data is open to interpretation, even among leading experts in the field. As an example, Michael Mann, whose reputation as a climate scientist is virtually unsurpassed, and who has been the target of virulent attacks from climate-deniers, has criticized the predictions of David Wallace-Wells’s New York Magazine article that became the basis for Uninhabitable Earth, as follows:

The article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science. It exaggerates for example, the near-term threat of climate “feedbacks” involving the release of frozen methane (the science on this is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming).
Also, I was struck by erroneous statements like this one referencing “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.” That’s just not true.
The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

He’s joined by a number of other highly reputable climate scientists making similar criticisms.

I’m not taking sides on this debate. I don’t feel qualified to do so (and I wonder how qualified Jem is?). I’m merely pointing out that the data is highly complex, and subject to good faith differences in interpretation, even among the experts.

Jem wrote in his response to my article that “to conclude collapse is inevitable is closer to my felt reality than to say it is likely.” If he chooses to go with his gut instinct and conclude collapse is inevitable, he has every right to do so, but I believe it’s irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial.

The flap of a butterfly’s wings

This is more than just a pedantic point on whether the probability of collapse is actually 99% or 100%. An approach to our current situation based on a belief in inevitable collapse is fundamentally and qualitatively different from one that recognizes the inherent unpredictability of the future. And I would argue that a belief in the inevitability of collapse at this time is categorically wrong.

The reason for this is the nature of nonlinear complex systems. Jem repeatedly describes our climate as nonlinear in his paper, but seems to understand this as simply meaning a rising curve leading to accelerating climate change. Our Earth system, however, is an emergent process derived from innumerable interlinking subsystems, each of which is driven by different dynamics. As such, it is inherently chaotic, and not subject to deterministic forecasting. This is a major reason to be fearful of the reinforcing feedback loops that Jem points out in his paper, but it’s also a reason why even the most careful computer modeling is unable to forecast future changes with anything close to certainty.

When we try to prognosticate collapse, we’re not just relying on a long-term climate forecast, but also on the impact this will have on another nonlinear complex system—human society. In fact, as I describe in the Preface to The Patterning Instinct, human society itself is really two tightly interconnected, coexisting complex systems: a tangible system and a cognitive system. The tangible system refers to everything that can be seen and touched: a society’s technology, its physical infrastructure, and its agriculture, to name just some components. The cognitive system refers to what can’t be touched but exists in the culture: a society’s myths, core metaphors, hierarchy of values, and worldview. These coupled systems interact dynamically, creating their own feedback loops which can profoundly affect each other and, consequently, the direction of society.

The implications of this are crucial to the current debate. Sometimes, in history, the cognitive system has acted to inhibit change in the tangible system, leading to a long period of stability. At other times, the cognitive and tangible systems each catalyze change in the other, leading to a powerful positive feedback loop causing dramatic societal transformation. We are seeing this in today’s world. There is little doubt that we are currently in the midst of one of the great critical transitions of the human journey, and yet it is not at all clear where we will end up once our current system resolves into a newly stable state. Yes, it could be civilizational collapse. I’ve argued elsewhere that rising inequality could lead to a bifurcation of humanity that I call TechnoSplit, the moral implications of which are perhaps even more disturbing than full-blown collapse. And there’s a possibility that the cognitive system transforms into a newly dominant paradigm—an ecological worldview that recognizes the intrinsic interconnectedness of all forms of life on earth, and sees humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.

There’s another crucial point arising from this understanding of complex systems: each of us plays a part in directing where that system is going. We’re not external observers but intrinsic to the system itself. That means that the choices each of us makes have a direct—and potentially nonlinear—impact on the future. It’s a relay race against time in which every one of us is part of the team. It’s because of this dynamic that I feel it’s so important to counter Jem’s Deep Adaptation narrative. Each one of us can make a difference. We can’t know in advance how our actions will ripple out into the world. As the founder of chaos theory, Edward Lorenz, famously asked: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” His point was not that it will set off a tornado, but that if it did, it could never be predicted. Will your choice about how you’re going to respond to our current daunting crisis be that butterfly’s wing? None of us can ever know the answer to that.

Deep Transformation means transforming the basis of our civilization

As I pointed out in my article, I agree with Jem wholeheartedly that incremental fixes are utterly insufficient. We need a fundamental transformation of society encompassing virtually every aspect of the human experience: our values, our goals and our collective behavior. The meaning we derive from our existence must arise from our connectedness if we are to succeed in sustaining civilization: connectedness within ourselves, to other humans, and to the entire natural world.

Climate change, disastrous as it is, is just one symptom of a larger ecological breakdown. Just like a patient with a life-threatening disease exhibiting a dangerously high temperature, the symptoms need to be addressed as an emergency, but for long-term health, the underlying disease must be treated. As I describe in The Patterning Instinct—and I understand Jem agrees with me here—the underlying disease in this case is one of separation: separation of mind from body, separation from each other, and separation from nature. It’s our view of humans as essentially disconnected, begun in agrarian civilizations, exacerbated with the Scientific Revolution, and institutionalized by global capitalism, that has set us on this current path either to collapse or TechnoSplit.

I therefore share with Jem the view that those who argue incremental change can save us are deluding themselves. In my view, even if an assortment of economic and technical fixes were, by a miracle, to reduce atmospheric carbon rapidly enough to avert the worst feedback effects, this wouldn’t be sufficient to avert disaster. We need to transform our core human identity, to rediscover the truth behind the slogan plastered on the streets in Paris during COP21: “We are not fighting for nature. We are nature defending itself.”

We are nature
Slogan in Paris during COP21

In fact, I join Jem in recognizing that, since our current civilization has caused this calamity, perhaps we should “give up on it.” However, the way in which we leave this civilization behind, and what it’s replaced by, are all-important. An uncontrolled collapse of this civilization would be catastrophic, leading to mega-deaths, along with the greatest suffering ever experienced in human history. I’m sure Jem agrees with me that we must consider anything in our power to try to avoid this cataclysm.

I believe the only real path toward future flourishing is one that transforms the basis of our civilization, from the current one that is extractive and wealth-based, to one that is life-affirming, based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Some of us call this an Ecological Civilization. Jem disparages this vision as a “fairytale.” In fact, as I detail elsewhere, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis. From buen vivir in South America, to Mondragon in Spain, to the Earth Charter initiative, brave visionaries are living into the future we all want to see.

We don’t know how successful we will be, but let’s give it our best shot. When Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man in 1792, he was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. His ideas were also dismissed as a fairy tale. In fact, he and other visionaries of his generation spent their last years believing they had failed. They had no way of knowing that, a hundred and fifty years later, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights would recognize fundamental human rights as deserving worldwide legal protection. Granted, we don’t have a hundred and fifty years to transform our civilization. But in an age where cultural memes spread virally around the world in hours, I don’t think we should give up on the possibility.

Our profound moral obligation

Jem’s program of Deep Adaptation is based partially on the notion that despair, rather than hope, is the most effective vehicle for transformation. “It turns out,” he writes, ‘that despair can be transformative” by enabling a person to “drop past stories of what is sensible or not.” Ultimately, as he tells it, a call for hope might make people “feel better for a while,” but they will reach a point where “they can’t avoid despair anymore,” at which point they should “let it arise and ultimately transform their identity.”

From personal experience, I feel what Jem is describing. There have been times when I have found myself sobbing uncontrollably with seemingly limitless grief at the enormity of our civilization’s vast ongoing crime of ecocide. I recognize only too well how a false hope that, “somehow things will be better if we can only improve our technology, recycle more, or go vegan,” can cause continual suffering, emotional paralysis, and political incrementalism. We need to open our hearts to the agony of the truth that we’re facing—to the loss of our living earth, to the devastation already being wrought on millions of climate refugees around the world. When we do that, we need spiritual sustenance. We need compassionate community support. Each of us needs to find our way through the quagmire of despair.

Jem—I’m with you on that. I appreciate how your narrative has touched a nerve in so many people, and how you’re devoting your time to building support structures for the grieving that is part of our new reality. But I don’t think it ends there. I believe that hope has a crucial role in healing, and in driving our engagement in effecting the deep transformation we need. When you write that “All hope is a story of the future rather than attention to the present,” I believe you’re showing a profound misunderstanding of what hope really is.

Hope is not a story of the future, it’s a state of mind. In Vaclav Havel’s famous words, it’s not the belief that things will go well; it “is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times.” And hope can propel us from that deep place to active engagement. As Emily Johnston—one of the courageous valve-turners who faced prison for shutting down tar sands pipelines—has written: “Our job is not to feel hope—that’s optional. Our job is to be hope, and to make space for the chance of a different future.”

For you, Jem, and those that follow your program of Deep Adaptation, I wish only the best, and I empathize with your embrace of despair. If that is the path that feels most meaningful to you, and leads you to your most effective work, go for it. However, I plead with you not to disparage those who are driven by hope, and working to transform our current destructive civilization. I urge you not to keep repeating that collapse is inevitable; that your approach is the only one that’s realistic; and that other people working toward a positive vision are merely in denial. Instead, please recognize that you really don’t know the future course of our world; that despair at the inevitability of collapse is a gut feeling you experience, but is not based on scientific fact. As a wise man once told me: “Believe your feelings; don’t necessarily believe the stories that arise from them.”

Let’s focus on what we know to be true. Let’s engage generatively to transform what we know to be wrong. Species are disappearing. Millions of people are being uprooted. Those of us in a position of privilege and power are part of the system that is causing this global devastation. We have a profound moral obligation to step up and rebel against the structures that are causing this harm. Whether you come from despair or hope, whether you believe collapse is inevitable or that a flourishing future is possible, join together with your sisters and brothers around you, find ways in which you can alleviate their suffering and energize their potential—and recognize that our collective actions are ultimately what will create the future.


NOTE: This article has been edited and updated, based on correspondence between Jem Bendell and Jeremy Lent in February 2020, which established important points of concurrence between our two perspectives that the original article had not identified.

In the interest of transparency, the original article can be read here in pdf format.


Selected bibliography on civilizational collapse

Recommended Books

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008).

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004).

Marten Scheffer, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012).

Paul Raskin, et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2003).

Recommended Articles

Paul R. Ehrlich, and Anne H. Ehrlich, “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1754 (2013).

Safa Motesharrei, et al., “Modeling Sustainability: Population, Inequality, Consumption, and Bidirectional Coupling of the Earth and Human Systems,” National Science Review 3 (2016): 470–94.

Graeme S. Cumming, and Garry D. Peterson, “Unifying Research on Social–Ecological Resilience and Collapse,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 32, no. 9 (2017): 695–713.

Marten Scheffer, et al., “Early-Warning Signals for Critical Transitions,” Nature 461 (2009): 53–59.

Marten Scheffer, “Anticipating Societal Collapse; Hints from the Stone Age,” PNAS 113, no. 39 (2016): 10733–35.

Richard C Duncan. “The Life-Expectancy of Industrial Civilization.” Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 1991 International System Dynamics Conference, 1991.

Ugo Bardi. “The Punctuated Collapse of the Roman Empire.” In Cassandra’s Legacy. Florence, 2013.

Karl W. Butzer, “Collapse, Environment, and Society,” PNAS 109, no. 10 (2012): 3632–39.

Jeffrey C. Nekola, et al., “The Malthusian–Darwinian Dynamic and the Trajectory of Civilization,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28, no. 3 (2013): 127–30

Joseph Wayne Smith, and Gary Sauer-Thompson, “Civilization’s Wake: Ecology, Economics, and the Roots of Environmental Destruction and Neglect,” Population and Environment 19, no. 6 (1998): 541–75.

Joseph A. Tainter, “Resources and Cultural Complexity: Implications for Sustainability,” Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 30, no. 1–2 (2011): 24–34

Graham M. Turner, “A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with 30 Years of Reality,” Global Environmental Change 18 (2008): 397–411.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren?

Facing oncoming climate disaster, some argue for “Deep Adaptation”—that we must prepare for inevitable collapse. However, this orientation is dangerously flawed. It threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy by diluting the efforts toward positive change. What we really need right now is Deep Transformation. There is still time to act: we must acknowledge this moral imperative.


Every now and then, history has a way of forcing ordinary people to face up to a moral encounter with destiny that they never expected. Back in the 1930s, as Adolf Hitler rose to power, those who turned away when they saw Jews getting beaten in the streets never expected that decades later, their grandchildren would turn toward them with repugnance and say “Why did you do nothing when there was still a chance to stop the horror?”

Now, nearly a century on, here we are again. The fate of future generations is at stake, and each of us needs to be prepared, one day, to face posterity—in whatever form that might take—and answer the question: “What did you do when you knew our future was on the line?”

Jews humiliated by Nazis
Many ordinary Germans looked away as Jews were publicly beaten and humiliated by Nazis

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past few months, or get your daily updates exclusively from Fox News, you’ll know that our world is facing a dire climate emergency that’s rapidly reeling out of control. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning to humanity that we have just twelve years to turn things around before we pass the point of no return. Governments continue to waffle and ignore the blaring sirens. The pledges they’ve made under the 2015 Paris agreement will lead to 3 degrees of warming, which would threaten the foundations of our civilization. And they’re not even on track to meet those commitments. Even the IPCC’s dire warning of calamity is, by many accounts, too conservative, failing to take into account tipping points in the earth system with reinforcing feedback effects that could drive temperatures far beyond the IPCC’s worst case scenarios.

People are beginning to feel panicky in the face of oncoming disaster. Books such as David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth paint a picture so frightening that it’s already feeling to some like game over. A strange new phenomenon is emerging: while mainstream media ignores impending catastrophe, increasing numbers of people are resonating with those who say it’s now “too late” to save civilization. The concept of “Deep Adaptation” is beginning to gain currency, with its proponent Jem Bendell arguing that “we face inevitable near-term societal collapse,” and therefore need to prepare for “civil unrest, lawlessness and a breakdown in normal life.”

There’s much that is true in the Deep Adaptation diagnosis of our situation, but its orientation is dangerously flawed. By turning people’s attention toward preparing for doom, rather than focusing on structural political and economic change, Deep Adaptation threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the risk of collapse by diluting efforts toward societal transformation.

Our headlong fling toward disaster

I have no disagreement with the dire assessment of our circumstances. In fact, things look even worse if you expand the scope beyond the climate emergency. Climate breakdown itself is merely a symptom of a far larger crisis: the ecological catastrophe unfolding in every domain of the living earth. Tropical forests are being decimated, making way for vast monocrops of wheat, soy, and palm oil plantations. The oceans are being turned into a garbage dump, with projections that by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. Animal populations are being wiped out. The insects that form the foundation of our global ecosystem are disappearing: bees, butterflies, and countless other species in free fall. Our living planet is being ravaged mercilessly by humanity’s insatiable consumption, and there’s not much left.

Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies are close to extinction, with a 97% population decline

Deep Adaptation proponents are equally on target arguing that incremental fixes are utterly insufficient. Even if a global price on carbon was established, and if our governments invested in renewables rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, we would still come up woefully short. The harsh reality is that, rather than heading toward net zero, global emissions just hit record numbers last year; Exxon, the largest shareholder-owned oil company, proudly announced recently that it’s doubling down on fossil fuel extraction; and wherever you look, whether it’s air travel, globalized shipping, or beef consumption, the juggernaut driving us to climate catastrophe only continues to accelerate. To cap it off, with ecological destruction and global emissions already unsustainable, the world economy is expected to triple by 2060.

The primary reason for this headlong fling toward disaster is that our economic system is based on perpetual growth—on the need to consume the earth at an ever-increasing rate. Our world is dominated by transnational corporations, which now account for sixty-nine of the world’s largest hundred economies. The value of these corporations is based on investors’ expectations for their continued growth, which they are driven to achieve at any cost, including the future welfare of humanity and the living earth. It’s a gigantic Ponzi scheme that barely gets a mention because the corporations also own the mainstream media, along with most governments. The real discussions we need about humanity’s future don’t make it to the table. Even a policy goal as ambitious as the Green New Deal—rejected by most mainstream pundits as utterly unrealistic—would still be insufficient to turn things around, because it doesn’t acknowledge the need to transition our economy away from reliance on endless growth.

Deep Adaptation . . . or Deep Transformation?

Faced with these realities, I understand why Deep Adaptation followers throw their hands up in despair and prepare for collapse. But I believe it’s wrong and irresponsible to declare definitively that it’s too late—that collapse is “inevitable.” It’s too late, perhaps, for the monarch butterflies, whose numbers are down 97% and headed for extinction. Too late, probably for the coral reefs that are projected not to survive beyond mid-century. Too late, clearly, for the climate refugees already fleeing their homes in desperation, only to find themselves rejected, exploited, and driven back by those whose comfort they threaten. There is plenty to grieve about in this unfolding catastrophe—it’s a valid and essential part of our response to mourn the losses we’re already experiencing. But while grieving, we must take action, not surrender to a false belief in the inevitable.

Defeatism in the face of overwhelming odds is something that I, perhaps, am especially averse to, having grown up in postwar Britain. In the dark days of 1940, defeat seemed inevitable for the British, as the Nazis swept through Europe, threatening an impending invasion. For many, the only prudent course was to negotiate with Hitler and turn Britain into a vassal state, a strategy that nearly prevailed at a fateful War Cabinet meeting in May 1940. When details about this Cabinet meeting became public, in my teens, I remember a chill going through my veins. Born into a Jewish family, I realized that I probably owed my very existence to those who bravely chose to overcome despair and fight on in a seemingly hopeless struggle.

A lesson to learn from this—and countless other historical episodes—is that history rarely progresses for long in a straight line. It takes unanticipated swerves that only make sense when analyzed retroactively. For ten years, Tarana Burke used the phrase “me too” to raise awareness of sexual assault, without knowing that it would one day help topple Harvey Weinstein, and potentiate a movement toward transformation of abusive cultural norms. The curve balls of history are all around us. No-one can accurately predict when the next stock market crash will occur, never mind when civilization itself will come undone.

There’s a second, equally important, lesson to learn from the nonlinear transformations that we see throughout history, such as universal women’s suffrage or the legalization of same-sex marriage. They don’t just happen by themselves—they result from the dogged actions of a critical mass of engaged citizens who see something that’s wrong and, regardless of seemingly insurmountable odds, keep pushing forward driven by their sense of moral urgency. As part of a system, we all collectively participate in how that system evolves, whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not.

Suffragettes.jpeg
The Suffragettes fought for decades for women’s suffrage in what seemed to many like a hopeless cause

Paradoxically, the very precariousness of our current system, teetering on the extremes of brutal inequality and ecological devastation, increases the potential for deep structural change. Research in complex systems reveals that, when a system is stable and secure, it’s very resistant to change. But when the linkages within the system begin to unravel, it’s far more likely to undergo the kind of deep restructuring that our world requires.

It’s not Deep Adaptation that we need right now—it’s Deep Transformation. The current dire predicament we’re in screams something loudly and clearly to anyone who’s listening: If we’re to retain any semblance of a healthy planet by the latter part of this century, we have to change the foundations of our civilization. We need to move from one that is wealth-based to one that is life-based—a new type of society built on life-affirming principles, often described as an Ecological Civilization. We need a global system that devolves power back to the people; that reins in the excesses of global corporations and government corruption; that replaces the insanity of infinite economic growth with a just transition toward a stable, equitable, steady-state economy optimizing human and natural flourishing.

Our moral encounter with destiny

Does that seem unlikely to you? Sure, it seems unlikely to me, too, but “likelihood” and “inevitability” stand a long way from each other. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Hope in the Dark, hope is not a prognostication. Taking either an optimistic or pessimistic stance on the future can justify a cop-out. An optimist says, “It will turn out fine so I don’t need to do anything.” A pessimist retorts, “Nothing I do will make a difference so let me not waste my time.” Hope, by contrast, is not a matter of estimating the odds. Hope is an active state of mind, a recognition that change is nonlinear, unpredictable, and arises from intentional engagement.

Bendell responds to this version of hope with a comparison to a terminal cancer patient. It would be cruel, he suggests, to tell them to keep hoping, pushing them to “spend their last days in struggle and denial, rather than discovering what might matter after acceptance.” This is a false equivalency. A terminal cancer condition has a statistical history, derived from the outcomes of many thousands of similar occurrences. Our current situation is unique. There is no history available of thousands of global civilizations bringing their planetary ecosystems to breaking point. This is the only one we know of, and it would be negligent to give up on it based on a set of projections. If a doctor told your mother, “This cancer is unique and we have no experience of its prognosis. There are things we can try but they might not work,” would you advise her to give up and prepare for death? I’m not giving up on Mother Earth that easily.

In truth, collapse is already happening in different parts of the world. It’s not a binary on-off switch. It’s a cruel reality bearing down on the most vulnerable among us. The desperation they’re experiencing right now makes it even more imperative to engage rather than declare game over. The millions left destitute in Africa by Cyclone Idai, the communities still ravaged in Puerto Rico, the two-thousand-year old baobab trees suddenly dying en masse, and the countless people and species yet to be devastated by global ecocide, all need those of us in positions of relative power and privilege to step up to the plate, not throw up our hands in despair. There’s currently much discussion about the devastating difference between 1.5° and 2.0° in global warming. Believe it, there will also be a huge difference between 2.5° and 3.0°. As long as there are people at risk, as long as there are species struggling to survive, it’s not too late to avert further disaster.

This is something many of our youngest generation seem to know intuitively, putting their elders to shame. As fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg declared in her statement to the UN in Poland last November, “you are never too small to make a difference… Imagine what we can all do together, if we really wanted to.” Thunberg envisioned herself in 2078, with her own grandchildren. “They will ask,” she said, “why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.”

That’s the moral encounter with destiny that we each face today. Yes, there is still time to act. Last month, inspired by Thunberg’s example, more than a million school students in over a hundred countries walked out to demand climate action. To his great credit, even Jem Bendell disavows some of his own Deep Adaptation narrative to put his support behind protest. The Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a mass civil disobedience campaign last year in England, blocking bridges in London and demanding an adequate response to our climate emergency. It has since spread to 27 other countries.

Extinction rebellion
Extinction Rebellion has launched a global grassroots civil disobedience campaign to confront climate and ecological catastrophe

Studies have shown that, once 3.5% of a population becomes sustainably committed to nonviolent mass movements for political change, they are invariably successful. That would translate into 11.5 million Americans on the street, or 26 million Europeans. We’re a long way from that, but is it really impossible? I’m not ready, yet, to bet against humanity’s ability to transform itself or nature’s powers of regeneration. XR is planning a global week of direct action beginning on Monday, April 15, as a first step toward a coordinated worldwide grassroots rebellion against the system that’s destroying hope of future flourishing. It might just be the beginning of another of history’s U-turns. Do you want to look your grandchildren in the eyes? Yes, me too. I’ll see you there.


FURTHER READING

Read Jem Bendell’s response to this article: Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation, April 10, 2019

Read Jeremy Lent’s follow-up response to Jem Bendell: Our Actions Create the Future, April 11, 2019.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

Yuval Harari: Please Recognize Your Own Unacknowledged Fictions

Yuval Harari’s writings explode many fictions on which modern civilization is based. However, his own unacknowledged fictions perpetuate dangerous myths. In this article, I urge Harari to recognize his own implicit stories, and by doing so, step up to his full potential role in helping shape humanity’s future.


When Yuval Noah Harari speaks, the world listens. Or at least, the world’s reading public. His first two blockbusters, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have sold 12 million copies globally, and his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is on bestseller lists everywhere. His fans include Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, he’s admired by opinion shapers as diverse as Sam Harris and Russell Brand, and he’s fêted at the IMF and World Economic Forum.

Harari at World Economic Forum
Harari is fêted at the World Economic Forum and many other watering holes of the global elite

A galvanizing theme of Harari’s writing is that humans are driven by shared, frequently unacknowledged fictions. Many of these fictions, he rightly points out, underlie the concepts that organize society, such as the value of the US dollar or the authority of nation states. In critiquing the current vogue topic of “fake news,” Harari piercingly observes that this is nothing new, but has been around for millennia in the form of organized religion.

However, apparently unwittingly, Harari himself perpetuates unacknowledged fictions that he relies on as foundations for his own version of reality. Given his enormous sway as a public intellectual, Harari risks causing considerable harm by perpetuating these fictions. Like the traditional religious dogmas that he mocks, his own implicit stories wield great influence over the global power elite as long as they remain unacknowledged. I invite Harari to examine them here. By recognizing them as the myths they actually are, he could potentially transform his own ability to help shape humanity’s future.

Fiction #1: Nature Is a Machine

One of Harari’s most striking prophecies is that artificial intelligence will come to replace even the most creative human endeavors, and ultimately be capable of controlling every aspect of human cognition. The underlying rationale for his prediction is that human consciousness—including emotions, intuitions, and feelings—is nothing more than a series of algorithms, which could all theoretically be deciphered and predicted by a computer program. Our feelings, he tells us, are merely “biochemical mechanisms” resulting from “billions of neurons calculating” based on algorithms honed by evolution.

The idea that humans—and indeed all of nature—can be understood as very complicated machines is in fact a uniquely European cultural myth that arose in the 17th century and has since taken hold of the popular imagination. In the heady days of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes declared he saw no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The preferred machine metaphor is now the computer, with Richard Dawkins (apparently influencing Harari) writing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” but the idea remains the same—everything in nature can ultimately be reduced to its component parts and understood accordingly.

Descartes vivisection
Descartes’ view of nature as a machine justified the brutal practice of vivisection.

This myth, however attractive it might be to our technology-driven age, is as fictional as the theory that God created the universe in six days. Biologists point out principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its behavior: the information it transmits doesn’t exist separately from its material construction. As prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio states in The Strange Order of Things, Harari’s assumptions are “not scientifically sound” and his conclusions are “certainly wrong.”

The dangers of this fiction arise when others, along with Harari, base their ideas and plans on this flawed foundation. Believing nature is a machine inspires a hubristic arrogance that technology can solve all humanity’s problems. Molecular biologists promote genetic engineering to enhance food production, while others advocate geo-engineering as a solution to climate breakdown—strategies fraught with the risk of massive unintended consequences. Recognizing that natural processes, from the human mind to the entire global ecosystem, are complex, nonlinear, and inherently unpredictable, is a necessary first step in crafting truly systemic solutions to the existential crises facing our civilization.

Fiction #2: “There Is No Alternative”

When Margaret Thatcher teamed up with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to impose the free-market, corporate-driven doctrine of neoliberalism on the world, she famously used the slogan “There Is No Alternative” to argue that the other two great ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism and communism—had failed, leaving her brand of unrestrained market capitalism as the only meaningful choice.

Astonishingly, three decades later, Harari echoes her caricatured version of history, declaring how, after the collapse of communism, only “the liberal story remained.” The current crisis, as Harari sees it, is that “liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face.” We now need to “craft a completely new story,” he avers, to respond to the turmoil of modern times.

Ronald Reagan Visits The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Harari echoes Margaret Thatcher’s myth that “There Is No Alternative” which helped launch the neoliberal era of global politics

Sadly, Harari seems to have missed the abundant, effervescent broth of inspiring visions for a flourishing future developed over decades by progressive thinkers across the globe. He appears to be entirely ignorant of the new foundations for economics proffered by pioneering thinkers such as Kate Raworth; the exciting new principles for a life-affirming future within the framework of an Ecological Civilization; the stirring moral foundation established by the Earth Charter and endorsed by over 6,000 organizations worldwide; in addition to countless other variations of the “new story” that Harari laments is missing. It’s a story of hope that celebrates our shared humanity and emphasizes our deep connection with a living earth.

The problem is not, as Harari argues, that we are “left without any story.” It is, rather, that the world’s mass media is dominated by the same overpowering transnational corporations that maintain a stranglehold over virtually all other aspects of global activity, and choose not to give a platform to the stories that undermine the Thatcherian myth that neoliberalism is still the only game in town.

Harari, with his twelve million readers and reverential following among the global elite, is well positioned to apprise mainstream thinkers of the hopeful possibilities on offer. In doing so, he would have the opportunity to constructively influence the future that—as he rightly points out—holds terrifying prospects without a change in direction. Is he ready for this challenge? First, perhaps, he would need to investigate the assumptions underlying Fiction #3.

Fiction #3: Life Is Meaningless—It’s Best to Do Nothing

Yuval Harari is a dedicated meditator, sitting for two hours a day to practice vipassana (insight) meditation, which he learned from the celebrated teacher Goenka. Based on Goenka’s tutelage, Harari offers his own version of the Buddha’s original teaching: “Life,” he writes, “has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning.” In answer to the question as to what people should do, Harari summarizes his view of the Buddha’s answer: “Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

As a fellow meditator (though not as steadfast as Harari) and great admirer of Buddhist principles, I share Harari’s conviction that Buddhist insight can help reduce suffering on many levels. However, I am concerned that, in distilling the Buddha’s teaching to these sound bites, Harari gives a philosophical justification to those who choose to do nothing to avert the imminent humanitarian and ecological catastrophes threatening our future.

The statement that “life has no meaning” seems to arise more from the modern reductionist ontology of physicist Steven Weinberg than the mouth of the Buddha. To suggest that “people don’t need to create any meaning” contradicts an evolved instinct of the human species. As I describe in my own book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, human cognition drives us to impose meaning into the universe, a process that’s substantially shaped by the culture a person is born into. However, by recognizing the underlying structures of meaning instilled in us by our own culture, we can become mindful of our own patterns of thought, thus enabling us to reshape them for more beneficial outcomes—a process I call “cultural mindfulness.”

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thích Nhất Hạnh: a leading proponent of the principle of engaged Buddhism

There are, in fact, other interpretations of the Buddha’s core teachings that lead to very different distillations—ones that cry out “Do Something!”, inspiring meaningful engagement in worldly activities. The principle of dependent origination, for example, emphasizes the intrinsic interdependence of all aspects of existence, and forms the basis for the politically engaged Buddhism of prominent monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Another essential Buddhist practice is metta, or compassion meditation, which focuses on identifying with the suffering of others, and resolving to devote one’s own life energies to reducing that suffering. These are sources of meaning in life that are fundamentally consistent with Buddhist principles.

Fiction #4: Humanity’s Future Is a Spectator Sport

A distinguishing characteristic of Harari’s writing, and one that may account for much of his prodigious success, is his ability to transcend the preconceptions of everyday life and offer a panoramic view of human history—as though he’s orbiting the earth from ten thousand miles and transmitting what he sees.  Through his meditation practice, Harari confides, he has been able to “actually observe reality as it is,” which gave him the focus and clear-sightedness to write Sapiens and Homo Deus. He differentiates his recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century from his first two books by declaring that, in contrast to their ten thousand-mile Earth orbit, he will now “zoom in on the here and now.”

While the content of his new book is definitely the messy present, Harari continues to view the world as if through a scientist’s objective lens. However, Harari’s understanding of science appears to be limited to the confines of Fiction #1—“Nature Is a Machine”—which requires complete detachment from whatever is being studied. Acknowledging that his forecast for humanity “seems patently unjust,” he justifies his own moral detachment, retorting that “this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto.”

In recent decades, however, systems thinkers in multiple scientific disciplines have transformed this notion of pristine scientific objectivity. Recognizing nature as a dynamic, self-organized fractal complex of nonlinear systems, which can only be truly understood in terms of how each part relates to each other and the whole, they have shown how these principles apply, not just to the natural world, but also our own human social systems. A crucial implication is that the observer is part of what is being observed, with the result that the observer’s conclusions and ensuing actions feed back into the very system being investigated.

This insight holds important ethical implications for approaching the great problems facing humanity. Once you recognize that you are part of the system you’re analyzing, this raises a moral imperative to act on your findings, and to raise awareness of others regarding their own intrinsic responsibilities. The future is not a spectator sport—in fact, every one of us is on the team and can make a difference in the outcome.

Yuval Harari: please step up

Yuval Harari—I urge you to recognize your own fictions. It’s clear to me that you are a caring, compassionate person of high integrity. You’ve shown your willingness to advocate on behalf of those who suffer, as in Sapiens where you brought attention to the atrocity of factory farming. You must be aware that sixty percent of all wild animals on Earth have been annihilated since the decade when you were born; that UN scientists give us just twelve years to avoid a point of no return in our climate emergency.

The Earth itself now needs your advocacy. Please recognize that nature is alive; that there are alternative stories on offer; that there is a moral imperative at this moment to engage in helping turn around our civilization’s path to destruction. If you’re interested to consider these questions, I offer you scholarly sources here for further inquiry. There are twelve million people, including influential power brokers, who would respond to your intellectual leadership. I implore you to step up and play your full potential role in helping shape humanity’s future.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

 

Culture Shift: Redirecting Humanity’s Path to a Flourishing Future

Published in Open Democracy | Transformation, March 20, 2018.

It’s time to build a new worldview around a deeper sense of connectedness.

What do all these ideas have in common—a tax on carbon, big investments in renewable energy, a livable minimum wage, and freely accessible healthcare? The answer is that we need all of them, but even taken together they’re utterly insufficient to redirect humanity away from impending catastrophe and toward a truly flourishing future.

That’s because the problems these ideas are designed to solve, critical as they are, are symptoms of an even more profound problem: the implicit values of a global economic and political system that is driving civilization toward a precipice.

Even with the best of intentions, those actively working to reform the current system are a bit like software engineers valiantly trying to fix multiple bugs in a faulty software program: each fix complicates the code, leading inevitably to a new set of bugs that require even more heroic workarounds. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t just the software: an entirely new operating system is required to get where we need to go.

Searching for a foundation of meaning

This realization dawned on me gradually over the years I spent researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. My research began as a personal search for meaning. I’d been through a personal crisis when the certainties on which I’d built my early life came crashing down around me. I wanted my life going forward to be truly meaningful—but based on what foundation? I was determined to sort through the received narratives of meaning until I came across a foundation I could really believe in.

My drive to answer these questions led me to explore the patterns of meaning that different cultures throughout history have constructed. Just like peeling an onion, I realized that one layer of meaning frequently covered deeper layers that structure the daily thoughts and values that most people take for granted. It was a journey of nearly ten years, during which I dedicated myself to deep research in disciplines such as neuroscience, history and anthropology.

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Throughout history, cultures have created different patterns of meaning. | Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Yunnan Province, China.. Credit: By Jialiang Gao, http://www.peace-on-earth.org | Original Photograph via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Finally, I discovered that what makes humans unique is that we—to a greater extent than any other species—have what I call a ‘patterning instinct:’ we are driven to pattern meaning into our world. That drive is what led humans to develop language, myth, and culture. It enabled us to invent tools and develop science, giving us tremendous benefits but also putting us on a collision course with the natural world.

Root metaphors underlie cultural frames of meaning

Each culture tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of values that directs how that culture behaves. It’s those culturally derived values that have shaped history.

Early hunter-gatherers, for example, understood nature as a ‘giving parent,’ seeing themselves as part of a large extended family, intrinsically connected with the spirits of the natural world around them. When agriculture first emerged about twelve thousand years ago, new values such as property, hierarchy and wealth appeared, leading early civilizations to view the universe as dominated by a hierarchy of gods who required propitiation through worship, ritual and sacrifice.

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, a radically new, dualistic way of thinking about the universe emerged, conceiving a split cosmos divided between a heavenly domain of eternal abstraction and a worldly domain polluted with imperfection. This cosmological split was paralleled by the conception of a split human being composed of an eternal soul temporarily imprisoned in a physical body that is destined to die. Christianity, the world’s first systematic dualistic cosmology, built on the Greek model by placing the source of meaning in an external God in the heavens, while the natural world became merely a desacralized theater for the human drama to be enacted.

The Christian cosmos set the stage for the modern worldview that emerged in seventeenth century Europe with the Scientific Revolution. The belief in the divinity of reason, inherited from the ancient Greeks, served as an inspiration for the scientific discoveries of pioneers such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who all believed that they were glimpsing ‘the mind of God.’

The flawed operating system underlying modern culture

But the worldview that inspired these breakthroughs had a darker side. The Scientific Revolution was built on metaphors such as ‘nature as a machine’ and ‘conquering nature’ which have shaped the values and behaviors of the modern age. The entailments of a dualistic cosmos inherited from the Greeks have defined our received beliefs, many of which we accept implicitly even though they are based on flawed assumptions.

We are told that humans are fundamentally selfish—indeed even our genes are selfish—and that an efficiently functioning society is one where everyone rationally pursues their own self-interest. We accept technocratic fixes to problems that require more integrated, systemic solutions on the premise that nature is just a very complicated machine—one that is entirely separate from humanity.

dna
The “selfish gene” is just one of the pervasive—and deeply flawed—metaphors of our modern age

Continued growth in Gross Domestic Product is seen as the basis for economic and political success, even though GDP measures nothing more than the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful it may be. And the world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely even though that is impossible on a finite planet. ‘No problem,’ we are told, since technology will always find a new solution.

These underlying flaws in our global operating system stem ultimately from a sense of disconnection. Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature. At the deepest level, it is this sense of separation that is inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster.

Connectedness as a foundation for human flourishing

However, the same human patterning instinct that has brought us to this precipice is also capable of turning us around and onto a path of sustainable flourishing. We have the capacity to build an alternative worldview around a sense of connectedness within the web of life—a sense shared by indigenous cultures around the world from the earliest times.

I’ve seen this idea disparaged as a New Agey, kumbaya-style mentality even by otherwise progressive thinkers. However, modern scientific findings validate the underlying connectedness of all living beings. Insights from complexity theory and systems biology show that the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. Life itself is now understood as a self-organizing, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth.

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Nature as fractal: river in Malaysia | Paul Bourke | Google Earth Fractals

Human beings, too, are best understood not by their selfish drives for power but by cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, human beings evolved to become the most cooperative of primates, working collaboratively on complex tasks and creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization. In the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, it was our intrinsic sense of fairness that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of the modern world such as freedom, equality and representative government.

Just as the values of previous generations shaped history, so the values we collectively choose to live by today will shape our future. The cognitive patterns instilled in us by the dominant culture are the results of a particular worldview that arose at a specific time and place in human history. This worldview has now passed its expiration date. It is causing enormous unnecessary suffering throughout the globe and driving our civilization toward collapse.

Rather than trying to transcend what we are, our most important task is to peel away this received worldview, reach within ourselves to feel our deepest motivations as living beings embedded in the web of life, and act on them.

Stepping Back from the Brink


George Monbiot, acclaimed Guardian columnist and environmental thought leader, wrote this piece today about The Patterning Instinct. I’m republishing it here verbatim.



An astonishing new field of enquiry explores the deep changes that could avert a planetary disaster

By George Monbiot, published on monbiot.com, 31st January 2018

George_Monbiot___The_Guardian

We know where we’re going. For many years, scientists have warned that we are crashing through the Earth’s ecological limits. We know we are in the midst of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Yet we seem constitutionally incapable of acting on this knowledge.

The United States has elected a man who promised to unleash a gigantic ecological tantrum, and has, unfortunately, delivered. The UK government has produced 150 pages of greenwash it calls the 25 Year Environment Plan: the same gutless twaddle governments have been publishing for the past 25 years. As always, it was described in some quarters as “a good start”. No policy, anywhere, is commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face.

So what stops us from responding? For years, I’ve suspected that the cause runs even deeper than the power of big business and the official obsession with economic growth, potent as these forces are. Now, thanks to the most profound and far-reaching book I have ever read, I feel I’m beginning to understand what it might be.

Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct was published a few months ago, but it has taken me this long to process, as almost every page caused me to rethink what I held to be true. Bringing together cultural history with neuroscience, Lent develops a new discipline he calls cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge.

There are many points at which we could begin, but perhaps a crucial one is to understand the influence of Plato’s thought on early Christian theology. He proposed an ideal world perceived by the soul, existing in a separate sphere from the material world experienced by the body. To arrive at pure knowledge, which exists above the material world, the soul must be detached from the body’s senses and desires. He helped to establish a deep frame in Western cognition, associating the capacity for abstract thought with the soul, the soul with truth, and truth with immortality.

Some early Christian thinkers, in particular Augustine, took these metaphors further, until not only the human body but the entire natural world came to be seen as anathema, distracting and corrupting the soul. We should hate our life in this world, to secure life in the next.

Christianity, in turn, exerted a powerful influence over modern scientific cognition. Far from breaking with previous patterns of thought, Rene Descartes’s famous belief that he consisted of “a substance whose whole essence or nature is to think and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing” was an extension of Platonic and Christian cosmologies, with a crucial difference: he substituted mind for soul.

If our identity is established only in the mind, then, as the Christians insisted, our body and the rest of nature, being incapable of reason, has no intrinsic value. Descartes was explicit about this: he insisted that there is no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The mind or soul was sacred, while the natural world possessed neither innate worth nor meaning. It existed to be remorselessly dissected and exploited.

This worldview underpinned the scientific revolution, which brought us the astonishing marvels and benefits that have transformed our lives. But it also embedded in our minds some catastrophic root metaphors, that help to explain our current relationship to the living world. Among them are the notions of human detachment from nature, our dominion over nature, nature as a machine and, more recently, the mind as software and the body as hardware.

These root metaphors continue to inform public discourse. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that “a bat is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects”. If a machine with the complexity, self-organisation and self-perpetuation of a bat has been developed, Professor Dawkins should tell us where to find it.

In a world that is supposed to lack inherent value, but in which many of us have lost our belief in either the immortal soul or the sanctity of pure reason, we face a void of meaning. We seek to fill it with a frenzy of consumerism. To change our behaviour, Lent contends, we need to change our root metaphors.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon science: far from it. The study of complex systems reveals nature as a series of self-organised, self-regenerating systems whose components are connected to each other in ways that were, until recently, scarcely imaginable. It shows that, as the great conservationist John Muir proposed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.