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
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.
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.
First, as George Monbiot points out in a follow-up article, the article fails to distinguish between Western and global civilization, conflating two very different issues: 1.) the recent historical dominance of the West over the rest of the world, and 2.) the unsustainable dynamics of our global civilization.
Worse, in their editorial, they argue that on the issues of climate breakdown and environmental collapse, those raising the alarm have “prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.” To me, that reads like saying that those who argue that the Earth orbits the Sun have prematurely provoked pushback from the Flat Earth Society by emphasizing the role of gravity. It’s the kind of thinking that grants false equivalency to climate deniers and leads to pseudo-scientists funded by the Koch brothers getting equal television time to real scientists representing 98% of scientific opinion.
As I describe in my recent article, “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?“, the underlying drivers impelling our global civilization to the precipice are the economic structures of a global capitalist growth-based system driven by massive transnational corporations that are more powerful than individual nations. Since politics is, by definition, about the dynamics of power and governance, how is it possible either to diagnose the problem or suggest solutions without it being political?
Even when environmental scientists assiduously try to avoid politics and offer science-based solutions to problems, such as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has done with The Solutions Project, the political pushback from embedded political interests is enormous. The fact is that there are solutions to our climate breakdown, and there are even ways to restructure our society to prevent collapse, but the political will is lacking.
If anyone is interested in looking deeper into this critical issue, here are some books I recommend (other than the final two chapters of my own book, The Patterning Instinct):
Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008.
A deeply insightful book that uses a sophisticated understanding of systems thinking to analyze some of the structural problems of our civilization.
Paul Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2003)
Ashort but deeply thought through assessment of the possible future scenarios facing humanity.
Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (New York: Random House, 2013).
Athorough and discerning evaluation of the major drivers for change in our global society, and their implications for the future.
Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Ascholarly analysis of societal collapse that has deservedly framed much serious discussion on the topic since its publication.
Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012).
Athoughtful projection into the future by one of the original team members of Limits to Growth.
Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
Apenetrating and visionary account of the enormity of the challenge and opportunity facing humanity in the future.
On Friday, August 4, I published an article in AlterNet entitled “The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins.” The response was flabbergasting. The article, which was quickly picked up by both Raw Story and Salon, has been shared on Facebook over ten thousand times in less than a week. It has also elicited a storm of over a thousand comments—mostly angry and vitriolic.
I respect Coyne’s writings, and I admire his tenacious efforts to disseminate the scientific truths of evolution in the face of fundamentalist Christian opposition. Because of this, I was saddened to see the tone of his response to my article. I decided to try to turn this into an opportunity for a more dignified dialogue on the bigger issues that my article—and his response—bring up.
The following is an open letter to Jerry. I hope he responds in a similarly respectful manner, and that we can establish some shared ground for generative dialogue.
I admire your writings and your decades long struggle to raise awareness about evolution among the American public. I was particularly impressed by your 2012 article in Evolution, “Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America,” in which you argue against the intellectual compromises of “accommodationism”: the practice of suggesting that religion and science exist in separate domains, and therefore neither should represent a threat to the other.
Perhaps because of my respect for you, I felt disappointed to read some of the vitriol in your recent blog post dismissing my critique of Dawkins’s conceptions of the “selfish gene” and “nature as machine” as “another dumb article holding Richard Dawkins responsible for all the world’s wrongs.” My respect for your own intellectual rigor was, quite frankly, called into question when you misstated my arguments in order to ridicule them, such as when you depict me as suggesting that “Dawkins is Satan or the anti-Christ” and dismiss my argument as “simply bullshit.”
Some of the more substantive arguments you made against my article are summed up and discussed in my own follow-up “Reflections on ‘The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins,” which I hope you’ve read. For example, in response to your claim that “[the selfish gene] is just a metaphor,” I’ve pointed out how core metaphors structure the ways in which a society thinks and acts. When you claim that my link to the extensive discrediting of Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory “doesn’t go to any scientific discrediting,” I point to the bottom of the page which references works by Gould, Depew & Weber, Wilson & Wilson, Goodwin, Jablonka & Lamb, Winther, and Pigliucci. I’d be happy to share more references if you’re interested.
There are also specific statements and challenges you made in your article that require a direct response, which is what I will attempt here. A deeper question is why you—and others who hold a similar viewpoint—have responded so belligerently to my article, and what can be done to encourage a more dignified and generative dialogue. I’ll come to this topic further down, and invite a thoughtful and respectful response back from you.
In the meantime, I’ve tried to distil your criticisms into higher level questions. In each case, I’ll try to identify and respond to your assertions or challenges.
Is Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory a valid basis for evolutionary biology?
I notice that you made a careful statement in defense of your friend’s theory: “In fact, the usefulness of the selfish-gene metaphor is alive and well, and has provided useful insights into how natural selection works.” If you rest your case on the idea that the metaphor has provided useful insights into how natural selection works, then we have no disagreement. The problem is, that’s not how Dawkins describes his theory in his own book. He makes a much bolder statement: “The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” The rest of his book goes on to demonstrate why the gene should be seen as the sole unit of selection, and its “selfish” drive to replicate as the fundamental explanatory driver of evolution.
As you are well aware, this approach to evolutionary theory has been challenged by findings in epigenetics, as well as by theories of niche construction, evolvability, and multilevel selection, and there have been repeated calls by increasing numbers of evolutionary biologists for an “extended evolutionary synthesis” integrating these and other approaches into the gene-centric modern synthesis that Dawkins used as a basis for his arguments.
In the lucid words of distinguished biologist Robert Sapolsky in his recently published Behave, “Different circumstances bring different levels of selection to the forefront. Sometimes the most informative level is the single gene, sometimes the genome, sometimes a single phenotypic trait, sometimes the collection of all the organism’s phenotypic traits. We’ve just arrived at the reasonable idea of multilevel selection.”
You have gone on record opposing these new developments, claiming that “the idea of natural selection and mathematical population genetics” are sufficient theoretical tools for explaining everything about evolution, and have expressed your irritation at what you call “Big Idea Syndrome.” As a non-biologist, I can only watch from the sidelines and I certainly don’t expect to change your mind, but it seems you are doing a disservice to your field as well as to all who care about what biology tells us, by turning a blind eye to the new, more complex model of evolution that is emerging.
Is there any linkage between Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory and justifications of modern capitalism?
You correctly point out that “people are always looking for ways for science to justify their own bad acts” and that “ideas of self-interest as underlying economics go back to Adam Smith.” I agree with you that “it’s clearly and self-evidently wrong to blame ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism on Dawkins.”
However, this is not what I’m doing. I am accusing him of a playing a leading role in propagating a faulty worldview that is frequently used to justify the exploitation of laissez-faire capitalism. This worldview can be traced at least as far back as Hobbes, who is referred to approvingly by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he writes: “self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals.” Similarly, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, leading robber barons frequently used flawed interpretations of Darwinism to justify their ruthless exploitation.
Dawkins merely brought this unfortunate nexus of laissez-faire rationalization and pseudo-scientific views of nature up to date. Dawkins himself has made an explicit connection between biology and economics, writing: “Within any one species of animals or plants, the individuals that survive best are the ones that can exploit the other animals and plants, bacteria and fungi that are already flourishing in the environment. As Adam Smith understood long ago, an illusion of harmony and real efficiency will emerge in an economy dominated by self-interest at a lower level. A well balanced ecosystem is an economy, not an adaptation.” Here, Dawkins describes exploitation as the driver of survival, leading to a “well-balanced ecosystem” and linking this explicitly to an economy “dominated by self-interest.”
You say that you’d “like to see Lent’s evidence that corporations have relied on Dawkins’s ideas to justify plundering the Earth.” Besides Dawkins’s own connection, the fact that Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling’s favorite book was The Selfish Gene (which I mentioned in “Reflections”) is only the most egregious example. Ruy Teixera describes how the timing of the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976 along with the rise of modern neo-liberal economics led to a deep conceptual linkage between the two. Milton Friedman’s polemic, Free to Choose, published in 1980, argued for self-interested individuals making “rational” decisions to create the most efficient economy. It is no coincidence that the widely-quoted speech by fictional character Gordon Gekko, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie The Wall Street, uses pseudo-evolutionary theory to justify his excesses:
The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. …
The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed—for lack of a better word—is good.
Greed is right.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.
And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
This linkage continues unabated into the current era. Here, for example, is an excerpt from an interview conducted in 2016 with the bestselling author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
So, when I was in college, I first read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. And like many people, it just blew my mind. And Darwin’s ideas are so simple. From a few principles, you can explain all the diversity of life on earth, and that was a really transformative experience for me. And then when I started reading about the history of capitalism… I had the same experience that I had reading Richard Dawkins… And so capitalism is as powerful and important as Darwinian evolution. And in fact, it’s very much the same thing… The point is everybody should learn about capitalism and evolution by the time they’re 18. And at present we don’t. And that means we have stupid discussions about policy.
As I mentioned in “Reflections,” I appreciate that Dawkins himself has a more humane political outlook, and I expect he may be horrified to find his ideas used by countless neo-liberal zealots. Nevertheless, the underlying linkage seems irrefutable.
How do ethics relate to the “selfish gene” hypothesis?
You, along with many others, have pointed out that Dawkins clearly disavows a simple equivalency between “selfish genes” and selfish humans, stating that “Dawkins’s genetic reductionism does not come with any ethical implications.” Quite right. However, as I discussed in “Reflections,” Dawkins’s logic leads to an antediluvian model of a divided human where morality arises from our reason overcoming the selfish drives of our genes. “Our brains,” he writes, “have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes.” This split conception of humanity can be traced back to Plato and, ironically, is inherent to Christian soul/body dualism.
In fact, many evolutionary biologists have shown that a sense of fairness and compassion is an evolved human trait—something that is readily explained by multi-level selection theory. We don’t need to overcome our inherent drives in order to develop these faculties. This is important because it leads to different modalities for enhancing compassionate behavior within society. Sapolsky does an outstanding job of summarizing decades of findings across sub-disciplines, focusing on the crucial distinction between in-group and out-group evolved moral predispositions, leading to different ways to develop skillful responses depending on the context. This is the kind of valuable interplay between biology and morality that Dawkins’s simplistic “selfish gene” model misses.
What are the ontological implications of Dawkins’s reductionism?
You attempt to ridicule my critique of the implications of Dawkins’s reductionism by paraphrasing me as saying that “Dawkins’s reductionism and naturalism have taken the joy out of life” and that “people have actually become… depressive nihilists who have no meaning in their lives, because of what Richard Dawkins has written.” You continue: “I challenge Lent, or anyone, to find where in Dawkins’s work he’s said anything even remotely like this.” In fact, as you put it, “Dawkins has repeatedly argued that embracing reality and science rather than numinous illusions makes the world more enjoyable and meaningful.”
Ironically, Dawkins has himself given examples of precisely this kind of reaction to his ideas in his introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene. Among other readers disturbed by what they saw as his “cold, bleak message,” he quotes an Australian reader:
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper—trying to believe, but not quite being able to—I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
Dawkins’s response to this is: “If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it.”
This is the classic reductionist refrain, as stated succinctly by Stephen Weinberg’s aphorism: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The follow-on, as you, Dawkins, Weinberg, and others contend, is that we must create our own sense of meaning, and that the sheer wonder of observing the complexity of the universe should offer enough joy for anyone.
Your proposed path to joy, however, is one that doesn’t suffice for many. This is what I call the “cruel myth” that reductionists foist on thinking people everywhere: that reductionism is the only explanatory alternative to theism in making sense of the universe. While reductionism has proven to be a superbly powerful methodology for scientific investigation, it is a leap of faith to use it to make ontological claims about the universe.
Your own statement about reductionism in your rebuttal of my article shows some confusion that perhaps I can use as a starting point for clarification:
Scientific naturalism happens to be true, and everything comes down to the laws of physics, although we also see higher-order phenomena that are “emergent” in the sense that while we don’t know enough to predict them from the laws of physics, they must be consistent with the laws of physics. That is what reductionism means, and there is no “holism” completely independent of reductionism.
Here, you conflate scientific naturalism with reductionism, but I believe that is mistaken. Scientific naturalism holds that everything in the universe is part of nature and is in principle subject to scientific inquiry. This is a viewpoint I share with you, and is in contrast to transcendental claims of another “spiritual” dimension to the universe. I also agree with your statement that emergent phenomena must be “consistent with the laws of physics.” However, that is not what “reductionism means” in its common usage. Reductionism is the belief that everything in nature can ultimately be understood only by reducing it to its simplest components.
Biological reductionism is exemplified by Dawkins’s “selfish gene” hypothesis. The general statement of this view is summed up well by Francis Crick:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
The findings of systems theory show this view to be misguided. In self-organized systems, which includes all living systems, the complex interaction of many connected elements causes emergent behavior that could never be predicted by a study of each part alone, no matter how detailed. The reductionist view of “nothing but” is analogous to someone observing that Shakespeare’s entire opus is nothing but an assembly of twenty-six letters repeated in different configurations. Whether we are evaluating Shakespeare or life itself, the patterns that connect the parts frequently contain far more valuable information than the parts themselves.
That is the starting point for my investigation of meaning through my Liology framework, which you peremptorily dismiss as “wooish,” saying you have “little idea of what this means except that it extols interconnectedness and holism.” I invite you to explore my description of key principles that Liology shares with dynamical systems theory, if you are interested in understanding it further.
You may be surprised by how much we agree with each other. In your article, “Science, Religion, and Society,” you contrast the scientific method with religious dogma:
Science’ s method of finding truth, which relies on reason, empirical investigation, criticism, doubt, predictive power, and repeatability of observations by different investigators, is incompatible with religion’s methods for understanding the universe—methods based on dogma, authority, and revelation. Scientific truth changes in response to new findings about the world, while religious “truth” … changes rarely, and most often in response to scientific advances… In science faith is a vice, in religion it is a virtue.
While not a scientist by profession, I am in full agreement with every aspect of your description of the scientific method, and I try to adhere to it in all my research and writings. As you say well, “scientific truth changes in response to new findings about the world.” I ask you to consider whether new findings in recent decades in the areas of systems biology and complexity theory could possibly have expanded our scientific conception of the universe from a dogmatic reductionism.
I believe we share a commitment to a world where policy decisions are based on ethical and scientifically valid findings. In my view, a recognition of our intrinsic connectedness with others and with the natural world is both scientifically valid and a solid foundation for an ethical and political framework that could promote sustainable flourishing into the future.
Jerry, I greatly admire your decades of work battling against faith-based dogmatism and the obfuscations of proponents of “intelligent design” and other manipulations designed to undermine true scientific investigation. I wonder, however, if your continuous battle against superstition has made it more difficult for you to discern when there are scientifically valid reasons for questioning previously held positions?
I invite you to share your reflections back in a respectful and dignified manner. Perhaps we could better identify areas of agreement and difference, and use this as an opportunity to initiate a more generative discourse on the possibilities of making sense of the universe through scientific naturalism?
 Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Publishing Group, p. 362.
 Cited by Turchin, Peter. “Selfish Genes Made Me Do It! (Part I).”Social Evolution Forum website. December 4, 2013. Note: Turchin adds “I in no way blame Richard Dawkins for the fall of Enron or for the broader cultural shift that resulted in the proliferation of corporate malfeasance.” I don’t blame him either, but am merely pointing out the part his ideas played in this process.
 Crick, F. (1994). The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Touchstone, 3.
 Capra, Fritjof and Luisi, P.L.. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) 19–59; Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 15; Noble, D. (2006). The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 77; Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206; Woese, C. R. (2004, June). “A New Biology for a New Century.” Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 173-186; Lewontin, R. C. (1992). “The Dream of the Human Genome.” The New York Review of Books, 39(10).
Imagine living in a home with structural flaws in the foundations. At first, you might not notice too much. Every now and then, some cracks might appear in the walls. If they got too bad, you might apply a new coat of paint, and things would seem fine again—for a while.
But suppose your house were in an earthquake zone? Some of us who live in California know what it’s like to call in a structural engineer and be told the foundations need to be retrofitted if the house is to survive the Big One. Sometimes foundation work is necessary if there are hidden flaws that our home is built on.
We can think of our civilization’s worldview as a cognitive home that we all live in—an edifice of ideas that’s arisen layer by layer over older constructions put together by generations past. Our global civilization is facing the threat of its own Big One in the form of climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction. If our worldview is built on shaky foundations, we need to know about it: we need to find the cracks and repair them before it’s too late.
Our worldview is the set of assumptions we hold about how things work: how society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable and what’s possible. It often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.
We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from family, friends, and culture, and once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible. That’s fine when it’s working for us. But suppose our worldview is causing us to act collectively in ways that could undermine humanity’s future? Then it would be valuable to become more conscious of it.
In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I excavated the hidden layers of our modern worldview and found that many of the ideas we hold sacrosanct are based on flawed foundations. They are myths that emerged from erroneous assumptions made at different times and places in history. They’ve been repeated so frequently that, for many people, it may never occur to question them. But we need to do so, because the foundations of our civilization’s worldview are structurally unsound.
The good news is that, for each structural flaw, there is an alternative principle that offers a solid basis for long-term, sustainable flourishing. Our best hope for civilization to survive the Big One is to recognize these underlying defects, and work together to reconstruct a worldview with more secure underpinnings. Here are eight deep flaws I found, along with alternative principles that, together, could create a foundation for a flourishing civilization for future generations.
Structural flaw #1: Humans are fundamentally selfish
Modern economics is based on an assumption—backed by outmoded biological theories—that human beings are motivated predominantly by their own self-interest, and their collective self-serving actions result in the best outcome for society. In the words of old-school biologist Richard Alexander, “ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest.” The geopolitical history of the 20th century is demonstrated as proof of this philosophy: Communism failed, we are told, because it was founded on an unrealistic view of human nature, whereas capitalism succeeded because it’s based on harnessing the selfish nature of each individual for the ultimate good of society.
New foundation: Humans are fundamentally cooperative
In fact, modern anthropology and neuroscience show that cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play are defining features of humanity. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, humans evolved to become the most cooperative of primates through our ability to share intentions with each other, while recognizing that others see the world from different perspectives. This enabled early humans to work collaboratively on complex tasks, creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization.
An essential element in the ability of humans to work together is an evolved sense of fairness. We feel this so strongly that we would rather walk away with nothing than permit someone else to take unfair advantage of us. This intrinsic sense of fairness is, in the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, the extra ingredient that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of our modern world such as freedom, equality, and representative government.
For 99 per cent of human history, we lived together in bands of hunter-gatherers, where an egalitarian ethos predominated. If a successful hunter began getting too socially dominant, the rest of the band would join together to keep his ego under control. A sharing ethic pervaded all aspects of life. When a hunter-gatherer in the remote Amazon was asked by an anthropologist why his band didn’t smoke or dry their meat for storage, even though they knew how, he responded: “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”
Structural flaw #2: Genes are fundamentally selfish
At a deeper level, the idea that genes themselves are selfish has permeated the collective consciousness. Since Richard Dawkins’s 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, people have come to believe that evolution is the result of genes competing against other in a remorseless drive to replicate themselves. Ruthless competition is seen as the force that separates evolution’s winners from losers.
Even altruism is interpreted as a sophisticated form of selfish behavior used by an organism to propagate its own genes more effectively. Biologist Robert Trivers established a notion of what he called “reciprocal altruism” as an ancient evolutionary strategy that could be seen in the behavior of fish and birds, and interpreted human altruism in the same way. “Under certain circumstances,” he wrote, “natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.”
New foundation: Nature is a network
This has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, biologists are developing a more sophisticated view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other, both competitively and cooperatively, in a network extending over both time and space. Ecosystems rely for their health on the tightly synchronized interaction of many different species. Trees in a forest have been discovered to communicate with each other in a complex network that maintains their collective health—sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.”
Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, modern biologists offer a new view of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection. This recognition that cooperative networking is an essential part of sustainable ecosystems can inspire new ways to structure human technology and social organization for future flourishing.
Structural flaw #3: Humans are separate from nature
Underlying these structural flaws is an even deeper one—the implicit belief that humans are separate from nature. The source of this idea can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato saw a human being as a split entity, comprised of an eternal soul locked in a mortal body. The ultimate goal of philosophy was to leave the body behind and identify only with the soul that linked us to divinity. Plato’s speculations became the foundation of Western thought. Two and half millennia later, Descartes updated Plato’s myth with his idea that a person’s true essence is their thoughts, while their bodies were mere matter with no intrinsic value.
The implication of this Cartesian split is that the rest of nature—animals, plants, and everything else—has no value because it doesn’t think like a human. With nothing sacred about nature, it became available for humans to use remorselessly for their own purposes. The Old Testament provided further theological justification to this myth, with God’s command to Adam and Eve that they should “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over every living thing on it.
The scientific project, just getting off the ground in the 17th century, would henceforth view every aspect of the material world as free game for inquiry, investigation, and exploitation. Francis Bacon inspired generations of scientists with his call to “conquer nature.” He galvanized them to “unite forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and extend the bounds of human empire.”
New foundation: Humans are an integral part of nature
These ideas are so ingrained in the modern psyche that it is easy to forget they are unique to the European worldview. Other cultures throughout history saw humans as sharing the world equally with all other creatures. The earth was their mother; the heavens their father. Those who wished to harmonize with nature, in the words of the Tao Te Ching, should be “reverent, like guests.”
The findings of modern biology and neuroscience validate the implicit wisdom of earlier traditions. Humans are in fact integrated mind-body organisms, containing ecosystems within them as well as participating in the broader ecosystems of nature. When we destroy the complexity of the natural world, we undermine the well-being of all organisms including ourselves. In the profound words of a slogan at COP21 in Paris, “We are not defending nature. We are nature defending itself.”
Structural flaw #4: Nature is a machine
Along with the separation of humans from nature, another uniquely European cultural myth proclaims that nature is a machine. Since the 17th century Scientific Revolution, the view of nature as a complicated machine has spread worldwide, leading even some of today’s most brilliant minds to lose sight of it as a metaphor and wrongly believe that nature actually is a machine.
Back in 1605, Kepler framed his life’s work on this idea, writing: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork.” Likewise, Descartes declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
In recent decades, Richard Dawkins has spread an updated version of that Cartesian myth, writing famously that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” adding: “That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.” Open any science magazine, and you’ll see genes described like programmers that “code” for certain traits, while the mind is discussed as “software” for the “hardware” of the body that is “wired” in certain ways. This machine delusion is ubiquitous, beguiling techno-visionaries seeking immortality by downloading their minds, as well as technocrats hoping to solve climate change through geoengineering.
New foundation: Nature is a self-regenerating fractal
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 computations: the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.
In recent decades, systems thinkers have transformed our understanding of life, showing it to be a self-organized, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. Everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.
This new conception of life leads us to recognize the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, including humans. It offers us the underpinnings for a sustainable future where technology is used, not to conquer nature or re-engineer it, but to harmonize with it and thus make life more meaningful and flourishing.
Structural flaw #5: GDP is a good measure of prosperity
We continually hear Gross Domestic Product discussed as if it is a scorecard of a country’s success. Yet all GDP measures is the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful. The basic fault with GDP as a measure of a country’s performance is that it fails to distinguish between activities that promote welfare and those that reduce it. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP.
When someone picks vegetables from their garden and cooks them for a friend, this has no impact on GDP; however, buying a similar meal from the frozen food section of a supermarket involves an exchange of money, and therefore adds to GDP. In this bizarre accounting system, toxic pollution can be triply beneficial for GDP: once when a chemical company produces hazardous byproducts; twice when the pollutants need to be cleaned up; and a third time if they cause harm to people requiring medical treatment.
The measure of GDP is not merely bizarre but dangerous for humanity’s future because metrics have a profound impact on what society tries to achieve. National leaders get voted in and out of office based on their country’s GDP growth. Recognizing this, various groups, including the UN and the European Union, are exploring alternative ways to measure society’s true performance. The state of Bhutan broke new ground by creating a “Gross National Happiness” index, incorporating values such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity.
New foundation: Measure a country’s genuine progress
These alternative measures offer a very different story of the human experience over the last fifty years than the one presented by GDP. Researchers have developed a measure known as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that factors negative aspects such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and crime, as well as positive aspects such as volunteer activities and household work, into national accounts. When they applied this to seventeen countries around the world, they discovered that, although GDP has continually increased since 1950, worldwide GPI reached its peak in 1978 and has been declining ever since.
Once we begin measuring our politicians’ success on GPI, rather than GDP, it becomes more feasible that the world can move toward a more sustainable way of life before it gets too late.
Structural flaw #6: The earth can support limitless growth
The world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely, yet that is impossible. When modern economic theory was developed in the 18th century, it seemed reasonable to view natural resources as unlimited because, for all intents and purposes, they were. However, both the number of humans and the rate of our consumption has exploded so dramatically in the past fifty years that this assumption is now woefully wrong.
At the current growth rate of 77 million people per year—equivalent to a new city of a million inhabitants every five days—demographers forecast a world with nearly 10 billion human occupants by 2050. People around the globe, bombarded with images of living standards from affluent countries, understandably aspire to the same level of comfort for themselves. Bolstered by this unremitting appetite for growth, the world economy is projected to quadruple by 2050.
Scientists have calculated that humans now appropriate about 40% of the total energy available to sustain life on Earth—called net primary productivity—for our own consumption. Humans use more than half the world’s freshwater and have transformed 43% of the earth into agricultural or urban landscapes. To sustain our current rate of expansion, human appropriation of net primary productivity might need to double or triple by mid-century. Do the math—it can’t be done on one earth. In the words of systems theorist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
New foundation: Grow quality, not consumption
The solution is to transform our underlying culture—to stop seeking growth in consumption and instead seek growth in the quality of our lives. We can choose to participate in a circular economy, where we borrow, share, reuse, and recycle—and when we do have to purchase something new, make sure it’s sourced from a sustainable process.
But just like changing lightbulbs won’t stop climate change, so going circular alone won’t prevent civilization from collapsing under its own weight. We need to engage actively at the source of this frenzied rush for perpetual growth: the domination of our economy by global corporations impelled by the mandate of maximizing shareholder returns above all other considerations. Raising public awareness of how these nonhuman forces are driving humanity to catastrophe is one of the most important tasks for anyone who cares about the flourishing of future generations.
Structural flaw #7: Technology has the solution
Techno-optimists frequently ridicule Thomas Malthus, an 18th century English cleric who was the first to warn of the dangers of exponential growth. For every problem that emerges, they claim, technology offers a solution. However, solutions based purely on technology tend to miss deeper structural issues, often creating even bigger problems down the road.
An example is the “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s, which is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation by exporting high-tech industrial agriculture to the developing world. Its unintended consequences now threaten humanity’s future. Ubiquitous use of artificial fertilizer has led to massive ocean “dead zones” from nitrogen runoff and severe reduction in topsoil across the world; indiscriminate application of chemical pesticides has disrupted ecosystems; and industrial agriculture now contributes one-third of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.
One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive attitudes to the earth. While technology has brought a plethora of improvements to the human experience, it has also bolstered the underlying Western belief that “conquering nature” is the primary vehicle for progress. Nature, however, is not an enemy to conquer, and each step we take in that direction further destabilizes the intricate relationship between humans and our sole source of life and future flourishing—the earth.
New foundation: Systemic change, not techno-fix
Rather than relying purely on technology, truly effective solutions tackle the systemic underpinnings of our crises, transforming practices that caused the problem in the first place. Agroecology, for example, an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency.
Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agro-industrial complex. Agroecology could even help sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology—such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops—could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions if practiced worldwide.
Structural flaw #8: The universe is essentially meaningless
Most science works through a reductionist approach: viewing the world as an assemblage of parts that can each be analyzed separately. This method has led to enormous progress in many fields, but its very success has caused many scientists to see nature as nothing more than a collection of parts, a viewpoint that leads inevitably to spiritual nihilism. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, “the more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.” Ultimately, the modern mainstream worldview is based on disconnection: separation of mind from body, individual from community, and human from nature.
New foundation: The universe as a web of meaning
However, in recent decades, insights from complexity theory and systems biology point the way to a new conception of a connected universe that is both scientifically rigorous and spiritually meaningful. In this understanding, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, this understanding helps us realize our intrinsic interdependence with all of nature.
In place of the structural cognitive flaws that have led humanity to the precipice, the systems worldview invites a new understanding of nature as a “web of meaning,” where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior. When we apply this framework to our lives, meaning arises from the way in which we’re related to everything around us. Meaning thus becomes a function of connectedness—and the meaning of life an emergent property of the network of connectivity that is the universe. Living with this deep realization, we are truly “at home in the universe.”
Setting the foundations for flourishing
It’s not necessarily easy work: restructuring foundations to prepare for the Big One, while so many others are blithely choosing new colors to paint over the cracks appearing in the walls. However, once we become aware of the structural flaws in the dominant culture, they can’t be ignored. We begin to see their manifestations all around us.
Not easy work, perhaps, but it can be deeply transformative. It’s an ongoing inquiry, a reconstruction of our value system, that can lead to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world. These new foundations, based on seeing the cosmos ultimately as a web of meaning, have the potential to offer a sustainable future of shared human dignity and flourishing of the natural world.
Every day, the news seems only to get worse. Trump’s Cabinet appointments are brazenly turning the U.S. into a kleptocracy – a land where those who have gained unprecedented wealth and power by cynically manipulating the rules now get to rewrite the rules for their own exclusive benefit. With all branches of government – executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court – in the hands of a morally bankrupt Republican leadership, the most powerful military and surveillance state in history is becoming a vehicle for corporations to ransack what’s left of the natural world for their short-term gain. With free speech under attack, along with threats of a Muslim registry and mass deportations of undocumented workers, we appear to be plunging rapidly into a bottomless abyss.
It’s natural for anyone who cares about dignity, justice, and the welfare of future generations to feel some despair. But in the very darkness of the times ahead, there is reason for hope that this bleak period will be the harbinger of a transformed society: a new economic and social order based on principles of equity, compassion, and natural flourishing. How can that be?
How change happens in complex systems
The source of this hope emerges from research in complex systems – and more specifically, how phase transitions occur in these systems. Complex systems exist everywhere in the natural world: in weather patterns, lakes, and forest ecologies. They exist within humans – think immune, cardiovascular, and neurological systems – and they exist in the systems we humans create: in markets, and in social and political systems.
These systems are nonlinear, which means the relationship between an input and output can vary wildly, and this characteristic makes them very difficult to predict. However, leading complexity scientists have studied how change happens in these systems, and have discovered principles that seem to occur universally. They are as true for a lake ecology as they are for a stock market. And they are equally applicable to our political system.
A crucial principle is that, while a complex system can remain resilient within a set of parameters for a long time, occasionally it becomes so unstable that it experiences a tipping point: a dramatic shift that transforms the system into something very different. A forest, for example, can get thinned out until it can no longer sustain itself, and it turns into scrubland. A real estate market gets overheated until it suddenly collapses. A person’s neurological firing can destabilize and suddenly puts them into an epileptic seizure.
These shifts – known as phase transitions – can also herald beneficial changes. A chrysalis transforms into a butterfly. A fetus develops until it undergoes the phase transition known as birth. Same sex marriage can remain unthinkable for generations, until it becomes the widely accepted law of the land within a few years.
Scientists have studied intensively how to predict when these phase transitions might occur, and have identified a few flags that indicate when we might expect one. An important indicator is an increase in the variance of fluctuations within the system. A stock market, for example, might start gyrating giddily before it finally crashes. Rainfall patterns may fluctuate wildly before a long-term drought sets in.
Tipping points in history
When we apply these findings to history, it’s easy to see these turbulent fluctuations preceding phase transitions – in retrospect. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the rise of fascism. The global devastation of the Second World War cleared the way for new norms such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted three years later in 1948.
As we look at the current political situation, many signs suggest that we’re arriving at a new, historic tipping point. The globally dominant neoliberal political-economic system has caused unprecedented wealth and income inequalities, which have destabilized the foundations on which the past seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been built. The Brexit shock, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the impending cataclysm of Trump’s lawless brutality seem to signal an approaching tipping point. Our global society is most likely about to enter a phase transition, after which it will emerge into a new, stable state.
What will that new state look like? There is a real threat that we’ll see the end of democracy in this country. An even grimmer possibility is the total collapse of civilization. Trump’s narcissistic capriciousness could drive the world to global war which might easily go nuclear. Even without war, we can expect an acceleration of climate change following an orgy of fossil fuel extraction from the new Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin axis, which could drive the climate to its own tipping points that may be incompatible with continued civilization.
Towards a Great Transformation of values?
But there’s another possibility for the long-term outcome of this dark period. The American people will only take so much trampling over accepted norms. Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires and corporate titans, is likely to pursue a strategy of continued reckless violations of traditional American values such as decency and civil rights. There’s a real possibility that their frenzy of greed, bigotry, and hatred will catalyze a powerful counter-reaction. A significant majority of voters already chose the Democratic candidate over Trump at the election. After years of having their rights trampled upon by a Trump presidency, and most likely witnessing brutality once unthinkable in their own country, Americans may be ready for a radically different type of society: one based on values such as dignity, compassion, and fairness.
This leads to another important lesson from complexity science: During a phase transition, a system goes through a chaotic period of shifting power dynamics. In this period, seemingly insignificant actions can have an outsize effect, sometimes dramatically impacting the character of the long-term outcome. When we apply this lesson to the current situation, this becomes a clarion call for citizen action. What each of us does over the next few years could have extraordinary effects on the future society we bequeath to posterity.
At the same time, we need to shine a light on a flourishing future that could still be available after this period of darkness. There is an enormous power arising from millions of interconnected people striving together towards a shared vision. We already know, within ourselves, what that vision looks like. In contrast to Trump’s intolerance based on a rhetoric of separation, the foundation of a flourishing future is our intrinsic connectedness: within ourselves, with others, and with the natural world.
Even before Trump’s regime begins, people are picking up on the urgent need for a transformation of values in American society. Political commentator Van Jones has initiated a “Love Army” to conquer Trump’s message of hate. Author Neal Gabler has called for a “kindness offensive.”
A society based on love and kindness is not just an abstraction. Kindness in action means resisting Trump’s brutalism. Love in action means working towards a transformation of society. Pioneers of a flourishing future have already been busily constructing a coherent platform of alternative ideas that can form the framework for a system founded on compassionate values. I’ve attempted to summarize some of them in a recent online conference where I took the role of a historian in 2050 looking back at how the world just survived climate catastrophe to enter a period known as The Great Transformation.
The traditional Chinese understood profoundly the dynamics of change that modern complexity scientists are discovering. Their famous yin-yang symbol captures a deep truth about how polarities can engender their opposites. In the middle of the black, there is a spot of white. When a wave reaches its peak, that’s when it begins to crash. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
We haven’t yet hit the darkest hour of the Trump era. We’re just entering the abyss, and no-one can predict how bad it’s going to get. But as we move together into the darkness, along with our anguish and outrage, let us never lose sight of the light that lurks beyond. There will be casualties from his brutality. Few of us are likely to make it through unscathed. But by recognizing the power of our interconnected action, while keeping our gaze focused on the light beyond the horizon, we may well succeed in ultimately directing this tipping point away from collapse, and towards a society of flourishing, compassion, and justice.
The Patterning Instinctexplores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day. It reveals the hidden foundations of our unsustainable civilization, and offers a potential vision for a more harmonious future.
There has never been a more important time to understand how we’ve arrived at our present situation.
Advance Praise for The Patterning Instinct
“A tour de force on the biological and psychological background of the human predicament. If you are concerned about our future you should know about our past. This amazing, well-documented book should be read by every college student, and every congressman.”
– Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures.
“A brilliant deep dive into the history of human cultures that brings us to today’s cultural dysfunctions that threaten the planet. Insight, illumination, and potential ways out of the seeming dead-end that we’ve walked ourselves into. I would recommend it!
– Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.
“Eminently readable, entertaining, yet sophisticated and intellectually fascinating… Lent proposes new answers to some age-old questions of human history… In our time of global crisis, which desperately needs guidance through new and life-affirming metaphors, the answers to these questions are more important than ever.”
– Fritjof Capra, author of The Systems View Of Life.
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The climate news gets scarier by the day. February obliterated all records as the warmest seasonally-adjusted month since measurements began. At this rate, we’re on a path to blow through the 1.5º C temperature rise the nations of the world set as a goal at COP21, not in decades but in a few short years.
We’re going to be hearing a lot about grand solutions to our climate emergency in the coming years. Even if we were to bring net global carbon emissions to zero by mid-century, experts say, we’d need to suck a massive amount of carbon from the atmosphere to keep temperatures within a range of 1.5º-2.0º C this century.
There’s no shortage of proposals for how to do this. People are talking about changing how we do agriculture; capturing carbon from power plants; painting roofs white; fertilizing the ocean; and even spraying gold dust into the atmosphere.
How should we evaluate the proposals we’ll be hearing about to determine which ones to support and which ones will only lead to worse disasters? We need a way to distinguish authentic pathways to a sustainable civilization from false solutions. I suggest three ways to consider any proposal you might come across.
1. Does it push political power up or down the pyramid?
Political power is like a pyramid. At the top are the political leaders and the billionaires. In the middle are the minority fortunate enough to enjoy privilege. Most of the world’s population exists towards the bottom.
New technologies have a way of pushing political power either up or down that pyramid. Nuclear power, for example, requiring massive centralized investment along with extreme security, is notorious for pushing power to the top.
Geoengineering proposals are perhaps the most extreme form of pushing power up the pyramid. Developed by small, elite groups of technical experts, usually funded by corporate interests, they frequently envisage forcing a global experiment on the entire world, regardless of whether there is a consensus supporting such an approach. Often, these approaches are designed to improve the climate in one region (usually the wealthy north) at the expense of even worse drought in other regions (usually the global south).
Solar panels, on the other hand, are a great example of pushing power down the pyramid. As prices have fallen by more than 80% in the past few years, solar kits with maintenance-free batteries are now affordable even for families living on less than $2/day. The benefits are enormous, literally empowering millions who have previously lived without electricity.
2. How does it treat the earth?
One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive ways of viewing the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. Our science-based civilization is founded on root cultural metaphors of nature as a machine, an enemy to be conquered, or a commodity to betraded. Traditional cultures, by contrast, have usually viewed the natural world as an extended family, with the heavens as Father, the earth as Mother, and plants and animals as brothers and sisters.
If a proposed climate solution treats nature in the same way that has brought our civilization to the precipice we’re now facing, there’s a good chance it will lead to further environmental devastation. In contrast, proposals that encourage a participatory, engaged relationship between humans and the natural world promise a more sustainable future for all.
Cap-and-trade systems, which cap the amount of carbon a company can freely use, allowing them to buy credits in a market if they want to use more, have been touted widely as a climate solution, with major systems set up in Europe and California. A related UN program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) is frequently discussed as a positive step for the environment. These systems, however, are all built on the idea of nature as a commodity to be bought and sold, with deforestation reduction plans frequently forced on indigenous populations through fraudulent schemes with devastating results. It is questionable whether they’ve had any significant effect in truly reducing carbon from the atmosphere, even while they replace forest ecosystems with plantations and allow polluters to keep polluting.
Geoengineering proposals are based on the notion of the earth as a massive piece of machinery to be engineered for human benefit. Not only are these approaches morally repugnant for anyone who sees Nature as having intrinsic worth, they are also fraught with massive risk, since the earth’s systems are in fact not machine-like, but the result of complex, nonlinear relationships that are inherently unpredictable.
At the other extreme, Agroecology, an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency. Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agricultural-industrial complex, which is responsible for as much as half of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agroecology could even help sequester much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology – such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops – could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions if practiced worldwide.
3. What are its cascading effects?
Like all living organisms, the earth system is a highly complex, nonlinear system, replete with feedback loops and emergent behavior. This means that any attempts to change the system on a large scale are likely to have unanticipated consequences.
A grim example of cascading effects are the uncontrolled algae blooms from nitrogen fertilizer runoff that have caused four hundred “dead zones” in coastal waters around the world, some extending in size to over twenty thousand square miles.
A crucial question, then, to ask about any grand proposal is: What are the cascading effects that might emerge? Are they positive or negative?
Some proposals are limited to a particular domain and can therefore be safely applied. Putting a high price on carbon, for example, as it is dug out of the ground, and distributing the proceeds to the population, would change people’s behavior while staying within the domain of economics. Its cascading effect would be to encourage people everywhere to choose non-carbon alternatives, and encourage businesses to invest in a non-carbon future. It would be safe and effective.
A more ambiguous proposal is the massive use of seaweed farms, which could efficiently absorb CO2 on a very large scale. Proponents argue that the cascading benefits are positive: the seaweed could be harvested to produce methane which could replace natural gas for electricity production; it can also be used as food for sustainable fish farming, while reducing ocean acidification. One analysis shows that if seaweed farms covered 9% of the ocean, they could replace all of today’s fossil fuel needs, while sequestering 100% of current CO2 emissions. Sounds good? Yes, but what about unintended consequences of such a drastic change in ocean usage? In contrast to agroecology, this approach envisages a huge shift in the ocean’s ecological balance. Would it lead to new imbalances that we would only begin to understand too late?
We can expect to hear about many other proposals like this in the coming years: ideas that sound virtually miraculous, but require significant alterations of the earth system. Because we’re in a climate emergency, we must consider each idea carefully, but we need to be extremely cautious in how we approach them.
One group actively analyzing climate solutions is Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of researchers, policymakers and community leaders dedicated to finding the best ways to reduce atmospheric carbon to a safe level. Rather than argue for a few magic bullets, their team is rigorously modeling the complex, interconnected effects of over 100 solutions that are already working. They are building a publicly available, ongoing resource of knowledge and ideas that can be leveraged for ever-increasing benefits.
The founders of Project Drawdown, Amanda Ravenhill and Paul Hawken, emphasize the importance of what Ravenhill calls “cascading benefits” arising from “no-regret solutions.” The most effective responses to global warming, they point out, are ones that benefit society regardless of the climate crisis, because they protect natural resources and enhance the wellbeing of all people.
When we’re faced with the magnitude of our climate emergency, it’s natural to be open to the promise of grand solutions. There is reason for hope if we choose solutions with cascading benefits, ones that empower people while treating the earth sustainably and safely.
But there is also much to fear from the wrong solutions. We should be wary of those who want to push power even further up the pyramid, treat nature as a commodity to be traded, and view the earth as a gigantic piece of machinery to tinker with through engineering wizardry. The future of humanity and much of our natural world is at stake.
Pope Francis has brought a moral dimension to the crisis of climate change, raising global public awareness of the gaping inequalities of our times and the environmental catastrophe our civilization is causing. This week, in addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, he used the public stage to emphasize his hallmark issues of global poverty, environmental destruction and the urgent need to address climate change.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Pope’s stance is that he is speaking as head of one of the most conservative institutions in world history. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, published in June 2015, he wove together a masterful synthesis of traditional Catholic theology and a sophisticated, systems-oriented understanding of the effects of human activity on the natural world. As one crucial aspect of this synthesis, he has reformulated the traditional Christian account – shared with the other Abrahamic religions – of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.
Dominion Over Nature
The formation of the modern world has been undergirded by a series of root metaphors, embedded deep in the foundations of our culture, that have defined how humans relate to the rest of the world. Many of these metaphors came from the Bible, which served for a millennium and a half as the cornerstone of Western values. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a Divine Lawgiver, nature’s commander-in-chief, boasting: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”
As Divine Lawgiver, one of God’s first laws was to bestow on mankind Dominion Over Nature. After creating Adam and Eve, God commands them:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [Genesis 1:26-8]
As many historians have noted, this root metaphor provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. It also provided Christian Europe with a deep-seated assurance that God had created the world for no other reason than humanity’s benefit.
The Pope’s ecological insight
Pope Francis attacks this idea of mankind’s absolute Dominion over Nature with all theological guns blazing. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he avers. “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, 67]
The Pope doesn’t reject the notion that God has given humanity Dominion over Nature; instead, he emphasizes that this dominion comes with responsibilities. “Each community,” he proclaims, “can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
Showing a profound ecological understanding of the world as a network of interconnected systems, the Pope talks about “how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. These ecosystems, he declares, “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” [Laudato Si, 140]
Reverent guests of nature
What is fascinating to me about the Pope’s take on the Old Testament is that, as much as he parts company with traditional Christian interpretations, his understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature feels right at home in other non-Christian worldviews.
Traditional Chinese cosmology saw humanity as interconnected with heaven and earth in a resonant web. Rather than claim dominion over nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” [Tao Te Ching 15]
Traditional Chinese philosophers understood the natural world as a series of interlocking systems, recognizing that the same principles organized the human organism as well as the natural universe. In the memorable words of Zhang Zai:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.
What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.
The Chinese weren’t alone in this view. In fact, the vast majority of indigenous views of nature saw humanity as part of nature, and respecting the natural world as intrinsic to their very existence. Rolling Thunder, the native American leader, summarized this as follows:
It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all things – all creatures and plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All things – and I mean all things – have their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected. Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing, and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.
In more recent times, this approach to nature is expressed powerfully by ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who developed a platform known as Deep Ecology, which states:
The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs…
Structural issues of monotheism
My interpretation of the Pope’s approach in Laudato Si is that he is heroically trying to transform the Catholic view of nature to one that is more consistent with these other worldviews, one that would permit humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing earth. He was the first Pope to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This symbolism is clearly of far-reaching importance for him.
However, in his attempt, the Pope necessarily avoids dealing with some structural problems in the Christian interpretation of the cosmos. To begin with, God is still the Divine Lawmaker. In contrast, a true systems understanding of life points to the fact that nature self-organizes. There is no blueprint for nature handed down by an external God; rather life arises as an emergent property from the top-down, bottom-up reciprocal processes taking place within each cell.
Similarly, the dominion humans possess over nature was not assigned by a benevolent lawgiver. Rather, it arose from the unique cognitive capabilities that evolved in our human ancestors – our patterning instinct – which has also driven our global civilization to the imbalances we’re feeling so deeply with today’s environmental crisis.
Of course, the Pope can’t point to these structural issues within monotheistic religion. Given the cosmology inherent to his faith, he is performing a herculean task in attempting to redirect Catholic thought towards a sustainable worldview. Ultimately, however, I fear that contradictions may inevitably arise. If we desire humanity to hold a sustainable relationship with nature, not just through this century, but for millennia to come, we need a to forge a new approach, one that begins by understanding that humanity’s place in the universe is not a God-given birthright of dominion, but one that emerged from our evolved cognitive capabilities.
These evolved powers have given us civilization replete with its technological marvels – and have also brought us to the precarious precipice of climate change and environmental collapse we are all facing. We would do best to recognize our intrinsic responsibility to harmonize with nature, to rebalance what we have damaged. To do so, we must seek our source of meaning from that interconnected web of life in which we are all embedded.