4 June 2012

Awakening New Pathways in the Global Brain

Posted by Admin under: Creation; Ecology; Emergency; Evolution; Forum; Future; Global; History; Inspiration; Leadership; People; Policy; Religion; Science; Story; Sustainability .

It is becoming every day more apparent that we are in the midst a great transition, and that part of this transition is a shift in consciousness on a more or less planetary scale. Physically, the the world is headed toward ecological collapse, and this likely cannot be averted without a global awakening to the realities of our situation. So the critical question is, what does this look like? And how can we facilitate it?

For some people the answer is technological and scientific, for others political and economic, and for still others it is spiritual and philosophical. In reality, however, these dimensions all need to be aligned. We have the basic (and in some cases quite a bit more advanced) scientific understanding of the interrelated biospheric challenges we are facing. But if our political and economic systems are out of step with these emerging understandings we will continue to hurtle toward disaster. And if our religious, spiritual, social, psychological, and philosophical belief systems are unable to accommodate the new realities and what they call for, we will, it seems, stumble more or less blindly into a global catastrophe.

Each day seems to bring new evidence of its proximity. In a new report in the journal Nature, a group of 22 scientists led by Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, are stating that the Earth may now be reaching a tipping point (or may indeed have already done so). They are warning of “imminent and irreversible changes to the Earth’s biosphere resulting from a combination of human population growth, mass consumption and extensive environmental destruction.” According to one summary of the article,

As a collaboration among researchers from a multitude of disciplines, the report emphasizes the possibility of a biological state shift.

Although today’s conditions are caused largely by human activities, episodes of widespread ecological change may occur similar to changes that took place during the transition from the Ice Age 20,000 years ago, according to the report.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” Barnosky said in a statement published on the UC Berkeley NewsCenter. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.” http://www.dailycal.org/2012/06/10/report-warns-earth-may-be-approaching-an-environmental-tipping-point/

As one of the authors states: “the paper is focused not just on individual ecosystems but on the whole planet. We’re looking at a global state shift.” A new initiative, The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, is being set up to further develop predictive models, assessment tools, and solutions, including ones that involve social change.

As one very critical example, in The Ocean of Life(2012), marine biologist Callum Roberts writes:

With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet. For some species, like whitetip sharks, American sawfish, or the once “common” skate, numbers are down as much as 99 percent. By the end of the 20th century, almost nowhere shallower than 3,000 feet remained untouched by commercial fishing. Some places are now fished down to 10,000 feet.

Hailed as a Silent Spring for the oceans, Roberts concludes:

If we carry on with business as usual, humanity has a bleak and uncertain future. More fertilizer and sewage input into the oceans would increase the frequency of harmful algal blooms, intensify oxygen depletion, create more dead zones, and set the stage for the jellyfish ascendancy. The spread of aquaculture will eat away at natural habitats and aggravate problems of nutrient enrichment. More intense agriculture on degrading soils will flush extra mud into coastal waters, which would destroy sensitive habitats constructed by invertebrates like corals. Sea-level rises will lead to more sea walls and other defenses in a process of coastal hardening that will squeeze out productive habitats like mud flat and marsh. With the disappearance of these vital nurseries, wild fisheries will suffer, and there will be fewer feeding grounds for migratory birds. And if we remain wedded to all the comforts that modern technology can give us, and remain as wasteful as we are today, the oceans will continue to accumulate toxic contaminants.

There is an old adage, much loved of self-help books, that says “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” If we change course by a few degrees now, it will take us to a very different place in 50 years’ time from where we are headed now.

There is, certainly, a direct conceptual link between Rachel Carson’s work and this latest warning; but of course, whether a majority of us will “wake up” and “change course by a few degrees now” is the central question. And it is not simply our understandings that must change, but our collective actions as well; and this seems to have more to do with our shared belief systems and mental models than with the scientific evidence itself: indeed, it is whether we can accommodate, incorporate, and respond meaningfully at a societal level to scientific evidence in the first place.

The issue, therefore, is what triggers the kind of shift in public awareness and social action that we need if humanity is to change course before it is too late? Some of us have been struggling with this question for many years, and for me this has become a central part of my overall life project. It’s easy to lose sight of, in the midst of our everyday preoccupations with applying our skills to immediate issues, and to the problems of making a living in an economy that is in decline. But as we get older this is increasingly all that matters: will there be a living world for our children, and our children’s children, or are we all witnessing the last, glorious days before the collapse?

The most eloquent and comprehensive statement of this challenge is James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity(2009), in which he describes his role as that of a “witness” not only of the science of climate change but also of the greenwashing which has become the standard political response to it. Citing Robert Pool, Hansen describes himself not as a “preacher,” but as “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.” As NASA’s chief scientist he has frequently testified before Congress, and advised several administrations, on the dangers of “climate chaos” of the sort we are already beginning to witness today. The fundamental challenge he points to, however, is not a scientific one; it’s how to translate science into policy:

You need to be well informed to understand these matters, because you cannot count on governments, the people paid to protect the public, to deal properly and promptly with the climate matter. The problem with governments is not scientific ability—the Obama administration, for example, appointed some of the best scientists in the country to top positions in science and energy. Instead, the government’s problem is politics, politics as usual.

U.S. government scientists, at least those at the highest level, cannot contradict a position taken by the president. And President Obama’s assertion that he would “listen to” scientists did not mean that he would not listen, perhaps with even sharper ears, to political advisers.

“Politics as usual” includes the continuing efforts of many special interest groups to subvert the democratic process, and engineer the outcomes they want regardless of the harm caused to society as a whole.

The question, therefore, is not simply one of understanding the science, or even the political process, but rather of what shifts the overarching set of assumptions—the zeitgeist, if you will, or the accepted paradigm—the governs the terms of the debate, within which the forces at work will play out. It becomes critical, therefore, to understand the triggers that work, the switches that awaken new pathways in the global brain that lead to paradigmatic shifts — shifts that alter the ground we are standing on, that change the parameters for action in such a way that regardless of ideology, politics, or economic belief systems the debate shifts from whether to take action to what actions to take.

I doubt that any of my academic colleagues would question the previous paragraph, but it’s important to realize that the idea of the global brain, at least in any but a metaphorical sense, is relatively recent. The term itself was introduced by Peter Russell in his 1982 book, The Global Brain, where he argues not only that we are increasingly interconnected by communications media (bear in mind this preceded and foreshadowed the internet), but also that it is possible there is a level of “global awareness” that resides holographically within all of us, yet which has an independent existence, to which not only we but all other life forms contribute collectively. Building on James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia, which sees the world in organismic terms — not as a single organism but as a “living system,” which is self-maintaining, Russell suggests that our role is in part to serve as constituents of the innate intelligence and vitality of this system, in a way that parallels the role of the brain in individual organisms This level of awareness is akin to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, yet it is also more than this; it is at least partially aware of itself, and increasingly demanding of us that accelerate both our ecological understanding and our ecologically-conscious behavior and patterns of social action.

This is perhaps the first awakening of the self-protective mechanisms of Gaia; but such mechanisms, if they exist, may not be especially charitable toward humans. Arguably, the climate patterns tend to cluster around solutions that maintain a balance in the face of rising temperatures, but these solutions may be quite violent ones, such as the flooding of New Orleans, and the tornados in the mid-West. What we need, instead, is a humanly workable response to the signs of ecological breakdown that forestalls these consequences, and uses our intelligence, and our altered behavior, to restore the Earth.

Because in the end it is up to us, all of us, to “vote with our feet,” to move in the direction of sustaining life and biodiversity on the planet rather than trampling on it further, to abstain from doing that which will cause further harm and to focus on what will regenerate life. To stop frenetically driving or flying around the globe, and put down roots; to stop sending armies half-way across the world and to begin filtering the CO2 out of the air and the water; to find ways to build and make paper and grow food without cutting down the last remaining trees on the planet; to eat things that sustain us without robbing others of the sustenance they need to survive.

This, then, is both the framework for thinking and the basis for responsible action: is what I am doing now forwarding the larger objective, or is it impeding it? Or is it just, perhaps, a distraction? Is it focusing attention on the longterm global future, or seeking a short term gain at the expense of that global future? And how do we really know? How do we judge, across the great range of the activities of more than seven billion of us, which actions should be encouraged or allowed, and which discouraged or disallowed?

I suggest there are a few key elements that must be absorbed into our collective thinking to allow these judgements to be made, not by a handful of experts or activists but by the vast majority of people, of institutions, and of the nation-states that make up the current global governance system. Those activities, and those individuals who are engaged in them, that are harmless to the ecosystem can be left alone; things that are clearly or demonstrably damaging must be stopped, and those things that are nurturing and sustaining and life-giving must be encouraged, fostered, and supported until they become the dominant factors at work and at play in the civilizations of the future.

Can we trigger these common understandings, to such an extent that it becomes virtually unthinkable to continue to produce and distribute harmful products, and it becomes the norm to re-use, recycle, and recover everything? How do we make this not only possible but inevitable, inexorable, like the destruction of the rainforests, the oceans, and the atmosphere appear to us today?

This is the question to which we must return, time and again, and which we must urge others to use as the principle yardstick in their disciplines, their professions, and their daily lives. With it we can begin to “heal the world,” to restore the natural order of things, to recover our balance while still moving forward to meet the needs of all of the world’s peoples. Without it we are doomed to continue down a path that leads not only to our own demise but to the mortal wounding of Gaia, the damaging and ultimate destruction of life, consciousness, and meaning in our corner of the universe.

But how to deal with the inevitable contradictions in real life within this framework? As Matt Polsky writes:

there are grays in the world: sending armies into conflicts is sometimes arguably the right thing to do; I’ve read there are more trees (at least in the U.S.) than ever. It’s the type of trees, the lack of undergrowth, the lack of diversity, the loss of virgin trees that are the problem; nothing wrong with also including the judgments of experts and activists; there are times when the problem is how to reconcile 2 rights (I had a conversation at the Social Entrepreneurship conference about overcoming stalemates between environmentalists and social justice advocates around such symbols as polar bears and Whole Foods).

I suggest, however, that the very question presupposes that our yardstick needs to be an ecosystemic one, and that in considering different alternatives in any field the Earth needs to be weighed in the balance. Assuming that this thesis is correct, the consciousness of our global interconnection will become the unquestioned background of our policy and political debates.

So the question is, what does this transformation really look like? Where are we now, and what will it take to get there? What does “health” look like for the planet? What would a thriving planet look like?

It’s easy to throw these terms around, not so easy to discern the path that leads us there. We live complex, multifaceted lives, most of us caught up in the exigencies of everyday living, buffeted by the tempests of partisanship, tossed about by the currents of history. At some point our population must stabilize, but we’re at a loss to discuss this rationally. At some point we must not only halt but reverse the emission of greenhouse gases, the loss of habitat, the accumulation of toxic materials, and the exhaustion of natural resources; but at this point these trends are accelerating, not slowing down.

Perhaps it will take some huge climate catastrophe to shift the balance of our thinking; but whenever this shift occurs the elements, including knowledge, technology, and information, need to be on hand to enable us to build a world that is more sustainable. And “waiting for a catastrophe to occur” is hardly the action of a responsible organism, especially if the catastrophe is both foreseeable and avoidable. “Awakening”—at the very least, awakening to the very real danger we face of doing irreparable harm to our only planet, and ultimately awakening to the possibility of a sustainable world—is surely preferable. The questions remains, therefore, how can we accelerate the transformation enough to put these elements in place for a world in which an overwhelming number of people, including people in high places, will be convinced of the necessity for change, and will take action even in the face of concerted and well-financed resistance?

My colleague Matt Polsky writes: “perhaps a few examples of how to operationalize the “global brain” you call for could be useful.” I think I have already suggested a few, in this expanded version of my original post, such as the notion of global self-awareness, where we identify with all of nature, and cannot help but take our interdependence into account in all of our actions. But here, in no particular order, are a few more:

  • Strengthening the human experience of biophilia
  • Discerning and creating new patterns, altering our everyday actions to align with them
  • Joining or establishing an intentionally sustainable community
  • Surfacing the growing interest in and widespread adoption of green practices, organic food, recycling, composting, etc.
  • Creating mental models, metaphors, and stories that reflect the arc of Gaian history
  • Creating new sustainability-enhanced school and college curricula
  • Systematically re-examining and reinventing our social and economic processes through the lens of Gaian sustainability and regeneration

Etc., etc. In other words, it is all the things many of us are already up, except accelerated, better coordinated,  and self-generating as part of a larger vision of a self-aware biosphere.

2 Comments so far...

Charles Bins Says:

16 June 2012 at 12:31 pm.

Ask any newborn: Transitions are difficult. Shedding the comfort of our ways comes at a painful price. And how can any newborn know that something better lies ahead?

The truth requires care and nurturing. Maturity doesn’t happen overnight. And without parental supervision, empathy may never takes hold. Selfishness and juvenile delinquency can result. This appears to be where we, Earth’s inhabitants, now find ourselves.

So who are the “parents” of our global consciousness, our better, greener brains? As we begin to awaken, we each play a part in the small everyday decisions we make. Indeed there are those who are further along the path, and many belong to organizations that each hold a piece of the puzzle.

Many others may be too preoccupied with themselves or the challenges of life to ever “get it.” And it may indeed take an event of global magnitude to more fully awaken and align humankind. Yet even those who unwittingly work against a more enlightened planet may play a role in precipitating an event that would bring this awakening about.

There is. of course, a more hopeful message – “the Greener Gospel” as Frank Wennin calls it – that points to a new and better way. It is a path in which more and more people discover themselves – and learn that there really is “something in it for them.” And the value stretches beyond well beyond the bounds of money. It touches that chord that comes from creating something greater than ourselves. It is that individual and collective destiny of us touching the spirit and well-being of others.

To accelerate this change, thought leaders and all those who manage “green-minded” organizations must further explore connections between adjacent pieces of the “greener planet” puzzle. Leaders must spend more time connecting and acting in concert with other organizations. These larger clusters must develop new ways to engage and unite people around specific projects. They must galvanize individuals, groups and teams in visible and concerted actions. These actions should call attention to the broader message in human terms – and attract media attention to their larger impact on communities and humankind.

Multiply these actions again and again through green macro-organizations, and the “Green Brain” will take hold and expand at an accelerating pace.

Admin Says:

19 June 2012 at 9:25 am.

While I agree with the ultimate objective of this comment, I think we need to be careful not to anthropomorphize the planet. We’re talking about “a living system,” but hardly one that’s “new born” or has identifiable “parents.” What we know about Gaia is that it is as different from us as we are from the 100 trillion bacteria and other organisms that, together with our 10 trillion human cells, make up each one of us. We may imagine that Gaia breathes the wind and circulates water as its blood, but we cannot know if it “thinks,” or is aware of pain, or joy, or irony.

What we can and do know is that we cannot survive on a dead planet, a planet without a breathable atmosphere, a diversity of other life forms, and a remarkably delicate balance of temperatures, of light and dark, and of water and dry land. And we can and we must be its conscience and its consciousness, its stewards and its defenders, its eyes and ears, and its advocates, with and for an existence larger than our own. We must strive to be its voice, to tap into its awareness, and foster its awakening as a force that transcends our differences, our wants and our fears.

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