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Business leadership in climate change

I am consistently surprised by the initiative and leadership taken by businesses to address the climate crisis. Not all businesses obviously (e.g. ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers and the other vested interest that have funded climate denial movement and created vast climate confusion), but MANY businesses and business analysts, scholars and consultants are doing a extraordinarily better job than many governments have when it comes to taking the science seriously and responding accordingly.

As the urgent action to slow and reverse global warming became increasingly clear to me, and to so many others, my focus has turned to the ACTIONS in multiples spheres – individual, community, national, global; cultural, structural, lifestyle, psychological – to make vision an integrative path to sustainable futures (or, as process philosophers among others call it, a path from industrial civilisation into “ecological civilisation”). More on this later.

Today I just wish to share an accessible summary of climate change and its implications, a summary I wish I had many years ago. It has a business focus, a report published by Harvard Business School, and an appendix of graphs and references.

Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business

Harvard Business School report by Rebecca M. Henderson, Sophus A. Reinert, Polina Dekhtyar and Amram Migdal

Abstract: “This note provides general information about climate change and its implications for business. Included is an overview of climate change science and a number of its impacts, including rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and extreme weather, pressure on water and food, political and security risks, human health risks, and impact on wildlife and ecosystems. Next, responses to climate change are outlined, including improvements in energy efficiency, moving away from fossil fuels, changes in land use and agriculture practices, and geoengineering. The note concludes with the debate over how much should be spent to mitigate and adapt to climate change, who should pay, and the implications for the private sector.”

Link to PDF:

A story of (mis)fortune: the farmer and his son

I have been trying to remember where I read or heard this story, perhaps Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. After a big of Googling (key words like “farmer”, “horse”, “neighbour”, “son”), I discovered this story is claimed by various sources as Zen Buddhist, Chinese Proverb, Taoist and Sufi.

The story goes something like this:

There once lived a farmer and his son. One day their horse ran away. Their neighbours came by and said “Oh, that’s terrible news.” The farmer said, “maybe”.

A few weeks later the horse returned with seven wild horses. And the neighbours came by and said “Wow, you must be thrilled.” The farmer said, “maybe”.

The next day the son was riding one of the wild horses and was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbours came by and said, “Oh, what bad luck.” The farmer said, “maybe”.

The next day a conscription was announced and the military officers through the village. Due to his broken leg the farmer’s son did not have to go to war. The neighbours came by and said, “Oh what good fortune.” The farmer said, “maybe.”

We cannot know what good fortunes may come out of misfortunes. 

After a bit more research I discovered this story has been re-told by Tolle, Chopra, Paulo Coelho and, of course, Alan Watts! I often think of this story, and I’m happy to now see there is a reason it has stuck with me and many others as well.

Paulo Coelho also has a longer telling of the story on his blog:

A traditional Sufi story

Why the right (brain) is right…

Are you a right-brain or left-brain type of person? Is there such a thing? Are there differences between our left and right brain hemispheres? Does it matter?

Research into the left and right brain hemispheres was popularised in the 1970s, it exaggerated and reified the two sides of the brain as if some people were “right-brain” dominant: creative, image-based, intuitive, emotional; and other people were “left-brain” dominant: mathematical, language-based, logical.

Research has since found both sides of the brain are involved in creativity, both involved in language, logic, and mathematics – only that they are involved in different ways.

This said, it remains that our cortical hemispheres are asymmetrical; they not only look different, but they act and see the world in very different ways.

The left-brain puts its focus on the parts, narrows its vision in order to understand details, and use tools and objects for a predefined purpose.

The right-brain focuses on the whole, widening its vision to understand contexts, and keeping an open focus so to act without “an end in view”.

Recent work in neuroscience, for example on stroke survivors and using new technologies that light up when different parts of the brain are being used, are illuminating this in exciting ways.

The seminal work of Dr Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World explores this new research and links it to the impact that different brain lateralisation functions, which are influenced by culture, impact the evolution of that culture. This has revolutionary implications both our personal experience of the world, and the way that we collectively impact the world.

I was honoured to meet Iain McGilchrist about a year ago, and I even got to have dinner sitting directly opposite from him and next to the brilliant Australian philosopher Arran Gare – whose work on process thought and the global ecological crisis my PhD is directly based on. (Another one of my nerdy-versions of sitting with the celebrities!)

McGilchrist posits uses recent findings of neuroscience to explore the differences between the hemispheres. He illuminates how the current relationship between the hemispheres has led to some of the most deeply-entrenched problems humanity is currently facing.

First it is important to make clear, as McGilchrist does again and again that the idea that the left hemisphere gives us reason and language, while the right hemisphere gives us images and emotion is false: we need both hemispheres in order to deal with these things, from reason and emotions to interpreting language and images. McGilchrist writes: ‘every identifiable human activity is actually served at some level by both hemispheres’ (1).

The question is not what each hemisphere does, but in what way does it do it? The hemispheres do things in very different ways.

The primary difference is that the left hemisphere (LH) has a narrow focus, and the right hemisphere (RH) a broad focus.

The LH sees the parts, focuses on them, explores their details, operates in a targeted manner. We need our LH to coordinate our bodies, operate tools, and complete almost much any action. In order to do this, the LH carefully removes things from their contexts, dealing with ‘pieces of information in isolation.’ The RH on the other hand, ‘sees things in their context’ and deals with entities as a ‘whole, the so-called Gestalt’ (4).

Humans are not the only ones to have different brain lateralisation operations. McG uses the example of a bird who uses its LH to focus on a seed and operate its beak to open it. At the same time the bird uses its RH to be vigilant of predators, to engage in social interactions and so on.

In this RSA 21st Century Enlightenment animation to McG’s TED Talk you can get a good introduction to these ideas:

The key differences can be summarised as:

Right Hemisphere (RH) Left Hemisphere (LH)
Broad focus – emphasis on the interconnected whole Narrow focus – emphasis on the separate parts
Big picture long-term view Local short-term view
Parts are understood in context of their whole De-contextualises parts, focus on specifics
Sees all as interconnected processes, always in flux Sees all as comprised of separate static entities
Presents experience Re-presents experience
Understands the whole first, believes the parts may only be understood in the context of the whole Understands the parts, adding up this understanding to understand the whole
Builds provisional understandings, sees truth as a process, an ongoing quest without an end Builds its understanding from a place of certainty
Interested what is new Interested in what is known
Is boundless, open to potentiality and possibility Works within boundaries, grasps within what has already been prioritised
Affinity with what is living, with what actually is Affinity for the mechanical and artificial
Responsible for intersubjective processes such as self-awareness and empathy Responsible for discriminating, making the separate parts clear and precise
Sees a net of interdependencies with deep connections Sees fragmented separable entities grouped into classes
More responsibility for implicit reasoning such as problem solving More responsibility for explicit reasoning such as logic
Understands indirect meanings such as metaphors, humour, sarcasm, etc Relies on more direct and literal meanings and use of language
Favours individuality and uniqueness, works with specific examples, hence is more personal Favours an anonymity, works with abstract categories and types – hence is more impersonal
Both/and approach – sees the cohesion between the LH and RH, integrates LH contributions Either/or approach – sees LH and RH as in competition, and the RH to be unnecessary
Concerned with the “howness” of the process Concerned with the “whatness” of things
Principally concerned with the intrinsic value of life Principally concerned with utility / instrumental value of others
Integrates the self and body – sees the body as a living whole that is inseparable from our mind Disconnects the self and body – sense of being the body’s “owner” and the body reducible to its parts
Sees the self as intrinsically inseparable from the world, in continuous relationship in space and time Objectifies the self, sees the self as a separate entity, an expression of will
Accepts uncertainty and change, holds several possible truths together as tentative Strives for certainty, needs to be right and interprets itself as right even when clearly wrong
Appreciates time as ongoing, an undivided flow, something lived through with past, present and future that is the context of all meaning in life Breaks up time into units, measurable, as if a sequence of static points, separate momentary events
More realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware Ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings
Considers the whole as more than sum of its parts Considers the whole to be the sum of its parts

Note: this table contains near literal formulations from chapter 2 and 4 of McGilchrist (2009).

The Right Hemisphere as the Unifying Hemisphere

An important point that McG makes is that the RH sees the complementary nature of what the LH does, it enables it to do so and integrates LH knowledge into its big picture perspective. On the other hand, the LH sees the RH as a competitor, as a threat and as unnecessary to its more targeted and abstracted perspective.

McG extrapolates this from physical examples of the RH and LH interactions. For example he points out that the RH makes both eyes move together. Another example is that in split-brain patients the RH attends to the entire visual field while the LH attends only to the right visual field. Following a RH stroke, and is reliant only on the LH, they will see only the right side of their visual field – something called “hemi-neglect”. Drawings of such patients show that they fail to see the left side of a clock, a house, a cat, etc.

If on the other hand one has a LH stroke, and is reliant on only their RH, they will still see the full visual field and draw a full picture. For example these three figures were drawn by the same person – the first with both hemispheres, the second with only the LH (the RH was inactivated) and the third with only the RH (with the LH inactivated):

Why is this important?

We change the world by changing the way that we attend to it, by changing the type of attention we give it.

If we let our LH dominate over our RH, we may find ourselves narrowly-focused on abstracted aspects of our lives such as money, the future, the past, economic theories, technical details, and representations of experience, rather than the actual experience of life in each present moment. As a result we may feel alone, alienated from other people and from nature, anxious over what other people think about us and about our own mortality. Furthermore, under the rule of the LH we would act out of narrowly-defined  self-interests, as our global economic framework assumes. This enables the perpetuation of structural forms of violence such as poverty and environmental destruction, for example as it leads people to purchase products based on price, creating demand for corporations to make profit regardless of the working conditions of offshore factory workers and environmental impact of both the production and consumption of these goods.

If we were to develop a more balanced-brain approach to using our LH and RH, we may find our lives change quite significantly for the better. With the LH and RH working together, we would use our RH’s conception of the world as a whole, integrating the detailed insights of the LH into that bigger picture.

Perhaps if we did this we might find ways of integrating the long-term, global happenings  (for example, environmental destruction, perpetuation of inequality, and so on) with our individual actions. Maybe then we can support policy changes that regulate corporations, prices, and so on such that they prioritise people over profits

Want to read more?

Read more in this short free PDF: Divided Brain, Divided World Or get the book, it’s no light read but it’s certainly rewarding!

Some time ago I wrote these two blog entries on similar issues:

“Three Fork”: conversation beyond the norm


Left, Right, and Identity


Alan Watts’ ‘dramatic model’ and the pursuit of peace

untitledMy latest academic publication – on the work of my favourite philosopher of all time: Alan Watts, and how his “dramatic model of the universe” can contribute to peace 🙂


This article explores the contribution of Alan Watts’ ‘dramatic model of the universe’ to the pursuit of peace. It locates Watts’ critique of dominant Western worldviews alongside process philosophers, ecologists and peace theorists who have made similar claims. It focuses on Watts’ proposition that understanding the ‘self’ to be a ‘skin-encapsulated ego’ is a root cause of many of humanity’s biggest problems, not least the destruction of the environment. According to Watts, a more satisfying worldview understands the self to be a process, inseparable from the cosmological, evolutionary and ecological processes out of which it has emerged. Watts refers to this as a ‘dramatic’ model of the universe. He contrasts this with the ‘ceramic’ and ‘fully-automatic’ models, which he posits underlie most Western worldviews. The impact of these models is discussed in terms of social, ecological and inner peace.

Keywords: Alan Watts; dramatic model; worldviews; panentheism; positive peace; inner peace; social justice; ecological harmony

Link to article:

To cite this article: Juliet Bennett (2015) “Alan Watts’ ‘dramatic model’ and the pursuit of peace”, Self & Society, 43:4, 335-344, DOI: 10.1080/03060497.2016.1142257

PS. I can give a special link to 50 people to download for free so please contact me if you’d like it…

“Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization”

After two years of anticipation, in June this year I attended a conference called “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization”, which brought together many of my favourite scholars. I was like a teenager anticipating a music festival with all their favourite bands. Such a geek!

Around 2000 people attended the conference from around the world, splitting into 12 sections and 82 groups to workshop different ideas, uncover deeper understandings of the causes of the ecological crisis, and apply their findings to evolve worldviews and world-systems toward ecological civilization.

The conference began from a common point of recognition: that humanity is deeply alienated from nature, and that this alienation underpins humanity’s impact on Earth’s ecosystems. This has brought about a global ecological crisis with symptoms including climate change, vast and fast extinction of species, loss of top soil, and so on. There seemed to be a common acceptance that a large part of the problem is greed, interest groups and multi-national corporations. At root of these factors are assumptions about the world that have caused a sense of alienation from it.

How did the alienation arise? How is it linked to our beliefs about ourselves and about the world? How can the power shift from the hands of the 1% to the majority, and how can people and the planet be prioritised over monetary profit?

The conference critiqued the deep underlying assumptions at root of most western understandings of the world  (categorised as “substance metaphysics“), and envisioned what an alternative world-system would look like based on alternative assumptions (categorised as “process metaphysics“). This sounds abstract. More simply put, it is a shift from seeing the world as made of independent things that operate like balls on a billiard table; to seeing the world as a web of interdependent processes.

For example, rather than seeing yourself as an individual who is separate from your parents, your upbringing, your education, the social structures and economic factors that influenced who you are today; you come to see your self-in-context and as an ongoing process—understanding that these relationships and influences have shaped certain aspects of your life and within these structure you have had choice (and still have choice) to shape other aspects of your life (including, in time, changing these structures).

In the conference program, John Cobb Jr provided an introduction to set the scene for the discussions. This is a bit of a summary of what the conference was about, based on my notes from the talks I attended (largely using the speakers’ words) and Cobb’s introductions (references are the pages in the program).

The metaphor and community of Pando Populus

The conference symbol “Pando” stands as a metaphor for understanding its key message.“Pando” is the ‘largest and oldest organism on Earth, a quaking aspen that extends over 100 acres in southern Utar’ . It is estimated to be between 12,000 and 80,000 years old. It looks like thousands of individual trees, yet these share a single root system—‘It is one tree’! (8)

By J Zapell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is not many trees, it is connected with one root system—it is Earth’s oldest single organism!

Pando Populus has been set up as a forum, which includes YouTube videos of keynotes, summaries of the sessions below, and other resources for being part of this community. It goes beyond finding ‘isolated fixes’ instead aiming to ‘challenge basic assumptions of the modern industrial world and propose ecological alternatives. It asks questions like:

  • ‘What would business and finance look like if the aim of creating a thriving ecosphere becomes the goal of the economy? 
  • What would religion be like if it were to focus on world loyalty as opposed to sectarian or national loyalty or world escape?
  • How would the university be reshaped if it accepted responsibility for the future of the Earth rather than attempt to be value-free?’

These are the types of questions that were addressed at the conference. It is an ongoing discussion, there are no fixed answers but the process of seeking them, of envisioning a new way of being in the world, is the answer. And here is a snapshot of this contribution to that process:

Selection of notes on Keynotes:

Bill McKibben wrote the first book on climate change 26 years ago, and is now the leader of the movement who are campaign for divestment of fossil fuels and investment in green energy, in order to reduce the carbon in our atmosphere back to 350 parts per million (ppm). We are now at 400 ppm and adding about 2 ppm into the atmosphere per year. What can you do? Campaign for divestment: call government representatives, corporations, universities, etc. ask them to divest from fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry needs to be replaced with a green energy industry.

John Cobb Jr is a (if not the) leading process thinker alive today. Cobb criticised “TINA”  thinking that “There Is No Alternative”. One can campaign for an isolated issue, but in the end it might not make so much difference e.g. saving the whales (now threatened by their food supply due to acidification and overfishing), the black civil rights movement (now look at it), feminist success (now women are hired as workers like everyone else), voting (now congress need to please financial supporters). He posited that we need fundamental change, we need to address issues by addressing the roots of the issues.

Cobb said that as long as we see the world as a machine, attempting to see it “objectively”, we are not going to treat it as being valuable. We need to overcome the 17th century thinking that nature is a machine, and the misplaced extension via Darwinian thought that thinks humans are machines as well. Instead we need to see, as Henri Bergson, William James and Alfred North Whitehead did, that humans are a part of nature, and both humanity and nature are fully-alive.

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is the most comprehensive replacement of mechanistic thinking, providing a process-based metaphysical system on which this ecological thinking is based. ‘We do not need to recreate the wheel – it is there, but we still need to question and build and solve issues arising using this alternative mode of thought.’

Mary Tucker Evans was taught by Thomas Berry and runs The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. Evan’s promotes ecological civilization through a new worldview and new ethics, via religious traditions entering an ecological phase. One way of encouraging this shift is through what Berry called “the New Story” – a macro telling of history that can be found in Journey of the Universe and Journey of the Universe Conversations with Brian Swimme. This story is also being told in Big History, that David Christian developed a curriculum for and thanks to Bill Gates’ support is spreading through schools and universities across the world. Evans was involved in drafting The Earth Charter, which promotes ‘ecology, justice and peace’.

Dr Sheri Liao is a leading environmental activist in China, who discussed the Global Village of Beijing project, and some of the ways in which process thought is having a positive impact in encouraging ecological development in China.

Herman Daly is an ecological economist who points out that the problem is our commitment to growth. His thought is associated with the steady-state economy of John Stuart Mill, promoting a stabilization of population and slow down the economic metabolism so to prevent resource depletion. Instead of development through quantitative growth, we should develop through qualitative growth. We feel as if we are isolated individuals yet we are people-in-community. Daly suggested the “Genuine Progress Indicator” replacing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in order to prevent horrible costs such as oil spills being registered as having a positive economic impact.

Daly also linked getting off the growth path to helping avoid war, which is so often due to unequal economic growth and fighting over resources. We need a paradigm shift away from self interest. If we really are self-interested we should try to be better off rather than having more. The economy and even money has been created from the human imagination, and we can evolve it in new directions if we can imagine it!

Vandana Shiva spoke with compassion for all of Earth’s community, not just the ‘mafia economy of the 1%’. Shiva is a quantum physicist and ecofeminist who promotes a new  worldview and sustainable agriculture. She discussed biopiracy, the use of pesticides and chemicals on food, the way that corporations are stealing democracy from us, the tendency for extraction and exploitation, ways that the Green Revolution violated every law of nature, that 80 men control 50% of the world’s wealth, and the need to place emphasis on process + relationships. I had lunch with this 2010 Sydney Peace Prize recipient earlier in the year, so in the interests of space I’ll let that post tell more than I can here.

Phillip Clayton, whose books on panentheism and “organic marxism” have had a great influence on me, emphasised the need to ‘free ourselves form the modern dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity’, and for science to apply a ‘plurality of methods’. We need to move to a paradigm that sees that ‘nature is alive‘, recognising that we are a ‘community of agents’, and are obliged to see others’ as agents as well.

David Ray Griffin is a leading thinker in process thought and panentheism, and is the leader in bringing process thought (or ‘constructive postmodernism’) to China. His influence is global and inspirational. Griffin’s keynote address was the closing of the conference.  He explained the ways that Whitehead solves a number of contradictions, between different religions, and between religion and science. Griffin posited time as nonemergent, as something that ‘goes all the way down’. We live within a succession of universes inherited from previous universes. Emphasised the need to show scientists and philosophers that theism can exist without supernaturalism.

Griffin also pointed out that there are now universities in Europe where students can study and specialise in Whitehead. I reckon it’s about time we get one in Australia as well… As Cobb summed, ‘we need to point out that people have a metaphysic and what a stupid metaphysic they have. It’s time for a new one.’

Section 1 – The Threatening Catastrophe: Responding Now

We face the possibility of an irreversible end of civilization and even of the human species. Today the most urgent threat is climate change. … Avoiding nuclear war and developing alternatives to war in general have immediate urgency. … Increased population and decreasing resources point toward disastrous shortages.’ Combined with ‘many of the efforts to increase production speed climate change.’ The shortage of resources is also a ‘factor in current wars’. Furthermore, ‘financial disasters’ are a constant threat as ‘we have developed an economy so dependent on global financial institutions,’ which means ‘the whole system of producing and exchanging goods is threatened. … Democracies are becoming “corpocracies.” Financial institutions manipulate both government and public opinion.’(12)

‘The likelihood, nature, and scale of the disasters brought about by modern civilization make it imperative that in envisioning the future we consider the fundamental assumptions that have driven the modern world to self-destruction. We have no alternative but to think civilization anew, this time in an ecological framework. “Seizing an Alternative” as a while focuses on laying the groundwork for building a different civilization on different fundamental assumptions.’ (12)

Section 2 – An Alternative Vision: Whitehead’s Philosophy

‘Each of us acts against a backdrop of basic assumptions about the world that have us living out the results of philosophy whether or not we think about them, or participate in criticizing or shaping them. … the value of philosophy is the kind of broad, “critique of abstractions” that Alfred North Whitehead named, and the wisdom-seeking we all have to engage.’ (16) We need to ask: what is “common sense”, what is our purpose and what are aiming for?

‘Whitehead is the focus of the “Seizing an Alternative” conference because few recent philosophers were as interested as he in this broad understanding of philosophy – that is, big ideas that really make a difference in the world. Further, no other philosopher in the past century has so rigorously and systematically challenged assumptions of the modern world and proposed fundamentally ecological alternatives. … Whitehead called his magnum opus, Process and Reality, an essay in cosmology. Cosmology, in his understanding, offers a comprehensive view of the totality of things, including both the world studied by the natural sciences and the world of human experience and activity. … Whitehead’s cosmology opens the door to discuss many topics that are neglected in most contemporary thought. … Whitehead’s cosmology offers hope that matters of spirit can be integrated in an attractive way with science in a single coherent vision. This rethinking of ethics and religion is essential if we are to create a fully integrated and well-rounded ecological civilization.’ (16)

‘A fundamental feature of the dominant forms of modern philosophy is treating each entity as if its essential being is self-contained. The only relations affirmed are “external relations,” that is, relations that do not fundamentally affect the entities that are related. … Ecological thinking, on the other hand, views the relations among things as essential to their being. These are “internal relations.” Whitehead calls them ‘prehesions,” and he shows how they fundamentally constitute all actual entities. [Whitehead] is in the fullest sense “the philosopher of ecological civilization.” Helping other philosophers to understand his unique contribution is an important step in breaking the habits of thought that have led modernity to self-destruction.’ (17)

Section 3 – Alienation from Nature: How it Arose

Why do human beings think that we are separate from and more important than nature? This ‘sense of separateness … seems to have developed with agriculture and the building of cities. … Civilization led to almost complete alienation decisively through the European Enlightenment of the seventeen century and its produces: modern technology and the industrial revolution. … Rene Descartes, who developed the Enlightenment vision most profoundly and influentially, is known especially for his radical dualism of the human soul, on one side, and mere matter in motion on the other.’ Positive effects of this include the ‘critical thought’ that led to ideas about the ‘dignity’ of ‘human beings’ which ‘supported the ideas of human rights and even of a fundamental equality of all human beings.’ In the 19th century: ‘Darwin showed that human beings are a product of biological evolution, so that they are fully part of nature. This opened the door to re-thinking nature as having some of the properties Descartes attributed only to the human soul.’ A Whitehead’s philosophy is a response to ‘the new understanding of how human beings came into being.’ Cobb warns that ‘we are working against the now dominant vision of our universities and our culture general. The commitment of the sciences to methods associated with nature’s purely objective existence (without a subjectivity of its own) was very strong.’ Humans are studied as objects, ‘as very complex machines’. ‘Where Descartes had objectified nature, post-Darwin human beings became objectified too.’ According to Cobbs, while the scientific method can be fruitful, it need not shape our view of reality. (20)

‘Enlightenment dualism was replaced in late modernity by reductionist monism. The Enlightenment led people to understand themselves as responsible citizens. The new reductionistic monism supported the industrial system that represents us as cogs in the wheel of the economic system. … It’s the difference, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, between “nature lifeless” and “nature alive.” If we deeply understand nature as a whole to be alive as much as we experience ourselves as alive, we will richly experience our kinship with other living things, especially other animals. Perhaps, then, we can begin the healing process.’ (21)

Section 4 – Re-envisioning Nature; Re-envisioning Science

The ‘Cartisian view of nature was materialistic and reductionistic’, it has fostered a ‘deep alienation’ from the ‘natural world’. ‘Descartes’ dualistic metaphysics by no means initiated this sense of human beings as distinct from nature and above it, but his formulations have played a particularly important role in the world of science and technology. They have shaped our educational institutions and most of our academic disciplines into disjointed categories and disciplines. They have sometimes further contributed to alienation by asking us to reject common sense in our view of what is real.’

However, ‘recent discoveries of science have led to new and more adequate views of nature … quantum theory, evolutionary biology, ecology and neuroscience.’ Cobb points out that ‘the new understanding of the natural world still struggles to displace the Cartesian one that has dominated scientific thought for centuries. … The scientific establishment tends to treat the new discoveries as ‘anomalies,” and largely ignores their implications for basic assumptions.’ Slow changes are taking place in the academy, while outside and with some help from within, ‘a whole new vision of the natural world is emerging that opens up ways of thinking about the world as being more than simply collections of moving matter.’ Based on evolutionary understandings, but not mechanistically reducing nature to ‘matter in motion’ à also shows ‘that novel realities are coming into being again and again. … The sciences that are adequate to understanding the emergence of life and directed action in the world are important, therefore, for more than just getting our facts straight; they help us to know what it means to inhabit this planet. They prompt us to tell the scientific story in ways that are intrinsic to the natural world and our deepest experiences within it, while still allowing for the rigorous scientific study of nature. They represent a shift in understanding important for creating scientific conditions necessary for a thriving ecosystem.’ (24)

Section 5 – Ecological Civilization

‘Without a vision of where we need to go, our efforts are not likely to have the needed motivation or coherence.’

The alienation is not intrinsic to humanity, it is cultural, it is reflective of ‘erroneous thinking about the natural environment’. Is an ecological civilization possible? If so, what would it be like?

‘Any image of a sustainable world must consider its carrying capacity’ including consumption, number of people, other species, etc. ‘A truly ecological civilization is one in which human beings understand themselves as one species among others. It is concerned both with every individual creature with which we share the planet, and with the ecosystem as a whole. It will give a great deal of attention to what we eat and how we produce it. And at every step it will consider how that which contributes to sustainability can also contribute to personal enjoyment and social well being.’ (28)

Section 6 – Reimagining and Reinventing the Wisdom Traditions (A)

Axial Ways – term coming from Karl Jaspers “Axis” of human history – Greek philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zorastrianism. ‘The world religions are often viewed as having failed in their relations to culture, to one another, to science, and to the natural world. Although there is much justification for this criticism, the actual situation is far more complex, and in all these respects there have been dramatic changes for the better. Especially because the secular world offers no better option, we urgently need the further development and transformation of the great wisdom traditions if we are to build an ecological civilization. They should be re-imagined and re-invented – not discarded.’ Cobb emphasizes the “world loyalty” (using Whitehead’s term) found within the traditions, rather than ‘sectarianism, nationalism, or escapism.’ (32)

Section 7 – Reimagining and Reinventing the Wisdom Traditions (B)

The Hebrew prophets tended to focus on outer life and justice, while in Asia a key focus was ‘the systematic and articulate description of the inner life, together with the idea that we can choose to shape it.’ Cobb points out that ‘internal life’ affects ‘outer life’. … ‘what today most people mean by “spirituality” is the ordering and enriching of the interior life to which India and China contributed so much.’  Cobb warns that too much focus on inner life can lead to a lack of focus on outer life. ‘We need their re-development in the context of our new awareness of what we are doing to our environment.” While Greek philosophy is not usually thought of as spiritual, Cobb points out that ‘many of the Greek philosophers were quite concerned to guide the shaping of the inner life.’ He links this to Neo-Platonism which he believes ‘can readily be understood as a spiritual movement’ He also links this to ‘Indigenous people who have eschewed “civilization” and maintain traditions continuous with practices and attitudes developed long before the rise of civilization.’ (38)

Section 8 – Reimagining and Reinventing Education

Our existence is more than a succession of bare facts” Whitehead

Education is not only done at schools, it is also conducted in homes. Historically the latter has been dominant, yet today in the ‘modern secular world’ most education is ‘controlled by the state’ … ‘There has been too little reflection on this situation. Historically, education has been at least as much about values as about facts and skills. To live without conscious values is to fall short of being human. Schooling inevitably communicates values, and by failing to encourage reflection about them, it fails to make them conscious or effective. This reflects the situation of the modern secular state, which is in general unclear about its values.’ Taking the US as an example Cobb explains how since WW2 the ‘values of modern Protestant Christianity’ have influenced American people including their encouragement ‘to accept authority without much questioning a’ and considering “values” and “religious beliefs” to be ‘a private matter’ not for the classroom. ‘Higher education celebrates itself as “value-free.” … The topic on which research is done and the use of its product are matters of indifference. The university serves whoever will pay for the research. The students are attracted to the university on the grounds that they will earn more by completing a university program. In short, the default value, when the values of the Axial traditions are set aside, is money. This is not the outcome that those who opposed Protestant hegemony had in mind. It is diametrically opposed to ecological civilization. For those who want to steer our nation and others away from the precipice toward which the world is heading, reconsideration of our schooling system much be a very high priority. What would happen if we collectively decided that instead of freeing education from all values except money, we directed education toward building an ecological civilization?’ (42)

Section 9 – Reimagining and Reinventing Bodily-Spiritual Health

Cobb states that ‘ecological civilization would end the reign of Descartes and put body, mind and spirit back together again’ bringing about a ‘wholeness of body, mind, and spirit’. ‘Westerners have learned from India and China that breathing and bodily movements contribute to spiritual realization. From many sources we know that psycho-spiritual problems express themselves also physically.’ There is a growing ‘awareness of dimensions of reality not accessed by the sense organs’. Cobb states that ‘’I judge that the most promising single movement today working for ecological civilization is eco-feminism.’ (46)

Section 10 – Reimagining and Reinventing Societies and Social Thought

‘A basic assumption of modern thought is that everything can be reduced to its parts, the whole being nothing more than their sum.’ This view has ‘no primary place for ecological relations.’ Cobb emphasises that in the dominant view ‘Relationships are always derivative of individual units, and lack status as being fundamentally important to the nature of things.’ We need personal development (as in positive psychology and nurturing of values), community development,  social and political development, education and cultural development, and the development of healthy environment/ecosystems. It is common to emphasise the personal and community without looking at the implications for the world at large including social, political and ecological implications of personal action.

‘Although the quality of personal life is important, and much can be gained by focusing attention on it, all such achievements depend on social and ecological conditions.’ It is important to consider ‘many features of social order […] quite separately from the issues of full realizaiton of the potential of individuals.’ Cobb points to the ‘reciprocal relation’ between individuals and society, with the society impacting on the virtues of individuals and these virtues of individuals impacting back on society. In academic jargon this is to say that it is not structure OR agency, but agents-within-structures. ‘An ecological civilization would define human society as persons in community. This discourages both the view that society is simply a collection of individuals and the reduction of the importance of individuals in favour of the society as a whole. Individuals become full persons only in the context of community, and societies become authentic communities only as the people who make them up become strong persons.’ This can impact conversations and developments in academic, corporations and beyond. (50)

Section 11 – Reimagining and Reinventing Culture

‘Every human society has its own culture. This is true of families … distinctive cultures in each school and church and civic organization. If one joins a new society, one sense what is expected and adopts it, or one never really belongs.’ Cobb considers “meaning” to be constructed through “references”. ‘Languages organize life and environment in different ways, so that the translation among them is never perfect. … meanings go far beyond that. They refer to emotions, moods, purposes, memories, hopes, and fears. They refer to aspirations and dreads, the sacred and the demonic, the requisite and the forbidden. They shape both thought and action and, more deeply, feeling and purpose. … the study of culture is from the beginning immersed in history. One cannot study a nation’s culture apart from the stories it tells itself about its past and its aspirations for the future.’ Same with families and other institutions, especially with ‘Abrahamic communities.’ Cobb states: ‘We urgently need stories that locate us all in one history and that history in its total natural environment. … We have become aware that our stories have been told by those who have power and we are trying to hear the other stories.’

‘Typically, a few control and exploit others to produce cultural goods, and the exploited laborers have little freedom or dignity. On the other hand, from time to time, at least in some cultures, work has been respected and laborers are full members of the society. No culture can claim to be ecological that does not reward and respect those whose labor enables it to flourish.’ Food is important to culture ‘What is eaten, and how it is produced distributed and eaten,’ as is ‘how we build homes and cities’. Furthermore, ‘The realization of mortality shapes reflection on meaning. An ecological civilization will affirm death as well as life. … Cultures differ in the degree to which they encourage, or even allow, criticism. … Ecological civilization requires drastic criticism of current activities but will always call for self-criticism as well.’ This section also emphasized the need for art and pop culture to reflect ecological civilization and positive social change in music, movies, tv, sport, etc. (54)

Section 12 – Transformative power of Art

‘All building and eating and technology and story-telling are culturally important, but people learned long ago that these could be done better and more effectively. This better and more effective doing is what we call art. … Story telling is an art. … The power of art to modify or challenge or transform a culture both at the popular level and among the elite means that those who now seek a deep cultural transformation need to give it special attention and emphasis.’ From protest music to religious rituals and pop art and high culture, ‘opening up for us new ways of seeing the world. …The artists also offer us the most powerful instruments for effecting an actual change of consciousness.’ (58)

Introductory Courses to Whitehead’s Philosophy

I decided to do one of the introductory courses offered simultaneously to the sessions within the above sections, in order to deepen my understanding of Whitehead. These were taught by two leading Whiteheadians Arran Gare and Robert Mesle. Given the length of this blog post I’ll save that for another time…

Farming practices as a national security threat

Earlier this year I had the great privilege and honour of having lunch with quantum physicist turned environmental activist and feminist Dr Vandana Shiva. Dr Shiva won the Sydney Peace Prize in 2010, and was returning to Sydney as part of an Australian-New Zealand tour warning about the long-term consequences of globalised farming methods.

I attempted to get an article published about some of the things that I learned. After many drafts, three submissions and one rejection (the other two never replied), I have decided rather than leave it on my hard-drive unread, I will share it with you here…

Farming practices as a national security threat

Quantum physicist turned environmental activist and feminist Dr Vandana Shiva has a lot to say about national security—and it’s not about spies and intelligence. The real threat is food security.

Vandana Shiva

Dr Vandana Shiva and American farmer Joel Salatin, who did the introduction to “Planet on Plate: eating and farming for our future”

Late last month, Shiva spoke to a sell-out Sydney audience as part of an Australian-New Zealand tour warning about the long-term consequences of globalised farming methods.

Frozen berries anyone?

In her Sydney presentation and in several books – such as Soil Not Oil and Making Peace With the Earth – Shiva argues that the ways that foods are farmed, delivered and consumed have a direct impact on human health and planetary wellbeing.

One Indian farmer commits suicide every thirty minutes. In the last twenty years, over 290,000 have ended their lives.

Traditional farming methods prioritised biodiversity, nurturing microorganisms in the top layer of soil that are essential to producing nutritious crops. With globalising modern farming methods, says Shiva, topsoil and microorganisms are disappearing.

Modern farming methods are designed to deliver cash crops. This means that one form of crop is planted year after year on the same land, for sale on the global market. Such practice is destructive of land and lives. There is nothing “efficient” about it.

Such supposed modern farming requires more water and chemical fertilizers. Yet, according to Shiva, modern farming produces lower yields, lower health and lower wealth per acre than traditional farming.

The more deficient the soil, the more deficient the crops, and the more difficult the lives of farmers. The less diversity of food produced for local populations, the more poverty, the faster the population growth, and the cycle of poverty continues. Less supply and more demand means prices will rise on the global market, for less nutritious food.

Lurking behind modern farming are powerful corporations, who patent seeds and sell them to farmers for single-use. Shiva stresses that if seeds continue to be privatised, patented by corporations and sold to farmers for single-use, more and more farmers will be driven to suicide. Introducing genetically modified organisms (GMO) into the food chain produces further destruction.

The ethics and implications of modifying seed DNA are debatable. Some consider them “Frankenstein monsters,” and others plead they will address world hunger. To be sure there is no consensus.

The concern, for Shiva, is the powerful corporations that destroy traditional farming are also preventing information about GMO from reaching the headlines.

“They have so much power, it takes nothing for them to silence us. Even scientific publications in top peer-reviewed academic journals have been recalled thanks to their power,” Shiva shrugs.

“Experiments have connected GM maize to health problems, including to chronic kidney deficiencies, liver problems, tumours and earlier deaths,” Shiva explains.

GM foods clearly require more testing before they are sold, but it’s too late for that: unlabelled genetically modified oils, meats (animals fed GM feed) and other foods are already on Australian shelves.

At the end of Shiva’s Sydney presentation, a young student of public health at Sydney University spoke about the death of her father, a farmer in Uganda. Prior to his passing, he said to her: “Daughter, all the old men are dying because of the foods they are forcing us to grow. If we try to grow the foods that we know are good for us, they send in all these young men and they just uproot them from our gardens.”

Due to a lack of training in how to handle toxic agricultural chemicals and hybrid seed varieties, many farmers in Uganda are dying. Thanks to the lower crop yields that result from these patented seeds, many people in her village are hungry.

As climate instability worsens, the gap between rich and poor widens, soil quality declines and more species become extinct, what can be done?

Instead of globalising production, Dr Shiva calls for localisation: bringing back biodiversity instead of cash crops.

Local responses in Australia could include buying foods from local markets, or supporting corner stores rather than supermarket giants. Starting a conversation about seed patenting and GMO, encouraging the organization you work for to put people before their profits, and choosing ethical superannuation funds.

Make your interests known: if governments and corporations realise that voters and consumers care about their health and planetary wellbeing, perhaps they will take the issues of food, energy and climate more seriously.

If the Australian government wants to do more for national security, they could read the Sydney Peace Prize laureate’s Making Peace with the Earth and look for ways of protecting the interests of all Australians.

I’ve gone organic, and this is why…

I’ve gone organic, well, where an easy enough choice is available for not a completely unaffordable price. I’m trying to go to the Marrickville farmers markets on Sundays, to buy a box of ethical vegies, fruits, meats, and other products and support more local farmers and small business.

Why? It is a stretch to say that buying locally grown organic food can save the world, but from what I can tell it is an important part of moving toward a sustainable society. It saves CO2 emissions involved in transporting good from “developing” countries to the supermarket. Organic farming promotes biodiversity, maintains top soil quality, and hence is more nutritious than mono-crop farming.

If you think that the quality of our apples is getting worse, you are right. So are the varieties.

This video by Upworthy exposes three myths that we are told about industrial agriculture:

  • Myth #1: We need technology like genetic engineering and pesticides to grow more food.
  • Myth #2 : Food corporations are working hand in hand with farmers.
  • Myth #3: We need to double food production in order to feed the planet by 2050.

Upworthy - exposing agriculture fallacies

Dr Vandana Shiva is doing great work on “seed sovereignty”, encouraging a return to traditional farming methods that care for the people who produce and eat the food, as well the soil, the planet and future generations:

On the other hand…

My friend who did a PhD in food security begged to differ with at least part of the points made  about GM foods above. He believes that GMO foods in themselves are not necessarily bad (though they could do with more testing) but that the patenting of them is. He suggested I read a book called Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by  Pamela C. Ronald and R. W. Adamchak.

I haven’t read it yet, but when I’ll do I’ll let you know what I think…

Otherwise please add your comments below – interested in the different perspectives on the personal health and global implications for organic vs genetically modified, locally vs mass produced and transported foods…

A Wattsian Message of Happiness for 2015

In 1940, as the Second World War began its violence, a 25-year old Alan Watts published a book called The Meaning of Happiness. Its subtitle was the quest for freedom of the spirit in modern psychology and the wisdom of the East.

Meaning of HappinessThis book shares the same essential message of  countless books, articles and lectures that followed: you are not only what is inside your “bag of skin”, you are what is outside of it too. To kick off the new year, let me explain what this means and how it relates to happiness…

Watts ([1940] 1968: ix) points out that generally there are two types of books on happiness:

  1. ‘those which tell us how to become happy by changing our circumstances
  2. ‘those which tell us how to become happy by changing ourselves’ (emphasis mine).

Yet he points out that his book does neither. Instead, his book points out that ‘it is possible in a certain sense to become happy without doing anything about it’ (ix).

The Meaning of Happiness offers a means of becoming happy without changing anything. He leads readers through a process of acceptance of self—where you are and as you are. If you cannot be happy in this moment, then you will never be happy, because life is a series of moments.

In an age that tells us happiness will come if we try harder, if we do more, if we get better grades, if we buy that dress, car, or house, score that chick or marry that man, get that job, have that much money, then and only then we will be happy. In such a culture, is it really possible to accept our selves and be happy now?

Watts says yes we can. None of these external things will actually bring us happiness.

Watts points out that happiness of the deepest kind is found through ‘a conscious harmony with life and nature both in external circumstances and in oneself’ (xvii).

This is not so say we should become lazy and do nothing. Watts points out that even thought ‘happiness is associated with relaxation,’ it is possible to be happy whilst being challenged or ‘in the midst of strenuous effort’ (xxi). Paradoxically, Watts goes on to point out that happiness, like relaxation, is not something we can try to achieve. Neither are obtained by effort.

The more you try to relax, the more stressed you are likely to feel. Instead we have to let go of the effort, stop trying!

Stop. Look.

Look at yourself—what lies inside your skin and what lies outside it—and observe your intimate connections, the relationships, the processes.

See that You are always in process with everything else. Let go. Relax into the harmony of the process.

Watts goes on to say that the greatest freedom does not come from an ego’s ‘conceit of personal freedom and self-sufficiency’ (xviii). When ‘that conceit is abandoned an altogether new and more powerful freedom is known—the freedom of union or harmony between human and life’ (xviii). [1]

When you realise you are one with everything else, many of the fears that haunt our narrowly defined self disappear.

If you are everyone else, then rather than envy others’ achievements you can rejoice in them. If you are everything else, then rather than fear death you can feel comfort in knowing that you will live forever in all your other forms.

Watts says that in the face of violence, a Hindu philosopher might say “Sarvam kalvidam Brahman”—“This, too, is Brahman” (2). [2]

Life and death, young and old, joy and sorrow, are like two sides of one mountain. Being cannot exist without non-being.

The meaning is found in the whole process, all of which is You.

These words and beautiful animation might help bring this message of happiness to life:

Alan Watts would turn 100-years old on 6 January 2015, so stay tuned for more enlightening Wattsian philosophy 🙂


[1] I changed ‘man’ to ‘human’, to meet new language norms.

[2] Brahman refers to ‘that divine Being of whose Self each single thing is a changing aspect’ (Watts 1968: 2).


Alan Watts [1940] 1968. The Meaning of Happiness London: Village Press. Original edition, Harper & Row, New York.

Clutter to clarity – using mantras Soham and Humsa

Mantra literally translates to mind (man) vehicle (tra) – intended to transport your mind from the busy clutter to stillness and clarity. It is also translated to mind protector.

A “mantra” is essentially a saying – a few words or sentences that you say over and over again in your head. Your mantra might be ‘I am stressed’ ‘I am stressed’. Or it might be ‘I am that’… Soham or its inversion Hamsa.

Soham means I am everything that exists, and everything is one. This is the essence of spiritual insight, and science affirms it in that everything can be seen to be connected ecologically and evolutionarily, connected in space and time.

We may feel separate, but with every breath and touch and thought and word, we are connected to our environment, to our society and to our human and biological history. I am that.

The way a mantra works in by repeating it inside your mind.

As a meditation as you breath in think of the sound “sooooooo” and as you breath out you think of the sound “hummmm”.

Or “hummmmm” … “sasaaaa”.

I found it useful to interlace the Sanskrit with English and think:

“I’mmmmmmmmm” on my breath in, and “thaaaaaaaaaaaaat” on my breath out. I’m that.

Do this for five minutes a day and it is said to transform your life. I don’t see why we can’t do it when sitting in traffic, walking or doing other things plotting through life.

It’s a reminder of our connection to something bigger than our selves: the connection of our “self” to our “Self”, or as some may prefer the connection between our “self” and “God”, or between our “self” and the “Universe”.


This blog entry was inspired by yesterday’s yoga class by Amy at Body Mind Life in Surry Hills. Thanks Amy!