Is the Western mindset the source of our current ecological and social problems?

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Posted Oct 23 2018 by Dorian Cavé of Another Life
Is the Western mindset the source of our current eoclogical and social problems?

What was it about European cultural development that led to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, capitalism and environmental destruction? Why didn’t it happen in the apparently much more fertile ground of China, India or the Arab world?

Here at Lowimpact.org we identify our growth-oriented, wealth-concentrating economic system as the source of the destruction of nature on this planet. But how did our economic and political systems develop, if they’re so destructive? Is there something about human psychology that makes our current ecological predicament inevitable? Can it be down to the human mind being influenced by certain cultural norms, and does that make ‘every person a prisoner of the culture one is born into’? Furthermore, what are the roots of those cultural norms, how do cultures differ, and what allows some cultures to dominate others?

Dorian Cavé gives us a fascinating overview in this review of Jeremy Lent’s the Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Dorian holds a masters from the Paris Institute of Political Science and is embarking on a PhD at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability. He has extensive knowledge of climate change and sustainability, particularly regarding China. He’s also our specialist advisor on ‘the nature problem’ (scroll down), and you post queries about our ecological predicament there. Over to Dorian:


Through the chaos of conflicting signals and the dizzying maelstrom of information in which our digital minds are plunged day by day, a tenuous, but sustained and increasingly piercing sound can be heard by whoever chooses to listen. It is a chorus of voices repeating the same message in unison: “The human species is busily engineering its self-destruction, and taking much of the living world with it. We are doing this, right now. This planet might not remain habitable much longer.”

But the voices don’t seem to be making much of a difference as far as we can see. Nothing large-scale and meaningful is being done to put an end to economic growth, halt climate breakdown, and prevent the mass extinction of other species. Collapse is in the air.

Surely one can blame entrenched social, political and economic structures for this state of things. But how did these structures rise to dominance in the first place? Could their historical triumph, and the apparent fatality of their persistence, be due to certain deep-seated worldviews? If so, what are the fundamental metaphors that have led mankind to inflict such acute destruction on the biosphere and on itself? And what new ways of thinking must we shift into, collectively, to avoid the worst?

The history of our minds

These are some of the key questions explored by Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct, a carefully referenced opus of rather astonishing intellectual breadth, ten years in the making, which delves into about a dozen different scientific fields, from cognitive science to anthropology to history, politics, and ancient Chinese philosophy. Indeed, its wide-ranging transdisciplinary reach and focus on answering “Big Questions” bring to mind works such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, with which it can easily be compared.

Diamond’s book aimed at understanding why it was Europeans who invaded the Americas and defeated the Aztecs and Incas — and then proceeded to colonise much of the rest of the planet — and not the native Americans, or the Chinese, who launched into a conquest of Europe. Lent, too, is keen on elucidating deep historical trends; however, instead of focusing on the historical importance of environmental (bio-geographical) factors, he looks into the history of our minds.

His central thesis is that “Culture shapes values; and values shape history.” In other words, each society shapes the minds (or cognitive structure) of its individual members in ways that will largely determine our worldview, our approach to morality, or the meaning we give to our existence, thus influencing the destiny of this society. This is accomplished through language, and the use of powerful root metaphors (in the Lakoffian sense) — i.e. symbols so constitutive of our understanding that like the proverbial water to the fish, these structures that affect us so deeply are nonetheless all but invisible to us.

Lent develops this “cultural history” of our minds by first venturing into prehistorical times, and the emergence of homo sapiens’ cognitive abilities before and after the agricultural revolution. He then looks into the different cultural paths followed by various major agrarian civilisations, with particular emphasis on Greece, India, and China. Follows an account of the rise of Judeo-Christian monotheism and of its striking influence over the advent of the scientific revolution. The book closes on a sombre reckoning of our civilisational predicament and what it may lead to, and offers insights into a way out of this mess that draw on systems thinking, an approach with fascinating parallels in ancient Chinese philosophy.

Prehistorical worldviews

In the first part of the book, Lent explores the physiological, anthropological and sociological factors that have made the human brain such a powerful organ. He notably stresses the importance of that specific part of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) in enabling humans to develop symbolic language, at the root of what Lent calls the “cognitive revolution.” It would seem that the growth and expansion of the PFC, which is a feature unique to humans among all primates, was simultaneous to the development of language itself. But apart from boosting our means of communication, the PFC is crucial in enabling us to construct patterns of meaning, i.e. the capacity for abstract thought, by adding a symbolic, metaphorical dimension to our physical existence. 1  This patterning instinct” has made possible increasingly elaborate modes of social organisation — and the belief in a spirit world (“mythic consciousness”), in which all religions are grounded.

Naturally, symbols and metaphors also paved the way for the emergence of fully-fledged cultures — i.e. patterns of thought that shape the way people construct meaning in the world. This received network of beliefs and values is sculpted neurally into the brain from birth, and reinforced day by day through the symbolic artefacts that are created for other purposes than mere utility (cave art, sculpture, etc.). Such artefacts enable communities to grow massively and complexify while maintaining cohesive frameworks of values and beliefs — while at the same time making every person a prisoner of the culture one is born into.

Splendid metaphors at the Lascaux cave

Lent then presents an outline of how the typical human worldview must have evolved from hunter-gatherer times through to agricultural societies, based on the scant evidence passed down to us from prehistorical times. He points out that hunter-gatherers would have perceived the world as a dynamic, integrated, spirit-animated whole, and as a place of abundance with little notion of private property or boundaries between the human and the spirit world.

On the contrary, the gradual emergence of agriculture must have brought with it an unknown phenomenon: widespread anxiety. Material assets grew more important as food now had to be stored, instead of being readily available in nature, and could be lost or damaged; people had to work hard to grow their crops, which could be stolen from them; and in case of natural catastrophes, one couldn’t just up and leave one’s land that easily any longer. Thus appeared the first boundary lines between humans and nature (the threatening “wilderness”), and between people (with the notion of “home”).

It was at that time that the first religions appeared, based on the worship of hierarchies of gods that had to be propitiated or threatened for the cosmos to keep running smoothly, and for things to be all right. It therefore appears that religion began as an answer to the urge to control and deal with an anxiogenic, threatening outside world. However, this same impulse was embodied in widely different ways among the early civilisations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, or of the Aryans: the conquest of Europe by the latter, a strongly male-centered and warlike people who associated power with righteousness, was to have a major influence on history.

Dualism in Greece and India

In the third part of the book, Lent describes how patterns of thought started widely diverging between the people of three major civilisations: Greece, India, and China — with momentous consequences.

The ancient Greeks of the 5th century BC had a peculiar fondness for abstraction. They were the first people to use the definite article as a significant part of their grammar (“the good,” “the beautiful”…) and also devised, for the first time in history, the concept of a pure abstraction: God. They had a tendency to explain everything through a general theory, with a strong emphasis on reaching conclusions through the use of logic and rigorous thought — and, therefore, they came to value the intellect as paramount. In the words of Democritus, “only knowledge acquired through the intellect is legitimate.”

In their eyes, the pure and unchanging language of mathematics reigned supreme. The universe was no chaotic flux but a predictable cosmos, functioning according to rational laws created by a rational mind — and thus, these laws could be discovered by the use of reason. They set about doing just so, developing procedures of empirical investigation along the way that would directly inform the Scientific Revolution many centuries later.

Simultaneously, some of these thinkers — most famously, Plato — developed a comprehensive, dualistic vision of the world, considering the soul as separate from the body, but also as an immortal and unchanging element, and thus, the only part of the human being with access to Truth and the divine realm. And because the soul is the embodiment of the intellect and abstract thought, this led to a deification of reason as the source of what is “good” (and thus, “godly”) in the human experience. In the words of Zeno, “Man’s intellect is God.” This was to become a cornerstone of European thought.

Plato’s Academy: dualism for the happy (idle) few

Indian thought, too, developed a dualistic approach to the universe, which was viewed as ruled by an impersonal and transcendent force. However, it was posited that one could experience Brahman, the core inner experience of consciousness and universal nature of reality, through the interior stillness of meditation — instead of the use of reason. Indeed, only when the both the senses and the intellect are completely stilled, through yogic practice, can one go through the eternal essence within the individual (atman) as the gateway to the infinite and unchanging reality of the universe, and thus escape from reincarnation. The Greeks saw reason, this “uniquely human faculty,” as a link to divinity — and therefore, as the source of a fundamental dichotomy between humans and animals; but in the Vedic tradition, reason is but a tool in the service of true divinity; the rest of the natural world may thus also partake in the divine, with or without the ability of reason. This worldview is the source of the transcendental pantheism of Indian thought, steeped in shamanic “all-connectedness.”

Greece vs. China: essence vs. context

The ancient Chinese worldview is distinctive in lacking a transcendental dimension: indeed, the Tao is everything, and is in everything — neither hidden, nor above. The Chinese root metaphor for the world is that of “The world as a giant organism“: the universe functions based on the harmonious cooperation of all beings, organised into a hierarchy of wholes forming a cosmic pattern. Thus, the aim of the wise is neither to cultivate the intellect (as in Greece) not to arrive at one’s inner truth (as in India), but to learn from nature’s way, and live according to the same harmonious principle. Humans are interconnected with the natural world, not distinct from it; harmony arises from each entity following its own nature spontaneously, just like a cell in the body. This worldview, which leaves no room for the Platonic notion of a soul distinct from the body, is a fundamentally life-affirming philosophy, very much at odds with the Greek view of the human body as a “tomb” in which the soul is temporarily imprisoned.

Drawing from the work of George Lakoff among others, Lent shows how these fundamental cultural and metaphorical differences have been deeply integrated in the Greek or Chinese languages through a process of mutual reinforcement, leading to a deep persistence of underlying structures of thought across generations.

The greatest contrast between these two cultures stems from where they look for the true nature of reality. As Joseph Needham observes: “Where Western minds asked ‘what essentially is it?’, Chinese minds asked ‘how is it related in its beginnings, functions, and endings with everything else, and how ought we to react to it?” In other words, while Greek minds are engrossed in the abstract dimension of Forms — with a tendency for universalization — the Chinese instead focus on the material world and its intricate inter-relatedness — thus aiming for contextualization.

Besides, the Chinese view is that reality can and should be understood in a holistic way by means of all the capacities of the human being, including reason, but also emotions and intuition; as a result, reason has no inherent value as separate from emotion. And because life’s meaning arises from its context, a defining characteristic of humanity is one’s existence within a social nexus; therefore, while the early Greeks were ultimately “more concerned with knowing in order to understand,” their counterparts in China were “more concerned with knowing in order to behave properly toward other men.” (D. Munro)

The massive impact of Judeo-Christian monotheism

Having established this great dichotomy, Lent then proceeds to retrace a transformative process in the development of European thought: the birth of Judeo-Christian monotheism.

The Hebrew conception of God was radically new in the history of mankind, since it viewed the source of all that is sacred as belonging to a transcendental realm, unreachable for humanity except through the mercy and goodwill of God. In this view, the rest of the universe therefore loses all divinity and is little more than dead matter. Meanwhile, in Greece, Plato and his followers deified pure thought, and saw the union of the rational soul with the eternal world of ideas as the path of salvation for an intellectual elite. In 20 BC, Philo of Alexandria synthesised the Hebrew and the Greek dualistic traditions into a common whole, establishing the Jewish God, in his glorious abstraction up in the heavens, as none other than the ideal Good of Plato. Christianity, which was a direct product of this momentous fusion, then started offering eternal salvation to anyone willing to believe in the power of Christ.

Why was that such an important development? Because the Christian doctrine further entrenched the dualistic divide invented by the Greeks between a pure, immortal soul, and the physical world — including the human body, but also the entire natural world — viewed by Augustine for example as anathema to the purity of God: “Late have I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new…” So deep-rooted was this notion that Descartes himself, while attempting to question everything and base his philosophy on an unshakable foundation, ended up building his ideas on this very dualistic underpinning — neglecting the fact that the constructions of his mind and his sensory experience might both offer valid perspectives on reality. And we do know how pervasive Cartesian structures of thought remain in the modern world. They have come to form the basis for the modern view of our relationship with the natural world: if the mind is the source of true identity, then bodies are just matter of no intrinsic value. And if that is true of our own bodies, it must be equally true of the rest of nature, since neither animals or plants possess a mind capable of reason. Indeed, in the eloquent words of Descartes:

“I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”

Descartes therefore completed the process begun by monotheism that eliminated any intrinsic value from the natural world. Nothing is sacred about nature any longer — an assumption never questioned, be it by religious or rationalist thinkers.

Another upsetting child of monotheism was religious intolerance, which heretofore didn’t even exist. Never before the Hebrew Deuteronomy was the concept of a war of ideology ever expressed. The history of Christianity and Islam is replete with the burning of libraries, the suppression of free thought, and religiously motivated mass murder — phenomena virtually absent from the rest of the world, including India and China, even though an initial wave of monotheistic carnage did follow the arrival of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.

On the modern relevance of ancient Chinese thought

Meanwhile, in Song-dynasty China (eleventh century)… a new philosophical current emerged that was to dominate Chinese patterns of thought until the clash with European powers in the 19th century: Neo-Confucianism (宋明理学). In one of the book’s most fascinating chapters, Lent shows how this school of thought, blending elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, arrived at a conception of the universe that is both rich with spiritual meaning, and full of insights into the structure of reality that now resonate astonishingly well with recent findings from systems and complexity science.

On the moral plane, these thinkers saw humanity’s intrinsic connection with the natural world as the ultimate source of value; one should therefore attempt to fully apprehend the coherence and interconnectivity of everything, and investigate things (within and outside oneself) with an attitude of reverence, using one’s entire mind-body organism instead of merely the intellect. Natural emotions shouldn’t be transcended or repressed, but harmonised with the Tao in one’s own nature and the world around. By harmonising and holistically integrating intellectual understanding, ethical engagement and emotional intelligence, anyone can connect with the integrity of the entire natural universe, and thus reach sagehood — i.e. the natural inclination to do good.

Lent quotes the philosopher Zhang Zai’s beautiful “Western Inscription” 2:

“Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, 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.”

乾称父,坤称母。予兹藐焉,乃混然中处。故天地之塞,吾其体。天地之帅,吾其性。民吾同胞,物吾与也。

The Neo-Confucean’s epistemological findings were closely intertwined with this ethical vision. They viewed the entire cosmos, including time, space, or the human consciousness, as being formed by infinitely complex interactions between a structure (or “coherence”) of underlying, organising and connecting patterns (the li 理) — which are universally embedded within larger patterns — and a fundamental energy, indestructible and continually transforming (the qi 氣), which is also embodied within all matter. Thus, energy and matter are organised in coherent fractal patterns, determining every aspect of reality.

This understanding finds striking echoes both in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (in which energy and matter are transmutable), but also in modern Systems Theory disciplines, which see the natural world as a complex of different systems constantly interacting. These dynamic systems, big and small, all self-organise to create a cohesive whole that cannot be completely understood by reducing the system to its elementary parts. Some neuroscientists use vocabulary close to the Chinese concept of li to speak of consciousness. Other similarities can be found in Phenomenology, which has also studied fractal nestings of consciousness within greater surrounding patterns, and in gestalt psychology, which views human perception as a holistic, self-organised integration of a complex interplay of patterns.

Metaphors and the quest for power

In the following part of the book, the author uses the previous chapters as conceptual building blocks to answer in more detail the million-dollar question: why was it Europeans who launched into a conquest of both the world and nature, and not, say, the Chinese?

Unsurprisingly, he sees the reason for this as rooted mainly in the realm of metaphors — for, according to Lakoff, “New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.” One of these metaphors was that of “Conquering Nature,” expounded by Francis Bacon and others within the Christian context as referring to the process of recovering an absolute form of authority over all living things that was once granted by God (as expressed in the Bible). No less influential was the notion of “Nature as a Machine,” which provided the perfect cosmological foundation for the scientific investigation of the world in the Christian paradigm. This metaphor is still widely used nowadays by the likes of Richard Dawkins, according to whom “a bat is a machine,” and life, “just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information”; or Ray Kurzweil, who views the mind as “software” in the corporal “hardware.”

Because of these metaphors, the European mindset gradually came to view as completely legitimate, indeed necessary, “truly to command the world” and to open all the secrets of nature “for the purpose of the peace, quiet, and plenty of human life.” But we too easily forget that this view is in fact unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition: nowhere else has nature ever been viewed as created specifically for mankind — especially not by hunter-gatherer societies, who saw nature as a giving parent, or in ancient China, where nature was considered a vast organism that mankind was but a part of. Which doesn’t mean that no environmental degradation was committed on behalf of foragers or the ancient Chinese; but never did this take place to the systematic extent that became the norm in Europe, where a new conception of power made possible a new degree of exploitation — of both nature, and other peoples.

In the early 15th century, China was vastly superior to Europe technologically, culturally and intellectually. In 1405, Admiral Zheng He started a series of seven long voyages all the way to India, the Arabic peninsula, and Africa, at the head of a fleet of thousands of ships, much greater and more sophisticated than anything the Europeans could build. But his voyages did not aim at conquest or enslavement: on the contrary, besides collecting various curios to offer the emperor, Zheng helped establish embassies for several nations in the Chinese capital.

Chinese admiral Zheng He still has many fans in South-East Asia. It might be hard to say the same about Columbus in the Caribbean.

In 1492, Columbus crossed the Atlantic with three rather shoddy boats. Upon being welcomed as an honoured guest by extremely generous Arawak people in the Caribbean, his first reaction was basically: “These people are meek. They would make good slaves.” And so they were enslaved and massacred.

This comparison is quite illustrative of the very different ways China and Europe had to consider knowledge and technology. Europeans have proved themselves much more ready to use these as means to gain power over their environment — both nature, and other people. For example, the invention of stirrups and gunpowder had a negligible impact in China, but a massive effect on European military might: these technologies were immediately put to use to fight and dominate adversaries, and acquire power, viewed as an end in itself. In China, however, military solutions were viewed as a solution to instability, in order to regain a balance between Heaven and Earth. (or at least, so went the official explanations) 3

The mindset of the Europeans, structured by religious absolutism, a sense of dominion over the natural world, and a mission to conquer nature, shaped their attitude toward their voyages. Be it in Asia or the Americas, treachery was never out of the question, and God was the paramount justification for any massacre. This, compounded later by notions of racial destiny, made the exploitation of all lands, peoples and resources as theologically justified, and even a moral obligation.

The “inevitable” scientific revolution?

Why did the Scientific Revolution happen in sixteenth-century Europe, and not anywhere else? The 9th-century Arabs, whose splendid civilisation was centred in Baghdad, developed systematic investigations in all fields of knowledge, including mathematics and astronomy, and seem to have come close enough to a knowledge revolution; but the advocates of natural science were eventually declared heretics by the religious thinkers, as their findings could distract from the pure truth of religious scriptures. As for 14th-century China, it was so advanced in the industrial, economic and intellectual fields that it was probably at the threshold of a full-fledged scientific-industrial revolution. But it didn’t happen.

The ninth-century Arab faylasufs: inches away from a scientific revolution?

Why not? Perhaps because the Chinese didn’t really see this as something particularly desirable. In the eloquent words of historian Nathan Sivin:

“We usually assume that the Scientific Revolution is what everybody ought to have had. But it is not at all clear that scientific theory and practice of a characteristically modern kind were what other societies yearned for before they became, in recent times, an urgent matter of survival amidst violent change.”

It seems likely that asking why other civilisations didn’t “get there” is merely the reflection of a typically European cultural bias.

To the Chinese, it made no sense to seek fixed laws of nature, because everything is in a state of dynamic flow; nor to develop universal theories from pure logic, because nothing exists in an isolated, theoretical form. And while they considered the use of technology acceptable, “conquering nature” was simply unthinkable. According to Lent, this cognitive structure granted the Chinese civilisation an enormous resilience, manifested through a political and cultural stability without parallel in the world from the Tang dynasty to the 20th century, in spite of Mongol invasions, opium wars, and many a peasant uprising. As Joseph Needham points out, China “has been self-regulating, like a living organism in slowly changing equilibrium.”

Jeremy Lent’s hypothesis is therefore that the main cause the Scientific Revolution happened in Europe is cognitive, rather than geopolitical or environmental, and comes from the conceptual structures shaping European patterns of thought. His reasoning does strike me as quite convincing — especially as he goes on to analyse the development of scientific cognition in Europe, as based in the monotheistic paradigm.

Science, religion, and the tyranny of maths

Indeed, while science is often depicted as pitted against religious faith, pivotal religious thinkers such as Augustine actually gave their blessing to the use of reason, and of the many theories regarding universal truths developed by the ancient Greeks, in order to understand God — although faith remained paramount. Thinkers in the medieval universities of Paris or Oxford began to synthesise classical learning with theology, laying the cognitive foundation of modern science. According to the cosmological narrative of “Christian rationalism:”

– God created the universe according to a fixed set of Natural Laws.
– God gave Man Reason in his image; therefore, it is incumbent on Man to use it well.
– God’s Natural Laws are based on Logic; therefore, Reason can be used to understand them.
– By using Reason to understand God’s Natural Laws, Man can perceive the Truth.
– By perceiving the Truth through Reason, Man can arrive at a glimpse of God’s Mind.

Aquinas stressed that through the empirical knowledge of God’s eternal law as manifested in the natural world, and by using reason, mankind could gain a glimpse of God Himself. Thus, contrary to the religious thinkers in the 9th-century Arab world, the Catholic church actually came to tolerate, if not encourage, scientific investigations, which truly flourished at the time of the Renaissance. Newton himself viewed his “Laws of Nature” as evidence of God’s handiwork; and scientific findings soon came to be perceived as God’s eternal truth revealed to the Christians — and therefore, as an instrument which could be used to try and impress other people (like the Jesuits attempted in China, bringing all sorts of fancy inventions with them as they tried to convert the emperor and his court. They failed miserably).

Converting the Emperor using astronomy. Epic fail.

One persistent cultural assumption that has been passed down to us through the ages, from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance thinkers, is the Platonic vision of an eternal truth waiting to be “discovered” through mathematics. In fact, the discovered “laws” are often only true in certain circumstances (for instance, Einstein proved that Newton’s laws are not systematically true). Besides, some fields are resistant to the mathematic approach — in particular, those of self-organised complexity, and the non-linear behaviours of living systems, including the human civilisation. Therefore, maths may just be one language among others, and alternative ways of understanding the world may be equally valid, for instance… the systems worldview.

Lent next presents an overview of what he terms “Europe’s moonlight tradition” of thought, closer in its principles to ancient Chinese concepts, which eventually led to the development of systems thinking in Europe and the US in the 20th century. Systems theory views patterns and interconnectedness as fundamental characteristics of reality, and tends to eschew the soul/body dualism. It complements rational reductionism by enabling the analysis of self-organised systems, in particular “autopoietic” living systems that draw their stability from their state of constant flux. In this vision, the whole cannot be reduced to the constitutive parts, as it emerges organically from the complex interactions thereof — in the same way that it makes little sense to describe the works of Shakespeare as “various arrangements of 26 letters”: in complex systems, the patterns that connect the parts frequently contain far more valuable information than the parts themselves. Lent, citing Fritjof Capra (who penned the foreword to his book), therefore views systems thinking as enabling us to experience anew our connectedness with the entire web of life — and the gateway to perceiving nature neither as a machine or a domain to be conquered, but as a “Web of Meaning” connecting all life together.

Collapse, techno-split… or great transformation?

Of course, we are collectively far from this state of mind. As he retraces the rise of consumerism and corporations following the industrial revolution, and up to the appalling social and environmental crisis that we are currently experiencing worldwide, the author attempts a forecast. In his view, our global civilisation — as a complex system — is approaching a “critical transition”. If we stick to our current values and system, we will either experience:

  1. Collapse. Lent envisions this as a scenario in which, “following the worst holocaust in human history, the survivors will be locked forever in the values and norms of traditional agrarian society, with humans and animals forever exploited as the primary energy source for an elite minority.” He explains this based on the great difficulty of “rebooting” an industrial civilisation, after the low-hanging fruit of plentiful fossil fuels have all been picked. (see this paper for more discussion on this topic)
  2. Techno-Split. In this other catastrophic scenario, the current economic system manages to struggle on. However, due to ever-increasing inequalities, systematically concentrating always more powerful wealth and technological capacity into the hands of an ever-smaller number of people, the human species will eventually diverge into the genetically-enhanced, techno-powered “happy few” — and the rest, surviving in a wasteland world of toxic geoengineering and absent wilderness.

Both (depressing) scenarios seem quite plausible. However, it would have been interesting to know how Lent came to select just those two, when futurists are equally (if not more) concerned about many other greatly disruptive perspectives.

To avoid either of these gloomy possibilities, Lent calls for a Great Transformation: a worldwide, fundamental revolution in values, based on the recognition of omnipresent interconnectedness. According to him, we must precipitate the collapse of the current global cognitive system before the collapse of the economic and political one, and enable the emergence of a mindset valuing the quality of life over economic performance, and the notions of shared humanity and environmental flourishing as foundations for all political, social and economic choices — i.e. to move away from the metaphor of “Conquering Nature” to that of “Nature as Web of Meaning.” To this end, he cites a study pointing out that “no campaign failed once it achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of a given population…”. Is 3.5% all it takes?!

Intriguingly, or not (given the already considerable scope of the book), Lent doesn’t delve into the specific economic system that might embody this shift of consciousness, and he carefully avoids calling for the downfall of capitalism. But it is certainly difficult to imagine capitalism remaining in place if such a “shift of consciousness” were to take place. As reasons to be hopeful, he mentions the movement that led to the abolition of slavery, and the high proportion of so-called “cultural creatives” in Western countries and worldwide. But is this really enough to be optimistic?

At any rate, considering the situation we are in, I find it hard not to agree with Lent on the necessity of such a shift. Given the high likeliness of horrible scenarios such as the ones he mentions (or worse) unfolding during the 21st century, could any human endeavour be more worthy of an attempt than to bring about this cognitive shift? In that case, where do we start?

Notes

  1. Interesting resonance here with the Connectivist approach to learning, according to which a person learns by “instantiating patterns of connectivity in the brain“: we can say we know that big cat is a tiger when we recognise the distinctive characteristics of a tiger.
  2. As Lent points out, we find an echo of this in Albert Einstein’s words: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘the Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
  3. Nowadays, the quest for a “harmonious society” remains a centrepiece of Chinese official-speak, and the pretext for cracking down on all dissent. When content is deleted from the Chinese internet, it is popularly said to have been “harmonised“.