Saturday, September 01, 2007

Four Planets

by Chris Thomson, School of Consciousness

If the whole world were to consume energy and resources at the same rate as the USA, we would require approximately four planets to meet the demand. Clearly we do not have four planets. Some might therefore think it odd that we are constantly encouraged to consume more and produce more. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, economic growth is still seen in mainstream and official circles as highly desirable.

It seems less odd when we remind ourselves that we inhabit an Alice in Wonderland world of topsy-turvy values, in which many of us overprovide for our material needs - getting fat, sad and unhealthy in the process - while underproviding for our spiritual needs for peace, beauty, love, truth and deeper meaning - getting anxious, confused and unhappy in the process.

There is widespread recognition that all is not well. There is a sense of deep malaise that makes many of us uncomfortable. We hear every day about drugs, crime, violence, corruption, war, poverty and inequality, disease, pollution and many other problems. But we continue to believe that by creating even more wealth and money, we will be able to solve these problems. More money is widely regarded as the universal solution, or at least the precondition.

We talk glibly about economic growth, but how many of us ever stop to ask ourselves what we mean by this? When we take a closer look, we discover that many of the things that are growing are undesirable - such as traffic, crime, stress, noise, ugliness, pollution, violence, dishonesty, greed, unhappiness, inequality, and pressure on the environment. We don’t like these things, but we have a schizophrenic attitude to them because some of them register as growth in the economy, which we think is desirable. Our chief measure of growth, GDP, registers the bad and the ugly as well as the good, without telling us which is which.

GDP is the total of all those transactions in an economy where money officially changes hands. At first glance, this looks perfectly reasonable. But a closer look reveals that GDP registers the costs of growth as if they were benefits. If dealing with crime, congestion, pollution, and medically treating an unhealthy population involve legal money transactions, as they clearly do, then these costs will be shown as part of GDP. If an increasing proportion of our GDP is going on this kind of expenditure, as it is, are we justified in saying that we are doing well?

In any event, it does not make sense for countries to compare themselves with each other on the basis of GDP when so much economic activity in so many countries is either outside the official economy (transactions involving cash but which do not get recorded) or does not involve money at all (e.g. people doing housework or other unpaid work or bartering goods and services).

How do we know whether we are doing well?
There are better ways of assessing how we are doing as a society. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) is one of them and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is another. It is significant that although GDP, ISEW and GPI grew at about the same rate in the UK, USA, and Germany until the early 1970’s, ISEW and GPI declined after that point, while GDP kept growing. If ISEW and GPI are better indicators of what is really happening, this tells us that, although we were experiencing economic growth, things were getting worse, not better. Comparisons between ISEW and GDP should tell us that, after a certain point in the development of any economy, the pursuit of economic growth causes at least as many problems as it purports to solve. In economically developed countries, promoting yet more growth in the hope that it will ultimately enable us to solve our problems is rather like using petrol to try to put out a fire.

Of course it is true that when people do not have their basic needs met, there is clearly a case to be made for growth. Economic development is undoubtedly required in those parts of the world where there is inadequate water, food, shelter, and health-care and education. However, once these basic needs are met, the desirability of more growth becomes increasingly questionable, especially when it is associated with a form of “development” that usually means disrupting the sustainable patterns of centuries. We make the mistake of thinking that because some people have less money or material wealth, they are worse off. Happiness is not necessarily synonymous with having more.

Indeed, after a certain stage has been reached, economic growth is rarely synonymous with human development. On the contrary, it is closely associated with the many social problems of our times, and with pressures to work longer and harder and to spend more. This begs the question: will this process - of having to work harder, and having to become more competitive - ever stop, or will it go on until the end of time as we keep trying to overtake each other in order to get ahead? That is a dismal prospect. Is it not time to make well-being, human development and happiness the central purposes of society? And is it not time to acknowledge that these desirable goals may be in fundamental conflict with the goals of economic growth and ever increasing competitiveness?

Truly Sustainable Human Development
There are some chinks of light. The mood is changing - away from the focus on economic growth pure and simple. The Holy Grail of many governments these days is “to promote economically, environmentally and socially sustainable development”. At the same time, many businesses are trying to tread the fine line between being, on the one hand, profitable and competitive and, on the other hand, socially and environmentally responsible. Increasingly, businesses know that they need the good society. They need happy, healthy, educated, energetic, creative people, and an attractive natural and built environment. The challenge remains: how to have this and to pursue profit and competitiveness at the same time?

Perhaps a better question is: can we evolve and practise a form of socio-economic development that automatically enhances personal growth, wellbeing, social justice, and environmental improvement? Can we, in other words, move away from a world based on competition for, and exploitation of, people and resources to a world based on cooperation and the wise development of people and the planet? The answer to these questions has to be yes. If it is not, then we are in serious trouble. If we carry on pursuing material growth and the belief that more money is the answer to most of our problems, while treating the other two points of the triangle - people and the environment - as secondary to the main objective, the chances are that things will only get worse. Yet we are unlikely to stop carrying on as we are while we continue to subscribe to the belief that more is better. So long as economic growth remains the central purpose, we will continue to have to use specifically targeted policies to try to counteract the negative fallout of our obsession with material things and money. Meanwhile, the contrast between the excited expectations generated by the “knowledge economy” and the deterioration of the earth’s ecosystem could not be greater.

Contrary to the belief in some circles, sustainable development does not mean “economic growth as usual, while keeping a weather eye on the environment”, which is how the term is often interpreted. Sustainable development is as much about the sustainability of society and culture as it is about the sustainability of the economy and the environment. After all, without a society there can be no economy. Increasingly, people are asking: are we living to work or working to live? Does society exist to serve the economy or does the economy exist to serve society? Lying behind these questions is the bigger question: what is it that we really want?

However, we are unlikely to get to the point of knowing what we really want unless we make this possible for ourselves. This would mean giving ourselves the space and time to think and feel more deeply about what we are doing and why we are doing it. At present, much of our thinking is carried out in knee-jerk reactive mode, and many of our actions reflect this. There is an urgent need for deeper, reflective thinking.

Let us assume that we were able, as individuals and as communities, to work out what we really want in life and what we want to be as a society. We would then need to find ways of getting there, and we would also need to design much better indicators to tell us whether or not we are on track. In my view, we will get there only if the means are the same as the ends. Paul Ekins expressed this beautifully in his book “Wealth Beyond Measure”:

“Many enlightened capitalists, and socialists who connive with them for the sake of economic growth, believe that solving the problems of production will lead people, once they have enough, to turn towards the higher things of life: beauty, spirit, art, love. They are wrong. Making the market the principal instrument of human development has transformed it - in the form of shopping - into society’s principal cultural expression. It is no use changing the goals from economic growth to basic needs or sustainability, for example, if the means, the economics, remains the same. It is the means that determine where we end up. The challenge is not only to decide on another destination…but also to design an economics, and a development process to go with it, that is as sustainable, participatory, equitable and satisfying as the end that is in view.”

Many of us are confused. On the one hand, we are being asked to work harder, to be more flexible, and to be more enterprising and competitive, so that we can stay ahead of each other, other companies and other countries. We are caught up in what seems to be an endless race for competitive advantage, yet many of us instinctively feel that we - and the world - cannot continue this way. At the same time, we are being asked to do our small bit to help promote social justice and environmental sustainability. It feels very much as if we are being asked to go faster and slower simultaneously.

The “central purpose” of the modern world, and of most countries and many organisations, seems to be perpetual economic growth. Anyone who understands how systems work will know how important a system’s central purpose is. It literally determines what the system looks like and how it functions. If the world’s central purpose really is economic growth, then all other “purposes”, such as justice, equality, ecology and health, will always take second place. And the values of the system will always reflect the central purpose. It is no accident that we live in an age of rampant materialism. It is interesting to reflect that one of the fastest growing industries in the USA is the self-storage industry. This is where many Americans store goods that they cannot keep in their house or garage, because they have no more space. The industry reports the owners of these additional goods never see them again, once they have been put into storage. This suggests that, for many people in the modern world, the act of buying things is just as important, if not more so, than actually having them.

We urgently need a new central purpose for the world. And the world as a whole will have to decide what it wants this to be. My own personal preference is that our new central purpose be the spiritual development of the human being, this planet and everything in it and on it. I freely admit that, when I look around me at a world that seems to getting madder by the day, such a central purpose feels impossible. Yet, I wonder how long we can continue spiralling downwards, ever deeper into materialism. We keep getting wake-up calls – wars, natural disasters, man-made disasters etc. – and each time we wake up for a few days or weeks. But we soon go back to sleep again and get back on the materialist merry-go-round. How loud and painful will the wake-calls have to be before we really take notice?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1980s I believed that the only thing that would bring the population of the world together in accord would be a common danger or threat. The two scenarios that came to mind were alien invasion or asteroid collision with the Earth. As I don’t believe in UFOs and aliens, the latter remained in my mind. I would never have believed that the threat to the planet would actually come from the activities of the inhabitants themselves.

So now we have Global Warming hanging over us, a huge threat but one that has a solution, and what do the inhabitants do? Carry on as normal, still consuming, still fighting wars, still flying in aeroplanes, still caught up in the economic conspiracy that has fooled most of the population.

As Chris Thompson said, the answer is look to our spirituality. However, if you look on the internet for sites that offer enlightenment there seem to be many that promise to show the way to get everything you want, make money etc and others that insist the answer is to go deep within and find the silence and bliss. They both present a message that is entirely egocentric, nowhere is offered an alternative worldview that these enlightened people can enhance. Reading Chris’s website about consciousness and an eco-view was novel and truly exciting.

But he sees the same problem as me – how do you get people to wake up and change? And when they do, how can you guarantee that the change will be uniform? The great spiritual truths of life are contained within all the world religions, yet they have created their fair share of divisiveness. And when people do have major spiritual awakenings, in modern society they are often shunted into psychiatric wards, not listened to by their carers and given pills to ‘normalise’ themselves. How many hypomaniacs have actually seen the clear truth about life but been treated like wayward children?

So I feel, despite the fact that we’re the only species on the planet that seems happy to destroy its own environment, even this problem is not enough to stop people in their tracks and change their lifestyles. Our government gives mixed messages – ban plastic bags, use low energy light bulbs, car share, reduce, reuse, recycle – all very small personal contributions while at the same time it allows another runway to be built at Heathrow airport. At the same time it is squandering billions of taxpayers hard earned cash on preparations for the 2012 Olympics, without a concern about the carbon footprint that will be created from the manufacture and transport of building materials for new arenas and infrastructure to the amount of air pollution from all those people who will fly in from foreign parts to participate and view. It is hypocrisy gone mad. The bravest thing this government could do is to decide not to have the Olympics here, not to continue a tradition of hallowing human physical extremes, but to be responsible with its resources and use the couple of billion quid it plans to spend on the farce (and how many Britons are actually that interested anyway?) on something that could encourage sustainable solutions, like providing every household with a free solar panel.

But back to what could change humanity in the short amount of time we have left to reverse the global catastrophe. We are fighting materialism, fighting a global emotional need to own things and more importantly, fighting humanity’s fears, and the only way to change is to have a radical new worldview where, in the words of the Book of Revelation, the merchants are no longer sought after. And to do that requires a mass awakening. From my own experience of spiritual awakening, it came from a release after a massive build up of pressure, so maybe a collision with an asteroid might work. We could see it coming long enough to build up the fear and the tension, then it might just miss us, or it might just destroy a large number of the population, with the remainder heaving a huge sigh of relief whichpropels them into an enlightened state of consciousness. On the other hand, those remaining might have to start again from scratch, hopefully having learnt the lessons of our past.

If you watch Nature, everything goes about its daily life, fulfilling its DNA programmed tasks, without interfering with anything else apart from when obtaining food. It is only humans who cannot do that, humans stick their noses in and meddle with Nature. Since the Fall, since the days of the Missing Link, we have grown away from our natural selves and developed intellect, power and abuse of power. We have explored every facet of life in pursuit of intellectual understanding and have allowed, if not encouraged, our man-made intellect to take over our everyday consciousness, at the price of cutting ourselves off from the ‘knowing’ of our unconscious minds which are connected to our DNA and provide us, like all other life forms, with our perfectly designed survival program.

When we reconnect with that level of consciousness, we do not need all the human constructs of the world because we are overwhelmed by the beauty, order and connectedness of the natural world. It is then that we see through the illusion of Maya and we have a complete experience of real humanness. And it is mind-blowing to experience but at the same time, very lonely and isolated and it is infinitely sad to see how the world is completely missing the point. It’s almost like someone has played a cosmic joke on humanity and we’re the only ones who have missed the punch line.

I read an article about human adaptiveness by John Stewart, I read more of Chris’s ideas about improving intelligence and consciousness, I come across lots of people saying that humans are evolving and can leave their past behind. These ideas disturb me because they are from intelligent people who are not thinking clearly, who are not understanding clearly and who will make the same mistakes in the future because they see the past as something to move on from. The concept of progress is still in their worldview.

John Stewart writes “But the most significant and far-reaching advance in adaptability came with the development of a capacity for mental modeling” which says that we can imagine the outcomes of what we do. But we have been doing that for centuries and where has it got us? He then goes on to say

“The full evolutionary potential of mental modelling is obvious. Once organisms have accumulated sufficient knowledge, their modelling will often be superior to the internal reward system at identifying the adaptations that are best in evolutionary terms. No longer would the organisms have to be guided towards evolutionary success solely by a system of motivations and emotions. Instead the organisms could use mental modelling to identify and implement the actions that would enable it to survive and flourish into the future.”

This man has not experienced the huge reward the body gives when it returns to ‘primal consciousness’. That reward is far greater than any man-made mental model, simply because very few men have experienced it and therefore cannot mentally construct it in their imaginations. Most (all) men like sex. If they were told that primal consciousness was better than sex, there would be a massive rush to learn how to achieve this consciousness, and that would come from emotional motivation, not hard mental motivation. Most people are motivated by their emotions not by their reason, and it is intellectual progress that puts itself on a pedestal, calls itself god and looks down its nose at old fashioned emotions. Think of how nations in the West have been the guinea pigs of economic modellers and how wrong these modellers have been because they were working from the flawed human intellectual model of constant economic growth ? And to sustain that model, they depended on manipulating the old-fashioned emotions of the people.

“If humanity is to realise the full evolutionary potential of mental modelling, we will have to free ourselves from our biological and cultural past.”

This is suicide because of the implication that the intellect is superior and the only way forward is by using the intellect. And anyway, why this constant drive forwards? Who says we actually need to evolve? Perhaps devolve would be a better path. And when he talks about religions promoting the separation of self in order to control the self, in ‘primal consciousness’ there is no need to control because the self knows intuitively the right thing to do. Intuitively it works with the higher self, the ego is burned away and becomes a subject of derision and rather than separation, the love of the intellect, it experiences total unity and completeness. There is nothing left to evolve into because we become perfect beings just as we are.

March 12, 2008 2:28 PM  

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