Searching for the Anti-Virus | Covid-19 as Quantum Phenomenon

Article Wetiko

Searching for the Anti-Virus | Covid-19 as Quantum Phenomenon


featured image | Mandala in Rinchepung Dzong, Paro, Bhutan

 

I’ve struggled to make sense of what is going on. My suspicious mind wandered around restlessly, examining all theories and possible explanations, yet I must admit: I don’t know what is happening. I do know this is a crucial moment of choice for humanity. In this essay, I will not suggest or discuss “what is going on.” I rather want to invite you into a realm transcending the dichotomy of “objective reality” vs “subjective thoughts/feelings,” which underlies most theories, predictions and calls to action in this crisis. Coming from a spiritually-informed holistic worldview, I entertain the possibility that we as humanity – or some deeper part of ourselves, whether conscious or not – have dreamed this moment into existence as a catalyst for our collective evolution. If that were true, how might we engage and respond? Covid-19 could actually present an unlikely possibility for collective awakening and far-reaching system change.

Neither real nor unreal, but dreamlike

“This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.”
– Rumi

For over a hundred years, physicists and philosophers have tried to wrap their heads around the manifold wonders of quantum physics. Subatomic entities, such as electrons, they saw, behave in awe-striking and magical ways. They do not simply exist “as such,” as fixed and finished entities; they can appear as a wave in one instant or as a particle in another, depending on whether or not they are observed. This is true. Our perception of the world isn’t just passive, it is creative – it literally in-forms its very being and reality. Quantum physics invites us into a view of reality in which the seeming “objective” reality out there and the “subjective” experience “in here” become inseparably intertwined. Just as the characters and events in dreams aren’t separate from the dreamer, the world, according to the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is but a living symbol, the embodiment of deeper parts of ourselves, which we collectively dream into existence.

Embracing reality in this way, how would we make sense of Covid-19?

Through spiritual experiences and studies, I’ve learned that diseases rarely appear for no reason. They often carry deeper messages. For example, conflicts, longings, and vital drives our minds suppress may resurface in bodily symptoms. Healing often occurs in the moment we realize what we have suppressed. Such insights have the possibility to make us more whole and may, in fact, change our lives. In this way, we can say the healing antidote – or, in this case, the anti-virus – lies hidden within the disease as the treasure of transformative realization. If we exclusively fight the symptoms without exploring the deeper root, we might survive the disease but other symptoms are still likely to materialize.

What is true for an individual disease may also be true for epidemic or pandemic outbreaks. In his provocative book, Selbstzerstörung aus Verlassenheit [Self-Destruction due to Abandonment], the psychotherapist Franz Renggli ascribes the outbreak of the Great Plague in Christian Europe in the 14th century, which killed 30%–60% of the continent’s population, to an “eruption of mass psychosis.” He writes,

My psycho- or rather socio-somatic model is psycho-neuro-immunology: neither a bacterium nor a virus is the core problem, but rather the people within a society who have been shaken by a crisis. If this crisis lasts too long, is too severe or too traumatic, the immune system of the population is slowly weakened and finally collapses. The people become vulnerable to illnesses and finally to death. This model is valid for any epidemic and can serve as a key for a new understanding of history.

In the century preceding the Black Death, he argues, the Catholic Church began advising mothers to separate from their babies during day and night. Children growing up in the 13th and 14th centuries thus suffered a collective trauma of primal abandonment. Renggli shows that regions in which mothers continued to practice close physical contact with their children were spared from the plague. Might we be experiencing something similar right now?

How has the specter of Covid-19 been able to haunt 7.5 billion people and bring the world to a standstill in no time at all? Because the narrative massively resonates with something latent that is both teeming and deeply suppressed in people’s subconscious.

The “mental” coronavirus spread earlier, faster and much more powerfully than its biological counterpart. Covid-19 began to make headlines and people suddenly found an “objective” justification for the fear and despair which had been gathering unconsciously within them for a long time. The feedback loop between the hourly onslaught of fear-inducing headlines in the media and the growing anxious expectations in people’s minds trapped humanity in a vicious neurotic cycle. Every new “case” in our neighborhood or region, every cough in the subway, every stranger coming too close doubled-down on an eerie sense of ubiquitous danger. The more we think about illness, the more afraid we are. The more fear we experience, the weaker our immune system gets. The weaker our immune system, the more likely we’ll develop symptoms. Try not to think of a pink elephant.

The psycho-spiritual dimension has been proven to have a very concrete effect on the material realm. The astonishingly far-reaching physical impacts of the placebo effect are well documented, and likewise, many studies show how emotional stress, chronic fear and loneliness can dangerously weaken our immune system and corrode our health.

Please bear with me. I’m not suggesting Covid-19 is just a hoax, nor am I trying to downplay or deny the tragedy so many people are experiencing.

I’m suggesting we look at it from a different angle: What if Covid-19 weren’t a danger independent from our minds and souls but, in fact, a quantum phenomenon – a shared dream character we’ve collectively summoned into existence? An embodiment of something buried deeply in the realms of the collective subconscious that we haven’t, so far, been able to comprehend? A living symbol of a much deeper infection?

Mind viruses and the magic of fear

Reaching back to the oral traditions of several First Nations, Native American scholar Jack D. Forbes writes in Columbus and Other Cannibals, “For several thousands of years human beings have suffered from a plague, a disease worse than leprosy, a sickness worse than malaria, a malady much more terrible than smallpox.” The Algonquin and other Indigenous First Nations identified the mental illness of the white man, upon his arrival to their native homelands in the 15th and 16th centuries, as “Wetiko,” literally translating as cannibalism: “the consuming of another’s life for [one’s] own private purpose or profit.” Forbes concludes by saying, “This disease is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man.”

Wetiko – often referred to as a mind virus – propagates the deep-seated illusion of seeing oneself desperately confined to the cage of a separated ego. From this perspective of isolation, others appear either as competitors or as prey. In a worldview in which fear is the basic condition, fight and exploitation seem rational, empathy ridiculous and sentimental.

After 5000 years of patriarchy, 500 years of capitalism and 50 years of neoliberalism, Wetiko has come to define nearly every area of our (Western) world and lives. The reason we can accept an economic system celebrating the biggest-possible devastation of the natural world as “success” is due to our own infection with the virus. Wetiko has numbed our hearts, blurring our ability to perceive both the sacredness and the pain of life, both outside and inside ourselves. Innumerable beings are perishing due to this chronic inability to feel empathy.

From the compulsive fixation on maximizing artificial values in the economy all the way down to the pandemic of broken and abusive love relationships, the Wetiko sickness has become so normalized it’s no longer even recognized as such. A miserable cult of self-obsession has eroded the social tissue of humanity and desecrated the Earth. As a result, fear is everywhere – fear of abandonment, fear of death, fear of life, fear of sexuality, fear of punishment, fear of the coming collapse… The benign front of bourgeois decency conceals a psychological basement in which the children of fear roam freely: permanent anger, general mistrust, addiction, depression, boredom, perversion, compulsive consumption and control and the secret or open fascination with violence.

The Red Book of Carl Jung

When Jung began his explorations of his unconscious, he recorded his fantasies in a series of notebooks that formed the basis for the Red Book. Some of Jung’s Red Book illustrations resemble mandalas, used in Buddhism and other religions as a representation of the universe and an aid to meditation. Jung believed the mandala was one of the oldest human religious symbols, found all over the world. Jung remarked that “The “squaring of the circle” is one of the many archetypal motifs which form the basic patterns of our dreams and fantasies. . . . it could even be called the archetype of wholeness.” (via Library of Congress | Exhibits)

The Covid-19 narrative has been able to infect humanity at such record speed because fear is so deep-seated and unconscious in humanity that we’re no longer aware of what is happening within us.

The tragedy is that the virus operates in the shadows of our consciousness. We infect ourselves and others unknowingly. As Forbes writes, we’re conditioned by the disease through “authoritarian family structures,” “male dominance,” “subjugating women” and “extremely negative attitudes towards sex” – and on an ideological level, through “notions of racial and cultural superiority.”

Once stuck in this box, we mindlessly perpetuate the disease in our day-to-day interactions, by feeding off and into each other’s blind spots and pain points. As we project what we fear internally onto others or external events, we validate our fear while suppressing where it comes from. We believe danger to be outside of us, so we try to protect ourselves from it and, thereby, often act in ways that perpetuate the very danger we try to protect ourselves from. Jung describes this mechanism as “shadow projection.”

To the extent we’re unconsciously driven by fear, we become susceptible to manipulation. When millions of people project their unconscious shadows onto others, they conjure up the very danger everyone is trying to escape from. Wilhelm Reich made these dynamics explicit during the rise of Hitler (see his 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism) and they’re the premise of all totalitarian regimes to this day.

After 9/11, we were told that our enemy was the Muslim world; now the “enemy” is invisible and might await us at every door handle, or creep into us as we kiss, hug or even breathe. The more extravagant the neurotic cinema that’s playing in our minds, the easier it is for external powers to control and use us for their interests.

The great unveiling

Much more than just a difficult trial for humanity, the Covid-19 outbreak also holds the possibility for collective healing from the predatory mass infection of Wetiko. We can make sense of it as a global somatization – or symbolic simulation – of the underlying Wetiko disease. As with every outbreak of severe disease, the deeper patterns are now coming unstuck in plain sight at the global level.

We’re now witnessing a simultaneous unveiling, breakdown and intense exaggeration of Wetiko:

  • On an ecological level, Covid-19 originated as a direct result of our civilization’s insatiable greed for exponential growth. Probably wild animals transmitted the virus to people after the natural ecosystems which were home to them were destroyed by the ecocidal steamroller of civilizational “progress.” And now we’re equally astonished to see how quickly the air can clear in China, the speed at which wildlife returns to urban areas, and how suddenly old ecocidal endeavors collapse before our eyes (e.g. the S. fracking industry).
  • On an economic level, Covid-19 has been the straw that’s broken the camel’s back, setting off the chain reaction of a long overdue financial collapse. The lockdown has sent our globalized economy into a full-blown, rapid “evaporation,” with entire industries halting, millions of workers being laid off from one day to the next and stock markets crashing. The fossil fuel industry faces its “gravest challenge in its 100-year history,” from which it may never recover. The Federal Reserves are currently lending big banks an additional $1 trillion a day, which is to say, we’re now barely keeping the economic system on life support.
  • On the social and psychological levels, we see both a collective frenzy of extreme Wetiko behaviors and also many people breaking free. On one hand, social atomization, the desire for control and egoistic panic are reaching surreal pinnacles. We are seeing a massive surge in domestic abuse and the rapid conversion of liberal societies into police states; even leftists are praising the strengthening of top-down government and restrictions on civil liberties. On the other hand, thousands of local grassroots initiatives practicing mutual aid have popped up from one day to the next. Millions are entering a rare moment of reflection and of asking “what’s essential?” While locked down in quarantine, we’re confronted with ourselves, our longings and our lives. And many recognize how deeply we’ve been “socially distanced” all along – divided up by the competitive ideals of a precarious labor market and our own inability to engage in authentic interpersonal connection.

A parting of ways

What will happen next is uncertain, but we can predict that the chain reaction of economic devastation may be inevitable. The global emergency may have come to stay. In other words, we may not go back to normal anytime soon, or perhaps ever again.

What will happen in the next few weeks and months will likely shape the world for many years to come. Rather than resisting the forces of entropy and indulging in faint hopes of a return to normality, the future will be on the side of those who are able to embrace chaos and disruption as an opportunity to propose a different vision for global society.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, says: “If there is one thing history teaches us, it’s that moments of shock are profoundly volatile. We either lose a whole lot of ground, get fleeced by elites, and pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier. This is no time to lose our nerve.”

Burdened by astronomical debt and commanded by the imperative for exponential growth, the globalized capitalist system has come to an irreversible breaking point. The powers that be will either have to make way for system change or will stubbornly continue to prop up the old order with ever-more brutal force. While there may be many possible futures in front of us, I want to highlight the stark contrast of the historic choice we’re facing, in two contrasting future scenarios:

 

  • Scenario #1: Surveillance capitalism
    After many months of lockdown, people have accepted the new era of quarantined existence. Governments have dismantled civil liberties, human rights and environmental protections and, under the pretext of health and safety, deployed unprecedented levels of surveillance technology. Mobile apps are used not only to track people’s physical movements but also their biochemical reactions. As Gideon Lichfield writes, “intrusive surveillance [is] considered a small price to pay for the basic freedom to be with other people.” In the background of a daily onslaught of fear-invoking messages, governments further redistribute wealth from the bottom 99% to the elites. Banks, fossil fuel and airline industries are bailed out with taxpayer’s money, while social security and public health systems are further dismantled. Austerity measures and the abolition of cash further marginalize working people, the poor and the homeless. General apathy and numbness have reached a dimension where the daily shooting of migrants at the borders and other atrocities no longer provoke any moral outcry. Locked into their flats, afraid of infection, monitored by digital body sensors, the powers that be have almost entirely crippled people’s ability to organize themselves and resist. Should protests or strikes still occur, the mass media can report on new dangerous infections spreading so that governments can swiftly impose new curfews to “keep our communities safe.” At some point, with climate breakdown, water crises and food shortages worsening, the system is no longer able to disguise its collapse. Chaos and violence can no longer be contained. The rich retreat to their gated compounds in remote areas, while masses of people find themselves trapped in disintegrating urban centers.

 

  • Scenario #2: Ecological and social emancipation
    In the months of uncertainty and economic disintegration, millions of people begin to organize themselves at the local grassroots levels to cover their basic needs. In this time of hardship, they rediscover the power of community, solidarity and localism. As people help each other through sickness and challenge, a spirit of empathy and interdependence spreads. After many months of unemployment, public chaos and food shortages, hopes for strong government and a return to normality have finally faded. Many realize that either we live out collapse alone or we get through this together. The emergency initiatives of neighborhood aid now turn into more long-term initiatives of social, economic and ecological re-organization. People start collective gardens and food cooperatives to supply themselves with local organic crops and open solar energy task forces to decentralize and democratize their energy supply. More and more people leave the cities to found communities in the countryside, where they engage in restoring ecosystems and radical social experimentation for a more trust-based and loving way of living. People work together with progressive governments on large-scale ecological rehabilitation in response to the climate crisis, while governments support citizens’ agency through introducing Universal Basic Income. In the background of this astonishing social and ecological movement, a profound cultural and spiritual transformation takes place – a shift of consciousness from the Wetiko drive for domination to cooperation with all living beings, from atomizing mass societies to communities of trust, from the patriarchal condemnation of Eros and the feminine to a culture that celebrates sensual love in its freedom and dignity, from subduing the Earth to honoring her inherent sacredness, from fearing death to acknowledging our eternal existence.

System change: the time is now

The dangers of totalitarianism are dire and real and are becoming concretized in many countries already. But we mustn’t forget that those measures are the last resort in prolonging the death of a system that’s already on its way out. At this point, globalized capitalism is only being kept alive by our fearful projections and our inability to imagine something new, which is to say, if people can leave fear behind and unify around a shared vision of the future they want, nothing can stop the inevitable transition.

I see the keys to system change lying in three essential realms of our lives:

– The spiritual sphere

Having exaggerated Wetiko to unthinkably surreal heights, Covid-19 strangely invites us into a dimensional shift of being. As Paul Levy, the author of Dispelling Wetiko, maintains, the anti-virus hidden with the Wetiko disease is the awakening to its dream-like nature – a realization which has the potential to radically change our world.

If we continue to react to the embodiments of Wetiko outside of us (e.g. viruses, external enemies or the dangers of totalitarianism…) as if they were separate from us, we will continue to act in ways that feed the very dynamic we’re afraid of. But if we begin to see Wetiko playing out within ourselves, it loses its grip on us. Compassion opens our eyes to understanding that which we previously could only fear, judge or hate. Trust reconciles us with the world and our fellow beings. Compassion and trust are the ultimate anti-viruses of Wetiko.

We may suddenly wake up and realize how all systems of domination have never been “real” as such, their “reality” has always only existed through our consent. Money, authority, society, pandemics – we can now see the dreamlike nature of what we believed to be rock-solid and unchangeable.

To awaken from the fearful web of Wetiko is to simultaneously awaken to the interdependent web of Life. This is such a profound shift from where we come from in the Western world that it’s hard to even find words for it. The fear-stricken mind always asks for immediate conclusions, solutions, fixes. But maybe there is no such “fix” right now. Maybe, what this moment calls for is for us to let go of all our notions of self-importance, superiority and domination and to surrender to a greater-than-human intelligence and guidance, to inquire for orientation from the Earth and the Indigenous wisdom of cultures centered around the Earth. In this experience of communion lies a truth that is unambiguous, absolute and deeply healing: all life is sacred. This isn’t only a private experience, but an insight into the inherent matrix of Life. In alignment with this matrix we stand outside the vicious cycles of fear, infection and violence.

– The social sphere

As Wetiko plays out relationally, its dissolution is a collective endeavor; a historic project of developing ways of living together in which we can heal our broken relationship to the Earth and each other, and develop deep trust among ourselves.

To build trust, we need conditions which no longer force us to lie, disguise or protect ourselves. We need ways of living, loving, working and relating in which we can truly recognize each other and dare to show what we actually think and feel, love and desire. “Trust” is a word often used, but what does it mean in the delicate realms of our souls, such as love, sexuality and spirituality, where our vulnerabilities tend to be the greatest? This entails nothing short of a social revolution. Dieter Duhm, a mentor and teacher of mine, and author of The Sacred Matrix, writes, “Trust is not only classified as psychological; it is above all a political term – the most revolutionary of all – for we need to renew the entire societal structure to bring about sustainable, systemic trust.”

This revolution may not occur in mass movements immediately, but it can begin in small groups – wells of coherence – and extend across society from there, by virtue of raising a new field of consciousness. Based on 40 years of radical experimentation, the “Healing Biotopes Plan” offers a respective vision for such comprehensive transformation.

– The political and economic sphere

Freedom in the long-term requires our capacity to resist any restriction to civil and human rights in the short-term. In this time of social distancing, let us stand in solidarity together, especially with all those who are marginalized, rejecting any narrative of “us versus them.”

As the globalized system crumbles, localization will be the key to the future. Now is the moment to decentralize supply systems for water, food and energy, to invest in regenerative agriculture and practices of ecosystem restoration, to create seed banks and exchange, and to establish networks and economic mechanisms of mutual aid, resource sharing and reciprocal gifting. Localization not only offers food sovereignty but also a path to political autonomy – as we take charge of our own basic needs, we can come together to make collaborative decisions from the bottom up. From various ecosystem restoration practices to the permaculture, seed saving and ecovillage movements, all the way to large-scale social movements like Extinction Rebellion and experiments of radical grassroots democracy like Rojava and the Zapatistas, the world offers a thousand examples showing that this path is viable.

Because the spiritual, social, and economic-political spheres are so inseparably intertwined, successful system change will rely on profound structural transformations in these three realms in parallel. It doesn’t mean we must all do everything at once, it means we must support each other. May we each listen deeply for what we’re now called to do and be, while remaining aware of each other. As much as narratives of isolation and social distancing threaten to keep us afraid and separate, our ability to go through this crisis relies on our ability to organize and build alliances, remembering that we are community.

Whatever we may do, may we remember that this is a moment of unique historic possibility. As Julian Assange told Yanis Varoufakis from his prison cell by phone, “Anything goes… Everything is now possible.” And if there’s one thing that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that dramatic shifts of collective behavior can actually occur overnight.

About Martin Winiecki

Martin Winiecki is a co-worker at the Tamera Peace Research & Education Center in Portugal, networker, writer, and activist. Born in Dresden, Germany in 1990, he’s been politically engaged since his early youth.

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Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?

Article Society Transformed

Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?


Originally published in Patterns of Meaning

 

Coronavirus is a political crucible, melting down and reshaping current norms. Will the new era be a “Fortress Earth” or a harbinger of a transformed society based on a new set of values?

Think Bigger

Whatever you might be thinking about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, you’re probably not thinking big enough.

Our lives have already been reshaped so dramatically in the past few weeks that it’s difficult to see beyond the next news cycle. We’re bracing for the recession we all know is here, wondering how long the lockdown will last, and praying that our loved ones will all make it through alive.

But, in the same way that Covid-19 is spreading at an exponential rate, we also need to think exponentially about its long-term impact on our culture and society. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the impact of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.

If Covid-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together; economies disrupted temporarily; people would make do for a while with changed circumstances—and then, after the shock, look forward to getting back to normal. That’s not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, this coronavirus is revealing the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades as they’ve been steadily worsening. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.”

The first signs of this structural destabilization are just beginning to show. Our globalized economy relies on just-in-time inventory for hyper-efficient production. As supply chains are disrupted through factory closures and border closings, shortages in household items, medications, and food will begin surfacing, leading to rounds of panic buying that will only exacerbate the situation. The world economy is entering a downturn so steep it could exceed the severity of the Great Depression. The international political system—already on the ropes with Trump’s “America First” xenophobia and the Brexit fiasco—is likely to unravel further, as the global influence of the United States tanks while Chinese power strengthens. Meanwhile, the Global South, where Covid-19 is just beginning to make itself felt, may face disruption on a scale far greater than the more affluent Global North.

The Overton Window

During normal times, out of all the possible ways to organize society, there is only a limited range of ideas considered acceptable for mainstream political discussion—known as the Overton window. Covid-19 has blown the Overton window wide open. In just a few weeks, we’ve seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. But remember—this is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months.

A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist, and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably. What might the new shape of society look like? What will be center stage in the Overton window by the time it begins narrowing again?

The Example of World War II

We’re entering uncharted territory, but to get a feeling for the scale of transformation we need to consider, it helps to look back to the last time the world underwent an equivalent spasm of change: the Second World War.

The pre-war world was dominated by European colonial powers struggling to maintain their empires. Liberal democracy was on the wane, while fascism and communism were ascendant, battling each other for supremacy. The demise of the League of Nations seemed to have proven the impossibility of multinational global cooperation. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States maintained an isolationist policy, and in the early years of the war, many people believed it was just a matter of time before Hitler and the Axis powers invaded Britain and took complete control of Europe.

The Yalta Conference, 1945: Allied leaders reshaped the new global era

Within a few years, the world was barely recognizable. As the British Empire crumbled, geopolitics was dominated by the Cold War which divided the world into two political blocs under the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon. A social democratic Europe formed an economic union that no-one could previously have imagined possible. Meanwhile, the US and its allies established a system of globalized trade, with institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank setting terms for how the “developing world” could participate. The stage was set for the “Great Acceleration”: far and away the greatest and most rapid increase of human activity in history across a vast number of dimensions, including global population, trade, travel, production, and consumption.

If the changes we’re about to undergo are on a similar scale to these, how might a future historian summarize the “pre-coronavirus” world that is about to disappear?

The Neoliberal Era

There’s a good chance they will call this the Neoliberal Era. Until the 1970s, the post-war world was characterized in the West by an uneasy balance between government and private enterprise. However, following the “oil shock” and stagflation of that period—which at the time represented the world’s biggest post-war disruption—a new ideology of free-market neoliberalism took center stage in the Overton window (the phrase itself was named by a neoliberal proponent).

The value system of neoliberalism, which has since become entrenched in global mainstream discourse, holds that humans are individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and because of this, unrestrained free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labor.

The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where (based on the most recent statistics) the world’s twenty-six richest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. It has allowed the largest transnational corporations to establish a stranglehold over other forms of organization, with the result that, of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are corporations. The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.

But even if the climate crisis were somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.

In 2017 over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” They are echoed by the government-approved declaration of the UN-sponsored IPCC, that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disaster.

In the clamor for economic growth, however, these warnings have so far gone unheeded. Will the impact of coronavirus change anything?

Fortress Earth

There’s a serious risk that, rather than shifting course from our failing trajectory, the post-Covid-19 world will be one where the same forces currently driving our race to the precipice further entrench their power and floor the accelerator directly toward global catastrophe. China has relaxed its environmental laws to boost production as it tries to recover from its initial coronavirus outbreak, and the US (anachronistically named) Environmental Protection Agency took immediate advantage of the crisis to suspend enforcement of its laws, allowing companies to pollute as much as they want as long as they can show some relation to the pandemic.

On a greater scale, power-hungry leaders around the world are taking immediate advantage of the crisis to clamp down on individual liberties and move their countries swiftly toward authoritarianism. Hungary’s strongman leader, Viktor Orban, officially killed off democracy in his country on Monday, passing a bill that allows him to rule by decree, with five-year prison sentences for those he determines are spreading “false” information. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu shut down his country’s courts in time to avoid his own trial for corruption. In the United States, the Department of Justice has already filed a request to allow the suspension of courtroom proceedings in emergencies, and there are many who fear that Trump will take advantage of the turmoil to install martial law and try to compromise November’s election.

Even in those countries that avoid an authoritarian takeover, the increase in high-tech surveillance taking place around the world is rapidly undermining previously sacrosanct privacy rights. Israel has passed an emergency decree to follow the lead of China, Taiwan, and South Korea in using smartphone location readings to trace contacts of individuals who tested positive for coronavirus. European mobile operators are sharing user data (so far anonymized) with government agencies. As Yuval Harari has pointed out, in the post-Covid world, these short-term emergency measures may “become a fixture of life.”

If these, and other emerging trends, continue unchecked, we could head rapidly to a grim scenario of what might be called “Fortress Earth,” with entrenched power blocs eliminating many of the freedoms and rights that have formed the bedrock of the post-war world. We could be seeing all-powerful states overseeing economies dominated even more thoroughly by the few corporate giants (think Amazon, Facebook) that can monetize the crisis for further shareholder gain.

The chasm between the haves and have-nots may become even more egregious, especially if treatments for the virus become available but are priced out of reach for some people. Countries in the Global South, already facing the prospect of disaster from climate breakdown, may face collapse if coronavirus rampages through their populations while a global depression starves them of funds to maintain even minimal infrastructures. Borders may become militarized zones, shutting off the free flow of passage. Mistrust and fear, which has already shown its ugly face in panicked evictions of doctors in India and record gun-buying in the US, could become endemic.

Society Transformed

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Back in the early days of World War II, things looked even darker, but underlying dynamics emerged that fundamentally altered the trajectory of history. Frequently, it was the very bleakness of the disasters that catalyzed positive forces to emerge in reaction and predominate. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the day “which will live in infamy”—was the moment when the power balance of World War II shifted. The collective anguish in response to the global war’s devastation led to the founding of the United Nations. The grotesque atrocity of Hitler’s holocaust led to the international recognition of the crime of genocide, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Could it be that the crucible of coronavirus will lead to a meltdown of neoliberal norms that ultimately reshapes the dominant structures of our global civilization? Could a mass collective reaction to the excesses of authoritarian overreach lead to a renaissance of humanitarian values? We’re already seeing signs of this. While the Overton window is allowing surveillance and authoritarian practices to enter from one side, it’s also opening up to new political realities and possibilities on the other side. Let’s take a look at some of these.

A fairer society. The specter of massive layoffs and unemployment has already led to levels of state intervention to protect citizens and businesses that were previously unthinkable. Denmark plans to pay 75% of the salaries of employees in private companies hit by the effects of the epidemic, to keep them and their businesses solvent. The UK has announced a similar plan to cover 80% of salaries. California is leasing hotels to shelter homeless people who would otherwise remain on the streets, and has authorized local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners. New York state is releasing low-risk prisoners from its jails. Spain is nationalizing its private hospitals. The Green New Deal, which was already endorsed by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, is now being discussed as the mainstay of a program of economic recovery. The idea of universal basic income for every American, boldly raised by long-shot Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, has now become a talking point even for Republican politicians.

Ecological stabilization. Coronavirus has already been more effective in slowing down climate breakdown and ecological collapse than all the world’s policy initiatives combined. In February, Chinese CO2 emissions were down by over 25%. One scientist calculated that twenty times as many Chinese lives have been saved by reduced air pollution than lost directly to coronavirus. Over the next year, we’re likely to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions greater than even the most optimistic modelers’ forecasts, as a result of the decline in economic activity. As French philosopher Bruno Latour tweeted: “Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because ‘the economy cannot be slowed down’, they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough.”

Of course, nobody would propose that economic activity should be disrupted in this catastrophic way in response to the climate crisis. However, the emergency response initiated so rapidly by governments across the world has shown what is truly possible when people face what they recognize as a crisis. As a result of climate activism, 1,500 municipalities worldwide, representing over 10% of the global population, have officially declared a climate emergency. The Covid-19 response can now be held out as an icon of what is really possible when people’s lives are at stake. In the case of the climate, the stakes are even greater—the future survival of our civilization. We now know the world can respond as needed, once political will is engaged and societies enter emergency mode

The world needs to respond to the climate emergency with a similar urgency to the Covid-19 response. Source: David J. Hayes, NYU Energy & Environmental Impact Center

The rise of “glocalization.” One of the defining characteristics of the Neoliberal Era has been a corrosive globalization based on free market norms. Transnational corporations have dictated terms to countries in choosing where to locate their operations, leading nations to compete against each other to reduce worker protections in a “race to the bottom.” The use of cheap fossil fuels has caused wasteful misuse of resources as products are flown around the world to meet consumer demand stoked by manipulative advertising. This globalization of markets has been a major cause of the Neoliberal Era’s massive increase in consumption that threatens civilization’s future. Meanwhile, masses of people disaffected by rising inequity have been persuaded by right-wing populists to turn their frustration toward outgroups such as immigrants or ethnic minorities.

The effects of Covid-19 could lead to an inversion of these neoliberal norms. As supply lines break down, communities will look to local and regional producers for their daily needs. When a consumer appliance breaks, people will try to get it repaired rather than buy a new one. Workers, newly unemployed, may turn increasingly to local jobs in smaller companies that serve their community directly.

At the same time, people will increasingly get used to connecting with others through video meetings over the internet, where someone on the other side of the world feels as close as someone across town. This could be a defining characteristic of the new era. Even while production goes local, we may see a dramatic increase in the globalization of new ideas and ways of thinking—a phenomenon known as “glocalization.” Already, scientists are collaborating around the world in an unprecedented collective effort to find a vaccine; and a globally crowdsourced library is offering a “Coronavirus Tech Handbook” to collect and distribute the best ideas for responding to the pandemic.

Compassionate community. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, documents how, contrary to popular belief, disasters frequently bring out the best in people, as they reach out and help those in need around them. In the wake of Covid-19, the whole world is reeling from a disaster that affects us all. The compassionate response Solnit observed in disaster zones has now spread across the planet with a speed matching the virus itself. Mutual aid groups are forming in communities everywhere to help those in need. The website Karunavirus (Karuna is a Sanskrit word for compassion) documents a myriad of everyday acts of heroism, such as the thirty thousand Canadians who have started “caremongering,” and the mom-and-pop restaurants in Detroit forced to close and now cooking meals for the homeless.

In the face of disaster, many people are rediscovering that they are far stronger as a community than as isolated individuals. The phrase “social distancing” is helpfully being recast as “physical distancing” since Covid-19 is bringing people closer together in solidarity than ever before.

Revolution in Values

This rediscovery of the value of community has the potential to be the most important factor of all in shaping the trajectory of the next era. New ideas and political possibilities are critically important, but ultimately an era is defined by its underlying values, on which everything else is built.

The Neoliberal Era was constructed on a myth of the selfish individual as the foundational for values. As Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This belief in the selfish individual has not just been destructive of community—it’s plain wrong. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, a defining characteristic of humanity is our set of prosocial impulses—fairness, altruism, and compassion—that cause us to identify with something larger than our own individual needs. The compassionate responses that have arisen in the wake of the pandemic are heartwarming but not surprising—they are the expected, natural human response to others in need.

Once the crucible of coronavirus begins to cool, and a new sociopolitical order emerges, the larger emergency of climate breakdown and ecological collapse will still be looming over us. The Neoliberal Era has set civilization’s course directly toward a precipice. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices being made, but by a revolution in values. It must be an era where the core human values of fairness, mutual aid, and compassion are paramount—extending beyond the local neighborhood to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life. If we can change the basis of our global civilization from one that is wealth-affirming to one that is life-affirming, then we have a chance to create a flourishing future for humanity and the living Earth.

To this extent, the Covid-19 disaster represents an opportunity for the human race—one in which each one of us has a meaningful part to play. We are all inside the crucible right now, and the choices we make over the weeks and months to come will, collectively, determine the shape and defining characteristics of the next era. However big we’re thinking about the future effects of this pandemic, we can think bigger. As has been said in other settings, but never more to the point: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

About Jeremy Lent

Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Press: North America | Profile Books: UK & Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.

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Mystical Anarchism, a Spiritual Biography

Conversation Revolution

Mystical Anarchism, a Spiritual Biography


This is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place on September 21, 2019, between Michael Lerner, executive director of Commonweal and Alnoor Ladha, the co-founder and executive director of The Rules, a global collective of activists focused on addressing the root causes of inequality, poverty, and climate change that existed from 2012 to 2019 inclusive.

Michael Lerner | You suggested we call this conversation Mystical Anarchism. What does that mean to you?

Alnoor Ladha | Well, they’re two unlikely words in combination and the two words most people are triggered by. I think that’s a good place to start. Mysticism is really about the direct dialogue and direct relationship to the Divine. In some ways, I think it’s a more palatable word than spirituality which has been co-opted and abused. So, it’s a noninstitutional spirituality, a nondogmatic pathless path.

Anarchism is equally polarizing, but for different reasons. As you know, anarchism is not anarchy. Anarchism is actually a very sophisticated political philosophy that is about subsidiarity of power: bringing power to [the places] where decisions are actually made. It’s about localization of power to communities. It’s about self-organization. And it’s really about creativity and the human will to decide what is best for [us]. So, it’s not outside of law. It’s more attuned to etiquette than is the “law.”

Etiquette is pre-law. It’s pre-morality. It’s pre-literacy. It’s a way of being that is in right relation to other human beings, to Nature, to the spirits, to the more-than-human world that exists.

I like putting mysticism and anarchism together partly because the Left has lost its spiritual center. God died for the Left in the 18th century. Marxism, dialectical historicism, socialism are all reactions against institutional religion, and for good reason. As a result though, they’ve thrown out the baby out with the bath water.

The New Age movement, for example, lacks a political analysis and an understanding of power and the context we’re [living] in as a civilization. They largely believe enlightenment is an individual pursuit. And so I think merging the two ideals of spirituality and politics, mysticism and anarchism, is a good starting place for dialogue.

Michael | I believe that you come from a Sufi family. Is that true? And you were born in Vancouver, is that correct? Tell us a little about your family of origin—where were you born and what was your family like?

Alnoor | My family on both my mom’s side and dad’s side are from East Africa. My mum’s family is from Zanzibar and Tanzania. My dad’s family are from Uganda. They are a part of the same tribe—the Ismailis. The Assassin Order is also what they’re known as. They migrated from Arabia to Egypt. They were the Caliphs during the Fāṭimid period, and then they migrated to Persia after the fall of Cairo. While they were in exile in Persia for 500 plus years, some migrated to India, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. My dad’s family followed that migration pattern. My dad was exiled [from Uganda] in 1972 by Idi Amin. And my mum was a midwife in the UK at the time. They just randomly met in Vancouver; well I guess not so randomly. And of course being of the same community there were ways to meet. So we were all born [in Vancouver] and socialized by Canadians.

Michael | How many children?

Alnoor | Three…three brothers.

Michael | The Ismaili community is an extraordinary community.

Alnoor | In some ways they are. In some ways they’ve calcified their belief system. They went from being a very mystical Sufi sect to becoming a sort of commercial sect. That happened slowly though an alliance with the British empire [in the 1700s]. They’ve had a history of living in exile. I think that creates a deep insecurity. So when proximity to power happened in 18th century Persia, they essentially sold out their values. If you look at the Ismaili community today, most of them are pursuing commercial interests. You know, there’s a fair share in academia, etc. They’re very “successful,” in rationalist materialist terms.

The Aga Khan of the time is their Imam, their Pope. If you listen to what he says, he really pushes them to be successful in the countries they live in because they’re mostly immigrants. There is no Homeland. And so I understand the strategy, right? It’s a strategy of integration. He understands that his people live in a capitalist environment. And if you’re successful within that environment, you’re seen as worthy. But at the same time, there is no point of view on climate change, our current crisis, the context we’re in.

And the old immigrant ideal of pursuing wealth in order to have your overlords approval doesn’t make sense in this context. We have 10 years, maybe 20 years left of the Western way of living.

So I have a strong critique of them in that sense—both economically and spiritually. If you come from a mystical tradition, which the Ismailis do, the aim of your spiritual practice is to enter unity consciousness. When the path to get you to that unity consciousness calcifies and institutionalizes and creates a context in which you spend the majority of your time within your own community—your alms and your charity and your generosity is focused on that community—you are, therefore, creating separation. And the initial intent of unity consciousness is defeated by tribalism. And so, if our circle of empathy is not expanding through our spiritual practice, then what are we doing?

Michael | We’re going to follow two threads here and dance back and forth between them. Because I do, as I told you, want to do spiritual biography here. And so we launched in that and to your family of origin and the Ismaili tribe and its loss of its origin of seeking the Divine in unity and becoming more commercial in exile. But since you’ve raised it—your sense that we have 10 or 20 years left—what is your analysis of where we are in this world today?

Alnoor | There are multiple ways to answer this. And maybe the way I’ll go is through the historic lens. I think it’s important to preface I don’t believe there was some homeostasis of Eden, some perfect place that we left. But I do think that there was a time where we were living in deep symbiosis with Nature. We were living in small hunter-gatherer tribal communities. We know from cultural anthropology, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology that we were living in largely peaceful tribes with very little hierarchy, living quite leisurely lives. The average working time was 10 hours a week. From bone density samples, we know we were having roughly 2000 calories a day. There was no chief at the top that was the accumulator of all goods.

Marshall Sahlins calls this the “original affluent society.” The discovery, if you want to call it that, of farming and the neolithic revolution led to sedentary lifestyles, creating a situation in which we ended up “taming” Nature, if you will. We extracted and we were not “of place” in the same way. We didn’t go to the Mother for our nourishment and bounty anymore. We started to believe it was our own ingenuity that led to our being fed.

That disconnection—that original disconnection—that is the fall from Eden.

This is not to say we want to go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; we don’t want to go back to the paleolithic. But we want to learn how to be of the paleolithic in the sense that there were psychic powers we had. There was a remembering we had. I think a lot of the grief we hold right now is also a grief of being born into a culture where that no longer exists.

We’re now in this place where we know our industrial activity—i.e., globalized capitalism—is creating climate change and poverty, yet we are paralyzed to act.

One way to understand the climate catastrophe is through grief. We could stay in the grief or avoid the grief, or we could say grief is a necessary emotion in order for us to allow parts of ourselves to die. We can also be in gratitude for the parts of ourselves that are being born through the crisis. This is a nondualistic approach to collapse.

Michael | One of the things that struck me was that I thought it strategically powerful that when you founded The Rules you didn’t do what most people would do, which would be to select different NGOs around the world to work with. You decided to work with popular movements. I want to ask you to say a little bit about how you came to the decision.

Alnoor | When people ask me, “what’s the most important thing I can do,” I often say to people, especially in the spiritual community: to understand how neoliberalism works. We must understand how capitalism works because it is the very oxygen in which we are breathing. It has intermediated every aspect of our lives.

If we look at what the logical outcome of capitalism would be, we would all be wearing Nike shoes and having Apple computers and using Microsoft Office and listening to Beyonce or whatever the corporate music world wants us to listen to. And there’s a flywheel effect. It feeds itself. So, the more power certain corporations have, the more they can buy the political process, through money in politics. The more they can exploit labor and environmental laws to find the cheapest labor wherever they are in the world. The cycle just speeds itself up.

The antidote to monoculture is polyculture: many ways of being, many ways of knowing, many tongues. When we start to understand that, we start to see where there is a polycultural resistance. When you see the world in this critical way, the place to look is the popular resistances because that’s where the intelligence is. 

Michael | There’s a wonderful quote from the science fiction writer William Gibson: “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So we have these countries that are clearly in complete collapse now, whole regions, almost all continents in collapse. And then we have other countries that are, or regions, that are degrading very rapidly. And you know, they’re serious scientific debates right now about whether of the 9 billion people on earth, 1 billion will be alive in another 20 years. That’s being seriously debated, I mean, honestly, seriously debated.

There are many questions that this raises. For one thing, it raises the deep psychological and spiritual questions about not only how do we live with this, but what do we tell our children? How do we speak the truth about what is happening? And, at the same time, create an environment where one can live with some hope and some peace of mind about what we’re moving into without denying it away.

Alnoor | That’s a beautiful question. I feel partly what’s happening right now at a cultural level is that we’re being initiated into nondualistic thought. To be able to hold not just two, but multiple perspectives simultaneously. In the Vedic tradition, they call this period that we’re in the Kali Yuga, the dark ages. If you look at the scriptures that refer to the Kali Yuga, it’s described as a point of bifurcation—it is the point with the strongest amount of darkness and psychosis and shadow, but it’s also the period with most amount of light and the most amount of assistance from interdimensional beings and spirits and guides and ancestors and all of that.

It’s being able to live and to be in relationship to multiple truths simultaneously. What that is going to require is a very deep unlearning and deprogramming of everything we think we know and everything we’ve been socialized into being. That includes the things we hold onto hardest like our religiosity, our belief in what the family unit should be, our belief in what gives us safety, etc., because it’s actually these desires that are creating the system we live in. It’s our desire for the comfort of continuing to live the way we live. You know the old line by George Bush about the American way of life is not up for question. Well, if you’re negotiating with Mother Earth, I think it is, whether you like it or not.

Michael | So I heard you say something significant. Please correct me if I do not remember this. You said, this does not have to end in catastrophe. You said that the grief about climate and everything else is a necessary component, but we don’t want to be stuck there. And there are parts of us that are dying. There are parts of us that are being born and that if we hold it that way, that this period of the Kali Yuga, which we think of only as the darkest age, we miss the equal power of the light, that all kinds of miracles that are possible and happening and that all kinds of forces, many of which we don’t have any notion of, are there to come to our assistance. Yes? All right. So in your new community, what do you say to the children about what is happening? And in language a child can understand? Suppose that instead of us in the room, you had a group of 8- to 12-year-olds, and they were saying to you, “Alnoor, you have thought a lot about this. We see that over the past few days children have been marching all over the world for the climate crisis.” What would you say to the children?

Alnoor | I like to start with first principles. When you access reality at the highest level of unity consciousness, there is only this one divinity expressing itself in all these forms. But that doesn’t mean there’s not agency, self-choice. That’s nondual thought. It’s why we can’t spiritually bypass and say, well, there’s only oneness. Well, there’s only oneness and some people are more responsible than others for this crisis, and some people are benefiting more than others. And I think that’s actually important to tell children. To not treat them as children or not to treat them as students, but to bring them into the initiation of nondual thought very early on. That’s what the great mythologies always did.

There’s that old Ram Dass line where he says, “the universe is perfect, including my desire to change it.” These things are not happening outside of us. It’s the nature of oneness, playing out the cosmic drama in multiple forms. So does that answer your question in a sort of abstract way?

Michael | Yes, but it raises another question. You are suggesting to the children that they understand themselves as both the separate entities, but also as the oneness. And you have this yantra on your arm that is the yantra of Kalki, who comes on his white horse with a light sword and chops off the heads of all the capitalists. So my personal question to you is, because this is a spiritual biography, do you experience the force of Kalki or some other transpersonal entity within yourself?

Alnoor | I think there’s a time to pray to beings outside of yourself. It’s not just all embodiment. So, do I pray to Kalki? Yes. And I also pray to Kali because I also think it’s her time. I also pray to Allah, i.e., to cosmic consciousness itself, and to the spirits and to the elements and to interdimensional beings and extradimensional beings for assistance right now.

Do I want to play the role of Kalki? No. I believe in nonviolence. Would I observe Kalki chopping off the heads of those who benefitted from the Kali Yuga, including myself? Yes. Would I take satisfaction in that? Well, I don’t know what state of being I’d be in while I’m in observance of that.

Michael | How do you pray?

Alnoor | I’m a big believer in contextual truth. This is why the idea of a church or a mosque was always anathema to me. They were telling me how to pray and that makes no sense to a mystic because in the Sufi tradition, for example, we talk a lot about walking prayer. The point of prayer is to not create a sequestered part of your life while you are praying to something outside of you. It’s to be in awareness that you are Allah becoming self-aware. You are consciousness becoming self-aware. That is the process. One way to access that process can be dance or music or tantra, and another way could be to pray for other beings.

This is a very strong part of the Sufi tradition. How do you walk into a room and pray for every being and their ancestors and their healing and their lineages and their karmic redemption, and also the wind and the moon and the stars and the ancestral forces in all the seen and unseen and visible and invisible things? That’s the practice of Dhikr. That’s the practice of being in the mantra and being in the devotion. And for me, a big part of this practice is political work.

The animate, living universe is showing you a context in which we have 10 years left to live this way. And there are consequences to the way we’re living. It’s not just that this is going to happen in 10 years, like it’s out there as an external thing. Destruction is happening now. Two hundred species a day are going extinct right now. And what are we doing about that? The inner work is not enough. It’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, of course not. It’s just that the meditation is the prerequisite for the revolution.

And there’s also no way, no one way, to be a revolutionary in this time. How could there be? Some people will do it through the existing structure and some people will do it outside the existing structure. Some people will do it just through embodiment. You’ll just be in their presence and you will understand that their vibration is of such a signature that that itself shifts you.

There is no right way to do this work. But what I would say is that the evolutionary work happens through the inquiry of the consequences of our action. And the most “awake” people I know are so deeply sensitive to the consequences of their actions in every way, like the way they pray on their food. They understand that the entire globalized supply chain and fossil fuels and slave labor and carbon emissions from having food shipped around the world came on this plate and, nondualistically, they’re simultaneously deeply appreciative of it, to the point of reverence. You can call that spirituality, or you can call that awareness of consequence.

Michael | Alnoor Ladha, thank you for being with us for the New School.

Alnoor | Thank you, Michael. Thank you for having me here. Thank you for your work in the world.

 

This is an edited version of the transcript. You can listen to the full interview here:
https://soundcloud.com/tnscommonweal/20190921-alnoor-ladha-mystical-anarcism-a-spiritual-biography
And a video version can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiqzXSEKVlk

 

About Alnoor Ladha

Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking, storytelling, technology, and the decentralization of power. He is a founding member and the executive director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers, and others dedicated to changing the rules that create inequality, poverty, and climate change.

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About Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is president and co-founder of Commonweal, a 43-year-old nonprofit center in Bolinas, California, with programs in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice.  He is the co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, The New School at Commonweal, and the Resilience Project.  He taught at Yale and received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship for contributions to public health.

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Vision for a City of Hope Near Auschwitz

Article Peacebuilding

Vision for a City of Hope Near Auschwitz


From a quiet meadow in Cambodia to the twin fountains of Manhattan, humanity’s worst moments have left scars across our landscapes and our psyches. They appear in the shape of long concrete slabs in Kigali, Rwanda, or a crooked, skeletonized dome atop Hiroshima. Reminders of past tragedies, they remain in a constant state of slow and imperceptible healing throughout history.

The Holocaust is undoubtedly the largest and longest scar in modern Western history. You can trace it as one would trace a railroad track in a desolate field, leading, inevitably, through the brick archway of Auschwitz. Since liberation and the subsequent forming of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 1947, the public has willingly entered such archways. Now a UN World Heritage site, an annual 2 million people from all walks of life across the world come to mourn, find names, to see and feel and know what was once the world’s darkest secret.

Railroad leading into Auschwitz -Birkenau

I first visited Auschwitz in 2015. This came at a time when I was slowing down Children of the Earth, a UN NGO that I founded and directed for over 30 years that worked and reached into 90 countries. Never did I imagine that I would have anything to do with Auschwitz.

I was invited there by a small group of women who were doing a project in Berlin based on their work in peace and sustainability. Walking through the camp, I came to the large Book of Names: a list of every murdered prisoner. Browsing through the list, I discovered not only my maternal grandmother’s name but 20 other family members who also had been murdered. During my life, I have traveled to various war-torn countries. I’ve encountered all manner of suffering and misery, but seeing these names haunted me to the core. I knew then that part of my legacy would need to include future projects to honor those 20 names (and millions of others), and also make a difference for the world’s future generations. After meeting Domen Kocevar, a social activist with a background in theology and sociology, I realized that Auschwitz was the impact point for the final landing site that fused all of my previous work. It was then that Domen fostered the idea of One Humanity.

Nina Meyerhof and Domen Kocevar

Science and spirituality have come to the same conclusion: all people are intrinsically similar; the human genome project has proven that we are genetically 99.9 percent alike, with only one tenth of one percent that makes us different. When we realize that “I am you and you are me,” only then will right action and thought be supported by the universal laws of nature. When we can concentrate on what makes us the same instead of what makes us different, only then can we deal with the challenges ahead. The overarching goal for this vision is to lay the groundwork for global solidarity that gives rise to what it means to be One Humanity.

There needs to be a housing for all of these ideas, something concrete and anchored in the real world. A physical place that manifests the theoretical, where ideas become actions. The need is clear for a One Humanity Institute.

The One Humanity Institute (OHI) is a nonprofit charitable foundation co-founded in 2017 by me and Domen. It embraces peace that goes beyond the mere absence of conflict and war, to bring about a change of heart that embraces our common humanity. Peace in this sense is a dynamic concept that facilitates the full development of the human potential. Our intention is to create a transformative campus for mutual cultural understanding next to Auschwitz, named “City of Hope,” which provides a visionary, experiential, and tangible place to actualize this vision.

City of Hope will offer structured learning opportunities in a variety of forms for all ages, through both formal and non-formal education. Such opportunities will focus on the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals, conflict resolution, responsible stewardship of our planet, and the promotion of religious and spiritual pluralism. By promoting new methods of governance, innovative finance, and transformative education systems, OHI aspires to encourage a new narrative for humanity that not only honors the sacredness of every human, but proposes new approaches and new systems to nurture this into reality.

The size and scope of the project have expanded remarkably from its humble beginning: a park bench. Domen and I first wanted to address the need at Auschwitz for a quiet place of reflection after touring the camp—a space that could allow the impact of Auschwitz to become a lesson in itself for needing change. Then we considered the idea of a student exchange program with a local school as an avenue of furthering multicultural and interreligious understanding. These small projects only fed our desire to expand the concept of OHI, and as our aspirations grew, so did the roadblocks in our way. But as one door closed, another opened.

The project, as it stands today, was made possible by one fateful, fortuitous event—the day we learned about the 11 unused barracks adjacent to the Auschwitz Museum. These structures originally were occupied by the German army during the war. Now they sit dormant. Our plan is to purchase the land that houses these barracks, then transform the unique and symbolic space into a City of Hope. The area will contain an NGO hub, library, EnVisionarium, learning and research center, peace gardens, and hotel.

Architectural plan for the site

Barracks at Auschwitz Museum

Architectural plan for the site

The EnVisionarium is an interactive, innovative museum of the future, designed to integrate the understanding of sustainability with that of human connectedness. Visitors will be exposed to revolving exhibits, innovative experiences, and living, experiential structures for mind-shifting. Guests will access practical tools: innovative, state-of-the-art, and virtual models that provide breakthroughs for resolving both personal and global issues.

The OHI Learning and Research Center provides transformative learning programs and experiences in peace and sustainability for all ages that foster a structural shift in human interconnectedness. It will involve a global community of scholars and practitioners from diverse backgrounds to address urgent social, political, and ecological problems. With official ties to renowned universities around the world, the Center will host courses, global youth exchanges, workshops, training programs, think tank meetings, and more. The Center also will contain a digital Peace Library.

The OHI Hub focuses on a number of issues, including entrepreneurship, social innovations, and 21st-century technology, particularly for youth. By providing shared offices and working space for NGOs, the OHI Hub will provide an environment for unprecedented, unified, and collective impact. The Hub also will offer space to organizations that share common values as a means to cross-pollinate skills and expertise.

Upon the advice of numerous well-informed Polish citizens and leaders, we made an investigative trip to Israel to learn more about its perspective. While there, we met a second-generation Jewish survivor whose family had lived in their bakery in the old city center in Oswiecim. He has donated his family home to OHI in order to connect the past with the present, and to create a better future. This building, once renovated, will be our headquarters and a pilot prototype. Not only will the home serve as a bakery as it did 80 years ago, but it will provide co-working space for youth and other social innovators, local organizations similar to OHI, and volunteers. It will be known as Bakery2030 (Piekarnia2030), a reference to the year on which the UN Sustainable Development Goals are to be accomplished.

Bakery, current condition and architectural plans

Since 2015, Domen and I have had many visits to the town of Oswiecim, as well as meetings with the town governor, mayor of the city, and representatives of local NGOs and educational institutions. We also have engaged 40 experts to work with us—a diverse group of thought-leaders, change agents, and individuals from across the globe with vast experience and broad backgrounds. We currently are forming a global Youth Council of formidable young leaders.

Team of experts

By learning from the lessons of the past, we can create bridges to a future of One Humanity values. After five years of this work, I realize the enormity of the OHI vision and undertaking. The present world needs a recalibration to create a better future. It is now necessary for our survival as a species to go beyond personal greed and the false separation of identities fostered by religions, genders, cultures, and ethnic groups. Our lives are hanging on a shoestring, floundering. Many from the generations to follow already recognize these ills. They need us to be a bridge in order to understand that we must experience ourselves as one humanity. Only together can we resolve the global issues we face. We are walking into a state of emergency where “Never Again” seems distant in the past, yet more than ever we need this phrase as an essential reminder. OHI is more than a project; it is a call to make visible the possibilities of how we may live together in a positive manner that serves humanity as a whole.

The time has come for us to commit to stewarding a better future—one that works for everyone. A world of One Humanity. We have bold goals for OHI, indeed, but the feedback we are getting across the globe tells us that our idea is one whose time has come.

Re-member Humanity.

About Nina Meyerhof

As President and Founder of Children of the Earth, Nina Meyerhof has made a life of advocating for children and youth. As her vocation, she served as the special education coordinator for a ten-school district in southern Vermont. Dr. Meyerhof has extensive background in the needs of all children, with Master of Arts degrees in both Special Education and in Counseling, and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in Psychology.

She also holds a doctorate in Educational Policy, Research, and Administration from the University of Massachusetts, where she developed a self-esteem model to be used in schools.

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Breakfast Table Revelation

Essay Mindfulness

Breakfast Table Revelation


In the year following my mom’s death there were times I was flooded by panic and the image of a child inside me screaming, “I’m an orphan! How will I survive?” My dad had died when I was eight so I was an orphan but I was thirty-three years-old and my brain thought it was absurd. Trying to rationalize my way through the attacks, however, could not soothe me when my chest filled with fire and my heart threatened to beat its way through my sternum. When these attacks came all I could do was to lay low and wait it out.

This changed one day while I stood in line for breakfast at Plum Village, the monastery founded by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The sun’s first rays poked through the dining hall, tinting the sky cream, peach, and periwinkle.

Photo courtesy Plum Village in France

I let the beauty of the morning fill me and then made my way to the serving table. Picking up a clear, glass bowl I bowed my head and silently recited, “In this bowl I see how fortunate I am to have food to eat in order to practice.”  At the time I was an Aspirant, preparing to ordain as a Buddhist nun. Part of my training involved gatha practicepausing to silently recite short verses, usually accompanied by a bow, while doing simple activities like cutting vegetables, washing dishes, or driving a car and there were six gathas for mealtime alone.

When I arrived at the steaming pot of porridge I bowed my head again and silently recited the next gatha, “In this food, I see the entire universe supporting my existence.” Before I could reach for the long-handled, metal spoon a jolt ran through my body.

My mind flashed to see the entire universe, stars and planets, gases and black holes, all inside of me.  The atoms in my food, the air that I breathed, and the ground beneath me were part of me, and my parents too were part of me too. They hadn’t gone anywhere.

The vision lasted only a few seconds but it left me dizzy and I held the table to steady myself.  Glancing around, the dining hall still looked the same but it felt new. I felt new. The shine of the serving spoon amazed me as I scooped my oatmeal. I added raisins, sunflower seeds, and sliced apples that dazzled like gemstones. “What just happened?” I wondered.

I made my way to a table and sat down, pausing to recite the next gatha, “This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, many living beings, and much hard and loving work…” The words never felt so real before. I chewed each mouthful slowly to receive the gift fully. The experience only lasted a few minutes but afterwards my grief diminished dramatically and the screaming orphan never returned.

***

A few months after the breakfast revelation, I was ordained and the gathas followed me into my new life. The bowing became my mirror, reflecting whatever heart quality I offered to the world right back to me.  If I tried to avoid feeling sad or angry, then the bowing made me more saddened or angered. If I felt prideful, then the bowing made me feel even more arrogant. It showed me the parts of myself I preferred to ignore yet even fake bowing was a gift because there was no way to free my heart when I didn’t know that it was trapped.

I only experienced that one, blinding flash of the cosmos but over the years the gatha pauses naturally filled with awe, then gratitude, and then reverence. They didn’t require me to fake anything, just to be honest with myself. The practice became an ongoing recognition of the reciprocity animating life itself. Reverence relieved me of the burden of self-preoccupation and taught me instead to look for the good wherever it could be found, a necessary counterbalance to the brain’s ingrained negativity bias.

I needed the training because I didn’t learn it growing up. Raised in a white, mainline Protestant family in Canada, my only training in gratitude was saying grace before dinner. Any culture of reverence and reciprocity that my ancestors may have known was wiped by the colonial project of Canada where my French and Scottish ancestors gave up their languages and cultures to become “white,” and their payoff was a house in the suburbs on stolen land. The comfort of my middle-class childhood and the disconnect from my history made it easy to take all that I had for granted, often feeling deprived even when I had plenty.

Reverence was a revolution for me. There was always something to greet with appreciation, whether I joined my palms together or not. I could thank the ground I stood on and the air that I breathed. It didn’t matter if I believed these things were given by a creator, were the product of evolution, or both. Feeling the sense of reverence in my body was what mattered most, for in that state there was no space for greed, hatred, or confusion to arise. I lacked nothing and my heart was at ease.

***

I haven’t shared the story of the breakfast table revelation before. I imagine that some readers have had similar experiences, while others may find it sounds too “woo-woo” to be taken seriously. It’s even a little too “woo-woo” for me but I’ve learned that distrust for the woo-woo-ness of life is part of what blocks us from what matters most – awe, gratitude, and reverence. And I know, reverence isn’t a hip word.  It’s too religious, too meek for a selfie world. At least gratitude has some flash to it. You can buy a gratitude journal or go on a gratitude retreat.

Yet reverence goes further, reminding us that we’re humble as the dirt and noble as the stars, all at once. It just requires an acknowledgment that everything, in some way, is received, and that we are not in charge of anything here.

It’s no surprise that that reverence hasn’t gone mainstream. Most people search for security and happiness in material objects and social status because our nervous systems only wants us to survive and pass down our genes. Happiness is not the goal of our biology. Then there is the advertising industry, mass media, social pressure, and even good-intentioned career counsellors who have guided generations of people to look for happiness in all the wrong places. But once the basic needs for food, shelter, education, and health care are met, more income does not produce more happiness. This is why the saints and sages of all the ages agree that true happiness cannot be found in the material world. For that matter, true wealth isn’t even found there. Though today the word “wealth” refers to an abundance of possessions, money, or resources, it comes from the Middle English word wele, as in “well-being.”

Though most of us in modern, industrialized societies were trained to ignore our interdependence, or interbeing, this mindset is one of denial that too easily leaves people numbed by entitlement or exhausted by exploitation. A life of reverence, on the other hand, can energize us to act in the world with compassion. Knowing that we are part of the living earth we can respond to the distress of climate change and the oppression of our kin, just as one hand comforts another when it’s injured – naturally.

***

After six years I left the monastery to pursue monastic life in the world.  Some of the monastic form has dropped away but gatha practice remains my constant companion. Before editing this article one last time, I paused to have some tea. I took a distracted sip and by the time I swallowed it I noticed that something was off. Then I remembered – I hadn’t bowed. Taking the tea without offering gratitude left me feeling diminished so I paused, held the cup with both hands, and lowered my head to get in touch with an inner sense of reverence. My body relaxed as my mind brightened, taking a whole six seconds. When I finished my tea I returned to the computer with a little more energy and a lot more joy.

Breakfast table revelations are rare but little moments like these happen all the time now. Even the breath I take as I write this last sentence and the breath you take as you read this – they are gifts too, just waiting to be recognized. It doesn’t matter which object receives our attention. Reverence is what matters most.

About Hai-An (Sister Ocean)

Hai-An (Sister Ocean) is a Buddhist monastic based in Toronto, Ontario.  She received her ordination from Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village Monastery in France and is now a member of Dharma Pathways.  www.dharmapathways.org

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Soil Wealth and a Regenerative Green New Deal

Article Investment

Soil Wealth and a Regenerative Green New Deal


“Ultimately, we need to transform finance and shift the flow of investment capital to perpetuate a Regenerative Economy that serves humanity and is a steward of Earth’s ecosystems.” – John Fullerton and Hunter Lovins, “Creating a Regenerative Economy to Transform Global Finance into a Force for Good”

At the present time, trillions of dollars are invested in the industrial, “conventional” global food system, a system with annual sales to consumers of $7.55 trillion. This system is artificially propped up by hundreds of billions of dollars in annual government subsidies, sustaining energy-intensive, chemical-intensive, GMO-driven agriculture and food processing. The massive external costs and damages of the conventional food system—that is, degeneration of the environment, public health, and climate stability—are hidden from citizens, taxpayers, and investors alike (in other words, those who will eventually pay the bill for this collateral damage), with “true costs” never included in the bottom line. If true cost accounting were required, massive amounts of capital would move out of industrial food, farming, and land use into more productive sectors such as organics, holistic grazing, agroforestry, and agroecology. Unfortunately, very little money, relatively speaking, is currently invested in the organic, agroecological, and regenerative sector. According to one recent study, there is already approximately $321 billion invested in regenerative, “soil wealth” enterprises and projects—but that amounts to just a little over 1 percent of current global liquid assets.

Meanwhile, investors, pension managers, mutual funds, sovereign funds, and even so-called ‘green’ or socially responsible funds that have begun to shun fossil fuel investments continue to pour money into climate-degrading, chemical-intensive food, factory farm, and commodity corporations, GMOs, patented seeds, and most recently “Big Data.” In the agribusiness market “Big Data” includes high-tech tools of soil, climate, weather, crop, markets, and chemical inputs analysis, utilizing computers, satellite data, drone photography, sophisticated farm machinery and other techniques to supposedly increase yields and profits on modern farms.

AgriData Harvesting

How do those of us who are not fundamentally business-minded nor trained in soliciting investments become more adept and sophisticated in obtaining funding to scale up our regenerative economy? How do we prove to investors that there is a strategic, indeed existential imperative to consider investments that not only are socially responsible and good for the environment but also build the essential new regenerative economy?

Growing up in a decidedly working-class family, spending summers on my grandparents’ small family farm, and then waging campaigns for most of my adult life against corporations like Monsanto and other “bad guys in suits,” I must admit that it has been a stretch for me to finally accept the fact that businesspeople and investors will have to become important drivers of Regeneration. I’ve always felt somewhat uncomfortable around the East and West Coast MBA types who run the foundations that give out money, if you’re lucky, to public interest activist groups like the Organic Consumers Association. I feel out of place in corporate offices and settings. I feel strange in a suit and tie. I feel more comfortable in the Minnesota North Woods, or at our high desert farm school in Mexico, than I do in the city. Our Minnesota office and agroecology farm is located in a town called Finland, population three hundred. Six miles away, I live with my wife and my son in a cabin, yurt, and straw-bale office in the middle of the woods; for our first ten years here, we had no running water. The closest village to our organic farm and conference center in Mexico is called Membrillo, and it’s too small to even be on the map.

But the time has come for old hippie back-to-the-landers like myself, and for everyone else who cares about the climate and the survival of civilization, to not only step up our campaigning but become more entrepreneurial in our thinking and activism as well. After spending decades struggling to make ends meet while working in, and later directing, financially strapped not-for-profit organizations, cooperatives, activist campaigns, and a number of organic small farms and businesses, until recently I’d never sat down with a real investor, as opposed to a philanthropist (someone from whom I was asking for a tax-deductible donation), and talked about why they should invest money in a regenerative enterprise.

Despite writing hundreds of grant applications and raising millions of dollars every year—usually the hard way, via $25 to $50 donations from members and supporters—until recently it never occurred to me to solicit investors for a business venture separate from the nonprofit sector that could advance the regenerative economy. It never occurred to me to approach the handful of large donors who have always supported organics to become investors in a common endeavor that could advance our common concerns and still generate a fair return to them as investors. But recently I’ve started moving in this more entrepreneurial direction, as have a growing number of others in our global Regeneration movement.

If we want to change the world and reverse climate change, many of us have no choice but to expand our activist horizons and take on the role of entrepreneurs, food and land use systems designers, business planners, project incubators, marketers, and fundraisers. If we don’t presently have these skills—and of course most of us don’t—we need to reach out to friends and supporters who do have these business and financial management skills and get them to help us. Without millions, indeed billions, of dollars invested in scaling up regenerative food and farming enterprises, production and marketing co-ops, and businesses, we will fail. We frankly don’t have time to convert the world to regenerative thinking and practices over the next hundred years, one consumer, one farmer, one retailer at a time. We have to speed up the process, as our Regeneration International banner at COP24 in Poland in 2018 proclaimed: “Speed Up the Cooldown!”

***

So far, in just a few years, the fossil fuel divestment movement has managed to move over $6 trillion in assets out of the coal, petroleum, and nuclear sector, with a significant amount ($300 billion annually) being reinvested into solar, wind, and energy conservation efforts. As this movement continues to gather momentum (and as renewable energy continues to become cheaper and more profitable than dirty coal, oil, and fracking), more and more institutional investors will undoubtedly continue to move their money, eventually forcing even the fossil fuel multinationals themselves to remove stranded assets from their balance sheets and move to renewable forms of energy, or else go bankrupt.

What organizations like 350.org and student, church, and other grassroots climate activists in the divestment movement have done in the energy sector, discrediting degenerative fossil fuel energy corporations and practices and calling for financial divestments, we now need to do in the food, farming, and land use sector. Our strongest arguments are that global industrial food, farming, and land use practices (chemical- and energy-intensive farm inputs and production, processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation, deforestation, and waste) are generating a full 43 to 57 percent of all current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—an amount roughly equal to all the emissions in the nonfood transportation, utilities, building, and manufacturing sectors. These GHG emissions are fueling global warming and ever more severe climate change. In addition, conventional degenerative food, farming, and land use, exemplified by the practices of the Fortune 500 corporations (Bayer/Monsanto, Walmart, McDonald’s, Cargill) that dominate or finance this sector, are destroying our environment, our health, biodiversity, and the livelihoods of the world’s three billion farmers, herders, forest dwellers, fishing communities, and rural villagers.

***

Farmers, ranchers, herders, forest dwellers, and urban agriculturists in every region of the world have already developed organic and agroecological practices (whether certified or not) that are regenerating soils and landscapes. The challenge is to get the funds, trainers, and technical assistance to scale up these best practices, and to do so as quickly as possible.

Maintaining business as usual in terms of investment or foreign aid and development is a recipe for disaster, given the seriousness of our crisis. We need a new wave of regenerative investment to complement public funds, market demand, farmer innovation, and progressive policy change, and we need it now.

The above excerpt is adapted from Ronnie Cummins’ new book Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food, and A Green New Deal (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

About Ronnie Cummins

Ronnie Cummins is the founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a non-profit, US- based network of more than two million consumers dedicated to safeguarding organic standards and promoting a healthy, just, and regenerative system of food, farming, and commerce. Cummins also serves on the steering committee of Regeneration International and OCA’s Mexican affiliate, Vía Orgánica

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How We Win | Divestment and Nonviolent Direct Action

Article activism

How We Win | Divestment and Nonviolent Direct Action


In 2009 a group of Quakers concerned about climate and economic justice gathered in a Philadelphia living room. The group was looking to start a campaign that would be significant for people and the planet – yet, at the same time, would be winnable.

We had heard about the practice of blowing up Appalachian mountains for coal – 500 mountains had already been leveled. The coal companies found they could save on labor by using dynamite and heavy machinery to extract the coal by taking down the mountain, layer by layer.

The resistance movement of Appalachian people had few allies outside the region. Mountaintop removal coal mining was the latest of a string of abuses of the Appalachian people by the coal companies. It reduces the number of jobs available in the coalfields, while increasing rates of cancer and birth defects. Maybe, we reasoned, we could help tip the scales with our campaign and assist the long-suffering Appalachian people.

We knew that banks need to loan money to coal companies so they can blow up the mountains, and we discovered the number one perpetrator of this practice. But we knew nothing about organizing a campaign that targeted a bank. In fact, most of our group had never before joined a nonviolent direct action campaign.

Nevertheless, since others had done campaigns, we figured we could learn from them and add our own creativity.

One reason to target a bank was the interface between the climate crisis and the economy. We observed that the economic class that sets the direction for the U.S. refuses to accept responsibility for climate consequences. The 2008 Wall Street disaster only underlined this reality and the culpability of banks in the broader disaster. By pressuring a bank to take responsibility for the consequences of its practices, we would be pushing a higher standard of behavior.

On the other hand, we were just a living room full of people and the primary source of financing for mountaintop removal was PNC Bank – the seventh largest in the U.S.!  Could we make a difference? We needed to research and identify the bank’s vulnerabilities.

The bank spent time on college campuses in the first weeks of the fall reaching out for new customers among the students who were away from home for the first time. We simply showed up on those campuses, stood next to the bank’s sales booth, and pointed out to the students what their deposits would be used for.

In the bank branches, the tellers and even the branch managers had no idea what the bank was doing with depositors’ money. Of course we went into the banks and told the customers, but we also told the tellers and managers. Soon the memo came from corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh: DO NOT READ ANYTHING BY EARTH QUAKER ACTION TEAM!  We quickly learned that our presence in bank branches did indeed quake their earth.

We escalated by sitting in a circle on the floor to sing and pray and testify about what we’d seen in Appalachia. This disrupted the bank operations so they called the police. An increasing number of us were arrested, crossing a threshold that most our members had never imagined crossing.  It strengthened our courage and more people joined our group, which we nicknamed EQAT.

Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). The author is second from right. Courtesy WHYY

Over time we were able to disrupt two bank branches in adjoining towns on the same day, then two states, and then three or more. The bank began to surveil us to learn where we would turn up next, a practice we proudly bragged about: “This huge bank stoops to spy on us: we must be more powerful than we thought!”

The bank surveilled us to be able to close its banks when we were due to arrive, locking their doors against their own customers! We declared victory each time, realizing our new members of our still-small but growing campaign had more power than they knew!

I found myself, at 76, walking 200 miles across Pennsylvania to PNC’s headquarters city, Pittsburgh. Our group stopped at local branches along the way, doing our actions and asking: “Would the senior officers of PNC walk 200 miles to demonstrate their deeply-felt conviction that destroying the climate and injuring people was an OK way to make a living?”

None of the officers stepped forward to “put their skin in the game.” We weren’t surprised: we’d been meeting with bank officers all along, and none of them was able to justify the bank’s practice.

We continued to research the bank and learned that members of their board of directors were often honored by a hometown chamber of commerce or other group. We began to show up on those occasions, paying to attend the banquet or reception, and then speaking out loudly during the ceremony to tell those attending what they didn’t know: the honoree was receiving payments for their role in a bank that blew up mountains and gave people cancer!

On our website we kept a running count of the amount of money that bank depositors told us they transferred from PNC to credit unions and community banks. The total reached five million dollars by the time we won.

After two years attending national shareholder meetings and waiting patiently for the Question and Answer part of the agenda, we escalated by disrupting the meetings and shutting them down. Our action inside the meetings was simple: telling the truth about the bank’s actions, loudly — a truth the bank did not want its shareholders to feel in a way that would reach their consciences.

After EQAT’s campaign of five years and 125 actions, the mighty bank finally announced to the world that it was giving up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Within a week, Barclay’s Bank in the UK – the banking giant of the British Commonwealth – announced that it, too, was abandoning the practice. The beautiful Appalachian mountains have been largely undisturbed since.

Our campaign grew from that West Philly living room to 13 states. The new activists had given themselves some important resources: an internal coach with prior experience, an external consultant who also had previous experience, and the willingness of Rainforest Action Network to be our “big sister.”

The good news is that a small group can take on a big goal if its members focus their energy, adopt nonviolent direct action as their means, develop a steep learning curve, attract new members, sustain and escalate their actions, and support each others’ spirits.

Excerpted from How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning by George Lakey, published by Melville House (Brooklyn and London), 2018.

 

See also:
Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT.org).
Columnist for WagingNonviolence.org
Global Nonviolent Action Database (http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu)

About George Lakey

George Lakey recently retired from Swarthmore College, where he was Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change. He has led over 1500 social change workshops on five continents. How We Win is his tenth book on change and how to achieve it.

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Advertising and Trading | The Markets' Problem Twins

Article Economy

Advertising and Trading | The Markets’ Problem Twins


[Editor’s note: While this article was written well before the current stock market decline, it provides context for the current debate over the  stimulus strategy to bail out the current systems. We should ask what exactly we are trying to ‘preserve’. Hazel wrote to me to say, “Investment needs to focus on the future, specifically people with real needs and the Green New Deal, not on bailing-out our cruise lines which do not pay US taxes, or the fossilized fossil-fuel industry.”]

Markets are ubiquitous in all human societies. Since earliest times, when they were conducted using shells, wampum, cattle, or in rituals and potlatches, markets evolved using metal coins, silver and gold, then paper, government-issued fiat, and now morphing into today’s cryptocurrencies. Today, two familiar offspring of markets—advertising and trading—have become overgrown, largely unnecessary, and often downright problemic. For example, advertising drives Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook whose profits come from ads; likewise with Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and other huge retailers and other companies in the digital economies of today. Advertising dominates our commercial media, often influencing the content of its programs. In the 20th century, it was deemed necessary to encourage advertising to grow the GDP-measured consumer economy, particularly in the USA, so advertising was made deductible from company balance sheets.

Today, while some 70 percent of the US economy is dependent on consumption of goods and services, ads are so ubiquitous that many pay for apps to block them out! They have invaded our homes and political processes with much “fake” content. Do we now have more advertising than needed, especially that promoting unsustainable products, forms of waste, and unhealthy consumption? The USA is the only country in the world that permits paid advertising of medical drugs widely promoted on television. Maybe we can reduce the tax-deduction for advertising, as proposed in UN Human Development Report, “Truth in Advertising Assurance Set-Aside” (1997, www.undp.org). This would help make ads more truthful, by awarding the small funds set aside to public interest groups with more truthful information, such as those which revealed the health dangers of tobacco.

Now let’s look at trading—the other overgrown problem child of markets, particularly evident on Wall Street and stock markets around the world as they have “financialized” economies in many countries, preying on “Main Streets” rather than providing them with needed investments for companies and startups. The most obvious problem child is high-frequency trading (HFT), as written about by Michael Lewis in Flash Boys (2014). These computerized trading systems operate on speed and seek to beat all other orders to the exchanges to get lower prices for their orders. This is called “front-running,” and is estimated to cost all other legitimate stock brokers and traders on Wall Street about $400 million annually. Most stock trades are now conducted by computers using algorithms with deeply-buried assumptions which we can only hope are accurate. Yet today, many of these algorithms are used to decide whether people get jobs, raises, pensions, or are sent to jail! The new evidence on algorithms’ mistakes made the new watchword “bias in-bias out,” beyond the older warning of “garbage in-garbage out.”

Trading as a proprietary activity for big firms on many stock markets has now become predominant, and is often little more than making money out of money. Traders feverishly buy and sell stocks of existing companies to each other, rather than looking for new enterprises and market opportunities to finance. A recent study of traders in London’s Canary Wharf exchange took cheek swabs from traders and found their testosterone levels elevated. In The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (2012), biochemist and former trader John Coates analyzed the behavior of such traders and found impaired risk assessment and judgement! Many are now looking at excessive day-trading as an aberrant behavior pattern similar to gambling. Similar accounts as to the addictive nature of trading are by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson, author of Dark Pools (2012), who described in vivid detail traders with buckets at their desks to avoid bathroom visits, and other kinds of obsessive, highly-risky behavior. All this trading is based on anthropocentric models, indexes, ETFs, and passive investing based on obsolete textbook concepts and risk-assessments which ignore the rising environmental and other global risks in the real world. Many pensions and 401(k)s rely on such trading, based on magical thinking, creating financial risks due to science-denial, as described in “Transitioning to Science-Based Investing” (2019–2020). Trading permits to pollute the air and water are now seen as a moral outrage when today’s deaths from air pollution are reported a 9 million annually. Yet emissions trading persists in many “cap and trade” schemes while emissions keep increasing. Instead of more rational taxes on polluters, these trading of licenses to pollute were launched in Kyoto, in 1997, by enterprising economists whose trade associations had urged them “to capture this (climate) issue for our profession,” as I reported in Building a Win-Win World (1996). In 2019, at the UN’s COP25 in Madrid, emissions trading was still an unresolved issue (see “From Rigged Carbon Markets to Green Growth” (2011)).

Markets evolved from early individual and community bartering in villages and town squares to currency-based trading, national stock exchanges, and today’s global satellite and internet-based 24/7 electronic trading and financialization. Few recognize that today’s global markets are based on taxpayer-supported public investments in R&D, the internet, fiber optic cables laid under oceans, satellites developed by NASA, as well as all radio, TV, Wi-Fi, and other communications using the publicly-owned airwaves. We drew attention to this rarely-acknowledged debt to taxpayers and how this requires higher standards of all financial markets in the public interest, in our 2010 Statement on “Transforming Finance,” signed by some 100 concerned financial professionals.

As markets expanded in 18th-century Britain and Europe, the societal patterns they influenced were mapped approvingly by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), as being guided by a benevolent “invisible hand,” along with his earlier caveats in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1757), in which he stressed the need for ethical interpersonal relations and  regulatory oversight by societies in the public interest. Karl Marx weighed in with Das Kapital (1867), a widely-influential, dour overview of markets’ oppression of workers and coalescing into national and international forms of domination he labelled “capitalism,” driven by increasing accumulation, hoarding, and enclosure of common global resources. Debates on the role of markets versus the state, individual roles of workers and citizens in democratizing societies continue to this day. Few mentioned advertising as a problem until 1957, when Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, following Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938). Few referred to trading as excessive until Michael Lewis exposed the depredations of HFT in skimming all investors by front-running, or as a new kind of addiction identified by John Coates and Scott Patterson.

In the 20th century, two world wars and a cold war were fought over how industrial societies and markets would evolve. In 1970, the Bank of Sweden lobbied the Nobel prize committee to set up its new prize in economics—attempting unsuccessfully to justify this discipline as a science. Ideological forces positioned themselves along an imaginary horizontal line from left to right (using terminologies including: communism, socialism, capitalism, fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, libertarianism, populism, and anarchism). This 20th-century visualization still dominates political discourse today, instead of seeing how actual societies have differentiated into a complex spectrum of views, roles, based on evolving technologies, markets, institutions, education, migration, and geographies (see Paradigm Shift in European Elections).

After the Great Depression of the 1930s, the general realization emerged that while markets brought much development and technological advance, they needed to be tamed and restrained by political and legal regulation. Opponents cited economics, advocating their views of the invisible hand guiding “free” markets—equating them with democracy versus governments as tyranny. These arguments, along with the new “Bank of Sweden Nobel Memorial” prize in economics invoked science in mathematizing equilibrium models from Newtonian physics of “efficiency” and “market completion” (Arrow-Debreu (1957)). President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was based on government credit and guarantees which created the Hoover Dam and water supplies—without which Arizona could not have developed and Los Angeles still would be a village. Today’s Green New Deal, like President Kennedy’s 1960s “moonshot,” also is based on government credit and justified in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) challenging earlier monetarism (Kelton, Colander, Wray, et. al.). The “mixed economies” of John Maynard Keynes emerged in the 1930s in many forms, as societies determined what roles markets would play, what tasks were to be paid by “breadwinners,” and which others were to be performed voluntarily (mostly by women in maintaining households, raising children, and serving their communities), as I described in The Politics of the Solar Age (1981, 1986) and Building a Win-Win World (1996). Some forms of government were called Christian socialism, others democratic socialism, market democracies, or socialism with Chinese characteristics (otherwise referred to as state capitalism). Green parties arrived in Europe in the 1980s, and are becoming major forces in Germany, Austria, and the European Parliament, advocating the Green New Deal proposals, similar to those favored by proponents in the USA.

 

All of these 19th- and 20th-century monikers, ideologies, and the hot and cold wars they engendered are now morphing into today’s “Information societies” of our next Solar Age—circular economies. Digital, information-based internet platforms continue colonizing sectors of older material production-based industrial societies. Sector after sector falls to digitization—its destruction of jobs, the insecurity of “gig” economies, self-employment, and wholesale unemployment for the less-skilled. First, manufacturing fell to automation in the auto and textile industries in the 1960s, leading to the creation of new visions of “post-industrial, leisure-based societies” described by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution on the need to maintain purchasing power by guaranteeing basic incomes and equality, “Purchasing Power-Why Basic Income Is A Human Right” (Forbes 2017). President Richard Nixon ordered an early experiment on “universal guaranteed incomes” and circulated the proceeding of his “White House Conference on the Industrial World Ahead” (1972). Today, Silicon Valley titans call for such universal basic incomes to maintain consumers’ purchasing power to buy their products and bolster aggregate demand, but funded by taxpayers, rather than through increasing taxes on social media profits.

Today, manufacturing sectors in the USA represent less than 20 percent of the economy, now mostly based on services. As manufacturing was offshored to cheaper labor countries, digitization conquered retailing, traditional publishing, and communications media, and spread to law, medicine, accounting, management, and to financial markets globally. Digital assets are traded electronically by algorithms on stock markets operating globally online, as well as on the internet by informal private liquidity networks. The fundamental fragility of over-reliance on digitalization and internet platform availability is exposed by the rise of cybercrime and info-warfare described by Andy Greenberg in Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers (2019). As Silicon Valley continues developing ever more internet-reliant business models based on sensors, software codes, AI, and the so-called Internet of Things, we see their naïve faith in electricity (still mostly produced by fossil fuels). The vaunted digital economy evaporates with power cuts, as fires in California make blackouts an existential risk for the next decade, as I described in “Silicon Valley Karma: Faith In Electricity” (2019).

All these changes have left economic textbooks, financial courses, and MBA curricula far behind, as described in “Business School Students Are Putting the Planet Before Profits,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek (Nov. 4, 2019). In this new century’s Information age, traditional stock markets are at last focusing on trading itself as excessive, too fast, as in HFT and computer driven algorithmic portfolios, index funds, ETFs, and robo-investments and advisors. Science-denial in trading and speculating still ignores real world risks to societies: inequality, pollution, and climate change. Commodity markets’ speculation, including for monocultured food grains, have led to poverty and exacerbated hunger and malnutrition in many countries. Many stock markets are now little more than passive investment platforms for trading between market players of secondary assets, rather than acknowledging the new global threats, widening inequality, and the needs for providing funds for real economies on the ground. Macroeconomic statistics exclude other scientific data on global conditions as they view the world from 60,000 feet, providing little understanding of the lives of people in “flyover country.” This GDP-driven global growth has exacerbated much regional and local inequality, which led to recent so-called “populist” revolts in many countries, as well as the adoption, in 2015, by all UN member countries of the more systemic steering metrics of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (see also “Steering Societies From GDP’s 7 Deadly Sins to the SDGs Golden Rule” (2019)).

Incumbent financial markets are losing credibility, as they continually lobby lawmakers to repeal safeguards enacted after the crisis of 2008. They are challenged from all directions by socially responsible, ethical, green investors’ “impact funds”; by divestment movements including 350.org and student movements to purge portfolios of stranded assets in fossilized investments. Financial technology (fintech) incursions take over their traditional lending and payments, by digitized fintech companies’ payments and remittance services, crowdfunding, p2p lending and blockchain-based cryptocurrencies challenging central banks. Central bankers fight back with more quantitative easing (Q.E.), negative interest rates (see “Ben Bernanke and Milton Friedman Were Right: Helicopter Money or Qualitative Easing?” (2016)), and by creating their own digital currencies (Huber 2019). Added to these pressures are the edicts from above, as finance ministers demand disclosure of climate risks (see TFCD) and steer societies beyond GDP metrics, targeting instead the UN’s SDGs by 2030.

American and European activists’ and politicians’ demands for “Green New Deal” policies target restructuring of finance and economies to focus “moonshot” policies to build out green infrastructure. These policies propose a new social foundation for a just transition for all workers, including support and retraining to fill the thousands of new jobs that will be needed (see Nick Robins et al., “A Just Transition,” Grantham Research Institute, LSE (Feb. 4, 2019)). The US Congress Green New Deal Resolution is widely-supported and endorsed by all Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election, and buttressed by scientists, engineers, green investors and companies, NGOs, and the theoreticians of MMT. In Britain, struggling with its Brexit debacle, seen as a symptom of disastrous “austerity” economics, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbin, along with many NGOs, including Positive Money and the New Economics Foundation, set forth detailed transition plans to “green” finance the Bank of England and restructure their economy more democratically (see “A Green Bank of England” (2018)). Similar efforts to “green” China’s Belt and Road financing of infrastructure are under way (see Ma Jun and S. Zadek, “Decarbonizing Belt and Road,” Tsinghua University Shanghai, China (Sept. 4, 2019)).

Many see reducing the role of incumbent markets in favor of government credit to support new greener markets, community cooperatives, credit unions, and home-grown local economies embedded in their environments and the society. Many also advocate recognition of all unpaid caring work, which in most countries is the uncounted up-to-50 percent of all productive work in their societies (Henderson, “The Love Economy” (1981)). Textbook economic theories are further challenged by digitization, and the shift to service economies, digital assets, patents, copyrights, brands, domains, and electronic barter. These intangible values, including unpaid care and volunteering, remain uncounted by most economists and accountants, who still focus on tangible goods you can drop on your foot. This shift to “weightless” economies and “capital-light” start-ups is described in Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, by J. Haskel and S. Westlake (2018). These massive transitions including blockchain-based cryptocurrencies and business models raise age-old questions: who owns the blockchains and who writes the computer codes? Who controls these new businesses? And who oversees and regulates all this to protect the public interest?

All this rethinking responds to imminent crises and the effects of climate change, now experienced first-hand in many countries. Excessive advertising, along with excessive trading, is at last, in the crosshairs: accused of selling people all over the world wasteful unsustainable forms of consumerism and social irresponsibility. Advertising drives the now-unsustainable profits in business models such as those of Google and Facebook (almost entirely based on advertising revenues), as well as Apple and Amazon, based on retailing of ever more goods and services, and the dominance with Microsoft, IBM, and others of digital markets and cloud computing. Advertising versus apps blocking ads form a new arms race between individuals and excessive numbers of ads. These distracting ads popping up on our screens also crowd out much commercial media airtime and attention needed for vital information for citizens in democracies, as well as influencing the content of programming, as I describe in “Mediocracies and their Attention Economies” (2017). Our EthicMark® Awards, founded in 2004, which recognize “socially responsible advertising and media communications that uplift the human spirit and society,” have helped raise the bar on the $600 billion annual global advertising industry. Winners draw attention to game-changing public service advertising from many countries around the world serving as new models. Unilever withdrew all its advertising from Google and Facebook in 2018, due to their “toxic content,” and other companies see their precious brands and reputations threatened on social media. Corporations are drawn into politics in P. Kotler’s and C. Sarkar’s book, Brand Activism (2019), and followed online by the “Brands Taking Stands” media platform.

The Silicon Valley giants’ business models relying on advertising are now challenged from many directions for their ever-deeper incursions into users’ privacy, manipulating personal behavior and addicting our children in the newly-diagnosed “Gaming Disorder” and digital attention deficit disorders. These “engagement algorithms,” designed by psychologists and Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, focus on emotional arousal, offering ever more sensational stories as clickbait to keep outraged or obsessional viewers glued to their screens. Psychographic targeting of specific audiences as likely buyers or voters use MRIs and deep psychological research, such as that of Cambridge Analytica on Facebook, were used by the Trump campaign in the US 2016 election, but were initiated by the Obama campaign and Google in the 2012 election. This kind of manipulation of voters, along with “fake news” and Russian bots, influenced Britain’s Brexit referendum and is now widely used in many democratic countries. These election strategies are detailed by Kathleen Hall Jamieson in “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect A President: What We Don’t, Can’t and Do Know” (2018).

The internet itself has become overtaken by commercial market forces and advertising, as well as government surveillance, as in China’s social credit system, and is weaponized by Russia and other countries as cyber warfare, as I have described in “The Future of Democracy Challenged in the Digital Age” (Oct. 2018). Former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff paints a chilling picture examining the way gathering big data from millions of humans in their daily lives is accepted as inevitable, a tragic misunderstanding of George Orwell, whose warnings in 1984 (1949) called for a continual fight against such capitulation to any political “Big Brother” technological servitude. Zuboff’s warnings about such big brother technological inevitability are clear in The Age of Surveillance Capital (2019). I experienced these kinds of Orwellian campaigns for passive acceptance of technological inevitability in my service as a science policy advisor to the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), as our reports upset powerful interests. The OTA was shut down in 1996 by incoming Republican congress members. The OTA may soon be revived by Democrats if they win in 2020. A deep battle is being fought over the internet at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva, between the USA, China, and Russia (see “Restoring Net Neutrality” (2017)), as pointed out by A. Klimberg in The Darkening Web (2017), and Malcolm Nance in The Plot To Hack America (2016). The original promise of the internet was of providing an open public forum and information source for all, advancing individual participation and global connectivity. In the USA, allocation of domains was initially overseen by a volunteer group, Internet Company for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Now ICANN, a nonprofit, dominates internet governance and is challenged for recently allowing the sale of the nonprofit .org domain to a private equity group, as reported by Jacob Malthouse in “The Nonprofit Community is about to lose $90+ Million Dollars a Year.

In 2019–2020, many Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms aim to break up social media monopolies like Google, Facebook, Alphabet, and Amazon on antitrust grounds. Others want to ban psychographic targeted advertising. US Senators Amy Klobuchar and Josh Hawley demand full-disclosure of all ad sponsorship. Twitter has banned all political advertising, while Facebook still retains the right to run political advertising without checking its veracity. Other politicians and media reformers call for repealing Section 230 of the FCC’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 shielding social media companies from the content verification and curating rules imposed on media companies. This allowed these social media companies to describe themselves as mere “technological platforms” with no responsibilities for the content on their platforms, even though they are evidently used as primary news sources by millions daily. Some call for restoring the Fairness Doctrine and “Equal Time” provisions in the original FCC rules. In the Communications Act of 1934, testimony by media CEO Sarnoff had assured lawmakers that the US public would never tolerate advertising on news broadcasts! These rules, however, were lobbied off the law books by the National Association of Broadcasters in the 1980s. Others call for the young technocratic leaders of Silicon Valley’s social media advertising giants to be required by law to read the US Constitution and the Federalist Papers. Facebook’s own staff in Britain have challenged Mark Zuckerberg’s policy of “allowing politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy,” as reported in New Scientist (Nov. 9, 2019). The earlier subscription revenue model of AOL is now successfully revived by The Guardian, which became a foundation and rejects all advertising. This subscription model is hard for new entrants since it needs existing audiences.

How will all these current debates evolve markets in new directions? Digital assets traded over the internet globally, along with many electronic barter platforms, are further displacing traditional currency-denominated asset valuation on stock markets. Unpaid productive work, long ignored in GDP, along with its missing asset account to record the value of taxpayer-funded infrastructure, R&D, and support for startup businesses are finally creeping into mainstream statistics. The UN Human Development Report’s Human Development Index (HDI) found in 1995 that $16 trillion of valuable unpaid work was simply missing from global GDP of $24 trillion. If this unpaid production in all societies ($11 trillion by the world’s women and $5 trillion by men) had been included, global GDP for 1995 would have increased to $40 trillion (www.undp.org). The unacknowledged taxpayer contributions in R&D and assistance to the private sector for most Silicon Valley giants is documented by economist Mariana Mazzucato in The Entrepreneurial State (2013). Brazil’s insistence that the IMF add to its GDP figures the taxpayer investments in its urban infrastructure, airports, sanitation, universities, and hospitals substantially lowered Brazil’s apparent debt-to-GDP ratio—with the stroke of a pen! These omitted statistics missing from GDP were examined in 2003, at the First International Conference on Implementing Indicators of Sustainability and Quality of Life (ICONS) in Curitiba, Brazil, with over 700 professional attendees from statistical offices around the world (“Statisticians of The World Unite!” IPS (2003)). Economists still are dominant policy advisors in too many governments, in spite of their abject failures to foster more equitable, sustainable economies, or to predict financial crises, including the 2008 meltdown (predicted by many, including this author, from other disciplines). Yet all their economic textbook theories have been invalidated by scientific research in thermodynamics, biology, ecology, psychology, anthropology, and systems models, as I summarized in “Mapping the Global Transition to  the Solar Age: From Economism to Earth Systems Science,” Foreword by NASA Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell, London (2014). Robert Skidelsky, author of the masterwork on Keynes, confirms this denouement of the economics profession’s pretensions to scientific status in Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics (2019). Many others have documented economists’ specious use of mathematics to camouflage their untenable, obsolete assumptions, as described by David Graeber in “Against Economics,” his review of Skidelsky’s new book in the New York Review of Books (Dec. 5, 2019).

The most comprehensive approach to enacting structural reforms to our current lawless digital monopolies are those of Rana Foroohar, business editor of the Financial Times, as detailed in Don’t Be Evil (2019). Foroohar emphasizes that our human data is the new “oil,” and how this changes economies and requires new approaches to governance. Similar new conditions and reforms also are cited by Naomi Klein, former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and many analysts at the American Sustainable Business Council conference on the future of capitalism, “Making Capitalism Work For All” (Dec. 10–11, 2019).

My view is that while capitalism may not survive in any of its current forms, markets will continue since they are deeply coded in the cultural DNA of all human societies. Today, we see new markets and new commons as we explore the evolving global playing field. Markets can be tamed, transformed as they always have been, guided by robust feedback from investors, NGOs, community norms, new regulations at all levels, and by consumers and citizens. Advertising can be regulated, false claims exposed and limited by withdrawing its no-longer-needed tax subsidies to fund countering exposure, as well as upgraded to educate on sustainability. The profession of psychology can promote higher standards in its code of ethics. Trading can be curbed whenever it becomes harmful to individuals and society and Principles of Sustainable World Trade can be adopted. This will all require systemic changes, reducing the role of money in politics, and reforming many features of democratic decision-making and governance. Humans create markets and are constantly reshaping them as technologies evolve and human awareness expands. For example, global gem mining is now unnecessary, yet still destructive to miners and the environment (Beyond Blood Stained Gems: New Science and Standards (2015)). The growing global market for identical lab-created gems is gradually taking market share (see www.ethicmarkgems.com). Humans will need to embrace all the planetary realities in tackling climate change and other global problems arising out of our limited cognition. We are acknowledging that money is not wealth, but merely a useful informational tracking system for our interactions with each other and natural resources. Currencies are social protocols, information, often as tokens, exchanged on internet platforms with network effects determining their prices, as measured by how many people use and trust them, as I describe in “Money is not Wealth: Cryptos v. Fiats” (2018). Cryptocurrencies can desist from visual fake images of shiny coins to promote sales, since cryptos are actually strings of digits in computer code. We also can agree that prices are always historical and a function of human ignorance. Like all our markets, prices change as we learn more about our real human condition and future possibilities on this small planet.

We are finding that breakdowns drive breakthroughs, and that stress is evolution’s tool, evolving all species through environmental conditions and natural selection as Charles Darwin described. Our next technological stage—the Solar Age—is rapidly taking over, along with the primacy of information. Hopefully, information can grow into greater wisdom and lead to more ethical choices, both individually and collectively, as we clarify new markets and how our global commons must be shared equitably among our species and with other species in maintaining our living global biosphere.

About Hazel Henderson

We are deeply honored to welcome an amazing woman to Kosmos Advisory
Board. Hazel Henderson’s achievements and influence span the globe.
Founder, Ethical Markets Media, Dr. Henderson is a world-renowned
futurist, evolutionary economist, a worldwide syndicated columnist, and
consultant on equitable ecologically sustainable development and
socially responsible business and investment.

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The Treasure of Our Living, Relational Commons

Article Commons

The Treasure of Our Living, Relational Commons


As I have learned about the social life of trees and the intimate bonds that indigenous peoples have with various lifeforms and rivers – and as I pore through recent ecophilosophy that explains aliveness to the western mind — I’ve concluded: We really ought to be talking more about animism and commoning.

Scientific rationalism and economistic thinking may be the dominant forces of our time, but they aren’t so good at creating social purpose and meaning. Which may help explain why evidence of a new animism keeps popping up as a way to re-enchant the world, often finding its voice through commoning. This should not be too surprising, suggests ecophilosopher Andreas Weber, because the biology of life points to an understanding of reality itself as a commons.

Commons are realms of life defined by organic wholeness and relationality. They stand in stark contrast to a modern world whose hallmark is separation — the separation of humans from “nature”; of individuals from each other; and a separation between our minds and our bodies.

To be sure, animism has a problematic history. Early anthropologists generally projected their own worldviews onto tribal peoples, denigrating them as backward. As staunch Cartesians and moderns, they saw body and mind as utterly separate. So anyone who ascribed a living presence to animals, mountains and natural forces could only be seen as “primitive” and “superstitious.”

But today’s animism (as seen through western eyes) is different. It sees the experience of life as a dynamic conversation among the creatures and natural systems of the Earth. It is about surrendering an anthrocentric vision and seeing the world as “full of persons, only some of whom are human,” in which “life is always lived in relationship with others,” as religious studies scholar Graham Harvey has put it. Animism is “concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons.” It resembles the “I-thou” relationship of respectful presence proposed by theologian Martin Buber.

For me, two recent readings have brought animism into sharper focus. The first is a piece in The Guardian by British nature writer Robert Macfarlane (November 2, 2019) that points to “new animism” on the rise. He starts by mentioning a number of “rights of nature” laws that have been enacted around the world. Ecuador and Bolivia are the most famous cases, but did you realize that the City of Toledo, Ohio – on the banks of Lake Erie – approved a referendum in 2019 that gives “legal personhood” to that troubled lake? Lake Erie now joins the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India and the Whanganui River in New Zealand in enjoying legal standing in their respective nation-states.

Macfarlane explains the significance of the Lake Erie Ecosystem Bill of Rights:

Embedded in the bill is a bold ontological claim – that Lake Erie is a living being, not a bundle of ecosystem services. The bill is, really, a work of what might be called “new animism” (the word comes from the Latin anima, meaning spirit, breath, life). By reassigning both liveliness and vulnerability to the lake, it displaces Erie from its instrumentalised roles as sump and source. As such, the bill forms part of a broader set of comparable recent legal moves in jurisdictions around the world – all seeking to recognise interdependence and animacy in the living world, and often advanced by indigenous groups – which have together come to be known as the “natural rights” or “rights of nature” movement.

Lake Erie

Macfarlane goes on to say that a “’radical re-storying’ is presently under way across culture, theory, politics and literature, as well as law” that can be seen in “the creative protests of Extinction Rebellion; in the “new animist” scholarship of Isabelle Stengers, David Abram and Eduardo Kohn” and the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer. I would add the ecophilosophy of Andreas Weber (“Biology of Wonder” “Matter and Desire”) and Stephan Harding (“Animate Earth”).

All these efforts, says Macfarlane, “seek to recognise something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors,” in the words of Amitav Ghosh.

I have also been quite taken by Eduardo Kohn’s 2013 book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Kohn boldly asks the modern mind to show humility in how it thinks about and represents “nature.” It asks that we try to see the more-than-human world as a vast living system of “biosemiotics” – embodied, living organisms that are constantly creating meaning as they interact with each other.

Kohn warns that we moderns are “colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality…. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them [nonhumans] to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves.”

So in our modern world of separation, we assume that “nature” is all about individuals striving to survive a dog-eat-dog market competition, ignoring the deep symbiosis and cooperation that is a major part of all biological life. We also assume that the natural world is inert, unfeeling, and without meaning – a mute backdrop for the drama of humankind.

Kohn spent four years doing ethnographic fieldwork among the Runa of the Upper Amazon in Ecuador, an experience that forced him to rethink the meaning of “real.” He brilliantly argues that our planet is alive, literally, and therefore we humans, as biological beings, are deeply implicated in “a complex web of relations that [he calls] an ‘ecology of selves.’”

Whether an organism presents as a threat to others, a sometime-cooperator, or a distant support through the landscape, living creatures must always invent a “self.” The whole process of generating and sustaining living selves creates “meaning” embodied in the shape, behavior, and expression of an organism. Or as Kohn puts it, “All life is semiotic and all semiosis is alive.”  Life and meaning cannot exist without each other.

Hence the explanation for the book’s title. Kohn argues that forests think as its constituent living organisms interpenetrate each other in highly complicated ways, giving rise to an ecosystem of selves, whether plants or animals or microorganisms.

Cloudforest in Ecuador

That’s what is so difficult for we moderns to understand — the aliveness and relationality that pervades our planet! It’s not just humans who are alive and having thoughts. All sorts of living organisms are creating selves and meaning, independent of human observation and activity. “The rain forest, writes Kohn, is “an emergent and expanding multilayered, cacophonous web of mutually constitutive, living, and growing thoughts.”

The question is, Can we tune into that frequency, the “vast ecology of selves” that are inscrutable to modern epistemologies and ways of knowing? Can we moderns allow ourselves to enter into the logic of how forests think? Can we learn to see the relations between plants and soil, for example, or between human and jaguar, as forms of living representation and meaning, even if they lie beyond linguistics?

We are so accustomed to seeing ourselves as separate and apart from “nature” – as the apex predator that can reshape “nature” however we wish – that we have trouble situating ourselves within the flows and constraints of a living planet. We presume to be masters of “nature” – a presumption ratified by language itself. Western cultures have a strong preference for using generic, abstract nouns whereas indigenous cultures tend to use precise verbs that name relationships and interactions with living systems. Indigenous languages reflect the idea that “there exist other kinds of thinking selves beyond the human.”

Free, Fair and Alive:  Relationality as the core of commoning 

I resonate to the new animism because, like the commons, it is about honoring relationality as a core reality of life. That’s a theme that Silke Helfrich and I develop in our new book Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (New Society Publishers) We offer a foundational reconceptualization of the commons as a living social system, moving away from the standard narrative of commons as “unowned” economic resources.

From cohousing and agroecology to fisheries and land trusts and open-source everything, people around the world are increasingly turning to “commoning.” They see it as a way to emancipate themselves from a predatory market/state system.  They see commons as a way to enter into enduring relationships with each other, and to escape the often-predatory and destructive character of what we call the market/state system. Markets and nation-states are not so much adversaries as joint partners in a system based on ceaseless economic growth and technological innovation, an inability to set limits on the exploitation of natural systems, and the private appropriation of our shared wealth and planet.

We see the commons as a way to help re-think the very meaning of “the economy” and to validate the importance of ecological stewardship, care work, and social cooperation. But since so much discussion about the commons relies on the very discourse of modern economics, we came to see that the commons needs to be reinterpreted.  The commons needs to be understood as relational and alive. We try to explain this reality through the Triad of Commoning, which describes the relationships that lie at the heart of social life, peer governance, and provisioning in a commons.

Our book is a rare inquiry into commoning – the verb, the social practices, the moral relationships – which is quite different from the commons — the noun, seen as resources and their exchange value.  The further that my coauthor Silke and I got into studying and rethinking the commons, the more we realized that prevailing categories of thought are simply too reductionist to capture what is really going on within actual commons.

Standard economics, property law, and policy assume the reality of rational, autonomous individuals, as reflected in the idea of homo economicus, the philosophy of modern liberalism. These disciplines presume a separation of humanity and “nature.”  But we regard these assumptions as fundamentally misleading. They fail to understand humanity in a biological sense. We humans are all inscribed within larger collectives – ecological, cultural, political – that make us who we are.  It’s time that we began to acknowledge that life is far more relational than transactional.

Commoning is all about the peer construction of relationships, including with the large ecosystems in which we live. Fortunately, the new “rights of nature” laws, scholarly literature on animism, and the proliferation of countless commons are fueling the great OntoShift that is needed. Aliveness and the relationality that makes it possible are starting to get their due recognition.

About David Bollier

David Bollier is an American activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. The commons is as old as the human race but newly discovered, too, as the Internet, open source software, alternative currencies, and platform co-operatives. Bollier pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics (Massachusetts, US), and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. He is particularly focused on the role of commons in re-imagining local economies to empower community self-reliance, prevent market enclosures, and anticipate the coming disruptions of climate breakdown and Peak Oil.

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The Power of Allurement

Article Cosmology

The Power of Allurement


“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson

I’m pondering one of nature’s most intriguing mysteries: why is so much so beautiful? Why all those luscious colors, gossamer wings, silken petals? Why rainbow-decked waterfalls cascading into deep, curving rivers disappearing into the folds of magnificent mountains? Cool forests of feathery ferns at the base of towering trees, full of the elation of bird song? Why rustling waves of grasslands, filled with flowers, chirping crickets, soaring meadowlarks? Deserts lit with luminous cactus flowers, the call of ravens, the song of coyotes? Why clouds on fire with the setting sun?

The easy answer is that we evolved the senses and the consciousness to find all this beautiful. And so we did. But why? We could have evolved to find a much duller world satisfactory. Bees and hummingbirds could have evolved to pollinate a planet full of white flowers. Butterflies and birds don’t need their luminous jewel tones to fly or find food. Peacocks and prairie chickens could have figured out calmer ways to attract a mate. It’s the sheer extravagance of it all that makes it so mysterious.

Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Beauty is an aspect of the universal power that cosmologist Brian Swimme calls allurement. It was one of the early powers to show up, as the great attracting energy of gravity swirled the universe’s new-born atoms together to form the first stars. Then the stars themselves felt the pull to one another as they formed the gravitational fields we know as galaxies. Between the stars, matter gathered into planets, then into moons around the planets. All, in turn, both being drawn and entering, Brian says, ‘into their destiny as a source of allurement.’

Allurement not only creates, but creates a mode that continues to create. Within the forms relationships develop, intimacy leads to more creativity. The earth’s long relationship with the sun eventually gave rise to life. Plants emerged. ‘Then this amazing moment comes when living beings figure out how to create the chlorophyll molecule….in resonance with the sun’s light.’ By creating this strikingly complex and beautiful molecule, plants bound themselves, and the entire earth, into an ever more intimate relationship with the sun.

This cycle of attraction — form — creativity — intimacy has given us an earth of inexpressible beauty. Imagine walking through a field of wildflowers. Or peering through a microscope at the structure of a seashell. Or discovering the intricate mathematical language that governs the universe. Our whole being responds to the power of beauty in such moments. Our hearts expand. Our energy rises. We feel alive, connected, excited. We are transported, from the Latin for ‘carried across.’ Lifted over a threshold into a realm beyond the concerns, demands, confusions of daily life.

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas

I have written before about psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that evolution favored awe. In the face of the many challenges of existence, awe gives us reasons to love life. To him, evolution wanted us to be here long enough to reproduce, and that is certainly high on nature’s agenda. But beauty preceded us by eons. I prefer Carl Sagan’s and Thomas Berry’s idea that the cosmos wanted a way to ponder all the beauty it had created, and so evolved us.

It may well be having second thoughts. As I write this, the Amazon rainforest is burning so that we can grow soybeans to feed pigs. Or clear space for ranchers to provide beef for fast-food hamburgers. It’s being opened to drill for oil to fuel our insatiable appetites for every conceivable consumer item. How, surrounded by so much beauty and sublimity, have we managed a history of so much cruelty, neglect, and obliviousness? That is another mystery. Our souls long for the beauty they have evolved to know so intimately. And yet our minds, our actions are so easily turned to the ugly. We trash our living spaces and fail to nourish and protect our children. We go to war over land and resources. We cage families fleeing danger our policies created. We burn the lungs of our planet.

In the face of this devastation, is there space for contemplating beauty? The power of allurement says yes, we must. This power draws us out of ourselves, brings us to life, again and again. It strengthens us to carry the weight of disappointment, grief, rage and move toward regeneration. This isn’t beauty as a surface attractant. The ultimate beauty of flowers doesn’t lie in how pretty they are. That, of course, is a lovely thing to contemplate. But they lived for 160 million years before we arrived to take delight in them.

Their great power lies in what the universe wanted of them, not in what we want. These are cosmic beings, forged out of chaos, molecule by molecule. The soul of the earth emerging from the soil at our feet. Formed for relationships and adept at creating them. With that soil. With the air they breathe and the sunlight they turn to nutrition. With the creatures, including us, that they form intimate, mutually beneficial relationships with.

Allurement is all about relationships. This deeper beauty draws our depths to itself, into bonds of intimacy and love. We are devastated by the news because profound relationships are being severed, day after day. ‘The industrial society has moved to break allurement apart, most profoundly to break the natural allurement people have for the rest of the universe. The field of allurement we are born into is fractured’ by the view of the natural world, including humans, as strictly a resource for plundering.

Grass widow (Olysinium douglasii) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Because I spend a fair amount of time thinking about things that have been happening for epochs, part of me is able to take the long view. For millions of its early years, all that happened to our fiery, volcanic earth was a continual meteor bombardment. Out of that disorder, the delicate petals of the flowers pictured here eventually arose. All the beauty we know has arisen from the journey of disorder to order, a journey often interrupted by fresh outbreaks of chaos. The last two hundred years of industrial mindset isn’t even a blip on this time scale. But it is cataclysmic, and our hearts ache continually with the suffering we see.

I am exploring Brian’s powers of the universe to see what Nature, our oldest teacher tells us about creating a just and sustainable planet. Allurement’s profound lesson lies in the deep creative energy it launches. As we move toward what we are attracted to, we are changed. The relationships formed — with a person, a mountain, a river, a cause — attract further changes. ‘This is how the universe works. We’re captivated, and we pursue, and then we are awakened in the pursuit, and we end up captivating others’. The intensity of the relationship deepens as ‘the actual form of who we are is shaped by that which draws us.’

‘The same power of allurement that drew the stars together is working in us.’ Fully realizing this idea has the power to release the defensive crouch our current affairs can drive us to. We don’t need to create allurement, we already embody it. ‘It’s happening throughout the universe, wanting to burst forth into conscious self-awareness.’ Our task is to allow it, to remove whatever is in the way. To free ourselves from the illusions of consumerism, mindless growth, separation. In that release lies creative and generative ideas along with the energy to undertake the tasks we need. There lies intimacy with and love for all our fellow beings and entities. The world we long for is pulling us toward itself.

Speaking of extravagance: the 2019 super bloom in the Carrizo Plain, California

About Betsey Crawford

Betsey Crawford spent her years as a landscape designer and environmental activist in New York convincing people to return to their literal roots by planting native plants and restoring ecosystems. Now living in Northern California, she posts photos and writes about wildflowers, ecology, botany, spirit, and all things nature on her website, The Soul of the Earth: https://thesouloftheearth.com.

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