Our Collective Journey

Introduction Editorial

Our Collective Journey

“Distinct from metamorphosis, where a butterfly emerges from a cocoon suddenly and magically, the pearl is conceived first in pain, laboriously worked on, and results unexpectedly in a jewel.”  – Jeanne Chiang

Outside the window here in Pennsylvania, migratory birds are making a beautiful racket as they fuel up for their collective journey south. At the same time, thousands of birds are falling from US southwestern skies. Forced to skirt the smoke from wildfires, they have detoured into desert territories without food or water to sustain their journeys. They fly until they perish.

Do all birds somehow feel this collective loss, this avian holocaust that began decades ago as the forests and insect populations steeply declined? Do birds have collective awareness, memory of wildly vibrant woodlands and pristine waters teeming with life? It’s almost too painful to contemplate. We have lost nearly a third of our birds in fifty years.

Such difficult truths are painful, and we are hardwired to avoid discomfort. But if our first reaction is to run away, we never learn the deeper truth beyond the thing we fear. When we push away the pain of loss – birds, rainforests, human life – we push away the complexity and beauty too. Life on Earth developed only once and all organisms are interrelated. Because birds exist, we exist. And the same goes for fish and trees and bacteria. We inter-are. To reach this insight we have to be willing to let some of the pain in, and to see our part in it.

Alnoor Ladha, activist, writer and friend, collaborated on this edition of Kosmos. As a guest editor, he curated several features under the hashtag #CuraDaTerra, (Cure of the Earth), and offers this:

As we start to see how all oppression is connected, we can also start to see glimpses of how all healing is connected. And that our own liberation is not only bound up with that of others but that our collective future is dependent on it.

We are a young species with everything yet to learn. The well-loved writers, speakers and artists in these pages – Vandana Shiva, Charles Eisenstein, David Abram, and others – are shining light into our shadows. They help us feel the pain in order to gain the pearl. The pearl is purpose.

Humans may not be the highest purpose of Life, but Life must be the highest purpose of humans.

Understanding purpose requires conscious alignment with an evolving, living Earth. We don’t invent purpose, we find it, we stand in its light. When we allow Earth’s purpose to guide us, we know how to act in harmony with Life. Purpose drives our positive activism, our adaptive capacities, innovation, and faith. It feeds our resilience to change and our resistance to injustice. Choosing to consciously serve Life, purpose is our raft on the rapids of change.

These words from Kosmos contributor Robert Cobbold say it clearly:

 If, as a species, we can successfully make the transition to Conscious Evolution, not only will we dramatically increase our chances of survival, but we will be stepping into a story which can provide meaning and purpose for humanity’s existence.

Today, the birds are still singing as they prepare for their journey. Mother Earth is still here, alive! The leaves are turning color once again – crimson, yellow and orange – compost that will feed the trees in the dark days of winter. The collective pain we are enduring will feed us too, nourish our understanding. The journey is likely to be hard, but there is so much joy and beauty too. Life is still here to cherish, right now, as Earth continues spiraling through the cosmos. We are honored to share this precious gift of time with you.

Thank you for your love and support of Kosmos.

About Rhonda Fabian

Rhonda Fabian is Editor of Kosmos Quarterly. She is also a founding partner of Immediacy Learning, a global educational media company that has created more than 2000 educational programs, impacted 30 million+ learners, and garnered numerous awards. Ms. Fabian is an ordained member in the Order of Interbeing, an international Buddhist community founded by her teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.

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The Sustainable Development Goals Begin with Mindset

Essay UN2020

The Sustainable Development Goals Begin with Mindset

“Because mindsets and paradigms guide behaviors, changing them can have a profound impact… People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transform systems”

— Donna Meadows, lead author, Limits to Growth [2]

Beyond GDP: Towards SDGs and Wellbeing

While development efforts showcase success stories, such as the decrease in the number of people living in extreme poverty, the current paradigm is unable to fully explain successes and failures of development interventions. As we increasingly live beyond our planetary boundaries, inequality and mental health issues have been rising, and happiness and wellbeing remain elusive for many around the world.

Furthermore, given the number of crises—from climate change to COVID19—alongside the ambitious nature of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is an urgent need to investigate the effectiveness of the 20th century human development paradigm for the 21st century. While the current human development approach shifted the development focus from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to a somewhat broader perspective some 30 years ago, we have not made major progress since to truly advance human development in a holistic manner.

Calls for a more holistic human development paradigm are supported by the Beyond GDP movement as well as other wellbeing initiatives around the world[3], and the need has also been recognized by the United Nations’ General Assembly (resolution 65/309: Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development, 2011). Global mindsets are very similar to paradigms in that they are the source of manifesting systems. As Achim Steiner, UNDP’s Administrator, stated:

 “We are now on the verge of shifting into an economic paradigm that is not about communism or capitalism; it is about re-calibrating equity and sustainability
into a development paradigm.”[4]

Key Questions:

Based on the need to rethink human development, the following key questions come to mind: How can we shift towards a holistic development mindset that advances physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing? Are we willing to leapfrog to an enlightened paradigm that recognizes and develops humans as multi-dimensional beings? How to harmoniously advance the wellbeing of both people and planet?

We protect and develop what we cherish, what we feel part of and connected with. Therefore, how can we nurture three essential connections: with our inner being, our communities and Mother Nature? The opportunity to create a new paradigm for the 21st century comes from combining current science with timeless wisdom. Could the root causes and transformative power of human development be within us?

Inspiration from Bhutan

Some countries have not fallen into the trap of blindly pursuing GDP and materialistic growth. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) awarded Bhutan with a Special Award of Recognition for holistically advancing human development in 2019.[5] Bhutan famously declared Gross National Happiness (GNH) to be more important than GDP.  GNH is a holistic and sustainable approach to development, which is based on 9 pillars that balance material and non-material values.

It is noteworthy that GNH is not to be confused with a shallow understanding of fleeting happiness. Rather, GNH is a multi-dimensional approach which some argue is more holistic than the SDGs, given that it also entails dimensions such as psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, amongst others. The COVID19 crisis has amplified the importance of mental health. Even before the crisis began, a staggering 800,000 people die due to suicide every year globally.[6]

Furthermore, Bhutan is heralded as a global example of a carbon-negative country that lives in harmony with nature. It is a biodiversity hotspot and is often seen as a leader in sustainable tourism. Its strong emphasis on health and protecting communities is seen as a success factor, and has allowed the country to notably handle the COVID19 crisis. It is evident that Bhutan’s enlightened development approach and leadership has led to extraordinary poverty reduction while protecting the environment.[7]

As His Majesty the 5th King of Bhutan, stated in 2011:

“Our generation is called upon to rethink, to redefine the true purpose of growth and, in doing so, to find a growth that is truly sustainable. We must never forget that, for lasting peace and happiness in this world, the journey forward has to be one that we must all make together… It all starts with leadership of the self.”[8]

The Blind Spot: Mindsets

The strong focus of development assistance on external factors and measurable progress has left aside an understanding of internal factors and potential hidden root causes. Internal factors such as mindsets can play a transformative role in people’s, nations’ and humanity’s development journey.

While there has been research on behavioral insights, self-empowerment, personal development, leadership and transformation in some specialized fields such as psychology, sociology, philosophy and neuroscience, there has been no—or minimal—direct connections made to human development approaches. There is indeed a significant knowledge gap on inner dimensions, which are more difficult to measure—such as people’s mindsets.

These ‘soft’ inner factors have, so far, not been well considered in the field of human development in contrast to ‘hard’ indicators such as income levels, life expectancy and years of education. This underscores the need of a new holistic approach that takes the interaction between internal and external factors into account for development to be transformative and advance sustainable wellbeing for people and planet. As Nobel peace prize winner Prof. Muhammad Yunus illuminates: “Unless we change our mind we cannot change the world.”[9]

The Key Role of Mindsets

Mindsets are the invisible leverage point to be included in a new 21st century human development paradigm. Mindsets are made up of our deep beliefs, attitudes and values; they frame our thinking, and therefore determine our behavior, life experiences and journey. They influence how people lead their lives, how they vote, what personal, educational and professional opportunities they pursue, and what they make out of crises, challenges and opportunities. Even national policies and global development goals spring off national and global mindsets.

For example, during the COVID19 crisis, we can perceive staying at home as being forced into lock-down or consider it as voluntarily protecting our vulnerable elderly. Mindsets are not, of course, a panacea and external factors should not be negated altogether. However, by acknowledging the role of inner dimensions, foremost mindsets, we emphasize the agency that people have in realizing their true human potential. History is full of change makers and social leaders who have overcome and changed their external circumstances and structures, and therefore written history.

Need for a Global Mindset Shift

It is widely accepted that the SDGs cannot be achieved by business as usual. For behavior and actions to be different, they require a new way of thinking, a new mindset and a sense of urgency for transformational change. The urgency to shift towards a development paradigm that finally translates the ‘beyond-GDP’ aspiration into a wellbeing and sustainability mindset with its corresponding concept and measurements is increasing.[10]

In systems thinking and leadership, shifting mindsets is considered the highest leverage point to change a system, even higher than policies and goals. Shifting the global mindset towards a wellbeing economy can be inspired by examples from Bhutan, Costa Rica and New Zealand, amongst others. This indeed also reflects the call by UN Deputy Secretary-General for a “new paradigm shift to replace the traditional sustainable development approach to realize the 2030 Agenda”.[11]

Suggestions for Mindset Shifts

While we are largely unaware of mindsets due to their intangible nature, mindsets can be changed. Pressing issues such as greed, violence and discrimination also start in our mind, and in the minds and hearts are the keys to transformational development.

Six mindset shifting suggestions:

  1. Sustainable transformation happens from the inside out.
  2. Mindsets matter. They play an important role in human development at the individual, collective and global level.
  3. Mindsets can be shifted by increasing awareness, fostering self-reflection and self-responsibility.
  4. Solutions need to be co-created which requires a mindset shift of development practitioners themselves.
  5. Current development approaches are too materialistic; therefore they need to move beyond overly focusing on GDP and economic development.
  6. A new holistic development paradigm should include inner, collective and planetary wellbeing.

While the above-mentioned points indicate the important role of mindsets, there is a blind spot in the academic and development literature. This calls for further research exploring the role that mindsets play in human development, towards sustainability, transformation and wellbeing for people and planet.

Endnote: This article was originally published for the International Science Council and UNDP’s Human Development Report Office global experts’ call for new perspectives on human development.


1.  Attributed to multiple wisdom teachers, foremost the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. See a similar translation for the Buddha at Easwaran, Eknath (2007), “The Dhammapada: Classics of Indian Spirituality.”

2. Meadows, Donella (1999). “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.”

3. For example see the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance and EU’s Beyond GDP initiative

4. Steiner, Achim, 2020, These 4 trends will define the future of development

5. UNDP presents His Majesty the King of Bhutan a Special Award of Recognition

6. WHO Suicide Data

7. For more information see What happiness can teach us about how we measure human development, Bhutan’s Unique Success in Reducing Poverty and What tiny Bhutan can teach the world about being carbon negative

8. His Majesty the King’s Speech at Keio University, Japan

9. Yunus, Muhammad (2019), Address to the Social Business Forum 2019.

10. Stiglitz, Fitoussi, Durand (2019): Measuring What Counts: The Global Movement for Well-Being

11. UN DSG Mohammed  (2019): New Paradigm Shift to Replace Traditional Sustainable Development Approach

Epiphany | In the Know | Mapping

Poem #Curadaterra

Epiphany | In the Know | Mapping

(for Cura Da Terra*)

Why smoke gauloises in the rainforest
After the gotcha X Ray: frayed lung tissue,
Denuded woods, siamese disasters?

Prelates of excess purloin god
The way a ventriloquist dummy parrots estranged prophets.
Like magpies who have stolen mirth

Their rasping song recalls the loss.

Marlborough Man strides across the Grand Teton.
Amazon usurps a name, abuses its fundamentals
To sacrifice warehouse brawn and sinewy reach:

An atonal writhing in indignity, the fugue of despair.

Soy grease softens twigs and cigarette butts
Burn spent leaves. Plows and of course swords
Bloody with overheated desire and the freedom myth

Of choosing anything over anything else.

Biology is a slow green, history a fading yellow,
Contingency a sunscratched red. Gauloises
Stolen along with mirth in the Magpie’s claws

Rasps another still birth.

What’s what is not.

Being of childbearing age is tectonic
From what I’ve heard. A fête for those who will
What comes next.

Only mothers know there was once life here.
Mothers know higher purpose in the feast of placenta,
In the soft delicate majesty of breathing,

Applause for the arrival of what they long for.


*The process of restoring good health is key to how we might generate trust in each other and restore the Earth’s trust in us

In the Know

You know how a baby propels arms
Toward heaven, aiming to stand, but not yet.
You know how the heron propels her wings
To the stars into flight, but not for long.
You know how rabbits scamper about
Like fluff off a dandelion, stop to play statue,
Then chase their tails.

These are known knowns
….and you are in the know.

You know barn raising is what neighbors do.
Like refusing to let the planet burn or drown.
You know to calm a woman’s grief,
Put her tears in your hanky, replace her torn leather
Soles and her boy’s frayed nylon nickers.
You can haul the two-by-fours, hammer the nails,
Sweat in just the way the good lord intended.
That’s what neighbors do.
You know what they say about walking on by
Closing yourself in. If you haven’t heard,
They say it’s the beginning of sin. You must know
About barn raising, it’s what neighbors do.

These are known knowns
….and you are in the know.


I like what is called mapping:
Drawing routes, light years, roads
Not yet traveled, the micro future.

I map in the color of eyes, in the color of ear wax,
Of urine, of paint chips scrapped off old barns.
I map dream tops, disappointment sheds,
Geese taking an old-fashioned walk, stigmatic
Mountain lion figuring out tri-focal lenses.

I map the tours of those who can touch a hoop
Without reaching, the limp of those who can’t,
The highway trough of those who place bets.
I map the spray of disinfectant, the infection
Lining plastic shelves, zip code dice thrown about.

I map the phragmites at oases to show
how overgrowth itches remorselessly.
I map large perennial grasses discovered America in slave ships.
And spread westward to celebrate Easter.

I map bees swarming children to protest their queen’s
Imprisonment for pollinating on private property.
Each mom blows her breath on his face,
Adds honey to her breakfast cereal.
I map low flying planes it’s difficult to see when lilacs bloom
Shooting bullets as if lone petals might have a will to cover the ground.
You could see trees swoon, flip backwards somersaults
When lilacs brown and low flying planes blast bullets
Into full-bloom bodies.

And oh …
I map pilgrim’s trails, see them become the vegetable and the grease.
I map where squirrels lift their legs like dogs
On cucumber vines.
I map lovers grazing back and forth on makeshift swings.

And oh…
I map the tremblings of monsters
Who run their mouths on emptiness
In hope some terrifying Other might make them human.

About Colin Greer

Colin Greer is president of the New World Foundation which supports activism and advocacy on behalf of the environment, democracy, and community power-building. He is a former CUNY professor, a founding editor of Social Policy Magazine, and a contributing editor to Parade Magazine for many years.

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Oppression, Interconnection, and Healing

Conversation #Curadaterra

Oppression, Interconnection, and Healing

Kosmos transcribed and edited this conversation between Alnoor Ladha and Charles Eisenstein that took place on June 23, and was published on July 27, 2020, as part of A New and Ancient Story podcast. You can listen to the full podcast here. You can also read Charles’ subsequent essay, “Cure of the Earth” and Alnoor’s essay with Felipe Viveros in The Correspondent. And you can follow the discussion about #CuraDaTerra on social media.


Charles Eisenstein: This is the moment of COVID, it’s the moment of the civil unrest around racial justice. And I think both of these issues have something in common. Or they have an invitation in common that I would like to extend, which is: what is left out of these discourses?

To even participate in a certain debate affirms that this is the debate we should be having. And that this is the most important thing to be talking about right now. Now, I’m not saying that racial justice or COVID-19 are not important. What I’m saying is that we tend as a society to focus on very narrow aspects of those issues, and leave an awful lot out. For example, racial justice, so much of it is about the police, and the racism within police forces, police brutality, extrajudicial murders, and, in general, the impoverished state of African Americans in this country, the legacy of racism and trauma.

Four in ten of DRC’s estimated 100 million people are short of food.

I keep marveling at how people can be so passionate about these issues, and be willing to march in the streets and put their lives at risk and topple statues, and not even bat an eyelash or have any awareness of the horrors unfolding in the DRC right now, for example, or the tens of millions of people, most of them black and brown, on this Earth who are facing starvation because of lockdowns. Or the Indigenous people in the Amazon whose cultures and persons are being destroyed by economic development, which in certain quarters is what is supposed to uplift them from the zero-dollars-a-day subsistence lifestyle that you have as a hunter-gatherer. That’s maybe another topic. But it’s actually not another topic. It’s part of the same theme of what’s getting left out from the way that we—the dominant culture of this Earth, or the one that would be seems to be dominant to itself—see the world; what gets left out from our metrics; what gets left out from our value system; and our sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Alnoor Ladha: I think it’s a beautiful dedication. One of the mantras of The Rules was “all oppression is connected.” There is no individual issue or problem area outside of anything else because they’re so deeply interconnected.

There is an even bigger discussion to be had about the role of capitalism, as it’s the oxygen and the economic operating system. We now have one way to acquire goods and services. We had fishing, and hunting, and bartering, and gifting. And now it’s fiat debt-based currency. And so whoever had the head start on that—i.e., Western Europeans—had the head start on this accumulation through whatever means—imperialism, slavery, genocide, etc.

We could look at this current moment without a historical lens or without a structural lens, and you get to a very different place of analysis than if you brought that in. It’s also something that almost can’t be spoken about in any place where there are funders or advertisers, or a commercial element, because it’s seen as taboo.

Charles: And you start to notice that the things that the mainstream media favors as the issue of the day are things that are not actually that disruptive to capitalism. Capitalism is not disturbed by COVID. In fact, a certain type of capitalism is thriving on COVID.

The billionaires are doing just fine. Small businesses are being decimated around the world. Capitalism is actually not that disturbed by racial justice either. Capitalism doesn’t care about the skin color of those who are administering the world-destroying machine. All it needs is an underclass and broadly desperate working class to keep profits high and wages low. I don’t want to overstate that case because it’s also true, as you were saying, that all oppression is the same. That each contains all the rest, you might say. And that deep healing of any form of oppression generates a field of healing that also leads us to look at other forms of oppression. So, what I just said isn’t the complete picture.

Nonetheless, generally speaking, the media tend to focus on the things that are not so deeply disturbing to the system. When you get into protecting the Amazon, and all other ecosystems, then you really run into problems with the nature of capitalism, which, as we know, depends on endless growth and the constant acquisition of new resources.

So we do have to look at capitalism. And I know exactly what you’re talking about as far as the sensitivity of that word. That’s a taboo thing to talk about, because all of a sudden, you’re a Marxist. And that was discredited with the Soviet Union, and so on and so forth.

So, I tend to be careful. One of the points I make is, what capitalism is depends on what capital is. And what is capital? It’s money and property. Well, what is money and property? It’s a story. It’s an agreement. Money is an agreement that human beings make about symbols. Property is an agreement that human beings make about who has what kind of right to do what with various pieces of the physical world. Agreements can be changed. Agreements are not absolute. So, when I’m speaking to people who would be triggered by any mention of capitalism in the context of Marxism or socialism or something like that, I really talk about changing the nature of capital so that it conforms to our expanding consciousness, expanding beyond the separate self, expanding beyond the war on nature, that understands that we are here in a co-creative partnership with nature. What would capitalism look like then? How would we conceive property when it’s not this object anymore, when we understand that the world has beingness and sacredness?

It is a beautiful and generative question to ask.

Alnoor: We often talk about post-capitalism. I’m not anti-anything. It’s just this current cycle has run its course, and clearly has reached its limits—whatever assessment you want to make of it, whether that’s planetary bounds or levels of happiness. As soon as you bring up the frame of post-capitalism, it opens up a very generative space. But what’s also interesting is people want you to have the alternative.

I think it was David Graeber who said the new system is not going to be created by a Marx or Engels, or a couple of smart white Europeans in a room. And it’s not our obligation to actually explain what the new system is going to be. It’s not the job of the vanguard, let’s say, to explain and create a new system, because as soon as you do that you’re getting into the same cycle of creating a new institution that’s going to fail anyway.

Charles: And that whole template for changing the world: it starts with a bunch of people—usually guys in a room debating about what’s the best plan—and usually the guys in the room end up fighting. For how many thousands of years now has this been going on?

To have a design, to have something that you impose onto the future is only necessary when you don’t think that there is a design, a future already existing beyond us, that we can participate in. We don’t have to actually create it. We could be guided toward it, and listen for each appropriate next step. And that gets a little bit closer to an Indigenous mindset where you understand that you are part of an immensely complex mysterious being that is unfolding over time. And you ask, “What is my role? What is my contribution? What is my gift that I offer, and that we as a people offer to this evolution of life? How do we participate in the beauty and the evolution of life?”

Alnoor: There’s a deep ideology rooted that I’m hearing you say, which is actually moving from a model of domination to a model of dialogue with the living planet. So, you’re also moving from a mechanistic rationalism to a more animistic worldview. Because that participation requires you seeing the world as something else than dead matter.

Charles: I think we have to go to that level. If we don’t go to that level, it’s just about more cleverly deploying the resources out there to maximize some number. We’re really good at maximizing the number. That’s what financial logic does. And then the idea is, “Well, let’s just translate that way of doing things onto greenhouse gases, or onto some other metric.” That is not a deep enough revolution. It’s not something that this culture really knows how to do. It’s not totally absent from this culture, but it’s marginalized.

So, it’s this way of being human, which is in dialogue with the other-than-human in participation in something much greater than ourselves. That’s something that other cultures have held and preserved, and that we can learn from.

We have to see those cultures as precious treasures. You can’t preserve a culture without preserving the place where that culture is. Human and land, or sea, or water, or soil, or ecology. These are not separate. Culture is not separate from these things. It’s not like something that exists just in the mind, but it exists in reference to land, and even as an expression of the land. In fact, that’s what it means to be Indigenous. It means to be of a place, part of a place, the flesh of a place.

Indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin in Central Africa rely on the rainforest for their livelihood.
Image: Samuel Nnah Ndobe

Alnoor: Do you think that part of the desire to colonize, to dominate, to “extract” resources also comes from, not just a lack of humility or even a desire for those resources, but actually an act of hate of these cultures? Is there deep-seated racism in it?

Charles: I think it comes from a loss. It comes from a hunger. It’s the hunger for those connections. And that embeddedness, and that feeling of being at home in the world that we Europeans, we white people had, as well. And some white people still have them. The Saami, for example, or some of the people in Siberia. But generally speaking, most white people—and whatever your skin color—the more that you’re immersed in a market economy and in a conventional school system and in the worldview of science, the more disconnected you will become from place. And that disconnection, that experience of life where you no longer are surrounded by intimate companions whose stories and relationships you know, that experience of life is profoundly insecure. Because we are relational beings. We are not separate units of consciousness as conventional economics, or biology, or psychology recognizes. We are relational beings.

Alnoor: There does feel like a step change moment where a stronghold in consensus culture is realizing whatever we were doing is not working anymore. But there’s also a numbness that doesn’t recognize the loss. It hasn’t got to the place where it’s assessing this desire for consumption and more-ness is coming from a place of loss. So what’s the mirror to activate that?

Charles: The things that we have to do, the changes we have to make are much bigger than merely what we have to do to appear blameless or to get off the hook, or to get down on our knees and polish someone’s boot, or to tear down a statue and say “look what I did.” What we have to do is so much deeper and more thorough than that. It’s not going to come from trying to look good. It’s not going to come from vanity. It’s not going to come from the desire to be accepted by certain people that we’ve elevated to high status. All of these dynamics are part of the old story. And it’s a good question to ask, honestly—what does it take for somebody to let go of arrogance? And we can look inward maybe for answers to that. What does it take for someone to let go of a hate-filled ideology? And to say, “Wow, I was wrong.”

If our formula for success is that the other team finally admits that they were wrong all the time, and that, “Yeah, you were right all along.” Guess what, they want that too. And here’s one thing I know for sure. Everybody on all sides has something that they’re wrong about, that is dearly held, and part of their identity, including the Left, including the radicals, including you and me. And what’s it going to take? This political identity and this attachment to a certain ideology or a certain set of beliefs—to get our identity from that—that’s a symptom, too, that comes from the loss of connection.

Alnoor: I agree with you that pointing out wrongness is not a strategy for some dialectical harmony. And yet, there does seem to be responsibility and agency of some more than others. And all cultures, just like all identities, have their shadow. Some cultures have more negative impact on the flourishing of life. Does Western culture take more responsibility than an Amazonian Indigenous culture for the destruction of life on the planet? I do feel there’s a non-dualistic area where both are simultaneously true. There’s a disproportionate destruction of the planet that has come from Western culture. Does that mean everyone who holds Western culture is a destroyer? Of course not. We’ve all internalized that culture. So the culture is not outside of us simultaneously.

For me, I do find it helpful when there’s these moments where I realize that my hubris, or my stubbornness, or my domination, or my desire to know, or to wield my power over something, is the problem. And as soon as I acknowledge it, there’s a softening. But I don’t know if that’s true, let’s say, with Bolsonaro. My higher self wants to believe that’s true, that actually where the behavior is coming from is this deep longing for village ways, and for circle ways. But there’s another part of me where I don’t know. Maybe that’s the more cynical part, the real-politik part, or whatever believes that he so deeply enjoys the role he plays, as does Donald Trump, as the Wetiko-in-chief.

Charles: Given the alternative, Bolsonaro and Trump do enjoy their position, I think. They would rather be head honcho than be the defeated candidate, or the loser. But look at either of those men. How much joy do you see radiating from their soul, compared to maybe some of the Indigenous people you know?

To go back a little earlier in your comment there. It’s obvious that Western modern culture has wreaked way more destruction on this planet than any other culture. That is an obvious fact that we have to take in. We have to take in the reality of what’s happening on this planet. The point I was trying to make is that it’s damaging to ascribe that to our moral soul-level inferiority. Because when you make that ascription, then you get to ignore the circumstances that generate the behavior. On a subtle way, it’s actually maybe the best way to preserve the status quo—to blame bad things on bad people.

If we hold to that diagnosis, “the problem is bad people,” then we never look for the real causes; we never look for the totality of the situation that generates the behavior.

Alnoor: Another way to look at this is that the culture itself rewards a certain type of psychosis, short-termism, greed, etc. Within that culture, even if there’s an empathy with the plight of whoever—name your character—it’s not about a person; it’s the culture itself that has to change. Within a culture that rewards psychosis, certain types of people do well within that system. It’s a complex adaptive system. It has these rules, it’s got these values, and people who perform these roles well get pulled to the top. It’s the opposite of a merit system.

Charles: The ruthless get pulled to the top.

Alnoor: Right. I look at Fortune Magazine or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times and whoever’s face is on the cover of those magazines and those newspapers are simply, to me, the people who serve that logic the best.

And so, if I was in Trump’s position, even though I have deep empathy for his particular line of trouble and the fact that he’s born into a culture that’s rewarding that, he still has agency on some level. And so how do we also account for that in our moral calculus of what’s happening?

Charles: We get to the point of choice. Our choices are conditioned, but not determined, by our circumstances. Or another way to look at it is that there are deeper circumstances that can be invoked and catalyzed. The deeper circumstances being just our basic divinity and the will to evolve. So, some people are very skilled and powerful at activating buried, marginalized parts of others, for good or for bad. I’m thinking about our friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle. He’s an activist in Oakland.

Pancho Ramos-Stierle

He does a lot of social justice stuff. And he goes to jail all the time. And he’ll be in jail, and he’ll say to one of the guards at some point: “Brother, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this work.” And he’ll actually mean it because he actually is seeing into the beauty of that human being. And when he approaches people that way, and speaks to that part of them, something awakens. That’s the power we need to be able to access that doesn’t require that we somehow overcome the Trumps and the Bolsonaros at their own game. Because if we don’t have allyship with some part of them that actually wants what we want, then the only option is to overcome them by force.

And you might be able to overcome a Trump or a Bolsonaro by force. But can you overcome the entire military, industrial, pharmaceutical, educational, NGO, financial, agricultural, industrial complex by force? They have the force, not us. So, just as a matter of pure practicality, we have to adopt a different way than to become better than the oppressors at the technologies of oppression. Paulo Freire said it quite clearly in warning about sub-oppression and the tendency to adopt the methods of the oppressors…then you, at best, become the new oppressor. Probably you’re not going to be as good at it as they are, and you’re going to lose. But even if you win, you lose.

Alnoor: Exactly. And that is the tendency of the Left. Every counter-revolution becomes the new oppressor. And that’s because there isn’t a spiritual moral compass. Yet, I think that within the compassion and the structural understanding of the context that created people’s behaviors, you can still have discernment and judgment—a divine judgment let’s say—that does not come from a place of moral superiority, but it comes from a place of, “I know your soul deserves more than this.”

Charles: Yes. What I was saying can be misinterpreted to say, “Let’s not talk about the bad things that we’re doing.” It’s quite the opposite. Actually, the truth has to come out. The stories that have been suppressed have to come in to the central consciousness of society. And what makes that able to happen? If you’re carrying those stories and wielding them as weapons to make someone feel bad, they’re going to be resistant to them. But you can bring them forth with, “I know you as a caring person will be troubled by this. I know that you actually want to live in a way that takes into account the full truth of what’s happening on this planet. So let us be together in the pain of the story and expand our consciousness to include data points that were outside our consciousness before.” But avoid translating that into, “You’re bad, you’re guilty. You should be ashamed of yourself.” It doesn’t work.

Alnoor: This is the moment we’re in culturally right now. That’s why the bifurcation is happening in such a deep and intense way. Maybe we go full circle back to the Amazon, and with this lens of whatever we want to call this: post-activism or political work that’s informed by a deeper spiritual impulse of shared healing. How do we approach a situation where the structure, and the culture itself, requires perpetual growth? It requires the razing of the Amazon for soy and minerals and timber, etc. And it doesn’t matter if you replace Bolsonaro with somebody else, because the global machinations in place are going to require the next person to do exactly the same thing. Maybe not with so much pleasure and fervor, but it’s going to happen.

Indigenous people attend a protest to defend indigenous land and cultural rights that they say are threatened by the right-wing government of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.











Charles: It’s hard to resist. This happened to Ecuador with Correa. They said, “We have all this oil, and we’d like to leave it in the ground. So global community, just pay us half of what we would make from this oil, and we’ll leave it in the ground.” And no one took them up on it. So they’re like, “Okay, we have to drill the oil.” We can’t say, “Ecuador, leave your oil in the ground, but please keep making your international debt payments, which you can only make with hard currency that you can only get by exporting your natural resources. So keep paying. But don’t drill your oil.” That is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is either a symptom of ignorance or it’s a symptom of being in a double bind, subject to conflicting imperatives. And we are all subject, in a market economy anyway, to conflicting imperatives. Like on the one hand, we have to do certain things in order even to survive or to be comfortable or to meet our basic needs, and another imperative, the imperative of the heart, wants to do other things.

So this notion of conflicting imperatives is important because there are many situations where, as individuals and even as nations, we do take actions and make choices that are for the benefit of life, that are for the benefit of the people of the Earth, despite the economic pressure to do otherwise. So, in the current situation where we do face an opposition between heart and self-interest, we can ally ourselves with the part of a political leader or a corporate leader or anybody who is ready to be brave. Courage is a community function. We can awaken and sustain the courage of each other, and witness that courage, and celebrate that courage, and hold for a leader that, “I know there’s a lot of pressure. You’re getting pressure from the opposition, you’re getting pressure from the CIA-funded media, you’re getting pressure from the international bond markets. And there is an audacious next step that you can take that you know is right, and we’re here to celebrate that. We’re here to see that.”

So it’s not hopeless. Like it’s not that we can’t do anything to save the Amazon until the global financial system changes. And at the same time, boy, it would sure be nice if the global financial system weren’t the enemy of everything good. So, I think that we can work on that level, too. Different people are cut out for different kinds of work and are called to different arenas of action. I mean, in a way—and I don’t want to dilute the call to do something directly to help the Amazon—but in a way, anybody who’s working for any kind of healing or any kind of justice is helping the Amazon. It’s the same as you were saying about all oppression is related. It’s true also of healing. All healing is part of the same healing. And I don’t want anyone to construe that as, “Fine. The Amazon will be taken care of by the people who are devoted to the Amazon, and I’m just going to do my own work.” Theoretically, that’s true. If you’re solely devoted to your own little community, that will help the Amazon. However, it may also be true right in this moment that you feel a calling, a stirring in you to do something about the Amazon.

What does stir someone’s care for the Amazon? I think that a lot of it is to be connected to its beauty, to its magnificence. It comes through a connection.

The Amazon is where Gaia’s memory of health still exists. And if that can be preserved, there will always be hope. If there is one healthy region that still has integrity, then it can teach the rest of the world to be healthy again.

Alnoor: The imprint of that matrix of possibility always exists if it exists here. What’s so unique about the Amazon is the symbiosis with Indigenous peoples—and the manner by which they live is unique to really any biome. We were talking about this before we started—the pride by which Indigenous people of the Amazon say “We are the cure of the Earth.”

In the Amazon, humans in the form of Indigenous peoples, are a companion species that are actively contributing to that ecosystem and that biome. That’s really the possibility for all of us. It’s also not just a biological possibility as in that place, but it’s also a possibility of human and more-than-human symbiosis.

Charles: In fact, I would even go farther and say that’s actually why we’re here. We were created by Gaia. Why did our species come into existence now? Gaia did not make us by accident. Species evolve to fill a need for the maintenance and the evolution of the whole. In other words, we have a gift to give to life. What is that gift? In the context of the Amazon, in the context of an Indigenous culture, that gift is clear. To enhance the life of that place through the practices and the ceremonies. There’s actually a lot of direct evidence for this. Allan Savory talks about how national parks he’s most familiar with in Africa, but other places too, where humans are just kept out, have ecosystems that tend to degrade sometimes, or not recover as quickly as if people are doing regenerative practices in those places. Land doesn’t recover. Humans are essential parts of the ecosystem. Maybe 10,000 or 50,000, a million years ago, depending on what continent we’re talking about here, maybe the ecosystem was without human beings. But once they are introduced, there’s an evolutionary possibility that can end up with the ecosystem being even more alive than it was before. That’s why we’re here.

And on an individual level, I’m talking to anyone listening to this. Don’t you know that you are here to serve life? That is why you’re here. And if you’re not doing something that serves life in some way, probably you’re going to feel, “There’s something I’m supposed to be doing that I’m not doing.” The open question is, for an individual or an Indigenous culture, what service to life might mean for civilization? And the gifts that humans have—that have enabled us to create a technological civilization, and to wreak such destruction on Earth—what are those gifts actually for?

And I just want to affirm that to even ask that question, “What is our purpose in service to life,” already signals a shift in consciousness. And if we hold that question, and are not satisfied with any false answer, that will be transformative.

Alnoor:  I agree. And the humans that exist 10 million years from now will be potentially as different from us as we are to single-celled amoebas. We have no idea what is to come. And so the continuity of life has always been culturally embedded within the impulse to be in service to life. Because there is some other thing happening that is beyond our understanding. This is the limitation of the scientific worldview. Science is a floor of understanding, not the ceiling. As soon as we elevate it to the ceiling of, “this is everything we know,” or even the fetishizing of the scientific method, which is a method that’s embedded in the five senses, we’re actually disconnecting ourselves from this longer project of continuity, to life yet born.

The idea that we would even have the power and ability to destroy other people’s livelihood for the sake of consumption and growth of the economic system, which is just based on a bunch of preferences that are made up and socialized, is so insane to me that to do anything else would be as insane, if that makes any sense.

Charles: Yes. If the system were making us happy, maybe we could justify it. But it’s not even making us happy. That’s the ultimate irony.

Alnoor:  I often think of the W.H. Auden quote from “The Age of Anxiety” where he says,

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

I remember reading that and realizing, “I see. I don’t actually have to persuade them. I have to wait to let their illusions die.” In some ways COVID is doing that for us. And ecological destruction is doing that. And, yet, I don’t think those external things are going to save us. There still has to be agency to choose another way.

Thank you for sharing the journey, Charles.

Charles: It was my pleasure.

About Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of human culture and identity. He is the author of several books, including Sacred EconomicsThe More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, and Climate: A New Story. His background includes a degree in mathematics and philosophy from Yale, a decade in Taiwan as a translator, and stints as a college instructor, a yoga teacher, and a construction worker. He currently writes, speaks, and teaches courses online, in addition to being a husband and father to four sons.

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About Alnoor Ladha

Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking, structural change, and narrative work. He was the co-founder and Executive Director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers, and others focused on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty, and climate change. TR started in 2012 as a time-bound project and an experiment in anarchist organizational design, exploring new ways of how to work, play, and make trouble together.

Alnoor comes from a Sufi lineage and writes about the crossroads of politics and spirituality in troubled times. He is a co-founder of Tierra Valiente, an alternative community and healing center in the jungle of northern Costa Rica. He is a board member of Culture Hack Labs and The Emergence Network. He holds an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics.

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The Tree Saviors of Chipko Andolan | A Woman-led Movement in India

Article Activism

The Tree Saviors of Chipko Andolan | A Woman-led Movement in India

While pursuing my PhD, I became involved as a volunteer in the Chipko movement, a nonviolent, peaceful response to the large-scale deforestation that was taking place in the Garhwal Himalaya by peasant women from the region, who came out in defence of the forests. Chipko means “to hug,” “to embrace.” Women declared that they would hug the trees to protect them—loggers would have to kill them before they felled the trees.

Logging had led to landslides and floods, and to the scarcity of water, fodder, and fuel. Since women service these basic needs, scarcity meant longer walks for collecting water and firewood, and a heavier burden to bear. Women knew that the real value of forests was not the timber from a dead tree, but springs and streams, food for their cattle, and fuel for their hearths. The folk songs of that period said,

These beautiful oaks and rhododendrons,
They give us cool water.
Don’t cut these trees,
We have to keep them alive.

It took the 1978 Uttarkashi disaster, which created floods all the way to Calcutta in Bengal, for the Indian government to recognise that the women were right because the expenditure on flood relief far exceeded the revenues they were generating through timber. In 1981, in response to the Chipko movement, logging was banned above 1,000 kilometers in the Garhwal Himalaya. Today, government policy recognises that in the fragile Himalayas conservation maximises the ecological services of the forest.

Chipko activists

The women activists of Chipko became my professors in biodiversity and ecology. I have always said that I received one PhD on the Foundations of Quantum Theory from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and a second one on ecology from the forests of the Himalaya and women of the Chipko movement. Both taught me about interconnectedness and non-separability. The women of Chipko taught me about the relationship between forests, soil, and water and women’s sustenance economies; quantum theory taught me the four principles that have guided my thinking and my life’s work—everything is interconnected, everything is potential, everything is indeterminate, there is no excluded middle; we are interbeings.

The quantum world is not made up of fixed particles, but of potential. A quanta can be a wave or a particle. It is indeterminate, therefore, uncertain. It is non-separable, non-local. Therefore, action at a distance becomes possible. And contrary to the mechanistic ideal of nature-human separation, the observer “creates” the observed. An interactive, interrelated world becomes possible.

Vandana Shiva talks about her involvement with the Chipko movement

While the mechanical view forms the basis of mastery and conquest over nature, and hence is at the root of the ecological crisis, quantum and ecological paradigms have the same underlying understanding of an interconnected universe.

From the trees we learn unconditional love and unconditional giving. From the dry leaves that fall, we learn about the cycle of life and the law of return as leaves become humus and soil, protecting the earth, recycling nutrition and water, and recharging springs, wells, and streams. Forests also teach us “enoughness” as the principle of equity, enjoying the gifts of nature without exploitation and accumulation.

The diversity, harmony, and self-sustaining nature of the forest formed the organisational principles guiding Indian civilisation; the “aranya samskriti” (roughly translatable as “the culture of the forest”) was not a condition of primitiveness, but one of conscious choice.

My own biological life and ecological journey started in the forests of the Himalaya. My father was a forest conservator, and my mother chose to be a farmer after becoming a refugee following the tragic partition of India in 1947. It is through the Himalayan forests and ecosystems that most of my learning of ecology took place.

The lessons I learnt about diversity in the Himalayan forests have been transferred to the protection of biodiversity on our farms. Navdanya, the movement for biodiversity conservation and organic farming that I started in 1987, has saved seeds through creating community seed banks, and has helped farmers make the transition from fossil fuel and chemical-based monocultures to biodiverse ecological systems nourished by the sun and the soil. Biodiversity has been my teacher of abundance and freedom, of cooperation and mutual giving.

But the Chipko movement of the 1970s was not India’s first. In an earlier Chipko, in 1730, in Rajasthan, 363 people sacrificed their lives to protect their sacred khejri tree (prosopis cineraria). The khejri stands as a sentinel in the desert landscape of Rajasthan, as its poem. It is vital to sustainability in a desert ecosystem, as a source of fuel, firewood, and organic fertiliser. Its fruit, saangri, is rich in protein and is used to prepare pickles and vegetables. The shade of the khejri conserves moisture in the soil, and offers protection from the scorching sun to humans and animals.

The khejri was declared a sacred tree by Jambhoji, a saint, who founded the Bishnoi faith. Bishnoi means 29, and the faith is based on 29 rules of compassion and conservation. During a discourse to one of his disciples, Jambhoji said,

Do not fell a green tree,
This is a charter for everyone.
Be always ready to save (trees),
This is the duty of everyone.

For over two centuries, people living in accordance with these tenets created flourishing groves of trees and protected wildlife in the Rajasthan desert. One such Bishnoi village was Khejarli, situated 20 kilometres south of Jodhpur. When the king’s palace was being built, a court official, Girdhar Das, was made responsible for procuring firewood to burn the limestone required to make lime. A group arrived at the house of Amrita Devi, at home with her three young daughters, Asu Bai, Ratni Bai, and Bhagni Bai. Amrita Devi had a giant khejri growing at her doorstep. When the king’s men started to cut the tree, she tried to stop them, saying the cutting of green trees was against her religion. She said she would rather sacrifice her life than sacrifice the tree. She offered her head, and the axeman cut off her head. Her daughters followed; they, too, were beheaded. The news spread like wildfire, and Bishnois from 84 villages gathered in Khejarli to join the stream of volunteers to protect the trees; 363 people sacrificed their lives, and the sacred khejri trees were saved.

When the king of Jodhpur heard about this sacrifice, he immediately issued a royal decree making the cutting of green trees and the hunting of animals within the revenue boundaries of Bishnoi villages a crime. To this day, the Bishnois take people to court for killing their sacred species—the khejri, the black buck, and the great Indian bustard. As Rajasthan is a fragile desert, ecological survival has been possible because of the conservation ethics built into everyday rules for the protection of life.

Tree of Rajasthan, the Khejri

The forest thus nurtured an ecological civilisation in the most fundamental sense of harmony with nature. Such knowledge that came from participation in the life of the forest was not just the substance of the Aranyakas, or forest texts, but also of the everyday beliefs of tribal and peasant society. The ongoing struggle of the Dongria Kondh in Odisha to save their sacred mountain, Niyamgiri, from mining for bauxite is part of this ancient tradition.

Today, as the ecological crisis deepens with forest fires in the Arctic, floods in the desert of Ladakh, and in China and Pakistan, we can find renewed inspiration and a vision for the future from worldviews that see nature as alive and as the very basis of human life. We can thank Amrita Devi and the 363 Bishnois who sacrificed their lives so that the trees, the earth, and we, may live.



The above excerpt is from Vandana Shiva’s book Oneness vs the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom (Chelsea Green Publishing, August 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.




About Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned environmental thinker and activist, a leader in the International Forum on Globalisation, and of the Slow Food Movement. Director of Navdanya and of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and a tireless crusader for farmers’, peasants’, and women’s rights, she is the author and editor of a score of influential books, among them Making Peace with the Earth; Soil Not Oil; Globalisation’s New Wars; Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard; and Who Really Feeds the World?. Her latest book is Oneness vs the 1% (Chelsea Green Publishing, August 2020).

Photo | Kartikey Shiva

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Salmon Migration as Earth Expression

Article Living Earth

Salmon Migration as Earth Expression

Along the Klamath River in what is now California, the primary “first salmon ceremony” was conducted in a Yurok village close by the mouth of the river. After that event, strong runners were sent upriver to alert the Hoopa people that the proper rites had been accomplished, and that the spring salmon were on their way. Upon catching their own first fish, the Hoopa undertook 10 days of ceremony and prayer before allowing generalized fishing to commence. The Karuk people, many miles further upstream, moved away from the river and into the hills while the first salmon was taken and ritually eaten by their spiritual leaders.

Klamath people in dugout canoes.

One effect of such ceremonies, and of the restrictions on fishing during their enactment, was that significant numbers of early salmon were enabled to pass freely upriver to their spawning grounds, ensuring the continued replenishment of the run. The ritualized honoring of the first fish also ensured that the salmon, however abundant in the coming season, could not be taken for granted—that its flesh remained a sacrament for the people.

Across the Pacific, among the Ainu people of northern Japan, whenever any family caught the season’s first salmon from the river, the fish was passed through a special window into the house before being placed in front of the hearth fire. There, the family would address the spirit of the salmon directly, honoring it ceremonially with spoken words and ritual gestures. The household fire, for the Ainu, was itself a goddess who could see all that unfolded around her; she would report back to the other gods that the salmon had been treated with proper respect.

The Ainu held ceremonies, too, to bid goodbye to the salmon when, having left their flesh bodies behind as food, they paddled their spirit-boats back to their homes far to the east. Like other native peoples of the North Pacific, the Ainu assumed that the salmon, when they were not crowding upstream to visit the people, removed their salmon garb and lived in human form beyond the ocean horizon. Such a mythic view bound their sensory imagination to the ways of this wild creature, engendering an almost familial regard for its well-being. The view was so widespread that in the nineteenth century when several Skagit Indians from the American northwest accompanied a white expedition back to the east coast and saw the abundance of pale, pink-skinned people living there, they reported back to their tribe that they had been to salmon country and had seen the salmon walking around as human beings.2

More detached and technological approaches to tracking salmon have yielded other ways of describing their whereabouts once they depart the inland waters. Upon leaving their rivers, the salmon seem to spend the largest part of their lives swimming in great circles throughout the North Pacific. Their journeys carry them to the remotest regions of the sea, feeding and growing strong on the ocean’s abundance—on herring and smelt and other small fish—traveling distances that boggle the human mind. After several years dispersing to all points on the horizon, following their food whence it leads them, the members of a single run unerringly return to the mouth of their natal stream—all converging there, somehow, at precisely the same time. How they pull off this feat remains an enigma for present-day science. Once the salmon come close to their home stream, it is probable that they rely on their astonishingly keen sense of smell to distinguish between the subtly different waters of neighboring tributaries. But how the fish navigate across thousands of miles of ever-shifting and largely featureless ocean to make their way back to the very same coastal point from whence they set out years earlier, remains an elemental mystery to us, confounding our primate senses and our terrestrial, pedestrian logic.

Like spring monarch butterflies fluttering north toward specific clumps of milkweed that only their great-grandchildren will reach, like sandhill cranes vibrating the sky with their bugling as they drop toward a tiny patch of peat bog in the broad tundra, the migrating salmon appear to avail themselves of somatic skills far beyond our bodily ken. The only way contemporary science seems able to fathom their uncanny navigational powers is by likening the abilities of these animals to technologies of our own, human invention. We are told, over and again, that these migratory creatures make use of internal maps and internal compasses, of innate calendars and inborn clocks. Clocks, compasses, and calendars, however, are by definition external contrivances, ingeniously built tools that we deploy at will. Metaphorically attributing such instrumentation to other animals has confounding implications, suggesting a curious doubleness in the other creature—a separated sentience or self that regularly steps back, within its body or brain, to consult the map or the calendar.

It seems unlikely, however, that organisms interact with an internal representation of the land in any manner resembling our own engagement with maps. Cranes and butterflies would have little use for a separated re-presentation of the earth’s surface, for they have never torn themselves out of the encompassing presence of the wide earth. Our reliance upon such instrumental metaphors seems to stem from our over-civilized assumption of a neat distinction between living organisms and the non-living terrain that they inhabit, an unambiguous divide between animate life and the ostensibly inanimate planet on which life happens to locate itself. As long as the material ground is considered inert—as long as the elemental atmosphere or ocean is viewed as a passive substrate—then the long-range migrations of certain animals can only be a conundrum, a puzzle we will strive to solve by continually compounding various internal mechanisms that might somehow, in combination, grant a particular creature the power to grapple its way across the world. Instead of hypothesizing more metaphorical gadgets, adding further accessories to a crane’s or a salmon’s interior array of tools, what if we were to allow that the animal’s migratory skill arises from a felt rapport between its body and the breathing Earth? That a crane’s 2000 mile journey across the span of a continent is propelled by the felt unison between its flexing muscles and the sensitive Flesh of this planet (this huge curved expanse, roiling with air currents and rippling with electromagnetic pulses), and so is enacted as much by Earth’s vitality as by the bird that flies within it?

Such a conception need not contradict any of the accepted evidence gathered from a century’s research into the enigmas of animal migration; it simply offers a new way of interpreting and integrating those various evidences. By focusing our questions so intently on the organism, as if it carries all the secrets of this magic hidden inside itself, we easily lose sight of the obvious collaboration at play. By adding new gadgets to an animal’s neurological and genetic endowment, we tacitly induce ourselves to focus upon relationships interior to the organism (how, for example, does the animal bring its biological clock and its internal map to bear on its compass readings), deflecting our curiosity and attention from the more mysterious relationship that calls such interactions into being.

What is this dynamic alliance between an animal and the animate orb that gives it breath? What seasonal tensions and relaxations in the atmosphere, what subtle torsions in the geosphere help to draw half a million cranes so precisely across the continent? What rolling sequence or succession of blossomings helps summon these millions of butterflies across the belly of the land? What alterations in the olfactory medium, what bursts of solar exuberance through the magnetosphere, what attractions and repulsions…? 

Salmon Spirit

Northwest Coast Art is the term commonly applied to a style of art created primarily by artists from Tlingit, Haida, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and other First Nations and Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America, from pre-European-contact times up to the present.

Learn more about this art: Established in 1996, Coastal Peoples Gallery has brought visitors and collectors together to experience a superb collection of fine First Nations and Inuit artworks.

For surely, really and truly, these migratory creatures are not taking readings from technical instruments nor mathematically calculating angles; they are riding waves of sensation, responding attentively to allurements and gestures in the topological manifold, reverberating subtle expressions that reach them from afar. These beings are dancing not with themselves but with the animate rondure of the earth, their wider Flesh!

Consider the deep somatic attunement by which a salmon feels its way between faint electromagnetic anomalies, riding a particular angle of sun as it filters down through the rippled surface, gliding with certain currents and plunging up against others, dreaming its way through gradients of scent and taste toward a particular bend of gravel and streamside shadow. Whatever specialized sensitivities and internal organs are brought to bear, those very organs have co-evolved with textured patterns and pulses actively propagating through the elemental medium; indeed, those sensitivities have often been provoked by large-scale repetitive or rhythmic happenings proper to that part of the biosphere—by pulsed coalescences and cyclic dispersals—and so can hardly be fathomed without reference to these patterned gestures within the Body of the planet.

Perhaps it would be useful, now and then, to consider the large, collective migrations of various creatures as active expressions of the earth itself. To consider them as slow gestures of a living geology, improvisational experiments that gradually stabilized into habits now necessary to the ongoing metabolism of the sphere. For truly: are not these cyclical pilgrimages—these huge, creaturely hegiras—also pulsations within the broad Body of the earth? Are they not ways that divergent places or ecosystems communicate with one another, trading vital qualities essential to their continued flourishing?

Think again of the salmon, this gift born of the rocky gravels and melting glaciers, nurtured by colossal cedars and by tumbled trunks decked with ferns, fungi, and moss, an aquatic, muscled energy strengthening itself in the mossed and forested mountains until it’s ready to be released into the broad ocean. Pouring seaward, it adds itself to that voluminous cauldron of currents spiraling in huge gyres, shaded by algal blooms and charged by faint glissandos of whale song… Until, grown large with the sea’s abundance, this ocean-infused life flows back up the rivers and tributaries and spreads out into the wooded valleys, gifting the hollows and the needled highlands with new minerals and nutrients, feeding bears and osprey and eagles, ensuring that the glinting gift will be reborn afresh from a lump of luminous eggs stashed beneath a layer of pebbles.

This circulation, this systole and diastole,3 is one of the surest signs that this earth is alive—a rhythmic pulse of silvery, glacier-fed brilliance pouring through various arteries into the wide body of the ocean, circulating and growing there, only to return by various veins to the beating heart of the forest, gravid with new life.

Or… perhaps it’s better to think of this seasonal reciprocity as a kind of breathing, as an exhalation of millions of young salmon smolts down from the tree-thick mountains and meadows and then out into the roiling cosmos of currents and tidal flows, to mingle with zooplankton and seals and squids, and then the great in-breath, the drawing in of living nourishment from the sea into river mouths and estuaries, inhaling the salmon up those rivers into streams, and from there into the branching becks, rills, and runnels that filter into the green forests, the living lungs of this biosphere. Or is it the broad-bellied ocean that is breathing, sucking these finned nutrients down from the shaded slopes, luring them over rocks and through rapids and hydroelectric dam spillways—drawing them past bustling cities and factories, through intersecting gradients of toxic effluents that sting their mouths and strafe their exposed membranes—on out into the heaving whirl of the sea’s innards, the writhe and foam of the ocean circulating this glimmering nourishment within itself before exhaling it back, a long sighing breath, up into the wooded valleys?

However else we may view them, these deterritorializations and reterritorializations—these large migrations of various species—are a primary way that the biosphere cleanses and flexes its various organs, replenishing itself: each region drawing insights from the others, concentrating and transforming such qualities before releasing them abroad, divergent places trading perspectives along with nutrients and nucleotides, the whole half-shadowed sphere steadily experimenting, improvising, slowly altering its display to the blazing fire watching from afar, as the reflective moon rolls on ’round.



Excerpted from the free Open Source Book, Living Earth Community: Multiple Ways of Being and Knowing, a collection of the “Living Earth Community” conference papers. Edited by Sam Mickey, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim; Open Book Publishers, 2020.

This anthology examines the interplay between Nature and Culture in the setting of our current age of ecological crisis, stressing the importance of addressing these ecological crises occurring around the planet through multiple perspectives.

Read this online open source book for free here. See interviews with authors here.



Collins, June McCormick, “The Mythological Basis for Attitudes towards Animals among Salish-Speaking Indians,” Journal of American Folklore, 65 (1952), 353–59.

1 This chapter is an excerpt from “Creaturely Migrations on a Breathing Planet”—a long essay reflecting upon the wild sandhill crane, Pacific salmon, and monarch butterfly migrations, published in the inaugural issue of Emergence (an online magazine launched on Earth Day, 2018). The full essay is published here in both textual and auditory form (read by the author).

2 June McCormick Collins, “The Mythological Basis for Attitudes towards Animals among Salish-Speaking Indians,” Journal of American Folklore, 65 (1952), 353–59.

3 The two phases of the cardiac cycle.

About David Abram

Dr. David Abram, cultural ecologist and geophilosopher, is the author of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996) and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010). A Distinguished Fellow of Schumacher College in England, Abram is founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE), a consortium of individuals and organizations dedicated to cultural metamorphosis through a rejuvenation of place-based oral culture. He lives with his two children in the foothills of the southern Rockies.

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What is Solidarity?

Introduction Keynote

What is Solidarity?

I was born when all I once feared, I could love.
– Hazrat Bibi Rabia of Basra, 7th century Sufi saint

Survival has become an economizing on life. The civilization of collective survival increases dead time in individual lives to the point where the forces of death threaten to overwhelm collective survival itself. Unless, that is, the passion for destruction is replaced by the passion for life.
– Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life


One of the great crises of our times is the crisis of meaning, which is both a symptom and a cause of the broader polycrisis – the convergence of ecological, political, spiritual and social breakdown. Traditionally held certainties about humanity’s place in the world are crumbling. Those to whom we have abdicated our power – politicians, academics, doctors, experts, leaders – reflect back the confused, muddled buffoonery of a collective emperor with no clothes. Extinction illness and other psychological collateral effects are deepening both depression and denial, forcing humility and exacerbating hubris. The Anthropocene casts a long and convoluted shadow.

As the political adage goes, “we are prisoners of context in the absence of meaning.” So what then shall we do? A starting place is better understanding of and relating to the current context – i.e. assessing the nature and texture of the oxygen we breathe (even when we can’t). We can also attribute new and ancient meaning to the consequences of our actions. In this essay I argue that solidarity can play a central role in triangulating these two practices as a means towards sense-making. We can re-imagine solidarity as a communal, spiritual act. Solidarity as becoming.

Etymologically, solidarity comes from the Latin word solidus, a unit of account in ancient Rome. It then merged into French to become solidaire referring to interdependence, and then into English, in which its current definition is an agreement between, and support for, a group, an individual, an idea. It is essentially a bond of unity or agreement between people united around common cause. True to its original meaning, there is the notion of accountability at its core.

Below are some reflections on solidarity within the fast-changing context of modernity, or more aptly, the Kali Yuga, the dark ages prophesied by the Vedic traditions of India. I offer these five interlocking premises in the spirit of wondering aloud and fostering allyship. I do not claim any special expertise or moral authority. Like all truths, these are subjective notions anchored in a particular historical moment, through the medium of a biased individual (accompanied by a complex of seen and unseen forces such as ancestors), and an entangled set of antecedents bringing together the past, present and future simultaneously.

Solidarity is not something activists do. It is a requirement of being a citizen of our times.

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.
– Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene


Protesters hold hands at a rally in Baltimore. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Most of us were not taught moral philosophy outside the constructs of our institutional religions or educational systems. I would like to propose a simple, time-tested applied ethic to steer our conversation. In the troubled times we find ourselves in, our disposition should be to side with those that have less power. In the context of capitalist modernity, to borrow Abdullah Öcalan’s language, this means siding with the oppressed, the exploited, the immiserate, the marginalized, the poor.

You can examine any situation, in all its complexity, and assess the following: who has more power over the other? Who is benefitting from the other’s misery? Who is exerting domination? Where does this power come from? What are the rights of those involved? From this vantage point of critical thinking, one can then engage their moral will in support of balancing power. This can be applied to both the human and more-than-human realms of other species and animate ecosystems.

This ethic does not mean you are the judge or arbiter of final say; rather, it is a heuristic, a short-hand assessment for where to pledge your moral weight and your solidarity. Of course, the difficulty is that we are subjective beings with pre-existing identities and implicit biases. And our identities matter and impact who and how we are able to show up for others in society. Solidarity requires the cultivation of wisdom and discernment, strategy and compassion.

Sometimes being an ally to those in adverse power dynamics may mean educating the oppressor by interrupting their consciousness and steering them towards awareness of equity through relationship and commitment to their higher being. More often, solidarity requires being an accomplice rather than an ally; it requires a direct affront to power itself.

Part of our responsibility is to understand the construct of our identities. Not to transcend or bypass them, but rather, to situate our beingness (our race, gender, socio-economic status, cognitive biases, etc.) in the broader context of society in order to be in deeper kinship with others. By engaging in a perspective outside of our internalized role-type, we create the ability to disidentify, at least momentarily, with our social personas in order to be in service to others who are affected by the cultural constructs imposed on them.

However, our work of seeing and understanding the landscape and internal ley lines of intersecting identities, and the cultural byproducts they produce, does not stop here. In addition to our own inner deconstruction, we must also avail ourselves to perceiving and understanding the intersecting matrix of others – especially those who embody different histories and diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps by activating the lens of power, rendering meaning to the plight of other beings, human and otherwise, and being committed to see whole selves with multiple, intersecting identities, we can start to develop the critical capacity of moral judgement and discernment, not as something to fear, or something that others will do (e.g. activists), but rather as a requirement of being a citizen of our times.

Part of the reason we are in a crisis of meaning is that we have stopped exercising our meaning-making sensibilities – our dedication to what we deem so worthy of care that we would challenge anything, including our own constructed roles within the social hierarchy.

To become a citizen of our times requires that we understand the impoverishment of our times.

I don’t know who discovered water, but I can tell you it wasn’t a fish.
– Marshall McCluhan

A child plays in waste products used to make poultry feed at Hazaribagh in Dhaka.

We spend inordinate amounts of time consuming “culture”, yet we do not necessarily have the means to cultivate a critique of culture. Max Weber believed that the human is an animal suspended in webs of significance that we ourselves have spun. Indeed, culture is the cumulation of all those webs of significance. It is only by unveiling the threads that we can start to grasp the limitations of our perceived reality in the attempt to expand the horizon of possibility.

For those of us who live within the dominant culture of the West, our context often prevents us from understanding the consequences of our way of living. We are infantilized when it comes to basic knowledge like how money is created, where our waste goes, where our energy and resources are extracted from, where and how our food is grown, the history of our nations, and the origins of our sources of wealth.

On one level, this is an artifact of power. Privilege is a constraint. In fact, privilege is a blinding constraint. We appear to be hapless fish swimming in the ocean of neoliberal capitalism that impedes our ability to see selfishness masquerading as efficiency; destruction, war and violence wrapped in the euphemisms of economic growth and jobs; colonization masked as “development”; patriarchy obfuscated by pointing to the exceptions; structural racism occluded by “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”.

For one to understand power, one has to understand culture. In order to decode culture, one must develop critical faculties. To be critical, one must disidentify with the object of critique, in our case, the dominant culture.

This requires a de-colonization of one’s entire being. It is an ongoing praxis of deprogramming old constructs of greed, selfishness, short-termism, extraction, commodification, usury, disconnection, numbing and other life-denying tendencies. And reprogramming our mind-soul-heart-body complex with intrinsic values such as interdependence, altruism, generosity, cooperation, empathy, non-violence and solidarity with all life.

These are not programs to be swapped out or software upgrades to a computer. The mechanistic metaphors of Newtonian physics do not easily transfer to the messy reality of lived experience. These values are nurtured by entraining new beliefs, enacting new behaviors, contracting new relationships, activating new neural patterns in the brain, reordering new somatic responses in the body. And by “new”, I mean new as a subjective reference. In many ways, these are acts of remembering.

How does this apply to a politics of solidarity in practical terms? Every time we focus on a single issue that matters to us (e.g. lower corporate taxes, mandatory vaccinations, elite pedapholia rings, etc.) without examining the larger machinations of power or the interests we ally ourselves with (i.e. associational politics), we remove the possibility of true structural change. Every time we defend capitalism as a source of innovation or the “best-worst system” we have, we dishonor the 8000 species that go extinct every year and the majority of humanity that are suffering under the yoke of growth-based imperialism. Every time we say that some poverty will always exist, we condemn our fellow humans because of our own ignorance. Every time we say that we have the world we have because of human nature, we are amputating human ingenuity, connection, empathy and possibility.

We first need to understand the cultural waters we are swimming in before and during the process of forming and reforming our political perspectives. And we must deeply question any opinions we may hold that require the world to stay the way it is, especially if we are benefitting from the current order.

Solidarity is not a concept; it is an active, embodied practice

To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.
– David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Police arresting meditators at an Occupy Oakland protest in 2011. Photo via nowpublic.com

As we deepen our critique of the dominant culture, we will naturally start to oppose the values that are rewarded by our current order. By better understanding what we stand against, we will deepen our understanding of what we stand for. As we create intimacy with ideas such as solidarity, empathy, interdependence and other post-capitalist values, we refine our internal world, the felt experience of what it is to be a self-reflective, communitarian being in service to life. As we shift internally, we will find the external world of consensus reality start to mirror back these values, and in turn, our bodies will reflect the external changes.

The political transmutates into the somatic whether we are conscious of it or not. We carry the scars of history in our bodies, physically, genetically, epi-genetically and memetically. Solidarity requires that we honor history, that we do not deny or ignore the historical circumstances that led us to this moment. Techno-utopianism and the New Optimist agenda of people like Bill Gates and Stephen Pinker require amnesia and anesthesia, forgetting and numbing, as their starting place. The somatic realities of historical trauma and current life trauma, as they relate to different and intersecting social locations, presents an opportunity to redefine solidarity by engaging in relationships that actively heal the present while healing the past.

Although identities are political, they are not fixed; rather, they are emergent and ever-unfolding facets of human nature as a sub-stratum of cultural evolution. Intersectionality asks us to relate to a matrix of identities infinite in expression and limitless in nature. Rather than checking the boxes of understanding and political correctness, we are instead asked to develop our muscles of multi-faceted perception; we are asked to become more agile in our relational being and to develop a multitude of entry points to our empathy. Intersectionality challenges us to become humble in our orientation to solidarity because it requires us to question deep assumptions of our socialization. As the feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde reminds us “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We are tasked with developing a field of solidarity worthy of the complex forms humanity is dreaming itself into.

As we start to become practitioners of solidarity, we might find that our humanity expands as our conceptions of identity expand. We might find that we are more resilient in the face of the onslaught of neoliberalism and its seductive forces. We may find ourselves less susceptible to advertising propaganda or conspiracy theories on the one hand, or existential angst, despair and ennui on the other. We may find ourselves more adept at holding multiple simultaneous truths, ambiguity, apparent chaos and other paradoxes. We may find that solidarity as embodied practice is where true meaning and integrity comes from.

As we start to see how all oppression is connected, we can also start to see glimpses of how all healing is connected. And that our own liberation is not only bound up with that of others but that our collective future is dependent on it.

Solidarity is not an act of charity, rather it is a means of making us whole again. Solidarity will ask of us what charity never can.

Solidarity is a pathway to spiritual development

The world is perfect as it is, including my desire to change it.
– Ram Dass

It is a common belief that there is an oppositional relationship between inner work and outer work, spirituality and politics. They are separate domains – politics happens in halls of power or the streets, and spirituality happens in ashrams, churches, temples, forests, caves and other places of worship. This separation is often manifested in statements such as “I have to take care of myself before I can help others”. Although there is some truth in this sentiment, it overlooks the possibility that being in service to others is being in service to one’s self. The act of solidarity for another being or community of beings feeds the soul and cultivates character in ways that often cannot happen through traditional spiritual practices.

The binary thinking goes both ways. Political communities often lack deeper spiritual practices and metaphysical worldviews beyond Cartesian rationalism. Activists often get burned out because they lack spiritual resourcing and a sustained depth of purpose. On the other hand, spiritual communities are often disconnected from reality as they attempt to bypass the physical plane. Through solidarity, there is the possibility of a sacred activism that creates lasting structural change.

For example, by engaging in collective prayer as an act of solidarity, we are exerting our life-force for shared healing, knowing and trusting that our healing is entangled with the healing of all others. Our individual healing can be a consequence of our prayer, but to focus our prayers on simply our own safety, abundance, etc. is to relegate our relationship with the divine into a selfish monologue.

Often, collective prayer or contemplation can become an entry point into a more thoughtful, delicate activism. Even for those deeply steeped in direct action and political organizing, transforming reactionary impulses such as outrage into intentional prayer opens latent potentialities. By spending time in contemplation about what another being may be going through, we access the possibility to live many lives, to see many perspectives, to hear many tongues, to know many ancestors, to receive the blessings of many deities. In that sense, empathy and solidarity are gateways to what quantum physicists call non-locality.

Solidarity expands our capacity for generosity, pleasure and grief 

Generosity is doing justice without requiring justice.
– Imam Junaid of Bhagdad, 9th century Islamic scholar

Ny’Aja Roberson, 16, performs a freestyle praise dance at a protest in June.

Among activists, there has historically been a strong culture of self-flagellation, worldly denial and asceticism. This has partly contributed to a political climate bereft of pleasure, especially on the Left. This in turn repels potential allies and diminishes the appeal of social justice movements. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, a revolution without joy is not a revolution worth having. Nor will our subconscious ratify its manifestations. Part of the practice of resistance to dominant culture is to create and live alternatives of such beauty and extraordinariness that the so-called “others” are magnetically drawn to post-capitalist possibilities.

The more we develop our capacity for pleasure, the more we can access the immediacy of the present moment. The skill of being present with what is while creating what could be also allows us to access the deep grief that comes with being a human in the Anthropocene and potentiates the generosity of spirit that is required to flourish in these times.

As we remain present, as we hold what spiritual traditions call “witness consciousness” in the face of planetary destruction – of other species, of cultures and languages we will never know because of our way of living – we may also access the mythopoetic aspects of our being, the archetypal realms that can assist us in reshaping the physical world. We may start to remember that our lives are creative, shamanic acts we are performing on ourselves.

The practices of tending grief, of being faithful witness, of opening to pleasure, of deepening generosity, of expanding our circle of concern, can rewire our identities from atomized individuals having a personal experience to inter-relational beings taking part in the immensity of a self-generating cosmos.

As we shed the veils of separation and anthropocentric logic created by monocultures of the mind, we open ourselves to what the physicist David Bohm called the implicate order, an omnicentric worldview connected to the wholeness of every perceived other.

We are being prepared for even deeper complexity, breakdown, tragedy, renewal and rebirth. This transition calls upon all of us to be vigilant students of our cultures, to contemplate our entangled destinies, to abandon our entitlement, to transcend the apparent duality of inner and outer work, and to reaffirm our responsibility to each other and the interwoven fabric of our sentient planet and the living universe. Through solidarity we give more of ourselves over to the divine, to the collective unfolding, so the future can reflect back who we really are.


Special thanks to Carlin Quinn, Yael Marantz, Martin Kirk, Blessol Gathoni and Jason Hickel for their contributions. As with all acts of creation, this article was a communal endeavor.


About Alnoor Ladha

Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking, structural change, and narrative work. He was the co-founder and Executive Director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers, and others focused on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty, and climate change. TR started in 2012 as a time-bound project and an experiment in anarchist organizational design, exploring new ways of how to work, play, and make trouble together.

Alnoor comes from a Sufi lineage and writes about the crossroads of politics and spirituality in troubled times. He is a co-founder of Tierra Valiente, an alternative community and healing center in the jungle of northern Costa Rica. He is a board member of Culture Hack Labs and The Emergence Network. He holds an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics.

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CRAZYWISE | Shamanic Mysticism and Mental Wellness

Gallery Mind

CRAZYWISE | Shamanic Mysticism and Mental Wellness

Cover Image | Sukulen, 37, Mt. Nyiru, Kenya

As a young girl, Sukulen began having dizzy spells and hearing voices. She said she was very frightened and thought she was getting ill. Her grandmother assured her that she was healthy and was, in fact, very gifted. Sukulen is now a highly respected “predictor” and healer in the Samburu tribe. Two months before I arrived, she had told several people in her village that I was coming and had described in detail my appearance and the equipment I was using. 

For over twenty-five years Phil Borges has been documenting indigenous and tribal cultures. He often saw these cultures identify “psychotic” symptoms as an indicator of shamanic potential and was intrigued by how differently psychosis is defined and treated in the West.

Phil’s recent project, CRAZYWISE, explores the relevance of Shamanic traditional practices and beliefs to those of us living in the modern world. Through interviews with renowned mental health professionals including Gabor Mate, MD, Robert Whitaker, and Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD, Phil explores the growing severity of the mental health crisis in America and discovers a growing movement of professionals and psychiatric survivors who demand alternative treatments that focus on recovery, nurturing social connections, and finding meaning.

KOSMOS: You have shared wonderful portraits of shaman with the world. Your first experience with an altered state of consciousness as a cultural ritual was in Tibet?

PHIL: Yes, the State Oracle of Tibet, the Nechung Oracle is channeled through a Medium, called a Kuten and is the protector spirit of the Tibetan people. The Oracle is often consulted by the Dalai Lama on important issues. When I first met the Kuten in 1994 he was a 30-year-old monk named Thupten Ngodrup .

It was amazing to see this ceremony where he went into trance and spoke in an altered voice while the monks attending him wrote down everything he was saying. Then he lost consciousness and had to be carried out of the room. At first, I thought maybe this was a performance. To tell the truth, I just didn’t know what to think of it. However, two days later I got to interview the Kuten. He spoke little English, but I could tell, this young guy was sincere. He said, “when I’m in that state, I really don’t remember what I’m saying.” He loses himself entirely to this spirit entity that comes through him.

When we asked him how he became a Kuten he told us as a young monk he began to hear voices, had unusual mood swings, became sick and disoriented and thought he was dying. An older monk took him aside to tell him he had a special sensitivity and could be very useful to the Nechung Monastery and the Tibetan people.

KOSMOS: Very different experience than in our Western world! I’m sure, you have seen that a lot of these shamanic experiences follow similar patterns: hearing and seeing things that others can’t, being overcome by spirit, intense interest in the community about what the spirits are saying or doing.

PHIL: Yes, and I found it fascinating that they are often selected by the community for having what I always thought of as ‘a psychotic experience’ like hearing voices, having personality changes and mood swings. That interested me – what we consider “psychotic” symptoms was an indicator of shamanic potential! However, at the time, I didn’t know that twenty years later I would be making a film called CRAZYWISE that explored this further.

When I would go into a community to do a photoshoot for the UN, Amnesty International or an NGO, I’d ask “who are your healers, who are your visionaries?” And I started to hear this story over and over again – the way they were selected was most often a crisis. Once in a while it came down through a lineage like a son or daughter of a shaman would take over as a shaman. But, most of the time it was a crisis that identified the young initiate as having shamanic potential. Sometimes it was a physical crisis like a near fatal illness, but most often it was a mental/emotional crisis.

KOSMOS: Have you had any experiences you found it difficult to rationalize?

PHIL: I took my 16 year old son, Dax, on a trip to Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province to an area right on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a group of animists, the Kalash, who go back to the time of Alexander the Great, and have very different beliefs than the Islamic culture that surrounds them.

There were three shaman in the area and one of them was a goat herder who was considered to be the most powerful of the three. So Dax, our translator and I hiked up the mountain to his camp to visit him. His camp was right on the Afghan border and the shaman was a very talkative, outgoing 60 year-old man named Janduli Kahn. He said, “I want to do a ceremony for you in the morning to bless your journey.” I really didn’t want him to do it because he had to sacrifice one of his animals. They induce their trance by sacrificing an animal, then pouring the blood over burning Juniper branches and inhaling the smoke. I tried to talk him out of doing the ceremony but he insisted saying “you have traveled so far to get here I must do it.”

So, the next morning his sons started the fire, sacrificed the animal and caught their father as he fell backwards into a trance like state. A few moments later he came out of the trance, didn’t say a word and disappeared into his rock hut. We never saw him again. That was it.

So I asked the sons, “What happened when he went into the trance? Did he say anything.”? And one of them told us his father said ‘our journey would be very difficult, but we would be safe’

Dax became extremely ill over the next few days as we continued our journey into the remote Hindu Kush mountains. We were out in the middle of nowhere, literally. I mean, you would pass a shack every once in a while, and I was getting very worried. Dax couldn’t keep anything down and was very dehydrated and weak. He reached a point where he had a hard time sitting up and was slumped over.

I finally pulled off and set him under a shade tree because we had just passed a couple of little shacks.  I was panicked!! I ran back and banged on the door of one … and a doctor from Islamabad who was visiting his mother answered the door! Wow. He had an IV drip with glucose and saline and set up a cot in their back yard where we rehydrated Dax. In two hours and he was fine. Unbelievable. I could not help hearing the words of the Kalash Shaman repeating in my head. (Interview continues below the Gallery)

Namid  70   Tsagaannuur,  Mongolia

Namid started her shamanic work when she was 14 years old. I watched in amazement as she spent a whole night beating her drum, sweating profusely, spinning wildly and repeatedly falling to the floor, calling on the mountain spirit to help a woman having trouble in pregnancy. She continued to see people the next morning who had come from miles away to seek her help. One by one, she gave them the money I had just given her for my lodging. She said, “if you want to live a long life, continue to help others.” (Darkhad)

Laya  81     Banaue,  Philippines

Laya is a powerful Monbaki (shaman) in a mountain tribe called the Ifugao. When Laya was very young, his mother died and Tofong, the forest spirit, came to him shortly after. Today when Laya is treating a patient, he brings an offering into the forest for Tofong and shouts out the ill person’s name. If Tofong accepts the offering, Laya said the hair on the back of his neck will stand on end and he will feel the spirit enter his body – a good sign for the patient. The catholic church has recently lifted its ban on Ifugao rituals. (Ifugao)

Amma 89    Bulava,  Siberia

Amma had just completed an Ulchi ritual, called a kasa, for a neighbor who had died. She stayed up with the body for three days and nights while guiding the soul of the deceased to the “other world”, called Buni Village. She told me the kasa is very dangerous as the journey to Buni Village could cost her her life. Amma became a shaman rather late in life. She told me that she resisted the calling for many years because a shaman’s life is so hard. She said, “it’s not like a profession that you learn-it’s a calling one receives from the nature spirits.” (Ulchi)

Crazy…or wise?

The traditional wisdom of indigenous cultures often contradicts modern views about a mental health crisis. Is it a ‘calling’ to grow or just a ‘broken brain’? The documentary CRAZYWISE explores what can be learned from people around the world who have turned their psychological crisis into a positive transformative experience.

Watch the entire film at:

KOSMOS: We don’t yet have the capacity in our culture to explain these non-ordinary experiences or states of being. We chalk them up to coincidence or magical thinking. But something deeper seems to be going on and we have a lot of catching up to do. When did you decide to make the film?

PHIL: One evening a friend of mine and I got to talking about making a short film on meditation. And the second or third person she sent to talk with me was Adam, who is featured in the film.

When Adam was 20, he had a psychotic episode and was immediately taken to a psychiatrist and put on a whole medication routine. And it went very badly for him. He was on 15 pills a day and having horrible side effects. So he stopped all his medication at once and did a 10 day silent meditation retreat, meditating 10 to 14 hours per day. I’ve since learned this is a very dangerous thing to do but it worked for Adam and he was able to go back to his job at a Whole Foods grocery store. I thought his story was very interesting, so I decided to start interviewing him every 2 to 3 weeks. He continued doing the meditation retreats until his fourth retreat when issues of a childhood molestation came up for him. He was quite upset but the retreat leaders were unable to handle that type of a problem and sent him home. When he told his parents that his grandfather had molested him they didn’t believe it.

Consequently he was rejected by his main pillars of support– his parents and the meditation community. It was shocking to see how fast he spiraled down after that happened. I mean, he was a healthy, normal kid when I met him and within a couple of weeks after that he lost his job and became homeless. He even looked totally different!!

KOSMOS: I have seen this before, that what we call a psychotic episode can completely transform the person  – even the way they look in some cases, the way they talk, their whole demeanor.

PHIL: Especially the way they talk. I delved into the neuroscience of this and it’s fascinating what is being discovered right now, actually. Anyway, Adam became the catalyst for the film, CRAZYWISE. The film does not seek to over-romanticize indigenous wisdom, or completely condemn Western treatment. Not every indigenous person who has a crisis becomes a shaman. And many individuals benefit from Western medications. However, I believe indigenous peoples’ acceptance of non-ordinary states of consciousness, along with the use of rituals and metaphor that form deep connections to nature, to each other, and to their ancestors, is something we can learn from.

The loss of ego that can come from a mental/emotional crisis is a spiritual experience. Absolutely is! And many who successfully navigate the experience without being frightened can emerge stronger with more purpose and compassion.

But that’s the key. Often when you come back and you tell the people who love you the most, – your parents or your lover, or your boss, or your best friends – about things you’ve experienced that they can’t relate to. They get frightened and you pick up on that. The person in this state is extra sensitive to colors, to sounds, all their senses are amped up. Somebody who’s turned up the volume on all their senses, can pick up those feelings coming from other people and it scares them.

One of the things I’ve heard over and over again is, any time there’s a sense of unease or fear coming from those who know them best–it can make them think, ‘Yeah, maybe I am crazy. Something’s wrong here’, when what they really need is unconditional love and acceptance.

KOSMOS: Maybe the same is true on a collective level, that as a species or at least as a society, we can’t transform our collective trauma without new ways of understanding and radical love. What is coming up for you when you think about the collective experience that we’re now going through?

PHIL: I’ve talked to hundreds of people that have gone through that on a personal level – transformation coming out of crisis. Again, if they successfully navigate it, they usually come out with a lot more compassion and a lot more empathy.

So, if it’s anything like a personal crisis, our collective crisis has to be framed correctly.

This is a breaking down of the old concepts and structures, from our use of fossil fuels to the way we see different humans and non-humans as ‘other’. This is the breaking down in preparation for a birth of a whole new way of seeing and being in the world. And, it can go very badly if it isn’t framed properly – as a breakthrough rather than breakdown.

Our collective psychological crisis can also be an opportunity for growth and potentially transformational, not a just a catastrophe without meaning.

About Phil Borges

Phil Borges, has been documenting indigenous cultures and striving to create an understanding of the challenges they face for over 25 years. For his program, Stirring the Fire, Phil produced and filmed several short films, capturing the stories of women heroes and the issues they face all over the world, both as solo projects and in collaboration with organizations such as UN Women and CARE. Phil has spoken at multiple TED talks; including TED in 2007, TEDxRainier in 2012 and TEDxUMKC in 2013 and hosted television documentaries for Discovery and National Geographic.

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We The "Peoples" | The UN at 75

Essay UN2020

We The “Peoples” | The UN at 75

Throughout the ages, humanity has been advancing on a winding path towards higher degrees of maturity. The well-being of humankind is not static; it requires ever greater degrees of commitment to fulfilling ever increasing ambitions. At each stage, even significant advances may prove inadequate. And it is in these moments of great crisis when humanity is called on, by virtue of the prevailing circumstances, to reconsider its trajectory. Largely, though not exclusively, driven by enormous tragedy, these moments are significant in the narrative of human progress. They become key markers, elements of our unfolding story—though, their historical import may be difficult to discern at the time. Few could have predicted, for instance, the extent and effect of either of the World Wars at their outset—yet the duration and depth of both tragedies gave rise to new conceptions of global governance, as seen in the emergence of the League of Nations and United Nations, respectively.

Read the Declaration and Plan

At this, the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, the world is seeing yet another collective tragedy unfolding in COVID-19, its effects analogous to that of a war, though of a different form. And many predict that it presages additional global calamities. Like previous historic inflection points, a robust dialogue on the future of humanity is needed. The People’s Declaration and Program for Global Action adopted at the UN75 People’s Forum in May is one contribution to this necessary global discourse. Completed before the Declaration to be adopted by world leaders later this month, it offers an approach to the global problems we face that goes beyond the confines of political boundaries. Speaking in the voice of “we the peoples”, it analyzes the reality of the world in which we live, articulates the needs of humanity in light of that reality, and lays out a process by which those needs can be met. It turns to the UN in its current form as a starting point for further iteration, but challenges some of the underlying assumptions which, although helpful at the inception of the UN, have shown their limitations in light of present circumstances.

The People’s Declaration was put together through a process of collecting perspectives from a wide range of voices around the world and identifying points of convergence at the highest level of consensus. Recognizing that “progress depends on universal participation” and that “the advance of one leads to the advance of all,” by harmonizing our diverse perspectives we hope to help humanity walk a path towards greater flourishing.

The hope is that significant change at this time of profound transition can be ushered in without comparable degrees of suffering. Through a lively and growing discussion, we hope to articulate a compelling vision for humanity, one that describes a destiny in which our highest aspirations find expression. While the great sacrifices that led to the League of Nations and the United Nations can be measured in the immense loss of life, let us commit to bringing about a more just and equal world through only the loss of outworn ideas and narrow self-interest.


In order to advance a conversation on the future of humanity, there are certain necessary preconditions. First, and most importantly, we must acknowledge that we do not have a system for global governance suited to today’s needs and that we do not know what that system will look like. Logically, this leads to acknowledging a second point: humanity’s interconnectedness, oneness and, accordingly, our shared destiny. This is what distinguishes the modern era from any time that preceded it.

Third, certain values in pursuit of equality and dignity must increasingly guide our behavior: the search for truth, trustworthiness, justice, honesty, integrity, to list a few. Finally, as consensus around these three points is consolidated, substantive dialogue and experimentation around new arrangements of governance can take place.

Specific reforms have been presented time and again, but they often meet resistance—often for reasons of territorial sovereignty. By looking at areas of the UN where the ceding of sovereignty has produced useful results (e.g. technical bodies like the International Telecommunication Union and the International Civil Aviation Organization), similar measures could help serve to strengthen the hand of those trying to enact reforms of the peace and security architecture, or the climate and environmental institutions. More dramatic ideas, like a global tax body, a standing reserve force, or a World Parliament would be well served by further discussion and the broadening of consensus. This historic UN anniversary, coincident with the unfortunate nexus of cascading global crises, lends an opportunity for sustained deliberations about the next steps in humanity’s efforts towards just governance at all levels.

Ultimately, humanity requires a global structure that is as integrated and comprehensive as the global realities it faces. While its implementation may seem out of reach at the moment, as Nelson Mandela famously said, “it always seems impossible, until it’s done.” So let’s get to work.

About Daniel Perell

Daniel Perell joined the Baha’i International Community’s United Nations Office as a Representative in 2011. His areas of work include social and sustainable development, global citizenship, human rights, the role of religion in society, and defense of the Baha’i Community. He is currently a Global Organizing Partner of the NGO Major Group and the Chair of the NGO Committee for Social Development.

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Making the Case for a Small Farm Future

Article Resilience

Making the Case for a Small Farm Future

For a good stretch of the last 20 years, I’ve tried as best I can to be a small-scale farmer. The results have varied from the worthwhile to the hapless, always constrained by a world geared to treating the efforts of farmers in general, and small-scale farmers in particular, with indifference at best. But my story isn’t about those efforts, or that indifference. Instead, it considers what may be impelling humanity toward a small farm future; what (in broadest outline) that future might look like; and the forces that may deliver itor something worse.

Still, let me start that journey with my feet on my farm. When people visit it, I notice three main responses. One is an unbidden enthusiasm for the rural paradise we’ve created, the beauty of the place, and our great good fortune in avoiding the rat race and producing honest food from the land. Sometimes the words are spoken and sometimes I only see it in their eyes, but the sentiment that usually accompanies it is: “This is great. I wish I could do something like this, but I can’t because—”

The second response takes in our rustic accommodation, the compost toilets, the rows of hard-won vegetable beds, the toolshed speaking of the work to be done, the reek of manure and compost with a kind of recoiling pity. It seems to say: “You went to graduate school and got a well-paid job. Then this. How did it go so wrong?” Or the more actively disdainful: “Each to their own. But nobody wants to farm any more. All that backbreaking work!”

The third response is that of the harsher critic, whose gaze homes in on specificsthe tractor in the yard, the photovoltaic panels on the roof, the tilled beds in some of the gardens. “Look how tied in you are to the global fossil fuel economy and its cash nexus.” This critique comes from both sides of the green divide. “You haven’t properly escaped and found a truly natural way of life,” from one side. “You talk about sustainability, but you’re no better than the rest of us. Besides, small farms like this can’t feed the world,” from the other.

I begin with this story because I’m going to be arguing not only that, yes, small farms like this can feed the world, but also that in the long run it may only be small farms like this that can. Therefore, I’m going to have to address the other criticismsthe compromises with the status quo, the low prestige and toil associated with an agrarian life, the global flight from the land. So I have a lot of work to do in these pages. One thing that encourages me is that, of the three responses I mentioned above, the first seems much the commonestit simply isn’t true that nobody wants to farm.

But people aren’t willing to farm under just any circumstances. Too often, farming is still a life of unrewarded toil, not because that’s intrinsically how it has to be but because farming is, as it were, the engine room of every societyincluding our present oneswhere the harsh realities and dirty secrets of how it achieves its apparently effortless motion are locked away below decks. I argue here that they need to be unlocked and shared more widely. But for now my visitors who say, “I can’t because . . .” are correct. A congenial small farm life is a viable option for fewnot for the massed ranks of the employed, unemployed, or underemployed in the cityscapes of the world, and not for its multitudes of rural poor, who can scarcely make a living from the land. But in both cases the dream of the small farm lives on, and that’s an important place to start.

Of course, it’s only a place to start, and a sketchy one at that. Notions of the agrarian good life are commonplace around the world, but often they figure as little more than bucolic symbols, empty of pragmatic content. They seem to lack the power of the urban case for supremacy, which has deep historic roots. City, citizenship, civilisation, civility: so much that we value about our world shares an urban etymology. But if we want to build good lives on lasting foundations for the future, the time has come to abandon the unilluminating oppositions of city versus country and factory versus farm, as well as associated oppositions like progress versus backwardness.

Regrettably, that’s not how public debate seems to be going. There’s a veritable industry of opinion-formers laying their bets only on the first half of those dualities and exhorting us to be “optimistic” about a future presented as urban, capital forming, high-tech, and non-agrarian. This neo-optimist or progress-literature often invokes recurrent myths of human technological problem-solving as an inspiration for transcending present problems. Take, for example, London’s Great Horse Manure Crisis in the 1890s, where it’s said that people feared the proliferation of horses would bury the streets under their faeces, only to find horses were soon displaced by non-defecating motor vehicles. Or take the idea that fossil fuels saved the whales when kerosene-burning lamps displaced demand for whale oil.1

I call these myths partly in the everyday sense that they’re untrue. There never was a Great Horse Manure Crisis in the 1890s. And it was the industrialised whaling of the 20th century powered by fossil fuels that really put whales in danger.2 But they’re also myths in the deeper sense that they’re mystifying and oversimplifying stories that reveal cultural self-conceptions. The self-conception of our modern culture that’s revealed in these myths is that the problems we face are discrete, technical ones with one-shot solutions.

These stories are mystifying because they tell tales of fossil fuel–based solutions to predicaments in the past at a point in our current history when fossil fuels present us with problems for which there are no obvious solutions. Right now, we need more than banal assertions that someone’s bound to think of something. And they’re oversimplifying because human capacities for technical innovation aren’t in doubt. What’s in doubt is the human capacity to find purely technical solutions for a plethora of current economic, political, cultural, ecological, biological, and geophysical problems with complex, interrelated feedback loops exhibiting imperfect information in real time.

In my book I try to provide a different narrative that’s less impressed with techno-fixes or dominant notions of civilisational progress. I don’t deny that our contemporary civilisation has its successes. But it has its failures, too. I see it in the eyes of those visitors to my farmwho in material terms must surely count among the richest people in the world, everwhich betray a life diminished, trammeled by too many of the wrong kind of obligations. More importantly, I see it in the fact that the world we live in today is just about the most unequal one ever, where somewhere between 800 million and 2.5 billion people are physically undernourished, about as many (or more) than the estimated 800 million population of the entire planet in 1750 at the dawn of the modern age.3

These undernourished people haven’t missed out on progress, but in large measure are its victims. If global industrial civilisation ever had the capacity to lift the poor and undernourished people of the world to something like the standard of living we experience in the richer countries, the chances of it doing so now have been extinguished in the face of the numerous internal and external threats that have emerged globally during the questionable march of modernisation. So I’d counter the neo-optimist view that the world’s problems can be solved with high-tech fixes delivered by the reigning capitalist economy, not with pessimism but with an alternative optimisman optimism that this reigning economy won’t endure much longer, and will be succeeded by something that offers a better future.

The better future I write about here is a small farm future. I’m not completely optimistic that it’s the future we or our descendants will see, but for the numerous reasons set out in the book I think it’s our best shot for creating future societies that are tolerably sustainable in ecological terms and fulfilling in nutritional and psychosocial ones. Now is a key moment in global politics where we might start delivering that future, but also where more troubling outcomes threaten. Here I try to herald the former by sketching what a small farm future might look like, and how we might get there.

The small farm isn’t a panacea, but what a politics geared around it can offerwhat, perhaps, at least some of the visitors who come to our farm can glimpse in outlineis the possibility of personal autonomy, spiritual fulfillment, community connectedness, purposeful work, and ecological conviviality. Relatively few farmers past or present have enjoyed these fine things. Throughout the world, there are long and complex histories by which people have been both yoked unwillingly to the land and divested unwillingly from it in ways that are misrepresented when we talk of agricultural “improvement” or progressive “freedom” from agricultural toil. The improvements haven’t been an improvement for everyone, the freedom hasn’t been equally shared, the progress has landed us in a whole raft of other problems that we must now try to overcome. And none of it was preordained.

That’s why it’s urgent at this point in history to think afresh about a small farm future. Taking each of the three words in reverse order, we need to think about the future, because it’s clear that present ways of doing politics, economics, and agriculture in much of the world are reaching the end of the line. Wise authors avoid speculating on future events because time usually makes their words look foolish, but such dignity isn’t a luxury our generation can afford. We need to start imagining another world into being right now.

Modern thinkers have coined numerous terms for the way we now live to distinguish it from the past: the affluent society, the effluent society, industrial society, post-industrial society, Industria, consumer society, postmodern society, the information society, the virtual society. These all capture something significant about our times, but they too easily allow us to forget that, in fact, our modern societies are agrarian societies, just like almost all other human societies over the past few thousand years. Humanity today relies heavily on just three cropswheat, rice, and maizeall of which had been domesticated by about 7000 BCE, and which are still mostly grown using techniques whose basic outlines would be instantly recognisable to any ancient farmer. Despite the recent hype over industrially cultured nutrients, the future we face is probably a farm future.4

Computers nowadays have millions of times more processing power than the ones available just 50 years ago, whereas average global wheat yields are less than nine times higher than those achieved in the Roman Empire.5 In dimensions that matter most to our continued existence, we’re less distant from our ancient counterparts than we sometimes think. And the agricultural improvements that we’ve achieved since those times have often come through processes that draw down on non-renewable sources of energy, soil, and water while imperiling climate and ecological stability.

Whether individually we farm or not, almost all of us ultimately are farming people. In fact, there are more farmers in the world today by formal definitionsomewhere between 1.5 and 2 billionthan at almost any point in history.6 There are good farmers and bad farmers. The best ones learn to produce what’s needed with a minimum of effort, without compromising the possibilities of their successors doing the same or losing sight of their obligations as members of communities. It’s about time we started trying to tell the story of our world from their perspectivenot a story of how we transcended agriculture, because we never did, but of how we might transfigure it, and ourselves in the process, to deal with the problems we now face.

I don’t think I have much to teach other people about how to farm, nor do the precise techniques that are used from place to place seem the most important focus of attention. But I am a farmer, and so are you if you grow any of your own food or fibre or would like to increase your community’s capacity for self-provisioning.

It’s the importance of this local self-provisioning that turns a farm future into a small farm future. I’m not suggesting there’s no place in the future for any larger farms, or that large-scale farmers are always the bad guys. In itself, small isn’t necessarily beautiful and I won’t be proposing any cutoff points by acreage to define the small farm. Small farms play a key role in creating local autonomies from global flows of capital; they involve a degree of self-provisioning at the individual, household, or local level; they employ labour-intensive techniques applied more often by family or household labourers than salaried workers; they adjust their activities to sustain the ecological base in their locality that underpins their productivity; and they tend to operate in a de-commodifying (but not necessarily un-commodified) way compared to large farms.

“Local” or “locality” looms large in many of those features, perhaps merely displacing the need to define the “small” into a need to define the “local.” Again, on this point I refuse hard and fast delineations. The local isn’t a matter of prior definition but emerges out of how autonomies and self-provisioning are achieved in practice. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that the small farm future I’m describing isn’t the same as a green consumerism future, where shoppers with lives much like the ones most people lead in rich countries today buy their food in stores like the ones they shop in today, except that the food is more local, more sustainable, more organic or whateverand where, like today, people spend time fruitlessly arguing about whether local really is more sustainable. Instead it’ll be a future where you or your descendants are trying to figure out how to furnish your needs from your locality, probably by furnishing many of them for yourself, because you have few other choices.

For some, that may sound too dystopian, apocalyptic, or declinist. There certainly may be some dystopian or apocalyptic futures awaiting us unless we play our present hand of cards with skill. But a small farm future only represents a decline from the large farm present if you consider the latter to be a lofty civilisational summit to which humanity has laboriously climbed. That’s a view I resist. If we play our cards well, the small farm future I describe here could make for a much more congenial life for most of the world’s people than the one they experience today. But we do need to play them well. This is a time in history to be open to a fundamental rethink of how we organise ourselves globally. Too much of our present futurology aims to double down on existing technical and social logics, and dismiss radical alternatives out of hand. At the same time, there’s a good deal of received wisdom in the alternative agriculture and alternative economics movements that could use more critical scrutiny.

I don’t claim to have fully achieved that rethink here, or to have produced a thoroughly worked out alternative. The idea of a small farm future is so marginal and ill-developed within contemporary thought that at present merely laying out its broad outlines is a daunting enough task. So I offer this book as a kind of critical introduction, a way of starting to organise thinking about what a widespread turn to agrarian localism might look like. This seems worth doing because even though the idea of a small farm future is currently marginal to mainstream thought, it’s probably the best future now available for most of humanity, and we don’t seem to be discussing the implications of that nearly seriously enough.


The above excerpt is from the Introduction to Chris Smaje’s new book, A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.



  1. See, for example, Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (Verso, 2019); John Browne and Jason Hickel, “Should We Pursue Boundless Economic Growth?” Prospect, June 12, 2019: 30.
  1. Daniel Francis, A History of World Whaling (Toronto: Viking, 1990); Merrill Gosho et al., “The Sperm Whale,” Marine Fisheries Review, 46(4) (NMFS/NOAA, 1984), 60–64; Rose Wild, “We Were Buried in Fake News as Long Ago as 1894,” The Times, Jan. 13, 2018.
  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), n.d.; Jason Hickel, The Divide (London: Penguin Random House, 2017); Eric Holt-Giménez,  “Capitalism, food, and social movements: The political economy of food system transformation,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (2019); Branko Milanovic (2016); UNICEF, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018 (Sept. 2018).
  1. See Oliver Morrison, “‘Cultured Meat Is Fool’s Gold’: Environmentalists Lock Horns over Controversial Documentary,” Food navigator.com, Jan. 10, 2020.
  1. FAO n.d.; Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017).
  2. International Labor Organization, n.d.; Miguel A. Altieri and Peter Rosset, Agroecology: Science and Politics (UK: Fernwood Publishing, 2017).

About Chris Smaje

Chris Smaje has coworked a small farm in Somerset, Southwest England, for the last fifteen years. Previously, he was a university-based social scientist, working at Goldsmiths College on aspects of social policy, social identities, and the environment. Smaje writes the blog, Small Farm Future, and is a featured author at Resilience.org. He is the author of A Small Farm Future, Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2020. (Photo, Cordelia Rowlatt).

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