Excerpt | ‘The Patterning Instinct’: Transforming our Society to Sustainable Flourishing

By Jeremy Lent

Excerpted from the final two chapters of Jeremy Lent’s recent book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which explores the different ways cultures have patterned meaning into the cosmos, and how various worldviews arose and shaped the course of history. “The book uncovers the hidden foundations of our modern unsustainable worldview, and offers a potential vision for a more harmonious future.”

The Great Transformation

What would it take to navigate toward a future of sustainable flourishing? The economic system driving our current trajectory would need to be transformed, along with its underlying values: the pursuit of never-ending material growth and the glorification of humanity’s conquest of nature. Could such a drastic transformation of our global system really take place in the foreseeable future?

A Great Transformation would need to be founded on a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth into the future. In place of root metaphors such as nature as a machine and conquering nature, the new worldview would be based on the emerging systems view of life, recognizing the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth, and seeing humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.

Three core values emerge from this worldview. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. In place of the global obsession with defining progress in terms of economic output and material wealth, we would begin to prioritize progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we would base political, social and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we would build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.

The movement for a shared humanity

It may sound impossibly idealistic that the view of humanity as a sharing community could form the basis for a worldwide shift in ideology, but many historical examples show how powerful this vision can be. The abolitionist movement of the 19th century succeeded in putting an end to slavery, which had previously been seen as integral to the global economy. In more recent decades, movements have fought for the preservation of the natural world. When Rachel Carson published her exposé of the indiscriminate use of pesticides in 1962, her solitary stand was denounced as hysterical and unscientific. Only eight years later, at the first Earth Day in 1970, twenty million Americans marched to protect the environment, and by 1990 two hundred million people in 141 countries across the world were demonstrating for the earth.

What’s more, the values of the Great Transformation are already held by large segments of the world’s population. Environmental activist Paul Hawken has estimated that there are more than a million organizations worldwide, both large and small, engaged in humanitarian causes. This dispersed and unstructured grouping of concerned citizens constitutes, in his mind, “the largest social movement in all of human history.”

The potential impact of this social movement is increased by the power of the internet to amplify each individual group’s effectiveness through its networked connectivity. Hawken points to Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the usefulness of a network grows exponentially when its connections grow arithmetically. In this way, the collective action of small groups of individuals can potentially become a global force to countervail the massive corporate networks that currently dominate global civilization. The global culture emerging from the internet offers humanity a view of itself as an interconnected whole, inviting people to see themselves as part of a web of life encompassing the entire world.

The ease with which the internet transmits ideas across the world means that, when the time comes, the transformation of global consciousness could occur at a speed which might surprise everyone. It is part of our evolved human nature to stick together with our group’s attitudes or opinions, even when a changing situation leaves those attitudes out of date, which can frequently cause social rigidity and political inertia. When thought leaders emerge offering new ways of thinking, they gradually attract increasing numbers of people until a tipping point is reached, when the “stickiness” that kept people attached to their old pattern of thinking is superseded by the pull of the new ideas. All of a sudden, the gradual shift in ideas becomes an avalanche when those who are most comfortable sticking together find themselves in a rush to join in the new way of thinking. In the age of the internet, this tipping point can conceivably be reached much more rapidly than in the past.

Choosing our future

What would the latter part of this century look like if our global civilization took the path of a Great Transformation? It’s likely we’d see a reorganized United Nations, with powers to enforce a more responsible approach to our global commons, such as the oceans, the atmosphere and the environment. When corporations and governments make investment decisions, they’d explicitly factor the externalities of the natural world into their cost/benefit analyses. While there would still be massive income inequality between rich and poor nations, that gap would be decreasing as a result of economic structures based on fairness rather than untrammeled exploitation. And the flourishing of the natural world would be given a high priority in global decision making. There might even be an enforceable UN Declaration of the Rights of Nature, putting the natural world on the same legal standing as humanity.

It’s a relay race against time in which every one of us is part of the team. What is ultimately required is a shift towards a new way of finding meaning from our existence. Many visionaries and deep thinkers today recognize the need for a new global consciousness, based on an underlying and all-infusing sense of connectedness. The meaning we derive must arise from our connectedness if we are to succeed in sustaining our civilization into the distant future: connectedness within ourselves, to other humans, and to the entire natural world.

About the Author

Jeremy Lent’s writings investigate the patterns of thought that have led our civilization to its current crisis of sustainability. In addition to The Patterning Instinct, he is author of the science-fiction novel Requiem of the Human Soul and founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute  dedicated to fostering an integrated worldview that could enable humanity to flourish sustainably on the earth.

More about The Patterning Instinct 

“A tour de force on the biological and 
psychological background of the human predicament” 
—Paul Ehrlich, author of Human Natures“Perhaps the most profound and far-reaching book I’ve ever read”
George Monbiot, The Guardian