I expect there is a real danger in sharing these very preliminary drafts of my doctoral thesis, but heck, they may well change out of all recognition by the time I get to the final draft, so I could equally justify sharing them now because they may never see the light of day otherwise.

Anyhow, following on from last week, here some more vaguely DProf-related thoughts that I would like to share.


I have noticed, in various conversations both public and private, an emerging understanding that what is needed to create a more sustainable future is nothing short of a “shift in consciousness”. There is a danger, however, that this term is used as a shorthand for a concept that is rarely made explicit, and I have been as guilty of this as anybody. Given the enormous difficulty of even defining consciousness as a standalone concept, let alone a shift in consciousness, this enquiry could turn into a never-ending rabbit hole, but I think we can relatively easily find a definition that is sufficient to suit our purposes.

Donella Meadows, lead author of the Club of Rome-commissioned 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, drew on systems change theory to arrive at a list of the twelve most powerful leverage points in a system. Her full list, in increasing order of effectiveness is:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).

5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

Here I am particularly interested in the top two, which I believe sum up the essence of a shift in consciousness. If “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises” means the perception of reality that governs the way we organise our world, then if the way we organise our world is failing, we need to transcend that paradigm and find a better one. It is increasingly apparent that our current mindset/paradigm is not going to serve our long term needs as a species. Kate Raworth, who names Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth) and Elinor Ostrom (Nobel Prize Winner for her work on the tragedy of the commons) as key influences (as they have been for me too), takes the nine planetary boundaries set out by Rockstrom et al, and identifies overshoot in four of them: climate change, biodiversity loss, land conversion, and nitrogen and phosphorus loading. Any of these in isolation would be serious; in combination, they are catastrophic. Our need for the power to transcend paradigms is urgent.

The reason that I am dwelling on the need for a new narrative of connection is that I believe that we need to rethink our worldview from this deep level in order to generate the shift in consciousness to support our transition from an ecologically destructive economic model to a regenerative one, and from a warlike domination-based society to a peaceful one centred on partnership. Only when we have institutional structures rooted in a narrative of humanity as part of an interconnected web of life, in which there is no “away”, and we co-exist in the closed loop system of Planet Earth, can we aspire to true sustainability.

As George Monbiot says in his 2019 TED Talk on the new political story that could change everything:

“Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. When we want to make sense of something, the sense we seek is not scientific sense but narrative fidelity.”

He goes on to say that all the fundamental transformations in society have occurred when a new narrative came along that offered a more compelling and resonant interpretation of what was going on. When a narrative fails, as the neoliberal capitalist narrative has been failing since 2008, transformation cannot happen unless there is a new organising narrative, and so far that new narrative has failed to materialise. He proposes that what we need is a shift from the narrative of “extreme individualism and competition” to a narrative of “altruism and cooperation”.

Albert Einstein also spoke convincingly on this subject:

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

Likewise, the Buddhist scholar and creator of The Work That Reconnects, Joanna Macy:

“I consider that this shift [to an emphasis on our “capacity to identify with the larger collective of all beings” ] is essential to our survival at this point in history precisely because it can serve in lieu of morality and because moralising is ineffective. Sermons seldom hinder us from pursuing our self-interest, so we need to be a little more enlightened about what our self-interest is. It would not occur to me, for example, to exhort you to refrain from cutting off your leg. That wouldn’t occur to me or to you, because your leg is part of you. Well, so are the trees in the Amazon Basin; they are our external lungs. We are just beginning to wake up to that. We are gradually discovering that we are our world.”

And biologist Paul Ehrlich:

“The main hope for changing humanity’s present course may lie … in the development of a world view drawn partly from ecological principles – in the so-called deep ecology movement. The term ‘deep ecology’ was coined in 1972 by Arne Naess to contrast with the fight against pollution and resource depletion in developed countries, which he called ‘shallow ecology’. The deep ecology movement thinks today’s human thought patterns and social organisation are inadequate to deal with the population-resource-environmental crisis – a view with which I tend to agree. I am convinced that such a quasi-religious movement, one concerned with the need to change the values that now govern much of human activity, is essential to the persistence of our civilisation.”

Philosopher Arne Naess:

“The ecosophical outlook is developed through an identification so deep that one’s own self is no longer adequately delimited by the personal ego or the organism. One experiences oneself to be a genuine part of all life .. We are not outside the rest of nature and therefore cannot do with is as we please without changing ourselves … Paleontology reveals .. that the development of life on earth is an integrated process, despite the steadily increasing diversity and complexity. The nature and limitation of this unity can be debated. Still, this is something basic. “Life is fundamentally one.””

So the idea of needing a new narrative that emphasises connection rather than separation is far from new. Both the Presencing approach and the Deep Ecology approach offer a worldview in which everything is connected so that damage inflicted on any aspect of the world impacts on the whole, including the one doing the damaging.

Why has it not yet caught on with a sufficiently large proportion of the population for it to become the dominant narrative in our culture?

Most people’s personal experience is based on having been enculturated into a worldview of separation. Arguably, it has been because the entire neoliberal/political apparatus, with all its power, that wants to maintain the status quo, and is heavily invested, both financially and culturally, in ensuring that human individuals remain isolated and locked in mutual competition. This is the narrative on which the neoliberal experiment depends, the narrative on which GDP as a measurement of success depends, and the narrative that is leading us towards ecological and social destruction.

So how do we change this narrative, when it is enshrined in every aspect of our white, western culture from media to politics to advertising to entertainment? The narrative that we so urgently need still lives on in the few tiny pockets of indigenous culture that we have allowed to survive, and we see the moral authority of the Native Americans taking a stance on issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline. But mostly we have rendered these groups voiceless and powerless, at the time when we need them most.


P.S. I feel that there is a shift taking place. It’s hard to quantify, and mostly anecdotal, based on my own experiences and conversations.

The question is, will the shift be big enough and fast enough to do what needs to be done?


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