[We are] a young species growing up
A new cultural narrative is emerging — one that unites humanity in our interdependence with the wider community of life. This new and ancient story of interbeing with life and as life is driving people and communities around the world to create diverse, locally adapted, thriving cultures in global collaboration. Regenerative cultural patterns are beginning to emerge as an “expression of life in the process of transforming itself”. Václav Havel saw the need for such a societal transformation when he wrote in The Power of the Powerless:
A genuine, profound and lasting change for the better […] can no longer result from the victory […] of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps […] it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. If it is to be more than just a new variation on the old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.
Václav Havel (1985: 30)
Humanity is coming of age and needs a ‘new story’ that is powerful and meaningful enough to galvanize global collaboration and guide a collective response to the converging crises we are facing. Transformational responses at a personal and collective level take place when we question deeply ingrained ways of being and seeing and in the process begin to reinvent ourselves. In doing so we also change how we participate in shaping culture through our interaction with the world around us.
From a long-term perspective, as a relatively young species on this planet we are collectively undergoing a maturation process which requires us to redefine how we understand our relationship to the rest of life on Earth — facing the choices of either collapse or profound transformation. The basic story we are telling about humanity — who we are, what we are here for and where we are going — no longer serves us as a functional moral compass.
Just as teenagers coming of age must learn not to just demand from family and society but to contribute meaningfully, humanity can no longer continue to draw down the natural capital stores of the Earth. We have to learn to live within the limits of the Earth’s bioproductive capacity and use current solar income instead of ancient sunlight (stored in the Earth’s crust as oil, gas, and coal) to provide our energy. In stepping from our juvenile — and at times reckless and self-absorbed — phase as a young species into a mature membership of the community of life on Earth we are called to become productive members of this community and to contribute to its health and wellbeing.
Mature community membership means a shift towards a form of enlightened self- interest that goes as far as questioning the notion of a separate and isolated self at its very core. In the fundamentally interconnected and interdependent planetary system we participate in, the best way to care for oneself and those closest to oneself is to start caring more for the benefit of the collective (all life). Metaphorically speaking, we are all in the same boat: our planetary life support system, or in Buckminster Fuller’s words: ‘spaceship Earth’. The ‘them-against-us’ thinking that for too long has defined politics between nations, companies and people is profoundly anachronistic.
Humanity as a whole is facing imminent climate chaos and the breakdown of ecosystems functions vital to the survival of our species and many others. We will not find the solutions to these problems by continuing to base our thinking on the same erroneous assumptions about the nature of self and world that created them in the first place.
We need a new way of thinking, a new consciousness, a new cultural story; only then will we be able to get the questions right, seeing more clearly what underlying needs have to be met. If we jump into action without deeper questioning, we are likely to treat symptoms rather than causes. This will prolong and deepen the crisis rather than solve it.
Even just subtle differences in word-use affect how we co-create culture. For example, to refer to the natural processes of cleaning water, capturing sunlight and carbon dioxide into biomass, building fertile soils, stopping erosion, or regulating climate as ‘ecosystems services’ (e.g. Costanza, et al., 2013) is a useful strategy to ensure that these services are included in our economic accounting and recognized as the primary source of value creation in the global economy.
On the other hand — implicitly — the words ‘ecosystems services’ carry a utilitarian attitude towards nature as if these processes were only valuable as long as they provide services to humanity. Using the term ‘ecosystems functions’ acknowledges that they are vital functions that enable the continued evolution of life as a whole. Worldviews are created and transformed by paying attention to how we shape experiences and reinforce perspectives through the words and metaphors we use.
Humanity is facing the terminal crisis of an outdated worldview. This crisis manifests itself in many different ways, for example as an economic and monetary system that is not fit for purpose on an overpopulated planet with dwindling non-renewable resources. In communities everywhere we can witness social breakdown as a result of rising inequality and the cult of competitive individualism.
We are facing a crisis of governance as many of the world’s largest economies are no longer defined by national or cultural identity and have become corporations seeking to maximize short-term profit by externalizing collateral damage. We continue to be challenged by a crisis of religious extremism and war, as we tend to pay more attention to our differences rather than our common humanity and common fate on a planet in crisis.
We will have to redefine how we see ourselves and our relationships to each other and to the rest of the community of life on Earth. Only by changing our cultural narrative can we transform our vision of the future, and heal our relationship with life as a whole. Like a fever that peaks and breaks just before the patient begins to recover, the multiple crises don’t have to be regarded as something entirely negative. We can reframe them as a “good crisis” (Pigem, 2009) if we heed the clear signs that change and transformation are now inevitable and already on their way and come to see the converging crises as creative challenges to grow up and evolve to planetary consciousness.
[This article is an excerpt from my book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]