Sunday, March 26, 2006

Conscious purpose and the environment

Most people who enjoy natural history series such as Planet Earth will appreciate the incredible balance that is found in nature between different species that depend on each other for survival. This balance has evolved through thousands of years. Yet this balance is not conscious; blackbirds don't think 'It's going to be a poor summer so we'll lay fewer eggs'. Gregory Bateson, the English anthropologist appreciated that this balance reflected an inherent wisdom. Mind, he suggested, was an integral apsect of this interrelationship. A multitude of diverse creatures have survived, as part of the environment, for millenia. This graceful and unconscious balancing act between the parts of the larger system comprised of species and the environment has been incredibly successful.

But now we are threatened by our own conscious purpose. As a species, we don't live in unconscious harmony wth the environment, in fact, we tend to think of ourselves as separate from the environment; having 'dominion' over the whole of creation. Perhaps this has worked for a few thousand years. However, I doubt anyone affected by the effects of global warming would agree that we still have dominion over the earth.

As a species we are dependant on exploiting the resources of the planet to maintain the lifestyles we have become accustomed to. In a sense, we are addicted to these finite resources, resources that when used create carbon dioxide and other pollutants that are contributing to global warming. To be blunt, most of the things that governments are doing to address this problem are inadequate. Whilst I have railed against speeding fines that seem inconsistent, I would not object to speed limits being imposed to reduce emissions. But changing a society through taxes is hardly adequate considering the potentially disastrous global effects of climate change.

What is required is something more drastic than carbon taxes. We urgently need to think about how we think. One of the first things we can do is begin to appreciate that we are part of the environment, not separate from it.

We need to begin to appreciate that perhaps there is a wisdom inherent in nature that is greater than ours. Some might even wonder if some kind of deity may be discerned in this ecological wisdom.

We can begin to think more systemically. Bateson called this a cybernetic epistemology. "The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by 'God,' but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology."

Bateson saw the problems we were heading for overy 40 years ago. In his words (From Brockman) "Perhaps all exploration of the world of ideas is only a searching for a rediscovery, and perhaps it is such rediscovery of the latent that defines us as "human," "conscious," and "twice born." But if this be so, then we all must sometimes hear St. Paul's "voice" echoing down the ages: "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."

I am suggesting to you that all the multiple insults, the double binds and invasions that we all experience in life, the impact (to use an inappropriate physical word) whereby experience corrupts our epistemology, challenging the core of our existence, and thereby seducing us into a false cult of the ego—what I am suggesting is that the process whereby double binds and other traumas teach us a false epistemology is already well advanced in most occidentals and perhaps most orientals, and that those whom we call "schizophrenics" are those in whom the endless kicking against the pricks has become intolerable."

Is it too late to change our ways of thinking? Perhaps the technological advances charactaristic of our 'false epistemology' may help to forestall climate change, but will they buy our species enough time to ensure our survival?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Dialogue and the war on terror

The Danish Premier called for dialogue in resolving the conflict between Islamic extremists and Western countries.

The trouble is, the potential for dialogue started some time ago, and no-one seemed to want to listen.

On February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded beneath the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring over a thousand. Five years later, a jury in New York City found Ramzi Ahmed Yousef guilty of the bombing. Yousef was asked if he wanted to make a statement before being sentenced. This is usually a situation where the person who has been convicted has an opportunity to express remorse for the crime. However, Yousef defiantly explained that in his worldview, he had acted honorably. He said:

You keep talking also about collective punishment
and killing innocent people to force
governments to change their policies; you call
this terrorism when someone would kill innocent
people or civilians in order to force the
government to change its policies. Well, you
were the first one who invented this terrorism.

You were the first one who killed
innocent people, and you are the first one
who introduced this type of terrorism to the
history of mankind when you dropped an
atomic bomb which killed tens of thousands
of women and children in Japan and when
you killed over a hundred thousand people,
most of them civilians, in Tokyo with
fire bombings. You killed them by burning
them to death. And you killed civilians in
Vietnam with chemicals as with the socalled
Orange agent. You killed civilians
and innocent people, not soldiers, innocent
people every single war you went. You went
to wars more than any other country in this
century, and then you have the nerve to talk
about killing innocent people.
And now you have invented new ways
to kill innocent people. You have so-called
economic embargo which kills nobody
other than children and elderly people, and
which other than Iraq you have been placing
the economic embargo on Cuba and other
countries for over 35 years. . .

The government in its summations and
opening said that I was a terrorist. Yes, I am
a terrorist and I am proud of it. And I support
terrorism so long as it was against the
United States Government and against
Israel, because you are more than terrorists;
you are the one who invented terrorism and
using it every day. You are butchers, liars
and hypocrites.

Immediately after this statement, Judge Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to 240 years in prison. He went beyond the requirements of his role by recommending that the sentence be served in solitary confinement, imposing a fine of $4.5 million, and ordering Yousef to provide $250 million in restitution.

Whilst many people might vehemently agree with Yousef, his statement outlined a position that is taken by some people.

Without dialogue we cannot learn about why people take the positions they do, nor will they understand the positions we take. When people take opposing positions, without dialogue, there will be conflict.

Dialogue requires that we do four things:

Suspend our judgment
When we learn to suspend judgment, to "hold our positions more lightly", we open the door to see others' points of view. It is not that we do away with our judgments and opinions - this would be impossible. We simply create a space between our judgment and our reaction, and thus open a door for listening.

Identify our assumptions
It is probably obvious to most of us that our assumptions play a large role in how we evaluate our environment, the decisions we make and how we behave. Yet, it is just this aspect of our thinking that we consistently overlook when we seek to solve problems, resolve conflicts, or create synergy among diverse people. Our prejudices are 'pre-judgments', and sometimes we need to reflect on these ideas we hold. By learning how to identify our assumptions, we can also explore differences with others, work to build common ground and consensus, and get to the bottom of core misunderstandings and differences.

Listening: Key to Perception
The way we listen has a lot to do with our capacity to learn and build quality relationships with others. When we are able to suspend judgment and listen to diverse perspectives we expand and deepen our world view. It is the act of listening that allows for integration and synthesis of new insights and possibilities. When we listen deeply we are willing to be influenced by and learn from others.

Inquiry and Reflection
Inquiry elicits information. Reflection permits the inspection of information and the perception of relationships. The combination of reflection and inquiry enables us to learn, to think creatively, and to build on past experience (versus simply repeating the same patterns over and over again). By creating pauses to reflect, we learn to work with silence and slow down the rate of conversation. We become able to identify assumptions and reactive patterns and open the door for new ideas and possibilities.

Perhaps by encouraging and modelling dialogic approaches to dealing with conflict, the world might be a more  peaceful place. That means the West being prepared to shift it's position from rapacious involvement in the Middle East as well as terrorists being prepared to stop killing.