The speckled light is dim and the air heavy with moisture moves slowly around the trunks of the tall trees and long hanging vines. Down in the deep damp litter, and under the loose bark, hidden in a world of so many creatures, small snails slowly chew away on the rotting plant debris. Some are so small a human eye can hardly see them, but they all have their spiral shells. Spirals within spirals, the same pattern repeats itself. None are the same but all have a common form. There are many life forms in this forest, of plants, soil microbes and animals, and they form a rich tapestry of inter-dependent living systems. But there are no people, for they do not come to these places, and they do not know its life.
THE PULSE OF TRANSFORMATION
Not far away, at the edge of the small forest, there is another world. A world of stark contrasts: of rapid changes from bright sunshine to gloomy darkness, of high speed to sudden emptiness, of explosive energy and discarded waste. Here the constant buzz is of machines, of cars and heavy trucks flashing by, of humming air conditioners and the jangle of office equipment and conversations directed somewhere else. It is a world of straight lines, where boxes of rooms are stacked in taller boxes, which are stacked in blocks along grid lines of streets. There are only a few species of animals, mostly parasitic, but crowds and crowds of people.
These worlds seem to have no conjunction, although they exist side-by-side on a single globe, we call planet Earth.
We now live in a very artificial world, where nature is something different to us - foreign life confined to reserves and far away wilderness areas. We obtain our food, fibre and material resources from agricultural and extractive industries that exploit, dominate and control natural systems and landscapes. Instead of generating an additional surplus through an informed and participatory enhancement of natural processes, we use the energy store of aeons - in the form of coal, oil and gas - to fuel constantly increasing rates of human consumption with little regard for the resulting waste and destruction.
The recent increase in human population and consumption levels is an extraordinarily unbalanced explosive expansion that is quite clearly unsustainable, even over a short term. It is a rapacious self-centred growth that is the culmination of our species colonisation of the Earth. Through the continual trials and tribulations of civilisation, humans have developed technologies to exploit most environments, but, as a species, we have yet to achieve a mature relationship with the world we inhabit. Having broken the bonds of environmental and biological constraints, we have exploited opportunities to expand in a grasping and careless way as a footloose, reckless and anxious species. Now we have reached the limits of the Earth and the constraints of resource exhaustion and eco-system collapse.
One way or another we will have to find a balance, a way of life that fits in with the world we inhabit and its real constraints, a lifestyle that fits the realities of our environments and the ecological networks and processes of life on Earth. If we are to continue to live in relatively sophisticated societies, which are socially and technologically complex, we will have to go beyond being an exploitative coloniser, and develop a more mature and balanced understanding of the world we live in, and our place in it.
The thesis that underlies the essays in this book is that we have this potential, but it requires a cultural transformation. The tensions that infuse the human condition have given rise to a developmental path in the struggles of civilisation. This development has the pulse dynamic and abrupt transitions of any natural development, but a maturing metamorphosis may now be both necessary and possible. A combination of a short-term energy burst, with its technological and social innovation, a cross-fertilisation of accumulated knowledge and cultural understandings, and the opportunities provided by our diversity and numbers may be sufficient to generate a metamorphosing impulse.
We have struggled to free ourselves from the bonds of nature, of subservience, and take control of our lives. Now we need to re-connect, but as partners within sustaining and uplifting environments. To live for mutual benefit, accepting our inter-relationships without losing the vitality of independence, of a creative engagement with the possibilities of alteration.
This book is, then, about our potential. It is not about life as we live it now, or have lived it, but how we might live. It looks at our world as it is, to see a different world - conceptually, metaphorically and literally.
It is about us living more vibrantly and creatively, by accepting the dynamic and interconnected nature of life on our planet, and living in more complex communities and with more complex relationships with our environment and the wider world. It is about a way of life that we have the potential to develop but have not achieved. A social and cultural transformation that changes the 'state' or arrangements of our communal lives, a transforming shift to a higher level of complexity, a more densely and intensely patterned life.
To do this we have to seek out the humble snails and ponder the spiral forms their shells so strikingly demonstrate - as a search for our origins and to inspire a creative leap. We have to venture beyond our constructed world and re-connect with the natural world of forests, rivers, seashores etc. We will thereby gain a wider and more holistic understanding that reflects the complexity and dynamic variability of the world we live in.
The over-simplification of linearity, of well-defined processes with 1-to-1 cause and effect interactions, is very limiting. There is, in current scientific endeavour, a self-reinforcing cycle of control and reduction to smaller and smaller parts. Controlled experimentation excludes all interfering influences and thereby creates linearity in the processes under study. It allows easy quantification, analysis and logical deduction, but only by exclusion, by breaking the essential relationships that vitalise the very processes being studied. This gives rise to a fundamental separatism in science, and between sciences, which blindly ignores the real linkages and interconnections of living systems.
The aim of this book is to suggest a different view of the world and hence a different understanding and way of behaving. For better or worse, we see the world we believe in, we become what we think we are. People can have different views about life, and use different ways of dealing with the demands and exigencies of life, but there are consequences that follow on from those choices, with outcomes that are different. Finding what suits any given social and environmental conditions, and what has to be changed, is one of the essential challenges of life. The prevailing circumstances of our lives, though, demand changes. The compounding growth of ever-increasing human consumption, and its accompanying increasing disparities of wealth and poverty, can not continue. The only choices we have revolve around the type and intensity of the adjustments that must take place.
The essays in this book are all about social or cultural transformation. They suggest a different way of looking at some aspect of our lives, an alternative agriculture or economic system, a different way of viewing the world or our relationships with each other. Each is a separate essay, written at a different time over a period of about five years. However, they have a similar format and share common themes. There are patterns throughout the essays that link them together and suggest a wider commonality from an underpinning worldview.
There are repeating themes of a dynamic pulse of divergence and convergence, of differentiation and continuity, of systems within systems that have fuzzy boundaries and a meta-stability through inter-linkage. The symbolism used is of open spirals rather than closed circles or straight lines, of pulsating flows where there are both identifiable objects and the inter-activity of events. The aims are about creative participation and enhancement, where there is acceptance, responsibility and respect. Life is seen as involving complex dynamic balancing that arises from inter-dependence and feedback, but with pulse exchanges and sudden transitions.
Four of the essays were based on sections of my book "Patterns of Exchange", subtitled 'A Study in Human Understanding', and published in 1988. The intention was to develop the theme of cultural transformation from some of the ideas and information presented in that book. The format of common themes and repeating patterns was set up with those first four essays, with each one focused on a different aspect of human thought or activity, but together (through both commonality and differences) suggesting a wider picture or understanding. The fundamental concern was the need for a transformative change in the way we think and behave, a change in our mind-set, which would affect all aspects of human life and endeavour. A radical, or root, change was required that recognised the inter-linkages, and separate sector by sector reforms would not just be insufficient, but would further confuse or even aggravate existing problems and dilemmas.
Later, a commission of inquiry into genetic engineering stimulated an essay on agriculture. What were the problems with agricultural production, of food nutrition and environmental degradation, and how did they fit in with wider issues of sustainability and well being? Another essay was stimulated by my professional interest in rivers and how we manage waterways. I also re-visited my earlier concerns about the role of ownership and communities of my first book "Community Democracy", subtitled 'A Study in Alternative Economics', and published in 1977.
This book, however, has its own identity. This is not just because of the pattern recognition that can arise from the juxtaposition of the essays and the wider contexts that this suggests. Tabular and graphical information has been added to all the essays, with repeated symbolic arrangements. The aim is to add information that can be appreciated more intuitively, alongside the more logical analysis of the written essays themselves. I have adopted a deliberate left-brain and right-brain presentation of information, with a sharing of themes and formats within and across the presentation approaches.
If we are to have a more complex understanding and live more complex lives, then we need to present information in more complex ways as well. The book is then intended to reflect its own themes.
The aim of this collection of essays is not then to explain or promote particular changes in the way we do things. It is not specifically about alternative agricultural or economic systems, or the best origin stories about the universe or ourselves as a species, or what religious beliefs we should have and how we should resolve conflicts. The subject matter of the essays is a means to a wider end, to provide different views of a single whole, which can only be grasped intuitively. The necessity for a radical and transformative change is a matter of belief; a presumption based on an assessment of present circumstances and likely trends or potential transitional shifts.
This transformational pulse requires an overall change in all aspects of our lives: in our basic beliefs about the world, and our understanding; in our values and attitudes to ourselves, other people and the environments that sustain us; and in the organisational structures and laws that define social life. It is an extension of the democratic impulse to give a participatory community-based democracy. It is a counter to other, perhaps more likely, 'adjustment' options, of enforced changes through a totalitarian imposition, or a collapse back to simple tribal life.
There is a cusp opportunity, which can be either accepted or rejected. A potential exists because of the transition we must face, and our choices will determine how that potential is realised. At some point, belief is required to bring about change or bring forth action. A partial belief is not really a possibility, or at least in reality effective. Similarly partial denial is not really possible. It is difficult to partially denial you said or did something! Thus many people ignore the evidence - of the absurdity of continuous compounding growth, or of the gross expropriation of the Earth by people and how destructive and wasteful we are. As a society we are in denial, and to maintain this denial the evidence must be ignored and even reforms can not be contemplated, as they require an acknowledgement of the real sustainability issues.
Hence, be careful! This book comes with a warning: it may endanger your peace of mind.
If you have courage and an open mind, search out the snails. Go beyond the garden pest or food delicacy, and discover the beauty and mystery in all God's creatures. Go where you haven't been: wilderness, river edge or garden; and make linkages, add connections. Be creative, celebrate diversity, and improve human welfare by enhancing natural systems. Look at the bigger picture, think interwoven spirals, repeating patterns and open exchanging systems. Live at the productive edges, balancing exuberance and stability, creativity and order, expansive divergence and contracting convergence. Accept where you are, and the complexities of life, going with the flow, while taking the chances offered. It is not where you are, but where you are heading that is important. Care for the earth and for all people, and live by the limits and opportunities of life on earth, sharing fairly.
Go well, my friend.