All posts by Dr. Paris Williams

Will our domination be our downfall?

For those of us who’ve been paying attention to the general state of the world and human society, it’s readily apparent that we as a species have sent ourselves hurtling into the depths of a global crisis that has the potential to wipe ourselves out along with many of our fellow Earthlings. So how exactly how has this happened?

It’s easy and certainly well justified to point our finger at the many harmful industries that have emerged from our society—fossil fuels, unsustainable agriculture, overfishing, mining, the military complex, etc. (have a look at this list of Harmful Practices Critiqued for a more extensive list). And yet what if there is a deeper cause that we can point to—a common “seed” that underlies all of these harmful industries and practices?

I believe that there is such a seed, one that is surprisingly simple to name and yet highly elusive, difficult for many of us to grasp. In a nutshell, I would say that this seed is a domineering attitude that appears to have increased in magnitude over the past 10,000 years or so of our evolution. In recent years, our collective eyes have begun to open to the great harm and even horror wrought by our ongoing efforts to dominate each other. But as the even larger horror of the accelerating global ecological collapse has become increasingly apparent, many of us have come to recognize that our domineering attitude is also probably the leading culprit.

I suggest that we drop down even one more level on this causal ladder and ask oursevelves, what is it that feeds humankind’s urge and sense of entitlement to dominate each other, our fellow Earthlings and the Earth? And I would say that just as the justification of one human group to dominate another is typically fueled by that particular group’s belief in their own superiority, so it is that humankind’s general belief in our superiority over other living beings fuels our ongoing desire and entitlement to dominate the Earth and our fellow species.

It’s readily apparent that pervasive among contemporary society is the strong belief that human beings are superior to other species, which in turn has spawned a number of closely related beliefs, such as: “The Earth belongs to us,” “We made it to the top and are entitled to do what we want,” “We are the most important/valuable species on this planet,” “We have dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures,” etc. This belief is so insidious that it even reveals itself within seemingly virtuous beliefs such as, “We are stewards of the Earth,” or “We need to work hard to manage the environment/ecosystems.” So strong is this belief in our superiority that I would say that very few people even regard it as a belief; rather, it is generally seen as simply a fact of life.

But let’s take a moment to scrutinize this belief more closely. In particular, let’s look at what I believe are the major core assumptions that maintain and reinforce it.

Assumption #1—We are the most intelligent species on the planet

Initially, this assumption may appear self evident. Certainly it’s true that we humans are an extremely inventive and productive species—the signs are everywhere, in our vast technology, our sprawling cities, our complex cultures and societies. If we define “intelligence” broadly as “the capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to the meeting of our needs,” then at first glance, it would appear that we are indeed very intelligent when compared to most other species.

However, I feel that there are three serious problems with this reasoning that need to be addressed—I’ll call them problematic sublevel assumptions: (1) that because the products our own intelligence are so much more readily apparent to us than those of other species, then our own intelligence must be superior; (2) that we really are as intelligent as we generally consider ourselves; and (3) that superior intelligence (at least as we see it) must imply superior worth and a general sense of entitlement to dominate those species with less intelligence. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these in turn:

(1) Since the products our own intelligence are so much more readily apparent to us than those of other species, then our own intelligence must be superior.

Let’s approach this by first taking a more intuitive/spiritual tack…

Take a moment to remove the anthropocentric blinders off and look around at the world—I mean really look around at the world. Take in this incredible web of life composed of billions of complex living organisms living together in symbiotic harmony. Take in this complex dance of creativity and adaptation that has gone on continuously for billions of years, and which is far more complex than any human mind could ever fathom, let alone replicate. Think about it—with our vast knowledge and technology, we haven’t been able to replicate even the simplest single-celled organism.

So if this awesome intelligence and creativity hasn’t come from us, then where is it coming from? Some spiritual and philosophical traditions conjecture an omniscient, omnipresent source of intelligence and creativity simply inherent in the fabric of existence; others say that a more personal God or group of Gods/Goddesses play a prominent role; and still others say that an incredible stroke of “luck” has set the wheels/physics of the universe turning in just exactly the right way for this evolutionary flow of life to unfold.

Despite all of these differences, there is one answer to this question with which virtually all scientific and spiritual traditions agree—that this intelligence did not originate from humankind, but that rather humankind has originated from it. Philosopher Alan Watts offered the following helpful analogy: Let’s turn the word “apple” into the verb “to apple,” as in “An apple tree apples.” In this way, we can say that “the universe peoples.” The universe also “dogs,” “frogs,” “starfishes,”  “cockroaches,” “forests,” and “mountains.” This vast intelligence is the source of humankind’s much narrower intelligence. Certainly we have access to this intelligence, as it is our source after all, but we can say the same thing about every other living being on our planet and in our universe. From this perspective, how can we really say that our own intelligence is so superior, so special?

let’s move on now to the cutting edge of human science—don’t our latest discoveries in neuroscience and biology clearly reveal our superior intelligence?

Within the fields of these and related scientific traditions, it was initially postulated that intelligence is essentially correlated with the number of interconnections between the neurons of a brain. In the most simplistic and reductionistic terms, this theory says that a neuron functions more or less like a computer bit—it acts like a switch that either fires or doesn’t fire depending upon the signals it receives from its fellow neurons, which in turn determines the firing/not-firing of other neurons. And as more and more neurons are connected together in this way, an increasingly complex web of linear and circular causality forms and ultimately emerges into increasingly complex forms of intelligence. And since the human brain has more neural connections than the brain of any other species discovered on Earth (it’s estimated that we have approximately 100 trillion such neural connections), then we must therefore be the most intelligent species.

However, our understanding of this has evolved in recent years to embrace a much more complex picture. First of all, we now recognize that the intelligence (as defined above) of an organism is based on far more than simply the activity of the neurons of the brain (or more specifically, the cerebral cortex). As brought to the forefront by the pioneering work of Candace Pert among many others, we now understand that every cell in our bodies are individual living organisms in their own right, with each actively communicating with the other cells of the broader organism, and with each contributing their own intelligence to the overall intelligence of the entire organism.

We also now know that a number of other species have brains much larger than ours—both in size and in the number of cerebral cortical neurons and interconnections. For example, both the brain size and overall (full body) neural count of African elephants are about 3 times those of humans; and the long-finned pilot whale, a type of dolphin, has more than twice as many brain (cerebral cortex) neurons than humans, and likely a correspondingly far higher count of interneural connections.

So while the evidence mounts that an increase in intercellular connections does correlate with a general increase in intelligence (i.e., the capacity to gather knowledge and apply this to meet one’s needs), it is becoming well established that the neuron cell is not the only intelligence-generating cell in the game. All other living cells within an organism contribute to the intelligence of the whole, but with each kind of cell specializing in a particular kind of intelligence (i.e., retaining specialized sets of knowledge, developing specialized sets of skills, and applying these to specialized needs/functions essential to the organism).

Furthermore, we can say the same thing about the connections that exist between living organisms themselves—bee and ant colonies, flocks of birds, herds of deer, etc., clearly demonstrate much greater intelligence than can be found within any individual member of these groups. This concept is often referred to as swarm intelligence—a phenomenon that is very well established but the details of which we are only just beginning to grasp. And this brings us to a particularly profound concept within our exploration of intelligence within contemporary biology and evolution—what I believe is a real mind-bender, a game-changer, really.

So you know those simplest of all living organisms—the bacteria that we often think of as being little more than “germs”? They’re so simple that they don’t even have a nucleus, let alone anything remotely akin to what we tend to think of as a brain. Now let’s take a moment and expand our view backwards in time. Based on ever accumulating research, the bacteria (technically called prokaryotes, but the term “bacteria” suffices for this discussion) are the very first living organisms to have come into existence on the Earth, coming into existence over 4 billion years ago. They adapted and evolved over a vast amount of time, first converging to become nucleated single-celled organisms (protozoa, algae, etc.), with further convergences resulting in multi-celled organisms (fungus, plants and animals), which finally brings us to well… us.

Swarm intelligence demonstrated by leaf cutter ants (aboveEli Duke, CC BY SA-2.0) and a self-organizing flock of birds (below) [/caption]

Let’s now take a moment to look at our own bodies. The leading edge of our own science has brought us to quite a startling conclusion. Our entire body and every cell within it is essentially composed of an extraordinarily complex colony of bacteria culminating from a very long line of the Earth’s very first bacteria evolving ever more complex relationships with each other. This doesn’t even factor in the many trillions of “exotic” bacteria living within our gut, with whom we are also symbiotically engaged in order to digest our food among other essential processes to sustain our life. Let’s take a moment to let this seep into our sense of superiority for a moment.

Now let’s take a moment to look around—wherever we happen to be located, right here and now. Every single plant, insect, animal, mushroom, and other living form we see or can imagine shares this same basic feature with us. Just like us, they also are embodiments of what we think of as the most simple (“least intelligent”) living organisms having converged into more complex forms. The entire web of life, in other words, is the grand culmination of a mysterious universal life force emerging first into the simplest living cells (bacteria), and then spreading across the entire surface of the Earth, merging together and emerging into the extraordinary array of symbiotic communities of single-celled and multi-celled organisms that we call “organisms,” and ultimately forming the living ecosystems of the Earth.

Finally, let’s extend our view spatially across the surface of the Earth. In addition to the colonies of bacteria that have come together in various ways to form individual living beings, the entire surface of the Earth—the entire biosphere—is filled with these little guys. Actually, it’s more accurate to flip this statement around—this extensive web of bacterial life is itself the fundamental nature of the biosphere. Lynn Margulis, acclaimed microbiologist, puts it like this: “Bacteria initially populated the planet and never relinquished their hold.”

Now let’s weave back into this story the principle that intelligence emerges from the symbiotic interactions among living cells and living beings, and that greater interconnectedness generally results in greater intelligence. Firstly, there are untold trillions of bacteria hooked together in what is well established to be the far largest self-organized living system on the planet, what many refer to as the ultimate superorganism of the Earth; and secondly, we know that the bacteria communicate with each other very effectively, and even in ways that other kinds of cells can’t—such as being able to instantly (without sexual reproduction) share with each other bits of their genetic material and the information coded within them, and even doing so across bacterial species, genus and even family lines.

Many people, even many scientists with a particularly reductionistic bent, have come to recognize that this global bacterial superorganism is far more intelligent than we could ever imagine, and that it plays many crucial roles in maintaining the conditions for life on this planet. As the Gaia Theory has evolved (the well established theory that the entire biosphere acts as a unified and extraordinarily intelligent organism in her own right), a number of people have conjectured that it may be appropriate to consider this bacterial superorganism as being akin to Gaia’s “brain.”

One prominent lifelong bacterial geneticist, James Shapiro, has summarized this emerging understanding of our bacterial kin in this way:

The take-home lesson of more than half a century of molecular microbiology is to recognize that bacterial information processing is far more powerful than human technology….These small cells are incredibly sophisticated at coordinating processes involving millions of individual events and at making them precise and reliable. In addition, the astonishing versatility and mastery bacteria display in managing the biosphere’s geochemical and thermodynamic transformations indicates that we have a great deal to learn about chemistry, physics, and evolution from our small, but very intelligent, prokaryotic relatives”.1

Furthermore, in addition to this bacterial superorganism, there are other vastly intelligent living systems at play whose behaviours are still far beyond our own comprehension. For example, there are the myriad mycelial networks that facilitate the communication and exchange of essential nutrients among the plant and fungus life of most of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems; and there is the complex interplay among many other kinds of micro-organisms and inorganic elements that has successfully regulated the Earth’s temperature, oxygen, atmospheric composition and ocean salinity and pH levels for billions of years.

The mycelium of a fungus spreading through soil (outside) (Nigel Cattlin / Alamy); Microscopic view of mycelium — 1 square mm (inside). Bob Blaylock, CC BY-SA 3.0[/caption]

In summary, the more we begin to grasp the intelligences of other living organisms and living systems, the more clear it becomes just how limited (and un-superior) human intelligence actually is.

(2) Are we really as intelligent as we consider ourselves?

To answer this question, let’s return to our working definition of intelligence, but add one key emphasis: “The capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to sustainably meet one’s needs.” Considering the key quality of sustainability and now being able to compare human intelligence with the much broader and much older intelligences found in living systems such as bacterial superorganisms and mycelial networks, challenging this particular assumption is relatively straightforward.

In contemporary society, it is well established that the Earth is entering its 6th largest extinction event (in the past billion years of complex life), and that it is we, the human species, who are causing it. Our behaviour is changing our climate in extremely dangerous and unpredictable ways, and we are decimating the Earth’s oceans and terrestrial ecosystems, due primarily to completely unnecessary eating habits and farming practices, along with other problematic behaviours. We consider it acceptable to generate energy by boiling water with extraordinarily concentrated radioactive materials (i.e., nuclear power), the leak of which we know will devastate the local environment for hundreds and even thousands of years. We have over 14,000 nuclear weapons ready to detonate, with the plan to continue making more, and with some countries actively threatening others who also possess such weapons. We continue to pour millions of tons per year of toxic chemicals into the environment and even onto our own food. And the list goes on…

So at first glance, observing that the human species has managed to inhabit nearly the entire planet, and that our population has grown over 1000-fold in the past 10,000 years, it may appear that we are indeed extremely intelligent. But when we consider the fact that it is very clear that we cannot continue to exist much longer with our present behaviours, and yet we persist with them anyway, this belief in our intelligence being so superior becomes very doubtful indeed.

(3) Superior intelligence (at least as we see it) must imply superior worth and entitlement.

Hopefully by now, the case has been made well enough that considering our intelligence to be so “superior” to that of other living species and living systems on this planet is highly problematic at best, which then makes this final argument in favour of humankind’s superiority moot.

But for those who still find themselves hanging on to the belief in our superior intelligence, I’ll say a few words about this final point—that superior intelligence must imply superior worth and entitlement. This argument is often used to justify our exploitation of other species and the Earth, in general, and even the exploitation of one human group by another (i.e., racism, sexism, slavery, etc.). Fortunately, human society has evolved quite a bit in recent years with regard to recognizing the problems inherent in exploiting other human beings (though it is certainly still a major problem!). Many of us have been able to see the enormous suffering that this attitude causes, both to those who are exploited and also to the exploiters’ own sense of integrity and ability to live in a peaceful society.

And now it’s beginning to dawn on many of us that the exploitation of other living beings and living systems is at least as problematic as the exploitation of other human beings. The living systems of the Earth are clearly collapsing, and if we maintain our course, we will certainly collapse right along with them. So let’s honestly re-evaluate this assumption: Is the global catastrophe taking place right before our eyes the result of the sense of entitlement by the intelligent; or is it a result of a sense of entitlement by the ignorant…?

Assumption #2—We represent the pinnacle and/or cutting edge of evolution

This second primary assumption that props up the belief of human superiority, particularly by those who believe in the theory of evolution, is that the human species represents either the pinnacle or the cutting edge of evolution.

From a purely anthropocentric perspective, this is certainly true. We are the latest “model” in our own particular evolutionary lineage. But for those of us who may believe we’ve reached some kind of a pinnacle (a kind of climax in our evolutionary journey), where is the evidence that our evolutionary lineage must stop with us? And why would the process of evolution on the Earth move along so persistently for billions of years, and then suddenly stop with us? (…unless, of course, we manage to wipe out all life on Earth, but that is another story.) And for those who believe we may not have reached such a pinnacle yet, but that we must certainly represent the cutting edge of the Earth’s evolution, let’s keep in mind that there are millions of other evolutionary lineages taking place within this vast Gaian tree of life, many of which are far older than our own particular branch, and many that will likely continue to evolve far after we are gone. What makes our particular branch so special?

Assumption #3—We are essential to manage/maintain life on Earth

From the perspective of Gaia theory, all living beings and living systems existing on the Earth are merely manifestations of her, merely different aspects of this one unified organism. So they all play important roles in some way at any given point of time in her evolution. However, just as with our own physical bodies, some parts are simply more vital than others.

For example, our physical body could lose a toe or even an entire leg and most likely continue to survive. But if we lose both of our lungs, then the loss would be too great and our body would certainly die. Likewise, Gaia has evolved to where she has become highly dependent upon terrestrial plant life (particularly tropical rainforests) and microalgae within the open ocean to generate the oxygen necessary to maintain her life. These essentially act as her “lungs” providing this essential nutrient to the other parts of her organism. If these systems were depleted enough, it is possible that Gaia could die, or would at least be forced to regress to a much more primitive state. On the other hand, if humankind were to go extinct, our loss would probably be much more akin to Gaia losing a little toe, or more realistically, only sustaining a small cut to her little toe—certainly not terminal to the organism. In the big picture of Gaia’s life, spanning over 4 billion years now (that’s 4,000,000,000+), humankind in its current form (Homo Sapiens) has emerged only about 200,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, if Gaia were 80 years old, humankind would have emerged onto the scene about 36 hours ago.

So it’s really impossible for us to make the case that Gaia needs us. Actually, at this point, the case is all too easily made that this “little toe” of humanity has become cancerous and is now acting as a direct threat against the life of the entire organism—of all life on Earth. If you were Gaia, would you not seriously consider cutting off that cancerous toe? (btw, I’m not advocating for the extermination of humankind—I’m just pointing out that as we broaden our perspective, we should naturally find ourselves moving towards a much more humble position).

Assumption #4—Our religious scriptures say that we are superior

Granted, I find it a bit more difficult to challenge this particular assumption than those above. When a person’s convictions are based solely upon what they have read or what somebody else has told them, and they have chosen to abandon critical thinking or deep personal reflection, then there’s not likely to be much potential for a paradigm shift. However, even within the religious scriptures and creation stories found within different cultures and spiritual traditions around the world, we find a very interesting theme that many (most?) of them share—and that is the recognition that our sense of superiority has gone hand in hand with our separation from our source of abundance and vitality.

In the West, this theme is probably most well known as illustrated in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, which then led to their being banished by God from The Garden of Eden. Essentially, the story goes that Adam and Eve lived for many years as members of a thriving and abundant ecosystem. But then they became tempted to “eat the fruit” which shifted their paradigm from one of harmonious unity to one of disharmonious duality—the “knowledge of good and evil.” One way of interpreting this story is to see it as a metaphor that represents the moment when humankind replaced their value for living in harmony with the natural world (as merely one member of a thriving ecosystem) with a dichotomous value system—inferior/superior, better/worse, more/less valuable, more/less worthy, mine/yours, and of particular relevance to this article here, humans/nature.

For those who have studied the theory of human evolution, this theme has clear parallels to the historical moment when humanity abandoned its indigenous roots extending back hundreds of thousands of years. At this point of time, about 10,000 years ago, humankind is believed to have generally “stepped out of nature” to embrace a much more dualistic mindset—humans vs. nature, human superiority vs. other species’ inferiority, the Earth and other living beings as being ours to own as property and personally dominate, exploit, etc. And we can look around now and clearly see where this path has taken us—initially to enormous short term abundance and population explosion, but ultimately heading right off the cliff of our own extinction.

So even within scriptures that are often used to justify the superiority of humankind and our entitlement over other species, we find upon closer inspection this common core theme of a paradise lost, or of a deep ignorance having gripped us. As soon as humankind stepped out of their niche of living at one with the Gaian system, and attempted to instead place themselves outside of and superior to this heretofore unified living system, we ultimately lost our paradise.

So to Summarize…

Are we unique? Yes! Do we have unusual capacities and skills never before seen within the life of the Earth? Almost certainly. However, we can also say the same thing about every other species present and past.

As for our superior intelligence? Humankind does appear to possess a somewhat unusual form of intelligence combined with an upright posture and opposable thumbs, the combination of which makes all kinds of interesting technologies possible. However, considering the broad definition of intelligence as “the capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to sustainably meet one’s needs,” humankind has clearly not demonstrated a degree of intelligence anywhere near as advanced as that of other living systems on the Earth. To the contrary, humankind, or at least in its present form as manifested within contemporary society, has demonstrated an unusually profound ignorance, having made the terrible choice of attempting to remove itself from the Gaian system, which, of course, is just as impossible and futile as a little toe attempting to sever itself from the larger body.

As for our general sense of superior worth and our associated sense of entitlement to do what we please with our fellow Earthlings and the Earth in general? Well, as discussed above, from the perspective of Gaia, there are clearly other species and living systems far more vital to her ongoing survival than the human species…

This leaves us then with the question of our own continued survival. If humankind is not as intelligent nor superior as we have come to believe, and if it is true that our attempt to leave the Gaian system has been a very bad one, then what does that mean for our own future? I believe that the answer to this question lies within a close reflection upon our past.

Looking historically, the evidence is quite compelling that our departure from living harmoniously with the Gaian system coincided with an intensification of the belief in our fundamental “superiority,” as well as our fundamental sense of entitlement to exploit other species and the environment to our own very narrowly perceived needs. And if we track our progress over the centuries since we have adopted this belief, what do we find? We do indeed see that we have been able to experience tremendous benefit initially, in the sense of an explosion of our population and the capacity to survive on most of the surface of the Earth. But in recent generations this short-term benefit is finally revealing the very serious long-term harm of this belief system and its associated behaviours. Though the ride may have been good to many (and hell for many others) while it lasted, the writing is becoming all too clear upon the wall:  We have been “superior”ing our way to our own demise.

So what to do? We may not be superior to other species, but like all species, we do have our own unique capacities. And as humans, we appear to have an unusually strong capacity for productivity (both creative and destructive), self-awareness and self-reflection. What would happen if we shift the focus of these attributes to the serious attempt to return to the “Garden of Eden,” to establishing a harmonious niche as simply one species among many on this diverse and abundant planet?

I like to think that this would be possible, though certainly very challenging. What if we take our capacity for self-awareness/reflection/transformation, and work on shifting our paradigm to…

(a) expanding our understanding of ‘the self’ to contain all other living beings and the entire Gaian system;

(b) cultivating an equal compassion/regard/respect for all living beings, beyond simply other human beings and companion animals who are personally close to us;

(c) humbling ourselves in the face of Gaia—recognizing that she has a wisdom far deeper, older, and broader than our much more limited personal minds could ever fully grasp…

…and closely related to this, (d) reorienting our efforts at personal and human surviving and thriving to be much more in line with Gaia’s wisdom and natural behaviours.

This would entail shifting our focus from “managing” the environment (Gaia has demonstrated that she can do this perfectly fine without us, thank you very much) to managing ourselves—(a) stopping our destructive behaviours, and (b) simply stepping back from as much of the Earth as we can, and making space for Gaia’s own capacity to heal and regenerate herself.

In summary, then, it appears that the more our limited human minds begin to grasp the much vaster and more intelligent minds at play on the Earth, the more apparent it becomes that we simply need to lose the superiority complex and graciously re-engage openly and compassionately with our fellow Earthlings.

In other words, isn’t it about time that we got over ourselves and re-join the party?

• You can learn more about Paris Williams’ latest work and the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious living at cncl.info

  1. as quoted in Buhner, 2014.

Reclaim Our Power or Face Extinction: The Choice is Ours

Do you find yourself unable to nod off to the sweet bliss of ignorance or denial when contemplating the catastrophic state of the world? Do you find yourself feeling deeply concerned about the enormous harm occurring to humans, our fellow Earthlings and this beautiful planet, our home? Do you find yourself feeling deeply concerned about our future—for humanity, our children/grandchildren, and our fellow living beings?

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, and if you’re not willing to “ask your doctor” for a pill to push these thoughts and feelings away, then it’s likely you’re finding yourself struggling with one or both of the following dilemmas:

(1) How do I find the courage to continue trying to make a positive difference in the world when so much is broken?

…and (2) How can “little me” make any real difference in the face of it all, especially considering that a select group of extremely self-centered individuals seem to hold all the power?

And if humankind has any chance at all of making it through the next few decades, let alone transitioning to a genuinely sustainable society, then I think we have no choice but to face these dilemmas head on.

I think that we really have to begin by addressing the first dilemma, because it’s hard to do much of anything at all, let alone enjoy our lives, when our spirits are being crushed by such despair and hopelessness. I think that Joanna Macy, the pioneering deep ecology teacher, healer and activist, offers a powerful way to work with this dilemma in her definition of “Active Hope”:

Active hope is not wishful thinking. Active hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or some saviour. Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life, waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. You and we all are capable of falling in love with life at the moment when it needs our response….

It is a readiness to engage and a readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others, a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love, a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, ready to discover that again and again….[Seeing] active hope as a verb, it is something you can do even when you’re feeling discouraged.

In other words, even when the future seems completely hopeless, by embracing our strength, our love, our values, our spirit in this here-and-now moment, then that’s enough to make whatever life we have left one worth living. And regardless of what may become of humankind or the Earth, we are still all destined to die someday, and we still have this life to tend to. If more and more of us can make the transition to living this way, then it may well be that such an attitude is humankind’s best chance for survival. And even if it’s already too late to save humankind, at least by living this way, we can still make the best of the time we have left.

The second dilemma we face, then, is, How can “little me” make any real difference in the world in the face of so much inequality and devastation?

In order to address this dilemma, I think that we first must start by openly and honestly facing the reality of our situation, as difficult as that may be to do.

Evaluating our Challenges

There are a number of very “inconvenient truths” that I think we must first come to terms with before we can do the hard work of contributing to the positive evolution of humankind. Actually, let me reframe this and say that the very act of openly acknowledging these truths, facing them head on, and working to transcend them is the first step in humankind’s evolution to a sustainable form. So what are these inconvenient truths?

A form of essentially unbridled plutocratic capitalism has worked its way into virtually every corner of human society. While there may be some degree of genuine democracy still gasping for breath within some of these systems, for the most part, what has developed is an increasingly globalized plutocracy that has become corrupt to the core—a system that prioritizes competition over cooperation, and personal profit above people and planet. It is a system devoted first and foremost to maintaining and increasing the wealth and power of a very small minority of wealthy individuals.

And, as an inevitable by-product of such a system, there exists a ruling class of obscenely wealthy and powerful individuals who essentially own most of the world’s resources and governments, and who strive with all their power to maintain and increase their personal wealth and power, feeding their apparently unquenchable greed for such by virtually any means imaginable. If you think I’m being overly dramatic, try spending a day hanging out in an industrial slaughterhouse, trekking across the Alberta tar sands, or picknicking within one of the many war-torn regions of our planet unfortunate enough to contain resources that the ruling classes drool over.

The system has evolved in such a way that the more power/wealth we have, the more comfortable we become with the status quo, and the less compelled we are to work towards a more harmonious and equitable world. Hence, the world has evolved to the point where the large majority of the global population live in relatively abject poverty, requiring nearly all of their willpower just to maintain their day-to-day survival; a moderate number of the population live in the “middle class,” typically devoting much of their personal time and energy to increasing the profits of their employers and the ruling class, but generally not being miserable enough to push for major change; and finally there is that very thin sliver of pie at the top that rules the roost; i.e., the ruling class.

Most of us, to varying degrees, have become personally conditioned and desensitized by having been raised within such a broken system. Most of us have developed a general condition of learned apathy and helplessness, and for the most part, we have become generally desensitized to the enormous pain and dysfunction within the world around us.

Given the fragmented and isolated nature of such a broken system, many of us have unsurprisingly become personally addicted to certain harmful behaviors—the excess consumption of products we really don’t need or that are built on the backs of exploited and poverty-stricken people; eating foods that are harmful to the environment and other sentient beings; burning excessive fossil fuels; and numbing away our unpleasant feelings with alcohol and drugs (recreational as well as prescribed—the rulers are more than happy to help us out with this, so long as they get paid for it—“just ask your doctor…”).

Finally, no matter how you look at it, the prognosis for humankind is very poor. To begin with, there is the serious risk of a major (possibly nuclear) world war as the various ruling factions become ever more desperate to maintain their grip on their power and the rapidly depleting resources of the world. And even if we set this issue aside, the multiple disasters taking place within the broader living systems of the Earth—accelerating climate change, habitat loss and species extinction—are extremely urgent. So urgent, in fact, that a number of highly educated ecologists and climatologists have concluded that it’s already too late—that a number of tipping points have already been set in motion, and that the Earth is likely to become uninhabitable for humankind in the very near future. Some are (slightly) more optimistic, but the general consensus is that the situation is seriously ominous.

Evaluating our Strengths

In spite of what appears to be an extremely difficult if not impossible hand to work with, I believe that we still do have a lot going for us.

For one thing, we’re still here, and the major Earth systems are still mostly functioning, though certainly somewhat beleaguered. But I don’t think there’s any doubt about it—if humanity has any chance of pulling through this crisis and remaining a member of the Earth community beyond the next few decades, then we’ve really got our work cut out for us. We all have to really buckle down, face our challenges head on, acknowledge (and appreciate) our strengths and resources, and especially for those of us fortunate not to be living in abject poverty, we also have to be willing to make a number of sacrifices.

Here is a summary of what I feel are our most pertinent resources:

We have our “basic goodness.”  In spite of the widespread ignorance, disconnection and desensitization caused by having been raised within such a broken social system, most of us have personally experienced the fundamental “basic goodness” that lies within us, fleeting and/or buried as it may be at times. This consists of our capacity to recognize and actually feel within our bones our interconnectedness with each other and with all living beings; and to experience the genuine compassion, kindness and care that naturally emerges when we do so.

If you find yourself feeling a bit skeptical about this one, take a moment to reflect on a time when you felt deeply connected to a loved one, a child, a companion animal, or a beautiful sunset or wilderness landscape, even if you have to reach way back in your memories. Hopefully when you do, you can feel at least a hint of these “unitive feelings.” These feelings of love, compassion and kindness emerge in us naturally, spontaneously, when we feel deeply connected to another; and when we allow this awareness of connectedness to expand to embrace all other beings, then… well, it’s beyond words, really; and if anything can save us, this is it.

Human beings are extraordinarily innovative, imaginative and productive. Looking around at the state of the world today, it’s certainly justified to suggest that these particular qualities of ours have actually gotten rather out of hand. But what if we find a way to marry these qualities with our capacity to experience deep interconnectedness and compassion for others…? What if…?

Human beings have the capacity to self-reflect, to be aware of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and impulses, and to reflect upon the consequences of our actions prior to acting them out. Granted, we often neglect to do so and simply let our impulses and auto-pilot behaviors run the show. But we do have this capacity nonetheless; and just like a muscle, it’s one that gets stronger with practice.

Solutions

Now that we have made an assessment of our most essential challenges and resources, let’s turn to the issue of solutions. How can we harness our strengths and resources to address the very serious challenges that face us? In particular, how do we shift our course to a long and prosperous future, one that is harmonious with our fellow Earthlings on this wonderful planet? How do we address the dysfunctional behaviors of ours that have led to this disharmony and destruction? And how do we address the dysfunctional system that continues to reinforce such behaviors?

First of all, understanding and dealing with the ruling class…

Let’s start by looking more closely at the system of unbridled plutocratic capitalism that is surely one of the largest thorns in humanity’s side when it comes to any movement towards positive evolution.

As mentioned above, both the primary fuel and the toxic by-product of this system is an extremely wealthy ruling class. First of all, I want to say that I personally identify as a humanistically-oriented psychologist (among my many other identities), and I have faith that there is a “basic goodness” that exists within all of us, even those who have been deeply wounded and/or corrupted in various ways; though for many of us, it may take a lot of healing and/or effort to uncover that “goodness.”

Even when I reflect upon the nature typical of so many of those in the ruling class—someone who justifies the hoarding of millions or even billions of dollars while so many others in the world can barely feed their family or send their kids to school, or someone who justifies the bombing of thousands of innocent people in order to increase their personal wealth or power—I still do my best to remember that although they may have become completely lost in their own greed, fear and disconnection, there is still a human being with the potential for goodness lying somewhere beneath that mess.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that the rest of us should continue to condone such behavior, and allow such individuals to continue doing so much harm. Au contraire, for those of us who haven’t lost contact with our compassion towards others, I feel it is nothing less than our duty to humankind and all other life on this planet to do our utmost to prevent these people from causing so much harm. This is the concept known as the “protective use of force” within the Nonviolence philosophies.

But then the problem arises—even if we would really like to stop such harmful behavior, and even if we can find the courage to do so, how do we stop the behavior of people who are essentially the acting rulers of human society?

In order to answer this question, I want to suggest that we turn this question on its head and ask ourselves, How exactly is it that the ruling class has managed to co-opt the remaining 99+% of us to do their bidding? The answer, I believe, is relatively simple. They are masters at blowing on the embers our own potential for fear, greed and disconnection; at crushing our potential for compassion, connection, mutual empowerment and kindness; at skillfully sowing seeds of animosity and hatred among us; at widely spreading misinformation over and over again via mind-numbing news, television programs, commercials and other media; and by tossing well-placed “breadcrumbs” to maintain the loyalty of those members of society that they most desperately need in order to continue enforcing the status quo (particularly the judges, politicians, police, soldiers, and psychiatrists, among others).

As a seasoned and well-traveled psychologist myself, having studied human nature through the lenses of a number of different worldviews and cultures, I feel confident in saying that this is not conspiracy theory—this is simple human nature, and the ruling classes know exactly what they’re doing. As human beings, we have the intrinsic capacity for compassion, empathy and kindness, and for experiencing the profound unity and interconnectedness among all life on Earth—what I and many others refer to as “basic goodness,” among other similar terms. You could say that these virtuous qualities come “wired” into us.

And yet we also have the capacity to experience overwhelming hatred, fear, greed and helplessness. When we feel threatened or experience scarcity, it is these latter qualities that typically come to the fore. Again, this is well established psychological and neurological science. And the ruling classes have developed great mastery in cultivating these latter qualities among “the masses.” In fact, it was pioneering psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s own nephew, Edward Bernays, who first formally developed the concept of “propaganda” and played a prominent role in educating the ruling and corporate classes in exactly how to use propaganda and other forms of misinformation to shape the behaviors of “the masses” for the benefit of further enriching the wealthy and further disempowering and dividing the rest of us.

So we’ve simply got to face this unpleasant truth—the ruling classes know exactly what they’re doing with regard to maintaining and increasing their wealth and power, and they are very well skilled at blowing on the embers of our hatreds, fears and ignorance. However, I believe there is a crucial piece that they are missing, what I would call their Achilles heel.

Those individuals at the “top” who are so dedicated to maintaining and enhancing their personal power and wealth? By the very nature of being in such a position and having cultivated such a toxic frame of mind for so long, they have also been intensely blowing on their own embers of hatred, fear, greed and disconnection. I venture to say that these qualities have become so exaggerated and entrenched for most members of this class that most of them have completely lost sight of the more noble aspects of their own nature—the capacity for love, compassion, kindness and the interconnectedness of us all.

Research shows that the richer you get, the more your happiness depends upon personal power, status, and personal achievements; and the less able you are to experience the much richer happiness that is associated with love and compassion for others and an appreciation of the wonder and beauty of the world. And for this very reason, I would say that most of the members of this class and the system that they perpetuate are completely blind to the fact that the hell and suffering that they bestow upon the rest of the world is also fuelling their own misery—certainly in the future, but even to some degree in the present.

Even while these individuals revel in their wealth, they are only further isolating themselves and fuelling their fear and greed with their behavior—they are certainly not fostering compassion, love and kindness, which involve far more pleasant states of mind. In essence, then, the ruling classes have become deeply addicted to their drive for wealth and power, and when combined with their vast power, their addiction is causing enormous harm—to human society, to the Earth, to our fellow Earthlings and ultimately to themselves. Of course, these people are human, and they deserve our compassion and kindness as much as anyone, but their destructive behaviors must somehow be stopped.

So this brings us back to the question of how do we stop them? Well, for their sake and ours, their destructive behavior simply has to be stopped; and that means that we simply have to find a way to take our power back (remember, “simple” does not mean easy!) So how do we do that? Let’s start by looking at strategies that we’ve already tried:

Will we have to violently revolt? The history of humankind is filled with bloody revolutions—when the poverty-stricken lower classes finally became so fed up with being enslaved and exploited by the rulers that they put their lives on the lines, grabbed their pitchforks, their swords, their guns, or whatever weapons they could find, and violently revolted. But even when such revolutions have succeeded, the end result has typically been little more than a transfer of power from one set of self-centered rulers to another.

No, many of us have come to feel strongly that if we truly want to evolve into a nonviolent, equitable and sustainable society, then the means to do so must also be nonviolent, or we merely perpetuate the same violent, self-centered and authoritarian system. I think that Martin Luther King, Jr., stated this principle well when he said:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.1

So then what about grabbing our signs, raising our voices, and loudly protesting against the system/government/corporations/rulers?  While such a strategy is (or generally intends to be) in line with the principles of nonviolence, I would say that the benefits of such strategies vary widely depending upon their intent. If the intent of such protests is to build connection and solidarity among “We the people,” and to alert each other to the destructive behaviors of the ruling class, then I would say, Yes! protesting has demonstrated itself to be an effective strategy for this, and for healing the many ruptures within our society, and to counter the harm caused by the “divide and conquer” strategies of the ruling class.

However, if the intent of such protests is to try to persuade the ruling class to more seriously consider our needs, or to intimidate them into changing their behaviors, then I would say that this approach will most likely just fall on deaf ears. Sure, they may throw out a few “breadcrumbs” to quiet “the minions”; but otherwise, members of the ruling class are far too content with the status quo and far too addicted to their personal wealth and power to be so easily persuaded to share more of that wealth and power with the rest of us than they absolutely have to.

What about trying to change things from the inside?  As much as I would love to see this work—virtuous individuals pushing into the higher echelons of politics to try to make a difference—the reality that so many of us have painfully witnessed is that in the large majority of cases, such individuals are either slandered or intimidated out the door, are effectively side-lined and muffled, or they themselves become personally corrupted and co-opted into the system. Sure, occasionally the rare virtuous individual has managed to instill some positive change using this strategy, but in the larger scheme of things, what we typically get are more “breadcrumbs for the minions” if we’re lucky.

Reclaiming the power that we already have…

So what’s left?  We shake off this trance of learned helplessness, and recognize that we already have the power. Our so-called leaders have essentially become a bunch of lost addicts perpetually seeking their next “fix.” And in the same way that attempting to appeal to reason is generally ineffective for someone gripped by a serious addiction to drugs or alcohol, so attempting to persuade the ruling classes to drop their addictions is also likely to be largely ineffective. What generally is an effective means for helping an addict to come out of their addiction is to support them in coming out of their isolation and in developing authentically loving connections with others. So if we really want our leaders to come out of their addictions, then I think the only way is for “We the people” to lead by example—to stop allowing the ruling class to blow on the embers of our fears, hatreds and disconnections, and to begin cultivating our compassion, connections and kindness. As for the “leaders”—well, they have a choice—they can ether join the party or get out of the way.

So what does this look like in more practical terms? In simplest terms, I would say that we each need to do the difficult work of taming our own “wild” minds in the same way that we would tame a wounded and wild animal—with persistent yet loving discipline. First of all, we face the hard reality that those who have been raised in this society (in other words, all of us) have developed certain fears, addictions and disconnections that contribute to the perpetuation of a highly dysfunctional and destructive human society; and then we actively begin taming our own “wild” minds to reign in our destructive impulses and addictions, and to actively foster compassion, empathy and kindness towards ourselves, our fellow humans, and the other living beings with whom we share this world.

To get more specific, this entails:

Actively and regularly connecting in a more mindful and kind way with our own inner experiences—our feelings, impulses, needs and values. Examples for this kind of work would be contemplating/reflecting/reading/writing about our interests, our concerns, our values, our passions; or getting in tune with our bodies via yoga, meditation, exercise, mastering a physical sport, art or music.

Actively cultivating our kindness and compassion for and connection with others. Examples of this are consciously considering the consequences that all of our actions and purchases have on other people and living beings; spending time in heartfelt dialogue with others, making sure to practice empathic listening and heartfelt expression; having fun with other people and animals; spending time in the outdoors.

…and refusing to support the harmful practices and organizations with our money/purchases or our precious time. This would involve things such as actively boycotting products that are violent/exploitative of other people, other Earthlings and the environment; and being selective about the kind of work that we do and who we work for. Of course, our individual circumstances vary, so we simply have to do the best we can with where we’re at.

  • I think it’s important to acknowledge that those of us who are wealth-wise in the global “middle” are in the best seats for fostering real change—on one hand, it’s less likely that we have become as hopelessly addicted to wealth and personal power as those in the upper classes; and on the other hand, we aren’t so overburdened by simply trying to find the next meal, clean water, and a warm/safe place to sleep as are those in the poorest classes.
    …..Furthermore, the purchases and consumption habits of the middle-class, as well as the fruits of our labour, are an enormous source of wealth and power for the ruling class and fuel for the continuation of this broken system. Our collective refusal to continue supporting these harmful industries would deliver a huge kick in the gut to this plutocratic system, and possibly even a fatal blow (please forgive the not-so-nonviolent metaphors); and at the very least force the ruling class to adopt less harmful behaviors in order to maintain their profits.
  • Another key point that needs to be mentioned here—when it really comes down to it, the ruling classes are only able to continue enforcing their power through the threat or use of violent force, combined with a steady stream of misinformation (i.e., the police and military being the front lines of this, with the justice system, various “secret services,” the mental health system and the corporate media providing close back up). Yet most of the individuals employed within these systems are not themselves members of the ruling class, though they generally are targets of customized misinformation campaigns, and/or enjoy certain privileges involving additional personal power, wealth, job security and other enticing breadcrumbs to maintain their loyalty.
    …..This situation opens up a tremendous vulnerability for the ruling class—one they certainly don’t like but about which they have no choice. Imagine for a moment if a movement of virtuosity and compassionate civil disobedience were to take hold within any one of these social control agencies. Remember that old expression—“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came”? What if the police and judges began coming forward and saying, “Enough! We’re not going to let people rot in prison for nonviolent crimes,” or “No! We’re not going to treat people differently based on the color of their skin or their country of origin.” What if the psychiatrists and psychologists began standing up and saying, “Enough! We’re not going to keep enriching the pharmaceutical industry by putting more and more adults and children on their brain-damaging drugs.” What if the soldiers handed in their guns and their drone remote controls and said, “No Way! I’m not going to kill any more people for the sake of making the rich richer.” What if…?
    …..The good news is that such movements are starting to take hold, but the bad news (and not surprisingly) is that there has a lot of resistance against them with ever increasing crackdowns on whistleblowers and other dissenters. Here are a few of the more well-known examples of courageous dissenters that have almost certainly generated some inspiration among others in their respective fields:  (ex) Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg,  and (ex)US Army soldier Chelsea Manning, (ex) CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden, About Face: Veterans Against the War, and Psychiatrist Dr Peter Breggin.

We have the option to bypass the rulers and their broken system altogether and create our own “imaginal cells.” There is an intriguing process that occurs within a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly that may offer insight into how humankind as a whole may make the transition from a “voracious caterpillar” to a “lightly treading, pollinating butterfly.” Dr Sailesh Rao of Climate Healers puts it like this:

When a caterpillar nears its transformation time, it begins to eat ravenously, consuming everything in sight. The caterpillar body then becomes heavy, outgrowing its own skin many times, until it is too bloated to move. Attaching to a branch (upside down, where everything is turned on its head), it forms a chrysalis—an enclosing shell that limits the caterpillar’s freedom for the duration of the transformation.

Tiny cells, that biologists call “imaginal cells,” begin to appear. These cells are wholly different from caterpillar cells, carrying different information, vibrating to a different frequency—the frequency of the emerging butterfly. At first, the caterpillar’s immune system perceives these new cells as enemies, and attacks them, much as new ideas in science, medicine, politics, and social behavior are viciously denounced by the powers now considered mainstream. But the imaginal cells are not deterred. They continue to appear, in even greater numbers, recognizing each other, bonding together, until the new cells are numerous enough to organize into clumps. When enough cells have formed to make structures along the new organizational lines, the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed. The caterpillar body then becomes a nutritious soup for the growth of the butterfly.

To analogize this with the evolution of humankind, we can say that these imaginal cells represent the many groups of people around the world who are choosing to bypass the dysfunctional plutocratic system altogether, taking strides towards much more connected, mutually empowered and environmentally sustainable communities. One particularly promising movement in this regard is the steadily increasing rate of eco-villages and sustainable intentional communities popping up around the world. See here, here and here for examples and more information. See here for a compelling little video illustrating this concept.

Finally, to get even more specific with regard to effective solutions, the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious Living (CNCL) has developed the Conscious Living Resolution, which is a list of here-and-now strategies we can all begin to incorporate into our lives, starting today. Given the vast inequality of the world and our individually unique circumstances, each of us will have a different starting place with regard to this list—which of these strategies we’re ready to begin adopting and/or strengthening, and which may appear too daunting at the moment. We simply invite each person to mindfully connect with the suggested strategies on this list, and see what naturally resonates with you, and which of your “edges” you feel that you’re ready to push. And, of course, feel free to follow your own internal “nonviolence and conscious living” compass to add other strategies to this list that resonate for you.

To Conclude—Reclaiming our power and our future is what naturally happens when we reclaim our lives

Speaking for myself and many others I know who have ventured down this path to varying degrees, I can say that this is not an easy path. We’re human, we make mistakes, we become overwhelmed by our feelings and impulses at times. Breaking harmful habits and addictions and challenging our long-held beliefs and perspectives can be extremely difficult and humbling. But have faith that the rewards are likely to far outweigh the difficulties. After all, regardless of what may become of humankind in the future, we still have to live with ourselves and each other right now. Do we want to continue living in a society (and with states of mind) based mostly on fear, hatred, greed and disconnection? Or would we rather work towards a society and a personal state of mind based more on compassion, connection and kindness? Sounds like a no brainer to me!

There are certainly no guarantees that humankind will be able to pull through the extraordinarily destructive social and ecological patterns that we’ve set in motion. But as long as we’re still here, we might as well give it all we have to maintain our existence and fight for a world worth fighting for.

And if that doesn’t ultimately pan out, well… at least we can do our best to go down smiling.

Find out more about the work of Dr Paris Williams and the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious Living at cncl.info

  1. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967, p. 67.