Monthly Archives: December 2011

Big Picture Shit pt. 3

I’m a big fan of people who take the bigger view, so was interested to see the BBC correspondents predictions for 2012.  There were the things you’d expect: Syria, Egypt, Eurozone Crisis, US presidential elections.  Then there was this cracker from Mark Mardell, the North America editor:

“Revolution and economic crisis.Tectonic plates are shifting. Five hundred years ago, the West began its political, economic and scientific domination of the world. History since then has been about the impact of this imbalance – but the era is ending.”

Now, that’s what I call framing.  The question then becomes ‘What will come next?’

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Into the lion’s den

Learning quite a bit recently about system change and personal change and how this relates to the issues that our society, economy and environment face.  But do things need to change?  Is that just a personal point of view, rooted in the course and the things that I see?  Just because I see something and might believe it, is no reason for anyone else to.  So, it’s always good to get ‘evidence’ to help validate my own emerging views that the way the world and society works needs to change if we’re all going to live ‘happily ever after’.  Now, you can find loads of support for a view like that in every ‘eco’/Climate Change/green book/article/movie you come across.  But, I don’t really count them because ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’.  So, where would the ‘evidence’ really count?  How about a publication whose very essence, name and readership is inextricably linked to the success and continuation of the current system – the Financial Times.

So, it was with pleasant surprise to read an interview with Laurence Freeman who runs some Christian meditation outfit in London that includes members of the IMF and Blackstone on it’s Board.  In the interview he talks about success and money (something that will be important to many FT readers):

‘“Perfectionism is like a virus. In religion, it can lead to fundamentalism and self-loathing. The secular equivalent is success. If you only judge yourself by success – of your job, your marriage, your children, even – you are setting yourself up for failure or a sense of inadequacy. Learning to meditate, you have to unlearn perfection and the need for success.”’

Given the economic crisis, unlearning success, or rather rediscovering failure, seems especially relevant today. I ask what he makes of it all.

“Clearly, the crisis is hurting those at the bottom most,” he says. “But even at the top there is anxiety, a sense of failure and, perhaps, shame. Clearly, we have to deal with the surface turbulence and strive for the best solutions to minimise suffering and preserve justice. However, the depths of these forces of change come close to, or actually participate in, humanity’s spiritual stratum. This means we cannot manipulate or exploit them but must strive to understand and go with them. This requires a subtlety of wisdom. It also makes one wonder if the crisis is symptomatic of broader change, a new axial age in which old assumptions and ways of living are breaking down.”

When asked about the unfocussed demands of the Occupy Movement he says….

“That’s understandable.  They are protesting against fat cats, sure. But the movements’ deeper value is to witness what is happening – even if it’s not yet clear what the meaning is. Still, we have time to think about it: how long will this crisis last, five or 10 years? We must think about limits. We have become so inebriated with success.”

“You can put ethics courses in business schools but you can’t legislate for ethics. What people need is an experience of goodness, which has to come from within. That’s where meditation comes in. If you are too neurotic and inebriated with success to give yourself time to take care of your interior life, you are going to spin out of control. ”

So, interesting that the FT both interviewed him and printed it.  Well done them.  But also, I think it’s really interesting that he doesn’t think that this is a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ thing.  That he thinks that the length of the crisis (‘5 to 10 years?’) will give us a longer time to think about all this stuff and in doing so, provide us with an opportunity to decide whether (money and) success are the things we should be aiming for.  Good stuff.

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How long does it take to go sustainable (part 3)

This is now becoming a recurrent theme.  What does it take to encourage someone to ‘Go sustainable’?  The last time I posted about this I said that it was about a year.   I think that might actually be bit optimistic (i.e more like 2 years), but then that’s because I now have a better idea of what I think needs to happen in that year (or two) based on a conversation with people from the Finance Lab at WWF and the System Innovation work I’m helping Forum with.

What you get if you put 'system change' into Google Images (pt1)

What needs to happen is for a person to undergo a ‘personal transformation’.  And the reason for this is because the ‘system’ needs to be transformed.  (By ‘system’ I mean the current economic and social system which is geared for unsustainable growth.  A new ‘system’ would be a brand new thing that enabled 7 billion of us to live sustainably on the planet.)

This direct link between personal and system transformation makes intuitive sense to me.  The current system is bound by inertia and ‘the way things have always been done’.  It therefore takes a great effort to change this.  As a result, it’s fairly naive to expect people to go against the grain of the prevailing ‘system’ and be motivated to change  unless they themselves have changed.  They will have had to have changed so much that they are not only able to see the limits of the current system and their place within it, but also able to see what changes are required and able to affect those changes.  This requires a dramatic shift in values, identity and motivation.  Noting short of a ‘personal transformation’.

What you get if you put 'system change into Google Images (pt2)

Now, maybe you just need 5% of the population to do this?  Or maybe 10%? or 20%?  What’s the minimum number of people who need to undergo a personal transformation in order to actually change the system?  And who are those people?  To talk the language of ‘Occupy’, does it need to include the ‘1%’?  If so, how the heck do you do that because they’re the ones with the most vested interest in keeping the current system just as it is.  Or is that another one of those pesky ‘assumptions’?!

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What I learnt in the woods

Here’s a summary of the month I spent in the woods, up in Scotland.  Not sure what to do with it now I’ve written it, so if anyone’s got any ideas, they would be much appreciated.

Cheers and enjoy….

What I learnt in the woods by Jonathan Wise

In general, an adult can survive for 3 minutes without air; 3 days without water; 3 weeks without food.

John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman, SAS Survival Guide

I spent 25 days in a wood in Gleam Meadhonach on the Clan Donald Estate, in Sleat, on the southern end of the Isle of Skye in September and October 2011.

I did this because I am currently studying for an MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility at Ashridge Business School and have embarked on a series of experiences that will hopefully provide insight into how I (and we) should think and behave more sustainably.

I wanted to spend time alone in a wood because I wished to explore whether I could develop a different relationship with nature; a more powerful relationship that would in some way provide me with a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and my place within it.  What form the relationship might take – spiritual, practical or something else – I did not know, but my sense was that by doing it, on my own, something would change.  If not, at least it was going to be a good way to lose some weight!

All I had with me was what I could carry in my rucksack.  This included amongst other things a simple shelter: food – the backbone of which was 5kg bag of oats and a 5kg of rice; and a means to acquire firewood – an axe and a bowsaw. I didn’t take a watch, any books (other than a book on foraging and the SAS Survival Handbook) or any music.  To record my experience I took a camera and a journal.  I also took a mobile phone in case of an emergency and so I could text various people once a week to let them know that I was okay.

The wood I stayed in was about 3 miles from the nearest road and house.  It didn’t have a path going through it on the map, but in reality it did.  This meant that I saw people – walkers, fishermen or a farmer – about once every three days. Sometimes I would speak to them and I reckon I had a total of two hours human contact in the month I was there.

The length of time and that lack of contact meant that there were two major issues to contend with: myself and nature.  Given this and the limited amount of ‘kit’ I took in, meant I learnt a good deal about myself: what I do and don’t need in order to live and what’s really important.

In terms of what’s important, I was advised before I started that the four things I needed to care about most were water, food, fire and shelter.  These were wise words because they were vital for my survival and comfort.  As a result, they absolutely dominated my thinking, action and time from the moment of my arrival to the moment I left.

I found it fascinating that I spent the majority of my time being concerned about these basic building blocks.  This was in total contrast to my ‘normal’ working life where I spent very little time thinking about them and have never considered how important they are.

It was the total focus on these basic elements that led to what I would regard as the most important revelation I had whilst I was there – that we are utterly dependant on nature for our survival and, on the whole, we don’t even realise it.  As a result, we abuse it with little thought and in doing so, threaten our own survival.

For example: fire.  Fire was critical because I needed to boil water to make it drinkable, cook my food and provide warmth, both physically and mentally – I now know what is meant by the phrase ‘the fire is your friend’.  However, I came to regard my relationship with the fire as stronger than that: the fire was my baby.  This is because keeping a fire going took a lot of energy and effort as I was constantly tending and caring for it.  During the day, I never left if for more than half an hour for fear of it going out so I was restricted as to the sort of activities I could enjoy.  Not only was I always close by, but I would spend about six hours a day finding and collecting wood; sawing and chopping it and drying it when necessary.  The more time I spend with it, the more aware I became of its subtleties – how it reacted to wind, to rain, to certain types of wood.  I came to know what sort of wood I needed to put on the fire and in what way in order to create the intense heat needed for boiling water.  Similarly, I learnt what I needed to do to dampen it down so it would burn slowly.  During the night I trained myself to always check it when I woke – 5 or 6 times a night – so it wouldn’t go out.  I became very adept at being able to get it going from the faintest of embers.  I feel I came to ‘know’ the fire and what it needed and when.

This led me to realise that not only did I need the fire but the fire needed me to stay alight – there was dependency and interconnectedness between us.  In this understanding, the fire became symbolic; symbolic of the emerging understanding that everything is interconnected.  For example, we are interconnected to the food we eat because food provides us with the energy to live and our actions affect the ability for food to grow, or not.  And at an even bigger level, everything in nature is interconnected.   So, burning fossil fuels here has an effect on the other side of the world as sea levels rise.

Given how much time I spent with the fire I came to feel that I had a strong ‘relationship’ with it.  This feels wholly appropriate seeing how much I cared and nursed it and how vital it was for my survival and well-being.  Not only this, it stands to reason that the more important something is to me, the deeper my relationship with it should be.

It became very interesting when I compared this relationship with the fire to the relationship I have with ‘fire’ in my flat:

I turn the gas stove or the central heating on or off and turn the heat up or down.  Errr, that’s it.

It doesn’t feel as if the contrast could be more dramatic.  My relationship with fire in my flat is purely functional and unthinking.  I don’t think about it or care about it: there is no bond between us.

I found this fascinating.  We have created a society that is wonderful in many ways.  One of these is that we don’t have to worry, day to day, about our survival.  We have a roof over our heads, access to clean drinking water, are able to eat enough food so we don’t go hungry and can cook food and keep warm.  These basic needs are so readily taken care of and woven into the way that we live and we don’t even consider them.  I have never had to sleep rough on the street, think about clean drinking water, been hungry for more than 12 hours or not had the means to boil a kettle or turn on a cooker.

However, in creating this society we have, effectively, divorced ourselves from the rawness of nature and the reality of its importance for our survival.  It’s not as if fire, water, food and shelter are any less important in our towns and cities – the Wiseman quote obviously holds true no matter who you are and where you live.  So, whilst our society represents great progress in that we don’t have to spend all day securing food, water and firewood, but it can also be seen as potentially very dangerous given that we are not conscious of and have no consideration for the things that we depend on for our very survival.

There is an irony here.  We’ve made getting the important things easy, but in doing so, we’ve forgotten how important they are; we don’t have to think about the things we can’t do without.  Instead, we have created a society that shields us from this reality and have replaced a concern for securing natural resources with other things to worry about be it economic growth, getting a better job or what to watch on TV tonight.

This disconnection from nature is exacerbated by the fact that, day-to-day, our relationship with those four critical elements isn’t with their source: nature.  We have created the buffer of business as an intermediary between us and nature.  In the wood, my relationship with the fire was with the flame and with the firewood from nature that I put on the fire.  In my flat, my relationship isn’t with nature and ‘fire’.  If there is any relationship, it’s with the energy company that supplies the gas and electricity or the appliance that I use to heat things up.  Similarly, when I think of ‘food’, again, my relationship isn’t with nature, it’s with Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the local deli.

Not only did I find my relationship with fire skewed, I realised that my relationship with another one of the critical elements for my survival was also somewhat off-balance.  Water.

Given that I was in Scotland in September, it rained.  A lot.  And I learnt pretty quickly that my mood was very weather dependant; upbeat and active when it was fine and fairly despondent and lethargic when it rained.  As a result, I would get fairly annoyed when I had to put my waterproof coat and trousers on.  Yet, rain is nature’s way of providing me with drinking water (how else?!) and according to Lofty Wiseman’s quote, I’d be dead in three days without it.  So, water is extremely important to my survival yet, despite this, when it rained I was getting annoyed – “Oh, it’s raining again!”.   Shouldn’t I have been celebrating rather than complaining?!  This to me is a wonderful example that demonstrates my distance from nature.  Further, perhaps the lack of importance we place on rain is because it’s so abundant.  In our society, things that are abundant are seen as being of far less value than things that are scarce.  So, for example, we value diamonds over water yet if there were no diamonds it would have no impact on our survival.  The same cannot be said about water.  Just because something is abundant shouldn’t reduce its value.  Something’s value, perhaps, should be linked to its importance to our survival rather than its scarcity?

Thinking back to my baby/parent analogy with the fire, when it comes to water it feels as if it is reversed.  This is because I am ‘helpless’ without the water that nature provides.  It provides the water for me to survive and I have no influence over that – no matter how much I might want to cry!

This provides added depth and texture to my relationship with nature.  In one way it is the baby, in another I am.  It again highlights the interconnectedness between us.

So, it felt like I had developed a different relationship with nature – a deepening connection coupled with an appreciation that I am utterly dependent on it for my survival.  But, how did this compare to my current relationship?

Strangely, I had never thought to define it before but in doing so, the best I could come up with was one of Abusing Beauty.

This is because, on the whole, nature is something I consider as beautiful – I go for long walks, take photos, especially of landscapes and enjoy TV programmes that reveal the unseen wonders of the world.  Nature is a something aesthetic to be admired and revered.  Yet, simultaneously, I abuse this thing of beauty.  I buy items that use rare metals, eat fish like tuna whose stocks are become dangerously low and use fossil fuels that heat the planet.  Given my emerging awareness of the baby/parent relationship I have with nature, the words Abusing Beauty sit very uncomfortably with that.  How can I abuse something that I also consider to be a ‘baby’?

Part of my explanation for this is inherent separation from nature within the idea of Abusing Beauty.  Nature is something beautiful, ‘over there’, that I can look at and admire.  It’s something I can take a picture of and have as a memory.  And because I’m not connected to it, I care less about it thus making it easier to abuse.

My experience in the woods has clearly and profoundly shown me that we are in no way separate from nature.  We are deeply interconnected to it, to the point of intimacy when considering it as a baby/parent relationship.  Perhaps recognising this can provide a different narrative to encourage more people to become more sustainably-minded?

I believe this is the case because, at present, much of the communication around, for example, Climate Change relies on the Abusing Beauty narrative.  So, for example, we must stop abusing the atmosphere by pumping too much C02 into it, or ‘raping’ the rainforests.  Or we must save the photogenic polar bear or the stunning Great Barrier Reef.  Yet, the Abusing Beauty narrative misses the fundamental axis of my ACTUAL relationship with nature – that of nature as provider for my survival – of food, water, fire and shelter.

As a result, I believe that we’ll encourage people to act more sustainably if we can get them to care about nature based on an understanding of both their interconnection to it and that their survival is wholly dependent on it.  This may well be more effective than the current situation where so many are observers and abusers of the natural world.

How can we do this?  Obviously, spending 25 days in a wood is not for everyone and so we need to be imaginative and practical about developing peoples’ relationship with nature.  How can we collapse the barriers between us and nature so we can be both more interconnected to it and aware of its importance for our survival?  For example, a ‘solo’, where a person typically spends 24 hours alone in nature with a day of preparation before and a day of reflection after can be a powerful experience of connection.  For meat eaters, having a live animal and killing it, preparing, cooking and then eating it can also provide a strong sensation of connectedness to nature.   If you eat meat, why shouldn’t you experience what it takes to get it to your plate?  Or more simply, cooking a meal on an open fire and then reflecting on how connected you are to nature can help change the way we relate to it.

These examples and many more can help make nature more personal and connected, rather than impersonal and separate.

Could this be a powerfully different way forward?

I know it is for me.

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