Friday, September 5, 2014

The (Scientific) Method to Our Madness

A Parable by Earon S. Davis

It was amazing to witness, a spontaneous coalescing of people and perspectives, forming a new social movement in the United States.  On the Capitol Mall, in Washington, D.C. a demonstration was materializing and gaining unexpected cohesion.  It was a march for human sustainability, but instead of moving towards the Capitol Building, the U.S. Supreme Court, the White House or the Pentagon, the group was descending upon the National Research Council complex on Constitution Avenue, within the National Academy of Sciences, the official science adviser to the U.S. Government, authorized by Abraham Lincoln.

Over the years, Creationists in the U.S. had been battling science, pretty much beginning as a sideshow akin to the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920’s.  But something had changed.  The people of creationism were no longer denying global climate change, nor its human origins.  They now focused more broadly on the protection of creation and the role of the scientific and engineering communities in endangering it.  As the day unfolded, they were joined by political leftists, libertarians and liberals, conservatives and conservationists, professors of theology, humanities, actors, artists, writers, organic farmers and alternative medicine practitioners.

Something was changing.  The original organizers were calling it “Creation Day” and others said it was a “New Humanism.”  The atheists were somehow content to work with the religious in common cause.  Many of the protesters carried signs questioning the power of corporate science and government capitulation and their roles in endangering the Earth and all of its inhabitants.  It was almost like the fictional villagers gathering with pitchforks and torches and marching to the castle at which Frankenstein was being brought to life.  This time, also, the crowd felt it was gathering to protect the sanctity of life.  But, not just a band of terrified villagers in the dark, there was a positive vision of a better future.

The crowd continued to swell, the average age around 40, young and old, women and men of every size, shape and color.  Creationists a minority.  There were contingents of liberal and mainline Christians, the wide spectrum of religious communities being represented as well as atheists, agnostics, wiccans and first peoples.  Buddhists.  Hindus.  Episcopalians.  It was everyone.  Everyone except the mainstream corporate officials, politicians, engineers and scientists.  They, along with the historians and philosophers of science, and many humanists were assembled to protect the National Academy of Sciences from anti-science heretics.  Yet, there was no threat to that edifice, just evangelicals and agnostics, Anglicans, Catholics, Unitarians, Deists, orthodox Christians and Jews, with Hare Krishna’s marching arm in arm, with secularists, singing and chanting peacefully, amazed and charmed to have ended up on the same side in this national/global debate.
Peace and good will were palpably present, with the scores of religious leaders, healers, teachers, laborers, environmentalists, permaculturists, ecologists, acupuncturists, ayurvedists, yoga instructors, meditators, mediators, and more.  Integrated into the gathering were people of every color and hue, every background, rich and poor, professional and working class.  The atmosphere fluctuated from solemn to celebratory, frustration fading as the day went on, increasingly infused with the luminosity of hope.

Several demonstrators recounted how they had “woken up” from decades of feeling steamrolled by corporate science and the out-of-control technologies that had brought planet Earth to its knees.    Many were angry about decades of vacant reassurances about the resilience of our planet and of human health.  They were not satisfied that cancer rates were still rising, even if survival rates are improving;  that neurological disorders and depression are increasing, even if we have new drugs on the horizon.  One flyer being handed out noted:

“Corporate governments declare that we should not be alarmed about the air pollution, water pollution, shortages of fresh water, flooding and drought, nuclear radiation, gene spliced crops, pesticides and herbicides, processed foods and pharmaceuticals, mountain top removal and strip mining and increasing rates of ecological destruction, deforestation and species extinction.  We are tired of rationalization after rationalization about technology being our salvation, about all progress coming from science, about science and engineering being able to solve all of our problems.” 

The creationists felt they were finally being heard, standing on common ground even with some secular humanists, united by concerns about poor stewardship by soul-less corporate beings and corrupt government.  Atheists, marching alongside Mennonites and Muslims, lamented how the entire society had been corrupted and demoralized for the sake of profits and consumerism.  The organizers said it was time for technology to be called out and scientists and engineers to be held accountable.  Some of the heretics held signs saying that “Science is not the only way of “knowing” and “The Return of Humanity.” The National Academy of Sciences had not stood up, they asserted, to protect the Earth and its inhabitants.  It had gone along with “business as usual,” obsessed with keeping “the economy” running and with asserting that science was truth and superior to all other ways of knowing, including religion, including intuition, including alternative medicine, including poetry, music, art and the humanities.

It was a day that surprised the diverse groups of participants as well as the news media, police, and certainly the world of scientists and engineers.  They were witnessing a sea change.  It was no longer the obviously corrupt politicians and lobbyists who were the focal point of the this public disenchantment, but those who created and kept the corporate planet-destroying machinery going full tilt, those who defended the status quo, those who saw technology as humanity’s holy grail, those who had forgotten, it was often mentioned, what it is to be human.

And the musicians.  They danced and sang.  The poets.  They shook their heads, taking in the unlikely spectacle.  Photographers took pictures.   Hippies, young children and the elderly did their things.  Many people chanted and prayed, or just lived in the moment, in diverse languages and traditions.  Journalists interviewed people and shot video.  The police.  Well, the police just served and protected.  It was a day for the books. 

As one of the participants observed, “What began as a quirky, marginalized movement of anti-intellectuals has unified many diverse groups in understanding that our society is in a death spiral of greed.  Too much human and non-human sacrifice is being required at the altars of capitalism and the technologies it rides, for the benefit of the few.”  She noted that “The ‘enlightenment’ was a struggle between rational scientists and irrational religion.  Today, instead, the problem is the treadmill created by capitalism and technology.  Materialism, not mysticism, is running amok and threatening our future.  Today, we are witnessing the results of corporate science and technology, unconstrained by ethics, conscience and reason.  We cannot let this doomsday scenario continue to unravel our world.”

Transdisciplinarity for Human Sustainability: An Introduction

Draft - 8/29/2014  Copyright Earon S. Davis 2014

Note:  Pardon me while I work on improving the formatting of this paper.

Congratulations on being open to understanding the concept of transdisciplinarity, which is central to some perspectives on facilitating human sustainability.  As one who has unsuccessfully struggled to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, I want to acknowledge that transdisciplinary can be a difficult concept.  Much of this difficulty is explained by another difficult concept, cognitive dissonance. 

Sometimes, concepts are difficult for us to grasp because elements of their world view are inconsistent with important aspects of our world view.  This brings dissonance into our psyche that we are generally not trained to resolve.  When confronted with a dilemma in which we must choose between two competing values or needs, it is typical of human nature to choose the most familiar path and rationalize away the other choice as inconvenient, conflictual or “new.”  So, we unconsciously resist understanding challenging new concepts.  And that’s what transdisciplinarity is. 

Another view of the conflict comes from Upton Sinclair’s observation that it is difficult to understand something when your livelihood depends upon not understanding it.  In our universities and our industries, our jobs depend upon an analytical framework that empowers separate disciplines and has us trained in a single discipline, or a couple of different disciplines.  Even when we work in a few different disciplines, we generally identify each individual primarily with one or two out of scores of different disciplines.  So, since our professional world is already organized by disciplines, transdisciplinarity is not an easy thing to grasp.  It seems to indicate a desire to abandon science, but it is really aimed at putting the science we know into perspective rather than giving marginal information more weight than it warrants.

In a world that is based upon reductionist learning, valuing and celebrating what we know and devaluing what we don’t know, transdisciplinarity just doesn’t fit because it requires that we operate in areas of uncertainty in a holistic manner.  Rather than seeing the world through the filter of biological sciences or astrophysics or accounting or poetry, transdisciplinarity asks us to transcend all of the disciplines and look at the broader picture.  As we zoom out to a transdisciplinary perspective, we see each discipline as a set of data points rather than our whole universe.  Even multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective are not as radical as transdisciplinarity.  They integrate information and personnel in two or more disciplines, definitely not transcending all disciplines, not creating enough space for new observations and thinking to break through the traditional boundaries of our disciplinary approaches. 

Transdisciplinarity approaches all possible data points in all possible disciplines.  Mind-boggling, indeed!  It is a highly creative adventure, requiring an equal measure of discipline, which seeks to use the tools of all disciplines to find new truths, to uncover new data that give rise to different approaches to understanding our situations and our challenges.  It combines a proficiency with science and logic along with the openness of a child in a candy store, or some adults at a new hardware store or a sale at a huge thrift shop.  Through these new perspectives, being open to the vast array of available tools and fabrics, we may find new solutions, new relationships that we may never have discovered using the tools in just one or two or three departments.

In that sense, a single discipline presents us with one complex filter with which we see the world.  We are trained in a discipline, mentored by a senior person in that discipline, and often inducted into a long lineage within that discipline.  Sometimes, our studies are multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, but those generally involve limited numbers of disciplines and sub-disciplines, excluding a far larger number of disciplinary tools than they include.

Imagine a box with thousands of those filters.  Each allows us to see a limited portion of the spectrum of radiation and light.  Some filters allow us to see a somewhat wider range of the spectrum, but none allows us to view more than, let’s say, 1% of the larger reality.  Our filter may be the “reality” in which we specialize and in which we are an expert.  It may be the filter through which we earn our living, but it is only a small part of the larger reality. 

The quest of transdisciplinarity is to combine many, many different filters (disciplines) so that we can see larger pictures, views that more closely represent our larger, more complex and intricate, reality.  So, the task is formidable, indeed.  It is no wonder that we unconsciously resist putting down our favorite lenses and venturing into a multitude of new fields with which we are unfamiliar.  Our old views are comfortable, and they have gotten us this far in life, so even the brightest among us can remain strongly attached to them.

Peer pressure is also an important aspect of the unconscious resistance.  Transdisciplinarity reshuffles the deck of the academy’s cards in ways that challenge the importance of any one card, even the cards that we’ve held in our hand for decades.  It may challenge our allegiance to our discipline, our profession, our department, our school or college, our university.  It will challenge our relationships with our colleagues and our role in our departments.  We humans often respond to such considerations with ambivalence and approach-avoidance behaviors.

In the study of human sustainability, which is a rather large task requiring all of the various skills, tools and knowledge we can find and develop, transdisciplinarity is essential.  We are still learning how our world is interconnected, how our perceptions are biased, how difficult it is for us to anticipate the consequences of our actions.  We are still feeling hurt about how our attempts to solve one problem may cause several different unintended consequences that put us in a worse situation than had we done nothing.  Clearly, we don’t currently have the knowledge and wisdom to become sustainable in ways that also enable human flourishing.  We are beginning to envision different ways of living, but this takes time, and time is in short supply.

There are barriers to understanding changes in the scientific bases of our current reality.  The colleagues of each of the great minds to whom we attribute major advances in science, philosophy or the arts generally took decades to catch on to the new perspectives that were emerging.  Many of the great minds lived and died in a mix of rejection and obscurity, marginalized, while their ideas were slowly taking root.
What are the obstacles to seeing new paradigms?

  • 1.      Inertia.  We cling to our worldviews and all of the odd notions that get grandfathered into our mindsets along with the old notions.  It is in our nature to reject new paradigms until they somehow gain a “critical mass” to appear mainstream.  However, before that time, we may (individually or collectively) put them into distant elliptical orbits around our consciousness rather than integrate them.  When exploring new concepts, we do tend to have some “fear of the unknown.”  We do not know what conflicts may arise with our various ideas, disciplinary lineages and values, so we are cautious.
  • 2.      Nausea.  We can actually feel physically ill when we contemplate dissonant topics, so much so that we tend to resolve the conflict through rationalization, rather than embracing the dissonance and learning to tease apart our feelings of attraction and avoidance.
  • 3.      Confusion.  As with the physical symptoms of dissonance, like nausea or “that sinking feeling,” we are uncomfortable entering into realms that challenge our basic belief systems.  The easiest way for us to deal with this confusion is to block our attempts to understand the dissonance and move on to other activities.
  • 4.      Peer Groups.  Our nature is intensely social, so we depend upon the creation and maintenance of shared realities, supported by colleagues, friends, partners, etc.  We derive pleasure from these relationships and from “fitting in” to a peer group, a department or college, etc.  Leaving the shared reality of our close associates is uncomfortable, potentially depriving us of pleasant company, and this can be scary.
  • 5.      Proportionality.  The more the basic values and “truths” are different in a new paradigm, the more assumptions that are challenged, the more intense all of the above obstacles can be.

Our traditional disciplines are vital to our future.  Transdisciplinarity will not replace them.  The best known advocate for transdisciplinary, Basarab Nicolescu discussed in his article, “The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning1,” the “Declaration of Locarno,” adopted by the participants at a 1997 UNESCO International Congress on “What University for Tomorrow?”2  The group’s proposal “recommended to devote 10% of the teaching time in each discipline to transdisciplinarity.”

To the credit of our existing educational and disciplary-based systems, new multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary fields are emerging to fill in some of the large gaps in between the silos of academia.  However, at the same time, we are digging deeper into sub-specialties and sub-sub specialties as if the answer to being stuck in a hole is to dig deeper.  In order to train ourselves and our top students to be able to see outside of the existing assumption-based (disciplinary) options we have, we will need to cultivate transdisciplinary thinking. 

There are patterns and relationships, concepts and perspectives that can help our species live sustainably that we cannot yet envision.  Interestingly enough, one group that most readily engages transdisciplinary thinking is entrepreneurs.  Not wedded to any given discipline, small, local businesses, especially when partnered with relevant technical specialists, are in a position to identify new opportunities, new ways of doing things.  One of the tasks of our universities is to facilitate and cultivate such problem-solving.

It may well be that our educational efforts are most critically directed to our young people.  Rather than cultivating reductionist education (e.g., STEM) for everyone, we should encourage creative thinking across all groups in society.  Honestly, we cannot afford to continue to reinforce narrow visions and group think when it is increasingly vital that we have leaders at all levels of society able to grasp the “big picture” and influence society towards mindful and rational decision making.  By the time one gets to graduate school, there is strong pressure to specialize and carve out a tiny area of competence rather than generalize and round out the varied skills necessary to be an effective, thoughtful global citizen.

Will we be sufficiently open-minded to let go of the “tried and true” so that we encourage the thinking and research that will open up the new possibilities?  Consider the anthropocene!  Today’s young people are growing up in an era that is far more aware of the impacts of humans on our world.  They have already experienced a quantum change in consciousness and we need to build upon that.  Otherwise, we can keep our heads buried inside the traditional disciplines with which we and our predecessors have painted humanity into the corner in which we now find ourselves. 

As Einstein remarked, we can’t solve our problems by thinking in the same ways that created them.  Transdisciplinarity is the process by which Einstein synthesized his revolutionary ideas using the tools of the disciplines he knew, but using his imagination to create ideas and relationships that would not have been imaginable to the average physicist of his day.  And, as I can attest, his larger theory is still not fully imaginable to some of us today.

Additional Resource
The most thorough set of references for transdisciplinarity involve the work of Dr. Basarab Nicolescu, author of “Transdisciplinary Theory and Practice.”3 Dr. Nicolescu is President, Centre International de Recherches et d’Etudes Transdisciplinaires (CIRET), International Center for Transdisciplinary Research, located in Paris, France.  Their website is:

Note:  There is background information, but this may or may not mend the cognitive dissonance issues that can make this concept of transdisciplinarity difficult to grasp/accept.  Transdisciplinary is not a specialty or a discipline.  Like systems thinking, it is a perspective, a reformulation of reality that removes some of the irrationality the proponents feel permeates the world views of even esteemed scientists and intellectuals. 

1Nicolescu, Basarab, “The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning,” Online, 1999, April 10,, accessed August 31, 2014.
2International Congress What University for Tomorrow? Towards a transdisciplinary evolution of the university. UNESCO, Locarno, Switzerland, April 30 - May 2, 1997. Translations available at CIRET,
3Nicolescu, Basarab, Transdisciplinary Theory and Practice, Hampton Press, U.S.A. 2008

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Transcendent Paradox of Self-Awareness: How Cognitive Dissonance Prevents Most of Us From Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

It’s not a matter of kindness or hard work or even spiritual awareness.  Human stupidity will inevitably catch up with us, and all the more quickly when we believe that we are intelligent, rational and disciplined.  We are drawn to complexity like a blade of grass is drawn to sunlight.  However, we are not equipped to discern reality within complex systems if some other aspect of our lives disposes us to an inconsistent world view.  If we are profiting (financially, socially or ideologically) from doing things in a certain way, most people literally cannot recognize when that social system comes into conflict with legal, moral or ethical standards and values.  There’s an almost impenetrable veil, called cognitive dissonance, that falls over us.  There may be some awareness of the conflict, but it is distorted in ways that allow us to misperceive reality and remain on our current course.   When there is a conflict in our perceptions, we tend to block out all that is not in our existing world view.

In a way, spirituality is the path of self-awareness and many teachers and traditions (especially Buddhist thinkers and original peoples around the world) had human nature nailed.  This is why they did not favor changes that created the illusion of greatness, power and intelligence among humans.  They favored long-term thinking rather than short-term gain.  This is why they sought limitations to the power of rulers and elites, who would always tend to ignore the needs of regular people and concoct systems, businesses and governments to run roughshod over them until the systems would break down.

In the long term, these teachers and traditions understood that after any major change, the next generations would accommodate to the new reality and continue to push technology and social engineering further and further, invariably to one or another breaking point, causing conflict, confusion and the accumulation of wealth among a very small class of people.  Because the lesson of humility must be learned repeatedly by each generation, and our social and technological structures are constantly changing, we never get to the point of understanding our limitations – only our possibilities.  We are doomed, therefore, to progress technologically in ways that distort reality and distract us from our problems, rather than to actually solve them.

Cognitive dissonance is a characteristic of how humans perceive reality.  It holds that we become terribly uncomfortable when the reality we expect is different from the reality that exists, so uncomfortable that we will rationalize them away, ignore them, reinterpret them or otherwise entirely misperceive them.  We may ridicule or even attack those who insist on an alternative view of reality, regardless of whether they are correct or not.  Racists and sexists will defend bigotry if it protects their social order or their economic interests.  They will even defend and nurture a civil or international war, which is virtually always irrational and self-destructive.  We just can’t help ourselves.

And now for the transcendental paradox of human thought:  Most people are unable to comprehend cognitive dissonance because the theory conflicts with their perception of human perfectibility.  The myth of human perfectibility is a powerful force in our lives, and it distorts our perceptions in ways that set us up for self-deception and self-destruction.  The recognition of Cognitive dissonance is an insight that propels a competing human drive towards simplicity and rationality.  However, it is no match for our desire to see the world as orderly and ourselves as rational and perfectible.  

If you have a large tolerance for dissonance, you may see truth in this little article.  If you are made incredibly uncomfortable by this entire topic, you will likely not perceive cognitive dissonance as important at all.   You may be quite annoyed that I have written this, or you may think it is nonsense, a conspiracy, or just plain mean-spirited.  This is determined not by whether you believe me to be intelligent or decent, but by whether you are comfortable with the realizations that humans are not perfectible and that our over-arching social problems are ultimately not solvable until our larger culture becomes comfortably aware of cognitive dissonance and learns to view itself more objectively.  If we wait for battling ideologies to lead us to a rational and effective path, we're likely in for a difficult century.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Divine Primate: A Journey Towards Sustainable Cultures

by Earon S. Davis, JD, MPH, NCTMB 

I have been thinking about how to call upon our ancient wisdom traditions to encourage our cultures to be more sustainable.  Most of these traditions seek balance between body, mind and spirit in order to create inner harmony and outer peace.  Very often, these traditions focused on the individual, on bringing mind, body and spirit into awareness and connection in order to create inner peace and wellness.  Indeed, this is something that we have the power to do in our lives, while focusing on other people often brings us conflict and turmoil.

Yet, we do not withdraw from our families, communities and nations in order to focus just on ourselves.  We are inextricably inter-twined with the world around us, so with our in-breath we focus on inner peace and with our outbreath, we focus on bringing peace to the rest of the world.
All to often, we fail to see the full breath of spirituality.  It is important to find tranquility when the world is in danger and turmoil, but with the in-breath there must be an out-breath.

So it is that sustainability requires self-care that maintains a healthy balance between individual and community, between humans and the natural world.  We can not achieve this simply by cultivating our own tranquility any more than we can by satisfying our own greed.  Integrating body, mind, spirit, emotion, community and nature is the larger goal.  We must not accept the current sense of human beings as a population of individuals disconnected from each other and from the natural world.   This simply does not work.
"Divine Primates," my book project, is a call for the global re-integration of body, mind, spirit, emotion and community.  Our current cultures divide the world up in ways that prevent us from relating to our fellow humans and to nature in ways that are sustainable.  Mind has been elevated at the expense of body, spirit, emotion and community.  Instead, our cultures need to make a large shift from honing the skills to manipulate and exploit nature and mankind to focusing more on the skills to live within the constraints of economy, nature and geopolitics.  These can all be gradually accomplished, but not without new cultural images and values that celebrate humanity and human nature as part of the natural world rather than as perfectable beings destined to live as gods.  Nature does not allow for the survival of any species that refuses to adapt to change, us included.

It is one thing to bring back functioning spiritual systems into our lives.  But, at the same time, we must reconnect our minds and bodies with our emotions and create a new sense of belonging to this planet and to the larger community of humanity.  Science and technology have changed us.  Global economics have changed us.  The world has shrunk and old cultural patterns have changed, but the human race is still adjusting to our growing interdependence and need for cooperation in economics, science, culture, politics and spirituality.  Without evolution in these directions, we can not create sustainable, peaceful relationships with each other and with our planet.

On a personal level, many of us are familiar with the quest to integrate the various aspects of our lives and consciousness - body, mind, spirit, emotion and community.  This process allows us to live in more tranquil and productive ways and makes us more effective as people.  This integrated awareness is inherent in our ancient spiritual traditions, whether they are Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, American Indian, Shamanic, etc., but our dominant cultures have become imbalanced.  In addition, the same universal principles that apply to individuals also apply to national and global relationships.  Their application to our collective global awareness can help us to repair our short-circuited and distorted cultures focused on narrow-minded greed and manipulation.  With the integration of body, mind, spirit, emotion and community, we can create new cultural tools for sustainable human living.

"Divine Primates" is a journey, not a blueprint.  We need to avoid our tendency to settle on quick-fixes and "perfect solutions."  The journey is for our long-term survival and we will need all of our intelligence and discerning to avoid painting ourselves into more corners.  Culture is the most powerful tool we have in this process, and yet it is diffuse and anarchic, tending towards fads and fancies rather than wisdom.  If culture remains in the hands of Madison Avenue or Wall Street, we are in terrible trouble.  

Culture that promotes the common good is both the genius and the challenge of democracy.  Will we continue to pay tribute to the gods of consumerism, ideology and technology?  Or, will the "Divine Primate" emerge with the wisdom to control our excesses and cultivate nature rather than be obsessed with dominating it?  We have the tools for both individual and global balance and self-care, but they need to be thoughtfully considered and creatively implemented in ways that create common purpose and trust rather than competition and paranoia.

Please join me in discussion these concepts and sharing your own thoughts!  For more information on Divine Primates, please go to my website.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Making "Difficult" Decisions in the Future, Starting Today!

Making "Difficult" Decisions in the Future, Starting Today!

by Earon S. Davis, JD, MPH

I've been working for years to find the commonality between progressive and libertarian values, a daunting project.  But this is where our nation needs to go if we want to avoid hostility and gridlock that undermine our ability to adapt and evolve as a sustainable nation.  Comments are welcome!

Anyone interested in social policy, and for whom "planning" is not a cardinal sin, can point to numerous "difficult" decisions we all know we need to make - but which encounter endless ideological whining, special interests and the knowledge that the short-sighted, poorly informed public will find them unpopular and unacceptable.  As humans, we hope that intractable problems will somehow just go away - without our having to make the difficult choices we know are necessary.  So, the problems continue to fester and we feel shame and failure because we can not effectively address them.

But there is a way.  Why not simply make the decisions, but postpone their effective dates?  We know that we can't immediately stop big coal and big oil from raping our planet and turning our global resources into huge sums of money and world-threatening pollutants.  But we could muster the courage to give them 7 year's notice to drastically scale back their wanton destruction while we move forward with clean alternatives.

We can't tackle our obscene overpopulation today, but we can give fertility cults 10 years to realize that their policies of encouraging irresponsible overpopulation of developed, as well as developing nations, will end.  Tax deductions that provide government encouragement to produce more than 2 or 3 children could be phased out over time, and larger incentives to adopt existing children could be greatly expanded immediately.  

We can't do away with consumerism, our addiction to stuff, immediately, but we can tax energy consumption and waste streams to provide funds for the creation and implementation of non-fossil fuel renewable energy alternatives and conservation.  We can phase in a one-dollar per gallon tax on gasoline over the next 5 years, using the funds to enhance mass transit and the development and production of non-fossil fuel vehicles.  We can start with a 20 cent per gallon tax on gasoline - in two years, building up to one dollar.

Same with our obscenely greedy financial industries.  Put them on a low-greed budget over a period of 10 years, making them justify each dollar they take from our pockets to put into theirs.  Of course, we will put Congress on a similar budget, again, over a 10 year period.  And we must never again allow a President to go to war to help bring billions to their oil-rich allies.  Such wars are simply not acceptable to taxpayers who pay for those wars with incredible sums of tax money as well as the blood of their children.  Government accountability, too, can be phased in over 5 years.  

Government can do evil things.  Government can create entitlement and dependence, whether for wealthy corporations and contributors or poor people.  But, Americans must take responsibility for the massive wealth and power that has systematically been shifted towards a minority of elite individuals and businesses.  These have taken over government and control the lives of ordinary citizens in ways that would make our founders turn over in their graves.  Corporations have become the new "Government".

It is not "government" that is evil, but we citizens who have become incompetent and unwilling to demand basic responsibility and accountability for our corporate and private citizens and multinationals.  Government can not function when all power is held by the wealthy and corporate entities who see the world only in terms of their interests, rather than the interests of the diverse and pluralistic society at large.  While the solutions are not simple, nor amenable to simpleminded demagoguery, we are floundering at present and hamstrung by competing ideologies and populist paranoia.  Enforcing the anti-trust laws fashioned by both Democrat and Republican values will go a long way towards evening the playing field that has been so heavily tilted by current monopolies.  No corporation can be allowed to grow so large as to be "too big to fail."

America can work together to solve our big problems.  What we can't change today, can be changed tomorrow, if we will all pitch in to help fix what is broken - without ideological litmus tests.  Ideology will continue to immobilize us and cause us to abdicate even more time and power to the special interests and corrupt-minded politicians and "infotainers" who feed off of our frustration and broken-hearted looks at where our nation is heading.  These people and institutions benefit from every second of our gridlock and indecision and will thwart our every effort to turn off their money spigots.  

So, if we can't all resolve to pull the nipple from the mouth of Wall Street, Big Oil and Coal, Government Contractors and demagogues, let's put some 5-year and 10-year plans into place that will give the corrupt, greedy bastards more time to skim their profits from the people - knowing that the feeding frenzy will soon end.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Human Nature, Superiority and Leadership

"Man is a rational animal.
He can think up a reason for anything he wants to believe."
-- Anatole France(1844-1924)

Humans are primates, close cousins to apes and chimpanzees. While we can put up with a lot more lecturing, double-talk and posturing than the average chimp, we have our limits. The more humans are moralized, corporatized and sanitized, the more we seem driven to seek release and balance through fantasies (e.g., daydreams), addictions and outright rebellion. This is why our leaders can only maintain their power for so long before corruption creeps past their principles and altruism. We expect leaders to remain permanently brilliant and disciplined and this is not possible without feeding our need to be in control of our lives - which virtually requires a tightly controlled over-achiever to mess up in some way, often a very colorful way - just to be able to feel human again. You can force an ape to wear a suit and tie, or a priest's robes, but once a primate - always a primate.

Humans are apes, controlled by a rational brain/computer, or so we think. In reality, the ape is in control of the computer. The rational is servant to the irrational. Let darkness fall, or boredom set in, and the apes comes out to play. Abuse and dominate the ape and it will eventually turn on you. Humans are not tame-able. And our ability to reason, the intricacy of which is possibly a signature of our species, is no more a proof of superiority than the intricate construction of an ant colony is proof that the ant is superior to the crow.

This is not bad news for us! Indeed, our understanding of our nature opens possibilities of removing some of the cultural factors that trap us in our cycles of greatness - inevitable failure - shame - neurotic overcompensation - greatness - and unsustainable failure.
See http://www.divineprimates or find me on facebook or linkedin for more.

Sustainability's New Underpinnings

According to noted primatologist Robert Sapolsky, supported by the pioneering work of Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal, the past two decades have seen a complete revolution in our understanding of human nature. Yes, I said "human nature," not just apes, baboons and chimpanzees. What we have learned is still sinking in, and we know that new knowledge can take generations to become integrated into human cultures.

To put it briefly, by studying other primates we have learned that humans are not nearly as unique as we had believed. Non-human primates have been shown to transmit culture to their children and future generations, and to have that culture perpetuated and possibly expand to other tribes. Non-human primates are aware that other individuals in their tribe have their own thought processes and identities. Non-human primates have empathy and the potential for great kindness. Non-human primates are capable of incredible visual-spatial memory, complex negotiations, and the performance of intricate tasks, even the acquisition of sign language. And, we have learned that non-human primates are capable of enormous viciousness and even orchestrated warfare. As we have looked into the eyes of our primate cousins, we have seen ourselves.

The most powerful lesson in these similarities between humans and apes is that much of our human intellectual world is window-dressing for our primate drives and needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs may acknowledge the importance of basic needs such as food, shelter and water, and mating, but may have grossly exaggerated the importance of "self-actualization." Indeed, most of what we call our career, social status and self-identity may be more based upon the social orders and rivalries we see in other primates than in any unique dimension of human-ness. To be sure, there are orders of magnitude greater complexity in our communications, technologies and social structures, but not any major differences in kind.

What does this teach us about sustainability? What could our "ape-ness" possibly show that we didn't already know? First, our current understanding of non-human primates shows us that humans are a species are not terribly unique. Second, non-human primates show us that we are not nearly as altruistic and democratic as we like to think. Individual gain and power are always present in human motivation regardless of the spirituality and altruism we want others to see in our actions. We still want to be seen as dominant over others and as attractive to the gender we are attracted to. We still will do almost anything to be accepted by our peers. We still crave a family and/or tribe and will do anything to help it survive and prosper.

Motivation to live sustainably is there, in our primate genes. The problem is that without understanding our primate nature, we have created cultures and expectations that undermine our sustainability while seeming to support it. While humans crave simplicity, we also are drawn to complexity in all imaginable forms. We create vast complexities in social structure, technology, ideology and religion that keep us entertained and occupied - but can easily lead us to extremes, competition and conflict. It is in our nature to monkey with everything at our disposal. In the process, we invent and create. Our egos convince us that we know everything we need to know, so we are constantly reinventing ourselves and our realities, barely aware of the constant human-created gauntlet of unintended consequences we face in our individual and collective lives.

Sustainability, at some point, requires observing reality rather than constantly inventing new realities and mobilizing exciting solutions stimulating our imaginations and our fantasies of fame, power and wealth. At some point, there are ecological limits to our growth and to our predilections for complexity and consuming stuff. With global climate change and the increasing domestication of humans in cities and corporate workplaces, we long ago passed the thresh hold of non-sustainability. Overpopulation has resulted in increased exploitation of precious resources and cheap labor at the same time that literacy and education have created cultures ever more adept at creating more and more complexity and distraction. Human urge to have children has declined in educated cultures, and depression has manifested in huge proportions.

Overcomplexity has propelled addictions, including over-consumption of consumer goods. We have tinkered with our environment and our foods in ways that cause illness and obesity. Our lives become more and more technologically driven and sedentary, while we exercise compulsively in order to feel human. Of course, there are simple things that we can all do to reverse many of these threats. The good news is that we have everything we need to live more fulfilled and stimulating lives. And it is time to return to our living ecosystems here on this wonderful planet. It is time to recognize our primate nature and work on developing cultures that support and sustain us rather than overstimulating and overstressing us.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cultural Solutions for Sustainable Living

by Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H.

When we view our consumerism as an addiction, rather than a harmless excess, we start a challenging process, but one that empowers us to accept responsibility for our behavior. Following this different path, we can regain some control over our future.

Addicts try to pass off their behavior as private, personal conduct that they can’t help and that is, frankly, none of anyone else’s business. They reject the notion that it is a problem at all. However, none of the mind-numbing denial and excuses of the addict are important until they “hit bottom” and are somehow willing to accept responsibility for their behavior. At that point, they need community support and encouragement. We may see consumerism as “just” a side-effect of prosperity, freedom, democracy and capitalism, but addressing consumerism as the addiction it is offers the solution that technology can never provide.

In our growing awareness of global climate change, terrorism and other ecological and geopolitical crises, we are confronted with the fact that our consumerist culture is not changing rapidly enough to avert major disasters in the next few decades. We know that it is necessary to adapt to our changing circumstances or face unimaginable consequences for our future generations. But, even more importantly, our excesses are making us miserable rather than happy. We see the enormous growth of Business and Government and wonder where our country is headed. Can we change our culture without waiting for edicts from an authoritarian government responding to a horrendous crisis? Are the vested interests who are actively sabotaging our future on this planet ever going to loosen their grip and join those who recognize the imperative of personal responsibility?

Over the past decade, we have heard an abundance of technological solutions to global climate change, few of which will actually make a real dent in our carbon footprint or other measures of ecological sustainability. The truth is that we can not consume our way out of the mess we are in. Science will help, but the technology we require first is social and cultural technology to address our compulsive acquisitiveness and addiction to "stuff." To the less developed world, Americans are, through our corporations, stealing vast amounts of this planet and converting these natural resources into stuff we don't need. One of the best descriptions of this process is presented in Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff." at

So, we've become compulsive consumers and exploiters - not what we'd ever set out to become. Corporate interests, supported by government, are reaping huge rewards, enough to blind them to the harm they are doing, and enough to influence our lawmakers not to kill the goose that lays their golden eggs. But someone's got to act like an adult here. Liberal and conservative, believer and atheist, rich and poor, young and old, we all have a stake in the future of the human race and planet earth.

There is a social/cultural technology that has worked remarkably well with addictions, creating cultural support for facing up to alcoholism and many other forms of addictive behavior. This began as the 12-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it has been used successfully throughout the world for decades and is recognized, even in our scientific and medical communities, as a vital part of addiction treatment and recovery.

So, here we are, a nation of addicts. We may continue to beg, borrow and steal in our quest for new products and processes to allow us to keep our addictions, but for the sake of future generations, we can not let this charade continue. It is natural for addicts to behave this way, but we can no longer accept this behavior as appropriate. We have an off-the-shelf cultural technology to offer, with only minor adaptations. Here it is:

12 Steps To Creating a Sustainable Culture

1. Admit that we are powerless over consumerism and that our lives and culture have become unsustainable.

2. Accept that our awareness of, and dedication to, the long-term common good of the human race and our planet can leave us happier, healthier and protective of our future generations.

3. Make the decision to restrict our unthinking, guilt-inducing self-indulgences for the long-term benefit of life on this planet.

4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, our behavior and our priorities.

5. Admit to ourselves and others the exact nature of our destructive self-indulgences and meaningless consumption.

6. Realizing that we are neither perfect nor perfectible beings, seek social and cultural support structures to remind us, and encourage us, on the steps necessary for human sustainability.

7. Humbly ask our community and world to understand our shortcomings and offer forgiveness and understanding for our past wrongs.

8. Make a list of those we have harmed and be willing to make amends to them.

9. Make direct amends to people we have harmed, except to the extent that could injure them or others.

10. Continue to take moral inventory and promptly admit whenever we are wrong.

11. Seek, through quiet reflection and meditation, to improve our conscious contact with the natural world in which we live and to enjoy the gifts of this world in sustainable moderation.

12. Having had a moral and intellectual awakening as a result of these steps, we will try to spread this awareness to others and to practice reasoned, non-ideological sustainability in all of our affairs.

So, there it is. Are you ready to commit to a process of recovering from the bizarre consumerism that has infected our culture? If so, please start talking with your friends, colleagues and neighbors. Talk to your religious congregation, your humanist group, your civic organizations, ethnic and neighborhood groups. Talk to your local voluntary simplicity and conscious living groups. See if other people are interested in taking real, immediate steps to reversing our patterns of excessive consumption, waste, pollution and indirect exploitation of other peoples around the world.

Each group will work in its own directions. There is no one "right way" to do this. Create your own list of steps towards sustainable living. Don't wait for big business or government to do this for you. As we gain experience, our wisdom and insight will lead us to increase our effectiveness. Our creativity will allow us to unleash the love of life and humanity that has been so badly battered and put to shame thoughout these times of unadulterated greed and selfishness.

This is it,
America! We have a chance to take our destiny, our future, back into our hands. We have the chance for conservatives and libertarians and liberals and progressives to make our culture and government more effective and efficient. We have the chance to work together on a cause of the highest moral nature and value - the survival of our country, our species and our planet.

This can happen, but it must begin in humility and service, rather than hype and profiteering. Leave your marketing materials and revolutionary "green products" at home. Leave your ideologies, politics and religious beliefs at home. This is not about selling anything. It is about acknowledging our excesses and following a proven process of self-examination and recovery. It is about reclaiming our souls, reconnecting as Americans, and saving our country.


Earon Davis is a sustainability advocate with degrees in sociology, law and public health. He teaches college level health sciences and practices in an integrative medicine program in the Chicago area.

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Cultural Technology for Sustainable Living by Earon S. Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Role of Overpopulation in Global Climate Change

Today is Blog Action Day, with a focus on Global Climate Change. There is so much to write about regarding Global Climate Change, which is already resulting in massive destruction to the ecosystems upon which we depend for food, water and other necessities. This time, however, I want to focus on the role of human overpopulation as a key factor in the human contribution to this global crisis.

A few days ago, I attended a panel discussion on Global Climate Change at the Society of Environmental Journalists ( conference in Madison, Wisconsin. I also attended a talk by Al Gore on the same topic, updating us about the fact that Global Climate Change is here, and having devastating impacts already. The panel on overpopulation included Prof. Paul Ehrlich, who has been writing about population for decades. It is unfortunate that so little attention is being paid to population issues in the media, apparently because it is such a sensitive topic - and virtually taboo because of the dogmas of particular religions.

Yet, human overpopulation is one of the key causes of the stresses we are placing upon our planetary resources that are leading to global climate change. We will not likely be able to control our destructive consumption and cycles of famine and war until overpopulation eases its constant pressure on planetary resources. To encourage population increases in this era is obviously irrational and in abrogation of the common sense any divine being would have conferred upon our species.

However, through lack of support for family planning and individual control over family size, many organizations around the world are actively sabotaging human efforts to live in balance with our natural world. Through direct social incentives and mandates to produce more children, these organizations promote cultural values found in ancient texts as if we are living thousands of years ago, when, indeed, the planet could easily absorb millions of additional humans. As a result, our species and our planet are further endangered and sound efforts to address global climate change and other global ecological crises such as mass extinctions are thwarted.

It does not matter why people and organizations choose to sabotage efforts to allow the human race to live in peace and prosperity on this planet. Some religious leaders look at today's situation and adapt to the world we live in today, honoring the wisdom of our ancient texts and choosing not to repeat the tragedies of which they repeatedly warn. Yet, others hold onto and re-create the ancient biblical conflicts and disasters, seemingly doomed to repeat the past rather than create a better future. I, for one, fail to see the morality in dooming our species to untold suffering. For the sake of our species, these actions and the attitudes that support them must change.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Do Ideologies Make Sustainability Impossible?

I wanted to share some thoughts about why we humans need to let go of our ideologies and theologies in order to live sustainably on this planet. I don't mean that we should ban political parties and religions, but that we should have cultural norms that teach the need for people to avoid getting stuck in extreme thought loops that lead to obsession, and even paranoia, with narrow concepts that distract us from our most important challenges as a species.

For example, there are many news stories, pundits and celebrities that attract our attention. However, while we can believe what we want, we don't need to re-enact a given story or historical account over and over and over so much that we lose perspective in our real lives. We don't need to stalk celebrities. We don't need to inflict our religious or political dogmas upon other people. Even if we see it to be "common sense" or "absolutely obvious," there is more than one acceptable way to think.

In times when different people and groups were relatively isolated from each other and were not in constant contact, there was less harm in engaging in rants and obsessional thinking. Yet, as humans, we rely upon our cultures and social relationships to contain our collective understanding of our relationship to each other and to the world around us. As one country or culture comes into contact with another, there is a clash of cultures and attempts to accommodate or synthesize cultural adjustments to allow mutual peace and productivity. Where cultures get stuck in rigid thinking patterns, conflicts become more inevitable and more severe.

As our world has shrunk and the contact points between very different cultures have become seemingly infinite, there need to evolve new patterns and rules so that everyone has opportunity to participate peacefully and no one group demands the power to control what everyone else thinks. Today, our cultures are hamstrung, rather than being liberated or empowered, by layers and layers of cultural ideologies and expectations that were created hundreds or thousands of years ago to reflect very different circumstances that are no longer present today. In that tribal past, tolerance was not expected and occasional violence and wars were.

Because global cooperation is now required for our very survival, a new global culture must form that respects diverse local cultures rather than barely tolerating them. Taking a systems approach, rather than continuing in our post-colonialist approaches to less technologically advanced countries and cultures, we see that our quest for common ground is obscured by theological and ideological concepts and cultures. Beneath these things that separate human groups and pit us against each other, there is a common ground, indeed.

We are all primates, human animals with physical, cultural and emotional needs in common. By returning to these basics, we empower negotiations and cooperation instead of bullying and brinksmanship. By getting stuck in ideological and theological concepts that were meant to explain and comfort, rather than radicalize and destroy our sense of boundaries and cooperation, we undermine our very survival. Little is more irrational and self-destructive than war and hatred, but these have been a regular feature of human existence for thousands of years.

"Divine Primates," as a concept, as a book project and as an educational tool, is a look at the human animal. We humans are found throughout the planet, in groupings that have distinct histories and cultures. Let's look at what we all have in common, not just with other humans, but even with many other species with whom we share this complex, inter-related set of ecosystems we call "earth." It is fear and envy that cause us to forget our human compassion and lose all sense of proportion in relating to other groups, nations, religions and cultures. With immense ecological and geopolitical crises threatening to erupt into war, famine and ecological collapse, we must eventually get back to basics and learn to live peacefully with others and yet defend ourselves when that is not an option.

To the extent that ideologies and theologies tend to spread like thought viruses and infect human populations, we need to lessen their impact and inoculate young people with knowledge of their dangers. Infected individuals lose their sense of proportion and easily become rigid, paranoid and radicalized, replacing their rational values with obsession and a need to control other people. Convinced that the end of the world is approaching unless competing ideas are obliterated, humans have repeatedly brought immense tragedy upon themselves for no real reason - other than our primate nature.

The rage of paranoid minds, manipulated by greedy, power-hungry sociopaths and fools, is a powerful destructive tool in primate cultures. Yet, we human primates also have the power to step back and look at situations from a distance, with a larger perspective. Where obsession would otherwise govern, causing escalating cycles of mistrust, hatred and violence, we have the power to insert wisdom. Currently, our culture has become almost devoid of meaning as we obsess about power, posessions and prestige. It is not coincidental that there is a rise in anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism, which threaten to cause increased conflict and contention. Will enough people choose the path of reflection and wisdom, or will our chattering monkey minds demand revenge and purification? What do you think?