Episode #168 One Planet Living: Mapping Minds to create a new emergent Consciousness, with Pooran Desai, OBE.
We’re clearly in the midst of a meta-crisis. Linear thinking got us into this mess – how can we engage all the tools of modern technology to help us think more freely, creatively and systemically in service to a more flexible future?
It is our mission on this podcast – and the wider membership community from which it arose – to open doors and break down barriers, to bring forward the ideas and the actions of, and give voice to, the absolutely amazingly creative people who get that business is not usual, that the reality we have created for ourselves is misguided at best – and dangerously toxic at worst – and are doing their best to bring about change in a timescale that matters.
This week, we spoke with Pooran Desai, someone whose scope and scale and grasp of the nature of the problem is unmatched. Pooran is a serial environmental entrepreneur and it felt like a breath of fresh air, to connect with someone who sees the bigger picture and is working to affect change at all levels. We explored topics that ranged from the building of Britain’s first sustainable community at BedZed in London, to the nature of the meta-crisis and why measurement of single indices is one of the key factors in the emergency. On the way, we discusses the different natures of left and right brain thinking and how they apply to databases (and why databases are so critical to the way that business and so politics works in the world), the evolution of sustainable development goals (and why those started out well but have become yet another way of greenwashing business in its endless drive for profit), the nature of reality and how Daoist meditation can give us insights into our own delusions…and ways we could save the NHS 80% of its costs. This was a hard-hitting conversation. We didn’t mince words or step around ideas. I found it exhilarating, enlightening and inspiring and hope you do to.
Pooran Desai has been a neuroscientist, a property developer, and a technology entrepreneur, but all of it has been in service to a regenerative future. In 1994, he co-founded one of the world’s first sustainability organisations, Bioregional which is responsible for setting-up enterprises in sustainable forestry, organic farming, recycling and real estate development.
He assembled a wealth of environmental and sustainable talent to create the UK’s first zero-carbon urban eco-village, BedZED, which was completed in 2002. In 2004, he was awarded an OBE for services to sustainability – in the days when the word still meant something seriously worthwhile.
Pooran led Bioregional’s One Planet Living® initiative for 18 years, leading teams that created sustainability strategies in 30 countries creating a set of principles that served as inspiration for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).
Pooran is author of OnePlanet Communities: A Real-Life Guide for Sustainable Living, and is a trustee of the Design Council, supporting their ‘Design for Planet’ mission.
In 2019, Pooran founded OnePlanet, to create a software suite that helps people, companies, policy makers shift to networked thinking – to let go of the constraints of consensus reality and the linear thinking that got us into this mess, and move towards systemic thinking that might get us out of it.
Manda: This week I am bringing to you someone whose scope and scale and grasp of the nature and the timescales of the problem is pretty much unmatched. Pooran desai is a polymath of the first order. He’s been a neuroscientist, a property developer, an entrepreneur and a software developer, or at least somebody who pointed the software engineers in the right direction. And all of that has been in service to a regenerative future. In 1994, he co-founded one of the world’s first sustainability organisations called Bio Regional, which is and was responsible for setting up enterprises in sustainable forestry, organic farming, recycling and in the later stages, real estate development. In the context of which, he was part of the group that brought together BedZed, which was Britain’s, I think definitely England’s first mixed use, large scale sustainable community.
Manda: And in 2004, he was awarded an OBE. He is an officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to sustainability at a time when that word still meant something seriously worthwhile. And again, as you’ll hear, the ten principles that Bioregional’s one planet living lived by, became the foundations of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which in itself is an extraordinary achievement. But Pooran didn’t stop there. He is co-author of a book, One Planet Communities A Real Life Guide for Sustainable Living. He’s a trustee of the Design Council supporting their design for Planet Mission. That’s a subset of the UK government. And then in 2019 Pooran founded One Planet, a company designed to create a software suite that helps people, companies, policy makers, anyone who needs to do anything, shift from linear thinking to networked thinking. And that was one of the most exciting and inspiring concepts I had come across in a long time. Speaking to Pooran felt like a breath of fresh air. Connecting with someone who sees the bigger picture and the time scales that are going to hit us soon, and is working to affect change at all levels. This was a really hard hitting conversation. We didn’t mince words or step around ideas. I found it exhilarating, enlightening and inspiring, and I hope you do too. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Pooran Desai OBE.
Manda: Pooran, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast and thank you for wrestling with the technology on a monday morning. How are you and where are you in the world just now?
ooran: Thank you, Manda I’m in Brighton. I’m looking over the sea. There’s a bit of sun, so I’m feeling reasonably grounded at the moment. But we are in a completely crazy world, so it’s hard to really feel grounded properly at the moment.
Manda: It is, isn’t it? All my dreaming last night was of people in despair over the climate and ecological crisis, which is not generally what influences my dreams that much. And so it seems to me that it’s hitting the zeitgeist harder than it has before, and if it’s beginning to hit the dream space, then then it’s becoming more of a thing, I think. So you seem to be one of those people who is right at the leading edge of how we could shift ourselves out of this. And you have been for a very long time. You were one of the first people to really begin to write the books and set the stage for what change was needed and how we could get there. And there is a conversation that you’ve been having this morning on LinkedIn; I am in awe of your stamina and capacity to get up and do LinkedIn early in the morning; that I want to get to eventually. But before we get there, can we situate people in how you came to be the person who’s having conversations about the really the deepest and most intricate aspects of how humanity as a culture is going to move forward to something different? How did you start? What was your first understanding in life that the trajectory that most people take to be business as usual was not working for you and the rest of the planet?
Pooran: That’s an interesting question, Manda and I’m not sure I can answer it in a completely straightforward way. I was always interested in natural history, animals, if you like, when I was a kid. I ended up actually going to medical school. So I studied medical sciences, then did a research into neuroscience. That was the real change, I think, when I started understanding how we might start organising information. Or how the brain, as a complex system, complex dynamic system, might deal with with information in a distributed way. Then I went to medical school and did a year and a half there, but dropped out and got back into the environmental side and co-founded an organisation called Bioregional. Really interested in how could we use more local renewable resources to meet more of our needs, to reduce pressure on the natural environment. Particularly at that time there was a lot of talk about damage to old growth forests, or loss of old growth forests, for things like paper production. And so how could we bring things more local and start working in what I think now would be called a more regenerative way or a more bioregional way of working and living.
Manda: Even in that there is so much I want to explore. Can we take a step back and look at the neuroscience? Because you said that you were studying and interested in how we deal with information in a distributed way. And it seems to me a basis of this podcast is that we’re not in a climate emergency, we’re not in an ecological emergency, we’re in a conceptual and spiritual emergency. And that part of that is the Cleve, the cleft, between our head-mind and heart-mind or concepts and spirits. And that healing that rift would be a long way towards getting us to where we need to go. But understanding neuroplasticity, understanding the distributed nature of thought and being and feeling, seems to me core to where we’re at. It’s a long time back in your history, but I’m guessing you’re still really interested in neuroscience because it’s one of those addictive things that once you’re in it, you want to keep going. With your understanding of now, is there anything about the way that our minds work that would help ordinary people to shift their mindset from a left brain linear mindset, to a greater awareness of the distributed nature of how we think? That might be an unanswerable question, but it’s something that just is always there in my mind, and I actually don’t know the answer.
Pooran: So, Manda, I’m really a very practical person. So this all sounds very abstract, but actually it’s fundamental to us being able to operate in a way which actually is in flow with the rest of nature. So I have set up enterprises with colleagues in sustainable forestry, organic farming, recycling. As you know, I initiated the UK’s first zero carbon urban village development called BedZed in South London. So I’m very practical. I’m not interested in ways we might perceive the world in that abstract way, because I’m very interested in how do we actually do something real. But very clear now with and very well documented by people like Ian Mcgilchrist and The Master and his Emissary, for example, on the latest in neuroscience between the difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere, ways of perceiving the world and understanding the world. And it’s actually fundamental to the way we actually behave and the way we understand reality. And the last 300 years of the European Enlightenment have been a total and utter disaster, because we have become focussed so much on thought with Cartesian ideas like ‘I think therefore I am’. But actually that’s fundamentally incorrect. All our thoughts, all our words, all our language, all our measurements is actually a complete abstraction which we work with in the left hemisphere.
Pooran: And actually we can only be in touch with reality through, this as a simplification, but through our right hemisphere. So we can only sense reality. And actually our thoughts are not our thoughts. Our measurements are not in touch with reality. They are total abstraction internally self referencing and actually reality is beyond that abstraction. So we come to a world where where we say, for example, let’s be objective. And that objectivity is all about working in words and numbers, but that is a total abstraction! Because beyond that is reality, which actually means that nature has a mind of her own. The universe is unfolding in its own way, and we can’t actually manage it. We can’t even measure it in its totality. So the things which become most interesting to me now, are things which go beyond words and which go beyond measurement. And that’s, of course, things like being able to meditate. So that’s actually stilling the mind and spinning thoughts, so that you can experience reality as it is. So very ancient tradition on that. And in fact, I’ve really got into this and got an understanding of it through Taoism. And I didn’t realise that actually Zen is a combination of Indian Buddhist meditation with Chinese Taoist philosophy.
Manda: Oh, is it? I had no idea. Excellent. So Jeremy Lent, really on to a good thing with the Taoism. Interesting. Tell us a little bit more about that. What I’m interested in is the insight that it gave you. What is it that Taoism gives you that other things haven’t? Because I’m guessing you’ve explored a lot of different things.
Pooran: I’ve explored a lot of different things, but the real route into it was through listening to hundreds of hours of lectures by Alan Watts, who is the most brilliant communicator. You have to put aside a little bit of casual 1970s sexism, but he is an absolute genius in being able to understand Eastern philosophies and communicate them to people like me, who’s had a Western education, and really make them very very easy to understand. Or I wouldn’t say easy to understand, but accessible. And those Eastern philosophies, of course, it’s not only in Eastern philosophies, it’s in all traditions around the world if you look for it hard enough. It’s very remote in modern Western tradition, but we can still find it in Western traditions as well. But this idea of things going beyond what we can contain in words or in numbers, and how to access that. And it’s really through things like meditation. But philosophically, I think Taoism is the best expression of that and very close to, well, very powerful in the way that it really sees the universe as an organism, not as a machine or an artefact. So it’s not made up of parts in the way a machine is made up of parts. It’s a completely interconnected whole. And you try and manage part of it and you will get some sort of response elsewhere, which you’re not expecting. And that’s exactly what we do. So people who talk about measuring for sustainability, people who talk about managing for sustainability. I’m going to go as far as to say are fundamentally wrong.
Manda: Yes. Oh, this is music to my ears. Thank you. I’d love to spend the entire podcast exploring Taoism, but maybe we’ll come back and do that another time. Because I think there are places I would like to take us with this one, starting with… Let’s go back to BedZed, because that was one of the first big kind of big, bold areas on your CV of things that you did. It was Britain’s first sustainable development and it was urban. Can you tell us a little bit more about what nudged you into doing that? Because most of us don’t start off being medics, get into neuroscience and then go and found a community based on what were then really quite novel ideas. How did you get the idea for that and how did you get it to happen? Because the agency of that feels to me quite remarkable and really inspiring.
Pooran: So, Manda, just to correct; I didn’t actually finish medical school. Maybe I said that. So I’m actually a dropout from medical school. But but the reason was we were growing as an organisation in the 1990s. And my ex-wife and co founder of Bioregional, Sue, said Pooran can you get us some green new offices? We need some new offices. So I went to our local government, southern London borough of Sutton, and said, Have you got any land we could lease for new offices? And they said, No, but we’re selling land for residential development. Why don’t you build an eco village and we’ll give you planning permission for your offices at the centre of it? I mean, that’s cutting a rather long story short. But at the time also, I’d been invited to give a couple of lectures at the Architectural Association by Bill Dunster, who was the architect behind BedZed. So I got interested in what he was doing. We developed the ideas for the BedZed project, with him doing the architecture, us doing the whole lifestyle side of it, looking at where materials might come from. We then went and approached developers who might want to work with us to bid for the land, to build the eco village.
Pooran: And in that process, actually, again it was my ex-wife, who has fantastic intuition. She said, Oh, I keep seeing Peabody Trust appearing. So we approached the Peabody Trust with a plan and they said, Yes, we will back you to bid for the land and then to build out the development. Now, I could talk for hours about this project. Because even the process of bidding for the land was very interesting, because we weren’t the highest bidder, we were the second highest bidder. But in fact, the council took into account the carbon savings in the process of bidding for that land. We were within 10% of the highest bidder, so they did have authority to do it. But there was a whole argument in the Council whether they should accept it or not. So there was a long story, but we secured the land and then started building it out. And we learnt as much how not to do things as how to do things from that project. So naivety was a great friend of ours at the time, because I would never undertake that sort of project again.
Manda: Oh fantastic. You sound very like, in the days when I used to watch television and there were the whole grand design things, every single person who went through that process of self-build got to the end of it and went Never again. We’re never doing this ever again. So that sounds like you have that in common. And very interesting that back then the council did have the freedom to not just know the price of everything and the value of nothing, but to bring a sense of other values than monetary value into the project. And I’m curious then, in my exploration of community and my endeavour to at some point in my life set up a shamanic monastery, which is going to basically be a regenerative farm with a spiritual basis. It seems that it’s as complicated to create the social glue as it is to get the bricks and mortar and the funding together. Were you involved in helping the actual community build? Or did it just build itself once you got the space in which it could happen?
Pooran: So there were some design features to help support the development of a community. And in fact, I bought the first apartment there, as it turned out, as well as having our having our offices there. So the interesting thing is, probably the feature which generated most community was simply having the centre of the development car free. So it did set a new planning precedent, in not meeting what we call minimum car parking standards. Which meant we normally would have had to put in 160 car parking spaces, but we only wanted to put in 100 and have a green transport plan, which included introducing the first car sharing scheme or car club into England. I think there was one in Edinburgh beforehand.
Manda: Yay, Scotland.
Pooran: Yes, Scotland came first on that one. So creating that car free space meant that parents could let their children play without worrying about them running across roads. Even with British reserve, after you can’t walk straight from your house to your car, you passed your neighbours and after three times you end up saying hello, even even British people. So it really did create that sense of community. Or contributed to it. So some design features can really help that. Yeah, it’s not managing for that, it’s creating conditions in which those sorts of behaviours can thrive.
Manda: Which may lead into our conversation later if we ever get there. But it’s still there and it’s still functioning. And you’re in Brighton, so I guess you don’t live there anymore. But it’s got a good turnover of people who get what it’s about, presumably? It’s not just become another development where chic people spend billions on an apartment in London and then turn it into something gated.
Pooran: Well, no one would spend billions on that! But it’s a mix of private homes, shared ownership, which is people with good jobs but can’t afford London prices and then social rent. So it was a complete mix of all different types of tenure. Three or four years since I’ve lived there, but nonetheless, there was a great sense of community when I lived there. And the average person knows about 20 of their neighbours by name, which is something like four times the UK average. I think that still holds true.
Manda: Isn’t that interesting? And yet it hasn’t been rolled out as the way to do development across the rest of the UK, which is incredibly sad. We could go into why not, but there’s probably a lot of politics involved and let’s not get there, because I’ll just end up down a political rabbit hole. So instead, tell us a little bit about Bioregional. Because you said earlier that bioregional and regenerative were possibly at least coterminous, if not synonymous. So you set up Bioregional ahead of BedZed and then that moved to One Planet Living. Can you tell us a little bit about the, I’m sure it wasn’t linear, but make it linear, the development of one into the other.
Pooran: So Bioregional Development Group was the organisation which incubated a number of different projects, including the BedZed Project. Then, having lived and worked at BedZed, I came up with the term One Planet Living as a simple way of encapsulating how we might communicate this idea of living happy, healthy lives within the environmental limits, as we were saying of our planet at the time. Inspired very much by ecological footprinting. So One Planet Living was a framework which then we applied all around the world. So we raised more money to do more of our own development in joint venture with some of our biggest real estate companies, including Quintain Estates and Development and Crest Nicholson PLC. So we were able to get those ideas into the mainstream of real estate development, until the global financial crisis, when everything went pear shaped. We built, for example, the One Brighton Developments in Brighton next to the station, which was 172 apartments, completely private, car free, running 100% on renewable energy via a community owned energy services company. Completed in 2010. And in fact was the most profitable in Crest Nicholson’s portfolio at the time. And we were able to generate a profit even though we were selling through the worst part of the global financial crisis. So we were able to prove that you can do that in an economically viable way. Or within the current economic system. But we also applied it all around the world. It was a universal framework. So with colleagues we applied it on everything from retailers like B&Q on their One Planet Home strategy, to manufacturing companies, to real estate developments totalling about 30 billion USD of zero carbon development. About $10 has got built out; everything from tiny homes in Australia to new quarters of cities in the Middle East, to the extension to Disneyland Paris, which is 1000 holiday apartments. Europe’s largest swimming complex, all geothermally heated, run completely on renewable energy.
Pooran: Rewilded landscape. I mean, it’s the best place to go for a holiday!
Manda: So we’ll plug our sponsers while we’re going through!
Pooran: Yeah, it’s been absolutely brilliant. That was a 15 year engagement for us. And then also working on landscape scale conservation and development projects in Africa. Each of those is the size of Sussex. But the One Planet Living framework, the reason for that being successful was simply those three words: One Planet Living. That was very easy for anyone to engage in. It’s obvious we’ve only got one planet, so people can’t really argue with it.
Manda: Oh, I think you might find Musk can. He thinks he’s going to Mars and we’ve got a second one. But yeah, most people can’t.
Pooran: Yes, but then also we were able to (I can’t take credit for this) but my colleagues held the first workshop at the United Nations with the Colombian government, to propose the Sustainable Development Goals using One Planet Living and the ten very simple intuitive principles as the inspiration for that. And so the ten One Planet Principles became the 17 SDGs. So I’m very proud that I led on the creation of that framework, which I understand, it’s the only time the UN has unanimously agreed on anything.
Manda: Goodness. And the Americans didn’t step back. Because usually they don’t sign anything that might impinge on American profits. So that’s an extraordinary achievement.
Pooran: Yes. And what I would say, though, in the last 15 years, I’m very disappointed at the way sustainability has become an industry paid for by the incumbents. And really, consultants are now signing off very poor quality stuff as leadership in sustainability. So I think there is a problem now, with how we have gone from sustainability being a mission, or being something very genuine, to something which is actually a tick box approach. Which more often than not just signs off slightly better business as usual as leadership. And it’s a great disappointment to me that that’s actually been the way sustainability has gone, where it’s become an industry paid for by the incumbents.
Manda: There are a lot of things that we could burrow into, looking at sustainability versus regenerative and how that whole industry has arisen. But let’s continue down the line of your own life’s trajectory for a little bit longer. So One Planet Living still exists, but oneplanet.com is now a separate entity and seems to me to be producing some really exciting ideas. So how did the latter arise out of the former?
Pooran: So we wanted to scale One Planet Living using technology, because that’s the only way we could reach lots of people. We were being consultants, if you like, on it as well as doing our own projects. But how could we make one planet living more widely available? So we looked at technology to do that. We played around with some ideas and then one of our clients, if you like, or partners said to me: Pooran, you’ve got a different way of thinking. You don’t think like other sustainability consultants that we engage with. We need to see whether we can get that way of thinking into technology so that it can be scaled much more rapidly. So he put me in touch with someone called Barrie Hadfield, who was a great tech guru. I guess you’d call him a very successful tech entrepreneur as well. And we spent about three months trying to get to the bottom of it, and it was a really incredibly frustrating process. So Barry would come back and say, okay, so this is the data structure we want. And then I’d say, No, actually this needs to connect to that. And he’d go away and think about it again and come back with another data structure. And he’d say, Okay, how about this? And I’d say, No, because this needs to connect to that and that needs to connect to that. And he almost gave up. And then he said, okay, let’s try these new databases which are emerging. They’re called graph databases. They’re like network databases.
Pooran: He said, Let’s try this. And everything absolutely fell into place. It was, I would say, almost immediate. Well, it was immediate, actually. And the idea around this is that these databases are that you can connect anything to anything else. And we realised then that what I was doing, and I’m not going to sound very clever or anything like that, it was just a different way of seeing the world, which a lot of other people see as well. Which is that actually in the real world everything is interconnected and we can’t put it into silos. And that’s what we have been building over the last six years with the oneplanet.com technology. And which I believe is actually the difference in the way the two hemispheres operate, that the right hemisphere works very much in a linear way, which is in rows and columns. And I sometimes say that all the world’s problems have been created by Excel and that these other databases, graph databases or network databases, allow you to see that how everything is interconnected. And ultimately the bigger picture, which of course is all about how things connect out. So that’s where we’ve got to. Very, very challenging because most people are trapped within spreadsheets, as I say, and they almost need to be set free from spreadsheets. Because reality can’t be shoehorned and life cannot be shoehorned into a spreadsheet. And I’ll give a little example of that, as a very simple illustration, which I can do later. But that’s where we’ve got to.
Manda: So let’s burrow into the software. Insofar as none of us is a software engineer, there may be some listening, Sorry guys, we’re not going to go software engineering. But it feels to me as if what you’re endeavouring to do is to map a neural net in software, and it takes really quite advanced technology to be able to do that. I mean, fundamentally, we’re still shuffling ones and zeros around. We’re still opening and closing gates, but getting the complexity of the architecture so that you can map a neural net, was only possible once we began to get some of the really advanced self-learning AIs. Is this a self teaching neural net? Are we going to end up with a kind of database equivalent of GPT3 or chatGPT or one of those things? Is this going to be able to teach itself? Is that the edge that we’re that we’re pushing? Because that seems quite exciting. If we’re getting something that can think neurally. I’ve played a bit with chatGPT and it’s very good if you what you want to do is create a poem about the climate in the language of Gerald Manley Hopkins, it can do that. But it’s not really that good at thinking laterally. Can yours think laterally?
Pooran: Manda it’s actually a lot simpler than that. There’s no A.I., no machine learning. It is inspired by neural nets in that sense, because I was involved in the very early days of neural network modelling, which was a long, long time ago. But actually it’s just about database structure. And it’s all human powered, so natural intelligence powered. But the idea is that you can hold data on the basis of interconnectedness. And apparently I heard from someone that in the very early days of computing, there was a big battle between what are known as relational databases. I think that’s a bit of a misnomer because they’re really cellular databases, the rows and columns sequel type databases, everything held in rows and columns; and these graph databases where everything is held on the basis of interconnectedness. And in fact, in the very early days of computing, they were on an equal footing, but then the Excel type databases won out. And these graph databases have been coming more and more to the fore. I think we are the first people I know who are using it for sustainability, but other people I’m sure will catch on. And in fact, the way you program all of these, the language is different for these databases. And people who are used to programming in Excel type databases, they literally have to go through three months where they almost have a nervous breakdown.
Manda: Oh, gosh, right. They have to reprogramme their own minds.
Pooran: Yeah, they have to reprogramme their own minds. But once they start using these graph databases, actually it’s much more natural. So if someone who’s going to start developing, be a coder, they can very easily get the graph databases from day one how to program those. It’s only if you’ve been trained in this linear way of thinking that it becomes very difficult to think in a nonlinear way. Even though actually it’s more natural for most of us. And that’s exactly where we have got to in the world with sustainability, is we think it’s all in rows and columns. We can manage carbon in rows and columns, we can measure in rows and columns. But in fact it’s a very narrow and delusional view of reality. So I’m hoping with our technology that we start slowly stimulating the right hemisphere for people, to start seeing those interconnections when they are at work. Because of course, you can stimulate your right hemisphere in all sorts of ways through dance, music, art, creative mathematics, not the formulaic mathematics, but the creative mathematics. But we don’t have those tools generally in the workplace to use in our day to day work. So our big idea, if you like, is if we can help people think in this interconnected way, they will make better decisions and ultimately see the planet as a really interconnected system. Where anything you try and measure is just breaking up reality into parts which don’t exist out there, beyond our own conception of those parts.
Manda: Gosh, this is so exciting. So assuming that at least 99.9% of the people listening are not actually coders, but that the whole of our culture thinks linearly. We are an Excel culture. We think that if we move the notch or GDP up one bit, then everybody’s well-being notches up with it. In spite of 100% evidence to the contrary, we still seem to think this. So I’m wondering if it’s possible to begin to unpick the mindset change that happens, when people move from the Excel cellular-linear style of thinking, through to the networked neural-net graph-based thinking. Graphs always seem to me X and Y, so that’s really confusing. But let’s just call it neural-net thinking. How we go from we move one index and then everything else moves with it, which is clearly not true, to much more relational thinking. What’s the mindset change? Other than left brain to right brain Ian McGilchrist; is there a way that people listening can begin to shift their own mindsets? From one to the other.
Pooran: It’s a very interesting question, and I’m not sure I can answer that. But I think meditation is one of the key routes in. We have to stop identifying ourselves and our perceptions of reality with our thoughts, for a start. So our thoughts are very useful tools and they’re abstractions, but they can be very useful abstractions, but we can’t think that they represent reality. So meditation is a great way. And I think some universities, like University College, London, I think they actually start teaching on some of the engineering courses with meditation as a core part of the curriculum as well. So I think meditation is probably one of the easiest routes in. And the growth of mindfulness, of course, is an easy routine for people into that world. But the problems with Excel type thinking or Excel type databases or tools, I would say, we don’t have the tools to unlock the power of the right hemisphere in our day to day work generally. Of course there are some, but generally we don’t have it in our day to day work. But the problem is as simple as, for example, say, trying to model a healthy system, a regenerative system or a generative system; for example, a woodland. If we know that it’s a relationship between trees and fungi, say, we know that a healthy woodland or healthy forest grows up because the trees are photosynthesising, creating sugars, feeding it down (part of it) into the mycelial network of fungi. Which then takes some of those sugars but provide back some of the micronutrients. And then you get a healthy system emerging out of that. And in fact, if you try and do that in an Excel, you’ve got your sunlight coming in, your sugars coming in, then you’re feeding it to the microorganisms. And then you try and put back, the microorganisms are feeding back the nutrients, or the mycelium, the fungus is feeding back the nutrients to the tree. And your excel won’t like it. It will say error, circular reference. And we’ve all had that experience.
Manda: It’ll fall over in a steaming heap. Right.
Pooran: And in fact, we’ve all had this experience, or those of us who have used spreadsheets, where you’re creating a model of the world and then you link two cells together and you say, Oh yeah, that’s important. And then it says error circular reference. So you take it out. And then you try and manage the world having taken out the most important references, which are the circular references. Because those are the ones which create the feedback loops out of which things become generative. So,it’s amazing how fundamentally poor a tool things like Excel is in order for us to manage the real world, I would say even in business.
Manda: And so when people begin to embrace and work with your One Planet software tool, that has the circularity built in, you can begin to do that. Can you talk us through either a real or a hypothetical business or a company or government office or something that could use it, and how it changes what they do in the world once they’ve got this tool to help them manage things, or understand things.
Pooran: So it’s a really, really simple platform. What we have done is we’re able to take, or the user’s able to take, any policy strategy, plan or project, break it down into its component structure, its atomic structure, we call it, or it’s building blocks of outcomes. What you want to achieve; actions, how you’re going to achieve them; indicators, what you might track. You can connect them up to see whether your policy, strategy, plan or project is internally consistent. But then because it’s in that common format, you can connect any policy, strategy, plan or project to any other policy strategy plan or project. Then you can start collaborating in what we call collaborating in ecosystems around shared outcomes. What is it that the ecosystem of these different departments or these different organisations want to achieve collectively? And and that’s where we think we get this healthy ecosystems type approach rather than everyone working in their own Excel and just trying to maximise their own little bit of the picture. You’re actually starting to recognise the interconnectedness, from which healthy systems are generated.
Pooran: So one example of that would be, for example, we supported Enfield council. We started to use the One Planet platform to map their climate strategy, but also how it linked to different policies and other strategies in the council. And they changed their climate plan on the basis of that. Seeing actually, there are lots of connections to food, for example, not just carbon emissions. But also the opportunity for improving people’s health. And just a throwaway comment here, we could avoid 80% of NHS spending if we promoted health rather than treating disease.
Manda: Yes, thank you.
Pooran: And 80%, I mean, it’s quite shocking how far off track we are in our understanding of how to create healthy systems. But then they started to include food as a core part of their climate policy, because of the co-benefits, as they called it. The co-benefits to health as well as climate of promoting climate friendly diets, for want of a better way of describing it.
Manda: Can we unpick that 80% number a little bit? Because that’s huge and it’s a big thing. 80% of NHS spending. Leaving aside how money is made and where money is used and all of the economics around that, that means I’m guessing, that most people’s health would be implicated and altered and improved if we actually began to use a whole systems approach, rather than waiting til people get sick and then throwing chemicals at them, which is what we do at the moment. How did you arrive at the 80% number and is anybody in the UK or anywhere in the world beginning actually to apply this?
Pooran: So the British Medical Association’s own figure on how much an expended NHS spending could be avoided if we tackled lifestyles and diets and things like air quality, is 40%. So their own figure is 40%. And we know, for example, that 10% of all NHS spending is on things like diabetes, type two diabetes. And there are many doctors who think that there is no case of type two diabetes, or pretty much no case; almost all cases of type two diabetes can be cured through having healthier diets. So the British Medical Association’s figure is 40%, but that doesn’t include iatrogenic disease. So that’s disease caused by doctors, of course, hidden behind terminology which is for good reasons, not accessible to the public. It doesn’t include nosocomial disease, which is disease caught in hospitals. Because one of the last places you really want to be if you’re ill is in hospital.
Manda: Especially since COVID. Yeah.
Pooran: A third thing is 70% of all drugs prescribed by doctors have no positive benefit on the patient whatsoever. And they all have side effects. You know, we’re now also just swimming in a soup of other people’s excreted pharmaceuticals. Our water is just a cocktail of all sorts of stuff. So the NHS is the UK’s sacred cow, if that’s not going too far, and I don’t want to upset too many people on that. But yeah, it’s a sickness service, which of course a lot of people say. And these sorts of figures of 80%, I did check it. That was my own sort of estimate from doing some of this research, but I did check it with a professor of public health. And he said, yeah, we actually know that in public health, but it doesn’t fit the narrative of a heroic doctor and nurse fighting disease. And the same way we talk about fighting climate change, actually, it’s not really what we should be doing.
Manda: Right. Sharon Blackie this morning posted a blog post about the Post heroic journey and how the heroic journey is the old paradigm and we need to move beyond it. I will see if I can put that in the show notes people. But to address all of this, then we begin to get to the multi systemic nature of the problem, because we would need to move to farming that was not based on fossil fuels. So didn’t have fertiliser and pesticide inputs. To get clean air, we would need to address the use of fossil fuels. To get clean water we would need to stop dumping raw sewage into all of our rivers and then into our seas and change the process whereby the water that comes out of the tap has been recycled about 20 times through people and everybody’s adding their own chemicals. I read somewhere that I will not be able to find again, that human breast milk was one of the most chemically impregnated foodstuffs on the planet, which is just horrendous. The fact that you could be breastfeeding your child and and creating all of the benefits that allows, and yet basically what you’re feeding them is full of stuff that you have no idea what’s in there, is absolutely I would say, emblematic of the things we haven’t been measuring for the last hundred years of the fossil fuel boom.
Manda: We wanted more crops, so we tore down old growth forests. Planted crops where nobody sane would ever plant them, threw chemicals at them to make them grow. And the fact that they have a tiny fraction of the nutrient value of the crops that we were growing, doesn’t impinge on the quantity. So we’re back to knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. I will stop ranting at you in a second, Pooran. But it seems to me, this is where if we could get the political economy, the media ecosystem, the political ecosystem, the business ecosystem, thinking systemically, instead of paying their bonuses on the basis of one little tiny cell in the cellular Excel spreadsheet. Then the world would change. But we haven’t done that. You clearly are moving at governmental levels. You’re talking to people in the UN. Have you seen any tendency to shift out of the linear consensus reality mindset towards a more systemic mindset in a way that would shift policy?
Pooran: So I should say I don’t move in those circles anymore. I used to, but this is such a different way of thinking. Or I would say not even thinking. It’s a different way of being. That I’m a little bit off to the side, although I think this is the territory that we really need to start colonising.
Manda: Did you become too radical for them and they stopped inviting you to Davos or whatever it was they were inviting you to? Is it that you started saying this stuff and their consensus reality mindsets don’t know how to engage? Or did you walk away because you were getting tired of beating your head off various brick walls?
Pooran: It was a little bit of both. It particularly happened during lockdown, when I had more time to think and to study and to listen, particularly to Alan Watt’s lectures, which I mentioned earlier. But even before then, I was starting to say to people, it’s not about measurement, it’s not about setting targets. It’s about looking at the outcomes we might want to achieve, how those outcomes are interconnected. But that is so far different. There is almost nothing in our education now, and the sustainability consultants, and in fact most of our leaders, are not in the space of understanding anything beyond if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Which is one of the most, you know, I think you’re not very intelligent if… Ah that’s too offensive. I’ve just ended up becoming very offensive these days. But people who say that, I sort of switch off a bit. Because I think they’re just in a very limited form of intelligence. And it’s a bit sad that they can’t see beyond that. But nonetheless, that’s where most of our society is at. And, you know, we want to be evidence based, but frankly, evidence is always… Well, I heard someone describe it as trying to drive looking in the rear view mirror, because evidence is always in the…
Manda: Yes, always behind us.
Pooran: It’s always behind you. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be consistent with evidence, but it’s very different to be evidence led, which is a disaster to be evidence informed. Same thing it’s very good to be indicator informed, but it’s terrible to be target driven. Because when you focus on targets, you become so focussed you don’t see the big picture. And the best example of that I can give, is the way we say have applied…and most of science and technology has become that and has been a disaster for humanity. So for example, if we take the case of industrial or scientific agriculture, I’m going to call it in the post-war period, is we focus very much on yields. Let’s increase yields. Sounds like a good idea, but you focus on yield and we’ve increased yield per hectare, but at what cost? Of course, we destroyed 50% of the world’s soils. We’ve created pesticides which have contributed to the insect apocalypse. We’ve used fertilisers, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides, killing off a lot of rivers, creating dead zones in the oceans. We’ve reduced the nutritional content of food, so food is much less nutritious than it used to be unless we grow it organically or regenerative. And of course, as we’ve destroyed the soils, we’ve reduced the amount of carbon that we store in those soils. So science and technology has been a disaster. And those those side effects of science and technology are the existential crises that we face today. So I think science technology can be an interesting tool, but only in the context of seeing the big picture. And the big picture is beyond words and numbers.
Manda: This is exactly where I wanted to get. Thank you. Because I was reading your LinkedIn conversation this morning and what you wrote was: I have come to the belief that measurement and management is a fundamental part of the mindset which fails to understand how living systems work.
Manda: So as we’re heading towards the close, understanding that and understanding that the people who currently are clinging on to the reins of power with everything that they’ve got. Or to use another analogy, they are holding on to the steering wheel of a bus that is hurtling towards the edge of a cliff and they will not let go voluntarily. And personally I think that any revolution has to be peaceful; that violent revolution is an integral part of the old paradigm and will not work. How do we peacefully shift from that linear management, cell based thinking to network thinking that will help us to release human creativity, which is, after all, astonishing. Once we understand how to do stuff, we’re amazingly good at doing it. Have you any vision of how we get from where we are to where we need to be?
Pooran: Another very interesting question Manda.
Manda: Please have a vision. I really want a vision. It’s been one of those days.
Pooran: I don’t think we can avoid catastrophic outcomes in the next few years, and I think it’s a lot sooner than we think. I don’t think it’s decades away. I don’t think it’s a decade away. I think it’s single number of years away, if not months away. We see catastrophes, ecological catastrophes, climate catastrophes unfolding all the time around the world now. But I think we’re not very far off from a global climate shock which will make coronavirus look like a minor inconvenience. And that could be as soon as this summer. Hopefully not. But we’re only we’re only single numbers of years away at most, so I don’t think we’re going to avoid that. And all the will, whether it’s global food shock, whether it’s a global migration shock and all the geopolitical instability that that will cause. I don’t think we can avoid that. But I think the future lies in resilient regenerative communities and regions. So I think it’s a much more local answer. I don’t think it’s a global answer. It’s too late for that. And the meek shall inherit the earth. So I know that’s probably not very popular either. So there might need to be a different definition of warrior for this. But really, I think it’s a probabilities game. How do you increase your probabilities of surviving or even thriving through the next few years? And I think that’s very much about, well, I’m calling for everyone to be a prepper. Just again, to wind people up a bit. You know, the American preppers who go off up into the hills with their guns
Manda: With an automatic and a lot of ammunition. Yeah.
Pooran: And 300 cans of beans or something. No, but, but actually, the best way of prepping is actually to prepare as a community. To build those links, to look at regenerative agriculture, much more local. Of course, renewable energy, but much less energy. Building those social links. Building health, mental health, physical health, spiritual health, rewilding as well. And just, I would say it’s not so much thinking. It’s a different way of being, actually, because thinking is part of the problem.
Manda: Yes, certainly in the spiritual path that I follow, we are endeavouring to shift to heart-mind being the leader and then head-mind sorting the logistics. So if you want regenerative farming, you come from your heart to connect with the land, but at some point you need to work out how to grow the crops and that’s the head mind bit. This is where we get to in every single podcast. And one day I’m going to ask someone for the how do we actually achieve this at scale? And they’re going to have the answer because that’s where I get stuck is I live in a tiny village of the edge of nowhere on the borders between England and Wales, and if that’s ever going to happen somewhere, it would be happening here. But there are two families of which I am one in the village who get this and the rest read The Mail and The Telegraph and get very, very upset with me when I suggest that recycling their glass bottles is not enough. So we’re a work in progress and endeavouring to build that kind of community. Are you finding it easier in Brighton? Brighton’s a pretty radical place. For those who are outside the UK, Brighton is the gay capital of England certainly, and therefore has, I would say, more than its fair share of people who actually get that there is an issue. Although clearly sexuality and awareness of climate problems are not coterminous, but there are more people prepared to break the rules and who don’t necessarily feel locked in consensus reality, I would suggest. So is Brighton more aware, do you think?
Pooran: I think Britain probably is more aware. I didn’t primarily move to Britain for that reason, but yeah, I think it’s probably more open minded than most places. So you can probably more easily talk about these sorts of things than in the centre of London. Although I do talk in the centre of London, even occasionally to big companies on this sort of stuff. But I think it’s going to be all over the place. It’s very interesting, the south east of England, wider as well into the countryside here, with great projects like rewilding in Knepp, the estate. I think you’ll know that. And some really interesting things. We are starting a pilot with the South Downs National Park later this year using our technology to join the dots. And that’s all our technology does. It helps people join the dots. And my feeling is if you join enough of the dots, you’ll end up regenerative.
Pooran: So I think there are interesting places all around the world, little pockets. And as more things join up and as things get worse, and I think particularly around mental health and health andwellbeing, I suspect that’s where we will start seeing most progress. And seeing, for example, climate as a part of health. And for me, really, regenerative design or regenerative thinking or regenerative being is about doing things which are good for the individuals health, good for the communities health, and good for the planet’s health. So if there’s anything I’d want people to go away with, it’s just think about whenever you do anything, just think about is it good for my health or for people’s health? Is it good for my community’s health and is it good for the planet’s health? And it has to meet all three for it to be truly regenerative. And it’s a very simple little algorithm that you could play through your head. And it’s not about getting the right answer, it’s about getting better answers. And dynamically systems changing to make it easier for more and more people to adopt those better answers, adopt those better solutions into their own life.
Manda: That is an absolutely fantastic ending. Thank you. I think we will call that a wrap. Pooran desai,thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s been a delight to speak with you.
Pooran: Thank you very much, Manda.
Manda: Well, that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Pooran for the breadth of everything he does. It really is so inspiring to speak with someone who has such a breadth of vision and then gets on and makes things happen in so many different fields. And then to understand the timescales that we’re working with. If he’s right, and I see no reason to think that he isn’t, we are quite near the edge of the cliff. And so the question now is not so much can we wrestle the wheel away from the idiots who are holding onto it, but can we create enough parachutes that will work well enough that the landing will be soft enough for as many people as is humanly possible. And that, I think, has to be our guiding goal going forward. What can each of us do, at the best scales that we can work at, to create a future that is workable. On the assumption that the things we have taken for granted for so long are actually not going to be propping us up for very much longer. And this is hard. I know that it’s hard. So there are things that we in Accidental Gods can do to help then we will do them. We have the Accidental Gods membership. It is designed as best I can manage to help us bridge the gap between our left brain and our right brain. Our head mind and our heart mind, our linear thinking and our broader networks. Connection to the web of life. I think if everybody was wholly connected to the web of life in a way where we could ask, What do you want of me, of that far, far greater intelligence and hear answers that we trusted and respond to them in real time, the world would be a different place.
Manda: And so a lot of what I’m doing beyond the podcast is endeavouring to set the circumstances where that can happen. That’s what the Accidental Gods membership is all about. And yes, we do still exist in the old consensus reality with an economy that may be broken, but still requires us to pay the bills. So if you come into the full membership, it does still cost something. But I absolutely do not want finances to be a block to this. So if you want to come in, if you want to join, if you want to come along to the monthly intention intensives, where we’re learning to the best of my ability, again, how to help people set clear intentions, because I think that is a core part of what we have to do. If you want to do that, please don’t let money be a block. Send us an email. We can think of a number that works for both of us and make it happen. Because this is becoming urgent now. And while the people within our bubble definitely get this, there are so many people outside who don’t. And who don’t, I think because we’re not offering them alternatives that seem viable. We’re about to go over the edge of a cliff is not a useful statement unless we can say, and here is a parachute.
Manda: So building those parachutes is becoming increasingly the focus of what I think we all need to do and certainly what I need to do. And if there are ways that we can help again. Please let us know. And otherwise we will continue with the conversations with different people at different scales. Some people who are working very specifically on a narrow field and some people like Pooran, who have a much wider view. In the hope that something will catch your attention and you will think, Yes, here I can make a difference. In this part of the world, I can do something that will change the way that everything unfolds.
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