Episode #17 Conscious Evolution: the time is now – A conversation with Rob Cobbold
Rob Cobbold is founding editor of consciousevolution.co.uk. He’s a critical thinker, a program manager for the Green Schools partnership and is studying for a Masters in Sustainable Leadership. He’s a key mover in the world of conscious evolution and here, he describes why the evolution of consciousness is the next step and how we might get there.
I haven’t often had the pleasure of speaking with someone else whose life revolves around the concept of conscious evolution: what it is, why its time is now (with increasing urgency) and how we might move the great, hypercomplex, super-connected web of humanity towards it.
Rob has both a materialist and a spiritual perspective on the ways we might reach conscious evolution so this was a particularly interesting deep dive into what it will take to reach our critical mass.
Today, for the first time, I’m talking to somebody else who is also exploring conscious evolution, who is trying to find the ways that we can bring all of us into a world where we have greater meaning, where each of us has a life of agency and purpose and creativity and connection, where we know what we’re here for and where we want to go.
Rob Cobbold is the founding editor of a Web site called Conscious Evolution. The address will be on the show notes. There’s a blog there and he’s about to launch a podcast. Rob has a B.A. in English Literature from Bristol University and is midway through a Master’s in Sustainable Leadership from Cumbria University, which is the home of Jem Bendell, the author of the Deep Adaptation paper. Rob works as program manager for the Green Schools Project and has spent the past three years giving assemblies and workshops in schools with the aim of inspiring and equipping young people to take action on climate change and other social issues with a view to bringing all of us towards conscious evolution. So here today, people of the podcast. Please welcome Rob Cobbold.
Rob, thank you so much for coming on to Accidental Gods podcast. Welcome. We’re at the, I think, middle of the third week now of U.K. lockdown. You’re in London. How is it going?
I’m not in London. I fled to my mum’s house in the countryside and it’s actually so dreamy and lovely here in springtime. I feel almost guilty. We’re having such a nice time. I’m aware that it’s very difficult moment for all sorts of people for various reasons. But we’ve been so incredibly lucky. We’re sitting out in our garden. We’ve got ducks on the pond. The flowers are coming out. And I’ve had tons of time to work on on my podcast and conscious evolution. Every time I speak to someone and they say it’s terrible, this isolation, I feel almost guilty telling them what a nice time I’m having. But we have to balance that with the difficult times for lots of people, of course.
And I’ve been having so many conversations recently along the that balance of guilt and awareness of our own privilege. Those of us who are not on the tenth floor of a tower block with somebody who is sexually abusing us daily because they’ve got nothing better to do. So clearly, the world is not easy for a lot of people. But for those of us for whom it is, the best thing I can do is to pour my gratitude out into the world and at least add something positive on that side of the balance against all of the people who were having a really shit time.
That’s exactly it. What are you going to do with that privilege? So, like you, I’ve been using my time as much as I can to try and do what I think I’m here to do and to provide people with a larger narrative or story about why life is meaningful, because if you have that, then the difficult stuff in life becomes bearable.
It’s so encouraging to hear you say that. I found you because you have a web site called Conscious Evolution. I didn’t find you until after we launched Accidental Gods, which is probably just as well. It would be good if you could explain to everybody, first of all, what your web site is about and second, how you came to the concept of conscious evolution and what its history is for you.
My key influence is a an Australian evolutionary theorist called John Stewart. I found his Evolutionary Manifesto online at a very fragile moment in my life. I was going through a lot of change and I was looking for answers. And it hit me like a meteorite. I immediately knew I was looking at what I’d been searching for and that kindled in me a desire to spread that message to be part of the changes that John Stewart envisioned.
From there, I started doing a lot more research. Quite a lot of the thinkers that I came across, John pointed me to. He was very kind in taking me under his wing to a certain extent. And through that process I found Integral Theory and Ken Wilbur and Barbara Marx Hubbard, who was one of the first people to use the term Conscious Evolution.
But above all, what I discovered from that process is that you can understand the concept of constant Conscious Evolution from a spiritual perspective through a very kind of intuitive, heart led kind of way – as a process of spiritual growth. But equally, if you’re more like John Stewart and you’re a hardheaded materialist, it’s quite possible to understand the idea of Conscious Evolution from a scientific, rational perspective. And that’s what really appealed to me: that there is this obvious schism in the world between those two perspectives: the more spiritual perspective, the more scientific perspective, and if we’re going to move forward at all, we’re going to have to integrate those two perspectives and Conscious Evolution. The entire evolutionary journey seems to be that nexus where those two points connect. And so I launched my website and I’ve been recording a podcast as well, which is just about to come out. To try and spread that spread that message.
We have been looking at the spiritual aspects on Accidental Gods. Could you walk us through the materialist argument for conscious evolution as John Stewart proposes it?
If we are to take a step back and define what evolution is, then for a long time, the concept of evolution has been about biological gene based evolution. That’s the layman’s understanding of evolution. But if you take a step back, there is a process whereby a cloud of hydrogen gas becomes rosebushes, giraffes and humans, as Brian Swinne famously said. So whatever you want to call that, there is a process.
And is it possible to think about that entire process or define that entire process, which is consistent throughout all those levels, throughout the cosmological, biological and cultural evolutionary stages? Can we define that process in a way that’s consistent throughout all those levels? And it turns out we can. And it turns out that through those three levels of evolution, there are two trajectories. The first trajectory is ‘scales of cooperation’. The scales of cooperation increase so life and the matter in life finds ways of organising itself into cooperatives of larger and larger scale.
So are we talking about symbiotic relationships or a sort of mycorrhizal level and then the more organism level or are you talking about something else? Tell us what that means.
In the physical world, atoms combine to form molecules. And actually something interesting, I learned the other day, is that it took 380,000 years for the first atom to form, which is I just find absolutely mindblowing.
That’s a very small amount in the thirteen point four billion years of evolution. 380,000 is a blink.
I suppose so. But I find it interesting to imagine a time when there are literally just a lot of electrons flying around. There weren’t even any atoms before that point.
Hold on. Just walk me back through a point when there’s a cloud of electrons, how do we get a proton and a neutron?
You’ll have to ask a particle physicist, I’m afraid. I don’t know.
[Manda: Okay. All right. I shall do that – that’s a future podcast defined!]
Somehow at some point atoms combine to form molecules. Then stars formed and stars produced planets. So there is this trajectory of life going from the microscopic the very infinitely limited finite forms, organizing itself into more and more complex arrangements. At some point, life emerged and life repeated that same trajectory, so life began as basic combinations of molecular processes that started cooperating together to form something that could replicate itself. And so the emergence of life is that a load of molecular processes came together to cooperate, to form a self-replicating piece of genetic material. And so from its inception, life has been an inherently co-operative activity. And those simple cells, those prokaryotic cells, they combined together to form eukaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells combined to form multicellular organisms. And then you get the emergence of co-operatives of multicellular organisms like shoals of fish, beehives and eventually humans.
And indeed in human history, the same process repeats itself. We go from small bands to tribes to cities, states to nation states. So that’s one trajectory. And it’s also important to say that this trajectory has been driven just by the logic of the inexorable process of physical laws and natural selection. All of this took place can be understood to have taken place blindly, unconsciously, just through the process of natural selection and the physical laws as we know.
So the point that I’m getting at is that, all that process of increasing scales of cooperation happened in a kind of automatic bottom-up fashion. So two tribes cooperated together to form a larger tribe because it was in their interest to do so. Nothing is more likely to bring two tribes together than the arrival of an even larger tribe. On the other side of the mountain, tribes that didn’t do that – they didn’t cooperate to form larger tribes, they were likely to get competed out and out selected.
Simply because the potential is always there for a larger co-operative to out-compete a smaller and more isolated structure. When we reached the global level, which we are now, we’re trying to form the emergence of a global co-operative to go from nations to a global co-operative. There is no longer any outgroup to compete against.
So what has worked in the past won’t continue to work in the future. So I’ll just park that there.
The second evolutionary trajectory is increasing evolve ability. So the evolutionary process itself gets better at evolving. And there are a series of transitions where that occurs. So one transition is the emergence of life. Biological life has a degree of freedom, an agency that the material world doesn’t have. It’s less predictable. It’s less mechanistic. So, if you take a rock and you place it at the top of the hill, using just the physical laws of gravity, the understanding of the friction of the slope, etc., we can predict exactly where that rock is going to end up. If you put a hedgehog at the top of the hill, we can’t do that anymore. It might roll down. But it might also catch sight of a nice looking female hedgehog and decide to bumble uphill. So there’s a degree of freedom, an agency that comes with the emergence of life that isn’t in the physical universe and even single celled organisms.
The most powerful computer in the world cannot predict exactly how a single celled organism is going to move. So there’s a degree of freedom from determinism that emerges with the emergence of life then that launches the biological evolutionary process. And during that, we have various transitions where the biological evolution gets better at evolving. So the transition from asexual to sexual reproduction, for example, is a transition where the biological evolutionary process gets more efficient and more effective at evolving. The foot goes down on the accelerator a bit. So that’s one example. The dawn of cultural evolution is the latest evolutionary transition in which the process of evolution got better at evolving.
Say something more about that.
Yeah. So cultural evolution is the variation and selection of means of ideas as opposed to genetic material. So once the cultural evolutionary process was launched, humans had a way of spreading adaptive information without having to wait for the slow, painful process of genetic mutations and change through generations.
So if I discover a new adaptive behavior, whether it’s a new item of clothing, whether it’s the printing press, whether it’s a new cure, I can write that information down. I can spread that around the world. And that allows me that allows me to spread that adaptive information horizontally from organism to organism so we can learn from each other during our lives and we can accumulate that information in the form of culture. And that basically means that the evolutionary process can happen a lot faster.
The kind of social evolution can happen faster?
Yes, exactly. The evolutionary process, as I’ve defined it, which is basically an increase in orderly complexity, which leads in the direction of emergent properties – that process accelerates with with the dawn of cultural evolution. Because we can build structures of complexity and emergence much more quickly than biological evolution can.
So just one quick example. It took millions upon millions of years for dinosaurs and birds to evolve through biological evolution, the mechanism for flight. Whereas humans with the birth of cultural evolution in a few tens of thousand years, we developed the ability for manned flight through the process of cultural evolution. It’s many, many times faster and it’s many, many times more efficient and more effective at discovering successful adaptions.
So that takes us up to this point where we have cultural evolution, but in a large part that cultural evolution is blind. So what I mean by that, is that a lot of our cultural evolution is driven by our evolutionary past. It’s pushed by our evolutionary past. So a great deal of human culture is set up in order to allow us to pursue goals which are encoded in our genetic material. So we have an instinct and a drive to accumulate possessions, to engage in tribal behaviors and to seek sugar, because all of these behaviors were very useful in a hunter-gatherer context. They helped promote the survival and reproduction of our genes.
However, with cultural evolution and the exponential explosive increase in the technological power that we have, a lot of those behaviors become maladaptive at best or self-terminating at worst.
So, for example, if we take the drive to eat sugar in our ancestral context – there was never enough sugar. And so that was a very useful instinct. It meant if you found a gooseberry bush, you stuffed your face full of gooseberries, which is good, it helps you survive. But in the context where we can develop super processed sugar and Haribo sweets, that instinct – that drive -is maladaptive. It’s not doing the job that it’s supposed to be doing and it’s not actually helping us survive and reproduce. So that’s just one small example. But we can say the same thing about our moral predispositions, our ethical predispositions and even our emotions.
Emotions like anger, for example, very useful if you’re being attacked by a saber tooth tiger, but not great if you’re stuck in traffic in the Birmingham roundabout. And so, so much of our behavior in that sense is maladaptive and it’s actively reducing our chances of survival as a species. And so we need to find a way – and this is what conscious evolution is if you understand it in a material way – it’s the ability to not be dictated to by the biological and cultural programming of our evolutionary past.
It’s the ability to look at our instincts and the way we’ve been wired because of our evolutionary past and make a conscious decision about how we’re going to act in the future. And when we do that, evolution goes from being a ‘push’ process, a bottom up process, to a ‘pull’ process because we start to imagine a better future and design our individual and collective behavior in such a way that we can evolve to that future. So evolution stops being pushed by pain and problems and negative feedback, and it starts to become a process which is driven by our visions of a better future. And that capacity to do that, that new evolutionary capacity, which is latent in our potential, gives us the potential to do this.
And that has is made possible by a combination between our self-awareness and our understanding of the evolutionary process.
So to break that down a little bit more, if you ask from an evolutionary point of view, ‘what is the value of self-awareness?’ Well, self-awareness, self-consciousness, which, as far as we know, only humans possess on this planet – this allows us to not be stuck in automatic behavior. If you speak to any life coach or psychologist, they will tell you that if you want to change your habits and patterns of behavior, you need to become aware of them first.
If we take a current example of the Corona virus, we’re told not to touch our face so much. Well, turns out this is something we do unconsciously all day long – as with many of our behaviours, it’s completely unconscious. I used to do Alexander Technique and it’s incredible because it’s basically the process of using your body in the way it was designed to be used. But it turns out to get yourself to sit down or stand up or walk in a slightly different way takes extraordinary amounts of self-awareness. It was incredibly difficult for me to just sit down or stand up in a different way because we perform these processes in such an unconscious way that’s so automatic. And so in order to actually change our behavior and author our behavior, we need to become self aware.
That’s one part of the puzzle.
The second part of the puzzle that we require for conscious evolution is that we need to have an understanding of the evolutionary process which gave birth to us. So when we developed a theory of our own evolution, the evolutionary process became conscious of itself. In the same way that as an individual, if you are self-aware, it allows you to not be stuck in automatic behavior, the same goes for the evolutionary process at large. The moment the evolutionary process became aware of itself, it allowed it to gain a measure of autonomy about how it proceeds and in what direction it goes. And through understanding the evolutionary trajectories and the evolutionary journey that we’ve been on, to a certain extent we can start to steer and direct that process in such a way that those trajectories can be allowed to continue rather than coming crashing to a shuddering halt in a mass extinction.
And so that’s what conscious evolution is from a sort of material perspective. It’s a new evolutionary capacity. It’s a leap forward in evolve-ability. And humans have the potential to bring about this evolutionary transition, but it’s by no means guaranteed.
Thank you. That’s really comprehensive. And it opens up so many possible doorways. So let’s look at it’s not guaranteed.
It opens up the potential. Barbara Marx Hubbard started writing about this towards the end of the last millennium. John Stewart published his manifesto, I think in two thousand eight. In your studies of this, have you any sense of anybody within this field having a timescale that they think is plausible?
Because it seems to me that that Deep Adaptation is a thing that we are heading very rapidly towards the potential of crashing into extinction, not just for ourselves, but taking quite a large amount of the biosphere with us. And so we are possibly more up against a hard time limit than Barbara Marx Hubbard was aware of when she first wrote Conscious Evolution althought by the second iteration, clearly it was more obvious. And so it seems to me it’s more urgent. And I’m wondering, first of all, are you seeing – or is anybody seeing – an increase in possibility and probability within this and how is that manifesting?
And if not, is there a way that we can from the worldviews of John Stewart and the others increase the probability of making the emergence to a new reality as opposed to crashing into extinction?
First of all, yes, I absolutely believe that we will make it. I’m an optimist by nature. As to the question of when or how long will this take? Well, the answer is it’s happening now. We are midway through that transition.
And your evidence is what. What are you seeing as evidence of that?
Nothing that I could submit to a scientific journal. Hold my hands out.
But we’re not a scientific journal. So tell uss what what is giving you cause for hope.
What’s giving me cause for hope is a feeling, it’s an intuition if I’m really honest with myself. It’s paying attention to e a few spiritual leaders (I’m a Sufi) who, have articulated that this is just a transition.
I am acutely aware that this is by no means guaranteed, but most recently, the Corona virus crisis has broken that pattern of automatic behaviour. It’s a disruption of those old unconscious patterns of blind evolution. They have been they’ve been interrupted briefly and the entire world has been forced to take stock of what we’re doing and who we are in a way that we don’t have the time to do when we’re all running around worried about our our jobs and our mortgages, etc..
So that moment where we suddenly take stock of ourselves, we’ve suddenly become slightly more aware of what we’re doing, starts us on a way to questioning those patterns because you’ve got a little bit of distance between ourselves and them.
And so all sorts of people are finding new ways of doing things. So that little cessation that gives me a little bit of hope, even though it’s obviously a convulsion – the earth is convulsing. It’s a kind of spasm. It’s a cry for help from the natural world. And I think those will get sharper. Those slaps in the face will get sharper unless we manage to transition.
Because one of the things that strikes me when I read Jon Stewart’s work is there’s a kind of implicit teleology to it, while at the same time quite stridently suggesting that there is no teleology, that this is an intrinsic property of the evolution of consciousness and there’s no external force creating this happening. It is the rock that’s been pushed down the hill and it will continue to go downwards unless we explode the rock out of existence by crushing ourselves into extinction.
And yet, I wonder from that very materialist reductionist worldview, would the virus be seen as an implicit property of an evolutionary process or is it a genuine black swan that has arrived out of nowhere? Because it does seem to me that that this is giving us the most extraordinary capacity to stop and re-evaluate what we’re about. And yet unless we subscribe to some of the more wild conspiracy theories, and I don’t particularly want to go down that rabbit hole, this is not something that somebody has structured as a deliberate part of a conscious evolutionary process. So where do you stand in terms of the potential of the virus being an accident or being an intrinsic part of an ongoing process?
I personally am more spiritually inclined than John, so I believe that there is both a push and a pull in the evolutionary process. I believe that up till now, largely cosmological, biological evolution has been pushed. It’s been an automatic, inexorable process. But I believe that through us it has the potential to transition to a teleological process, that the best of the universe’s purposes really are the best of our purposes. And the things that we find meaningful and are drawn to individually, collectively as a species, turn out to be the things that will allow those trajectories that I’ve described to continue.
So that’s that’s a large part of what my podcast is about is what do humans find most meaningful and how do they fit into the evolutionary picture at large? Well, it turns out if you look at the psychological data, the things that we find meaningful are things like cooperation, things like creativity, things like transcending our limitations, going beyond what we’ve done before. And those three things are inherently evolutionary. So the virus may be a random chaotic manifestation of life doing what it does. But how we respond to that and whether we use that as a trigger to transition from blind unconscious evolution driven by our evolutionary past, to transitioning to awake, conscious evolution drawn by our visions of a better future… that’s down to us.
It would be interesting to see what what John Stewart would say about that. John has taken great pains to state his theories in such a way that they are acceptable to scientific mainstream. That’s been his objective. He’s a scientist by discipline.
And has that worked?
It’s getting there. I did see some articles in This View of Life which is a mainstream evolutionary publication by David Sloan Wilson. And they are starting to consider the idea of conscious evolution. I think the problem that John and I have run up against when trying to convey this worldview to people is that it basically requires the ability to think in complex adaptive systems. You have to be able to think not only about systems, but between systems. Because the trajectories I’m describing operate on the physical, the biological and the cultural level. And people have a really difficult time conceptualizing that as one process, let alone how our actions as individuals feed into that and can actually cause the evolutionary process itself to evolve. People find those things really hard to think about, like the evolutionary processes is one thing. And actually what I found really incredible is how few people actually understand even what biological evolution is and actually how it works.
And so the ability to read all of that process as one thing and to see how our actions can influence it, actually requires a kind of cognitive capacity, which not that many people have, which I’m aware sounds sort of quite patronising, but nonetheless, that seems to be the case. You know, you can have brilliant genius people whose level of development is still at the analytic rational level. That’s the level that was given birth to in the historic enlightenment era, which breaks things into their parts to see how those parts interrelate and can make predictions based on that. And it’s incredibly powerful. It’s given birth to all the technology in science that we see around us. But that mode of cognition, that way of working out problems, is totally incapable of dealing with complex systems because it tries to keep everything the same, so we alter one part and see how it affects the rest of the system. (see Podcast 8: Emergence from Complexity for more on this.).
But with complex adaptive systems, my realisation about the complex adaptive system itself changes the system. So you can’t keep anything the same. You can’t hold all the parts in the same place and just alter one because everything is adapting to everything else. And my perceptions, my thoughts, my feelings, my understanding, the way I talk about this process – affects the process itself. That’s what you and I are doing right now. We’re having a discussion about the evolutionary process in order to try and change that evolutionary process. So,analytic, rational cognition quickly breaks down when you’re dealing with complex systems. And that’s why it’s taken so long to filter through to the scientific mainstream.
I’ve been reading The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht and he’s laying out a meta-modern guide to politics. But in order to get there, he’s had to really break down the flow of human developmental stages.
And he has managed to articulate for me the real problem that I have with a lot of Ken Wilber’s work, which is that it crushes all things together, whereas Freinacht divides things into the Complexity of our thinking; the Code, which is the social code that we have downloaded; the State, which is more of a virtual capacity; and the Depth which is our ability to interrelate all of those with our own experience and the range of our experience.
His belief is that you need all four of those to really begin to work out where you are in the world. And the interesting thing is that without becoming hierarchical, it is the case that a great many people are still in what he calls the post-Faustian concept of the world, and it is almost physiologically impossible if that is your world view for you to take on board things that a higher structural complexity.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Jordan Hall’s been doing, looking at self-organising collective intelligence. Even before the virus hit, he was doing calculations working out that we were two orders of magnitude more complex than we had ever been before. That was at the end of 2019 and I don’t know about you, but my level of self-organizing complexity has massively increased in the last three weeks. And I would suggest we are at least an order of magnitude higher than we were a month ago. And that therefore, if evolution, as you say, is this organization of complexity and self-aware complexity, then by the act of doing what you and I are doing, by the act of the people who listen to these podcasts being able to integrate this and then disseminate it, we are creating a self-organizing network of the people who can get this and do get this, as we speak, which seems to me quite exciting.
If it works and that links a lot of your question early, you know, you say what gives me hope? Well, that this emerging space, this emerging world view that we’re participating in. And I know you had Daniel Thorsen from the Emerge podcast and Rebel Wisdom and the traction that some of those platforms and some of those speakers have been getting. That also gives me a great deal of hope. You asked earlier as well, and I didn’t quite get round to it- how we can help bring about this transition.
Yes, that was that was my next big question. Let’s go down that as an avenue.
So there are individual ways that we can enact the shift to conscious evolution and there are collective ways that we need to do it. So one of them on an individual level that we’ve already talked about, is developing and training the cognitive capacity to read complex adaptive systems. I’ve done this in schools and in workshops with kids. It’s something that you can train. A very important component as an individual is increasing our self-awareness which we talked about. If you want to change your patterns of behavior to not just be conditioned and programmed by your biological and cultural past, then you have to develop your self-awareness. The more self-aware we are, the more conscious we are, the more adaptable we are as individuals and the more adaptable we are as individuals, the more adaptable we are as a species and the more likely we are to survive.
Can we unpack that a little bit more deeply? Because this for me is one of the places where the manifesto falls down somewhat. Because I think that’s an absolutely brilliant theory and I’m struggling to see it play out in practice. I would love this to be the case, and part of the Accidental God‘s thesis is that we need to become more self-aware.
But I look around at really, quite a lot of the people who would be considered ascended masters of spiritual systems and I have listened to Daniel Thorson’s Emerge podcast on exactly this topic – there are really quite distressingly large numbers of them who end up in trouble because they have either sexually or emotionally abused their followers and or they are embezzling the funds. And these people are extraordinarily capable of really deep aspects of the meditative process, however we define thati. But it doesn’t seem to have unhinged their primal drives which are for power manifested either sexually, emotionally or financially. And much as I would like that not to be the case. I think that there must be another step that we need to take. And I wonder if you have a view of what that other step might be.
Ken Wilber talks about Waking Up, which is raising our awareness, but that’s only one part of the puzzle. And he specifically invokes the example that you use of the guru that abuses their power sexually because they haven’t taken care of the other lines of development of an individual, namely Cleaning Up, taking care of your shadow material, your trauma, etc., but also Growing Up, which is shifting your world view. So like you say, being enlightened isn’t the only line of development. It’s t one of the sad truth is that this complex world, that it’s possible to be an enlightened Buddhist monk who is also homophobic. Because your cultural worldview also shapes your behavior, not just how awake you are as an individual.
And that leads neatly into the collective things that we need to do as well. Because, collectively we need to shift our worldview at the very least to a world-centric perspective. So, if we’re going to form a global co-operative, which alone can resolve the issues which threaten our existence, such as climate change and nuclear war, then we need a centre of gravity, a sufficient number of people to view the world as a coherent whole.
And most people simply don’t do that. They look at the world through the lens of their nation. And this is really interesting, for example, when you talk to people about who are who are from that perspective at that level of development. When they talk about the argument for nuclear weapons.
So the argument goes, ‘We need nuclear weapons to deter other countries from getting nuclear weapons.’.
Look how well that works.
Well, just the most extraordinary blindspot. Becuase if we take their perspective. If you have nuclear weapons, what are they going to want to do? People literally don’t think about it that way. They think about it from our perspective and my nation.
Well, it’s also it’s an amygdaloid expression that’s been hung around with post-hoc rationalization. It doesn’t require to have any actual rational logic to it. It’s just an emotional outpouring of our amygdalas. So rationality went out the window.
You’re probably right. But the encouraging thing about that is – and this is something I’m getting from Ken Wilbur – at the historical Enlightenment, only about 10 percent of people were at rational, ‘Orange’, world-centric world view. So it we don’t have to shift the entire global population to this kind of integral, complex thinking systems-level of stage. We just have to shift a tipping point, a sufficient number in order to light the touch paper.
And that’s what this emerging online space that we’re plugged into seems to be doing. It seems to be on the point of reaching a momentum of its own. And particularly as so many people collectively are searching for answers. You know, the stories that we’ve been living by is so obviously breaking down. And that’s incredibly painful for people. But at the same time, people are aware that a lot of people are not seeing meaning and and purpose in the kind of ways that we’re organizing ourselves collectively. That means that they’re open to a new way of seeing the world and that, of course, that can be for good and for bad.
So, I mean, extremism, for example – I see that as a symptom of of a culture that doesn’t speak to our need for meaning and purpose. So young disaffected men who find life meaningless and they’re told that they should go off and be a bank manager and they don’t want that. They’re vulnerable and they’re exposed to dangerous ideas, but also to positive, beautiful ideas which can speak to that need for meaning and purpose.
And so that’s what I’m trying to do with conscious evolution is really address it to people’s direct need for meaning and purpose and say, ‘not only is this shift a conscious evolution, our only hope of surviving as a species, but also this will make you happier. You’ll find your life meaningful if you if you find your way of serving the evolutionary process’.
And I think that’s very powerful and can’t be a coincidence either that the things that we find most meaningful as individuals are also the things that evolution requires to continue on the direction it’s been going on.
Again, this opens so many doors. First I would like to look at the fact that the tipping point is obviously crucial. When Extinction Rebellion was looking at tipping points, they said that we required three and a half percent of the population, which is a a manageable number, particularly in the U.K. You can define that as a number of people. But they reached that understanding by looking at the ending of slavery, women’s suffrage, the gay rights movement in America and the end of apartheid in South Africa. And in each of these cases, we were not saying we need to end the system. We were saying we need to increase the franchise of the existing system – explicitly neoliberal capitalism and its extractive form. We just need to give more people access to the value extraction rather than changing the nature of the value that we embody to not be extractive.
So it seems to me that the first thing is we need a very different number in our tipping point if what we are doing is saying, ‘Guys, the system isn’t working, we need to change the system’, not ‘We just need to let a few more people have access to the system. And, you know, don’t worry, we won’t really let them have access. We’ll just pretend to let them have access.’ That opens up a whole different door. Let’s not go there.
The second question is, do we do we therefore need to reach and connect the people who if we’re going to go to Ken Wilber’s system and I really dislike it – I like the the waking up, the growing up, cleaning up, showing up. I don’t like his the spiral dynamic color model because I think it has huge holes in it. But if we take that as as a model, however broken, he goes through the different colors of magical, mythical, traditional, postmodern, meta-modern, and that those who are already in what we might call a meta-modern world where they have are already looking for these answers and have the capacity to engage with this and to see the potential – are we simply linking those people up with our increasing complexity of our self-organizing communications or are we trying to reach the people who on the spiral dynamics would be at a lower turn of the spiral and raise them up?
So to that question, first of all: both. And it seems to me that one is conducive to the other. I go into schools, I work with teenagers a lot, and teenagers are midway through their development so that they’re not necessarily able to bounce around the ideas that we’re bouncing around right here. And at the same time, my work helping them to develop their cognitive capacity, to shift their world view, to become more empathetic, to think in terms of systems- that in no way conflicts with my goal of connecting up with you and listening to the Emerge podcast and developing my own cognitive capacity and creating networks in that space. So I don’t see them at all as in conflict.
I think you’re right. And working with teenagers, I would really like to believe it. We look at Greta Thunberg and we’re completely in awe of what she does. But I talk to what we might loosely call the alt-right members of my extended network. And we have quite long, quite deep conversations, and I reach a cognitive wall. And these are the people who have charge of the world at the moment. If we wait until the teenagers of now have the capacity to influence the power structures, my fear is extinction will have overtaken us before then. So I’m wondering, are you seeing ways of reaching those who are holding the current power structures in ways that make a difference?
So I think the alt-right and all forms of extremisms are symptoms of a broken system. That’s people searching very, very desperately, very hard for a coherent narrative which can point to their place and purpose in the universe. Because our dominant culture is not doing that job very well. And so people look to the fringes. In the same way that those symptoms point to the breakdown of our larger cultural narrative and worldview, systemically the dominant way of doing things, dominant economic policy, the dominant political theory, are also unraveling at the seams.
So it’s not controversial to say that MPs feel increasingly powerless. An MP is not able to effect very much change because we’re living in such a global, interconnected world that the problems that a nation state deals with, they can’t be resolved at the national level.
Tell that to the Brexiteers.
That little experiment will run its course and it will become quickly obvious that, a problem like inequality, for example, or tax avoidance by large companies is not going to be made easier if we’re all individual competing nations each competing to have the lowest corporation tax. You’re never going to resolve inequality when nations compete with one another, because it’s that competition which drives ever more extractive behaviours to compete for material and geopolitical dominance.
This is, incidentally, a game that I play with with teenagers in schools, we play a theoretical climate change game. And a bunch of teenagers, once they got to the end of that process, can tell you that we really needed to cooperate where we needed to work together as a globe. So, first of all, that structure of the dominant nation state is is self-evidently not going to work. Even people who supposedly have lots of power and are beginning to realize that as well.
In a more systemic perspective, the incentive structure, our monetary systems are also unraveling, they’re not working the way they used to. So with each economic crash, the levers that are available for governments and central bankers to pull increasingly don’t work. So in the last economic crash, we dropped interest rates to zero percent, even negative interest rates. And still we still have only just managed to get the car to the top of the hill.
This economic crash, we we were already at 1 percent, there was nowhere further that could go: the standard levers that they pull aren’t working. And so what you see in the space of a month is a complete radical reinvention of monetary policy. I’m talking about concepts thatI have been talking about for years. Such as ‘helicopter money’: forget about creating money alongside debt and indebting future generations. It’s quite possible for a sovereign nation to create money and spend it into the real economy, to spend it on hospitals. In America, they’re considering a policy of just giving every individual $1200. That’s the kind of radical monetary system transition or shift, which just wouldn’t have been conceivable a few years ago or even one year ago. And now is standard policy for the United States. So even the people in charge are aware that this whole thing isn’t working.
I am an optimist. And I find it really hard to imagine these sort of evil puppetmaster scenarios with loads of men wheedling their hands over the puppet strings, mostly because I know a few quite influential bankers who speak to central bankers and it’s not that they’re not bad people. So if these guys aren’t the evil ones, then where are they? Exactly.
Let me introduce you to Steve Bannon. But that’s a whole separate conversation.
But Steve Bannon is a symptom of a system that’s not working. And ideas like Brexit, that kind of divisive mentality are completely against the downward flow of evolution. It’s possible to swim upstream, but it requires extra effort to maintain that. And it’s always short lived. In the end, you’re always going to get swept downstream again. So evolution is going to continue in the trajectory and the extent to which we can turn around our boat is the extent to which we’ll be part of that or not.
Brexit, civil wars, the break up of nations, all these things happen in history, but they’re not the overwhelming trajectory of evolution. And once they run their course, evolution continues on its upward trajectory towards increasing cooperation.
I don’t want to get into geopolitical stuff because that’s not really what this podcast is about. I absolutely take on board what you’re saying and I imagine anybody listening will do. But what we have at the moment is a particular concatenation of events where we are very close – as far as we understand it, as far as the science tells us just now – if we’re not already over the line into irreversible tipping points in terms of both climate and destruction of the biosphere, we are within probably single digits, if not very small double digits of reaching those tipping points.
And therefore, we haven’t really got the time for the sine wave of cultural evolution where a little bit of progress is made one step forward, two steps back, and eventually you reach a point where women have the vote and and gay people are not being burned at the stake. We haven’t got time for the breakdown of nations to happen. If we’re going to work as a global co-operative towards averting climate change and tipping points.
So I have another double question, and one is: are you seeing actual, worldwide change that would give reason for optimism that we could get ourselves into a global co-operative state before we hit the tipping points? Let’s answer that one because then I have a second question, which is quite a big one and will probably be the last one. So are you seeing any hope on that one?
So the radical change that’s needed and the speed at which it is needed is never going to come from the top. What I was saying with my earlier point is that they themselves, even people at the top, are beginning to realize that what they are doing isn’t working. So that there is a potential there. Even the people who this system is supposedly working for are beginning to realize it’s not working.
And are they coming to you for an alternative narrative?
No, I’m just to the chasing them down the street with placards!
Which, of course, we know is the right way to target someone’s amygdala!
But frankly, I have had conversations with, you know, very influential bankers right at the top of the pyramid who are open to ideas of monetary system change. I’ve heard somebody who is chairman of a major investment bank, which you would know and I won’t name, who was mooting the possibility of a debt jubilee. And that was before the Corona virus crisis. So the ideas are circulating even in even in those circles.
And I think their children are beginning to have an impact on them, which is he also you may have to look into their kids and it’s working it’s way up.
That’s the dream. That said, the impetus is going to come from all levels. It’s not going come from the top. It’s not going to come from the bottom is going to come from all levels simultaneously. So, yes, I am seeing signs of that. Just to give a couple of really micro examples because of Corona virus.
We decided to pop round to our neighbours. We live in the most anti-social village in the UK. There is no pub, there’s no church, there’s no post office, there’s no community sense at all. And because of the crisis, we decided to go round everyone’s front door and create a WhatsApp group just in case anyone was isolating at home, and was elderly and didn’t have access to food.
As a result of that, we have now set up collectively organized a weekly delivery of vegetables, a fishmonger who comes once a week to deliver fish to all of us. We’ve been getting out into the streets on a daily basis to say hello to each other. I know everyone’s names. I didn’t know people’s names before.
There’s also been an endless slurry of incredibly unfunny means. But just think about that happening on on the scale of one little village and think in how many different places that will be happening.
At the same time as that’s happening as people are organizing collectively, there’s a lot more integration going on to use the technical, Ken Wilber-esque term, thats the integration taking place At the same time, the entire world’s attention is in one place and collectively we are putting in place shifts to our institutions, whether it’s hospitals, whether it’s government, whether it’s economic policy that were unthinkable a few months ago, and the speed at which we’re doing them is forcing us to acknowledge that actually we can transition unbelievably quickly. We can’t ignore that fact that we are actually capable of this. The excuses of like, oh, it’s not possible aren’t going to wash anymore.
Collectively, we know what we’re capable of and that that opens up a huge window of the adjacent possible. So I’m very optimistic, that’s just my nature. Even if you’re at the bottom of a dark cave and there’s only one tiny chink of light that you can see above you. It’s still worth looking at the light. That’s where you go. Exactly. That’s the direction that you go in.
I heard Emily Maitless ay on Newsnight the other night that ‘this is a health problem with social implications and a social problem with health implications.’ And I genuinely thought that it was a spoof and someone had overdubbed it, because I didn’t believe that it could possibly have come out of the mouths of a senior BBC operative. And apparently it did. I as utterly gobsmacked.
So I’ve got ‘dopamine versus serotonin’ written in large red letters on my pad here. But I don’t think we have time for that. But underneath it, an equally large, equally red letters. I have ‘narrative’.
We need to finish soon because it’s going to be quite a long podcast. But I would really be interested in, how you are disseminating a new narrative are how we could? Because I had been speaking to everybody that I know who is involved in the television industry – which after 20 years of writing novels is quite a lot – saying we have the old narrative, if we get it wrong, we have Mad Max. We are 28 days later, we have Handmaid’s Tale, whatever… We have patterns of how things could go badly wrong and we know them backwards.
We have very, very few, if any,narrative arcs of what happens if we actually got it all right from here on in. What happens if we were able to be co-operative, creative, conducive in the ways that you’re describing and I am running up against really quite large conceptual blocks of people going, yeah, but who’d want to watch that? It wouldn’t be very interesting. What it there’s nothing to really hook a narrative off? And I’m obviously not explaining it well because I kind of sit there slack jawed going ‘I think the would actually. I don’t think this would be baskets of kittens and roses overnight. I think Monsanto might still be fighting a last ditch gasp to contaminate the entire planet.’ So how are you managing to create a new narrative and spread it?
First of all, I think it’s important to say that the past is always likely to be a more powerful influencing factor in people than the future because it’s something that’s happened. We know it. It’s something that’s real. It’s in their DNA, it’s programming their behavior. They’re conditioned by their childhood, by their upbringing, by their culture, et cetera. So that that is a very powerful anchor. And we don’t want to disregard all of that. That’s important.
But imagining a better future and transitioning to an evolution, which is primarily driven by our own visions of a better future is a big ask. So first of all, be patient with people. It’s not it’s not easy thing to do. And a lot of people have trauma and stuff that they have to deal with and that that makes it a lot harder to shed the conditioning of the past, individually and collectively, of course.
The way that I’m primarily speaking to people or trying to get to the heart of something that people themselves know that they actually want is through meaning. Because you don’t have to be a systems thinker or a Buddhist monk to know if you’re unhappy. And the mental health crisis is, above all, a crisis of meaning and the psychological data is there to back up that claim. People who report finding their lives meaningless are far more likely to commit suicide. They’re far less likely to be healthy and a whole range of other factors come with that. And so primarily I’m positioning my work, my podcast as speaking to that fundamental need that we all have for meaning and purpose. Which is a need that is increasingly prescient as we improve our material living conditions.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who defined developmental needs and at the top of that is this need to self actualise. Well, that’s a need that you can only really feel keenly if you’ve had the bottom half of the pyramid in which your needs have been met and met comfortably. And that’s what we find as a species, we’ve got better and better at meeting our material living conditions. Particularly in the West, we find more and more people are popping up into that top space of needing to find meaning and purpose.
And that void used to be met squarely by religion. So organised religion was incredibly good at providing us with a narrative and a story which binds us together in tight social organisation and allows us to cooperate at a scale that we couldn’t without those narratives and also meets that need that we all have for meaning of purpose. It says very clearly who we are, where we’ve come from, and what our purpose is in the unfolding of the universe.
So with the historical Enlightenment and the birth of reason, obviously that story was critiqued and critiqued very effectively. And so while in evolutionary terms, that was a great leap forward. It unleashed a great vast reserve of creativity and technological growth and cultural arts and science and all the rest of it. And at the same time, it left a void. And it left a void of narrative; of meaning.
And so conscious evolution is a new narrative which explains who we are, where we’ve come from, which can point to our place and purpose in the universe. But at the same time can withstand rational scrutiny. And it’s very important that it’s able to do that. But at the same time, it needs to speak to that deep need we all have for meaning and purpose. And so my sort of challenges, try it for yourself. You know, listen to my podcast when it comes out and which, you know, you can find out when that’s coming out on conscious evolution.co.uk and find your way of being part of that process, whatever it is.
Whether you’re a person who is inherently creative, maybe you’re a cooperative person, maybe you are someone who volunteers in a care home and works for charity or perhaps you’re more drawn to the transcendent aspect. But whatever it is, the thing that you love doing, the thing that you that makes you feel good above all else, that will be your way of contributing to the evolutionary process and that will provide your life with meaning and purpose as well.
There was one other piece I was going to talk about. The fact that because we’re at the global level, cooperation won’t happen without our conscious intention. That piece of the puzzle is that because there is no ‘outgroup’ to drive the emergence of global cooperation, we will not achieve global cooperation without conscious evolution. It requires a pull rather than a push. It won’t happen from a push process.
We always end with some quick fire questions. And the first one is what books would you recommend that people could read Or if you would rather refer them to a website? Your Conscious Evolution website will be linked on the show notes. Is there any any reading if people are interested and want to find more depth of this?
Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: his second book is called Lila. And in it, he draws a parallel between evolution and also the Chinese concept of Dao in Chinese philosophy and how in fact they’re the same process at work. So that was a massive influence on me. I loved that book.
Any podcast other than yours and ours that you’d recommend that people listen to?
Probably podcasts that you’ve mentioned a lot of the Emerge podcast. Future thinkers. I like Charles Eisenstein’s podcast – it’s called A new and ancient story, obviously makes similar points that we’re making.
Rob, thank you so much. This has been really interesting. I would definitely like to invite you back again for another chat. Some point when we both have a space in our schedules. I don’t know about you, but life has got massively busier in the last three weeks when we’re supposed to be in lockdown. Just because there’s so much else that we can be doing online.
So thank you hugely. I hope you continue to have a privileged and wonderful time and not feel too guilty about it. Don’t feel guilty. Just carry on doing good stuff. And when your podcast comes out, let me know and I will make sure that we flag it up.
Fabulous. Well, thank you so much. It’s such a relief to find someone else who’s talking about conscious evolution. It makes me feel like I’m not the last woolly mammoth after all. And good luck. Thank you.
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