Episode #149 The Kindness of Strangers: Ocean Rowing, Solitude and Transformation with Dr Roz Savage MBE
What happens when we realise we’re trying to be something we’re not? For Roz Savage, this led to a transformation that took her from Management Consultant to the first woman to row solo across the world’s 3 big oceans. Now she devotes her life to healing the planet in whatever ways work.
Dr Roz Savage MBE is an Ocean Rower, Author, Speaker, Lecturer, Sustainability Advocate. Her feats have been described by Sir Richard Branson as “Heroic, epic, inspiring, historic.” Best known as the first (and so far only) woman to row solo across the world’s “Big Three” oceans – the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian – Roz inspires us to think again about what is possible, and encourages us to step up fully into the potential of our highest selves.
She combines her self-taught life skills with principles from neuroscience, psychology, personal development and leadership theory, to inspire people around the world. In 2010 she was named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic. In 2012 she was a World Fellow at Yale. In 2013 she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to fundraising and the environment. In 2017 she took up a position at Yale, lecturing on Courage in Theory and Practice.
She’s author of four books, the most recent of which, The Ocean in a Drop, is published in November 2022. She’s a committed and vibrant speaker whose experiences have reached audiences across the world with her example of the potential for transformation that lies within all of us.
In our conversation, we delved into her experience of the oceans – what led her to throw in her job and take instead to the high seas – and then how she is using the self-knowledge she gained then, the emotional, mental and spiritual transformation that arose, to bring change to the world around us. We explore politics and economics and theories of change that bring us to the cutting edge of what is possible.
Naomi Klein Shock Doctrine
Three Horizons Framework for Future Thinking
Daniel Schmachtenberger ‘strange attractors’
Manda: My guest this week is an extraordinary individual, Dr. Roz Savage. She started off a fairly conventional life with a degree at Oxford in law and then work as a management consultant. And then she stepped out of that because, as you will hear, it wasn’t who she really was. And she went on to become the first and so far the only woman to row solo across the world’s big three oceans, the Atlantic and then the Pacific, and then the Indian. She did it to raise awareness of the environmental crisis that is climate change and of the whole ecosystem collapse. And it was, as you might imagine, an utterly transforming experience. So now Roz throws the whole of her life into working out how we can be the change that we need to see, how we can transform ourselves, our culture, our politics and our economics into something that will lead to that flourishing future that our hearts know is possible.
Manda: She’s written four books, the latest of which is called The Ocean in a Drop: Navigating from Crisis to Consciousness. Well worth the read. It is available for pre-order now and I will put a link in the show notes. In between writing, she’s spoken to tens of thousands of people across all six continents, including luminous names like Google and eBay and Disney and National Geographic and Ted and Ted X. And now she’s come to talk to us. We had to record on Zoom and the sound quality is not as good as we’d like it to be. But hoping that you all take that on sufferance, people of the podcast. Please do welcome Dr. Roz Savage MBE.
Manda: So Roz, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you for turning out in the middle of your fairly busy schedule. Whenever we talk, you do seem to be quite busy, but I’m glad you take time for meditation. And as we know from the intro, you’ve gone from being Roz Savage, who had a fairly conventional upbringing, as far as I can tell, to Dr. Roz Savage MBE, with quite a lot of excitement in between those two things. So can you tell us how you got from one to the other, your edited highlights of here to there? And then we’ll explore the amazing miracle of here.
Roz: Yes, as you say,a very conventional background. Born in 1967 to two Methodist ministers, and was either cursed or blessed with a good education. I was good at jumping through those academic hoops, so I was lucky enough to go to Oxford, where I allegedly did a law degree, although I spent far too much time on the river, which actually, as will become apparent, has served me much better than the legal studies ever did. When I graduated, went to work as a management consultant, as many of my peers did in the late eighties. And I think I knew from the start that I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. But I’d bought into that Thatcherite myth that life was all about having the yuppie job, and the mortgage, and the nice car, and took me 11 years to figure out that that myth wasn’t working for me and that I needed, I suppose, to create my own myth. So I quit my job and left my husband, and set out to find out who I was and why I’m here. Had an environmental awakening as a result of seeing the retreating glaciers in Peru on my first adventure back in 2003, and just was on fire with a desire to do something to raise awareness of the ecological crisis, and for about six months was in this agony of not knowing what to do.
Roz: I had the purpose, but not the projects. How could I get people’s attention for what I felt was so vitally important? And then one day a crazy idea took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. I was aware that there was this thing, ocean rowing. Sounded miserable to me, I’m not a seafarer at all. Firmly a landlubber, but I was, it just came into my consciousness almost as a fully formed vision that I could set out to row across the world’s oceans, and use this new fangled social media thing to spread my message about the need for environmental awareness and action. So after a week of weighing this up between hearts that were saying Yes, to the head that was saying No, heart convinced head and I committed to making that happen. So that’s what I did from 2005 to 2011, was to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Manda: Just going in there: a week to make that decision. But then it must have taken a lot longer to get the logistics because you don’t just pick up a rowing boat and head off, obviously. I mean, that would be insane. And I’ve seen pictures of what looks like really quite a high tech thing. Was Ocean rowing enough of a thing that there was an established structure of how you could do it?
Roz: I’m glad you thought my boat was high tech. It was painted silver, which did make it look a bit spacey, but it was actually quite rustic in many ways. It was its own little completely self-contained life support capsule with its own solar panels, electrical system, water maker, could hold enough food to last for – my longest voyage was five months alone at sea without seeing anybody, certainly not getting any resupplies. So you’re right, it was a pretty massive undertaking. I had 14 months to get ready. Couldn’t have done it in two months. And there’s a particular time of year when you set out to get the best of the trade winds.
Manda: What time of year is that?
Manda: November. So you leave in the middle of winter, middle of winter in Britain. Were you sailing from Britain to begin with, rowing from Britain?
Roz: No, I left from the Canaries, just off the coast of Africa, heading for Antigua in the Caribbean, which is about 3000 miles, which is kind of the nursery slope of ocean rowing, except the year that I did it, which was and still is, the worst year ever for weather in the Atlantic since records began. So my timing could have been better. And I think because I’d felt so called to do it and was out there trying to be a champion for Mother Nature, I think I’d kidded myself…
Manda: That the World would be kind to you.
Roz: That Mother Nature would go, Thank you, Roz! Here, it’s all going to be beautiful. You know, I’d been reading Henry David Thoreau and various other books about contemplative lives, and I just thought it was going to be this beautiful spiritual experience of enlightenment. And it wasn’t. The ocean just kicked my arse every single day. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Yeah, 14 months to get ready. So in that time, in true management consultant style, the first thing I did once I’d committed was to create an Excel spreadsheet with the mother of all to-do lists, of what books do I need to read, who do I need to talk to? What do I need to buy? So how much money do I need? My training program, my psychological preparations, the courses I need to take as a landlubber heading out to sea for the first time.
Manda: So sort of navigation courses, or more detailed stuff?
Roz: Celestial navigation, meteorology, maritime communications, first aid, sea survival. Yeah, it was a lot. But in a way it was good, because it kept me so busy that I didn’t really have time to stop and think, is this actually a good idea? I just absolutely leapt in with both feet, which is still my default modus operandi. Just commit to it before you find out too much about how hard it’s going to be.
Manda: You’re already doing it.
Roz: You’re already doing it. Yes.
Manda: And did you have to raise funding? Did you get some kind of sponsorship for this?
Roz: I tried to, and kept the faith that it would arrive. As it turned out, I got very, very little in sponsorship, but heck, I had a small civil settlement, a wiser woman might have bought house with it. But I bought a very expensive rowboat.
Manda: And because I’m not great swimming in the ocean, did you do a lot of ocean swimming and things so that if you capsized, you were going to survive? I mean, presumably there’s some kind of flotation device so that you’d have had a spar to cling to while your SOS signal was going out. What were your fallbacks for if something really bad happened?
Roz: Yeah, well, swimming wouldn’t have helped me if I ended up separated from my boat 1000 miles from land. But I had a lot of safety equipment, from life raft to a lifejacket to beacons that would get triggered automatically if the boat capsized, and they went underwater to a certain depth. Then they automatically call the Coast Guard in Falmouth, and they would then see what ships were in the vicinity to come out and pick me up. But thank heavens that that never happened, although just about everything short of that did happen.
Manda: Individual before you went in. I didn’t know you then, but I am guessing that 3000 miles, and that’s the easy one, or five months totally on your own… I know Buddhist monks who go away for five months retreats and they do come back transformed, and they have conversations with their teachers on the way. So you are in effect on a retreat on the ocean, with a lot of logistical stuff. You had to keep rowing. You had to keep moving forward. How did the psychological preparation work for you, and then what happened spiritually in that time?
Roz: The people that I was working with, the sports psychologists, were fantastic. And at the same time, I tend to learn by doing things wrong first. So definitely at the start of the Atlantic, I made life very difficult for myself psychologically. I thought that since my time as a management consultant, I thought I’d already made a lot of progress, both psychologically and spiritually. I thought because towards the end of my career, my self-esteem was really going down the toilet. I was in such a poor state trying to be something that I wasn’t, which comes with a very heavy cognitive overhead. And since I left the City and really started to be me, stopped trying to be something that I wasn’t, I felt that I had connected with sources of joy. A lot of, you know, often when we set out on the path, we find that wonderful allies and mentors and friends show up to reassure us that we’re actually on the right track and to help us, as we’re these little fledglings. You know, just setting out on a new way of living helps reassure us that we haven’t gone crazy, that actually this is where we are meant to be putting our time and our energy. So I was feeling so inspired to do this, this rowing, that the reality was a real slap in the face. And I tried fighting reality. All my equipment was breaking. All four of my oars broke before I got halfway across. The satellite phone broke a month before the end. So I had no communications. But actually, for me, the worst thing was my stereo breaking, because I’d really hoped that I could use music to manipulate my mood, to cheer me up when things got hard.
Roz: And for the first month I couldn’t use the stereo, because I didn’t have, there wasn’t enough sunshine to create enough electricity to power anything other than the absolute essentials which were the water maker, the GPS and the satellite phone. So after a month, the sun came out and I delightedly turned on the stereo and I had about two days of music before it just croaked out. And I opened it up and it was all rusted away inside. So really, I had three and a half months on that Atlantic crossing in pain from the tendonitis in my shoulders and saltwater sores on my bum. Of just being alone with my own thoughts. And I did go into some very dark places. I was absolutely my own worst enemy. That Milton saying about the mind can make it heaven or it can make it hell? And I definitely gave myself hell in so many different ways. But I really did get to know myself. The good, the bad, the ugly. Managed to fix a few things and accept others about myself. I realised that I needed to maintain some sort of discipline. I suppose the monks and the nuns figured this out a very long time ago, that when you’re doing something really existentially hard, then having a routine just makes it easier, gives you a structure. So I had to be very disciplined about that. But actually it was easier to do the discipline than to be undisciplined.
Manda: So you had some finance behind you. Did you get increasing amounts of sponsorship once people realise you were really serious about this, were you broadcasting some details of what was happening, a blog or a… I suppose podcast barely existed back then? Were you doing something to let the wider world know that this was happening?
Roz: Absolutely. Yeah. I blogged every day that I had functioning technology when the satellite phone broke. I couldn’t blog because that was also my data modem. Like the slowest dial-up speed that you can ever imagine and costing an exorbitant amount. But for me, that’s really, the messaging was what it was about. Otherwise, it was yes, it was a pretty gruelling expedition, but it really was meant to be my campaigning platform. And the time when I was at sea was when I could get the most attention for my message. And actually when I did the Pacific Take Two, after the first failed attempt, podcasts were a thing by then. There’s an American podcast host called Leo Laporte, who I was introduced to, and so he interviewed me frequently as I did the first leg of the Pacific, and that was fantastic. They’d also by then invented Twitter, which was sort of a double edged sword because when I had my failed attempt I got quite the Internet trolling as a result of that. The armchair critics had a lot of opinions about my sanity, my professionalism, even my suicidal tendencies as they saw it, ignoring the fact I’d already done The Atlantic and was a well experienced ocean rower by then.
Manda: That’s – but did you get support as well?
Roz: I did, yes. I don’t tend to spend much time on social media now. I think it has become much more toxic. Back then, it really did feel like such a godsend that it enabled me to get my messages out to a much wider audience and had some fun with it, actually. It gave me good feelings back in those days, whereas now I would maybe be more hesitant to wade back into those shark infested waters. Yeah, but at the time it felt very serendipitous. It was a total of 250 days of rowing spread over three years. Any question about sponsors? I had a wonderful sponsor for the Pacific, a Silicon Valley company that makes more efficient data storage service called Brocade. And they were smart the way that they did it. They spent at least as much hiring a PR agency as they did on my actual sponsorship, which is great because adventurers don’t have time to worry about the PR, especially in the last days before an expedition, which is when you’ve got the most interest and the least time. And I was also incredibly lucky that out of all the world, I had probably the one PR professional who had dated an ocean rower at a time when his voyage had gone south. And so when my voyage went south, having Nicole was just such an absolute pillar of strength.
Manda: Yes, isn’tthe world good.
Roz: Yes. You know, I feel like even when things go wrong for me, they go wrong in a good way.
Manda: Do you want to talk about – I’m noticing that I’m stepping around the going south, but it probably my kind of dreaming head says that was probably the most interesting bit. How did you realise it was going south, and when did you call for help?
Roz: Well, I didn’t call for help. I got ten days out from the coast of California and my boat was capsizing more than it should have been. And it does self-right, that’s the way it’s designed. But it still wasn’t a lot of fun. And I would have carried on. My weatherman told me the weather was going to calm down if I could just hang on in there for another 24 hours. But one of my blog readers became concerned about me and sent out the US Coast Guard to come and pick me up. We debated it back and forth for hours and hours and hours.
Manda: But the Coast Guard is sitting there in a boat going, We’re helping you, and you’re going, No, I don’t want you.
Roz: They were actually in a plane. They were in a fixed wing plane overhead. And we tried various things. It’s a bit of a long story. So buy the book, if you want to know t all the gory details. And eventually they said this is crunch time. It’s going to get dark soon. By tomorrow, you’ll be too far out from land for a helicopter to reach you. You’ll be beyond the range of the fuel tank of the helicopter. So it’s really now or never. And I asked for 5 minutes to make the decision, and I just thought, you know what? The boat is capsizing more than it should be. I have lost my sea anchor and I guess the more prudent thing to do would be to accept the rescue, go back to dry land.
Manda: That must have been so hard.
Roz: I radioed them back, and hung up the radio and just burst into tears. Yeah, it was just it was an awful feeling. So then they sent out the helicopter. I had to jump out of the boat, swim over to the guy on the end of the line to get lifted up into the helicopter. And I remember just looking down at my trusty little boat as she bobbed around on the waves with basically everything I owned on board, everything I had invested in that boat and just thinking this is not how it was supposed to end. And then to get all the online trolling, it was quite an intense experience. But in the longer run, well, first of all, all the public opinion and like you pointed out, a lot of people were really supportive and encouraging.
Manda: And you had a good PR in.
Roz: Nicole! I did, and I did get a lot of publicity for my mission. Definitely when something goes pear shaped, you get a lot more media mentions than you do when everything goes swimmingly.
Manda: Isn’t that a sad feature of humanity?
Roz: It really is, yes. Yeah. You and I have talked a lot about the biases of the media and it would be nice to get more of the the good, life-affirming stories rather than just when everything hits the fan. And one of the other really moving things for me about that was the way that some new friends really rallied around to help me salvage my boat, put arrangements in place, lent me money, lent me clothes, and this has happened multiple times . Something about ocean rowing, or maybe it’s just ocean-going generally that things rarely go according to plan. And I have so often been so grateful for the kindness of strangers.
Manda: But isn’t it amazing how generous most people are, when…
Roz: We really are! I love that Rebecca Solnit book, A Paradise Built in Hell, where she recounts various disasters of various kinds, and how people have – when people are allowed to self-organize in a crisis, it’s amazing what emerges. Yes, including emerging in this sort of technical emergence sense.
Manda: Emergence from a complex system.
Roz: Yeah, exactly. Mutually supportive systems.
Manda: Yes. I will put that Rebecca Solnit book in the show notes because I think it’s well worth a read. One of the things – I can’t remember if it was in that, or something else that I read online, that I found very interesting was that FEMA, the American Emergency system, arm of government, stopped that happening after Katrina in New Orleans. And I don’t know, obviously, there’s online opinion about whether that was deliberate, or just a process of their system. But in most cases, I mean, the thrust of her book is that in emergency, people will group together and put aside their differences, and find the best in themselves. And that often it turns out to be a turning point in their lives. So. It’s a bit hackneyed to suggest that the failure in the Pacific was a turning point. But I’m wondering, how did you feel having had to come back? And then you have to get everything back together and start over again. How much harder was it to start a second time?
Roz: Actually, for me, the hardest bit was between the Atlantic and the first attempt on the Pacific, because the Atlantic really had been such a sufferfest in my mind and heart. I’d committed to doing the Pacific, and I also felt I’d done a really bad job on the Atlantic of managing my own mind and emotions. So I was determined that I wanted to get back out there out of duty to the environmental mission, but also to find out if I’d really integrated the lessons learned on the Atlantic. And that was a really important phase for me, was that chapter after The Atlantic, as I reflected on it, and wrote the book about it, and really tried to take those new capacities that had emerged in all of that hardship. I didn’t want to leave that new version of me out on the Atlantic Ocean. I wanted to make sure that that new Roz, that stronger, more resilient Roz actually became the same Roz on dry land. So that sort of debriefing and integration part was really essential. It’s that time traveller’s dilemma, isn’t it? If you change any of the threads in the past, then you might end up in a different place now. And I’m pretty happy where I am now.
If I may, I’d just like to say a bit about a couple of places that I stopped on the Pacific, which I would never have gone to under different circumstances. The Republic of Kiribati is a small island state which is on the international Dateline and the equator, the only country in the world that straddles all four hemispheres, and like many small island states, has no point of land more than a few feet above sea level. And that was in 2009 that I was there, the year of COP15 in Copenhagen, and it really brought it home to me what the human face of climate change is and rising seas. And it made me think about how would I feel if the country where I was born and grew up and had all of my life experiences, where my ancestors are buried, if that country was going to be drowned under the waves. And to see the Kiribati delegation in Copenhagen later on that year, it was on the final Friday night where the COP had completely failed to achieve a fair and binding deal on climate change. And in a way, their death warrant had just been signed as a nation, and it was really poignant. And then to arrive in Papua New Guinea at the end of the Pacific, just north of Australia, such a fascinating country, 280 official languages, very rich in natural resources, but so many of those resources being sold off to foreign companies and exploited. Really vast tax breaks from the government for 25 years. So the incentive is all there for these foreign mining logging companies to come in, exploit all of those resources before their tax break runs out, with very little benefit to the local people – because mostly these companies bring in workers from their own countries – very little regard for the environment. While I was there, there were also protests at the corruption in government, and I see a connection between these phenomena. And I’ve got a horrible feeling it’s a maybe similar picture in a lot of relatively young countries with relatively immature governments. I don’t mean that the individuals are immature. I mean that they are relatively young governments that just don’t have the resilience to foreign corporate invasion.
Manda: Oh, there’s so many places we could take that. Let’s come back to that, because that seems to be the striking problem of our time, predatory capitalism versus the world. But let’s just – is there anything that you want to share from the Indian Ocean?
Roz: The Indian Ocean was my longest single voyage. That was the five months alone at sea. I’d sort of got the hang of it by then, though, I had my act together mentally, so in many ways it was one day, 154 times. Just really took it one day at a time. But again, I suppose the people aspects of that was: originally I’d wanted to go from Western Australia to India, but the year as I was planning, that was the year that piracy really took off in the Arabian Sea. And my route would have taken me quite close to the coast of Somalia, which as Captain Phillips found out in real life and in the Tom Hanks movie, going close to Somalia was not a great idea around that time. But again, it’s when you put people into positions of financial desperation, then they resort to desperate measures. So it just seemed like the best option was not to go close to Somalia. So I went to Mauritius instead.
Manda: And then you get to the end, you’ve got to India. Did it feel like, I imagine getting to the top of Everest, or was it an anti-climax? And then the world is open, and what do I do now?
Roz: I suppose the big difference between rolling across an ocean and climbing a mountain, for which I’m very grateful, is that when you climb a mountain, you’ve still got the journey back down to do, which was actually when a lot of the accidents happen. Whereas when you finish an ocean, you’ve finished the ocean and it’s the best feeling to step ashore on the other side, on your feet. Well, for me, anyway, I know some people absolutely love being out in the ocean, but like I say, I am a landlubber. And to be back with creature comforts like hot showers and a comfy bed, just heaven. And you spend about the first two weeks just being so grateful to be able to turn on a tap and have water come out of it, without having to go through all the faff of running the water maker. And then I’m afraid you get that sort of hedonic adaptation. You just get used to having hot and cold running water again, and you start taking all the comforts of modern life for granted, as we do. I suppose when I finished the Indian Ocean, there wasn’t that sense of ‘job done’ because clearly the environmental mission, we’re a very long way from being job done. So I had a sense of completion in that I had done what I set out to do in terms of rowing across the oceans.
Roz: I also felt that I had done all the personal development that I could do from a rowing seat, and it was time to be engaging with the environmental mission in a more direct way. There’s a big opportunity cost to spending 3 to 5 months of the year at sea. When you’ve got very limited Internet access, you can’t be going to conferences, you can’t be having conversations like I am with you right now. So it really felt to move to a different campaigning platform. And that’s been 11 years now and it’s been a journey trying to figure out what how does change happen? Because clearly my ocean rowing adventures changed me a lot as a person. But did they change our environmental trajectory? Nope. When we look at all the charts, all the metrics are still heading in the wrong direction. And so that’s really led me into this ongoing inquiry about how does change happen, and why does it so often fail to. And maybe that’s what we can really explore, because I think that’s really where you and I connect so deeply: with this obsession on, how do we go forwards from here?
Manda: And it may be, who knows? The world’s environmental trajectory might have been worse if you hadn’t been there, giving people some kind of input. We can’t know that. But generally speaking, you’re right. Predatory capitalism is becoming more predatory and in many ways more desperate. I think I heard somebody describe it as Mordor Economics the other day, which I thought was an extremely good mental image on the grounds that most of us have either read or seen Lord of the Rings. And everybody has that sense of teams of orcs being kind of just motorised and just throwing their lives and everything with it into this vast, bottomless pit of need. And I read something a friend put up on Facebook recently, which was Thoreau, I think, who was invited to some party by some huge hedge funder who had infinite amounts of money. And somebody pointed out this guy made more in a day than Thoreau had made in his entire life from his writing. And he said, Yes, but I have something he will never have. I have enough.
Roz: Yeah. That hungry ghost of capitalism.
Manda: Yes, the hungry ghost that then infects everybody else with its hungry ghostness. And I’m wondering where you’re at in terms of making change, because quite evidently, environmentalists of all stripes have spent at least the last 40 years saying things are getting really bad, we need to change. And now we’re very strident, and now: things are going to be really, really, really, really bad. And nothing has changed. And the vast majority of the population still either don’t know, or don’t care, or have heard it enough but still are in the the three monkeys phase of hands over eyes, ears and mouth. How do we change this, do you think?
Roz: Well, this is something that I’ve thought and written about a great deal, and what my latest book, The Ocean in a Drop is all about. And there are two quotes that I come back to almost every day. These two in the statement to the Hopi elders. These two quotes both by dead white guys, I’m afraid, but pretty smart ones. Einstein, saying that we can’t solve problems from the level of consciousness that created them. Buckminster Fuller saying that we don’t change things by fighting the existing reality, but by creating a new model that renders the existing one obsolete. And I keep coming back to these because I, having spent so long identifying as an environmentalist, going to no end of conferences about how we create change. As you say, we haven’t really moved the needle, and it often feels that we’re trying to solve the problems from the level of consciousness that created them. And I’m particularly thinking of a conference I went to about the oceans that was hosted by – I’d better not name it, but shall we say, a well known international magazine that focuses on the economy.
Manda: That narrows it down quite a lot, yep.
Roz: And I suppose partly because of who was hosting it, tt was very much looking at how do we, for example, insure coral reefs. And this just felt to me like not the way to go. Coral reef insurance is an answer to the wrong question.
Manda: Yes, you could create such a satire from that, couldn’t you? But it’s terrifying that everybody took it seriously.
Roz: Yeah, well, I mean, it’s kind of like Don’t Look Up, isn’t it? So I know that some people see the valuing of ecosystem services as being a bridge to a more respectful attitude. But I suppose at heart maybe I’m more of a rebel and I have a greater hunger for disruption, that I would love it if we preserve things because we love them, because they are sacred, because they have a right to exist independent of how they serve humanity. And that’s the leap of consciousness that I would love to see: to that consciousness that everything in this web of life is connected in sacredness, and that we shouldn’t just be preserving things because we might need them, because they might contain medicines for us, because they absorb carbon dioxide in order to keep the planet liveable for humans. Different days I have different feelings about this. There are some days that I feel that we are a whisker away from that leap of consciousness, and there are other days that I feel that it’s such a massive gulf and I can’t see how we’re going to get there.
Manda: Yeah, and how much we can step outside the idea that we have to have all the answers, and instead find ourselves in service to something greater that has the answers. I think the ‘we have to have all the answers’ I find a really demoralising thought path, because we’re in a multipolar, multi systemic crisis and humanity is not good at dealing with those. However…
Roz: Really not. No.
Manda: If we were to imagine the bits that we can change, we have politics and economics, seem always to me to be at the heart of everything, and they are so co-entwined now. The political system is in service to the economic system, which in turn feeds the giant multinationals who basically control our world, the Western world, and are endeavouring to control the entire world. Have you thought on how we could shift that hegemony to one that would be more in service of people and planet?
Roz: I have thought about this a lot. In the final section of my book I do my best, from my limited purview, to describe what a world could look like where all of our systems economic, political, media, educational and so on, are based on the values of collaboration, connection, compassion and co-evolution. And my difficulty is, it’s one thing to paint a utopian picture. For me, the real challenge is that Horizon two, like we’re at Horizon one now, I can see Horizon three, but how do we bridge from here to there? And Manda, you’ve had a sneak preview of my book. You know, I ran absolutely into writer’s block as I tried to figure out how do we get from here to there. And spoiler alert, I went all sci fi and basically blew up the world with a massive solar flare so that we could restart civilisation almost from scratch. And I realised that whole reset, that sort of eschatological last resort, can be very dangerous. It has been used like that whole regime change desire has been. If you’ve read Naomi Klein on the Shock Doctrine, it can be, you know, it can definitely have a dark side. So I have very complex mixed feelings about my last resort there. I like to think of the solar flare as being more metaphorical. I mean, it could be a prediction – solar flares do happen. And now that we have an entire civilisation based on electricity, when it happens the next time, unless we have radically different power infrastructure, it’s going to have a very drastic effect. So it wouldn’t do us any harm.
Manda: It would do us tremendous harm, but it would probably stop the destruction of the planet in its tracks for a while.
Roz: I mean, it wouldn’t do us any harm to come up with a much more decentralised, much more based on natural resources. But anyway, I agree with you that our political system is, this isn’t my phrase, a wholly owned subsidiary of the multinational corporations. We can’t change those two things in isolation from each other, and we’re certainly not going to address our environmental issues from within the existing systems. Where I am now, now that I’ve finished writing the book, finished blowing up the world, is: okay, well, what can I personally do to help bring about this change in a conscious way? Because we can’t just sit around waiting for some massive natural disaster.
Manda: Or even a human made disaster. And nuclear war would do much the same.
Roz: Because apart from anything else, I do believe – and this is why the book is called The Ocean in the Drop. So anything that we do or think or say is already sowing the seeds of the next chapter of human civilisation, whether that’s going to be a more conscious one or otherwise. Everything that we think, say, and do is creating this narrative of what it means to be a human in the 21st century. And our species-wide story, our morphogenetic story is related to our individual stories. So I feel that as individuals we are sending out those ripples through the collective consciousness. We are creating change in the realm of consciousness that will then filter through into the manifest material world. So it does matter what we do now pending catastrophe. And of course, I hope the catastrophe doesn’t happen. I mean, nuclear Armageddon or massive solar flare could really spoil our day. So, yeah, let’s do what we can to.
Manda: We’re in a slow rolling catastrophe. Or if you’re in Pakistan, a fast rolling catastrophe as we speak. So the catastrophe is upon us. It’s just not got quite the immediacy of the solar flare or or nuclear burnout. If we were specifically to aim at changing the political system, and unhinging it from its wholly owned subsidiary standing, have you thought of routes that would take us in the right direction? Or would you like to explore together routes that could take us in the right direction?
Roz: I would love to explore together. Let’s see what emerges from the the sum total of our intelligences as we look into this. It is very easy to see everything that’s wrong with the current system. And as you know, I’m doing a lot of reading around that. At the moment it does seem that certainly in the UK, this First Past the Post system that we have is really out of date, and that we have technologies now that would allow us to tap into the collective intelligence.
Manda: Do you have an instinct of what those technologies are? So one assumes they’re Internet based or at least they’re digitally based, which does require that everyone has access to some kind of online structure, which actually, strangely, not everybody does, but we could make that possible. You could open up libraries, you could open up churches, you could create ways and have people there to help people find how to know what buttons to press. Let’s assume digital. Talk me through how we could do that, what they would do.
Roz: Well, at the moment there are some movements afoot that would give the citizenry the right to vote on legislation as it’s going through parliament. But that seems to be starting a little bit too far downstream. So something that I’m curious about is what would it be like if the legislation was actually drafted by a Citizens Assembly of people from really diverse walks of life? I think it’s probably stating the obvious to say that our politicians mostly come from a fairly small subset, certainly here in the UK, I’m guessing also in the US and in many other places besides. And I would love it if we had this idea of the veil of ignorance, where people draft legislation not knowing where in the social structure they would be in relation to that legislation when it comes into force. So in other words, the legislation should work for everybody within the society and should be drafted accordingly. But unfortunately we don’t know what our blind spots are, and I think there are probably a lot of good people in government. But like the rest of us, they have confirmation bias and blind spots and all of these other cognitive biases that we have. So what would it be like if we had people from the whole spectrum of society getting together to say, Well, actually that piece of legislation wouldn’t work for me and the people that I know living in our council block, or in my old people’s home, or whatever, because this is a mess.
Manda: Yeah. And then you have to have people listening who care about that, because plenty of people tell, for instance, the Tories that their current ideas wouldn’t work for 99% of the population, but they don’t care, because the 1% they would work for are the people pulling their strings. So I have two questions on Citizens Assemblies. It seemed to me that they worked incredibly well in Ireland, and that that model has permeated the world. And what they did was pull together in a very small country, 99 people, and made sure they were demographically spread. But then the demographics of Ireland are not huge, to be honest. And then they asked them what questions should, could we usefully ask in referenda? And then having narrowed it down to the abortion and the gay marriage, then they got the Citizens Assemblies to figure out the actual wording of the question, which was very big. And then Ed Miliband’s podcast really pushed this, and the Parliament of the UK took up the idea of a Citizen’s Assembly, not the government, and they pulled together a Citizen’s Assembly to look at climate change. And the Citizen’s Assembly was structured such that people who fed into it were defined by the parliamentary committee that had set it up. And as a result we had a Citizens Assembly that came up with the idea that the solution to climate change was to ban the use of SUVs, which is terrifying, frankly. And just, you know, on every level is incorrect and fatuous. And if that had been our only example of Citizen’s Assemblies, nobody would be considering that a Citizen’s Assembly was a useful thing. So I agree with you. I think Citizen’s Assemblies have the potential to be a really good idea. But I’m also aware that quite clearly they are capable of being neutered before they start. So how do we get to grips with creating Citizens Assemblies that aren’t going to decide that banning SUVs is the answer to climate change?
Roz: Well, something else that I’ve been thinking about, that I write about in the book, is how we could make governance much more decentralised and much more localised, so that it’s much more in tune with the actual community where it arises. So in a way, it connects with Eleanor Austin’s work on the governance of the management of the commons, where the people who are going to be affected by a policy get a say in that policy, and it’s adapted to the specific needs of their bioregion. The model that I describe in the book, although it’s not fully fleshed out, it’s just a short section, not even a chapter, is having local councils that are sort of loosely based on Joanna Macey’s Council of All Beings idea, where you don’t just have people representing humans, but you have people representing water, or the forests, or a particular species of animal, and speak for how that species or entity is going to be affected by the policy under discussion. And people in my idea would start being involved with these Councils from really quite a young age, from age 13, and go all the way up to advanced old age, with the elders passing on lessons learned from history to the youngsters. So you get more continuity there of what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. And I wonder if we could explore whether that could work, if it could work, and maybe how those local councils could be fractals upwards. Clearly, some policies need to be at the level of larger regions or at national level because there needs to be some sort of larger coordination.
Manda: At the international level.
Roz: Yeah, Yes.
Manda: There’s a system that I’ve read and to be honest, I can’t remember where, but it’s: you start out at very small numbers, like street level and the people at street level have systems by which they elect one or two representatives. And those systems have to be fair, because I think my experience of small groups is that the people with charisma and or the loudest voices are very good at flattening the people who are shy or just feel intimidated in some way, or maybe are not that engaged. So we have to find ways right at street level of helping people to be engaged. Because every culture where this has worked, there is absolute buy-in and engagement, because that’s part of the social structure. And our social structure has created disengagement and alienation, and an unlearning of how to connect with each other, so that we have to somehow find ways to heal that. But let’s assume that hurdle has been stepped over. Street level, we elect one or two representatives who then go up to parish level, and at parish level, those elected representatives elect a couple of representatives who go up to the higher level. And at each level there are a number of representatives elected. But at any point the people at street level can recall their representatives and go, No, we didn’t want you to do that. And either we replace you, or you have to go back and say, No, my vote is changed now. I don’t want my representative one higher up to be that person. And that creates accountability all the way up the line to the national and international level, where if the people at street level are going, No, we don’t want this person actually anymore, they can change them.
Manda: And I think that works in a system where the legacy and social media are not stacked in favour of outrage. And where they are stacked, where we’ve got the race to the bottom of the brain stem, where outrage is the currency by which they enlarge themselves, and enlarging is essential because that’s what vulture capital requires, then that system will break down very quickly. Because while people are unable to think because their amygdala has been hijacked, and I’m aware that my neuropsychology friends don’t like me using clunky neurophysiological metaphors, but there is such a thing as limbic hijack. And I’m aware that the limbic may not be an isolated neural neuroanatomy thing, but still, the thinking fast and thinking slow happens. And this requires that people are either very good at thinking slow or have hooked into a level of awareness that is much more compassionate than social media normally allows. So we need to find ways that give power back to the people, but we need that power not to have been hijacked in advance by a combination of the Twitter and Mail. And I don’t know how we get to the not hijacking until we’ve got control of the polity. There’s a kind of Ouroboros swallowing its own tail there. If we could legislate for the Mail and on Twitter, for instance, or TikTok or whatever, to have to behave differently. But to do that, we’d have to have got the control of the polity that they are currently preventing. Over to you.
Roz: I’m curious about who’s the ‘we’ in that, and the control part. I wonder if the ‘we’ is all of us, and the control could be people recognising that the shock and outrage algorithms are not serving any of us. I was just a bit concerned about the… I wonder if we can switch from control to responsibility or some other kind of framing around that.
Manda: Yeah. Okay. Yes, we could. So I’m, but I’m very aware that we’re in a multipolar trap system. This is about Schmachtenberger, and trying to find the third attractor when we’re in any system where, let’s say, high, multiple across-the-board limbic hijack gives you an advantage. Let’s suppose Elon Musk buys Twitter, and decides Twitter needs to be a much more relaxed place. It needs to be going back to being the Eurovision Song Contest and kittens and nice things, and less full of trolls. If he were to succeed in that, Twitter would fold and the new platform would thrive. That in any multipolar trap system, the person who has the competitive advantage will continue to have a competitive advantage until they give it up. And then someone else who picks up the competitive advantage will continue to have the competitive advantage. How do we create a system where dopamine versus serotonin, the one marshmallow versus the two marshmallow? Let’s assume Twitter is the one marshmallow. So this requires people to understand that there was a study done a long time ago in Harvard where they gave children a plate with a marshmallow on and said, if you can not eat the marshmallow, when I come back, I’ll give you two marshmallows and you’ll get them both. Guy goes out the room. A percentage of the children are able to sit there and just stare at the marshmallow, and when they come back, they get two. And they followed up those children and claimed that in later life they were much more ‘successful’ than the kids who just grabbed one marshmallow because they didn’t have any degree of self-control.
Manda: That study has since been overturned multiple times. However, the concept of pleasure versus happiness, or dopamine circuits which are very fast but not long lasting. You get the dopamine hit and immediately you want another dopamine hit, because it doesn’t last – versus serotonin pathways that take longer to trigger, but are much more long lasting. And they are acquired by actual genuine social connections. So I’m guessing when you got to California and you began to make friendships, it’s much less of an issue how much the trolls are piling on you when you’ve got actual serotonin networks around you. And there’s all kinds of instances of that. So pornography is the one marshmallow. It’s the hit that doesn’t fill anything, so people keep using it. Whereas actual building genuine intimate relationships takes time and effort and and can be complex, but it builds that serotonin network. So we have devolved from complex societies that have existed around the planet that were serotonin based, based on social connectivity, the whole of the Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, is full of instances of cultures that worked. And there were clearly serotonin networks, and we have managed to find ourselves in the multipolar trap of the one marshmallow dopamine hit networks. And so our key question, I think, is how do we shift from the dopamine to the serotonin? How do we bring our entire culture from a dopamine-seeking network to a serotonin-seeking network?
Roz: Feeling like there’s a bit of a chicken and an egg here. And it might be that it’s not which comes first, the chicken or the egg, but we’re looking at multiple generations of chickens laying eggs, hatching chickens, laying eggs between the level of consciousness and the structures that we engage with. So I don’t know a lot about the fedidiverse, but from the little that I hear about it, it is an emergent new sphere of online activity that is coming from a new and improved level of consciousness. And it’s still very much emergent and still quite scrappy. But it’s good to know that it’s there. So to me that’s like a new attractor that as it develops, will attract people who are coming from a new level of awareness, a new set of values. So I suppose going back to these attractors, yeah, I think of it like these electromagnetic magnets that the old one, all of us as the iron filings have been sort of stuck in the magnetic field of the old attractor. But there are now new attractors. Bucky Fuller’s new models that will render the existing ones obsolete, that are now arriving on the scene and are starting to attract a few of the iron filings over there. And it’s like the electrical currents to both the new attractors and the old attractors are starting to fluctuate, which often feels like such a confusing time, because as we little iron filings are being pulled this way and that between the old attractors and the new, we’re like, we don’t know if we’re coming or going. But that volatility is quite a promising sign of impending change.
Roz: So as we start to hang out in those, with those new attractors, surrounded by the other iron filings that have been drawn to those new attractors, we start to give them more strength, more influence, more energy, and it elevates our consciousness to be around other conscious people. That in turn spawns new technologies, new structures that support that new level of consciousness, and it starts to become a virtuous spiral over there rather than the toxic spiral we seem to be in at the moment. So I am curious about not just new technologies but also new currencies, and other things that are serving as attractors. I don’t want this to sound like us and them. That’s not what I mean at all. We all have the capacity to move between different layers of consciousness, even on different days. But there are places where we can find people who are starting to see the world in different ways.
Manda: Can you tell us a little bit more about the fediverse? I’m really curious to get into – at the moment we’re talking hypotheticals and attractors, which I think is going to lose quite a lot of people. Can we talk about what are the underlying values, and how might this attractor be drawing in the iron filings if we’re going to stay with that metaphor, what is it about it that’s attractive? And if I’m right that we’re trying to move from dopamine to serotonin, how is it creating the network mesh that would be attractive?
Roz: I want to make it clear, I know very, very little about the actual fedidiverse. I haven’t spent time in it. I know it. What is it? It is something online. It’s like a parallel universe of more enlightened Google and more enlightened Facebook and more enlightened Twitter.
Manda: Does it have great big funding behind it, as in has it got vulture capitalists behind it?
Roz: I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to say no. Even I heard it described as new and scrappy. And if you go over there now, it’s going to look quite clunky and you’ll probably get frustrated as hell with the technology because it’s not slick and smooth.
Manda: Developing as we speak. Yeah.
Roz: It’s not productive in what we have at the moment, and that is going to deter all – as with some of the new currencies, it’s going to deter all but the most determined. But hopefully that number of determined, committed pioneers, you know, on the diffusion of technology curves, it’s hard to be a pioneer. As the first person to have any new technology, it’s not terribly useful, and there’s an awful lot of downside to it because it just hasn’t had the investment yet. But hopefully there will be enough people who are willing to commit to it, and to explore it, and to improve it, and in their wake to draw in more people until it reaches critical mass. From the pioneers, you get to the the early adopters, and then you start getting to the early majority. And that’s when it really has the opportunity to take off. But there will have to be some people who are willing to put in the hard work upfront.
Manda: Yeah, and I’m guessing that when you say invest, you mean invest time and energy and not necessarily invest megabucks. Yeah, I’ll put that in the show notes. It looks really interesting. Okay, very finally: in politics itself in the UK, because that’s where we are. But I think political models around the world are broadly based on what Churchill, I think completely wrongly, described as the worst system of organising things except for all the other systems. But what we laughingly call liberal democracy is what we have. If you were given the power to change our system tomorrow into a way that would lead us towards a better system, could you cobble together concepts and values that you would seek to apply to make it better?
Roz: What a beautiful question. I have been playing for the last few days with the idea of a Ministry for the Future, inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s book called The Ministry for the Future. Because I think one of the problems with our current model of politics is that it does encourage short term thinking as far as the general election, if even that far. And what we really need is longer term thinking and to be building the resilience, to be regenerating our soils, to be creating more strength in the local communities. And I’ve also been thinking a lot about this in the context of the mental health crisis. Like the Lib Dems, for example, are offering to commit more money to mental health services for young people. But as well as that, I think we also need to go upstream from there. Like if I was a young person now, I would have mental health issues. Why wouldn’t you? When you’re looking to inherit a future of a massively degraded ecosystem and potential nuclear Armageddon and biodiversity loss and I mean, you know the list, I don’t even need to name all of the usual suspects, but you know that having a mental health issue is an entirely rational response to an insane world. Sorry, I’m getting quite worked up over this.
Manda: That’s good.
Roz: As well as offering counselling and heaven forbid, but pharmaceuticals can serve a useful short term purpose. I see you’re pulling a face at me, and you know, me too. But I really think we need to get to the root causes of this. We need to create a world in which young people don’t need to be going through this existential angst and fear of the future. And so that’s what I would like to see emerging. Either a Ministry for the Future or a party for the Future that is willing to make those braver, long term decisions that we know need to be taken. A braver politics where we’re not just kicking the can down the road, hoping that the opposition party will get in and have to deal with these thorny issues.
Manda: Yeah, okay. I like that. A braver politics where we have a Party for the Future that looks forward and makes long term decisions, slightly in the way that Wales does. They have a minister whose job it is to think for the next seven generations, and I think that’s beautiful. And apart from anything else, she’s stopped the road building program. It’s fantastic. And just because – she said, I’ve got the capacity to not have to think party politics, and actually do think long term. And it completely changed her view, and her capacity to stand up in a room and go, This does not have a look-good long term impact. We shouldn’t be doing it. And thereby give everybody else the chance to go, you know what?
Roz: Yeah. Bless Jane Davidson for bringing in the Future Generations Act. That is what we need, is – at the moment it feels like politics is very tactical. It’s just like reacting to the latest crisis instead of long term strategic. And it is the job of government to look after us not just for the next 12 months, but actually into the future. And we need to be better ancestors, and that includes our politicians. And they do still have disproportionate power and influence to to make a difference. And I would love to see them… I do believe that many of them, I might even go as far as to say most of them, do have good intentions, but the incentives within the current political structure are in the wrong places. They discourage that long term thinking. And maybe we as the voters also need to put our hands up and say what standards of long term planning and integrity are we expecting from our politicians? And I’m still optimistic, despite everything. And there are so many reasons not to be. But I do believe in our better nature and that we do want to improve and evolve and grow as a species. And at the moment, so many of the structures are pulling us in, as you say, race at the bottom of the brainstem. They are not encouraging us to be our better selves. So again, chickens and eggs. I think it is going to be an iterative process that as we learn to do things a better way, it may be, looking at my own experience of having learned everything I’ve learned by doing it the wrong way first. And you know, this is not working. And as it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s not working, that I hope we will create better structures that in turn birth higher levels of evolution, that in turn birth yet higher, better structures, and so on into a better future. I think we could still do it. I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride. I think it may even be a traumatic ride at times, and things may have to blow up in our faces from time to time. I think we will get through.
Manda: But hopefully as a species, we will get through. So thank you. That feels like a really, really good place to end. Thank you, Roz Savage, for all that you’re doing and all that you’ve done, and for coming on to the podcast.
Roz: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Manda. Very grateful to you.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Roz for all that she is and does, for the depth of her thinking and the breadth of the ways that she stretches her mind into possibility. Her book does explore all the ways that we can change, and at the end does look at how we could transform our culture and our society and our way of being on the earth. Well worth a read. We also looked at things like three horizon thinking and multipolar traps and attractors, and I will put links to those ideas and where they come from in the notes, along with Naomi Klein and Elinor Ostrom and anybody else that we mentioned on the way through. I’ve just finished the second draft of my own book, which doubtless will be the second of many, many drafts. So it’s not going to be out yet. But it does mean I’ve been thinking a lot about how we transform our politics and our economics, starting where we are and moving through in a way that feels coherent. And one of the key things seems to me that we are able somehow to bring about in ourselves the shift from the dopamine hits to the serotonin networks, that one marshmallow to two marshmallow shift, the capacity to not need to read the Mail or even the Guardian for our little hits of outrage, but instead to find ways to communicate with each other that are measured and intelligent and have emotional depth and spiritual breadth, as well as some kind of anchoring in a reality that we can trust.
Manda: So finding coherent ways into sense making and connecting are going to be really big themes of this podcast as we move on into 2023. My speaker list is booked six months in advance at the moment, so people that I think are really interesting now won’t actually be on the podcast until March of next year. But hey, that’s what happens when the world is full of really, really interesting people. So that’s it for now. Enormous thanks to Caro for heroic sound production and for the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith Tillery for equally heroic wrestling with the tech and the website and for the conversations that keep us moving. Thanks to Anne Thomas for the transcripts, and to you for listening. And if you know of anybody else who wants to row solo around the world or even wants to look more deeply into the groundswell of their own being, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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