Episode #102 Weaving the Web of Meaning: Building Eco-Civilisation with Jeremy Lent
How do we evolve the radical new sense of community, connectivity, mutual support – and resilience – that we need as we move into a world of climate breakdown?
Jeremy Lent’s book The Web of Meaning is the 2nd of 3 that build a picture of an eco-civilisation. In this week’s episode, we explore the ways we can all be part of the solution.
Jeremy is described by Guardian journalist George Monbiot as “one of the greatest thinkers of our age. ” He is an author and speaker whose work investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis, and explores pathways toward a life-affirming future.
Born in London, England, he received a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and was a former internet company CEO. His award-winning book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, explores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day.
His new book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, offers a coherent and intellectually solid foundation for a worldview based on connectedness that could lead humanity to a sustainable, flourishing future.
He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering an integrated worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the Earth. He lives with his partner in Berkeley, California.
He writes topical articles exploring the deeper patterns of political and cultural developments at his website Patterns of Meaning.
In this week’s podcast, we explore his most recent paper ‘The End of Capitalism’ and how our entire economic structure needs to change if we’re to address the demands of the moment. From there, we move to the pillars of systemic change and how a shift in the world economy to one of reciprocity over extraction/abuse must be an integral part of the transition to a flourishing, interconnected future. Drawing from indigenous wisdom, and the ‘Four R’s’ described by LaDonna Harris as the foundations of indigenous cultures across the globe, to the concept of fractal flourishing, citizens’s assemblies and the crisis in sense-making, we move ever towards a model of how our world could be if we got it right.
Manda: My guest this week is a friend of the podcast; Jeremy Lent spoke to us first in podcast 38, way back in the summer of last year, about his book ‘The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning’. And then his second book came out and I read it. Actually, both of us read it. And apart from the fact that it inspired us to go and start training in Qigong, it was one of the books that seemed to me essential reading if you’re part of the move towards the future, that is emerging. Jeremy has laid out the ground of where we are, where we need to be and how to get there in terms of our own personal development. This is book two of three, and the third book is developing exactly how an eco civilisation would look and feel. But I wanted to talk about ‘The Web of Meaning’ before the next book comes out. And so this is it. And people of the podcast once again, please welcome Jeremy Lent.
Manda: So, Jeremy Lent, thank you so much for getting up at whatever time in the morning is in California and coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. You’re in Berkeley. That didn’t get burned in the forest in the summer, did it?
Jeremy: No, actually, it’s right on the coast and we tend to get this wonderful life giving breeze that comes from the ocean to sort of keep us, keep us breathing. But yeah, the last couple of summers have been devastating for California and the whole western coast of the north of North America. It brings home to so many people, like this climate breakdown is not a matter of what’s going to happen in the future, but it’s happening right now.
Manda: Yes. And in a second, I want to find out how you got to be in the place that you are. But just while we’re here, I’ve been reading that amongst Democrats in the States, climate change is rising towards the top of their kind of urgency list, but amongst Republicans, it’s falling. Do you think that’s true? And if so, at some point later on, I’d really like to look at how can we change that?
Jeremy: Yes. Yeah. Well, unfortunately it is true. And that is one of the great imponderables for our future of humanity right now, is how we can change that. Because unfortunately, there’s a big section of the Republican Party here in the United States that just keeps doubling down on lie after lie. Whether it’s to do with COVID, whether they’re the myth of the stolen election from last November or climate breakdown.It’s almost like the more clear things are in one, the actual reality, the more they double down on these myths. There’s a little bit like you see in extreme cults. Only in this case, the cult happens to pervade like 30 percent of the population of the United States, so it’s rather scary
Manda: And might take back the White House. Let’s not go there just now. We’ll come back to that in the end of how do we fix things. But in the meantime, for the people who haven’t listened back to our previous podcast, can you give us a brief bio of how you got to be the person who, frankly, who reads so many books? I read the a meaning and I think, my gosh, I thought, I read a lot. But my goodness, you’ve read so much. And you remember it and you reference it! So how did you get to be that guy?
Jeremy: You know, actually, for the first half of my adult life, I wasn’t reading books at all. I had taken a turn in my own career path where I got an MBA and I went into business and I started a company that I then took public and I basically had made my whole life around just being successful in a business career and all this stuff. And it was only when things in my life kind of collapsed around me a little bit; well, a lot, actually. My first wife passed away some years back and got to be sick, I left the company that I had taken public. The company crashed. I lost… Even though I looked after my wife for a number of years, but she suffered some cognitive decline; So I kind of lost the relationship even early on. And I asked myself, Where am I going to go in my life that can be truly meaningful? It seemed like everything I’d built had collapsed around me. And so I spent a lot of years actually trying to make sure that whatever I did in my life was truly going to be meaningful and was not just what somebody else told me was right, but my own sense of what I could really believe in. But that took a lot of sort of like almost like fitting a jigsaw puzzle together. And I’d be, I tried to figure out, Well, where do core ideas come from? And a little bit like peeling the onion, I’d go back layer upon layer to early history and different cultures and cognitive science to understand what we are as human beings.
Jeremy: And in all of those things, as I was doing that, I realised it would be really great if somebody else had actually written this kind of map for me, so I could figure out how to make sense of this. And that was actually what led me to write this first book, The Patterning Instinct, which is a cultural history of humanity’s search for meaning. But this whole direction led me to finally get a sense of realising that our culture is basically a culture that destroys the core sense of meaning. But it was possible to actually look at the world in a different way, like a different world view that could feel truly meaningful. Where I lives actually did feel that they were… We didn’t have to impose meaning…but they just arose from our recognition of where we are in life. And that’s what this new book, The Web of Meaning is about, and the subtitle of it is ‘integrating science and traditional wisdom to find our place in the universe’. Because part of my research showed me that even though we traditionally think the science somehow is separate from spiritual understanding and all this stuff, the opposite is true. What science really does lead us to, is a deep understanding of our interconnectedness, the same insights that great wisdom traditions have also pointed to.
Manda: Yes, and it felt to me watching COP, because we’re recording this on the Monday after COP, that there were so many more indigenous peoples there. At least I was aware of more indigenous peoples. They were beginning to be at least getting some traction in mainstream media and a lot in the kind of sub mainstream media that I follow. And that some of the world leaders there were sounding as if they were taking this on board. And yet, from the reading that I’ve done so far, it feels as if we’ve been very badly failed by the people who came together who could have made a difference. And I’m wondering, before we go into more of The Web of Meaning, just while it’s fresh, while it’s kind of alive for us both, is it worth exploring? What’s your take on COP? On what it has achieved, what it might have achieved and then how we might still kind of twist things to make things work?
Jeremy: Yeah, I I really do see COP26 as being, in some ways, a historic milestone of the worst kind. We can really understand it in some ways as the moment when the nation states of the world have thrown in the towel. Have essentially just officially failed humanity and have shown their utter inability to shift the direction of where we need to go as we hit this increasingly rapidly approaching impending existential crisis. It’s as though, you know, we’re on this vehicle not just headed for a precipice, but with a foot down on the accelerator, accelerating towards the precipice at a faster and faster rate. And if COP achieved anything, the most you can say is that, well, the rate at which we’re accelerating on the gas pedal towards the precipice is now a little bit less. We’re still accelerating, but we’re sort of beginning to realise maybe we shouldn’t be accelerating as fast as we are as we head towards the precipice. Now some people, of course, want to try to find something positive to say about COP26. So people like Christiana Figueres or others, you know, they recognise how bad things are, but they’re really invested in what they see as optimism and want to say, Well, it could be worse.
Jeremy: You know, people are beginning to be a little bit aware that we do need to, you know, we actually for the first time, we actually mentioned the word fossil fuels in the document. So that’s an improvement. Those kind of improvements are a little bit like, “oh, the rates of acceleration itself is not quite as bad as it was before”. No, not even close. We need to recognise we need drastic change. We need it now. We needed it actually yesterday and years ago and every single week month that this goes on, the changes that will be required are even more drastic. And until there is a greater recognition of that, I think COP26 has been actually a great success for certain parties. It’s been a great success for the fossil fuel industry. Great success for corporate lobbyists. A great success basically for investors in the stock market because ‘business as usual’ has just been given the sort of green light to keep going in this rate of destruction that’s on right now. But a complete disaster for life on Earth and for the future of human civilisation.
Manda: Oh, joy. I was hoping there might be a glimmer of optimism in there, Jeremy. But but no. Yeah, I hear you. I did hear in fact, on Christiana Figueres podcast, the global head of HSBC, saying that they were now going to check the transition documents of every business that they fund to see how they were transitioning to zero. He didn’t say what they were going to do if they found something that wasn’t good, but I thought, you know, he wouldn’t have been saying that five years ago, but I hear you. It’s completely too little way, way, way too late. And so as you said in a very interesting paper that I will put in the show notes; solving the climate crisis requires the end of capitalism, and you kind of head to that in the web of meaning. And so let’s have a look at that because you describe it as the elephant in the room. And it seems to me I do occasionally talk to economists and people who have quite left wing views, and I have yet to find one of them who isn’t trying to shoehorn a fix into the capitalist structure. And you say but we have to get rid of capitalism and they they go very wide eyed, very quickly. But it seems true, and I’m so glad you said it. So shall we unpick the elephant in the room a little bit?
Jeremy: Sure. I think that’s the most important conversation we can be having right now. And just to maybe kick off the sort of frame this discussion about capitalism itself. And you know, when I was just describing my view of how COP26 ended and you know, you raised the concept of hope, sort of. I was looking for some hope. To me, the source of hope is actually recognising what really needs to be changed. Because it’s only once we really get to the bottom of what is going on and actually start focussing attention on that, then there is hope. Because I’m certainly not without hope. I don’t feel like this path we’re on is inevitable. But I do feel that it is inevitable until and unless we actually look at what is really driving this, this vehicle that’s driving towards the precipice. We need to actually look at the actual road we’re on and change that direction. And until we actually start looking at that, then we’re going to keep heading in the wrong direction. And so that’s really the sort of context for that. So to your point, it is an elephant in the room because it’s like terrifying for some people. For some reason, people feel like it’s scary to actually mention that capitalism is the problem.
Jeremy: I think partly because ever since the the last few decades and back in the 20th century, it was like capitalism versus communism. And it seemed that if you were going to actually look and critique capitalism, you are automatically must be a dyed in the wool socialist or communist. Then, of course, communism collapsed. Plus, it was a disaster even while it was going. And then people like Margaret Thatcher were able to say, You know, ‘there is no alternative’, the famous ‘TINA’ statement, and people believed that. So it’s as though, well, if you critique capitalism, there must be, then it’s almost like existential, there can’t be anything else. But that’s not actually the case. But the first step has to recognise what is capitalism? And what is it that we’re critiquing?
Jeremy: And I think ultimately, we need to recognise that capitalism actually kind of tells us from the word itself, the word capital. It’s about the primacy of capital, over other aspects of life and other aspects of human experience. And what it basically is about is saying that for those who have capital, it’s not just OK, but it’s fundamental to view the rest of the world, other people and other non humans, the rest of the living earth as being resources to exploit, to increase the amount of capital you have.
Jeremy: That’s the simple basis of it. And we’ve been really on this path for hundreds of years, basically since the rise of the sort of limited liability corporation in 17th century. And the point about capitalism is that it relies on growth. This exploitation of capital means that investors are always looking for the best place to put their capital so they can get the highest returns at the fastest rates. And so as soon as some somebody comes up with some efficiency improvement or something that looks good, it ends up getting used just to grow even faster. So things like saying, “Oh, we need to invest in renewables”, which of course we do, and this is not meant to be a taking away from the value and importance of making those right steps. But if we do it within the context of global capitalism and we don’t recognise that, then any increase in efficiency of how we use our resources, only leads to those resources being used even more extensively and even more rapidly.
Manda: So this is Jevons paradox that you talk about. Let’s talk a little bit about Jevons Paradox, because I think this is one of these counterintuitive things that once you’ve got your head around it, it makes a lot of sense. So can you unpick for us what Jevons paradox is, how it arose and then how it applies in concrete terms now?
Jeremy: Yeah, sure, I’d be happy to. And it sounds like a little bit of a geeky thing. What’s this paradox or whatever we’re talking about? Basically, Jevons was was an economist in the 19th century and he came up with this famous paradox when he looked at James Watt’s invention of the steam engine. Which we all know nowadays, oh, that was when the industrial revolution really got going. It turns out that the steam engine was invented because it was trying to make a more efficient way to pump the water out of the coal mines and it actually was trying to make it more efficient and use less coal to pump the same amount of water out. So it was designed to reduce the amount of coal that had to be used to continue the mining. Well, of course, what happened was rather than reducing the amount of coal that had to be mined, it led to this massive increase in coal mining. And suddenly people were going, “Oh, this can be more efficient. We can build this or that industry based on this increased efficiency”. And the paradox is that it led to massive more coal mining rather than less. And what is fascinating is that this paradox has been shown to be the case in virtually every aspect of economic development since that time. So, for example, to take a completely different situation back in the 19th century in in the American South. They used slaves as we, as we know this hideous history to process the cotton. And somebody came up with an invention of this thing called the cotton gin, which made the processing far more efficient. Oh, that should lead to a decrease in the use of slaves, right? The opposite. In fact, because it was more efficient, they could produce the cotton more cheaply, get it out to more places. It led to an increase in the use of slaves because of that greater efficiency. Every direction we see this working, because of the fundamentals of capitalism to always look to invest the pound or the dollar in what can get us the biggest increase in returns as quickly as possible.
Manda: Right. Yes, thank you. And this is the thing we have to be systemic and we have to go back to the roots of what’s happening and not just try and tweak things at the bottom. And it seems to me that Jevons Paradox speaks explicitly to all the attempts to do minor tweaks at the bottom of whatever system we’re on agriculture or transport or power. Instead of going back to the root of the issue, which is capitalism and the push for GDP growth, regardless of how we get that, because, you know, a good functioning community that doesn’t need many inputs and doesn’t create many outputs is very, very bad for GDP. Whereas a totally dysfunctional community with lots of drugs and gun running and prostitution and all the things that we generally consider is not very great for our community, it’s fantastic for GDP. So if what we’re going for is GDP growth, then we’re inevitably creating a more destructive, more extractive, less whole society.
Jeremy: Exactly, exactly, Manda. And that’s what’s so bizarre is the measurement, you know, most politicians feel that they’re going to get elected or not based on how well they can show they’ve grown the economy. And to your point, what GDP basically measures is nothing to do with human well-being, it is to do with the rates at which capitalism is working, the rate at which we are exploiting the natural world, turning it into the financialized monetary economy. And the same with people; the rate at which we’re turning regular natural human behaviour into a financialized monetised process. So to your point, if somebody grows vegetables in their garden and shares it with friends, it’s a disaster for GDP. Whereas if the garden is destroyed and they just go to the store to buy the vegetables, then GDP is going up. And hopefully they won’t cycle to the store. Hopefully, they’ll take the car to the store because that will also increase GDP.
Manda: Keep the fossil fuel companies very happy. Yes. And yet we know in the UK that David Cameron tried a period of about six months where he was saying GDP is not the thing, guys. We need to be looking…. He even quoted, you know, Bhutan’s gross national happiness. But the Treasury didn’t get it and the papers didn’t get it. So we’ve got an inertia in the system. We’ll come back to that. I want to stay with critiquing capitalism and where that’s happening. Because clearly it wasn’t at COP. The absolute foundation of cop was that we would go for a green capitalism or sustainable capitalism or any other adjective you want to put on the front that makes it sound greenwashed – but it’s a form of capitalism. Because, as you said, Margaret Thatcher said, there is no alternative. And actually, it seems our experience is that people would rather contemplate, you know, eight degrees of global warming and then run away total utter chaos and a world on which nothing currently living can possibly survive, than contemplate deliberately ending capitalism.
Jeremy: Yes, and there is that famous quote which goes ‘It’s easier for most people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. And that has unfortunately become true, and it’s so unnecessarily true because there are so many wonderful, beautiful, brilliant ideas, coherent thought out ideas as to what we can do in place of this capitalist system. So that’s where I feel it’s so and it’s so important by talking about the elephant in the room. That doesn’t mean we have to then give up, but it means we can actually try to look at the right potential solutions rather than focussing on the wrong solutions. And you know, the thing is, sometimes people say, “Oh, but we don’t have time for that. We don’t have time to change the whole system”. And there is a lot of truth around that. And one of the things that I really like to emphasise is that my point is that when we look at these deep systemic transformations we need, that’s not to say that should be instead of all of these incremental improvements that so many people with the right intentions, deeply caring people are working on. Absolutely. But One: we need to recognise they have to be within the context of this much larger system change and Two: by being aware of what’s needed in the system change, it does change to some degree, the choices we make in the increments. The choices we make in the short term as to where we put our energy, because some things that look like improvements might actually keep leading us actually right there towards the precipice, whereas other equally potentially good or bad solutions might lead us away from the precipice. That’s why I feel it’s really important to get a big long term sense of what we’re looking at, even while we’re focussing on what’s needed in the short term.
Manda: Brilliant. I took part in Hawkwood’s Climate Action Lab last week, which was, as always, really interesting, and we had a speaker come and talk all about systemic change and how systemic change was absolutely essential. And I asked, what does the world look like when the systemic changes happened? And immediately we defaulted to ‘well, time isn’t linear. And anyway, it has to be emergent, and you can’t predict an emergent system from the preceding system’, which is all true. However, it seems to me that you are beginning to try to predict. Because as you just said, if we don’t give people a vision of what the emergent system could look like, it won’t necessarily look like it, but it could look like it; then the decisions that we make in order to try to get there are going to lack a horizon to aim for. And then we’re just spinning around within capitalism. And I know that Joanna Macy has three pillars and one of them is holding actions, and the others are systemic change and changing consciousness. But if all we’re doing is tiny holding actions at the margins, then I think we’re not in time. I think we definitely aren’t in time. So. Without denying that small holding actions are useful. Can we have a look at how systemic change might look like? If you were to design a world economy that we could get to from where we are. Have you an idea of how it would look?
Jeremy: Yes, I think there are some pretty clear senses of what it actually would look like, and some of these changes are actually quite simple changes to make, if the political will was there. We’re not talking about things that are just imponderable, that we can’t even get our heads around. And just to give a bigger sense of this, there’s this wonderful term that increasingly people are using to envisage this different kind of civilisation that they call ‘an ecological civilisation’. Which I love because it gives the sense that we’re not just talking about a change in our economic structure, for example, even big as that would be. But we’re talking about a change in the foundations of our civilisation. It starts from the very foundational point to this discussion we were having about capitalism just a bit before. That right now, our civilisation itself is based on the core value of wealth accumulation. It basically says that we should look at the rest of life, everything outside of ourselves as resources, and it’s built on exploitation and extraction and seeing all of life as ‘other’ as a resource to be exploited. The notion is to explore what would it look like if we actually built a civilisation on life affirming principles and actually the principles of setting the conditions for true flourishing, long term, sustainable flourishing for basically for all humans on a regenerated Earth.
Jeremy: So not some zero sum game like humans can only do well if we keep using Earth as resources. But actually recognising that there’s this concept of fractal flourishing that we’re all part of fractal layers of bigger and bigger parts, each of us as humans, a part of society, a part parts of our nation states, parts of all humanity. We’re all parts of the living Earth. And the notion is that each part can only be truly healthy when each of the larger parts are also healthy. So it’s not a zero sum game as a positive sum game. And there can be very specific ways in which that can actually show in the real world. One example, let’s say, for a global economic system, is to recognise that right now the transnational corporations have essentially taken over the control of our world. Out of the 100 largest economies in the world today, 69 of them are, in fact, these for profit transnational corporations that are designed, their DNA is to only make as much profits for their shareholders as possible. And even if you have a really high minded CEO who wants to do well, he can’t do that because he or his board will get sued in the courts if they actually make a decision not to make as much money as possible for the shareholders because it’s unethical or it’s polluting, or it’s causing destruction.
Jeremy: But that can so easily be changed. All that needs to be done. And some people are probably familiar with this notion of the triple bottom line. And you see in B-corporations and benefit corporations, which are corporate structures that stated to be not just looking for profits, but also people and planet. Basically looking for the well-being of all those who are their constituencies; like employees, customers and all of the living Earth that they are related to, to avoid pollution, et cetera. Now, right now, mostly people kind of scoff at that because it’s had virtually no impact because it’s a voluntary choice. A few corporations might choose it and they might try to do well. But even if they do try to work on that basis, if they are competing against other corporations that aren’t trying to do that right, it’s not a level playing field. So imagine a situation where these large corporations above a certain size, they were only allowed to have their charters renewed every few years if they met these triple bottom lines that charters were actually reinstated, restructured for this triple bottom line. And if they didn’t, if they didn’t meet that, then they would basically lose their charter. And that’s that’s an example of a kind of change we’d be looking at.
Manda: So who gives these charters? Because these are now transnational corporations. If, let’s say, the U.S. says, OK, you know, Corporation X, we won’t name them because they have big lawyers…We’ve decided that you’re not meeting this. And they go and set up in Antigua or Bolivia or wherever in the world that hasn’t this. We would end up with havens in the way that we have tax havens, only they would be charter havens. “Ok, you can come and charter with us, it’s no problem. We don’t care what you’re doing”. How do we make this a global thing?
Jeremy: That’s right. That’s a great question to ask. These kind of issues seem at first like almost like we can’t even begin to get our heads around them. But it’s not actually quite as difficult as it’s seems, because what’s involved really is getting a critical mass. If when you’re talking about things like changing corporate charter legal structures or whatever, if you have just the countries of the kind of G-8 type countries or even the G20, but just the United States and the European countries and China, if they all just got together and agreed, we need to change this or that system, then the rest of the nations would end up following through. And it’s relatively straightforward to actually put structures in place. Just like we see in a much smaller case right now, starting with Biden in the last year. There’s this notion of a minimum tax rate for corporations, which would be one of these things people say that can’t happen. But it’s gotten so extreme that these corporations can get away, like you say, to put all their profits in the countries that ask the either zero or tiny little tax rates, they’ve actually managed to pay almost no tax. So now, even the countries that were sort of holdouts are realising they have no choice but to go along with this minimum tax rate idea. These things can be done. What’s needed is the vision and the political will to actually make them happen. And that’s where the hope comes from. Is this realisation that the vision can lead to those kind of changes.
Manda: Brilliant. I would really like to hope that. I get nervous and paranoid about the fact that the very big companies…So let’s say Facebook, for instance, is now a trillion dollar company. It would be… They would barely notice it. It would be coming out of the small change, to buy every politician in the world. They genuinely could, and I don’t think that the shareholders would even notice the money had gone, because they now own so much wealth that they are just creating a kind of critical mass of of sucking money in. Because what do you do when you’ve got a trillion dollars? Wherever you put it, is going to have a massively outweighed influence. And I can imagine a point where the government of the U.S. says, “OK, we’re going to break up Facebook” and Facebook goes, “No, you’re not”. And the government of the US finds that it doesn’t actually have the power to do that. Have you thought down that? Or am I just being particularly paranoid and feel free to say that I am, I would be very happy to find that.
Jeremy: I think that you’re quite right to raise these questions about the kind of changes that are needed, and this leads to another shift when we’re thinking about really envisioning what an ecological civilisation would look like. We really need to look at the changes in governance that would be required as part of that. That we’re not going to see these changes as long as we have all the power existing in these nation states that have voted in what is really just this pretence of democracy, among the ones that do claim to be democratic. And it’s a pretence of democracy because the media is owned by the same large corporations and billionaires that own the rest of the system. And by controlling the media and controlling the funds that go into politics, even those politicians that consider themselves to be more ethical and don’t consider themselves ready to be bought by one company or another, are effectively part of that system anyway because they will restrain what they can even consider thinking about or talking about based on what they think is doable. And that’s part of what needs to be shifted.
Jeremy: We have to really look at changing governance structures to one that… And Extinction Rebellion, for example, is doing a great job of bringing this into the conversation. Looking at citizens assemblies, looking at ways of devolving power more towards communities, where the actual impacts of decisions are actually felt the most. And trusting in the actual intelligence of people. Like when we have a trial by jury and somebody is convicted of some crime and you get random 12 people pulled together for a jury trial. And it’s called Sortition. We haven’t chosen them because they’re the experts in law or whatever, we’ve chosen them because they have common sense and they actually come with normal human values, which includes a sense of caring, fair play, compassion, sense of justice. And when that happens, even though it’s imperfect, there’s usually some sense of trust that the decisions get made in in effect kind of way. Similarly, if we have devolving power to citizens assemblies where regular people are actually brought in to start to engage in political change, you end up getting much better decisions that are not purchased by the big corporations.
Manda: We do. But I would like to suggest that we end up in a loop where, you’re right; the politicians are enthralled in the old style, to the legacy media, the newspapers and the television and the radio, who are owned by the billionaires. So we have a system where they very carefully prop each other up. We now have social media and I’m increasingly interested in sense making on social media. I was listening to Daniel Schmachtenberge and Tristan Harris on Frank Luntz’ podcast the other day, and they were talking about sense making, and Tristan was saying he had just been speaking to somebody who was showing him the AI, where you could say to it, “write me a novel in the voice of James Joyce about COVID vaccine”, and it would write you a full novel in a very short time. And you didn’t have to type anything, you just had to speak to it. And you could similarly say, write me a paper proving why the COVID vaccine is completely worthless and giving all of the facts and citing everything that people are putting around the internet, and it would produce a document that would take many very expert people a very long time to decide whether it was actually true or not.
Manda: And so we’ve reached a point, I think a kind of another tipping point that isn’t a climate tipping point, but is related. Where, already, and definitely within the next six months, definitely in the next electoral cycle in the U.S. and the U.K.. People are going to be reading stuff on the net that has no human basis whatsoever, but they will be unable to tell whether it does have a human basis, whether it’s real. And so it seems to me that in the process of creating our eco civilisation, we somehow have to solve the sense making crisis. So that we can actually trust. Otherwise our citizens assembly comes in, and however good our Sortition is, these people have been on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Snapchat or Instagram. Their worldview and at quite a deep level, they’re neuroceptive capacity has been shifted. Have you, I’m thinking you must have thought about that, because it’s so huge at the moment and you seem to have thought about everything else. Have you ideas of how we fix this?
Jeremy: I think that the only way we can turn towards this kind of more life affirming civilisation, really has to start within each of us in our hearts. Because what I think we need to recognise and I’m terrified as much by each of these things as as I sense you are and everyone should be. I’m by no means discounting the power of everything that you’ve been raising here in this discussion. The power of the corporations to just buy up politicians. The power of AI to subvert people’s minds. And again coming from here, from the United States, I’m afraid we see it just only too clearly, how a big minority of the population is just enthralled to these made up very, very poisonous lies. And and they’re being manipulated by these very cynical minds who are putting this out there. And I do find this terrifying, and I’m by no means trying to say that I have the solution to respond to some of these things. I’m not sure if any of us actually has the solution, but I do believe that ultimately the solution itself has to come from the fact that there is another powerful force going on in the world right now, different from the ones we’ve been looking at, and it’s the force of people connecting from their humanity. And this is what I find so fascinating. That this dominant worldview that is so destructive that is leading us to this path right now, only gets to maintain itself by conditioning every single human being who is born at a relatively young age to actually move away from their core human values.
Jeremy: The thing that is so wonderful is that as human beings, we are born as beautiful, loving, connected creatures. We are born with a desire to feel warmth and care. We are born with a natural, empathic, compassionate relation to those around us. We’re born to love the natural world and to see all living creatures as being our relatives. That’s how indigenous cultures understood the world for millennia, and that didn’t just happen out of nowhere. That happened because humans evolved in that way to develop this group identity. That’s what makes us unique as humans. That’s the power that we have. That basically there right now are eight billion loving beating hearts in amongst human beings, which only gets to turn those persons into negative pathways through the conditioning of a pathological society and culture, telling them that they need to act in different ways. Most people who are acting in those destructive ways don’t feel good about that. They don’t feel good about themselves, they feel bad about their life, they feel a great degree of suffering. And they’ve learnt only to paper that over, by acting in ways to basically reject or refuse to acknowledge what those feelings are.
Jeremy: What I think any positive turn towards a flourishing future has to do is reach into those loving hearts of people and get them to connect with a shared humanity of those around them, not see the person on the other political side as being the other; as being this bad person as being the evil, destructive person; but actually seeing them as being good people who want to do good and who have been manipulated by other forces to be agents for something that’s not so good. And by approaching it in that way, that doesn’t mean compromising or trying to come up with these false optimistic views. It means really calling it for what it is. But also recognising that the result of that is not to shame other people, not to make them feel bad about themselves, not to make them feel like the enemy, but to actually look at what can invite them into a sense of what is a positive future. And if they do respond in ways that feel antagonistic and negative, to look inside ourselves, to keep connecting with our own love for humanity, our own love for the future and not let ourselves get riled up and give the other side exactly what they want by getting angry and resentful back.
Manda: Brilliant. That’s reminded me so much of Alnoor Ladha and his concept of the Wetigo, as being that destructive extractive force that I’m sure has been around easily since the Romans, probably before that. And is part of our conditioning. But what gives me hope, exactly, what you say, is that we’re each born afresh with the possibility of connecting, however much our culture may have conditioned everything around us to that disconnection. Back in The Web of Meaning, you spoke about the four R’s of indigeneity, which seemed to me beautiful. It’s one of those things I wanted to to put on the wall. Can you talk a little bit about those because they speak exactly to what you’ve just been saying?
Jeremy: It’s this beautiful concept that got really developed in some detail by the indigenous scholar Ladonna Harris, a North American scholar, and she was looking to understand what are the shared values that indigenous peoples around the world actually do have, which they’ve had for many millennia. That they also have in totally different parts of the world, from Australia to North America to South America and everywhere, basically. And she identified what she called the for R’s of relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution, which are kind of interesting concepts. But it starts basically with this notion of relationship. This recognition that a core human identity, rather than being this based on this kind of libertarian individualism saying, like ‘my true identity is as a separate individual’, that your fullness as a human being comes from your acknowledgement and embrace of your relationship with all others around you and with a living earth. And that’s almost like the fundamental part of it. And with that recognition of relationship comes the sense of responsibility. And that relationship doesn’t mean “oh, my relationship is to exploit”, but “my relationship is to be responsible for the flourishing of those around me as much as for myself”, which leads then to this beautiful notion of reciprocity. That means that, say, when an indigenous group will go into the natural world and look to harvest what they need for their own own self, it doesn’t mean not taking what they need, but it means as they take what they need, asking their relatives, like all the living earth around them, what they need back. So it might mean taking enough but leaving enough for other animals.
Jeremy: Or it might mean leaving enough so that the different plants can grow back healthily. And that can lead to this beautiful symbiotic relationship. To get back to this notion, we were talking before where the flourishing of humanity on the Earth doesn’t need to be at the expense of the rest of the Earth, but actually can lead to a symbiotic flourishing. And then the final concept is Redistribution. Which is so interesting and it’s not, of course as in our global system right now; Redistribution has a very obvious economic meaning that when these mega billionaires, their wealth needs to be redistributed fundamentally. I mean, we live in this crazy, psychotic and loathsome world where basically just a couple of dozen people own as much wealth as half of the human race, four billion people and those four billion people, for the most part, aren’t even earning enough to enable them to really rely on the nutrition for a full, healthy life. That’s the that’s the kind of redistribution that is staring us in the face. But redistribution in this notion of indigeneity also refers to the sense of redistributing your and your skills and abilities. So if I happen to be particularly good at a particular thing in my community, then using that to help others. So it’s a redistribution, not just of wealth assets, but assets that each of us have, to really be able to contribute fully to the community. Those are the things that can lead really to that notion of an ecological civilisation. I think an ecological civilisation itself would be based on values like those four R’s.
Manda: Brilliant. Beautiful. Thank you. Yes. So that leads me to another podcast I was listening to the other day, the Upstream Podcast, and they had Tyson Yunkaporter. I’m probably mincing his name. He’s Indigenous, Aboriginal Australian. He wrote the book Sand Talk, and he described a wonderful ritual that they had if two young men who were wanting to fight. The elders would get them together and they would let them fight with knives. But they had very specific rules, and the rules were basically, if you break the rules, the elders will spear you. So you’ve got tremendous incentive to not break the rules. But the rule was he couldn’t cut anyone basically anywhere on the front at all. You could only cut them on their back. And he said he tried this with, you know, disaffected young men just giving them marker pens, and it’s really hard to get your marker pen on someone else’s back. But at the end they would turn the two young men around and they would count the marks on their back. And the one with the least marks one. But then the elders would mark the one with the least marks with exactly the same marks as the other guy had. So that they would remember that what I do to you, I do to me.
Manda: The reciprocity of that seemed wonderful. But he was saying, and I found it very interesting, he’s another critique of capitalist. He’s he’s got the same kinds of ideas as we have. And he said that as far as he was concerned, as part of the redistribution we needed to have no ownership of Land. And that he talked to all of his friends, he’s obviously in Australia, all of the other people in the hierarchies of the economics department at the universities who said there would be so much bloodshed if you tried to do that that it is impossible. And I wonder, listening to you. Relationship responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution, particularly redistribution from the super wealthy who cannot possibly ever need that much money? Do you have an idea of how we get there that isn’t a bloody revolution? Because we, first of all, we haven’t got time. And second, none of us wants that.
Jeremy: That’s right. And I completely agree with you. And basically personally, I disavow any approach that actually wants to use violence as part of the transformation we need. I mean, partly just for ethical reasons and partly because we need to recognise that there’s this old sort of communist adage or whatever that the end justifies the means. And that is not just wrong, but is actually wrong in principle, in sort of qualitatively wrong because actually, there is no such thing as the end. There’s only this ongoing means. We’re never like at the end point, things are always moving on to the next thing. So whatever means we use to enable that transformation, if it’s successful, that’ll be the means that is considered the fundamental of wherever we go. So if we look at this transformation from a point of view of true love, meaning simply the realisation and embrace of our connectedness with all those around us, and that becomes the basis of whatever we do, that is what can lead to a positive outcome. So anyway, I just wanted to make that really clear. And to your point, yes, there are very specific things. I mean, one is in terms of these mega billionaires, is a simple cap on the amount of wealth that somebody can have. This doesn’t mean getting rid of all private ownership of wealth or anything like that, but a simple number. I mean, just out of the top of just taking the top of my head, just a number like a billion dollars or whatever it might be, saying, that’s a cap.
Manda: I was thinking of 10 million.
Jeremy: It could be a lot lower exactly. It could be 10 million. And of course, there can be a big discussion about that. But the point is that above that amount, those assets, they could even be put in a certain trust where these people with these gigantic egos who are so proud of what they’ve done, they can even have some minor say – not a majority say, but some minor say – in how those extra assets are allocated. There’s a certain quality of people wanting to feel that they can achieve a lot and and do good, but there’s no reason why that can be done in the interests of all humanity and all life, rather than purely for somebody’s own ego. So that’s just one concept. It’s sort of a cap on an extreme extravagant wealth. But I think even more than that, there’s this wonderful notion of not so much getting rid of all kind of Land ownership itself or private property itself, but a simple recognition of shifting the foundation of law. That right now, basically the fundamentals of our law in the West and our dominant culture is that owning something gives you rights. And then all the rest of the law is about protecting those rights. And then you can enter into contract with somebody and then you have some relationship of rights and responsibilities as part of that contract.
Jeremy: But the fundamental shift in law would simply be that ownership gives you both rights and responsibility. Just going back to that, those values of indigeneity. And so what that means is that if you own a piece of land, you don’t actually have a right to just bring in people to mine the land and mine and create massive pollution around you and destroy things. You don’t have a right to own, say, real estate in cities and just let it go empty or charge such outrageous rents that nobody else, people can’t afford to live. Basically looking at a fundamentally different way of understanding Law could lead to different outcomes, which still gives some of the things that people value in our modern society; the ability to get rewards if you do work hard and you have great ideas and you do things right. And there’s nothing wrong with people being able to do that and feel that they get a reward for that. There is something fundamentally wrong with those rewards leading to the exploitation and devastation of others in the society unnecessarily. So those are the kinds of shifts once again that we see, that don’t require some massive sort of rethinking of things that can never happen over decades or centuries or whatever, but simple changes in the underlying foundation that lead naturally to different outcomes.
Manda: Ok, that makes a lot of sense. So this is giving me great hope, I have to say, I am immensely grateful because I was totally depressed after the end of COP, and just watching the shenanigans around the world, really. And I love that concept of the Four R’s. And if we take that as a kind of metaphor for everything that you’ve been saying, that what we need is a fundamental change in the shift of our own human values. And from that we would get a shift in our political situation, a shift in our economic situation, a shift in our legal situation. And all of those would wrest the wheel of the bus away from that drive to the cliff and turn it into an emergent system that we don’t know what it looks like, but it would be predicated on relationship responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution. Have you got a way of creating that mindset at scale? At the scale and speed that we need before the bus goes over the cliff.
Jeremy: Yes, I think that it comes back to what we were saying before that that mindset is available to all of us already. Because it’s not so much.. The only one place I would change some of the wording of what you were just saying is it’s not so much a change in our core human values, but a return to our core human values. And that’s what is our secret weapon of this transformation. Is that as humans, as we were saying before, we evolved deep within our core being a deeply felt sense of things like fairness and love of people we see around us who who are generous. We want to be part of a greater community. We have a group identity. These are things that are actually within each of us. So I feel the changes are not going to necessarily come from some sort of big picture grand vision that people just have to get behind and follow on. I do think there is something of value to recognise that we are all moving, those of us who do care about life, moving together towards this possibility of an ecological civilisation. But ultimately the drive and the scalability of it comes from within each of our hearts. And where I get hope is I feel this is happening already. And a great analogy for the change that actually is taking place is a little bit like if you walk in a forest today right now and you see the trees around you. And what you don’t know, that’s actually going on below the Earth, all of those tree roots are connecting with each other through the fungal network that’s out there, called the Mycorrhizal Network. And as biologist Suzanne Simard has has shown, like just amazing way of recognising this deep intelligence in all of life, trees are actually not just communicating with each other, but they also they have like a wood wide web where they’re kind of transmitting resources to each other, depending on where the need is. So there’s this like mutual aid society, basically, that’s all happening underground. You don’t see it when you’re walking along, you just see the trees above you, and that’s it. Similarly, when we turn on our media or look at the news, we only see what’s right there, that the journalist feels is newsworthy or sells advertising, so they’ll tell us what’s going on. And and of course, it’s things that are scandalous and get our adrenaline or up and all that stuff. What we don’t see are those deep connexions. We don’t see people feeling quietly “This is screwed up” and talking to their neighbours about it.
Jeremy: We don’t see people turning away from some crappy job because they realise they don’t want to be part of that treadmill and turning towards something that’s more to do with community aid and sharing with others. What we don’t see is people shifting their own values and recognising that we’re headed to destruction and knowing that we need to be doing things in different ways. And that’s the kind of thing that is happening right now. And none of us alone are going to be the one to actually make it all happen. Somebody like Greta Thunberg and other people like that, they they will appear when they’re least expected. But even for the wonderful work that Greta is doing, she is just touching into what people are already feeling. And that is the work that we’re all doing. So we need to recognise that basically, we’re all part of this deep interconnected network, like that mycorrhizal fungal network, this kind of what I call in my book The Web of Meaning. And each of us have an impact that’s non-linear. We don’t know how every conversation we have, every action we take, how that’s rippling out to others around us. When somebody chooses to say, I’m going to stop eating meat, I’m going to try being vegetarian or vegan for a while or I’m not going to take that flight I’m going to do this differently.
Jeremy: That may be having impacts that we don’t even realise, of people just taking that in and saying, “Oh, maybe I should be thinking about doing this in a different way” or whatever. That’s not to mean that those small incremental shifts in our behaviour are sufficient. We all need to get engaged in actively trying to change these bigger political processes and systems. But the point is that all the actions we do, need to come from that sense of connectedness, that sense that we’re part of something bigger, that sense of a shared humanity. We’re not trying to beat some enemy, we’re simply trying to work together to establish a more positive, future flourishing potential for humanity on this Earth. And if our actions come from that place, then there’s no guarantee. I have no idea where we’re going to go. I have no idea if we are going to head off out of that precipice and head to this disaster. But what I do know, is every one of the actions I take each day and every one of the actions each of us takes that day, we have the choice to try to use the energy we have to move this interconnected, non-linear web into another direction.
Manda: That is brilliant. I have so many extra questions, but we are out of time. And you will be coming on to the Thrutopia masterclass later next year, so maybe we’ll have a chance to ask some of them then. In the meantime, that was really comprehensive and really gave me some hope back again. Thank you, Jeremy. That’s just brilliant… Because I I needed that. Thank you.
Jeremy: Hmm. Thank you, Manda. Thank you for a wonderful conversation.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Jeremy for giving me post COP hope. And I hope you. And for living what he believes. It shines through every word that he says, that Jeremy has done the work. He knows who he is. He knows his place in the world. He knows the reciprocities and relationships and responsibilities that live in the web of his meaning. His book is really worth a read. I will put a link in the show notes, and if you’re looking for something to be a Christmas present for you from somebody else, or if you’re looking to give a book to somebody. This one has to be very near the top of your list.
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