Monday, October 22, 2012

the structure of a philosophical revolution

scanning electronic micrograph of a mycorrhizae

Published in, Oct. 24, 2012

“If contemporary science points to inadequacies in present-day modes of thinking, we can ask: What will be the shape of the new manner of understanding required by our future? I believe that artists are the harbingers of the future mentality required both by science and by the imperatives of living in our precarious times. For centuries, artists have struggled to create ways of seeing and knowing that often appeared to be at odds with the burgeoning science of our era. I believe that we now truly stand in need, not only as scientists but as a civilization, of the artist’s cognitive capacities. In them, when rightly developed, might the two streams of our cognitive inheritance commingle?” –  Arthur Zajonc, Goethe’s Way of Science.

To a profound yet rarely acknowledged extent, our basic understanding of the world is shaped by the culture within which we find ourselves. We learn what thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and aspirations are appropriate from a kind of collective mindset, which operates like a constantly modulating swarm – the influence of a powerful individual or idea resonates within the cloud, altering its shape to dramatic or subtle effect, for better or for worse.

Here in the early 21st century, the notion that each of us is an isolated entity, ever at odds with one another and with the ecosystems of which we are a part, is a fundamental aspect our collective belief system. Until we evaluate the implications of this assumption and discover that there may be new, more multifaceted and constructive ways of thinking, our collective swarm – unaware that it is a swarm at all – is bound to drift ever deeper into perilous territory.
How did we arrive at a worldview so deeply invested in dividing things up into distinctly isolated, irreconcilable parts? From the 16th century onwards, with the advent of scientific techniques for analyzing the world, separateness seemed rationally verifiable – microscopes allowed us to see that matter is composed of smaller, distinct parts; telescopes showed us that our universe contains celestial bodies separated by vast distances. In some parts of the world, the dominant holistic, interdependent way that our ancestors perceived themselves as woven in to a vast web of being was on the wane. Humans became the self-imposed most sophisticated entities in the Universe. And yet we had nothing to do with the design of the hardware that we use to make this bold determination.
Some believe that the human intellect evolved at random out of available building blocks. Some attribute it to a supreme being or entity. In the Western world, these are the standard choices: random or God, take your pick. Other cultures have more nuanced ways of defining and expressing the kinds of intelligence that go into the making of a fish, a leaf, a rain cloud, a mountain.
During previous eras in recorded history, humanity has undergone profound collective shifts in the ways in which we perceive ourselves in the world, often accompanied by fierce resistance. During Galileo’s time, emerging forms of analysis clearly demonstrated the reality that our planet is not at the center of the solar system. While this revelation took time for many to accept, we have since collectively agreed to depend upon science as the preeminent way to gather information, going so far as to diminish other less quantifiable ways of knowing (such as “gut feelings”, empathy, and intuition).
The knowledge that emerges from hard science tends to reinforce a dualistic perception of the world. Because something is made of parts, we conclude that each of those parts has an existence separate from the whole, neglecting the logical corollary that parts can exist only in relation to the whole. Science favors definitives, and culture follows. But human consciousness is not limited to understanding through absolutes – we are capable of perceiving and transmitting subtle shades of nuance, irony, and paradox. We are individuals and part of society simultaneously. Embracing interdependence does not require us to forsake independence. Concepts do not often fit neatly into boxes.
Perhaps we are now in the throes of a radical new paradigm shift, one that we are looking to science to confirm, but one that cannot be expressed through empirical data alone. We cannot turn to the scientific method to prove that objectivity is an illusion, that the existence of parts does not preclude the existence of a contiguous whole. It will require a comingling of qualitative and quantitative methods of inquiry in order to effectively transmit the notion that humans must now relinquish our assumed position as separate, superior beings. We are receiving overwhelming data from all fronts: violence begets violence, pollution begets disease, greed begets poverty and instability. No action happens in a vacuum – autonomous agency is an illusion. Our spaceship Earth and everything aboard it functions like a giant living organism; if its parts cease to be in symbiotic relationship with one another, the system breaks down.
The humancentric model of the biosphere is an improvident construction.
400 years ago, there were profound sociological implications of the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. But humanity was not in imminent danger of perishing as a result of a faulty worldview. Today, in the absence of a visceral realization that the perilous state of our environment is the direct result of systemic social and political injustices enabled by an inherently narcissistic narrative, we are likely to continue our flaccid attempts to mollify symptoms without the ethical foundation required to shift the behaviors that are causing the problems. Until we begin to perceive ourselves not as superior but as equal and integral to all other phenomena, our misguided actions will continue to serve as a destructive force in the world.

Monday, July 30, 2012

the multifold resistance: an invitation

"The 7 Generations" by Alyce Santoro

In Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, Climate Change’s Terrifying New Math, he identifies “the enemy” as the oil industry. But like so many of today’s enemies, this one too is not well defined. Whether we like it or not, the architecture of the “developed” world has been meticulously structured around the entire population’s dependence on non-renewable resources. We don’t just support the industry when we unconsciously flick the switch, fly, or fill up at the pump; old-fashioned pensions are now shadowy “investment portfolios” (beware: even “green funds” support oil companies and war profiteers). Plastics, products shipped via plane and truck from faraway lands, crops grown with petrochemicals…fossil fuels are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. If we could trace our paychecks back to the source, many of us would have to admit that our livelihoods, in one way or another, depend on the fossil fuel industry.

So how do we fight an enemy with whom we are so thoroughly intertwined?

First, we must accept that the problem is a complex one, riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. YES, it is possible to be part of the problem and part of the solution at the same time. By cultivating awareness of all factors involved and learning to weigh the consequences of our actions, we can begin to make choices that contribute less to the problems and more to the solutions.

Next, we’ll need to see the fossil fuel industry for what it really is: not as an ordinary industry, but as an oppressive regime that has, by wielding massive power in the form of financial capital, taken control of our government and infiltrated every facet of our society.

Fortunately, oppressive regimes can and have been toppled, and we can draw on historical evidence to help us in the development of effective strategies to subvert them.

Dr. Gene Sharp, a political scientist who has dedicated his life to the study of non-violent resistance movements, states in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy that:

“When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

  • Strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills
  • Strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people
  • Create a powerful internal resistance force
  • Develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.”

Additionally, Dr. Sharp recommends that we discover the sources of the oppressors’ strengths and destabilize them. At the same time, we must identify weakness and concentrate our attacks on “Achilles heels”. Sharp suggests that, "Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves."

What would it mean to “liberate ourselves” in the context of bringing down the fossil fuel industry? Self-liberation will involve extricating ourselves from the corrupt system to the greatest extent possible. Personal, community, and national energy independence are not separate issues: they are one issue with many facets, all of which can and must be addressed simultaneously for maximum, immediate impact.

A “wise grand strategic plan for liberation” will provide the tools the oppressed peoples will need once they have been freed. In this case, we are going to need to develop new habits and skills that will be necessary in a post-fossil-fuel dominated society. Beginning to develop these skills as soon as possible will immediately begin to diminish the power of the oppressor and empower the ones who resist, while preparing us to thrive in the future.

There has been much ado about the roll of “personal action” – as opposed to political action – in averting ecological catastrophe. There is some concern amongst activists, expressed both in the McKibben article and by Annie Leonard in her new video The Story of Change, that the public will be apt to mistake token gestures (such as recycling and switching to high-efficiency light bulbs) for wholehearted dedication to holistic system change. Rather than proceeding to educate eager audiences about ways we can begin to implement more substantial kinds of changes in our own lives and communities in addition to concerted political action, these leaders have chosen to begin a fight against the system from the top down instead. Meanwhile, while we wait for authority figures to direct our efforts, our outrage and eagerness to become involved becomes diffused.

The urgency of this situation demands that each of us take the initiative to lead ourselves, to develop solutions that can be implemented immediately, and fit the scale of our own lives. Why not fight the system from the top down and the bottom up simultaneously?

The most abundant “green” technology is available to everyone right now at zero cost: it’s our collective ability to maximize efficiency and reduce waste. In light of the profoundly destructive effects of human activity on our planet’s ecology, we must reevaluate what we consider to be a necessity vs. that which we consider convenience. Reducing or eliminating consumption for convenience, multiplied by millions, will result in an immediate, quantifiable reduction in the demand for fossil fuels.

During WWII the U.S. and British governments initiated an intensive and wildly successful resources conservation campaign. The public was asked to voluntarily use less gasoline, fabric, metal, rubber, paper and other material goods, and to grow small backyard “Victory Gardens”.  “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without” was the motto of the day. By becoming more self-sufficient, the government could invest more of the country’s resources in the war effort.

Obviously, is not in the best interest of a government that is “for the corporations, by the corporations” to ask us to consume less, in spite of the fact that the health of the entire planet depends on it. A similar campaign today – only this time with the purpose of investing in the peace effort – if it is to happen at all, must come from the grassroots. It must come from ourselves.

Perhaps prominent environmental groups hesitate to include us because they are loath to lay even a modicum of blame for our predicament on the very people whose support they require. But until we acknowledge our complicity and admit that there is no one perfect solution – and most of all, that we are in this together – any strategy that we could devise would lack the enduring strength that could be derived from a truly inclusive movement, founded in honesty, transparency, and collective responsibility.

By inviting us to contribute personally and directly in the solution, our actions, however small, however symbolic, will provide us with a sense of unity around a common purpose that has been absent from our culture for far too long.

We can look to Dr. Sharp to help us dismantle an oppressive regime, but unless and until we learn how to live in harmonious relationship with one another and the earth, no solution will be permanent. For these kinds of skills, we’ll need to draw inspiration from the wisdom of other, more earth-centered societies, many of which are alive on this planet today.

If we’re going to lobby for better legislation, the Great Law of the Iroquois would be an excellent place to start. “The Law of the 7 Generations” requires that all decisions be made with consideration for how our actions would affect a person born seven generations into the future. We don’t need a government to pass this law – we can establish it for ourselves right now.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

the homeopathic remedies for the 5 ills of society

PHILSOPROP*: The Homeopathic Remedies for the 5 Ills of Society is a set of elixirs for social ailments based on the premise that "like cures like" (similia similibus curentur).

Shortly after 9/11/2001 I found a bullet on the ground in NYC and began wondering if I could create a remedy for violence by making a tincture from it? The recipes for the other remedies came to me shortly thereafter:

ALIENATION: Empty (according to homeopathy, the most dilute remedies are the most potent).
VIOLENCE: Dilution made from bullet soaked in distilled water.
GREED: Dilution made from coins soaked in distilled water.
CONSUMERISM: Diluted drop of bottled water from Wal-Mart.
DETACHMENT: Miniscule dose of superglue (this is a "dialectic remedy", the ailment being countered by its opposite. I wonder if, like especially diluted remedies, paradoxical ones have special potency as well?).

* Philosprops are objects (including booklets, posters, garments, sounds, and videos) that are intended to demonstrate a concept or spark a dialog. Please see PHILOSOPROPS: A UNIFIED FIELD GUIDE for more information.

Sets of the remedies are occasionally available in the Philosoprop Pop-Up Shop.

Friday, July 20, 2012

we have met the environment, and it is us

Newton by William Blake

A Constructive Critique of Bill McKibben's Article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math in Rolling Stone Magazine, July 20, 2012

Published in Truthout on July 23, 2012

Clearly, we have a catastrophic problem on our hands. But climate change isn’t it. In fact, climate change isn’t a problem at all – to be precise, climate change is merely a very acute symptom of a much, much larger matrix of problems that, if left undiagnosed, will rapidly lead to limitless, albeit unnecessary, suffering for every living creature on the planet.

Ironically, the climate change debate itself is an extremely potent anesthetic for those on all sides of the argument. Pose the question to any good scientist or well-informed environmentalist, “Is the extreme weather we’re having this summer caused by climate change?” and we can give you only one definitive answer: maybe. Even if we could convince the majority of the public that all the terrifying math in the world is real…then what?

In a culture that habitually treats symptoms without examining the underlying causes of a disease, it’s really no wonder that even the world’s foremost environmentalists remain fixated on the warning light while the engine seizes. On another level, perpetual misdiagnosis of a problem gives us all a very convenient excuse not to participate in the solution. As with the overpopulation argument, it’s easy to understand how discussions of climate change can so easily segue into that classic bit of cul-de-sac logic, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway…”

So, what is the problem, who is to blame, and how can it be solved? To understand our current predicament, we’ll need to back up a bit….

Slowly but surely throughout the course of history, a small faction of power-hungry über opportunists have taken control of the main systems that sustain our basic needs – food and fuel – and commodified them. In other words, a few enterprising masterminds have successfully identified the most critical things that people need to survive, and found ways to profit by controlling them. If these influential individuals had been altruistic rather than covetous, they might have developed and implemented what are known as “appropriate technologies” – solutions that are adapted to conditions, materials, and labor at hand, and designed to maximize efficiency and minimize cost, waste, and environmental impact. As we know, when altruistic geniuses such as Buckminster Fuller and Nikola Tesla do come along, the über opportunists have their ways of discrediting, undermining, and negating their ideas.

The über opportunists are also über marketing specialists. They have manufactured needs for their products and planned for their obsolescence. They have cornered markets, so that the very same company that sells electricity sells products that use electricity – the less efficient the product, the more money the company makes. The sicker we are, the more the pill-makers earn. Under the guise of feeding the world, the chemical industry thrives while small farmers perish. The opportunists’ PR campaign is so successful that we have even come to refer to these manufacturers of global inequality, waste, and disease as “job creators” when the jobs they create serve only to gild their own lilies, not to serve the families, communities, or environments in which we live. It is in their interest to keep us fighting amongst ourselves. The less united we are, the more we have to struggle, the less time we have leftover to think about where we’re headed.

So here we are, a good ways down the road the über opportunists have laid out for us. We are all looking around as a global society, all coming to the realization that we’ve been duped. Collectively, we know we must stop going down this road…but how, when we’ve come to rely so heavily on the system that the über opportunists have created? How, when an entire culture is structured around consumption, inefficiency, and waste – and when so many of us rely on the flawed system for our livelihoods – can we suddenly change course?

There are no easy answers. Realizing that there is a problem is a critical first step. The next one is to correctly identify it. Many of us can see for ourselves, without any additional scientific evidence, that pollution is a major cause of ill health. Toxins in our air, food, and water cause cancer and a host of other diseases. Whether or not humans are changing the climate, it’s very easy to understand that humans are causing pollution, and pollution is making us sick…not “maybe”, not in 5 years or 100 years – NOW.

Who is to blame – the über opportunists who are the architects of the current system? The people who unwittingly (or not) build and maintain the system? It doesn’t really matter. What matters now is that we hone in on the solution…

The obvious but rarely articulated solution – impeccable environmental stewardship – is as complex as the problem, and strategies for its achievement will be as diverse as every single individual who participates in it. It is a tragic irony that willingness to join in the solution is inversely proportional to the amount one is contributing to the problem.

Another critical obstacle to the immediate implementation of this solution is a fundamental sense of alienation from nature that has been intensifying since the 17th century when people first began to study the world through the lens of the telescope and microscope. These marvelous tools lent early scientists a profound sense of separation from their subjects. Suddenly the world was broken into parts that could be deciphered using mathematics, physics, astronomy, and biology. We have been slowly forgetting that we were once part of nature, that we can study ecosystems using math, but the environment is not math – it is us.

Until we come to the collective, visceral realization that by harming nature we are doing very direct harm to ourselves, all the data in the world – including dramatic images on the TV news or even right outside our window – will do little to move us to action. Before enough of us can become inspired to participate in impeccable environmental stewardship on the scale necessary to recover from the damage already done, we’ll need to remember that we are nature.

Let’s just drop all the numbers for a while and take in the smell of a blade of grass or the sound of a cricket. Please hurry - we don’t have much time.

Monday, July 9, 2012

welcome to the dialectic revival

Here in the United States, whether we look to the language used amongst ourselves, in the media, or by politicians, we may find that our standard method of communication is based on rhetoric – a style of argument that relies on a set of distinctly isolated viewpoints, with each view-holder applying a range of persuasive techniques in an effort to prevail over a perceived opponent.

As we navigate our way into increasingly fragile ecological and social conditions unfolding around the world, however, another lesser-known approach with roots in ancient Greek, European, and Asian thought may be worth revisiting.

In stark contrast to the goal of rhetoric – to win an argument at all costs with all forms of manipulation (including willful dishonesty) on the table – the goal of dialectic is to earnestly expand overall understanding of a situation and the conditions that surround it.

It is not surprising that dialectic is so little-known and little-understood in contemporary culture; throughout the course of history the term has been appropriated by different people for different purposes. Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx each developed their own signature varieties. If we could get all of these thinkers in a room together to engage in a dialectical discussion about the definition of dialectic, they may or may not agree on at least two basic tenets: 1) participants in a dialectic dialog understand that reality and our perception of it is in a constant state of flux, therefore definitive conclusions may not be necessary 2) apparent paradoxes and contradictions are identified and embraced as inherently interdependent conditions whenever possible (cases in point: the notion of “light” ceases to be meaningful without darkness by which to compare it; each of us is simultaneously an individual and part of a society).

Throughout history, forms of dialectic reasoning have been applied to discussions of a wide range of political, philosophical, spiritual, and scientific matters. While horns are locked and the clock ticks away on all manner of pressing social and environmental issues, I am suggesting that now is a fitting moment to evaluate the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of prevailing mechanisms for the exchange of ideas, and develop a more modern, appropriate, efficient, and constructive paradigm.

A new dialectic method has revolutionary potential. Transparency in communication is a radical act. The powers of obfuscation, confusion, and polarization are wielded with great skill by those who seek to suppress and control, often inadvertently drawing in even those with an earnest interest in clarity. Dialectic technique is an antidote, a way of dissolving veils of calculated deception to reveal the inner workings of an underlying reality.

A dialectic method would be applied like a scientific method especially for communication and distillation of understanding. Like the scientific method, it would be taken for granted that any practitioner who wished to be recognized by his or her peers as a clear, principled communicator would be obliged to employ it.

In order for the dialectic method to work effectively, a few parameters would need to be established at the outset. All participants must understand that the primary goal of the dialectic method is to pool knowledge and compare and contrast differing viewpoints on a matter for the purpose of deepening overall understanding. Unlike forms of debate in which one side attempts to demonstrate the superiority of a singular view over an opposing one by any means available (including emotional persuasion not based in reason), those willing to engage in a new dialectic favor logic, analytical proof, and rational deduction. Those who participate in dialectic discourse recognize that all conditions are in a continuous state of flux, and therefore definitive resolution may not be possible.

A preliminary outline of steps in a new DIALECTIC METHOD:

1. Establish the matter to be considered.

2. Identify and define abstract or ambiguous terminology and concepts.

3. Acknowledge the existence of apparent contradiction, paradox, and nuance.

4. Determine commonalities and points of connection.

5. Reevaluate the matter in light of information gleaned through elucidation of both paradox and connection.

6. Develop and implement solutions based on a refined understanding of the matter at hand. If further clarification is desired, begin again at step 1.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012



July 4, 2012 – Independence Day offers a prime opportunity to reflect on one of the great paradoxes of contemporary American culture: independence and interdependence are not, as is commonly assumed, mutually exclusive concepts.

We are not either self-reliant, autonomous agents or cooperative, interconnected beings. Clearly, we are both. Paradoxically, we are simultaneously individuals and members of a society. Our freedom to be independent is not only not hindered by our willingness to act in cooperative, altruistic, compassionate ways – rather, it is enhanced.

Life, liberty, and happiness are the products of true freedom. Most of us know from first-hand experience that sensations of happiness and contentment rarely stem from selfish acts; on the contrary, the most profound joy comes most often from acts of generosity and caring.

Indeed, as a society it would benefit us to become more independent and self-sufficient in many ways – the more food, energy, and financially independent we can become as individuals, the stronger we become as people, communities, and as a nation.

Here in the US the words freedom and independence are so often coupled with the romanticized American idea of the “rugged individual”. We are taught from an early age that we are separate from our neighbors and our environment, that to achieve success we must compete, and that the only success that matters is financial success.

Now is a good time to ask ourselves: have these principles led us to become healthy, happy people? Are we achieving the kind of wealth we have been striving for? Are we truly free in a society that has a different, far more lenient set of laws for the wealthy? Would we be freer and therefore more independent if we could choose paths that diverge from the limited ones advocated by the powers-that-be?

The beauty of our society is that we have the freedom to make choices that result in greater health and contentment for ourselves, our families, and our planet. Sadly, so few of us exercise these freedoms, in part because we have not been invited to embrace the paradox that to become the most profoundly free we must become profoundly interdependent. 

~ text and graphic by Alyce Santoro

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

what does collective democracy look like? it's up to us.

As the “advanced” nations of the world sink deeper into financial, ecological, and moral bankruptcy, a growing contingent of the global population refuses to stand idly by while our collective future is carelessly gambled away by a rapacious few. With the aid of the internet we are tangibly connected across borders and oceans, banding together and supporting one another in droves, pooling resources, knowledge, and skills to build a do-it-ourselves grassroots revolution of a kind the world has never known. This is not a war - the Indignados and the Occupiers are not after blood – we are fighting to have our voices heard, to have our concerns and ideas considered, and to have the freedom to participate in building the kind of society we envision. It is becoming clear that many around the world share a common outrage: we are no longer willing to tolerate systems of governance that represent the wealthiest few at the expense of the many.

In Chapter 14 of his book PERMACULTURE: A Designer’s Manual Bill Mollison offers a brilliant, concise outline of “Strategies for an Alternative Nation”.  Mollison, who together with David Holmgren coined the term “permaculture” to describe a holistic approach to cultivating healthy ecosystems and societies, begins the chapter by suggesting that a stable nation is formed when members share a basic set of ethical values, such as willingness to strive together towards “an harmonious world community”.

While this may at first seem like an ambitious objective, there are practical steps that can be taken in an earnest effort to arrive at a common ethos, beginning with reconsidering our rolls as individuals and citizens in an increasingly globalized society.

Practically from birth, we are taught to compartmentalize: we learn that we are separate from our parents, our siblings, our classmates. We learn that we are separate from those with other beliefs, nationalities, or skin pigmentation, and sometimes we acquire hostilities toward those we deem different from ourselves. Rather than learning to focus on our inherent similarities and accepting any apparent differences as superficial, so often we are led to believe just the opposite. As we become alienated from our environment and fellow creatures, we also become divorced from a sense of responsibility to participate in taking care of the world around us. When we stop caring, we relinquish the power to make decisions about our needs to whatever entity thinks it knows best.

Fortunately it is quite easy to discover that we are not, in fact, autonomous agents – our actions have very tangible effects ­– well into the future ­– on everything and everyone with whom we interact. By suspending the tendency to separate and polarize, we can begin to see connections not only between individuals, disciplines, and philosophies; we also begin to see the way our beliefs, thoughts, actions, and decisions shape our world.

Who is to say what beliefs, thoughts, actions, and decisions are the right ones for an entire society? This brings us to the precarious question of freedom, that crucial thing that so many on all sides of the political spectrum claim to understand best, and feel is being impinged. Some define freedom as the ability to act in any way one chooses, so long as that action does not do harm to another. But in order to settle on this definition we must first discuss “harm”, and decide how much harm is acceptable, not only to other people, but from the perspective of permaculture, we must also take into account harm to the planet.

In thinking about our definition of freedom, we may agree that, while we must be free to think in any way we choose, certain actions are more likely to lead to greater harm than others. We may also determine that some of our desires stem less from true inner longings and more from external persuasion, often from a commercial entity that has something to gain by capturing our attention.

By asking ourselves a few questions, we can begin to open a dialog on how to build a free society that also has a common ethical basis. The Iroquois Nation People, for example, have long engaged a rule of thumb: what effect will my present actions have on the “seventh generation” ­– approximately 100 years into the future? How would our behavior change if we were to routinely ask ourselves similar questions, such as who will be affected by my choices and how? Is there a more positive, constructive, efficient course of action? If I have plenty and my neighbor is starving, which will provide me with a greater sense of security and well-being: sharing or hoarding?

There are no singular, hard-and-fast “right” answers to any of these questions – rather, it is the process of honestly addressing them that has the potential to reveal the truly subtle, complex, and powerful ways in which we are connected to our communities and our culture. By allowing ourselves to think in less linear, literal, rigid ways and by instead cultivating forms of thought and dialog that are more encompassing, cyclical, and even accepting of contradiction and paradox, we may discover new ways to relate and cooperate with forces once seen as opposing.

This proposed method of discussion stands in stark contrast to the more common form of debate in which participants attempt to “win” at all costs, often by employing emotional persuasion (rhetoric) rather than reasoned argument. Instead of aiming to overpower an opponent, those engaged in discussion based on dialectical methods agree at the outset that there may be more than one answer to a problem, and that all answers may lead to more questions, allowing for open-ended, continuously-evolving perspectives.

Willing members of a collective democracy agree to participate in creating an harmonious world community, each in his or her own unique way, beginning with the state of his or her own immediate situation. What this means, and where we go from here, is up to us.

Cross-posted with the Collective Democracy blog. 
Published in on August 14, 2012

Monday, May 14, 2012


subtlety, nuance, and contradiction are inherent to reality, and are essential parts of a meaningful dialog. let's not only acknowledge paradox, let's celebrate it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

the covert power of creativity

Because conceptual art can exist in non-material forms, one could argue that it is not only one of the most sustainable forms of creative practice, but also one of the most radical in its potential to challenge conventional thinking. To a tremendous extent, commercial media—whose primary function is to persuade its audience to consume—influences current prevailing thought. Conceptual art, by contrast, is often non-commodifiable; the value of an idea can supersede conventional methods of quantification, lending it a subtle, subversive, status-quo-defying kind of power.

The notion that all ecosystems, cultures, disciplines and systems are interconnected, and that we can cultivate a more efficient, healthy and satisfying existence by appreciating more and consuming less, run counter to the mainstream. In spite of the relentless promotion of the consumer mindset, one can find ample evidence of the tremendous human impulse to freely share and exchange information and other commodities simply by perusing the internet (the most culture-altering, wisdom-liberating development since Gutenberg introduced moveable type to Europe in 1439). Practical knowledge—including instructions on permaculture design, DIY, open source and appropriate technologies, petitions and calls for political and social action—is disseminated free of charge by those who, knowingly or not, describe a new social paradigm based on reciprocity, fair exchange and mutual benefit.

German artist/activist Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986) believed that when individuals contribute to the betterment of society by infusing everyday actions with creativity and reverence for nature then “everyone is an artist.” He considered the fruits of such labor “social sculpture.”

I didn’t know about Beuys when I first set out to combine art and science by seeking a degree in marine biology, then going on to study scientific illustration. As the detrimental effects of reckless human activity on the environment have become all the more obvious, my urge to express the intangible, profound mysteries contained in the natural world has intensified. My technical renderings have morphed into multimedia “philosoprops,” works that challenge conventional boundaries between disciplines and spark dialog around social, political and ecological topics. While most of these pieces have a physical component, their essence is really the ideas behind them—and these are free for the taking.

For example, the concept behind my sonic fabric—a textile woven from cassette tape overdubbed with intricate collages of sound—alludes to the ultimate interconnectedness of everything. While I wholeheartedly embrace opportunities to repurpose materials, sonic fabric was not intended as a statement about recycling, per se. Rather, the project was inspired by theories in quantum physics suggesting that everything, at the most basic level, is composed of little more than vibration. When all the vibrations are woven together, the result is one exquisite, unified cacophony.

Like Beuys, I believe that by cultivating a relationship with nature and by honing and engaging personal creative aptitudes, everyone can become a catalyst for social transformation. While the powers-that-be wage an insidious war on the freedom to share information, the subversive force of cooperation and exchange is vastly underestimated, even by those with the potential to wield it. Shifts in the course of our culture depend on the quality of our thoughts. Everyone is a catalyst.

Published at The Sustainability Review, April 19, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

the visible, the invisible, and the indivisible

Prevailing thought is like prevailing wind; it requires less effort to allow oneself to be carried along than to set a course that goes against it. Also like wind, thought is often presumed to be invisible. But one can quite easily learn to observe the effects of both on tangible objects, and thereby gain the ability to harness the power of either.

The first lesson in sailing usually occurs on the shoreline. Students are invited to determine from which direction the wind is blowing by looking for clues: flags, trees, boats at anchor, the feel of the breeze on one’s own skin, and through careful observation of subtle variations in the texture of wavelets on the surface of the water itself.

In order to see thought, one only needs to look around oneself. The urge to connect turns into telephones, televisions, and the internet. The inclination to travel manifests as cars, ships, planes, and trains. The need for social organization is revealed in our political systems. And so forth and so on…

But what is a thought, exactly? An electrochemical impulse? Does it require an embodied agent, or is it possible that ambient electrochemical forces cause matter to coalesce into particular patterns and configurations, resulting in the infinite variety of artifacts we find ourselves among? Needs, longings, and desires arrive with the distinct sensation that they are ours alone – but couldn’t the existence of a tree be the outward expression of a fundamental “need” in the universe for an efficient, multifunctional carbon dioxide processing unit?

Sophisticated new investigative apparatus developed around the 17th century in the form of telescopes and microscopes suggested to their human operators that the world around us could be broken down into parts, and that we ourselves are unique entities that are distinctly separated from the environment in which we find ourselves. Galileo declared “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.”  That which could not be made measureable was granted an air of dubiousness, if not eliminated outright.

The scientific method (i.e.: formulate a hypothesis, design and implement an experiment, analyze the result, repeat), however useful it may be for technical applications, was never really intended as an all-purpose standard to which social and philosophical principles should also be applied. Just because we cannot measure intuition, love, compassion, grief, or inspiration certainly does not mean that these things do not exist, or that they are somehow inferior to that which is tangible. Over the course of the past 400 years as human culture has become increasingly industrialized, we have also become more compartmentalized. As we’ve come to put less value on the immeasurable, we’ve rationalized ourselves into a state of intolerance of the nuanced, the complex, the seemingly paradoxical. Things that could be taken as two sides of the same coin are instead viewed as diametrically opposed: art vs. science, religion vs. reason, classical vs. quantum physics; determinism vs. free will; left (hemisphere of the brain or political party) vs. right.

Ironically, at the same time that scientific rationalism has come to dominate prevailing thought, science itself has taken a turn towards subtlety. With advances in quantum theory, we are moving into a strange new domain where things do not function according to the orderly and predictable rules that we have come to rely upon. Tests with subatomic particles are not only practically unrepeatable; they reveal that the very nature of our experiments makes objective observation impossible.

Fortunately there are many other ways to collect and interpret information about our reality. The ability to hold several seemingly contradictory views simultaneously, the willingness to cultivate, explore, and trust subtle sensory signals, the boldness and endurance required to set a course that defies the dominant paradigm – this is the domain of certain artists, poets, musicians, shamans, ecologists, permaculturists, philosophers, and others adept at seeing and feeling connections to the obscured dimensions and forces of nature that others neglect to notice.

Throughout history visionary practitioners from every field of human knowledge have felt compelled to share their particular mode of data processing. A few notable examples might include musician John Coltrane, conceptual artist/social-environmental activist Joseph Beuys, quantum physicist/philosopher David Bohm, writer/scientist Wolfgang Von Goethe, physician/natural scientist Hans Jenny, spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, inventor/futurist Buckminster Fuller, and poet Allen Ginsberg. Through their work, each of these individuals has given form to the otherwise invisible/inaudible. The products of their inspiration resonate in those who experience them – our senses know them to be true without analytical proof.

Goethe called investigation that involves a kind of connectedness to and empathic understanding of a subject delicate empiricism. Beuys believed that by becoming more attuned to the subtle forces of the ecosystems we inhabit we can rediscover innate aptitudes that will help us to mend ourselves, our communities, and the planet. He believed that it is the job of both shamans and artists to shake people out of ordinary, habitual states of mind and to reawaken latent faculties.

Even slight shifts in individual and collective values and intentions could quickly bring new sets of priorities into the mainstream, radically altering prevailing thought. Like a flock of starlings that moves in an elegant cloud of instinctive, constantly modulating cooperation, changes of mind can have an instantaneous ripple effect across an entire culture. When Beuys said everyone is an artist he implied that each of us is not only capable of accessing the same mysterious, improbable, constantly unfolding, infinitely creative phenomena – we are the phenomena. Each of us is an outcropping, an empathic agent of transformation, wired to receive, process, and transmit.

To hone one’s connection with this font of supreme imagination, Allen Ginsberg prescribed this simple but profound experiment to aspiring creative practitioners: “Notice what you notice.” Like a single pebble out of thousands that catches your glance on the beach, the things you find yourself aware of – and the state of awareness itself – these are the clues. Each of us is a receptor for a different part of the same sublime puzzle. Evidence is everywhere. The investigation never ends.

Published in the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly, Dec. 2012