Jeremy Lent on Transitioning to an Ecological Civilisation

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"Jeremy Lent, author and integrator, looks at how and why we should transform the fundamental basis of our civilisation.

When Jeremy Lent's life started unravelling around 15 years ago, he found himself going through a deep crisis of meaning. He had recently taken the internet company that he founded public, but left to care for his wife who had developed serious health problems. Within a couple of years the company had collapsed and his wife passed away. He questioned what he could do with the rest of his life that was truly meaningful, so went through a long process of trying to discover what meaning really is.

“It was only through putting this kind of jigsaw puzzle together that I began to realise both how this question of meaning has actually driven what cultures have done and got to recognise the absolute crisis – crisis of meaning and crisis of sustainability – our current civilisation is on.”

There have been very few key transitions in civilisation: Jeremy explains that there have only really been two or three key transitions that have taken place in the human experience: the whole way in which our day-to-day lives and ways in which we make sense of things have changed.

For around 95% of our ancestor's history as humans there was a connection with nature, with it being seen as a giving parent, supporting the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life.

The first key transition came with the rise of agriculture, ten to twelve thousand years ago. With that emerged ideas like wealth, hierarchy, patriarchy, the ways in which humans specialise into different things, and above all the value of ownership.

It had been that way until the last few hundred years when, in Europe, there was a scientific revolution which looked at things in a different way. Rather than looking at humans as being connected with nature, came the idea of separation from and conquering of nature.

And while Jeremy doesn't want to give the impression that it has been an intrinsically bad thing, as it has given all the advances in science and technology that we all use and are grateful for, it has brought about imbalances.

“When we think of nature just in this way and that way alone, it’s giving humanity so much power to disrupt nature that we have led to this place now where we’re literally destroying the very Earth that we’re on by seeing it just as this resource to exploit, and by just seeing it as this kind of machine that has no intrinsic value of its own, and by seeing ourselves as separate from it.“

An ecological civilisation would be life affirming: Jeremy describes our current civilisation as being a consumer and wealth based economy, that is increasing at an unsustainable rate when you consider how we are destroying the resources on the planet.

The idea of an ecological civilisation asks the question, what would it look like if we transformed the fundamental basis of our civilisation, from one that's wealth and exploitation based, to one that is life affirming and life based?

The principle of an ecology based system is that the dignity and health of each person is required for the civilisation as a whole to be healthy.

Jeremy also explains the circularity of an ecosystem, where the waste products of any part are actually the nutrition for another part of the system. He thinks our economy can learn from that and build it into our manufacturing, so things are repaired and re-used, rather than being discarded.

Jeremy explains reciprocity as being where different parts of an ecosystem actually do things that have reciprocal advantages to the other.

“We can structure a system where what is good for each of us is actually of reciprocal value for others. So, we’re not actually exploiting others and sucking them dry, but actually doing stuff that other people need.

Build systems for future generations: Ecologies can last millions of years, and Jeremy suggests using the idea of longevity and applying it to our own thinking. So instead of building systems for the current and perhaps next generation, think of creating them as far as seven generations on or even beyond that. One example could be planting a grove of trees that might take generations to reach maturity and full fruiting.

We live in a non-linear world: “Which means you can’t just look at two points in a graph and see that line continuing into the future. In fact, the one thing we know about the way human history works is that non-linearity. Which is both terrifying because the society we’re in right now may collapse – that’s one very non-linear direction – but it may also transform.”

Jeremy cites historical examples of women's suffrage and the US civil rights movements, of having brought about incredible change in a relatively small amount of time. He notes the Me Too and Extinction Rebellion movements as similarly making changes to current ways of thinking and bringing about change that didn't seem possible not too long ago. The kind of thinking that recognises that things can change quickly, and where we should be asking “what can I do to make a difference as part of this transformative change that has to take place?”

“What’s meaningful are the actual actions we take towards trying to create a hopeful future for those future generations.“

“That realisation brings with it a tremendous responsibility. Because the very actions we take, this very conversation, or just what each of us does each day in deciding to do one thing or another, sometimes can have effects that are not as dramatic as that which we saw with Greta Thunberg, but oftentimes effects we don’t even know about. We can say something to somebody else, either to a positive or a negative way which they can take, and then see something in a different way which they transfer to somebody else and somebody else gets transformed in their way of thinking, who then goes on to make some major change.

We might discover that change years later and have no idea that something that you or I did actually had an impact that led to that.

That gives the sense both of hope and a real sense of responsibility that each of us is involved in this web of life in creating the future that we all care about.”

The internet could play an integral role: Jeremy believes that if our civilisation makes it through the current crisis we can look back at the internet as providing such a fundamental shift in the human ability to communicate with each other, that it will be viewed on similar levels as the rise of writing and language.

He likens it to a human superorganism where we are all truly connected and where the actions that we all do make a difference to the whole system.

We tend to concentrate nowadays on some of the more negative effects and the incredible inequalities of wealth with the billionaire owners of many of the corporations. But others are working on ways of structuring the internet so that it avoids some of the pitfalls we've already seen and can have more of the network effect that has transformed each of our lives.

It will take a community of millions to make it happen: While they might wield substantial power to make change happen, Jeremy doesn't see that these billionaires can lead the way to make an ecological civilisation a reality. They look for market solutions, because the market is what worked for them.

Rather than solitary heroes it will need to be a community of millions of people, connecting with and caring about each other. Who, rather than saying “I'm the one who's going to change the world,” says “I'm going to change the lives of the people around me right now.” And with the internet as a kind of connective tissue, these will be the kinds of changes that will lead to a self-organised ecological civilisation.

“It’s working together with each other, recognising the values that other people have, and just working as a group, seeing that it’s the group dynamic that is more important than any one leader.”

Instability will expedite change: With all these instabilities unravelling the current system, the irony is that transformative change will actually happen more quickly than it ever could if the system was stable.

Jeremy highlights that we are all part of this system, and what we do with out lives, how we raise our children and the ways in which we relate to other people, can really make a difference.

“The future is not something that’s out there that is separate from us, but each of us are part of creating that future right now in what we do.” (