1992

Earth Summit as a Natural Ecological System

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Prepared as a statement (see others) by Nadia McLaren (inspired by dialogue groups which met in Brussels, January 1992 and Oslo, February 1992) for the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) for the International Facilitating Committee for the Independent Sectors in the UNCED process (Geneva). Portions of the text were published in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1994-5, vol 2) and in the online version of its commentaries (to which links below are made) shaping the global network of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues. [IFCD55F]

What would the Earth Summit look like if it were a natural ecological system? How could it embody/integrate sustainability throughout its being? Would this maximise the contributions it can make to sustainable development in a global context (applying the images of microcosm/macrocosm, pattern creation, "do it once and it is done for ever", Mao's exemplary commune, "walking your talk").

As it currently stands, the most obvious comparisons for the Rio conference are to a botanic garden, zoo or circus - a managed, semi-natural system designed to maximise rarity, display, the exotic, the fragile, diversity of form; but low on interactive complexity, not a true living system, low on necessity and purpose, complexity of interaction, and contextual relationship with whole. Its psyche is artificial, depauperate, arid, "deforested", to use some terms from nature.

What are the characteristics of a full-featured ecological system? Two are basic:

  • Structure is a network. Information flows in all directions (materials, energy, influence). It is open. There is no unnecessary blockage or movement. Action is initiated at appropriate nodes. Feedback is integrated, and the whole and any part is self-organising.
  • Process is a cycle. Build up and break down. Anabolic (synthesis/recomposition) and catabolic (decay/decomposition) halves of the circle. There is a structural cycling of components from simplicity through complexity and back again.

Why is it that the structures we humans build are limiting the flows of resources? Necessary feedback loops which would regulate over-consumption, over-population, and waste are absent. Action and influence are linear instead of radial.

We hear that thinking is the problem. Emotions are the problem. Actions are the problem. What have we created with our uncompleted thoughts, feelings and activity? 

Decomposition cycle

We have forgotten the decomposing half of the cycle. We build nuclear power stations and leave it to the next generation to clean up. When will we give the same time and attention to the shitty part of the work? When will we honour our garbage collectors, love earthworms and vultures?

We are stuck in the first part of the cycle. Immature children. Doing, acting. Making things and leaving the mess. Frenetic oscillation on this side of the cycle.

Blocked on the other side. The down side leads to simplification, return to chaos. We approach the down-slope and pull back. Fear, pain. Rats continually getting an unpleasant electric shock become ill. How much individual illness, social ill-health, is the result of overexposure to psychological/spiritual pain, or the avoidance of pain?

Avoidance of cycle completion

Different types of pain. Fear of pain. Anxiety - fear of the void, of decay and death. One useful aspect comparable to meditation and other techniques is to accustom ourselves to emptiness. Initiation ceremonies and sacred rites teach the reality of pain, and the ability to move through the pain and get on the other side. Many therapies also help to get us through.

Krishnamurti asked what would happen if we could complete a thought. Took it to its very end. What would happen if we could complete our emotions, our actions. Took them full cycle.

The ending of time? Karmic (repetitive patterns) time. Why do some people take fifteen years to "know" something when another never has to learn, simply knows? and vice versa? Another said that "Time is what occurs when you need a learning experience". Time is what it takes for us to "know" something. If your head hears something and understands its meaning, then you have to "incarnate" a learning experience so you can also "know" its truth. But if your heart understands it, you know instantaneously, there is no need for experience, there is no time.

The end of the cycle is actually the point of transformation - simple begins to become more complex again, but in a new phase - so called "paradigm shifts". If we never get through to this point, there is no completion, only repetition of old patterns, karmic time.

This is perhaps why war and revolution have positive characteristics. They break old patterns, shorten the cultural time needed to transcend that learning experience again. Time speeds up through human history, even now our own lifetimes, and yearly.

But in fact much is usually left undone; the cycle is left broken and incomplete. The oil fires are left burning after the war is over in the Middle East - the desert is home to yet another symbol of the aridity of the collective psyche. So even though war brings catharsis and fresh beginnings, and we have the benefit of lessons of the past, there is rarely a complete phase shift.

What qualities of attention and awareness must we add to our thinking, actions, and emotions to reach completeness? Can we build up the value of our psychic resources, in the same way as we have our material and economic resources, in order to balance our affairs and avoid recapitulation of our empty behaviour patterns?

Ecological principles as a basis for world governance

Is this a clue as to how can we reach a collective, higher order, understanding, where we would "know" that ecological principles are a basis to world governance and lifestyles? We do not have much more time to keep repeating the old patterns. Or is the urgency false? Will the planetary system look after itself, keep speeding up and accomplish the shift as if we did not even count? Is the Earth Summit an inflated claim to irrelevance?

Metaphors for gatherings on sustainability

If not, what would the Earth Summit look like if it used the Earth as its model? In considering the possibilities, it may be worthwhile to reflect on some other natural metaphors of the pattern of behaviour in international, intersectoral and intercultural gatherings. These highlight many of the challenges of sustainability:

  • exploding population (of ideas and emotions);
  • unemployment and undernourishment (of certain sectoral perspectives);
  • tendencies to expansionism and dominance (by certain sectors);
  • self-righteous projection of blame (onto certain sectors, often under-represented and mis-represented);
  • entrapment in old patterns of status-seeking and positioning for recognition (in response to agents of authority);
  • pollution and poisoning (of the atmosphere of the meeting) because of failure to recycle waste products of group activity;
  • failure of collective learning;
  • over-exploitation of non-renewable resources (especially collective attention time at a gathering of limited duration);
  • failure to deal with implications of impoverishment and indebtedness of certain sectors.

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