“The whole society becomes visible to itself as an imperishable living unit. Generations of individuals pass, like anonymous cells from a living body; but the sustaining, timeless form remains.” - Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
If there is to be a future in which to write a history of the 21st century, a great listening must occur. There must be a re-inhabiting of the Earth where people are participants in its systems. If it happens, this century will then be known as the Holistic Age, an age in which humanity began to recognize its place as a keystone species within the ecosystem, urging responsible action, living, and thought.
This age, if it comes to pass, would be based on an interdisciplinary approach, with a balance of respect for empirical, intuitive, and indigenous knowledge, rather than an emphasis purely on empiricism. The recognition of the sacred in substance would begin to be the basis of social cohesion and practice in all areas. Objectivity, as was shown in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, would be recognized as an approximation. The greater certainty with which one aspect of a particle is known, the less certain another aspect becomes. Science would begin to put back together what it took apart, studying systems rather than parts. A shift in thinking, from objects to relationships, would take place. This reintegration would be total: cultural, spiritual, social, political, and so forth, for each would function only with the health and connection of the other.
I will propose four branches that have advanced the illusion of the split between the human, nature, mind, and heart, and the Holistic Age would begin to heal this split.
For the first time in human history, the dawn of the 21st century saw the planet’s systems pushed to the limit. Industrialization spread commerce across the globe, tapping into a finite, planetary pool of resources. Technology advanced exponentially, linking the world’s communications via satellites and the internet. Civil rights movements encouraged the world’s marginalized to equalize the playing field. The split between the mind and spirit imploded, as the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics had opened new doors a century earlier. What was thought to be the final chapter of physics suddenly disintegrated into uncertainties that blew open previous structures of thought. The economic models of unlimited growth and colonialism put forth by classical economists such as Adam Smith led to a tipping point of change. This change was catalyzed by unsustainable land practices and the use of fossil fuels, both of which stemmed from this split between mind and spirit, human and nature.
The first branch of the split in the Western world was language, especially written language. The subject, “I”, is separate from the object and must agree with the verb. If there is no “I” separate from “all that is” then, for example, instead of saying “I am skipping rocks,” we could say “This human-cell-of-the-earth and this rock-cell-of-the-earth are drawn to one another and the rock is orbited into lake-earth.” Of course, this is clumsy. It would be easier to say, “Rock skips lake makes rings of water.” Any subsuming of the “I” or pluralization, as in “We skip rock,” is almost a caricature of our stereotypes of so-called primitive thought. But a language humble enough to leave out the human ego or separation from the rest of the cosmos is not primitive at all. Could it be that the cultivation of our mind-ego above all else is actually a neurosis? A linguistic evolution would necessitate breaking some of the rules we have held so dear. Language could be stretched to unite us further with reality rather than separating us from it. Perhaps this is the work of poets.
Poetry brings us to stories. All cultures of the past have told stories so as to order time, the cosmos, and society’s place within these structures. These stories were our myths, but also the dawn of our religions and sciences. During the Age of Enlightenment, matters of science and the spirit split into two opposing paths. This rift in thought was brought about by scientists such as René Descartes, who himself was spiritual, but saw matter as definitively separate from mind. The philosophies of scientists such as Descartes influenced a dualistic paradigm that sparked the Industrial Revolution, which perfected the machine and the mechanistic mindset. This led to a global ecological crisis as fossil fuels were extracted, forests were clear cut, and water polluted at exponentially increasing rates. Thus the mind no longer saw itself as part of the body, and the body suffered. Purely “rational” science was one split leading to the next: the mechanistic industrial paradigm.
The split of farming came before these two branches. There is a difference between the cultivation of wild indigenous plants and the phenomenon of agriculture. Wild cultivation was practiced in the Americas long before European colonists arrived – and it didn’t lead to ecological decline. Agriculture has been practiced in the Middle East and Europe for thousands of years as well, but crops of single plants were bred out of their wild varieties. This domestication brought the plant and the land further away from an ecological balance, requiring more human work and interference. A diverse, wild, and indigenous diet is more healthful for humans and for the planet. In the Holistic Century, forest gardening, a kind of rewilding of agriculture, would become prevalent in order to heal the ecological rift. This style of subsistence would also give generous yields that would easily rival monocrops in quality and nutritional value (Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).
A deep shift in thinking would inspire a necessarily decisive set of actions. The field of systems thinking, which began in the 20th century, has planted the seeds of this paradigm shift. A systems view of the world sees everything as participating in an interdependent network of systems. Diversity in all its forms, biologically, culturally, and socially, are being recognized as paramount in a healthy, dynamic system.
So-called common sense, being a kind of network of prejudices, would be distinguished from intuition, a fresh and blank perception of the world. This intuitive “beginner’s mind” is free from preconceived notions that block our direct experience of being alive. Supporting this intuitive state, which has not been nurtured in the modern world, would catalyze the Holistic worldview. A cohesion of disciplines is more than just rigorous study, but also a reintegration of imagination and creative play. Science and even art alone will do us no good if we have forgotten our intuitive roots.
The holographic principle of string theory suggests every part of existence is encoded in every photon of light. David Bohm said in his interview Art, Dialogue, and the Implicate Order, “Thought is part of this reality...we are not merely thinking about it...we are thinking it” (David Bohm, On Creativity, RRoutledge Classics, 2004).
The idea that all of reality exists already as a possibility ready to unfold is common in indigenous thought, such as the Aboriginal “Dreaming.” Many indigenous peoples’ traditional thought systems are rooted in animism or philosophies similar to this view, which is now embraced by some scientists. Indigenous peoples worldwide could unite with scientists, artists, poets, and policy-makers, creating a global culture that both honors differences and our need to commonly share and nurture a healthy planet.
A new model of economics could flourish out of systems theory and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia hypothesis supposes the entire planet is one living organism, each system within like an organ and each life-form like a cell (James Lovelock, Gaia, Oxford University Press, 1979). Thus the holistic economic model treats the entire planet as one household, in which each party’s individual function, as well as its functioning within the whole system, is nourished. Economy, from the Greek oikonomiameaning “household management,” can no longer be separated from ecology, for the health of the household means the health of the planet. Similarly, interdisciplinary dialogues between leaders of science, art, and spirit serve the same coherent purpose: the management of the planet as one household. The dialogues between fields of specialization then lead to a kind of co-counselling forum worldwide that unites humanity to this common cause, while recognizing and even supporting our rich diversities.
Diversity is a healthy, dynamic state. The border between two different ecosystems is the most fertile area of all precisely because of this diversity. Similarly, a diverse global forum of policy-makers, encouraging as much contact as possible between persons and fields in order for the entire system to flourish, could evolve socio-political leadership well beyond the dreams of Ancient Greek democracy. The needs of the group or the individual would not weigh over one or the other, but equally. The whole system would fit together with all the parts considered inseparable living wholes. No living being of any species would be excluded. The circle of inclusion could widen as dialogues expand, each community a microcosm of this global forum. Women, children, all classes and types of people could, by necessity, be at last truly integrated into the dialogues of policy, reclaiming centuries of marginalization. The circle would continue to widen further than was thought possible. True listening to the ecological needs of other species would also give them a place in the forum. The Earth-centered model of the Solar System would give way to the Sun-centered model of the universe, and the Earth would be seen as but a cell in a vast multiverse, whose dimensions cannot be measured in a billion lifetimes. Perhaps life itself is broader than we thought, encompassing molecules themselves and even photons of light.
The sciences could once again reflect a broader comprehension of reality. The realm of dynamical systems has shown us nothing can be truly known unless every factor is considered. Perhaps knowledge and its application is fundamentally a balancing act of probability, rather than certainty, since every single factor cannot possibly be known. Specialization, while still valid, would be checked frequently by a network of specialists in a broad array of fields. Education would be built on a foundation of interdisciplinary studies, after which one could specialize if desired. It would also be fundamental to have interdisciplinary consultants who study the cross-sections of two or more fields. There could be a need, for example, to have a consultant studying the sections between environmental science, policy, and art, in order to properly manage land use. Thus not only would there be space for the generalist, but the need for them would be recognized in order to repair the disconnected networks of the planets.
The Holistic Age would offer four main ways in which to change our systems in order for them to function more ecologically. These steps would be: restructuring via self-organization; definitive intent and action; changing our paradigm; and transcending paradigms altogether (Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008).
Self-organization is the primary aspect of life itself. Within a living system, the function of each part supports and transforms the entire network. There is no living cell or organism completely separate from its environment. Self-organization is evolution in action (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, Anchor Books, 1996). It is the ability to completely restructure not just behaviors, but even a physical form. On a social level, this could be harnessed with mindfulness using intent and action. The Holistic Age would encourage mindfulness as a primary intent, in order to restructure habits of thought, speech, and action. A society that values quality over quantity and health over harm can be built with this mindfulness. Self-organization relies on experimentation and diversity, both biologically and socially.
Intent or goals are then defined clearly by analyzing our thought and speech, without disregarding that which cannot be quantified. For example, love, the intelligence of nature, justice, and peace cannot be quantified, but this does not mean they should be cut out of the goals of the system because productivity and capital can be quantified more easily. Our intent shapes our actions and the definition of our goal must be also shaped carefully in order to carry out this action with integrity.
The last two ways deal with our perceptions of the world, our paradigms. Our worldview is the set of concepts we take for granted, every value and principle from money to cosmology. In order for us to change our world, we must change our paradigm. In order for us to do this, we could implement a scientific inquiry into our modes of thought and create a model of our beliefs. We begin by stepping outside of our model and seeing it for what it is. We recognize the set of desired beliefs according to our values or doctrine may not match our thoughts, speech, and actions. Then we can see our set of belief systems, actual and desired, for what they are and analyze how they work or do not work.
At this last stage, we could begin to transcend paradigms altogether. In the Holistic Age, there would be a sense of spaciousness for every truth ever born. Every perception of each living being would be understood as creating the Cosmos. Each different perspective would be embraced as a necessary and beautiful unfolding. No truth would be seen as greater or lesser than another truth. They would be seen to function symbiotically in a vast interconnected network of truths, a living being that is the Universe, evolving and becoming friends with itself through the mirror of our consciousness. This could be nothing short of Enlightenment itself.