Wavefield, by Maya Lin, Storm King Art Center, New York (Photo by Gary Newman)
This personal essay is not a linear argument but is perhaps more like a mood or a landscape in which I will try to approach, from various angles, three of the principles in which my own sense of hope is nested. These forays, taken collectively, might be able to give you a sense of the way in which I feel confident about the future of life on this planet and beyond. It reflects my summary responses to our current situation without trying to document all sources that have inspired my stance.
My first principle is that of leaning into a voluntary hopefulness. This does not mean to ignore doubt, worry and real limitations but rather to acknowledge, enfold and gesture beyond them as a free choice. We are not always in position to make a choice of that kind but it may be important to try when we can. Secondly, I will describe the direction of my hopefulness via the principle of ecomorphism—which is the possibility of a more benevolent creative participation between culture and nature. I believe that what human beings call “naturalness” could be usefully thought about as a set of patterning styles that are co-produced by nature and human systems in the degree to which the latter embodies the former in multiple domains and formats. That means that a world worth hoping for is neither a biosphere devoid of human thriving nor a human civilization blind to the facts and needs of the environment and other types of beings. I will argue that the deep recognition of the interdependence and mutual identity of culture and nature must inform our minds, hearts, actions, tools and social procedures if we are to steer ourselves toward worthwhile futures. And finally I will sketch the broad outlines of what we might call a new shamanism—trying to catch the flavor of the type of human being that may be required in order to cultivate and populate what I consider to be a “better world” that does not fall prey to the dystopian results of most utopian attempts.
I will try to keep this very personal but when I do happen to say “we” it should be understood that I mean three things simultaneously: the human species generally, those members of the human species who specifically find themselves concerned about the future wellbeing of life on this planet and, finally, the possibility of a shared spirit of hope. The processes by which people grow together into an intersubjective identity are not well studied, but I would like to at least hold out the possibility that you, the reader, and I could purposefully practice sharing a mutual desire to move civilization toward a more nature-enriching and naturally enriched way of existing on this planet.
This essay is unapologetically futurist, pro-science and pro-human, but I hope you will slowly come to realize that the way I think of these things is deeply involved in embodiment, plurality, ecology and a veneration of a holism that was not foreign to our ancestors.
1. Leaning into Voluntary Hopefulness
People who ask me “How are you?” are often surprised and delighted when I respond that I am “probably better than anyone has ever been.” This is rapidly becoming my standard reply in regular social communication among my circle of far-out thinkers who are yearning for a real upgrade to civilization and ourselves. Why do they like it? I suspect that it reminds them that, despite our deep insight into the world’s problems, there is something liberating about simply volunteering for confidence. Within certain limits, human beings can give themselves permission to have a truly great answer about how we are doing and freely-chosen hopefulness about the future of our societies and our planet. It is an option that I am trying always to teach myself because I know that at some level I am responsible for my attitudes about the world.
Layman Pascal is a philosopher, author and public speaker concerned with postmetaphysical spirituality, meta-progressive politics, nondualism, developmental theory, collective intelligence and sacred naturalism. He is known for his work on the Metaphysics of Adjacency and the “integration-surplus” model of religion and spirituality – as well as his diplomatic work bridging overlapping communities engaged with metatheory, developmentalism and the cultivation of a planetary wisdom-civilization. Co-chair of the Foundation for Integral Religion and Spirituality, he also hosted the Integral Stage podcast series since 2019. Layman Pascal currently lives on the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, Canada.
Dabbling in the art of intentional emotion might seem like a luxury. I am in a relatively privileged position as a fairly well-liked, tolerably-educated (and luckily not starving or bleeding to death… at the moment) adult Canadian male of mostly northern European descent. However faith and choice are very basic and widespread human tools. Practices for the intentional selection of feeling-states are found across most cultures and religious traditions. It is common to find socially-encouraged injunctions to, say, willfully believe legendary tales or to feel gratitude on purpose, or to try to be socially convivial rather than prone to angry outbursts. The inner practice of deliberate feelings is widespread across many types of human communities and so it is not particularly strange to suggest that we might want, if it is possible, to choose hopefulness. In fact this may already be common. There is certain privilege and luxury involved in being able to sit back and cringe about the uncertain and dark trends of the world while, conversely, in communities that face immediate suffering, alienation and deprivation people can often be acutely aware of the need for a pragmatic optimism that helps them get through the day.
Perhaps it is even our moral duty to hope? I wonder about this possibility. It could be that I am letting my friends and loved one down when I fail to decide that positive outcomes are possible. But, even supposing that it were my duty—would it be true?
Is it honest?
It is certainly debatable whether my standard superlative responses and my cultivated expression of hopefulness indicate an actual objective truth. However, I am pretty damned sure it is at least as true as the depressingly ordinary answer: “Fine.” We should not overlook the fact that many of our negative, uncertain or moderate responses are also habitual, cultivated and not necessarily based on objective facts. Each of us has a shifting degree of freedom when it comes to setting our default tone and communication habits. And the degree to which we recognize that freedom may cause it to mutate into a responsibility.
Permission to Hope
We are all vulnerable to a certain attitudinal passivity in which, for example, we might find ourselves waiting for some new fact, theory, event or tweet to tell us whether or not to feel hopeful under the looming, uncertain shadow of the massive, multifarious metacrisis that plays out on the nightly news. “Metacrisis” is a term used in metamodernist philosophy to refer to the simultaneity of large-scale problems such as climate instability, political polarization, educational crises, the insufficiency of our collective meaning-making practices, the accumulating side-effects of the global economy, including vast inequalities among the human family, and the uncertain dangers of radical new technologies. It is the crisis of all these crises. A metacrisis.
I know that at some level I am responsible for my attitudes about the world.
It is very understandable that informed and sensitive people are anxious and uncertain when contemplating the convergence of so many potential (and already occurring!) disastrous trends that seem so deeply entrenched in the political, economic and technological systems upon which we rely. Very naturally, I think, our hearts cry out for some proven idea or external fact that would give us the emotional permission to shift into a hopeful mode of neurochemistry. I certainly feel this way. I would love to be able to point at some convincing objective fact that would confirm the wisdom of pouring my energy and efforts toward deeper, healthier and more integrative futures for this planet. How wonderful it would be for anyone of us to hear an idea that strikes with the force of revelation and makes us feel like we really could succeed at shaping our personal lives and our shared civilization into a more satisfying and sustainable form.
Unfortunately, I do not know exactly what that idea is. I am not sure what a better world might mean or how it would have to look. And, even if I did, I would still be vulnerable to doubt and uncertainty. This is a problem. Why? Because I do not seem to accomplish my most productive work when I am doubtful, anxious and psychologically recoiled from a world that does not seem to justify my efforts. A vicious circle where the word and my feelings either hold each other down or, perhaps, learn to lift each other up.
The need for confirmation of hopefulness is a very broad principle. The cells in our bodies kill themselves (called “apoptosis”) if they do not get validation signals from their neighboring cells. Our dearest friends can slip into despair and self-destruction if there is no one to confirm and reinforce the feeling that their lives are worth the effort. This tendency has analogs as many scales. Yet although we human beings may need this experience of hopeful confirmation, we cannot simply rely upon the volatile facts of the world to provide it for us. So what is the alternative? Famous teachers from Buddha to Christ, from Confucius to Kierkegaard, have made some version of the argument that each human being has a certain amount of inner leeway to practice highly valuable feelings like meaningfulness, trust, gratitude and hopefulness. It is a useful art that requires certain prerequisites. Obviously a person must have the opportunity and capacity for introspection along with many other supportive factors. These factors might come in many forms. A poor farmer may end up having much more time for contemplation than a wealthy industrialist. However if you have some opportunity and capacity, then you still have to make an inner decision and take a risk that might not be justified by the world.
Naively solipsistic positive-thinking turns a deaf ear to the world and can lead people into disaster.
My pal Jim Rutt, complexity theorist, godfather of the GameB movement (Rutt, 2020) for civilization upgrade, tells people that basic healthiness requires us to get outside for at least an hour a day—regardless of the weather. That means making a practical decision, for your own well-being, in a way that is relatively indifferent to external facts. To follow Jim’s advice, I have to give up “waiting to see whether the weather is good or bad.” I live on the north shore of Lake Superior so we get several months of deep freeze every year. It can be difficult to decide that you are going to be happily engaged with your environment no matter how it shows up. Yet I have found this practice to indeed make me happier, healthier and more involved in the world.
It seems worth considering that, at some point, if we want better outcomes in our lives or better outcomes for humanity and the Earth generally, then we may have to stop waiting to see if there is an outside reason that will make us hopeful and start practicing hopefulness.
This is a matter for serious play.
I am reminded of a classic Radiohead song (Greenwood, 1994) that says, “You do it to yourself, you do… and that’s what really hurts…”
However, despite the charming encouragement presented in the paragraphs above, I am not an optimist. Instead (rather pompously) I imagine that I am a trans-pessimist. That is a word I made up to remind myself that human beings, if they are lucky, have an emotional capacity to accept all the dispiriting facts of the world while also feeling beyond them. In my reading of “The Birth of Tragedy” (Nietzsche, 1872) he seems to gush with praise for the trans-pessimism of the pre-Socratic Greeks. He discusses their open embrace of tragic folly and the doomed heroes scattered throughout their epic plays and poems. He recounts the ancient Mediterranean legend of the wise satyr Silenus, intimate companion of the god Dionysus, who was asked by King Midas to explain the best thing in the world. What was the answer? The best thing is never to have been born. The second best thing is… to die early. Bleak!
However this cultural celebration of bleakness does not seem to have slowed down Greek culture. From Pythagoras to Archimedes, from Socrates to Solon, from Thales to Aristotle, multitudes of scholars have honored the scientific, mathematical, philosophical and political innovations that occurred in that bleakness-obsessed little corner of historical time and space. They were not naive optimists, but somehow they nonetheless were trans-pessimistic. I do not think this principle is limited to the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. One need not search very hard to discover that many great civilization-building cultures around the world, from Egypt to Mesoamerica, from Persia to China, (at least if we take their ancient art and stories seriously) were prone to contemplate inevitable and vivid apocalypses, bewildering tragedies, sadistic torture rituals, confusing and capricious deities, etc. This powerful focus on tragic and disturbing outcomes did not make them unproductive in their attempt to solve the problems of their day. They did not always get the solutions right, of course, but they were creative and energetic in mobilizing in attempt solutions. Whoever hopes today for a significant, large-scale upgrade of collective human behavior on this planet certainly does not want to recreate the brutality and unfairness of the so-called Great Civilizations of the past, but we do, I think, wish to match or exceed their level of energy, innovation and shared spirit. And perhaps that is related to the way in which they appreciated and enfolded troubling images, omens and situations?
The principles of acknowledgment, acceptance and authenticity are important elements of personal psychological transformation. We should consider that they might also be important collectively…
A future-worth-hoping-for, whatever that means for each of us (see the next section to sample what that means for me), will not likely come about from a blinkered avoidance of negative sentiments and depressing facts. Naively solipsistic positive-thinking turns a deaf ear to the world and can lead people into disaster. Human beings need to be grounded, clear-eyed and antifragile (Taleb, 2020)—Nassim Taleb’s name for the property of benefiting from stress, surprises and offensive encounters—if we are going to rouse ourselves into productive efforts in conjunction with the real world. How can any of us change things with which we have no visceral contact? One must be willing to get dirty, so to speak, if one wishes to clean the house.
We must acknowledge that the Earth’s forests are burning, fascists are winning elections, global business is perversely incentivized, distrust is rampant, people are starving and sick, biodiversity is collapsing, algorithms are hacking our brains, and many people claim not to know what to believe in anymore. These are real things, but that does not mean they are the final word on our situation. My hope is to make a deeper connection with these apparent aspects of contemporary life, to integrate them, but not to be defined by them. Making authentic contact with whatever you believe are the problematic aspects of life is essential if our voluntary hopefulness is going to be sane and grounded.
Perhaps we have misinterpreted many dark and futile feelings as a threat when they are actually only the watchful gargoyles at the entrance to a new and fertile kingdom? We know that something like this is true at least at the individual level. The principles of acknowledgment, acceptance and authenticity are important elements of personal psychological transformation. We should consider that they might also be important collectively, both within distinct cultures and in the inter-cultural and meta-cultural framing of an emerging planetary civilization. Pessimism may be a good ally at many scales. Contemporary cognitive science has suggested that pessimism usefully inhibits some of our inherited cognitive biases toward hasty, self-satisfied thinking and encourages human brains to make more accurate evaluations and predictions. Pessimistic automobile drivers are more likely to stay alert and follow safety-oriented precautionary rules than are cavalier, overly-confident drivers. A dash of skepticism and worry can be a good thing. You see—I’m even optimistic about pessimism! If pessimism can be a reason for optimism, and accepting your negative feelings can be a way of encouraging positive psychological transformation, then might it not be possible that hopelessness could be a cause for hope?
In episode #164 of the Lex Fridman podcast, neuroscientist Andrew Huberman describes the role that deliberate positive attitudes may play in allowing the reward chemical dopamine to modulate testosterone production. Cholesterol can be converted either into the stress hormone cortisol or into testosterone which, as Huberman explains, “makes effort feel good” (Huberman, 2021). Human nervous systems have a certain amount of wiggle room in terms of using intentional good feeling to predispose our neurochemistry toward productive efforts. The amount of influence you can have in this fashion is uncertain, and testosterone increases are not a magical pill with only positive effects; however, there is a general idea being elaborated here. It is that, within certain limits, our mind can use intentional affirmative gestures to skew the cultivation of our biochemistry in ways that make us more capable of the labors needed to rearrange our environment. Voluntary hopefulness—mixed with frustrations—may help to catalyze and fuel the activity of trying to improve our lives and our planet. I have a theory about what kind of activity that is, but that is for the following sections of this essay.
There are unique challenges in this historical moment (dying, plastic-choked oceans and autonomous flying robots armed with bombs were not anything our ancestors had to deal with), but human cultures must still retain connection with those basic human mechanisms and skills that have evolved to help us in problem-solving efforts of all kinds. Choosing hope in the face of huge challenges reflects a circumstance that has confronted living organisms for a very long time. Every rhizomatic root-system under the soil faces a world that is dark, massive, uncertain and full of threats. Yet they give themselves and each other a signal that triggers them to reach into that darkness in hopes of creating appropriate organization and fertility.
In some ways the most basic thing we inherit from evolutionary dynamics is a deep drive to confront stagnant, confusing and dangerous environments and struggle to convert them into more balanced, vitalizing, meaningful, and synergistically beautiful living conditions. Adequate life-worlds have never been a free gift. They are the result of labor.
Orienting Ourselves Toward Value
The fact that we can hope, that it comes pre-installed in human beings, gives me hope. That hope deepens when I consider that hopefulness is very useful to make activity happen. And it deepens further when I imagine myself standing in the lineage of my countless human and nonhuman ancestors who all faced confusing, dangerous worlds that needed to be improved. The question is—improved in what way?
Individuals and groups rarely have a robust, shining vision of how we would like things to turn out. Even when we do have an inspiring goal, its compelling hopefulness fluctuates in our hearts and it may turn out to be naive, unrealistic or secretly flawed. The great genocides of the 20th century often started out with hopeful dreams of a specific better world. So we need to strike a better balance in how we handle these things. We need, on the one hand, an inspiring directionality that we can link to our hopefulness—a future trajectory that suggests the type of changes we can endorse and which can be clarified over time—and on the other hand we cannot slip into the dangerous trap of holding a fixed image of a utopia for which other values and other lives need to be sacrificed in great numbers.
In the next section of this essay, I will begin to suggest the open-ended set of trends which, if they are helped to continue and converge, would begin to describe a world that resonates with my decision to be hopeful. Yet there is one more thing I would like to touch on here while I am discussing the subjectivity—issues of faith, choice, intentionality, neurochemistry, etc.—of hopefulness. It concerns this question of clarifying the direction of improvement, and it basically repeats the point that I made earlier about the need to enfolded negativity into our optimism (sanely and to the best of our ability in our circumstances). What does it mean to think about improvement? How do human beings orient toward feelings that might be interpreted overall as a better direction of outcomes and actions?
A lot of basic learning about improvement involves the experience of pain and frustration. The classic example of a child jerking its hand away from a hot surface is an instance of quick, high-intensity, value-clarifying, experiential education. I may not know exactly where is the perfect spot for my hand to be located at this moment, but I definitely do not want it to be there! The set of possible hand locations corresponding to my implicit value structure has suddenly narrowed. In other words, there is an increase in the precision of my definition of benign outcomes. That is so simple and obvious that it hardly needs to be mentioned. What does it suggest to my way of thinking? Should people be sitting down, personally and in groups, to list the things we hate the most, that hurt the most, and then listing whatever we decide is a plausible opposite or alternative to that? And then working on those while also grouping them together to see if they have commonalities that could describe a general direction of changes-we-can-endorse and to which we can commit ourselves with hope?
Yes, of course.
However my point in this section is a little more abstract and internal. It is about using negative evaluations very directly to make phenomenological contact with the “energy or quality” of value inside each of us. When thermometers register coldness they are actually still registering a quantity of heat in which they are in immediate contact. When you discover that you are facing South then you also immediately know where the North Pole is located. Or at least that knowledge becomes possible if you can zero in on the contextual comparison implied by your feelings. Frustrating situations provide an option, if we are free to take advantage of it, to enhance phenomenological contact with that part of ourselves that can emotionally confirm our existence and our efforts. For me, this is summarized in typically provocative aphorism (Nietzsche, 1886): “He who despises himself still honors himself as one who despises.” That suggests that a negative valuation indicates the presence of our evaluative capacity which either generates or is directly engaged with our experience of value. Human hearts are metaphorically touching their values in order to gauge how well they are related to the given circumstance. Remembering this odd idea, trying to remember and enact it whenever possible, is a metacognitive skill that I believe helps people to become better agents of hopefulness.
To say it again in a very non-Nietzschean way, virtuous people are those who remember and embody their values during frustrating, painful and obstructing situations. They remain oriented toward “the north pole” even when they are facing south. They are able to leverage the immediate experience of unsatisfying situations in order to align more purposefully with their unfolding understanding of what positive changes would look like. Clearly we cannot all do this strange inner movement all the time. Just as clearly my frustration at the mass slaughter of sharks by industrial Chinese fish boats is different from a Syrian mother who just saw a bomb dropped on her family home. And yet we do all have some degree of internal leeway. In his book Man’s Search For Meaning (Frankl, 1946), Victor Frankl describes the significant difference in health and survival rates among Nazi concentration camp prisoners who did or did not have a strong inner connection to value and hope.
Most cultures have some idea of a saint. An idea about extraordinary individuals who are able to enact and embody personal or cultural values with some indifference to their circumstances. I am not a saint. I cannot resolutely connect to positive value through encounters that I evaluate negatively. However I can aspire to be better at remembering, refining and re-finding that subjective inner sense that makes me feel as though I know what direction of action corresponds to “better.”
There must be a broadly distributed experience of amplified meaningfulness that unites disparate types of people in a shared willingness to work toward sustainable improvements.
I will suggest in the third section of this essay that we all need to be, in some degree, shamans. Instead I could have said that the citizens of a better world need to be partial saints or boddhisattvas. Either way, unless we can get better at connecting with and feeling into our private experience of worthwhileness, then we probably lack the motivation, self-confirmation and directionality needed to make efforts at improving all life on this planet.
Hope and hopelessness are intimately related with and defined by each other. We must start thinking about how to use them as a team. The presence of the latter must become, in part, the justification of the former. I know this might sound both abstract and moralizing, but I would like anyone reading this to consider that the scale of the problems facing the world requires that human beings grow, to whatever degree they can, beyond the limitation of simply “waiting to hear if the world justifies our hopefulness.” There is a need for all kinds of people to be involved in serious conversations about the kind of lives and the kind of planet that is important, worthwhile and worth struggling toward—but there is also another conversation. In this other conversation the reason for hope is, sometimes, just because you decided to be hopeful.
II. Worlds Worth Hoping For
The ancient Romans imagined their imperial city as a deity. This suggests that they contemplated their form of life as though it were an awe-inspiring power—a transhistorical glory that reflected their culture back to them with an excessive quality that approximated the way in which they imagined the realm of gods, goddesses and other supernal potencies. Society as peak experience. That is to say, a shared artifact (the city) imaginatively transfigured by a social style that seemed to call the citizens beyond themselves, asking them to experientially recall and embody the fact that they are part of a greatness that transcends them.
In the first section of this essay I my concern was to explore the possibilities of voluntarily deepening our connection to a sense of valuable hopefulness within the personal experience of individuals. Now I will consider the issue of hope more broadly. What is a good society? Apart from the retrospective historical analysis of a society’s decency and its effects upon the ecosystem, the basic implicit test might be whether large numbers of people living in that fashion are feeling a strong, shared background appreciation of their collected social habits. They may not be able to define it very well, they may anchor it in mythology, but a functioning society, by my definition, gives people a reason to get out of bed (if they have beds) in the morning. There must be a broadly distributed experience of amplified meaningfulness that unites disparate types of people in a shared willingness to work toward sustainable improvements—according to their understanding of what that might mean. The Romans were able to accomplish this, to some degree, despite their ethnocentric aggression and their disturbing tolerance for cruelty and slavery. Many tribal societies seem to have accomplished this despite their low-tech, highly regional grasp of the world. For me this sort of shared vivifying spirit is the minimum that we should expect. It is the first sign of a society that is worth hoping for and therefore worth struggling to achieve. However, clearly, that can come in many different forms…
We all need a vast, flexible and interacting balance of innumerable kinds of organisms.
When I contemplate hopeful futures—as I did for Bruce Alderman’s Eutopia series on The Integral Stage podcast (Pascal, 2019)—I have in mind a “city” that is significantly more worthy, in my opinion, than old, noble, slave-hoarding and blood-stained Rome. I am envisioning a similar apotheosis, an equal or greater sense of feeling impressed and engaged by human culture at the worldcentric or cosmocentric scale that frames the current educated human conservation. ? do you mean “conversation”? unclear what this last phrase refers to. Despite the fact that many people still passionately identify with subcultures, nations and tribe-like factions, the majority of human beings also implicitly understand that phones, computers and electricity are connecting the entire planet. We are (at least tentatively) a spacefaring species. Whether we are politically motivated to assert or denounce global climate change, we do so either way in a conversation that is formally framed by the concept of the whole planet. This is the hill upon which our city will have to be built. Such a society should be conceived in a way that (a) inspires us to build it and which (b) provides, as it emerges, a shared sense of being unambiguously worth the efforts necessary to protect and enhance it. That is my notion of the minimum requirement but it is certainly not enough. Intelligibility and benevolence are also required. What is a better world that both “makes sense” and “is good?”
That’s hard to envision but I am going to at least try.
The Ecology of Hope
A civilization of which I would be honored to be a citizen cannot be one in which the basic conditions of life are sabotaged. I think this is a general human concern. We will all need clean air, clean water, diverse forests, thriving oceans, living landscapes, beautiful environments and healthy bodies. We all need a vast, flexible and interacting balance of innumerable kinds of organisms. Despite many diverse cultural attitudes on this planet, I think we all want a situation in which we are not drowning, burning, being torn apart by storms, or made subject to coercive social systems that ignore the multifarious needs built into our bodies, hearts and minds.
From my way of thinking, all this stuff has something in common.
This sample of conditions necessary for a desirable human civilization all involve knowing about, appreciating, adapting to, and contributing to the natural systems of the world. Either we relate well to the organismic (including our own human bodies, organs and bacterial communities), ecological and climatological realities—or we don’t.
If I am blind to the patterns of the climate, the ecosystem or my own organism, then I will not behave in ways that coordinate with their needs.
This is such a hugely important and obvious factor for evaluating possible futures that I would like to spend a moment unpacking what “relate well” means. Relating well is a concept of dynamic coordination that produces outcomes that are adequately pleasurable and sustainable. To be coordinated means that you responsively acknowledge the Other in ways that reflect both its needs and your needs. The understanding of “needs” presupposes an understanding of structures. I simply cannot help you get out of a pit if I do not see, hear or know that you have fallen into it and that the form of your body does not enable you to leap out of deep holes in the ground. I cannot viscerally cognize the moral need if I am blind to the structures.
If I am blind to the patterns of the climate, the ecosystem or my own organism, then I will not behave in ways that coordinate with their needs. We will not be relating well. So the first thing is awareness. I have to perceive you in some way. And there are many ways: I can perceive you consciously or subconsciously. I can perceive you intellectually or emotionally or aesthetically. Etc.
Imagine that I go deep into the forest and touch a huge, beautiful cedar tree. Then I smell it. Maybe I spend time feeling about it (and with it). Perhaps I have paid attention to diagrams of tree anatomy and also heard new findings about the interdependence of its roots system on other organisms. These are all complementary ways of increasing my “mapping” of the tree. I am perceiving it more richly and, hopefully, more accurately. I register it more completely and in a manner that more closely resembles the mystery of its actual complex, multidimensional structure. Although this process is never perfect, I am now in a position to understand its needs better and therefore to coordinate with it in greater mutual fidelity.
The inner networks that comprise my personal psychology now include patterns that more closely resemble the networks that comprise the Western red cedar tree in question. This is essential for increased coordination. Likewise if the knowledge networks comprising human farming and gardening include a rich pattern that corresponds to the existence of mycelial webs in the soil, then they will begin to act significantly differently than if they do not contain those same mycelium-recognizing patterns. If our governmental and legislative systems do not contain structures that correspond to and acknowledge the human body’s need for particular healthy food, then they will almost certainly operate indifferently to that need. And if the invisible hand of the market cannot represent to itself the value of a living coral reef, then its calculations will proceed without regard to those reefs.
Systems cannot coordinate with what they do not register.
So a world hoping for is one in which human systems (psychological, economic, technological, informational, social, procedural) are much better able to responsively recognize the dynamic structural systems of nature. My belief is that our individual and collective capacity to relate with natural systems depends on our ability to be informed by the patterns of those systems in all areas of life. That means business, politics and art. It means diet, education and religion. There is no one domain in which we can fix all our problems, but we can try to discern complementary directions of change that might lead toward an improved planetary civilization if they are preferentially cultivated in multiple domains.
Systems cannot coordinate with what they do not register.
Consider the following cluster of perspectives from Western cultural history. Dante observed that, “Art imitates Nature as well as it can,” while Oscar Wilde claimed that “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” And then Jackson Pollock went on to add, “I am Nature.” These three quotes illustrate complementary versions of the same basic insight. Dante suggests that successful artistic processes are meant to duplicate, in human technological and cultural spaces, the types of patternings that have proven to be beautiful, efficient and adaptive in natural systems. Wilde indicates that there is a two-way relationship whereby we affect the world in our attempts to reflect the world. And the abstract expressionist painter Pollock asserts that a person could authentically demonstrate the naturalness of their own being in ways that approximate the structural integrity and beauty of natural systems. It is clearly a complicated business to contemplate the relationship between human beings and Nature!
Nature vs Natural
At one level we are no different from Nature but in many ways we feel distinct and operate uniquely from the rest of the biosphere. The behavior of human minds, societies and technological systems sometimes seems to fit in nicely with the ecosystem and other times appears dramatically, even destructively, uncoordinated with other organisms and environments. I am tempted to describe this as a tension between naturalness and unnaturalness within the human conception of Nature. What do I mean by these terms? I will try to quickly draw some distinctions to help make it clear how I am thinking about these concepts.
In my phraseology, not all “Nature” is “natural.”
Human beings created a practical (but imaginary) distinction between their psychological, cultural and technological experience and the idea of the total background of all the matter, biology and cosmos that provides the basis of human life and also generates the limitations to which that life is subject. Nature is a vast category. It is neither good nor bad. It equally includes beautiful fragrant roses and the lifeless, freezing void of interstellar space. Nature is both the softly beating heart of a gentle woodland fawn and the raging torrent of poisonous gases and fire billowing forth from an ancient volcano to devastate the biosphere for a million years. While the English language sometimes uses the word Nature to describe the indifferent totality of the nonhuman universe, it also frequently uses the word “natural” to imply a special positive value. For example, I would like to feel free to move and communicate myself more naturally. People travel great distances on quasi-religious pilgrimages to visit natural parks and to appreciate the wonders of the natural world. These phrasings suggest an attempt to communicate something more specific than the indifferent background of the world. It even seems to point at a category more particular than the totality of all biology. When a viral organism devastates and mutilates a formerly thriving beehive, then human beings are inclined to view that as somewhat unnatural. Through our neurophysiological and cultural training we recognize and privilege some arrangements over others at a very basic level. Despite the great cultural and individual diversity of human opinions, doctors in most cultures are more likely to recommend “forest bathing” (natural immersion) as a medical treatment rather than, say, “parking-lot bathing.”
There is a subset of nature whose interlinked patterns, while remaining diverse and adaptive, correspond to conditions under which both human beings and ecosystems tend to thrive. These patternings might as well be honored with the word naturalness so that we can think more deeply about their relevance. It is important, in my view, to ponder concepts like these because they are ways of languaging the characteristics of a world worth hoping for and working toward.
The normative aspirational quality of “natural” is also hinted at in the Anglo-American term naturalization—namely the naturalization process by which an immigrant becomes a citizen. Although actual naturalization procedures are frequently flawed, corrupt or merely symbolic, nonetheless the word selection reflects an underlying image of a living being who becomes adaptively and productively (according to the local standard and sensibilities) embedded in the shared legal, economic and physical ecosystems of a nation. I am trying to emphasize a meaning of naturalness that suggests it is a positively-valued, interdependent, organizational quality that can differ by degree and which is non-identical to the totality of Nature.
This is a very interesting concept to play with because it seems to have simultaneous significance for health, aesthetics, ethics, scientific understanding and basic survival. Human systems tend to drift toward disorganization and dissatisfaction if they do not understand how to support regenerative ecosystems and if they do not appreciate the ethical responsibility and aesthetic beauty involved in relating with natural systems—and if they do not nourish themselves consciously and subconsciously in ways that contribute to a balance of interdependent thriving in their bodies, communities and relationships with other organisms.
So I am arguing for what I feel most passionate about. It is this: orientation toward the design space for a desirable, sustainable, interdisciplinary civilization at the planetary or interplanetary scale depends on aligning our various personal and social efforts around the clarification, appreciation and embodiment of naturalness. I could use a different word but this one is both personally evocative and widely understood in an intuitive sense. In other words, I am feeling toward an ecomorphic eudaimoniacal eutopia.
Historically literate readers are likely to be familiar with Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia—wherein all the good spirits, within and without, are flourishing very well together. It is the idea of full-spectrum, multidirectional thriving. One reason that utopians have often created dystopias is because their excessive top-down authority prioritizes some of our natural drives and needs as good while also taking it upon themselves to suppress, ignore or even murder other parts of our internal or external communities which they believe are divergent, upsetting or trivial. Therefore when I use the word eudaimonia, I intend to imply all the major forms of complex, mutually-adapted, pluralism: interspecies well-being, intrapsychic well-being, professional neurodiversity, “all the chakras,” and so on.
You can probably guess that eutopia is just a way of speaking about utopias so that we steer, as best we can, toward well-being rather than toward imposed visions of the perfect society. That’s pretty obvious. So what about “ecomorphism?”
The presence of natural (eco) shapes (morphology) strikes me—when it is generalized across multiple domains of human activity—as an important tool for helping to evaluate whether our individual and social efforts are likely to converge toward enhanced naturalness. I would use the word ecomorphic to describe the degree to which human systems are informed by complex natural systems. When this happens across multiple kinds of human behaviors, then I believe there is an emergent trend toward naturalness. A trend that characterizes a hopeful future for sentient beings. That is definitely aspirational and abstract so let me try to give a few examples.
Negative Megalith #5, by Michael Heizer. Dia Beacon, New York (Photo by Gary Newman)
Most people move around in social environments each day. The actual movements of your body can be more or less reflective of relevant natural systems. Do your technological? Word choice? shoes fit and assist the structure of your natural feet? Imagine that you are always only walking on flat, hard surfaces or else sitting in simple, angular chairs and hunched over digital devices while being physiologically contracted around a constant stream of symbolic thoughts about unresolved social situations. That certainly cultivates very different moods than, say, hiking in the hills, allowing your mind to fill with the sensory patterns of the river, moving your anatomy with the responsive grace of a Tai Chi master. I can hazard a guess as to which kind of mood makes human beings more inclined to understand what a healthier, more natural civilization should be like. When psychological, social, behavioral and technological patterns are more informed by natural systems, then they evolve in a more benevolent direction.
Complex organic nutrients are recommended in our diet because these tend to move human bodies toward healthier and more beautiful outcomes than does the consumption of processed white flour and sugar. If developing children are regularly exposed to the sophisticated patterns of sound and color in immersive ecosystems, they seem to achieve greater visual and auditory acuity than children who are adapted in their formative years to the simple sounds and colors that tend to predominate in urban and commercial living spaces. If architectural spaces incorporate more trees, this contributes to better air quality, climate regulation, soil stability and aesthetic pleasure. These are only a few examples of a phenomenon that is widely felt and recognized by informed, sensitive and biologically healthy human beings. All I am adding here is the idea that a certain kind of responsive information patterning is involved in all these cases. When human knowledge, feelings, behaviors, artifacts and protocols demonstrate a higher degree of discernment, acknowledgment and responsiveness to natural patterns, then we trend toward more benign, regenerative and interdependent outcomes.
Put another way, the mapping of natural systems within human systems helps steer us toward a hopeful world. I am not emphasizing the human but rather trying to keep the human and the natural constantly in play together as concepts that must become much more compatible.
The widely-discussed problem of the accumulating and destructive effects upon the world from large-scale, technologically-advanced, modern human civilization is not a problem about human beings, technology or society per se. I would argue that the problem is the inadequate re-presentation (the enactment of corresponding patterns) of activity behaviors, architectures, limits and needs within the embodied behavior of human systems. That is a solvable problem in the sense that we could recognize it and implement corresponding changes in all areas of life.
Today we talk about anthropogenic climate change. In these important discussions, commentators often get lazy and suppose that the problem is the fact of human influence itself when in reality the much more nuanced problem is the type or quality of the anthropogenic changes. Different qualities of change are, I claim, linked to the re-presentational richness implied in the way that natural systems are encoded within human systems.
Consider degrees of richness in the re-presentation of a maple tree. Start with a stick drawing and proceed to a photograph or naturalistic painting. It looks to the human eye as if more naturalness is showing up in these configurations. Then add some depth by 3D printing a plastic duplicate of the tree. Well, that looks good from the outside but, of course, the inside doesn’t resemble the inside of a tree. So switch from plastic to complex, self-regenerative cellular biology with a variety of sophisticated electrochemical activity. Another layer of resemblance is achieved and the feeling quality continues to shift. What is the humanly-generating pattern still missing? It does not exist in isolation. Add a forest. Add the symbiotic webs that trees form with other organisms in the soil. Add the infra-acoustic sounds that it makes when you pluck a leaf too soon.
Humanity must know the world better in a great variety of ways.
It is not difficult to understand that the increasing fidelity of the re-presentation to the complex natural reality determines a great deal about how well we can work with this maple tree. Here the question of ethics may arise. Suppose I knew everything about an organism but nonetheless did not appreciate or value it? Yet the complementary question arises too: suppose that I was deeply appreciative but, because I had an insufficient understanding of its actual structure, all my attempts to help actually generated harm? If I feed you what is poisonous for your structure, then it does not matter much that I wanted to nurture your health.
I think it is obvious that we must do both. Understanding must not be understood (sic) narrowly or superficially. The process of deepening, enriching and expanding the capacity of human systems to map natural dynamics involves all the forms of dynamic psychological, social and technological pattern-making. I am using a set of concepts such as mirroring, mapping, knowing, cognizing, etc. that may sound outdated, left-brained, narrowly modern and linear-mechanistic but I am using them to imply a holistic, complex approach that is both ancient and futuristic. It is ancient in the sense that many archaic and indigenous cultures were able to locally embody behaviors that worked well with natural systems. However it is futuristic in the sense that our species needs to be able to detect, articulate and technologically implement natural design principles across a much wider variety of environments and scales than our ancestors evolved to accommodate. Humanity must know the world better in a great variety of ways.
The Many Moods of Mapping
To know a landscape more accurately means many things. It can imply a larger overview or a more nuanced zoom into the details. It may suggest being able to label the parts, but it may equally suggest the emotional and moral responses with which we depict our embodied relationship to the significances, vulnerabilities and affordances of that landscape. What does it look like through the infrared wavelength of light? What does it feel like to sit with it in silence? How does it change if I play the video back much faster or much more slowly?
All the ways in which the dynamic relational structures can be registered with greater resolution into technological, psychological and social facets of human experience are complementary versions of the same type of movement. It is a movement toward greater richness of representation. That does not imply a simplified mental photograph or set of statistics. The many mapping and mirroring processes are the ways in which complex human systems enter into deeper resonance with the dynamic morphology of complex natural systems. The more these “two” types of patterning can inform each other harmoniously, across disciplines and across various aspects of ourselves, the more we become participants in the cultivation of a naturalness-oriented civilization. Ecomorphic eudaimonia.
Buckminster Fuller obseved that when “ a Man-contrived structure buckles unexpectedly, it does not fail. It only demonstrates that Man did not understand Nature’s laws and behaviors.” (Fuller, 1976) Right now our dominant global civilization is buckling. We have not designed it or evolved it in a manner that is adequate to the natural systems upon which it depends. It needs to be comprehensively restructured in a manner that corresponds more completely and richly to the needs, solutions and patterning styles of what we call Nature. This is possible. It has occurred in numerous ways over the course of human history and we are, in one sense, better positioned than ever to implement it since we have more capacity to peer into natural complexity than ever before, more capacity to produce human systems than ever before and more capacity to coordinate across cultures and disciplines. In the degree to which we see this possibility, we acquire a responsibility to clarify and serve the emergence of a highly ecomorphic civilization.
What do “shamans” look like at the scale of the global village and in the age of internets, pandemics and space travel?
If the future of life on Earth is not sustainable, regenerative, vivifying, attractive, interactive, flexible, mutual, creative, nutritious and profound, then it is not worth hoping for. So we must hope for the type of civilization that is all of those things. Our commitment must be to build, allow and grow in ways that move toward whatever all those qualities have in common. I am calling that naturalness and I am suggesting that it is intimately connected with understanding that we must cultivate human systems of all kinds to be more faithfully informed by the way of ecosystems.
As with voluntary hopefulness, this is not a passive task. Naturalness is not simply given to human beings to either conserve or squander. It is a profoundly participatory process. Ecomorphic eudaimonia is an orienting principle that describes and encourages the cultivation of generalized thriving across both human and natural systems via the increase of reciprocal patterning between those two types of systems.
The only kind of world that I would suggest is worth “voluntarily hoping for” is one that secures the increase of experientially-verified feelings of naturalness in all domains.
III. Participatory, Ecologically-Oriented Spirituality
In his classic book, The World as Will and Representation (Schopenhauer, 1818), that famously cantankerous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer discussed the supreme importance of what he called aesthetic contemplation saying that “the man who is tormented by passion, or want, or care, is suddenly revived, cheered, and restored by a single free glance into nature.”
A free glance into nature? I find that phrase very beautiful.
Schopenhauer’s argument is that upset within human psychology can be temporarily resolved by a deeply resonant perception of the beauty, richness and integrated complexity that natural systems have evolved to embody. Why is this important? It is significant because human consciousness has an important role to play in cultivating and inhabiting a so-called ecomorphic eudaimonia. There are issues around how attention, feelings, inner practices, attitudes, rituals, altered states and spirituality can help the emergence of a planetary-scale culture that protects, resembles, understands and amplifies the quality of naturalness.
What sort of people are needed for this task?
Pessimistic and misogynistic 19th century German scholars like Schopenhauer are worlds away from how I envision a vital indigenous shaman, but there is an important correspondence between them. They are both oriented toward a compelling and transcendental perception of natural systems. I am invoking them in order to contemplate the idea of human attention when it moves so deeply toward natural complexity that peak-like conditions arise that are of benefit to individuals and provide inspiration for social habits. In these states of participatory trance, human beings can experience a release from both personal stresses and local social assumptions. That capacity provides a leverage point from which to improvise new kinds of social customs as well as contributing vivid insights into the intrinsic worth of the way that nature operates and generates itself. These are enhanced experiences of the “mapping” that I described earlier in which natural forms pour more deeply into the human heart and imprint their patterning styles there with greater salience.
Of course it is true that altered states of consciousness, moral development and practices of inspirational communion are found in many great wisdom-traditions, but there are some special reasons to favor the archetype of the shaman at this moment in history. The kind of spirituality that supports ecomorphic eudaimonia has to exhibit several crucial features. It must be deeply ecological in order to appreciate the patterns and responsibilities that emerge from an experiential understanding of the interdependence of human beings and the rest of the biosphere. It must be embodied and health-oriented (e.g. “medicine woman”) because it must cause minds and societies to serve the holistic intelligence of the living ecosystems of our bodies. It must facilitate more profound encounters with non-human intelligences. It must have a genius for flow-states because those are states in which we feel more naturalness and growth in ourselves—and also the compelling nature of flow-states will need to be tapped in order to encourage human participation in new social customs that move us toward a world worth hoping for. People have got to feel better and more empowered to learn about, and look after, environments than they do when ignoring or desecrating resources.
Something in myself is crying out for a different kind of human civilization in which a deeper resonance exists between human patterns and natural patterns
I could continue a long list of this sort, but I am sure you get the general idea which is that the classical image of the shaman approximates the kind people who need to proliferate for the production and sustainability of an ecomorphic eudaimonia. Obviously not everyone needs to specialize in being priests of naturalness, but a culture in which these skills are recognized and proliferate more widely does strike me as necessary. These are part of the citizenship experience of the eutopia toward which I have been gesturing.
A Call for Eco-Anthropic Mediators
David Abram, in The Spell of the Sensuous (Abrams, 1996), describes his experience of shamans as self-selected mediators who are tasked with managing the relationship between social and natural intelligences. These characters, often living on the outskirts of villages (the nature/society interface), operate as intermediaries between the needs and customs of human populations and the behavior of plants, animals, weather, etc. Through a fascinating and often improvised set of practices, this kind of shaman cultivates an extraordinary and multisensory appreciation for natural dynamics which can then inform the many domains of activity within the cultural space.
What do “shamans” look like at the scale of the global village and in the age of internets, pandemics and space travel? This is an open-ended question whose full exploration requires much more than simply my own pondering. Instead of telling what future shamans will look like in detail, permit me to say a few things about myself for we are coming close to the of this personal essay.
I am a poor example of a shaman for the planetary civilization. Although I try to daily immerse myself in (stay experientially updated about the details of) my local ecosystem, I do not always remember to touch the earth and smell the wind. I do not often enough peer into the nuances and exchanges among the insects until I reach that utterly astonishing point at which it feels there is a dialogue arising between us. I have not fought hard enough to make sure there are more trees in my city and more solar panels (re-presenting the energy assimilation tactics of the plants). Why do I live in a square building? The biosphere doesn’t build with squares! Why have I not studied more diligently how to shepherd mycelial networks beneath the soil in my yard? I’m thirsty for engaging, civic festivals centered around immersion in and reverence for facets of nature. I want to listen better to the frogs and know more about how their DNA is structured. It seems to me that every human on Earth ought to be able to draw the continents, mountains and rivers of the whole planet from memory. I feel like I love the Earth, but how well do I even know what it looks like?
How did I through almost two decades of “education” and still not know the full anatomy of human bodies or the complex climate dynamics of this world? Why does the economy in my society still treat natural resources as externalities that it does not need to register?
I am making here a very personal confession about the emotional experiences underlying this whole essay. Something in myself is crying out for a different kind of human civilization in which a deeper resonance exists between human patterns and natural patterns. I am pointed toward that in my heart and so I am attempting to point toward it with my speech. For that world to emerge, I think we must each become more like shamans in our own ways. Ecomorphic eudaimonia has a chance if the trajectory of civilization improves toward participatory naturalness in multiple domains of activity, intelligence and instantiation. That means that human beings, and especially those who feel moved to work toward a civilization upgrade, must embody a deep appreciation, understanding, assimilation (and wise creation) of the qualities and patterns that are most beautiful, regenerative and interdependent in complex natural systems. There are many things we could call that process but I am choosing, for reasons touched on above, to place it under the heading of a new planetary shamanism. We all need to be a little more shamanic, in this sense, if we are going to shift our minds into voluntary responsibility for the ecologically-inspired human civilization that is, like, totally possible.
Terrence McKenna once said that “Nature is the center of the mandala.” (McKenna, 1987) I agree. And that’s something I would opt for with hope.