GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY

PCDForum Column #69,  Release Date February 1, 1994

by Willis W. Harman

Most of the debates on how best to address global problems such as environmental degradation, climate-change, the punctured ozone layer, and poverty fail to see them as symptoms of a more fundamental systemic condition. We would easily see the absurdity in the situation of a patient who implores his physician to heal him, but insists that the doctor not interfere with his drinking, smoking, eating, or sexual habits or his stress-producing attitudes toward work. Yet we do something similar when we admit the seriousness of our unsustainable modern way of life and insist that the cure be sought without disturbing our beliefs that:

  • technological advance, economic growth, and material progress are the sufficient goals of modern society;
  • economic logic and values will lead to socially desirable decisions;
  • individuals are linked to society through jobs;
  • increased consumption of goods and services creates jobs, and hence is good for society;
  • the North-South, rich-poor gap will be resolved by accelerated economic growth in the South; and,
  • the Western materialistic, reductionistic scientific worldview provides a satisfactory basis for guidance of individual and societal decisions.

Yet it is becoming increasingly evident that our committed adherence to these beliefs is a fundamental cause of our collective crisis.

Ken Wilber has noted that the worldviews of practically all other societies have embraced a very different core set of ideas, sometimes called the "perennial wisdom." According to this wisdom, the world of material things is embedded in a living universe, which in turn exists within a realm of consciousness, or spirit. Things are not cannot be separate; everything is part of a "great chain of being." It has been a peculiarity of modern Western society that it restricted its official knowledge system, science, to the matter end of this ontological continuum (where things are physically measurable), and to "upward" causation. With that restriction came a faith that all phenomena are governed by inviolable, quantified "scientific laws." This faith unleashed the power of modern science (basically, to create manipulative technology), but also left science inherently unable to deal with the non-physical especially anything having to do with our experience of consciousness. This resulted in modern society's fundamental confusion about such important matters as values, meanings, aesthetic sense, ultimate human desires and motivations, spiritual yearnings, and our relationship to the rest of the natural world.

There is growing evidence that a fundamental cultural change may be underway in the Western world. Its most fundamental characteristics include:

  • An increased emphasis on the connectedness of everything to everything.
  • A shift in the locus of authority from external to internal.
  • A shift in the perceived location of cause from external to internal.

For several decades we have seen a widening group of people making personal changes based on a sense that our thoughts create our own realities and are thus a cause of what happens to us; that each of us can find at the inner core of our being a deep sense of purpose; that if we trust, and operate as much as possible from unconditional love, the universe in mysterious ways seems to support our endeavors; that it really works to live as though all experience is a source of learning neither to be deplored nor exulted. It seems to be the exciting prospect before us that first individuals and small groups, then organizations, then finally whole societies might shift to such a basis. This would open up wholly new ways for approaching the goals of living in harmony with nature, eradicating hunger and poverty, building societies which encourage development of the highest potentialities of human beings, and achieving global peace with justice. It is as impossible to imagine the ultimate impact of such a dramatically revolutionary worldview shift as it would have been impossible in the early 17th century to imagine the characteristics of the modern world.

However, we still find it difficult to think about the elements of the resulting crisis in whole-system terms; to recognize business and the economy as parts of the greater global ecological system, and to acknowledge the ineffectuality of attempting to patch up a system which requires more fundamental change. Ironically, more fundamental changes to address the roots of the crisis are not inherently more difficult or costly than proposals for patch up. The major barrier is our psychological resistance to accepting a more accurate worldview.


Willis W. Harman is president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, 475 Gate Five Road, Suite 300, Sausalito, California 94965 and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his writing.

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