Sunday, 27 October 2013

Practical Primal Philosphy IV: Intrinsic Resilience

Resilience refers to the property or ability that is able to “bounce back” or recover quickly from difficulties.  It can be applied widely to substances such as rubber and natural phenomena such as ecosystems as well as to institutions, societies and people. It is for example a widely recognised capability in psychology in which it refers to an individual's tendency to cope well with stress and adversity without showing negative side effects.

In a sense resilience is always “intrinsic”, or built-in. It does not require assistance or intervention to function although some external conditions will favour resilience whilst others will not. So what more are we adding to the concept of resilience when we call it “intrinsic”? The answer to this question has to do with boundaries.

“Resilience Engineering” for example represents a new way of thinking about some aspects of management. It acknowledges the new world of Primal Reporter in which networks and emergent complex interactions replace relatively simple chains of cause and effect. But Resilience Engineering is bounded by the very organisations that it manages: within our business and other organisations, it looks for ways to create processes that are robust, flexible and able to maintain the efficient use of resources in the face of disruptions or ongoing production and economic pressures. In other words Resilience Engineering shares boundaries with traditional conceptions of businesses and other organisations.

In a similar way, those who are concerned with our societies may seek to build more resilient societies that are better prepared for, and able to recover from, emergencies. Since societies are far larger and more complex than any individual organisation, this responsibility is shared widely between central and local government, emergency services, the private sector, civil society and individual communities. Hence social resilience transcends the boundaries of any specific organisation or indeed legal jurisdiction.

But for the “intrinsic” in resilience we need to go beyond even these social boundaries. Intrinsic resilience is concerned with whole world complexities. Responding to Climate Change is one such challenge for intrinsic resilience and it involves whole world complexities. The Poptech Climate Lab reports that by 2050 some 250 million people may be displaced by climate change. To put that in perspective, it means a ten-fold increase over the documented number of displaced persons we are witnessing at the moment – and that is a huge amount of disruption, stress and pain.

But climate change is not the only external pressure that we, mankind, has to face. Water, food and energy shortages no longer loom but are facts in today’s world. The forthcoming “Global Sustainable Development Report” from the United Nations (UN)  argues that we need to sustain Earth, biodiversity, ecosystems, ecosystem services, resources, environment, peace, cultures, groups and places. This is such a broad list that sustainable development can be taken to be going beyond any boundaries that we have previously had to deal with in businesses, societies, nations and international organisations.
Sustainable Development is a matter of concern for all of us. It will not be sufficient to let others make the necessary changes or to think that in the long-term all will be well. Indeed some kinds of change are gradual and we will no doubt adapt in time to proceed with fairly smooth and continuous change. But some of the other kinds of change that will come with climate change and unsustainable forms of development will be sudden and chaotic with widely spread impacts:
“Evidence points to a situation where periods of such abrupt change are likely to increase in frequency and magnitude. This challenges the adaptive capacity of societies.”
So what can we do? The Stockholm Resilience Centre argues quite rightly that increased knowledge is important when coping with the stresses caused by climate change and other environmental impacts. But the centre is dealing with increasing resilience as a response to abrupt change: this contrasts most clearly with intrinsic resilience that does the same but in addition gets down to dealing with root causes.
The book Intrinsic Sustainable Development: epistemes, science, business and sustainability (Birkin & Polesie, World Scientific Press, 2011) is an exploration, both personal and objective, of the root causes of unsustainable development. It is particularly concerned with how dominant social systems such as capitalism and free-markets have distant roots in a kind of scientific understanding that has now been displaced. In essence, this mismatch between significant social institutions and new scientific realities provides an excellent explanation of the root causes of unsustainable development and climate change. The book offers alternatives to capitalism and free markets that will increase our intrinsic resilience in businesses, societies, the world at large and in ourselves.
It is however the “in ourselves” part of resilience that we wish to highlight here in this post. After all, it is ourselves, we extraordinary people, that invented capitalism, free-markets and the whole gamut of neo-classical economics that in some almost unimaginable way permits major institutions to damage and destroy whole classes of people and nature to the extent that Earth’s basic life support systems are themselves damaged.
So it is the attitudes and values of everyday, extraordinary people that we need to address at the heart of Intrinsic Resilience. To increase Intrinsic Resilience, we need to ask the question: “If we really want to make the transition to a world that is healthy, sustainable and just, what attitudes and values would we and our societies need to hold?”
This is no ephemeral question for attitudes and values determine who we are and what we do – and we need answers right now:
“For many of the world’s poorest communities, the adverse effects of climate change are no longer a future possibility; they are a present reality. The poverty, dislocation, health crises, resource conflicts, food insecurity and economic harm that climate change engenders threaten to undo many of the humanitarian and other global development gains of the past thirty years. Marginalized constituencies experience the effects of climate disruption worst and first. And among the most vulnerable are rural girls and women.” 

The World's poorest communities are the most vulnerable.

We do have answers. It is not lucky that answers are available; nor is it a coincidence that the answers involve “intrinsic” concepts. It is a sign of the times, a sign of new understandings based on new knowledge that are now emerging, the coming Primal Age or episteme that is the over-riding subject of this blog.
What are the answers? Well there is no easy answer in the sense of a quick solution that we input into the system and all is well. The changes required are far too big and complex for that to happen. The answers are ones that will changes us, we extraordinary people, and allow us to think, develop and act in ways that increase intrinsic resilience and create more robust, stable, equitable and healthier worlds in which all of life may flourish. The answers are ones that help us to overcome some of the restraints and narrowness of day-to-day life which can create a small and mean sense of who we are, what we need and what we do. The answers are ones that gives us greater riches even though we may own less! The answers are ones that increase our motivations and rewards by increasing our sense of who we are and what we can do. The answers change people.
Take a first step towards working out your own personal yet generic answers and read, think about and begin to apply the following:

Monday, 12 August 2013

Practical Primal Philosophy III: Intrinsic Nature in China

In a previous blog post PPP II: Intrinsic Nature in Europe, the question was asked “How did we forget our relations with nature?” and an answer was provided with regard to Europe. In this post, we want to put together an answer to the same question but one that contrasts European and Chinese attitudes.

 Ancient China had enjoyed a very different relationship with nature from that to be found in Christian Europe. Respective attitudes towards dragons may help to make the distinction clear. 

In Europe, Saint George is famous for slaying a dragon. Saint George was born in Palestine towards the end of the third century AD. Before he became one of the most venerated saints in western Christendom, George was a soldier in the Roman army. 

On a human level, the hagiography of Saint George is one of inspiring self-sacrifice in the name of faith. Diocletian was George’s Roman emperor and he favoured George. He promoted George to the rank of “Tribunus” and made him a member of the imperial guard. In AD 302, Diocletian saw the rise of Christianity in his armed forces as a threat to his own pagan sources of power and he commanded that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time.

George objected to this command. Indeed George made an issue of this attempt to extirpate Christianity from the Roman Empire. In front of the army, George affirmed his Christianity and declared his worship of Jesus Christ. Diocletian actually liked and admired George but he was an emperor and such an affront to his command could not go unpunished. Even so, Diocletian offered George land, money and slaves if he would only make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. George refused to back down and he was decapitated on April 23, 303.

Christianity could have been content with the human Saint George who assumed, after all, a super-human stance in staying true to his faith. But it seemed as if this remarkable human story was in itself not persuasive enough. So early Christianity borrowed, as it so frequently did, from pagan mythology: Perseus for example had saved the fair Andromeda from the clutches of a dragon long before Saint George ever took up a lance.
The variations of the theme of Saint George slaying the dragon are several and various. However the allegorical meaning of Saint George and the dragon is about the triumph of Christianity over pagan beliefs. Furthermore since the recognition of the divine in nature is at the heart of Pagan belief, Saint George is effectively slaying not only a dragon but a deep human awareness of the natural world. The dragon is the power of the divine that pagans recognise in the ongoing cycles of life and death and the natural world.

The Chinese Dragon at the source of Primal power.
By courtesy of

In contrast in China to his day, the dragon is a metaphor for worthy and admirable people; in Modern China they say “Hoping one's son will become a dragon" (望子成龍).

 The Chinese Dragon breathes the essence of life and power in the form of the seasons, bringing water from rain, warmth from the sunshine, wind from the seas and soil from the earth. The Chinese Dragon is the ultimate representation of the forces of Mother Nature. The greatest divine force on Earth. 

With all of this power, it is not surprising that the Emperor of China used the dragon as a symbol of imperial power and strength. In other words, Chinese history had no George to slay the dragon or indeed to overcome pagan beliefs. Unlike the dreadful Western Dragons, Chinese Dragons are beautiful, friendly, and wise. They are the angels of the Orient. Instead of being hated, they are loved and once worshiped.

 So at least in ancient times, nature was intrinsic for the Chinese. They placed faith in nature, not just as the symbolic dragon but more substantially in the Taoist religion.

For a Taoist, naturalness or being true to nature is a central concern. It describes the "Primal" condition of people and the world. It is a dynamic, restless concept associated with spontaneity and creativity.
Taoism is a study of the Tao or the Way of All Things. Whilst in Taoism a precise definition of Tao is regarded as infeasible  we may think of it loosely as the ultimate creative principle of the universe. All things are unified and connected in the Tao.

Today there are around 25,000 Taoists priests and nuns in China and over 1,500 temples.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Practical Primal Philosophy II: Intrinsic Nature in Europe

In a previous blog post with the title “Practical Primal Philosophy: Meaning of ‘Intrinsic’ in ISD”, we considered the importance of having natural relations occurring naturally or essentially to a society and culture. This is important if we want to achieve sustainability and hence a future for mankind.

If natural relations are not intrinsic to society and culture then we need experts who have to work at putting these relations back and overcoming the damage done by whatever non-natural relations do occur naturally in a society and culture. This latter position with experts trying to put natural relations back and reversing the damage done by a society is that of the developed world at the moment. People at large in the developed world seem to be preoccupied with having more or larger stuff. Whilst they may be concerned about climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, food supply chains, food quality, and overpopulation, these issues are secondary. It is not that people do not recognise sustainability issues, it just that they have to leave them to experts and marginalise them since natural relations are not intrinsic to their society or culture.

With the knowledge we now possess of our distant evolutionary past, we know that we spent many millennia embedded in the natural world to the extent that nature and ourselves were inseparable. Take away natural supplies or food, water, warmth and shelter and mankind’s ancestors would have perished. This relationship is evident in early civilizations where nature as sun, moon, water, places or various kinds of animals gain religious significance and form part of a frequently complex and interwoven set of relations between man and his deities. Indeed one of the greatest of all western Philosophers, Aristotle, argued that all of man’s activities were extensions of nature.

If the developed world had held true to its ancient experiences, beliefs and arguments then perhaps unsustainable development would not have arisen. After all if we regard ourselves as intrinsically dependent upon nature for our well-being and ultimate survival we are less likely to allow her to be damaged – damaging nature is then equivalent to damaging ourselves.

In so many ways we are rediscovering this most fundamental of truths – that damaging nature is equivalent to damaging ourselves. The whole world is painfully waking up to this fact which underlies the whole environmental movement, environmental management, environmental accounting, climate change issues, green thought, natural health-care and so many other aspects of our lives today. But unfortunately it is a re-awakening to our relations with nature which implies that we somehow manage to forget or disregard them in the past.

The question “How did we forget our relations with nature?” is perhaps the most important one we can ask today. If we can answer this then we will understand more about where unsustainable development came from and hence find our way to more sustainable ways. Answering this question is the subject of the Intrinsic Sustainable Development book, so we do have some relevant ideas.

In Europe, Christianity put an end to many of our intrinsic relations to nature. The pre-Christian pagan people of Europe, for example the Romans and Celts, saw themselves and the natural world as being closely connected. Their innermost beliefs as expressed in their religions were based upon divinities that were inseparable from nature – they themselves were hence inseparable from nature.

But for Christians their belief in a single God came between all human relations with nature. Nature became something that God had made and now rules over with omnipotent power. Furthermore the Christian God does not live in our world; he dwells in some other world known as Heaven. Finally since God sent his son to the human world as a man, mankind became strongly differentiated from other animals and superior to them. All in all nature became a second best aspect of God’s world and it lost much of its former powers, associations, significance and relations.

It is nonetheless quite possible that man acting as a steward over God’s natural creation could have looked after nature better than he did. After all God is supposed to have made nature and man ought to take good care of it. This may have protected nature even when bereft of recognition of its naturally intrinsic relations with mankind if it were not for the French philosopher, René Descartes.

René effectively removed God – and life – from nature. He argued that God is eminently rational and that nature, our bodies included, is merely a passive machine. God became the God of Reason and nature became inert and mechanical. At this point in European history, it is no longer possible to conceive of natural relations occurring naturally or essentially to a society and culture. European society and culture had become wrapped up within its own rationality and self importance. This is how it is today in our very unsustainable world.

"Machine to Create Nature" by Jose Antonio Lanza, 2012

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Practical Primal Philosophy I: Meaning of “Intrinsic” in ISD

This series of Practical Philosophy posts looks at some of humanity’s current big issues from a fresh perspective. They will also explain key terms and ideas relating to Intrinsic Sustainable Development and the Primal Episteme. This post looks at the “Intrinsic” in Intrinsic Sustainable Development.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary states that “Intrinsic” means “belonging naturally; essentially”. This is a very convenient definition for our purposes since both natural and essential are very significant words in our fresh perspective. But at face value, the use of “Intrinsic” in Intrinsic Sustainable Development (ISD) means that we are describing a new kind of development, one that is sustainable into the distant future without any extra effort or special considerations. This does not mean that sustainability will just happen without human intervention, concern and effort: it does mean that sustainability and human activity become interwoven, indistinguishable or one and the same as.

Notice that in the paragraph above, we do not say that sustainability and economic activity become one and the same, although “economic” is very close to what we have in mind. The problem with using the word “economic” is that economics has been defined and developed in ways that deliberately separate industrious human activity from the encompassing wider social and ecological worlds. It is almost as if economics, at least in theory, somehow takes place in an isolated vacuum or bubble. So we try and avoid the word “economic” until we have a better understanding of the complete situation.

To get back to the task of this post, we can take “Intrinsic” to refer to that kind of human activity in which social and ecological relations belong naturally or essentially. In some ways this statement has little meaning. Just how, for example, can you have living human beings who depend upon natural resources and other living beings for their own existence conducting activities that do not relate to the society and ecosystem of which they are constituent parts? How long would you last living alone, without prosthetics, on Mars?

But the statement is replete with meaning precisely because some people think social and ecological relations are unimportant. It is not that they would say “I would be okay living alone on a lifeless planet” rather they have not considered, valued or experienced the value of social and ecological relations; they have ignored them or assumed that they would be there forever no matter what they did. This ignoring social and ecological relations or taking them for granted may or may not occur at the individual level – as indeed it does, people are free to think what they like and we would not want to impose upon that. But when it occurs at social levels in societal values and cultures, and hence in the structures and institutions that constitute a society, then that is something that we cannot accept.

Hence the current big issue that is represented by our use of the word “Intrinsic” has to do with the considering or neglecting social and ecological relations in societies and important social institutions. If we go back to economics for example, you may look at any standard economic test book as used in schools, colleges and universities and find social and ecological relations either absent or marginalised by economic theory. The same is true of standard accounting textbooks that provide the skills and procedures to assess the performance of our companies and other organisations. But when it comes to one of the most influential institutions of our day, the stock markets, one that daily shifts millions of dollars around the world, you will find a preoccupation with the abstractions of numeric analysis and wealth measured solely in large amounts of money.

We can now be more specific with our use of the word “Intrinsic”. We mean that sustainable development is a natural and essential part of human activity to be found in a revised understanding and practice of economics, accounting and markets. In turn, for us, this means that social and ecological relations are represented in the theory and practice of economics and, more importantly, in societal values and attitudes.

Practical Examples
There are many examples of initiatives designed to acknowledge and respond to the social and ecological relations that make our lives possible, healthy and fulfilling. Within this category lie environmental management, accounting, regulations and legislation; corporate social responsibility; the Global Reporting Initiative; sustainable development management and accounting; and a huge number of diverse NGOs and charities.

But there are few examples that can claim to have social and ecological relations occurring intrinsically - naturally and essentially - within their activities. The dominant thinking of our age does not have the capacity to do this. We would typically have to look to a time before our own age, to other ways in which knowledge has been possible.

However, there are initiatives that are striving towards intrinsic social and ecological relations either by using ideas from a previous age or by basing their approach on the empirically-grounded science that is now revealing the extent and importance of social and ecological relations. The revival of ancient Chinese thought in initiatives such as “Tian Xia” or all-under-heaven thinking (see PR Blog) is an example of how ideas from an earlier age can be used to take us into the future. Similarly Ecological Economics uses the findings of empirically-grounded science to create fresh economic insights. Whilst in business itself the Phoenix Economy Report from Volans report argues that a new generation of entrepreneurs are starting to embed social and ecological relations in their core values and the emerging Benefit Corporations (see PR blog) in the USA changing laws so that they may work towards a Triple Top Line approach in which social and environmental gains are made along with the economic in everyday business activity.

But all these worthy initiatives are just that – there is a long way to go to before social and ecological relations become intrinsic to our society and culture.

Research Example

“New model disentangles interdependencies between social and ecological systems.”

Mapping Social & Ecological Relations in Madagascar

The above figure is a map showing a rural agricultural system in Madagascar as a social-ecological network. The map shows locations of different clans, their social relationships, settlements, forest patches and the ecological links.