Why You Need an End to Poverty (even if you’re not poor)

Picture of siblings living in extreme poverty ...

If nobody cares if you starve to death then it’s hard for you to care about anything or anyone. Extreme poverty is not just a problem for the extremely poor but as it’s a major cause of social and political unrest, crime, drug addiction and the spread of diseases like TB and AIDS, it’s a problem for everyone.

The only way to really ensure the health and safety of you and your loved ones is to ensure the health and safety of everyone on the planet – and their loved ones.

Why You Need Education for All (even if you already have a good education)

Photos from "République du Chili", a...

Photos from "République du Chili", a school in Haiti

If every child on the planet was educated then perhaps one of those children might be the person who can find the cure for the disease that will otherwise kill you.

Too bad that child won’t get the education she needs to help you…

Death Valley Lives.

This picture was taken in March 2005 when Deat...

This picture was taken in March 2005 when Death Valley had a tremendous display of wildflowers after an extremely wet year.

Death Valley, in Eastern California, is situated within the Mojave Desert. It is not only the lowest, driest and hottest location in North America but also one of the hottest spots on the entire planet.  Most of the time Death Valley lives up to it’s name as it has all the appearance of a barren, inhospitable landscape hostile to life. Nevertheless, every few years – given that there is enough rain and the soaring temperatures hold back a little – Death Valley is carpeted in lush and beautiful wildflowers.

These flowers come from seeds that hide under the ground and protect themselves with a waxy coating when the conditions are hostile.  When these seeds are concealed within their waxy armour, Death Valley not only looks barren but it gives absolutely no hint of the potential lying under the baked earth.  But appearances are deceptive in this case (as in many others) as the potential does exist even though it’s not obvious and is simply lying dormant as it waits for the correct conditions it needs in order to flourish.

In any organic system if some elements are missing – in Death Valley that would be rain – then it is impossible for the system to achieve its potential. Human beings and the systems they create are not isolated, separate entities but rather complex, dynamic, inter-related, synergistic, organic systems.  Just like those wax-coated seeds, as individuals – and societies – we have potential as yet unknown because we have never had an occasion when the conditions were correct for these latent qualities to flourish.  If the correct environment for true human development could be achieved, who knows what beauty might be just waiting to erupt?

We’re only human…

For more than three hundred years Western thought has been dominated by the images of industrialism and scientific method.  It’s time to change metaphors.  We need to move beyond linear, mechanistic metaphors to more organic metaphors of human growth and development.

A living organism, like a plant, is complex and dynamic.  Each of its internal processes affects and depends on the others in sustaining the vitality of the whole organism…Most living things can only flourish in certain types of environments, and the relationships between them are often highly specialized.  Healthy, successful plants take the nutrients they need from the environment.  At the same time, though, their presence helps to sustain the environment on which they depend. (1)

Think of anything in the human arena and it will display all the characteristics of non-linear systems. Family, government, business, relationships, science, religion, societal systems, the arts, the human mind etc – even a cursory examination will reveal that these are all things that are hard to predict, hugely variable and must be examined as a whole if we hope to understand how they work.  As mathematician Steven Strogatz says about such systems:

This synergistic character of non-linear systems is precisely what makes them so difficult to analyse.  They can’t be taken apart.  The whole system has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entity.(2)

A linear system can be taken apart, examined and put back together and while it may give up it’s secrets readily, it will always simply be just the sum of it’s parts.  Not so with complex, dynamic systems which have the potential – given the correct conditions – to far exceed the sum of their parts and produce outcomes that could never even be dreamed of when looking at any of the individual components.

How cool is that?

(1) Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (with Lou Aronica). Viking, 2009, p. 257.

(2) Steven Strogatz, Sync : the emerging science of spontaneous order. Hyperion (2003), p. 182

DIY for Social Change

Even if we all agree that our world needs a good overhaul in the area of ethics and morality, it is still a slightly frightening prospect as so many atrocities have been committed in the name of doing exactly that – improving the morals of our societies.  So how do we approach this revamp and not run the risk of creating totalitarian regimes?

It should be remembered that most of these disastrous attempts to ‘clean up our act’, were based on a conceptual framework of human nature that is founded on the notion that human beings are inherently bad.  Therefore, if instead of hyper-vigilance against evil, our starting point is one where we see human beings as inherently good, this will help protect against totalitarian paranoia and the oppression it engenders. Because if we approach everything from this viewpoint, then we will be actively seeking to unleash this great capacity and goodness in human beings, rather than struggling to keep the imagined evil bottled up.

It might also help if we change the type of approach we use when dealing with people and society from a linear, industrial model to one more suitable for complex, dynamic systems.  As all human society and all human endeavour are organic processes, it might be more fruitful (literally) if we opt for an agricultural-type model of development.  As Sir Ken Robinson, the British educational innovator, puts it,

…farmers do not make plants grow.  They don’t attach the roots, glue on the petals or colour the fruit.  The plant grows itself.  Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth.  Good farmers know what these conditions are, and bad ones don’t.   Understanding the dynamic elements of human growth is as essential to sustaining human cultures into the future as the need to understand the ecosystems of the natural world on which we ultimately depend. (1)

If we identify the elements needed to allow healthy, dynamic human environments to flourish then once those elements are in place all we really have to do – like the farmer – is relax and let nature take it’s course.

(1) Ken Robinson, The Element, p. 258

Related articles

Virtual Virtue?

The word virtue comes from the Latin virtūs, which has many meanings including, bravery, strength, excellence, manliness and moral courage. It also has many derivatives but perhaps the one that we are most familiar with in modern times is virtual.

The word virtual also has many meanings – some of them technical – but nowadays it has comes to be widely accepted as anything that, while not real, appears to have the properties of the object or experience – hence virtual reality, virtual tour, virtual community and so on.

Interestingly, anything that is virtual is treated as if it was actually real – virtue on the other hand must be real or it isn’t virtue!

Life is complex and there really isn’t any quick-fix formula that will address all the problems of humanity. However, having said that, there are some factors that are more foundational than others.  Quite literally, like the foundations of a building, if we don’t ensure that these are in place no matter how good the super-structure looks it will cave in when stressed.

It may sound old-fashioned to say it, but it is most definitely the case that human virtues are foundational principles in society.  As Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson says in his 2010 Hancock Lecture entitled, ‘Virtue as a Necessity’ –

Virtue, ethics, morality – isn’t a field of study – it’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rest.  It’s also a mode of being on which everything you do in your life rests.  The way you understand yourself – or fail to – the way you understand other people – or fail to – and – more deeply than that – what role you play in your life, in the world. (1)

The recent international financial crisis, for example, was not only fuelled by an age-old vice – greed – it was absolutely exacerbated and dragged on by lack of honesty.  Imagine if, in the morning, we could believe everything that our governments and financial institutions say.  Imagine if they told the truth and we could believe them. Pretty revolutionary idea isn’t it?

So, maybe the idea of virtue – actual virtue, not virtual virtue – is not so much an old-fashioned idea as a truly radical notion and one which bears looking at anew?

(1) Jordan Peterson, 2010 Hancock Lecture – Virtue as a Necessityhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwUJHNPMUyU

Better Together.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - painted by Michelangelo - and his assistants.

Countless studies prove that human beings are social beings.  We function better and are happiest when we have relationships with others.  Family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours – we belong to all of these networks – and more – and within each we create emergent outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts.

Many of our most valuable achievements, from breakthrough scientific endeavours like the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, to majestic art like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, are the product of more than one person.  Even when an individual has a marvellous idea or makes a remarkable discovery, it is generally the case that this can best be developed and enhanced in co-operation with other interested parties.

So it is clear that we (potentially) work well together.  But there may be more to it than that.  Regardless of how much we may complain about others, on both an informal and formal level human beings tend to congregate.  We do this instinctively whether in village or towns or cities, guilds, unions or clubs.  Almost in spite of ourselves we band together – not always for the common good – but nevertheless together. And even in the midst of awful human behaviour, such as war, we are most effective (for good and evil) when we work as collaborative, co-operative units.

Our need for human contact is probably most simply demonstrated by our universal acceptance that solitary confinement – the deprivation of human contact – is universally seen as the harshest of punishments. And yet, notwithstanding all of that, most of our problems – personal and social – also spring from this area of life – social interaction.

The situation, therefore is this – we want to live together (mostly), we definitely need to live together, we tend to live together – the question is if we know how to happily live together?  Surely it’s in all our interests to try to learn?

The Importance of Difference.


Image by Jonas Hansel via Flickr

The differences between us are natural and bring a beautiful diversity to human life – like a garden full of varied plants and flowers.  But perhaps there is a lot more to the story of difference than simple decoration.

In physical terms, in order to see anything clearly with our eyes we need it to contrast with its background.  Animals understand this phenomenon as they blend into the background to avoid predators. And, if you or I want to display a dark picture we will most likely mount it on a light background.  We do this because the contrast between the picture and the background allows everyone to see the features of the picture in greater detail.  Contrast literally draws our attention to what we wish to focus on and allows us to see it more clearly.  Perhaps there is an analogy to be drawn here in terms of human behaviour?

Sometimes, as we search for solutions to difficult questions we find that everything can be a big mush of detail.  To solve the problem we usually need to tease out the individual elements in order to come up with answers.  This can be hard to do because these ‘individual elements’ can be difficult to see.  We may not enjoy ourselves much when we are engaged in a problem-solving process with others who see things differently to us but perhaps the differences between us in the process may be the very contrast-providing mechanisms we need to see the detail clearly?

So maybe it is possible that just as physical diversity lends itself to greater health in a population (whether flowers or animals or people) then diversity of viewpoint and thought and culture and experience are just as necessary for healthy human society.

Hard-Wired for Oneness?

Neuroscientific research shows that when we see someone in pain, the same areas are activated in our brains as when we ourselves are in pain. This is called automatic empathy and though, in itself, it doesn’t result in any change of behaviour, it does suggest that we are not as cut off from our fellow humans as we sometimes imagine.  While our prejudices and belief systems may lead us to think that other people are not like us, our physical brains are busily recognising our common experiences – not our differences.

To take this automatic empathy to the next level, a place of compassionate action, is called deliberative empathy and this doesn’t just happen without effort on our part.  Our neurons may light up when we see suffering but what we do about it is very much a choice. Nevertheless, at a purely natural level, it does appear that we have the basic circuitry necessary for compassion, empathy, co-operation, reciprocity and all of the productive characteristics we need if we are to learn to live together.  Which means that, whatever obstacles are blocking our attempts to build a better, happier and safer world – our ‘nature’ isn’t one of them.

…the evidence reveals that such conduct, far from expressing man’s true self, represents a distortion of the human spirit. Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and co-operation instead of war and conflict.(1)

If we start to look for possibilities other than the incorrigibility of human nature to explain human dysfunction perhaps we will have a better chance of discovering the real causes.  Because if we’ve been misdiagnosing the problem it might explain why our remedies aren’t really working.

Tomorrow –

(1) The Promise of World PeaceThe Universal House of Justice, October 1985.

Human Nature – A Conceptual Framework – V

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Let’s create a new hypothesis.  What if the cruelty and fighting and intolerance and immorality we see all around us in the world isn’t happening because human nature is intrinsically bad?  What if these things are self-fulfilling prophecies – at least in part – that are based on a mistaken view of the real nature of the human being?

What if the examples of truly awful human behaviour we see everywhere don’t show the true nature of human beings? What if they show what happens when we go against our true nature?

Ice-cream and Swimming

All scientists and statisticians agree that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.  In other words, just because you can relate two things to each other it doesn’t prove that one caused the other. The most famous example used to demonstrate this is the fact that as ice cream sales rise, so too does the rate of drowning.  Any sensible person can work out that the cause of the drownings has nothing to do with the consumption of ice cream but there is a correlation as both ice-cream sales and drowning rise in the summer when more people both eat ice-cream and take part in water-sports. The ice-cream/drowning example is obvious but correlation and causation are very often easily confused.

For example, in May, 1999, a study was published that suggested that babies who sleep with a night-light are more likely to develop myopia – near-sightedness – in later life.  However, a year later, studies at Ohio State University, showed that the biggest indicator for myopia in children is not night-lights but myopia in parents. This study also found that near-sighted parents are more likely to leave a light on in their child’s bedroom – thus creating the apparent link between myopia and night-lights.

So, in spite of all the evidence of truly awful human behaviour perhaps it is not the case that human beings are intrinsically bad but that we have caused a lot of our own problems because we have been operating our systems from this basis, mistaking correlation for causation?

It is possible that factors such as fragmentation and negative expectations etc are actually more causative factors in the dysfunction we see all around rather than any ‘fact’ about the incorrigibility of humanity.  It is also possible that if we understand how our systems work we may actually have a better chance of dealing with the problems that will naturally crop up.

Because if it is the case that the examples of aggressiveness and selfishness that we see all around are examples of dysfunction not function, then we are never going to succeed in correcting the dysfunction by treating the outcomes as inevitabilities.

TomorrowHard-wired for Oneness?