How is it possible that in America, on the 47th anniversary of Earth Day, it was concluded that our situation was so dire that what was needed was not just a march for aggressive climate policies, but rather a “March for Science” itself?
Small-minded, corrupt, and power hungry state governors banning the mere use of the phrase “climate change” in official communications seemed laughable at the time. But now the ignorant and dangerous Trump regime has signaled double-digit cuts to scientific research, including climate science, after appointing a climate-denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
One cannot help but notice history repeating itself. A mere 401 years ago, an Inquisition under the direction of Pope Paul V issued a Special Injunction against Galileo instructing him to “abandon completely the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
In 1616, Pope Paul and his minions’ concerns were quite clear: the heliocentric worldview “explicitly contradicted” the literal interpretation of the Holy Scripture. The “alternative facts” of an earth-centered universe were the very foundation of the Pope’s power over the Western world. Consequently, the unquestioned power of the Church would be undermined if the heliocentric view were to be accepted as fact.
Fast forward to the present day. Like all things Trump, the present situation is both worse and more complex than it might appear. First, let’s be clear: Trump is more putz than Pope, an ignorant narcissist, but also a clever opportunist at his core. Trump’s influence in the world is, by comparison, a far cry from that of Pope Paul V 400 years ago. But we have given Trump, with the aid of the Russians or not, frightening power—in absolute terms far greater and more dangerous than any Pope has ever had.
But here’s why the situation is both more complex—and more of an opportunity—than meets the eye. The science most of us believe we are marching for is the science of the Scientific Revolution that Copernicus and Galileo ushered in 400 years ago. It is rooted in the reductionist logic—simplify what is complicated by breaking it down into understandable parts—that brought us airplanes, iPhones, and all the progress we hold dear. It opened up the way to the Enlightenment, which replaced blind faith in the doctrines of the Church with a belief in each individual’s human potential.
In the ultimate irony: it is the modern day Pope who understands what the reductionist science of Modernity and what contemporary “leaders” don’t see (and Trump could not understand). In the Pope’s words, included in his beautiful Encyclical, Laudato Si, “We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.”
We appear to have entered a new era, a Second Scientific Revolution, that is permeating all fields of knowledge. Integrated medicine, regenerative agriculture, integral urban design, and the entire study of ecology are all examples of this systems-based approach. In it, integral or holistic thinking is augmenting the reductionist method, unlocking unimagined potential, and, in the process, the only genuine solutions to the critical and complex challenges of our time to emerge at the edges of our individual disciplines. Our failure to make this transition is a life and death matter. It is critical to our understanding the interconnected climate and other ecosystem crises, the healthcare crises, and the economic system crises accelerating around us at an exponential rate.
Is it possible that the Trump insanity might just be the jolt our scientific research community needs to make the historic, essential, and immensely difficult shift into effective transdisciplinary thinking and collaboration? For example, how much of the National Institute of Health’s immense $30 billion annual budget goes towards “chasing a cure for cancer” (using the best reductionist science) when those researching (with pennies in comparison) and practicing integral health – both physical and mental – increasingly understand that a “disease” like cancer is actually often a mere symptom, whereas the genuine root cause (holistically understood) is more likely to relate to communication breakdowns at a cellular level in the natural regenerative capacities of our immune system?
If we want to reverse the health crisis (much less the healthcare crisis), we must invest in better understanding and support of our immune system, and immune system health begins with the food we eat and the soil it is grown in, most of it now toxic from the financially entrenched, industrial agriculture system our reductionist method delivered to us unaware of the disastrous unintended consequences. How about in response to the Trump budget shake-up, an allocation of just 10 percent of the NIH budget to regenerative agriculture, which will enhance health and unlock the massive potential for real climate solutions through natural carbon sequestration in the process. This is but one example of the potential that lies at the “edges” of disciplines that will be revealed in the Second Scientific Revolution.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t support cutting science research so we can increase our insanely bloated military budget. But far more important than a few years of budget chaos is the need to understand our future in the integral age lies in probing across disciplines, not merely digging ever deeper into each one, treating symptoms rather than root causes. Systems and established institutions don’t change without a shock to the system. Let us work creatively and smartly to use the Trump circus, with all its ignorance and bluster, as that needed shock opening up unimagined new possibilities. In human and ecological health, and in our economic health.
The Second Scientific Revolution is indeed afoot, ushering in the rise of integral science – the physical sciences and social sciences together. It is happening, but it is happening outside our leading institutions, which by design are resistant to such threatening challenges, just as the Church was four centuries ago. Woven together as never before with the great wisdom traditions—Western, Eastern, and indigenous, all of which have stood the test of time—it will trigger a movement future historians may call the “Great Second Enlightenment”. It will demand universal participation, our best and most creative minds, bodies, and souls, and give much-needed meaning to our lives.
That’s the parade I want to march in!
“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
I had the pleasure of hearing my friend Nora Bateson speak last week at The Players Club in New York City where she held a reading and conversation around her recently published book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns.
If that title slows you down a bit, well, I think that’s the point. The book is a collection of essays and poems, and the conversation with Nora included personal stories of growing up in the Bateson household (Nora’s father was the pre-eminent systems scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose first marriage was to Margaret Mead. Nora’s grandfather William, was a biologist who coined the term genetics.)
Collectively, the passages in Nora’s book draw us into a state of heightened curiosity that leads us to question how we perceive reality, ultimately enabling us to better understand our world and the challenges accelerating all around us. She invites us to probe the profound difference between our now four-hundred-year-old reductionist way of thinking (which is rooted in the Scientific Revolution), and the demands and mystery of a more accurate, complex living systems view of the world. Critical to the understanding of this more accurate world view is Nora’s enigmatic assertion, itself an invitation to the most important conversation we could be having:
“The opposite of complexity is not simplicity; it is reductionism,” she mused.
In the context of our interconnected 21st century social, political, economic and ecological challenges, the critical distinction between complexity and reductionism is far from a trivial one. It is, in fact, a life or death insight.
It is precisely because these indivisible challenges are rooted in complexity that our continually applying reductionist thinking to them has led to disastrous consequences. Overcoming them depends on our shedding our unconscious reliance on reductionist thinking and adopting a more holistic way of looking at our world. In other words, our failure to comprehend complexity itself, in an increasingly complex, interconnected world that seems to be spiraling out of control, may well turn out to have life or death consequences for many of us, and even civilization itself as we’ve come to know it in the Modern Age.
Admittedly, reductionism – breaking down what is complicated into its component parts so they can be analyzed and understood – has made immeasurable contributions to the progress of human civilization. The laptop I’m typing on and the man on the moon are achievements made possible through the reductionist method. But as Wes Jackson says, “there’s nothing wrong with the reductionist method so long as you don’t confuse the method with the way the world actually works.”
Holistic thinker Allan Savory once illuminated for me that complexity is profoundly different than what’s complicated. An iPhone or an airplane is complicated. With time and ingenuity, it can be perfected and then mass produced, the same every time. We humans have become experts in making what’s complicated, thanks to our now well-honed expertise in reductionist reasoning and problem solving.
But complexity is a different animal altogether. A nation is complex. A city is complex. A business is complex. A rainforest is complex. War is complex. So too a marriage, a family, and our human self – our physical body, as well as our collective body/mind/spirit. The complexity of a living system is distinguished by the ever-changing context that surrounds it and affects it, with feedback loops and consequences impossible to fully comprehend in advance. Our political economy, in the context of culture and place, is such a complex living system.
Bateson explains that living systems that survive over time are characterized by mutually supportive learning networks that continuously communicate and interact across multiple contexts and variables in the system. Yet we pretend to believe we can manage complexity as we manage what’s merely complicated, with our rules and protocols, and our key performance indicators designed through reductionist logic. In today’s America — a complex system if there ever was one — the danger is compounded by leaders who seem to think they can govern without reference to accurate information, better known as “facts,” without which trust-based communication is impossible.
Trust issues aside, our challenges run even deeper. Bateson writes, “The education system that reaches around the globe is a mess… The violence of breaking the world into bits and never putting it back together again substantiates the kind of blindness in which we have separated ecology from economy, and psychology from politics.” I would add another reductionist “violence”— the separation of what used to be called “political economy” into politics and economics. From the professional silos in which business and finance, governance and the law operate today, we literally can’t “see” the patterns that define the interconnections of complexity accurately enough to have a chance to manage them in a way that the times demand. In truth, our aim should be to constructively guide and flow with the complexity that defines modern reality, since complexity can’t really be “managed” in the sense of asserting control. How many presidents, CEOs, or regulators, or any of “the people running the world” understand that?
Gregory Bateson famously wrote: “Break the pattern that connects and you necessarily destroy all unity.” Yet we don’t even see the patterns, much less honor the resulting unity as the essence of our health, even our survival. Instead, in our ignorance, we break such patterns all the time, for example, the carbon cycle, which has resulted in the climate change that we now view as a “problem” to solve. In reality, it is the unforeseen but direct consequence of our failure to perceive, understand, and humbly work within complexity.
We humans have evolved into problem solvers using the reductionist method, a direct outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution. It’s now baked into our DNA, limitations included. A Second Scientific Revolution is underway, one that integrates the reductionist method with the patterns of connection that define our integral reality. Our life depends on it.
That’s worth slowing down a bit to ponder.