Saturday, December 17, 2011

Immortality Projects in the Internet Era: The Rise of Volunteerism, the Demise of Consumerism, and the Democratization of Cultural Progress

by Connie Barlow

A year or so ago a colleague suggested that I submit an article to an excellent magazine to which he regularly contributes. I responded along the lines of,

“Why would I want to do that?!  The magazine has no free online presence. At most, my article would be read by a few thousand subscribers and then utterly lost to posterity. Meanwhile, the trees cut to produce the paper would add to my ecological footprint. No thanks!”

As the author of two books and two anthologies ushered into print by respectable publishers over the course of a decade (1991 - 2001), I have been responding in a similar vein when asked whether I plan to write another book:

“Why would I want to do that?!  At most my book would be read by a few tens of thousands of individuals over perhaps a decade; I’m not famous enough for a publisher to produce an audio version; and I wouldn’t be allowed to keep updating the content.  Besides, the publishing industry has crashed; there is no money anymore for my class of writer, so I might as well keep creating, posting online, and updating my own stuff for free.”

Ten years ago, all I could do on my computer was type, save, and print a text document. That was a marvel, of course, compared to the IBM Selectric typewriter on which I composed my first book (published in 1984). Today I still type in text, but now I convert that text into html and upload it into one of my websites, or I convert it to pdf and link it into the Internet. Or I might post the text as a blog, as I plan to do here.

I enjoy creating audio, too, using the recording, editing, and music-making software that comes with my Apple computer. I convert the final product to an mp3 file and upload it onto a commercial podcasting site, for which I pay a small monthly fee.

Best of all is the opportunity to create and publish in video format. Not only is video the richest, most emotionally compelling and artistic mode for communication, but the final product enters an arena that is as close to immortal as anything humans have yet devised — and it costs me nothing, thanks to YouTube.

YouTube as Today’s Best Bet for Immortality

I’m not sure whether Google is God, but I darn well know that YouTube is my ticket to eternity.  And Google is godly enough to have provisioned YouTube with the best indexing-and-finding system yet imaginable.

If a video truly has merit, if it offers something unique, and if I have done a satisfactory job of embellishing it with a text description and keyword tags, then ultimately it will be found; it will be appreciated. That may happen long after I am dead. But it won’t moulder in some descendant’s basement and be tossed into the trash during a move. It won’t stand idle on library shelves, where my four books now repose. (And I’m not convinced there will still be bricks-and-mortar libraries in a hundred years.)

Note: Just this moment I discovered a website that lists all the libraries in the world where each of my books resides, in order of distance from anywhere in the world. My 1997 book, Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science stands in 698 libraries, the furthest being Botswana.

As to most digital forms of legacy projects, long life and accessibility is, at present, far from assured. Consider: If my husband and I were to die today, within a year or two our websites would go down, for lack of payment to the server and for nonrenewal of domain names. Within a few months, all three of our podcast channels would vanish, archives and all — again, for lack of payment.

YouTube not only freely accepts all my videos. It requires zero upkeep on my part.  At this moment, it is by far the best bet for immortality.

Google Scholar is also as close to immortal as anything gets. But it is decidedly undemocratic. It preserves and makes available only scholarly texts, and then, if there is a copyright issue, only in bits and pieces. Portions of two of my four books are preserved on Google Scholar.

Bottomline: if you haven’t attracted the attention of a real publisher, Google Scholar is unlikely to be interested in your immortality project — however dear it may be to you.

Immortality Projects to the Rescue

Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (1973), popularized the notion of “immortality projects” — portraying them as the offspring of our human awareness of death and our consequent attempts to overcome it. When Becker was alive and writing, people (other than brilliant scholars like himself) had few opportunities for immortality projects other than producing offspring or excelling in business, arts, politics, or war. With the Internet, all that has changed — and that is great news for our species and our world, as well as for aspiring individuals.

Consider these shifting opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy:

1. GENETIC LEGACY: Opportunities for leaving a genetic legacy have vastly improved in the developed countries, thanks to the virtual elimination of famine, malnourishment, unsanitary public water supplies, and plagues, and by turning childhood death from a fact of life that nearly all parents experienced into a rare and shocking event. Whether our genetic legacy will be something we can be proud of is another question.

Youth are launched into a complex and often unfriendly world in which they must find their own way. No longer does the eldest son simply inherit the farm or the hardware business. No longer is the second son, while barely a teen, apprenticed out to a shoemaker in the next village. No longer do young women expect that marriage will come soon, last until death, and adequately provision themselves and their children with life’s basic necessities.

In just my lifetime, industrial and manufacturing vocations for securing a spot in the middle class have collapsed, and even a college degree no longer guarantees a living wage and a fulfilling career. And marriage for young women? Dream on. Young men no longer need marry to obtain legal, emotionally nurturing, and recurrent sex. Thus, what began in the 1970s as a welcome and exhilarating choice for women like me, has now become a near necessity: virtually all young women now need to scramble for a living wage and fulfilling career — no less than the young men.

Meanwhile, our stone-age instincts all too easily succumb to the escalating temptations of modern life, notably the “supernormal stimuli” of addictive foods, psychoactive substances, gaming, gambling, and internet porn.  Hence, good people do not necessarily die delighted in their offspring

2. MEMETIC LEGACY:  Opportunities for passing forward a memetic legacy, no matter how lowly one’s family of birth, have long been improving. In the USA, public funding of primary education blossomed in the early 1800s. In 1883 American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie began funding free public libraries in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, so that even the poorest kids and adults could self-educate with Great Books. The 1930s ushered in compulsory secondary education. In 1944, the G.I. bill made it possible for working class war veterans to attend college, thanks to public funding of tuition support.

In my lifetime, the cultural release of blacks and women to compete equally as generators of valuable ideas and arts (“memes”), as well as businesses, will surely go down in history as a great leap forward for our species. I am a grateful beneficiary of this cultural shift.

Finally, opportunities for creating a worthy memetic legacy (I’m not talking about “celebrities” and psycho-killers who briefly secure facetime on what is sometimes called “news”) have taken another great leap forward — and beginning only about ten years ago. Thanks to the Internet, no longer does one need to acquire a graduate pedigree, an impressive resume, or a famous mentor in order to get a hearing in the intellectual marketplace of ideas. For the first time, virtually anyone with the intellect and the drive can (a) self-educate and (b) self-express.

That is what I mean by the democratization of idea generation and exchange.

The Growth of Volunteerism

We’ve all seen it. We’ve all marveled at it. We’ve all benefited from it. And yet it goes largely unheralded.

Some obscure individual gets a great idea, launches it via a blog or video and the thing “goes viral.”

Here’s my favorite example. His name is John Boswell, and I first heard about this newly graduated econ major in September 2009.  He had just posted a video on YouTube that emerged from a combination of his musical talent, his veneration of Carl Sagan, his delight in the cosmos, and his tinkering with some fun new software.

Just three-and-a-half minutes long, this music video (titled “A Glorious Dawn”) garnered a million views in just one month. (As I write, in December 2011, it is now up to 7 million views.) More important, a scan of the comments reveals that the video is still powerfully affecting — even to the point of tears — viewers young and old. (Check out one of my blogposts to read some of the over-the-top comments that were posted on the video’s YouTube page.) Or listen to me and my husband jam about it on our podcast episode titled “Symphony of Science.”

I’ve kept in touch with John Boswell by email. He continues to post more music videos in this genre — still for free. He’s got a donation button at the bottom his webpage,, and I have donated twice. Somehow he keeps himself alive financially.

Boswell is an example of volunteerism unaltered by fame. Here is a passion to produce something that matters, that uplifts, that just might inspire a 12-year-old to pursue a career in science and maybe even to discover something that will astonish the next generation of 12-year-olds.

Call it a yearning to be noticed and respected. Call it a desire to make a difference. Call it an immortality project. Call it what you will. But you need only dabble on YouTube to get a sense that, right here, people of little or no stature are posting results of intense avocational pursuits that ultimately (in many cases) will serve the world.

YouTube’s free outlet for creative sharing has made it possible for just about anyone to launch into the world their memetic legacies. All one need do is acquire some basic geek skills (which is no more difficult than breathing for our youth), hone a fascination, and persevere in self-education and exploration of their topic of choice.

When the video is finished, it is uploaded and the waiting and watching begins. Alert your Facebook "friends" to your new video, and the “views” start to rise. As soon as one person posts an appreciative comment, you get a dopamine hit. What remains and grows is a sense of accomplishment and the warm feeling of knowing you are valued and respected.

An avocation is thus nurtured. More projects will follow. Gone are the wasted hours, the boredom, the existential angst, the fear that “I am nothing.”  Sure, for some lucky souls their fascinations may eventually yield a paying vocation. But for most of us, we are not only content with volunteerism; we are drawn more and more into it.

The Collapse of Consumerism

Thanks to the Internet, the democratization of the flow of information and the exchange of ideas is prompting a surge of volunteerism and a push-back against consumerism in the western world.

This is very good news, as both trends bode well for our culture, our society, and the community of life.

Thanks to the Internet, more and more individuals — and at astonishingly young ages —are discovering not only outlets for their creative energies but also the joy of giving away their gifts, of volunteering their time, of participating in the democratization of cultural progress.

Those of us besot with an avocational passion need no monetary draw to keep us producing and giving, producing and giving. More, we begin to start structuring our lives to free up more time to “play” in this worldwide and open exchange, this supremely democratic form of meritocracy that with no hesitation gives all comers a platform to prove the value of their projects.

For the still-in-school, this always-available creative outlet is a reminder that we do have worth and that life is not just confusion, boredom, and a set of rules and timetables not of our making. It is a way to gain respect and a sense of accomplishment.

For those who have launched into the adult world of earning a living, we learn by experience that if we really want to pursue our passion, then we have to cut back on what we buy, what we consume, what we think we must have and must do. We thus shed the default foundational value of our culture — that is, the goal to get, to spend, to acquire. Consumption as an end in itself.

For those who have fared well enough and long enough in life to no longer need to earn income, here is an outlet for putting wisdom to work. We happily volunteer time and energy toward projects of our own making — not just what our local community may offer. And, here too, the drive to consume diminishes. There is “something more” and that something more is a way to grow our legacy — to attend to our “immortality projects” — in this final phase of life.

Even the computer-phobic among us can manage to write (and with help, post) an Amazon (or Google Books) review. Old folks have a special role to play in this regard. Just tally up your favorite books of the past, find them on Amazon or Google Books, and post (what may well be) the very first review!

The Downside of Democratization for the Elite

Let’s take a look at what the Internet era means for the folks who have long stood at the helm of idea generation and exchange at a societal level. This is the arena of “public intellectuals.”

Many in this category are scholars employed at colleges, universities, and privately funded think-tanks, whose ideas and communication skills launch them into public view. A rare few make their living as columnists with the top tier of newspapers and magazines. Others are entrepreneurs who must generate their own paycheck, by way of published articles, books, and speaking fees.

In September 2011, best-selling author Sam Harris posted on his blog ruminations on the dismal future for both the publishing industry and “public intellectuals.” Entrepreneurial public intellectuals, like Sam, have grown accustomed to earning their living by writing books and articles and giving the occasional invited talk.

Sam titled his essay, “The Future of the Book.” It begins,

Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free. Jaron Lanier has written and spoken about this issue with great sagacity. You can purchase his book here, which most of you will not do, or you can watch him discuss these matters for free. The problem is thus revealed even in the act of stating it.  How can a person like Lanier get paid for being brilliant? This has become an increasingly difficult question to answer.
       Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. . .

After a fascinating tour of his own experience in print and recent forays into ebook self-publishing, blogging, and vlogging, Sam concludes:

One thing is certain: writers and public intellectuals must find a way to get paid for what they do—and the opportunities to do this are changing quickly. My current solution is to write longer books for a traditional press and publish short ebooks myself on Amazon. If anyone has any better ideas, please publish them somewhere—perhaps on a blog—and then send me a link. And I hope you get paid.

As a “public intellectual” and author, I too am feeling the financial pinch. For ten years my husband and I have been travelling the USA in our van, giving talks — mostly at no charge. We do, however, routinely set up a book table at each venue, where we sell our own books and dvds along with a selection of books by others — meaning, we earn our living more as booksellers than as idea-makers. With the crash in the economy, fewer people are buying books and dvds. To be sure, audiences enjoy the free lecture. Individuals may even be moved and remade by it; and they tell us so.  But most leave without purchasing anything.

I cannot fault them for that. I do the same. As Sam Harris pointed out, “audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free.” I would add that audiences increasingly expect to find all forms of content online (and for free), including the most alluring format of all: free videos on YouTube.

Indeed, over the past decade of this ongoing “major transition in evolution” (in the way information is stored and passed forward), software and hardware technologies for all three modes of communication have become increasingly available to those of even modest means — limited only by one’s drive to self-learn and persist in internet empowerment.  (See also Kevin Kelly’s superb blogposts on this theme: “The Major Transitions in Technology” and “Evolution of the Scientific Method”.)

And so, while I continue to love thinking and writing and talking (on audio and video), I am no longer doing so with the hopes of producing a salable product.  No more books!  (And beginning three months ago when YouTube eliminated the 10-minute limit on video uploads, I now also declare, No more dvds!)

More and more, I am drawn into volunteerism. More and more, I look for ways to reduce my spending so that less and less of my time needs to generate income.

The game has changed utterly, irrevocably.

Halleluia! . . . (I hope)

Incentives for Building Quality
Into Immortality Projects

Let me be clear: Facebook pages that survive the individual’s death, along with the plethora of self-focussed and fluff YouTube videos, will of course pass forward in a memorabilia sort of way.  One’s great-great-great grandchild might someday thrill to catch a glimpse of what life was like for an ancestor in the days of digital deprivation, when there were still places where one had to purchase Internet access — indeed, when there were still regions lacking optical fibers or satellite feeds. As well, all such digital memorabilia may serve some function as part of a vast and easily accessible database for future scholars of cultural history and transformation.

But there are growing numbers of us whose creative and volunteer energies are sparked by a chance to pass forward something of lasting value — something that might actually improve a life (maybe a million lives) or help preserve the planet.

And we are willing to invest time in learning about that which captures our heart, our mind, our imagination, so that we truly will have something of value to post.

After weeks and months (even years) of soaking up the wisdom of others, one day an idea for a new project arrives unbidden. It may even be something we feel uniquely positioned to offer the world. So we get busy, taking great care that our text or audio or video baby will have a decent chance to capture the scarcest resource of all: the attention of other Internet surfers, public intellectuals, and immortality project creators.

Expanding and Reinforcing the Ark
for Securing Immortality Projects for Cultural Progress

Within the last few months, not one but two now-elderly creators of information-rich websites have sought to bequeath their digital babies to my husband and me. We are both in our fifties, so we are still a pretty good bet.

The websites are superb and uniquely valuable. Nonetheless, we declined. Both of us have a backlog of creative Internet projects we are aching to pursue. Assuming responsibility for somebody else’s website cannot compete with our existing creative To Do lists — no matter how worthy we regard those projects as contributors to the public good, to cultural progress.

Who will take those websites over?

And who (or, more likely, what) will take over ours in another few decades?

What new digital emergent will assure that these painstaking contributions are accessibly archived — maybe even periodically updated so that their worth not only maintains but grows?

Sure, I could take all of our audio podcast episodes one by one and laboriously turn each into a black-screen or minimal-jpg video and post them as a distinct playlist on my YouTube channel. But that is a cop-out. There really ought to be a way to keep ideas-rich audio as audio, while securely passing forward and superbly tagging each mp3 with a description and keywords, in YouTube fashion.

And there really ought to be a way to secure the continuity and accessibility of educational websites when their creators and caretakers give up the ghost.

Till Yellowstone Blows

I am certain that among the wealthy of the world are benefactors who have already secured in elaborate bunkers digital records and instructions for rebooting the Internet after a civilizational collapse (see update, below). That would be the greatest immortality project of all! Here is why:

We can direct our human ingenuity to perhaps safeguard the world from nuclear and biological terror. And it is well within our reach to nudge the flight paths of asteroids coming our way, if only we are willing to fund the effort.

But there is nothing we can do about our planet’s half-dozen civilization-destroying supervolcanoes.

So maybe digital “immortality” is a physical impossibility, even for the likes of Google.

Nonetheless, I am content to believe that at least some of my digital babies will live on — and continue to make a positive difference — until Yellowstone blows.

UPDATE 12/20/11: Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) directed me to one of those “bunkers” online, known as the WayBack Machine. It has a simple enough url: And yes, indeed, my website is fully on there. It hasn’t yet connected the podcast archive pages of mine with the actual mp3’s, but finding a way to do that myself will go onto my long-term To-Do list. (BTW: I made a financial donation to the archive.)

Kevin’s email also said,

“YouTube will die some day. This is a certainty. What we need is a pan-civilization, non-profit record for all time. This is technically possible —even safe from Yellowstone supervolcano. We at The Long Now made a "backup" of 1,000 language versions of the same text (Gen 1-5) put it on a nickel disk (optical readable), and it is on its way to land on an orbiting comet right now. See the Rosetta Project at Long Now.  We could put the entire library of earth there if we wanted to.”

Connie Barlow’s immortality projects (in text, audio, and video formats) can be accessed through her main educational website:, especially this page.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Evolutionary Parenting: Thoughts About Holidays

by Jon Cleland Host

Though I mentioned some resources for Evolutionary Parenting in my previous blog post, I never meant to suggest that it is easy – it’s not (heck, good parenting of any kind isn’t easy).  Like so much in life, however, that extra intentional effort is very rewarding.

Right now, at the beginning of December, many of us are indeed spending effort – preparing for the holidays.  But which holidays?  From the many available, nearly all of us are celebrating the holiday our parents taught us, perhaps including minor tweaks from our lives or our spouses.  That’s not a surprise, given that holidays are one of the most common ways that values are passed on to the next generation, answering our human need for both celebration and meaning.

Why “No Holidays” Is Not an Option

Our involvement in holidays, in terms of both time and money spent on the kids, is especially clear for many of us at this time of year – showing that we care about them.  After all, it is where we spend our time and money that shows what we really care about.  Children know this.  They see us with more unvarnished honesty than we may realize, constantly learning from what we actually do, nearly heedless of what we say.  Children see through hypocrisy like a picture window, especially as they get older.

So, what then are we teaching them with our chosen holidays, which speak to our children more loudly than anything we tell them?   What is all our holiday effort working to build?  Because honesty is one of the most important aspects of good parenting, my wife and I carefully chose which holidays to celebrate, and how to celebrate them.  Like a culture’s origin story, a culture’s holidays also must be both meaningful and real (or believable).  Real, for a holiday, includes being both fun and factual.  Holidays that aren’t fun backfire, leading to resentment that only teaches avoidance or antipathy towards the parents as well as whatever idea is otherwise intended.  Conversely, a holiday that is fun, but has no basis in reality or fails to teach good values, is little more than rank consumerism, teaching children greed and gluttony.  Does that sound like some holidays we have in America today?  Is it a surprise that so many Americans have grown up to be greedy, gluttonous, and empty of deep values, having learned exactly what they were taught?

What can be done?  Jettisoning all traditional holidays without replacing them is like having holidays that aren’t fun – especially when all your children’s friends are having a blast with those traditional holidays.  Do we have any choice other than empty holidays based on consumerism and superstition?

The answer is yes.  We do have another option, one which draws on the love, creativity, and effectiveness present in today’s parents – we can craft holidays that are meaningful, real and fun.  How that’s done will vary from family to family, and so what follows are just the solutions that Heather and I have found to work well for our family.  These may be a useful starting point, but ultimately it is up to each parent to find their family’s solution themselves.  For many, some adjustments to their old holidays may be all that is needed, and any holiday solution must be sustainable in today’s modern culture.  Too radical a departure will become an effort to maintain over the years, especially if they are celebrated on significantly different dates from traditional holidays, and are thus more likely to be abandoned over time.  The rest of this already long blog post describes our family celebration.

The Cleland-Host Family Approach to Holidays Around the Winter Solstice

Obviously, our whole year of family holidays is beyond the scope of a blog post, so this will cover only the Winter Solstice, which is December 22nd this year.  In this darkest time of the year, the returning light and the hope that light brings has been enough to make this time sacred for literally millions of your Ancestors for thousands of years.   Our modern understanding of the Universe gives us many other ideas to celebrate as well, and we have chosen stars (our Sun and other stars) as a central theme of our family Winter Solstice celebration.  Included in that theme are also supernovae, the stardust that makes our world (and us), the winter season, and connection to all humans that comes from realizing that ancient people on all continents celebrated the Winter Solstice millennia ago.  The Winter Solstice is, after all, the reason for the season – both meteorologically as well as culturally!

Holidays (and family cultures) must also have practices.  Our traditions for the Winter Solstice are similar in many ways to practices our kids see their friends doing.  They include a decorated Solstice Tree (with a star on top). Solstice lights are strung indoors and out (we point out to the kids that the different colors of the lights are like the different colors of the stars, and talk about star colors and types). Stockings are hung, as well as decorations with stars, evergreens, and snow.  We open a door in an “Advent” calendar every day, counting down the days to Solstice with small surprises, and tell the stories of stardust and of Kabibonokka (the north wind) over eggnog and cookies made in the shapes of stars, snowflakes, and evergreens.  See here for related resources.

This all of course culminates on the Winter Solstice itself.  After weeks of anticipation, we eat a decorated ice cream Yule Log on the night before Solstice, pointing out that our bodies’ metabolism will be burning that Yule log all night.  The next morning, the kids usually wake up before sunrise, and are allowed to go through their (now filled) Solstice stockings.  Soon, we gather up the kids in the dark blue of morning, trekking out to see the Sun return, victorious after its long decline.  The rising Sun is greeted with songs and poems, and then we take some time as a family to enjoy wherever we are — which is often the Lake Huron shoreline, as our home is in Midland, Michigan.

The kids are jumping with excitement by the time we return home, reminded that love from the Universe can make wonderful things happen.  They rush out to our family’s sacred space, a stone circle in our wooded backyard, to find gifts for all.  The gifts are brought into the house and opened one at a time, to start a sacred day with no work, instead having a party, visits with extended family, or other family time.  If asked, we truthfully answer questions about how the gifts got out there, if those questions are supported by evidence and good reason.  We never lie to the children, and they know that.  When a child uses their own reason to discover that we put the gifts there, we point out that what we told them first was true, because we parents are part of the Universe, and that they are not allowed to tell their siblings, who must also figure it out themselves.  So far, only our oldest child has figured it out, though his brother came very close last year, and I expect him to figure it out easily any day now.

How ever you choose to celebrate the season, our family extends the warmest wishes to you.

Happy Holidays!

~ Jon Cleland Host

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Evolutionary Parenting: An Introduction - Jon Host

by Jon Cleland Host

One of the most important parts of an evolutionary worldview is a commitment to future generations. Why? Because an evolutionary worldview includes the realization that we are all a part of the grand saga of life, the Great Story of the Universe, the diary of that irrepressible pulse of life, surging in us all.

This realization shows us the immensity of the story behind us, and therefore, the immensity of the story ahead of us. But what will that story be? We see from the past that it could contain a lot of horror, and a lot of good, and everything in between. To know that our great grandchildren (or those of our relatives) for seven generations and more will live in the world we give them makes this much more than idle speculation, transforming it into a drive to give back to the Universe and to life itself by doing what we can to help.

For those of us who are parents, this means working to raise our children as well as possible, giving them the tools that will help the future of all, and doing so with joy. Our children are humans, and understanding the needs of (and threats to) human children requires an understanding of the evolutionary history that made them. This is why Evolutionary Parenting includes both the connection to our evolutionary past, as well as the sense of purpose supplied by our awareness of future generations.

Talking about all those evolutionary needs and threats would take many books, so for this blog post, I’ll start with one small part of a family culture, and that is our human need for a meaningful, trusted story of how we got here. For dozens of millennia, humans in cultures around the globe grew with stories of how we got here that gave their lives meaning, richness and a sense of roots, so it’s no surprise that we humans have evolved to need such stories when we are children. To fulfill this need, a story must be meaningful – in that we must attach meaning to it, and not see it as irrelevant or “just dry facts”. It must also be believable – in that it needs to be supported by the facts as well as we know them. In other words, it has to be real. If the story fails either of these requirements, then children (and adults) cannot get all of the benefits we need from it as humans.

We are living in a time when nearly all of us are denying our children (and ourselves!) this basic human requirement. Scientific discoveries have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the old creation myths, like the Native American story of Nanabozho or the Genesis story, aren’t literally true (they might still be meaningful, but are no longer believable), while the story that is believable, the evidence-based Universe Story, is rarely taught in a meaningful, inspiring way. Only a story that is both meaningful AND believable can fulfill this basic human need.

Others are recognizing this cultural loss as well. As Nancy Ellen Abrams states:

Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people.

And over a half century ago, Maria Montessori told us that:

…by offering the child the story of the universe, we give him something a thousand times more infinite and mysterious to reconstruct with his imagination, a drama no fable can reveal."

I’ve lost count of the times when, in teaching creation myths to children, they seem uncaring, especially after asking, repeatedly “but is that what really happened?”. They are already too smart to care much for stories that are known to be false. Yet, it still took me a while to realize how much children want the honest truth. Seeing myself and other adults take a long time enthusiastically embrace the Universe Story drives home the fact that we have learned our culture all too well. This is why it takes time and commitment to raise our children with the meaningful and believable history that they desperately need. Even after only a few years of doing so, I’ve already started to see the wonder and joy in my children at having a meaningful and believable origin story – a coherent, empowering cosmology.

We can give them the meaningful and believable story that they need. To do so, we only need to realize how deeply meaningful and enriching the factual Story of the Universe, as discovered by science, truly is. We only need to allow its meaning to shine through – and a moment’s reflection shows how wonderful it really is. That wonder and joy of finally reconnecting to the Universe, the same feeling our Ancestors for millennia felt, is within our grasp again. It changed my life, and others as well. Some of our stories can be read here.

Luckily, none of us have to reinvent the wheel and try to do this from scratch. There are resources available online here. For most of us, we’ll be learning at the same time, with the whole family traveling much of the path together. I hope to discuss some of the ways we’ve found to work well in our family in future blog posts.

Evolutionary Parenting, today, is uncommon at best. But I suspect that in the future it will be as commonplace as teaching children to read and write. From seeing its effect on my life and the lives of others, I think it is just as important as even those basic skills, especially for living in the chaotic world our children will face.

~ Jon Cleland Host


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Death of the Fringe Suburb: Why we boomers are to blame and what the youngers can do about it

by Connie Barlow

A superb Op-Ed piece by Christopher Leinberger appeared in The New York Times on November 25, 2011:

The Death of the Fringe Suburb

That essay offers profound insights and trends for twenty- and thirty-somethings to keep in mind when buying a home in this new and volatile era. I view the signs of change as truly hope-filled. Nonetheless, as we peel away the layers of causality, we boomers are forced to see ourselves as the reason for much of the economic decline. Now it is our job to ensure that the lessons of this sixty-year history that we have lived through are not lost on the generations that follow.

Note: Please take a few minutes to read Leinberger's Op-Ed piece. Then return to this blog to consider two additional points I wish to make.

*  *  *

First, a little background: My husband, Michael Dowd, and I have lived entirely on the road for ten years, occupying for a few days to a few weeks the guest rooms (or sometimes, vacation homes) of Americans affiliated with the churches and nonprofit groups that delight in the message we deliver as “America’s evolutionary evangelists”. Accordingly, we have, in a sense, been sampling and eavesdropping on the lifestyle of Americans our age and older — that is, couples whose kids are grown and out of the house, and who are wealthy enough to live in a home that has a spare room (sometimes an entire wing) for guests. We have carved out an odd career and lifestyle that utterly depends on the generosity of others: we live almost entirely in homes that we ourselves could never afford.

Thanks to this amazing opportunity to sample middle-class American homes and standards of living, I now offer two insights that perhaps will help Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennials avoid the mistakes that we boomers have made — mistakes we have made mostly as a group, not because we are especially foolish or self-centered as individuals.


Time and again, surveys have shown that people who choose a home for the wonderful nature-filled yard (but a long distance from anything), find themselves oppressed by a long commute or isolated because it takes too long to drive anywhere to extra-curricular events (for themselves or their lonely kids), especially in inclement weather.

Even though I am a nature fanatic (and feel like the luckiest person alive when my husband and I are offered a month or more hospitality at someone’s vacation home in one of the unbelievably large number of astonishingly beautiful nooks in North America), I have also delighted in getting a chance to live a few days at a time in high quality urban and established suburban settings. Michael and I have often been hosted by folks who have been living in the same neighborhood for 30 or 40 years — the traditional suburbs of the 50s and 60s. Though the homes we have been invited into would have been regarded as the wealthier neighborhoods decades back, today those homes don’t have enough square-footage, bathrooms, and garage space to be attractive to the “wealthy” anymore. The reasons for my fondness of these older “inner suburbs” are four-fold:
  1. It is just a walk or short drive to the store and post office and other venues.
  2. There are actual sidewalks in the neighborhood; one doesn’t have to walk in the street (nor drive kids a long distance to play with other kids).
  3. The trees (whether or not they were large to begin with) are now extravagant and represent a far greater diversity of species, even slow-growing oaks, than one finds in new developments that are turning into ghost towns in farmlands-turned-exurbs.
  4. The homes tend to be smaller and hence fully used; untouched dining rooms and living rooms are rare, as are energy-extravagant cathedral ceilings.

My point is this: older neighborhoods are not only still thriving; for many reasons (as presented in Leinberger’s Op-Ed piece) these are the locales that youngers should think about moving into themselves.


My second point is not one that was covered in the recommended Op-Ed piece. Indeed, I haven’t encountered anybody else writing on the housing collapse or Wall Street madness from quite this angle. Here is my take:

Boomers invested in extra homes (especially, homes larger than most of us would want to retire into), as we expected to resell those homes for a large profit. Boomers also invested in the stock market because of a new phenomenon initiated by our parents’ generation: old folks no longer expected (nor wanted) to move in with their adult offspring.  When we boomers were kids, we ourselves (or at least some of our friends) had grandparents living with us in our home. That was normal in the 50s and 60s. The grandparents did not save a huge sum for retirement, and few got pensions. Back then, grandma got a bedroom to herself and was expected to help out with the kids and cooking some meals. Her social security check was fully adequate for covering her share of the mortgage (for that extra room) and she certainly earned her food costs by the help she gave in the kitchen and with the kids.

In my case, my father’s parents lived with us in, what would have been, the master bedroom. They had a private attached bath and their bed folded into a sofa during the day. They had a little cookstove and refrigerator and tiny “kitchen” table in their room too, and their TV set was on top of the clothes dresser.
That is not the future we boomers intend for ourselves. Also, we expect to live a lot longer after retirement than our grandparents did — and to spend those years taking excursions, golfing, shuttling between our regular home and our vacation home — indeed, intending to live rather extravagantly because many of us have been working just too darned hard. At least, that was our plan before our stocks, real estate, and 401k accounts tanked.

In contrast, our grandparents never even considered those activities. They were happy (at least as happy as anyone expected to be in those days) staying close to home, feeling useful for the next generations, perhaps tending a small vegetable garden.

Of course, changing demographics and the fact that few boomers can expect their adult children to be living anywhere near where they were raised (nor to remain in that locale for long) will make it nearly impossible for grandma or grandpa boomer to happily move in with our adult children. Long-time friends and community groups would have to be left behind — and maybe repeatedly as the kids keep following jobs, mates, and dreams around the country.

All this means that, unlike my grandparents’ generation, most of my peers have assumed that they have to save a quarter million dollars or more before they can safely retire. That is a quarter million dollars per couple that must be “invested” somewhere over the course of decades that it is stashed away. Once upon a time, one simply put money into a savings account. But boomers viewed savings accounts as a loss — no profit there, and with interest rates lagging behind the rate of inflation.  The only two places to invest, really, were the stock market and real estate — hence the crash of both of those institutions.

The result of this extraordinary drive to “invest” for retirement was this: huge sums of money were taken out of the real economy and stashed in the casino called Wall Street and in vacant lands and overbuilt housing called real estate.  That money was not available for spending on the next generations. Instead, we let the infrastructure that we share communally (roads, bridges, parks, sewers) decline. We pulled state and federal taxes out of the subsidies that we formerly invested in colleges. Instead, we forced the younger generations to pay enormous sums for higher education and thus to be saddled with debt. Consciously or not, we allowed the marvelous infrastructure that we inherited from the Eisenhower era to rust away. Not to worry: “Be, here, now!” Remember?

CONCLUSION: The point of this essay is to let the younger generations know that it is not just Wall Street that screwed them over, but a massive shift in how ordinary Americans came to use and invest their earnings. It is my generation and the one older that made it possible for Wall Street financiers to become garishly wealthy doing nothing of use (and in the case of derivatives, doing much harm). It is my generation that invested in land and new homes that we knew we would not want to retire into, and that would be flagrant energy guzzlers (both in home heating and in gasoline for commutes and errands). I think we had an inkling that our kids could not afford, nor would they want, to live in such wastefulness. But all we needed to do was to resell that McMansion in five or eight years to someone else of our generation who was looking not for a home but for an investment — an investment for retirement.

MY DREAM: My dream is not that Grandma Boomer and Grandpa Boomer turn the pages of history back and go move in with the kids and grandkids. Those days are over for the reason I mentioned earlier: the kids keep moving from city to city and state to state. Rather, I’d like to see two new forms of high-density, low square-footage housing that 20-somethings just starting out and retiring boomers would occupy. (Noise from stereos would not be a problem, as earbuds would be required and no loud parties by anyone choosing those special, low-rent digs.) We olders would choose to occupy such housing not only because our investments failed, but because paring down to simple living would bring a joy to life that we haven’t known since the 60s and the 70s.

Such lost-cost housing developments, of course, must be located near a greenway or park in walking distance, and a grocery a short walk or taxi or bus ride away. There must be sidewalks; there must be trees. Neither we olders nor the youngers just starting out would have to own a car. We wouldn’t mourn a lost opportunity to golf or to cruise. We would be happily engaged in our patch of community garden, volunteering in local schools, joining birdwatching groups in the parks, mentoring the twenty-somethings, and finding real community with peers just around the corner or across the street.

Imagine this: we would be able to pretty much live on our Social Security checks, just like our grandparents did. And no generation, ever again, would be tricked into “saving for retirement” in ways that impoverish and threaten the health and wellbeing of those who follow.

R.I.P Lynn Margulis 1938-2011

Famed biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22 at the age of 73. Lynn was one of the most creative scientists of our time. She was always pushing the edge of orthodoxy and sometimes she was right in a big way (i.e., the evolution of eukaryotes via endosymbiosis).

It would be difficult to overstate the positive impact of Lynn's work on our understanding of life, but also on my life personally, and Connie's too.

In 1989 I became the first (and only) student to be allowed to audit Lynn's "Environmental Evolution" course at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. This proved to be a significant turning point in my life.

For the final exam, I was asked to publicly present the essence of my mentor Thomas Berry's work in just five minutes. This was one of the most empowering assignments I was ever given, and it ultimately led me to devote my life to teaching and preaching "The Great Story."

My wife Connie, too, was blessed by Lynn's generosity of spirit and mentoring support. Lynn played an instrumental role in helping Connie get her first scientific paper published in 1990, in Biosystems: "Open systems living in a closed biosphere: a new paradox for the Gaia debate". She also helped Connie get her first two books published by MIT Press, From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Readings in the Life Sciences, and Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life.

Thank you, Lynn. We love you. Transiting from life to death, you have now become a cherished memetic ancestor.

Here are a few reflections on Lynn's life and legacy worth reading...

• John Brockman, Edge: "Lynn Margulis 1938-2011 'Gaia is a Tough Bitch'"

• John Hogan, Scientific American: "R.I.P. Lynn Margulis, Biological Rebel"  

• National Center for Science Education: "Lynn Margulis dies"  

• MassLive: "University of Massachusetts community reacts to death of renowned scientist and professor Lynn Marguis"

Friday, November 4, 2011

Crazy Juice!

by Jon Cleland Host
A few days ago, I watched a couple bucks fighting, heads down, dust flying, their rage clear even from the safety of my tree stand 80 yards away.  It was exciting to see, and it reminded me that the peak of the crazy time is just a few weeks away.  “Crazy time”?  Yep.  Soon, here in Michigan, the bucks (yes, those peaceful, docile deer) will go crazy for the rut season.  They’ll make a lot of noise, take dangerous risks, and fight each other, sometimes to the death – just for the chance to mate.  There are plenty of good videos on out there, here’s one.  What could bring this on?  Crazy juice (testosterone).  Testosterone will flood their bloodstream, warp their minds, and they’ll each be lucky if they survive to see December.

But we sophisticated, civilized humans are far superior to these dumb animals, right?  We’d never be chemically induced to risk so much, right?  Wrong.  Crazy juice gets us too, especially us guys – because we all carry the same lizard legacy that the bucks carry, buried deep in our brains.  It can strike at any time (especially after success, as described here).

There are many important ideas to discuss about crazy juice, but one that jumps out for me is that this crazy juice is the source of one of the biggest evolutionary mismatches brought on by our modern world.  An evolutionary mismatch is when evolution has properly prepared us for life in the world of our Ancestors, and that preparation backfires in our modern world.   Classic examples include our tastes for fats and sweets, where our Ancestors needed a taste for these just to survive, yet in our modern world filled with junk food, we end up obese as a result of them.  In the Pleistocene, there was a big payoff in mates and status to teenage boys who took risks, fought for dominance, and threw caution to the wind.  In today’s world, with cars, guns, and jails, (none of which our Pleistocene Ancestors had) teenage boys are often pushed toward life-destroying trouble by their own brains.  It’s no surprise that the majority of crime is committed by unmarried males ages 15-30, and that car insurance companies know very well that teenage boys are serious risks.

With four young sons, my family has a tsunami of crazy juice on the horizon.  I only have a few years to teach them about crazy juice - why we have it, why to appreciate it, when to look for it, and especially, how to act responsibly in spite of it.  Doing so without an evolutionary perspective would not just be difficult, it would be almost impossible.  Knowing how much the safety of my sons means to me, I shudder to think what it would be like if I, like 95% or more of the mothers and fathers out there, let them become teenaged boys without equipping them with a strong understanding of our evolved brains.  They’ll need that to help control the results of the inevitable surge of crazy juice that is just around the corner for them — a huge evolutionary mismatch.  My heart goes out to everyone hurt by the mismanagement of crazy juice.  These may be some of the most preventable harms we are faced with today.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Terence McKenna Denounces Relativism and New Age Woo

Here's a powerful short YouTube clip of Terence McKenna goring the ox of postmodern relativism and non-evidential New Age woo in a clear, humorous, mild mannered, and supremely effective way. It just doesn't get any better! Thanks to PZ Myers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Changing the World Through a Shared Cosmology

This past week, we (Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd) visited our dear friends and colleagues in Santa Cruz: Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams — co-authors of the books The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future. There we learned of a superb 18-minute new video of their work: "Changing The World Through A Shared Cosmology" (which is a TEDx talk). The concepts, the illustrations, and Joel and Nancy’s presence on this video are all inspiring. Click on the video image to watch it now — and then tell your friends and colleagues about it, too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: What's involved in making a new world?

by Tom Atlee

The following is cross-posted here. Short URL:

Dear Friends,

My sleep was cut short last night by waking up worried at 3:30 a.m. PST about NYC Mayor Bloomberg's ultimatum that the Occupy Wall Street protesters leave Zuccotti Park - aka Liberty Square - at 7 a.m. EST so the park could be cleaned.  I won't share the nightmare scenarios my mind concocted, but I finally got up and was profoundly relieved to find that the intervention had been "postponed".  The Mayor's office said that park owner Brookfield Properties "believes they can work out an arrangement with the protesters that will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use and that the situation is respectful of residents and businesses downtown, and we will continue to monitor the situation."  When it was announced, the massive crowd of protesters went joyfully wild.

Apparently a number of factors made a difference:  massive protest from many quarters (including Canadians protesting to Brookfield, which is a Canadian company); the occupiers thoroughly and very visibly scrubbing down their already quite clean site during the night; a LOT of supporters showed up overnight; and they were visibly preparing for a lockdown resistance - explaining on their site how to lock arms, bike lock themselves to things, etc.  Many observers (including me) suspect Bloomberg's "clean the park" project was a thinly disguised attempt to end or cripple the occupation, but at least he recognized what a mess it would make - in SO many ways - to proceed.

So these determined interesting folks have made it over one more dramatic hurdle in their quest for a better world.

Several days ago I sent free copies of my two books (Priority Mail) to the Occupy Wall Street library. I'm happy they escaped the "cleaning" intervention.  I encourage any other authors on this list to consider donating copies of their works.  The ideas of people interested in co-intelligence should be made available to the protestors.  The address is

 The UPS Store
 Re: Occupy Wall Street
 118A Fulton St. #205
 New York, NY 10038

While proceeding with work on my new book on empowered public wisdom, I continue to be fascinated by the ever-expanding Occupy movement.  I find myself spending about half my time tracking it and its impact.  It is quite a remarkable phenomenon.  In this posting, I'm especially interested in their process.

Here's what's in this message:

First, I offer some fascinating charts about the inequities that inspired the protests in the first place and Senator Bernie Sanders recommendations of demands that would start ameliorating them - as well as news of some 1%ers supporting the 99%ers.  Then I share a few key Occupy resource sites, including ones that will be linking up Occupy activities around the world this Saturday, Oct 15 into a "global agora" and "global general assembly".

Following that is an article describing what's happening at Occupation Wall Street site, with unusual insight into their "working groups".  I find it intriguing to contemplate the similarities between OWS's use of working groups and the self-organized sessions in an Open Space conference.  I wonder what other processes could be adopted for special use in this movement...

Then I share three interesting ways professional facilitators and coaches are engaging with the Occupy movement:  Tree Bressen offers hot points on consensus process.  Coaching Visionaries helps people decide on their best role in the movement.  And Tim Bonnemann has initiated research into the Occupy movement's group processes.

After those items, I share a video taken of a General Assembly in Occupy Atlanta where the group discusses whether to hear from civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis who has come to address them - and he ends up leaving.  I share the commentary by the conservative group that filmed it, and then offer my own commentary.

Finally, I offer reflections on the shadow side of such ambitious transformational work, and its evolutionary role in learning what we need to learn to actually succeed at creating the world we want.

It is all incredibly rich, filled with problems and promise.  If you are (or are thinking of getting) involved in the Occupy movement, consider using the Coaching Visionaries questionnaire to explore your thoughts and feelings.  It just might shed light on other areas of your life, as well - and with a bit of adaptation, it could be reconfigured to help you do just that.

Blessings on this and all the other Journeys.


~ Tom


Occupy Wall Street: More popular than you think
Truly remarkable bar graphs showing what the actual distribution of wealth is in the United States, what Americans think it is, and what they think it should be.  A mind-boggle... bursting with potential...

To get down into the nitty gritty detail of the economic inequity over the last half century, see this fascinating slide show of 41 charts collected by Business Insider

Six Demands to Make of Wall Street
By Sen. Bernie Sanders

And for news of the 1% supporting the 99% see 


Global Virtual Assembly for sharing and networking results of local General Assemblies
Over 900 events in more than 80 countries - including more than 100 in the US - scheduled for Saturday, October 15

Global Agora up and running for sending each other videos and messages

The central site for catalyzing and networking all Occupy actions
Especially this great story about the evolution of their site
and access to a growing list of co-created resources about how to create an Occupy action, including descriptions of their group processes


Working Groups as Open Space
Inside Occupy Wall Street: A Journalist-Participant Describes What Life Is Really Like (Complicated and Inspiring) at Zuccotti Park


From Tree Bressen, consensus process trainer:

I am pleased to offer a new handout called "The Top 10 Most Common Mistakes in Consensus Process and How to Avoid Them".

I was inspired to write this especially in support of the current Occupy movement, which has bunches of people participating in consensus decision-making who may not be experienced.  A two-page quick handout can't replace a training, but it can help in the meantime.  Please forward it to anyone you think would find it useful.  Feedback welcome.


From Coaching Visionaries, a group of professional coaches:
We are currently creating this website to support the growth of the vision of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If you'd like to be informed once it is ready, please join the Facebook group or send an email to

Coaching Visionaries is a coalition of Certified Professional Coaches that has come together to join forces with Occupy Wall Street to support the community in envisioning a better future for us all, and calling that vision forth into the world. We are here to assist you in strengthening your already-powerful voice, maintaining a peaceful community, and growing a global movement built on a foundation of solidarity and hope.

We are working one-on-one with individuals, and we are also available to join specific working groups to help you dream a bigger vision and find concrete ways to achieve the vision that is being born from this community. We can also help you connect to your own deeper self to find the strength and courage necessary to discover your own unique role within this process.

What is Coaching and How Does it Work?

Coaching is a partnership that maximizes human potential. When you work with a coach, you will not be advised as to what to do or how to do it. Your coach helps you look deeper within yourself to find your own solutions to the issues that are important to you. You start by presenting what you'd like the coach to help you with, and then the coach will ask you questions that allow you to navigate your own way to the answers that are true for you. We commit to holding a space of non-judgment and unlimited possibility in which you can feel safe to explore the outer limits of what is possible.

The coaches with Coaching Visionaries come from a perspective of aligning with your whole self. We adhere to the importance of the Mind-Body-Spirit connection. Another way of looking at this is that we work with you to engage both sides of your brain - the rational and logical left brain as well as the creative and visionary right brain.

Who is this for?

We are here for Occupy Wall Street. Any issue that is connected to the vision or challenges of this movement are welcome to be brought to us for coaching:

Are you interested in participating but not sure what your role should be?
Are you on a working group that is facing difficulties of any kind?
Were you arrested or witnessed violence and need support?
Are you a facilitator and need a fresh perspective on how to organize?

What is YOUR role in Occupy Wall Street? Why are you here?

This is an excellent question for you to address with a coach. We'd like to empower you to step fully into an active role in this process that excites you and draws on your unique talents. Occupy Wall Street needs your gifts and strengths!

If you'd like to explore your purpose in connection with the movement, please answer the questions below and then bring your answers to a coach.

Q U E S T I O N N A I R E  -- Finding Your Purpose in Occupy Wall Street

If you'd like to talk to a coach about how you can become involved in the movement in the most powerful way possible for you, please take a few minutes to answer the following questions and then bring them to a coach.

What really excites you and gets you fired up about Occupy Wall Street?  What is most important about what is going on here? Is there anything that you dislike about it that you would like to see change in some way?

What matters most to you in life? Include what makes you laugh, feel alive, motivates you to move and change, gives meaning to your life.

What are your core strengths and qualities? What strengths and qualities do you want to call out in yourself by being involved in Occupy Wall Street? How can your involvement in Occupy Wall Street help you grow as an individual?

How do you envision a role or possibility for yourself within the movement? Think outside the box with this one. Get creative!!!

What is a time from your life where you did something you were very proud of, or where you felt very connected to your core self?


from Tim Bonnemann, Founder and CEO, Intellitics, Inc.

As an exercise in Dialogue and Deliberation research, I'd like to collect first-hand reports from local Occupy sites on any of the following topics:

*  Group methods, meeting formats (what types are being used, how well do they fit)
*  Facilitation/moderation (how good is the quality, what are the challenges)
*  Group decision making, incl. consensus (how robust and efficient is the process, what works or not, what are the challenges)
*  "Dialogic atmosphere" (for context, please see my blog post here:
*  Briefing materials (what quick guides, handbooks or other training materials for process/facilitation etc. are being used)

If you've been to any of the protest sites and noticed anything interesting in this area, please share your notes!


Occupy Atlanta Silences Civil Rights Hero John Lewis!

COMMENT BY THE VIDEOGRAPHERS:  Many curious citizens and media outlets came to the first Occupy Atlanta event, and were visible shocked and confused by the consistent Marxism employed by the group. People abandoned their individuality and liberty to be absorbed into a hypnotizing collective. The facilitator made it clear that he was not a "leader" and that everyone was completely equal; words often spoken by leftists, but in this case they actually applied their philosophy. Into this surreal and oppressive environment, Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero and icon of American leftism, came to speak as has so often done at left-wing rallies and events in Atlanta. He is practically worshiped in Democrat circles, and was visibly stunned to see these Marxists turn him away. It was reminiscent of previous Marxist revolutions in history when those who ignorantly supported the revolutionaries are, over time, purged and rejected for the "good of the collective", when their usefulness has expired.

COMMENT BY TOM ATLEE:  It is fascinating to view this event through the videographers' eyes.  Their perspective is so different from mine that it offers a great opportunity to reflect on how powerfully our filters shape our perceptions.

So here's my response to them:  I find the filmmakers' idea that the collective overwhelmed the individual to be absurd.  In consensus an individual can block the process - and did - forcing a reconsideration.  The reference to "hypnotism" seems to be a misunderstanding of the repetitions required to help the whole crowd hear what's going on when there is inadequate amplification equipment.  But if they are used to (and like) a leader making decisions or to hot debates filled with mutual interruptions, I can see how they would go crazy watching this laborious consensus process.

And now here's what I saw and how I interpret it:

Congressman John Lewis walked into an unfamiliar culture.  Not only is that culture different from what he is used to, it is still figuring out what it is and how it works.  One thing it knows is that it believes in equity.  What it doesn't know yet is how to apply that value most usefully.  After all, John Lewis fought all his life for equity, and probably has tremendous gifts of insight and experience to share with the occupiers.  But he showed up apparently unscheduled, expecting to be given the priority consideration that he, as a political celebrity, is used to.

The occupiers were divided about whether he - or anyone - should be given the special privilege of stepping into the middle of the group's agenda to be heard.  Since they were using consensus process, everyone needed to agree to turn away from their agenda and listen to John Lewis, or else the group would have to continue on with the agenda.  From hand signals during the meeting it seemed that most people in the crowd wanted to both hear John Lewis and continue with their agenda.  They finally decided to hear him at the end of the agenda.  At which point he left.  I'm not sure whether he left because he felt disrespected or dismayed or because he is, after all, a Congressman and has a busy schedule, and can't wait for the crowd to finish everything else they're considering before they listen to him.  It is clear he never signed up for consensus process, probably has little experience with it, and doesn't really understand what's involved.

So did consensus work?  Did it come up with a wise solution?  In this case, not necessarily.  One the one hand, it displayed the group's determination to live in an environment where everyone is treated equally - and to decide as a group what they are going to do without being unduly influenced by the larger culture's dynamics of privilege.  On the other hand, it clearly left a significant minority (which in this case happened to include many African Americans) unsatisfied with what was happening - which is exactly what the process is designed to avoid.  However, consensus is not designed for making extremely urgent decisions; it just takes too long.

So what to do?  My own long-term suggestion would be for the process working group to come to terms with this limitation of consensus and begin consciously observing when it becomes a problem and developing ways to address each type of urgent situation they observe.  In this case, what was lost was an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by John Lewis.  One approach would be to have those in the group that wanted to engage with John Lewis, quickly form a John Lewis working group and go to a different part of the occupation site to talk with him - and then bring their learnings back to the larger group when he leaves.  However, then they would not have been able to participate in the General Assembly decisions.  They would have to trust the group.  There may be better solutions, but you get the idea.  Choices often involve trade-offs and if we want to use consensus we have to acknowledge its limits, face the trade-offs involved, and create options to deal with them.

My biggest overall response to this video is poignant compassion for these people wrestling with the challenges of creating a new culture AND a fervent hope that they constantly reflect on their experience and refuse to stagnate in any particular box, even the radical box of consensus process.  Co-creation - and the need to do it consciously - never stops...


From Riyana-Rebecca Sang <>

...the Occupy Together groups are starting to have to face the
reality that it is downright difficult to reach our ideal of bringing
together people from all walks of life, with disparate belief systems,
communication styles, education and cultural backgrounds, etc. into one
force that can challenge those in power and lead to laws and policies that
serve a united majority and our sweet garden planet home rather than the
rich minority....

In conversations on the margins of the crowds, people
admit sheepishly about feeling left out for being the vegan, the queer, the
heterosexual, the anarchist punk, the suburban mom, the elder with decades
of experience, the young kid stepping out into the world of activism for the
first time.  These moments are the shadows of unity – moments that show us
the growing edges of where we need to go and teach us the tools that we need
to develop in order to get there....

We all want the deep work of great change but we are never actually
prepared for how hard its going to be, or how our personal shadows can snake
through even the most conscious intentions to ambush us from behind.  And
that’s how its supposed to be. We can imagine what it would feel like to be
our biggest, brightest selves, and we can envision what this world would be
like if we could truly come together to heal, protect, and nourish our
communities and ecosystems, but it’s the dirty, difficult work of wading
through the shadows that gives us the skills, capacities, and tools to
manifest them and get to the next level.  We may have a sense of the what,
but the how comes with the journey, developed through the growing pains of
evolution.  Part of that growth process is shining a bright light into the
shadows, not to dis-spell their darkness, but to see what is there and what
we can learn from diving deep into them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Cure for Collective Insanity?

A review of Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean's The Magic of Reality

by Michael Dowd

Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have made my holiday shopping this year easy. Indeed, if I could pick but one book as required reading for every adolescent and adult in the world, it would be The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.

Why am I so evangelistic about this book? Because it expands and deepens the powerful open letter that Richard wrote in the mid-1990s to his (at the time) ten-year-old daughter Juliet, “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing.” Now, just about anyone on the cusp of puberty and beyond can learn about their deep ancestry, why there are so many animals, what causes earthquakes, what powers the sun and the stars, why rainstorms sometimes produce rainbows, and even “why bad things happen.” Who can read this book and fail to see science as one of humanity’s shining achievements!

Early in chapter 1, which is titled “What Is Reality? What Is Magic?,” Dawkins lays out in a few simple paragraphs a key distinction: “Magic is a slippery word: It is commonly used in three different ways… I’ll call the first one ‘supernatural magic,’ the second one ‘stage magic,’ and the third one (which is my favorite meaning, and the one I intend in my title) ‘poetic magic’.”

Crucially, perhaps because youth are his intended audience, Dawkins maintains a tone throughout that is in no way derisive of anyone’s mythic story — including the mythic story that has been deployed for far too long in Western culture to prevent school children from learning that all creatures are their cousins and that it is a fact of chemistry that they are made of star stuff.

I do believe that, if read far and wide, this book could go a long way toward curing our species of its current collective insanity. Consider this recent statement by my fellow religious naturalist and noted philosopher of religion, Loyal Rue:

"The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed. But if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.”

The Magic of Reality is a stunning example of our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality and how we’ve come to know (rather than merely believe) that science provides a more accurate map of “what’s real” and “what’s important” (or, how things are and which things matter) than ancient mythic maps could hope to achieve. I would argue that nothing is more necessary at this time in history than for people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs to grasp the importance of distinguishing mythic and meaningful stories of reality from the measurable and meaningful truth of reality.

After all, isn’t the ability to distinguish one’s inner, subjective world from the outer, objective world pretty much the defining mark of sanity? When a person cannot consistently do this, we say that he or she has become a danger to self and others. When a large and media savvy segment of an entire culture insists on selectively using (and selectively ignoring) the discoveries of science, the danger is vastly compounded.

Clearly and compellingly helping readers draw a distinction between myth and reality (while valuing both) is what The Magic of Reality does so brilliantly—and beautifully! Richard Dawkins’ steady prose and helpful metaphors combine with Dave McKean’s stunning illustrations to make this volume a feast for head and heart.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times during the past two years (for example, see my “Thank God for the New Atheists” sermon that was simultaneously published in Skeptic magazine and Australasian Science), I consider Richard Dawkins and many of his New Atheist colleagues to be modern-day prophets. Traditionally, prophets were not so much foreseers or foretellers. They were men and women who spoke boldly and unflinchingly on behalf of reality. Their message (couched in religious terms, of course) was essentially this: “Here’s what’s real, folks—and here’s what’s emerging. We need to get right with reality, or perish.”

In the same way that the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin helped spark the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, I see Richard Dawkins and David McKean’s book helping 21st century religious folk to break free of idolatry of the written word and thereby spark an Evidential Reformation.

It is on this point that I depart from Dawkins in a major way. I truly do wish for reform of all the world’s religious heritages—not annihilation. And I wish for reform not just because reform is a more practical and realistic approach for smoothing out the harsh edges of literalistic religious zealotry. Rather, I work for reform because religions, historically, have had an important cultural evolutionary role to play.

Following evolutionist David Sloan Wilson (author of Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone), I understand that religions evolved, in part, to make possible vastly larger scales of cooperation than kin selection and reciprocal altruism tend to produce on their own. Religions that could evoke individual sacrifice in the interest of shared goals were those that helped their societies defend territory, conquer the less fortunate, and adequately provision generations to come.

Thus, in a heretical way perhaps, I regard Richard Dawkins as not only a gift to our species but as the boot in the butt my own Christian tradition requires to stay relevant—and to have anything useful at all to pass on to the young people who increasingly listen, globally, more to each other than to their immediate elders.

It is now up to those very same young people to make The Magic of Reality go viral!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Dawning realizations re Occupy Wall Street

by Tom Atlee

The following is cross-posted from my main blog site, here. (See comments posted there too.)

It is slowly dawning on me that I've seen events very similar to Occupy Wall Street.

The first time was on the Great Peace March in 1986 which started out from Los Angeles as a hierarchical mega-PR event with 1200 people and tons of equipment. It suddenly and traumatically went bankrupt in the Mojave Desert two weeks later. 800 marchers went home. 400 marchers didn't. It took them (us) two weeks sitting around an BMX track in Barstow to reorganize with no formal leaders (but tons of ambient leadership) and little support (but tons of vulnerability that soon attracted grassroots support). As we re-started our 3000-mile trek with 400 people, it turned into a 9 month miracle of self-organization (I mean, where DO you put 400 people each night 15 or so miles further down the road?!!), out of which came my first experiences of and ideas about collective intelligence, which led to my life work today. The lives of hundreds of other people were transformed by that March, whose emergent troubadours sang "echoes of our care will last forever..". The folks at Occupy Wall Street are doing a similar experiment in passion-driven self-organization.

The other comparable events I've seen were run by Open Space and World Cafe - especially Open Space. Remember?: The two legs of Open Space are "passion" and "responsibility", which combine into that remarkable guidance formulated by Peggy Holman as "Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service." Are we seeing that in Occupy Wall Street, or what?! Then there's "It starts whenever it starts." "Whoever comes is the right people." "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have" and "When it is over, its over." In Open Space there are two exploratory plenary sharings each day. For most of the day, though, there's no preordained agenda - only people gathering in groups to do what they want to do together. Or being "butterflies" (going off on their own, often stumbling into random conversations) or "bumble-bees" (going from group to group, cross pollinating). No one is "in charge".

The whole thing holds together because those who are present share a passion. In Occupy Wall Street, the shared passion is a desire to reclaim human life and community from "Wall Street" - the greed-based, hierarchical corporate-financial system that has colonized and degraded our minds, lives, politics, economics, world, and future. That passion has a thousand manifestations, which are the polyphonous "issues" that swarm around Liberty Square like bees in a meadow.

So I realized: OF COURSE Occupy Wall Street doesn't have "demands." Demonstrations and protests have demands. But although O.W.S. LOOKS like a protest and a demonstration (and occasionally turns into one), it is actually something more, something else: It is a passionate community of inquiry acting itself out as an archetypal improvisational street theater performance embodying, in one hand, people's longings for the world as it could be and, in the other, their intense frustrations with the world as it is. These longings and frustrations reside in the whole society, not just in the occupiers.

The occupiers are behaving and reaching out in ways that release and activate those suppressed transformational energies all over the country and world. (Arny and Amy Mindell call such archetypal energies "timespirits" after "Zeitgeist", the spirit of the times.) To think of Occupation Wall Street as primarily a demonstration or protest misses the profound novelty and power of what they are doing. All of us - they and we - are figuring out what it is they are doing as they do it. They are kinda building the road as they travel.

That the whole thing wasn't consciously built according to any plan - that it EMERGED - is both its power and its limitation. We would do well to think about how to combine such powerful spontaneity with transformational processes (like Open Space and World Cafe) that use self-organization to help spread evocative energy from a dynamic center like Occupy Wall Street out into the society, transmuting that society's latent frustrations and longings into a force that can shift the energy of the whole System towards Life. I sense a new form of activism, of citizenship, of aliveness being born here. Each of us gets to ask what role we want to play in that flowing, creative Mystery. And the roles we inevitably play inevitably become part of the inevitable river as the ice inevitably melts...


~ Tom

A few recent insightful articles about Occupy Wall Street...
On the eve of my trip to Occupy Boston
#OccupyWallStreet is a Church of Dissent, Not a Protest
Andrew Ross Sorkin's assignment editor
What the Environmental Movement Can Learn From the Wall Street Zombies