Transcript: The Meaning Crisis
Interview with Jeremy Lent, available to everyone
Transcript of episode with Jeremy Lent.
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[00:02:19] Rachel Donald: Jeremy, thank you so much for joining me on Planet: Critical, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show.
[00:02:24] Jeremy Lent: Yeah, I'm just thrilled to be here with you, Rachel, looking forward to it.
[00:02:27] Rachel Donald: Me too. Could you give a bit of background about your work to people that maybe haven't come across to you yet? And then we'll get as quickly as we can to The Patterning Instinct.
[00:02:36] Jeremy Lent: Yeah, yeah, sure, absolutely. Basically I, I call myself an author and integrator, uh, because I see my work primarily about integrating all the different parts of our lived experience that our dominant culture considered to be separate. And I, I write primarily about the underlying ways in which we make sense of the world, uh, like our worldview, if you will.
And primarily, I think my key message is that this kind of mess our civilization is in right now is really because of these underlying ways in which we do make sense of things, almost like the operating system of our civilization. And in order to change towards a more life-affirming future, we've got to go to those deeper layers and change those levels.
It's not enough to just invest in more renewables or something, we've got to like go to those deeper layers. And so a lot of my work and my books are about that kind of looking at those and the foundational issues of how we make sense of things.
[00:03:39] Rachel Donald: Okay. And before we get into all of that, which we absolutely will. How did you come across this, this field? Or how did you stumble upon it?
[00:03:51] Jeremy Lent: Well, it was primarily through my own investigation into what, what my life was all about. So it came from my own sort of personal journey because I, I'd spent the first part of my life actually as a successful business person. I had started an internet company during the first dot com boom, took it public. But then things crashed around me and my wife at the time who passed away some years back got very sick.
I left the company to look after her, the company collapsed cause I left it too early.
And, sadly, for a number of years, I looked after her, but she'd sort of suffered from cognitive decline. So I kind of lost that, my sort of most important relationship in my life. So I felt like things were crashed around me and I was determined that I, whatever I did for the rest of my life was going to be truly meaningful.
But then I was asking my question, where does meaning come from? What are these I, what are these ideas that we're told we're meant to believe in? I didn't want to take somebody else's word for it. So I spent a lot of time investigating my own understanding of meaning and that led to these books that I've written, through my own investigation. One was an earlier book called The Patterning Instinct that you just mentioned, the subtitle of that is 'a cultural history of humanity's search for meaning' because a lot of my work was to understand the history of how we've arrived at our current sense of meaning.
And it was only through my own personal investigation I got to realize there was a crisis of meaning in our entire culture which is leading us to this catastrophe we're heading toward. And my most recent book is called the 'Web of Meaning: integrating science and spiritual'- sorry, I've got my subtitle wrong.
So it's called 'Web of Meaning: integrating science and traditional wisdom to find our place in the universe' because it's not just spiritual, but other kinds of wisdom. And the notion there is that it is possible for us to actually find a worldview that is both scientifically coherent and really connects with the deepest insights from traditional wisdom.
A worldview that could actually lead us to a sustainable and regenerative future.
[00:06:13] Rachel Donald: And what - oh, where to, where to dig into that. Let's go back, let's start and go backwards. Like, what would that worldview look like?
[00:06:24] Jeremy Lent: Yeah. Yeah, sure. Well, that's a key question. Basically, it would be a world, in essence, of like of deep connectedness. That if we look at the dominant worldview versus the worldview that I'm talking about this possible for us, the biggest contrast between them is that we are led to believe in our dominant culture and the way we make sense of things that everything is basically separate.
So we're told, you know, science deals with the material wealth as it is and spirituality is like some separate domain. And those two things shouldn't really, sort of connect out. We're told that our minds are separate from our bodies. We're told fundamentally that humans are sort of in essence different from the rest of nature.
And so we should see nature as something to basically extract from. It's like there for us to take advantage of, to exploit. And we're told that humans are separate from each other. You know, that each of us are so separate individual units and we're trying to optimize for ourselves. All those are this notion of separation. And a worldview of deep interconnectedness actually focuses on the connections between things rather than the separations. And it leads to very different ways of meaning-making and very different outcomes of understanding our place in the universe.
[00:07:46] Rachel Donald: Could you give some examples of how we could take something in our culture that is defined by separateness and then apply a framework of connectedness and, you know, output different.
[00:07:58] Jeremy Lent: Yeah. Well, maybe one way of looking at things is this notion of seeing humans as sort of being this kind of, we are the sort of essence of what is valuable and the rest of nature is actually a machine, we're told, and that's very, that's very dominant in our culture, has been dominant for hundreds of years, ever since the scientific revolution, this notion.
It's like it started out as a metaphor, then early scientists would look at something like a complex clock and they'd say, wow, it's amazing. And, and they began to say, well, nature itself is just like this clock but a very, very complicated one. And, and if you look at nature in that way, it's kind of powerful because you can sort of break down those little parts and figure out how those things work.
And that's been a big secret to our technological innovations over all these hundreds of years. But it's also a wrong metaphor. In fact, nature is very much not a machine as modern life sciences tell us. Biology explains that machines are these things that don't have any intrinsic purpose in their life. We, we create them for what we want to do.
Any living organism has a deep purpose and it actually has subjectivity. And we actually, we're not essentially different from all the rest of life. We have a particular type of way of understanding things that differentiates us, somewhat gives us power, that we've developed over the rest of nature, but we're not separate from it.
But if we look at nature as this, this resource to exploit, then it leads to a great deal of spiritual alienation, but also leads us on this path of devastation, where we're basically consuming the earth at a rate that's unsustainable. Whereas if we look at the rest of nature as something that is our true home and something that we're part of, basically like a big extended family, it leads us to very different ways of relating to nature, relating to our technology, relating to our economy, and ultimately the purpose of our existence on this earth.
[00:10:12] Rachel Donald: Let's get metaphysical. Because there's something in what you said that to me, I've always kind of -always- recently thought was the issue, which is that we are subjective creatures. And so there is an inherent alienation in, in being alive as a human being. Like, nobody is going to experience the exact same thing that you experienced.
And so to me, it's, it's been a question of like, how do you map a kind of collective objectivity, which is culture, you know, so that we can all communicate and get by together and also overcome that, that initial alienation, which I think has been part of the driving force by, you know, the atomization of science and individualism.
Like, it seems to me a symptom of that kind of existential awareness of being alive, but actually being a little bit separate. Because I feel like that's a truth that we need to acknowledge if we're going to get past that narrative.
[00:11:12] Jeremy Lent: Yeah, well, in a way we can look at humans. I mean, the, there's a seed of truth. I mean, there's a significant truth in what you're saying, and the seed of truth to this whole worldview of separation that I've just been describing really reflects our dominant culture. And actually this earlier book I wrote, The Patterning Instinct, kind of looks in a way at the different layers of separation that emerged in the human experience from life, from the rest of, of life.
So really just our evolution as human beings led to this much more of evolved part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. And that is what enables us to actually have a, a greater degree of sort of symbolic thinking. And it's, it caused early humans to have a sense of what's actually called theory of mind.
A sense of each of us are selves separate from others and recognizing that others are, yeah, we can actually sort of relate to others as separate beings. Things like language both connected us with other human beings, but also allowed us to develop a sense of being able to look at the rest of nature and develop things like technology to control it in many ways.
So that separation is in a big sense part of the human condition. And even the earliest times, even before any agrarian settling or anything like that in human activity, nomadic hunter gatherers went from one continent to another and basically caused massive extinction of significant species in each continent they got to, because of their power over the rest of nature. So there is something inherent in the human experience that has this kind of sense of separation. And they can look at layers of separation. When we did settle in agrarian civilizations with fields, we sent up, set up a separation from the rest of nature and there was wilderness out there and we cultivated our crops here.
And then we set up separation from us to other people. If a farmer got successful, they got wealthy and separated from others. There's other layers, then it increased. So with the Ancient Greeks, they even set up a separation in the cosmos. People always saw us being connected with earth, even if we put up those fences, there was some sense that there were gods out there and we had to pray to the gods and get on well with them. The Greeks with Plato came along and said, there's a separate dimension where good and value comes from. And this is a polluted earth we live on, which kind of met the foundations for the scientific revolution. So in each step there's layers of separation.
And it's not that those separate, those layers of separation are bad or wrong in the sense that they've given us so much of the benefits that we get from our human culture, from the technology that I can talk to you from thousands of miles away, and we, we're connected.
What is wrong is when we identify solely with that separate type of existence. Modern way of thinking starts with Descartes, in many ways, who said, "I think therefore I am". That most famous phrase and philosophy, Cogito ergo sum. If you think about what that means is basically saying my only existence arises from that thinking capacity, that sort of part of my brain that's aware of itself.
But what that does is, it sort of eliminates any sense of actual meaning or value or intrinsic existence essentially from even our bodies, as well as other animals who don't think like we are. So that separation leads also to the sense of profound alienation, because actually once we feel ourselves so separate from things, we actually kind of lose a sense of the fullness of what our lives can actually, what it actually means to be alive on, on, the earth.
[00:15:20] Rachel Donald: It sounds like this interconnectedness that we need to create a new world, which we do absolutely need, and everybody that comes on this podcast talks about the drastic need for a new value system, and it has to come from a place of values and citizenship, and you know, what it is to sort of be human. But we don't have a lot of time, you know, we've got about a decade to undo or at least acknowledge, understand, move past that thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human sociological evolution. How do we do that?
[00:15:58] Jeremy Lent: This is the crucial question of our times really because we are facing potentially, in fact, I would think it is the, probably the biggest existential challenge the human species has ever faced. I mean, there's no getting away from the magnitude of this crisis that we're causing. And it's one that if we don't turn around, could lead to the actual collapse of our civilization and lead to the collapse of ecosystems. And is already leading to the destruction so much of the richness of. Today. So it's a huge question. And I don't think that any of us has the clear answer for how it, this change, can be done, or even whether it can be done. I think that there's a lot of, there's a lot of, kind of both false despair and false optimism, I feel, is going around in the thinking around the world today, among those who are at least waking up to this issue. And to my mind, the, the false despair is around the notion that everything that we're headed inevitably to collapse. There's nothing- like exactly this point that there's, there's so much that needs to be changed and we're moving so fast in the wrong direction that it's a hopeless case. And certainly I at times look at our situation and feel into that sense of the odds seem so daunting, and the situation seems so terrible. So that's, that's one, one sort of way of looking at things. Another way is those who say, you know, we, we can do it. Like, you know, all we gotta do is let the markets, look at the great technology happening, look at renewables happening. And the cost is coming down so much. And you know, we, all we've got to do is shift things around. We can make this change happen. I feel that's this false optimism that is almost worse than the despair, because it leads people to miss the realities of what needs to be changed.
So how can we change things at such a fundamental level in such a short time? I'm not, I personally don't ascribe to an exact deadline, even though I think it's helpful that our scientists have put out this notion that we have 10 years to turn things around or where we are on a path where we probably have two degrees Celsius of global heating locked in, and it may be too late to move towards a trajectory that can lead to further amplifying feedbacks.
I think that's all helpful, but I also feel there's a danger of setting some deadline as if when, once we get to the year 2029 or whatever, December 31st, if we haven't got there it's all too late and we can just throw our hands up in despair. There's always some chance to turn something around up until the moment that civilization itself is actually totally collapsed, which may or may not happen in the foreseeable future.
So I feel what's important is to realize that this change I'm talking about actually comes from a simple shift that any of us is and can do, and is available to us at any moment because it's the shift in the worldview.
On the one hand, it's very profound because it, we have to like look at the underlying ways in which we make sense of things. On the other hand, they're open to us because each of us are living, feeling sentient human beings. Each of us actually is connected with the rest of life and opening our hearts and our minds and our eyes to that simply requires a kind of letting go of some of the conditioned ideas that we have inculcated in us from childhood, but actually realizing that they're not actually true. And what's helpful is that modern science validates that. And in addition to these great traditions of the past that have this deep wisdom that have developed over generations that are available to us to open up to, and actually shift our own orientation based on that.
So that's where the sense comes from that there's something that is possible even in such a short timeframe.
[00:20:21] Rachel Donald: Do you mean the separatism that needs to be overcome and scientists showing how that's not a good thing? Could you give more examples of modern day values or lack of which you, Yeah, think are dangerous and need to be overcome.
[00:20:34] Jeremy Lent: Yeah, sure. Yeah. Thank you for that. Well, one that's very important is this notion that humans are fundamentally selfish and that actually, because of that, capitalism is the right system because it just harnesses that selfishness. And if we all act really selfishly in our best interest, then the whole world works most efficiently.
And then oftentimes there's another layer of this put on that, that people will say, you know, and even our genes are selfish, you know about the selfish gene, right? Like evolution itself is a result of selfish genes working over billions of years. And that's what life is about, right. It's not just humans that are selfish. All of life is like that. It's a rat race and whoever wins is the one who's the most selfish, the most cutthroat. And we're told that and we believe that's scientifically true. And, you know, Richard Dawkins in his book, 'the selfish gene' back in the 1970s, did a great job of taking what was scientifically conventional thinking at that time and sort of priming it for this kind of neoliberal ideology.
Not that he himself, as a neoliberal ideologue, but his message fit perfectly with that way of thinking. So it became inculcated into our general culture. All of these, everything I've just said has been shown by science to be fundamentally, I mean, if you just look at the notion of the selfish gene, for example, and this sense that evolution actually, developed through selfish, through selfish genes, both there's two levels in which that's wrong.
The gene itself is not the driver of evolution the way that it used to be thought of as such. What modern evolutionary biology shows is that there's actually, there's this kind of interactive relationship between the cell and the gene and the organism and the environment. And actually we need to understand evolution is this complex dynamic sense of interrelationships. But even more than that, this selfishness wasn't the cause of all these changes. People who have now studied this shifts in the kind of complexity of life, when it first began on earth to complex cells and multicellular organisms and ecosystems developing all this stuff and found that every one of these phases of like a jump in the complexity of life arose through cooperation.
When different organisms learned that by working together, they could take what they specialized in. And they discovered what's called mutually beneficial symbiosis. Basically the, it's not a zero sum game. It's a positive sum game. And by working together, just in the sense of imagining like, plants are really good at photosynthesis. They take the energy from the sun, they turn it into nutrition. Animals, take the, that kind of energy, they, they use the energy from the plants. They eat something from the plants. They transport the seeds from the plants, help them to propagate. All of the way the world works is that kind of symbiosis.
And then what is so amazing is that this notion of humans as selfish turns out to be the exact opposite, too. It's not that humans got to be so successful because we developed this ruthless selfishness. In fact, as humans evolved, millions of years back in as kind of early prehuman hominids in the Savannah in Africa, it was a dangerous environment.
Those groups that learned best how to be cooperative with each other and actually work together as a group are the ones who are most successful. So as humans, we actually evolved what psychologists called moral emotions, things like embarrassment, shame and the sense of really respecting and liking people who were generous, a sense of fair play.
All these things are deeply embedded in our actual felt sensation. So we're not, we don't have to overcome our selfishness by using our minds to overcome what our inherent biology does to us. It's the opposite. We simply, by connecting with what we are as human beings, we're naturally driven to want to work together in groups.
[00:24:57] Rachel Donald: I think it was Ugo Bardi who first came on the show and said, you know, it's all Darwin's fault. I'm paraphrasing here. He didn't say it's all Darwin's fault. But he said that theory of evolution that is, you know, the survival of the fittest and competition. That's been a huge problem. It's not the truth of the matter. We are a collaborative species and imagine if that story had been told otherwise. And it's something that I've really, really stuck on, but nonetheless, I still, there seems to be a collaboration in separation as well. You know, in 'the Dawn of Everything' by Graeber and Wengrowth, one of the things that they show is that human cultures all over the world, could be very near each other physically, but very different culturally. And the only conclusion they could get to was that they needed to differentiate themselves. They chose to be different. That was how they got their sense of identity. Not through more violence or whatever, but just the fact that they were different from their neighbors.
So there seems to also be a collaboration in that self/ other paradigm that's kind of haunted us forever. Is that something that we need to, that we need to get past? Is that- because this is the thing, right, I mean, in so many conversations, people are like, oh, well we need a global dictator to just come in and like, make all the sweeping changes to save the planet.
And yet the diversity of thought of culture, of, of being, also what makes being alive and being human and being in this modern world so rich. And I just wonder if actually, I mean, A) are we capable of it, and then B) would it be the right thing, another export of a global culture or global value system?
[00:26:41] Jeremy Lent: Yeah, you raised some really important questions there, Rachel, and I actually, I have some issues with some of the, the ideas that, that 'Dawn of Everything' put out there. I, I love the overall message that book says, basically saying there's nothing fixed about our humanity, and there's nothing fixed about some sort of line of cultural evolution has led to this and humans are capable of so many different things, but there's a few of their kind of conclusions like you were just describing there I'm not personally so convinced by.
I think, what is... I think what evolutionary biologists in general and cognitive anthropologists who look at the actual sort of evolution of human thought in those early years, what they show above all is we, in those early times we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, and there were very few people on the earth. And there wasn't a sense, so much of a sense of us versus them in the way that we kind of think of the in groups versus outgroups. There was more, just a general sense of here's, here's how we live, and here are our relatives over there, and if we don't like some group, we'll just kind of go and move out to a different area or whatever.
But I do think that we did... there is also ingrained in humans, a sense of relating to those who look and feel culturally similar, similar to us, and a sense of, you know, having a sense of separation in those who are different from us. And I think that the way to look at how to work through that in our modern age is a key concept that I actually come to again and again in my books, 'The Web of Meaning', which is a concept of integration.
And what I love about integration is what it really refers to, this notion of a system that can, that is unified, but also with all its parts being differentiated. So that's the key, even though everything is separate in this, in the system, they're related to each other in a way that causes a coherent whole. And integration is crucial for life itself.
If you look at any system, any living system from a single cell to an organism to an ecosystem or anything in between, the different scales, integration is key to how it works. That's actually sort of how life began on earth, is basically macromolecules working, having each part being specialized in certain things and developing a sense of whole.
So the whole affects all the different parts while the different parts affect the whole. So that process called reciprocal causality. And if we apply that concept to what you're just describing, what I feel is that it offers us a way forward that doesn't have to deny our sense of deep connection with all of life and all other human beings around us, nor does it deny what it is to be a separate individual or a separate group within that.
So in a, in a society, in a healthy society, you can have different ethnic and cultural groups within that society. Absolutely. Celebrating who they are, celebrating what makes them special, celebrating their uniqueness. And at the same time, celebrating that as part of realizing they're part of something bigger. They're part of the, of a society and they're part of a community, ultimately the whole community of life on earth. And a key element to where that leads to is a notion of what I call fractal flooding.
And the notion behind fractal flourishing is a sense that, when I'm talking about the levels in which we're sort of part of these bigger systems, that the, one of the words that system scientists use to describe that is fractality and a fractal relates to a pattern that repeats itself at different scales.
So you can see fractals in like patterns on leaves or patterns of lightening or patterns of neurons in our brains, whatever they might be, and that indicates self-organized activity is part of how life works. And the idea of fractal flourishing recognizes that each of us are flourishing as an individual.
It depends on flourishing, even at layers within us, different parts of us, to actually be able to flourish. But it depends on a healthy and flourishing system in which we're part of a family system, our community, and ultimately our nation state, whatever it might be, all of life on earth, basically. And we live, we think oftentimes everything is a zero sum game. Like my benefit comes at the expense of somebody else or, you know, we, as humans need to basically exploit the rest of nature to our benefits. And that leads to a lot of these separations, which leads to fear and anxiety and a lot of suffering for those who are being exploited, but even suffering for those doing the exploiting because we have to kind of separate ourselves from those around us. The notion of fractal flourishing recognizes that actually in a really healthy ecosystem, and which our society also has the potential to be, all the different layers benefit from the health of the other layers around them.
[00:32:28] Rachel Donald: Key, absolutely key. But how do you, how do you communicate that to people? I mean, what pragmatic steps can you take to encourage people to adopt a different worldview? Because I mean, we haven't had a religious update in about like what, 1500 years? Cause it's a hell of an undertaking.
[00:32:51] Jeremy Lent: Well, what's fascinating about worldviews is that they, they can on the one hand being incredibly stable. So, just like you said, like we, we sort of had, yeah, Christianity arose like a couple of thousand years ago and it's still so dominant, much of its way of thinking. If we look at China and the Taoist and Confucian ideas in China arose again about 2,500 years ago. Incredibly stable. But worldviews also can shift quite powerfully and quickly when there is something that leads to a decoherence of that worldview. Again, if we think of it, of a worldview as a system, as sort of conceptual system, it's a system that it maintains itself because it seems to work for people. So new generations, as they grow up, they look at what the people in positions of authority, their parents, or others, and positions of authority in society tell them, and it's not like a worldview has to be taught like, like mathematics or your alphabet or something. It's implicitly transmitted because kids look at what others are doing and they kind of learn that there's deep behavioral and, and conditioned ways of thinking, and that becomes their worldview. So what we do see there when we look at how well these can transition, we see that when something happens, either internally in the system or externally affecting the system, that leads to the loss of authenticity of the, those in positions of power who expound that worldview. New generations very quickly look around for a different way of meaning-making.
So an example was actually China where in the 19th century, well starting really in the 18th, but really getting powerful in the 19th and 20th centuries, the West basically humiliated those in positions of authority in China with things like the opium war. And just in general, they basically, they led to the, the kind of hollowing out of this Confucian culture that had been powerful for millennia. And then what happened was when young, thinking people, caring people, in that culture started to grow up and they saw the elders basically humiliated, and they looked at the Western powers having, uh, having so much success. They started to say, we've got to like reinvent our way of making sense of things. And they looked to the West for that.
So the worldview shifted very quickly. First to one Western import, which was communism. And then, then another Western import, which is like global capitalism. So now we see sort of China basically outdoing the West in terms of this sort of exploiting and extracting from the earth, even more powerfully.
So that's an example of how a worldview can actually shift within a generation or two when the authorities gets, starts to crumble that has been associated with that worldview. What we see today is something similar. We see basically an unraveling of the coherence of our dominant worldview. We've been told for generations, this is what, how things work.
This is, you know, things are getting better and better. If you don't like it, you know, look at communism, that failed, you know. And now we see that things are not working. So as things unravel, it's a little bit like, imagine a tight weave of a rug and you want to kind of change the pattern of that rug, but you try to sort of tear it.
You can't because it's way too thick and tightly woven together. But imagine that rug is actually unraveling and all of a sudden, each fibre is much easier to, to actually tear and maybe to reweave. So my sense is that it's the very incoherence, it's the very disintegration of the stability of our current worldview that we're experiencing, which is terrifying and not something that I celebrate. It's, it's disastrous to see how it is unraveling. But in that unraveling lies this potential for a transformation that could happen way faster than we might ever even believe is possible.
[00:37:30] Rachel Donald: But then we have to take into account the cultural context. I mean, we live in a post-truth world. We live in the age of disinformation campaigns. And also, I mean, is the authority crumbling? To me, the authority seems to have gotten itself into an almost cartoonish position of power whereby you know, we have leaders like Bo Jo and Trump that can be caught red handed and they just go, either, no, it didn't happen- even though we have evidence of it happening- or they say, yeah, it happened, but it doesn't matter. You know, like there's different cultural sort of barriers to, to taking down authority now, I think, given the kind of information that exists and is circulated. And then also the freedom with which our politicians and our leaders can respond to certain events. I haven't formulated that very well, but you know what I mean?
[00:38:31] Jeremy Lent: Oh, I do. I think that. So the simple way of summarizing what, at least what I take from your saying, and from what you're saying, is that actually, I mean, there's no question that our institutions are getting weaker. But the, what's, what we see happening is also a force towards populism, a sort of proto fascism and authoritarianism and the power now of social media has led to, exactly, to even the fragmentation of a sense of truth itself, of a shared understanding of our reality.
So there all kinds of wacky ideas get to be more prevalent. And these are terrifying forces. Which is why, you know, I don't go around sort of describing myself as an optimist in the sense of, I don't think like, oh, it's highly likely that things will move in this positive direction.
What basically happens is, as people get a sense of this ecological devastation taking place, even if they actually reject it conceptually and they're not, they're not like reading the stuff in the news, explaining that. Everybody gets the sense, the, the floods and the crazed like wildfires and then the incredible inequalities in our economy.
And exactly like you say, the rise of tyrannical thinkers like Bo-Jo or Trump, whatever that might be. Everyone's getting a sense they can't rely on the future. And, and one natural orientation to respond to that is with fear. And that fear leads to wanting to move towards those authoritarian voices that can give you some sort of make-believe sense of trust.
Like, oh yeah, like this big guy says that he's going to save us and I'll just put my money with him and like, I'll just get behind him, and then I can feel temporarily safer or whatever. That's what's happening around the world, is terrifying to see. And it also is leading further, I think, to the unraveling of the system that most people have taken for granted since the end of the second world war.
So I agree with all of that, and at the same time, there are other layers of shift happening in the system. You have children, school children, teenagers, looking at what's going on in the world and recognizing that they have quite possibly a disastrous future to look forward to. Rather than just figuring out, oh, I better learn to be a, you know, a good accountant or a lawyer so I can make my money in this world the way it was, they're saying, I need to develop different skills. I need to be part of, we need to shift something. I don't accept this anymore. People like Greta Thunberg and those who she speaks for, what they're basically saying is: what you guys have been telling us doesn't work. We don't accept that.
But what's crucial is these groups, these waves of young people, as they enter into adulthood, in positions of power, are going to be looking for alternative ways of meaning-making. If this modern system isn't working and they recognize that then the question is, what can they turn to?
And that's where I feel the most important thing that we can offer each generation now over the next few decades in the world is a coherent alternative system. One that it can actually lead to a path of future flourishing. One basically they can sort of feel like a beacon of light, if you will, in this darkness that is encroaching on us.
I feel that that is possible. I feel that that actually that future flourishing is right there for us. The ideas are there, then the ideas around economics, the ideas around governance, the ideas about how we shift our relationship with the living earth. All those ideas are there.
Because of the media is basically owned by the same corporations that are destroying the earth, those ideas don't get much traction in normal mainstream thinking, which is why it becomes even more crucial for any of us, such as the people that you've interviewed on your podcast, people like Ugo Bardi, people like Jason Hickle, to actually get those ideas more embedded in our society so that people can actually make that shift in spite of these very powerful forces of darkness, if you will, that are, that are there in the world today.
[00:43:29] Rachel Donald: So would you say that people need to be educated about the alternatives and educated about the reality of the situation and the reality of the potential future as well, and then be allowed to make an educated choice or decision for their own lives about their value system? Or do we need to create a value system and also educate them in that?
[00:43:52] Jeremy Lent: Well, the value system is already there and it's there in indigenous values that have been very consistent over an millennia that are based on our real, our evolved human experience based on our sense of being connected with the living earth, of actually being connected with each other. They're there in some of the great traditions of the world in Buddhism and Taoism. And in other traditions that emphasize our deep interconnectedness. And the value systems are actually pointed to by the findings in modern science that I've been touching on in evolutionary biology, in neuroscience and other systems sciences that show this deep interconnectedness. As I try to describe in this book, 'The Web of Meaning', it's not like we have to create a value system, and you know, I'm not like setting myself up as an author - another white guy from the global north who says, I've got the answer. Here's the new, the new story that'll save us or whatever. More than anything, what I see myself doing in this book is showing, it's just weaving together the strands of insights and understanding that are already there. That it's a little bit like just kind of opening our eyes to what's out there.
It's as though our system right now conditions us to kind of close our eyes like tightly to this reality of our interconnectedness from early childhood onwards, through advertising and through social media and through the implicit messages that are given to us.
So I, I feel that the challenge for each of us is to essentially rediscover what our core human and embedded intelligence always knew, but simply was told to kind of shut down as we sort of grow up into adolescence and adulthood. And the ideas are out there. But even more than the ideas, and deeper than the ideas, is our felt experience, is our reconnection with our, with the life within ourselves, our reconnection with nature, our reconnection with other people around us. We can simply reorient towards that reconnection. It's available to us.
And it just requires an initial spark of kind of waking up to realize that what's wrong with our society right now is not a, is not a particular issue of inequality or a particular issue of nationalism or a particular issue of whatever it might be, but something deeper in the way we make sense of things.
[00:46:40] Rachel Donald: Yeah, but I mean, it is also an issue of, of oligarchy, politically and economically. Because as you've touched on, I mean, why is the economic system set up in the way that it is? Why are messages not getting through? Why are clones appointed to office and then allowed to stay there? It is because power is concentrated a very, very small group of people.
So, you know, you and I can talk about meaning all day, but it doesn't do anything to undo or attack or change the institutionalized problems of inequality and just, yeah, oligarchy that, that has kind of created this mess.
[00:47:26] Jeremy Lent: Well, I think I disagree with you that it doesn't do anything to change that. It may not do anything if we just talk about it without actually moving into what that leads us to, in terms of our own experience, our relationship with others. But I think one way to look at it, I've been talking a few times about looking at ecosystems and kind of learning actually from nature itself. Say you're walking in a forest and you're looking around, you might think that what's, what is really matters in the forest is kind of what you see. Like you see these trees and you see the leaves and if a tree falls, you're very aware of that. That's what you think is the reality.
And meanwhile, actually in that forest, all these different tree roots are connecting with this incredible mycorrhizal fungal network, which you don't see, which is under the earth. But it's actually, what biologists have now discovered is it's through that, that mycorrhizal fungal network the trees are actually communicating with each other. If there's a tree at the edge of the forest that needs more nutrition, the trees don't just communicate signals to each other. They'll even use that network to actually transmit nutrition to other trees and different species of trees that do better at different times of the year actually, then kind of store the energy and transmit that to others at other times.
There's this incredible community going on and, and things happening we're unaware of in that forest because it's below the surface. And I think the same is true of human and system change. That what we're very aware of is the horrendous headlines we read in the newspapers every day about war in Ukraine or another like absurdity that an authoritarian regime is doing, or the fragmentation of democracy in the UK or the U.S or whatever.
We're only too aware of those things. What we're less aware of is these kinds of shifts that are taking place at deeper layers in people's connectedness. And while we are only too aware now of the dangers of the internet, for example, and the siloization that takes place and the fake news that gets transmitted, there's something else that has actually happened in just the last couple of decades is an even greater sense of our human interconnectedness. So when something happens like George Floyd gets murdered by a brutal policemen in the U.S and it's caught on video, within days the energy of that, the outrage of that is transmitted to the rest of the world. Suddenly people are going on demonstrations around the world, statues are being overthrown in Bristol or whatever thousands of miles away from what actually happened because of that sense of interconnectedness.
Now, again, I'm not trying to put myself up as this optimism saying, don't worry, we're going to make it all happen. All I'm basically saying is that the, the forces that have this potential to transform our civilization into a better direction are there. They will only basically outweigh these forces for destruction that are so obvious and so much in front of our face right now, if enough of us actually connect in with that and actually through this kind of networks that are less easy to see. And to your credit, this kind of podcast, a part of that network, those are the kinds of some of those links that allow people to connect with each other.
But that's our only chance really is each of us to realize we are part of this big system. Something that connects all of us as human beings, which is basically, virtually every one of us as human beings actually has a heart. We actually care. We actually want a better world for future generations.
We don't want to see destruction taking place around us. There might be a few pathological types who actually get off on destruction. Most people want to feel they're doing good. They're conditioned by our current society to be told that they're doing good, when in fact it may be part of systems that are causing more damage, but they want to feel they're doing good. And to the extent they can, they get to wake up and see what's possible. That's what our hope lies.
[00:51:59] Rachel Donald: I don't disagree with you. I think that's a, I think that is, it is such an important part of bringing a better future into being is having a vision, having hope, tapping into the best of humanity, and refusing to believe that narrative that the worst of a few represents the vast majority.
Nonetheless, we've talked about the complexity of systems here, we've talked about the danger of atomization, of separation, of siloing. Like, does it not, does that not fall into the same trap when we kind of boil it all down to oh well it's meaning and it's interconnectedness? Like, it is a systems problem that we have. There are institutionalized issues that we have. There's a history to deal with, there's, you know, geopolitics to deal with, the supply, you know, it is so, so, so, so, so complex. Could, would we not also risk a certain movement of people and, you know, typically global north, white, middle-class, you know, people that have access to privilege, just go: right, okay, this is a spiritual problem, then. I'm just going to be really, really spiritual and I'm going to connect back in and that's all I have to do.
[00:53:11] Jeremy Lent: Yeah. Well, I think that that kind of response saying, oh, it's a spiritual problem, that's all it is, is the exact opposite of what I suggest in my writings. Because to come back to that key concept I mentioned earlier, integration, the way I actually explore what the very concept of spirituality means is really means an orientation towards our connectedness. And above all, when I use the title of the web of meaning to describe how everything is interconnected and meaning itself arises from that connectedness. And my primary message is that what we label in our dominant culture is spiritual or what we label as scientific or what we label as an introspective versus activism or political and all these things we think of as separate items that none of them are separate.
So in my understanding, a true spirituality, if you want to use that word, is actually what leads us to recognize our deep interconnectedness with all things and our moral and ethical interconnectedness. There was a great Buddhist teacher called Thich Nhat Hanh who used, he coined a word, interbeing. And you'd hold up a piece of paper and say in this piece of paper is the sunshine and also the clouds and also everything because like, I wouldn't be holding this if all these different systems hadn't come together to make this piece of paper happen. And by the same token in that piece of paper, which I can walk to a store and buy for an incredibly cheap price is actually globalization and monocrop agriculture where rich ecosystems have been cut down in order to grow these monocrop trees, basically kicking people off their land and all the slave wage labour allowing that, and the pollution of the pulp mills and the aircraft causing the pollution, getting that piece of paper in my hand for a ridiculously low price. So this notion of real deep spirituality is holding that piece of paper and recognizing that everything is connected. Recognizing that the everything that we get to enjoy in the global north comes from privilege that came through hundreds of years of colonial genocidal exploitation, which continues to this very day.
And as Jason Hickel shows so well in his recent research, realizing that none of these problems can be dealt with separately. We can't use technology alone to beat climate change or whatever. That's just a, a nonsensical idea because it's deeply systemic. So the kind of spirituality I'm talking about is basically a deep understanding of the systemic interrelation between all things and not just the way systems work, but an ethical and moral and political interrelation between all things.
And out of that, a recognition that none of us is separate from that system. So coming out of that deep recognition of integration is a recognition that in each of us actually is part of creating whatever future happens, that the future is not some separate spectator sport that you and I can sit here and talk about it, and that's what they're doing. It's actually what we're doing. It's what everyone listening to this podcast is doing is creating the future as a collective enterprise.
[00:56:55] Rachel Donald: What a fantastic sort of hopeful note to end on. And I really, there's something about those final bits that you just said about also mapping moral and emotional, you know, interconnectedness onto systems and using that as an way to reinforce, you know, what we know needs to happen, which is better understanding how we are all connected, whether that's on the materials level or a spiritual level or a cultural level or whatever, in order to, to get through the next stage of whatever life has in store for, for all of us on the planet.
So thank you very much and thank you for your time. It was such a pleasure speaking with.
[00:57:33] Jeremy Lent: Yeah, thank you. I enjoyed it so much, Rachel.
[00:57:35] Rachel Donald: Oh, good. I'm really pleased. Who would you like to platform?
[00:57:38] Jeremy Lent: I've got a great thought for you, actually.
So we've been talking a lot about interconnection and about how there's a lot that we can learn from those cultures that have separate value systems, from what we might view as our our dominant worldview. And there's a book that's recently been published by an indigenous scholar and a scholar in actually in evolutionary psychology, it's called 'Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth'. The co-authors are an indigenous person named Wahinkpe Topa, which means four arrows in English, and the other co-author is Darcia Narvaez. And it's a beautiful book because the way it works is it looks at all these like more than two dozen different sort of dimensions of where an indigenous understanding actually helps us to look at the possibilities of seeing the world in a different way.
And oftentimes we're kind of used to looking at sort of cliches about indigenous: oh yeah, they say everything's all, all relative and everything's all connected. And, and that's about as far as we go. And this book is a, is wonderful because it goes really deep into these different ways of how you can apply that worldview and everything, whether it's looking at sports or music or justice or any kind of aspect of life and seeing, well, there's a different way we can make sense of it.
I would be happy to introduce you to those authors if you'd like.
[00:59:32] Rachel Donald: Yes. Fantastic. Yes, that. would be fantastic. Thank you so much, Jeremy. Again, thank you for your time. It was lovely speaking with you.
[00:59:39] Jeremy Lent: Great. Okay. Well, take care and thank you, Rachel.
[00:59:43] Rachel Donald: Thank you.