The current dominant world paradigm is all about hyper mobility, scattered development almost everywhere, oil to power mobility and the production/consumption machine – and fighting over it. The new paradigm is about not doing all that but instead learning how human cultures can become healthy among us people and as part of nature. Actually, it goes much deeper than that into the ways our consciousness and consciences manage our information and our lives, all animals in varying degrees, by instinct and by learning, nature and nurture. But after the more physical lead in, we will get to the more cerebral later in this writing.
An often-overlooked location on the surface of the Earth at the source of much of the old paradigm, in those physical terms I mention, is where a new paradigm will be considered at a conference in late April where I will be speaking: Baku, Azerbaijan. Wonderful opportunity.
The “New Paradigm in Human Development Conference” is being organized by the World Academy of Art and Science, of which I am a Fellow. It will be in a place remarkable for hosting such an event for it was the first real and long running Capital of the Age of oil.
So Briefly, first Baku, then on to what “a new paradigm” has to do with it.
Baku, distant holy energy grail for the Germans in both the First and Second World Wars. They never got there, most fortunately. Says the enormously thick and defining history of oil, Daniel Yergin’s The Prize – the Quest for Oil, Money and Power, so thick, and so heavy too, I cut it into two volumes (paperback – I’d never do that to a hard cover book). Made me feel a bit guilty but I had to do it! While reading on the transit system or sitting in bed late at night my wrists would start aching. So says history, Baku was the place for oil. In the US there was plenty of oil and a rare few “gushers” such as Spindletop in East Texas that set off the first really gigantic oil rush in the country. That was in 1901.
Oil, asphalt, and gas meantime had been known to be oozing out of the ground in the Baku region on the western side of the Caspian Sea for thousands of years. In lands like that, there and south 700 miles into Persia (approximately Iran’s domain today) and in part of the area of the Persian Gulf, the Biblical flaming bush was no miracle or apparition – some did just that. In some places there were columns of fire roaring and dancing 24 hours a day and the Zoroastrian religion made the phenomenon central to beliefs and rituals. Says Yergin, “…those pillars were, more prosaically, the result of flammable gas associated with petroleum deposits, escaping from the fishers in porous limestone.” In the 13th century says Yergin, “Marco Polo reported hearing of a spring around Baku that produced oil which ‘though not good to use with food,’ was ‘good to burn’ and useful for cleaning the mange of camels.”
Around Baku, The Prize goes on, “A primitive oil industry had already begun to develop, and by 1829 there were 82 hand dug pits. But output was tiny. The development of the industry was severely restricted both by the region’s backwardness and its remoteness and by corrupt, heavy handed and incompetent Czarist administration, which ran the miniscule oil industry as a state monopoly.”
It wasn’t until a polymath American college professor named George Bissell who was fluent in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Latin and Greek and who could read Hebrew and Sanskrit had a bright idea or two. He had spent a few years as a journalist in New Orleans and as a high school principal and Superintendent of Schools. Then, on a trip back north he noticed entrepreneurs soaking rags in oil seeps in western Pennsylvania to collect “rock oil” – petroleum – to sell as medicine, he suddenly realized the stuff not only burned but with a nice bright light and almost no smoke. As an illuminant, he figured it would have a big market. Right he was and the first phase of the oil industry in both the US and around Baku launched into its first phase with lighting its mission and a petroleum distillate called kerosene. Yergin credits Bissell with being the Father of the Oil Industry.
One of Bissell’s great insights was that digging for oil should be replaced by drilling. The much greater depths achieved by drilling and ease of extraction and collection, transport and subsequent storage compared to coal added up to a real energy revolution, massively increasing the amount of energy available per person throughout a whole society. The big breakthrough there was the well drilled by Bissell’s employee Edwin Drake. That was in 1859 on a naked recently deforested hill in Titusville, Pennsylvania. At 69 feet Drake hit oil. Soon the recently standing trees had been replaced by a forest of oil derricks.
The second big phase of the oil age, after kerosene for lighting started with the invention and broad adaptation of the internal combustion engine for cars and ships and standing machines for mechanical power. Plus, lubricants could be distilled from oil. Quickly, high mobility joined everyday life via gasoline burning cars and trucks and high volume transport via fuel oil burning ships and trains. As lighting shifted to electricity, transport shifted from wind and coal to oil.
Cities of the Age of Cars
My own personal attraction to the place – Baku, Azerbaijan – has to do with my interest in the history of the whole system called cities and the particular case of city development I have sometimes called Auto Sprawl Syndrome, or ASS, pronounced as letters not as a word, which if you commute is what you sit on, pronounced as a word not letters, an intolerably large slice of you life if you are stuck commuting from the suburbs. That’s because the car, the asphalt, the scattered pattern of development and the fuel, up to now based almost wholly on oil, is a single system, all parts integral to one another or the thing just won’t function. Imagine driving trains around without rails and you begin to see how the parts are so interdependent. As trains need tracks and stations, cars need paved roads and sprawl. Thus our suburbs were created by the car, right? Wrong. They all grew up together as an integral system, each becoming more dependent on the other – and on oil – as the system “matured.” Not a healthy system for the planet nor so convenient as enjoyed early on, but still a thriving dysfunctional system, in human analogy something like a physically strong but strictly nuts sociopath.
I was thinking about all this while I was living in Los Angeles for about eight years of my life, the “City of the Future” in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, the city of cars, or as a journalist from Germany I met titled one of his articles, “City of Carcentaurs”, creatures with the head, arms and torsos of a human growing out of a car body, with wheels, not legs.
Then six years ago I got invited to speak in Brasilia. I thought, “Hmmmm, this place is where architects and planners decided to design a whole new city around cars.” Instead of stop signs and signal lights at corners, such a drag for the driver and so energy inefficient to stop and start, stop and start, stop and start, why not a city where every intersection worthy of some sort of control is liberated from stopping and you just fly over or under converging traffic in the way of the clover leafs of the US freeway systems just then getting up and running? Who needs corners after all! I had to admit I liked Oskar Niemeyer’s curvaceous monumental buildings, worshipfully inspired by women’s bodies, he said. I enjoyed the wide-open spaces everywhere, expansive views over the hot Brazilian inland plain. But driving around was hell of round about, loopy, almost dizzying, stomach churning. And you can’t walk anywhere, or if you try, it takes forever.
I’d thought like most people that Detroit was the Motor City that launched the invasion of the body snatchers – our bodies – and sent them hurtling about the landscape of the City of the Future, LA, where I lived happily for a time. Actually I lived in Venice on the seacoast, freshest air and most quirky, imaginative, artsy (in the real, not commercial sense) and interesting people in the smoggy basin. But now I realized, taking long, long walks around Brasilia, that there were three of these pioneering car cities, the one that made the beasties, which I was bound and determined to visit soon (and I twice did), the Southern California one I lived in for eight years that implemented the idea of the car city in sprawl development and promoted it world wide through a neighborhood there called Hollywood, and the city where I was then walking and walking and sweating and gradually wearing down, slowing down plodding on under the Brazilian sun. I thought the culmination of my on-the-scene research about car cities was then clearly in sight.
Then when I heard of a conference I could speak at in Baku… OMG! I forgot the fuel! Yes, I needed one more car city to visit before my experiential on-the-scene ecocity research was complete.
Paradigms, “Exaggerated gamesmanship”? What’s oil got to do with it?
Oil? Not much in itself, that is regarding its stored energy content and utilization as a hydrocarbon chemical and commodity in various technologies. In a very different realm a paradigm is a structure of the human mind, a way of ordering experience and channeling both reaction in short term situations and thinking in longer terms, instinct, stimulus/response and intuition on the one hand and conscious organization of information for utilization by reasoning on the other. Information is delivered by our senses and filtered by what on some level our minds decide we are actually seeing and what we think and believe about that. Our minds, influenced by culture and experience, constructs mental “filters” and “blocks” to free-flowing information and idea creation, important in keeping our view of reality from getting cluttered with other-than-paradigm-consistent info and notions. Oil fits into all this to speed and enhance the power of something of a damaging quirk in the mainstream human paradigm – mind plus behavior – that, as I’ll explain shortly, got involved in what I call “exaggerated gamesmanship.”
But first an example. The history of science author and philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote an influential book published in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He explained the patterns of consciousness and perception and reaction to pretty much everything as a mental construct. The laws of physics shifting from Newtonian to Einstein’s relativity represents a shift from one paradigm to another. The assumptions and techniques of science based largely on a body of experience, experiment and theory in the pattern of Newtonian physics with its formulas, telescopes, microscopes and a developing body of techniques and consistent knowledge were buzzing along happily in the 19th century. Then along comes Einstein’s revolution called relativity and a flood of new information and the tools and techniques used to assess and further science changed rapidly and whole new ways of viewing, testing and theorizing were swept along in something new and different. Similarly you might call it a paradigm shift when the gradualists and incrementalists of geology, paleontology and evolutionary theory confronted information suggesting that catastrophes of very rapid, sometimes almost instant change such as planetary collisions between Earth and large comets and asteroids changed things profoundly. When radical discontinuities turned up in the geological record, a new breed of theorist was born called “Catastrophists”.
The examples above relate to changes in the picture science has of our world hopefully getting clearer and more certain with every step as to what is really going on, my favorite definition of science being simply “the quest for reliable information about our world.” More profoundly for the everyday guy and woman, a paradigm switch in a cultural context can change just about everything, as say, in a conversion from one religion to another or dropping religion altogether, together with attendant life style changes switching from church to synagogue, say, or cathedral to café, implying not just ways of thinking but follow through in the way life is lived and pretty much everything one thinks about and experiences in life.
Now to exaggerated gamesmanship. We all like games, or most of us anyway: sports, getting ahead in business, courtship and love and, unfortunately, war. There is nothing wrong with a little competition to spice up cooperation in our dynamic sociability as we relate to one another, some winners some losers by degree, some cyclically winning sometimes losing sometimes, or in the finality that comes to all of us: death. Every individual of every species strives to prevail, to keep eating with teeth or sucking the minerals out of the earth with root hairs. Those that reproduce effectively send descendants on into the future of our evolving community of life on this planet achieving collectively the Earthly immortality we all fail individually. “Survival of the fittest,” said Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. But with the advent of humanity and our varied cultures and with the rise of identity factors in consciousness to the juncture with and over the line into conscience and all the ethics and morality that go with it, the “fittest” became less violent and had more to do with skills in playing the complex and subtle games of cultures, each trying to survive, thrive, and explore and achieve according to our own personal or collective paradigms.
There is a lot of difference between the games, though, from building wealth, to winning a mate, to self-realization in art, science, sports, politics, cosmic awareness, too goofing off and wasting time. Each individual and each collection of individuals, sometimes in very large clusters, dances to the tune of various paradigms. But some very big ones determine patterns that are world-wide. Involvement in some paradigms takes up inordinate amounts of time and one wonders if it might not be sacrificing most of our precious lives here on this planet to be staring at television in the couch potato paradigm for thousands of hours a year or lost in comparing sports’ almost identical plays and scores for the 10 thousandth time with another fan. More obviously negative are the paradigms of mind and living that people fall into that are saturated in fear and hate, and it’s no joke that there are millions of people in the vast, fast, hot currents of such paradigms in the world based on one religion, nationality, ethnic group, race or economic theory or another. The game then has gotten out of hand, exaggerated to an enormously damaging degree.
So what are the largest patterns of the paradigms running things today? Is there a problem if we are rapidly drawing down non-renewable resources, poisoning earth, air and waters, changing the climate, driving species into extinction at an ever-accelerating rate? Sounds like a loaded question, but there isn’t much of any other way than just saying it. By any measure of health, things don’t look so good in a world of this much competition between so many people going to damaging extremes on this limited planet, ignoring the stunningly large and extraordinarily bad signs, and ignoring also attention to cultivating “the better angels of our nature” as Abraham Lincoln called it, which was also chosen by Stephen Pinker as the title of his study of declining violence in human history in a process he and a few others have called the “civilizing process.”
Perhaps the paradigm of over exploitation has emerged from the natural, but among us humans the now-exaggerated gamesmanship at the core of normal survival for the individual organism of whatever genetic lineage has become, in most basic terms, our most basic problem. In our human case, our numbers and power have become gigantic, planet encompassing, and it appears, beginning to be planet suffocating. In this course of events – history – we might notice that something healthy within limits which is the evolution-long apparently innate drive for survival in the game, has broken those limits and it’s now time for a new paradigm. The growth game can’t go on forever in a limited if very large environment, which is the Earth itself.
Time for the paradigm of growth to yield to the paradigm of enough. In slightly different wording Gandhi said, there is plenty for our need, but not enough for our greed. We need to limit our natural preconscious, preconscience evolutionary trajectory and its uberparadigm, or metaparadigm or whatever the most all embracing paradigm could be thought to be, understanding not only the infinitude of what humans can create in their personal and cultural selves, but that there are limits that prevail as well and they are deathly final. By the trajectory of history, its blessings and curses, however it’s been, we have been delivered to a moment of paradigm change demanding a waking up and making a fundamental transformation.
Compassionate creativity vs. the Star Wars Myth
There is a dominant generally unrecognized myth I call the Star Wars Myth. As the movie starts to roll we see written across the dark sky of space “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Scrolling across the night we see what in movie land is called the “opening crawl,” script disappearing toward an invisible horizon. We read it. It is telling us of secrets stolen, revolutions and wars underway, hidden weapons and a solar system-killing “death star” – all in the first five seconds. It’s all good clean fun and adventure but its underlying assumption is that by the rules of nature, by God’s decree, by something mystic and large and beyond human comprehension, that it is the fate of consciousness in the universe to inevitably come to not just competition but fighting, and not just fighting but war, and not just war but to war of extermination. But the ultimate evil might not be in one or the other of the antagonists, but rather in the construct of the myth itself.
Does it have to be that way? Is it in fact our irresistible destiny or just another – and most unfortunate – of the creations of our species attaining consciousness before conscience and not requiring acceptance anymore than small pox or dandruff?
Trying to think through what distinguishes humans from other life forms, we can see compassion isn’t our exclusive property, as anyone who has lived with our friends the horses, dogs, even cats will note. Emotions, the drive to protect and need for simple affection abound in the “higher animals”. But in our case it is all heightened and powered up by our cultures and their inventions, now with each human commanding on average the equivalent of over 100 human bodies of raw energy in machines of various sorts, most powered by fossil fuels and, as I say ad boredom to my friends, cities are the largest creation of our species, and they are built and powered like gigantic standing machines with internal parts whirling about, running while standing in place, powered mostly by oil.
But compassion it has to be. Without it, no justice, no sense of limits, or rules of the game of civilization, no “civilizational norms” as the newspapers say cursing terrorists while accepting as normal ordinary war that kills far mores. But more is needed, that sense of destiny. It doesn’t have to be provided, as in the Star Wars Myth, by eternal violence. It can be provided by that capacity among all the definitions of God that stick most universally: creativity. God the creator – that we can partake in, assuming and cultivating our own creativity as individuals and cultures.
Back to compassion: creativity needs to be regulated (limited here too) by something and it’s compassion. There is a creativity of the clever sort that makes weapons of mass destruction and uses them effectively through deception, surprise, raw violence and mechanical skill and ignoring fine grain justice for all involved. Violence is as they say a blunt instrument. But that clever creativity that is lost in competition exaggerated into violence and war is contradictory in simply that it destroys. Similarly if not at such an extreme is the creativity of building the sprawl city with all its cars, asphalt and hunger for floods of fuel. Similarly if well within the limits of compassionate analysis, we might say, the building of ecocities, cities for people instead of cars, is not contradicted by destruction and therefore holds the possibility of a compassionate form of creativity, something to define something worthy of a human destiny. But here we see a means for each individual and for whole collective cultures to move toward ever greater fulfillment of healthy creative, not destructive, potential.
So are we most basically stuck with trying to exterminate one another – the Star Wars Myth – or do we have the choice to build a healthy future? All that can be worked out in our normal games that are not exaggerated.
Our disciplined non-violence heritage
There are tricks to our cooling off and flying to our varied happier destinations, on the wings of the angels of our better nature. Pinker pointed out in the book by that title that simple manners became something of a long term very positive fad in the 1600s and 1700s, norms that cooled immature hot heads enough to avoid the more intemperate personal passions leading to injury and death. Early on statistics – he used the numbers of killings per 100,000 population per year as a basis for cross centuries comparisons of declining violence in history – indicated far worse interpersonal violence than anywhere but in an active war zone today. A cliché trick in the same cool-down-and-think spirit: when you get mad, count to ten before you blow up. The explosion will be smaller, better targeted, more effective and civilized, and less violent in almost all cases. You may even have time to consider the other side of the argument some and maybe admit it isn’t worth the destructive results of an explosion.
It is one of the things that saddens me about the present scene that we don’t hear much, as we did during the days of the American war in Vietnam, about the disciplined non-violence movement embraced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., not to speak Jesus Christ. All of them were recruited in the 1960s and early 1970s to try to stop the killing 10,000 miles away. At the Highlander School in the mountains of Tennessee, starting as early as in the 1930s, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and other teachers and exemplars of disciplined non-violence were trained to look straight ahead, determined, dignified, educated, and above all else, dedicated to not being violent in the face of anything, that is – indisputably courageous – each and everyone united for a righteous cause based in the rights bestowed by an advancing civilizing process and enshrined (admittedly imperfectly) in various laws in various places. Joan Baez in one of her not very many interviews pointed out that yes there were a few killed who used the strategy opposing the bigoted and violent who were beyond compassionate entreaty. But how many would have died if the revolution had been attempted through violence released according to a strategy and inevitable accompanying chaos and death to uninvolved bystanders? She guessed, and I’d expect also, many thousands. And then it might not have worked.
In other words, we see here a limiting of exaggerations of gamesmanship, and accommodation we humans with the power of conscious intellect must now artificially add to the process of the evolution of consciousness in our little corner of the universe. It is time to augment evolving consciousness with conscience and its various techniques of working within reasonable limits. We need the idea that we all, including the plants and animals, are part of the living tissue of the biosphere and… we humans had better be more careful from about now on.
At the heart of this change, in other words, we need to understand the dynamics of the games we play and that they can become disastrously exaggerated. The always “more” component of exaggerated gamesmanship, is the most all-embracing destructive paradigm in human affairs when it becomes extreme, needing replacement by the “enough” that disciplines something basically non-violent in our total ecology, our whole biosphere.
Many of the techniques of the disciplined non-violence movement have been effective in keeping our human games within reasonable bounds and consistent with what that civilizing process has developed as something of a consensus around the notions sharing the bounty of the world and the idea of justice and rights. Now we need the wisdom of generosity and duties to a healthy world. That step achieved, or at least being advanced a pace or two, we can move on to design cities that represent a response to our multiple crises, but more than that, become a means for a high expression of human creativity guided by our compassion, at the heart not of darkness but as Albert Schweitzer said, moving up river in the wilderness and beauty of an Africa sunset long, long ago, of “reverence for life.”
I consider this the first of two parts along this line of thinking. In a later newsletter I will dig deeper into our large cultural paradigms by integrating concepts into the discussion themes and ideas like these:
- We design ourselves,
- We have more resources than we give our selves credit for having: solar energy, fast biomass maximum production, slower biodiversity creation (utilizing again the chart from “Limits to Growth” and “Extracted” and my amended chart that I used in an earlier article reporting on my trip to Colombia,
- Prioritizing for the five big issues we on pain of vast destruction have to confront,
- The Three Sacred Golden Cows and their role in financing the paradigm conversion when we make such a decision and if we still have time, and,
- More on the paradigm of “more” vs. the paradigm of “enough.”