From Shangri-La to Baku and Back

From Shangri-La to Baku and Back

Winding up my series, Part Three, on the recent conference “Toward a New Paradigm in Human Development” held in Baku, Azerbaijan, April 30, 2015


I picked up Lost Horizon at a small bookstore just before I left Kathmandu in 1995. The James Hilton yarn is famous for many in the Western World who never read it – or even heard of it – for introducing the timeless land of Shangri-La, a warm climate paradise sheltered behind the towering stone and ice teeth of the Himalaya mountains. Noting the book’s small size and reasonable 275 pages and knowing its popular almost mythic status, I thought it was just the entertainment for my flight out of Nepal and back to the world of my everyday affairs.

It was night at the airport, no posted sign of when our plane was to leave, though my ticket said departure in 45 minutes. Lightning was rippling through the dark beyond the mountains to the south, the height of the Rockies in the US, and shimmering off the luminous wall of the Himalaya range to the north – 15,000 feet higher than the Rockies. Interment sheets of rain were swirling about. Not a good sign.

I stood in the queue about 12 from the counter when about 50 people burst through the door and crushed me into the people in front of me, popping me off to the side like a bar of wet soap grabbed at a wrong angle. Their enormous bags on overloaded carts made me immediately think, “Are these people greedy export/import merchants, stunningly self-centered tourists or maybe furniture movers? Maybe desperate immigrants?” But that didn’t make sense; they had no fear in their eyes. In fact, aloof, superior and entitled they made no eye contact all. Ignored me and everyone else. My lesson learned, I shoved back in with the same technique a few places down the line.

Still no news about our plane two hours later. Then, with a rumor started by a stewardess we all surged forward, ran through a gap in the rain over the poorly lit runway, stuffed the plane to capacity, me worried about such a load of baggage, and took off into the rumbling sky. Over the Rocky-sized mountains and on the way to Delhi the ride smoothed out and I began reading the book – which started with desperate people crowding into airplanes attempting to leave a war torn similar part of the world. Well, coincidence I thought, I’d just been there.

In Lost Horizon four escapees find themselves on a plane going in the wrong direction, kidnapped, then crash landed just over a pass from Shangri-La. In that valley the towns and lamasery of a peaceful, creative society living in harmony among themselves, enjoying nature’s sheltered bounty. My job! Designing such a place is for fiction, but something get’s built and we definitely should head in that direction.

Scenes from the Frank Capra movie and covers for the novel. Note that in the cover on the upper right the publisher claims this was “The First Paperback Ever Published!”

Scenes from the Frank Capra movie and covers for the novel. Note that in the cover on the upper right the publisher claims this was “The First Paperback Ever Published!”

Conference in Baku

Now, zooming ahead 20 years and I’m flying back from Baku and a conference remarkably different from the others I generally attend. The main issue: international peace and stability through political approaches to a more peaceful world as the Old Order morphs into something not yet clearly seen. It was a conference of two parts, two days called “Building Trust in the Emerging World Order” featuring 37 former heads of state and “leading scholars and experts,” mostly from the Europe, Africa and Middle East region with a few from North and South America and South Asia. The second part, on the third day, was a conference on “A New Paradigm in Human Development” hosted by the World Academy of Art and Science. The first two days were hosted by the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, a non-governmental organization named for the country’s famous poet and funded by the Government of Azerbaijan under the guidance of President Ilham Aliyev.

The conference organizers put their mission this way:

2014 was a complicated year for global stability and human security. In a year where the number of refugees and internally displaced people reached its peak since the end of the Second World War, the world witnessed the continuation of conflict and violence. The rise of radical groups in Africa and the Middle East; the internationalization of the war in Syria; a crude conflict at the gates of the European Union in Ukraine; a growing divide between Russia, the European Union and the United States and its destabilizing consequences; an increase of the terrorist threat; the continued organized criminality in Latin America; and an overall escalation of global conflict and rhetoric. All these developments are bringing the current world order into question.


The objective:

…to debate the current trends in international relations and human security… to elaborate concrete steps for today’s leadership to overcome these divisions.

With so many former heads of state there the conference represented quite a bank of political knowledge to say the least. I had a better idea how my focus on ecocities fit the third day. So for the first two I was mostly in learning, not teaching mode.

What stood out most for me were two things: First, general agreement that the Pax Americana world order with its dominant “Great State” was gradually fading and the next order only vaguely suggested.

Second, there was near unanimous fear and loathing for what the delegates saw Russia becoming under Putin, and not just his aggression in Ukraine but the disturbing fact of very high approval ratings for his policies throughout the Russian populace, reported to be around 85% in a number of newspapers, and broad hints of military acquisition of territories in other neighboring countries where a significant number of Russian-speakers live. That dominant theme of the first two days was expressed by former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga who told me after her talk that her family departed the country just ahead of the torpedoes, not the German’s but the Russian’s trying to stop people from escaping their new sphere of influence as the Second World Wars was ending. Her parents were naïve idealists she told me and left late because they were convinced the League of Nations would broker a just peace. Didn’t happen. Now, she said, Russia wants to regain its status as a great power, similar to the way Western Europeans decided to unite in a larger European Union.

But the situation is radically different, she said before the assembled audience, in that the European states joined voluntarily and the Russian Empire called the Soviet Union was assembled by military conquest against the will of the citizens of the subjugated countries. She was being not just a little ironic when she said the theme of the conference – building trust – required actions to justify trust. The Russians are killing people, hundreds of them every week, she emphasized.

At first I didn’t have much to say about what ecocities might contribute to solving such highly charged problems of outright violence between leaders and peoples. A few points in discussion were interesting, such as the broadly shared prediction that in the next world order China and to a lesser degree India, would play large roles while the U.S., becoming more energy independent due to fracking for oil and gas and rapidly increasing coal mining, would retreat significantly from the world stage because it would be losing interest in the energy resources of the Middle East. Everyone thought this a very good thing since much of the instability of that region and much of Africa was precipitated by the US invasion of Iraq for the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” A person in the audience made the comment that the US “made some mistakes in Iraq.” The director of the Alexandria Library in Egypt, Ismail Serageldin, immediately retorted that there was no mistake about it. It was carefully planned and executed.

Another random item and one of the few concrete proposals: why not a Mediterranean regional development bank? To finance the building of what, however, was left up in the air. I’ll return to that idea shortly.

Nature’s multiculturalism

On the third day I was assigned to a panel and given seven minutes like everyone else to make a statement. “Everyone else” included Ms. Vike-Freiberga and former President of Bolivia Jorge Quiroga as well as our host that day, Garry Jacobs, President of the World Academy of Art and Science. Quiroga and I chatted for about half an hour at the Baku Airport, by the way, while waiting at the VIP room for our boarding passes to leave the country. He told me he loves climbing in the Andes. Fifteen years ago, he observed, he used to put on his crampons – those attachable spiky cleats climbers strap onto their boots for ice – 800 feet lower on the mountains. Global heating.

Everyone of the approximately 40 at the day three conference were presenters. No space was made explicit in topics selected to specifically address urban issues, or even ecological ones, though certainly city issues are extraordinarily consequential in terms of impacts in the development process, both negative and positive impacts… depending on particulars, the big particular implying vastly different outcomes: are you going to design and create an environment for people or cars?

The topic of my panel was multiculturalism and associated problems and solutions. With the influx to Europe of thousands of refugees a month from poverty, overpopulation and increasing consumption pressures on resources as well as immigration from the four years old civil war in Syria, religious and tribal wars in North, Central and East Africa and around the Middle East, not to speak again of in Ukraine, many Europeans were positively unnerved. Maybe insights from ecology as the study of processes in nature might be helpful, I thought.

I was noticing almost every religion and many philosophical and economic theories believe things can only be healthy and happy when “everybody believes as I do.” The world for the Shiites or Sunis today, this Protestant group or that Catholic one 400 years ago, or Pax Capitalistica or when Russia regains its vast and proud empire in the future, and so on.

Ecology, that is nature, begs to differ, and here is the dynamic: In nature things thrive in high biodiversity. Shouldn’t mutually respecting cultures? The more the merrier. Why that dynamic balance in nature? Because no organism or species takes more than it can eat at a sitting or store up for one winter. Plus, even though each organism’s strategy for surviving is to have many more offspring than manage to survive, all the other participating individuals and species are putting the breaks on each other – limits – preventing any from far exceeding “carrying capacity” of an environment. Predators, diseases, starvation due to overconsumption due to overpopulation tightens the limits on violators of the natural consumption limits.

Not so with people, who have killed off or pushed off into remote corners almost all of the predators, controlled most of the diseases and obscured and postponed while amplifying the stresses of overpopulation by employing machines and vast quantities of energy to squeeze ever more food and other commodities and products out of the natural environment as if the resource base was infinite or ever growing – which it isn’t. Maybe simple agreements or in a pinch “sanctions” from the international community could restrain way out of hand excesses? In any case, the basic mechanism, which is quite common anywhere a peaceful society goes about its business, is values held by all that could be said to restrain greed and live and let live the various differences that don’t unduly exploit others. A few billion people live that way. Ways need to be found to bring the rouges back into decent civilization, to say convincingly to them, “It’s OK, don’t worry, we can all do quite wonderfully together.” Of course that’s more easily said than done. Maybe it needs a few new ideas…

With similar reasoning I offered my panel the idea that multi-specesism not only exists but seems to rule in healthy evolution. Might this not be a major lesson modeled in nature that humanity aught to take seriously? It would be another idea to boost the tactics of the Gandhi’s among us.

I said I personally very much simply enjoy the rich mix of people and cultural patterns in the part of my home town, Oakland, California where I live – about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 Asian. With a little mutual respect, no problem and lots of virtuous vitality for all.

The second idea I thought might help was simply that an occupation for saving the day – solving climate change, species extinction, mineral extraction to exhaustion, social discontent unto war and other problems – might just be to start focusing on building a better civilization, literally: start building ecocities. That’s not my idea, the occupation to distract from gathering tensions and hatreds and provide a very positive thing to be doing for the common benefit of everyone. It was suggested by one of the planners for the 11th International Ecocity Conference coming up this October in Abu Dhabi. At a dinner between planning sessions in Barcelona in early 2014 one of those present, Khaled Tarabieh, suggested ecocity building was just such a vehicle for very positive changes. He thought it might create a positive common project for the warring tendencies in his Middle Eastern region, something practical and “larger than any of us” to advance a new harmony.

The notion reminded me of a famous psychological experiment organized by Muzfer Sherif who is regarded as one of the founders of Social Psychology. It was called the “Robbers Cave Experiment” because it was held at a boy’s school called Robbers Cave. To test the theory that team competition settling into general ways of living and thinking might further concord or disharmony, the small school was divided into two groups of students encouraged to compete in many ways. As things progressively degenerated into outright hostility Dr. Sherif and his teachers who were part of the experiment arranged for various social events. These just exacerbated hostilities, providing opportunities for conflict. But when the hungry students had to get their food truck out of a rut and push it to repairs with lots of hard effort, the cross-team relations improved markedly. They all then had a common hard-earned success, a shared positive work experience. Plus they got to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Though the experiment was criticized for being a tiny sample and made up of people with rather minor and only recently experienced reasons for conflict, and done among adolescents not adults, it posed the possibility that working together can create a shared sense of success benefiting all and contributing to more harmonious relations. Not that most of us haven’t experienced this in many ways anyway, but a controlled experiment adds some weight to the notion.

Could ecocities serve in this manner? Meantime they would be doing a good deal to solve the problems mentioned in any case. The Europeans are faced with influxes of refugees from war and poverty on the south and east and are more than a little perplexed by the future and, it seemed obvious struggling with what to do about it. The new regional bank I’d heard suggested, if it were to attach to the building of ecocities might well provide the kind of common labor to unite. If people came to understand dealing with the largest of humanity’s creations – our cities – as if they were large enough to be also a positive rather than negative influence on environment, and in some cases, human peace and harmony, any bank could join in providing the credit for an extremely broad range of “green jobs” required by the best of city-building enterprise.

More covers and publicity shots for the 1937 Frank Capra movie.

More covers and publicity shots for the 1937 Frank Capra movie.

Today’s Lost Horizon

Retuning for a moment to “Lost Horizon” and the very reason for Shangri-La as described by the High Lama of that lifeboat sliver of the larger world civilization, we may see parallels with the global scene today, and especially with the kind of worries Europe is descending into as evidenced at the conference on “trust” and a changing World Order.

The hero of “Lost Horizon” is a man named Conway, an Englishman weary of war and conflict, apparently, for starters because of the First World War in which he participated and which changed him forever turning a gifted mind and man of action movie stuff into something of a brooding philosopher. He was marooned in Shangri-La, almost a prisoner of the endless high and remote mountains, and is now conversing with the High Lama who is talking about the new war just dawning. We have to remember that the book was written barely a decade after World War I and as the Nazi’s were coming to power in Germany. It has a decidedly Euro-centric perspective and some would say is somewhat racist as well with the elite in the remote valley almost all of European descent and culture even though the tale is set in Tibet. But it’s entertaining and more interestingly, it posits a world in trouble and some efforts for dealing with it.

The High Lama is explaining what Shangri-La has to offer Conway if he doesn’t try the probably anyway fatal effort to “escape”:

Our order knows only silken bounds. To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without – It will all be very pleasantly simple for you, and you will doubtless find great happiness.” …Conway sought to reply, but could not, till at length a vivid lightning-flash paled the shadows and stirred him to exclaim “The storm… this storm you talk of…”

“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has never seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos… Do you say I am mistaken?”

Conway answered: “No, I think you may be right. A similar crash came once before, and then there were the Dark Ages lasting five hundred years.”

“The parallel is not quite exact. For those Dark Ages were not really so very dark – they were full of flickering lanterns, and even if the light had gone out of Europe altogether, there were other rays, literally from China to Peru, at which it could have been rekindled. But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these. The airman bearing loads of death to the great cities will not pass our way, and if by chance he should, he may not consider us worth a bomb.

Well if that isn’t an apocalyptic vision I don’t know what is. And it largely came true when the Second World War was launched only six years after the book’s publishing date – or even earlier if you consider the warm up to World War II with Japanese aggressions in East Asia, Franco’s war in Spain and Mussolini’s in Ethiopia. What it may bring to mind now is this: could the perfect storm of environmental problems and rapidly evolving social/cultural/political conflicts, that perhaps especially the Europeans see growing on their south and east, come together for some unprecedented world catastrophe of a scale not so different from the one the High Lama predicted for which Shangri-La aspired to be a refuge and spark of renewal? If the resource base of the whole planet relative to high human population and average consumption rates and the viability of its climate system and biosphere are now in question, is Hilton’s fantasy possibly a timely if also dated warning to be examined all over again?

And onward…

Since we were talking about paradigms related to development I felt it was in order to explore the paradigm concept itself in our third day of conferencing. So I noted there seemed to be a set of paradigms very broadly embracing many other paradigms all at once. In addition it struck me that the particular three of them I offered, if clearly understood, might provide new perspectives on all the rest. They might help lead to crucial improvements such as radically improving our cities, dealing with extremely high human populations stressing resources, shifting from high energy massively mechanized agriculture to organic, reversing climate change and global heating and, perhaps most basically of all, confronting the generosity/greed dilemma that produces extreme exploitation and over extraction and consumption on a limited planet.

I proposed an outline of these three over-arching paradigms in my second of these three articles for our newsletter that followed this outline. In abbreviated form, here they are:


  1. Old Paradigm: Infinite growth
  • competition and consciousness evolving, dominating
  • up to and including the 20th century
  • slogan: “more and more and more”
  1. Transition Paradigm: respect limits
  • cooperation and conscienceness evolving, dominating
  • approximately the 21st century
  • slogan: “shrink for prosperity”

4.3. Forever Paradigm: compassionate creativity

  • coevolution of conscienceness and the biosphere
  • approximately the 22nd century and into the deep future
  • Slogan; “always creating”

Overall guidance:

“Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.”

~ Albert Einstein


“There is plenty for our need but not enough for out greed.”

~ Mohandas Gandhi


“…unless we exhaust our natural base of support and then there will not be enough even for only our needs. Time to be careful.”

~ Me!


Whether these ideas move forward in a fashion and with a speed that can contribute effectively to our human and environmental problems is far from certain. It’s debatable in addition that many other people beyond our ecocity circles will take the whole pattern as laid out in these three articles seriously. There is even the question as to whether they make sense in a more real sense. The best I can do is try.

I’ve heard the criticism that presuming to deal with such large problems is something of a flight of a presumption and one lost in fantasy at that. But I think of it as not much more than normal Earth citizenship we can all exercise to some meaningful degree. So I’m far from convinced of that criticism’s validity and believe each of us has the capacity to think about all these things and…try.

More book covers, a movie publicity shot and the author, James Hilton himself, lower left. Lost Horizon must be one of the world’s most reprinted and colorfully represented novels.

More book covers, a movie publicity shot and the author, James Hilton himself, lower left. Lost Horizon must be one of the world’s most reprinted and colorfully represented novels.

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