Daniel Christian Wahl is an international sustainability consultant and educator specializing in biologically inspired whole systems design and transformative innovation. Daniel originally trained as a biologist (University of Edinburgh, 1996 & University of California, 1995), holds an MSc in Holistic Science (Schumacher College, 2001) and gained his PhD in Design for Human and Planetary Health from the University of Dundee in 2006. He has worked with local and national governments on climate change impact, foresight and futures. Daniel has published a wide range of articles and academic papers on ecological design and biomimicry since 2003. His first book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, was published by Triarchy Press (UK) in May, 2016.
This interview was held by Gauri and Shubham for the GRIHA Council, Indias Green Building Council focussed on ‘Integrated Habitat Assessment’:
Gauri: In 2016, your critically acclaimed work “Designing Regenerative Cultures” was published. Could you describe for our readers in India what it is about and the future you envision for our species a whole? What does one mean by regenerative cultures?
DCW: The book is really the result of 15 years of working in the space of sustainability, and doing a PhD in 2006 entitled “Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability”. And then between 2006 and 2016, when the book came out, trying to implement that systemic scale — linking the vision of how we can refit the human presence on earth into the planetary boundaries, but in order to do so, we need to create the social foundation. Kate Raworth’s Donut Economic Model is a good way of visualizing that we need to not just work on ecological issues, but we also need to work on socio-political issues in order to enable a response to the ecological issues.
The book is basically focused on questions rather than answers and solutions, because I believe that in each place, in each cultural and ecological context, a regenerative culture will manifest differently. It will have the same patterns and same processes of being aligned with life as a planetary process of healing, and involve us being a beneficial keystone species in the ecosystems we inhabit as homo-sapiens rather than being degenerative on both the local ecosystems and the planetary biosphere. That’s also why the title has the plural “cultures” in it. And I think one of the problems that has come with the drive towards globalization is that we’ve lost our connection to place and relationship to the local ecosystem. And the only way to heal the planet is to do so place by place by place, you can’t start by healing the planet.
For me, a regenerative culture is a culture that is consciously building the capacity of everybody in a particular place to respond and change and accepts transformation as something that life just “does”. And we need to get away from this idea that we can plan a sustainable future on a drawing board, then implement it, and then everything will be fine forever after. It’s a journey — we will never arrive. On that journey, we just have to keep asking the right questions and keep adapting our solutions and answers. So it’s not that solutions and answers are not important, but the questions are primary and all our solutions and answers should be implemented understanding that throughout human history, the solutions of the past have become the problems of today. So why would we think that our solutions now could possibly not create problems in the future?
It’s this evolutionary developmental dynamic understanding of sustainability as a journey and sustainability as a bridge that we still have to cross in order to begin to regenerate. So if you need to distinguish between what is sustainable and what is restorative and regenerative one way of making that distinction is to say, okay, if sustainability just means not adding any more damage to the system, then that’s not enough because we spent centuries, if not millennia, degrading ecosystems in many places. And now we’re beginning to see that the capacity of the planetary biosphere to buffer this degenerative, destructive and exploitative behaviour has come to its limits. And climate change is just one symptom of the mistaken belief that nature and culture are somehow separate. We have to come back and that’s where regenerative cultures is critically also about a shift in worldview, value systems and attitudes towards the basic questions of humanity. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? We need to re-ask those questions and understand that we are part of life. We’re expressions of this large, complex dynamic system that brought us forth. And our role is to be in service to that higher life process going on into the future. And that’s also coincidentally the best way of working for one’s own self-interest because the self and the world are not separate, nature and culture are not as separate as the Occidental worldview has made us believe. And I’m talking to people in India, so they will understand — the Vedanta is full of this wisdom. In many ways, regenerative cultures isn’t something new — regenerative cultures is remembering the inheritance of our species’ long history. For 200,000 years, we have been bio-regionally adapted cultures that tried to manage or work with the ecosystems they inhabit. The relationship we have now with land — that we own the land, is not an indigenous relationship. The indigenous relationship is the other way around. We are expressions of the land. The land owns us, and I think humanity will not have a viable future if we don’t come back to those insights.
Shubham: With regard to what you just said about Indian culture, I’ve noticed that you often mention TEK — Traditional Ecological Knowledge in your talks and writings. In India, tribal and aboriginal communities regularly find themselves on the losing end of capitalism — they are displaced and have their traditional ways of life permanently taken away so that infrastructure can be built and coal can be mined. What do you think we could learn from these communities, and how could we begin to reconcile their ways of life with the larger global economy that we are all a part of?
DCW: I think it’s an important question, but it makes one assumption, which is that they need to be integrated into the larger capitalist economy that we exist in, as you just said. And maybe the question is — what do we need to redesign about capitalism so that it is actually inclusive and serves all people and the planet? Some people will say there are basic assumptions in capitalism that will make it hard to actually be regenerative within a capitalist system as we understand it now. I feel that we don’t have a lot of time to talk about semantics. I don’t care whether it’s capitalism or whether it’s a new economic system that replaces it. The key point is that we cannot continue a system that is based on the necessity for continued economic growth. The current monetary and economic system is structurally dysfunctional and is driving us to exploit people and planet. And it needs to change whether we call it capitalism or something else. I personally don’t care, but of course, that’s going to take a long term transition approach and the integration of traditional ecological knowledge or indigenous knowledge, bio-region by bio-region, everywhere on the planet. COVID-19 has shown us how brittle large international supply lines are and climate change is now so urgent that we have increasing global alliances that understand the necessity to not only move towards zero carbon, but basically to not burn all the carbon that is still in the ground. We are moving towards a future that has less energy, more people, and we need to shift our entire material culture within the lifetime of people alive today — within the next two or three decades.
And in that transformation, the ancestral knowledge held by people who still have a connection to how this place has changed over millennia will be essential. And it’s not purely scientific data — it is much deeper than that. Scientific data has a bias towards only recording what is quantifiable, but narratives about place can include the qualitative changes, the much more subtle relationship changes that people have tracked over generations. And I think that’s knowledge that is going to be vital if we try to build a global collaborative system that enables people everywhere to meet their needs within the bio-region they live in by and large. And of course, we have all sorts of high technologies that we don’t want to do without — in the transition, we still will use them, there will still be trade — there’s lots of opportunity for integration of these bio-regions and some more centralized production.
But I think if we want to preserve the biodiversity that still exists and create landscape scale initiatives that heal places we need to also re-regionalize economic power and political governance. So we need a shift towards subsidiarity where people in a place have more of a say about what is happening in their place. And not just the indigenous people, but everybody in a place needs to have the sense that their opinion and their voice and their contribution counts, because otherwise we won’t get the kind of participation in this massive transformation that we now need to do.
Political power needs to be decentralized. Economic power needs to be decentralized, and all these are just enablers so we can then do the work of diversifying local economies. This will create more jobs locally because we will have more people on the land caring for the land. And it’ll be a huge space of innovation, in each bio-region we can then look at the biological feedstocks and what can be grown in that area to slowly substitute what we’re currently still taking from the Earth’s crust through mining with stuff we can grow, and in the process, draw down carbon and create a mechanism that over the long term will hopefully reduce atmospheric carbon in the atmosphere. We need to not only stop our emissions, but actually reduce levels of parts per million in the atmosphere of CO2 back to 250 PPM, which is where it was before the industrial revolution.
But this is a vision of 20 or 30 years. It’s not something that can be done from one day to the next. And in that we need to be inclusive across the spectrum. We need to talk to the mining company that is trying to take the land off these people, and we need to enable the people on that land to stand up to the mining company and create a dialogue that includes everybody because we’re all in one boat and it’s called planet earth. And right now it seems to be sinking. At least from a human perspective, life will go on after us, but if we don’t make serious changes in the next decades, whether our species has a humane future ahead of itself is still to be questioned.
Shubham: This actually brings me to my next question — where do you think the challenges would lie in shifting towards a more regenerative society in a country such as India, where the aspirations of the government and the populace as a whole are often to “catch up” to the living standards (and by extension, consumption patterns) of the developed world?
DCW: I can’t really speak for India because you need to do that for yourself, but one thing that came to mind is there’s a wonderful book that was written quite a few years ago by Right Livelihood Award winner called Helena Norberg Hodge, who in the 1980s, when Ladakh was opening up to the public, was part of a BBC research team that went into Ladakh to document the beauty of it. And because she was a linguist who had studied under Noam Chomsky in MIT and spoke a number of languages, she basically came along with this project as a linguist, fell in love with the Ladakhi people and that culture, and stayed there and wrote the first English to Ladakhi / Ladakhi to English dictionary. And in this close connection with the Ladakhi people, she saw what opening up to the globalizing economy meant to that culture. In this book, it’s called Ancient Futures, she documents the impact of mass media advertising. I mean, this is a sort of in the 1980s-1990s, where basically young Ladakhi people would within five years suddenly be wearing Ramble sunglasses. And she always tells the story that when she first was there, she asked a local guide, show me the poor areas of Leh, and he didn’t understand the word poor. He asked her, “What do you mean? What areas?” And that whole concept wasn’t there because everything was a more shared society. That very same guy, she saw five years later giving a tour to tourists and saying, “Oh, we Ladakhi people are so poor. We’re so underdeveloped. We need the help. We need the tourists. We need all of this.
So the whole vision of what is poor has been coming in as part of the insidious idea that there are developed and underdeveloped nations — honestly speaking, Indian history and the Vedanta has much more development to give to the future of humanity than 200 years of Newtonian science, fancy technologies that ultimately have also created a lot of destruction on the planet. And of course, now our challenge as humanity is how do we marry the best of modern science and technology with the wisdom that is in the Vedanta that is in the old lineages of Sufiism, that is in all the world’s wisdom and traditions that hold a relationship between us and life — that puts life above us and understands that we as life require you to be in service to life, the notion of seva is central to the survival of humanity.
I think that India holds a key to a better future for humanity, but not if it thinks it needs to go the path of Western industrialized cultures. I think this image is also crumbling — everybody wanted to be like America. Look at America now — who wants to be like America, if you really understand what’s going on there? I think you need to celebrate the wisdom of Swaraj and all the impulses that Gandhi Ji gave to the world. We can still learn so much. Through the Lush Spring Prize for social and ecological regeneration, I’ve learned about some projects around the world and India is an amazing example of how to collaborate and build social cohesion, do healthier agriculture and protect the land and — the work of Vandana Shiva is a critical conversation that the whole world needs to learn from about saving our biological diversity and making it impossible for large corporate agribusiness to own the seeds that farmers need to survive.
Shubham: I think that’s very thought-provoking message to send out to our readers. Could you share with us some more insight into how you got started on this path of designing regenerative communities, how you practise it and how you’ve explored the idea through your book?
DCW: We need to really come back to community, come back to place and into our local uniqueness. One theme that runs through my book are the questions that I ask in almost every chapter, instead of ending with a sort of summary of the conclusions of that chapter. Very often when I speak about somebody else’s work, who might’ve created a list of 10 bullet points of what you need to do, what I do is I turn these 10 bullet points into questions. And what then happens is rather than telling people what to do, I’m asking people in a place, in their context, to ask themselves the question, “Is this relevant to me? And if it’s relevant to me, how is it relevant to me?” So they’re loaded questions. They’ve got guidelines in them, but they are asked as questions. Because if I ask you a question, I’m asking for your participation, your engagement, your contribution. If I tell you a principle of these are the 10 things you need to do in order to be regenerative, I’m just asking you to jump in onto some bandwagon. For me the process of creating regenerative cultures is the process of living these questions together in community with focus. We need to always be aware of how our local project sits in our region within the wider national or subcontinental context. And then the global context.
Since my book came out, I’ve basically done a lot of work on social media, promoting this invitation for people in place to engage with this process of how we can transform our impact here in this place to be regenerative rather than destructive. How can we take responsibility that this river system, this ecosystem that we have in front of us will be more bio productive, healthier, and more diverse in the future than it was when we received it from our parents? And that I think is the journey we all need to go on. And, and what’s happened is that, for example, right now in Argentina, some group that I didn’t even know before started a wonderful project where they have, just at the level of Argentina, invited 70 people from different NGOs, from government and from very different backgrounds, but they were people who had already shown that they cared about the future of the country and committed to doing social change work, ecological change work, economic change work, and they asked them to just record a short video saying, this is my name, this is who I work with, or for, and these are the three questions or one question or five questions that I think Argentina should ask itself right now about taking COVID and this crisis and transformation that is now going on as an opportunity to build the future we really want for our country and our people and for the planet. And it’s beautiful because that’s exactly what I was proposing in my book that needs to happen everywhere. To see that somebody out of their own initiative, because they found out through social media, is running this conversation at the scale of Argentina is what I believe will enable us to create a better future together.
Gauri: Could you tell us about the connection between bio-mimicry and the regenerative economy? What role could biomimetic design play in reshaping the idea of development in emerging economies such as India?
DCW: I’m originally a biologist. And as I said earlier, I believe that one of the core upstream organizing ideas that drives a lot of unsustainable patterns downstream is a conceptual belief that somehow nature and culture separate, that somehow we as human beings have become different from nature. That through our technologies, we are outside of that system and nature is just a resource base. If we really want to work regeneratively, we have to understand that we are expressions of life, and that life is a planetary process, as well as a process involving lots of different species and individuals. Learning from life’s patterns by mimicry is a discipline that has been around for decades. Initially it was called Bionics and then Janine Benyus in the late 1990s wrote a book called biomimicry and has done wonderful work all around the world, promoting innovation inspired by life and other species. She always distinguishes that you can do this either at the product level, the process level, or at the systems level. And so far, a lot of innovation has happened in that space — energy efficient and faster trains based on the beak of a kingfisher, creating more efficient windmills by using the little bumps that are on the front of a humpback whales fin and airplane wings that are tilted upward at the tip. That’s a biomimetic innovation that saved lots of fuel and, and with that avoided lots of CO2 emissions. But the real amazing work of biomimicry is for me at the last level, which is the more complex level, where we understand how ecosystems function, how the complexity of ecosystems works, and then try to fit in our human patterns into this systemic biomimetic design, where we reframe the issue of climate change away from the current carbon myopia — that everything needed to solve the climate change problem is about reducing carbon emissions and getting to net zero carbon by 2050. It’s a laudable and useful approach and we should continue to do so, but the danger with it is that we become carbon myopic, that all our decisions about climate changes are about carbon, but really there’s a growing number of scientists around the world that say you could just as easily and probably more effectively and more systemically start with water and heal the hydrological cycle place by place, which brings us back to a bioregional approach which is what I’m advocating and believe would be the path.
So if we learn from ecosystems, how ecosystems created the water cycle, how planting trees means planting rain, it is really important for India — India is so dependent on the snow melt from the Himalayas. And the predictions are that, if climate change continues, you’re going to run out of that water and need to replant enough vegetation to get the hydrological pump going again. It all comes back to our ancestral knowledge and how important all of this is. 5,000 years ago, somebody in Mesopotamia wrote a text called the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s the oldest written text of humanity. And it tells a story about “please don’t cut down the trees, because if you do downwind from the trees, the land will go salty. The rain will stop falling, and you will create deserts.” We need to learn that we need to heal the water cycle and bring it back. And it’s not simple monoculture plantations and saying we can plant a million trees in a day, and that we will bring in the military and do it. It’s about how do you do it in such a way that in that plantation, 15 years later, there is a vibrant, diverse forest that mimics a peak ecosystem in its diversity and is still providing food and bio material resources to the people living around it. So they have economic incentive to protect and work with that forest rather than to cut that down for firewood or immediate needs to their family. And it’s wonderful that organisations like the Common Land Foundation are doing wonderful work in India now at a larger scale to really look at this for-returns approach — how do we protect what’s still there, re-regenerate our agricultural system and create mobile productivity and do so in a way that ultimately also brings back local financial return to the people?
Gauri: How would you say the building design and construction industry specifically might play a role in addressing the interconnected social and ecological crises that we’re facing today?
DCW: The job that really I think we have ahead of us is the retrofitting of existing infrastructure in a way that it’s a lot less energy intensive and that it’s still functional in the future we’re moving into. And of course, with the pandemic, the trend of increasing urbanization might well take a different turn — people might realize the danger of living in high density environments. Also as part of reintegrating, some of these mega cities might be too big not to fail, they might have to shrink in the long term over the decades. But to reintegrate them back into their region, we need to make the cities the economic drivers and reconnect them with their surrounding bio-region, and also bring nature back into the cities to address heat island effects and all that. We need to bring a lot more urban agriculture and trees back into cities instead of putting more air conditioning units. The Drawdown book by Paul Hawken, lists a hundred proven technologies that will help us draw down carbon emissions — the highest impact is coolants and refrigerants in air conditioning cooling systems. We need biomimetic design at ecosystem level to redesign our cities so that they naturally cool themselves rather than need energy for cooling. And, and of course, they’re in the built environment space. There’s lots of certification schemes, such as that administered by GRIHA, that are trying to minimize the impact. And that is a great first step to start on that journey for a conventional construction company, then pushing the envelope beyond that — planning with developers in a place sensitive community context, in a way that unlocks the battles between local communities and large scale developers very successfully, and makes them realize that they’re working together for the future of a place with a shared vision.
We still do things in silos. Let’s do water, let’s do food, let’s do build environment, let’s do energy system, let’s do transport system. And what we need to do is to leverage the potential of synergies among all of them and create integrated designs that connect them. There are lots of specific examples I could go into. I think we need a much more integrated approach to the built environment that isn’t just about building new buildings.
Shubham: I’m sure readers would like to know what some ways could be in which an individual could contribute, either individually or in groups, towards a more resilient way of life and towards regenerative systems.
DCW: Well, again, I think everybody in their community has the opportunity to reach out to other people in their community, whether it’s in their business community or in their local community and invite the conversation of how could we do things differently and what would happen if we actually brought together an alliance of the willing who, for example, in India, who still have a strong sense of service to something larger than themselves in their life, whether they’re wealthy people or poor people, whether they’re businessmen or work for somebody on a daily wage and, and to bring those people to get together and say, what does that idea now mean to us in this place and how can we create an Alliance across all sectors of the willing to make a difference that helps to heal this place? How can we make everybody who lives here thrive? And how can we make sure that this place thrives in the process of us helping people in this place thrive? And it’s a journey that anybody can start, but in a kind of larger kind of systemic context, because of having waited so long before we started to talk about a transformative response. Previously what we tried to do is to do what we were already committed to — industrial growth society, but a little bit differently to improve it a little bit around the edges so it could continue. I think what’s beginning to be clear to more and more people is that, that trajectory we’ve known this since 1972, since the Limits to Growth report, is not sustainable.
Just two weeks ago I spoke to Dennis Meadows and had his opinion on where we’re moving. And he basically says, we knew that if we weren’t going to change, there would be a collapse of human population and things would get difficult. We didn’t change. So most likely, that’s what we’re going to see because you cannot have exponential growth on a finite planet. It’s an impossibility. And so there is a need now to find a way. There are people who would say no matter what, the future will be a much more local, much more agriculture and rural based low energy future. And there will be less people and that’s tragic, but we’ve left it too long for that to be different. Other people say no, if we pull everything we can have a soft landing slowly, because all the predictions are that population numbers will go down. We’re starting to go down maybe as early as the 2030s and earlier than even predicted.
For me, what people need to do is a dual strategy, whether we can avoid much of the real horror that might be coming towards us or simply prepare for it — build local water security, build local food security, build local energy security, build social cohesion, make people know each other again, and work with all the divisions of cost and religion and whatever, and build the channels where these communities, when things get tough, can still talk to each other. Otherwise we’re going to spiral into a degenerative pattern. We need to now put the platforms of conversation in place where people in a region can say, no, we are choosing not to go down the path of competitive advantage in a degenerative system that ultimately nobody will win, we’re moving towards collaborative advantage in a regenerative system where we’re working together in all our differences. That’s the important thing — once we re-realize that we are a part of life, then we can celebrate our differences of opinion of religious beliefs, of all sorts of ideas as part of lifestyle diversity, rather than waste energy. And in trying to convince the other that you are wrong and I’m right, is to say, what are the things that we can agree on, in disagreeing, that we need to do in order so that we actually can disagree in a thousand years’ time or in 200 years’ time? Like, what are the basics that life is asking us to do no matter how much we agree or disagree? And that’s I think what I would invite anybody in their place to contribute to in this small way they can. And if it just means talking to a friend about “What do you think, how can we make a difference in this place?” That’s where it starts.
Gauri: What advice would you have for people working in the sustainability sector in India — especially young people who are just starting out and are looking to play a meaningful part in the transition to a more sustainable, regenerative and circular economy?
DCW: I guess our education system has failed us in a number of ways. And if we want to build capacity for people in place to make a difference, collaborate in healing the place in a way that serves everybody in that place, then we need to change education in from this model, that the first third of your life, you do education, then you work and then you retire, which is only a privileged model. Many people can’t afford to retire ever anyway, it is an old model that has never reached all of humanity and it, and it’s unlikely to continue. The world is changing so fast that we need lifelong learning, continuous learning. And that means that for young people, what seems to be within the current system, this promise of, if you put yourself in debt and work really hard and compete against everybody else and get your MBA from the best school in India, then you’ll know how to compete. And then you’re going to get rich and you have to be a millionaire or billionaire. I wouldn’t bet on that journey. American social anthropologist and intellectual Joseph Campbell once said this wonderful phrase that what happens when you do that, you end up getting to the top of the ladder and then you realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall. And, and that’s what I would advise young people not to do. Don’t get onto that ladder, because it’s leaning against the wrong wall. There are wonderful projects all over. I work with an organization called Gaia education that do an introductory course that is free to a whole systems approach to sustainability. And then they, they do deep courses. They’re face to face courses. Many of them have been taught in India and in Auroville and in Odisha.
This course, it’s called EDE — Ecovillage Design Education course. And there’s also an online version, which gets a lot more academic, more content because it’s online. It is called the Gaia Education Designed for Sustainability, and those are courses that give you an education that isn’t specialist and shows how all these things fit together by introducing you to lots of areas where you can make a difference to build a better world. It’s structured in a mandala that that has four dimensions — social design, economic design, ecological design, and worldview. And it shows that all of them are important to be a facilitator of sociocracy. Decision making processes at the community level is important, knowing about nonviolent communication is a skill all these social skills are really important.
But then it’s also about local currencies and building local entrepreneur networks and working with new ways of taxing at the local level so we can enable regeneration or new ways of community banks and community ownerships and microfinance, all those and the economic and ecological, anything from building to ecological, sewage waste treatment to ecosystems, restoration, soil, building recycling of nutrients, all that. And we need to learn all of it. And, but what I would advise a young person is to engage into an education that shows you the big picture and then find your passion in it. Some people will be more drawn to be the human dimension of social facilitation. Other people want to be architects and other people. And these are really important to the future. Some may not want to be specialized in any of them, but want to know about all of them so that they can help build the bridges between the specialists and create more systemic approaches.
And that’s where the design element is, the four dimensions. And then it all gets integrated through a systemic design. And I’m not trying to advertise this particular organization, there are others, and there are beautiful organizations all over India — just going to Auroville and, and doing courses there or Bija Vidyapeeth, the school that Vandana Shiva has in the north of India. I mentioned Helena Norberg Hodge, the international society for ecology and culture still has an office in Ladakh that can offer and takes volunteers. But I know that a lot of people don’t have the privilege of being able to travel all over India to take courses. So, really you can also learn from your local farmers and your local community. But educate yourselves diversely rather than becoming a specialist. Because since we don’t know what the future holds, if you have a lot of skills, you can always adapt. If you are a genetic scientists who only knows about the beta chain in the haemoglobin molecule and how it folds, but knows more about that than anybody else on the planet, you might be out of a job in the future.
Gauri: What can be some strategies to build capacities and promote discourse around ‘eco-literacy’, especially in developing countries?
DCW: I do observe that there is a movement that I think could go two ways. If it’s coming back to the wealth of ancestral knowledge held within the Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita and within Hindu culture, to celebrate Hindu culture, celebrate the times of India’s high culture, where religions lived peacefully together and co-created together, I think that the world is hungry and needs the wisdom that is held in the past of India. But if it leads to division, then it could be dangerous.
A friend of mine, the former CEO of Gaia Education, has this beautiful line that she says –“Creating your future without knowing your history is like planting cut flowers. And, I feel like in India, there’s such wealth of revisiting the Bhagavad Gita and these texts, but with the knowledge of modern ecology and modern complexity science, and say, you know, what we, what they’re now talking about, we actually already knew two and a half thousand years ago, but we said it in a different way and, and we need to value this and we need to value and bring those two together. And then I think that, that there could be an inspiring movement happening in India that is uniquely giving India’s gifts back to India and to the world.
Gauri: Yeah, that was really beautifully said. So I believe a lot of these religious texts are are written in a lyrical, poetic manner, and they’re open to interpretations — maybe revisiting this wisdom and knowledge with a sort of a modern perspective can be a way to sort of relook at things?
DCW: But it will influence, it will influence both ways because what the problem of some of the modern perspective is that as I alluded to earlier, is that we are fixated on data. Data is important. And now we have big data and collect more and more data. We know more and more about lots of things, but data and scientific data tends to be quantitative. And what makes a system vibrant and gives it capacity to continue evolving into the future isn’t just about quantitative data. It’s actually much more about the qualitative relationships between the different areas — our data is just as a result of how we structure models of the world and the complexity that is out there. But the real complexity is always much higher and, and it’s the softer qualitative relationships that really matter. And so, as we bring these narratives that are very different ways of making sense of participation in this dynamic transforming process, what is happening is that the ancient wisdom traditions always saw it as a dynamic evolving process that has cyclical patterns of creative destruction and new creation, where collapse was part of building the capacity for new, and for evolution. We are beginning to see the same thing through ecosystem science, the adaptive cycle in resilience theory talks about Shiva and Shakti and to some extent, and the need really to my mind is for also for our modern Western mind-set to soften around our focus on hard science and quantitative data and learn this qualitative narrative based relationship based wisdom that is the Old World’s wisdom tradition, especially in the Vedanta.
Ultimately it because we’re facing radical uncertainty and the way we make decisions isn’t based on data. And it doesn’t matter how much quantitative data we collect and analyse through supercomputers, it’s based on narrative. And I think in the narrative side of things, that’s where these ancient wisdom traditions can give us a new narrative.
Maybe I’ll end with that bit. Like you asked at the beginning, the initial sort of seed of my book was given in a conversation that I had with one of my mentors called David Orr, where asked him, in 2006, just after I finished my PhD, what he thought of the role of spirituality and the sacred, was in the transition that we now needed to make as humanity in order to have a future in the 22nd century.
And his answer somewhat floored me. He said,
Daniel, before we can sensibly answer the question, what we need to do and how we need to do it in order to create a sustainable human presence on earth, we need to ask ourselves a much more difficult question. And that question is, why are we worth sustaining? What is it about us, humanity, that is worth being there in the next century and the next millennia, because life will go on without us.
And once we have an adequate question to that answer, and it will be slightly different in each place, so again, regenerative cultures — plural, then we can find the answers to the more technical, how and what questions. And it’s precisely there in the why that I think the ancestral wisdom of India has a huge offer to make. That’s a good ending.
This is the recording of the interview:
Teaser photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash