Jeremy Lent is an author and speaker whose work investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis, and explores pathways toward a life-affirming future. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering an integrated worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the Earth.
His award-winning book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, explores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day. His new book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, offers a coherent and intellectually solid foundation for a worldview based on connectedness that could lead humanity to a sustainable, flourishing future.
He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The increasing recognition of our shared humanity and connection, “even in the face of the forces of separation that are potentially driving us to destruction”.
- The potential of the Internet to shift human consciousness and provide “massive epic possibilities that we haven’t even begun to even conceptualize”.
- The fear underpinning polarization and the reminder that white supremacy “doesn’t just oppress the people who are not white as a result, but oppresses the white people who think that they’re maintaining their privilege… (who) have to always stay on the defensive and tired and worried about losing, rather than actually sharing a space with others, where it’s not a zero sum game.”
- The analogy of unraveling the tightly woven rug of our society and structures, to reweave into a better, resilient pattern of meaning.
- The benefits of a “shift away from a growth-oriented wealth-accumulating world” to “an ecological civilization… founded on connectivity, on the power of symbiosis between humans and non-human nature.”
Connect with Jeremy Lent
Hi, it’s Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one question: In all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right? Today’s guest is Jeremy Lent, who is an author and the founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on this Earth. The Liology Institute, which integrates system science with ancient wisdom traditions, holds regular workshops and other events in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy is the author of the novel Requiem of the Human Soul. His most recent book is The Web of Meaning. Lent holds a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University and MBA from the University of Chicago. He’s a delightful, caring, smart, and accessible human being. Enjoy this interview with Jeremy Lent.
Welcome Jeremy Lent to What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we engage cultural scouts like you, people who see far and serve the common good, in short one question interviews. Now I know you have a new book called The Web of Meaning in which you pull together Indigenous wisdom, Chinese philosophy, Greek thought, the Western story of progress, ecological knowledge, into one seamless web of meaning. It’s just glorious. Other interviewers will prompt you to explain the explicit pattern of your thought about our evolution to an ecological worldview and civilization. But our task today is a bit different. We are trying to see in the welter of issues from COVID to polarization to climate change, what is actually possible now that the cracks are appearing in the old neoliberal structures. What is emerging that we can cooperate with? Not what went wrong and why. Not what should happen and may happen in the distant future if we do everything right. Our quest is to see what is happening now and we rely on our cultural scouts to shine their headlamps on the road ahead, so we can see more clearly and act more courageously. So I think you get it. I’m just gonna give that challenging set up. Jeremy, tell us. In all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right?
Yeah. When I looked at that wonderful question that you have as your thematic there, Vicki, there was a quote that popped into my mind, which is a quote, I’m sure a number of listeners to this show also know, it’s by Aldo Leopold. The reason it came into my mind is I was thinking, Well, what about we look at the deeper question of what is right and what is wrong? Because really, to get a sense of what can go right, we do need to get some sense of what it is that’s actually wrong too, so we can look at that. So he gave that great quote, where he said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” And to me at least, it feels like that’s really a great starting point to actually really look more deeply at this question.
Even though I know you’re not wanting to spend too much time on how did it all get to this place, I think that it is worthwhile, at least from my perspective, to get some sense of what it is that went wrong in order to really get a sense of where we can see what’s actually going right right now. I think that to take that Aldo Leopold quote, and the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community, when did things start to get done to disintegrate that biotic community? In fact, I’m quite convinced we can go back all the way back to the rise of agriculture and these kind of separations that arose between humans and nature and putting up fences and the beginning of the patriarchy and hierarchy. We could go back less far, which I think is probably more relevant to what we’re thinking about here, which is the rise of the scientific revolution mode of thinking in the 17th century in Europe, because that’s when this really powerful idea got to come around. Really, the foundations of human supremacy, like humans are separate from nature, that nature exists just for humans. In fact, nature doesn’t even have an existence of its own, an intrinsic value; it’s just there as a resource for humans to exploit. It is that exploited, extractive quality of thought that was really unique to Europe at that time. You don’t see that in other traditional cultures around the world. But because that came along with the power of technology from the scientific revolution and this exploitative mindset, as we know the history of the last few hundred years, is that European mindset, along with those European conquerors that essentially came to conquer the world, and exploit and eviscerate the cultures, and the natural ecosystems all around the world.
It’s really, in this last hundred years or so, we see the rise of capitalism, and then in the last few decades, neoliberalism; almost like taking this notion of human supremacy, taking this notion of separation and exploitation, to greater and greater heights. Whereas now, it’s almost considered that is what it is, that’s what human nature is, right? It’s to be selfish and exploit things and that’s the whole point of being on this earth, is to exploit nature in that way. So having looked at that, I think that’s helped the basis to then say what’s going right. I think in the face of all this devastation, we see amazing, powerful forces beginning to shift. What we need to look at for that thematic that ties them together is if those are all forces of separation I’m describing, they’re forces of connectivity. There are ways in which humans are beginning to learn about connecting, and how those connections are actually more important than what they’ve been told are the forces of separation. We see those connections at different layers, kind of fractal layers, all around the world and all around our own consciousness. We see a lot of awareness that, for example, humans themselves are not split, that we are an integrated consciousness, that we’re embodied. We see this recognition of the power of a shared humanity.
I actually think one of the most important developments that has happened in all of human history, that is one that has just occurred in the last 20 years, is the rise of the Internet. It’s easy to look cynically right now and say, Right, and that got taken over by the same capitalist, sort of multi-headed Hydra powers, and now that’s used to exploit people. It’s absolutely true it is. But I think that is actually more of a temporary phase, as almost a growth spurt of something that is far greater, assuming our civilization actually does make it past the century and into centuries in the future, which is a big assumption. If it does, I think the rise of the Internet will be seen as a shift in human consciousness and human powers of connectivity. Maybe even at least as great as the invention of writing. Maybe even as powerful as the invention of language. Obviously, that’s one of the defining characteristic of humanity. But the ways in which we can use technology to connect through the internet has massive and massive epic possibilities that we haven’t even begun to even conceptualize, nevermind actually experience right now as a potential. So I do see this possibility of this sense, and I think we see some of this kind of sense of where that extra connectivity is getting already.
Even while Facebook separates us and tries to commoditize people – both Facebook and YouTube and all those various social media exacerbate the polarity, all the things we know only too well are going on – even while that’s happening, there’s a greater and greater sense of a human global consciousness. So when things like the Me Too movement, things like the murder of George Floyd that happened last year occur, it doesn’t just happen in one place. It doesn’t even just happen in one country, but it happens throughout the world. These shifts in consciousness can move so powerfully. When Greta Thunberg sits there in front of the Swedish Parliament for days on end, there’s no way anybody could ever have conceived that within just a couple of years, there’d be millions of schoolchildren around the world joining a global climate strike, inspired by that one person. The transformation is incredibly fast, and it’s a transformation of human connectivity; perhaps just as important, connectivity between humans and the non-human world, the greater than human world all around us.
I think there’s a greater and greater recognition that we’re not separate from nature, that we are nature. In the words of this great poster I saw, “We are not fighting for nature. We are nature defending itself” which I think really captures it. So that’s my sense of what can go right, is the greater connectivity that is taking place, even in the face of the forces of separation that are potentially driving us to destruction. It does seem to me, there is a certain kind of Manichaean sort of thing going on, like which force is going to be the more powerful? Is it going to be this force of destruction, destruction of the living Earth, the destruction of even our total global civilization, with all the just horrendous mega deaths that would be involved in that absolutely worst case scenario. Is that going to happen? Or are we going to be able to transform our culture more quickly than that undoing takes place, in order to shift away from a growth-oriented wealth-accumulating world, to this vision of what I and others call an ecological civilization. The civilization actually founded on that connectivity, on the power of symbiosis between humans and non-human nature.
Wow. With the last thing you were talking about, it makes me think, and many people may not agree with me, but one of the benefits of the pandemic has been that you’re sitting in your home, probably. I’m sitting in my home. We probably don’t have pajama bottoms on, but we could. There’s some humanizing element, a relational element. I used to say I want on my tombstone, It’s a relational world. That’s my sense. It’s not a billiard ball world, it’s a relational world. It’s the universe, the one song. So I think we’ve had the ability to experience that and even to experience our “fan girl” people in these most intimate situations, so there’s a feeling of affinity among humans that’s very human scale, even though it’s global. I have a lot of friends talking about how cool it is to get on a screen and see 30 people who are from all over the world. I think that’s another epiphenomenon of this new language, something equal to language, or the Gutenberg Press. This is something that allows humanity to actually experience that it’s a centipede walking on eight billion legs. Actually 16 billion legs, right? I think that’s congruent with what you’re saying.
The other thing I thought about, and I wonder what you think about this, is that you talked about human supremacy coming out of Western European thought that has led to exploitation etc. Those are real hot button issues, actually, because there’s a large, actually solidifying section of the population, at least in the United States, that hears, You’re making Western civilization wrong. You’re rewriting our history. This was an empty country, we civilized it. This was an empty land. Basically the rights movements are elevating property to actually living beings. Women actually have rights. Black people are not property, women are not chattel. So I just feel that grinding edge. Do you have a sense of that from your point of view of, where are the elegant ways that the ecological worldview can flow into those grinding joints? I just had a joint replacement, so I think about it a lot. I’m just evoking something that I thought you might talk about.
Yeah, I think that is so true. I think that part of what we’re seeing in this incredible polarization both in the US and elsewhere in the world, is people fearing that they’re going to lose the privileges that they’ve had. But I think the reason we’re seeing such an extreme response of this reaction to things, is really twofold, because I think people are feeling threatened on two fronts. First off, the rise of neoliberalism and this incredible increase in inequality throughout the world and most particularly in the United States, and the sense of doom and gloom, of climate breakdown and all the rest of it, is causing a lot of people to feel left out, to feel alienated. And they’re told that it’s their own fault if they’ve been left out, because, of course, one of the ethics of neoliberalism is this lie that it’s your own freedom to make what you want, so if you fail, it must be your fault. Well, of course, it’s the exact opposite of that. The whole game is rigged against everyone other than the elites. So people are feeling that sense of frustration.
Then on the other side, there is this greater movement on the progressive front towards recognizing the rights of people who have been oppressed in prior generations and continue to be oppressed, but are waking up to this sense that that’s actually wrong. So here are people stuck in both sides. On the one hand, they feel like everything is going wrong, I’ve lost the little that I had before. And of course, the media doesn’t tell them, Oh, that’s because you’ve got these mega-billionaires who have basically stolen all your wealth from you and continue to do so. What the media tells them is, Yeah, it’s those other people who are taking all that; deflecting people’s attention towards the people on the other side, who are actually taking those rights away. Of course, people who study and are engaged in the issues of white supremacy show very clearly for anyone who wakes up to these issues that actually white supremacy doesn’t just oppress the people who are not white as a result, but oppresses the white people who think that they’re maintaining their privilege, but what they’re having to do is stay engaged in this horrible, brutal, violent set of relationships. And so they have to always stay on the defensive and tired and worried about losing, rather than actually sharing a space with others, where it’s not a zero sum game. It’s actually a positive sum game to actually share that.
Human supremacy is the same thing. We sort of think that we need to exploit nature as much as possible, and the more nature hurts, the more we need to find technological ways to exploit it more. But actually, once we shift away from that, we recognize it to actually live symbiotically with nature, we all gain. It’s not this thing of, Oh, we have to make sacrifices, and we have to cut down our quality of lives if we want to survive, or if we want to fend off disaster. It’s actually what we have to do is wake up to the fact that we are being turned into consumer numbers by this neoliberal culture, this capitalist culture. If we can actually get off what’s sometimes called the hedonic treadmill, and actually start to look at what really drives quality of well-being in life, we actually gain tremendously, while we can be part of a movement towards actually making the world more stable. So to your point, I think the important thing is to reach out to people to show them that it’s not win-lose, and it’s not us versus you, or us versus them, or anything like that. But actually as humans, we can connect together. We can actually build communities which are of mutual value. It’s not about taking away from people what little they have. It’s about gaining something that they don’t even realize oftentimes is available to them, because they’ve been conditioned to think in these more constrained consumer oriented ways.
Yeah, the picture that I’m getting as you speak, and I used to talk about this, is you’re sort of watching somebody who has a balloon, and the balloon is growing and you are waiting for that thing to pop, and it’s not popping. So I just feel like what you’re describing is an extreme tension that could blow up in any direction. One direction is of a paradigm shift, that people start to realize that the game is not worth a candle, the thing I’m doing is not getting me the results I want, which of course, is the old Your Money or Your Life promise. I’ve worked for years in trying to convince people, Oh, look over here, the greener pasture, it’s really fun. Do you have any sense about the tipping point around this increasing dis-ease that would finally get people to say, Wait, wrong story?
Yeah, each person I think has their own tipping point, in terms of their own life and their own life experience. And each society or each community has its tipping points. So when a hurricane hits here, or when an incredible drought or the fire storms that we endured in the West last summer, and may well endure even worse this coming summer, and all around the world, people hit their own tipping points. In different areas, different communities wake up and say, This is not working, something is wrong with the story we’ve been told. We’ve got to look for a different way of doing things. I think one way of looking at all of the bad things that are unfolding year after year – and of course we know in the next few years, they’re only going to get worse, the climate emergencies are only going to get worse, the disasters and the inequalities are getting worse, all these things – is think about this notion of a tightly woven rug and say in that rug, the design is all wrong, and you want to change the design. But how do you do it? It’s all totally woven. You could try pulling it apart, but you can’t even get that, it’s tight, it’s together.
But now imagine that that rug starts magically unraveling. This is basically what’s going on with our society, and all of the relationships between things, the things that people are told to take for granted for decades, even for centuries, they’ve been tightly woven. Every now and then, people might ask a question or do something to try to look at different ways of weaving that meaning rug together, but people say, No, that doesn’t work, this is what’s working, this is what’s right. But now, as these disasters are coming on more and more strongly, it’s as though the rug itself is unraveling. It’s when as society, our way of making meaning to the past begins to unravel, it offers the opportunity to take those strands that are unraveling, and re-weave them into a different kind of pattern that can be more resilient and that can work better. So to me, this offers this incredible opportunity and it’s why, even as the bad things happened – and trust me, I don’t want the bad things to happen. I would love them not to, and so it’s not like I’m saying, Yeah, bring it on. – but the point is, as these bad things happen, it offers this opportunity to then take these strands, and to re-weave them into a different story of meaning. I believe that, honestly, this is the great project of our generation right now, is to be putting out these possibilities of these new stories of making meaning, exactly the kind of thing you’re doing with this series and what so many people are doing in each of their different ways out there, so that when the new generation of people Greta Thunberg’s age are coming into their maturity, and then the next generation even after that in the next 10 to 20 years, they’re going to be saying, This is not working, we need a different way of making meaning of things.
Our job is to give that generation an absolute clear pathway to that meaning-making, so they can just turn to these things and say, Got it, this capitalist growth-oriented economic model isn’t working. Here’s another model; doughnut economics, circular economy and sacred economics. This is working, this makes sense, and tie those pieces together, so it makes sense. And not just in economics, but in every aspect of our lives; in the spiritual aspect of our lives. These separations don’t make sense. I’m not a separate mind trying to get to enlightenment or reach God or whatever, separate from the body. I’m an integrated being which means that part of my awakening and being engaged in the world and being connected with the living Earth and being part of that and all these ideas that are taking root – whether it’s the sense of the rights of nature, or recognizing eco side of a crime, or all these different elements, people working on interconnected law, like reimagining what law would be like in a civilization that actually worked for people being together for the living earth. So to me, it’s a lot about doing this re-weaving, even while the thing’s unraveling. It’s as though, there was this wonderful game, perhaps you played it as a kid like I remember when I was a kid, called Cat’s Cradle, where you take this string and you hold it in a certain way, but the pattern is such a way that you just move your hands and it’s a completely different pattern.
That’s what our job is, to re-weave those patterns of meaning within our civilization from the inside out, so that we don’t have to see everything collapse and try to rebuild from there in the smoldering ruins of these little micro-communities that happened to be left after everything fell apart. To try to do it while things are falling apart so that they don’t totally collapse, but we can actually re-weave this ecological civilization future in the middle of our civilization that’s there right now. A lot of that is through things like commons, like when we develop new technologies, new ideas, new approaches; not going to this for-profit, entrepreneurial business model of, Oh, let’s get some investment and maybe I can become a billionaire too. Of course, I want to do good, but it wouldn’t be bad to get all that money too. But actually, totally change the mindset to say, How can we share the funding of this as a group? How can we distribute the power of this? How can we make our decisions collectively, so everything is innately being done for the good of the whole, not for the good of some sort of heroic entrepreneur?
Well, I just think that’s so inspiring. I don’t think I should say one more word on top of it. May it be so. And may we all be weavers and may we just stand in the places where we’re inspired to stand and call out to one another, words of encouragement; just sort of practical faith that what you’re talking about is actually what’s going on, not so far under the surface. Not so far under the surface. It’s sort of like the emphasis is on a different syllable. So I really thank you for this and thank you for playing the game I asked you to play, and if we want to go with weaving, using the loom of your profound thought to actually weave something for us that we can actually see.
Yeah, and thank you, Vicki, for this whole series. What a wonderful, inspiring gift as well.
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