Monday, December 27, 2010

Per Ardua Ad Astra (Through Struggle to the Stars)

Per Ardua Ad Astra is the phrase embedded in the crest of the Royal Australian Airforce. It translates to "Through Struggle to the Stars". This phrase has taken on significant meaning for me over the last 12 months. Those who know me will know that I have been working on my PhD thesis for the last six years. When I started that journey I was very pessimistic about the future of the human race - species homo sapien sapien.

As I have journeyed through my own voyage of discovery to develop my own philosophical body of work, I started out from the technology world of information systems developed for military and emergency service. From that launchpad I ventured into human psychology, human philosophy and thence into the realm of anthropology and human development. Throughout that process I developed an understanding of the human enterprise and its journey through the ages.

One of the key things I discovered was that, as a species, we are remarkably adaptive.

From our origins in Africa, the journey of the human enterprise has been punctuated by periods of significant advancement - events that changed the game for our species. It has also been punctuated by events that had the potential to render our species extinct. But through all those events, we learned to adapt, to evolve, to develop new skills and to triumph against adversity.

It is true as a species that we face some challenges that have the potential, yet again, to, at the very least, destroy the functions of human civilization. Perhaps even to render our species extinct. Yet we have this capacity to adapt that means I am optimistic about our capacity to not only survive, but as a result of challenge to adapt and evolve further. To emerge wiser and ready to continue our journey to the stars - for that is where our future lies.

As we ponder how to adapt to the challenges of climate change, of the development of a global society and ethic, lets also stand on this world and think about reaching out to the next one.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Maslow and Marketing

This blog was generated in response to a blog by Alison Macleod ( in which she noted that a UK based organisation was using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to divide the UK population based on their values (I assume as drawn from Maslow's work).

I partially concur with the views expressed by Alison regarding simplistic use of Maslow's work. However I do not agree with the following comments:

 "there’s really no evidence for his hierarchy.  Yes, it’s a useful sketch of motivation, and a very pretty pyramid, but there is no evidence that you can account for real people’s behaviour by invoking any part of it apart from the part about people requiring food and water."

If one were to view the pyramid in isolation as most do, then it may appear simplistic. It is very easy to dismiss images like this as "pretty pyramids" but in reality there is a deep basis for this work. If one is to take a position on this particular image, then there is a lot of reading to do. Maslow arrived at this representation of a portion of his work following long and deep research and the collection of large amounts of data.

If we are to to understand the image then we need to read the surrounding body of work. And then follow the reference sources. Such a journey will lead the individual to read Jung and Frankl (he notes the triumph of the human spirit even through the miseries of his own experience of Dachau)  and Freud, then through a journey of human thinking which will incorporate the thoughts of the Buddha and Christ  and many other thinkers. One would journey through the legend of the grail and many other great legends which conveyed human aspiration.

The work of Maslow tried to capture the essence of the human aspiration for something higher. The pyramid was a small part of that work. Marketers and motivators who use the pyramid to support things like dividing humans up into value driven sets are using the tool in a way for which it was never intended to be used.

But then that would assume that marketers and motivators actually have the motivation to read more than what is on wikipedia.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Human Experience

I have been pondering what it means to be human and the role of religion and spirituality in the human journey. I think that we have, over the last 50 years or so tried too hard to deny the human spiritual experience.

I would like to place before you another way of looking at this question. There is an all too frequent tendency in many of us to stand outside and cast stones through the stained glass windows of other people's belief systems. Whilst it is true, for example, that the Catholic church has left itself open to ridicule and contempt as a result of the behaviours of a few, it is important to remember that it is just that - the behaviour of a few. In any human collective there will always be those who abuse their positions. In my own life I have witnessed abuses of power by those who seemed to be more concerned with the visible trappings of their own sense of self importance than they are with the needs of those for whom they had a responsibility and duty of care.

The founder of the Mormon faith recorded the view that
"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion"

Enough said...

For myself, I find a great deal of value in the words of the sufi mystic Ibn Arabi "the colour of the water is the colour of the receptacle".

In all of the variety of religious experience there are gems that somehow resonate with a part of who we are as humans. Now I have no experimental basis on which to prove this is so, but I suspect that in the deeper parts of our unconscious (perhaps even down in Jungs Collective Unconscious) there is something that resonates with us and, for a moment, can draw us out of the mundane and remind us that our very existence is a miracle. The very fact that we can think about the fact that we think and ponder why the universe is and why, in all the infinite range of potential outcomes that the universe could throw up, it threw up consciousness and for a moment certain experiences can open something in us that senses awe.

For those whose heritage is of the West, if you ever get the opportunity to sit through a Catholic sung High Mass, seize it. And for a moment set aside any preexisting notions and prejudices and just try and sense the connection with the heritage of our western collective unconscious. Feel for a moment the mystery again.

In my own life's journey I have learned that in all spiritual experience there is something that resonates in us. Perhaps it is the shadows of our ancestors as they looked up at the stars from the plains of Africa and first began to wonder what life was about that resonates within us. Have you ever wondered what it was that first evoked that sense of awe. We know that as the jungle receded in Africa, our earliest ancestors had to adapt to life on the open plains. Perhaps (and this is pure conjecture on my part) they one night looked up and saw the stars and actually wondered... or perhaps it was a wondering on what happened when a member of the tribe died. But whatever it was, it opened up in us a sense of wondering, and from wonder to awe and thus the human journey took a significant step forward.

Unfortunately in our post-modern scientific world we have tried to bury this sense of awe. We have dared to suggest that because it could not be measured or quantified that his fundamental part of our human experience should be forever denied. I think that determination to bury so much of the human experience has reached it's crescendo in the attacks on the non quantifiable parts of the human experience embodied in works such as the God Delusion.

Awe and wonder lift us out of the mire of the daily human battle to exist. Awe and wonder transform mere existence into the wonder of life and love places a reason in our hearts to continue the journey.

Whether a certain religous view is right or wrong is irrelevant if within the maze of the religious experience an individual can for a moment sense awe and wonder. This is, in my humble opinion the core of the religious experience.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ritual and the Human Journey

Whilst sitting in a solemn mass I pondered the role of ritual as a marker of significant moments in the human journey.Our ancestors used ritual to mark many things in their lives. The achievment of a goal (perhaps a successful hunt), the marking of life transitions (from child to adult for example) or an important date in the annual cycle of life.

As Christianity achieved a foothold it embraced the concept of ritual and provided rituals within the church that would mark these dates, times and occasions. Eastern religions too embrace, to this day, a series of festivals and observations that are ritual in nature which unite the community.  In our post modern world, sadly, we have all too frequently abandoned the rituals.

We are left with little that marks the passing of significant occasions, except an observance of public holidays that are based on religious festivals that have little meaning for many anymore.

But alongside the ritual markers for significant events are many other rituals that either provide a basis for helping us to get through the daily grind of life or allow us to highlight the things which are important to us. How about the ritual of love between two people? Could there be any ritual more deeply associated with a relationship than the rituals of intimacy? Or what about the ritual of sitting with friends over a good meal? Or just a simple cup of coffee?

So have we abandoned ritual? I think not. Yet we have an almost instinctive suspicion of ritual to mark more significant events. I think there is a desperate need, in the scrabble to find meaning in life, for us to reassert ritual in observance of life's passing journey.

Could I suggest to anyone thinking about the value of ritual to take the time to attend a religous ritual and just to observe. For me, in the western tradition in which I was raised, the pinnacle of this is the Anglo-Catholic high mass. For anyone who has this practiced nearby, there is a deep value to be found in participating in this ritual. For myself there is something that reconnects me with those who have gone before. I can, for a moment, indulge all my senses in a ritual which has its roots in earliest western tradition. I can recommend it regardless of your belief or otherwise in supernatural beings and concepts.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What is It to be Human?

Like many others before me, I have tried to understand what defines us as humans. What is it that makes us different from other animals? What is it that has placed us at the apex of all life on this planet?

I wonder if it could be that, unlike any other species, we are continually striving to make the life of our children a little better than our own. We seek to enhance the quality of life that they will enjoy. We seek to eliminate from the world they inherit, the things we found uncomfortable about the world we inherited from our parents.

Understanding that this may be one of the defining characteristics of our human nature though, throws into stark relief the behaviour that our generation has pursued. It is likely that no other generation will ever live as comfortably as the Baby Boomer generation. As a generation we have enjoyed a level of comfort unprecedented in human history. The problem is that in doing so we have consumed in excess of the resources that were ours to borrow. We are indeed, as suggested by Tim Flannery, the future eaters. We hand to our children a planet significantly degraded, which is stressed and is showing the first signs of a systemic collapse of the systems that support our life and consume our waste.

How has this generation so defied our human nature as to actually hand to the next generation something that is less comfortable than the life we enjoyed?

Human Extinction and Human Values

It was with great interest that I read the recent interview with leading microbiologist Frank Fenner of the ANU ( Frank believes that Homo Sapien Sapien has already passed the point of no return and is now moving inexorably towards extinction. In the interview he noted:

"Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years," he says. "A lot of other animals will, too. It's an irreversible situation. I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. "

I pondered the work of Jonas Salk when I read this interview. Salk (the person responsible for the polio vaccine) undertook significant work on the patterns of population growth occurs in closed environments. From this work Salk drew some conclusions about the future of the human species. He published his thoughts in a book titled The Survival of the Wisest

Salk found that there are three primary responses to overpopulation in species:

1. They become extinct;
2. The population fluctuates in an uncontrolled fashion;
3. The population stabilizes at a sustainable level.

Clearly, in looking to the future, as a species we would hope that option 3 is the endstate for the human species. Whilst it is a large container, there is no doubt that the human species exists in a closed container called the planet Earth. All the resources we need to maintain existence must be supplied from within that container and all wastes must be dealt with in the same container.

One of the key elements that drives a species to achieve a sustainable population level is the point known as "inflection point". This is the point at which population behaviours change as the population trends towards a sustainable level. Salk believed that the human species was already entering the inflection point in the 1970's. He further suggested that certain human behaviours, values and attitudes would have to evolve for the human species to successfully pass through the inflection point and achieve a sustainable population. I will talk about these values in a later discussion because they go to the heart of what it means to be human.

For now though, I want to postulate several questions:

1. Do we accept the principle that we are in a closed container and all we need to live and all the wastes we produce need to be dealt with in the container?

2. If we accept the first postulate, then do we accept that there is a limit to the capacity of the container to sustain life in terms of total energy available and ability to deal with waste;

3. Having accepted the first two postulates as true, then where is the limit?

4. Are we prepared, as a species, to accept the potential for extinction in order to determine the answer to the third question?

I would suggest that the climate change sceptics, those who seek a resolution of the issues our species face through some sort of green revolution or those who think that a returning supernatural being is going to fix the problem are daring to accept human extinction as a potential outcome in order to prove that their view is true. That is an astonishing experiment.

I would like to postulate an alternative hypothesis for testing:

Can the human species identify the means that will permit us to successfully traverse this inflection point and achieve a sustainable population level that will allow all homo sapien sapien to enjoy a similar, sustainable, level of existence?

Finally, I would like to finish this discussion with a quote attributed to Jonas Salk. When asked about the future of the human species he answered:

"I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. We have to act as if we can make the crucial difference"

We are already deeply into the inflection point where we will decide our future as a species. Do we just give up and accept extinction as Dr Fenner suggested, or do we "act as if we can make the crucial difference"

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Religion and Spirituality

Today I attended a high mass in Melbourne. I will freely confess that I love the whole thing, incense, bells, choir, chant and the atmosphere of a great Cathedral. I have blogged elsewhere on what we can learn about Architecture from the great Cathedrals. That is not the purpose of this blog.

Here I intend to explore a few more personal thoughts on what it means to be human and to undertake the human journey. Call it mid life crisis if you will. I hope that it is actually a little more than that. I have been on this journey for nine years now, and at no time have I felt the "self" that is me so completely shattered as it is now. Does that mean I am suffering from some sort of psychosis. I don't think so (but perhaps that is for others to judge ;-) ).

What it means is that I have undergone a very difficult journey of transformation which has traversed much of what it means to be human.

So this blog will capture some of those thoughts - the EcoThought blog will remain focussed on what EcoThought is about - this blog will capture something of my personal thoughts.

So in the Mass this morning I pondered what this thing called religion means to us today. What are we to do with belief, and the Church and the ritual? Are we to throw it all away in a welter of scientific rationalism? Science has, for many, become something that is defended with the same stubborn zeal as any religious zealot. In order to verify their position the scientific community finds it necessary to dismiss the entire human spiritual experience. If it can't be measured or subject to experimentation then it must not exist - or so they would assert. I will freely state that I am astonished at the depths that people like Richard Hawkins will go to deny the existence of any spiritual element of the human experience. The zeal of his assertions closely approximate those of individuals who would go to any lengths to assert the absolute rightness of their position and the absolute idiocy of anyone who would dare to believe otherwise.

Rather, I think, we need to accept that there is part of the human condition which is beyond measurement, beyond analysis. Who can listen to Bach and not sense that there is a higher potential in all of us that we can aspire to. Who can look on the beauty of a coral reef and watch a Manta swim by and not feel a sense of awe that we live here, and alongside the awe, a sense of guilt at the damage we have done to this environment with our scientifically developed tools and chemicals.

Likewise, for individuals sensitive and open to the experience, within the High Mass there is something that calls to a higher aspiration in all of us.

The Archbishop posed the question - what is Jesus to us individually? I wonder. I think that, perhaps, in seeking a defence against the scientific position, elements of the Christian world have invested large amounts of resources to try and find the historical Jesus. And in so doing they have lost the core of the Jesus message. My personal view is that within the Jesus story is something that speaks to the human condition, the experience of what it means to be human.

Somewhere between the Jesus story and the story of the Buddha is the place where we can accept who we are and that, as human as we are, there is a wonder to the life that we live. The very fact that we can think about the fact that we think is a wonder to me. As a man thinketh..... Words of great truth....

So in this blog I will put forward my sense of wonder at being human and what it means to stand aside from the daily world and all of the myths that the advertising community use to rob us of individuality, and to think about the human journey and the human condition.

I doubt any one is really interested in what I think, but at least for those who work closely with me, there will be the chance to gain some understanding of why I say what I do sometimes.... ;-)