September 7, 2014

When the Planet Replaces the Flag. {Book Excerpt}


This is the first in a compilation of excerpts from my forthcoming book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind.

So far as we know, humans are the only animals that think globally. We are the only animals that band together in global associations. And we are the only animals who possess the power to instantly destroy the planet. It took thousands of years of human civilization before we began to build comprehensive global institutions. While those institutions are but a century or so old, they are now commonplace. In fact, it has become difficult to conceive of a lasting human civilization without the support of global institutions. But to run those institutions we must possess global consciousness.

Global consciousness is the capacity to experience the world as an integral whole. The ability to think globally is now quite common. Turn on any major news channel and you will be barraged by global events. To comprehend those events, you must be able to situate them in global causal chains. Most people in the developed world more or less possess this capacity today. But global consciousness is not just about how we see the world. Like nationalism and team spirit, it is a form of group identification.

The globally conscious self identifies with the world and its multitude of beings, human and otherwise. The sense of identification need not be strong. Marketers talk about saving the planet because somehow the idea appeals even to the otherwise indifferent. But global consciousness can seep into the deepest reaches of one’s being: stirring feelings for peoples unmet, places unseen, species yet undiscovered. And the image of the planet has for many bypassed the flag as a symbol of allegiance.

The story of how we became conscious of the world as an integral whole, how our lives were knit together into a planetary civilization, and how some of us began to identify with all of humanity, and with the fate of the earth, is the story of global consciousness. It is an incomplete epic about the emergence of global civilization and its fragile fate; few took an interest in the fate of the planet before it became possible to destroy it in an instant. If we cannot think globally, it will be difficult to tackle many of the great challenges of the twenty-first century. We will quibble over climate change, think small on food security, and ignore the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

We should not assume the capacity to think globally. Since it is impossible to take in the whole world at a sweep, thinking globally requires that we first be able to think abstractly. But the pre-eminent theorist of cognitive development, Jean Piaget, noted this capacity is only arrived at after a long series of cognitive developments, sometime between adolescence and early adulthood. Not everyone achieves this ability to think abstractly. Of those who do, the ability often remains partially developed or dormant.

Global thinking usually requires that we not only think abstractly but that we break the world down into statistics. We do not usually see the rainforests being destroyed, and even when we do, we can only see a part. Making sense of the destruction of rainforests requires that we consult the statistics regarding how much has been destroyed, over how much time, and for what purposes. These questions cannot usually be answered without reversion to statistics. But as the Nobel Laureate economist, Daniel Khaneman notes, most people lack the ability to think statistically.

To think meaningfully about the world as a whole requires further capacities, like the ability to think systemically and to weigh one paradigm of thought against another. Technological advances have allowed us to exploit the natural resources and carbon sinks whose use now threatens the destruction of higher civilization through catastrophic climate change, and yet the development of a sustainable global civilization will probably require massive technological advances. This is a paradox. Similarly, economic development has led to the mass destruction of non-human life, but protecting that life from overpopulation and exploitation may require further economic development.

Sorting through paradoxes like these involves sifting through massive amounts of data and perspectives, weighing the merits of whole value systems – simplicity versus complexity, active engagement versus passive surrender, hierarchy versus equality. Each of these ideals has a role to play in the development of a sustainable global civilization. But if we lack the ability to prioritize their benefits with equanimity and intelligence, we may prove unable to sort through the complexities of the global challenges we now face. For this reason Ken Wilber suggests that perhaps the most vital challenge of the coming century will be that of taking as many people as possible to the developmental stage of global consciousness.

Perhaps this is an exaggeration. Perhaps we can muddle through with climate consciousness here, nuclear consciousness there. And perhaps the ability to think globally without really engaging the issues is a sort of wasted potentiality. On thing seems clear from even engaging this issue at all: the importance of global thinking to solving global challenges has all too often been ignored.



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Editor: Travis May

Photo:  Wiki Commons

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