Seven Illusions

Seven Illusions

I am fascinated by etymology, particularly the root definitions of key words supporting our current social, political and economic paradigm. Economics and Ecology for example, sharing the same Greek root oikos, meaning house, should by definition be synergistic rather than divergent, implying management of the household for the mutual benefit of all that it contains; Religion, from religio, meaning connect rather then divide; Education, from educare, to draw out, rather than impose. Democracy, well, you get the idea…

In the following Seven Illusions, I try to highlight the degree to which our current definitions of some other key words have almost become the antithesis of their original meaning.


1. Redefining Power – ‘the ability to act or do’

The very word power has become so aligned with governments, corporations, the media and other forces that appear to shape our world, that we lose sight of this basic dictionary definition – ‘the ability to act or do’ – which places the word squarely in the hands of the individual.

There is no disputing the power that these institutions have in the modern world, but let’s not forget that they are composed of individual human beings. We apparently vote politicians into office and, supposedly, have the power to remove them.

Similarly, since corporations were created to serve human interests, surely we have the power to disband them should society decide that they have ceased to do so? In fact, this was a basic premise of the Corporate Charter that gave them birth in the first place. We often forget that humanity has designed the institutions that are destroying the planet and that they can, at least in theory, be redesigned to create a regenerative economy and society.

Through the atomizing impacts that the global economy and modern technologies have on society, we have been conditioned, almost indoctrinated to believe that the individual has been completely disempowered and there is little he or she can do to prevent the inevitable: the onward march of progress, the outbreak of wars, world poverty, the destruction of the rainforest, global warming and the extinction of species.

A new definition of power is now appearing in the world – one that dispels the illusion that the individual is powerless, or that power only exists within the institutions that humans have created, like governments and corporations, rather than with human beings themselves. A definition that proves we have the power to create the world we want, rather than being told how it has to be.


2. Redefining Wealth

The sub-title of EF Schumacher’s classic book Small is Beautiful was A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, an ironic reference to the way in which our fixation with money – an abstract conceptual system – has eclipsed those things that really matter – happiness, relationships, community.

This is what the philosopher Alan Watts called the ‘first great fallacy of civilization’, the confusion of conceptual wealth which we have created, like the world’s financial markets, with the real wealth upon which our lives depend – topsoil, forests, coral reefs, clean water to drink, food to eat, oxygen to breathe.

Schumacher first introduced the notion of ‘natural capital’ to account for these life-support systems currently ignored by our economics. As he observed, most of us fail ‘to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs – except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.’

Studies show that we have been in a period of ‘ecological overshoot’ since the 1980’s, bingeing our way through our collective inheritance of natural capital in a toxic splurge, using 30% more resources every year than can be replenished by natural processes in that time. In other words, what we are using in 12 months, Nature needs 16 to replace. Some of our consumption rates are wildly in excess of this. For example, we currently use as much oil in one year as Nature takes one million years to create.

Although it may sound heretical to some, it is not consumption per se that is the problem. Like all other organisms, humans will always consume and make an impact. The problem is what we consume, the rate at which we consume it and whether or not the toxins or by-products we create in the process can be absorbed, or sequestered, by natural processes.

In other words, for sustainability to be a reality, we need to be living off ‘Nature’s Interest’, not our Natural Capital.


3. Redefining Growth

Growth is necessary for all biological systems. However, they all reach an optimal point, at which that growth stabilises. If it does not, growth becomes pathological, as in the case of cancer. As the novelist Edward Abbey once said, ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’

The growth illusion lies at the core of an economic system built around competition rather than co-operation. It is accepted without question that infinite growth is possible while reliant on finite resources within a finite system. This not only sounds ambitious, but logically impossible.

‘Growth, growth, growth’ has become the modern mantra for our business leaders and politicians, the goal to which everything else is subordinated. However, we rarely stop to question the logic behind this fixation. Our economic indicators, like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are merely measuring the speed at which we are turning resources into rubbish, while every divorce, accident and hospital bill adds to the figure for national prosperity. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill for example, the local Alaskan economy boomed.

Surely, by seeing a man who consumes more as being better off than a man who consumes less, we are making an irrational assumption? As the economist Herman Daly first pointed out, a ‘growing’ economy is only getting bigger, while a ‘developing’ economy is getting better. Is it not time to accept this elementary distinction?

As Daly suggests, rather than an obsession with growth, should we not pay more attention to development? Rather than doing our national accounts with a calculator which has no minus sign – increasing GDP every time we drive a car rather than ride a bicycle, turn on the AC rather than open a window – should we not integrate new economic indicators which more accurately reflect the true definition of ‘efficiency’ and ‘quality of life’ rather than plain ‘productivity’ and rates of consumption?


4. Redefining Progress

Our blind faith in the uncontested benefits of technology lies at the root of our current assumptions about Progress. We assume that technology always saves time, makes life simple and keeps us happy.

As many have recognised, technologists are quick to list the myriad benefits of their innovation, but rather less forthcoming about the potential dangers. Nuclear power, asbestos, leaded petrol, GM foods, to name just a few. As Aldous Huxley observed, faith in the locomotive had convinced people that they were travelling ‘at full speed towards universal peace and brotherhood of man’, until it turned into ‘a four-motored bomber loaded with white phosphorus and high explosives’.

Ivan Illich once calculated that when you add the time taken to work towards buying a car to the time spent repairing it, maintaining it and driving it, then divide that by the distance travelled, the average car owner is conveyed at an average speed of five miles an hour – the same as a brisk walk or a leisurely cycle. This can hardly be seen as an ‘efficient’ or ‘intelligent’ use of natural and human resources. It is even harder to see it as Progress.

Perhaps the real definition of Progress should reflect the real impact that a technology has on natural systems? For example, if renewable energy systems could manufacture the hydrogen required for the transition to hydrogen fuel cell technology, that could be seen as Progress. However, if we are still using fossil fuels to make the hydrogen, it can hardly be seen as such. We have merely shifted the problem from one area to another.

Similarly, rather than terminator seeds designed to germinate with a chemical cocktail from the corporation that designed it, the cutting edge science of Biomimicry seeks to grow food without ever ploughing the land and disturbing the topsoil. How? By replicating the perennial polycultures of the prairies. Maybe, like the highly productive tropical forest gardens of Kerala, the real definition of Progress allows such diversity to thrive?


5. Redefining Health

Drug sales in the US suggest that up to 80% of adults ingest at least one medically prescribed drug every twenty four hours while the average doctor in the UK writes a prescription every few minutes.

The bio-chemist Ernest Krebs Jr has been one of many to highlight the persistent illusion of pharmaceutical drugs: ‘In the history of science no chronic or metabolic disease has ever been prevented or cured except by non-toxic factors normal to the diet. The corollary is that no disease has ever been prevented or cured by factors foreign to the diet, foreign to the biological experience. These are axioms that admit no exception.’

In the same way that we cannot add chemicals to natural systems without creating systemic impacts on the surrounding ecology, so the introduction of toxic drugs to the human system will always produce systemic side-effects. In the same way that planetary health continues to be severely jeopardised by human activities, the health of the human organism itself is often undermined by the very medicine supposed to cure it.

Instead of constantly addressing the symptoms of planetary and bodily dysfunction, ‘new paradigm’ thinking directs energy and resources towards the causes of our malaise. For example, many alternative health practices place an emphasis on preventative medicine, using nutritional supplements to build a healthy immune system, thus building the body’s capacity to deal with many of the pollutants and toxins now linked to modern degenerative diseases, from Electro-Magnetic Fields (EMFs) to carcinogenic dioxins.

In the same way that biodiversity provides resistance to pests, and healthy soil produces healthy food, so good nutrition can boost the resilience of the human body’s systems. Similarly, the exponential increase in cancer rates will only stabilise when we stop introducing toxic chemicals to our air, water and food chain, by turning our linear manufacturing processes into cyclical systems which eliminate the concept of ‘waste’.


6. Redefining Time

‘In the abundance of water, the fool goes thirsty.’               Bob Marley

Many of us feel that the world is speeding up around us; that global communications and the Information Age are condensing our perception of time and space. But the notion that time can speed up seems to contradict our basic understanding of the concept, since our clocks and calendars are built upon the notion that time is a universal constant, a linear process which began with the Big Bang and is moving, minute by minute, towards the Big Crunch.

Although this perception has been challenged by modern physics, the notion of constant, linear time can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of western culture. Indigenous cultures on the other hand, have tended towards a cyclical vision of time, like the Hindu concept of yugas.

This linear perspective of time has crept into our language, giving rise to statements like ‘a race against time’, or ‘running out of time’, or ‘I can’t find the time’, notions that would appear utterly meaningless, if not absurd, to indigenous peoples. Many technological innovations are extolled for their ability to save time but, as Ivan Illich’s calculation about the car shows, this is often no more than an illusion.

In fact, despite all the labour-saving gadgetry we have adopted within our lives, much of which has been sold to us on the premise that it would increase out ‘leisure time’, most of us complain about ‘not having enough time’ to do the things we would like – read books, hang out with the kids, go for a walk. As modern life becomes increasingly complex, and every form of technology gets faster and faster, time seems to disappear, turning into a rare and important commodity. ‘Quality time’ has become a sort of Holy Grail, that elusive concept to which we all aspire. But where could it have gone? Is it not here, right now?


7. Redefining Self

The physicist Peter Russell is one of several ‘new paradigm’ scientists to have reached the same conclusions as mystics and sages for thousands of years – that Consciousness is not something within us; it is something which we are within. It is primary, not secondary. Mind gives rise to Matter.

This is not just the essence of the world’s mystical traditions, the basis on which the concept of Enlightenment is constructed, but also the conclusion of many modern scientists pursuing consciousness research. From ecology to quantum physics, the message is the same: we are not separate. The distinct three-dimensional organism, which we take ourselves to be, is not only in a constant state of interaction with the world around us, but is also just a limited aspect of what we truly Are.

The implications of this are clearly very profound, suggesting that the whole notion of human bondage is built upon the dynamic interaction of two human emotions – fear and desire, which operate within a dynamic ‘feedback loop’, keeping us ensnared within a perpetual spiral of guilt about the past and fear about the future.

As the Buddha tried to remind us, fear and desire are actually the same thing, just two sides of the same coin. Fear is the ego’s projection about what it doesn’t want to happen in the future, the source of all anxiety, stress and worry, about money, health, death and old age.

Desire is the ego’s projection about what it does want to happen in the future – a new car, a new house, a promotion at work, winning the lottery. Since these are conceptualisations about the future, something which is imagined, they constantly remove us from the reality of the present.

Peace can only arise in the gap that exists between fear and desire, when there is no worry about the future, or guilt about the past, when there is nothing but pure Presence, pure awareness in the moment. Peace is our natural state, our birthright. It is closer to us at every moment than the air we breathe in our lungs.


Rory Spowers
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