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Consciousness takes us beyond
avoidable force, waste, and risk

by Tom Atlee
January 2008

A basic question that can be asked in two ways is:
"What can I get from this land, or person?" or
"What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?"
Of these two approaches,
the former leads to war and waste,
the latter to peace and plenty.

-- Bill Mollison, co-founder of permaculture

Let us put our minds together and see what life
we can make for our children.

-- Sitting Bull

For the last year Peggy Holman and I have been researching evolutionary dynamics that can be used to guide the conscious evolution of social systems.

In the process we noticed an evolutionary dynamic through which consciousness -- in all its forms -- provides opportunities to mitigate or replace force, waste and risk. This has been going on for millions of years -- since the time of early bacteria -- and is accelerating. Today humanity needs to make another giant leap in this direction.

Here's how it works.

To the extent that we are aware of things -- of people, objects, resources, dynamics, nature, situations, opportunities, etc. -- and understand them well enough, we don't have to use as much force to deal with them, we don't waste them, and we can better predict, influence, or trust how they will act or turn out.

If, in addition, we have empathy with them -- if we know about and care deeply for the experience, needs and wishes of people and living things around us, or the innate tendencies and dynamics in the circumstances we face -- we can relate to them and move with them in ways that achieve what is natural and desirable.

As consciousness increases, we become more able to reach beyond what is immediately present into what is far away in space, time, causation, or meaning; to reach beyond comfort to welcome uncertainty and dissonance and relate well with strange people and situations; to reach beyond specific outcomes to notice and work with the unfolding of life-affirming patterns and processes. We begin to flow with what some call the Tao -- with what is and what wants to be.

Evolution favors entities that use energy, matter, and information well -- elegantly, with minimal demand and waste. The more our consciousness -- our intelligence, understanding, sensing, caring, compassion, conversation, appreciation, awareness -- and the integration of all these into wisdom -- can reduce the amount of force, waste, and risk in our dealings with life, the more likely we'll do well with evolutionary challenges. This applies both individually and -- especially in this crisis-ridden century -- collectively.

From an evolutionary perspective, force is related to energy. Force involves energy exerted against resistance. The more force we use, the more energy we use. The less resistance there is, the less energy we need. Beyond these mechanical considerations, if we can relate to life collaboratively, in such a way that it not only doesn't resist, but actually joins with us in advancing our mutual survival and vitality, we enhance our evolutionary prospects. Synergy like that is a real evolutionary plus, since efficient use of energy is a major selective factor in evolution.

From an evolutionary perspective, waste weakens us. Technically, Life as a whole has little if any waste. What is waste for one organism or process is food or input for another. At the physical level, we can observe a certain amount of entropy or energy dissipation. However, one of the remarkable characteristics of Life is that it slows down entropy: For example, a healthy forest will recycle a molecule of water perhaps a dozen times between its falling as rain and its return to the ocean, compared to water that falls on granite or concrete and flows immediately to the sea. For Life, waste equals food. For conscious life, waste is something we reduce (by exercising wise choice or increasing efficiency) or reuse or recycle (as a resource, and to counter entropy). Even wasted opportunities can be avoided (by vigilance and initiative) or recycled (by learning from them). The less we actually waste, the more we have to work with, with little additional energy. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison says: "Everything is a positive resource; it is just up to us to work out how we [can] use it as such."

From an evolutionary perspective, risk increases our chance of failure, death, or extinction. Various forms of consciousness help minimize risk. Intelligence and learning -- combined with attentiveness and diligence -- enable us to avoid many past errors.

Foresight, deliberation, dialogue, intuition, and systems thinking can all help overcome our parochial blind spots so we can more readily recognize problems that may arise from outside of our experience. Empathy can turn enemies to allies. Expanded consciousness can reduce our anxiety and increase our flexibility and tolerance for uncertainty, so that our attention is free to deal with whatever comes our way.

So there are evolutionary advantages -- and thus an evolutionary tendency, challenge, and mandate -- to expand consciousness to reduce force, waste, and risk.

Interestingly, most of the movements that currently give us hope embody this evolutionary dynamic. They are the emerging edge of evolution underway, transforming our complex civilization and biosphere into a new, whole global organism capable of nurturing us as we nurture it.

Consider how each of the following engages our individual or collective consciousness to reduce risk and increase our elegant use of energy, matter, information, and opportunity -- requiring minimal force and generating minimal resistance, while engaging our own and each others' life-energy:

  • Sustainability, Organics, Recycling, Permaculture, and Biomimicry (compared to domination of nature)
  • Cooperatives, Collaboration, Sharing, Openness, and Collective Intelligence (compared with competition and possessiveness)
  • Dialogue, Deliberation, Conflict Resolution, Peace, and Democracy (compared with domination, concentrated power, and war)
  • Compassion, Justice, Freedom, and Human Rights (compared with oppression)
  • Psychospiritual Development, Learning, Creativity, Beauty, and Play (compared with materialist consumerism)
  • Community, Networking, Support Groups, Mutual Aid, and Co-Creativity (compared with isolated individualism)

Our individualistic, consumerist, nature-dominating society -- and the wild expansion of our ancient capacities for competition, war and oppression -- have all been subsidized by the world-degrading cheap energy of fossil fuels. As that free-wheeling era comes to a close, two trends are emerging, both of which demand new forms and applications of consciousness. One is towards more efficient technologies and less toxic cheap energy sources. The other is towards more collaborative, synergistic, open, non-material ways of relating to each other and nature, which reduce the need for energy that is not already in us and which avoid or creatively use everything we previously thought of as waste.

As we move ahead on these developments, we know that consciousness and force are not mutually exclusive. We can dominate and manipulate the behavior and/or consciousness of other entities with minimal force by using our understanding of their motivations, feelings, beliefs, etc. -- or, in the case of physical objects and forces, understanding the laws and patterns that govern them -- to get what we want. That's pretty standard.

There's practically always a mix. In human affairs and systems we find both consciousness and force at work. There is a strong trend in human evolution, however, towards increasing the amount and role of consciousness in any interaction or system, and its capacity to resonate and work with what is, minimizing the use of force and other imported energy.

But we are in a transition time, and we will see and use combinations of force and consciousness that include:

  • CONTROL - the design of institutions, infrastructures, cultures, structures, and technologies that constrain channel, or facilitate selected behaviors
  • MANAGEMENT - directive leadership, motivation (rewards and penalties), laws and regulations
  • MANIPULATION - of consciousness and information, propaganda, public relations, and indoctrination
  • EVOCATION - inspirational and visionary leadership, support systems, providing contexts for people or organisms to do that part of what we want them to do which they already wish to do anyway (in contrast to supporting whatever they want to do or forcing them to do what they don't want to do).

Also in the midst of this transition we will stumble in our well-intentioned efforts to increase our consciousness and collaboration, grappling with egos, limitations, and old patterns. One friend joked that collaboration is a lot like teenage sex: Everyone's talking about it, not many are actually doing it, and those who are, are finding that it's a lot more complicated than they thought. Welcome to evolution in progress!

Further up the line, as our individual and collective consciousness develops, we enter more into collective resourcefulness and awareness of BEING the systems we are part of. We become less grounded in our separate self-interest and more connected to those deep parts of ourselves whose energies arise from what's universal and whole.

Moved by our own passion and sense of calling, we bring our unique gifts and perspectives, connect with others, and move in service to the whole, as the whole moves. We recognize dissonance and crises as evolutionary resources and ground ourselves less in certainties -- in old patterns and givens -- and more in tendencies, possibilities, and life energies -- and in the evocative processes that call them forth. The unknown then becomes a pregnant presence, and we become midwives for what wants to emerge, and protectors and nurturers of its new life.

This is an amazing evolutionary journey we are all on together.

With this perspective in mind, here are three provocative articulations of who we are and who we can become.

The first is the Dalai Lama's vision of our current evolution from force and violence to compassion, freedom, dialogue, democracy, co-operation, and truly informed minds -- "a fundamental shift in our attitudes and our consciousness -- a wider, more holistic outlook".

The second is a short video lecture by emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman about what makes us less than Good Samaritans.

The last, an article by professor of sociology and criminology Randall Collins, reveals research showing that we ARE NOT naturally violent and that we have to go through a lot to get ourselves to be violent. (Go down to the paragraph that starts "We need to dismiss the myth...")

See also

Conscious Evolution

Conscious Evolutionary Agentry

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