Jeremy Lent, described by Guardian journalist George Monbiot as “one of the greatest thinkers of our age,” 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.
Here he talks to Writers Rebel’s Liz Jensen about his latest book, The Web of Meaning – an extract from which follows afterwards.
Liz Jensen: You have said that your concept of a web of meaning emerged from your personal experience of grief. Many of us – whether we are grieving for a loved one or for the Earth’s predicament – feel a need to explore what life is about. How much of your journey into meaning was led by instinct?
Jeremy Lent: I think it might be true to say that my journey was fundamentally led by a deep instinct. As you mention, my personal journey arose from a crisis in the middle of my life. I had been a successful entrepreneur, starting an Internet company and taking it public, but the sickness of my wife at the time – she passed away some years ago – caused me to leave the company too early and it became part of the dot com crash. Meanwhile my wife was suffering from cognitive decline and I found that I had lost both my primary relationship and so much that I had built around me in the first part of my life. So my own search for meaning was deeply personal. At that time, I made a core determination that I was not going to accept structures of meaning from others without feeling that they were fully integrated within my own sense of meaning-making. It needed to make sense to me both in terms of my rational mind as well as my deeply felt instinct—what I now refer to as “animate intelligence.” It had to be fully integrated within all the different parts of me. It took me many years of cognitive research as well as my own spiritual exploration, including learning mindfulness meditation, qigong, and other embodied exercises, but as time went on the journey began to unfold into a deep understanding of meaning that truly integrated all the different parts of me.
LJ: In both The Patterning Instinct and The Web of Meaning you argue for a mental paradigm shift. As writers engaging in this shift, it seems to me that our most important job is to seed, nurture and grow new narrative structures, replacing our old stories with metaphors and story arcs that we can hold on to, value, and act on: a new cognitive framework that contains both ancient and new ways of seeing the world. What does this new mentality involve, for you, and what stories might emerge from it?
JL: I agree that the most important job for writers today is to offer different, life affirming narratives that allow readers to begin to feel into a different way of perceiving the world. The vast majority of our stories implicitly affirm deep cognitive structures of patriarchy, hierarchy, and separation – separation with ourselves, from others, and from nonhuman nature. Through narrative, I do believe it’s possible to invite readers, even those who are steeped in the mainstream worldview, to begin to question some of those cognitive structures and to be attracted to the possibilities that exist beyond them. One example of what I see as a true paradigm-shifting novel is The Overstory by Richard Powers, where he leads readers into a deeply entangled web of interrelationships between initially separate narrative arcs of people’s lives as well as the complex interactions between people and the tree intelligence around them, which end up deeply informing the interrelated paths their lives take.
Going a bit deeper, I think there might be two different, but related, ways in which writers can help to initiate the cultural transformation we need. One of them, as exemplified by The Overstory, involves helping readers to question their own paradigmatic assumptions and invites them to explore pathways into different forms of meaning-making. Another approach—possibly more difficult to accomplish successfully—is to offer visions of a different kind of future that might be available to humanity. A future that has left our capitalist, extractive and exploitative civilization behind and that offers a believable and attractive trajectory for humankind. In the famous statement attributed to Slavoj Žižek, “it’s easier for many people to envisage the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The challenge for writers laying out a visionary, life-affirming future is to make stories about it that are both attractive and interesting. It’s easy enough to get people interested in stories about violence, destruction, and conflict. But how can we offer stories that explore the depths of human nature and the complexity of human experience on this beautiful living Earth without resorting to those kind of tropes? That’s a challenge that I invite people reading this to consider and embrace.
LJ: You warn that the underlying global economic and political system, fuelled by the supremacy of Western individualism, has led us to the brink of a precipice. It is often hard for us as activists not to give in to despair given the enormity of the challenges the Earth is facing. What practical steps can we take, right now, to re-learn interconnectedness and step back from that brink?
JL: This is a crucial question of our time and one that I’ve grappled with personally over the past several years. I think there is a process that virtually all of us find ourselves engaged in where it gradually dawns on us what a vast scale of destruction is taking place. It’s hard to get our heads around the enormity and gravity of what is unfolding on the Earth right now – truly one of the greatest cataclysms Gaia has undergone throughout the billions of years of its existence.
There have been times when I have tried to venture into the unending depths of that despair, believing that’s what was required of me. Then a wise person once asked me “Why do you think you need to do that?” Following that question, I began my own investigation into what it was that life really was asking from me—and I realized what life demanded from me was to feel into its pain and suffering just enough that I could be energized to engage in fighting for its future flourishing—but not so much that I would be drowned in sorrow and unable to be as effective as I could otherwise be. I think that is the investigation each of us needs to make — how can we transmute that sense of despair and sorrow into a positive, life-affirming energy to engage in the cultural, social, and political process for life’s own benefit?
It’s clear to me that the most important element in this transmutation is community: we need to turn to others who are also feeling this sense of ecological grief, share it with them, hold each other in our arms of comfort—not a false comfort, but one that arises from our deeply shared humanity. Then, the second crucial practice to avoid falling into despair is simply to join with others in active political and sociocultural engagement. During the 1960s there was a famous phrase coined by Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss”. Now, some have turned that around into a more bracing version for our Age of Destruction: “Follow your heartbreak.” I think that is fitting. The most effective way to heal that broken heart is to turn towards life and to immerse yourself into what life is asking from all of us now.
LJ: You write about “fractal flourishing,” arguing that we have it in us to find a balance with the other-than-human world and transition to a new level of cognitive development that honours our interconnectedness to every other aspect of life on Earth. What makes you believe we might have time to do this?
JL: I’m not necessarily optimistic about what we can achieve in the face of this devastating onslaught of global growth-based corporate capitalism. However, taking the wonderful word a dear friend of mine, Terry Patten, used, I see myself as a possibilitarian: recognizing that as long as there is even the merest possibility that things can turn around, we owe it to ourselves and to all sentient beings, to live into that possibility. One of the things that keeps me from falling into despair is simply the recognition of the nonlinearity of our global human systems. That nonlinearity means that we can never really be certain about the inevitability of collapse or doom, and it helps us recognize that each of the actions that we take can have potentially enormous impacts, ones that we might never have predicted.
Ultimately, I feel that the most skilful approach is to let go of any attachment to outcomes; to realize that the actions we take are what we do based on a deep faith that it’s the right thing to do, regardless of what might happen in the future.
LJ: Aristotle differentiated between two kinds of happiness: the fleeting hedonia derived from pleasure, and eudaimonia, which derives from a sense of fulfilment through meaning. All your work centres on the idea of meaning but it has dropped out of our mental framework. Can you suggest an exercise to bring it into our daily lives?
JL: As I describe in The Web of Meaning, I see meaning itself as being a function of connectedness. Once we recognize that, and really embody it, we no longer need to try to figure out some kind of endpoint about what we’re doing in order to make it meaningful. Instead we can focus on the ever present potential for connectedness. That means connectedness within ourselves, connecting to all the different parts within us, connecting to the present moment, and finding ways for kind and compassionate connection with those around us. It means opening to the possibility of connection within our community, and for connecting globally with the different life-affirming movements calling for our support. When we focus our attention on those affirmations of others, and emphasize not what seems to be best for us but what we can do for those around us, the experience of a truly meaningful life, or eudaimonia, can begin to emerge naturally, without being forced.
LJ: I’m fascinated by your vision of what the world might look like, in the wake of a global paradigm shift away from the extractivist, reductionist world-view that dominates. What can we learn from indigenous cultures?
JL: Many Indigenous cultures have retained value systems that developed millennia ago arising out of our core human identity. They recognize all living beings as our relatives – something that has been validated by the findings of modern evolutionarily biology. Similarly, they recognize the innate intelligence of sentient beings, which has also been validated by modern scientific investigation. The Comanche activist and researcher, LaDonna Harris, spent years working with other indigenous groups to identify some of the core values of what they called Indigeneity. Referred to as the Four R’s, they are: Relationship, Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Redistribution. They each refer to different types of obligation that inform a person’s life. Relationship is a kinship obligation, recognizing value not just in family but in “all our relations” including animals, plants, and the living Earth. Responsibility is the community obligation, identifying the imperative to nurture and care for those relations. Reciprocity is a cyclical obligation to balance what is given and taken; and Redistribution is the obligation to share what one possesses—not just material wealth, but one’s skills, time, and energy.
I think it’s important not to idealize Indigenous cultures, and to avoid treating them as some kind of “other” – taking away the intrinsic complexity of their own human challenges. However, I think those values that LaDonna Harris and colleagues discerned offer a highly valuable ethical foundation for us to build on as we work to dislodge the grotesque libertarian ideology of individualism that has come to pervade our global culture today.
LJ: What does an ecological civilization look like? Can you paint a picture of a world in harmony with itself?
JL: We need to forge a new era for humanity—one that is defined, at its deepest level, by a transformation in the way we make sense of the world, and a concomitant revolution in our values, goals, and collective behavior. In short, we need to move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one that is life-affirming: an ecological civilization.
Without human disruption, ecosystems can thrive in rich abundance for millions of years, remaining resilient in the face of adversity. Clearly, there is much to learn from nature’s wisdom about how to organize ourselves.
This is the fundamental idea underlying an ecological civilization: using nature’s own design principles to reimagine the basis of our civilization. Changing our civilization’s operating system to one that naturally leads to life-affirming policies and practices rather than rampant extraction and devastation.
An ecological civilization is both a new and ancient idea. While the notion of structuring human society on an ecological basis might seem radical, Indigenous peoples around the world have organized themselves from time immemorial on life-affirming principles. When Lakota communities, on the land that is now the U.S., invoke Mitakuye Oyasin (“We are all related”) in ceremony, they are referring not just to themselves but to all sentient beings. Buddhist, Taoist, and other philosophical and religious traditions have based much of their spiritual wisdom on the recognition of the deep interconnectedness of all things. And in modern times, a common thread linking progressive movements around the world is the commitment to a society that works for the flourishing of life, rather than against it.
Extract from The Web of Meaning
Tea with Uncle Bob
We could call it The Speech. You’ve probably heard it many times. Maybe you’ve even given it. Every day around the world, innumerable versions of it are delivered by Someone Who Seems to Know what they’re talking about.
It doesn’t seem like much. Just another part of life’s daily conversations. But every Speech, linked together, helps to lock our entire society up in a mental cage. It might occur anywhere in the world, from a construction site in Kansas to a market stall in Delhi. It can be given by anyone old enough to have learned a thing or two about how it all works. But it’s usually delivered by someone who feels they’ve been around the block a few times and they want to give you the benefit of their wisdom.
Because I grew up in London, I’ll zoom in there to a particular version of The Speech that reverberates with me. It’s an occasional family gathering—one of those events where toddlers take center stage and aunties serve second helpings of cake. It’s tea-time, and a few of us are gathered around, talking about the state of the world. Someone comments on what’s wrong with our system and how things could be so much better—but Uncle Bob happens to be in the group, and before you know it, it’s too late. The Speech is about to begin.
“Let’s face it,” Uncle Bob declares to the group, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Every man for himself. For all your ideas about making the world a better place, when it comes down to it, everyone’s just interested in their own skin. It’s a rat race. That’s the way all of nature works. That’s how we’ve been programmed. The survival of the fittest.”
Does any of this sound familiar to you? It’s only too familiar to those of us at the tea party. Uncle Bob sees some glazed faces looking back at him, so he feels the need to add a few more pointers to his oration.
“Look,” he leans forward conspiratorially, “it’s like this. People like you want to change the world. But when you’ve had the experience I’ve had, you’ll know better. Our society is structured this way simply because that’s what works best. They tried communism—and you know what happened to that. For all the complaining people do, they’ve never had it so good. Look at our amazing technology, look at all the progress we’ve made in the past few hundred years. You can thank capitalism for that. The fact is, it works so well, because at the end of the day people are selfish—they look out for themselves. Capitalism takes that selfishness and turns it into progress—it lets people become entrepreneurs, which makes all of us better off. That’s what they call . . . the invisible hand, isn’t it?”
Game over. Whatever ideas were being floated about improving society just wafted out the window. Uncle Bob pauses. The conversation comes to a halt, until someone pipes up: “How’s little Penny doing with her dancing lessons?”—and the tea party rolls on.
This type of conversation takes place with regularity around the world because it channels the themes we hear every day from those in a position of authority—from talking heads on TV, from successful businesspeople, from teachers, from school textbooks. Even when the Speech is not given explicitly, its ideas seep into our daily thoughts. Every time a newscaster reports on prospects for economic growth; every time a TV commercial hypes the latest consumer product; every time an exciting new technology is touted as the solution to climate change, the underlying themes of the Speech insidiously tighten their grip on our collective consciousness.
Distilled to their essence, these themes come down to a few basic building blocks: Humans are selfish individuals. All creatures are selfish—in fact, selfish genes are the driving force of evolution. Nature is just a very complex machine, and human ingenuity has, for the most part, figured out how it works. The modern world is the spectacular result of technology enabled by the market forces of capitalism, and in spite of occasional setbacks, it’s continually improving. There may be problems, such as global poverty or climate change, but technology, powered by the market, will solve them—just as it always has in the past.
These basic elements, give or take a few, form the foundation of the predominant worldview. They infuse much of what is accepted as indisputably true in most conversations that take place about world affairs. They are so pervasive that most of us never question them. We feel they must be based on solid facts—why else would all those people in positions of authority rely on them? That’s the characteristic that makes a worldview so powerful. Like fish that don’t realize they’re swimming in water because it’s all they know, we tend to assume that our worldview simply describes the world the way it is—rather than recognizing it’s a constructed lens that shapes our thoughts and ideas into certain preconditioned patterns.
This book investigates the dominant worldview and shows that, in fact, every one of those building blocks is flawed. They were formed, in their modern version, mostly by a small group of men in seventeenth-century Europe, and further developed in the centuries that followed by other mostly European men. This worldview has accomplished a lot. It wrested intellectual control from the hidebound superstitions of traditional Christian theology, and laid the foundation for modern science—one of humanity’s greatest achievements. But it has also been an underlying cause of the horrendous devastation suffered by non-European peoples and cultures, and boundless destruction of the natural world. And the fundamental flaws in its construction have now become so gaping that they threaten the very survival of our civilization—and much of the living Earth.
Many people across the globe are realizing that there is something terribly wrong with the direction our world is headed. The inequities are so extreme that a couple of dozen billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population. Our civilization is devastating the Earth at an ever-increasing pace. There has been a 68 percent decline in animal populations since 1970. Greenhouse gas emissions have caused the climate to lurch out of control, creating conditions that haven’t existed on Earth for millions of years. Fires, storms, droughts, and floods that used to be called “once in a century” have become a regular staple of our daily news.
Look ahead a few decades, and things become downright terrifying. We’re on track, by the middle of this century, to see the annihilation of coral reefs worldwide, 95 percent of arable land degraded, and five billion people facing water shortages—and at the current rate, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Without drastic changes, as we approach the later part of the century, the Amazon rainforest will have become a searing desert, the Sixth Great Extinction of species will be well under way, and as a result of climate breakdown, civilization as we know it will likely be tottering on its last legs.
At our current trajectory, humanity is headed for catastrophe. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we want to steer our civilization on another course, though, it’s not enough to make a few incremental improvements here and there. We need to take a long, hard look at the faulty ideas that have brought us to this place, and reimagine them. We need a new worldview—one that is based on sturdy foundations.
Imagine someone laying foundations for a single story house. If there are a few cracks, they will probably get away with it. But suppose generations of people keep adding new stories until they’ve built a skyscraper on the faulty foundation. As the building begins teetering, engineers might frantically attach extra girders and struts, but it will eventually collapse unless they pay attention to fixing the flaws in the foundation. That’s the situation our civilization faces right now.
This book lays out an entirely different foundation for a civilization that could lead us sustainably through this century and beyond. It reveals the flaws hidden within the current worldview, showing how certain erroneous ideas became so entrenched in popular thinking that they simply got taken for granted—and how that has led to our current predicament. Most importantly, it shows how the combined insights of traditional wisdom and modern scientific thinking offer a solid, integrated foundation for a different worldview—one that could redirect human civilization onto a very different trajectory, and offer future generations a flourishing world in which to thrive.
An integrated worldview
The reason a worldview is so important is that it imbues virtually every aspect of the way people think, what they value, and how they act—without them even realizing it. Worldviews lead different cultures to respond to their reality in fundamentally different ways. If you believe that all living beings are family, you will treat them in a different way than if you think the natural world is a resource to be exploited. If you think other humans are inherently cooperative, you’ll approach a person differently than if you think that, ultimately, everyone is selfish and competitive. If you presume that technology can fix our biggest problems, you won’t feel the need to consider the underlying systems that caused those problems to arise in the first place.
In my earlier book, The Patterning Instinct, I looked at major worldviews through history, investigating how different cultures structured patterns of meaning into the universe from humanity’s earliest days in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to modern times. One overarching theme emerged from The Patterning Instinct: a culture’s worldview shapes its values—and those values shape history. By the same token, the values according to which we conduct our lives today will shape the future. Ultimately, the direction of history is determined by the dominant culture’s worldview.
The Web of Meaning takes up where The Patterning Instinct left off, by laying out a framework for a worldview that could foster humanity’s long-term flourishing on a healthy planet. It is a worldview of integration: one that identifies the unifying principles that flow through all things, while celebrating the differences that lead to the richness of our lived experience. It’s a worldview that links together scientific findings in recent decades from such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and complexity theory, showing how they affirm profound insights from the world’s great wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples around the world.
This integrated worldview breaks down many of the barriers that tend to separate different forms of knowledge and activity in modern society. We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain than spirituality. We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.
Jeremy Lent is the author of The Patterning Instinct, The Web of Meaning, and the novel Requiem of the Human Soul. Formerly, he was the founder, CEO, and chairman of a publicly traded internet company, he is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute.
CALL TO ACTION:
If you are looking for a profound reading experience, Jeremy Lent recommends two books written by Indigenous scholars applying the lens of systems thinking to their own cultural heritage: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta.