Category Archives: Most Important Things in the World

Leadership

Leadership is the skill with which a group’s needs and desires are detected, shaped, and steered. This is worth thinking about, because we are surrounded and blathered at by people claiming to be ‘leaders’ – of political parties and countries especially – but few of them are any good at it. As a result, we are in a real pickle – doomed to being driven mad (e.g. by Brexit) and then extinct (e.g. by climate change). In short, we need good leadership, and urgently. But how to recognise it?

The idea of leadership. The  verb ‘to lead’ comes from the Old English lǣdan (‘lead’) and lād (‘journey’, ‘way’, ‘course’), and it’s linked to ‘load’ (things you carry on a journey) and ‘lode’ (as in lodestar and lodestone, things that guide you on a journey). People have been migrating for scores of millennia (from Africa to Australia and the Americas), and even settled peoples can never afford to forget how to do it as there is always the risk of drought, sea-level rise and invasion. So the idea of a person responsible for starting and steering a journey must be utterly primal. But a group must be ready to travel before a leader can shape a vague motivation to move into enthusiasm for a journey in a particular direction, with all its dangers and labours. And physical travel is only where the idea of leadership came from originally; it now covers other kinds of journey, ones that involve change and progress in relationships between people, and between people and their environments. All require similar skills in managing conflict by dispensing justice, managing relations with other groups, understanding and articulating the needs and desires of groups, and choosing directions and destinations. Leadership is the artistry in doing all these things – and ‘good leadership’ means doing them well.

Why is leadership so hard? Because it brings together every other mental capacity. It requires all signs in the environment to be seen and understood, including the moods of people, nature, and the spirit world, the behaviour of animals, the crying of babies, the texture of grass and soil, and the frequency, intensity and content of social disputes. Many of the clues are subtle – the bad temper of white-tipped reef sharks just before an earthquake, for example – while others (such as the dust of an approaching army) are anything but. In any case, there is a long list, from which particular indicators are chosen (as influenced by culture, itself shaped by experience in that particular environment), and their significance marshalled into a story that can help the group’s ideas and desires take form. These will have been influenced by the same signals that the leader has detected, but perhaps not organised so well or in the same way.

Why do leaders have to be brave? Many important environmental and social signals cannot be appreciated without knowledge and attention to detail, so they may only be recognised by a few people. This applies often in large, complex or fragmented societies in which there are many distractions, and especially involve environmental threats (such as slowly-deteriorating ecological conditions) and social threats (such as slowly-growing inequality, corruption, and political polarisation). Here, if the threats are severe and solutions are needed urgently, but there is little public appreciation of the need for action, an essential quality of leadership is a willingness to act decisively to safeguard the group but in advance of public opinion.

Leaders must make sense of complexity. Modern societies comprise millions of people in political systems and billions in economic ones, and have complex distributions of power among class, caste, gender, ethnic, ideological, and other groups. Distilling useful messages from so many people now requires very selective listening (to focal groups, poll samples, and factional leaders), and very crude messaging about the intentions of the leadership. One-size-fits all price signals, slogans and binary choices tend to replace the subtleties of social discourse, and minorities that cannot build alliances to form large voting blocks tend to be ignored. Only through universal, high-quality education can good minority ideas (such as equity and sustainability) spread widely, and only through local empowerment and decentralisation can accountable governance be maintained in ultra-large political systems. But both education and localism are needed, since otherwise leadership in large societies produces non-inclusive and polarised outcomes. And when these outcomes are challenged by dire events in the social sphere (e.g. through insurrection by the dispossessed), the economic sphere (e.g. through technological or market changes), or the environmental sphere (e.g. through the consequences of climate change), then polarised outcomes can quickly turn into despotic ones. Then we end up with warlords rather than good leaders running the world.

So what are we looking for? Good leadership must include the competence to identify key challenges, the attention given to diverse signals about them and how they are likely to affect the group, the intelligence needed to seek, discriminate and absorb sound advice about what to do about them, the articulacy to explain and build support for a collective course of action that will minimise harm and maximise benefit for most people in the long run, and the flexibility to maintain alliances while adapting to events. So a good leader must be competent, attentive, intelligent, articulate, and flexible, and in the modern world all this must be combined with a surety of touch in communicating with very diverse audiences. How many of those who claim to be leaders come close? Have a look at the UK parliament right now, and see what you think.

© Julian Caldecott

Ecology

Ecology is the science of living systems. As a science, it relies on the use of common standards of observation, analysis and collective criticism to build up reliable descriptions and explanations of reality. As biology, it assumes the engineering of organisms through evolutionary responses to design challenges imposed and opportunities offered by the real world. This makes biological thought very practical, and often to do with budgets, investments, costs and benefits that may be expressed and accounted in terms of energy, nutrients and surviving offspring. But being also concerned with systems, ecology focuses on describing the parts, their relationships, the things that connect them, and the properties that result from all the parts, relationships and connections being active within or upon each system.

Since every living system is connected to every other, an ecologist distinguishes them only as a matter of convenience, and has to remain alert to possible influences from abroad at all times. Here, ‘abroad’ means any kind of distance – spatial, but also sensory (that is, what can be detected using our human senses, as constrained by the expectations of our culture and the abilities shaped by our inherent aptitudes and training, and what other organisms can detect using their own senses, which may differ from ours) and instrumental (that is, what can be detected by the instruments we use, as constrained by the expectations of existing knowledge that are designed into the equipment, and which may simply be unable to detect something important). So while proceeding more-or-less within the boundaries of consilient science, this alertness to ‘abroad’ makes ecologists open to the phenomenological diversity that is inherent to anthropology, mythology, psychology and religion, and also to potential connections within and between systems that are invisible to human senses and current instruments.

At the same time, the systems approach requires an ecologist to think in terms of every system being part of a bigger system, in a connected sequence from the molecular to the global level, and with the characteristics of every level both influenced by and influencing every other level, over every imaginable scale of time and space. This is a way of thinking reminiscent of anthropology, since both have the same challenge of reconciling detail and pattern at all scales. Living systems include our own selves, families, communities, farms and dwellings, as well as the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, swamps, grasslands, soils, drylands and forests and all their non-human inhabitants, which make up the living world and every part of it. These are all systems, and climate change is a system-wide phenomenon, so we have no choice but to address it at a system-wide level. In doing so, since every part of the ecological story has to be supported by evidence and reason, the result in ecology is an edifice of systems knowledge that is reliable, vast and inclusive enough to make sense of climate change and help with the challenge of adaptation in all parts of the world and at all scales of human society and the ecosystems that sustain it.

© Julian Caldecott

Justice

From the Latin iūs (‘law, right’), justice describes a feeling that a dispute has been resolved satisfactorily.  Disputes range in intensity from polite through raised voices, to the threat or actuality of violence.  The pathway depends on how high the stakes are, whether a compromise can be imagined, proposed, agreed, and put into effect, and whether the process of negotiating a settlement is seen as unbiased, transparent, and respectful. The end-point of ‘justice having been done’ depends on enough stakeholders being satisfied enough by the outcome for everyone to lose interest and go home quietly. But when we are considering feelings it is always wise to look at the behaviour of monkeys and small children, and in both there is ample evidence that individuals pay close attention to the distribution of favours and disadvantages among their fellows. Perceived injustices prompt squeals of protest until the individual learns its status and adjusts its expectations, becoming subdued and unassertive, or articulate and demanding, as habits are formed through hormonal and neurological mechanisms interacting with family and cultural traits, and with educational and self-realisation processes.

Codifying justice as law, whether traditional, religious or constitutional, has always been a major preoccupation of human societies, since it is a way (alongside language and myth) for groups to assert their identities in competition with other groups.  Thus, receiving ‘the law’ is an important part of the founding story that groups tell themselves, whether it was delivered by prophets direct from a god, or handed down from generation to generation over millennia by the accredited agents of tradition, or devised by ‘wise people’ long ago.  What is seen as valuable is critical in all this, and history is largely driven by changing perceptions of what is valuable enough to fight over. Fertile lands, gold and religious orthodoxies were early and perennial contenders, but as groups have competed with one another problems have arisen from tensions rooted in different perceptions of value.  A landscape means very different things to people who see it as the abode of Dreamtime beings and their own ancestral spirits, or their source of wild meat or water, and to those who see it as good ranching or mining country, and finding ways to settle disputes other than by force is endlessly challenging.

In the modern world our priorities tend to focus on the distribution of tax burdens, market access, public services and elite privileges, but we are becoming increasingly interested in the value of freedoms from environmental pollution, water shortages, and climate change.  Every now and then, every culture needs to review and re-codify its system of justice and laws to ensure that it accurately reflects prevailing perceptions of what is valuable.  The modern world is certainly due for such a fundamental re-think, either before (i.e. as a way to head off), or after, a major breakdown.  A revised constitutional (ethical, legal, etc.) settlement will be hard enough to achieve even if humans perceive themselves as the only stakeholders, but many argue that justice should be broadened to include not only future generations (unborn people) but also non-humans and living systems.  We know that we are evolved organisms living in and dependent upon ecosystems whose health, vitality and diversity are essential to us, so these additional elements in a codified system of justice are indeed necessary to our survival.  And with survival at stake, there is the urgent question of how to reconcile the demands of survival and justice.  Both will be advanced by people caring about justice being done to the unborn, the non-human, or the ecosystem, but in the modern world such feelings are hardly encouraged.  This will also need to change, adding a huge educational agenda to the task now facing us.

© Julian Caldecott

Gaia: the World herself

Creation myths often follow the logic of organisms giving birth to each other back to the beginning of life, at which point there must have been a creative event of some kind. The Ancient Greeks imagined the original mother and named her Gaia.  In the 1970s, William Golding (the poet) suggested to James Lovelock (the Earth systems scientist) that he revive Gaia as a name for the self-regulating planetary ecosystem known as the biosphere.

The need for a name arose because Lovelock had described a global system that behaved like a living organism.  For example, it somehow managed to maintain for very long periods the salt concentration of the oceans, at about the same as our own blood.  Also, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was fairly constant, despite oxygen being a reactive gas that should quickly vanish into rocks, and there has long been an abundance of liquid water (as opposed to ice and vapour), regardless of huge environmental disturbances.

So the Golding solution was to name the spirit of the biosphere, different from the sum of its parts, which emerges from innumerable events each second and reveals itself in the behaviour of the system as a whole over hundreds of millions of years.  In this sense, Gaia had become more of a symbol of the tree of life and its planetary home, than of the origin of life as such, but this would probably have made as much sense in antiquity as it does today, by naming a living goddess for a living world.

As a word, ‘Gaia’ is handy for two reasons.  It stands for what would otherwise have to be a paragraph full of top-end technical words like ecosystem, regulation, feedback, evolution, homeostasis, cybernetics and biosphere, all resting on a lot of scientific knowledge about physical, chemical, and biological systems, and concepts of deep time (billions of years), all of them still difficult for many.  And it also flags the notion that there are mysteries of some deep and important kind involved.

As a word representing ‘the world herself’, Gaia has two other advantages.  First, it makes ‘living world’ the right meaning of the term ‘biosphere’ – much better than ‘planet’, which implies a lump of rock – and unites it with everything else we mean by ‘world’, which is a place that we experience and are part of in all its social and living complexity.  Second, it makes the world inherently female, and therefore creative, nurturing, and lawful (even if those laws are sometimes incomprehensible to children like us).

And as a thing itself, the idea of ‘importance’ depends on the scale or level at which one is living and thinking.  For humans, as relatively large-bodied mammals who as individuals and smallish groups inhabit landscapes (rather than, say, the undersides of rotting logs, like woodlice, or flyways stretching over thousands of kilometres, like migrant birds), the most important things tend to be what goes on at the landscape level.  These determine factors like the fertility of the soils, the abundance of game, and the availability of fresh water, which sustain our livelihoods, and the local languages and traditions that define and maintain our societies.

The biosphere is the nested set (one inside another) of all landscapes, up to a whole world of which we have only recently become fully aware.  We know that what goes on at a biosphere level affects what happens at a landscape level, so the idea of Gaia was needed to express this.  And it has become very important to us in practical terms, as the consequences of runaway climate change are about to make clear.

Valid candidates for the most important things are found amongst the pre-conditions of existence (from gravity to God), the ways of thinking that make things make sense (from curiosity to foresight), the feelings that make life worth living (from hope to serenity), the things that we need day to day (from water to plants), and the things that keep our societies going (from justice to music).  But it is Gaia: the world herself that best captures the all-important relationships among places and peoples that make everything both habitable and meaningful.

© Julian Caldecott

People

The human species is hard to define biologically, except perhaps as a great ape marked out by hairlessness, bipedalism, and linguistic, technological and cultural creativity.  The problem is that our inheritance is muddled, with signs in our DNA, bodies and behaviour that join us to all the other apes – gibbons, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas – as well as to Denisovan, Neanderthal, Modern and other lineages.  Our various human-like ancestors certainly competed wherever they overlapped in time and space, in every way from ecological friction to voluntary and forced inter-breeding, and genocidal conquest, leading to a few winners and a lot of mixtures.  Meanwhile, they also engaged over the last million or so years in waves of long-distance colonisation, all the way from Africa to Australia and the Americas.  We are more sensitive to differences than similarities, so it can come as a shock that there is only one species of modern humans, but this is what our deep history has produced.  So our job is to accept our biological unity while respecting cultural differences and the influence of our varied societies, from which we derive most of our habits, assumptions, priorities, and thoughts.

People are the most common large mammals that have ever existed, our recipe for success being strong adaptive capacity among groups of cooperating individuals in competition with other groups.  We consistently invented, tested and demonstrated to others, through dialogue, trade or conquest, the power of new technologies (such as weapons) and new ways to manipulate each other (such as blarney) and the environment (such as farming).  The result is that our collective ecological influence built up through the Holocene era (the 11,700 years since the last Ice Age), until we induced what is known as the Holocene-Anthropocene Transition or HAT.  So a new Anthropocene era (‘the Age of People’) is counted from the 1st of January 1950, at the mid-point of the HAT.  It features climatic instability, sea-level change, ecological collapse, the mass extinction of non-human species, and the ubiquity of plastic, nuclear and industrial residues, all of which will show up clearly in the sedimentary rocks of the future. Impact on this scale is clearly enough to make people among the most important things in the world.

There are, however, other ways to look at importance. Because of how we evolved, as a social species living in competing groups, people are almost always stronger collectively than they are alone.  Thus our key priority is almost always to remain in a successful group, and our feelings of community, friendship and family are almost always vitally important to us.  Each society is then maintained through the indoctrination of all the group’s children into each group’s myths of origin, identity and entitlement, its ways of doing and not doing things, and its ways of thinking and not thinking.  All ideas of justice, evil, merit, leadership, etc. come from this indoctrination.  The inherent conservatism of such a system is mitigated by individuals having occasional flashes of insight, induced by contact with nature, with other people, and/or with mysterious internal or external phenomena.  These flashes then offer an ambiguous way for people to see themselves, and at least potentially for a conscious universe to see them, as very important indeed.

Thus, individuals, groups, relationships, myths, values, and mysterious insights are all important, and all contribute to the collective importance of the human species.  But, it is clear that people also have enough mental flexibility to do new things.  A person may contemplate the common roots of all people, their deep history through hundreds of millennia, their ultimate unity with all living things and with nature herself, and their shared capabilities and personal fates.  The more this is done, the more reasonable it is to treat everyone as you would like to be treated: politely, generously, respectfully, as an equal citizen.  This streak of reasonableness is yet another reason why people are so important, since it can break down social boundaries – of class, caste, race, gender, age, disability – and it can even be extended to non-human species, and to nature. But an assumption of equality like this leads towards fair and sustainable societies, and away from selfish competition.  Now that we’ve bludgeoned the biosphere to the point of collapse, this capacity of people to learn to respect each other and nature has to be the most important thing of all.  The sooner we use it the better.

© Julian Caldecott