North Atlantic Books, 2018
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Terry Patten is one of the leading voices of the Integral movement that has grown up around the work of philosopher Ken Wilber so it does not surprise me that his perspective on the current ecological and political situation is as wide and as comprehensive as one can get. As a good Integral thinker should, Patten combines an ability to see the biggest of ‘big pictures’ with an ability to zoom in beautifully on any given detail.
In Part One of the book, he explains, clearly and cogently, the existential problems that humanity currently faces, how and why so many of us are perplexed and uncertain and how we might better understand these issues.
Climate change and the deepening environmental crisis are what the social scientists refer to as ‘wicked problems’. As Patten explains: Some have categorized climate change as ‘super-wicked’ because: there is no central authority; those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; current policies have increasingly negative future implications; and time is running out.
There are two popular narratives, he reminds us. One is optimistic. Either our technology will save us or we shall be forced, by the sheer weight of the problem, to transcend our current ways of thinking and learn to live sustainably. The metaphor, here, being the diamond that can only be created under immense pressure. This narrative reminds us that evolution often proceeds in sudden jumps and assures us that the current crisis is not a ‘wrong turning’ but a necessary part of our species’ evolutionary progress towards a higher level of consciousness. The other narrative is pessimistic. In that one, we have taken a ‘wrong turning’ and humanity has become a cancer in the body of the planet—rogue cells destroying their host and, ultimately, themselves. Patten calls these two narratives ‘Boom’ and ‘Doom’.
Patten is clear on where his own vote goes. There will inevitably be much to grieve in the coming years, decades and longer. But a grim sense of impending doom, unmitigated by a sense of evolutionary possibility, is not only inaccurate, it clearly won’t elicit our best. I have long argued that, whether or not it can be confirmed by data, a kind of basic optimism—at least a positive orientation to each moment of living—is a moral imperative.
He also reminds us that evolution often proceeds along a trajectory that involves overshoot and subsequent correction. Is our current predicament not, in fact, a natural and inevitable outcome of our ‘success’ as a species? This gives us an intelligent basis for relaxing the (rather useless) tendency to fret that humanity has somehow committed a terrible sin, or at least mistake.
As well as subscribers to these two alternative stories, there is a sizeable chunk of the world’s population that remains either unaware of the magnitude of the problems facing us or fully preoccupied with other matters—including, for many—bare survival. Even among supporters of the ‘Boom’ story, there is often a lack of action, usually arising from a state of bewilderment and a sense of “what can one person do?”
So how to proceed? Part Two of the book focuses on ‘Being the Change.’ And here is where the Integral approach once again comes into its own. The key to seeing the world in an integral way is to see its wholeness and to recognize ourselves as part of that wholeness, i.e. to view the individual as one holon in the vast holarchy that is our planet which, in its turn is a holon of the universe. One holon cannot by itself influence the entire holarchy but often—as we might remember from the famous ‘hundredth monkey’ story—it takes only ten percent of the holons to change before a tipping point is reached.
The outer work we do, as activists, is informed by the inner work. This is the very definition of ‘engaged spirituality’. And the inner work is not only to see—and fully feel—ourselves as parts of a whole, but to root all of our actions in that holistic awareness.
Furthermore—and this is a huge challenge—if we are to find our way towards this next level of our evolutionary journey, then paradoxically—as is so often the case in the spiritual journey—the first step is to accept that everything is just fine the way it is.
This is, without a doubt, the most useful and inspiring book I have read in years and I thoroughly recommend it.