Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Do we need a new "Axial Age" to find our place in nature? Peter Brown speaks at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Peter Brown of McGill University speaking at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence, september 2017.

We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement: In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth. And now, the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. —Thomas Berry (Cited by Peter Brown in "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene")

We are deeply stuck in a wrong paradigm. Nature - or the ecosystem, if you prefer - is not, and never was, a "resource" for humankind to grab for free. We are part of Nature and if we don't respect Nature, then everything we do will be wrong and will damage ourselves as well as all living beings.

This was the basic point of Peter Brown's talk at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence. I don't know if I can call it the best talk of the whole school, although I am tempted to do so. Surely, in any case, it was the one that went more in-depth into the core of the challenges we are facing. Eventually, it is all a question of ethics. And ethics means first of all respect. If we don't respect the Earth, we are not worthy of respect ourselves.

This is a fundamental point that underlies most of the current struggle. And to overcome the present impasse what we need, I think, can be summarized in the goals of the American Teilhard Association:

  1. A future worthy of the planet Earth in the full splendor of its evolutionary emergence.
  2. A future worthy of the human community as a high expression and a mode of fulfillment of the earth’s evolutionary process.
  3. A future worthy of the generations that will succeed us.

Clearly, these goals cannot come out of the postulates of current economics, nor from the optimization of an agent's utility function. It is something that goes beyond mere mechanical considerations. It is a new vision of the universe, something that I could call "A New Axial Age", a term that Peter Brown didn't use in his talk but that came to my mind while I was listening.

As you know, the term "axial age" encompasses the great changes that took place during the 1st millennium BC. Maybe the term has been overused with time, but it true that those centuries were a time of spiritual awakening, of a new vision of humanity that took place simultaneously and independently all over Eurasia, from China to Greece. And many of our current religious beliefs were laid down during that age.

It may be time for a new leap in human consciousness. A step to a higher level of understanding that would take us to include in our religious view not just our fellow human beings but all the fellow creatures inhabiting this planet. It might be a new religion if we were to follow a path similar to the ancient axial age. Or it might be a revisitation of our existing religions. After all, it is what Pope Francis is doing with Christianity, emphasizing the brotherhood (or, better, sisterhood) of all beings in an intuition that Francis of Assisi had already seen several centuries ago. 

At this point, I am sure that I have overinterpreted Peter Brown's talk, but I think this is the gist of the line of reasoning he was following. In any case, to make sure you understand Brown's ideas, here is a video of him that seems to me to be very similar to his presentation in Florence.

You may also be interested in Brown's paper "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene"


  1. It's tricky because we're generally still stuck in our exceptionalism when we speak of "worthiness." Does a tree or a lion consider "worthiness?" Maybe they do; who am I to say? A concept is natural because we, who hold concepts, are natural. Yet I would hew to Occam for my first examination of any phenomenon.

  2. Hello Professor Bardi - thank you for posting these most interesting deliberations. An observation relative the above lofty ideas is that humankind is perhaps constructing its own 'apex predator' as it does not have one (it seems to serve somewhat inefficiently by proxy as its own though we are closing in on end game there as well, though possibly the microbes a la War of the Worlds will be and have been such...) in the form of AI. One could easily posit that such an AI system, as an 'apex' entity, will choose to 'mop up' excess human protoplasm to rebalance the energy systems we up to now have so interestingly tipped, shaken, and stirred and do it in a more formidable and direct way... We indeed live in interesting times!

    1. Good point, I was thinking of something similar. I once wrote a science fiction short story based on that concept. Maybe I should try to find it....

    2. please do post it if you find it and feel the urge. I fear we are well into the throes of actually 'living' that story right now anyway, as we race to the bottom...

  3. From a completely different angle, I suggest Robert Lustig, MD's new book The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains. Dr. Lustig builds his system from the bottom up, from the brain systems which generate separately Reward, Contentment, and Stress/ Fear/ Memory. The Reward system operates on Dopamine and the Contentment system operates on serotonin. Dopamine is generally a response to consuming substances ( e.g. cocaine, shopping, sugar) or experiences (e.g., speed or goal achievement). Serotonin is more related to a state (finding ones place, observing one's children being increasingly independent and successful) or in being helpful to others. While both systems need to function, modern life puts the emphasis on dopamine. A surplus of dopamine leads to addiction and depression, which are increasingly dominating human life (and not only in the United States).

    Lustig lists the largest threats in terms of dopamine dependence:
    Substances: tobacco; alcohol; things we eat which are not real food
    Behavioral triggers: guns; cars; energy
    Consumer electronics take advantage of our neurobiology and hijack our attention

    I would be tempted to try to find a place for gambling and a few other dysfunctional behaviors in there somewhere.

    Think about sledding when you were a child. It snowed, you got out your sled and went into the cold and trudged to the top of the hill and were rewarded with a couple of minutes of dopamine as you sledded down the hill. Then you spent several times as long trudging back to the top of the hill with the sled. But now, using energy, one can experience the dopamine practically non-stop at an amusement park, with a motorcycle, with a Ferrari, or by driving to a ski resort with a lift to the top of a high mountain. The cost, which is not calculated in the GDP accounts, is measured in addiction and ultimately depression.

    There is a bumper sticker which reads: Born to fish, forced to work. Fishing with a pole, a hook, and a worm is perhaps the epitome of contentment. But we have so arranged the modern world that the contentment of fishing is rare while the pain of working is common.

    I suggest that Lustig's work is outlining the basis for a new morality which is grounded in self-interest. It starts from the bottom (neurobiology) rather than from the lofty peaks of philosophy or religion.

    Don Stewart

  4. Peter Brown says, the underlying problems are property - sovereign person - sovereign nation - progress - growth.

    He's quite right... but those are the foundations of every legal and institutional system in the modern world.

    Who is the "Peter" Peter Brown refers to repeatedly in his talk?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017