Notes

1 BIO-WORDS

This website puts the view that that the survival of civilisation will depend on a radical cultural and social transformation, and that this transformation will consist essentially of three steps, or phases. To facilitate thinking and communicating about this, I decided to give names to the transformation, and to each of its phases. But the task of finding appropriate terms was not easy. Because it is all to do with life, I decided to make use of the ‘bio‘ prefix. However, there are said to be over 1500 bio- words in the English language, and often when I thought I had found a suitable name I would discover that it had already been coined, and with a different meaning from what I had in mind.

Eventually, I opted for the following terms:

Biorenaissance: the cultural and social transition to a society that is in harmony with, and respectful of the processes of life on which we depend.

I also considered Bioawakening and Bioenlightenment. Biorenaissance is appropriate because many hunter-gatherer and early farming cultures in the past have embraced a deep respect for the living world, based on understanding that humans are living beings, part of nature, and completely dependent on other forms of life for their wellbeing and survival.

Bionarrative: the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature.

Biounderstanding: understanding the story of life and the human place in nature

Biorealism: a worldview that is based on bioundersatanding and that:

  • holds profound respect for the processes of life that gave rise to us and on which we are totally dependent
  • sees the achievement of harmony with nature as supremely important – to be given the highest priority in human affairs and placed right at the top of political and social agenda
  • embraces a vision of a society of the future that is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life.

Human relationships with, and attitudes to, the rest of nature have been the subject of a great deal of thought and writing for hundreds of years, and a number of terms introduced in quite recent times come to mind when seeking a name for this worldview. They include biocentrism, biophilia, biopolitics and deep ecology. However, none of them, as previously defined, quite fits the bill. Deep ecology is perhaps the closest, but this is an unfortunate term, in that ecology actually means the scientific study of how organisms interact with one another and with their physical environment.

So, I am using biorealism. Not a very pleasing term, but the best I can come up with.

This new shared worldview will be the most crucial difference between our current society and healthy and ecologically sustainable societies of the future. What is especially important is the fact that, in some people at least, biounderstanding leads not only to a feeling of deep respect for the processes of life, but also to a strong emotional commitment to living in harmony with nature, at a personal level and at the level of society as a whole.

Biosensitive: a biosensitive society is a society that is sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life.

This term is introduced because there is a need for a single word to describe a society with these characteristics. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ is widely used these days. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population, as well as in the living systems of the biosphere.





2. HOLY SCRIPTS

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari discusses how all belief systems, religious and political, have their ‘holy scripts’. These holy scripts provide the underlying basis of the belief systems and they sometimes have a powerful influence on people’s worldviews and behaviour.

It is our contention that the prevailing cultures of the world today suffer from a serious deficiency in this area of holy scripts, and that this deficiency lies behind many of the cultural maladaptations that threaten humanity today.

Across the world, we have the sacred writings of the various religious belief systems, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as the hallowed texts of communism and capitalism. But there is another story, of profound practical and ethical significance for every one of us and for society as a whole, that has yet to achieve the status of a holy script. It is the story about life on Earth and the human place in nature. We call it the Bionarrative. Certainly, there are people who are familiar with this story, but they are very much in a minority. The Bionarrative is not seen, or taught, as a story that has meaning for our lifestyle choices or governmental policies.

The Bionarrative generates an understanding of the human place in nature and of the life processes that gave rise to us, of which we are a part, and on which we are totally dependent, and it highlights the urgent need for radical changes in the patterns of human activity on Earth if civilisation, and perhaps our species, are to survive. The prospects for the future of humankind would be very much brighter if this story were embedded at the core of the prevailing cultures of the world.





3. A GENERATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Picture yourself on the stage of a large theatre with room for an audience of two thousand.

In your mind’s eye, place your mother in the seat at one end of the front row, and then her mother next to her and so on – until you have filled the place with 2,000 generations of mothers and daughters.

Only the women in the front twenty or so rows would have been alive since the time when farming first began, and only those in the front six or seven rows would have lived after the earliest cities came into existence, although few of them are likely to have actually lived in cities.

You could fill five further theatres with earlier maternal hunter-gatherer ancestors belonging to the species Homo sapiens. All these women really existed, and they lived in a state of health, at least until the birth of a daughter.

If you were to carry out the same mental exercise imagining you were in a stadium with seats for 100,000 people, the ladies in the rows at the back would be australopithecines.





4. CULTURAL ADAPTATION AND MALADAPTATION

Cultural adaptation can be defined as behavioural changes that result from new knowledge and that lead to people being better able to cope with prevailing conditions. The deliberate use of fire and the introduction of vaccination are among innumerable examples.

There is, however, another side to the picture. As cultures evolve they often come to embrace not only factual information of good practical value, but also assumptions that are sheer nonsense, leading to behaviours that are equally nonsensical. That is, cultures often get things wrong. Sometimes these cultural delusions have resulted in activities that caused unnecessary distress in humans or unnecessary damage to local ecosystems. Such cases are examples of cultural maladaptation. There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history.

Fortunately, humans have the ability, through their capacity for itself, to bring culture back on track when it goes off the rails. Nowadays, when some people come to perceive the biological or social consequences of culturally-inspired activities as undesirable, a period of discussion and debate ensues about the causes of the problem and possible remedies. Eventually new understanding can bring about modifications in cultural assumptions and priorities, leading to appropriate changes in human activities. This process is referred to as cultural reform.

Cultural reform is often quite complicated, involving prolonged interactions between different interest groups in society. A key role is often played initially by minority groups, occasionally by single individuals, who start the ball rolling by drawing attention to an unsatisfactory state of affairs. An example is Rachel Carson who, in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring, drew attention to the insidious and destructive ecological impacts of certain synthetic pesticides.

Almost invariably these expressions of concern coming from reformers are promptly contradicted by others, the counter-reformers, who set out to block the reform process. This predictable backlash often involves, but is not restricted to, representatives of vested interests who believe that the proposed reforms will be to their disadvantage.

They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist, or that it has been grossly exaggerated, and they try to ridicule the reformers by calling them alarmists, fanatics, scaremongers and prophets of doom. Nowadays some of the counter-reform forces are extraordinarily powerful. For a detailed discussion in the context of tobacco smoking, CFCs and climate change – see Merchants of doubt by N. Oreskes and E.M. Conway (2010).

Eventually, if the reformers are successful, a change comes about in the dominant culture and members of governmental bureaucracies and other organisations set about working out ways and means of achieving the necessary changes. Their efforts may still be hindered by the stalling tactics of counter-reformers.

Cultural gullibility

The Bionarrative draws our attention to the tendency of humans to accept as gospel the messages coming from their close cultural environment. While occasional individuals reject some of the assumptions, attitudes and prejudices of the culture in which they have grown up, they are a minority. Most people remain true to their cultural inheritance throughout their lives. This natural tendency of humans to blindly accept the assumptions and prejudices of the cultural soups in which they have been immersed since childhood lies behind most of the conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups that still plague world today. Cultural gullibility is a fundamental, and potentially very dangerous, human characteristic.

The Bionarrative thus alerts us to the brainwashing power of culture and of the critical need to be constantly vigilant – making sure that the worldviews, assumptions and priorities of our cultures are in tune with reality; and that they are not leading us to behave in ways that are causing unnecessary human suffering or damage to the living systems on which we depend.





5. ENVIRONMENTALISM AND THE GREEN MOVEMENT

A minority of the population today have good understanding of the ecology of modern society, and this understanding finds expression in the ideologies referred to as environmentalism. The emergence of the Greens as a political entity is another indication of a growing concern about the ecological predicament  although election results in Australia suggest that this concern is shared by only a small section of the population.

In fact, for over half a century there have been signs of growing awareness, among some sections of the community, that our present society is heading for ecological collapse. Numerous books have now been published drawing attention to this reality. Early examples from the 1970s include works by Paul Erhlich, Barry Commoner, Donella and Dennis Meadows, René Dubos and Barbara Ward. Since that time there has been an explosive growth of literature on environmental history and philosophy.

Many individuals and groups have come up with ideas for an alternative society of the future that is ecologically sustainable. In 1972 Edward Goldsmith and others published Blueprint for survival, in which they argued for a shift to a new kind of society to prevent 1992‘the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life support systems on this planet’. Today there are many community organisations and NGOs campaigning for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society, such as the Transition Towns movement and the Great Transition Initiative.

There are also countless groups focusing on specific ecological issues. To mention but a few local examples here in Australia, we have the Climate Institute, Sustainable Population Australia, SEE Change groups, The Wilderness Society, Permaculture groups, Healthy Soils Australia, 350 Australia and Landcare groups.

At the international level there has been a series of major conferences on the theme of sustainability, organised by the United Nations, including the Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 to the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

There have also been many important international conferences on specific ecological issues, including the United Nations conferences that led up to the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015.

With the possible exception of the Paris Agreement, these warnings have not penetrated to the core of the prevailing cultures of the world. We have only to listen to the pre-election speeches of our political leaders for proof of this statement. Although some important measures have been taken here and there to protect aspects of the natural environment, they have not been allowed to interfere with the inexorable thrusts of ever-moreism and market forces. The juggernaut rolls on.

So, while the process of cultural reform is certainly underway, it has a long way to go, and the inevitable counter-reform backlash is very much in evidence. The ecologically maladaptive assumptions of the prevailing culture remain firmly entrenched, and the reform process is clearly in need of a big boost.





6. EVOLUTION AND HUMAN HEALTH

The health needs of animals, including Homo sapiens, are determined by their evolutionary background. This is because, through the processes of evolution, species have become well adapted in their innate biological characteristics to the conditions prevailing in the environment in which they are evolving.

If an organism is exposed to conditions of life that differ significantly from those that prevail in its natural environment, it is likely to be less well adapted to the new and different environment and is likely to show signs of maladjustment. It will be less healthy than in its natural environment. This fundamental evolutionary health principle applies to all plants and animals.

The evolutionary health principle clearly applies to a wide range of physical aspects of life conditions in humans. There is no diet better for humankind than that which was typical for hunter-gatherers. It is also clear that the principle is applicable to some aspects of behaviour. Marked deviations from natural sleeping patterns cause maladjustment, and health is likely to be impaired if patterns of physical exercise deviate markedly from those of humans in the natural habitat.

There are good reasons for supposing that the evolutionary health principle also applies to psychosocial and relatively intangible aspects of life experience. For example, the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers are usually characterised by a sense of purpose in daily activities and plenty of convivial social interaction. Most of us would agree that such conditions are all likely to promote health and wellbeing in our own society.

Taking our knowledge of the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers as a starting point, we can put together a working list of physical and psychosocial conditions likely to promote health and wellbeing in our species (see Box 1 above). They are referred to as universal health needs, because they apply to all members of the human species, wherever or whenever they may be living.

Not every item on the psychosocial list is absolutely essential for health. Lack of satisfaction of one psychosocial health need may be offset to some extent by the satisfaction of others. On the other hand, every item on the list will, if satisfied, make a positive contribution to health and wellbeing.

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