This weekend I was on a retreat in lovely rural Kent with folk from the artistic and creative communities. We were enquiring into our relationship with nature. I started thinking of art as an instrument for change but made that thought seem outmoded. Instead, we encountered nature, each other and the qualities of experience that might help us move beyond modernity.
One weekend in Kent is not going to be the pivot in a many-decade transition. But it can – and has – reaffirmed my connection with my purpose, and with others of aligned purposes. As one moment among many, the weekend can be part of a frothing, bubbling wavefront of possibility, reaching out into a better future.
Starting from ‘art as an instrument for change’
For the last few years I have been worried that the sustainability movement had taken a turn to technocratic and managerial. Campaigning on legislation, getting companies to have better strategies – these are necessary steps. But they are not sufficient for the profound shifts in our lives, our economies and out societies. Still relatively untouched are the values we have and the stories we tell each other. The sustainability movement just hasn’t been reaching far outside the ‘sustainability’ bubble. Adam Werbach pointed out that environmentalists were winning the policy battles but losing the cultural war.
At the same time, I was wondering where the artistic response to the the shock of the Anthropcene was. Of course, there are specifics one can point to. But, for such an enormous, all-encompassing crisis that puts nothing less than the future of human civilisation as we know it at risk, well, there’s just not a lot about. If art is how society makes sense of what is going on, then we need more art that engages with the sustainability crisis.
So, last weekend I went on a retreat at the Quadrangle Trust holding a particular question: how can I foster more artistic engagement with the challenges of sustainability, in ways that can help society act urgently? I thought we’d get into actions, perhaps an art prize or something like that. How wrong – and worthy! – I was, and it’s a good thing. Instead we went deeper, in order to go further.
Encountering art as not just instrumental
The hosts of the weekend had curated a variety of experiences. We gave attention to our bodies through yoga and mediation. We touched the world as if the world was touching us through blindfolded walks in fields. We – 20 or so near-strangers – cared for each other as family by cooking together. We heard thought pieces from artists, writers and futurists. We walked around the local valley, wondering at the trees, the light, the landscape. We had a ritual of fire starting and whiskey drinking. Overarching all those was a care – love, even – for helping people have an experience which connected them with nature, with each other, with the best of the past and the needs of the future.
What I have realised – a much-forgotten insight – is that the artefacts of everyday life come from cultural values, and these in turn come from fundamental assumptions (following Schein’s process model). The sustainability crisis comes from the stories we tell ourselves, but these in turn rest on the assumptions of the modern world. That we can separate subject from object. That mind is separate from matter. That only people have proper mind, and so all the rest of nature is infinitely lesser. That we can nature is inert, and we can treat it how we like. That quantitative data from repeatable events is proper knowledge, and qualitative experience in context-specific situations is dubious knowledge. That we should make decisions rationally, not emotionally.
I knew this, of course, from reading Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive, Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Peter Reason and Hillary Bradbury’s introduction in the Handbook of Action Research and more. I knew it, but I had forgotten. That is, I knew it as ideas, and had forgotten it as a more-than-rational reality, as a lived-in life.
Going forward with…
The effects on me were physical, intellectual, and social.
Physically, despite late nights and active days, I was energised. More alive-feeling than before. Reds looked more red, greens more green.
…a new bet on intention…
Intellectually I was stimulated by ideas about the base foundations of how we understand reality. The finger of blame i often pointed at philosophers like Descartes with his dualism and Francis Bacon hoping that nature will be “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”. Post-modernists of various stripes had reacted against that, with what some call the language turn, but their thinking is still defined by what it’s following than what it is enabling (the clue is in the name: post-modern). When it comes to finding a foundation beyond modernism, I have been attracted to Arnie Naes’ deep ecology, with his notion of self-realisation within the wider Self. Various folk brought other proposals on new foundations. For instance, that all of nature may be made of the ’stuff’ (so no division between people with minds and rest) but need not share an aligned purpose.
As a former physicist, the most intriguing was Hardin Tibbs on a theory that tries to address the basic strangeness of quantum theory: how can something be a wave and a particle at the same time? The Transaction Interpretation says: by breaking our received notion of time. A source sends out a wave going forward in time, many receivers send out waves from the future going backward in time. There’s a ’handshake’ between the wave from a particular receiver and the wave of the source. Running time forward, that looks like a particle.
Mad? Well, yes. But no less mad than the many-worlds interpretation. Simply, there is no way to address what we know about activity at the quantum level which can fit with the ‘common sense’ that we’ve developed for our human-scale experiences today – for instance, that we are separate from an inert nature that is ‘out there’.
So, what if we don’t know, and can’t know, the base reality underneath our experience is really like, what are we to believe and how are we to act? How are we to live? Modernity gives us certainty that nature is inert, and predictable (if you have a big enough computer and enough computational time) – which also implies that we have no free will. But if that certainty is not justified, then what?
Transaction Interpretation opens up the possibility that the world is not deterministically going through the motions. What if the future can come back to the present, the present can reach out to the future, for a handshake? What if the sequential flow of time we experience is an illusion? What if, instead, intentions – conscious and unconscious, deliberate and accidental – help shape the future, ready to receive us proceeding forward? What if the universe was not just ‘out there’, but ‘in here’ too – being co-crafted by our will?
Of course, Transaction Interpretation is but one of several. It may not be right. But we know for sure that the Newtonian science – that justifies the modernist assumptions of reality – has been replaced. Anyway, the specifics of the science don’t matter. What matters is whether it’s worth acting as if intention can make a difference.
Which gets us to a new version of Pascal’s Wager. The original says, better to believe in God than not. If God exists, the aetheist may have fun life but then goes to hell forever, while the believer can have a fun life (perhaps a little less fun), and then goes to heaven. If God doesn’t exist they can both have fun lives which both then just end. Why take the risk of being an atheist?
Do I believe I have free will? Well, if I don’t then I can only have the illusion of agency. Is it better to reconcile myself to that, or – in the vast un-knowability of reality – to believe there is a sliver of possibility that I might have agency? In which case, how might we use our free will? What is worse, to act as though the future possibility with the greatest potential energy has the greatest possibility of occurring, or to act as though it is certain we only have the illusion of freedom? Is it better to bet our knowledge of the physical sciences is complete, or is it better to act as though our intention and actions have meaning, have potential, have effect? What’s the downside of acting as if we are composed of inherent possibility that we can guide?
The implication: act as if your intentions – conscious and unconscious, deliberate and accidental – help shape the future.
…therefore the qualities of experience we evoke now matter
Our intentions are not just about outcomes, they also include the steps along the way. No longer can the ends justify the means (if it ever did), because the means is also a part-determinant of the ends. If we want a future with particular qualities, then these also need to be evoked in the experiences we have along the way.
Interestingly that mirrors one of the common features across the artists and creatives who were there. Many placed the biggest emphasis of their work on the process of creating an artefact (whether a sculpture or a theatrical performance), rather than on the artefact itself. I was at an opening night of a painter recently in my local gallery where he too was saying the art is really in the process. Which is fine, except the gallery wanted too sell me the picture, a very distanced experience of making constant judgements and adjustments that was his focus. The implication is that the form of art required is one where people can take part, and not just as receivers.
Outwith art itself, the wider implication for sustainability is to foster experimentation that is simultaneously in the nature of the artefacts – the product, service, business model, whatever – the values that underpin it, adn the assumptions on which those values rest. Efforts that are deliberately biased to trial and error, learning and improvisation in content and in form.
…a new cohort inspired together
The last effect I want to write about was social. By the end, we realised our hosts had created – and we had supported – a ‘place of encounter’. Yes, of nature, but of each other. BY the end I was amazed by the depth of everyone else’s efforts, affirmed in my own, and deeply appreciative of the chance to connect. In what some call The Age of Loneliness, I was no longer alone.
In a many-decades transition?
Believe it or not, there is a lot more I could write about from the weekend. But my final thought is about the longue duree, the long-term historical structures in which specifics occur.
The possibility is that the modernity we are used to is fraying, exhausted. That we are on the cusp – in the middle? – of a many-decades, perhaps even century-long profound transition. In my view, we can’t know exactly where we’re going or how to get there. The way forward I can see is to foster experiences with the qualities we believe are key to a better future. Amongst those are connection in many ways (between your mind and body, your inner and outer arcs of attention, you and the world, you and others, you and the past and future, and so on), conviviality and changes as process (not output). Art has a crucial role to play in those experiences, but thinking of it as an instrument feels too…modern now.
One weekend in Kent is not going to be pivot of the world. But it can – and has – reaffirmed my connection with my purpose, and with others of aligned purposes. As one moment among many, it can be part of a frothing, bubbling wavefront of possibility, reaching out into a better future.