Part II: Our Humbling Present and Our Desire to Shape a New Architecture for the Future

Our Humbling Present: It is terrifying.

In prehistoric times, we transcended nature’s biological checks and hunted large predators to extinction because we thought the abundance of the natural world was infinite and when one environment was depleted, we would move on and migrate to new unexplored territory. During the agricultural revolution, we imagined the bounty of the earth was ours for the taking, the seeds we planted for harvesting to feed our growing population. Such that, as we grew our food systems to optimize output, we transcended nature’s limits of production with artificial irrigation, herbicides, and pesticides– driving human civilization upward and outward; but away from and building fences apart from nature. From the beginning of the industrial revolution, we perceived nature as a resource and unlimited reserve for humanity’s convenience. We didn’t believe there were consequences when we didn’t give or grow back the biological wealth we extracted, nor repay nature’s debt of ecological services to our growing human civilization’s health and wellbeing.  All the while we have fuelled the engine of ubiquitous human progress and have fed our lemming-like human population without regard for nature’s planetary boundaries. We’ve travelled along an exponentially impressive development track, but without taking a regular pulse on the planet, checking in with our impacts on ecosystem health, or gauging our lifestyle choices against the benefit of other living beings for better or for worse…before realizing that we may one day find ourselves teetering on the edge of an ecological cliff. Now that global change is accelerating faster than scientists have predicted. “The accelerated speed, scale, and scope of earth system’s change should give us good cause to be nervous…” (Johan Rockstrom, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Research and Global Situation Room, WEF 2019) as we may be now at the edge of that cliff.

Johan Rockstrom, Potsdam Climate Research Institute, Global Situation Room, World Economic Forum 2019

Simply, we’ve perceived nature, our place in nature, and our dependency upon nature with a very limited scope. We’ve allowed our misperception of nature and our misconception of our human+nature relationship to persist in our cultural consciousness far too long. Now it is time for transformative change in our lifestyles at home, our business practices at work, and our interactions with others locally, globally.  “The crisis of the environment is not an ecological crisis; it’s a crisis of perception.” (Prince Charles, Harmony & Conversation between Prince William and David Attenborough, WEF 2019) We have not perceived species loss, ecosystem destruction, or climate change as irreversibly destructive, nor as threats to our immediate health or wellbeing– despite the decades of warning from biologists, naturalists, ecologists, and climate scientists around the world. Now, the reality is that we are at the edge of that ecological cliff. Our earth system is tipping toward a new climate-energy paradigm. As the health of our planet is tied to the health of humans and the health of our biosphere; then humanity and the constellation of living creatures sharing our planet with us will be directly affected. This we know… and this is terrifying.

How is it possible we as Homo sapiens (smart humans) have come so stupidly close to tipping past critical planetary thresholds that could alter our earth systems so dramatically, so as to cause irreversible changes to the living biosphere upon which we now understand, our survival depends?

Marco Lambertini, WWF International, World Economic Forum 2019

Our Humbling Present: It is true.

However, inconvenient to us as socio-economic-political beings; nature knows nothing of global trade wars or international politics or unconscious human development or incompetent leadership. Nature follows the laws of earth’s systems. This we know is true… by science, by fact, and by personal experience around the globe. Nature Speaks (watch: Conservation International’s Nature is Speaking Series) last and in the chess game of our lives she has us in checkmate. We have one more move to make this decade as a global society, then it’s game over for the stable climate system we have benefitted from living in for the past 10,000 + years. The exponential speed of global change is so great that those of us alive today have the unique misfortune and opportunity to be both cause and effect of such extreme climate impacts, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse. What then happens if we as a global society continue to delay and miss meeting earth’s radical systems changes with necessary radical socio-economic responses? We expect to tip into a new climate paradigm… and we shall see how well we fare as a species, living on a dramatically different earth, exposed to a radically different climate system many scientists are now referring to as Hothouse Earth. (Johan Rockstrom, Potsdam Climate Research)

Nature’s Checkmate on Humanity 2019

Why are we tipping from a stable Holocene climate to a Hothouse Earth climate? Why now? What’s the real cause of collapse our Garden of Eden? Well, we took a bite of the proverbial forbidden fruit. We broke nature’s laws and began to see ourselves as distinct, separate, special, and superior to the natural world. The crux of our evolutionary conundrum has always been both our extraordinary cognitive and cultural capacity to override natural boundaries; to overcome slow, natural speeds of adaptation to change environments and ecological communities… and to exponentially expand our planetary influence at a speed and scale off the biological charts.

Clearly, the growth and development of our human civilization has led to an impressive revolution in food production, industry, technology, and innovation. However, our expansion has also contributed to extensive biodiversity loss, global freshwater decline, deforestation, soil degradation, ocean instability, and air pollution. Now as 7.7 billion human inhabitants of the earth, we have far exceeded the biosphere’s carrying capacity. In fact, we are actually carrying a pretty significant debt to nature—currently $125 trillion USD nature services (WEF Global Risks Report 2019) threatened by our unsustainable development, resource extraction, species loss, ecosystem destabilization, and climate change.

Nature’s Innovation in Action, 2019

Before the stable, warm Holocene epoch (12,000 years ago) when we were a small world living on a big planet; the regional extinctions we caused, the resources we exploited, and the destruction we affected on the lands we touched were still relatively minor and recoverable. Our self-regulating earth system was able to repair the damaged lands and harvested seas we left in our migratory wake. When there were not so many of us, then earth systems could recover from our unsustainable actions and remain resilient, healthy. As long as we were insignificant migratory groups living on a planet with abundant virgin land and unexplored oceans, our small world impact was not felt by a big planet. Our exploitative approach to nature did not cause permanent damage…just yet.

However, once we became a big world on a small planet; then the sphere, speed, and scale of our biological influence exponentially increased. (Johan Rockstrom, Stockholm Resilience Center) During the Holocene’s goldilocks (just right) climate era biological life thrived on land, and nutrients circulated along the ocean thermal conveyor belt to feed an abundant marine wildlife. However, our planetary scale impact on nature exploded as human civilization spread and our numbers exponentially increased. Thus, what many scientists are calling–Hothouse Earth is now seriously, dangerously near.

World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, 2019

In my interview with Johan Rockstrom in the Eurovision studios at WEF 2019, he reflected on the unraveling of our Holocene’s Garden of Eden and the threat of Hothouse Earth in an elegant narrative that began with the oceans and the forests and ended with the oceans and forests. Forests and oceans may be the most susceptible ecosystems to the Hothouse Earth climate paradigm; they have also been the most resilient systems to climate change, absorbing more than 25% of the excess atmospheric carbon and heat generated by our fossil fuel burning activities. (interview with Justin Adams, WEF 2019h. Thus, investing in reforestation and marine health, especially of coral reef ecosystems, is very Homo sapiens (smart).

“Nature is now sending us social and economic invoices in the form of natural disasters as our climate-earth system is unraveling, but we have not yet hit the planetary boundary. The resilience of our earth system to humanity’s unsustainable actions is extraordinary. We have the oceans and forests to thank for serving as incredible carbon and heat sinks…so far.”  Johan Rockstrom

Nature’s Reflection Photography 2019

It is true. There is now no hiding or denying our human-caused impacts on the climate-nature-biodiversity of our planet anywhere on earth. Our tools and technology are now far too advanced. We are able to observe, measure, model, and analyze our human footprint and greenhouse gas emissions on the planet at a very fine scale and in real time. We can correlate emissions to patterns of deforestation, desertification, and even vegetation land cover and livestock production. We can even observe that human activity and those emissions amplifying the melting of the arctic ice, the slowdown of the arctic vortex, and the altered track, speed, and scale of the ocean thermal conveyor belt. These climate drivers can then be linked to the changed migration or permanent relocation patterns of marine wildlife, the bleaching of the coral reefs, insect/disease outbreaks across the boreal, melting of permafrost, disappearance of land glaciers, the altered climates of ecosystems— forests converting into savannah, savannahs becoming deserts, and of course, more intense, frequent, anomalous, extreme weather events- from floods in Kerala to fires in California.

Having lived in both the Garden of Eden and now the dawn of the Anthropocene, Sir David Attenborough in his interview with Prince William @ WEF 2019 had this final, powerful intergenerational message to share. “The Garden of Eden is fast disappearing because we continue to find more sophisticated ways to kill species in it. We have to come to a realization that our planet is alive and connects us all, or we will not survive. The key is to care.” Excellent point. So how can we inspire each other to care more about each other and our common home? How is it that we are the only species to have evolved in the biosphere capable of instigating war or turning our heads on the most vulnerable in our community- homeless, refugees, impoverished, disenfranchised, victims of natural disasters or social conflict? Whether it be for our own convenience, for our immediate economic gain, in the name of human progress, for glory or property gain, out of fear or revenge for love lost, or as a consequence of human conflict…treating any other person badly, killing our brothers-sisters or our cousins in the biosphere, destroying the Garden and one another… we must all agree, is simply not a long term, sustainable strategy for survival. Maybe Sir David Attenborough’s new Netflix series sponsored by WWF International and the World Economic Forum called Our Planet will be the key to unlock our Natura Vera to care. 

Pixabay, 2019

Watch: Our Planet film series

Our Humbling Present: It is time.

It’s extraordinary how inextricably linked we are to the biosphere and to the earth’s operating system… and yet how disconnected we’ve become from our natural source and natural selves (Natura Vera).  We fail to see how our behavior to transgress planetary boundaries is leading to our own species extinction. Could it be we are just experiencing cultural jetlag to jumpstart a true social, sustainable revolution? It was only in 2015 that the world’s national governments agreed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. And it is only this year that we have an Exponential Climate Action Roadmap. In 2020 we will soon have a New Deal for Nature, as well, to prioritize and practically execute on changing our lifestyles, evolving our businesses, and upgrading our socio-political systems and architecture. Now the super (above)-natural transformation of the biosphere by our species who arrived on the evolutionary scene two seconds before midnight has become singularly responsible for tipping earth’s systems out of the stable Holocene epoch and into an uncertain, but certainly unstable new epoch—the Anthropocene. Now is the time to get down to business.

The good news is that our fate is not locked. Humanity now treads our small planet with a very large footprint; but we have not yet tricked the earth’s tipping point and we are only now just entering the Age of the Anthropocene. We still have some time (albeit seconds) to discern how we will now live as a big world on a small planet, together— in ways where we innovate and collaborate to thrive within nature’s planetary boundaries, rather than fight and compete to survive.

When we were foragers and fishers, we looked to the animals and marine wildlife for wisdom on how to live. When we became agriculturalists, we learned from the plants the power of rebirth in death and the seasons of life. When we grew empires and nation-states, we looked to the heavens for knowledge on how to rule a kingdom. Now, as we realize that our species has had over the centuries an exponentially harmful impact on our biosphere’s life support system; we must look at the human in the mirror and motivate ourselves to radically alter our consumptive behavior to now (all of us, collectively) live our most considerate, compassionate selves.

Nature’s Reflection Photography 2019

It is time to be honest. Our survival as a species and the viability of the biosphere now depend on our conscious evolution forward…the re-awakening to our Nature Vera, our true nature. We need a sustainable revolution. We need a fourth social revolution as was proposed at WEF 2019. We need a technological-economic-political revolution. Yes… And, we also need a naturally intelligent revelation in ourselves. As the most highly evolved species in the phylogeny of life— complete with the vision, consciousness, and creative capacity to realize any future we can visualize; we are now charged to awaken our natural intelligence and live up to our stewardship role and get humanity back in alignment with our Natura Vera.

Our Humbling Present: It can be transformative.

Humans were born curious, capable of learning, programmed to interact socially, and able to both observe and interpret our world. (Noam Chompsky, Wired Dec 2018) We are hard-wired to respond to our environment when conditions change. And the good news is that we can drive change radically-exponentially. We can override our biological evolutionary time constraints also for good—to meet our Paris Climate goals, to advance our UN Sustainable Development targets as good global nations, businesses, citizens. We can engineer a rapid light rail-autonomous-electric vehicle integrated urban transport system overnight. We can revolutionize our food production with new technology to optimize delivery of minerals-water-light, use of land, companion cropping, and harvesting (Yara). We can even imagine new ways of planting-vertically or in different mediums (Aerofarms). We just need to accelerate the political will, align all vested public-private interests, and mobilize a coordinated workforce to task in short time. We’ve done it before, when we’ve gone to world war. We’ve done it before, when we’ve gone to the moon. We’ve done it before, when we’ve digitized goods and services—converted 1000’s of electronic devices into applications on one smart phone (Rob Tercek, Vaporized). We’ve done it before, when we connected more than 50% of the global population on the internet and provided free online access to a universe of educational opportunities (Mr. Houlin Zhao, International Telecommunication Union-ITU, interview WEF 2019). We’re doing it now as we drive a new revolution in technology with artificial intelligence, robotics, IOT (internet of things), drones, blockchain technologies, synthetic biology, and now-quantum computing. (Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum–Topic of my next series)  Indeed, these are exciting, transformative times.

As I am currently reading a few books about the origin of light and the industrial revolution at the turn of the century (e.g. Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes and Disenchanted Light by Wolfgang Schivelbusch), I am enchanted by the creative imagination and courage of these inventors, who stared uncertainty in the face and manifested impossible technologies with poetry and grace… radios, electrical grids, streetlights, telephones- technologies which have now become commonplace. And as the following quote from the late 1800’s captures—the perspective on nature was as a latent force, ripe for the inventor’s heroic use in bringing light to humanity.

“ The sunlight pouring upon the rank vegetation of the carboniferous forests, was gathered and stored up, and has been waiting through the ages to be converted again into light. The latent force accumulated during the primeval days, and garnered up in the coal beds, is converted, after passing in the steam-engine through the phases of chemical, molecular, and mechanical forces, into electricity, which only waits the touch of the inventor’s genius to flash out into a million domestic suns to illuminate a myriad homes.” Frances Upton, 1880

The industrialists were not inspired to revolutionize human civilization with automated manufacturing by malicious intent to cause overt harm to people and planet. We were simply ignited by the thrill of discovery, driven by the impulse to make life better, and drawn to invention. As curious scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and engineers; we didn’t have a clue that as we captured fire and invented more refined ways to harness and control that brilliant light from torches to lamps to electricity that we were polluting our environment along the path of invention. Somehow along our historic journey our direct relationship to the natural world, our human+nature, became frail and more distant.

Where we failed in constructing empires of light in the 1900’s is that we didn’t much consider how blind we might become to our impacts on the natural world during this time when our minds were brilliantly lit with new ideas. We didn’t evaluate our innovation and design through a native-nature filter, top of mind. Had we slowed down for a moment, took a few more walks in the woods, curtailed the insane (unhealthy) indoor factory work schedules over many artificially-lit nights for many months (years) in the race to industrialize and advance first, then we might have realized the gravity of biological loss, the long term human health risks, and the unintentional impacts of our human-centric path of progress on the great outdoors. We might have realized sooner rather than later (now) that throughout these agricultural-industrial-information revolutions we were inadvertently, perhaps arrogantly, attempting to override natural laws that governed and enriched the biosphere’s operating system for 3.2 billion years.

Pixabay 2019

The good news is that the 4th Industrial Revolution within which we live now can be architected with the same poetic grace and pace as previous inventive times… but this time with a focus and intent to create, integrate, and protect the global commons; rather than to destroy, separate, and exploit nature’s resources. Given a new intent, the help of Moore’s law, and Ray Kurzweil’s theory of rapid co-innovation; we can adapt our behavior, our culture, our lifestyle, our cities, our transport, and our energy-food-manufacturing infrastructure. And now that we understand our common home is at stake, we can move at the speed and scale necessary to avert an environmental collapse. We can shift our human-centric view of the world that has driven us too close to the edge of that ecological cliff to a system-centric view. We can adapt radically, exponentially… and evolve.  (interview with Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC @ WEF 2019) We will need to expand our self-perception to the larger, living biosphere. But, we can do this. True, we have spent the last century and scientific revolution defining, distinguishing, dissecting, and differentiating species and sectors of life. However, this century can be ours to focus on foraging mutually beneficial relationships, weaving stronger interdependent connections, creating deeper interdependencies, and unifying systemic parts of an integral biosphere. In my view, we just need to remember our natural intelligence. I believe that what’s really happening is that we are maturing and evolving into the Homo sapiens (smart humans) we were destined to become, finally awakening our Natura Vera– our true selves. And this awakening- this mindset shift, I believe lies at the heart of advancing the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a sustainable, socially equitable, eco-logical way.

Pixabay 2019

Awakening our natural intelligence is simple. It merely refers to a remembering of our intuitive selves, our nature selves, and our native selves. We intuitively know that we are a part of the living earth, that we are connected to the rest of the biosphere, and that our wellbeing depends on the health of the environment in which we live. We intuitively know that polluting, poisoning, and producing non-biodegradable/non-nature produced plastics that we dump into our environment is wrong. For most of our evolutionary existence as Homo sapiens, we have been keen observers of nature and foragers with an abundance of knowledge about the natural world. This nature wisdom we relied on to keep us safe, to help us survive, and to enable us to adapt to changing environmental conditions. The sensory abilities we developed to observe our natural world and the skills we learned from nature to live in harmony, produce zero waste, and co-evolve– are still coded in our DNA. As well, we still share 99 % of our humanoid DNA with our other primate cousins. Further, 10 trillion human cells may make up our human bodies; but foreign bacteria, who have evolved over 3.2 billion years, make up nearly 100 trillion cells in our bodies. (Human MicroBiome Project) Nature lives in us. We are a part of nature. Thus, living as good stewards of nature’s living biosphere, comes natural to us. We just have to slow down, reflect, and remember our real priorities in life. Many of our ancestors and many indigenous peoples today who still live and train their earth consciousness, not only retain nature’s wisdom, but they re-enact nature’s truths by celebrating and expressing their native wisdom in cultural myths, legends, and rituals. Thus, remembering our native selves- the cultural heritage that teaches us a seventh generation mindset and reminds us of nature’s connectivity, the earth’s sacredness, and our sacred role as stewards-caretakers of our Eikos (home)…is also a part of awakening our naturally intelligent selves. If we are to transition to a new innovative clean energy economy, a thriving and peaceful geo-political society, a sustainable and healthy natural world; then I believe we will need to awaken our intuitive, nature, native selves- our natural intelligence.

Pope Francis (Laudato Si), David Attenborough (Our Planet), The Dalai Lama (Global Compassion), Mahatma Gandhi (Be the Change), and Jane Goodall (Roots & Shoots)… and most other authentic, trusted voices of moral authority regarding our rightful place as conscious, connected, and compassionate earth travelers and nature stewards… all tell the same cultural story. They may use different words or languages, but the message is the same. Awaken our connection, our relationship to one another and the natural world, and thrive. Awaken our natural intelligence. Simply, love, care, be the change, and realize the future we want.

Pixabay, 2019

“Whatever we vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon… must inevitably come to pass.” Patanjali

Catherine Cunningham, Natural Intelligence Media is committed to awakening Natural Intelligence in the World. We produce multimedia content — books, films, and podcasts that inspire everyone to live a happy, healthy, nature-conscious life.

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  • Catherine Cunningham, PhD

    Mission Possible: Awaken Natural Intelligence in Our World

    Natural Intelligence

    Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD is an ecologist, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, and media host producing films, interactive experiences, and online multimedia for international clients who are focused on positive economic, social, and environmental win-win-win solutions to global conservation and climate change.

    Catherine has travelled, written, photographed, and filmed in 70 countries, producing creative films and music videos in support the UN Global Goals and the human+nature planetary health narrative. Visit Natural to see where her work has premiered internationally. Over 20 years, she has interviewed hundreds of global thought leaders to promote sustainable solutions to climate change and conservation in creative ways. Catherine has written numerous articles on climate change, nature, and regeneration. She’s currently writing two books: “Naturally Intelligent by Design” — a fine art science and culture book for families and “Natural Intelligence”— a guidebook for well-navigating a post COVID-19 world by following nature’s principles. Partnering with Eurovision News and Events, Catherine is also an independent media host— producing content on nature, climate, and regeneration; syndicated globally by EuroVision’s News Direct. She is a regular contributor to Thrive Global and Medium. She currently produces communications for the Prince Albert II Foundation and participates in programming @ the World Economic Forum on Climate Change, Nature, and Biodiversity. As an university educator, Catherine taught undergraduate and masters courses in corporate sustainability communications at Arizona State University; global sustainability at Chapman University; biology, ecology, botany, and environmental science at Denver State College and Front Range College. In 2016, she designed one of the first university courses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also online), contributing to youth action on the UN Global Goals. She also created a post-graduate program with UNESCO on the MAB (Man the Biosphere) reserves. Catherine earned her PhD in Ecosystem Science at ETHZ in Switzerland, studying climate impacts on mountain ecosystems. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Cultural Anthropology and International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Masters degree from Utah State in Ecology. Catherine speaks fluent English and conversational Italian. She loves creative collaboration, media production, mountaineering, outdoor sports, yoga, wellness, and travel.