Saturday, February 28, 2015

Restoring the Soul of the World




David Fideler, the author of 'Restoring the Soul of the World', will not recall that he once joined in a collective campaign with a waitress in Michigan to persuade her that, though I was without ID, I was of an age to drink (in truth, I was significantly over the age limit and rather touched that people imagined that I was not). It worked and is testimony to his persuasive power.

Such power is evident in his book. He takes us on a journey, beginning with the builders of Newgrange and Stonehenge through the Western intellectual tradition to the new champions of biomimicry and eco-design to show that we inhabit an universe that was if not designed for us (by an external creator) is most decidedly designed with us in mind. By which I mean that the universe is an unfolding reality whose complexity grows in consciousness and that in some important sense creates a perfect location for such as us (and similarly self-consciously aware beings) to emerge. The constants that determine the universe's possibility are, after all, just right.

Fideler tracks this notion of the cosmos as an intelligent whole, that is purposeful, evolving and where 'matter' and 'energy' are two sides of the same coin and what matters most of all is the 'pattern that connects', the patterning that makes for, ever more complex variation and difference, which, Fideler reminds us, was Gregory Bateson's definition of 'mind'. We do not just happen to be, accidental happenings within an indifferent universe, we are emergent and embedded 'properties' of the whole.

It is a wonderful, beautifully lucid tour not least for its sympathetic treatment of the Enlightenment. Often in books of this kind, we start with a lamentation over the baleful influence of Descartes and Newton, before progressing backwards and forwards to more 'conducive' views, but Fideler sees the birth of science (and the accompanying Enlightenment) as necessary steps in the story of understanding who we are and how we arrived here.

Indeed there is a beautiful moment when he takes the image of the astronaut who at one level is as alienated from the earth as possible, out in space, wholly sustained by human technology, isolated in his or her suit yet whose pictures of the 'one earth' - our viable (and tested) home - are revolutionary and at work in the collective psyche of humankind inviting us to a renewed and restored vision of what it might mean to be at home here, and at one.

It is as if we needed this 'stepping back' in order to genuinely see how we can move forward.

It ends too on a hopeful note - not only on a renewing sense of vision - but in the field of eco-design, where radically paying attention to how nature has achieved this extraordinary journey from Big Bang to self-regulating planets sustaining life, shows how we can begin to design with the mind of nature, where nature is model, measure and mentor. He discuss a number of striking examples when what has emerged has been practical, sustainable and indeed renewing - such as natural systems of waste disposal that have transformed highly toxic materials into usable products and fresh water or houses that heat themselves using 'only' the tools of plants and everyday sunlight.

He happily demonstrates that you can have a 'meaningful' relationship within our natural home and be challenged not to 'go back' but go forward in the most exciting intellectual project of all - designing a common future in the mind of a whole planet.


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