"One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time."―
In this blog we will visit the worlds of seven great minds. Their powerful words span two millenia. Combining their wisdom shines a light on two things. The deadly error in our current thinking and action and a beautiful leadership solution for the next two thousand years.
We will meet the following unique people.
From two thousand years ago we will introduce the Greek Stoic, Arius Didymus, the man rated so highly by Alexander, that the home town of Arius, Alexandria, was spared after the sacking of the town. Ryan Holiday introduces us to Arius in Lives of the Stoics.
Lucretius was a Roman poet, philosopher, scientists and thinker. He may have met Arius. If not he certainly would have heard of his work. Stephen Greenblatt is the talented writer who brings the remarkable and magical Lucretian poem, De Rerum Naturae - on the Nature of Things - alive in his remarkably well researched book Swerve.
Our scientist is Carl Sagan who did more than anyone to bring the wonders of the universe into every household through his book The Pale Blue Dot and his TV series Cosmos.
Another scientist who turned his creativity to the modern organisation is Geoffrey West, author of Scale and his important link to the biology of organisations.
No tale of this nature would be complete without an historian. Yuval Noah Harari is the natural choice here for his intelligence and blunt candour, highlighted in Sapiens.
Any discussion about planetary intelligence - or lack thereof - would be remiss without listening to the words of the most experienced and travelled natural guru of all time, David Attenborough. He encapsulates his wisdom in A Life on Our Planet.
The main actor, the star of the show, my favourite thinker, philosopher and genius of all time, Michel Serres. What sets him apart is his remarkable focus on providing us with a simple but practical solution. He spells this out in Times of Crisis - a book of clarity, intelligence and optimism. And a simple blueprint for our new leadership pathway.
Enter Carl Sagan who gives us his introduction, simple, blunt and disturbing. But he does it with his silky smooth and comforting voice.
"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
His message is clear. After 4,6 billion years we remain alone on this planet, sailing through space in a quiet and dark corner of an average sized galaxy. We are alone. No deities and no aliens to rescue us. We can choose. Learn to manage the planet or turn it into a Martian wasteland. Nobody cares.
"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."
But there is hope, and with hope comes responsibility.
"The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand."
"We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom."
(Adapted from Harvard Magazine - https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2011/07/swerves)
MORE THAN 2,000 years ago, a Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus set down his thoughts on topics ranging from creation to religion to death in his brilliant ahead-of-its-time poem De Rerum Natura - on the Nature of Things. This was a dangerous time. What he wrote about could have been written today by any of our other writers.
Greenblatt the author of Swerve, was amazed at the brilliance, originality and prescience of De Rerum Natura. "So much that is in Einstein or Freud or Darwin or Marx was there."
And indeed, from Galileo to Darwin to Einstein, who paid tribute to Lucretius in the preface to a 1924 translation of the poet's work, science would begin to describe empirically a universe of atomic particles with behaviors dictated by forces independent of the divine.
He said that all complexity in the universe is the product of millions of iterations of smaller simpler items (read atoms) and as they grow a swerve occurs randomly - in effect creating a new evolutionary pathway and emergent complexity.
It's worth pausing at this point. Here is an intellectual giant, living two thousand years ago in an era we can only imagine, describing the power of the universal evolutionary algorithm. We only rediscovered this gem in 1859 when Darwin published On the Origin of Species. This is a lesson in our species threatening obsessive totalitarian dogma of 'the priests and politicians' who always do their level best to bury the knowledge of intellectual giants and game changers.
Two lessons from Lucrecius. Science matters. And beware the power of the corrupt and stupid. It's more dangerous than a giant asteroid.
Yuval Noah Harari is our modern day historian who focuses on the journey of homo sapiens with groundbreaking courage and candour. Perhaps his most important words, right up there with Socrates and his "I know one thing, that I know nothing," are the following. They cut right through the world's bamboozle artists, to a core, beautiful to some, dangerous to others.
"We live in a real world of rivers, trees and lions and an imaginary world of gods, nations and organisations."
This magnificent sentence is the real oyster of our world. It allows us to lift the fog of confusion in our daily lives. It gives us a filter to judge whether our politicians and leaders are talking about action in the real world or - which is more usual - flogging us imaginary nonsense dressed up as something real.
Carl Sagan defines this most poetically.
"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back."
How true is this in our world of politics? The average global IQ is just 82. Fifty percent of eight billion people are less than this. And this is the pool that attracts the politicians to vacuum up their power. Dark ignorance. Perfect for swamp rats.
Never expect creative planetary intelligence to emerge from this pond!
"What is the good of power and precision if the price we pay is ugliness and death? What is the good of thinking, if we have no idea how to live?"
"What philosophy worthy of the name has truly been able to avoid the link between poem and theorem."
Michel Serres, philosopher, thinker and undisputed genius, was one of the first theoreticians to link philosophy and science. He sees economic crises as earthquakes caused by social tectonic plates. He sees the underlying problem as a world that has evolved rapidly with technological advances where institutions have remained the same since WW2.
He sees this as an ever widening fissure, liable to collapse.
His solution is radical but intelligent.
Serres brings together Lucretius, Sagan, Harari and Attenborough by recognising that we live 'on a mote of dust', that there are no deities that will intervene on our behalf, that we may be the only conscious life in our galaxy, and should we wish to survive on this finite planet we need to evolve a new level of wisdom, leadership and action.
Further the very evolutionary actions that have given us dominion and power over the planet are the very probable cause of our demise. We can no longer live on a finite planet with an imaginary belief in infinite growth. We are not all madmen nor economists!
The model of our growth whether communist or capitalist has remained constant for millenia and is based on the two-player game of geopolitics and economics. And the rules of this game of 'us and them', East versus West is firmly embedded in the ancient 'priests, warriors and wealth creators' philosophy and paradigm.
Serres maintains that this way of thinking may have served us well for thousands of years, but now, paradoxically, contains the seeds of our own destruction. We need look no further than the current crisis in Ukraine to see this ancient model, spawned in an age of bows and arrows, raising its demonic head, threatening both civilisation and the planet.
Fortunately, he offers us a solution.
Serres names all life and earth Biogea. Given our finite 'mote of dust' he knows the first and most important strategy for homo sapiens must be to protect the planet. In many ways the universe is an infinite treasure chest. Who knows what is out there? But if we wish to explore such treasures we have to preserve and manage our small rock as it speeds on its course.
This will demand a new type of emergent intelligence and planetary wisdom.
Serres proposes a new 'three-player game' the triad of Biogea, Science and Society.
Who will find the power to replace the old triad of 'priests - warriors - wealth creators'? The scholars. Today's thinkers, tomorrow's leaders. (See practical solution below.)
He defines a key swerve that we are living through right now, that gives us little choice.
The Big Swerve - from Aggressive Subject to Obedient Object
For millenia under the old triad of superstition, ignorance and control the planet was always 'the enemy', something to be dominated and used as we chose. Effectively we set ourselves up as Subject and earth as passive Object.
"Formerly a passive object, it now becomes a determining factor. We leave behind games with two players resulting from the narcissistic relations between our societies to engage in a new game with three players, where the world makes the first moves, more forcefully than we do. And as an actual subject."
Biogea as active subject that requires submission from homo sapiens for the first time ever as submissive object.
"Biogea includes the world and humans, both the subjects and objects of science, and expresses their common concerns in a common language. We are incurring the vengeance of the things of the world, the air, the sea, the climate, and species, which are less passive than we thought, less objective than we wished, and less servile than we dreamed of.....the former slave could quickly become the master's master.
I ask again, who will speak in the name of Biogea? Scholars."
The key to the Serres solution therefore is the integration of the Life and Earth Sciences, the attractor and the new centre of gravity of knowledge in the three-player game of Biogea - Science - Society.
And scholars need to take the lead.
Geoffrey West, brilliant physicist, focuses on society and its cities and organisations through the eyes of an explorative scientist.
"It's hard to kill a city but easy to kill a company." The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And "cities are the crucible of civilization." They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. "Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities."
"We need," West said, "a grand unified theory of sustainability— a coarse-grained quantitative, predictive theory of cities."
West has shown us in his brilliant and direct style that everything we think we know about organisations is either wrong or meaningless. Over the past century the half-life of organisations has imploded from over fifty years to just less than ten years.
Globally we are suffering from an advanced form of leadership myopia. The majority of change management programmes fail, 80% of employees are disengaged and dislike their bosses, the pandemic has led to the great resignation and now complete confusion reigns about what it means to be an organisation in the first place with employees preferring to work from home. Of course this simply confirms Harari's prophetic words that organisations are imaginary constructs.
Six of our writers now bring our world to the brink of a perfect storm. We live on 'a mote of dust' alone in a vast universe. We are unique in our consciousness and our ability to imagine the future.
The challenge is now to imagine the Serres future, the triad of Biogea - Science - and Society.
For centuries we have paddled along imagining that we are very clever if we build strategies and scenarios of three to five year horizons. At best we punctuate our history in centuries. But what of Biogea? What time horizons do we need to manage a planetary system?
Here we may speak of epochs of minimum ten thousand years.
If we wish as a specie to survive and possibly explore other planets and even alien life, we have to follow Serres. There is no alternative.
And that's why Serres gives the responsibility to scholars. They are the intelligent game changers upon whose shoulders the very survival of Biogea depends.
It is time for the greatest swerve in the history of homo sapiens.
Who shall lead this swerve?
We need a new breed of leader. Out with our two-player game of geopolitics and economics. And in with a totally new transformative leader who understands that an original form of planetary intelligence is a sine qua non - without which, nothing.
What type of person is needed for this task?
Let's go back two thousand years to our final character, the Stoic Arius Didymus.
He believed in these four virtues that make a leader worthwhile or worthless.
Wisdom - The knowledge, skill and experience to fully understand the folly of our ancient two-player game, and the importance and understanding of Serres' three-player game based on Biogea. This wisdom is crucial and should not be confused with intelligence.
Self awareness - "Know thyself" inscribed in the forecourt at the Temple of Appollo at Delphi. There can be no true leadership, no true wisdom without this.
Judgement - The wisdom and insight to make Biogea based decisions, without falling back into the two-player game.
Courage - This underpins all the thinking of Didymus. A leader must be measured by actions which will require courage and even sacrifice.
Interestingly he summarised leaders into two basic groups - worthwhile and worthless. We can but guess what he may say about our current crop of two-player leaders in our global club of 200.
The 64,000 dollar question remains. Do we have the intelligence, character, will and ability to make this specie defining swerve, from primitive and dangerous to a whole new world of universal and planetary intelligence and capability?
Our seven writers have given us everything we need. They have given us the intelligence, the wisdom and the insight, and they have shown us the courage needed to stand up for scientific truth, and most importantly they have given us the blueprint for an intelligent and specie defining revolution.
And they have pointed out scholars as the key players to combine philosophy and science in a way that will best benefit not just homo sapiens, but the whole of Biogea.
Is any of this possible you may ask? Are we so deeply entrenched and committed to our infinite growth models that long term survival is virtually impossible?
No. The Serres Biogea model is absolutely possible. Lucretius highlighted the universal evolutionary algorithm, the swerve, two thousand years ago. And today when we were faced with a potential cataclysmic disaster from the release of carbonfluorocarbons - CFC's - we set up the Montreal Protocol in September 1987, the findings of which were signed into an agreement and entered into force by all nations just over a year later on 1 January 1989.
So there we have it. We know exactly what we have to do. The Serres solution of Biogea - Science - Society is absolutely possible.
Like the Montreal Protocol we are quite capable of setting up a Serres Protocol, a swerve of historic proportions. It is worth remembering that our specie with its two-player game is more dangerous to the planet than CFC's.
If the scholars are listening. It's time to get to work!