A Search for Meaning
Well, this week I had the pleasure of talking to one of the great thinkers of our time and the author also of two wonderful books, Jeremy Lent. Those two books are The Patterning Instinct: The Cultural History of Humanity’s Search of Meaning. Then went on to write the more recently released book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe.
It’s an interesting well, The Patterning Instinct is an absolute tome. It covers our journey from hunter-gatherer times. It talks about our connection with nature during that journey, and then how things changed with the agricultural revolution.
The Agricultural Revolution
The agricultural revolution, of course, as everyone knows, was born out of the most stable environmental conditions in the last 500,000 years. That’s a sobering thought and one I think we should be hearing more about. We hear about climate change being. The climate has always changed.
Yes, it has. But the question is: How did Homo Sapiens, who genetically hadn’t changed all that much in the last two or 300,000 years? What happened 10,000 years ago that allowed us to start the agricultural revolution? The thing that allowed us to and has since that time is the most stable environmental conditions for the last 500,000 years have occurred in the last 10,000 years.
So, yes, environmental changes have always gone on. But what’s allowed us to develop as a species, as a civilisation, is a stable environment and that stable environment has been challenged, as we know, through fires and through rising temperatures and rising sea levels. Considering the vast majority of cities have been built on the sea during these very stable climatic conditions.
If the icecaps melted as they have in the past, then sea levels will rise and I just had the pleasure of walking in the Northern Territory, on the Larapinta Trail and it was very sobering to learn that the centre of Australia was once covered by sea and the ocean. To think of that you would have to wonder, well, if there’s a finite amount of water on this planet, where did that water come from?
One can only imagine the social disruption that will occur if there was a rise of one, two, three, four, five or ten metres, let alone 50 or 100 metres, which has happened before in human history. It’s an interesting story to track our journey from hunter-gatherers, where we were connected with nature, where our social structures were very flat and democratic. It wasn’t a hierarchical structure. I mean, if anything, apparently if anyone tried to rise above the hunter-gatherer group, they would soon be put in their place.
But then along came the agricultural revolution. And of course, one could argue was did we domesticate plants and animals or did they domesticate us because it made us then slaves to the climate?
If there wasn’t enough rain, if there was too much heat, then our crops would either succeed or fail. And of course, as we produced more food, the population increased. As the population increased, we needed to produce more food. Instead of enabling and living within nature and being connected to it, we started our 10,000-year journey in dominating nature.
It’s interesting to follow what Jeremy is talking about in this cultural history of humanity’s search for meaning. And he draws on something that a previous guest, Charlie Massy, discussed, too. That was the great acceleration, particularly from the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s.
In the mid-18th century, from about 1750 onwards, this great acceleration saw an explosion in population. People were moving from the land into big cities. And of course, that move created all sorts of challenges in terms of health, challenges also in terms of inequality, and exploitation.
Particularly in the last well, what have we got 250 odd years? Particularly in the last 50 years, the great acceleration occurred from about post-war, from about 1950 onwards, and the growth has been exponential. I think at the beginning of the 20th century, the population was something like one and a half or 2 billion people. By the end of the 20th century, that was up to 7 billion. Here we are 22 years into the 21st century and we are fast approaching 8 billion people. GDP went through the roof.
It’s almost like everything we hear about the health of our societies put in terms of GDP and continuous growth on a finite planet is something which we seriously need to consider whether that is actually sustainable. Other things. Urban populations have gone through the roof, energy use has gone through the roof, fertiliser use, water use, the construction of large dams, communication, particularly telecommunication. Over the last 20 years, international tourism has gone through the roof.
The Great Acceleration
The last 40 or 50 years of what we could say are neoliberalism, which let the markets dictate, has been in a period of exponential growth, which is referred to as The Great Acceleration. That has come at a huge cost. Half of all marine life has been lost in the last 40 years.
Rainforests are disappearing at an incredible rate. Insect populations are in decline. Bees which are important for literally our plant development and growth, have gone through a huge decline, 68% decline in animal populations worldwide in the last 40 or 50 years. The whole yes, this great acceleration has come at a huge cost.
5 billion people, by some estimations, are going to be facing water shortages by 2050. We’re talking about this period as being the sixth great extinction. Since the emergence of life, complex life, some 500 million years ago, there have been five great extinctions, the last one being the meteor that landed in The Mexican Gulf, which 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and saw the emergence of mammals as the dominant species.
We are now going through what is referred to as the Anthropocene Period, the 6th Great Extinction of species, coral reefs we’re seeing disappearing and 95% of Earth’s land degrading by 2050. This is why on the podcast I’ve also been focussed on regenerative agriculture because doing things sustainably is just not good enough.
We actually need to be focussed on regeneration and rethinking and it’s interesting to compare Jeremy Lent’s message about our journey through these hunter-gatherers, agricultural, scientific revolution and more recently the technological revolution of the last 20 or 30 years and to see how sustainable that is.
I actually think regeneration is the word we need to be focussing on and that’s why I find championing regenerative agriculture such an important part of this holistic message that the Unstress podcast is all about.
Jeremy then went on to write another well, interestingly, still sticking with The Patterning Instinct, he drew on a very interesting comparison, cultural comparison. That was the journey of two great explorers, one being and this is all about cultural history shaping our human journey and our search for meaning.
Interestingly, there was an admiral in China called Zhang He, I’m not sure I’m pronouncing that correctly. We all know the other great explorer, Christopher Columbus, and he draws these two comparisons of these two explorers as an example of the effect that cultural history has on our human journey.
Now, Zhang He set sail in 1405 and did from China, and it was an incredible armada. He took 27,000 men in over 300 ships and there were different classes of ships. They were troop and horse ships, troop transports. There were patrol boats, there were men of war, and they were freshwater tankers. He did seven voyages over 28 years.
They were incredible journeys. They went obviously from China through Indonesia. What we now know is Indonesia into Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, into the African Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. And they were basically the journeys that he undertook between 1405 and 1433.
You can imagine when 27,000 people or on 300 ships and some of them were so huge, the ships arrived at places they would have been viewed as just local communities would never have seen anything like it. It was interesting to see what this Admiral Zheng He did when he reached those places because what he did was he actually formed trading alliances and brought back people from those outposts and set them up as sort of ambassadors within China to set up trading routes between these people.
It was an opportunity for them to totally overpower the local population. He chose that’s not within the Chinese Confucius kind of philosophy of yin and yang and respect for nature and a sort of a more holistic view of the cosmos and of the world. They took back people as ambassadors and set up trading posts in those areas.
Interestingly, what happened in China at that time, because the resources that went into building this kind of fleet were huge and not without controversy in China at the time. I believe in around 1428 or 1430, a firestorm set fire to the Forbidden City and a lot of it was burned down. And one story goes that this was taken as a bad omen for this rather a huge undertaking to open up China to the rest of the world.
What happened was they took it as a bad omen and they shut down these kinds of voyages and they really shut down the whole of China and retreated inland. China was really closed off from the rest of the world until the 1800s and the Opium Wars that emerged from there.
It was interesting to see in the 15th century the effect that this cultural history of Confucius philosophy and this enormously well-resourced fleet emerged and how they took ambassadors back to China and then wanted to set up trading posts. They contrast and Jeremy contrasts that with Columbus, who in 1492 set off from Spain with 90 men, three really ordinary boats.
One of the famous Santa Maria, the rudder of one of these three boats broke after three days at sea. And it’s sobering to know that that boat, Santa Maria, would have been absolutely dwarfed by Admiral Zheng He’s biggest boat. By some estimations, ten of Columbus’s boats could have fitted into one of Admiral Zheng’s boats.
It’s interesting to note that yet Columbus’s voyage in these ramshackle three tiny boats changed the entire world and why didn’t Admiral Zheng? He goes into it in the book. Basically, we look at the whole emergence of this Christian white European supreme view of the world and its subjugation of cultures as they moved into South America and Africa and the subjugation of cultures, which was a totally different experience from the Confucius model. This is all about cultural history.
The Cultural History of Descartes
It also dovetails into the scientific revolution, which really had its roots back in Plato and Aristotle’s time of this dualism, the separation between mind and body. In my own book, I reference the work of Descartes, who is really if you wanted to look at the origins of modern medicine, Descartes is a really interesting character, a philosopher, a mathematician in the 1700s, in the 17th century in Europe.
He made the point that in order to understand the human body, it needed to be broken down into its individual parts, which at that time when we didn’t know much about how the heart worked, how the lungs worked, how the nervous system worked, there was a case for that. Breaking things down into the smallest part was a very important thing that Descartes introduced into modern science.
The other thing was that things had to be statistically significant to matter. The other thing that he said and reinforced and I think he was trying to appease the church at the time, but there’s a separation between mind and body. And when you look at the specialties in modern medicine today, if you look at the reductionist model of breaking things down into their smallest part, if you look at the things as being statistically significant or we now refer to it as the randomised control study or the meta-analysis, you can see how a cultural history Descartes influence is still impacting on modern medicine today.
These are all things that Jeremy covers in his book and that have been covered in other books, specifically Yuval Noah Harari and many others in this in trying to make an understanding of how history has shaped where we are today. It was so interesting to have Jeremy compare those two explorers and their cultural impact on the world.
And of course, then he goes into his second book, The Web of Meaning, where it gets a little more personal. Who am I? Where am I? What am I? How should I live? Why am I? And where are we going? He asks those very important questions.
It was fascinating. I would recommend both of these books to you. He has his own online course, which I think is a very stimulating course, all about transformation and how we as individuals need to be involved in that journey. What Charlie Massy refers to as the fifth great cycle is the human social cycle, which we’re all part of.
What this podcast Unstress is all about and what our Unstress health platform is all about, forming a community of like-minded individuals who recognise they’re on a journey, one to gather together, and a holistic view of human health and planetary health and recognise that is how we are going to emerge with a better world, a more regenerated world that will be sustainable not just for our children and our grandchildren, but for many generations to come. So this week’s conversation with Jeremy Lent raised all those kinds of issues.
Both books were very, very stimulating. The conversation with Jeremy was too. I hope you find it so. I hope this finds you well. Until next time.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.