Return of the Generalist

Friday 23rd of April 2021
Stone circle

I’ve not managed to write many pieces over the last few months, but that hasn’t stopped me thinking about various things I want to say! I have started working on pieces on three publications of the last few months. These are the report on the Economics of Biodiversity by Partha Dasgupta, Values by Mark Carney and Bill Gates’ How to Survive a Climate Disaster.
As I focused on a number of issues specific to the above, I realised that there were also some general considerations and I want to look at some of the general points before focusing on some specifics. One is that none of these three figures come to what they have written from a position of long-term involvement in the climate change field. They have expertise in other areas. That has caused me to ponder the contribution of climate change “experts” and those who come into other categories.
I am by no means saying that these individuals from outside this field cannot have a contribution to make, but I do have a concern that they may find it difficult to move away from approaches they have had for decades. However, I have to admit that the same is true for anyone else, myself included. (There is also a case for saying that people who have knowledge and experience in a certain area may miss opportunities to see a bigger picture, but I’m going to focus mainly in this piece on the benefit or otherwise of “non-experts”). Iain McGilchrist suggests in The Master and His Emissary that a preference to stay with the thinking with which we are familiar stems from the left hemisphere’s influence.
Much of what I believe that the climate and ecological crisis can show us is in my consciousness because it has been what I have been thinking about for decades. There is a lot I could say about this (some of which I’ve written about over the last year or so). In brief, I believe that what we are living through, whilst not wishing to minimise the practical and at times devastating physical impact on so many parts of our world, is primarily an existential or even spiritual crisis. Because these are the sorts of questions that I have concentrated on for all of my adult life (and possibly even before then) they emerge easily into my thinking when I am considering these matters.
I could obviously be mistaken about the nature of the crisis because of this. Part of the reason that, since reading The Master and His Emissary, I have latched on to Iain McGilchrist (again, coming out of a left-hemisphere awareness) to the extent to which I have is because he gives me a vocabulary which perhaps makes it easier to present some of these ideas without “frightening the horses”. He also demonstrates a biological mechanism for our ways of thinking and behaving (and perhaps to a lesser extent feeling), which does encourage me to think that I may be on to something, but he also gives a greater legitimacy in my own eyes for sharing it with others.
One of the reasons that I welcome any publications in this field is that they can give opportunity for public debate. More than that, I hope they will stimulate action, but I am also aware that there are attitudes which continue to challenge the need to adapt our behaviour. One of these would be claiming that climate change is not down to any contributions of human beings but part of the natural variation of cycles which are way beyond our influence or control. Whether or not I agree with this perspective, which I have encountered again in looking at some of the online reviews of these particular publications, I have to acknowledge that this is a useful contribution to an exchange of ideas, at least if this is conducted in a right-hemisphere fashion i.e. there is an acknowledgement of a need to maintain a space which can entertain different perspectives. However, I should also add at the same time, that moving into action is only possible when we narrow down that range of possibilities, at least to some degree, and this is one of our dilemmas. If we are to take decisive action to stop further damage into the future we need to act NOW!
I’m not sure that this is solvable. Those who believe that there is sufficiently robust scientific data (and equally robust theories to accompany and explain the data) to point to human activity being behind climate change will no doubt continue to advocate for changes which will lessen our activities which they see as detrimental and also leading the way in particular areas themselves. Those who, for whatever reason, see no call to act in this way will in some cases take no action but in others will continue actively to resist change.
Moving into an action phase also raises issues (for me but also presumably for others) because of what I have said above about my own personal perspective. If I believe that there is potential for this to derive from that personal (and therefore limited) perspective, there is also potential for me to be wrong in some of what I am thinking. However, I can only act if I hold that at arm’s length and say that I am going to behave in a particular way based on my current understanding, however mistaken that may actually be. The fact that there is an urgency to adapt our behaviour only heightens this tension.
(It is mildly comforting, but only mildly, that Iain McGilchrist talks about the right hemisphere being the place for paradox or where contradictions can be held in tension - that certainly applies to both acting and keeping open the possibility that I am basing my decisions about that action on false premises. It also helps me to some extent to realise that part of the positive contribution of the left hemisphere is that it can help me move to action by focusing or even limiting my thinking).
One of the skills which I believe is ever more under threat is our ability as a species to maintain theatres of engagement in which we can keep communication open with people whose views are very different from our own. For reasons I don’t claim that I fully understand in practical terms, the more multi-faceted our media becomes, the less able we seem to be able to entertain a variety of approaches.
There are ideas that I have as to why this might be at psychological or even spiritual levels. One is that specialisation in certain circles of thought or activity has become the norm. I am starting to wonder if that has started to weaken to some extent, but I’m sure there are elements of this that are still there. There are arguments both ways in favour of the testimony of “experts”. At the very least we need to have access to people who wear their knowledge “lightly” and communicate well with people outside their area of expertise. When it comes to climate change, we need people who are not experts in the field to be able to make contributions.
Closely linked with this is that much of our decision-making has become focused on technical issues and processes. The pandemic has given us many examples of that on the surface, although we have also come to realise that the issues which can be analysed numerically and scientifically and in various “watertight” ways are not the end of the story…
I wonder if we need more “generalists”, but, more than that, we need people who are able to hold open a space so that we have a better sense of all the contributions which are necessary.
I have included a picture of a stone circle to try and illustrate this. I have no way of knowing whether this was ever part of the way in which those who built or used such spaces worked, but I wonder if the stones on the circumference of a stone circle can remind us of different perspectives. If we reflect on this, there would be a need to harmonise the various viewpoints. Anyone who took this role “at the centre of the circle” would need a particular set of skills but also a great maturity. Again, I have wondered if part of a shamanic role in certain cultures might have encompassed this awareness and activity, but much of this might have been unseen. Even in our very different culture, perhaps we need people to take on this type of role, whether this is acknowledged in the open or not. Part of Iain McGilchrist’s approach in The Master and His Emissary is to acknowledge the importance of the implicit or what is hidden (as part of the contribution of the right hemisphere) as well as the explicit or obvious and I think we need to continue to remind ourselves of this on a fairly constant basis. Perhaps even the experts need help from others in this way.