What a peaceful build-up that evades ecological breakdown could look like

Facing the coronavirus and climate crises, a shift in awareness to our interdependence offers a way to build back up peacefully.

The pandemic has had and is still having a global impact, more than a year later. Was it a wake-up call for more people to realize that the consumerist lifestyle is not feasible? While a number of people are slowly moving back to “business as usual,” others are not. It could be a key turning point for some people to see what has been slowly unveiling itself for at least the last 15 years (or even more considering the hippie movement of the 60s).

The financial crisis of 2008 led part of the world’s population to question capitalist economics, as was demonstrated by the Occupy movement. And environmental awareness and activism has grown considerably in the last few years, especially after Greta Thunberg managed to mobilize school children and speak at a few key conferences. Gradually, people start to understand that unlimited growth, on which capitalist economics are built, is not possible. Additionally, the coronavirus crisis could contribute to the realization that we’re on the brink of an economic and ecological collapse, and that changes have to be made.

Sooner or later other events in this transition period that we’re in will also follow, to further increase the awareness of the seriousness of the climate crisis and possible extinction of our own species. But we have to act fast and get more people to join those already imagining and working on solutions. How can this happen?

Separatist and hierarchical ways of thinking have a negative impact on how human beings relate to each other and to themselves.

The first step is to understand the need for a cultural change, because the root cause of our dire current situation lies there. To be more specific: it lies in the unsustainable globalized Western culture. Therefore, changing course can only be achieved by a cultural transformation: we need to address our ways of thinking and change our habits and collective behavior — the way we organize ourselves as societies. 

Where does such cultural change most need to happen? Firstly, the notion of human beings as superior to nature and framing the world in hierarchies (e.g man above women, hetrosexual above LGBTQ+, white above people of color, wealthy above middle and working class, humans above other mammals and mammals above other animals). These ways of thinking, in my opinion, have allowed the destruction of nature on such a grand scale that we’re threatening our own existence.

Moreover, the separatist and hierarchical ways of thinking have a negative impact on how human beings relate to each other and to themselves. By separating ourselves from nature, we othered her and othered fellow human beings and living creatures, leading to a profound sense of alienation, isolation and loneliness. As a result, we often have difficulty recognizing ourselves, not being able to see the context of our existence. We are part of a web of life, in which things exist interdependently. We cannot exist independently. We inter-are. That, to me, is the core shift in awareness that needs to happen to evade complete ecological breakdown and start with a peaceful build up. 

Interbeing is the foundation of peace

I understand ecological breakdown as an alarming signal or call for us to change and start to cooperate with nature and each other globally. Environmental destruction is a symptom of a culture where violence is normalized. It is connected to the idea of separation I mentioned earlier: the human being as driven by self-interest, resulting in a survival of the fittest. It makes violence a necessary element of survival. However, scientists have recently shown that collaboration is an essential survival mechanism, rather than competition. Empathy is therefore a very important skill, allowing us to cooperate and thereby survive.

Unfortunately, the natural capacity to feel empathy is discouraged, and sometimes even almost zeroed, by the idea that competition and violence are key to survival. A cultural shift would acknowledge that violence comes from particular cultural notions born of indoctrination. And with that awareness violent behavior slowly becomes more conscious and less of a default. 

Separation is also what underlies the ideals of independence and individualism. Many people feel depressed and lonely and crave for community and belonging. This lost sense of belonging could be restored by understanding interbeing and moving away from false notions of independence. The understanding of interbeing has been passed on for generations in indigenous cultures in the Americas, in Africa — where it can be found in the philosophy of Ubuntu (“I am because you are”) — and in Asia in Buddhist teachings. It is important that we bring these non-Western understandings of interbeing to the attention of Western societies.

These should also be cherished and revived in the non-Western world, where the globalization of Western culture has destroyed it. Globalization has resulted in cultural poverty and division, and in challenges for mental and environmental health.

Instead, we need to embrace the non-Western understandings of interbeing. And that may start to heal the relationships between different cultures across the globe. In a non-hierarchical cultural exchange there will also be more opportunities for synergy and improving life everywhere. 

Three is the magic number

Understanding interdependence and restoring our sense of inter-being will have an effect on three different levels:

  • The personal: understanding ourselves as part of a web of life creates healthy self-love, the appreciation of our unique gifts as ways of contributing to the whole. It will allow us to relate to ourselves with more compassion and awareness regarding the impact of our thoughts and actions. 
  • The interpersonal: understanding cooperation is key to survival. It allows us to develop healthy relationships with other people teaching us to cooperate and support each other. 
  • The ecological: recognizing humans are part of nature, leads to a healthy relationship to the Earth and other living beings, who are also part of the web of life, through which we will find sustainable ways of living.

These dimensions build on one another: self love and awareness helps us to be emotionally resilient and to understand and treat others better. Cooperative relationships with others based on understanding and through practicing active listening, empathic communication, identifying underlying needs and feelings, and finding solutions to conflict that take different perspectives into account, will give us the skills that we need to develop solutions to the global ecological challenges we’re facing today. A healthy relationship to the Earth will come forth from both our individual attitudes as well as collective efforts to stop the damage being done, find alternatives and shift our ways of thinking, making practical changes and setting in motion the emergence of a new culture.

Second, we could ask ourselves three questions that will help to create peaceful change, based on interbeing:

1. Building-up and breaking-up: What has to be (re-)built or created? What has to stop?

2. Individual and collective change: What individual changes and action do I have to undertake? What collective changes and actions do we have to create?

3. Guiding vision: How can an understanding and vision of interbeing guide us to make the choices that create peace? And how can this understanding be deepened and spread globally?

I cannot fully answer these questions, but I can share some of my thoughts about them. A key element is the rebuilding of our economy. To prevent ecological collapse and create more peaceful and sustainable ways to exist on this planet, we can’t continue to make growth and the exploitation of finite resources the center of our endeavors. Oct. 2 is the birthday of Gandhi, someone who also promoted local production and consumption. For him it was primarily as a strategy to create independence from the British, but these days it would be a way to create independence from mega-corporations. 

We will need to switch to renewable sources of energy and share and cooperate in more sustainable ways. That doesn’t mean competition has to be completely deleted or wealth must be redistributed equally, but competition has to be reduced so that it does not impact on the livelihood of people in other parts of the world. Western countries must stop consuming most of the world’s resources depriving millions of humans of their right to food, health, shelter and education. 

Spirituality based on interbeing will promote compassion for all that lives and connect us to a reverence for life.

In terms of individual changes, I believe it would be helpful to integrate interbeing in our spiritual understanding. Institutionalized religions often do not do this. A spirituality based on interbeing will promote compassion for all that lives and connect us to reverence of life. Contemplation and reflection foster new habits that are wholesome and stop ones that aren’t beneficial to ourselves, others and the planet. Secondly, valuing and developing so-called “feminine” qualities such as empathy, gentleness, grace, sensitivity, and nurturing will contribute to both personal and interpersonal well-being. 

When thinking of collective changes, I’m thinking more about reforming structures in society, which connects to the point discussed earlier about rebuilding the economy. Militarism needs to be addressed and replaced by conflict resolution experts and international negotiators or mediators. We probably also want to re-think the way countries are structured and move towards more local and less hierarchical decision making, where people can participate in taking decisions that impact their lives. 

So, here again three structures emerge that seem essential:

1. Providing a sustainable livelihood: All people must have food, water, shelter, clothes, health care and safety, so they can live in dignity and without worrying about or fighting for their survival. The economy needs to be shaped around respect for nature and each other, ending poverty and exploitation, and prioritizing profits over people. Perhaps such an economy will even change our relationship to money.

2. Providing peace education: Dealing with conflict should be part of every child’s education, and offered to adults during a transition phase. This would include emotional awareness of oneself and others, and knowledge and practice of methods that support a peaceful process of dealing with conflict, so that these become a part of people’s everyday skills and interactions. Instead of fight or flight people will become skilled in engaging in dialogue in which new insights arise to create win-win solutions that address the needs of the people involved in creative ways.

Together with intercultural communication, this will help people to develop mutual understanding across cultures and avoid acting on the basis of stereotypes, taking the time to listen, ask questions and postpone judgement. Besides peace education, it would also be helpful to reform education in a way that children acquire knowledge and skills they are truly interested in (rather than a standardized curriculum) and which they can learn in groups of different ages.

3. Decentralizing decision-making: In order to create an inclusive system and enable people to decide for themselves over issues that affect their lives, local governance systems have to be created — councils in which local people make decisions that affect the local environment in which they live. Structures could still have some rotating hierarchy, so that when decisions have to be made on a larger scale, the local councils send one or two representatives who sit together with other local representatives in another council making decisions over a larger area.

An invitation to contribute to this vision

Hopefully we will be able to change before we hit the limits of growth and experience planetary collapse. Georgina Galanis put if beautifully in a poem: “Before the dust bowl eats the topsoil, there are still a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground of our being. And so be it. . . . Your tomorrow can be different.”

The call to action is urgent, and I hope people join me in expanding and deepening these ideas. The above points are of course only a draft or outline of what has to happen for a more sustainable peaceful culture based on interbeing. In order to draw on the knowledge of several experts around the world, I want to do interviews that will deepen and expand the ideas presented in the article. These interviews may give more insights into different approaches to interbeing and peace (e.g. from Indigenous wisdom, ubuntu or Buddhism, but also from other spiritual wisdom traditions and the psychology field), as well as provide specific examples or ideas about rethinking economy, international relations, education and local decision-making or governance. Preferably they will include people from all the different parts of the world, to get a broad perspective and range of solutions.

If you feel called to help me to spread and deepen the understanding of interbeing, for the sake of humanity, then please get in touch! I will be honored to hear your ideas and integrate them into a book.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.