Globalising Trusteeship

Jem At Jallian Wala Bagh in April 2009
Jem Bendell visiting Jallian Wala Bagh in April 2009

On April 13th, ninety years ago, a British General ordered the firing on people peacefully protesting the repression of India. Mohandas K Gandhi was so moved by the massacre in Amritsar that he called for a special week to be observed every year – a Satyagraha Week. “Satya” means truth, “Graha” means both ‘involved in’ and ‘global’. Gandhi used satyagraha to describe a non-violent way of life, that does not participate in oppression wherever it occurs, and challenges it in non-violent ways. It became synonymous with India’s liberation movement.

Due to the work of Varsha Das and her colleagues at the Gandhi National Museum I was reminded of Gandhi’s teachings, and began re-reading what he said and did about life, politics and economics. As you probably are yourself, I was familiar with his famous phrases including that “we must be the change we want to see in the world’. But as I read on, I realised his views are very relevant to the current global economic crisis and the work I do on sustainable enterprise and finance.

The recent G20 failed to launch a deep reconsideration of the global economy, and some of its precepts, such as current concepts of property and a consumption-led economy. I suppose the pressures on the leaders for more-of-the-same were immense. But it has become clear that is up to us to begin a broader dialogue. Gandhi called for the Satyagraha Week to be one of fearless yet convivial dialogue about the truth of society and to redouble our efforts to live by that truth. Reading that affirmed some of the work I did this past year, with the Global Finance Initiative. After consultations with finance professionals and stakeholders in dozens of countries we concluded with a recommendation that dialogues on changes in financial systems are required that are:

  • Foundational, addressing profound questions about the purpose of the financial system and the principles that direct its actions;
  • Comprehensive, encompassing the connections between accounting systems, currencies, regulatory systems, economic structures and all parts of the financial system;
  • Inclusive, with processes reaching beyond traditional insiders, to engage responsible investors, multi-stakeholder groups working on finance issues, asset owners, labor, NGOs and critical academics, and be truly global;
  • Systemic, connecting financial stability to the real economy, social equity, and environmental sustainability.

This dialogue could be part of a global truth-seeking — a ‘Global Satyagraha’. Beyond his views on dialogue and truth-seeking, MK Gandhi’s views are relevant to the future of the global economy and our work on responsible enterprise and finance in at least four ways: economic equality, appropriate technology, self-reliance, and trusteeship.

Challenging both the caste system and negativity between religions, he promoted the equality of all peoples, which meant non discrimination in employment and economic affairs. He also believed that technology could be good if did needed work, but bad if it put people out of work. This philosophy led him to spend many hours working on the spinning wheel, a technology that was appropriate to the economic level of villagers across India at the time. Another important aspect of the spinning wheel was how it generated self-reliance. Gandhi spoke of ‘swadeshi’ or economic self-sufficiency, as the only way that India would achieve self-determination. He called on his country-people not to pay into the system of empire by buying foreign clothes. In our current context the implication here is not simply that we produce for ourselves, but that we seek to become independent of systems of exploitation for our own livelihoods and lifestyles.

Jem Bendell at site of MK Gandhi assasination, March 2009
Jem Bendell at site of MK Gandhi assasination, March 2009

These aspects of Gandhian economics are well documented and discussed. Like many business folk the world-over, many Indian executives do not see the relevance of these approaches to modern business, viewing them as anachronistic. Yet, in a resource-constrained and climate-threatened world, where hyper-inequality fuels violence, the need for principles and practices of equality, appropriateness and self-reliance to pervade business is clear.

What stunned me was the resonance of his views on ‘trusteeship’ with the latest thinking within the corporate responsibility movement. More of us have come to understand that we need to redesign the systems of corporate governance and finance in order to create more sustainable and responsible economies, and that business executives can and should engage in public policy debates to promote that redesign. In my latest book, I develop the concept of “capital democracy” to describe an economic system that responds to this understanding. I write:

Corporate Responsibility Movement, Bendell et al, March 2009
Corporate Responsibility Movement, Bendell et al, March 2009

“In a democratic society, property rights should only exist because people collectively decide to uphold them; they are not inalienable but are upheld by society as a matter of choice. Therefore, if society confers us the right of property, then we have obligations to that society. Today property rights have become so divorced from this democratic control that they are undermining other human rights. A reawakening to a basic principle is required: there can be no property right without property duties, or obligations. From such a principle, it should not be left up to the powerful to decide if they are responsible or not, or if they are carrying out their obligations or not. Instead, the focus shifts to the governance of capital by those who are affected by it” (Bendell, et al, 2009, Pg 33 to 34).

The Mahatma’s view of trusteeship is the same, but elegant in its simplicity. It arises from an understanding that everything is owned by everyone, and wealth is owned by those who generate it. Thus the one who controls an asset is not an owner but a trustee, being given control of that asset by society. Gandhi wrote “I am inviting those people who consider themselves as owners today to act as trustees, i.e., owners, not in their own right, but owners in the right of those whom they have exploited.” In the Harijan paper his views on trusteeship of property were later documented to clarify “It does not recognize any right of private ownership of property except so far as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare” and “under State-regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction or in disregard of the interests of society.” He also wrote that “for the present owners of wealth… they will be allowed to retain the stewardship of their possessions and to use their talent, to increase the wealth, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the nation and, therefore, without exploitation.” All those years ago the Mahatma was proposing an economic system that many people are only beginning to conceive of today. If you have my book, I apologise for my prior ignorance of Gandhi’s trusteeship concept. If you don’t have it under your trusteeship yet, hey, it’s still worth reading!

Sangeeta Das of the Gandhi Smriti Museum revealed to me how some Indian industrialists supported many of Gandhi’s ideas and applied some to their own business. Upon reading the views of some current Indian business leaders I see the concepts of equality and trusteeship have informed their voluntary corporate responsibility efforts. However, I am left with a sense that the concept of trusteeship has much untapped potential as an economic system, codified into public policy and regulation. The current crisis demonstrates the need to globalise trusteeship, or capital democracy, as an approach that can be debated and interpreted into new principles and policies for economics, finance and enterprise. In addition it is clear that concepts of appropriate technology and self-reliance have much more to offer both to corporate strategy and public policy than currently the case. I wonder whether Indian business leaders could play a role in bringing this insight to the world.

The life of Gandhi is important not only for his views on economic systems but also on how to bring them into being. In my book I argue that the global challenges we face mean those of us who work to make business better must start thinking and planning like a movement. “The corporate responsibility movement is a loosely organised but sustained effort by individuals both inside and outside the private sector, who seek to use or change specific corporate practices, whole corporations, or entire systems of corporate activity, in accordance with their personal commitment to public goals and the expectations of wider society.” (Bendell, et al 2009, pg 24). As a movement leader, we could learn from Gandhi’s mastery of symbolic communication combined with personal authenticity, his embrace of both dialogue and direct action, his respect for people no matter the differences, and his demonstration that we must ourselves disengage with systems that uphold a lie. More of us can mobilise our networks and knowledge for transformative ends. And if it means changing our lives to be less economically dependent on the status quo, then that’s what we must do.

The recent violence from authorities against protesters and bystanders (and the truth) at the G20 is yet another reminder of the need to learn how to engage in a transformative non-violent movement that provides people diverse ways to participate while sucking energy out of violent systems. On the 90th anniversary of the hundreds who died in Jallianwala Bagh, we can remember how their memory inspired millions in the pursuit of truth and freedom.

I will be discussing some of these ideas in a webinar, online, and seminar in Geneva, called: “The Corporate Responsibility Movement: Where are we going and why?” Seminar: Thursday May 14, from 12.30 to 14.00 Swiss time, Uni Mail, 40 bd du Pont d’Arve, Geneva, room MR 150 (ground floor, opposite the cafeteria). Register: csr@unige.ch.  Webinar: Tuesday May 19, from 16:30 to 18:00 UK time, organised by CSR International. Venue is “online”. Register: clemence@csrinternational.org http://www.csrinternational.org/?p=273

The Corporate Responsibility Movement, Jem Bendell et al. March 2009 ISBN 978-1-906093-18-1
http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/productdetail.kmod?productid=2767

Thx to Suzy, Satjiv, Inderpreet, Nandita, Varsha and Sangeeta for unwittingly guiding my serendipitous journey in India.

Deepening Luxury in Delhi

Im just about to leave India after an amazing month. The International Herald Tribune conference last week was inspiring, and for me very affirming. Feedback from Christian Blanckaert, Laurent Claquin, Suzy Menkes and Anna Zegna, among others, about the impact of the report Deeper Luxury on their own work was wonderful to hear. Theyre all doing what they can to promote sustainable luxury. The transcript of my presentation follows. I was taking a bit of a risk, a Britisher going to India and leading an audience in a group reflection/meditation, but the reaction was positive (or those with a negative reaction were too polite to tell me!).

To follow up I wrote a piece in the local business paper, and an article in NYT and IHT mentions the talk.

Deeper Luxury, Presentation by Jem Bendell at the International Herald Tribune conference on Sustainable Luxury, Imperial Hotel, Delhi, India, March 26th 2009.

“Despite the difficulties, the choice of India and of sustainable luxury as the conference theme now has a feeling of serendipity about it, doesn’t it?

Since the IHT made their bold choice, we have seen dramatic events, both here and abroad. What does an economic collapse and a terrorist attack have to do with sustainable luxury? If sustainability is about how we live our lives and what we work for, then they are very relevant, because we must employ our best talents to make our world a better place, whatever our line of work.

India is probably the richest country in the world, in the truest sense of the word rich. Yet it is one beset by massive social and environmental challenges. Coming here to collectively imagine what luxury and sustainability might offer each other, is as important now as it ever was. So thank you IHT for organising what could be a watershed in the luxury industry, and perhaps, if we make it so, an important moment in the sustainability movement.

I’m here because of a report I produced in 2007 for the environmental group WWF. In Deeper Luxury, we mapped out the sustainability challenge and the reasons why luxury brands could do a lot more, ranked companies and provided some examples and tips, as well as a charter for responsible brand endorsement by celebrities. The report took off around the world. I even ended up in Tatler; a dubious indicator of success for an environmentalist. But today I wont go into the report. Instead I’ll say some things about the heart and the head of sustainable luxury management in light of rapid changes. I hope to allay any lingering doubts you may have about sustainability being the future of luxury, rather than just a passing fad.

At its most basic sustainability is about people being in harmony with nature, eachother and ourselves. As our societies have developed, our work and ways of living have had both a positive and negative impact on that harmony. You have likely heard that before. But right now I’d like us to take a moment to sense what restoring that harmony could feel like. You may find it helpful if you close your eyes for the next few moments.

So, now with you eyes shut, try to recall a moment when you think you won an argument, or clinched a deal, or got promoted. Think of how it felt.

Next, try to recall a moment when you were in nature, perhaps looking at a sunset, or where you completely lost yourself in the moment of something you enjoy doing. Try to taste that feeling.

Now contrast it with the first – the feeling generated within you when you won out on something.

Consider whether that first feeling is one of self-promotion – a worldly feeling, while the second feeling comes from your soul.

This is a reflection recommended to us by Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest who hailed from Mumbai, and integrated Eastern and Western philosophies.

He says the worldly feelings are not really natural. I quote “they were invented by your society and your culture to make you productive and to make you controllable. These feelings do not produce the nourishment and happiness that is produced when one contemplates nature or enjoys the company of one’s friends or one’s work. They were meant to provide thrills, excitement – and emptiness.”

He suggests we are weighed down by these worldly motivations for approval, popularity, and power. He is suggesting that, actually, less can be more, and “I” can become “we”. That is also a sustainability message. Because sustainability is not so much a challenge out there, but in here. It comes down to how conscious we are in our work. A sustainable luxury industry will flow from a sustainable luxury profession of people inspired by creating things and experiences that generate well-being for everyone involved, and restoring the biological diversity and balance of our planet.

Fear often holds us back from living and working in full consciousness. In our work on corporate responsibility in the luxury sector, there is a nagging fear that there is something fundamentally contradictory between luxury and sustainability. Some fear that we cant do that much, particularly given the current economic situation and the limited awareness of consumers in key growth markets.

One way to calm that fear, is to realise how greater social and environmental responsibility can often be a cost saver and a driver of innovation. That is what we sought to do in the WWF report. This morning I want to go further, and address four conundrums facing the industry that can hold us back from engaging fully, soulfully, in sustainability. So far I’ve only heard them expressed in quiet conversation by people who are aware of the challenge but not sure of how this sector can really deliver.

In hearing reassurances about the financial sustainability of brands and luxury groups we have been reminded of the strength of the Asian market. Their economies are still growing, middle classes expanding, and fashion consciousness rising. The difficulty I’ve been told about by some executives is that such consumers are not aware of social and environmental aspects of brands and don’t really care. In the past year, new market research points to a wave of environmental awareness sweeping through Asia.

Research done by some WPP agencies, found that Chinese consumers now see the environment as a higher priority than do their US and UK counterparts. 69 percent of the Chinese respondents said that they expected to spend more on environmentally friendly products in the coming year.

The graph on the screen is from the French agency IFOP, showing levels of concern assessed in June last year. It also shows emerging market consumers concerns are higher in Brazil, China and India. More unpacking and interrogating of the nature of this concern is required to gauge its relevance for corporate strategy, but it shows the awareness is now there.

Consumer awareness takes time to translate into consumer behaviour, because we cant chose what doesn’t exist, or behave differently when we are unclear about our options. As the connections are made between what we buy and the environment we live in, the commercial implications are huge. So it is time to empower the consumer with the right information and better choices. So the first conundrum is not so real.

At a global level some analysts say the world has lost almost half its wealth since September. The crisis is real and scary. As someone running a small consultancy, we have lost one major client already. My company also works on sustainable finance, and worked on a project which consulted with finance professionals in over dozen countries. The insight from this is that the current crisis is not something that will be “got through” before a return to “normal”. Instead, it marks a major shift in global power. At root it is a Western financial crisis. The impacts will not only be financial, but also cultural, impacting on the status of the West, and on consumer culture. The implications for luxury are therefore deeper than our immediate concerns about profit and loss.

Many of us here work in enterprises that are the very best at what we do, whether that’s watch making, boat building, resort management, and so on. The crafts themselves may be excellent, and the sincerity and quality discussed yesterday morning very real. But what groups us together in this room as “luxury” is not so much that excellence, but consumer perceptions of what “luxury” means and our need to understand how to continue to appeal to the consumer of “luxury” as much as the consumer of our particular product or service. If there ever was such a thing as a luxury industry, then it is now endangered, because of the economic situation. More people are thinking twice about any discretionary spending. They are questioning the true value of what they buy, and how it appears to others at a time of increasing hardship. The ability and motivation to buy what is, to some, unnecessarily expensive, will therefore decline. In such a context, luxury must become something meaningful and lasting, providing the most enduring products and experiences to consumers.

Therefore the economic crisis is ushering in a fundamental change in world power and consumer values that moves social and environmental excellence from an option to a category-defining dimension of luxury brands.

The social legitimacy of luxury becomes more challenging in situations of extreme inequality and absolute poverty. Within sustainability there is a principle of fairness and social equity. Some people consider that luxury involves excess, so it could never be moral while there is poverty. That’s quite a conundrum.

If you visit the Taj Mahal this weekend you will not be that far from the border with Madhya Pradesh. If you travel on, UNICEF says that in some villages 6 out of every 10 children you will see are malnourished, like these children, pictured a few months ago.

It’s natural to block out this other reality as we enjoy our own privilege. Because many of us dont know what to do about it.

The two world’s collided last week when the two Slumdog child actors from Mumbai’s slums fronted a fashion show. The success and subject matter of the Slumdog film has raised debates about poverty and child protection, and the role and responsibility of the creative industries, like film. One response to this situation is charity. Designers Ashima and Leena announced last week that a new Jai Ho Foundation will support children like Rubina and Azahruddin.

If done well, charity can help. But it rarely addresses root causes. In my 10 years as a consultant to the UN on development issues I have been constantly reminded of one thing. People with low incomes do not want our charity, but their dignity and opportunity – which basically means good education, a safe environment and decent work. Just like ourselves, no one appreciates pity. But solidarity and support is always welcome.

The economy of Madyha Pradesh has been booming but it doesnt trickle down well unless you have responsible businesses buying from responsible businesses. Therefore the best way to reduce inequality and poverty is for the products and services we make to provide decent work throughout the value chain.

To illustrate I’ll mention one breakthrough British luxury brand. For several years jeweller and anthropologist Pippa Small has been designing jewellery made by fair trade groups. Her range for Nicole Fahri’s store in New Bond Street is produced by a group of slum-dwellers in Nairobi using discarded brass and recycled glass. The product line is helping ensure the workers’ children go to school, has funded a crèche, is teaching them computing skills, and shows them how to run a business. Pippa believes the reason the Farhi range sells so well is, I quote, “because people feel good wearing jewellery that is doing some good, as opposed to exploiting people”. But she also notes that, I quote again, “buyers in big stores often don’t get it. They think that jewellery made in slums equals something horrible and dirty, rather than seeing that giving people skills offers them an opportunity to get out of there.”

I was pleased to find out last night that there are some similar innovations occuring in the high end fashion sector here in India. The brand Bombay Electric are working with WomenWeave, to source materials from women working in villages, so that high end fashion can promote social development.

So we need not ignore. We need not feel guilty. Neither actually helps. Instead, the conundrum can be resolved if luxury comes to embody a fullness of our ability to live in solidarity with everyone we influence. Its ambitious. But are luxury brands not always ambitious?

The last conundrum I’ll explore here is sustainable consumption. Luxury brands are promoting consumerism in countries at a time when we need to reduce consumption in order to avert a climate catastrophe.

We only have one planet don’t we. Yet some aspire to live as if we have 5. If everyone lived like Americans we would need 5 planets of biological resources to support us. But it’s not simply a Western binge. Estimates put Malaysia at 4 planet lifestyles, Dubai at 10. Some research suggests the Indian middle classes now have a carbon footprint higher than the average Briton. The impacts are profound. For thousands of years the river Ganges has been revered. The Himalayan glacier that feeds it is shrinking by 40 meters a year, meaning it could disappear altogether in 20 years, and with it the Ganges in the dry season. Water is precious, to some it can be sacred. The shirts on our backs each took a few thousand litres of water to create. If we cherished them more, we would use less water. As well as less energy and other resources. To cut carbon emissions we have to reduce our consumption of resources. We only have about 10 years to transform our development so we don’t tip the world into catastrophic climate change. If you don’t believe it, you’ve been living in a bubble, and need to read your Herald Tribune.

Some of us are here to work out how better to sell Western brands into this highly complex market. Key to that is promoting a consumer fashion culture in a country where style traditions are centuries old and slow to change. Yet we know our world can’t cope with another billion embracing unbridled consumerism and a throwaway society. It would be an epic tragedy for some of our brightest minds to work on that, at a time when we need their talent to create a sustainable future.

What’s the answer? Become the best. Offer the best environmental option. Luxury brands have the margin and mandate to create the most environmentally friendly products and services. Yesterday Anna Zegna gave you some real examples, as will Stella in a moment. The great thing about luxury brands is that the way consumers relate to them actually prefigures the way we need consumers to relate to all their products. To look after them, to repair them, to see them as becoming vintage not garbage.

So let’s not be pale green, seeking to reduce our environmental impact a little to protect our reputation. That would be understandable, but it wouldn’t be real luxury. Instead, lets seek to create products and services that are actually environmentally restorative. So that by buying them people help the environment. One example is the UN’s Biotrade initiative, which is working with brands to develop skins and other products that create new revenues to pay for the conservation of species and their ecosystems.

Once we have created environmentally restorative products and services, then lets integrate that into the marketing and advertising of them in new markets, to help guide that wave of environmental awareness into more beneficial environmental behaviours. We have the power to shape aspirations and can use it wisely.

My intention in addressing these issues has been to release possible blockages to you being in flow in your your work and life. Because sustainability must start with us.

I am here because I believe that luxury can lead, not lag, in the transition to a fair and sustainable world. Its designers, entrepreneurs and executives can become part of what I term in my new book, The Corporate Responsibility Movement – A movement that is pursuing a transition to a fair and sustainable economy through new approaches to enterprise.

Together with the luxury brands Timothy Han and EcoBoudoir, as well as the UN Biotrade initiative, and luxury marketing expert Marco Bevolo, we are creating an association to support this transition. The Authentic Luxury Association gives you the opportunity to become an expert in the strategic importance of social and environmental excellence, as well as its operational implications. Already over 200 luxury professionals have joined our online network, which you can find at authenticluxury.net

We need not be confounded by this time of global stress, but work towards a new form of luxury that embodies what is personally, socially and environmentally the best of human creativity. The reflection from the late Anthony de Mello helps us see that at this time of strife, our world needs from us simply what we need for ourselves: o be authentic, soulful and purposeful. So thank you, for being, simply, you.”

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS THE IDEAS HERE, OR ENGAGE, PLEASE VISIT WWW.AUTHENTICLUXURY.NET

Links to the video of the talk will be posted there.

Questions to Christians

Over the years I have sometimes discussed religion, faith and spirituality with people at parties. I was asked to follow up with someone on this recently, and rather than providing explanations and references, in the first place I am writing down the questions I normally put to someone of faith. I pose these questions to explore with them the depth of their spiritual inquiry.

  • How can you be happy going to heaven knowing others have gone to hell?

  • Might your assumption or yearning for yourself to have an independent existence after death, worthy of being called or experienced as “you”, be a projection of ego consciousness, showing a fixation on your separate identity?

  • Given that you are not meant to worship material idols, why do you worship the bible, or sentences in it, when it is made of human invented things called “words” referring to human invented things called “concepts”

  • In a world of billions of people with their own histories cultures and belief systems, how can you believe you know the one right way, based on divine revelation to one group of people at one moment in time, without being racist or accepting that your God is racist?

  • Given that archaeological evidence from the past 100 years have highlighted how key elements of the biblical story, such as a ‘virgin’ birth, the numbers of disciplines, and some key Jesus teachings, were actually popular myths prior to the supposed lifetime of Jesus, how can you not wish to explore the historical and cultural origins and inventions of your religion?

  • Given the role of the roman empire in influencing what was chosen to be in the bible or be excluded, around 300 AD, shouldn’t you explore not only what was left out of the bible but also what the interests of the romans were in challenging existing spiritualities across europe at that time?

  • Given that those pre Christian European spiritualities, like many other non-Abrahamic spiritualities around the world, did not see a separation between the natural and spiritual realms, might that separation have been functional to forms of organisation and control that enabled those societies using Christianity to conquer more peoples and lands?

  • What might have been lost to our sense of self, community and world, due to that new understanding of natural-spiritual separation, which might be at the root of some of our problems today?

  • Why does your personal sense of joy and peace when you decide that doubts about your religion are mere tests of your faith, and that god transcends human understanding, validate your views and subsequent actions?

When I have some time in a week or two Ill write up the way the discussions normally go, and then the references I can recommend to help people follow up on the issues raised. Usually the questions do require a lot of explanation of the history of spiritualities, the development of religion, and Western notions of concepts and words.. and then alternatives that are as enriching, empowering and socially positive, as a feeling of being loved by “God”.

Total Woman

I read that authorities in the canton of Glarus, here in Switzerland, where the woman known as ‘Europe’s Last Witch’ Anna Goldi was beheaded back in 1782, rejected a motion to clear the woman’s name but has instead ordered an official study into the life of Ms Goldi, to determine, scientifically, if she was indeed innocent. Anna Goldi worked as a maidservant for a doctor in Glarus, who told authorities that she repeatedly put needles in the milk of one of his daughters, apparently by supernatural means. She was arrested and admitted, under torture, that she was in pact with the devil. http://www.wrgfm.com/news/2862

News which has prompted me to share one of my latest attempts at poetry, written during August while I was in Ticino, the Italian bit of Switzerland. Because I think we still suffer the effects of the witch hunts. Perhaps it’s a bit more pretentious than my last attempts (which u can see by clicked on the tab ‘poetry’), and any comments however bad are welcome.

“Total Woman”

A glimpse of the past
that’s hidden by flames
so hateful to our nature
how they smoulder still
in the hearts of those
who see right to smother
the true might
of a total
total woman.

as if God was male
as if Life was stale
as if beauty was pale
as if unity fails
what mortal ‘moral’ madness

but now
she glimpses the path
that kindles my flames
so grateful to her nature
what a bolder thrill
from a heart that glows
to give one another
the true might
of a hopeful
global woman.

Jem Bendell, August 13th, 2007, Ticino, Switzerland.

On Bumble Bees and Brahmins

You may have heard that the bumble bee is in trouble. That the buzz from these servants of life is growing quieter in many parts of Europe and the US. I read that the populations are collapsing. In November last year, the New York Times helped bring attention to what researchers are calling “colony collapse disorder,” in which honeybees are disappearing, flying off in search of pollen and nectar and not returning to their colonies. Populations have been reported as declining across Europe. (1)

 

 

As they buzz from flower to flower, bees are intimately involved in plant reproduction, and thus in all fruits and the broader food chain. “As bees pollinate 90 crops worldwide, the threat to food supplies is grave.”(1). Less bees, less food, less us. This reminds us of our dependence on the rest of life.

 

 

 

The demise of the bumble bee is a reminder of a reality we often forget. We too easily assume we are separate from and better than the rest of life. Yet if we combine findings from different natural sciences we have glimpse of a different view, one that suggests the humble bumble might be closer to spirit than our most esteemed human beings.

 

 

 

The dance of the honeybee is one of the most intricate communications in nature, telling other bees of the location and supply of pollen. But how can a tiny insect with only a few million neurons possess all the information needed to carry it out? Mathematician Barbara Shipman has found that the dance can be predicted by a mathematical object called a flag manifold. One day, while Shipman was projecting the 6 dimensions of a flag manifold onto a two dimensional piece of paper, she was amazed to see that the form she was creating is the same as the bees’ dance. She had found a mathematical structure that contains all the different forms of the dance. Shipman speculates that since the flag manifold expresses movement in extremely tiny particles known as quarks, that the bees themselves may be quark-sensitive, and connected to the quantum level of matter and energy.(2) If so, then their mind may be far more capable than we realise (continued below…)

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What does being conscious of the quantum level of reality imply? There is a lot of debate, but a one idea this gives me is that at the quantum level space and time do not operate in the way we normally understand and experience them. They might not even exist at all. Two experiments could indicate this. First, if you fire a photon of light through one of two slits one at a time, with even a long period of time between each, in the end you create an interference pattern on a photographic plate on the other side as if a whole beam had been fired at the same time at both slits.

 

 

Some, such as famed physicist Bohm, consider this means there is a wave form that accompanies the photon, and so it interferes with itself. Perhaps another view could be that the individual photons interfered with photons from the future or past. That would seem as plausible as the idea of a parallel universe of photons, or that the photons pass through different slits at the same time, or exist in all possible positions until detected – which are some other theories advanced. I would conclude that at the quantum level either time or space is not what we assume it to be, or something that transcends time and space interacts with those photons (3). Second, at the quantum level particles are spinning. If you separate a particular into two, and then move them far apart, if you change the spin of one piece, the spin of the other piece will also change. This ‘causal non-locality’ suggests that at the quantum level particles and energy are connected by a universal space-transcending field, or that space doesn’t exist in the way we understand and experience it. The idea that a photon might leave a trace in this field which then interferes with other photons is another way of explaining the previous conundrum. Ervin Lazlo offers a name to this underlying unifying field that transcends space and time – the Akashic Field (4). The use of a term with a history in eastern spiritual philosophy is deliberate, as a unifying dimension that transcends space and time is expressed in all the great spiritual traditions, with Abrahamic religions like Christianity calling it the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

If bees are quantum dancers, are they more conscious of this Akashic field than us? Or, in western traditional terms, are they more conscious of the Holy Spirit? That sounds strange, doesn’t it? It’s heretical not only in religious terms but also in the secular view of humans being the best. It challenges the assumptions of Abrahamic religions head on, as they view humans and the spiritual realm as separate from and better than ‘nature’. Even in Eastern spiritual traditions that don’t maintain such a distinction between the spiritual and the natural world, there is a very clear hierarchy, with humans at the top of the spiritual tree, and with those humans less connected to the Earth being more on top than others. The Hindu assertion that one group of people are one step away from nirvana by virtue of their genes always seemed a bit self-serving, especially when I met young Indians getting pissed at a party, showing off their latest mobile phones, and saying they’ve got nothing to worry about on the spiritual front because they’re Brahmin. By tradition, Brahmins are meant to do more intellectual pursuits than lower castes. But why is conceptual thought more ‘spiritual’ than the mental experiences during farming for your food? A lot of conceptual thought can be malign.

 

 

I find the assertion that people with disabilities are somehow dealing with a karmic debt, and probably have further to go in the cycles of reincarnation, a malign interpretation of eastern spiritual philosophies. The strength and beauty of our bodies or minds is more of a barrier to spiritual awakening than it is a tool. Our spiritual selves are not our bodies or minds. People dealing with more challenges to their bodies and minds are more likely to understand their essential nature as not solely bodily or mental. They are more likely to have a chance of being one step away from nirvana. Stephen Fry once said he wouldn’t swap his bipolarity for the world. I also recognize how my eczema through childhood has made me who I am today. I don’t want more suffering, but when it happens I accept its power to throw light on my assumptions that I am my body and mind. The implication is we should listen and learn from those who live with affliction, and listen to the aspects of ourselves, the moments of ourselves when we are physically afflicted. It doesn’t mean seeking suffering, as that’s an egoistic response to knowledge of the challenge to transcend body and mind, but just recognize it has some value when it occurs, as it inevitably will throughout and at the end of life.

 

 

 

If transcending separative consciousness is key to awakening to our spiritual selves, to that part of ourselves that is part of the akashic field or holy spirit, then we need to transcend those two things which create our experience of separation: body and mind. More complex thought is as much a barrier as a pathway to that awakening. With this in mind, and evidence of the possible closeness of bees to the quantum realm, what does this suggest about our assumptions that people are the top of the spiritual tree, either through reincarnation or a belief that human’s are made in God’s image? Might bees, and other life forms that act in a collective, and serve wider life, have a consciousness that transcends separation? Could bees be more spiritual than us? Sounds weird. But do the maths. If all souls have to move to nirvana how can we have trillions of ants and bees and far less humans? For humans to exist millions more insects must exist. The mathematics of assuming the gateway to heaven or nirvana through reincarnation goes through humans, and then higher status humans like Brahmins, just doesn’t add up.

 

 

 

In light of this, some questions bother me a bit. Are humans of higher worth than the rest of life? If so why? What is our role in relation to the rest of life? The old answers from East and West don’t really work. I think humans are a bit ‘special’. We are the latest, highest, expression of life’s potential for complex thought, that we know of, on this planet. Life always had the potential for us to think as we do and there seems to be a purpose within that. I will develop this in another blog posting (www.jembendell.com). For now, I should point out it means that, on the downside, humans have a unique capacity amongst life forms for suffering. We can suffer on a level of thought that other animals can’t. This needs to be reduced. On the upside, we have a unique capacity to inquire into and know Life itself. To bring together the separate with the universal.

 

 

 

 

 

But the plight of the humble bumble throws these questions of the importance of humans into relief… because it reminds us we are one ecosystem, and how questions about rank and hierarchy are preoccupations of the human mind that should not distract us from essential oneness. Their crucial role in serving Life’s creative process makes bees more important than us in respect of ecosystem maintenance. How can we return the favour? Scientists aren’t sure what’s responsible for the crash in bee population. Some are suggesting it is a virus, a parasite, or a fungus, while others are pointing to problems arising from genetically modified plants, agricultural chemicals or climate changes that could be weakening bees immune systems and making them more susceptible to diseases and disturbances. (1, 5)

 

 

 

One possible disturbance is wireless internet networks and mobile phone signals, which some are suggesting interfere with the way bees communicate. Anecdotal evidence where people with bee infestation in their lofts have found them all gone after installing wireless mean we quickly need to see some more geographical studies of wireless networks, phone masts, and bee populations past and present.(2) And as major commercial interests are at stake we need that research to be funded independently of companies and governments with vested interests. Given the risks, we should be open to the possibility of a variety of potential causes, and take precautions. When the data’s in it might turn out that we have to reduce some forms of electromagnetic pollution. It would be time for all of us, Brahmins included, to put down our mobiles and quiet our chattering minds, for the sake of all Life, including our own.

 For those of you inspired to start some beekeeping, this e-book is a good start. Or you could go the whole hog and live the good life… “Self Sufficient Life” tells us all about “Keeping And Raising Chickens And Poultry. Build A Chicken Coop. Growing Your Own Fruit And Vegetables. Beekeeping. Herbal Remedies, Hydroponic Gardening, and Your Own Greenhouse.” What am I doing with my office life. 😦

 

 

 

 

 

 

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/jun/27/society.conservation1

(2) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1511/is_n11_v18/ai_19847180/print

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohm_interpretation

(4) Science and the Akashic Field, Ervin Lazlo, http://www.amazon.com/Science-Akashic-Field-Integral-Everything/dp/customer-reviews/1594770425

(5) http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,473166,00.html

 

Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/azrainman/990800063/

Ps: Comedian and social commentator Bill Mather did a story on this, available at the following link. But he mentioned a quote from Einstein that seems to be “urban myth” as no one on the web quoting it, that I found, has got an original source. Still, he delivers the message: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KGIKBVd8no

 

 

The Law of Distraction

Heard about the Secret? I watched the DVD at a meeting of a ‘book club’ in Geneva. After an hour I started to get a bit uncomfortable… and as others got excited about it, I wondered how much of a party pooper I was going to be. Something just felt really wrong about this DVD… especially so given that it featured brilliant people like Michael Beckwith saying some great things, but weaving it all together in the most selfish and compassion-free worldview possible.

The film has became a publishing phenomenon — helped by being featured on two episodes of Oprah, I guess. And the use of Da Vinci Code style branding. It reached number one on the Amazon DVD chart in March 2007. A book version, also called The Secret reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list. For much of February through April both the book and DVD versions were #1 or #2 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.

I thought ‘The Secret’ was a commercialised and hocus-pocus repackaging of the simple fact that we see things as much as we are as they ‘actually’ are. This has never been a secret. “We see things as we are not as they are” is in the extremely non-secret Jewish Talmud.

The implications of this are taken much further than ‘the law of attraction’ does, in Buddha’s teachings about peace and happiness arising from our transcending the need to bring anything into one’s life at all, because flow and change is inherent in all reality, and so suffering comes from becoming attached to things that will inevitably flow away. Another dimension to Buddha’s teachings are that things are ultimately one. The ‘law of attraction’ as presented in that film doesn’t approach this properly, being stuck in the selfish separative ego mind of the individual that wishes to receive more and more from the outside world for their own purposes. Indeed this hyper-egoism is illustrated by the idea that everything in the world happens because of us… i.e. we think good things, we get them, we think bad things, we get them.

Both Buddhism and ‘law of attraction’ approaches can fall into spiritual solipsism… meaning that we think that our own state of happiness means that the world outside our minds is doing fine, or is irrelevant. When spiritual teachers sometimes imply that we should ignore the negative, like famine and war, they are focusing on a separative view of humans. It is another thing to focus on why we don’t like famine and war, and frame our concern as an aspiration for what we do want. But that still means that the pain of reality at odds with your aspiration is still present. The goal is then for a sense of peace to persist while one is engaged in what is an often painful world. We need spirit in the world, the messy troubling reality of the world, not spirit found away from the world, on top of a mountain, in a corporate self-help course, or in front of a DVD.

Faced with problems we might unfortunately move from denial to despair. Neither is positive. However, we need to move from denial to action. For those who are not able to make the choice to act on problems facing humanity, it can be easier to block these out, and to chose to believe that this blocking out of others pain is somehow ‘right’ in some spiritual way… for instance by suggesting that we will even make more hunger occur by focusing on it! Nuts.

That is the real danger of the ‘law of attraction’ stuff – it offers a way of removing ones subconscious sense of guilt for turning ones back on the world and focusing on ones mental peace. In this sense the message of The Secret almost appears as the ultimate temptation – called ‘the devil’ in some cultures. So perhaps it highlights a ‘law of distraction’ – that people seek to distract themselves from their fundamental unity with everything and the inevitable passing of every pattern they identify with, including their own lives.

Don’t bother buying it. Use peekvid.com or somesuch to check it out. If you want to buy a DVD combining spiritual wisdom and the latest science, I’d recommend “What the Bleep do we know”… a bit cringy, but worth those moments of grimacing. see: http://www.whatthebleep.com

These vids might indicate a trend… spiritual tv. Which makes me wonder… I live in Geneva, the Rome of the Reformation. We host one of the first English language bibles ever, next to the church I can see from my window. It was the printing press that made the Reformation possible… it meant the translations could be shared around Europe rapidly and cheaply. The internet is as important a communications leap as the printing press. So…. the conditions are right for a spiritual renaissance, a transformation of assumptions concerning our place in the universe. I’m quite excited.

rm1-img2.jpg

The Secret was well produced and wonderfully marketed. And the exposure it gave its producer Rhonda Byrne, helped us to see just how nutty and superficial her view is. In an article on how to lose weight, she wrote: “If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17317691/site/newsweek/page/2/. Yeah, fat boy, get out of my face, you’re expanding my waist!

That article came out the same week Newsweek ran a story on climate change being a hoax. If only by forgetting about climate change it would go away. If only. Sadly it won’t. And, sadly, neither will The Secret, or Rhonda or her secret-suckers if I just ignore them. But it’s tempting…

Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_(2006_film) for more on the saga of the Secret.

 

There’s alrady a whole industry out there in helping people apply this stuff. For starters, there’s the “6 Week Extreme Life Makeover” e-book that aims to “Flood Your Life With Riches, Fulfill All Of Your Hearts Desires, And Start Living The Life Of Your Dreams – In Just 6 Weeks!”, closer followed by the Revolutioniz” which says its “The Most Complete Resource On The Law Of Attraction And Reality Creation” and the more sober sounding “Reality Creation Secrets” which provides the “Most Powerful Knowledge In The World About How To Create The Perfect Reality You Desire And Manifest Super Riches, Total Freedom And Extreme Happiness!” Nice. Perhaps they’re even more nutty than the Secret. If you check one out, let me know.

Poetry in Hiking

Last week, after 3 days hiking in the Alps, sitting with a view of Bleumlisalp, I made my first attempt at poetry…

Water moods

Like the avalanching snow

Or the rushing streams

You like your moods

Like the glacier melting

Or the cool mountain clouds

You like your moods

Like the meadow below

Or just trampled snow

Do I like your moods?

Like wind, like air

Do you care?

Like water, all that water

Should we?

 

Thank You Sun

The rays through the clouds

The pink light at dusk

Sun, may I thank you?

Perhaps that’s pointless

As you’ll burn on regardless

But now, you burn through me

I see the rays as beauty

I see the pink and wonder

I’m being thanked for being

And for knowing you are there

So thank you too, Sun.

copyright jem bendell, july 27th 2007

Thank you Jill

jill

On Monday 25th, at the start of my first day in the WWF-UK office, the death of WWF-UK’s Director of Programmes, Dr Jill Bowling, was confirmed along with 23 passengers on a helicopter in Nepal.

Jill was the reason I joined WWF. I have mixed feelings about NGOs, given the tendency for big egos to badly manage, sometimes confusing their public purpose and the values from which this arises, with their own status or that of their organisation. But Jill embodied a different approach. In the three times I met her, and few times we discussed on the phone, I found someone who was focused on the imperative of positive change for people and planet. Someone who wanted to support and enable talented and decicated people to achieve more than they could on their own. I was really looking forward to working with and learning from her.

Jill was in Nepal to mark a historic event, which illustrated both the need for and practicality of people living in harmony with nature and with eachother, to gain welfare, wellbeing and meaning from our living planet. “This historic step is an important landmark in the history of biodiversity conservation in the country… the devolution of power to local communities, especially with regard to natural resources and equitable sharing of benefits,” a press statement issued by the WWF Nepal said.

There was a memorial service in the offices of WWF-UK for Jill and Jenn Headley who had also worked at WWF-UK previously and died in the crash. Jill was a trustee of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (www.arcworld.org) and a representative lead the service. To the staff he said of Jill: “you are her memory, you are her future.” Part of Jill’s legacy will be expressed though how we embrace the message of people-planet unity that underlay the important work in Nepal that she was there to celebrate.

This blog was meant to be about my random attempts at understanding things, and where failing that then just musing or laughing. With such sad and shocking news the only option is to seek some learning, some truth, some implication… thankfully Jill’s life is fertile for such lessons and legacy.

The week before, from the airport on her way to Nepal, Jill called me and apologized that she was not going to be in the office on my first day. Those little things speak volumes, don’t they? Thank you Jill.

Why was she there? An historic event: http://www.nepalmountainnews.org/news.php?subaction=showfull&id=1158998430&archive=&start_from=&ucat=1&do=news

WWF book of condolences: http://www.panda.org/news_facts/newsroom/crisis/helicopter_crash_nepal_2006/book_of_condolences/messages/index.cfm

How to Begin? On consciousness and foot massage

foot massage june 06

How should I begin my own blog? Its going to be a mix of work and life. I want to use it partly as my own diary or journal, and use the informal setting to write more freely than I do in my publications (which, by the way, plug, are available via http://www.jembendell.com, end plug). So it will reflect what I think about. This summer, during a July of 30+ heat in Geneva, I spent time reflecting on what my worldview is today… I had some decisions to make about future work and where to live. Ive made those decisions… more on that later, but for now, this is what Ive come up with…

What is my belief system? I don’t think I have one… other than the importance of foot massage (well I’d had a hard weekend walking in the Jura.). I have hopes, about the way things might be, and know how I would like things to be, but not beliefs. I see beliefs as those things we say are so, despite evidence to the contrary. Instead, my ethos is partly informed from experiences of consciousness, combined with reason.

foot massage june 06

I take inspiration from peak experiences, momentary states of consciousness which can be called ‘universal love’ consciousness or spiritual consciousness, where the sense of separateness of oneself from everything else melts away. For me these are important in 3 respects.

a) Insight into reality. This consciousness suggests that there is a reality that is non-separate. That there is some unity of being that we do not always perceive in daily living. This consciousness happens within my brain-and-body, and so could be either entirely bounded within that, or could involve my mind connecting with something outside it. I do not know. Anyone who says they do know are probably just speculating in ways that reflect their emotional needs, social conditioning etc.

b) Experience of the experiencer. This consciousness can release a great sense of joy. That joy comes, I think, from all the fears we have that arise from our separateness and fixation on forms not flows e.g. how we fit in, whether we are good, that we will die, that things or people we like or love will change, disappear, suffer. Joy itself has value.

c) The effect on interpersonal relations. This consciousness CAN, but not necessarily WILL, create mutually supportive interaction between people, leading to more people self-actualizing in harmony.

None of these interpretations of the meaning, importance and implications of peak experiences or higher states of consciousness are complete: we should not just focus on one aspect.

The memory of these peak experiences can motivate people to act in ways that are

i) self-expressing in ways that correspond with a greater more connected self and

ii) self-effacing (and even self-harming) in the sense that the acting or ways of thinking involve subsuming the self to the other.

 

Some people think that ii is of higher worth in terms of transcending self-interest, whereas some think that ii is a pathology, not a spiritual quality. I believe that both self-expression and self-effacing are essential aspects of a life arising out of the knowledge and experience of higher consciousness, and that one and not the other is not complete.

From realizing that in a night club, in a church and by a lake I have had these moments of higher consciousness, I do not see this consciousness as purely material, purely supernatural and religious, or purely natural and ecological…. I even feel like this a bit when I spend time with good friends. It was great when Adam and Fay popped in for a surprise visit to Geneva. (OK, Fay and Adam I wasnt overwhelmed by the holy spirit, but it was nice to see u).

fay adam and jem

So I’m beginning the blog with consciousness. Appropriately perhaps, because “in the beginning there was consciousness.” That’s how I understand the opening phrase of the bible “In the beginning was the Word”. The original word was “logos” and this doesnt mean “word” but alludes to thought, concept, or, consciousness. In this way the Abrahamic religions correspond with Eastern philosophy on consciousness preceding matter. Its just that in the West we have got too attached to and proud of language, worshipping the false idols of ink on a page and sounds from the mouth. Im not sure whether moments of altered consciousness are moments when we connect to that original universal consciousness… That would have to be a belief. But it certainly seems experientially as if there is a fundamental unity being connected to.

I’ll leave it there for now.. not bad for a first blog post to reveal both post-christianity and forays into the chemical world. Speaking of which… how DOES Dave keep doing it? Wild show at Paleo from Depeche Mode this summer… loved it.

depeche mode