Challenge and Creation - Ethics for a New Era

Peter Russell

Ninth Fukushima International Seminar, 1990.


Technology is one of humanity’s greatest assets. With it we have changed the face of the Earth and developed in ways that no other creature could ever have done. Yet this same power for change now threatens the survival of our species. The issue that I would like to explore here is how this dangerous situation has arisen and how we might be able to adopt a more appropriate value system.

In essence all technology can be considered as an amplifiacation of our innate capacities. One ability that makes humanity unique is our opposable thumb – a thumb that can rotate fully about its base, allowing it to be put in direct opposition to each of the fingers. This unique feature allows us to grasp objects of varying shapes and sizes, manipulate them, and perform delicate operations with them. It transforms the human hand into one of the most elegantly skillful biological organs ever evolved.

These hands have led us to become one of the most proficient and prolific tool-users on the planet. We moved from hammers to axes, clothes, boats, wheels, windmills, steam engines, telephones, computers and space vehicles.

All of this technology is, in essence, the amplification of the potential inherent in the human thumb.

In addition to amplifying the power inherent in the human thumb, we have also amplified our other unique asset – language and our ability to share ideas. Unlike other creatures we do not have to learn everything anew; we can learn from each other. With the advent of language we began learning together as a single species.

Limited to speech alone ideas could not travel far without becoming lost. So we developed new technologies that increased our ability to share ideas and process information. We moved from speech to writing, to printing press, to telegraph and telephone, to radio, television, tape recording, photocopying and electronic data processing.

This enhanced processing capacity had an immediate positive feedback on material technology. It allowed us to design and build bigger and more complex systems – bridges, aircraft, dams, buildings, tunnels, boats, engines and such. High technology could be guided and controlled – leading the way to the workerless factory, and opening the door into space.

Towards a Global Brain

Perhaps the greatest impact of the information technology has been that of telecommunications. Artificial satellites, fibre optics, digital coding, computerized switching, faxes, video links other advances in telecommunications are weaving an ever-thickening web of information around the world. And we, the billions of minds of this huge 'global brain' are being linked together by the 'fibres' of our telecommunication systems in much the same way as the billions of cells in our own brain are linked.

The integration of the human species that began with the advent of verbal language and our ability to learn from each other's experience, is now reaching fruition. We can now share ideas and experiences not just with those around us, but with anyone, anywhere on the planet.

This emerging global brain now has global senses. A video camera in Beijing can instantly relay events to anyone who cares (or is permitted) to watch. A microphone in the Brazilian rain-forest can allow each us to listen to the life abounding there. While sensors aboard a space probe can relay back to Earth views of the Solar System that no human being has ever experienced.

The eyes and ears of our telecommunications network are becoming the eyes and ears of humanity, allowing us to share new sets of experiences. And as our experiences expand so does our awareness of ourselves. No longer is home our village or town, or even our country. Home is now our planet. We are becoming increasingly aware that we are all fellow passengers on `Spaceship Earth'; we are a single species, sharing not only a common home, but also a common destiny.

An Insane Global Brain

This global linkage is not, however, sufficient to ensure the future welfare of humanity. A human brain consists of billions of cells, all linked together and interacting, but that person could be either a wise, sensitive, caring person, or they could be a rather egocentric or even mad person. Having an intact brain does not determine how it functions. The same is true of humanity. We could link together to form a "global brain", but if we're not careful the result could be a rather insane global brain.

In some respects we are already behaving rather insanely. We are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than the planet can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect that may destroy civilization. At the same time we are destroying the tropical rain forests, which are one of the main regulators of our planet’s environment. Automobiles, power stations and chemical plants in the industrial countries pour noxious gases into the atmosphere, to later fall as acid rain. Intensive agricultural practices are turning soil into sterile dust to be washed or blown away – and at a time when the number of mouths to feed is still increasing rapidly. Most dangerous of all, the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which protects all life from the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays, is being destroyed by the chloroflorocarbons.

To be doing all this damage accidently would be bad enough. But is it not insane to continue to behaving this way even though we know it may destroy us?

Thus the most important questions that humanity today needs to address are: Why, in the face of so much evidence, do we continue doing things which are very likely to destroy us? What is wrong with us?

An Inner Crisis

Everything that is going wrong in the world around us has originated from decisions made by human beings. We may have made those decisions very consciously or without much thinking; we may have made them individually or in groups; but ultimately all of the crises stem from human action and human thinking. The error is inside our own heads, in our minds, in our attitudes, in our values. This is what underlies the global crisis we find ourselves in. It is a crisis of consciousness, of what we regard as important.

Much of our activity is dominated by our psychological needs. There is, for example, the need for security, which often expresses itself as the need for money, to gather wealth. If this dominates the mind then we may find ourselves doing things which are not in our own best interests; indeed, financial security often becomes more important that our own future.

For some people what is important is a sense of power, feeling in control. Many people do not do or say the things they should, because they are concerned about losing their influence over other people. For others it may be the need for approval and recognition that dominate their decisions and behavior.

If this were as far as it went, such sad and unnecessary behavior would be fairly benign. But its consequences spread out into the world around. We develop an exploitative attitude to the world, using other people and the environment for the ways in which they can fulfil our needs. The need for approval can lead us to make inappropriate political, economic, environmental or industrial decisions. We consume resources we do not need, disperse toxins we could contain, and carelessly eliminate thousands of other species sharing our planet. The need for security can lead us to make too many choices in the name of financial expediency. Our need to defend our own beliefs turns others into enemies, makes us kill en masse, and focuses half our scientific research on weapons of war.

In short, our apparent needs for approval, recognition, stimulus, power, control, security, etc. dominate our thinking to such an extent that we behave in ways which clearly are no longer in our own best interests. So the next question we must ask, is can we move beyond this rather counter-productive inner programming?

Our Fundamental Need

If these needs were really fundamental – like, for example, the needs for air and food are – there will be little hope for humanity. But it turns out that they are not so fundamental. They are more like beliefs that we have got ourselves stuck with.

Let us ask ourselves for a moment what lies behind these needs. What does having security give us? Perhaps we believe we will feel happier and more at peace. What does stimulus and excitement bring us? Maybe it makes us feel good or full of joy. What comes from having approval and recognition? Possibly a feeling of inner well-being and satisfaction.

In fact these various goals are not that different from each other. Happiness, peace, feeling good, joy, inner well- being and satisfaction are just different ways of describing the same thing. We could equally use terms such as fulfillment, serenity, contentment, at ease or peace of mind. However we may describe it, we are, in the final analysis, after the same thing. Beneath everything we do, everything we desire, and everything we need is one common goal. We want to be happy. We want to be free from suffering and pain. We want to be at peace within.

The alleviation of suffering and the search for a more satisfying state of mind - call it happiness, fulfillment, inner peace, joy, pleasure or what you will - has been the fundamental motivation of human beings throughout history. It is this that led us to take shelter in caves, build fires, wear clothes, develop agriculture, improve health, share work and develop labour-saving technologies. This has been the motivation behind all our revolutions and breakthroughs.

The Fundamental Belief

There is nothing wrong with seeking inner peace. Where we have gone is in the ways in which we seek peace of mind.

Beneath our many desires lies a common assumption: Whether or not I am at peace within depends upon my experience of the world around. If it is sunny I will be happy. If I get promotion I will be content. If no one disturbs me I will be at peace. This is the fundamental operating principle that guides many of our decisions and behavior.

The belief that inner well-being depends upon outer well-being runs deep through our societies - indeed it is their keystone. Much of our education focuses on knowing the ways of the world in order that we may better manage our affairs and so satisfy our needs. And, as we go though life, the daily deluge of television, radio, newspapers, magazines and billboards reinforces the belief that happiness comes from what we do or have. Wherever we turn we seem to find confirmation that outer well-being determines inner well-being. We have, in effect, been hypnotized into accepting that this external side of the equation is all there is.

Yet most of us know that this fundamental operating principle does not actually work. Examples abound of those who have gathered all the wealth or possessions they could desire, achieved all the fame or respect they wished for, gained all the power or influence they wanted, or found all the excitement or stimulation that they cared to have, yet still remain dissatisfied and not at peace within. We know that whether or not we are at peace comes as much from how we are within as on how things are around us. But our social conditioning is so strong that this inner knowledge rarely comes to the surface. We are caught between what we have been taught to believe and what we know.

A parallel phenomenon occurs in ordinary hypnosis. In one experiment a subject under hypnosis was given the suggestion that a bucket of water was at room temperature, when in reality it was ice-cold – and anyone who as ever experienced ice-cold water will know that it can be quite painful. The person was asked to sit with one arm immersed in the water and report on how it felt. She said that it felt fine; there was no discomfort and no pain. The hypnosis was apparently successful. She was then asked to allow her other hand to engage in some 'automatic writing' without looking at what was written. And she started writing 'It's freezing.' 'Take my hand out.' 'It hurts.' Although the hypnosis had elicited the desired behavior it had not been able to over-ride a deeper level of truth.

The same would seem to happen with our search for peace. We have plenty of evidence that the key to fulfillment lies within. There are those who can remain cheerful when everything seems to be going wrong, or who do not get upset at having to wait in a long queue. And we hear of more extreme examples of those who maintained an inner equanimity despite the atrocities of war, or of yogis who can apparently sleep peacefully on a bed of nails. Yet in our own lives most of us continue to behave as if outer well-being were the only path to peace.

Until, that is, we engage in some ‘automatic writing’, when our deeper knowing reveals itself. For others this truth may reveal itself in other ways – through meditation, dreams, or some other process or circumstance that allows us temporarily to step beyond our conditioned response and remember the truth.

The Fundamental Error

The truth is that our inner well-being is dependant upon the way we choose to perceive and react to circumstances. Whether or not we experience peace of mind in any particular situation is a reflection of how we perceive and judge our experience. This realization has been the foundation of the world’s great spiritual teachings.

Considering that many great scholars have written volumes and volumes of books comparing the different religions and exploring their common thread, it may seem a little presumptuous of me to try to encapsulate them all in a few sentences, and I know that in doing so I may miss out many importance aspects. Nevertheless, let me give you what I consider to be four key points underlying the major spiritual traditions.

1. Our minds have become trapped. In one way or another we have become stuck in various attachments to the things we think are important - our material possessions, our relationships, or our ideas and beliefs. Whatever their form, each attachment can be threatened. We continually wonder if somebody or something is going to take away our favourite attachment. Thus we spend much of our life in fear.

2. Such attachments are neither necessary nor helpful. There is another way of living our lives. We can live in an inner freedom. But to attain this freedom requires a very fundamental change of thinking, a change in how we see the world.

3. So long as we see people through the eyes of fear, wondering how this person or situation may be a threat to what we think we need, we will remain stuck in our old patterns. We need some process, technique or practice that will allow us to let go of the old ways of seeing.

4. This shift of perception changes the way we act in the world. If we can see other people as they are, without judgement, we can begin to see them through the eyes of compassion and love. If we can act out of love then we can begin to act appropriately.

The Challenge Ahead

Making this shift in consciousness is not only important for our individual growth. It is, I believe, the most important challenge facing humanity today.

Consider for a moment a person who has fallen sick. His skin may be erupting in boils; he may have pains in the stomach and be running a fever. A doctor who merely gave the person ointments, pain relievers and something to suppress the temperature would not be considered very wise. Clearly, true healing requires that, in addition to treating the various symptoms, one must also look more deeply at what underlies them. Perhaps a foreign bacteria is present; maybe there is vitamin deficiency; or possibly the person's emotional state is responsible. Any wise doctor knows that as well as treating the symptoms one must also find out what the cause is, and seek to treat that as well. Otherwise the sickness will reappear, possibly in other forms.

Humanity as a whole is in a very similar position. The symptoms of our sickness can be seen all around; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, changing weather patterns, food shortages, pollution, desertification, depletion of the planet's resources, economic crises, social tensions, etc. Certainly we need to find solutions to these problems – and very quickly – but if that is all we do we are like a doctor who only treats a patient's symptoms, and then declares the patient well again. We must also seek to remedy the root cause of humanity’s problems.

At present we have very little understanding of our inner psychological functioning – particularly in the areas of values and spiritual development. I believe that what we most need today is a concerted international effort to discover the best ways of fostering a widespread shift in consciousness.

The basic wisdom already exists. It is there in the spiritual traditions of all cultures; it is there in the saints and wise people of all times; and it is there inside every one of us. It is the truth we each know deep within. The question is can we tap this wisdom? Can we live it, rather than just talk about it? Can we learn to put it into practice so that it permeates our minds and hearts ?

Let me finish with a poem from Christopher Fry's play "The Sleep of Prisoners" that summarizes our situation very succinctly.

The human heart can go the length of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this is no winter now.
The frozen misery of centuries cracks, breaks, begins to move.
The thunder is the thunder of the floes, the thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now, when wrong comes up to meet us everywhere.
Never to leave us, till we take,
The longest stride of soul men ever took
Affairs are now soul size,
The enterprise is exploration into God
But where are you making for?
It takes so many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity's sake?

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