The Gaian Community


Philosophical and Religious Foundations of a Global Ethic

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the "Universe," a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

- Albert Einstein

by Ingrid H Shafer

An ethical system of a particular religious or cultural group delineates the values by which the members of that community are expected to live, especially as they relate to one another.

The term has also been applied to the standards that govern our attitudes and actions towards non-human life and the natural world (especially among Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists, and to a lesser extent in some of the Levitic codes of Jewish scripture).

Even when ethical systems are not fixed in written form, they tend to be deeply ingrained in a given cultural unit and passed down from each generation to the next in whatever ways that group has developed to preserve its most central, foundational values - those ways of thinking, being, and acting that have developed over time through interaction with surrounding conditions (human as well as natural) and in their interplay make a community uniquely itself.

A group's ethical system is inextricably braided into the self-understanding and sense of belonging of the members of that community and reflects the deepest, most stable structures which hold the community together, much like the hub of a wheel allows the spokes to revolve in unison and keeps the wheel from flying apart.

Hence, ethical systems tend to be very resistant to change, and conflict results when previously isolated groups come into close contact as a result of migration, population growth, territorial expansion, commercial interaction, the conquests of war, missionary activity, through the written word, print, and other assorted media.  Conflict tends to be especially pronounced when such contact with the "other" is sudden and large scale.

Until some 10 years ago, the rate of this culture-mingling process, while clearly accelerating, was nevertheless fairly predictable.  Since the middle 1980s, however, something occurred that may well be called the 20th century "cyber-revolution" by future historians.

I am referring to the exponential increase in the number of personal computers, high-speed modems, fax machines, the Internet, and other newly developed tools for almost instant and either free or at least low cost mass communication (such as the World Wide Web).  Humanity is suddenly faced with the challenge of spawning literally millions of separate groups whose members share interests, attitudes, and information while being physically located anywhere on earth and, concurrently, as a by-product, the rapid globalisation of the human community as a whole.

No longer are images and text travelling by themselves.  Computer information arrives along with human commentators who, in all ways except skin-to-skin contact, are as accessible as one's next-door neighbours and may come out of a physical community 10,000 miles and several continents removed.

This development was truly unprecedented and could not be fully anticipated until it was actually occurring, even though as early as 1949, the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin not only linked terms such as "ultra-hominisation" with the natural sciences but anticipated an essential role for "those astonishing electronic machines (the starting point and hope of the young science of cybernetics) by which our mental capacity to calculate and combine is reinforced and multiplied ... [leading to] an auto-cerebralisation becoming the most highly concentrated expression of the reflective rebound of evolution").  Forty years after his death Teilhard would, one suspects, be gratified to see the world wide web weaving itself around the globe, spinning the beginnings of his no√∂sphere, allowing ever new and more complex links, nodes, synapses, and networks to emerge and take on a life of their own - turning into the global super-brain.

Ethical systems originally grew as natural byproducts of people's need to regulate human interaction as Homo sapiens first emerged at the dawn of pre-history.  In reciprocal action, they both helped shape their culture and were shaped by it.  They are grounded in the very processes that distill order from chaos and distinguish human beings from pre-human animals.

Social animals that run in packs or migrate in flocks or graze in herds have rules that are unique to their patterns of flight formation or mating rituals.  One can speculate that just as mating behaviour is highly stylised among animals it was encrusted with originally instinctive prescriptions and proscriptions by the time humans became conscious of themselves as agents who are both mortal and capable of transcending mortality by passing ideas on to others.

All truly human accomplishments are the result of our awareness of our own finitude.  The myth of the Fall is the story of the humanation of pre-human creatures who lived in the safe womb of immortality (unaware of their mortality) until they "ate of the tree of knowledge" - and discovered themselves as persons destined to die.  Self-consciousness brought with it the consciousness of death, and with awareness of death came the need and opportunity to plan for the future and create community that would endure.

Religion emerged as humans experienced themselves as at once finite and infinite - conscious centers of ordering that rise up and transform the non-human and not only, like other animals, transcend death in their genes but can do so through their ideas.  Precisely in contingency, they saw themselves as related to something transcendent and grasped by the need to make meaning.

The first ethical systems were linked to a group's religion, and were codified, justified, and enforced in terms of transcendent commands and sanctions.  While they often appear to be solely proscriptive they actually reflect a community's self-image, as mentioned before, and shared meaning system both positively and negatively, although the negative pole is frequently emphasised in practice.

Proscription is shorthand for the fences and dams we build around those metaphoric chasms, swamps, flood plains, and volcanic regions that might wreck our carefully constructed world.  It is the response to an ontology of fear.  Prescription reflects the structures we build to celebrate our vitality, the metaphoric fields, orchards, roads, bridges, parks, temples, stadiums, technology, works of art, literature, and philosophy.  It reflects an ontology of confidence.

Religion, as Leonard Swidler reminds us, is the symbolic and mythic language members of a community use to explain their world, to give ultimate meaning to and find ultimate meaning in existence, and to live according to what they have constructed or found.  The rules of conduct presented as commandments are the riverbeds left behind the actual process of successfully forming a community; some are still flowing with life-giving water millennia after they began, but others are empty and dry.  They are also inextricably connected to the rest of the landscape: rules taken out of their socio-economic and historical context and transplanted to different soil become obstacles to growth.

With the exception of several anti-metaphysical schools of contemporary thought, philosophy is another mode of giving meaning (though less concerned with ultimates), but emerges later in the history of ideas than religion and tends to be reflective, abstract, and theoretical - which means that it is less effective than religion in directly affecting the practical lives of the average member of a given community.  It represents the kind of essential speculative work, however, that lays the foundations for future development, precisely because it is not tied to expectations of any kind of short-term measurable effect.  Nevertheless, we can tell much, for example, about Aristotle's world from "the Philosopher's" vision of the moral paragon, the "great-souled man" who walks slowly, speaks deliberately, treats inferiors with benign disdain, cares nothing for the adulation of the masses, and proudly follows the rational path of the golden mean.

The combination of multinational corporations, supersonic travel, film, television, and especially the phenomenal proliferation of internet communication, has resulted in radically novel modes and vastly increased frequency of people-to-people contact across vast distances, both by disseminating ideas almost instantaneously across the globe and by making it possible for individuals to move to faraway localities temporarily or permanently.  This contact and mingling of often widely diverse worldviews, especially combined with the instability of population, presents humanity with an unprecedented challenge: both as opportunity for increased inter-human understanding and as risk of heightened xenophobia and withdrawal into private ideological fortresses.  We can choose to permit this challenge to help us grow by focusing on our common humanity coupled with respect for individuality, or we can allow it to shatter us into antagonistic shards by emphasising differences, viewing variegation as an evil to be eliminated, and remaining blind to commonalities.

Both modes of knowing-relating-being have a long history, though in practice they are usually mixed, generating a plethora of gradations along a sliding scale between extremes.  Nevertheless, most people, whether lay or academic, tend to follow one approach more than the other.  These modes/models are as ancient as Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Lao Tzu - a static, one-dimensional, absolutist, closed either-or (yang) model that values perfection/ completion/ permanence/ convention/ unity, and a dynamic, non-absolutist, multi-dimensional, open process (yin) model that values growth/ evolution/ change/ novelty/ diversity.  The static model operates primarily through vertical monologue and criticism.  The dynamic model operates primarily through horizontal dialogue and empathy.  The static model insists on sharp boundaries, and by definition excludes the "other" by any name.  The dynamic model has permeable boundaries, and can include the static.

The static way and the dynamic way are complementary opposites and designed to dialogue with one another, the way the yin and the yang together generate the Chinese t'ai-chi t'u (Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate - a circle divided by an S-curve into a light and dark complementary half).  Long before the schools of Confucianism and Taoism developed, Chinese thinkers had already formulated a cosmic theory of a cyclic pattern of waxing and waning, of expansion and contraction.  They symbolised this dynamic interplay of forces in the t'ai-chi t'u.  As one focuses one's gaze on the diagram it becomes a vortex of rapid circular motion, of the constant interpenetration of the archetypal poles of nature, the yin and the yang.  Applied separately, exclusively, and to the extreme, the static mode leads to petrification and the dynamic mode leads to disintegration.

The method we choose, and how we apply it, will affect the fate of humanity and possibly the entire planet.  If we permit ourselves to learn from the patterns of biology, we can clearly see that the path of evolutionary success is the country road which is both stable and marked by permeable boundaries, tentative endings, experimentation, multiple winding paths, and flexibility; we can also see that the path of extinction - if followed to the extreme - is the toll road of closed boundaries, fixed endings, absolute certainty, a single straight and narrow path, and rigidity.

Global civilisation is not a future possibility; it is a present-day reality.  Unlike most previous civilisations, it appears not to have gradually and naturally evolved a single central religion while conversely being shaped by that religion.  Instead, much like the Hellenistic world of the late Roman Empire, contemporary global civilisation is marked by religious, intellectual, and cultural pluralism.  However, there would be no sense of coherence whatsoever and the issue of a global ethic would never have arisen if those who see themselves as shapers of this new universal civilisation were not already committed to cross-cultural inter-religious dialogue.  In fact, the very pluralism of the present age has taken on the markings of religion.  The willingness to engage in this sort of dialogue is also a sign of psychological maturity and respect for the personhood of others.

Genuine dialogue demands that we accept that the human condition is necessarily full of tensions and contradictions and that no human view can be entirely adequate.  Since it is precisely out of the inadequacy of all finite positions that the horizon of the Really Real opens for those who choose to allow it to do so, both inter-religious dialogue and work toward a global ethic can themselves precipitate something close to a broadly defined religious experience.

Authentic focus on pluralism and relativism (the expensive kind!) may literally become a "limit experience," a hint of the Other.  At the very least, by imaginatively projecting ourselves into the "other" and allowing the "other" to project itself (her/himself) into us, by examining our own positions and comparing/contrasting them with those of others (both directly, in conversation partners, and indirectly, through texts) we can become conscious of our situation in time and space, our sense of community, and the extent to which we live by negotiating through multiple worlds of meaning and hold them together.

Either way, the process of collaborating with others from all over the world may itself take on some of the characteristics of a religious act, an invitation to look at things a certain way, to celebrate differences while rejoicing in convergence (NOT conformity), to undergo what Lawrence Sullivan calls an "initiation," a sort of Lonerganian appropriation/conversion.  Thus, while neither interreligious dialogue nor the Global Ethic project propagate certain specific, already existing faiths or ideologies, the process of engaging in these kinds of activities has itself the potential of becoming the catalyst of a genuine change in the way human persons understand themselves, one-another, the world, and ultimate reality.

To embrace pluralism constructively is a metaphysical commitment, a stepping out of one's cozy cave of familiar certainties and modes of functioning into the larger arena of competing paradigms and values.  At this point participants in the dialogue become more than transmitters of information, facilitators of the exchange of ideas.  They become agents of change, Socratic midwives, who de- familiarise the familiar and encourage their fellow-seekers to break through their respective pupae shells without leaving them newly-hatched and unprotected in a void, their old assurances and criteria for judgment gone, and nothing to take their place.  All those involved are drawn into the ongoing conversation on an existential level, and all are at once learners and teachers, mutually responsible for themselves and others.

If we want to help build a future for humanity and the world it is absolutely obligatory that we develop an ethic governing human-to-human relationships to which people from all over the world, and particularly community leaders, can agree.  In addition, the many destructive ways in which human beings affect the environment have made it a matter of planetary survival that we develop nature-friendly standards of interacting with the environment.

If we can learn to include non-human nature into the loving embrace of some version of the universally accepted Golden Rule, then, I believe, we will reach an even deeper current of the universal law of love, one that allows a confluence of the religious stream of Abraham not only with the mighty rivers of India and China but also with the springs of countless indigenous religions and the tributaries of secular ideologies as we share the stories that give meaning to our lives.  In the words of David Tracy, "then the autonomy of each will be respected because each will be expected to continue, indeed to intensify, a journey into her/his own particularity".  Tracy continues, "The actuality of variety and the demand for authentic particularity unite as the environment of all.  An analogical imagination may yet free us to a communal conversation on behalf of the kairos of this our day - the communal and historical struggle for the emergence of a humanity both finally global and ultimately humane" - in other words, if the analogical imagination ushers in what Leonard Swidler calls the Age of Dialogue.

Source: University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma; prepared for "Celebrating the Spirit: Toward a Global Ethic", University of California, Berkeley, 20-21 June 1995 © Ingrid H Shafer

The article following may not seem, on first glance, to have much in common with the article above.  However, having been a crew member for many months at sea, I believe it does.  A boat at sea is like a microcosm.  It's hard enough for family members to get along, but some among you are strangers, and you're with each other 24x7 in a small confined space with no relief.  You establish pecking orders, make treaties, talk coercion and try not to resort to violence because, after all, your lives DO depend on each other from time to time.  The success of the voyage depends on how well the crew members are able to make accommodation and negotiate these hurdles.  You have to deal with the consequences of your actions from one day to the next.  It's an enlightening experience and I think some of the lessons can transfer upward to much larger groups.  (See Field of Dreams - written three days southwest of the Cook Islands - for more detail.)

Getting Along with Your Crew

General rules for getting along with your crew, taken from the Psychology of Sailing: the Sea's Effects on Mind and Body by Michael Stadler:

Define your own spatial and temporal area of privacy on board the boat.  (Your space needs to guarantee your privacy.)

Stake out your territory for your personal area of responsibility.  Honour each other's space.  (Space usage expresses the undefined power relations on board.)

Oversee someone else's work (if absolutely necessary), as discreetly as possible.

Stress on a boat is almost inevitable due both to crowded conditions and to the fact that the environment, like that of a prison, is one from which the crew member cannot escape while underway.  Stress can be reduced through the following measures:

bulletEstablish clear role allocations and hierarchy on board.
bulletClearly structure conditions of interaction (who must be informed/consulted about what).
bulletFoster good social interaction.
bulletEngender a team spirit.
bulletEncourage a co-operative attitude; stress co-operative activity.
bulletRationally discuss problems instead of emotionally reacting to them.
bulletBe aware that stress is generated through crowding.
bulletProvide individuals or subgroups with the capability to completely withdraw from time to time.
bulletKeep remembering how much you like to be on a boat!

When a crew member feels isolated, he needs his sense of responsibility increased.

Social isolation can occur on long-term cruises if the personalities of the crew are not compatible.  Differing experience, seafaring ability and motivation can be sufficient grounds for crew members to so define their territories that the others keep out of their way as far as possible, and in this way everyone becomes isolated.  The social situation becomes even more difficult for individuals who, for whatever reason, are excluded from the social group...

When the crew comes on board at the beginning ... they do not yet constitute a group but merely a collection of individuals.  A period of mutual evaluation soon begins; of getting to know the attitudes and competence of the others while working together on board.  Now and then something will happen to distinguish one crew member from the others.  Before long the specific strengths and weaknesses of each become apparent.

As the [group] develops ... relationships ... begin to form between individuals ... the skipper ... must ... prove his competence and superiority ... there may be a very quiet member of the crew, someone who tries hard to establish contact with the others but who is quite seldom spoken to himself.  In extreme cases he can become the "outsider" who in the eyes of the others always does everything wrong and who should have been left behind.  The outsider is, however, very important to the group ... if he were not there his place would have to be filled by someone else.

...The optimum number of people is six ... It is important for the skipper to get to know as much as possible about the group structure of those on board ... discord ... is detrimental to the safety of the boat.

The book mentions that there are three types of communication structures found at sea: the Complete Structure (where everybody communicates on equal terms with everybody else), the Star (where the skipper communicates with each member of the crew singly) and the Chain (the skipper gives instructions to the next in line who, in turn, passes on the messages to the rest of the crew).  Speed and accuracy are low in the Complete Structure, but crew members are happier.  They are less satisfied with the Chain, and not happy at all with the Star.  Communication in the Complete Structure demands greater powers of leadership, persuasive powers and expertise on the part of the skipper.

The skipper's style of leadership plays a crucial role in determining the attitude of his crew.  Groups on land have a certain structure which emphasizes social hierarchy and communication skills.  At sea, different skills are required.  Only one person should have final, formal authority - this helps guarantee the safety and survival of the crew.

What makes a good skipper?  Initiative, stamina, know-how, self-confidence, willingness to take responsibility, intelligence, physical fitness, good judgment, and sociability.  A good skipper adheres most strictly to standards, participates fully, discusses decisions (before if possible, if not, then afterward) with the crew, gives the crew an opportunity to learn and to apply their own skills, thinks through instructions beforehand, knows each crew member personally, and makes allowances individually.

Of three common styles of leadership, authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire, the first generates more aggression and power-seeking and little team spirit.  Under the democratic style, performance drops, but the group is more satisfied and holds together more.  They also produce more original ideas.  The laissez-faire style is the worst of the three.  Having no group structure makes having common objectives difficult.  Crews consider captains who possess at least as many social skills as technical skills to be the best.

The four main responsibilities of a leader are system maintenance, system control, representing the group in its dealings with other groups, and task definition.

One last message for the skipper from Stadler:

...For a well-balanced group structure it is necessary for the skipper to accept the fact that he is not the most important person on board in every respect.

That is, I might add, except in gale force winds or when docking or when the hot water hose breaks, spewing steam all over the engine room, et cetera...

How Astronauts Get Along

by Karen Miller

Astronauts have a cool demeanor and good people-skills, but six months in a tiny spaceship with the same crewmates can drive anyone to distraction.

"Once, I was evaluating astronaut applicants," says psychiatrist Nick Kanas.  "I asked them to give me some examples of things that might cause stress."  One applicant, a test pilot, recalled the time he was flying an experimental aircraft and it spun out of control.  As the plane spiraled down, he took out his manual, calmly thumbed through it, and figured out how to pull the plane to safety.  "His ability to temporarily control his emotions was very striking," laughs Kanas.

Astronauts manage stress a whole lot better than most of us.  They have to because there's always some hazard looming: radiation storms, space debris, the possibility of crashing - or just a new list of things to do from ground control.  It all adds up.

And then there's the stress that comes from dealing with other people.  Space crews must live and work together in close quarters 24 hours a day, sometimes for months on end.  They're also far from home and family, which means they can feel both lonely and crowded at the same time.  It's enough to drive anyone to distraction.

Kanas, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California and the Veteran's Hospital in San Francisco, is studying the way astronauts behave under these demanding conditions.  His research began with the shuttle-Mir program in the 1990s, and now he's working with the crew of the International Space Station.  As part of the project, called Crewmember and Crew-ground Interactions during International Space Station Missions, astronauts and cosmonauts answer weekly questionnaires for Kanas about their moods, feelings and daily lives in orbit.  Earlier studies have already uncovered some interesting behaviours, for example: Like that test pilot, many of those who go into space are able to suppress their emotions when they need to.  That's a valuable trait, not only for astronauts but also for, say, surgeons and fire fighters, because it helps get things done.  "The problem," says Kanas, "is if you suppress your emotions for months on end, it can wear you down."  The trick is to be able to suppress your emotions when you're in crisis, but then to relax enough to experience your feelings when things aren't so stressful.

Astronauts in general tend to be skilled at knowing when to suppress their feelings and when to deal with them.  "It's just that sometimes, [in space] they're under so much pressure they find it difficult to relax," he says.  When that happens, astronauts tend to socialise with each other less and less.  After months of being together, they can grow tired of hearing one another's stories.  Tension mounts.  One way of relieving that tension is by blaming mission control.  This is called "displacement" and it's a very common way to deal with stress.  People do it all the time, for example by yelling at their kids instead of their boss.  Displacement provides the short-term benefit of relieving tension.  But it hurts the family, and it doesn't deal with the problem.

"We found that when crew members reported being under stress, those were the times that they perceived a lack of support from the ground."  Likewise, when mission control was under stress, they tended to perceive a lack of support from management.  Displacement again.  In the long run displacement is toxic because it lets the real problems fester.

Problems that arise during a few-month stint on the ISS are likely to be even worse during a mission to Mars.  A Mars crew will be away for about three years and during that time they're going to be astonishingly isolated.  Any psychological problem that comes up, they'll need to handle on their own.  "The more training we can give them, the better," notes Kanas.

Research suggests that the moods of astronauts might change in a predictable pattern over the course of a long mission.  In Antarctic expeditions, for example, some studies found a blip of depression about midway through.  "The conventional thinking," says Kanas, "is that on a long term mission, you work your way through the first half, you get to the half-way point, you say, 'Wow, I made it to the half-way point' and then you say, 'but wait!  I've got another half to go."  And then a temporary depression may set in."  If that pattern holds in space, astronauts on a journey to Mars will need to be aware of, and expect, it.

The kind of support that the astronauts will need from their commander might also change as the mission progresses.  For example, scientists have found that at the beginning of an expedition, the leaders rated most highly were those who were task-oriented, and got things done.  But later, the most appreciated leaders were those that focused on morale, on how people felt.  "We need to train the commanders to think about that, so they can emphasise that aspect of their leadership at the appropriate time."

Kanas's ongoing study will lead to a greater understanding of these patterns.  "This is the basic science of group behaviour," he says.  "It's all the kind of stuff that affects humans relating in any environment, but it's brought out more strongly because in space, people are isolated, confined, and under more pressure."  His findings will certainly aid fire fighters, police officers, doctors in emergency rooms - anyone in a high-stress environment.  And they might even help the rest of us who cope with more mundane problems.  Maybe you'll never need to dodge a piece of space debris or pull a malfunctioning airplane out of a spin.  But, at some point, you'll probably have to take your kids to a mall!


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