Fake News, Matt Ridley, and Daniel Pinchbeck: 5 Things to Read this Week

1. 7 Things We Learned About the Earth This Year

We’ll start with an easy one. I found this interesting, in part because it didn’t just wallow in the usual parade of bad news that we get on Earth Day about impending climate disasters. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about climate; obviously that’s an important issue. it’s just that our contemporary media leans so strongly toward reporting on problems and not on solutions or promising trends that it’s important to balance it out from time to time. This article contains the good and the bad.

7 Things We Learned About the Earth

 

2. Daniel Pinchbeck and the Revolution/Apocalypse 

Daniel Pinchbeck has a new book out and author Gary Lachman reviews it on his blog. What is interesting is that these two both come from the esoteric side of the counterculture. Pinchbeck by way of his psychedelia, Burning Man-esque, shamanistic, countercultural celebrity. Lachman by way of his transformation from band member of Blondie to serious scholar and accomplished author. He’s actually a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s written books on Jung, Swedenborg, Steiner, Ouspensky–just to name a few. He’s tough thinker, independent thinker, and knows the territory of western esoteric mysticism like few others.

Daniel Pinchbeck and his book

Daniel Pinchbeck

I was not a fan of the strange messianism of Pinchbeck’s last book 2012: The Return of Quezalcoatl, though he is an engaging writer and good storyteller. Pinchbeck latest book, How Soon is Now?  complete with introduction by progressive hero Russell Brand, is sure to generate enthusiasm, given Pinchbeck’s standing in the countercultural scene.

Lachman’s review, “Who will Save us from the Saviors?”, suggests that Pinchbeck’s solutions for our cultural and ecological crisis are too authoritarian and illiberal. One of the many problems with apocalyptic thinking–spiritual or religious or ecological or cultural–is that it gives you permission to embrace your own inner authoritarian “if-I-ruled-the-world” tendencies with a kind of “ends justify the means” gusto. Lachman’s carefully deconstructs this Pinchbeck’s ill-conceived plans for collective evolution, which come to think of it, don’t sounds that different from things we here on the more secular side of the progressive spectrum. Apparently, he invokes the spirit of Teilhard De Chardin to make his point. Lachman suggests he misunderstands Teilhard. I’ve met Pinchbeck; I liked him personally. I’m sure he’s very well intentioned. But as someone who also wrote a book in which thoughts of collective evolution and Teilhard de Chardin played a significant role, let me just say that we always have to be careful that our cultural “cures” are not worse than the disease. Who will save us from the saviors, indeed?

This article was also a reminder of how much I enjoy Lachman’s thoughts and writings. It is rare for anyone to be so fascinated by and well-versed in esoteric mysticism and western spiritual traditions while maintain a healthy sense of skepticism and rationality at the same time—a quality well demonstrated in this review. I recommend it, and him, wholeheartedly. Below is a brief excerpt.

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white Robot

Food, China, and Robots: 5 Articles to Read This Week (and Why)

book cover

Picture by Chad and Derek Sarno of Wicked Healthy

1. The Whole Foods Diet

The first item on this list is a personal one. Those who know me well have heard me talk about this project for the last year or so. It is a book that I played a role in creating. I learned a great deal, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I hope it will have a beneficial impact on the diet and health of many, many people. This video gives a great overview of the content of the book.

The Whole Foods Diet Book trailer

 

Please consider purchasing the book here

 

The Whole Foods Diet website

 

2. Is War with China Inevitable?

The Berggruen Institute is a non-partisan think tank founded by the investor, philanthropist, and “homeless billionaire” Nicolas Berggruen. Berggruen’s star seems to be rising in thoughtful political circles, and he is trying to have a positive impact on our nation’s politics. With a who’s who of the global elite on their advisory board, the Berggruen Institute obviously has access and is working to have influence. I’m particularly interested in the “Philosophy and Culture Center.”  Even the fact that they gave their 2016 “Berggruen prize” to scholar Charles Taylor reflects well on their appraisal of the intelligentsia. They also have developed a partnership with the Huffington Post called The World Post. Here is one of its recent articles, by Harvard’s Graham Allison, discussing Athens, Sparta, and the contemporary rise of China. Worth reading for those concerned about a future conflict between Chia and the US.

What Trump and Xi Can Learn from the Athens vs. Sparta Rivalry

 

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LNG tanker

Complacency, Cancer, and Free Will (5 articles to Read This Week, and Why) – 4/7/17

1. The Complacent Class

Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my intellectual passions is economics. I studied it in school, and something about the subject, and the way it touches on so many aspects of our lives, satisfies the big-picture view of history and culture that I love, without getting too woolly or vague or losing intellectual rigor. Anyone who feels similarly will enjoy Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution. Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, but he is more than that. He is also a fascinating public intellectual with a lot to say about American and global culture. His new book, The Complacent Class, looks quite interesting, and while I have not yet read it, I do recommend these interesting videos (presumably covering material in the book), which are quite thought-provoking and cover themes obook coverf economics and American culture. Please understand that I recommend many thinkers in this blog, and none of it should be considered a full endorsement of everything they say. With that in mind, I highly recommend Tyler Cowan’s Marginal Revolution, and the following 5 videos on The Complacent Class.

The Complacent Class videos here

 

Marginal Revolution blog

 

2. The US Carbon Footprint Is Decreasing

We’ll start with good news—courtesy of the oil and gas industry. Fracking may be controversial, but it’s also been successful in helping clean up America’s power grid. A recent report by the international Energy Agency highlighted the reality that natural gas has radically changed the US energy mix, and carbon emissions are dropping as a result. US emissions have actually dropped to pre-1994 levels. And we’re exporting LNG (liquefied natural gas), which hopefully will help other nations clean up their energy mix as well. Even in China, emissions are falling. Over the long term, I hope and expect that solar and wind, which are becoming much cheaper (especially the former), will significantly increase as a percentage of overall energy usage, and the transportation sector will largely wean itself off of oil. However, natural gas (or even better, nuclear) may still be needed for base load power requirements. But that’s a mix that’s a heck of a lot cleaner than what we have had over the previous decades, and not just in terms of carbon. Coal is slowly going the way of the Dodo due to market forces (no matter what the President does). Imagine, decades from now, a smart energy grid with next-generation nuclear power providing clean energy (with maybe some legacy natural gas in the mix), combined with lots of solar and wind powering the grid, and massive battery farms. And along with that, millions of battery powered, self-driving cars zipping around. That’s a future where the air is clear, power is relatively cheap, and carbon emissions are close to zero. We can get there, but we can’t just get there overnight.

IEA Finds Global Emissions Flat Even As Economy Grew

 

And while we’re on the subject of carbon emissions, it’s worth noting this report that changes in diet—notably the less beef that Americans are eating—has changed our carbon footprint as well. As a long-time vegetarian, I’m particularly happy about that.

Beef and Climate article

 

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Nuclear plant

5 Articles To Read This Week (and Why) – 3/29/17

Last week I featured Middlebury, intolerance, and Charles Murray. Article number 4 this week will continue that theme, this time with Wellesley and Laura Kipnis. But before we get to that, let’s pivot to a subject that is no less controversial or important—but more about the economic world than the academic. Energy. There have been several interesting articles to feature this week on energy, carbon, new technology. Putting aside the current administration’s quixotic quest to resuscitate coal, which is probably America’s dirtiest fuel source, I wanted to share an article about nuclear and one about lithium. Both may play a crucial role in America’s energy future, not to mention the world’s. And both are right in the middle of the debate about a post-carbon society.

1.The Future of Energy

This article from Vox is a deeply insightful, sober, and at times encouraging overview of the issues around one of the most important sources of carbon-free power that we have—nuclear. Nuclear is not just carbon-free, its footprint, in many respects, is also smaller than solar or wind. But the fears around it are significant and undiminished since Fukushima. Two of the more prominent voices in it are the founders of the Breakthrough Institute (Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who has since founded his own think tank Environmental Progress). Rarely will you find a better overview.

Read Here: Nuclear Power is Dying. Can Radical innovation Save It?

Next up is an article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek about lithium. Critical to new battery technology like those used in Tesla cars, lithium is the new black gold of the 21st century, or could be. And the global rush to mine the stuff continues unabated. Of course, this is one reason why Musk put his new Gigifactory in Reno.

Read here: The Great Nevada Lithium Rush

2. Immigration and Labor

Ever since the election, journalists have descended on Pennsylvania like jackals, desperate to explain the source of Trump’s victory. Not all of these articles are enlightening, but this one I found particularly interesting as it delves into one subculture, Russian immigrants in their adopted home of Philly.

Read here: Why Philly’s Russians are Crazy for Trump

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5 Articles to Read This Week (and Why)

1. Free Speech and College Campuses

The theme of this week is what happened at Middlebury College recently. It’s worth reflecting on for anyone who believes deeply in a free exchange of ideas on college campuses. I had a chance last year to spend a weekend in a small group that included Charles Murray. He is a serious scholar, very frustrated with the Republican Party, a passionate advocate of a Universal Basic Income, vociferously anti-Trump, and highly concerned about the “elite bubble” that has contributed to America “coming apart.” I’m sure I disagree with Murray on many, many things, but the caricatured portrayal of him by some students and teachers at Middlebury was painful and ill-conceived—some apparently came to their conclusions without even reading his work. He certainly ain’t Milo. But beyond Murray, too many liberal college campuses are struggling with the “liberal” part these days. And for those of us trying to overcome the increasing hyper-partisan polarization in our country, let’s just say this wasn’t the best moment for the spirit of that work.

Here are NYU scholar Jonathan Haidt and NY Times columnist Frank Bruni speaking about the issue on Charlie Rose. Lots of great points made in this one, but Bruni’s “helicopter parent producing a bubble-wrapped kid” might be one of the best.

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RIP Huston Smith

picture of Huston Smith

Huston Smith

A great man passed away a few days ago, in the last days of 2016. Huston Smith, the brilliant scholar of religion and author of the seminal work, The World’s Religions, died at the age of 97. Smith was a mystic scholar, deeply connected to the traditions he studied, and a religious professor at various universities including MIT, where he developed a robust criticism of the march of science and its attempted colonization of meaning. He was also a member of the so-called “Harvard Psychedelic Club” along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Smith brought religion and tradition alive like few can in our modern world, and as a true perennialist found a deep sympathy with the mystical strains of religious traditions, both East and West.

I saw Smith speak at a Templeton event in 2000, along with physicist Paul Davies. Soon after, I bought his latest book, Why Religion Matters. It was perhaps his last significant scholarly statement about religion as a whole and its relationship to modernity and postmodernity. I read it with great interest, and it affected me, in my early thirties, profoundly. In those days, I was a young seeker of knowledge, with my worldviews about science and religion relatively unformed, and was just diving into the world of intellectualism and cultural reflection. Smith was an erudite and scintillating guide on my journey. He spoke as few could about the relationship between these two historical movements. In fact, he was a major defender of religion and a great critic of scientists who overstepped their philosophical bounds, and he loved to poke at them and accuse them of over-reaching. For example, he loved to cite Stephen J. Gould’s oft-quoted “non-overlapping magisteria” as a perfect example of that cannibalization. In addition to his critiques of scientific triumphalism, Smith also understood the breakdown of meaning that postmodern trends have wrought and the dangers of pluralism and relativism. He was also just a delightfully passionate partisan of the science and religion wars, as the following brief passage from Why Religion Matters illustrates.

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Working with Polarities

Talking to transpartisan activists at the Mediators Foundation about working with polarities last year, representing the Institute for Cultural Evolution

 

The Role of Evolutionary Thinking in Modern Culture — An Interview

Evolutionaries eyeRecently I was interviewed for the Journal of Communicative and Integrative Biology, by author Tam Hunt. A preview of the result is below.

The entire interview can be found here.

What is an “evolutionary” and why should we care?

An evolutionary is a broad category for a new type of thinker and way of thinking about the world. An evolutionary is informed by the radical knowledge that we live in a dynamic changing, evolving universe instead of a static, fixed, unchanging one. In discipline after discipline stasis is giving way to change, fixity is giving way to flow, form is giving way to process, as a way to describe reality. That may sound abstract, but when it comes to thinking about things like human psychology and cultural development, this understanding is actually quite important. For example, it makes a differences when we begin to realize that this thing we call “human nature” is neither fixed in time nor fixed genetically in our evolutionary history, but is malleable, adaptable, evolvable (to use that term loosely). Too often we imagine life and reality to be fixed and unchanging. I call this the “spell of solidity.” Evolutionary thinking is breaking that spell. We’re learning so much about how things in nature develop—including us. We’re discovering that the future is more open than we had imagined and my book is an exploration of how this insight is transforming our understanding of what it means to be human.

What is evolutionary spirituality? Is this a truly new set of concepts or do some schools of thought, such as Vedanta or Buddhism, already encompass many of the key ideas?

Evolutionary spirituality is a spiritual perspective based on the knowledge that we live in this evolving cosmos that has gone from hydrogen gas to human beings. In the book, I say that evolutionary spirituality is evolution-inspired, future-oriented, and world-embracing. Most religious traditions, are pre-evolutionary, including Vedanta and Buddhism, and they are not natively oriented this way (though each tradition has exceptions). Of course, nothing is entirely new, and elements of these ideas can certainly be found in the great traditions. Evolutionary spirituality is also a broad term. It varies from more science-based approaches like the “Universe Story” and “Big History” to new forms of philosophy, mysticism and religious theology.

Darwin2At its essence, evolutionary spirituality is about realizing that evolution is not just happening out there in the universe—in nature, or in our biology—but in our own lives and the lives of our communities. It is connected to the choices we are making to develop and grow, to have more integrity, to understand ourselves and our world more deeply, to expand our own awareness and cognition, to reach for richer, more complex and integrated perspectives, to create novelty and beauty, and to contribute in some small way to the further development of human consciousness and culture.

What inspired you to write your book?

I wanted to share these powerful ideas with readers. They can change the way we see ourselves, and the possibilities inherent in life. And they can make us think more deeply about science, technology, cultural differences, and our place in this vast cosmos.

Also, some (not all) of these ideas have flourished in the counterculture. There are some good things about that. But the downside is that they have not yet received some of the rigorous disciplining critique that will allow them to develop further. Thoughtful, interesting books can help to change that.

Who are the most important figures in today’s evolutionary philosophy/spirituality, in your view?

I feature profiles of many of the thinkers that inspired me in the book, and I hope readers will enjoy learning something about all of them. But rather than promote them here, I would prefer to talk about the founders of evolutionary philosophy/spirituality—individuals like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo and Henri Bergson. They were all extraordinary pioneers of this evolutionary perspective. And of course, if we are going to talk about evolution as a transformational idea, than we have to just appreciate at least 2 others—Darwin, whose insights brought evolution into the world as a fully scientific idea. And Hegel, whose evolutionary, or proto-evolutionary philosophy, was foundational to so much that came after, and a sign of the cultural sea change that was beginning in his time.

As I spoke to today’s evolutionaries for the book, these names often surfaced. And there are others as well. An evolutionary may be future-oriented, but this perspective is also about a rich appreciation of the past, of those pioneers whose shoulders we stand on, and whose work we humbly try to take forward in our own time.

Why is the idea of evolution so hard for many people to accept as integral to reality?  Isn’t evolution simply “change” by another name? And isn’t change as obvious as the nose on my face?

I don’t think most people have trouble with evolution. But there are a minority who do. That is mostly because the way in which book_displayevolution was historically introduced into our culture. Almost from the start, evolution was not simply a scientific idea but also an anti-religious idea. In the 19th century, it was a key inflection point in the development of science and in our growing trust of science instead of religion to explain the world to us. And justifiable or not, evolution became historically associated with an atheistic view of the world. Obviously it is still is caught up in that science/religion culture war. Unfortunately, that makes some religious people reflexively reject the idea, not based on its merits or any deep consideration of its truthfulness, but simply based on the assumption that being pro-evolution is inherently the same as being anti-religion, and not even just anti-religion, but anti-meaning, anti-morality, almost anti-human. Of course, I think that’s unfortunate and unnecessary (even if one is religiously inclined) but it’s hard to change these historical narratives once they get started. Over time, I expect this anti-evolution narrative will fade. At least we can hope it will.

To read the entire interview, click here.

A Mario Cuomo Story

In 2004 I was writing my first major long-form journalism piece, a very ambitious 25,000 word article on the nature of peace, war, the politics of non-violence, and how we think about the use of force in society. It would be called “Is God a Pacifist?” and I managed to interview just about every expert I could on the issue. I even wrote a long request to former NY Governor, Mario Cuomo, to ask if I could interview him about the issues involved. I had heard he was a fan of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and wanted to speak to him about the moral issues involved with an eye toward Teilhard’s work. A long shot but what the heck….I wrote a long email. Heard nothing. A month later, I was deep in writing, and I received an email. It was Mario Cuomo himself, apologizing that his assistant had not forwarded him the email (or something like that) and yes, he would very much like to talk about the subject. I was thrilled. We setup an interview and I got to speak with Cuomo for about 30 minutes on Teilhard, cultural evolution, war and peace, ethics, religion, God. He was passionate, informed, engaging, theologically interesting, charismatic. What a treat; what an honor. A real highlight of my early career as a writer and journalist. RIP Mario Cuomo. A remarkable man, and a deep, beautiful, thoughtful, compassionate soul.

You can read an excerpt of that interview with Cuomo here.

Tackling Political Polarization: An Unconventional Gathering

Perched on a narrow stretch of the Big Sur Pacific coastline, Esalen Institute is about as far away as you can get from the Washington DC and still be in the same country—geographically, but also politically, culturally, and institutionally. Yet, for a few days in the first week of October, those distances were bridged, and Esalen played host to a carefully curated, invitation-only “conclave” of 24 experts to address the subject of Political Polarization. The result was three days of political and cultural analysis that surprised the insiders, educated the outsiders, engaged both Republicans and Democrats, and left everyone encouraged—not a small achievement when it comes to such a notoriously thorny subject.

“The polarization between the parties exists even when the issue under debate has no ideological content,” explained Brookings Institute scholar Tom Mann on the first morning. And he pointed to a telling statistic: “In the 1960s, 5 percent or so of Democrats and Republicans said they would be unhappy if their child married somebody from the other party. Today, it’s 49 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Democrats. People today are more unhappy if their child marries someone from another party than someone from another religion.”

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