Monthly Archives: January 2019

The world needs our free deeds of love

Does the following describe our situation?

“The greatest ecological crisis in the Earth’s history began with the emission of climate-changing gases by an organism that had spread widely across the planet, colonising many of its ecological niches. These gases – the waste products of its lifestyle – gradually accumulated in the atmosphere. For a long time nothing noticeably changed, but at some stage a tipping point was reached and the planet’s climate flipped rapidly from one state to another. The composition of the atmosphere changed, becoming poisonous to most life on Earth, and the planet’s mean temperature plunged, precipitating a global ice age. The resulting mass extinction killed perhaps 90% of all living things on Earth.”

It could be a description of our present and near-future but in fact this was the situation 2.3 billion years ago, as described in an essay by Paul Kingsnorth:

“The climate-changing organisms were bacteria, and the poisonous gas they emitted was oxygen. Without the planetary catastrophe they precipitated, you, and almost everything you know about the Earth you are part of, would never have come about at all. All told, there have so far been at least five, and perhaps as many as twenty, ‘mass extinction events’ in the history of Earth. This first – known as the ‘great oxygen catastrophe’ – was the most far-reaching. The last, 66 million years ago, is the one we know best, because it is the most appealing to the human imagination: it wiped out the dinosaurs. Overall, it is estimated that around 98% of all organisms that have ever existed are now gone forever.”

So in taking a long view, it seems as though here on Earth an evolutionary process is continuing that involves extinctions and the disappearance of whole species. Today we appear to be approaching a similar crisis, sometimes called the Sixth Mass Extinction, the difference being that this time it is humans who have brought themselves and all life on Earth to a tipping point.

Climate instability is the major threat facing us today, but there are others. In 2018, the World Economic Forum listed the 5 risks that it believes will have the biggest impact in the next 10 years as:

  • Weapons of mass destruction
  • Extreme weather events
  • Natural disasters
  • Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Water crises

Millennials (ie 18 to 35-year olds, those people who became young adults during the 21stcentury) and who participated in the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Survey 2017 also said that they thought human-made climate change is the most serious issue affecting the world today, despite their worries about their own economic prospects.

Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford has listed five existential risks apart from climate change, ie those risks that threaten to wipe out humanity and most of life on Earth:

  • Nuclear war
  • Bioengineered pandemics
  • Superintelligence (Nicanor Perlas’s book, Humanity’s Last Stand, is well worth reading on this)
  • Nanotechnology
  • Unknown unknowns

I’m sure you will have your own list of risks, whether existential or what one might call ‘global but survivable’ risks. Mine includes the following:

  1. Climate instability (as Rachel Carson put it: “Man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”)
  2. Over-population. The world human population reached one billion by 1804 and has increased seven-fold in the 200 years since. It is projected to reach 11 billion by 2050.
  3. The triumph of materialism; and human inability to recognise that we are both physical and spiritual beings. Steiner offers us the possibility of making ourselves truly “free spirits”. Materialism does just the opposite. It seeks to reduce us to creatures completely determined by heredity and our genes, hence totally unfree.
  4. The breakdown of social trust and the sense of hopelessness that so many people feel about the possibility of positive change. To counteract this, requires each of us to find within our own individual consciousness the direction in which our thinking, willing and feeling are to follow.

But because it leads to so many other associated problems, climate instability is at the top of my list of risks. For anyone of my daughter’s age, that is to say people under the age of 30 – more than half the world’s population – the experience of a stable climate is entirely unknown. Not a single month in their lifetime has fallen within the limited range of temperature, precipitation or storm activity that governed the planet for the previous 10,000 years. We are living through the change from the Holocene geological epoch, which has been with us since the last glacial period, to the human-made Anthropocene. A single species, Homo sapiens, has through its activities moved the planet from one geological epoch to another, an occurrence without precedent in the paleoclimatic record.

Despite President Trump’s denial of the reality of climate change, the experience of many of his fellow Americans indicates that something extraordinary is actually happening. Here is an example from Texas, which might give even Trump pause for thought: the quantity of rain deposited on Houston during Hurricane Harvey was consistent with at least a 500-year storm – a flooding event so rare as to be expected to occur only once between the discovery of America by Columbus and today. Yet Houston has experienced a ‘500-year’ flood in each of the last three years. For the last 10,000 years, the probability of a 500-year storm occurring in three successive years would have been 1 in 125,000,000. In the current age of climate instability, the probability of such an occurrence is unknown but appears to be rising.

A teacher of 14-year olds recently told me that her pupils are extremely worried about their futures because of climate instability and they cannot understand why the world appears to be doing so little about it. I responded by saying that I shared their anxieties and had felt comparable fears when I was 11 years old, back in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. (This was the 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union initiated by American ballistic missile deployment in Italy and Turkey with consequent Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba.) At the height of the crisis I remember riding my bike through Town Park in Enfield, north London, and looking at the beautiful tall plane trees there, and thinking that those trees and all life, including myself and my family, could be vapourised within the next three days as a result of nuclear war.

Today I reflect that my parents’ generation must have felt equally fearful about their futures during the Second World War, which led to an estimated death toll of between 50 to 80 million people; and my grandparents were surely almost as worried during the First World War, which resulted in 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded. As I have written elsewhere, the last 100 years have been the most terrible in human history. Anthroposophists will tend to think that these have all been part of what might be expected as precursor events to the incarnation of Ahriman.

Steiner was not trying to scare us out of our wits but rather to emphasise the importance of this inescapable event which humanity must go through; and above all, if we are wise and stay awake to what is going on, it can be used to advance human development through developing a clear and conscious relationship to all that will enter into human culture through the powerful influence of this being.

What all of this indicates to me is that the evolutionary process is continuing and humanity is now confronted with the challenge either to evolve or to face the consequences. From Rudolf Steiner’s perspective of human evolution, since the 15th century we have been developing what he calls the consciousness soul (you can read more about Steiner’s view of human evolution in his book Occult Science) and this is a process that will continue for a very long time yet. Steiner gave two possibilities for the course of human evolution:

“Now, however, we have come to the time — in this epoch of human evolution that began in the middle of the fifteenth century — when we face the necessity of ascending once more to the spirit. (…)

Then you will be capable of perceiving that in the course of spiritual evolution human life runs its course in repeated earth lives. For the whole span of man’s life consists of an alteration between the kind of lives he spends in a physical body and another form of existence between death and a new birth, spent in the super-sensible worlds which are connected with our world through the spirit that is also at work in historical evolution. (…)

If we continue with the kind of thing the materialistic age has brought into human evolution in recent times, we shall get further and further removed from the spirit and more and more attached to matter. But if we turn our minds to our super-sensible nature and develop this in ourselves, we shall add the results of spirit vision to the dazzling achievements of the materialistic natural scientific outlook. This spirit vision will then be like the soul of the world conception of outer nature. These two ways are open to human evolution today: either to keep to a perception of the material world and drag mankind further into chaos and distress, or to give birth to our higher inner being from out of our super-sensible nature and the super-sensible world. One of these directions, the materialistic way, can already be seen in the ripples it sends to the surface. (…)

If we carry on in the first direction, the effect on European spiritual life will be that man’s spirit will become mechanisedman’s soul vegetative and man’s body animalised. This is the fate that actually threatens us today. If men become addicted to this western mechanisation of the spirit, this state of being will combine with eastern animalisation, which means that social demands will be on a level of animal instinct and blind impulse. Western mechanisation and eastern animalisation are connected one with another. In between these is the vegetative or drowsy nature of soul that does not want to be woken up by a treading of the path to the spirit. This is the one perspective. Mankind will have to choose between becoming mechanised in spirit, vegetative in soul and animalised in body or going the other way. Hardship and distress will no doubt eventually drive us into going the other way. And although it will be the other people who have the power (ie the materialists), they will not be able to bar us from going this other way, the way leading to the spirit. We shall have to want to go this way. We shall have to want to keep our spirit free, even if our bodies are in bondage.”

As far as I’m aware, Steiner said nothing about the possibility that we might be moving from one geological epoch to an entirely human-induced new one, or that we might also be moving from the extinction of Homo sapiens to a new form of human being, what Yuval Noah Harari has called Homo deus. This goes together in the coming merger of the human being with infinitely intelligent machines, as predicted by Ray Kurzweil, Google’s senior futurist. On this last point, Steiner said this about human beings and machines:

“One of these great problems will be concerned with finding out how to place the spiritual etheric forces at the service of practical life. I have told you that in this epoch we have to solve the problem of how the radiations from human states of mind are carried over into machines; of how human beings are to be brought into relation with an environment which must become increasingly mechanised. The welding together of human beings with machines will be a great and important problem for the rest of the earth-evolution”.

How can we cope with such developments and how can we find meaning in them and even a basis for hope and optimism?

Looking at nos. 3 and 4 on my list of risks above, ie materialism and the associated human inability to recognise the spiritual side of life; and the breakdown of social trust and the sense of hopelessness that people feel about the possibility of positive change, it seems to me that overcoming both of these are crucial to our survival as a species – and if we can make some progress with those, then we will also be in a position to make progress with climate instability and over-population.

I find some ideas from Rudolf Steiner’s lecture Supersensible Man, Freewill, Immortality of the Soul given in Munich on 1st May 1918 (not available online) to be helpful in this respect. Here is part of what he says:

“Twenty-five years ago, it seemed to me particularly important to enter a protest in a philosophical work (The Philosophy of Freedom)against a widespread misconception, a misconception that can be summed up in the phrase, “Love makes us blind.” I showed that, on the contrary, love makes us seeing. It guides us into an area that we cannot enter if we remain egotistically isolated in our own selfhood, and it does this the moment we are able to sacrifice ourselves sufficiently to live with our feelings in another’s being, to live within it for the very reason that we hold its independence sacred and have no desire to impinge upon it with our love. We cannot call a love perfect that wants to meddle with the nature of the loved person and make changes in it. We love truly when we love a person for his own sake, to the point where the one who loves forgets himself. When we feel love for someone wholly independent of ourselves, someone whom we love especially well just because we are conscious of his separateness, and have not the slightest desire to influence him in any way tinged with our egotism, when we love him purely for his own sake rather than for ours, then this feeling to which we can rise is truly the ideal of the love that, I am convinced, makes us seeing, not blind. This love can be developed for an action, for what we find needs doing when we give ourselves up to pure contemplation of some action. Among the many and varied actions born of our desires and instincts there can be others that at least move in the direction of the kind of impulse that carries out an action purely out of love for it. (…) The only question is whether it is possible for actions of this kind to be included in human life, whether actions born of love can become a reality in human living. Even if we recognise that such a thing as action born of love is possible to human life, we can probably still not call man free in the entirety of his being but must rather say that he comes closer and closer to freedom the more he transforms his behaviour in the direction of making his deeds acts performed out of love”.

In the same lecture, Steiner describes how in ordinary life we are unaware of our immortal part but even though it remains at an unconscious or sub-conscious level, it is nevertheless present:

“It is present in unconscious inspirations, as also in moral ideas, regardless of whether they are right or wrong; it is present on occasions when we are not taken up with ourselves, but develop – in warmth of love for an action such as I described (ie an action performed out of love) – an energy that carries us beyond the confines of self-interest.

Here something remarkable reveals itself in human nature. When something that is present only at an unconscious level, namely, this unconscious imagination that is a personal possession and that, as I described, can only be made effective by love, works in concert with intuitive or inspired thinking as this shines in from its own sphere to illumine ideas … when this thinking, that is born not of man’s mortal part but of what is immortal in him, works in concert with the imagination that ordinarily remains unconscious but takes on an instinctual character in us when we conceive love for an action … when as I say this instinctive love, which is an instinctual expression of the imagination described, acts on a person in such a way as to move him to make use through inspiration of what shines into him from the time before his birth, then an immortal element works on the immortal element in man. An idea, born of the immortal world that we experience before our birth, works in concert with the immortal element that manifests itself on an unconscious level in imagination and returns again to the spiritual world through the gates of death.

Thus man is capable of actions in which his immortal part, otherwise revealed only after death, becomes an effective force during his earthly life and works in concert with free ideas issuing, through inspiration, from the immortal realm in the form of impulses that enter our human personalities before birth. This is then free deed”.

According to Steiner, what we perceive with our senses is only one half of reality, not the whole thing. As we entered our physical body, we suppressed our access to the invisible spiritual world, which is the other half of reality. But we can restore to the world by our own efforts the true reality of which our physical perceptions have deprived it! Steiner’s books The Philosophy of Freedom and Knowledge of Higher Worlds are the most important texts here for study and self-development but I suspect it is only a limited number of people who will have the sheer determination and the patient and persistent doggedness to study and work successfully with these over the long periods of time likely to be required. So is there anything else we can do that might put us in touch with the angel who guides us from the spiritual world?

It is worth bearing in mind that from an anthroposophical perspective each one of us has chosen to be here on Earth in physical incarnation during this time. We came here now because we have particular tasks to do, tasks that we agreed to take on before we left the spiritual world. But how can we get in touch with remembering our intentions for this life if we are not clairvoyant?

My own recent practice is very simple and straightforward but I find it a great way to start the day. I get up quite early each morning and boil the kettle for a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon. Then I sit in an armchair and in between sips of hot water, say my prayers. I usually start with the Lord’s Prayer and, if a complex situation is on my mind, may say another prayer to ask for the best and highest outcome for all concerned. Then I give thanks for all the blessings in my life (it’s very important to express gratitude on a regular basis) and for the help received from my guardian angel. And finally I ask: What do I need today that will nurture me, relieve any stresses and enable solutions to problems to emerge?

This only takes five to ten minutes each morning but it sets me up for the day. And I’ve noticed that it does something else as well – through the contact with and acknowledgement of one’s angel (each of us has one, who stays with us from birth to the moment of our death), it somehow opens up the possibility of helpful interventions during the day that I had not expected. For example, you will suddenly get a call from someone who has just what you need to solve a knotty problem; or those people whom you had expected to be so difficult, turn out to be charming and helpful; or that deadline you were going to miss somehow gets put back to a much more manageable date. Try it for a few days and see what happens… It is this kind of thing that enables one to become aware through intuition of free deeds of love that are needed – and it gives a purpose to one’s life and a sense that, whatever the problems of the larger world, you yourself are doing exactly what you need to do as your contribution to the bigger picture.

I have written before about what Steiner called the ‘School of Unselfishness’ but I am convinced that it is a key to us getting through our present crises in reasonable shape, even if it is only a small proportion of human beings who can practise it, like a kind of homeopathic medicine, for the benefit of all life. Each of the examples quoted in that post are what I think we can call free deeds of love – and it is free deeds of love that will enable us to survive as a species during the next stages of our evolutionary journey.

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Filed under Climate change, Existential Threats, Free Deeds of Love, Philosophy of Freedom, Unselfishness