Finding harmony

11th December 2020


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Phil Varley

Appreciating the ancient concept of harmony and the idea that all things are interconnected could be transformative for the sustainability profession and society at large. Chris Seekings reports

The word 'harmony' appears in the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development three times, yet the concept is not clearly defined. Some philosophers describe it as the idea that everything is interconnected and ideally exists in a state of balance – a notion accepted in many cultures around the world. In Western thinking, the idea of harmony has been fundamental in everything from Plato's teachings and the Renaissance to the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. But, as society has come to favour a more reductionist and materialistic worldview, it has become increasingly undervalued.

A new book, The Harmony Debates, sees contributors from fields spanning ecology, food, religion, education, and business, discuss how the pursuit of a harmonious existence could transform our understanding of the natural world and our approach to sustainability.

A new perspective

When taken together, various UN documents broadly define harmony as sustainability, care for the natural environment, economic equality, government based on democracy and the rule of law, and justice and rights for all. However, sustainability has different meanings for different people.

“Increasingly, scholars are recognising that there is a social and spiritual dimension to our ecological crisis“

“It describes relationships between the environment, society and economy that can be sustained over long periods of time for mutual benefit,“ explains Dr Nick Campion, editor of The Harmony Debates and professor of cultural astrology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). “The problem is that sustainability has been reduced to the narrower matter of environmental management, and has been appropriated by some industries in ways that many find uncomfortable.“

In practical terms, harmony means “looking at the widest possible consequences whenever a policy or personal choice is made“, says Campion. He points to various decisions that have failed to consider the interconnectedness of things, from the 1970s' introduction of plastic bags to save trees, to the 1990s' promotion of diesel to cut CO2 emissions. “Although well intentioned, they were ultimately quick fixes that didn't take into account plastic waste or air pollution.“

Systems thinking or total cost accounting within a circular economy could help us recognise the wider consequences of planning decisions, but some believe that a deeper understanding is required. “There are many people working in harmony-friendly ways, but sustainability often struggles to find a philosophy,“ Campion says. “What I like about harmony is that it has been debated for 2,500 years, unlike ecocentrism, which only goes back two or three decades. We have this long lineage of thinking about interconnectedness – it's part of our tradition, and can help change perspectives.“

Social and spiritual

The ecological philosopher Freya Mathews sees humanity as being made up of discrete individuals who are separated from one another, bounded by the limits of the physical body and distinct from other elements of the environment. Critics argue that this understanding of the world has had a trickle-down effect in Western society and culture, separating the human world from the natural world and emphasising the individual over the collective.

“Much more ancient notions of harmony see human beings as an integral part of the whole,“ explains Dr Jack Hunter, an ecology professor at UWTSD. “There has been a tendency to think of the ecological crisis as a problem for technology and the 'hard sciences' to solve but, increasingly, scholars are recognising that there is also a social and spiritual dimension to our ecological crisis.“

It may be that climate change and environmental breakdown are as much about our values and social, political and spiritual motives as they are about CO2 emissions. “Human behaviour is motivated by the things we believe and the way we think about and engage in the world,“ Dr Hunter continues. “If we think about spirituality as a particular understanding of our place in the cosmos, then the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis – a lack of connection to the ecological systems that sustain us. Environmentally destructive behaviours can therefore be altered by changing the way that we think about and orient ourselves in the world.“

In permaculture – a design system rooted in observations of ecological systems – it is often argued that many small and slow solutions are needed to tackle the climate crisis, rather than instant, large-scale revolution. These solutions might include acts such as individuals rewilding their gardens with wildflower seeds, or local groups establishing community gardens and social growing projects, alongside governments and NGOs' large-scale efforts to cut carbon emissions. “The truth is, they don't have to be conceived as connected to each other, but because of the interconnected nature of our biosphere, they are anyway,“ says Dr Hunter.

“Is reducing the environmental footprint of technology enough, or do we rethink the way we structure society?“

Practical steps

Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, describes his exploration of harmony as “one of the most important learning experiences of my life“. In The Harmony Debates he outlines the importance of “reconnecting people with the reality that that we are 100% dependent on healthy natural systems for our wellbeing.“

A first step to developing a more reciprocal relationship with nature could involve appreciating how soils, plants, and the other living and non-living elements that make up the world are key if we are to maintain our modern lifestyles. “There are lots of ways of doing this, ranging from everyday interactions with nature in gardens or while out walking, through to more extreme forms of participation, such as mountain climbing, surfing and hiking,“ Dr Hunter suggests.

Education systems could also help us cultivate a richer understanding of the natural world and our place in it. Dr Caroline Lohmann-Hancock, social justice, equity and diversity senior lecturer at UWTSD, believes that all subjects should be taught in the context of interconnectedness. “Whatever you teach, STEM subject or otherwise, they are not just in a box – they are totally interlinked,“ she tells me. “The wellbeing of one depends on the wellbeing of another, and we should link that to environmental elements – that holistic learning goes back to the classics, and it's obvious that we need a more holistic curriculum.“

Part of the problem with facing up to these principles is that they raise questions over whether we need wholesale changes in the ways we behave, the idea of which makes some feel uncomfortable.

“Is reducing the environmental footprint of technology enough, or do we need to rethink the very way we structure society – full stop?“ asks Dr Lohmann-Hancock. “I don't really know the answer, but as educators, it is so important that we encourage others to consider alternate viewpoints through exploring 'provocative situations', with which they might not agree, so they can see the fuller picture. Exploring this alternate position is called catalystic learning, creating disequilibrium within a class to disturb their confidence in the 'known', to provoke thought, discussion and reflection; and hopefully develop empathy for others.“

An enduring debate

The idea that all things are interconnected and interdependent has implications for health studies, education, business, architecture, agriculture, conflict resolution and a range of other disciplines. There are tensions between the need to promote economic development, and to maintain the health of the natural environment.

We could also slip into a difficult human rights area if we assert that people are subject to wider ecological concerns. “It could open the door to a limited version of democracy and authoritarian politics where rights are overridden,“ Dr Campion says. “But there is an alternative in which harmony is maintained when everyone's individual perspective is respected – social justice and equality must be centre.“

A reductionist approach to sustainability may also be valid in some circumstances, but the purpose of The Harmony Debates is to provoke philosophical discussion and reflection, rather than provide clear-cut answers.

Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strikes for Climate, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, are good examples of an upswell in ecological consciousness already taking place, while the coronavirus pandemic has shown how our disregard for nature can have devastating effects in a globalised world.

“We simply cannot solve the problems we have caused by responding with a 'business as usual' approach, trying to bounce back from every knock we take using the conventional approach, which only compounds the problem,“ the Prince of Wales writes in The Harmony Debates's foreword. “We have to look again very seriously at the philosophy of wholeness that held sway for so long in all of the world's great sacred traditions. The clues are to be found in the way we once revered the Earth and spoke openly of our inherent sense of the sacred, but above all in the inherent genius of nature herself. There lie the seeds of the answers, I promise you.“

Image credit: Shutterstock


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