HOW DO WE LEARN TO BE HUMAN IN NEW WAYS
THE CASE FOR TRANS-DISCIPLINARITY?
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world irreversibly. Evidence from work being done by scientists across the globe suggests strongly that this coronavirus pandemic might just be a dress rehearsal. Major disruptions are likely to continue, due to the cumulative impact of relentless human behaviour that is breaching planetary boundaries. We would do well to carefully harvest the lessons of this pandemic and to learn to find new ways of being human.
In this talk I would like to explore the following themes:
1. How to Emerge from Planetary Emergencies upon us?
2. What tools can we use to Reimagine a New reality?
3. How to benefit from Africa's wisdom of holistic understanding and our place in Living Earth?
1. How to Emerge from Emergencies upon us?
The beginning of wisdom is acknowledgement. Humanity has yet to fully acknowledge the dire situation we are in. The Report of a consortium of scientists entitled Climate Reality Check 2020, makes the following points:
The above changes are consequences of our way of life as a human race. We have tended to be extractive and degenerative in our use of earth's resources, and in our relationships with other forms of life. Biodiversity and ecosystems have been compromised, leading to the unleashing of previously unknown viruses that have triggered disease outbreaks in different parts of the world, including the current coronavirus pandemic. Planetary emergencies are not climate or health or livelihoods challenges. They are multiple and interlinked tipping points. They are challenging us to embrace the interconnectedness and interdependence of the earth as a living system. Our role in the earth's living system as the newest arrivals needs to be tempered by humility and openness to learning from millions of years of nature's intelligence.
De Hock, founder and emeritus CEO of VISA, observed that there is an ingrained unconscious way of thinking that forms the deepest barrier to transformations our world urgently needs: "Deep in most of us, below our awareness, indelibly implanted there by three centuries of the industrial age, is the mechanistic, separatist, cause-and-effect, command-and-control, machine model of reality." It is remarkable how even as we speak of 21st-century innovations we speak of them as part of the "the 4th Industrial Revolution!" This industrial model of thinking persists despite abundant evidence of non-industrial and non-mechanistic reality around us, that speaks to the interconnectedness and interdependence of the ecosystems we live and work in.
It is this deep unconscious mechanistic, separatist, cause and effect, and command and control mindsets, that has created, and perpetuates, the silos in academia. These silos make it difficult to work across boundaries of disciplines and fields of study. Multi-disciplinarity, let alone trans-disciplinarity, requires us to let down the high mental walls behind which, we continue to work in holy isolation from one another. Human, social, natural, biological, mathematical disciplines are inextricably linked. Adherence to disciplinary silos robs us of the opportunities to innovate at the margins. It is at the threshold of every aspect of life where the greatest innovation impetus lies.
2. What Tools can we use to Reimagine a New Reality in Academia?
Emergence from the multiple Planetary Emergencies will take a radical change in mindsets. We need to move from linear mechanistic mindsets to systems thinking to enable us to fully apprehend Mother Earth's life-giving processes and the complexity of the web of life. This requires a willingness to explore being human in a different way.
Donella Meadows, the lead author of the seminal 1972 Club of Rome's report, The Limits to Growth, encourages us "to dance with systems." Her life's work taught her that we cannot control or figure out complex systems, but we can dance with them. Dance is an important tool because of its invitation to cross the threshold and engage wholeheartedly.
Dance is a tool that teaches one to first "get the beat" and "watch how the system (dance floor) behaves before you jump in." As Africans, we have music rhythm engrained into our genetic make-up. Just watch a toddler dance in sync with the beat without any coaching! This is inbuilt within us - a capacity to dance with systems.
Donella Meadows calls for defying the disciplines to be able to see beyond them to apprehend the wholeness of systems and learn from them. Trans-disciplinary work requires expanding one's thought horizons beyond being academically correct. It requires a commitment to working with others across boundaries, getting into collaborative learning mode, admit ignorance, and be willing to be taught by others and by the system being explored. The question is whether you, as practising academics, are prepared to take the risk of defying disciplinary boundaries? Are you willing to engage the excitement of working at the margins? You need to explore and acknowledge where your fears about the risks of the trans-disciplinarity lie?
Leen Gorissen points the way in her latest book, Nature's Intelligence that: "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In science, we call these phenomenon emergent properties, which are entirely unexpected and can only arise from the collaborative functioning of a system but do not belong to anyone part or individual of that system." Climate change and other planetary emergencies upon us cannot be tackled within disciplinary boundaries. It is only by willing to cross the threshold that possibilities open up. Are we ready to cross?
It is clear that climate change is one of the wicket problems we have created by disrespecting planetary boundaries. Climate change cannot be fixed by technological means. It requires a new way of thinking about who we are, what do we value most in life, how do we relate to one another, and to all of life in the living earth system? A fundamental change that is urgently needed is the acknowledgement that we are part of nature, and inextricably linked to all living beings in an existential interdependence.
What is remarkable is how scientists the world over are now turning to African wisdom for answers to the complexities of life. African wisdom has been carried to many parts of the world by the ancients of indigenous people who migrated to Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Island states across the globe. Indigenous wisdom about the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living beings is being drawn upon by biologists, evolutionary scientists, ecologists, etc. to shed light on the relational dimensions of the living earth. Ironically, this turning to African wisdom is often done without conscious acknowledgement that Africa is not only the cradle of humanity but also the cradle of human civilisation.
For example, Leen Gorissen made this revealing observation:
" Native societies, which endured for centuries with little increase in the capacity to receive, utilise, store, transform, and transmit information, had time to develop a very high ratio of understanding and wisdom to data and information. They may not have known a great deal by today's standards, but they understood a very great deal about what they did know. They were enormously wise in relation to the extent to which they were informed, and their information was conditioned by a high ratio of social, economic and spiritual value."
It is extraordinary that such a great scholar does not know nor acknowledge that "the capacity to receive, utilise, store transform and transmit information," was in existence in Africa thousands of years before any other part of the world. Extensive documented evidence of African civilization prior to colonialisation has been captured by African scholars exemplified by Senegalese polymath, Cheikh Anta Diop.
Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist, in her book, EarthDance, falls into the trap of failing to acknowledge the full extent of Africa's seminal contribution to scientific knowledge when she states that: "The best life insurance for any species in an ecosystem is to contribute usefully to sustaining the lives of other species, a lesson we are only now beginning to learn as humanity." Sahtouris' extremely important observation about the existential imperative of interdependence for all species in our planetary system that our ancient ancestor understood aeons ago, runs the risk of being lost. Her reference to the "we" who are only now becoming aware of this wisdom, raises a fundamental problem of undervaluing the importance of context in our work as academics.
Context matters. The universal "we" does not do justice to those human beings who were born into and continue to be immersed in cultures that are grounded in this understanding. Africans and indigenous people the world over, know that "to be human is to be in relation to others." They know that interdependence is the only way of securing the sustainability of our own lives. There is no I without the We.
The Club of Rome Africa Chapter, of which I am a member, has taken up the challenge of articulating the importance of consciousness of the impact of context on the observations we make as scholars. The paper, New Narrative of Hope, addresses the conundrum of universality in a pluriversal world. It calls for African scholars to be alert to the need for a radical shift of the epistemic lens we use in our work. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, who is quoted in the paper, notes that: "Once the epistemic centre of the universe has been decolonized, a pluriverse of multiple centres of decolonial knowledge opens up…Just because slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and structural adjustment did so much damage, this does not mean greatness is impossible."
The tools we require to emerge from the multiple planetary emergencies we face are at hand. We need to shift our gaze from the narrow focus within disciplinary boundaries, to see the immense possibilities at the margins in terms of time and place. We also need to draw on our rich African cultural heritage and wisdom to start actively dancing with systems thinking. But first, we need to listen to the beat, to watch the dynamics of the dancing floor, before we jump in. Once in the dance, we will discover anew that the "I am because you are," is not only the life insurance we all need as a human species to survive. We will discover and live our lives with due reverence for all life on earth.
3. How do we Leverage Africa's Wisdom to Learn Anew How to be Human?
We have a wonderful opportunity as African scholars to become champions of Africa's wisdom to help the global human community to learn the lessons of the post-COVID era, and to reflect them in our everyday lives and work.
First, we need to learn a lot more about our ancient African history and its seminal contributions to human civilisation. It cannot be right that the strongest African Studies Centres and Institutes in our world are outside the African continent. Online tools and virtual meeting facilities make collaboration much easier and affordable. We need to dare to cross boundaries as African institutions and collaboratively establish multi-centred Institutes of true trans-disciplinary African Studies on our continent.
Second, there is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with scholars in the African Diaspora through online and virtual tools to benefit from their global exposure and harvest the wisdom of their work wherever they are. African scholars in the diaspora often sharpens the pluriversal lens because of their exposure to unapologetic universality in Euro-American contexts many find themselves in. Learning from their experiences would be enriching.
Third, we need to collectively challenge "universality" wherever it rears its ugly head. We need to promote pluriversality to enable us to enrich our scholarly work beyond the current Euro-American epistemic dominance. We need to reach out to China, Korea, India, Japan and Latin America, to enrich our own perspective on the shared global challenges we face. We need to harvest the wisdom of how to overcome these over-bearing universality from other contexts. We need to intentionally harvest the abundance of wisdom from interconnectedness and interdependence across boundaries.
Finally, we need to commit to stop teaching orthodoxy in the humanities and social science disciplines, particularly with reference to history, economics and religion. Orthodoxy in our education systems is undermining the futures of young people in a world that calls for the ability to ask difficult questions.
We need to relearn how to be more effective facilitators of self-liberation learning and stimulation of young minds, to enable them to engage in the dance with complex systems. Young people need to develop a more acute consciousness of the heritage of the wisdom of their ancestors, as a rock on which to build reimagined futures they desire to shape.
Co-President of the Club of Rome, and
Co-Founder of ReimagineSA