Pick your despair: climate change, the death of the world’s oceans, the looming extinction of three million species, or the selfish egotism of the wealthiest 0.1% of humans?
Some may respond with angry words about fear mongering. Others will say, “Give me a cocktail—it’s all of the above.”
Most of my friends are in the latter camp: on the rare occasion when I meet someone who believes that climate change is a conspiracy and the real problem is government refusing to let people get on with their lives, well, let’s just say the meeting never blossoms into friendship.
Why are we failing to tackle these massive global crises?
So why are we failing to tackle these massive global crises? If we don’t remove the causes really soon, climate change and ocean warming will usher in the collapse of our entire global civilization, as civilizations have collapsed before.
We can all list the obvious suspects—widespread ecological ignorance; political, corporate and banking corruption; the market’s blindness to external costs; the selfish desires of indulgent consumers; the historic tendency of civilizations to exploit their non-renewable resources and then collapse.
But what if there is another cause, of which most people are oblivious? It’s mid-August, in the dog days of summer when our brains are at their loosest, so let me float an idea that is rarely discussed.
What if our understanding of mind, matter and reality is wrong, and as a result, we are trapped in actions on the material plane that make it more likely that our civilization will collapse?
What is our story?
Every civilization has a dominant story, and most humans embrace a version of that story, even if they are not fully aware of it. It permeates its way into our subconscious and informs our actions.
One story says ‘God made the world, and when you die God will send you to heaven or to hell, depending on how you live.’ Another story says ‘Life is a constant cycle of re-incarnation. If you are good, you might reincarnate as a doctor or a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. If you are bad, you might become a cockroach.’
The dominant story in the western Euro-American civilization used to be religious, but it has gradually been replaced by a scientific story that says the Universe is a material place made up of atoms and molecules, cells and DNA, planets and galaxies. God in heaven does not exist, prayer is a waste of time, and angels, demons and spirit worlds are simply fantasies.
Our scientific story is not fixed, which is its strength. It results from the scientific method, so it is constantly producing new theories that are tested by evidence. Those that survive join the story we live by. During the nineteenth century, for instance, the story changed from the belief that the world was 4,600 years old to the belief that it was several million years old, and now to the understanding, backed by convincing evidence, that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old.
The world is a material place
Throughout the development of the scientific story, however, one constant has never changed: the understanding that the world is a material place. The minerals we walk on, the stuff that trees and iguanas are made from and the brain cells that enable me to write these words consist of atoms that in turn consist of tiny blobs of energy surrounded by vast areas of empty space. There is no thing, place or dimension in this story that is spiritual or religious. We can have religious-like feelings of wonder, awe and gratitude. We can be stupendously amazed at the size and grandeur of the universe, and the way love and kindness make the world a much better place; and we can talk of a forest being ‘sacred’ to express our love for it and our desire that it not be destroyed; but these are all expressions of a material world.
Accepting the story that we live in a material world, many people treat the world as such. Forests are sold, trees cut down and oil extracted since most people take it for granted that more material goods will improve their lives. If I feel restless and I have the money I can go out and buy a new car, or a new kitchen. ‘We live in a material world, so let’s make the most of it.’ That’s how many people interpret the story, and from there it’s only a short distance, assisted by ecological ignorance, to climate disaster and the collapse of life in the planet’s oceans.
There is a flaw in the story
There is a flaw in the story, however: an area of difficulty that most scientists consistently ignore. It concerns consciousness. Not the content of consciousness—the thoughts and images, smells and sounds that fill our consciousness, but the raw subjective experience of consciousness, the sense of simply being: what philosophers call ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Consciousness undeniably exists, but there is no known explanation for it. We are increasing our understanding about how smell, sight and intelligence work, but none of it gets us any closer to the raw consciousness that allows us to experience them.
The Nobel prize-winning biologist Francis Crick, one of three people who unraveled the secrets of DNA, spent the last decades of his life studying the mysteries of consciousness. He concluded in a book titled The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul that, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’”
That may be depressing, but it still fails to explain the subjective experience of consciousness, which remains an awkward hole in the fabric of the scientific story: the one we use to support our actions on this planet.
How far down does consciousness go?
So let me jump to a possibility that has often been aired, but equally often pushed back under the carpet. This is the idea that consciousness is a universal field or a fifth dimension of existence that permeates everything. We are conscious: we accept that. Most of us agree that animals are conscious too. It is hard to share your home with a cat or a dog and not conclude that it is conscious, enabling it to experience sounds, smells, feelings, and cat or dog thoughts.
But how far down does consciousness go? Is a worm conscious? An amoeba? A molecule? An atom? And if not, where does consciousness come from? And if an atom is conscious, does this mean that the sub-atomic particles and energy-fields of which it consists are also conscious? This is way outside any acceptable parameters of scientific investigation. Careers tumble when scientists go down this road.
And yet Max Planck, who was one of the founders of quantum theory in the 1920s and ‘30s, wrote “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
‘The stuff of the world is mind-stuff’
His colleague, the Austrian Wolfgang Pauli, wrote “It is my personal opinion that the science of the future reality will be neither ‘psychic’ nor ‘physical’, but somehow both and somehow neither.” Another colleague, Erwin Schroedinger, wrote “consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.” The British scientist Sir Arthur Eddington, whose book The Expanding Universe made a big impression in the 1930s, wrote “The universe is of the nature of a thought or sensation in a universal Mind. To put the conclusion crudely – the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.”
These scientists were very enmeshed in quantum theory, which requires the presence of a conscious observer to determine if a sub-atomic particle is going to express itself as a particle or a wave. So they knew that consciousness had to be fundamental, right down to the core of reality. The mystery has yet to be solved, but since quantum math works just fine without understanding why, most physicists these days ignore the enigma and get on with the math.
But what would it mean for our human story if a scientific breakthrough of some kind caused millions of scientists around the world to agree with Planck, Pauli and Eddington that consciousness is fundamental, and ‘the stuff of the world is mind-stuff?’
The breakthrough would need to penetrate public dialogue and discussion in a way that relativity and quantum theory never have. Even today, a hundred years later, most people can’t explain what they mean.
Consciousness is different from relativity, however: it affects everyone, since we experience it every moment of the waking day. If the new story includes the acknowledgement that everything is conscious, this would apply to the animals we interact with; the food we eat; the plants we grow; the forests we clearcut; the mountains we climb; the oceans we fish; the entire planet we live on.
The new story would be far more than ‘an idea.’ It would become part of the felt experience of our daily lives, the matrix of understanding through which we interpret the world, underpinned by confidence based in solid science. The understanding would become experientially solid, just as the widely held presumptions that forests, worms and fishes are not conscious are solid today.
Such a story would not prevent us from cutting down trees or catching fish, but it would compel us to do so with respect, knowing that we were taking the life of another conscious being. Nor would it necessarily end the craziness of psychopathic religions whose adherents use their conviction of ideological rightness to erase their human empathy and commit the most awful atrocities.
Among most people in the mainstream of civilization, however, among whom empathy is alive and well, the new story would create a sea change in the way we relate to reality. We would no longer tolerate industrial fishing that is driving marine life to extinction. Oil companies would no longer be allowed to rip the boreal forest to pieces or risk the ecological sanctuary of the Arctic. Farming corporations and their staff would no longer be able to treat farm animals with such cruelty and disdain.
Older brother and younger brother
In the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia, south of the Caribbean sea, the Kogi people are survivors of the Spanish invasion that began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. They understand that Earth is a living being, and that all existence is permeated with spirit (or as we might say, consciousness). They believe it is their responsibility to safeguard the balance and natural order of the world. They see themselves as ‘older brother’, the rest of us as ‘younger brothers’ who need to be taught the habits and rituals of respect that maintain harmony between mountain and ocean, humans and animals.
If developments in science yielded a new story that gave a prominent role to consciousness, the Kogi beliefs would make total sense to us, and we would develop our own rituals to teach people how to have respect for nature, ecology and all living beings. We would develop new systems of law, and new definitions of crime that included ‘crimes against nature’ or ‘ecocide,’ as the British activist Polly Higgins is working to achieve.
With such a new story, the barrier that our current story has erected between science and religion and spirituality would crumble, and millions would enjoy debating the difference between what they perceive to be ‘God’ and the newly recognized universal field of consciousness. Cultural practices of prayer, meditation, healing and shamanism would receive new respect, and we would need a much sharper means to separate science that includes the role of consciousness from strange beliefs that would have us believe (for instance) that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the true Creator.
How might such a change in science come about? If I knew, I’d have a thousand would-be Nobel Prize winners following my Facebook page. My current hunch is that it might come about through the neuro-scientific analysis of identical twins, one third of whom report being reliably telepathic. How is that so? Nobody knows—but it raises all sorts of questions about the nature of mind, consciousness, space and time. 
One black swan is all that it takes to disprove the premise that all swans are white. There has been copious research into telepathy, and the evidence that it is real is so solid that you need odds of many billion to one to argue that it is happening by chance. In spite of that, perhaps due to the statistical nature of the evidence, none of it has yet breached the bastions of scientific acceptability, or the story we use to underpin our lives.
August will soon be over, and by September we’ll be back to seeking more immediate and urgent solutions to the crises that beset us, starting with what will hopefully be the world’s largest climate mobilization in New York on September 21st, sending a message to the UN meeting convened to discuss the road to Paris in December 2015, where huge hopes are being pinned on our ability to come to a global agreement to address the climate emergency.
But while I continue to work with tens of thousands of others to achieve workable solutions to the climate crisis, I will also continue to seek a scientific breakthrough that could lead to a new story— a story that by embracing the mystery of consciousness will hopefully make us more wise, and more compassionate of the Earth we live on, and the many creatures we share it with.
Guy Dauncey works to develop a positive vision of a sustainable future, and to translate that vision into action. He lives near Ladysmith, British Columbia. His website is www.earthfuture.com.
 What Colombia’s Kogi people can teach us about the environment. Guardian, Oct 23, 2013. www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/colombia-kogi-environment-destruction
 Twin Telepathy, by Guy Playfair. White Crow Books, 2012. www.amazon.ca/Twin-Telepathy-Guy-L-Playfair/dp/1908733446