Yeats’s ominous post-World War I poem is subject to any number of interpretations, but the vision of a terrifying new era is evident, as is the message: we are waking up to a nightmare.
Its relevance today is plain. Simply put, we have reaped the rewards of technological progress without due concern for its unintended consequences – the early signs of which are fast becoming apparent. Resource-scarcity, climate change and the extinction crisis are all products of our hyper-consumption: the prospects are deeply troubling.
My only modest lever on the future is Synchronicity Earth (SE) which – through partnerships with NGOs, scientists and other experts – seeks to help arrest environmental degradation and initiate restorative measures. My hope is that we can.
Since philanthropy is central to SE’s effort, I start there. To put it bluntly, I believe that the overall focus of charitable giving is dangerously unbalanced, ineffective, and shortsighted. The fact that 97 per cent of all UK donations are directed towards non-environmental targets makes less sense as we know more.
Indeed, insofar as the general aim of philanthropists is to improve the quality of life on the planet, continued adherence to the current model is misguided – worse, it will inevitably produce the opposite result.
Two conceptual flaws are responsible:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats
The first is that the human worldview is largely anthropocentric – often to the point of crowding everything else out of consideration. We fail to grasp our interdependence with the natural world.
The second is that we tend to think hierarchically, and commonly use the pyramidal form to help us formulate our world-view. In a philanthropic context, we pit causes against each other in the charitable space, ranking them by relevance: we fail to develop a rounded (or comprehensive) perspective on the problems we seek to address.
Typically, ‘the arts’ are at the pinnacle of most philanthropic pyramids, with the base comprised of charities supporting vulnerable groups. Most donors are committed to the idea of giving to causes at the bottom of the pyramid – current jargon actually refers to them as “BOPs”.
Better to help BOPs than TOPs, surely – or MOPs for that matter. But the pyramid misses the point of what’s at stake. It doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of our world. Here’s what’s missing, for starters:
- The sense that all living things exist in and as ecosystems
- The fact that those ecosystems are the foundation of the pyramid itself
- An understanding that the degradation of that foundation will eventually cause the pyramid to crumble
In effect, by including only a partial appreciation of what sustains life, the current patterns of giving create risk for the very people philanthropy seeks to help: the MOPs and TOPs will be able – for a while anyway – to avoid the worst effects of the collapsing foundation. The world’s most vulnerable populations, however, will not.
Instead of waking up to a nightmare that we sleepwalked into, a new structure is needed – one that addresses the foundation (or FOPs, if you like).
By all means let us continue to improve health care and education for poor farming families on the edge of the African Sahel. But without massive investment in climate mitigation and freshwater conservation, that somewhat healthier and better-educated family will not have a farm at all. Future prospects diminished, they will likely be swept into the tide of unskilled migrants from the land into urban areas or refugee camps, and larger societal problems will almost certainly arise.
THE WIDENING GYRE
Our environmental crisis now intersects with the present economic crisis and what looks to be a growing political crisis that will impact all societies eventually, some sooner than others. We can consider those three crises (and others to come) as forming the core of their own kind of ecosystem with all of its intricate interaction and reflexive connectivity.
It becomes clearer that driving all three crises is a malfunction of our current forms of free-market and state-controlled capitalism. Our global systems carry built-in conflicts between nation-states and the natural world. Are we not playing an unwinnable game of chicken with Mother Nature?
There appears to be no way of achieving economic growth without a corresponding degradation or destruction of the environment and its foundational ecosystems. We have become wedded to systems that are programed to devour themselves, and life with it.
That may be the central fact of our 21st-century predicament.
Seen in that light, the overemphasis on the BOPs in philanthropic giving appears more and more the band-aid solution that it is – at best enabling them to join the ranks of other hyperconsumers – thereby speeding up the rate and scale of destruction of Earth’s ecosystems; and things will fall apart.
The system today appears to be in runaway mode. Increased demand for goods has led to the use of ever-advanced and more invasive technology to extract natural resources that keep the economy growing. These insult the land and degrade natural ecosystems while increasing inequalities, human population displacement and social unrest.
In response, governments resort to greater measures of repression and control, which only heightens popular dissent, anger, and ultimately desperation. At the same time, they take palliative measures to elevate the level of general prosperity, which involves an intensification of the various imperatives of extractive capitalism, which… rinse and repeat.
Of the three current interlocking crises, the environmental is the most dire simply because what is destroyed cannot be regained, and we will all have lost. We have some tools that can bring at least short-term relief to a foundering economy; printing money is one. We can remove political leaders and effectively print new ones through electoral procedures. But once orangutans or aquifers are gone, we won’t be able to mint new ones.
And so the widening gyre, turning and turning, feeds itself… whose hour will have come round at last?
SOMEWHERE IN SANDS OF THE DESERT
It is easy to criticise existing structures and practices, warning of dire consequences if corrective action isn’t taken promptly, as I have just done. It’s quite another thing to actually do something. It is useful to remember that while Cassandra was given the power of prophecy, she was also fated to be ignored. In other words, talk is cheap.
What then is to be done?
Synchronicity Earth will remove or lower barriers to environmental giving and help funders target their philanthropy effectively. We will find the right people and organisations to fund so that donors can rest assured that their money is being used wisely, and that their contribution is making a difference.
We will bring environmental knowledge to the philanthropic community and increase awareness of the value of different types of intervention and actor – especially in the face of bad news headlines.
We will work with conservation organisations to help them to achieve more than they could alone – by improving their capacity and strengthening their networks so that they can be greater than the sum of their parts.
We will help bring forth the spirit of a better, more balanced world.
As chairman, I want to express my excitement and optimism about what we have set out to do and have done already. We are deeply grateful to those who have supported us financially, and to all the NGOs, advisors, and experts who have given so freely of their time and shared the benefit of their experience and wisdom.
We must continue to work together relentlessly in coordinated and generous fashion. We invite and welcome the maximum amount of interaction possible.
Chairman, Synchronicity Earth