Alternative Editorial: If we need a sense of "oneness" in the face of climate crisis, we can find it in the toughest places

The Pearce Institute, home to the Centre For Human Ecology, Govan, Glasgow

The Pearce Institute, home to the Centre For Human Ecology, Govan, Glasgow

By AUK Co-Initiator Pat Kane

“It’s aw wan.” 

This was the answer that a luminant woman gave me while I was visiting the Centre of Human Ecology in Glasgow, several years ago. An obvious local, I had asked her what she meant, when she said she followed the “Govan Philosophy” (Govan is the rough and mercurial area in which the CHE has been based for decades).

To translate for the non-Glaswegian, what she’d said was: “It’s all one”. We had been talking in the aftermath of a presentation I gave about play and ecology (video here), which had detained a crowd of researchers and locals for a while. 

I’ve never forgotten this working-class transcendentalist. Was she overly mythologising her neighbourhood? I’d say not. Few urban areas I know are as charged with polarities, synergies and openness, out of which new frameworks might emerge, than Govan. 

Govan has been a Christian religious centre since the 6th century - but was also the epicentre of shipbuilding in imperial days (and still has BAE Systems bristling there, on the banks of the River Clyde).

“Nothing without work”

“Nothing without work”

Govan is also home to one half of Glasgow’s sectarian football rivals, Rangers (the other is Celtic). Yet politically it’s been promiscuous, swithering between Labour and the SNP, and with the independence-supporting First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as its current Scottish Parliament representative. 

UK TV viewers of a certain age may remember the BBC comedy series Rab C. Nesbitt, set in Govan. Nesbitt was a dishevelled character, consciously modelled on the transgressive Greek philosopher Diogenes. Both of them wandered their respective streets and squares, dispensing wisdom from the gutter to (mostly unreceptive) passers-by.

So my Govan philosopher was talking out of a strong pre-existing context—not just out of her own fond imaginings.

It would be completely wrong to think that an explicit sense that “we’re aw wan” - a belief in the fundamental unity of everything, the interrelations of our selves and the atoms, taken from the perennialist and wisdom traditions - is an elitist idea. 

Hippies, and the children of hippies, will be as present in Govan as anywhere else. There are also traditions in this area of solidarity, and universal brotherhood/sisterhood, that linger from the industrial era. 

But what I’m recalling here is more than just a delightful encounter. I think it points to a very urgent issue. That is, how much, and how quickly, can the majority of citizens, workers and consumers reframe their fundamental relationship to their world, in the face of climate disaster.

A sense of “oneness” - and particularly our connection with the natural universe - is a psychological holy grail for climate radicals. They often ask: if only we could replace the toxic gratifications of consumerism and convenience, with the regenerative gratifications of feeling “at home in our universe”, whether social or material. 

And if only that could happen in the malls, high-streets and administrative blocks where the mass of the population are—rather than just in the secluded, protected spaces where self-consciously “adult development” usually occurs.

There is some powerful big-picture-painting going on at the moment. Specifically, about how necessary for our planetary survival it might be to cultivate a collective shift towards “it’s aw wan”. 

Take the culture brewing up in Extinction Rebellion. It seeks to break through to the heart of its activists, whether by the means of empathy groups, transformative street-art experiences or hallucinogens/entheogens. ER wants panic and grief about impending environmental damage to trigger a profound new political commitment. 

The Rebel identity means deciding to be with others who take the possibility of extinction extremely seriously, and match their actions to the reality. The death mask that’s part of XR’s symbolism makes the oneness gothically explicit. We are inevitably destined for the worms, is the implication…so we should already have those worms’ biospheric interests at heart. 

So how does “oneness” becomes a popular sentiment? XR has a ready answer. It makes a strong invitation for you to join the combined forces of humans and nature, against corporations and states who know “the truth” about climate disaster but won’t act on it. 

Yet I wonder about other discourses, appealing to specific audiences—where “oneness” is presented not just as deeply felt personal transformation, but as a useful mentality that can help us to sense, and thus forge, a better system.

The best example of this I can find are the interventions of Daniel Schmachtenberger, an American entrepreneur and systems-thinker whose patient overviews of our current multiple crises are gathering much support. 

Daniel Schmachtenberger

Daniel Schmachtenberger

In a talk recently transcribed by Perspectiva, Daniel seeks to invoke our sense of “oneness” with the universe by referencing biology and physics. These natural processes make “elegant orders and forms” - ones that are simply not predictable from observing their initial conditions. “Emergence” is both the metaphor, and the scientific framework here.

Schmachtenberger suggests this as a new kind of faith in nature. A nature not just driven by necessary competition between its elements, but by attraction between them also.

One of those elegant and emergent forms is our pesky self-consciousness. Schmachtenberger suggests that we should see our selfhood as a great triumph of evolution, rather than something that makes us more discontented - and thus more destructive - than other animals:

The bee is serving this huge role in evolution by pollinating the planets and making the atmosphere that makes us. But they don’t know they’re doing that, and they can’t consciously figure out how to do it better. 

In contrast, we actually have the capability of looking at what the whole story is—and identifying as, ‘Whoa, the whole evolutionary impulse of universe brought me about and then woke up to itself in me.’ 

In a meaningful way, I am actually the evolutionary, impulsive universe, awoke to itself, in a form that has adequate ordered complexity to contemplate that. 

Then you get to consciously choose how to participate with it—not just to be part of a bored crew on a spaceship, but to help steer the direction of evolution and cosmos…

And everybody knows that when you are in the experience of creating beauty that didn’t exist before in the universe, which adds to the universe and is uniquely yours to create, you feel a kind of aliveness unmatched by anything else. 

Back to Govan. One of the institutions connected to the Centre for Human Ecology is called GalGael. They describe themselves as a “working community” that handles wood in many forms: as timber supply, as an opportunity for craft, and as material for boat building.

“We work together on demanding common tasks that demonstrate ways of living with more humanity in our times”, goes their blurb. They certainly are about an “experience of creating beauty”, as Daniel would put it, generating a “kind of aliveness unmatched by anything else”. 

Their hand-crafted boats are made by local participants who are often the socially-damaged outcomes of Govan’s lost imperial-industrial era. “For us”, say GalGael, “boats are both a metaphor for transformation – as we journey from one place to another – and tools for achieving our purpose”.

Schmachtenberger suggest that the question that arises, when you feel at one with the evolution of the universe, is “what can I actually do to make my life of greatest use to all life?” In GalGael, maybe there’s a clue to how that sense of “oneness” can be built right in the heart of everyday communities. 

As this site has been arguing for and trying to foment, what’s important to renew civic purpose is the identification of GalGael’s “demanding common tasks”. Tasks which expand people’s sense of agency and “control” over their fates, but in a planet-friendly way. 

The overall aim is to grapple anew, and exuberantly, with the conditions of one’s existence - around food, energy, housing, mobility, culture, and much more. And in doing so, we celebrate and exercise our ability not only to see the systems around us, but to reshape them and steer them better. 

Time for a return visit to Govan, I think, to refresh my sense of “it’s aw wan”.