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Gregory Bateson

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The Natural Systems Thinking Process: Creating Intentional Communities and Sustainable Local Economies

Dave Ewoldt, May 2003

   A growing alarm is sounding throughout the world from virtually every field of study: "Earth Crash" is just down the road--approximately twenty years away. Some even argue that we are at that point today.

   Hard, cold facts from the physical, biological, and social sciences are describing the writing on the wall, and the truth is alarming: We are moving swiftly and inexorably toward the end of Earth's capacity to sustain life as we know it. If you look at the ecological footprint of the world's current population, we are actually past that point.

   Why are we on the verge of total system collapse?

   The answer is quite simple. We've forgotten we're a part of a system. Until we remember this, and start thinking and acting like the system we're a part of, there is little chance that life on earth-at least as we know it and participate in it-can be maintained.

   The Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP) is a methodology in applied ecopsychology. It is based on the attraction relationships that underlie the interconnected structure of reality, the system we are a part of. The NSTP provides both a framework for how the natural universe communicates its non-verbal, multi-sensory intelligence through the Web of Life, and a way for humans to get reconnected to this balanced, sustainable wisdom. The scientific underpinnings are drawn from both current and ancient thought in the physical, natural and social sciences, and are held together with current thinking in systems science.

   When one examines the results of evidence and leading edge thinking from the above fields, the inescapable conclusion is that attraction relationships hold everything from sub-atomic particles to ecosystems to economic systems together. These attraction relationships are the essence of the NSTP.

   The basis for the concept of Love on a Universal scale is that love starts as allurement, which is a form of attraction. This basic binding energy is found everywhere in reality. It is, for example, the beginning of the attraction sense of love of community. The activity of attraction is both the creation of being and the enhancement of life.

   Attraction relationships can be seen as the manifestations of a 5th Force within quantum mechanics, what pioneering systems thinker Ervin Laszlo calls the subtle field. This subtle energy field that guides the cosmological evolutionary lifeforce is a Nameless, Intelligent, Attraction Love known by its acronym NIAL within the NSTP. Webstrings, taken from the experiential Web of Life model used by environmental educators, are the attraction relationships that bond quarks and biosystems. NIAL is the underlying field itself. When we find ourselves disconnected from Nature, we can say that we are in de-NIAL. This disconnection, or denial, results in the personal, social, and environmental crisis we are experiencing today.

   The NSTP recognizes that every individual is biologically, psychologically and spiritually part of Nature's nonpolluting, intelligent ways. However, humanity suffers great personal and global troubles because over 95% of our time and 99.9% of our thinking in Western Civilization is disconnected from Nature. In compensation and through denial, we exhibit unreasonable, hurtful, greedy behaviors which negatively impact the health of all life on the planet-including humanity itself.

   As a method of psychologically therapeutic healing NSTP can have an extremely consciously profound effect and may even become a life altering experience for an individual. Some people express their experiences with Nature as a feeling or sense of mental well-being with increased measures of self worth and esteem, others as a spiritual awakening and appreciation of Nature, of experiencing Absolute Unity Being. Some people talk about experiencing a personal wholeness or a meaningful fulfillment in honoring the integrity and the unity of Nature. Others say they've learned that the greatest good can be simply to enjoy life, to just be who they were meant to be, and cause no undue harm.

   But the effect most pertinant to my topic today is that after consciously experiencing NIAL, most people become highly motivated to constructively contribute to the community of all life in a harmonious actualization of balanced co-creative evolution.

   As can be seen then, the NSTP is an ecological process of healing the personal and environmental ills caused by the dualistic world view held by Western society and science. However, it goes far beyond treating just the symptoms and politics that are the result of this mindset. Rather, it has the potential to catalyze the major shift in human consciousness needed to overcome the destructive behaviors that are negatively impacting human and environmental health.

   Through a series of simple yet powerful sensory outdoor activities, the NSTP thoughtfully reconnects people with Nature's balanced, fulfilling intelligence. Destructive thinking is recycled, and participants not only personally experience the relationship between human and environmental health, but they become highly motivated to restore the wellness of both humanity and the Earth.

   The Natural Systems Thinking Process produces the following results which contribute to the development of a healthy, informed citizenry of people highly motivated to promote and sustain environmental health and responsible personal and social relationships; it has demonstrated long-term effectiveness and a lower recidivism rate when compared to traditional therapies; it has shown significant effectiveness in healing disorders such as stress and depression, and helps overcome low self-esteem by increasing self-worth, which all contribute to overcoming substance abuse, violence and destructive behaviors; an increased desire to live sustainably, including a deep appreciation of 'natural systems' and satisfaction, happiness, and enjoyment without greed.

   As a scientific psychology and therapeutic methodology in restoring natural balance through personal wellness, the NSTP is being shown to be highly effective in a number of settings and populations, from at-risk youth to corporate structure. By psychologically reconnecting to Nature, we can reverse our self- and Nature-destructive activities and trends and replace them with the simple elegance of a Nature connected sustainability.

   Our most pressing need is for increased mental health and global ecological sustainability because Earth and all of its creatures need care and healing. The NSTP is enjoying increasing use by mental health professionals who deal with clients on a daily basis, and every environmental organization is aware of the need to educate the general populace in ecological awareness. The NSTP is also proving to be effective in making that education stick and become a part of a person's everyday lifestyle and decision making process. The Nature connecting techniques enhance personal growth in self-help programs and the fields of counseling, education and science teaching. The NSTP also contributes to spirituality, peace and environmental studies.

   The overall effect of the NSTP is to teach and enable people to enjoyably and positively take part in a consciously motivated and balanced co-creative evolution with Nature toward a sustainable world. People learn to think and live the way that Nature works.

   The NSTP shows that our multisensory intelligence consists of more than just our five mechanistically defined senses -- the Big5 handed down through science by Aristotle 2500 years ago. Over four dozen unique senses are a biological inheritance given to people and all other natural organisms by Nature. This multitude of senses is how we shape, refine and otherwise interact with the multitude of energy flows through us.

   The bottom line is that these senses which we share with the rest of nature, are what keep the bio-global community in balance. And, until we get reconnected to these senses and start thinking and acting the way Nature works, in mutual support and reciprocity, then we're in big trouble. But, there are signs that people are remembering we're part of a larger system, and that mutually supporting one another is not only a really smart thing to do, it's also a very wise ethical choice.

   One of these signs is the increasing interest in intentional communities. Because, ya know folks, we're all a part of nature, we're not apart from it, both as individuals, and as a community.

   Some of the current intentional community movement seeks to find community in cloistered enclaves, usually off in the woods somewhere which may be all well and good for the individuals. But in order to model a better way of living on the Earth, intentional communities need to engage the larger community. Success can be built for the larger community by achieving the dynamic of mutual trust, openness to diversity, and reciprocity. This is how nature works.

   The city of Bellingham itself can be looked at as an intentional community. Instead of bemoaning the loss of the feeling of community, let's reintroduce communty values into our lives. We all moved here, or have stayed here, for one reason or another. Some temporarily, as in the student population or migrant workers. But in each moment of time, the population of Bellingham defines who Bellingham is, and contributes to whether or not it is a healthy, safe, and sustainable community we can all be proud of and enjoy living in.

   We're all a part of this place, and we can develop and be nurtured by this sense of place while we are here. If you look at living here as only a temporary situation, and take the attitude that you don't care about it, that you're just passing through, you'll be doing a disservice to yourself, because you will be intentionally keeping yourself from being in a holistic, healthy, natural balance the entire time you maintain this attitude.

   What makes a vibrant and healthy community? What contributes to a quality of life that attracts caring individuals and businesses? It's a combination of the community's economy, government, arts, social service organizations, and environment. The manner in which the overall social system reflects the model of integration and sustainability exhibited in a robust and resiliant ecosystem is what creates a healthy community.

   If we extend the concept of Bellingham as an intentional community to also embrace the region's farms and organic cooperatives, we would have all the best parts of the intentional community movement and bioregionalism rolled into one. We can build the feelings of belonging and mutual support that are becoming so hard to find in Western society today.

   Even though there is a tremendous amount of diversity among intentional communities, there are some commonalities. Shared land and housing are the ones most people think of, but even more importantly, the members of a community share a vision and work together toward their common goals or purposes.

   These purposes often include sharing resources, creating vibrant family neighborhoods, and more often today, living ecologically sustainable lifestyles with others who hold similar values. Communities can, and should be, spiritually eclectic to model nature's diversity in yet another way. Other things that intentional communities often focus on are voluntary simplicity, mutual interpersonal growth work, and lifelong education and mentoring.

   There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the intentional community movement. For the most part, though, people who are attracted to living in intentional communities tend to be hard working, peace loving, health conscious, environmentally concerned, and family oriented. Philosophically they tend toward a way of life which increases the options for their own members without limiting the choices of others. Most intentional communities tend to be democratic, and base their decisions on the formal consensus process or use democratic voting systems.

   The concepts behind intentional communities can provide an effective way to return our civil society to ecological sanity, social and economic justice, and strong caring communities. For example, getting the Earth Charter adopted at the community and bioregional level as a soft law document to guide sustainable development and to help people become aware that unrestrained growth is not the same thing as progress would go a long way toward creating a sustainable intentional community. The Earth Charter also provides a foundation for all of the shared values I've mentioned so far, such as respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, nonviolence, and peace.

   Contrary to what some people fear, sharing values does not mean, or lead to, groupthink. Diversity is not only healthy, it is required for a balanced and sustainable dynamic system that will be able to adapt and evolve. The goal is not to eliminate conflict, but to learn how to work with it constructively.

   Being in opposition to Nature is not a particularly effective long-term strategy. While we as humans may not currently fully understand the principles behind natural systems organization, evolution, and mutually supportive co-creation, we can not deny that such principles do exist and that these principles both bring us to life and keep us alive, healthy and evolving.

   Learning to think the way that Nature works allows us to tap into these principles and use them for building healthy and enjoyable lives, and for creating healthy social and organizational structures based on mutual agreements and understanding of common goals. This is the basis of the process we call Natural Consensus. We have the capability to actually create a culture that has a quality of life that we can currently only dream about.

   Don't I think we currently have a high quality of life and an ecstatically happy population? No. When 60-80% of the American population need pain relievers, stress reducers, anti-depressants, alcohol and other recreational drugs in order to make it through their day--or forget their day--I think something is very seriously wrong. When the majority of the planet's wealth is concentrated in a very tiny minority, and when the planet's resources are exploited and squandered in the pursuit of profits without regard to anything else, I think something is wrong. When the American government spends as much money on one ICBM as it would take to build 227 schools, I think our value system is very seriously out of balance and completely disconnected from natural reality.

   The key to global transformations in the personal, social, environmental, economic, and other realms is not a simple matter of right or wrong actions, but a matter of building right relationships. And there is no greater model of right relationships than Nature. The more closely aligned intentional communities of any size are with natural systems, the more successful they will be. The NSTP, by consciously reconnecting community members to Nature, is thus a very powerful tool.

   Another commonality among many intentional communities, is a robust and sustainable alternative economy. These can take the form of gifting economies, barter systems, or local scripts. A sign that many communities, not only intentional ones, are getting back on a more natural, healthier track, is the recent interest and growth in local living economies.

   Local living economies are regional economies of locally owned businesses that sustain the long-term economic viability of a community by contributing to a viable and vibrant community life and to a healthy environment. Much the way natural ecosystems work.

   Because, we have to face one inescapable fact: we have to move away from corporatism. If we don't do that, there is no hope.

   A true and lasting ecological ethic will address human and other species needs through their interdependent connections to the earth that sustains them in a healthy balance. This ecological ethic will simultaneously educate people about the fact that long-term economic sustainability requires both environmental health and social justice.

   We need to work on instituting positive progressive change. This change needs to build on the concept that progress doesn't have to equate to growth. In his book "Ecological Democracy," Roy Morrison uses the concept of The Steel Triangle of Industrialism. The three sides of this triangle are labeled Progress, Hierarchy, and Technique. He states that progress is a code word for exploitation and destruction, which are defined as beneficial. Hierarchy is the ordering principle of inequality, what Riane Eisler refers to as force based rankings of domination, which channels love and aspiration into obedience, and defines this obedience as good. Technique captures human creativity and reason into the service of progress and hierarchy, and defines this captivity as the search for truth and the greatest good. Industrialism is a civilization gone mad by following its own logic.

   If we were to become honest about the concepts we use, the structures we create, the processes we take part in and maintain by our lifestyle decisions, we should call the growth economy what it really is--the pollution economy, or the exploitation economy. David Korten calls it the Suicide economy because it is neither life sustaining nor life honoring. This dovetails with one of the foundational precepts of ecopsychology--that deliberately destroying one's life support system is a very good definition of insanity.

   Sustainable business practices must embrace the same natural principles that are necessary for sustainable and healthy lifestyles and ecosystems: reduction of waste, energy efficiency and conservation, resource stewardship and conservation, cooperation, free and unfettered access to information, as well as economic and cultural diversity.

   A sustainable economy depends on a healthy environment. Economic development needs to be tied to environmental stabilization and recovery. We need to recognize that the economy is a subset of the environment, and depends on the environment to sustain it. An economy that is built on a failing, toxic, and depleted environment and non-sustainabale policies will exhibit these same failing and toxic symptoms of non-sustainable depletion itself.

   So, we must ask ourselves, how does corporatism affect us, and why do we need to be active participants in removing corporate rule from our lives and our society?

   Some environmentalists don't think we'll be able to get people to take the need for ecological sanity seriously, and start making changes in the lifestyle choices they make until they have an "unsafe at any speed" moment that will awaken our culture from its environmental apathy. I'd suggest that we actually have such a moment at present. Let's examine our toxic bodies.

   A group of medical schools and environmental groups did a study of the body burden, a measure of a person's contamination by industrial toxins. Michael Lerner, president of Commonweal, a health and environmental research center, volunteered to be one of the subjects, thinking they might find a few chemicals in his body. He lives a pretty healthy lifestyle, and has avoided exposure to industrial chemicals.

   After being tested for 210 chemicals commonly found in consumer products and industrial pollution, researchers found his body polluted with 101 industrial toxins and penetrated by elevated levels of arsenic and mercury. On average, each person in the study had 50 or more chemicals linked to cancer in humans and lab animals, considered toxic to the brain and nervous system or known to interfere with the hormone and reproductive systems.

   One rural participant found she had PCB and dioxin levels as high as people who live in cities.

   The industrial and agriculture industries have turned us all into walking toxic waste dumps. We have become unwilling participants in a huge chemical experiment that would not be permitted by the FDA if these chemicals came to us in the form of drugs.

   Other recent studies have shown elevated levels of mercury and DDT in the lakes of nothern British Columbia and Alaska, far from industry and petro-chemical agriculture. DDT is not allowed to be sold or used in North America, but American chemical companies are allowed to produce and then sell DDT overseas. And so, due to the interconnected nature of reality, it comes back to us. What would happen to an individual if they were found to be dumping toxins into our fresh water supply? Why do we allow corporations to get away with it?

   But knowledge is power. Pollution isn't only in the air, water, and soil, it is in us. Because these chemicals enter us from industrial and agricultural sources, they are not subject to testing that would ensure our safety. Chemical companies aren't required to prove the safety of their products, and lobbyists resist further regulation.

   Here are some of the things we, as individuals, can do and work toward.

   We can support local living economies and make Bellingham a corporate free zone by supporting local businesses, and not the mega-corporations that export our money to an off-shore tax haven to make absentee owners even wealthier.

   We could create an alternative economy, one functioning example of which is Ithica HOURS, an alternative script which can be used for dental and health care, and are accepted by mental health and human service agencies, as well as retail outlets.

   We could build our own community health care fund to get insurance companies out of the picture and eliminate the disease care profit model that rules the health system today.

   We could create a community solidarity food network for low income families and individuals, in conjunction with an organic farms cooperative with to-the-door delivery.

   We can collect restaurant's used vegetable oil to turn into biodiesel fuel.

   We can create and support regional food processing and alternative energy sources and cooperatives to help break the petroleum-based transportation industry's stranglehold on regional economies.

   We can work on stopping the causes of terrorism, such as corporate greed and indifference to worker's rights, environmental degradation and social injustice, by not supporting policies that continue allowing these wrongs to continue. Policies such as corporate welfare, over-consumption, and the throw-away society. Values that condone the corporate belief in the environment simply as a source of money-making resources, rather than as a life-support system for ourselves, the rest of humanity, and the rest of life.

   It seems that as a society we have to face the rather unpleasant fact that we have created and constantly attempt to maintain and enlarge a culture that attempts to meet and fulfill emotional and spiritual needs through materialism. In an overpopulated world of finite resources this leads to want and greed, which leads to exploitation, which leads to war. We live with a constant fear of loss of the material gains we do manage to acquire, and a fear that we won't be able to attain enough material goods, including money, to satisfy those needs that we so deeply ache to fulfill.

   But instead of dealing with what the real loss is, which is the inability to find natural fulfillment in our disconnection and continued forced separation from Nature, we have created the pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries to coverup and dull our pain, stress, and anxiety. The medical model and popular culture tries to make us feel as if there is something wrong with us that we can't find happiness living in a dominator culture. As Bush Sr. said, the American lifestyle is not open to negotiation. But as J. Krishnamurti says, "It is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society."

   We need to align our individual intelligence and wisdom with the deep underlying wisdom and love contained in Nature's life force that has evolved within us the ability to actually do so. Our collective intelligence and wisdom can then be co-creatively used in a holistic manner that honors and works within the interconnectedness and interdependence of the web of life. We need to embrace a process that enables and facilitates the power that comes from the melding of our diversity with our unity. We can co-create a new civilization that is truly a wisdom culture based on love and the strength and power of the life-enhancing and sustaining force of creation.

   Intentional communities and local living economies, especially those consciously based on natural systems, are two growing movements that are helping us achieve this more fulfilling and sustainable way of being in the world.

   The NSTP is one method that can help create the process of systemic change, and actually build a heaven on Earth that can be based on love as a natural attraction, as love has a lasting value that isn't based on the prime interest rate.

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Attraction Retreat, a call at (360) 756-7998.


"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Alan Watts


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