The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History
There are many books that describe climate change and the problems that the world faces due to industrial growth and pollution, but few have tackled the problem from anything other than an environmental or scientific perspective. Richard Slaughter’s book, The Biggest Wake up Call in History, describes the environmental problems facing the planet and puts forward solutions from a comprehensive, integral perspective. He argues that viewing environmental threats through an integral lens will lead to innovative and far-reaching responses to rectify the situation.
This is a big book in scope, the number of issues it covers, and the framework it outlines as a path to recovery. Slaughter cites a lot of data, information, and research. It summarises many studies and perspectives and reaches some big conclusions about the status of Earth’s ecology and resources. In short, reading it was like reading a Gone with the Wind epic for the sustainability of the planet. Slaughter states that his book has two main purposes. The first is to describe “the problem” as clearly as possible without exaggeration or distortion, so a start can be made on a substantial solution. Slaughter states: “The only way forward that makes sense is to seek clarity on what we are facing and mobilise on a society-wide and global scale to deal with it” (p. ix). The second purpose is to reframe conventional thinking about “world problems” and use the contributions that have been put forward to resolve them. By being open to “signals” that are being constantly generated within the global system, and by becoming aware of their importance and actively responding to them, a deeper, richer understanding can emerge of new (and renewed) values, motivations, and capacities.
The book shows that world societies are presently on an unsustainable course, and face problems that will limit the lifestyle of modern Western societies within the next few decades. Among them, the dominant framework for explaining and conducting activities in the world today is the free market capitalistic enterprise. Consequently, leadership elites ignore environmental impacts because they are most often trained in economics, engineering, or politics rather than ecological science. Lifestyle, Slaughter notes, is also a large part of the problem when it comes to the affluent and their divestment from the environment.
Part One of the book details what Slaughter calls the “civilisational challenge” that threatens the survival of the human race. He provides a comprehensive summary of major climate change studies, and makes a strong argument that environmental problems are fast approaching “tipping points.” While some scientists might not fully accept the author’s scientific interpretations, the book does provide a summary of a great number of relevant and important climate change scientific studies. Slaughter provides facts such as: nearly 50% of the land surface has been transformed by direct human action with significant consequences for biodiversity, nutrient cycling, and soil structure; more nitrogen is now fixed synthetically in fertilisers and through fossil fuel combustion than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems; more than half of all accessible freshwater has been appropriated for human purposes; and underground water resources are being depleted rapidly. This information provides an alarming picture of the status of the Earth’s environment, painting a picture of a world slowly descending into chaos. Grounds for changing this outlook are explored in the second part of the book.
The Biggest Wake up Call in History suggests that we must heed early warning signals in order to buy ourselves time to act. Chapter One provides an overview of humanity’s collective impact on Earth, summarising conclusions from research on the state of the world’s oceans and non-human species. It also draws on a range of literature dealing with economic, cultural, and social factors. It concludes that a framework exists for understanding and coming to grips with climate change even though science is still uncertain about some aspects of trends in the environment. Slaughter concludes that the pursuit of economic growth that has dominated the past three centuries is detrimental to long-term human and planetary viability and needs to be replaced. Conflicts have occurred in many places, primarily between those who still support old-style growth and development and those who do not.
Chapter Two examines conventional responses to global change, especially the attention given to significant “signals of change.” The United States and Australia governments are shown to have a record of missing or ignoring signals that provide vital evidence about global environment changes. This chapter describes a range of business-as-usual responses such as consumerism and stoking demand through extensive advertising. The habit of looking to new technology to save the day is considered and found to be inadequate, and the occurrence of certain disasters that have occurred around the world in recent times is also examined (and again, the track record of governments is found to be poor). Overall, conventional responses are evaluated as not up to the task. Many of them actively inhibit progress in dealing with the problems humanity has created.
Chapter Three examines the important question of whether humanity is on a path of “overshoot and collapse.” It reviews the Limits to Growth project and concludes that humanity is living a long way beyond its means and is degrading the global life support system. Slaughter suggests there are significant gaps between humanity’s ability to perceive and understand this situation and the magnitude of the actions that are responsible for it. While the “collapse” thesis is a looming possibility, Slaughter does not see this as leading to a “gloom and doom” conclusion (p. 108). A different and more positive outlook is considered.
Chapter Four describes the realities confronting the poorest societies in the world by outlining and linking them to the emerging impacts of climate change. Slaughter argues that the pinnacle of economic development has been reached and we are now at the end of the high-tech, rapid-growth, high-energy usage approach. Las Vegas and Dubai are cited as two examples of cities with unsustainable models in their use of natural resources and energy. These cities are powerful examples of the overreach of technology and free-market ideology, and Slaughter is quite convinced that this approach is now over.
Chapter Five, “Confronting the Collective Shadow,” takes an unusual approach in discussing the notion of the shadow, the repressed contents of human awareness. Slaughter uses this perspective to consider serious challenges to our ability to engage in constructive change. He relays how all nations have been compromised by international criminal networks. Just as the human shadow robs individuals of autonomy and power, Slaughter suggests that organised crime inflicts similar costs upon societies of the world. He suggests that globalisation and the Internet have contributed to this dire situation and current attempts to deal effectively with the resulting scams and other dysfunctions have largely failed. Finally, the growth economy and uncontrolled financial speculation is linked with the “growth at all costs” outlook. Slaughter suggests that this approach needs to be replaced by more life-affirming arrangements that respect people and the Earth’s carrying capacity.
Part Two of the book focuses on the search for solutions, moving from an examination of solutions “out there” to the world “in here.” Chapter Six uses the four quadrants and levels of the Integral model to describe a new approach to climate change and global warming. It reviews key climate change literature and considers emergent patterns within it from an integral perspective (also see Slaughter, 2009). Using the distinctions that define the Integral framework allows an outline of new approaches to climate change, global warming, and the issues raised in Part One. A sample of climate change literature is used to establish emergent patterns and suggest a number of ways forward. Chapter Seven takes up the issue of “peak oil” and the global energy dilemma and provides an emerging scenario that moves away from the thesis of collapse to the idea of descent. The notion of descent shifts away from fatalism and despair by providing many more opportunities for intervention and choice. The use of integral thought throughout helps to generate a different “take” on the nature of long-term solutions.
Chapter Eight examines the value and limitations of empirical science. Integral concepts are employed to review a number of proposed transition strategies. A number of conclusions are drawn, such as the need for a major shift away from passive consumerism; reduction in energy consumption; re-localisation, especially in relation to food production; the pursuit of strategies to increase resilience; restoration of the natural environment; and the need to wean societies away from addiction to economic growth. The effort and mindset that small-scale societies require and the psychological burdens that will need to be endured are pointed out.
In Chapter Nine, Slaughter speaks about “waking up” and enhancing awareness. The notion of waking up refers to becoming aware of the internal characteristics and dynamics of this critically important domain through a clearer grasp of “facets of the self” that shape external behaviors and actions (p. 131). Most of the literature and web-based material dealing with global issues overlooks the “individual interior” (Upper-Left quadrant) domain of the Integral approach. Case studies are provided to show how these notions have been put into practice in areas such as futures studies, AIDS awareness, and strategies for communicating about sustainability.
Chapter Ten considers the role of social foresight to bring about constructive change. It introduces the notions of “transformation” and “translation”—two complementary approaches to social and personal change (p. 156). Transformation involves reaching new and higher stages of development. In transition, people find ways to become more effective “where they are” (i.e., whatever stage they are at). Understanding “where people are coming from” makes it possible to design “core messages” in ways that has relevance across a wider range of individuals and groups. This chapter also discusses options for communicating the waking-up metaphor in relation to a hierarchy of values. With this in mind, the final chapter takes a fresh look at what might be termed post-collapse and post-descent futures. An “imaging matrix” is used to identify a zone where many of the concerns can be resolved. Slaughter links these with four different worldviews and illustrates some of the implications through the lives and work of three individuals, each of them having “walked the walk” and, in so doing, demonstrated in practical terms some of the options that are available to everyone. These exemplars demonstrate that the deep-seated changes needed can be adopted here and now in our own time and can create a very different future for the world. Overall, the perspectives outlined reveal aspects of global issues that require psychological and spiritual changes rather than material approaches.
Overall, Richard Slaughter believes that “waking up” to the challenges to civilization is vitally important. He recognises that it is not possible to guarantee that we will avoid past mistakes—a large number of people already have been pushed beyond their existing ability to cope—but he rejects the view that future generations are condemned to fall to the depths of a new dark age in a ruined and degraded world. He sees hope in new approaches to individual and social development that have resulted in more effective communication and action. How far we descend, and in what way, is the central issue of our time: early and effective action will moderate the process while late and ineffective action will exacerbate it. This book has faith that humanity still has time to rise to the occasion and to re-negotiate the terms of its relationship with this small and fragile world that we call home.
The Biggest Wake up Call in History tackles an important and vital topic. The author addresses the world’s major problems by applying one of the most comprehensive perspectives of modern times, Integral Theory, to it. This is an admirable and daunting task, given that the planet’s ecological problems are so large and the factors that have contributed to it are very complex. Applying an integral perspective to understand ecological problems and to put forward possibilities to solve these problems is an exciting and worthwhile endeavor. However, the application of Integral Theory is in its early phase so Slaughter is striking out into new territory. Slaughter’s book provides a comprehensive summary of the status of the natural environment and the precarious state it is in. While I am not qualified to confirm that he covers the most important scholarly and seminal works on the environment, it appears that he has reviewed the most credible and current research involving key writers and institutions in the field. It seems that the author is attempting to bring together his life’s work in the areas of futures and environmental studies with his embrace of Integral Theory. Slaughter provides an excellent summary of each chapter and the conclusions of the book online: (http://richardslaughter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/BWC_Chapter_Overview.pdf). The chapter summaries are clear and thorough and are very useful for someone who does not have the time to read the very extensive detail and scientific information provided throughout the book.
The application of the Integral framework is a major and significant contribution of the book. Slaughter has a comprehensive understanding of the Integral model and its use, and his analysis of what parts of the framework are useful for understanding the situation regarding the environment provides an alternative to many of the “main line” studies of climate change. Slaughter’s analyses can provide a substantial new integral framework that may help understand why current approaches are not making significant progress and offer more integrated and substantive solutions. Figure 1 (showing how global boundaries are already being crossed) is an excellent summary of the extent that various environmental dimensions are at risk, and also points out that we do not have accurate enough information about chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading. While some may question and even debate the level of risk that has been estimated for each dimension, a diagram such as this provides an excellent overview of the extent of many of our environmental problems.
This book is useful for people who wish to make a difference in the area of sustainability, climate change, and environmental planning. It is not aimed to be a popular book for Integral Life Practice or for leaders of organisations, but it does provide an excellent foundation for university environmental studies, for institutes involved in sustainable research, and for Integral Sustainability scholars and researchers. One of the conditions for making a genuine contribution to this field is a commitment to understand the state of our natural environment and to find comprehensive solutions that lead to the elimination of the causes rather than the symptoms. Richard Slaughter has certainly addressed both of these conditions.
There are sections of the book that are too long and overlap in several areas. For example, Part One describes the environmental situation but in places in Part Two a number of the signals that are described seem to repeat the information described in Part One. Throughout the book, Slaughter provides several summaries of the ground that has been covered. This occurs at the beginning of the book, in Part One and Part Two, in some chapters, and, finally, in Chapter 10. While these summaries help the reader digest the many interrelated topics and complex scientific information, I found so many summaries a bit laborious and unnecessary.
The description of what characterises an integral approach to climate change is still in its early stages, with different authors providing somewhat different interpretations.1 Slaughter refers to some of the different approaches (e.g., that of Clare Graves, William Torbert, Ken Wilber, etc.), but does not always justify or rationalise why he selects the terms and characteristics he employs. This may be more a limitation of the models themselves rather than the author’s approach, but the uncertainty of criteria could haunt The Biggest Wake up Call in History if it becomes a significant contributor to theoretical frameworks of sustainability.
The author gives examples of a few communities and three individuals that, while showing some promise, are not substantial enough to provide a blueprint for a transformational revolution that will “save” humanity. Although Slaughter provides a framework to understand, and therefore begin to solve, the huge problems we face, I did not feel I knew where to go next or what I could practically do after finishing the book.
Slaughter does a very good job pointing out the lack of inclusion of the Upper-Left quadrant (the “I” of consciousness) in environmental literature. However, he does not go deeply into the essence of this quadrant. As Wilber describes in The Spectrum of Consciousness(1977/1993), at the highest level the self realises that the Ground of Being and one’s self are exactly the same—the “I” that is the Atman is the “universe” that is the Brahman. In other words, if people were to uncover their true self, then they would not pollute, abuse, and overuse the Earth because they are one interconnected whole. I would have liked more emphasis on this fundamental truth since this is what is “uncovered” when we wake up.
Several years ago, I attended a sustainability workshop at Schumacher College in the United Kingdom. I learned about, discussed, and explored companies with “soul” that adopted sustainable philosophy and actions as their core values. These companies were inspiring and good examples that gave participants positive examples and something to work toward. The most powerful part of the workshop was when Dr. Steven Harding, a passionate activist and Oxford-trained environmentalist, led us into the lush, green English forest near the college. During this day we got close to the trees, the plants, and the earth. We meditated, touched, and literally embraced the trees that stood tall and silent around us. Dr. Harding proffered science, knowledge, and insight into the fragility and beauty of the Earth while instructing us to become very silent and still though several techniques and exercises. That day we not only saw and experienced all four quadrants, but we became one with and in love with the Earth.
What is urgently needed is for government and business leaders, investors, academics, resource owners, and the public to reconnect and experience the environment in a way that everyone on that Schumacher College course did on that wet winter’s day. Richard Slaughter’s work calls us to do this. I hope the sequel he writes to The Biggest Wake up Call in History is titled The Greatest Love Affair in History. For if we do not fall in love with our home, the Earth, if we do not “wake up” and care for this planet as we would our most treasured children, then surely the human race will wake up to the biggest nightmare in history.
1 See the recent special issues of the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (Vol. 4, No. 4, and Vol. 5, No. 1), which feature 14 articles that analyze integral approaches to sustainability and climate change (Wilber et al., 2009, 2010).
2 This figure is adapted from Rockstrom (2009, p. 472).
Rockstrom, J. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(24 September), 472-476.
Slaughter, R.A. (2009). Beyond the threshold: Using climate change literature to support climate change response. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4(4), 27-46.
Wilber, K. (1977/1993). The spectrum of consciousness.Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.
Wilber, K., Esbjörn-Hargens, S., & Lord, L. (Eds.) (2009). Climate change I [special issue]. Journal
of Integral Theory and Practice, 4(4).
Wilber, K., Esbjörn-Hargens, S., & Lord, L. (Eds.) (2010). Climate change II [special issue]. Journal
of Integral Theory and Practice, 5(1).
Ron Cacioppe is based at the Australian Institute for Sustainable Development, Curtin University, Perth, Australia.
Published in The Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 6(2), 2011 pp. 157–162