Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Political Evolution--The NZ Green Party

Saturday was Election Day in New Zealand. New Zealand has two major political parties, Labour and National, and a variety of minor parties that usually manage to pull one or two or sometimes a few members into parliament under our MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) electoral system.

A strong supporter of the Greens, I crossed party lines this time to vote for a return of the incumbent National Party (with my party vote) for a very strategic reason. At a time and in a world where central governments seem to be failing and falling left, right, and centre, either in violence (think Libya, Syria, Egypt) or in economic disarray (think Greece, Italy), I believe it is important for New Zealand to be perceived on the world stage as a country that is politically and economically stable, with a Prime Minister who comes across well both domestically and abroad. And although I don’t agree with some of National’s philosophies and policies, I do believe that Prime Minister John Key and his crew have the best interests of this country at heart. Forty-eight percent of New Zealand voters agreed with me, and National has held on to their leadership role with very little fanfare or political manoeuvring required.

(I will also add, as an aside, that I voted for Green MP Holly Walker as my local electoral candidate of choice. Holly, a 29-year-old Rhodes scholar, was once one of my students at Hutt Valley High School when I taught there, and I remember her with much fondness. Even then, she was bright, able, dedicated, reliable, astute, and delightful, with a level of maturity well beyond her years—rare traits in a high school student. There was no hope of her getting into parliament via the Hutt South electoral vote, up against veteran Trevor Mallard (Labour), but I am delighted that Holly is high enough on the Green party list to be included in the newly-elected parliament anyway. Go well, Holly.)

But talking about my personal voting choices isn’t the reason I’m inspired to write this blog entry.  I find the rise of the Green Party very interesting from a social evolution standpoint. In the last election, the Greens polled about 5%; this time they crossed the 10% threshold, in spite of a dearth of pre-election coverage. I think there was more press about Peter Dunne’s hair and John Banks’s cup of tea with the Prime Minister than there was about the whole Green Party. Dunne and Banks are one-man-bands now—solo reps of their respective parties—and sure, the tea party ultimately had big repercussions (thanks, media...NOT!) but the Greens just silently went about their business virtually unnoticed.

The day after the election, on TV1’s Sunday program, they ran some good material on the Greens, obviously filmed prior to the election, including a nice shot of co-leader Russell Norman kayaking to play up the Green “we need to clean up our rivers” party message. And the commentator on the tv made the observation that it was a decidedly more “active” and “positive” photo op than the two Johns having tea and the ensuing media scramble, which left me wondering why was it was played on tv AFTER the election. TV3 also virtually ignored the Greens throughout the campaign, in spite of pre-election poll results that suggested they could be coming in as high as 12-13%.

Green supporters with a conspiracy-theory bent could be forgiven for wondering if there was a deliberate media move to ignore the Greens, but I suspect it is something else entirely. I suspect the media simply don’t understand the Green movement. And this makes me think about human and social evolution and spiral dynamics.

In the 1970’s, US psychology professor Clare Graves developed a theory of human evolution and social development based on values systems, a model which he described as a holistic spiral, each tier of development encompassing and expanding upon the previous tier. Later adapted by Chris Cowan and Don Beck, and nicely colour coded, it has become a useful model for understanding human nature. I’d like to share my thoughts on the roles of New Zealand’s three main political parties—Labour, National, and Green—within the spiral dynamic framework, and what I think that means for the evolution of politics in this country.

Whole books have been written about the spiral dynamic tiers, but I’ll try to summarize them very briefly here:
    1st tier: beige. Think baby. Think survival, biological needs, food, natural reflexes.
    2nd tier: purple. Think child. Think family. Think tribe. Think safety and security. Think learned traditions.
    3rd tier: red. Think teenager. Think assertive self. “I want to control my world.” Egocentric. “My way is the right way.” “This is my patch.”
    4th tier: blue. Think parent. Think safety, stability and order. Follow the rules. Conformity. Care for your brother and sister, your children. “Everyone deserves two kids and a dog, a reliable car, and a house in the suburbs.” Work hard and get a just reward for your labour—a holiday in Fiji would be nice—but don’t be a tall poppy. Avoid risk.
   5th tier: orange. Science and business are important. Assumes the world is rational and objective. Competition creates excellence. Rugged individualism. Don’t just follow the rules, use them to your advantage. Tall poppies are to be admired (and you can’t have tall poppies if you don’t have short ones to compare with). It’s all about opportunity and success and taking strategic risks. Ultimately, it’s up to you to achieve good results and get ahead. You get what you deserve.
   6th tier: green. Joining together for mutual growth. We are all part of an ecosystem. Think the internet, Facebook, social media. Think harmony, acceptance, and community. Think cooperation. Think sustainability. Think environmental awareness and preservation. Decisions should be reached through consensus and reconciliation. Dislikes hierarchy. Life is situational, values are relativistic.
   7th tier: turquoise. Earth consciousness. Holistic. Transpersonal. A global/universal community in harmony. Experiential. (Kind of beyond politics as we know it.)
   8th and 9th tiers: (Just evolving, and largely irrelevant from a modern political perspective.)

Ken Wilber suggests that internationally, approximately 20% of the adult population is 3rd tier red, 40% of the population is 4th tier blue, 30% of the population is 5th tier orange (but they hold 50% of the power), and 10% of the population is 6th tier green (the latter rising to around 20% in the Western world)[i].

New Zealand has traditionally had just two major parties, National and Labour, so I’d like to talk about them first. Labour, in spite of their red banner, is a “blue” 4th tier party. Strong on justice and social and family values, Labour—which historically originated as a “blue collar” labour party, hence the name—campaigned this year on tax breaks for struggling families, instituting a capital gains tax (cut down those fat poppies who own multiple properties), creating a GST exclusion for fresh produce, and keeping national assets. They polled just 27% in this election.

National, in spite of their blue banner, is an “orange” 5th tier party, keen to balance the country’s books with partial asset sales as need be because it makes good economic sense. So does mining and drilling for oil, ensuring farmers get adequate cheap water to enhance croppage, simple tax laws like GST on everything (thus less bureaucracy), and a clamp-down on anyone expecting to get something for nothing (e.g., dole “bludgers”) because they’re not doing their fair share. At a time when most countries are experiencing pretty significant economic strife, National’s number one priority is to get New Zealand’s financial books in order and the country out of debt and into surplus, even if it means some people will be hurting. They polled an unprecedented 48% of the vote in this election.

The Greens, the new kids on the block, have now moved into significant third-party status with over 10.6% of the national vote. They are 6th tier “green”, advocating environmental clean-up and sustainability, social policies to ensure Kiwi kids don’t grow up in deprivation, warm houses, and the creation of “green” (presumably that means environmentally responsible) jobs. In keeping with 6th tier dynamics, they have not one leader but two, male and female, who work together and cooperatively towards these goals. They are more interested in creating a sustainable future than in a right-now fix, and are holistic in their assessment of the pros and cons of various policies. Willing to work with other parties on issues of mutual interest, they have declined to align themselves wholeheartedly with either of the two bigger parties.

A couple of things are interesting about this. Firstly, there seems to be a general assumption that the Green party pull the majority of their votes from the Labour Party. After all, both parties tend to lean left in a social welfare sense. Yet the spiral dynamics evolutionary model would suggest that the Greens would pull from National, the previous tier. Indeed, the model suggests that individuals and cultural groups rarely if ever skip over an evolutionary level. Furthermore, because this is “evolutionary”, the general trend will be for 4th tier Labour to diminish, as Labour supporters move to National, and for 6th tier Greens to grow over time.

The thing is, for people/groups operating primarily at lower-tier levels, the upper tier mentality is a mystery. They don’t get it, and they don’t necessarily even recognise that they don’t get it. Individuals and groups who operate on upper tier levels, however, generally have an understanding of earlier tiers, even if they now reject that perspective of the world. Blues cannot understand Greens, but Greens can understand blues, if that makes sense. With this thought in mind, if the Greens polled over 10%, and Wilber suggests maybe 20% of the population is 6th tier green (but maybe didn’t vote—almost a quarter of Kiwis chose not to vote in 2011—or, as in my case, opted for National for strategic reasons), that means perhaps 80% of the population just don’t “get” the Green Party. And that undoubtedly includes some of the media. (On the other hand, from a media perspective, maybe the NZ Green Party just isn’t interesting enough to cover, compared to the shenanigans of the other parties!)

I predict that the Green Party will continue to grow, maybe polling 15% or more in the next election. And Labour is likely to continue to diminish, unless they reinvent themselves. Which is, of course, possible. After all, “Labour” and “National” are just names, titles, and the people within them can choose what they want to be, what they believe their constituents want them to be.

As a final thought—this is already getting long and beginning to drivel—I can say at least that I’m glad that I live in a country with the political opportunity for many voices. In the U.S., where I come from, there are two main political parties and that’s it. I believe that President Obama is actually “green” (6th tier), and that has been part of his problem...the majority of the U.S. doesn’t understand 6th tier thinking. But as the world’s democracies evolve, I believe there will be more 6th tier thinking, and it will change the way we all relate with each other and with this planet. And from my rather “green” perspective, politically, I think that’s a very good thing.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Eaarth Numb-ers

Life on this planet’s getting tougher. That’s the main message of eco-warrier Bill McKibben in his new book Eaarth. McKibben paints a despairing picture of our evolving and increasingly alien planet—he even gives it a new name with an extra ‘a’—in the era of global warming. To be honest, I found reading the first part of the book so depressing I almost didn’t want to read on, yet felt like this is stuff I really should know about. Thank goodness in the latter part of the book he explores things we can do to cope with our new and changing habitat.  Not enough to fix it, unfortunately, but enough to allow survival. The future is not, however, rosy.

Let me share some of McKibben’s themes here:

Firstly, there’s the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—this is the CO2 greenhouse gas stuff that’s causing our planet to heat up. Historically, the earth’s atmosphere has been about 275 parts per million of CO2, and for a long time scientists could only guess how much we could allow that to increase—as a natural product of industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels—before the earth would be seriously, irrevocably in trouble. Today, the number scientists fix on is about 350 parts per million as being “safe”. But here’s the catch: We’re already well beyond that: approaching 390 ppm at the time McKibbon was writing the book (©2010), and at 391 now (see www.350.org) and rising. One computer model suggests that even if we take the steps pledged at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, the earth will hit 725 parts per million of CO2 by 2100. And that might not even be survivable.

So, what happens when the CO2 level goes up?  Well, the world gets warmer. When the world gets warmer the polar ice caps start to melt. Weather gets wilder, and more unpredictable. The permafrost in the Arctic starts to melt, both on land and under the water, letting off methane, another warming greenhouse gas.  And it’s already happening. One Arctic researcher reported methane bubbling to the surface of the sea like from a soda pop can, in some areas with concentrations 100 times greater than normal. And this is scary, because this isn’t global warming coming from our tail pipes, but a totally uncontrolled earth reaction to human-induced rising temperatures. Kick-start the global meltdown, and it becomes self-sustaining.

As the world gets hotter, droughts will increase. Floods will increase. Water supplies from mountain snow melt will fall—think the great Asian food basins supplied by Himalayan waters, think of Los Angeles getting water from the Rockies, the Sierras. Food production will fall. Sea levels will rise. Low-lying countries will be inundated with salt water from the rising seas—think Bangladesh, Kiribati, the Netherlands. Where will the people go? What will they drink? How can they farm?

And meanwhile, we continue to burn fossil fuels (oil, coal, etc.) and generating more carbon (and thus C02) in the atmosphere. And there’s a catch here too, because the earth has only so much fossil fuel left for us to use. And we’ve built a society based on a need for petroleum products for virtually everything in our lives, from cars to home heating to manufacturing to logistics to plastics, yet we’ve passed “peak” oil, and production is now falling by about 7% a year. In 2009, Merrill Lynch estimated that we will need to find and exploit ten new Saudi Arabias by 2030. And think about this: “Six of the twelve largest companies in the world are fossil-fuel providers, four make cars and trucks, and one, General Electric, is, as its name implies, heavily involved in the energy industry. Just buying fossil fuel requires almost a tenth of the global GDP, and almost all the other 90% depends on burning the stuff.” (p. 30). And the price of oil affects the price of everything in our lives.

Is this scary stuff or what?

McKibben throws out a lot of big, international, economic pictures and numbers like these, but also ties back regularly to his home in quiet Vermont, in the US, where a recent severe storm caused flood damage, and he generates some numbers about the costs of “fixing” the damage even after a moderate disaster of this type that will become more frequent everywhere.  And it is useful, but no less frightening, to have examples like this that as individuals we can relate to. Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the potential impact of devastation of whole countries and whole economies, and the effect on millions or billions of people. It’s easier to imagine a more local scenario and impact, and imagine that disaster then multiplied out by others in one’s immediate home area.

The second part of the book is more upbeat and practical: how can we learn to adapt and live on this changing planet.  I might (or might not) blog another time on that theme.  I’ll leave this entry just to say that the book, while depressing, is really worthwhile reading for anyone interested in environmental sustainability.  Not everyone buys the “end of the earth is coming, and we caused it” scenario, but the evidence is mounting.

If you are familiar with novelist Barbara Kingsolver, you might appreciate her endorsement from the front of the book: “What I have to say about this book is very simple: Read it, please. Straight through to the end. Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” I am a fan of Kingsolver’s books, and believe she is an astute and thoughtful woman as well as a wonderful storyteller. McKibben’s book IS an important book, but not for the faint-hearted. You may read this book, and weep.

For more information and reviews of the book, see Amazon. Local readers can find the book in the Lower Hutt Library.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Success Story with a Dark Underbelly

The Dominion Post, our local paper, recently ran a story extolling the clever success of Kiwi company Atlantis Healthcare.  From a small company start-up in 1996, the company has become an international player, having moved into Europe and with big plans now to expand into the even-more lucrative US and Asian markets. How have they done this? By identifying and capitalizing on a unique niche service: getting people to take their medication.

From a business perspective, it sounds pretty good: recognize a need, tap into it, and get paid. What’s more, it’s a service they provide, not a product, so there’s no “stuff” to scoot around the world. But this is a success story with a dark, and I think distasteful, underbelly.

According to the DomPost article, Atlantis claims excellent results with 96 percent of breast cancer patients persisting with treatment after six months compared to 73 percent in a control group, and a 30 percent increase in medication adherence for asthma sufferers after six weeks. How do they do it? With phone calls, emails, personal visits, and advertorial material—cheap, easy, effective.

But think about this. It’s not about better health results, it’s about better treatment compliance. And they’re not necessarily the same thing. Rather than enforce patients’ (consumers’) drug compliance through harassment, how much better would it be if you and I as consumers were encouraged and empowered to make educated personal choices about the chemicals we put—or decline to put—into our bodies?

You might think that Atlantis would be serving the consumer, or perhaps the doctor, with their service, but it appears that the majority of their main clients are actually pharmaceutical companies. Recognized by Forbes as the 3rd most profitable business sector in 2009 (after communications and internet services), pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in top returns to shareholders. Health, wellness, and an educated, empowered public are a threat to those returns.  The sicker you are, the more pills you (or your insurance company) buy, the more you can be coerced into complying with treatment and taking it long-term (regardless of whether it works for you), the better the profits for shareholders.

You see, it’s not really about your health, it’s about your money. And it’s this sort of money/profit mentality that the Wall Street (et al) protests are all about. Just in case you were wondering.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


What does the word Gaia mean to you? Until a few days ago, when I came across the word “Gaia” I thought “earth” and “Mother Earth” and then attached to the word the connotations of Greek mythology[i], environmentalists, far-Left idealists, planetary activists, and—because of a BBC drama I once watched —visions of environmental terrorist intrigue. It’s funny how certain words carry with them connotations that may, or may not, be appropriate.

And then a few days ago I started reading A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us by Sidney Liebes, Elisabet Sahhtouris and Brian Swimme. I’d come across several references to author and cosmologist Brian Swimme, and when I checked the data base at the local library, this was the only book available with Swimme listed as an author, so I put in an interlibrary request for it. As it turned out, Swimme only wrote the 12-page prologue, the bulk of the book being written by Sahhtouris. (The first listed author, Sidney Liebes, under whose name the book is filed in the library, only wrote the 3-page preface!)

Anyway, the book is about the formation of the earth and the development of life upon it, and at first I didn’t intend to read it all. But it has turned out to be such a fascinating book—apparently written as a companion for the world exhibition Walk Through Time—that I kept on reading long after Swimme’s prologue.  

And what does this have to do with Gaia? Well, I discovered that in the 1980’s and 1990’s James Lovelock formulated the hypothesis that both living and non-living aspects of the earth are integrated into a self-organised, evolving life system. Called the “Gaia Hypothesis”[ii] and now sometimes referred to as the Gaia theory or Gaia principle, the concept has been adopted by many ecologists, environmentalists, and global warming theorists.

Now I’m very much into the “systems” concept and general try to see all things within a holistic framework. Still, having grown up with a fairly clear delineation in my head between organic and inorganic forms, the idea that rocks, for example, are part of an ecological evolving life system (except, obviously, as homes, tools and building materials for organic life forms) made me pause.

Looking at the relationship between organic and inorganic material through the lens of [very ancient] history and a powerful microscope, was enlightening. The first bacteria, it turns out, were of course created from primary earth elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, oxygen, and phosphorus—none of that “organic” in a contemporary sense. In death, large colonies of bacteria left behind deposits of concentrated minerals which created the variety of metal ores we mine today—also not “organic” in a contemporary sense. Yet the catalyst required for the transformation: organic.

Certainly, on an atomic and molecular level, the atoms of oxygen you breathe in may have once been part of a molecule of rust on a screwdriver, a raindrop, or a buttercup.  At a molecular level, there is no organic/inorganic, and we are all part of the same great Gaia system. Organic is made of inorganic, and dissolves back into inorganic in an ongoing cycle. That the earth and its inhabitants change with time is a clear sign of evolution in this process, and the interdependence between the earth and living things is very evident.

The word “Gaia” took on a slightly new meaning for me today. My understanding of the primary relationship we share with the inorganic elements of our world solidified a little, and my appreciation for the amazing interactions that go on around us at a sub-visible level has increased many-fold, because it has moved into my awareness. To quote Marcel Proust:

The real voyage of discovery does not consist of seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

[i] Gaia was the Greek Goddess of the earth and mother of many lesser gods as well as all earthly creatures

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Bruce Lipton's book "The Biology of Belief"

It always takes me by surprise when the universe organises some little synchronicity in my life. Often it’s connected with a book I’m reading, or something I’m thinking about.

Yesterday, a friend posted a link to a you-tube video in which Bruce Lipton and Wayne Dyer are speaking. Now I’m an old fan of Wayne Dyer, but I’ve just discovered Bruce Lipton, and am at this very moment reading his book The Biology of Belief, which was first published in 2005.

Although I read a lot of books of this ilk, I first heard about Bruce Lipton at an NLP seminar only a few weeks ago when the guest speaker, hypnotherapist John Moynihan, suggested that a good deal of our health status was dependent upon our subconscious thoughts and beliefs, and he referenced Lipton’s book. I’ve heard similar sentiments before, and was curious what a cell biologist and renowned professor of medicine might have to say about this topic.  I requested the book from my local library.

Conventional science attributes a great deal of behavioural influence to genetics, the DNA gene code embedded in the nucleus of a cell. What a cell does, conventional science says, is determined by that genetic code. Lipton observed, however, that individual cells respond to their environment in two ways: by moving towards or opening up to environmental stimuli that is nourishing, and by moving away and closing down to environmental stimuli that is harmful, and this occurs even if the nucleus itself is removed from the cell! Although the nucleus (DNA) is essential for cell reproduction, it is not necessary for the cell to be able to perceive and react to its environment. Which, after all, is what thinking is.

While studying cloned endothelial cells (cells that line the blood vessels), Lipton observed that cell membrane response to histamine (which is produced locally) is over-ridden by cell membrane response to adrenaline (which is produced by the central nervous system, which includes the brain)[i]. The nature of scientific publishing prevented elaboration of the obvious implication of the research: that the brain’s signals can over-ride localized body signals. In short:  mind over matter.

In animals and man, the central nervous system controls the organism’s growth and protection behaviours by determining the appropriate response to environmental signals. In his book, Lipton explores the effect of stress on the human HPA[ii] axis, explaining how stressful stimuli over-ride the body’s immune system (adrenaline over histamine again), making it vulnerable to disease.

Lipton then goes on to discuss the power of placebos (believing something will work, and therefore it does—positive thinking) and nocebos (believing something won’t work and therefore it doesn’t—negative thinking), which is well documented, although rarely explained, in research.

In a chapter titled “Conscious Parenting”, Lipton explores the roles of the conscious and subconscious mind, comparing the subconscious mind to the programmable hard drive of a computer. He posits that early learning experiences set value and belief patterns that become so engrained  that we are consciously unaware that they are running in the background, shaping our perception and influencing our environmental responses. He does not, however, go on to say how we can learn to recognize and change unconscious patterns that no longer serve us. This is a pity because the science of NLP[iii] has now been around for several decades and it deserves wider recognition.

If this review of key points in the book seems a bit awkward and disjointed, so does the book. Overall, though, I enjoyed it. Some of his explanation of cell biology and cell reactions to chemical environments was clearer and more insightful than anything I encountered at university studying psychology, and the implications of his work provide significant challenge to several conventional scientific paradigms. However, I found the overall flow of the book disjointed, and the links connecting cell biology to placebo/nocebo effect to subconscious versus conscious thought and its impact on human health tenuous.

[i] Lipton, B. H., Bensch, K. G. et al. (1992) Histamine-Modulated Transdifferentiation of Dermal Microvascular Endothelial Cells. Experimental Cell Research, 199:279-291. (As quoted in Lipton’s book.)
[ii] Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal
[iii] Neuro-Linguistic Programming—see my website at www.mindwork.co.nz