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Essential Shifts Interview: Elisabet Sahtouris

Essential Shifts Interview: Elisabet Sahtouris

Visionary: Elisabet Sahtouris, PhD

Join evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris in a discussion about the pivotal shifts of our time. A committed optimist and someone who takes the long view, Elisabet sees challenges such as global warming and sea level change as a great opportunity for humanity to rise to another level of functioning. In this talk, she draws inspiration from the extraordinary designs provided by nature showing how we can live more lightly and sustainable. She sees abundant evidence for us transitioning from a primarily competitive and egocentric era, which is typical of young populations of any species, into an era in which we learn to cooperate and communicate as one global family. There is not, she feels, any reason to leave behind joy, health, and well-being in working current ecological challenges. In fact, our task is one of "standing up in our canoe," to use an indigenous metaphor, to see what is unfolding from a larger perspective.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome to the show! Elisabet Sahtouris is joining us now. She's an evolution biologist, futurist, author, consultant to organizations, a very dynamic woman, who's been the author of books like Earthdance, A Walk Through Time, and Biology Revisioned, which was authored with an IONS luminary, Willis Harman. So thank you, Elisabet, for all the work you're doing in the world and thank you for joining us as well.

Elisabet Sahtouris: You're welcome Stephen. Nice to be here with you.

IONS: Wonderful. Well, as you know, what we're looking for is we want to get answers to four key questions about our day from some of the leading thinkers of our times, and you certainly count as one of those. So I'm wondering if you could just start off by letting our listeners know, how do you see our current global situation?

ES: Well, first of all, I'd say I see it optimistically. And the two aspects of the current global situation that most interest me are the process of globalization and the process of global warming. So, I'll talk about globalization first. As an evolution biologist, a "pastist," I have a long trajectory of seeing human life from the origins of the universe and the origins of the planet all the way up to what we humans are doing now in this globalizing process. And the best story in evolution is the story in which our ancient archebacterial ancestors, the very first beings of this planet, learned how to get beyond a kind of juvenile hostile phase of competition where species take all the territory they can get, multiply as fast as they can, get space to do it in, and are very competitive for the resources. Well, these ancient archebacteria, without benefit of a brain, actually eventually figured out that it was economically more effective and efficient, better for all concerned, if you collaborate, if you spend your energy on cooperative schemes rather than on hostile, getting-rid-of-your-competition schemes. So I see globalization as our version of that. The ancient bacteria built the nucleated cell this way. The nucleated cells that we are made of are actually huge cooperatives, collectives, communities of these ancient bacteria that once were hostile to each other. And so it's a wonderful metaphor for globalization itself, which I see as far more than the inequitable economics that most people are focused on. And if you look for the cooperation of humanity toward building global family in this process, you see it everywhere. Our communications, for instance, have gone from telephone all the way through television and other media to the internet where we have huge global conversations cooperatively now. And young people are using it very well. They don't seem to be interested in racism or greed or warfare, but just want to talk to each other, create for each other, share. This is a very good sign for our future. Then, beyond communications, our travel: We can go anywhere in the world, we can exchange money across all cultures and languages. We have the United Nations with dozens of agencies trying to do good things around the world to make people behave better and have better access to resources, etc. We have more and more interfaith dialogue, more frequent parliaments of world religions. We have scientific cooperation, international space station, the arts are very cooperative, the sciences are cooperative. So, we have all these indications that we are right at our own stage of maturing into global family cooperation. And the last thing that we have to get in place are our economics which …

IONS: And, politics probably.

ES: Well, it's interesting: The relationship of economics to politics is kind of strange, because capitalism is set-up as a youthful mode of acquisitive, competitive, production and distribution systems. And it's antithetical to democracy, because it's just not democratic by nature. Capitalism isn't democratic. Its money system funnels money from the many to the few. It's a concentrating, some-get-rich-at-the-expense-of-others kind of economics and that's exactly why it has to be changed. Because if we are ever to have something like democracy politically, then we have to have a win-win economic system, rather than a win-lose one. So that's my view of globalization.

And then the other thing I said I was really interested in is global warming. Now, last week's Time magazine had a special issue on it saying, what was it, "Be afraid; be very afraid," or something like that on the cover. And so I decided to do my optimistic number on global warming and show people how it can be an incredible exciting challenge for us humans.

IONS: I like that framing. It's very unusual for somebody to turn that into, "Wow, here's a great opportunity for us to rise to another level of performance."

ES: Yeah! And I suppose some people will take this wrong as my saying it's a good thing for humanity. Well, it's not good that we're going to experience really tumultuous climate changes, but we can turn that into a positive challenge. If we revive or reengage our pioneer spirit, then I believe we can learn to literally surf the waves of change coming, with flexible, light technologies, by making friends of our enemies, by collaborating. You know, we're not going to have resources for warfare once everybody gets how really serious this is. Thirteen of our twenty largest cities are at sea level; those are all going to have to be moved uphill! And the climate is going to get pretty erratic so that we're going to have more and more situations, say like the Tucson, Arizona desert which was once nice green meadows with daytime temperatures in the 80s, and now daytime temperatures are often over 100 and it's a really serious desert. Now there are ways to do technology in such climates that are not dependent on oil, ranging from very primitive Middle East cooling towers on houses that enable you to drop air down through wet pads so that it falls into a house and then drive the warm air out through clearstory windows. You know, it's an almost totally free system energetically that can keep houses cool in a hot desert, in a hot climate. Then we can get our young people, the engineers, working on how you harness flash floods that happen once a year in that kind of a climate. So it's both sea level rise and shifting climates—especially this kind of desert with flash floods periodically, climates of that kind, the extremes of temperature and weather—that we have to deal with more and more. So, I'm excited. You know, China's graduating six times as many engineers as the United States, and India twice as many. All these young people with so much know-how, if they follow the examples of our best pioneer green economy people like Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken, and Bill McDonough and his partner Braungart, there are so many people who have already shown us how you can do green technologies without an oil economy, without heavy steel. You can literally grow your cars and then run them on growable fuel, or, in the future, perhaps even on zero-point energy, or at present already by water fuel cell. There are just many, many ways that we can get creative about this.

IONS: Well, it seems like this has led naturally into mixing with our second question which has to do with the essential shifts that are going to be required for us to evolve to the next level as a planet. It seems like your optimistic nature immediately goes to the shifts that are already happening rather than lamenting what's not happening.

ES: Absolutely. And to evolve to the next level, I think we all need to teach ourselves to see holistically or to do what's called sometimes, "big picture thinking." For myself, it helps a lot to know that I'm an immortal being playing a role out in a drama, the human drama. And you know, if we know ourselves as what I call 'playing a full keyboard," having vibrations that go all the way from the basest matter kind of vibrations to the highest spiritual vibrations, all on one keyboard like a piano. And that it's not like "I'm a body inhabited by a spirit." I'm a spirit-body full keyboard creature. And if we know this and if we see this big picture of things and we eat good food, drink a lot of water, get a lot of rest, laugh and play, find your passion, act on it, things like that …

IONS: Sounds like a recipe for a great life.

ES: (laughs) Yeah. I was with the Dalai Lama in a dialogue with two dozen people a little while ago when one of the people in the group, an American, asked what was the most important kind of meditation that we could do these days. And he said, "Critical thinking." And he said, "Critical thinking followed by action." And I interpreted him to be saying, Look at what's going on in your world. Discern what the patterns are. See what's happening. Don't judge them. And then you can figure out what role you want to play in this drama.

IONS: Seems like that judgment piece is where a lot of folks get hung up, because then you're busy lamenting the fact that's something is happening and resisting it, rather than saying, Well, that's what's happening. How can that serve, too?

ES: Yes, What can I do best given what's happening?

IONS: That's great. So maybe you could go into a little more detail about just
your current work and passions. How do they fit within the scheme of this larger transformation of humankind context?

ES: Yes, well, I'm always looking for new ways to change the scientific creation story and get it out to people. Every culture has always had a creation story to live by and in our modern secular states, we've given the priesthood role from former times to scientists to give us that creation story. And our scientific creation story as it still is writ, as it still is taught in graduate schools, is one I find extraordinarily depressing and not really fitting the data of science because it comes half from physics saying that the universe is non-living, meaningless, accidental, and running down by entropy. That's pretty depressing right there. And then biology jumps in with the Darwinian theory of evolution saying yes, and evolution happens through an endless struggle and scarcity. That is the way nature works. That is how we work. So both the physics and the biology are pretty depressing stories, and as I said they don't any longer fit the facts or fit the data of science. I'm not sure there is any such thing as a fact, since we live in a moving-target universe, right? And we are making it up as we go! But, in any case, the universe is not running down because entropy is balanced by centropy, as Nassim Haramein, my physicist friend would call it. Or syntropy, as I call it as a biologist. Everything in nature – wherever you find a one-way force, look for the one in the opposite direction.

IONS: And centropy … a growing together?

ES: Yes. Centropy turns out to be gravity which perfectly balances radiation, so gravitation-radiation in balance pull inward and outward. Centrifugal and centripetal pull things together as well as expanding them. And then in biology that struggle and scarcity is the juvenile mode I was talking about, and the mature mode is when you learn that everything is more efficient and effective when you collaborate than when you try to bump each other off.

IONS: So an adolescent actually needs to go though a phase more of entropy - of kind of radiating out, asserting in a certain kind of way - and then the adult doesn't need to do that as much and starts to gather in more, work together?

ES: Well, adults tend to focus more on cooperation. When you're young you're self-centered. You're trying to get what you can to build your own life and you're less in the service mode (usually) of trying to see how much can you do for other people, because you don't yet realize that your happiness depends on other people's happiness and your well-being depends on other people's well-being. You don't have the larger picture view of things yet. So one of the things I'm doing is trying to change that scientific creation story to show that this universe is actually a self organizing living universe that isn't running down and that evolution is about moving beyond the immature, competitive phase into mature cooperation. And right now I'm writing a book on global warming taking this positive pioneering view of it.

IONS: Great, can you say a little more about that book? You've already covered some of the subject material, but…

S. Yes, well I'm going to be looking at not just the scientific data that shows that global warming is here, that the sea levels will rise, that they will rise within this century as much as anywhere from one meter to maybe twenty or thirty, and ultimately as much as seventy should the polar caps melt. It is a positive feedback loop. You know, ice reflects 90% of sunlight and water absorbs 90% of sunlight, so as the ratio of ice to water shrinks – as you have less ice and more open water – you get increasing melting. Because it's hotter, there's more heat being absorbed. So, the hotter it gets the more ice melts, and the more ice melts the hotter it gets. That's the positive feedback loop, and you can't stop that. The entire Siberian coast, for example, in the late '70s was all socked-in ice and frozen tundra on the land, and now that's all open ocean and the tundra's melting which emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And we don't have any technology to refreeze that tundra, and we can't stop the Gulf Stream from deteriorating as more cold water melts off Greenland and the ice of the Arctic. So that's why, I say, we better face it. We're going to be facing it for at least seven generations so let's like the Indians, think seven generations ahead and imagine ourselves to be living light-on-the-earth, flexible lifestyles where we can move our infrastructures if necessary, and where we know how to tap the violent energy sources that will be there. One of my favorite examples from nature is a wasp nest, which is made of paper that the wasps make at normal body temperatures out of carbohydrates. And the "buildings," so to speak, hold 300 times their own weight in inhabitants, hang from a single thread and it doesn't blow down in a hurricane. That's pretty good, isn't it?

IONS: That's impressive.

ES: So, you know the natural world is full of wonderful technological examples for us to draw on …

IONS: We're still playing catch-up.

ES: Yeah, we're just playing catch-up, exactly! You know we've always imitated nature. That's why we fly like birds and tunnel like moles and build computers that try to think like brains. All the technology has always been inspired by nature, which is really all we have to be inspired by. But, now the micro-world is opening up and—I talked about ancient bacteria—and the micro world, which is their world, has had billions of years longer to evolve than the multi-celled creatures macro world. That's why each one of the cells in your body is as complex as a large human city. It's really amazing, but every one of your invisibly small cells has 3,000 recycling centers in it just to keep its proteins healthy. So that's a kind of technological sophistication, if you like: bacteria having invented electric motors billions of years ago, and having invented the first worldwide web of information exchange by exchanging DNA as all living beings do, the same DNA. That's a great internet. These things that we are just learning now, I think, will serve us very well as we get creative with the new technologies.

IONS: That's wonderful, very inspiring. So the final question we had, you've also touched upon this a few times, but maybe it's good to just see if there's some other answers that percolate up: What do you see as the most important things we can each do personally right now to align with positive change?

ES: Well, I would say, do whatever we each can to maintain our optimism, our hope, our positive visions. Practice loving compassion toward ourselves and other people. One of my rules is, Don't burn out, have fun. Be a good role model is a big one, by living the future now. Behave now toward others as you would like people to behave to each other in the future. Care about your own body enough to feed it healthy food and, as I've said, get rest and all those things as we would like people to do so in the future. Be kind to each other. You know the Dalai Lama says the only important religion is kindness. And, whenever you find yourself losing hope, I like the concept of "standing tall in your canoe." The indigenous sailors on the Pacific, in those wonderful, sleek, double-hulled canoes, had umpteen ways to navigate without compasses – from stars and cloud patterns and ocean wave patterns and seaweed drift and fish migrations and seeing clouds over islands from a distance and all and then they would say, "When all else fails, stand tall in your canoe until you can see the land." And what they meant was that they were recognizing that we have the power to take our point of consciousness that usually feels like it's in our bodies, outside our body. So that we can take that point of perspective above our bodies, to rise tall until you can see this human drama without being caught up in it. And then that's a big picture perspective. Then you see that the good guys and the bad guys are equally important in playing this out. You cannot have a drama with only good guys, and you never hate the villain as an actor, right? We need the villains to make a good drama. So when you rise above it and you see that, you have that perspective on it, then you can sort of fluff off your bad feelings and remind yourself: I'm here voluntarily to play my role. What is my role? Am I off my path? How do I get back on?

IONS: Wonderful! That was wonderful. So, just in closing, are there any particular websites or events you'd like to point people to if they'd like to get more of a sample of your work.

ES: Well, yes, my websites are my last name dot com (, and the other one is That one has a copy of my Earthdance book on it and about thirty articles and things for people to read.

IONS: Great. So they can peruse your work to their heart's content.

ES: Yes, they can. And bless everybody! I think what I want to say to young people is you don't have to fix our problems, just don't repeat our stupid nonsense! (laughs) And the world will be as you dream it.

IONS: That's wonderful. A great way to close. Thank you so much Elisabet, for your extraordinary optimism and life work you've brought forward.

ES: You're welcome, Stephen.

IONS: And thank you for joining us today.

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"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

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