In Memory of F. David Peat
Do something to help society.
Bertrand Russell to F. David Peat
If enough people moved the world by an inch, we could move it by miles.
F. David Peat
Each of us creates ripples in our lives, many being imperceptible.
Many of the problems we face today are rooted in thought While we may have free will, nevertheless we’re not always free to choose the content of that will. Thought is itself a type of information, one that puts form into action, to paraphrase Gregory Bateson ‘Information is the difference that makes a difference,’ modified by David Bohm to ‘Information is a difference of form that makes a difference to content (i.e. meaning)’ [Page 44 The Search for Meaning, edited by P. Pylkkanen 1989]. A movement of thought we explicitly see in society at the aggregate level, the means and ends of which greatly depend on what ideas or beliefs we hold and the conceptual framework we work within. The problem with the dominant paradigm today was first perceived by one of the pioneers of quantum theory, namely Wolfgang Pauli, here as F. David Peat explains.
The theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli argued that science had become obsessed with ‘the will to power,’ with a desire to dominate the natural world and force it to serve our own ends. This notion goes back to Francis Bacon who claimed that ‘knowledge is power’ and suggested that nature should be placed on the rack and tormented in order that she would reveal her secrets. [p 30, Gentle Action, 2008]
Humanity is a relativity young species which has become so blinded by its achievements in science and technology that it has become somewhat arrogant, rushing in without taking time to reflect on the hidden assumptions we might have made. Instead we believe we have reached a level of maturity or know-it-all-ism (All is X!). This alone should be enough to tell us that we have yet to grow out of our infancy. An immaturity or blind sightedness that has made us somewhat insensitive to life, where our relationship with ourselves and Gaia has shifted from a symbiotic to parasitic one, a ‘will-to-power’ or insensitivity to life is not only harmful to nature but ultimately harm to oneself and the rest of humanity.
F. David Peat’s strength was his ability to analyse what ought to be obvious, but are like my house keys, often hidden in plain sight. David saw that when faced with a serious problem or crisis, we tend to do one of two things, either ignore it or act like a man who is frantically pushing at a door, convinced he is locked in, failing to realize the door opens inwards.
Instead of taking time to reflect on one’s thoughts and actions, he becomes frustrated either taking a hammer to it thereby destroying everything or giving up in despair, either way he remains trapped within his hidden assumptions and unquestioned presuppositions, learning nothing. Doomed to repeat such thoughts and actions in future, David Bohm likens it to a person repeatedly cleaning a polluted river, because they fail to look for the source of the pollution. To quote Einstein:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,
The trouble is that the socioeconomic pressure and distraction of the present system mean that many of us simply have neither time nor energy to even contemplate such matters. Nevertheless, if we are to make progress then we must make time and muster enough energy to do so, to do as much as we can—making it fun might help—nonetheless it will be a struggle.
David Peat suggests a period of watchful or creative suspension, where one suspends action so as to allow a person to assess a situation or problem more clearly, to see what emerges from one’s thoughts and tensions, David states:
It struck me that much of our current worldview is expressed within a language of violence, as when we declare ‘war on want,’ ‘war on drugs,’ ‘war on terrorism’ or where doctors must take ‘heroic measures’ and employ ‘aggressive treatment’ using ‘magic bullets.’ Increasingly it seemed to me that our first step should be to sit back and attempt to create an overview of each situation, along with all its inner complexities and interconnections to even wider issues.
Whether the violent rhetoric is used to conceal unethical imperialist ventures or as part of genuine humanitarian effort, very often it’s either ineffective or exacerbates the problem. For any external agency or force has either incomplete information or too many variables to consider, often plunging headlong into something they don’t fully understand. A classic example is the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Here Clinton and Blair ignored warnings from NATO generals that given the unknowns a bombing would most likely result in an escalation of the violence, which it did. If we are serious then we must seek out of the inner complexities and wider connections, David says one must start with change from within, both within the individual and within the system (a community, an organization or society as a whole).
Creative suspension allows for a period of active listening, reflective thought, and proprioception (an awareness of our location in space and movement of the body), actively listening to what is going on inside us, inside the organization, opening a critical space for unquestioned presuppositions and hidden assumptions operating deep in thought. Watchful creative suspension can be seen as a gestation period, from which a tension of conflicting thoughts maybe realized (Orwellian doublethink), a tension from which a creative solution may emerge. Imagine discovering a person having a seizure, knowing nothing of the cause. If we were to rush in without first taking a moment to assess the situation, we may end up making a bad situation worse. It might be that the seizure was triggered by the person slipping on a wet floor and suffering a head injury, to rush in without first assessing the situation may result in your not noticing the wet floor, only for you to slip and hurt yourself as well. It’s this momentarily suspension of one’s actions that allows one to think and reflect, become aware of the risks and possible solutions to the problem or crisis, David writes.
What is required is a highly intelligent and coordinated action, a human response that is based in creativity, wisdom intelligence and knowledge. One that emerges out of a state of ‘watchful suspension.’ Science and Technology will play their role within this action, but they will not dominate it.
We should be asking ourselves how our actions might today affect the planet not just tomorrow but for many centuries to come (what the musician Brian Eno refers to as the ‘long now’).
Active listening is just as important as watchful suspension. We often hear others, but we rarely listen, at least attentively, to what is actually being said. This can be seen with regard to the ecological crisis of global heating and mass extinction that scientists have been warning us about for well over thirty years. While many have heard them, few have actuallylistened. Certainty not those in powerful positions who are either living in a state of denial ‘It’s not happening’ or accept it is happening but ‘It’s perfectly natural. nothing to worry about’ or to say ‘I know very well, BUT… what can I do?/we’ll lose money/we’ll deal with it by 2050!’
Same is true of COVID-19; it was government and big business’ failure to listen to the science that allowed the virus first to jump from species to species (via the wet market industry or some government facility), and then to allow the wave of infection to emerge and travel around the globe, leading to a global pandemic. Those governments and private firms who still refused to listen to the science found themselves with the highest death rate (US, Brazil, UK) in the world. The environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg simply asks of us to
Listen to the science.
Trouble is we wouldn’t know what mistakes to learn from nor where scientific uncertainties and errors may lie unless we are first willing to actively listen and fully engage with the argument. What prevents active listening is usually a pre-judgment, based on ignorance, misinformation, authoritarian theories of knowledge, dogmatism, or sheer prejudice. As can be seen in 2019, when after 30 years of complete inaction, world leaders of governments and businesses set the target date for tackling climate change back another thirty years, to 2050!
While watchful creative suspension and active listening are a good place to start, this was not enough for David; what was needed was to extend or extrapolate this process into the realm of action.
It was F. David Peat’s collaboration with David Bohm that made him aware of the problems that lay in the mechanistic way of thinking, of how mechanistic thought objectifies nature, leading to a loss of sensitivity and a lack of meaning with regard to ourselves and the world. Bohm’s approach was to first start by turning the mechanistic picture on its head, from here one can see it merely as a limited abstraction from a much larger more organic global process.
A shift in perspective that allowed David Peat to see the relationship between local and global forms in non-mechanistic or global terms. David writes:
When I was a student, I drove an old car with the disconcerting tendency to come to a sudden shuddering halt in remote locations. But in those days, I also had a pamphlet that helped me figure out what had gone wrong. This diagnostic sheet began by breaking symptoms down to determine if the problem lay in the fuel supply or the electrical system. If no fuel was reaching the engine, for example, did the fault lie between the fuel tank and the carburettor? Step by step the source of the failure could be traced to an individual component. On one occasion it turned out to be a blocked needle valve, on another moisture in the distributor cap. By dividing the car into a series of separate parts and taking into account the interconnections between them it was possible to make a correct diagnosis of any problem and take the necessary action. Getting the car running again involved cleaning or repairing that part that proved faulty.
When it comes to engines and machines this approach is extremely powerful. It allows a complex system to be analysed into a series of separate interacting parts and the solution to any malfunction focuses on a particular faulty component. Machines can be analysed in this way and the outcome of any intervention can be predicted. How simple it would be if the same technique could be applied to the global problems that face us today, to economics, ecology, human conflict and even to our bodies. The difference is that nature, society and we ourselves are not machines but are enormously more complex and subtle so that their behaviour cannot be analysed, evaluated or predicted in any mechanical way. Admittedly doctors diagnose diseases, but they do not operate in exactly the same way as motor mechanics. Determining a disease involves piecing together a complex set of signs and symptoms so that the whole thing is closer to recognizing the features of a familiar face than analysing a machine.
[pp 161-62 Pathways of Chance, 2005]
No matter the system we can only ever have missing or incomplete information at any one time, thereby limiting our ability to predict and control, a limitation that would be true even for a supercomputer. Hence the reason why there is so much uncertainty in weather and stock market predictions. Since our ability to analyse, predict and control is limited and since many problems can’t be simply located or truly isolated, then it makes little sense to treat every problem as if it were purely a faulty part that’s easily located. Like a nail sticking out of a bit of wood, requiring a hammer to bang it back into place, where to paraphrase Abraham Maslow
If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as if it were a nail.
With the purely mechanistic approach one enters into a kind of whack-a-mole strategy, a situation where problems continue to arise faster than one is able to cope with or solve, often leading to temporary results at best or to exacerbate things at worst. A good example of this was the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who proudly exclaimed his strategy for tackling the global pandemic of COVID-19. Treating every local spike or outbreak as if they were simply located, a faulty component to be isolated for repair via local lockdown. However, unlike a machine, these local areas are villages, towns, and cities, in other words open systems that cannot be truly isolated, as they require a constant flow of matter, energy and information to sustain them. One can see them more as sub-wholes that are embedded in more complex regional and global systems, akin to an organism, where the British Government temporarily whacked-a-mole with one local lockdown, only to see it pop up somewhere else, which is one of the reasons the UK had the highest death toll across Europe and one of the worst in the world for COVID-19.
What’s required is to see the system more as an organic whole or sub-whole as the Prime Minster of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern did, when her country brought the infection rate down to virtually zero. Her tactic wasn’t to solely rely on lockdown measures but to simply asking everyone to ‘Act as if you have COVID-19’ thus changing the global flow of social activity across New Zealand and to some degree beyond its shores. Sadly, Jacinda is the exception to the rule, since most don’t listen to the science, nevertheless without the work from the many none of this would be possible.
More often than not the hammer and nail approach is used by almost everyone, from frustrated individuals to corporate CEOs attempting to micromanage, all the way to coercive institutions and legislation whose rigidity is based on irrational hierarchical and mechanistic modes of thoughts; thought that reacts to every problem as if they have a well-defined solution, thereby inhibiting or impairing our flexibility, initiative, adaptation, creativity, criticism, self-organization, self-regulation, as well as our ability to learn from our mistakes.
And yet despite all this progressive change has occurred over the past 3000 years and usually from below. The question is how does this breakthrough? Well the non-linear dynamics of deterministic chaos and complexity theory tell us that when a system is sensitive or unstable, even most subtle disturbance has the potential to become amplified. Thereby leading to a ripple effect, one that impacts upon the system as a whole. Imagine holding a pencil across the palm of your hand. Horizontally the system is relatively stable and therefore not as sensitive to small or subtle changes. Okay, now place the pencil vertically, balancing it on your finger, here the system becomes unstable, at this critical point a bifurcation of multiple solutions or possibilities occurs making it extremely sensitive to even the slightest disturbance no matter how subtle.
An unstable system can with extraordinarily little effort be nudged into a relatively new stable state, new solution, or new possibility. Systems also consist of feedback loops; negative feedback can be found within a heating system or air conditioning unit. A thermostat sends a message to the furnace to produce heat, the heat in turn causes the thermostat to stop stimulating the furnace. If the temperature drops below a set point the thermostat will kick in again and stimulate the furnace to produce more heat. Where negative feedback balances, positive feedback amplifies. Good examples of this, are where one or two spooked cattle trigger a whole stampede or when a microphone is held too close to the speaker (amplifier), producing feedback in the form of a loud noise or whistle. Both the amplification of positive feedback and the regulation or balancing in negative feedback have a profound effect upon their systems and their environment. All of which explains why certain individuals succeed at triggering or being a catalyst for change, where many others fail. Take the following three:
In each case they had unknowingly picked a time when the system or society had become extremely sensitive to such issues, thereby allowing their small subtle act to trigger the amplification effect (popularly refer to as the butterfly effect), resulting in tangible quantitative and/or qualitative change.
David Peat wondered if there was a way to harness this butterfly power in a more focused, relatively non-violent way, whether the system was sensitive or not. A way that would allow a space for creative suspension, adjustment, or error correction. In the later 1980’s while studying the non-linear dynamics of deterministic chaos and complexity theory, David had this epiphany:
Conventional intervention generally takes place from ‘outside’ the issues in question. By contrast Gentle Action involves something subtle and creative that emerges from within the system itself. Normal action is rather like throwing a rock into a pond. The result is a big splash that rapidly dissipates.
But suppose those tiny ripples at the edge of the pond could all be arranged so as to be exactly in-phase: they would then move towards the centre, gathering in strength. In other words, a creative action would emerge out of the whole, rather than being imposed from outside. This would require a non-local yet gentle action that flows from a mush greater sensitivity to the whole system. Surprising as it may seem physics shows that if such coordination is made of all the phases of the individual wavelets, then these ripples will begin to interfere with each other in a constructive way. They start to move inward, towards the middle of the lake and grow in size until they produce a splash right in the centre. In an amazing fashion a large effect is produced out of a very Gentle action, involving the whole of the lake. A greater flow of energy has grown organically out of a highly intelligent yet almost imperceptible form of intervention.
Gentle Action is applied globally and seeks to restore harmony. To return to a mechanistic example, it could be compared to the fine tuning of an automobile in which a series of tiny, coordinated adjustments allow for greater power and efficiency.
[pp. 165-166, Pathways of Chance, 2005]
It sounds counterintuitive as we usually think tiny ripples aren’t sufficiently coherent nor coordinated, meaning its overall effect of interference is to dissipate everything into random patterns of water that quickly die out. David’s epiphany came with waves that don’t do this, but instead a wave that maintained its shape to as it propagates at constant velocity.
Let us first familiarize ourselves with the Fourier analysis of global and local forms of waves. In Fig 7 we see a single wave with a certain global form or order (a periodic waveform), where the order of the wave is the same form from period to period. Now let’s add one wave to another, one where its global order is double the frequency, the two produce not only a new global order but a more complex form of local order as well.
What of the converse—to go from local to global? Let’s look more closely at interference phenomena, here waves and wave-like forms that are out of step with one another (out of phase) destructively interfere or cancel out, whereas waves that are in step with one another (in phase) constructively interfere and self-reinforce as seen in Fig 8.
What happens when there is a dispersion wave plus discontinuities (as seen in the vertical dashed line in Fig 9)? Here a feedback loop emerges between the dispersion and breaking of the wave. A non-linear interaction binds individual sine waves together, causing the sine waves of different frequencies to feedback into one another, creating turbulence. Co-related in such a way as to bring about a process of self-reinforcing constructive interference, thereby amplifying the effect at the aggregate level. As one wave tries to speed up and escape from the wave form, its interaction with the others holds it back. In other words as soon as one tries to pull away the others compensate so as to stay intact or coherent thus leading to a wave profile propagating without changing shape. Hey presto a soliton wave!
By synchronizing and focusing many soliton waves into constructive interference, form distance locations to a particular region, one could in principle generate a huge wave and splash. Unlike conventional action where the more serious the problem the stronger the corrective force, delocalized gentle action seeks to continually make tiny corrective adjustments, as a way of feeling out the system and adjusting to its flow. Where a single person would have to wait when the time was ripe to trigger the amplification effect, under David’s process of non-local gentle action, a number of people at different locations could in effect induce amplification across, by coupling together many small or subtle iterative actions, either across a region or globally.
One of the reasons David struggled to get his notion of Gentle Action across was due to his use of the word gentle, conjuring up in our hierarchical and mechanistic mindset notions of ineffectiveness, weakness, or inaction. David gave us an alternative way of looking at it.
Gentle action can also be thought of as non-local because it unfolds in a generative way out of many different locations to converge on a particular region.
[p. 220, The Philosopher’s Stone, 1991]
What does non-local or delocalized action mean in practical terms? Perhaps a better analogy would be that of a children’s parachute and ball game. Here each child is at equidistant positions around a large parachute, where they have a choice of four games.
The Wave: Children put their hands up, one after another, in order—creating a synchronized ‘wave’ as in the stands at a baseball game.
Ball Roll: The children try to roll the balls into the hole in the middle of the parachute or the children try to keep the balls from going into the centre hole.
Rollerball: Try to keep a ball rolling only along the outer edge of the parachute around the circle. As it comes towards you, cooperatively lower your edge. When just past you, raise it.
Kick Ball: Synchronize each child’s wave and focus it so as to guide a ball to the centre of the parachute. Once there flip the ball high into the air or bounce it again and again.
Each game requires the child to engage in watchfulness and active listening, each being sensitive to the movements or adjustments of others and to the system as a whole, adjusting or course correcting accordingly, so that each wave or ripple in the parachute remains synchronized or in-step with every other wave, so as to be made to constructively interfere. In an effort to guide both the fabric of the parachute and the ball to a particular region, often with dramatic effect.
In his book Out of Control (1994) Kevin Kelly describes a conference in Las Vegas, where 5000 computer enthusiasts faced a screen on a stage, each holding a wand or joystick with a flight simulator cockpit projected on to the screen. All 5000 participants were asked to collectively fly the aircraft through a pink valley and land it safely. The left of the wand or joystick being the plane’s roll and the right side the pitch. This however could only work if all 5000 actions were synchronised, which is precisely what occurred. It was only as they were bringing the aircraft in to land that it became obvious that the aircraft would land on its wing. So, all 5000 minds aborted the landing, making the aircraft raise its nose, to try again, this time successfully, Kelly’s observes
Nobody decided whether to turn left or right…. Nobody was in charge. But as if of one mind, the plane banks and turns wide.
This could be achieved had each person been at a distance from one another over the internet, non-local relations at either regional or global scales, be it two or more individuals. Take an orchestra. We assume the conductor is an essential part; without the conductor the orchestra would quickly become dysfunctional and fall part, right?
It’s a common misconception, as a result of our fixed hierarchical and mechanistic prejudice. An orchestra can function just as well without a conductor, and often does. As with the children engaged in the parachute and ball game, the orchestra can attune themselves to play in sync, often with dramatic effect. This is because each musician has the capacity to actively listen, make adjustments, self-organize, self-regulate and phase lock.
A lot of this could be done in a mechanical way, but it can also be achieved by organic or non-mechanical means. Here David asks what would happen if the musicians were all moving around the auditorium relative to a listener, who are themselves moving. So that their distance from each musician also changed. Well in order to preserve the perfect order to the listeners’ ears requires each musician to be constantly changing the instant at which he or she hits a beat. This could only be achieved through an every changing pattern of global information. To quote David.
In a sense, the order of the music would unfold from a non-local correlation of all the musicians, an effect that could be compared with the operation of gentle action.
[p. 221, The Philosopher’s Stone, 1991]
This should come as no surprise for this is precisely what we see every day on our roads and freeways (aka motorways) with traffic. I recall as a kid watching a sci-fi spinoff to Battlestar Galactica, where alien humans arrive at planet Earth in the year 1980. Their leader informs them that earthlings are still using fossil fuels, showing images of automobile traffic on the freeway, to which one of the alien humans made a comment that did make me chuckle.
But it’s a nice, neat formation, it must require a lot of practice and discipline.
Aside from the occasional error and road rage, road traffic is orderly and co-ordinated on a largely subconscious level, almost as if we’re on automatic pilot. One would think then that by removing all traffic lights and road markings the rate of accidents would increase, not so.
European countries who tried this found a dramatic drop in the rate of collisions, why? Well as with the parachute game, with no mechanical signals or signs to compensate for or become frustrated at, drivers became more aware and sensitive to the actions of their fellow road users and to the system as a whole. Something we often seen when traffic lights fail at a junction, the vast majority of drivers are more careful and sensitive to one another and their surroundings, allowing them more time to make minor adjustments and course corrections.
In each case we see delocalized gentle action arising out of a creative perception of the whole complex situation, akin to a high-wire artist, where subtle almost imperceptible movements maintain balance, harmony, and above all, change. One it does not depend on a central authority, a hierarchy or external agency since everything emerges in an organic way from the regional or global system as a whole.
Delocalized gentle action doesn’t require masses of people to bring about delocalised action—although it does help—just enough at a distance from one another to act as nodal points (individuals or informal gatherings) over a given region or globally. Nodal points that can be either static or moveable, so long as they are either weakly corrected or synchronised in a way to bring about constructive interference.
Here gentle action works best when both local and non-local (at-a-distance) relationships are more flexible and informal, to allow for initiative, criticism, error correction, creativity, and a degree of fun and free play. This coupled with watchful suspension allows us to make anything from minor adjustments, to course corrections and creative solutions along the way, so as to reduce the risk of running headfirst into unforeseen consequences that might be harmful. Global and regional waves of action information that produce correlations, co-ordination and synchronisations are more possible today than they were over 200 years ago as a result of technology such the printing press, telegraph, telephone, world press, radio, TV, the internet, the world wide web and social media.
Uncertainty is everywhere, whether it’s our incomplete knowledge (epistemological) of the world or in the inherent unpredictability of the system itself (ontological), given all this it makes sense to have a methodology that nurtures a cultural shift towards a greater sensitivity to life and the growth of knowledge. Delocalized gentle action provides this very thing, as it allows for initiative in its non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian process, akin to that of anarchism aka Libertarian Solidarity (‘Libertarian’ in the old European sense of the term, being one of mutual aid and sensitivity to life, not the US definition which is essential sociopathic), in that it fundamentally opposes the threat or use of deprivation of things we need to survive to instil compliance. At the same time it is more open to creativity, criticism, and course correction, so rather than changing people to make them fit the needs of the system, we instead change the system to meet people’s needs.
It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.
Alfred North Whitehead
David Peat likens this non-local or delocalized gentle action to the wave function in quantum theory, ‘The overall form of the wave function acts to guide the motion of each individual electron. Likewise, gentle action arises out of the overall form of a given situation’[p. 220, The Philosopher’s Stone 1991]. We see similar patterns with delocalized electrons in a molecule, ion or solid metal smear out and so are not associated with a single atom or a covalent bond yet are still correlated across the overall global form. As with electrons individuals can couple (delocalize) or decouple (localize) from any action, however given the subtleties and informality of gentle action one is also allowed a degree of flexibility to be a kind of creative superposition between being both coupled AND decoupled from the action the same time.
In Turbulent Mirror: Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness, F. David Peat and John Briggs explore how out-of-step individual oscillators often move; moving from a state of collective randomness to resonating in harmony. We see this kind of phenomena at many scales, from the coordination at the subatomic of electrons in a superconductor, to the orderly structure at the atomic level of a magnet, to the coordinated behaviour of millions of molecules in chemical clocks to the slime mould that emerges from the aggregate of its many amoebae parts. One can see that each of us is a microcosm, a community with millions of cells and bacteria working together in order to maintain our organism. Michael Guevara and Leon Glass took cells from a chick embryo heart, they disassociated the cells which were found to beat erratically. However, after a few days the cells came back together, the individual cells had managed to phase lock their individual outputs and produce a harmony of collective behaviour. This ability to self-organize and phase lock is also seen in our children and their parachute game, as well as their ability to create new games and rules, only to collectively change, correct or adapt to the new.
We see this non-local or delocalized activity in life forms such as the slime mould. In its normal state a slime mould colonist of a large number of independent amoebae like spores, each one resembling a glob of yellow goo, that is neither plant, nor animal nor fungus. Consisting of spores or cells that feed off the vegetation of the forest floor, they multiply by division and spreading out. Once the food supply is exhausted in that area, at a critical point chemical signals ripple across the cells, triggering new behaviour. Cells begin to aggregate (see below), transforming themselves from independent cells into a single multicellular organism. In this case a slug-like creature moves across the floor until it reaches an area with a new food supply. It is then that the slug transforms again, it rears up, grows into a stalk, from which a head develops. Within this head spores mature and when ready the head bursts sending a shower of individual spores/cells out across the forest floor.
The process by which they collectively do this is to take action, self-organize, process information, retain memory, learn, grow and adapt is by way of synchronised wave patterns across the spores or web of relations (In some cases developing complex patterns that resemble the complex Japanese rail network or the travelling salesmen problem).
In 2016 Audrey Dussutour et al from the University of Toulouse France, placed blended oats strategically out of reach of the slime mould. The only way to get to the oats would be to crawl across a bridge structure. The problem was that Dussutour had polluted the bridge with a bitter compound of caffeine. This wouldn’t be harmful, but just enough to stop them in their tracks for a few hours. What they found was that the lure of the oats was enough for them to eventually across the bridge despite the caffeine; however, as they repeated the experiment, and as time went by, the slime moulds began to cross the bridge more quickly. So that after a few days the caffeine was no longer a deterrent. Even without a brain, they had learned to ignore it. Dussutour said ‘I was surprised because they don’t have neurons, and everybody was saying that ability relies on neural systems. Here we see primitive organism ability to synchronize many wavelets of energy and active information to produce a dramatic delocalized effect, which impact the entire organism and its surroundings.’
One of the things system theory and non-linear dynamics have shown is that like any open system, human society requires a constant flow of matter, energy and information, of social interactions, goods, services and data to sustain them. The same is true of the internet. A flow, much like the children in the parachute game, is utilized for the process of guidance, self-organization and self-regulation, which emerges in a generative delocalized way out an aggregate of small or subtle individual (group) actions at distant locations. A mixture of weak correlations, synchronised actions and phase locking,where society or any sub-system (social groups, communities, towns and cities) are least for the most part, akin to an orchestra.
Whether it’s children playing games or cities, sometimes rules can emerge out of the dynamics of the system itself, as found in such things as strange attractors. A strange attracter is a bit like a mixing bowl with a few marbles in it; no matter how we move the bowl and how the marbles are randomly thrown about they will eventually settle towards the basin, the same is true of strange attractors emerging out of non-linear dynamics of deterministic chaos. While individual trajectories may be pushed from the past, nevertheless the system as a whole is being pulled or attracted to some future goal, some purpose in the basin state. The ability of people to de-locally self-organise is amplified during moments of natural or man-made disaster, when usual structures have collapsed, and people are forced to pay more attention to their surroundings. The dangers we all face is the threat of runaway climate change, due also in large part to our decades of insensitive delocalizing human activity which threatens the emergence of an amplification effect as a result of the non-linear dynamics of positive feedback.
Given the uncertainty in any data, it is wise to weigh up the possible risks, in a cost benefit analysis. I think you will find whether global warming is true or false, man-made or natural, matters little, as it’s still more rational to err on the side of caution and act rather than do nothing.
It was with this threat that led Greta Thunberg to proclaim to the United Nations in early 2019
Our house is on fire!
A few months later more intense longer-lasting fires swept across the world, particularly South America, Africa, and Australia. Dust bowls swept across the United States, followed by a plague of locusts in Africa, India, and China, all of which killed crops.
As the earth’s lungs were aflame, so humans’ lungs became inflamed with COVID-19. It was our disrespect of humans and our fellow creatures for the purpose of the will-to-power and profit that triggered the virus, first by ignoring the science and turning the traditional isolated Chinese wet markets into an industry with many different animals bunched up together. It was this that allowed COVID-19 to jump from species to species (from bats, to other animals and ultimately to humans); disrespecting life for profit led to a delayed lockdown and too early re-opening of international markets. Business and markets consist mostly of small and subtle iterative interactions which when coupled together brought about constructive interference at the aggregate level, thereby amplifying the effect of the virus to that of a global wave of infection or a pandemic.
This pandemic exposed many things, firstly how much elite conductors relied on us more than we on them, many of them found to be incompetent or in conflict with their own beliefs. Secondly the damage we have created as a result of putting ‘Having over being’ (The will-to-power/profit and irrational consumerism). Thirdly how small-scale thoughts and actions can, when coupled together, amplify the effect of a tiny virus to a global effect, impacting on our health, society, and the economy, in this case in a negative way. Fourthly, with no vaccine in sight, no law nor single step invention to prevent this delocalized global wave of infection, then if a social wave created it a different social wave could counter it. A social wave consisting of many subtle small-scale iterative actions, with one minor difference; one where social interaction would be reduced to that of social distancing of two metres or more where possible, if not then mask up or stay at home. Akin to synchronized swimming, each person subtly adjusting their movements with others accordingly, so as to move in a cooperative fashion (while keeping them at a distance), thereby amplifying its effect leading to a reduction in the rate or wave of infection. This in turn took pressure off emergency services and hospitals, so as to save many more lives. A form of action no law could truly enforce, for on numbers alone there are far more people than police and state troops. Meaning like anything in society, self-organization and co-ordination had to come from those engaged in these synchronized dances of activity, namely the people, for if no one obeys then no one can rule.
A counterwave of delocalized gentle action was precisely what Greta Thunberg was looking for with regard to tackling climate change and mass extinction, and here it was being played out to combat a global virus right before her eyes.
Only in places where people either didn’t take social distancing seriously or had a misplaced trust in their conductors, as in the case of the US, Brazil, and UK where governments often gave out wrong or mixed messages (putting profit over people’s lives) the habitual dance of social interaction and irrational consumerism remained, not interfering with the amplification effect of the wave of infection and so the death toll was far higher in those places than elsewhere.
If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.
Philosopher David Hume observed that in order maintain power over others, brute force was not enough—for if no one obeys then no one can rule—no, manipulation of public opinion was a far more effective long-term strategy. This accounts for our blind-sightedness, for in order to maintain a command-and-obey economy one must shift public opinion in such a way as to obscure and redirect the fundamental layer of free association, sharing, mutual aid, self-organization and delocalized action that underpins all socio-economic systems. A command-and-obey economy, where the majority still have the power but abdicate such power to coercive institutions, market forces and laws or written rules for behaviour. David Duncan suggests that substituting written rules for ethics and morality (what he calls the soul) is a profoundly autistic error. Duncan a physicist and philosopher who is himself on the autistic spectrum, asks us to imagine a room full of children:
Imagine a non-autistic child, bursting with life, enthusiasm and chaos, seated at a dinner table with ten autistic children, also bursting with life, enthusiasm and chaos. The non-autistic child knows exactly how to behave—how to be quiet, how to say please—how to respond to a question, ‘How are you?’ Sometimes he actually does behave, and then the others marvel at his innate skills and ask for his rules. [From Object to Life, David Duncan, 2010]
What most of us neuro-generics do on a daily basis doesn’t depend on laws (many of which we are not even conscious of) but on unwritten rules. That are themselves based on guess work, creativity, criticism, imagination, knowledge, theory of mind and innate social skills, as well as both innate and learnt moral values. Even those on the autistic spectrum who lack theory of mind and innate social skills, can learn enough to become more sensitive to life.
It is by falling into the autistic error, we have come to believe in both the magical written rules and the mechanistic paradigm that has emerged from these hidden assumptions or unquestioned presupposition…
Jacob Bronowski believed the growth of knowledge can only be acquired if one has certain moral values, such as, a sensitivity to life, a respect for the truth, a belief in free thought and play, a degree of humility and rational tolerance, this is also true of Gentle Action. Values that fundamentally go against those of coercive institutions (the State and private firms) and market forces, although they tolerate a degree of freedom (so as to capitalize from it) nevertheless they seek to narrow it so as to prevent us from growing beyond them ‘You’re free to do what you want, just as long as it’s what we want!’ This is made doubly worse by the ‘Peter Principle’ which states that under any fixed command-and-obey or hierarchical structure, anyone no matter how competent they may be, will if promoted find themselves beyond their level of competency.
If anything compensates at least some of this managerial level of incompetency it’s the self-organizing feedback loop between workers, consumers, and communities. A process when disturbed or interfered with by those at or near the top, often results in a degree of dysfunction, mismanagement and even collapse of the system. One solution was to encourage a corrective force of upward management. However, it is extremely limited given that it already exists in a system that is fundamentally based on an imbalance of power; a fixed hierarchy where those at the top are not required to listen to those below them, and often don’t. Clearly fixed hierarchy (irrational authority) and structural violence are incompatible with the morality and principles of gentle action, as well as harmful to the system as a whole, that of society and the ecology. David knew this, which is why he looked for other more compatible solutions; the first came from anthropologist Marvin Harris regarding his study of the !Kung tribe in Africa. !Kung have no formal authority and can only persuade never command others, anyone who brags or seeks to dominate is not respected by the tribe, so make no headway. Second was from David’s study of Native American tribes. Here an individual is chosen to lead a particular task they happen to be good at, so long as they impart or share that that knowledge with others. However once said task is complete their leadership ends. Much akin to the rational authority or temporary leadership we find in decent parents, teachers, and doctors across the world and throughout history in many cultures; once their task is complete their authority ends, the individual outgrows them, by becoming knowledgeable enough or well enough to live beyond their authority.
Sceptic: But without a coercive conductor and laws there would be CHAOS!
Plato once wrote ‘Good people don’t need laws to tell them to act responsibly and bad people will find ways around such laws’—or create such laws to maintain the class (caste) system, chattel slavery, child labour, apartheid and other coercive institutions, with maybe only a margin of decent laws (such as humans rights that we have to struggle to acquire and maintain). All of which could be seen either as a stopgap to something more innate or as an unnecessary blockage to our growth of knowledge, akin to Dumbo’s so-called “magic” feather. Trouble is Plato’s question ‘Who Shall Rule?’ begs for an authoritarian answer, as Karl Popper reminds us. That said, Popper’s solution leaves a lot to be desired, for simply to remove bad policies without violence, is not enough as many of those bad policies might themselves be quite violent (for example, the British Government’s unnecessary policy of austerity, leading to the death of 130,000 people), something we may not be able to correct for another year or more. In this sense Popper merely replaces the ‘Who’ for ‘What Shall Rule?’ while ignoring the fundamental ethical and practical problems with coercive institutions and fixed hierarchies, where fallible beings impose or are elected (promoted) above their level of competency, armed with the power to deprive people of what they need to survive. Surely a more ethical fallibilism would be first ask
Why should anybody rule?
Delocalized gentle action avoids the problems with an unethical coercive institution and the incompetency of fixed command-and-obey structures (The Peter Principle, 1969), by promoting horizontal de-local organization and rational authority. By rational authority I mean that of temporary forms of authority, such as decent parents, teachers, and doctors. Those who don’t threaten us with deprivation, but instead encourage us to learn, grow, become healthy, ultimately grow beyond them, thereby undermining their authority in the process.
Apply delocalized gentle action to the decision-making process, and what unfolds is similar to the anarchist model of organization, thus echoing Voline:
A Mistake—or, more often, deliberately inaccurate—interpretation alleged that the libertarian concept means the absence of all organization. This is entirely false: it is not a mater of ‘organization” or ‘non-organization,’ but of two different principles of organization…. Of course, say the anarchists, society must be organized. However, the new organization must be established freely socially, and above all, from below. The principle of organization must not issue from a centre created in advance to capture the whole and impose itself upon it but on the contrary, it must come from all sides to create nodes of coordination, natural centres to serve all these points…. On the other hand, the other kind of ‘organization,’ copies from that the old oppressive and exploitative society, would exaggerate all the blemishes of the old society.
[p. 43, Anarchism, Daniel Guerin, 1970]
I have no doubt that even DGA will give us new problems and make mistakes along the way, nevertheless it will still be an improvement on the structural violence of command-and-obey economies. To my knowledge David knew nothing of Voline, nonetheless they came to a similar idea, although he did know the anarchist Alex Comfort. During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s while under attack from the Fascists and the Catholic Church, as well as being undermined by the Spanish State, Stalinists, global capital and CNT union leaders, millions of anarchists and other anti-fascists STILL managed to self-organize, self-regulate and above all maintain cities, towns, factories, schools, hospitals, farms, homes and many other places of work without the need for a conductor and in some cases without the use of money and market. An experiment on mass that did NOT end as a result of socio-economic failures but purely crushed by the brutal force of Franco’s fascists. Crushed by an ideology that found a delocalized gentle action sensitive to life it was such a threat that no one in the Spanish mainstream media was allowed to even mention it even long after Franco’s death in 1975. It wasn’t until in the wake of the British director Ken Loach’s movie Land and Freedom (1995) and Vicente Adranda movie Libertarias (1996) that whole new generation of Spanish citizens became aware of what happened prior to the Fascist takeover. Yet even as I write this today in 2020, the Spanish State and its commissars still maintain a shrine to the Fascist dictator General Franco.
Nevertheless, if millions of people under extremely harsh conditions and pressures can still self-organize, self-regulate and maintain society, then just imagine what we can do under more favourable times. In recent years we have had at least two examples of weakly coherent forms of subconscious delocalized action in the positive direction, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy, both grassroots movements emerging from within society itself in response to national and global injustice. They are made up of an aggregate of small-scale actions, globally co-related, being simultaneously geographical and non-geographical (across the internet) in nature. While the Arab Spring and Occupy movement may have been, largely subconscious, weakly coherent types of de-localized action, nevertheless they were enough to amplify their message, creating a ripple effect, large enough to lead to a sizable shift in the global discourse. Raising consciousness just enough to both get rid of an Egyptian dictator and to make people more aware of global inequality and of the gap between the 99% of the orchestra and the 1% of conductors.
However, it was the lack of faith in or awareness of the power of de-localized action that prevented it from becoming more coherent. This led many to retreat into more conventional forms of action, either vote for a new conductor with a hammer (the Muslim brotherhood) or by taking up the hammer themselves only to be crushed, thus, allowing Egypt’s military junta to resume its tyranny. Meanwhile governments across the world imposed unfair laws, cuts and sanctions, depriving many of the things they need to survive in an effort to crush fragments of resistance to inequality left over from Occupy. In 2018 we had Extinction Rebellion, again who subconsciously applied a weakly coherent synchronised delocalized action to get the message across regarding the threat of runaway climate change and mass extinction. This ended up being far more effective than all the scientific community combined over the past 30 years, although of course far more is needed. These days even climate sceptics now admit climate change is happening, although they claim it is not caused by humans. Whether they are right or not is irrelevant for we still have to do something to adapt to it.
Putting aside Mahatma Gandhi’s questionable beliefs in the caste system, apartheid, and business, we’ll focus on his more legitimate tactics. While Gandhi preferred non-violent methods of ‘passive resistance’ and ‘non-cooperation,’ he was not a pacifist. No, Gandhi made it quite clear, that if one cannot muster the courage, even in the face of gun fire, to face one’s enemy with non-violent resistance, then do not show cowardness, but hit them and hit them hard.
When faced with any form of violence, whether brutal force, irrational authority, or structural violence (the latter being deprivation as a result of how coercive institutions and market forces unfold or dictate), there were only two options for Gandhi.
Plan A: Non-violent resistance or non-cooperation
Plan B: Justifiable violent self-defence (over as quickly as possible)
If Plan B is enacted, then one ought to make it as short as possible, so as to return to non-violent passive resistance or non-compliance. Unlike ‘passive aggression’ where one cowardly hides behind a calm exterior so as to irritate and provoke aggressive behaviour in another, passive resistance is more akin to a warrior overcoming their fear so as to look one’s enemy squarely in the eye, making it clear to everyone that they no longer have your obedience or compliance, in an effort to pull the rug out from under their power, for if no one obeys then no one can rule. This they did as they were being beaten by police and troops, while marching from many different locations across the country to protest against the British empire’s salt tax. While we should make non-violent forms of resistance our primary aim, nevertheless there may be moments where some of us simply cannot meet this high standard and may resort to violent self-defence. If or when this occurs, this should not be seen as a signal to give up on non-violence, but to simply correct our course—for means ought to reflect the ends—as best we can. On the use of violence with regard to gentle action David writes:
Rather than using violence, or dissipating energy, the martial arts expert directs small movements and uses leverage in order to focus the opponent’s own momentum and energy in a new direction. Gentle action acts in a sensitive way to guide and refocus the energies and the dynamics of the system in question.
[p. 141, Gentle Action, 2008]
While the dominant paradigm seeks to change the people or society to make them fit the needs of its subsystems (i.e. coercive institutions and market forces), if we are to act ethically then we must seek to change the system to meet people’s or society’s needs (ultimately the needs of the biosphere) in a non-violent way. Greater awareness of delocalized gentle action has the potential to assist in such a process, allowing for non-violent means to:
If a weakly coherent delocalized gentle action can amplify enough to shift global discourse, then it stands to reason that a more mindful, more coherent form of delocalized gentle action could have more of an impact or dramatic effect both upon our worldview and in the physical world, one that is corrected or redirected toward a culture that is far more sensitive to life, creativity, and the growth of knowledge. Here the process of delocalized gentle action has the potential to act as a revolutionary midwife, guiding and modulating our global cultural shifts from the bottom up in a subtle non-violent way, while being calm enough to being reflective and mindful of our fallibilities and capabilities so as to be more critical and creative, but above all to learn from our mistakes. The system at present makes it that so many of us have neither the time nor energy to think, we are either on autopilot or constantly distracted by a bombardment of information. Nevertheless in moments of crisis the unconscious breaks through, revealing to us the de-localized corrective dance of gentle action. Whether we survive climate change, mass extinctions, a global pandemic, an economic crash, or any other problem in life, depends greatly on how we delocalize or globally correlate our dance? How to generate a paradigm shift or at least to turn negative market externalities into positive ones, without appealing to some coercive institution or external agency with its insensitivity to life and single step inventions? David wanted to bring greater awareness and sensitivity to this underlying delocalized or global process of gentle action, a process that underpins much of our activity at the aggregate, regionally, globally scales (even non-geographically across the internet), in the hope that it can be redirected in a way, one that is more sensitive to all life. As both David Peat and David Duncan stress, one must move away from objectifying the world into mere things and towards becoming more sensitive to life itself, including our own.
Which path we take is up to all of us or at least enough of us to make real progress; the power has always been in our hands. It is fear and superstitious belief that has allowed power-over to persist, blinding us to the power-with or alongside one another that could be used for more ethical means and ends, it all depends on how we dance?
Again since a weakly coherent form of regional or global synchronized waves of activity, lead not only to delocalized action but in turn, maintain all socio-economic systems and with that produce both negative and positive externalities, then it stands to reason that a more conscious sensitive process of regional and global synchronized subtle waves of action could be used to combat our insensitivity towards life. While there’s no guarantee in life, and risk is never zero, one thing’s for sure; when faced with life–threatening errors or injustice, doing nothing is not really an option, but neither is the will-to-power. Imagine what we can achieve if we utilize this weakly correlated delocalised gentle action and retune it for life; we could guide the system towards a new direction.
I owe much to F. David Peat, Maureen Doolan, Eleanor Peat, and the people of the hilltop village of Pari Italy. The ripples they created have touched so many lives and they in turn touched others, since many of the ripples we create in our lives are imperceptible to us. I n that sense David’s legacy will continue far beyond our perceptual gaze.
Briggs, John & Peat, F. David. (1989) Turbulent Mirror: Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. New York: Harper and Row
Peat, F. David. (1991) The Philosophers Stone: Chaos, Synchronicity and the Hidden Order of the World. New York: Bantam Books
Briggs, John & Peat, F. David. (1999) Seven Life Lessons of Chaos. New York: Harper Row
Peat, F. David. (2000) The Blackwinged Night: Creativity in Nature and Mind. Boston: Perseus Books
Peat, F. David (2002) From Certainty to Uncertainty: The Story of Science and Ideas in the 20th Century. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press (National Academy of Sciences)
Peat F. David. (2005) Pathways of Chance. Pari, Italy: Pari Publishing
Peat, F. David. (2008) Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Chance to a Turbulent World. Pari, Italy: Pari Publishing
Anarchism, Daniel Guerin (1970)
Anarchy in Action, Colin Ward (1973)
Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, Gaston Leval (1975)
The Ending of Time J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm (1980)
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Out of Control, Kevin Kelly (1994)
Anarchism: Arguments for and against, Albert Meltzer (1996)
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On Anarchism, Noam Chomsky (2013)
The Self-Civil War, Gordon Shippey (2017)
No one is too small to make a difference, Greta Thunberg (2019)
Gentle Action and Global Solutions
Gentle Action: Surviving chaos and change
Gentle Action for a Harmonious World
A Science of Harmony and Gentle Action
Non-Linear Dynamics (Chaos Theory) and its Implications for Policy Planning