A Conversation with Loren Cole: An Unknown Hero
by Richard Whittaker, Jul 31, 2017
Loren Cole had been recommended as someone who could prepare tax returns for the modest non-profit my wife and I had founded. He was excellent, trustworthy and reasonably priced, I’d heard. Why not drive up and meet him, my friend, Meredith Sabini, suggested. She, too, was looking for a new tax person.
His home, on the outskirts of Sonoma, stood several hundred feet up a dirt road in the vineyards of Sonoma’s wine country. As Meredith and I approached his front door, I knew nothing about Inquiring Systems Inc., Cole’s non-profit. Had I clue about its mission—translating good intentions into practical, effective and worthwhile outcomes—I’d have wanted to know more. ISI worked with organizations founded on visions of contributing to the greater good. What Loren offered was “ethical and sustainable ecosystem management services, training and technical assistance required for long term economic viability, self-sufficiency and sustainability.” But as we shook hands, I knew none of this.
When I remarked on his home, he told me he’d built it himself. “The whole thing cost $100,000,” he said with some pride. Given the cost of real estate in the wine country north of San Francisco, that’s amazing. Then he added, “It’s the first fully ecosystemological home ever built.”
There are moments when whatever one might have been thinking, it’s thrown out the window. I thought, "Who is this guy?
Suddenly I found myself in a quandary. My friend and I were there to talk tax prep. On the other hand, I couldn’t resist rising to the bait —ecosystemological—and the conversation led quickly into unexpected waters.
Before Meredith and I left, having signed on as tax clients, I was preoccupied with questions I'd never have imagined asking. It seemed that Cole had an important role in the founding of Earth Day as well as in founding UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. Amazing stuff. Was it true?
I’d already resolved to come back to learn more. I’d certainly want to interview Cole. But as it happened, a couple of years had passed and I hadn’t followed through. All this changed one day when I read an email from Cole to all his clients. He’d seen a doctor, he wrote. A nagging pain turned out to be late stage cancer. The doctor gave him three to five months to live. Nothing to be done. And so Loren was inviting all his clients to a celebration at his home to thank them and to say goodbye.
My dismay and shock was mixed with self-recrimination. Why hadn’t I followed through? But perhaps there was still time to uncover at least something of what I’d sensed as an extraordinary story.
Loren’s house was full at his farewell party. Hugs and tears abounded. At no moment, however, did I see Loren betray any sign of self pity or fear. There was much more to be done, though, and he regretted his work would be cut short.
We arranged for a visit to record a conversation and a couple of weeks later, I was at Loren’s home again. This time, he was reclining on a elevated bed that could be rolled around. Several people were bustling about, some taking care of ISI business and a couple keeping an eye on him for hospice care. As before, Loren, was animated, present and showing no sign of despair or worry. As I turned on the recorder, he was talking about just being in nature, out in a forest or the desert or in a canoe on a river…
Loren Cole: One of the true, absolute joys in life is to be in the wilderness. One of the greatest experiences—it’s not climbing Everest, as a lot of people think—it’s canoeing in the pristine environment of the boundary waters between Canada and the U.S. There’s no being stressed out trying to prove yourself as a mountain climber and going into a hostile environment, where you can’t even fucking breathe. This is not a test of your endurance. This is engaging in the full level of your intimacy with nature. This is so hard to do, to cycle out of the civilian, urban, go, go, go, life—you know?
Richard Whittaker: Right.
Loren: A lot of people go into the wilderness and never get a wilderness experience. They’re too busy simply trying to find a way to be comfortable, dry, fed, warm. But when you go out and know what you’re doing, which I do and Pat does, with two little kids in a canoe for two to three weeks away from everyone, that’s a different matter. You portage over the places where you can’t canoe, portage and portage, so you’ve moved into a location that’s isolated. Then you set up a base camp. This is the way we liked to do it. Then we’d take day hikes, or you might canoe; you might take one portage to visit a lake, have lunch there, fish, do whatever you want, swim, enjoy it. Then you come back, and the base camp is set up. So, you’re comfortable, your wood is cut, your sleeping bags are out. You sit down. You now have your red wine and your pasta with clam sauce. I’d bake biscuits, and we would have a nice dinner. I’d make some cherry cobbler over the fire and then it might rain, but you’re covered with a tarpaulin, your fire is going and you’re warm. It’s the sweetest thing in the world.
I'm glad you came, Richard. Doing the interview has been a tentative project for some time.
Richard: Yes. It’s not that many years ago when I met you and in that first brief conversation it was clear you have an important story. I felt that very quickly. So I feel very happy to be here to get more of that on record.
Loren: Well, I now feel it’s important to have a record. Throughout my life, that hasn’t been a goal of mine. My ego is complicated. I have one. I know I'm very good at what I do. I'm not shy about that. But there’s an old adage, “There’s nothing in life you can’t do, as long as you don’t need to put your name on it.”
Richard: And that’s been an important reality for you, I think.
Loren: It’s been enormously important.
Richard: Before going into that, I wonder if I could I ask you to reflect on your roots, on what steered you in the direction you’ve gone in your life?
Loren: That’s a very good question, and it’s an interesting one. It’s also been part of my contemplative arena here now. So, thinking back, about the earliest memories are from 18 months, and that’s really early.
We lived in Chicago. My father was a refrigerator repair man, but he was also a very judicious man in terms of maximizing the utilization of resources. I often kidded him saying that he invented recycling because he never threw anything out. There are some absolutely wonderful stories about that, in and of itself. But my father was a jack-of-all trades kind of person who could do things. He would find creative solutions that were on the cusp sometimes, even of ethical behavior, but for the most part were ethical.
For example, we lived in a flat on the south side of Chicago. There was another family above us. This was during the war. I was born in 1939. I don’t ever remember being hungry, but I remember peanut butter sandwiches. So, we were not living high on the hog, but we had a pretty good life. We wore hand-me-down clothes, and so on, but they were always clean and well-trimmed. Anyway, my father found a way to get us out of Chicago during the summer. No one was going Indiana Dunes State Park for a vacation because of the war. So, the park used to rent spaces. It was also a place where you could rent a little cement block house and there were other upgrade cabins.
Anyway, my father negotiated a plot of land about the size of this bedroom. He’d get it from around June 15th until Labor Day, September 6th. It was just a piece of flat land with a water spigot. You could walk a half a block away to a place with showers and toilets and so on. He paid $20 a month for this piece of land, so we had it for about 50 bucks for the summer.
We cooked our own meals. We had a war surplus tent, a Coleman stove and army cots. We called it “The Screen House.” Halfway up was plywood and halfway was screens.
Richard: How many were you?
Loren: There were my two older sisters and my mother and I. My father would work during the week in the city, and then come out on the weekends. So my world consisted primarily of a swimming suit, sometimes a T-shirt and occasionally cheap sandals of some sort—and also occasionally, a hat. There was play on the hills, up and down, picking blueberries, swimming and just doing nothing.
Richard: This was for a number of years, I take it?
Loren: It was a total of eight years.
Richard: Okay. And starting when you were…?
Loren: I was one year-old. My mother used to take the two girls and me. We’d go down to the beach and there was a place to get a sandwich. They had a soda fountain and machines you could play, you know, kind of a fun house. Families could go there while they were staying at the park. When I was three or four one of my first true experiences was us being thrown out of the recreation center, the Pavillion, it was called. I remember my mother was just screaming and yelling at them. My mother in those days, felt that the best protection against the sun was baby oil, so we would be slathered down with baby oil. Well, baby oil actually enhances sunburn, so I was very dark-skinned and they had mistaken us for blacks. My mother was so upset that they were throwing blacks out, and she was upset that they thought we were. I didn’t understand it at that age.
Richard: I see.
Loren: My father was outraged because he was a bigot, really. All of his kids, and even my mother were not that way—and my father eventually kind of walked over that hill, too. Anyway, I remember that.
But there’s an earlier experience I remember. We would go to the beach. My mother would lay out her blanket, and we would all go off and play. I was 18 months old, my mother was laying out with the blanket and everything. She heard a scream and she saw the two or three people running towards the water, including the lifeguard. She looked around first for her own kids, saw my sisters, but not me. She started running towards the water with everybody else. Everybody was screaming and thrashing in the water for a couple of minutes, and finally, somebody picked me out.
Richard: That was you, out in the water?
Loren: In the water. Under water. And I had this great big smile on my face. I was smiling and laughing. I swam underwater for the first 13 years of my life.
Richard: Would you reflect a little on your relationship, with water—and the importance of water? I mean, some of the most unforgettable experiences for me with water, almost a spiritual thing, I’d say. One was going naked into a lake in the high Sierras in that pure, cold, crystal clear water. I imagine you have some thoughts around this.
Loren: Well, you saw the little preview of my documentary.
Loren: I say I become the river. It’s deep. We’re born in water. Actually, we live in water. I was a swimmer in high school and a water polo player in college—the only sports I could do, really. I was in the Navy for four years and was a sonar man, deeply connected with underwater and underwater research. And there’s my wilderness canoeing and water-related activities. So water has been an integral part of my life.
I don’t know how to translate that into a spiritual thing, because my deeply embedded relationship with nature can include a rock outside my door, too. But there’s a spiritual quality to it when I go underwater as I did for 13 years. Other people would swim on top, but mine was more of a dog paddle. I’d just submerge, and it was scary for my mother and for many people for many years, because I could hold my breath up to about five minutes underwater.
Richard: That’s incredible, really.
Loren: Well, just to make it clear, the times I was tested and did hold my breath for five minutes, I was sitting in the corner of a pool with a rock. I wasn’t thrashing about, I was just sitting there.
Richard: Okay. I’ve heard that you have to get past that first desperate need for oxygen, and if you can get through that, you can hold your breath for quite an addtional time. Has this been your experience?
Loren: It is a deeply psychological experience. Yes. You have to, let’s say, submerge yourself within yourself. You have to come to a place where you’re at peace within who you are, but you can’t really operate for a very long without breathing.
Richard: How did you arrive at this quality of being at peace with yourself? It’s not such an ordinary experience for us.
Loren: It is, but society works hard to remove our capacity to connect in this deep way with nature. We don’t like people to have that sense of feeling a deep embeddedness in nature like that. It’s threatening in some ways—you see it in its epitome in the 60s with the dropout philosophy. But that was with drugs. My system doesn’t use drugs. Drugs are an inhibiting factor. My drug is in the kind of adrenaline rush that comes from my connection with nature.
Richard: Okay. Let’s go back to where you said you liked to swim underwater. It sounds to me like this was a big thing. You swam a lot underwater?
Loren: All the time. I never swam on the surface. I’d go out on the beach. You’d see me dive in, and you’d look around and wait for me, and then maybe two minutes later, you’d see a head pop up over there.
Richard: That’s very unusual.
Loren: I explored underwater. I scooted along, and I loved the undertow when the storms would come in. They would isolate the beach—no swimming allowed! The water was dangerous and even the lifeguards wouldn’t go in. I was a little guy, 4’ 10.” I weighed 78 pounds when I was a freshman in high school. I would be in swimming in a storm, and on Lake Michigan, the waves as big as they are on the Pacific—just huge, big cauldrons. If you get caught in one of those you die, because you can’t get out of the undertow. But I could, because I dove to the bottom. I didn’t head for the top.
Richard: You stayed underneath all that.
Loren: Stayed underneath, slid along like a rocket. It would shoot me right out, away from the beach, and I would, almost like a seal, I’d close my arms against my side—almost like those skydivers in the suits. Have you seen them?
Loren: That’s what I’d do underwater.
Richard: You learned that instinctively?
Loren: I got caught in an undertow and did what I normally did, I flowed with it. And because I could hold my breath for so long, I wasn’t scared. I knew the swim out was faster, and I went out.
Richard: Did you ever do any bodysurfing on the surface of the waves?
Loren: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. That doesn’t mean I didn’t come up. But at the end of the body surf, “There he goes again. Where’d he go?”
I would come up, take a wave from the top, but if there were waves underneath, I took them, too. Sometimes I’d take a wave in, go down, take a wave out the underwater way. But embedded in all this was my sense of being totally enclosed by nature. It’s like being in a cocoon. It’s a very deeply felt feeling of closeness, of awareness, of sensitivity to the natural cycles and principles.
Richard: To be in water like that, underwater, relaxed and flowing with the currents.
Richard: That’s really something special.
Loren: All right. That’s unique and there’s a lot more to it, but the thing you have to see is that I have the same ability without the water. I flow that way right in my garden. I flow that way sitting. I'm hiking on a trail. I can just bliss right into it. I can become totally attuned to any natural element, interaction, relationship, within minutes, if not seconds. I have this ability to connect.
Richard: In any setting in nature, you’re saying?
Loren: If you want to be a whole person, this is what you do. There’s all this stuff about the great gurus, Zen meditation and different forms of how you get a clean mind in order to try to develop a sense of self. Those words, “sense of self” are inherently alien to someone who’s an ecosystemologist. Why? Because there is no self, in the true sense.
We are 97% other living things. So I am only through my relationships with other living things. I’m whole as long as I’m a we and not a “me.” People who think in terms of me, will never get there. But you need to see something, Richard, if you want to accomplish things in the world.
Loren: You have to be connected in this way. Underneath what you’re doing, are you also trying to establish a sense of what are the factors that play in to your interpretation of what is going on? You can’t get to doing something different, or in a different way, unless you can first determine what it is you’re actually doing. So, what are you doing? One’s awareness of this is limited by the degree of one’s ability to relate in this very deep way, with the other living things which are part of your team, if you will, or your family. They’re part of my family. My family is a very incredible array of other humans, of non-humans, of things that are living and engaged in life—and I'm able to engage with them.
Richard: It seems that you inherited or arrived at something from a very young age, and swimming was a significant part of that. Going to that park in the summers and having eight years at being immersed in nature, it must have been…
Loren: It was in the winter, too, but in a different way. So, let me give you a little story. Okay?
Loren: Because I don’t want you to lock on. There are many pathways here that are equally valid and equally important. All right? I'm eight years old. I went to Gompers Elementary School in Chicago. I was in the third-grade. And in my school, we had disabled children and they were in wheelchairs. A part of our job at recess was to go downstairs and grab a kid in a wheelchair, and carefully wheel them out and park them. There was a ramp. You’d go through the room, along the hallway, down the ramp and then you wheeled them out and parked them along the playground. Once they were parked, you could go off and play. You were also warned, and I mean in no uncertain terms, not to go fast, not scare the kid. See?
Loren: We were very engaged in that process, although I’d say, more than half the kids didn’t like having to do it. For the most part, the handicapped kids were really discriminated against and not even seen as childhood partners. We didn’t play with them or anything like that, and I felt there was something very unfair to all of this.
Even when I was as little as I can remember, I didn’t like injustice. So, we had certain restrictive rules, and when injustice was presented to me, I would act out, and sometimes not in a very productive way.
So recess time came one day and I went down and grabbed a kid in a wheelchair. These are high-backed, wooden wheelchairs. I grabbed him and started running him along as fast as I could, dodging desks and out the door. We went down ramp as fast as I could go. And the kid’s flailing and yelling all the way down. I didn’t know it, but right behind me were teachers and assistants and parents of disabled kids—all kinds of people.
Richard: Right, right.
Loren: I no sooner got my kid parked, than I got grabbed by the ear and off I go to the principal’s office. I start crying and off I go with an entourage of God knows who. They called my mother and had her come down. Then they started telling her, in my presence, that I was a potential juvenile delinquent who was up to no good, that I didn’t care about other people, that I had no empathy, that I was not sensitive to or respectful of—whoa, I mean for a little eight-year-old kid, this was heavy stuff. I mean, I was scum of the earth, you know? They were saying all this to my mother, and to me. And of course, I was crying, crying, crying, crying.
And my mother was really upset. They said they were going to have to suspend me, and my mother said, “Well, isn’t there any way we can offset this?”
They said, “Maybe if he went in and apologized to the kid and to the class, and told them he was sorry, maybe we would give him another chance. But he can’t just do this kind of thing, Mrs. Cole. This is wrong! Very wrong! So, if he goes down and apologizes, we’ll give him another chance.”
My mother said, “Loren, I think that’s the best thing to do.” So we all walked back to class with me crying. I'm leading this little pack of 10 or 20 people—I don’t know how many it was. I opened the door to the room and stepped inside. And the minute I stepped inside, all the kids in wheelchairs started shouting, “Take me, Loren! Take me! Take me!”
Richard: Did you have any idea that would happen?
Loren: I had no clue. I thought I was in deep, deep trouble.
RW: All right. What do you think came over you that made you want to run with the kid in the wheelchair?
Loren: Injustice. I just thought it was unfair the way these kids were being treated.
Richard: I see. That was a kind of an expression and you didn’t quite understand the consequences.
Loren: I didn’t have any interest in the consequences. This is another element. You know, some things have to be done, because they need to be done.
Richard: It was just something wrong.
Loren: Something was wrong. It wasn’t fair. I was going to take this handicapped kid with me on a real ride. I didn’t care what happened to me. I wasn’t going to tolerate it. I thought it was the end of the world for me. That I was going to be kicked out of school, and my father would beat me.
Richard: That’s an amazing story, but especially with that unexpected reaction of the other kids.
Loren: There are a lot of stories like that, of acting against a power, and doing so without any maturity, any sense of the potential downside to it. Just the need to do it, and to live with yourself.
Richard: Well, somehow this came up around your experience with the water.
Loren: I'm just saying that there are many, many other deeply significant things.
Richard: We should go through more of those.
Loren: I mean, what is it you would like? In some sense, I'm an ecosystemologist. And I'm the only person in the world—truly, this is not exaggerating—with a PhD in that. And my Ph.D. is from UC Berkeley, not from a diploma mill. So it’s up to you to guide the discussion and the minute you start, the adrenaline flows. I'm back in the chop again.
Richard: Okay. So another thing is that I'm very interested in what happened around Earth Day, and around the University of California Berkeley.
Loren: Just tell me what you want, and I'll tell you the story I have.
Richard: Okay. First thing is to get some background from your childhood and early life, that developed and flowered in your later life, and led you to a focus on ecology and environment. I’d like to hear the whole thing. And maybe it’s too much of a story for a couple of hours.
Loren: Well, see, in systems work, we call these "levels of resolution." Can you understand a loaf of bread with all of its different components? Well, the science tends to break things down into disciplines. That’s why you have entomology, and plant pathology, and botany, and zoology. You have all these different departments that reflect a small piece of the total, as to what constitutes a significant segment of nature. And we don’t object, systems people, to that kind of detailed specificity. What we say though, is if you’re going to break things down, because life is too complex and you can’t understand it as a whole, then if you do break it down and study pieces, who’s putting the pieces back together again, now that you’ve learned something about the pieces?
Richard: Right. That’s a big question.
Loren: Who’s putting it back together? Nobody! Nobody in the university. No discipline. No department. There are guys like me, odd people, who see the need to have a whole systems perspective, an integrative approach.
Richard: Where do you think you got this recognition that somebody has to look at the whole?
Loren: Everybody has it. I just was fortunate enough in life to be exposed to reinforcing experiences. For instance, are you a person who has empathy? Well, it’s not like we can turn to page 12, or we can take Empathy 101. Empathy comes from the significant engagement and connection and caring of some other person—your mother, your father or someone. Empathy is experienced. And so are whole systems. If you reinforce this experience, it continues to manifest itself in a different point of view.
Richard: You’re telling me everybody has this sense of the whole.
Loren: When you’re born, yeah. You’re a whole person.
Richard: For you, this was never paved over, you didn’t lose it.
Loren: There were attempts, but certain events made it difficult for them to wipe it clean. Part of that comes from these other elements of who you are as a human being and how you’re told what you have a right to be. Like young women used to be told they could never be president, or never do X or Y. That’s an environmental factor that influences people’s resistance to do something since “it’s a waste of time.” So, there are negative reinforcement factors.
In our house, when Carrie was born, we would have all of our wonderful little crafts and ashtrays and everything, and at a year-and-a-half Carrie started walking. A lot of people were scared shitless that she was going to grab something and break it. They’d say, “You know, we would never leave fragile things out like that. We always get them out of the kid’s way.”
I said, “I taught her not to do that. It took about a half-an-hour.”
They said, “You know, Loren, that’s really ridiculous. You can’t teach a kid that.”
Yes, you can. It’s really simple. It just takes a little patience. What you do is you just let the kid walk around. She goes to touch something, and the minute she goes to touch something she shouldn’t, you say, “No.” You quickly pull her back, then you let her go along. She goes to touch something else, you say, “No!” It’s an emphatic no, and there’s a pull back. In about five or ten minutes, she gets phase one. Then over the next day or two, you reinforce it, and for the rest of her life, she never did it.
Richard: Wow. So she didn’t have to be taught a lot of fear.
Loren: No, no fear. You don’t have to punish, but there’s a form of rejection. I reject her movement.
Richard: Okay. I see. Let’s go back to how this natural sense of wholeness we have was somehow left alive in you.
Loren: It was reinforced by experiential events, which we’re now seeing more and more in a wholistic way, and less and less in a monaural way, let’s say.
Richard: Were there people who were a significant help to you in some way, in this, maintaining the natural…
Loren: Well, my parents had a certain openness, a degree of tolerance. They allowed us to go outside and explore. They allowed us to do things. But we had limits. For instance, my mother had a whistle. We could go and play any place we’d want, but we damn well better be within reach of the sound of that whistle. When she whistled three times. If you heard the third whistle, you better get your butt back there, because she’d come after you. So, she was intolerant of your not responding to her request to come back. But while you were out there, you had freedom to do whatever you wanted. So, there was an open-endedness about being able to explore, to see things, try things and do things—and have your questions responded to. These are reinforcing principles. There was a “yes” giving you the opportunity to develop. If you don’t have a little of both, the yes and some limits, in your life, you aren’t going to eventually gain the kind of structure you need to function effectively. There’s no magic formula here, but it isn’t that poor people in India couldn’t do it. There are people who are, by nature, wholistic, but their experiences also may limit what their capacity is for doing with that knowledge, or that appreciation.
Richard: Well, it’s become the center of your life, the wholeness.
Loren: It's my life. Yes. If you listen to that little video preview, what it’s saying is, “I am the Earth.” It’s not something “out there” or someplace else.
Richard: And this is something that not many people can say.
Loren: I know. It’s now time for people to see what they’re doing. After I go—I'm not proselytizing for myself—I am, in effect, giving human society a chance to survive.
Richard: And it would be good to hear what helped you get there, your story.
Loren: Yes, but actually this is a story about me that’s not really about me. I mean, it’s about me, and it’s about how a human being should live on this earth.
Richard: I'm seeing you as an exemplar.
Loren: I am. I'm now letting my ego say, “Yes.” Am I perfect? No. Should you emulate me? No. But are there things which come out of an incredible, unbelievable array of successful, enormous things, I mean, that nobody’s done? I mean, the things I've accomplished, in and of themselves, any one thing could have been a career, a lifetime engagement for anybody. I’ve continued to do it and do it, and still do it. And each one is something of great consequence.
And why did I do this? On one level—since my approach, my principles and values were unique, and outside of what one would say is the norm of society—they had to be validated.
There had to be a demonstration that one didn’t need money, didn’t need rewards, one didn’t need to be acknowledged and didn’t need to have some kind of constant reinforcement from society to do it.
My reinforcement came from the embedded principles that gave me a reason for being. They gave me life. And in my not so humble opinion anymore, at the end of my life, if other people do not adopt these principles and these values in this very deep way, human beings will not survive. Zero. End of story.
And why? Because we are intimately connected with nature. The degree to which we can relate to nature is the degree to which we are going to appreciate and protect these natural principles and laws, because they’re intimately connected with the life cycle of our own living on the earth. We’re dependent upon all of these things doing their job. Nature evolved—that beetle, that spider, that virus, that bacteria, that corn, in a way that plays a role.
Humans have adopted some of these roles for their own sake, for food, let’s say, where they weren’t food before. They, in effect, allowed for the creative adjustment and re-establishment of some of these things, so they perform a service as food. But they are all, each one, connected to, related to, and must adhere to the natural laws and principles which are necessary for them to live. If we don’t reinforce those principles, we’re going to violate the degree with which they can eventually adapt and evolve.
Loren: If they’re not going to survive neither will we; we are that intimately connected.
So, this whole thing is about, well, what is this? How does this differ? Is it Christianity? Is it religion? Is it some scientific thing? Is this based upon some ecological (not ecosystemological) framework that says that these are the belief systems?
Or are they connected to a set of principles and values that are essential to how each living thing recovers, restores, and becomes viable in the system? In other words, each living entity has life within the system. If it didn’t, we would lose it.
So, we have a choice. If we wipe out a living entity, either we find a replacement for it or Nature does. When there’s a vacuum in Nature, Nature it fills it. And believe it or not, you don’t want Nature to be making too many of these choices, because Nature fills it with whatever is most reasonably available and adaptable. That might be a disease, a virus—it may be some condition that alters significantly the viability of another species, of its ability to survive. This is not speculation or “potential” or “it could happen.” This is what does happen.
Loren: Okay. So, we’re confronted in life with making choices about how we grow our food. Do you grow food cheaper, in vaster quantities? For that you pay a price—a vulnerability and loss of dynamics. The cheaper, vaster producing thing is now going to be more sensitive to change. It will be easier to have something bad happen to it because its resilience has been fucked up. This is what we’re doing.
So, underneath it all, we’re creating an environment for living things which are not conducive to their long-term survival, and that’s jeopardizing our survival. So, how do you reconnect? Well, you’ve got to reconnect in a way that says, “I'm no different than they are. I am them.”
I have to live my life in a way that’s totally related to the way in which these living things have evolved. Nature created the criteria, if you will, for them to live a functional life. So, there are many elements to this, Richard. For example, there’s the use of the term “sustainability.” There are no sustainable ecosystems in nature. They do not exist, and we’re talking about sustainability, sustainable nature, and getting things sustainable.
Well, everything is out of sync in nature. You look at a tree. Every tree you see, 35% at least, on average, is being eaten—35% of it.
Richard: Is being eaten?
Loren: Eaten. While you’re looking at it. You’ll look at a beautiful tree and say, “Wow, that tree looks very healthy.” And an arborist looks at it and says, “Wow. It’s a very healthy tree!” Why is it healthy? It’s because it can recover.
The impact of all these things eating that tree don’t deteriorate the tree; they don’t cause overwhelming problems. That’s because the tree has evolved with its being eaten. So, it has not just survived, but it has generated the mechanisms internally to make sure that it can thrive while being eaten. Even more enlightening is the fact that it has a stronger immune system as a result of being tested, if you will.
So, the constant struggle to recover from these impacts from other hostile things coming in and doing things, is fundamental to its long-term survival. So, we don’t want to stop it being eaten. We want the living things that eat it to be in balance with the other things that eat the living things that eat it.
Loren: That’s predator-prey; that’s relationships in nature. And that’s called resiliency—the ability to constantly adjust. So, we see it in a dynamic way. In the tundra in the Artic, all of a sudden you have a gazillion mice, and the owl population, and wolves, they go bananas. It’s babies galore, and everybody’s healthy as hell. And the next thing you know, the next cycle, you can’t find a mouse anywhere. Owls die, wolves die, and everybody dies. And the next thing you know, there are all these mice. What is that? That’s the natural predator-prey cycle in nature. Okay.
Being eaten is not health. Health is recovery from that. And recovery depends on resiliency, and resiliency depends upon biodiversity. It means you don’t know what’s going to eat you next, nature doesn’t. So, it has to have a reservoir of things available to fill the space that are not necessarily going to harm the tree. Underneath it all is this dynamic quality of a lot of available things—biodynamics, available to fill-in the spaces that are being attacked. That’s resiliency. Resiliency means that the system can recover, and recoverability is health. So, health in any system is not the absence of disease or the ability to avoid all problems, it’s the ability to recover from problems.
And for me, cancer has come in and I don’t have the resiliency any longer. My immune system does not function to protect me. I'm without immune protection, and we’re trying to use chemicals and other means to insert themselves in this place, and they can’t. So, I'm no longer sustainable, if you will, because I can’t recover and return to a healthy system.
Richard: Well, you’ve led an important life. Maybe you can talk a little bit about Earth Day?
Loren: Okay. Well, Earth Day is misunderstood by a lot of people because Denis Hayes is often considered the father of Earth Day. He’s widely applauded, and he should be—he should win the applauds. But to my dismay, Denis—and I've had to call him out on this—claims that he’s the founder of Earth Day. Basically, he does so because Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin is the person who came up with Earth Day. He didn’t call it an Earth Day. He wanted a massive, national day to honor the earth. He thought of having teach-ins, or some sort of programs. And in the usual way, good ideas have many fathers. One of them is that Denis, among others (including me) suggested that we have this kind of celebration of the various day elements. So, what trees have been planted, what projects have been done, how to look at the positive things that have gone on, and bring those out in a way that people can see that thiis is worth celebrating—all of these great things.
Richard: Right. And who are the “we” here?
Loren: It’s all the other people who coordinated Earth Day on college campuses and with organizations in various cities. It wasn’t this little group out of Washington run by Denis Hayes whose job, really, was to make posters, to provide lists of ideas that you could handle, to find people who might be speakers at a platform and provide contact information. So, they were like a resource center. Sometimes they had a little money for copying, for printing, or supporting an entity, and that was this group under Denis Hayes. They did a wonderful job and helped a lot of people. They didn’t help me. It didn’t help my group.
Richard: At that time, what was your position?
Loren: I didn’t have one. I was basically a grad student at UC—and that, in and of itself, is an interesting story. I came back to Berkeley as a grad student in 1967. They would not let me in the department of my field. At that time, it was called “Environmental Economics” and there wasn’t any department in my field. I was it. So, I tried to…
Richard: How did that exist if no one… I’m not following you here.
Loren: Now, hang on a minute, I didn’t get a degree in Environmental Economics. I applied at the University of California Economics Department, and in this field there wasn’t any environmental program, so they rejected me.
In the Department of Agricultural Economics, which is a separate field in the Ag Econ Department, there was a small segment called Natural Resources Economics, with a wonderful man heading that up. His name was Siegfried von Ciriacy-Wantrup; a great, great name. Ciriacy looked at my stuff and said, “Well, you can come here. It sounds good.”
So, I was in the Department of Ag Econ at UCB, which is a lower echelon than Econ. I was a Natural Resource Economist, which was a lower echelon than Econ, and I was an Environmental Economist, which was the lowest area of all of them. And there was only me. There wasn’t anybody else. So, I was creating my own major, my own operation. And in doing that, I had to work at finding techniques within the rules to generate classes, programs, and get accepted curriculum.
Richard: So, you’re a student, and you’re having to generate a class.
Loren: I did. I taught classes. I was creating classes that would be taught by others, and creating classes that I taught.
Richard: I mean it’s unusual. I'm thinking that the administration creates classes, not students. So, if I'm a student, I must be a pretty proactive student if I can actually create a class and make it happen.
Loren: There are ways to do that. That’s how classes get created at a university. Somebody comes up. Maybe they’re a researcher and they’re working on radium. So, nobody’s working on radium, so they’re asked to teach a class, or just a grad student. That’s how classes comes about.
The only difference is that there are not many people who persevere and are willing to take all the crap from everybody about “why are you doing this?” and “it doesn’t make sense.” and “you should stick to what you know” and “you don’t know anything.”
Richard: That’s what I was thinking. That would require a lot of perseverance and also having some persuasive capacity.
Loren: It’s my rolling a wheelchair down a ramp. It’s doing things because they need to be done. You argue about it, you find a mechanism to do it, you push it.
My environmental work started before I was even in high school. It started when I was a little kid. I was in Boy Scouts, and I was saving creeks in my neighborhood when I was in high school. We had an old swimming hole. Parents didn’t want us kids to swim in it, because it was contaminated. So, my father and I got water testing kits from the county, and went out and got the water tested. We moved to develop an alternative so that the swimming hole could be made. I mean, I’ve done shit all my life.
Richard: That’s amazing.
Loren: I had a little paper route, and it was rural. I only had 13 customers on my route; it was a long route for very little money. But I would encounter these farmers along the way where I delivered my paper, and they’d have a little stand—tomatoes or cucumber or whatever. So, I set-up a little trading route, you know? I’d say, “Could I have three cucumbers and I'll bring you a bunch of carrots?” I was always promoting local farmers and agriculture, and all kinds of stuff.
But anyway, back to this. So, at the University, I started in my first protest when I got out of the Navy. It was against agent orange and the Vietnam War. I was a vet, not a Vietnam vet, I was out before they went in. But I was protesting the Vietnam War, particularly the defoliation of the jungles and what was happening there in 1964, and I had tomatoes thrown at me, and stuff like that. When I was a student at Santa Barbara City College and University of California at Santa Barbara, both, I helped develop GOO—Get Oil Out. This was a protest against all the drilling platforms that were being installed in the Santa Barbara channel.
I was part of that whole movement, and I wrote the very first paper on the cost of the loss of esthetics. Land was purchased and buildings constructed for the views and the beauty of it, and the qualities associated were being taken away without compensation. So, it was almost government acquisition of land rights without proper compensation to the owners. I wrote a paper related to that particular set of issues.
So, a few significant things from my life: I'm one of the founders of the Berkeley Ecology Center in 1968. There was about 28 of us involved in that.
Richard: And at that time, you were already a student at UC Berkeley?
Loren: I was coming back to be a grad student, but I was also doing that.
Richard: You graduated, you got a BS or a BA?
Loren: I was in seven universities and colleges. I had eight majors, seven colleges. My AA degree is from Ventura College in Science and Engineering. My BA degree is from Long Beach State University, and that’s in International Economics. My MS degree is from UC Berkeley, and that’s in an Agricultural Economics. My PhD is in Ecosystemology. But in 1968, I co-founded the first urban recycling program in America, in Berkeley.
Cliff Humphrey and I from Ecology Action, we co-founded and developed the first recycling program. And I was developing and operating programs and projects long before UC Berkeley, and then at Berkeley, the CNR—did you get the letter that the Dean sent me from UC Berkeley?
Richard: Not yet. [I did get a copy of it.]
Loren: It’s an expression of gratitude and acknowledgement for how I transformed the College of Agricultural Sciences and the School of Forestry into the College of Natural Resources.
Richard: This is an incredible story, and I just want to make sure we get the story.
Loren: Well, nobody can ever get it all. The college was transformed, really, by my setting up a program that was interdisciplinary and systemic. What I'm sending you is first, my dissertation. You should read that—and it’s readable. It’s about how I put together 500 faculty from 63 different departments to teach in this wholistic systems program, which had never been done before in any university in the world.
Richard: That's amazing.
Loren: And how did I incorporate over 320 community leaders, 8 government agencies, and other people, into developing this highly regarded program? The students were so engaged in how learning was to take place, how to look at whole systems, how to be effective in making social change in society, that their engagement with the faculty—who were locked into plant pathology, and silviculture, and you know, genetics, specific areas of discipline— forced them, the faculty, to rethink everything.
That’s why we now have the College of Natural Resources. They had to, in effect, transform themselves, because they learned through this interactive process with my students that their approach was totally erroneous. It was not relevant to either to science, or to society.
A more comprehensive approach was needed, is needed, and you need to have, not just how to do basic scientific studies, but how to create and implement plans, programs, and procedures and techniques—how to do it.
Richard: What you’ve just described represents how you can get a lot done if you don’t have to have your name on it.
Loren: That is part of it. In fact, this is an interesting aspect of this whole case, and here it is. I'm 40 years gone from UC Berkeley. And I've never been asked back. I've never been asked to give a talk. Now just stop and think, why would you never ask back the one person who not only did all of this, but the one person who got a degree that no one else in the world has? Would’t you want to know what this person has he done over 40 years? Is he just a loser? I mean what’s going on? So, that’s one query.
The other is an incredible reinforcement. The strongest statement ever made about my work is the lack of acknowledgment. They didn’t know I did it. And I didn’t care. And that’s a story!
Richard: That is a story.
Loren: Ethically, it’s close to plagiarism. My idea. I put it in place. I defined it. I wrote about it. I published it. That’s a public dissertation. And you know how it happened?
Richard: How did it happen?
Loren: One of my colleagues wrote to them and said, “Here’s Loren. He’s dying. Why aren’t you honoring this man?”
They said, “Why should we?”
She says, “Have you ever seen his dissertation?”
They go and look and they’re dumbfounded. They never saw it. So, it’s a beautiful thing. Everything I believed in; everything I’ve done—well, first, I did it. And I did this at the University of California at Berkeley, which is generally considered the highest grade public university in the world.
Loren: So getting recognition isn’t what you do in the world. You want to win the Nobel prize? I don’t. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If someone wanted this idea and would have won the Nobel prize, I would have given it to them free of charge? Why? Because I've got a thousand more ideas. I still have.
After I left UCB, it was obvious that academia was not where I should be. So I started ISI from scratch with nothing except my skills, my commitment, and integrity. Integrity!
ISI is 40 years old. I’ve worked with 4,000 clients and 99.9% of them are word of mouth referrals. We don’t advertise, we don’t market, we don’t solicit. My gross revenue is modest, 2.6 - 2.7 million this year. 110 clients. But the workload is incredible. The problems we’ve addressed and have solved, some of it is unbelievable. Do you know the first gay and lesbian newspaper in San Francisco was formulated and supported by ISI?
Richard: No, I didn’t.
Loren: Latin American News. We started that—a news service that’s now co-opted by AP and UP—and everybody else’s P. The Falashas in Ethiopia, the black Jews, we helped smuggle them out because they were being persecuted as black. The Israelis wouldn’t take them because they were black, and the Ethiopians wouldn’t take them because they were Jews.
I helped develop the first agricultural program for the Navajo nation. I developed over 100 independent living programs throughout the United States, including the Center for Independent Living, which is the founding mothership for independent living programs in America. I helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was also involved in establishing the Department of Environment Protection. I'm not the founder, but I was part of all of that.
You go down to our wonderful little park in Berkeley at the end of University Ave. That was going to be housing. My students and the people in the community, we did surveys, got people actively involved, organized them, got them to city council meetings and we saved that.
Richard: Well, I appreciate the quality in the way you’ve helped me. I mean, helping my non-profit with my tax stuff isn’t a big thing, but it’s a real help.
Loren: Sometimes it’s like that. But the point is, are we promoting things that should be done. It’s the process of transforming good intentions. You can’t do everything, you always need to do more than what you can do. And in some ways, it’s kind of upsetting that you can’t fulfill every need. But you fulfill whatever needs you can in the way you can, and we do it very cost-effectively. We just plug it away; we keep going at it.
Sometimes our work is extremely important and significant, and sometimes our work is not critical to the survival of a project; other people are doing that. But some of them are our projects. We run them. There are six right now that we’re running. And when you look at the transformation of all of these different activities, we are establishing a certain, let’s call it tone of “Yes, I can get things done.” With help and assistance, I can do it. There are good people out there.
It’s about helping people realize that things are not impossible. They can be difficult, they can be hard to replicate in a different place. There are many valid reasons why something may or may not be possible to get done in a reasonable way. But part of it is doing what you can in the best way you can to move the process along. A lot of times, that’s what we do. We put ourselves in a position to nudge good things along the path.
Richard: I was struck by your statement of values for Inquiring Systems. You state that integrity is a core value. This is a core value. And it’s a value we need others to have.
Loren: Nothing is possible without it. People ask me, Richard, Loren, “How come people trust you?”
I say, “Not only do I not know if they trust me, I don’t work towards obtaining their trust.” That’s not what I do. I tell people that when somebody says, “You can trust me,” you should turn 180 degrees and walk away as fast as you can. Trust is not given; trust is earned. It comes from repeated demonstrations that you are trustworthy.
Loren: I don’t go into a situation looking for it. If you do, it’s a contrivance, and I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in doing things, which from the perspective of the person, turn out to be trustworthy. So, trust emerges at times, not always. But that wouldn’t stop me. What would stop me is if I had to compromise my integrity. Ethical values are embedded. That’s why you see it at the head of our name—Inquiring Systems—implementing ethical, social change.
Richard: Would you reflect on that?
Loren: Well, Inquiring Systems is what it says it is. It’s a systems-oriented organization. We’re about systems work. We see things through the filter of whole systems. Our first perception of an issue is within the framework of asking where all the connections are, and where the interactions between the various components take place. In whole systems work, you’re actually kind of tracing relationships. You’re looking at how relationships are connecting the various elements of the system together. So that’s tracing the different elements.
The other side is about the flow of energy through the system. That’s as critical a factor as any other. How you determine the effectiveness, the key characteristics of the relationships, and move them inherently into a process that, when change takes place, you’re cognizant of what happens to these various, let’s say, flows and how they’re modified. Those are the key factors in the way you assess how you’re altering a system and making it modifiable for others.
We’re looking for a way to insert change in the system without affecting aspects of the system which may be working well. But you can’t bring the system up to speed, together with other elements, unless you’re focused on (1) What is it you’re trying to do? Do you have a clear sense of the objectives? Are they measurable? Achievable? And you want to be sure that the context in which you’re doing something is well-represented in the process.
So, we’re looking for these mechanisms to enhance the environment, if you will, in which change takes place. Would you like an example of how that might work or do you get it? Do you want maybe to move onto something else?
Richard: Well, I was wondering how you think about ethics in the system.
Loren: Okay. Let’s go on ethics for a while. Ethics is often seen as some sort of a laundry list. Check this off, check that off, and what you have is something that’s ethical, because more of the criteria are ethical than not—something like that.
Loren: Ethics has nothing to do with a list of check-offs. It is a process you’re engaged in. And it’s a continuing, reiterative process that reflects the desire to understand the potential impacts and implications of your actions before you make them. So, you’re really looking for how do those action occur? To what extent are we aware of the ethical implications of the actions? And we’re not really set-up in this society for identifying ethical matters. It isn’t how we do things. We’re kind of closing off access to some of these things so that they don’t reveal the extent to which there are compromises in what’s being done.
Richard: Is genetic engineering with plants is an example of this, would you say?
Loren: It is close to being a condition in which the actual impacts and implications are not well understood. Society has decided that the cost of knowing these impacts is not worth doing all the research. In other words, even if you put the money into it, relative to what might actually learned wouldn’t be worthwhile. We’re stuck with what we’re doing.
Now before this house was designed and built, for example, I knew I was buying this particular fan from this particular company.
Loren: I knew what its power requirements were, and I also knew something, not everything, about its ethical implications. What were those? Well, where was it built? What was it built from? What were the materials? Were any of them toxic? Were there elements of exploitation in the construction of the fan or its parts? Did we create pollution from coal mining in a stream off a mountaintop in West Virginia?
So we have a wonderful, power conscious, low CO2 impact fan, with very long-term capabilities. It’s designed to be cost-effective over the long-term, and it’s not necessary to go to outside resources all the time to determine what you can or can’t do, or what the costs are for it. And so I’m conscientiously aware, both intuitively as well as analytically, of the various costs associated with using this particular piece of equipment.
Richard: What kind of fan is this?
Loren: It’s called a “Modern Fan,” made up in Oregon. All of them in the house are these fans.
Richard: So, that’s a fairly exhaustive evaluation you’re describing.
Loren: It gets worse. As a whole systems person, I'm interested in whether or not they discriminate in their employment and hiring, or use child labor, whether or not they pay taxes, whether or not they’re environmental polluters and have been cited, whether or not, in the manufacturing process, they pay a living wage and so on. So, I have a full plate. Now, it doesn’t say that any one of these criteria will destroy the sale. In terms of ethical standards, what does it look like relative to its competition? I have to judge the degree with which I'm better off with this fan than I am with any alternative. And in whole systems work, intuition is as important as an analysis.
Richard: That’s a very interesting statement.
Loren: Yeah. People who simply say that only through analysis can you effectively define what constitutes an ethical act, well, there are areas that are ethical dilemmas. That is, you don’t have a complete yea or nay answer.
It’s all a question of how you ensure that the elements you’re considering are effectively integrated into the assessment. You have to confront the reality that you may be wrong. You might be misled. But even with those potential problems, you’re acting in a more ethically responsible fashion, because you’re asking the questions that can reveal the answers. Now, what we would like to see is having this information made available somewhere, so it wouldn’t be necessary to track it down like a little treasure hunt.
Richard: One aspect of what you’re describing is that ethics requires some effort.
Loren: Well, right. Related to climate change there’s lowering supply chain costs, pollution infrastructure—everything from excess packaging to using resources unwisely. You go down the list, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and you can spend your life trying to properly identify, ascertain in place, all the factors for transparent and full disclosure.
In effect, you’re saying, “What we need is something that has more measurable character to it.” That leaves subjective analysis. So subjective means intuition. Objective is analytical. And there’s an effort to get rid of the subjective and get into the analytical, so that you reduce the arbitrary evaluation of something.
Richard: Yes, okay.
Loren: Okay. But I'm saying this is why we need a strong set of ecosystemological principles and values as a foundation upon which we make intuitive decisions. So, when I say “I become the river,” I’m alluding to the fact that I am, in the broadest sense, having respect for all living things. I have this deep, deep appreciation for how all living things have a relationship with other things, and therefore, we’re dependent, they’re dependent, we’re dependent on each other.
Moving toward a different paradigm what we need is not, in my opinion, more information detailing more specific measurable criteria for evaluating whether something is going to be ethical or not.
The standard that needs to be born comes from an ability to recognize the not well-understood (and never will be), and not fully appreciated (and never will be), and not fully understood the true cost (and never will be). You never know enough. You always need to know more. There’s always that unknown.
So, we’re caught in this jam, between a rock in a hard place, between wanting to have sufficient detail to make a good decision relative to a comparison with any other decision, and never being able get to that place on this earth. There are too many potential decisions relative to too many different options, relative to too many different ways in which to get to that option. There are just infinite arrays of things. So you’re never going to hone in on a usable, cost-effective method for objectifying everything you do around ethical decisions.
Did you get my Ecosystemological Principles Summarized? Did you get that article?
Richard: I don’t think so.
Loren: Then I’ve got another one coming your way.
Richard: Good, good.
Loren: So, here’s the deal. Ishi was the last of the Yahi Indians. The native peoples throughout the world, the indigenous people, they lived in this deep way with nature. They were embedded. They were the river. In effect, they were always guided in their societies, which were strongly supported through myth and beliefs, and mechanisms to try to control the social mores of people, how they thought, what they did and how they made decisions.
These beliefs transcended what we would call a specific knowledge base. That is, if I move this rock, what am I disturbing? What animals? Will it upset the nitrogen cycle? The carbon cycle? Will it upset the reproductive capacity of the local salamander? Will it create a habitat for a virus that may inhabit the fish that I eat? What would it possibly do? Well, these kinds of questions are endless. And you can’t go through life constantly sitting on the horns of a dilemma. It’s necessary to eat. Decisions have to be made. I have to do things.
So, what indigenous people did everywhere, in every culture, was create a strong belief system in the inherent respect for all life. You just didn’t discriminate. You respected everything that lived because everything had a role to play. And how did it get there? Well, through various religious and mythological determinants. These defined the role it had to play, and even if those roles may not have been accurate objectively, in terms of the actual impact of what they did, they were correct. And there was no evidence to the contrary.
All right. So, Ishi was the last of the Yahi Indians. I use him only because he’s an excellent example of the Stone Age Indians. Ishi wasn’t true Stone Age, but close, and there’s a misleading understanding in this culture, and in all societies, about the transition of culture and behavioral patterns. One of them has to do with indigenous peoples’ transition.
So you have a condition in which people were placed, indigenous tribes, in a period of time, and because of the level of technology available at that time, they were frozen into a, let’s say, a particular period, in which they had to make interpretive signs relative to their functioning in that society.
So, it was this way in 1911 when Ishi took these anthropologists from UC Berkeley, Kroeber and others, back up near Oroville, where he had lived in hiding and reluctantly took them to these campgrounds that were isolated from everybody. Ishi stepped from rock to rock for 28 years without anyone knowing he was there. He lived alone. He didn’t have social pressure. And when they came upon his camp, they noticed there were these tools for scraping, for cutting, for doing things. And they would ask him, “Why did you go to all this effort to take those stone tools with you? Why didn’t you throw them away and go down to the creek, and pick up some more?” Ishi said he would never do that. They asked, “Why?” No one would know.
Loren: They said, “But there was no one around telling you not to do it.”
“Oh, no, no, you never would do that,” he said.
“Because you might disturb something in that system.”
“Disturb? But in what way?”
“I don’t know, but you wouldn’t want to do it,” Ishi said,
“Because what you disturb might affect the thing that you need to survive.”
So, the principles, simply stated, are that you don’t go get something because you want it. You only go get something because you absolutely need it. And what are the criteria for that?
Well, it’s mitigated by these factors, these principles, which are: Let’s see if I really need it by testing the degree to which I'm willing to disturb it. What is it I'm disturbing? And how much time can I afford to spend trying to figure out what I'm really disturbing? What are the costs? Does it disrupt? Can it recover?
It’s a recoverable system problem. Do I lower the resilience, and therefore, create a problem downstream that the system can’t deal with because its resilience has been destroyed by my action? Is it now functionally unable to come back in a way that is healthy for other living things that I’m dependent on?
So, decisions would be made based upon the best guess about the degree with which one’s actions would result in some loss.
And these are my words now, of what would be called a safe, minimum standard: the safe, minimum standard is that I feel confident, intuitively, through my long history and from collective wisdom, that I am not unduly threatening or disrupting this ecosystem by my actions. Could I be wrong? Yes. But is it ethical? Yes, because I asked the questions.
Richard: That’s nice.
Loren: We need an ethic that defines our actions before we make them, an ethic on the basis of the potential impacts and implications that we will have on that system, whether we are right or not. We will make mistakes, both ways, but we have to ask the question. That’s the ethical standard. It’s never to not ask. And when you make a decision, you act slowly if that’s possible, so that if you’re wrong, you have an opportunity to reverse it.
You look for feedback. This is how nature does it, by the way. It looks for feedback in the system to determine if the potential consequences are such that they cause you to take pause, or to look further.
Loren: But underneath it all, I'm not looking for a new Bible. I'm not looking for the new Paul Hawkins book; it’s a waste of time. It’s a nice book, a good book, very informative. 99.99% of the people on this earth will never see it. And out of the 100% who do see it, maybe 1% will actually be able to do something with it, or about it.
The vast majority of people aren’t even in a culture or a system where they can read, where they can afford to buy a book, where they would act in a way that would reflect on the information from the book. Knowing 200 different options for lowering CO2 emissions, and controlling climate change is a very interesting and nice thing to do. but it doesn’t reflect on any solid principles that determine which way you go or to what degree. You still lack an ecosystemological value that is the basis for how you decide where those parameters lie, in or out, yes or no. The same problems still exist.
You’ve got to look at our actions in society and the way they get rid of these kind of requirements, because first, they’re impractical. Second, they’re unusable. And third, they don’t give you the mechanism across the comprehensive set of different activities that one could take that would give you any sense of security that you are properly reflecting on what you ought to be doing.
So, the principles are absolutely essential elements of learning how to in effect, to become the river. You become the river. You have embedded yourself in nature in such a way that the reason that exists is because nature found a niche for it. It evolved through evolutionary history to define itself as something of value.
We don’t know what it is. We don’t know how its role is in society. We don’t even know, to a large extent, what its potential impacts are if it were to be destroyed or disrupted or non-functional.
What we do know is it’s there for a reason. Evolution has demonstrated and validated its existence. So, if we remove it, prevent it from doing what it does, we are, for reasons without value, determining that there’s some ultimate outcome that won’t adversely affect us—that we have the knowledge base inside of a complex system to really tell what the hell is going to happen when I move it.
Richard: Which basically, we don’t.
Loren: We don’t. It’s even ridiculous for scientists not even to come to grips with this basic, fundamental belief. You take a square-foot of deciduous forest floor, one-inch deep, and pick it apart. That is, you take science and a microscope, and identify each and everything that’s in there, every cell, every organism. Okay? And you list it and organize it. We can tell you exactly how many different species live in that square-foot of forest floor. What we cannot tell you, and never will be able to tell you, are the relationships that exist between those myriad species in terms of their own viability. Which ones create the temperature pattern necessary for the other one next door to be able to have its eggs reproduce, etc. etc. etc.
Richard: Your point is pretty clear, I think. I wonder if we could get back to the intuition part. When you say, “I need to become the river,” what I take from that is, first of all, we are more than our thinking function. Our bodies have immediate connections with the air, the temperature, the light, sound—and there’s also feeling. Feeling is overlooked in science because it’s subjective and hard to quantify. And our conscious mind can process a certain amount of information whereas the unconscious is receiving a great deal more information beyond what we’re conscious of. So, the conscious mind is a rather small window, and there is something, or several things, that function outside of that small window and still actually informs us. I think intuition comes in there. Maybe it represents a connection with a reservoir of information or intelligence—something like that.
Loren: Well, I think it’s possible that there are ways to bring the unconscious thinking into a conscious venue, in which it can be structured. We’re talking about two different layers. One is information gathering, which is often confusing to people, but knowledge, in and of itself, has no value. Knowledge is not wisdom. It’s the application of knowledge which is wisdom.
If you’re wise, you know what to do with information. It’s better to have a small package of things you know how to do, than a large package and know how to do nothing. We’re talking about learning how to use what information we do have in a more effective, legitimate, functionally worthwhile way. So it isn’t more. I don’t need more.
In fact, that’s the whole point. Ishi knew nothing. He didn’t know what was under the rock that he might have picked up. He didn’t know if he moved the rock whether something would happen or not. But he didn’t need to know. We’ve got to get out of this damn cycle of you’ve got to know. No, you don’t. That’s a never ending quest for an infinite array of things.
We’re already on information overloaded. I can’t process 1%, 1 tenth of 1% of what hits my plate every damn day. I have to be selective in what I process, and I have to take actions in ways that are reflective more about my intuition, than of my analytical capability.
What’s even more problematic is my intuition is, in effect, subverted by the way we regard how at knowledge is arrived at. It’s totally erroneous, relative to those principles. The experience of intuition is not dissimilar to empathy. You have to experience it enough to be able to use that intuitive capability in a meaningful way. If you’ve never been exposed in other ways, you’re going to be biased. In that case, your intuition is going to be summarily compromised, and people don’t realize that.
Yes, I'm a whole systems person. I believe that intuition and analysis are equally important. And ends and means, they’re equally important, yes, absolutely. But to the extent to which I only know of a few ways, that’s going to compromise my choice of means.
I believe in ownership interest on the part of people wanting to do something. I want them to have ownership in what it is that’s taking place. They have to participate in it and feel that they’re not just being told what to do, or imposed upon, or exploited.
Richard: So, how does that relate—that principle of ownership—let’s say, to genetically modifying plants?
Loren: You don’t do it! You wouldn’t endanger other ecosystems when you don’t know the potential consequences. Your intuition tells you that the effectiveness of what you’re trying to do is based upon limited insight into what you’re testing.
Richard: This would also apply to the continuing development of artificial intelligence?
Loren: Artificial Intelligence, and many other areas. Because underneath the whole ball of wax here, it’s sort of like the Heisenberg Principle. In some aspects the measuring instrument, in and of itself, gets in the way of the measurement. So in that way, you’re compromised in what you learn by the measuring instrument’s interference with the information that’s flowing. You’re inserting yourself in a position that’s adversely influencing what you’re seeing.
Your intuition is similarly compromised in that how you develop an intuitive grasp of something is experiential. It’s dependent upon what you have come across repeatedly or seen, and so your intuition kicks in and says, “Whoa, wait a minute.” So, if your exposure is limited, your intuitive grasp of things is going to reflect that limited exposure. So, you’ve got to be conscious of the fact that you’re necessarily compromised in using your intuition when you’re an inexperienced person in that area.
For example, some people come out and say, “Let’s plan a city.” So here, give them the tools. So they come up with formulas, they come up with models and they have all these things. And they’re all just total bullshit! It’s just total crap. Why? Because whatever the people are doing, they’re reflecting on their known world, what they know about design. Do they know about ingrained glass solar panels that are now roofing materials? I mean, do they know what options are there for them to intuitively grasp what can be done? No, they don’t. They don’t have an informed intelligence. So, the world of whole systems doesn’t want to kick specialists off the earth, we just want to make them relevant.
Richard: Well, there’s a fellow named Paul out there, who says you have a conference call coming up. So, I'm thinking pretty soon, I'm going to say good-bye to you. And I’m so grateful to you for talking with me. It’s truly inspiring hearing about some of the work you’ve done. So one last question I didn’t get to. You’ve dedicated your life to something with an ethical core, it seems to me.
Loren: That’s correct.
Richard: To me, that shows a very deep implication of care. Is that a word you’re comfortable with?
Loren: It comes at the heart of it. When I was asked by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to give their keynote speech on forests—they’re as big as Sierra Club out here—my article was called, On Caring. And caring is the essence of it all. You can’t have empathy if you don’t care. You don’t have a reason for being ethical if you don’t care.
Caring is embedded in all of this, and not as a euphemism. It is an integral aspect of what it means to care so much that you become the river. You cannot fully care enough until you become fully embedded in the thing that you’re doing. You’ve got to let yourself be immersed in the full value of that. That’s true caring about something else, because you’re consciously aware that the implications of your action can be deleterious. They can be destructive.
Richard: Thank you so much, Loren. That’s a key.
Loren: It is. It's everything. It’s actually about helping people understand that it all stems from that. If you don’t care, there’s no reason to move forward. You just go out there and exploit the hell out of everybody else. “Why not? What do you care?” And that’s the kind of world we’re moving towards.
Dr. Cole founded (1978) and led Inquiring Systems, Inc. Among his many accomplishments, his favorite was the creation and development of the first systemic & interdisciplinary Environmental Undergraduate and Doctoral Program in the Conservation & Resource Studies Department at U.C. Berkeley. He also helped co-found the first urban recycling center in the US and the Berkeley Ecology Center. Loren raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his clients, and educated over 26,000 industry leaders in the area of Ethically Sustainable Ecosystem Management.