How Wilderness Can Inspire Us to Lead

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by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

Originally published on Huffington Post (July 2016)

We humans live between two cultural imperatives. Eco-culture: our being part of the natural world, dependent on living soil, plants and animals for our sustenance; on forests and oceans for a stable climate; on biodiversity for medicines and our sense of wellbeing. Then our human-culture in which we can buy whatever we want, live in cities and lose sight of our eco-cultural connection. As human-culture destroys much of our eco-culture and we threaten our very existence, we must continue to ask: how will we lead change to reconcile these two imperatives?

I stayed once on the island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand. The expats there would often say “aren’t we lucky living in paradise…?” I wanted to reply, “but this isn’t paradise, this is paradise lost,” but I never quite had the courage. Koh Phangan is on the same latitude as Costa Rica, where I spent four years as a wildlife guide. Costa Rica is vibrant with life, with wild life. It is famous for ecotourism. Its bird species run into the hundreds, sloths and monkeys are common to see. In Koh Phangan, on the other hand, the bird species I saw regularly could be counted on just one hand. Wild mammals on the island amounted to little more than a few bats, some squirrels and a troop of monkeys that lived in a fragment of forest high on the mountain. The beaches were beautiful but I was left with a sense of unease – the feeling that something was missing. A sense of loss, a vulnerability.

What gives us a sense of wellbeing? I know that for me the more wildness there is around me, the better I feel. Hearing the call and song of animals and birds is part of everything being ok. I was walking one evening recently with a friend, when we stopped to listen to a song thrush calling in the top of a nearby tree. A sound so evocative of England, of home. “Can you imagine?” I said, “if the song thrush became extinct, it would feel like a part of me was missing.” After some thought, he replied. “Generations past might have said that about the nightingale, but now it is so rare that we don’t even know what it sounds like.”

And there it was, a perfect example of shifting baseline syndrome. How can we know that something is missing if it was never in our experience? The unease I felt in Koh Phangan is now omnipresent in my life back in England. I wonder if it was always there, unidentified, or if living in the wilds of Costa Rica woke in me a more primal sense of my being in relation to nature. This feeling increasingly becomes part of what motivates and guides me in my work and in the way I live. It has helped me recognise and deconstruct the drive within me for what human-culture defines as success and find a different narrative to guide my life gained from my eco-cultural self. This brings to light another question about leadership. How can we be sure that we are not inadvertently dragging the imagery of the natural world deeper into the machinery of efficiency and profit that drives our human-culture? How can we be sure that we are not merely adding the wild to the stock of tradable commodities?

Corcovado national park is the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s park system, located on the remote Osa peninsula. It was described by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth,” with 140 species of mammal and an astonishing 367 species of birds. Can spending time in the wildness of such a place help reset our shifted baseline and discover our eco-cultural connections? I believe so. Such experiences, taken with the right mindset, are a window into what life is within an intact ecosystem characterised by fantastic biodiversity. As we become steeped in the wilderness, we sink into being rather than doing and, if we allow it, something happens – we start to break down the perception of our being as separate from the rest of existence, and a broader perspective arises.

This broader perspective is our eco-cultural perspective. It is not an intellectual paradigm, it is an embodied experience. I can’t put it better than Peter Reason who wrote “We need to honour again the wisdom of the body, locating knowing in the experience of sensation instead of intellectually elaborated paradigms of thought…. our body is that piece of wilderness that we carry around with us all the time…”

If we could experience ourselves as part of a greater whole it would be natural for us to see protection of our wider environment as part of protection of the self, because they are one and the same thing. This would liberate us from the sense of guilt and self-sacrifice which often comes with environmental and sustainability agendas. I believe right action toward our environment would be the natural consequence of such an ecological consciousness. Inspiration for new leadership narratives would be derived from such a perspective. But this inspiration can only be gained through a deep personal journey into our eco-cultural being.

To guide people on such a journey is the aim of the Leading Wild retreat on the Osa peninsula that I am organising with Professor Jem Bendell. He is involved in a “Leadership and Spirituality” initiative of the Forum of Young Global Leaders and is convinced, as am I, that reconnecting with wilderness can help bring a new consciousness to our leadership practice. “Despite attempts to approach it as a technical skill-set, to express leadership is to embody our sense of what matters in life” explains Professor Bendell. “So the basis of our leadership is our awareness of the nature of reality. Being away from the city, office and inbox allows a different sense of that reality and thus new insights on what to do and how.” Part of what we will explore whilst surrounded by wilderness is what our own leadership might look like when reconnected with the wild.

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Falling again

by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

cropped-dsc04410.jpgI am falling
deeply
in love once more
Once more you say,
what happened
to that love the time before?

I’m not sure
but I know it was long ago
in childhood I think…
when I learned science
learned to pick at it all

We took the world to bits
like a child might a toy
But what we took apart
was our love and our joy
our sensing and feeling
of being part of it all

My love turned to pain,
guilt, grief and shame,
pure helplessness
what can just one person do
to reverse what is
lost, damaged, destroyed

So I studied and studied
and studied some more
to learn to find ways
in this life to sustain
this consumption
this privilege
this story which tells
that we are more special.

But where is the love
that deep embodied knowing
we lobotomised that
through all of that learning
yet we search and search
for love, happiness, satisfaction
not knowing that what we seek
is right here under our feet

She is alive, she is breathing
and speaking your name
go and greet her and meet her
know that you are one and the same

I am falling and falling
in love once again
but to do so I had to allow
myself one little thing

To say I miss you
so deeply
to those beings now gone
to the forests
and places
those creatures
that my,
species destroyed
in the blink of an eye

I miss you, I miss you
I’ll say it once more
I miss you, for saying it
helps me to fall
down from my grief
guilt, pain and shame
back deeply in love
with her once again

wild life under erasure

by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

leaf

acorn, adder, ash and beech,
blackberry, bluebell, bramble and brook,
buttercup, catkin, clover and conker,
cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern,
fungus, gorse, hazel and her nut,
heather, heron, holly and horse chestnut,
ivy, kingfisher, lark and magpie,
minnow, newt, even our beautiful otter,
pansy, pasture, poppy and porpoise,
primrose, raven, starling and stoat,
stork, sycamore, thrush and weasel,
violet, willow, wren are all thought,
not necessary for our children to learn,
so the Oxford children’s dictionary
removed them from sight, from consciousness,
from knowing, as we take another step,
away from our wild-selves into the corporate net

Facing up to the capitalist within

by Georgia Winfield-Hayes

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First published on Open Democracy (November 2014) 

John Newton (1725-1807) is best known for penning the hymn Amazing Grace in the later years of his life as a minister in the Church of England. In 1788 he published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, in which he spoke out strongly against what he called “a disgraceful branch of commerce.” But for much of his life Newton worked on slave ships, including four years as captain of his own vessel taking stolen African men and women to the American colonies.

Newton’s transition from slaver to minister and activist was inspired by one particular event. On a return journey to Liverpool in 1748, a great storm had threatened to sink his ship, and the fear he was forced to face affected him profoundly, changing his views about the people who were imprisoned beneath his feet. He referred to this event as his “great deliverance,” and afterwards gave up the slave trade to campaign against it from his new position in the church.

What had happened to Newton to cause such a change? Did he suddenly develop a new sense of empathy with others, or was it always there, suppressed by the social norms of the time—the collective stories that were told to justify the enslavement of a different race?

We live our lives through stories that reinforce certain values and beliefs. What’s true or false, acceptable or not, are constructs that are held aloft like a scaffold in the collective psyche. But when a critical mass of individuals lets go of these stories, a tipping point is reached, and the scaffold collapses. So it was when the slave trade was abolished.

A cascade of individuals like Newton let go of the story that slavery was acceptable, and change rapidly accelerated. As the historian Adam Hochschild has written, “If you had proposed, in the London of early 1787, to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. Yet by 1807 the British Parliament had banned the slave trade.”

Capitalism is a similarly constructed story, a collection of social perceptions that create a dominant world view. But that’s all it is—a world view. It’s easy to see capitalism as a system external to ourselves, but it’s much harder to acknowledge the stories we carry inside of ourselves that create and reinforce the values that sustain it. Transforming capitalism requires that we step outside of ourselves and examine our own roles objectively. That’s never easy, but it can help to look through someone else’s eyes.

Viola Cordova was a philosopher who examined how Native Americans viewed Euro-Americans as self-centered, greedy, acquisitive, and unaware of the needs of others—or of the fact that they shared the world with other beings and with the living earth itself. Cordova critiqued the search for absolute, universal truths that characterizes Euro-American belief systems, and the notion that such knowledge will grant them control over their own destiny.

What could be offered in response to this critique? What is the story that underlies how Euro-Americans are perceived?

Here’s my interpretation. First, we view the self as separate, one from another, the individual from the environment that surrounds them. Our possessions are seen as extensions of that separate self, to be shared only with those we trust. But most people, we’re told, cannot be trusted.

Second, individual success is paramount, and requires that we compete with each other in a winner-takes-all struggle to come out on top. To come second is a shameful burden. For those who win, there’s a perception of great achievement; for those who lose, a life of suffering awaits.

Third, knowledge is valued above all else, but knowledge is external, something to be held and controlled by experts who demand our trust. Internal knowledge—inner knowing—is always to be suspected.

These beliefs produce a pervasive sense of powerlessness, and the story that’s erected around them—the story of capitalism—inevitably becomes a narrative of fear and domination. This narrative has been used to create monetary systems and other financial institutions that are built on debt and insecurity; education systems that place people in competition with one another; and criminal justice systems which place blame solely on offenders, with no assessment of responsibilities in a wider context.

Trying to change these institutions without altering the stories that underpin them won’t create the paradigm shift that’s required to alter our self-destructive course. We might even replace one system with another that’s just as ugly. Dr Gabor Maté, who grew up in communist Hungary, is fond of citing a common satirical observation from his youth to prove this point: ‘What is capitalism? It is the exploitation of man by man. What is Communism? It is the opposite.”

As a therapist I know that such perceptions can’t be deconstructed by force. That reinforces the problem, especially when stories are founded on fear since people hold on tighter whenever they feel threatened. Successful deconstruction happens with compassion, love and acceptance, or when a greater fear is thrust upon us – like the storm at sea in John Newton’s case. At those moments people may be open to allowing a hand of grace to lead them in a radically different direction. Climate change could be that perfect storm.

In 2014 I enrolled on a ‘Sustainable Leadership’ course with the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability in Cumbria, UK.  The first week residential took us through a myriad of learning experiences that were designed to develop our critical thinking, deconstruct our perceptions of social norms, reconnect ourselves with the planet, and understand the realities of climate change.

All of this together had a profound effect on me. In the weeks that followed, I journeyed through many emotions, from despair to grief and more, but ultimately—and to my surprise—I arrived at a new sense of liberation. A letting go had occurred. Some of my own ‘inner capitalist’ had been dissolved, especially around the notions of competition and success. I found my own ‘hand of grace’ in books by Cordova, Charles Eisenstein and others who are writing new stories to replace the old.

I believe that a tipping point to a new paradigm beyond capitalism will only be reached when enough individuals and communities rewrite their stories in this way. Change has to happen from the ground up. Groups that come together to face the difficult realities of climate change through mutual education, watching films, and hosting discussions and debates can strengthen their communities and break down the inner and outer underpinnings of the current economic system. Who are we? How much is enough, and what can we share?

Frameworks such as permaculture can inspire a different way of being that reconnects people with the earth as a living organism through agriculture that is modeled on natural ecosystems, with human beings as an integral component. Local currencies like the Brixton Pound and concepts like the gift economy inspire a way of sharing that goes far beyond debt-based central finance, shifting our perspectives from scarcity to abundance.

Grassroots movements like “incredible edible” (which grows food in urban spaces) reconnect people with what it means to work directly with the sun’s energy in order to sustain life. Local food economies create greater self-reliance in communities, and help people to develop an internal locus of control that can free them from fear and the urge for domination, thus creating the new values and beliefs that can sustain a different economic system.

This revolution is a quiet one. Change seems slow to come at first, but I believe a cascade will eventually develop like the one that lead up to slavery’s abolition in 1807. We can help by encouraging each other with new stories that describe a different sense of what it means to be human in the world. These stories will be our truth.

Summary: It’s easy to blame the economic system for causing social and environmental problems, but what is that system built on? Isn’t it us?