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The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability

by Peter W. Bardaglio

How can the digital revolution and the new social media it has spawned nurture the development of democratic sustainability? By democratic sustainability I mean a social and political process that engages citizens as active agents of social change in the complex task of balancing economic prosperity, effective environmental stewardship, and social justice. As Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest, the democratic sustainability movement has emerged “from the bottom up,” becoming “the largest social movement in all of human history.” It “grows and spreads in every city and country,” writes Hawken, “and involves virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils.”

Moving toward democratic sustainability has less to do with technology than a massive change in human consciousness, one that encourages systems thinking and transforms the relations of people to each other and to natural world. Nonetheless, tools are necessary to facilitate this task, and the rise of the Internet and digital technology has provided us with new and potent means to do so. As Hawken observes, “There have always been networks of powerful people, but until recently it has never been possible for the entire world to be connected.” Even as we acknowledge the “other side” of the Internet—its potential to splinter thought and concentration, take time away from reflection, and exacerbate a growing nature-deficit-disorder among youth—its unprecedented ability to construct global movements beckons.

Community is the essential concept underpinning sustainability. Whether an ecosystem or social system, the dynamics of interconnectedness and interdependence are what make growth and health possible. In medieval society, the cathedral embodied this understanding of what was known at the time as the “Great Chain of Being.” An awe-inspiring structure, the cathedral by its physical presence affirmed the vertical hierarchy that held medieval society together, and its construction gave individuals in the community a clear and compelling sense of their place in the world and the links that bound them to each other. “Building a cathedral,” says Robert Scott in The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, “entailed an ongoing, difficult, yet energizing form of collective enterprise in which people could take enormous pride and around which they could rally a community.”

Digital city

A Lasting State of Well-Being

In the 21st century, instead of the Great Chain of Being, the World Wide Web is the predominant social metaphor. We are moving, as Thomas Friedman puts it in The World is Flat, “from a primarily vertical (command-and-control) value-creation model to an increasingly horizontal (connect-and-collaborate) creation model”. We have yet to discover, however, the digital equivalent of the cathedral-building experience. Although organized along a different axis, we still need “an instrument for creating, strengthening, and extending forms of communitas,” says Scott, if we hope to create a sustainable civilization.

Underlying the experience of community is the fact that, despite numerous differences, human beings struggle to meet many of the same fundamental needs and share similar dreams. We wish to prosper and care for our families and other loved ones, to have opportunities to develop our talents and put them to a greater use on the human stage. We cherish the hope that our children will grow to adulthood and have partners and families of their own. We seek to keep ourselves safe from harm. Cultivating such an awareness of the world’s integrity allows us to experience a vibrant sense of human community and, beyond that, the whole web of life.

Buddhists have a name for such a state of consciousness: sukha. It is a condition of happiness that grows out of rigorous training to attain mental equilibrium and insight into the holistic nature of reality. As a recent comparative study of Buddhist and psychological perspectives published in Current Directions in Psychological Science points out, the goal of sukha “is not simply to achieve one’s own individual happiness in isolation from others, but to incorporate the recognition of one’s deep kinship with all beings, who share the same yearning to be free of suffering and to find a lasting state of well-being.”

Some of the most intriguing scientific research currently underway involves the study of how the brain changes as a result of such mental and spiritual discipline. Neurobiologists have discovered, in particular, that highly trained meditators present some of the most elevated levels of synchronization among neurons ever reported for healthy humans. As in meditation, the act of focusing on a specific thought, feeling, or insight sets neurons into action as they communicate with each other through electrochemical signaling. Remarkably, with enough repetition, the associated brain circuits evolve from chemical links into actual physical changes in the brain’s structure.

Accomplishing these changes is not easy because it involves a rewiring of the brain’s circuitry. As David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz suggest in their analysis of change leadership, altering old, hardwired habits of thinking often produces stress for at least two reasons. The first involves the operation of working memory, which takes in new information and compares it to the old, activating the prefrontal cortex. Working memory can only hold a certain amount of information at one time and it tires quickly. In contrast, routine activity occurs in the basal ganglia, which functions easily without conscious thought. When old neural circuits need to change because they encounter a new situation, the prefrontal cortex kicks into action and suddenly thinking becomes a lot more difficult.

In addition, the brain is highly sensitive to differences between expectation and actuality, an ancient evolutionary development related to the “fight or flight” response. When it encounters significant discrepancies, the brain sends out a series of intense neural firings, significantly stronger than the firing created by routine stimuli. The orbital frontal cortex, located above the eyeballs and closely tied into the brain’s fear circuitry, generates these signals. This wiring is located in the amygdala, which together with the orbital frontal cortex is one of the oldest parts of the mammal brain. When these parts of the brain are lit up, they often overwhelm the prefrontal area, which facilitates and supports the higher intellectual functions. Exercising enough discipline to keep these messages from overpowering rational thought requires considerable will and exacerbates the feelings of stress and discomfort. In light of these factors, it is not surprising that most people resist change even when it is in their best interest.

Simply giving people information about why change is necessary, attempting to persuade them, or offering incentives is not sufficient to overcome this resistance. Very different results can be attained, however, when people have the opportunity to create a solution or realize an insight on their own. In these circumstances, the brain releases a flood of neurotransmitters like adrenaline. Experiencing this “rush” is what motivates us to learn.

What is the significance of these findings for bringing about the large-scale changes in human consciousness necessary to build a sustainable future? The implication is clear: the ability to grasp fully the interconnectedness of humans to each other and the biosphere, and the danger that global climate change poses, can most effectively be acquired in an environment where learners experience what it means to be what Thomas Berry in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future calls “a communion of subjects,” collectively working out solutions and exploring their implications.

The traditional learning environment of the classroom is perfectly suited for reproducing the status quo; in what is largely a passive transfer of knowledge there is little opportunity for self-realized insight and the associated excitement of discovery. But in a world that no longer operates in a sustainable fashion, a new learning environment that encourages transformation is crucial and urgently needed. If the recent research on neurobiology and learning is right, engaging in cooperative learning and creative thinking over time can develop new neural pathways in the brain that will integrate this changed understanding into one’s everyday consciousness and enhance one’s mental resources, creating the ability to overcome the brain’s resistance to change.

Digital lake

A Start: Web 2.0

How do we construct this new learning ecology? What is known as “Web 2.0” promises to become one of the most powerful means for engaging people in an interactive, collaborative community of learners. The original World Wide Web consisted mainly of static sites that allowed one to download data but not to interact with this information or other people on the Internet. In contrast, Web 2.0 makes it possible to build social networks from the bottom up through blogs, social bookmarking, wikis, and other tools that facilitate the co-creation of knowledge. These “communities of practice,” as John Seeley Brown calls them, underscore the extent to which knowledge is produced by people coming together around real problems. On the Web anyone can participate in these communities of practice in a loosely organized and dynamic environment. Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are only a few of the many ways in which Web 2.0 has manifested itself. Together these have led to the development of a learning ecosystem that promotes synergy and synthesis, where people are producers as well as consumers of information.

Groups from across the globe are deploying Web 2.0 to encourage sustainability thinking and practices. The online community Wiser Earth, for example, links organizations and individuals addressing a wide range of sustainability issues. A combination of Wikipedia, Facebook, and Google maps, Wiser Earth provides a directory searchable by area of focus or geographic location of more than 100,000 non-governmental organizations, seeking to connect like-minded people for practical activities involving climate change, the environment, poverty, water, hunger, social justice, and the like. Paul Hawken's Natural Capital Institute launched this project in 2007 and it has become an invaluable resource connecting to organizations committed to social justice and environmental sustainability.

Chilean politician Fernando Flores divides virtual communities into two types: “talking communities” and “working communities.” In the first group, users primarily join to talk and make contacts, while in the second group, besides talking, users seek “to generate changes in the real world.” Like Wiser Earth, Atina Chile is an outstanding example of a “working community.” Founded by Flores, its members form a network of 38,000 citizens committed to environmental stewardship, educational advancement, and democracy. They have taught students in Chilean schools how to use Wikipedia, promoted the use of bicycles, and supported the spread of digital literacy programs across the country.

These are just two ways in which Web 2.0 is being used to drive sustainability. Leveraging “the power of knowledge sharing, collaboration, social networking, transparency, global perspective, and diversity in the Web 2.0 landscape,” says Inês Sousa in Sustainable Minds, thousands of organizations have gone online to advance their environmental and social responsibility agendas. Clearly, Web 2.0 has revolutionized communications and mobilized impressive social action. It falls short, however, of constituting a digital cathedral because it is made up of many different platforms that do not interact effectively.  If anything, Web 2.0 more closely resembles the city-states of Renaissance Italy, each vibrant and dynamic in its own right but in conflict with each other, unwilling or unable to cooperate. Think, for example of how Twitter and Facebook compete for a user’s attention instead of integrating the flow of information into a broader network.

Next: Web 3.0

How can we move beyond the limitations of Web 2.0? The logical next step, as many observers have noted, is Web 3.0, where the network becomes the computer because the Web will have the ability to comprehend and use information across different platforms. “Translating concepts and deducing new information rather than just matching keywords,” says Marc Fawzi in an article in Evolving Trends, Web 3.0 will allow databases to operate together seamlessly. It will make it possible to integrate all data, and intelligent software applications will, according to Novak Spivak, “aggregate, remix, and organize” this data in multiple ways.

When the Web reaches this stage, it will become a new kind of neural network with its own integrity, one that might have the ability to rewire those who participate in it. It will offer an unprecedented capacity for harnessing and focusing the collective creative energy of society. Web 3.0, in short, will furnish us with the means to construct the digital equivalent of a global cathedral, allowing us to participate in a communal enterprise that connects rather than divides and points to a larger purpose for our being: awakening to the idea that human society is inextricably linked to the biosphere.

What would this digital cathedral look like and how would it operate? We can only guess because Web 3.0 is largely a theory at this point. But possibilities include the interoperability of databases that would allow consumers with smartphones, even as they roam store aisles, to get carbon footprint ratings of a particular product as well as a snapshot of the product’s supply chain and its social and environmental impact and alternatives that might be more environmentally friendly. Communities could explore the available options for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, simulate the choices made by other cities and towns, and analyze what the results would be, sharing these findings with citizens and asking them to rank their preferences. Once sorted, a multimedia program could allow the individual citizen to experience a three-dimensional virtual reality created by those collective choices and project it into the future over several decades so that they could more easily imagine what these decisions would mean for their children and grandchildren.


The Great Work of Our Time

Obviously, we have a lot of work ahead of us if we are to build the digital cathedral and open a space within which democratic sustainability can continue to develop and mature. We need to embrace a broad, inclusive conception of sustainability, one that involves not only the land, air, and water but also health, education, human rights, cultural diversity, participatory citizenship, and social justice. We need to nurture a positive vision of a desirable future that is not only sustainable but also restorative, healthy, flourishing, and fecund. And we need to understand that the “environment” includes the virtual as well as the natural.

The emergence of democratic sustainability as a major force for change across the globe is a new chapter in human history that is just beginning. As Berry observes, “History is governed by those overarching movements that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe.” We are at the start of one of those movements, what Berry terms the “Great Work” of our time.

To carry out this “Great Work” we need to construct richer, more compelling ways of telling our stories about the future we want to create, the challenges we encounter, and the progress we make. To do so, however, requires a diverse and fertile information ecosystem, one that possesses a full measure of integrity. Think old-growth forest instead of monocultural timber plantations. In an era of gated communities, multinational media corporations, and 24/7 celebrity gossip, the development of sustainable communications is no small matter.

The new learning ecology can serve as a powerful antidote to the sterility of contemporary culture and offer, in Bill McKibben’s words, “an expanding hive of communication, a collective intelligence” for thinking about democracy and sustainability. We are not talking here about an artificial machine-intelligence taking over or saving humanity, but rather about a digital cathedral that provides shelter for an awakening community, a place that fosters growth, self-discovery, and rebirth. Such a learning ecology holds the promise of expanding our understanding of how we are interconnected at the same time that it helps us appreciate the different ways in which we experience the world. And it promises to facilitate the telling of stories that will celebrate the potential of the human spirit and savor the beauty and mystery of the natural world, stories that will guide and instruct our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren about how to occupy together the space we call “Earth.”


Peter W. Bardaglio is a senior fellow at Second Nature, a nonprofit in Boston dedicated to promoting sustainability in higher education. He is the co-author of Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change (2009) and author of Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the 19th-Century South (1995) as well as many articles on sustainability, higher education, and U.S. history. He has taught at the University of Maryland at College Park, Goucher College, and the University of Exeter and was provost at Ithaca College.
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Atina Chile (in Spanish)


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Wiser Earth




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