Soul is often defined as the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal. This definition is not without its critics, as it arbitrarily stops at animals. What about plants and trees? Do they have souls? Indeed, it could be argued that plants and trees have some form of consciousness. It has recently been found that plants and trees send nutrients and signal to each other through underground fungal networks. If they are able to communicate and live co-operatively together, then why are we excluding them from having a soul? Why stop there? What about the whole of nature having a soul?
Many systems of philosophy and religion believe the world, and every living being, is endowed with a soul and intelligence. Greek philosophers call this ‘Anima Mundi’, which translates as ‘world soul’. In fact there has been a long line of philosophical thought from Thales and Plato through to William James and Bertrand Russell called ‘Panpsychism’, which literally means that everything has a mind. Proponents of this philosophy view that consciousness, mind, or soul is a universal and primordial feature of all things in the natural world. More recently, in 1990, the physicist David Bohm used panpsychism to provide a new interpretation of quantum mechanics that does not divide mind from matter.
For many indigenous people around the world the idea of everything in nature having a soul is not a matter for religion, philosophy or science, it is an everyday reality. So much so, that many indigenous people do not have a word in their language to describe how they experience objects, places and creatures all possessing a distinct spiritual essence. Anthropologists have called it ‘animism’. It is this perspective on their world that enables these people to live in harmony with their natural environment. Pre-industrialisation, an ‘animistic’ perspective would have been commonplace around the world. However, for industrial societies, much of nature has gradually become soulless. So much so, that recently the UK Parliament debated whether animals have emotions and feelings.
It could be argued that the death of the soul in nature has been beneficial for economic activity. Our industrialised and financially driven economy has been founded on the capturing the ‘commons’ (what belongs to us all), controlling their supply to create scarcity and hence increase their value, and then converting them into goods and services which are then sold back to us at a premium called profit. Historically, this economic activity has focused on converting our natural world into products. If nature has become psychologically dead to us, then we no longer feel its pain. We have increasingly become disconnected from nature. For years, whilst enjoying materialistic pleasures and increases in their standard of living, most people in industrialised countries have been uncompassionate when it comes to the destruction of forests, factory farming, and over fishing, etc. Not anymore! Many people are now realising that we are eating ourselves alive. There is a growing recognition that our exploitation of our natural world is going beyond the safe planetary boundaries as identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Whilst efforts are now being made to protect our natural world, the number of consumers in the world continues to increase. We may already be experiencing ‘peak natural resource to consumer’. This means each time the economy starts to grow, the natural resources available become scarcer and their price increases, and these price increases then stall economic growth. For our economy to continue to grow, economic activity must move away from exploiting natural resources and capture and exploit another area of our ‘commons’.
We are already seeing this transition with the capturing of the ‘commons’ of our social relationships for economic activity. For example, childcare and the care of the elderly used to be carried out by the extended family and/or the local community. It is now increasingly being carried out by commercial businesses. Rather than seeing people or calling them for a chat on the telephone, we increasingly interact through social media which are owned by commercial businesses. Our social interactions now form the foundations of new economic activity. For economic activity to fully exploit our social relationships, our society must lose its soul. The soul of our society is our ‘community’. Despite getting ‘likes’ on social media we still feel lonely. The more we disconnect from each other, the more competitive we become. As a result we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and high levels of inequality in our society.
So once our social relationships have been fully monetarised, where next for economic activity? What would happen if we each individually started to lose our soul? Would this provide opportunities for future economic activity? This may be already happening. For us as individuals, our soul is often experienced as giving us a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. Without this we become an empty shell of ego. When this happens, whilst we may project confidence and self-esteem, inside we feel empty. We fill this emptiness with a variety of addictions, for example, alcohol, drugs, sex, consumerism, junk food, sport, etc. Unfortunately, these additions never seem to really satisfy. Does this sound familiar? Filling the emptiness within, could this be the new frontier for economic activity?
Our economic activity has taken the soul out of nature, our society and increasingly out of ourselves. As a result, the way we live has become environmentally, socially, and psychologically unsustainable. We need a new economy which puts the soul back into nature, society and ourselves. It is the collective decisions of leaders that creates our economic activity. We need new leadership which reconnects us with the soul of nature, each other and ourselves. We are all leaders and, together, we can create a better future.