Visionary ideas converge at London TEDx event

We must challenge our ideas about what is real and possible if we are to create a ‘more beautiful world’, claim a group of innovators who came together at TEDxWhitechapel. Claudia Cahalane joined the audience

Did you know that, according to official records, the speed of light changed by 20km between 1928 and 1945?

In 1972, the scientific community fixed the figure at just under 300,000 km per second and it looks set to stay at that measurement forever, according to research scientist Rupert Sheldrake. But, speaking at an event in East London in January 2013, Sheldrake revealed that the speed of light in fact regularly fluctuates.

This was one of many fascinating insights to emerge at TEDxWhitechapel, a conference about challenging ideas of what is real, fixed and possible in the world, which took place on 12 January 2013.

With the subtitle Visions for Transition: Challenging Existing Paradigms and Redefining Values (For a More Beautiful World), the event hosted a range of speakers who revealed the transformations that can happen when we break down our assumptions and belief systems, and follow our hearts.

The TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) events are a global network of conferences, which began in 1984 and feature short talks that are also broadcasted online. The events have become known for conceptualising world-changing ideas and many of the videos – of which there are now more than 1,400 – notch up thousands and sometimes millions of views.

The Whitechapel event, at Toynbee Studios, was a TEDx conference – independently organised events affiliated to the official TED conferences that take place in the US and Scotland each year.

“We organised this event because we’ve been through anger, despair and dissolution, with seemingly intractable changes before us and can see clearly that governments and world leaders are failing to address the situation,” we were told by the three young women – university students – who orchestrated the sold-out event.

“People working in oil, consultancy, banking, permaculture and health, young and old, are here today, united by the desire for a better world”

“It’s easy to dismiss this as naive young idealism, but people working in oil, consultancy, banking, permaculture and health, young and old, are here today, united by the desire for a better world and the deep intrinsic knowledge that we can do better than this,” they added.

Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and founder of Schumacher College – an international centre for ecological studies – set the scene with an illuminating story showing the disconnection between the financial system and the ecological world.

“Not long ago I was invited to speak at the London School of Economics,” said Kumar. “I was honoured that such an established university was inviting me. I asked the professor chairing the meeting where the department of ecology was. But they didn’t have one.

“Do you understand the meaning of the words ecology and economy?” Kumar asked the puzzled professor.

“No wonder that the world economy is in a mess, because they don’t know what they are managing,” he said to the TEDx audience, explaining that there can be no disconnection between the natural world and the system used to manage its resources.

Kumar said UK universities should follow Bhutan’s example – the country that measures gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product (GDP) and also teaches students this ethos.

Understanding what makes us, our fellow citizens and our planet happy, and understanding how we all connect to each other was a thread that ran through the day.

But biochemist Rupert Sheldrake believes the way many people treat science as a ‘world view’ is hindering a genuine investigation and understanding of our universe and how we all connect to each other.

“The science delusion is that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in – this is a very widespread belief in our society,” said Sheldrake. “It’s the kind of belief system of people who say, I don’t believe in God, I believe in science.

“But, there’s a conflict in the heart of science, between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a world view. And unfortunately, the world view aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour,” he suggested.

The 70-year-old has a double first class honours and a PhD in biochemistry and won the University Botany Prize at Clare College, Cambridge. In his book, The Science Delusion, Sheldrake analyses ten ‘dogmas’,or assumptions about life and the world, and questions them using scientific principles. “None of them stand up very well,” he said.

“We need to question the agendas behind our education, our culture, the media, religious institutions and the political and economic ideologies that underpin our lives” – Raoul Martinez, film-maker

The dogmas include the notion that nature and humans are mechanical-like, that matter is unconscious, that the laws of nature are fixed, that the total amount of matter and energy is always the same, that nature is purposeless, that any psychic phenomenon is impossible and that mechanistic medicine is the only medicine that really works.

“These assumptions are the basis of our educational system, the NHS, the Medical Research Council, the government and many others, but I think every one of these dogmas is very, very questionable. When you look at them scientifically, they fall apart,” he said.

Sheldrake told the Whitechapel audience that such a dogmatic view of our world does not give the opportunity to see the underlying connections to each other, plants, animals and the living environment itself, and that this inhibits us in moving towards a better world.

In a passionately delivered talk, author Graham Hancock echoed Sheldrake’s call for a re-examination of our collective assumptions about ourselves and the world, saying that “consciousness is the greatest mystery of science.”

New understandings

If Sheldrake questioned widely held views about science, the artist and documentary film-maker Raoul Martinez equally unsettled our preconceptions by questioning our ideas about each other.

People are not born free, he believes – they do not choose their genes or the environment they are born into, whether they are born into a poor or rich family, into a war zone, or into a certain religion.

He suggested an Israeli and Palestinian, for example, would be on the other’s side if they were swapped at birth. He also spoke about a true story of a man who developed paedophilic tendencies when he had a brain tumour, but who no longer had those tendencies once the tumour was removed.

Martinez said we are taught to blame people and hold them to account, but to do this means we can be in a dangerous position of just writing people off and not trying to understand why people are like they are and what forces they have acting upon them.

“We have to ask why we have the habits we have and, crucially, whose interests do they serve? It once served the interest of monarchs to spread among their subjects the divine right of kings, and the interests of imperialists to spread the idea of racial superiority. Our patriotism, consumerism, materialism and religious loyalty are not inevitable, they’re learned.

“We need the tools to make our own discoveries and to question the agendas behind our education, our culture, the media, religious institutions and the political and economic ideologies that underpin our lives … the American dream tells us anyone can become rich and those that do, deserve it, and those that don’t only have themselves to blame. As it happens, this incoherent view of thinking makes it far easier to justify inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity.”

He believes that understanding the forces that shape people is an important step in being able to be compassionate towards others. It is from a point of compassion that we can then begin to shape the world, rather than it just shaping us.

In a similar way, schoolteacher and co-founder of the Mindfulness in Schools Project, Richard Burnett, revealed how we can each learn simple ways to bring more awareness to how we respond to our everyday experiences. “Our mental health and wellbeing are profoundly affected by where and how we place our attention,” he said.

“It is from a point of compassion that we can then begin to shape the world, rather than it just shaping us”

So what happens when we feel freer and more aware of who or what is influencing our lives? Ideally, people would feel able to move towards a more genuine existence, where they can find their purpose and “give their gift” to the world, as the headline speaker, Charles Eisenstein, put it.

Sexual health, spiritual and wellbeing coach, Ella Lauser, said allowing herself to be endlessly curious led her to find her purpose. Speaking on stage, she encouraged us to use our intuition and follow our hearts so we too could give our gift.

Likewise, Polly Higgins, the activist and barrister known as a ‘lawyer for the Earth’, told the audience to “dare to be great” and talked about the importance of taking time out in nature to let our minds wander and explore new ideas about our purpose.

The day’s surprise guest, anthropologist David Graeber, in turn explained how creative solutions to world problems are not lacking, but that structures of social inequality are the barrier, while entrepreneur Patrick Andrews called for human values at the core of business, and Tim ‘Mac’ Macartney stressed the importance of “dreamers and poets as well as the doers” in the world.

A selection of artists interspersed the talks beautifully, including storyteller Ben MacFadyen; musician Cosmo Sheldrake, who entertained the audience with an impressive bag of improvised vocal sounds; hang player Kim Riccelli; the Feral Theatre Group; and the insightful and hilarious spoken word poet Lula Edmonds.

Finding purpose

So what is your purpose? What is your gift? The audience were prompted to ask themselves and each other these questions throughout the day.

Eisenstein, the author of Sacred Economics, encouraged us to do what feels right in our hearts. “Our hearts know that a more beautiful world is possible; I’m sure you’ve had that feeling many times here today,” he said. “But our minds do not know how it’s possible. Our minds cannot see how to get from here to there, because our understanding of causality doesn’t allow for a path from here to there.”

He encouraged us not to try to force others to change their way of thinking and not to view people working in large corporations, for example, as ‘evil CEO monsters’.

“What happens if we act from love, and we act from understanding that this person is like me, that person has a gift to give to the world and will not feel happy unless he or she is giving that gift?” he asked.

Disarming people with understanding, forgiveness and generosity weakens the old understanding of the world as a place of competitive self-interest and offers an alternative, believes Eisenstein. And, as their world of ‘business as usual’ continues to fall apart, they’ll be ready to try something new, he said.

Finally, Eisenstein said that we shouldn’t think it a waste of time to ‘preach to the converted’ or ‘speak to the choir’ at an event like TEDxWhitechapel. “The choir makes beautiful music together and when a lot of us sing, the world will be able to hear it,” he said warmly.

The videos of talks from the day will be uploaded to the TED website in February 2013