E S S A Y S , A R T I C L E S A N D R E V I E W S
Cosmology Goes to Berkeley
by Sharon Abercrombie
EarthLight Magazine #42, Summer 2001
Judy Benjamin didn't know she evolved from stardust. She didn't realize that human beings are the universe reflecting upon itself. And Brian Swimme? She never heard of the guy.
But all that changed last spring when Judy signed up for an undergraduate class in business ethics at University of California, Berkeley. Now, with intense excitement, she envisions "waves of graduates going out into the business world, within the wider world, thinking hopefully of the cosmogenetic implications of their actions and decisions."
What's this? Talk of stardust stuff, cosmogenesis, and "we are the universe reflecting upon itself," sprinkled into a dry, academic course where words like "competition," "bottom line,'" and "Harvard Business Case Studies" are the hallowed norm?
Well, why not, responds the course's creator, John Phillips, with good cheer. John, a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business since 1987, decided last year that his ethics class should take into account the new discoveries in cosmology, systems theory, and evolutionary studies-especially, in light of the growing ecological devastation overtaking the planet, driven by a business ethic which considers Earth to be dead matter, its resources readily available for exploitation and profit.
So John designed a new class, based on his own journey of study with mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story, and The Universe is a Green Dragon. John became acquainted with Brian's work several years ago through a set of Canticle of the Cosmos audiotapes. He and a friend listened to the tapes during a camping trip.
And, as happens to countless individuals who discover for the first time the awe and wonder of the Universe Story, as told by Brian Swimme, the two friends returned to the Bay Area, hungry for more of the same. John's friend later enrolled at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where Brian teaches. John Phillips continued to play the tapes, devour the video versions, read everything about the New Story he could get his hands on, and attend Brian's lectures whenever he could.
Two years ago, he audited Brian's "Earth Journey" class at CIIS. "I was absolutely set on fire by him. I left that experience like a madman with his hair on fire," John recalls.
When the business school scheduled him to teach two classes in business ethics for graduates and undergraduates John decided it was time to introduce his students to a broader, holistic version of the topic, infused with Brian's theories. For the first time, he would show them a business ethics that embraces the entire planet and all its creatures, replacing the sacrosanct idea of competition with the virtue of cooperation.
He began with the word, ethos, a Greek word which means "the root character of something," and framed two new questions around it: What is the root character of human nature; and why have we wasted our natural resources?
"We've done it," he says of the second question, "because the very traits which are causing us problems now are the same traits that have fostered our successes as a species. The human being is the only species which had no inherent sense of limits. Every other species is limited, not by an inherent dynamic of limitation, but completely by the demands of its ecosystem.
"In our own evolutionary journey, the human species has attained godlike power. We are no longer just a species among species. We now have this macrophasic power, driven by microphasic, biological strategies. But if we don't step back and use our intelligence for self reinvention, we will become like the cancer that kills its host."
John Phillips, who has been voted "Teacher of the Year" twice during his UC Berkeley career, wasn't sure how students would take to this new, improved version of business ethics."Our society has mixed feelings about business. We both admire and despise it." In general, though, he reports that students-120 grads and 60 undergrads-"have been set on fire by it. Graduate students were more surprised, but they seemed enlivened and empowered."
The two classes also learned to do a form of centering meditation based on John Phillip's years of work as both a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, and as a brain wave and consciousness trainer. He had students concentrate on ten concentric circles with business somewhere in the middle, surrounded by interpersonal goals, values, and different layers of the Universe Story.
The purpose was to show students how business truly needs to operate within every circle of consideration. Operating within a vacuum in the past has lead us to our current global problems, he explained.
John also had his students studying the Enneagram, a form of self-analysis based on nine personality types. They wrote weekly reflection papers and kept daily journals. Oh, yes, and they did study the Harvard Business Cases papers, too. Only now, each case was cradled within the ever-expanding Heart of the Universe.
By Earthlight press time, most students had scattered for the summer, but we were fortunate enough to locate Judy Benjamin, a Bay area resident and member of the class.
Judy credited her teacher with providing a "brilliant and essential look at the big picture. Ethics which do not take into account the wider and longer-term concerns of our planet and species, and which instead benefit small groups or individuals, appear fundamentally flawed and ripe for change," she reflected.
Like most business students, Judy Benjamin didn't question the so-called time honored assumptions about business practices. But once introduced to this wellspring of new ideas, Judy said, "we all felt that the purposes of business should serve us-our survival, well being, family life, and happiness-and not the other around.
"When Professor Phillips had us asking ourselves 'for what purpose was I born?' it helped us to recognize all people have a reason for being here, and that their purposes deserve as much respect as our own. In light of this, cooperation, where people are facilitating one another's goals, rather than being solely competitive, seems the more viable and ethical choice. This constitutes a fundamental change in my conception of business."
She was, she said, entranced with the notion, "that humans are in a literal sense made of stardust-the atoms that comprise our bodies were formed inside stars.
"This leads to the implication that we individually, collectively, are the universe's self-consciousness. I view this role with delight, soberness, and a new sense of responsibility. I feel an obligation to act and decide in my role as a businessperson, with the fate of the living planet and humanity foremost in mind."
Judy Benjamin says she places great store in future business leaders having been exposed to such ideas. "I see ourselves at the head of corporations which develop and distribute materials or equipment that make every home entirely energy self-sufficient. In this paradigm, energy is a virtually limitless asset and not a cost. We tap into the flow of solar particles and molecules of air excited by solar particles, like we are rowing a boat downstream. No work is involved and nothing is used up."
Although John Phillip's class is a first, he believes that the thinking of Brian Swimme and other individuals who are propounding similar, Earth-friendly ideas is beginning to seep into the mainstream. For example, the Haas School of Business hosted an Earth Day 2001 seminar with Amory Lovins, who has coauthored a book with Green entrepeneur, Paul Hawkin.
"There are reasons for hope," says John Phillips. He plans to offer his class again next year.
Sharon Abercrombie is EarthLight's Assistant Editor. She leads Dances of Universal Peace and writes for the Catholic Voice in Oakland. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org; (510) 530-7026.
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