I recently returned from a workshop on planetary health1 that was a peak experience. The most important topic of our time. Great people, great location, great food. Plenty of time to talk and reflect. What could be better?
At the end, we sat in a big circle and took turns summarizing our hope for the future with the statement “I want to plant the seed of…” You can imagine the words that were spoken to complete the sentence, such as love, equity, understanding, and compassion. When it was my turn, I said “I want to plant the seed of beautiful structure”.
The others smiled at my oddball statement because they knew its meaning from the immediately preceding conversation. So often, workshops such as this one result in a peak experience but don’t lead to anything. It’s hard enough for the participants to carve out the time to even show up, and then they get sucked back into doing what they were doing before. For a workshop such as this one to result in lasting change, it must alter what the participants do over the longer term. A framework for continuing interactions must be established, resulting in new plans of action that require multiple forms of capital to implement. That is what I meant by the word “structure”. I had made the point so passionately in the preceding conversation that I actually found myself shouting “Structure! Structure! Structure!”
No one disagreed with my assessment. Like me, they had experienced the disappointing long-term outcomes of workshops such as this one for themselves. Still, few were thinking of the hard work in front of us as beautiful. The workshop was beautiful. The work in front of us seemed like drudgery, especially when piled on top of our current loads.
At that moment, I had an epiphany. The entire workshop, including the metaphor of planting seeds, was an appreciation of the beauty of structure! Let’s begin with this image of a sprouting seed. If you’re like me, you will find it breathtakingly beautiful. Life bursting out of its protective seedcoat. The root tip prepared to burrow into the soil and the tuft of root hairs ready to soak up nutrients. The first leaves, containing energy provided by the mother plant and ready to produce their own energy from photosynthesis. How incredibly awesome!
Part of the beauty of the sprouting seed, especially for a biologist such as myself, comes from its functional nature. Other beautiful objects, such as snowflakes, a sunset, or the night sky, have no function other than the meanings and uses that we might attach to them. But a sprouting seed is exquisitely designed to do something—namely, to survive and reproduce in its environment, as its ancestors did in an unbroken chain all the way back to the origin of life. Functional design—structure with a purpose—adds an extra dimension of beauty, for me and I suspect also for most of the other workshop participants.
Here is another image that invokes awe and beauty in me: A hummingbird pollinating a flower, which will lead to the creation of a seed. Here we have two organisms, each an exquisite structure in its own right, but which also fit together in a symbiotic relationship. It is impossible to understand the structure of one without also understanding the structure of the other. Each is truly a part of something larger than itself, like the organs of a single body.
The concept of a superorganism, represented by the Greek earth goddess Gaia, was a major theme of the workshop. The very concept of planetary health encourages us to think of the whole planet as a single system that can function well or poorly, with a responsibility on our part to ensure that it functions well.
That brings us to this image of a garden, which was also a frequently invoked metaphor for what is needed for planetary health at the workshop. A vegetable garden is designed to produce food but also delights the soul, especially if you are the gardener. A botanical garden is designed entirely to delight the soul. This image is from the grounds of an ecologically minded hotel in Costa Rica,2 which includes a statue of the gardener with a beatific look as he gazes over his handiwork.
The metaphor of a garden fits between two other metaphors of what is needed for planetary health: machines and natural ecosystems. The machine metaphor encourages us to join in the construction of something larger than ourselves and human-engineered objects, such as this old-fashioned pocket watch, have their own beauty, especially for those who build and use them. But the metaphor also implies a degree of control over what we are building that is domineering and engineered purely for our benefit. This is in contrast to the gardening metaphor, which emphasizes working with other living creatures and playing the role of steward rather than boss.
The ecosystem metaphor celebrates the beauty of the diversity of life but also falsely implies that things will work well if we leave them alone. The idea that nature—at least when undisturbed—is beautifully designed from top to bottom, from the tiniest insect to the stars in heaven, is part of Christian cosmology. Darwin’s theory of evolution tells a different story, more in accord with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Life in a state of nature is full of suffering, caused by organisms that evolved to survive and reproduce at cross purposes with each other. An example is this crown of thorns starfish, which is beautiful but decidedly not beneficial to many other species of the reef ecosystem.
Harmonious collections of species can evolve, inviting comparison with a single organism, but only when special conditions are met. If we want the whole earth to function like a superorganism, it’s up to us to provide the special conditions. Gardens require tending. Otherwise, they are overrun by weeds.
That’s why the gardening metaphor is most apt as a pathway to planetary health and richly employed by Buddhist spiritual teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022), who founded Plum Village in France and a number of other 21st Century monasteries. One of his books is titled No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. Here is an image from Plum Village, which soothes the souls of thousands of visitors who attend retreats every year. Work is required to maintain Plum Village, which includes both inner work and outer work.
To most people who visit Plum Village and are otherwise inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, their focus is on inner work, which they describe in flamboyantly aesthetic terms. Here is how Brother Phap Linh, a senior monk at Plum Village, described his first visit as a young man, listening to a nightingale after a particularly moving meditation.3
There was just sound. A glorious, joyous, outpouring of sound—like a string of pearls, each perfect, each flowing liquidly into the next, with no interruption of thinking, comparing grasping, or even trying to understand. It was beauty, it was life, and it was love. There was no distinction between me and the sound, me and the nightingale, me and the cosmos. It was like drinking from the purest source of life and beauty and it was in me and around me and utterly boundless.
This was a peak experience for Br. Phap Linh, which made our “Pathways for Planetary Health” workshop appear pale by comparison. Little wonder that those inspired by Buddhist spiritual teachings are willing to spend hours and hours working on their inner lives and regard it as a joy rather than drudgery. But this focus on inner work often obscures the need for outer work in equal measure.
If you’re a gardener, facility manager, or event planner, you can easily imagine the work that’s required to maintain the grounds, buildings and schedule of retreats at Plum Village. Now multiply that by orders of magnitude to accommodate Thich Nhat Hanh’s own vision of a path toward planetary health, beautifully presented in the documentary A Cloud Never Dies, which was made available shortly after his death.
You might think that the more spiritually enlightened a person becomes, the less structure they need to put their compassionate frame of mind into action. In fact, the opposite is true. The more a human community functions like a superorganism, the more structure is required, providing the social and institutional equivalents of anatomy, physiology, nervous system, and immune system.
Thich Nhat Hanh himself has written a great book on this subject titled Freedom Wherever We Go: A Buddhist Monastic Code for the Twenty-First Century. He describes a degree of structure for Plum Village that would be unimaginable for most people, including hundreds of rules governing daily life that are recited at frequent intervals. Spiritual training is required to understand the rules as liberating rather than constraining, but spiritual training does not substitute for the rules.
What happens when ardent desire is not accompanied by appropriate structure? A classic essay on this topic is titled "The Tyranny of Structurelessness," published in 1970 by Jo Freeman, based on her experience with the feminist movement. It is just as timely for the “Pathways to Planetary Health” movement of the 21st century.
Freeman notes that because the feminist movement was rebelling against the existing structure of patriarchal society, it tended to embrace structurelessness as a virtue, rather than the need for different structures. As she puts it:
If the movement is to grow beyond these elementary [consciousness-raising] stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organization and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why “structurelessness” does not work.
She goes on to note that there is no such thing as “structurelessness”. If formal structures are not implemented, then informal structures arise that are almost guaranteed to subvert collective goals.
Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible, it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness—and that is not the nature of a human group.
The final phrase of this passage, “the nature of a human group”, returns us to the present. In the 53 years since Freeman wrote these words, a science of human social structure has emerged to complement ancient traditions such as Buddhism and the experiential wisdom of activists.4 The science affirms that there is no such thing as no structure; only appropriate vs. inappropriate structure. The structure required for planetary health will be a major undertaking, requiring more coordination than any other undertaking in human history, but it can begin with the planting of seeds. The seeds are small groups that put down roots in specific localities and grow into strong trees that form appropriate structures with other trees.
My hope for this essay is to endow the social enterprise, not only with a sense of necessity, but also with a sense of beauty. The same beauty that we already associate with real seeds, trees, and mutualistic forests. Appropriately structured, our continuing interactions can be a source of joy rather than drudgery, just like the meditational practices that sustain our inner lives and the workshop that brought us together in the first place.
 A book-length account is provided by Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups. Please visit www.Prosocial.World for more.