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Humanism: the fourth wave

John Heron

Published in R. House, D. Kalisch and J. Maidman (eds), The Future of Humanistic Psychology, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 2013

The first three waves of humanism

In the history of civilization in the western world, there have so far been three main waves of humanism. The first wave arose in Greece in the 5th century BC when the Sophists and Socrates "called philosophy down from heaven to earth" as Cicero put it, by introducing social, political and moral questions.

The second wave, the Renaissance, was well under way in the 15th century in Florence. Through the recovery of the classical culture of Greece and Rome, it affirmed the worth and dignity of human achievement - the unique genius and extraordinary ability of the human mind - over against the Christian pre-occupation with human sin. However, while Renaissance humanists made humanity the centre of interest, they were far from being atheists, for God still remained as creator – though more remote. And the artists of the Renaissance had an important spiritual declaration to make about our relation with our world, as we shall see.

The powerful third wave began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century and became the rational, scientific, secular and atheistic humanism of modern times.

Humanistic psychology and the third wave of humanism

Humanistic psychology, when it emerged in the USA in 1961, had a clear affiliation with this third wave of humanism, as exemplified by two of its primary protagonists. Abraham Maslow insisted that he was an atheist, and as such regarded the peak experiences of his self-actualizing exemplars as simply an expression of the best of their selfhood. "I want to demonstrate that spiritual values have naturalistic meaning, that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches, that they do not need supernatural concepts to validate them, that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science" (Maslow, 1964:3).

Carl Rogers was selected in 1964 as humanist of the year by the American Humanist Association, which promotes humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

A full-on humanist declaration from Rogers (1961: 23-24) reads as follows: "It is to experience that I must return again and again; to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me.  Neither the Bible nor the prophets–neither Freud nor research–neither the revelations of God nor man–can take precedence over my own direct experience". 

A late turn to the spiritual

However, Maslow apparently took a turn toward the non-naturalistic spiritual – "beyond humanistic" - as he got a bit older. Stan Grof (2004: 2) reports that: "In spite of the popularity of humanistic psychology, its founders Maslow and Sutich themselves grew dissatisfied with the conceptual framework they had originally created. They became increasingly aware that they had left out an extremely important element – the spiritual dimension of the human psyche".

In 1967 they joined up, says Grof, with him and others to create "a new psychology that would honour the entire spectrum of human experience, including various non-ordinary states of consciousness. During these discussions, Maslow and Sutich accepted Grof’s suggestion and named the new discipline ‘transpersonal psychology’. This term replaced their own original name ‘transhumanistic’ or ‘reaching beyond humanistic concerns’" (Grof, 2004: 3). Soon afterwards the Association of Transpersonal Psychology was launched. Maslow died in 1970.

Rogers kept the spiritual out of his psychology for a long time. But finally, in the last decade of his life, he turned toward it in terms of presence, inner spirit and self-transcending relationship: "I find that when I am closest to my inner intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me then whatever I do seems full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other. When I can relax and be close to the transcendental core of me it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger" (Rogers, 1980: 129). Rogers died in 1987.

What I find prescient - albeit conjectural - about these two late turns is that they appear to embrace three fundamental spiritual dimensions: Maslow turns to the Beyond (the transpersonal), and Rogers turns to the Within (the intrapersonal) and the Between (the interpersonal), opening to the Beyond (for more on this triad see Heron, 2006, 2007; and for related notions see Ferrer, 2011; Shirazi, 2005; Chaudhuri, 1977). And these three are basic spiritual elements contributing to, and interdependent with, but not reducible to, the humanism of the fourth wave, as I will discuss after a brief look at the issue of separation.

The humanistic-transhumanistic separation

The existence of two Associations, one humanistic and the other, in Maslow’s choice of a title, transhumanistic - the first dealing with the personal and the second dealing with what is beyond the personal - tends to condone a separation between the spiritual and that which is distinctively human. Their co-existence also implies that neither of them is giving an integrated account of the full range of human experience. 

Lajoie and Shapiro (1992) reviewed forty definitions of transpersonal psychology in the literature from 1969 to 1991. They found five key themes: states of consciousness, higher or ultimate potential, beyond the ego or personal self, transcendence, and the spiritual. This clear emphasis on the higher, the ultimate, the beyond, the transcendent, echoes the historical fact that spiritual traditions, beliefs and practices for the past three thousand years have been predominantly transcendent in their orientation. And as several commentators have pointed out (e.g. Walsh and Vaughan, 1993), this has led to definitions and declarations of transpersonal psychology being invaded by the ontological assumptions, belief systems and practices of the traditions.

Some of these early definitions, declarations and demarcations have been modified in recent years, but the whole movement is still dogged by the implicit transcendental focus of the ‘trans’, the beyond, in its title. This can be confirmed by scanning through the titles of all the articles published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology over the 43 years from 1969 to 2012. They are listed on the Journal's website.

John Rowan (2005) says that humanistic psychology "has a place for the spiritual", but then he also makes it plain that those who are really interested in the spiritual aspects of humanistic psychology do so under the aegis of "a separate Journal of Transpersonal Psychology".

The Association for Humanistic Psychology in the USA, on its website, makes a brief mention of "the interaction of body, mind and spirit" but otherwise focuses on a third wave humanist account of humanistic psychology as "a value orientation that holds a hopeful, constructive view of human beings and of their substantial capacity to be self-determining". It ends with a problematic statement to the effect that because humanistic psychology has spread into many other areas of society it is no longer humanistic psychology, and that, although it is still represented by the AHP, it is also represented in Transpersonal Psychology and in many other movements.

Wilber has long since adroitly stepped away from the humanistic-transpersonal divide and commandeered ‘integral’ to name his attempt to present an all-inclusive psychology (Wilber, 2000). But it too has suffered invasion, in his case by the nondual traditions, and it has no adequate model of spiritual inquiry, only consensus within a school or tradition (Heron, 1998).

I myself thought for a while, in the context of writing about the Institute for the Development of Human Potential, that it would be wise to re-unite Humanistic Psychology and Transpersonal Psychology under the name Holistic Psychology (Heron, 2001). However, I now rescind that view, while putting some of the ideas advanced in that paper to better use. Rather than a simple name change, today I think it is more fundamental and fruitful radically to reconstruct the meaning of ‘humanism’, and thus, by its extension, the meaning of ‘humanistic’. My reconstruction is both radical and tentative in its first expression. In later sections of the paper I sketch out some of the recent background to the fourth wave, and the possible role of collegiality in its future.

The fourth wave of humanism

1. Inaugural statement. The fourth wave paradigm, as I conceive it, is fully committed to the self-determining capacity of humans, and believes that the development of this capacity presupposes a dynamic context of spiritual animation/inspiration in which persons can actively participate. This animation has three interdependent immediate dimensions – intrapersonal, interpersonal and transpersonal. It can move deep within the psyche in the case of autonomous decision-making; centrally and crucially in the energetic relation between collaborating persons; and in the potent field of universal mind beyond and including personal mind. The paradigm proposes that humans become more fully human when exercising their self-determination in a co-creative relation with these three kinds of spiritual animation in ongoing dynamic interaction with each other.

In truth, I think it is Carl Rogers who implictly launches the fourth wave paradigm in the 1980 quote cited above, which, in my reading of it, gives a deeply human account of his helping relationship in terms of the spirit within reaching out to the spirit between which in turn opens to the spirit beyond - "becomes a part of something larger".

2. Some primary features. Here are some of the initial working assumptions underlying the inaugural statement:

(1) The ‘personal’ in each of the thee dimensions always refers to a person in their local and wider eco-system, including all other forms of life.

(2) The dimensions are sui generis with respect to their shared ontological status as spiritual. They engage fully with the naturalistic, but are not reducible to it.

(3) They are mutually supportive in their interactions with each other and in co-creative relations with humans, in whom they may elicit self-determining capacity, collaborative capacity including eco-effective capacity, and multi-dimensional awareness capacity.

(4) They provide a dynamic context for ongoing human action research into the greater emergence of the breadth, depth and height of intrinsically human flourishing, within flourishing eco-systems, and as such:

(5) They are part and parcel of the practice of humanistic psychology.

What is culturally unusual about this strange declaration – which I elaborate further in sub-section 6 below - is that it makes human action research and essential human flourishing central to the measure of all things spiritual. For reasons of space, I will look at only three areas of my personal experiential inquiry which have a bearing on this thesis.

3. Co-counselling experience. I first encountered - experientially and phenomenologically – what I now realize is the fourth wave of humanism, when I was fully engaged with applied humanistic psychology in the 1970s and 80s. In my own co-counselling sessions, there were three quite distinct and interrelated phenomena. I will describe these in terms of ‘animation’, by which I mean a spiritual stimulation of a co-creative human response. So when I write below of an animation eliciting something, I mean that the person is making an instantaneous micro-choice to engage creatively with the eliciting process.

As a self-directing client, when engaging with the free attention of my counsellor, I would feel (1) an animation of the shared field of awareness between us, eliciting a living liberating interest, which in turn released (2) an animation deep within my psyche eliciting an impulse to attend to, and work creatively with, an emerging emotion, image, memory, felt sense to move or breathe in a particular way, or give voice or sound, etc. This in turn, when followed through, would release a whole series of further intrapsychic animations eliciting and sustaining a clearing and healing process. After a pause to re-enter fully the shared field of awareness between myself and my counsellor, there would suddenly occur (3) an animation like a discreet light from beyond my mind eliciting spontaneous insights and realizations, cognitively restructuring the life-experience I had been dealing with.

In my micro-world as client, the developmental series went from an animation between, to a series of animations within, to a pause in the between, to an animation as if from beyond. The beyond in a session can cover a wide range, from illuminations of cognitive restructuring as above, to the following:

I was giving free attention to a self-directing client who was repeating the phrase "I am a loving person" to contradict a deep-seated self-deprecation distress pattern. This brought forth various degrees and kinds of emotional discharge. After a longish pause, she looked up and quietly and simply declaimed "I am", and between further pauses repeated this with ever greater fullness and radiance. In reporting on this afterwards, she said it was as if the declaration "I am" brought her to a threshold where personal consciousness is open to consciousness that is anywhere and everywhere. She has long since given me permission to share this story with others.

4. The inquiry group experience. ‘The inquiry group’ is the simple name of a group meeting regularly here in New Zealand, in the early years every three weeks, in recent years every fortnight, since 1994. The description which follows amplifies the account given in Heron and Lahood (2008). The group’s original purpose is to celebrate together through charismatic sound and movement our individual and interactive coming into being, and to carry this arousal forward into individual practical behaviour in everyday life and work. The core method is collaborative action inquiry, an innovative variant of Torbert’s individual action inquiry (2001). We often start with a check-in round, in which each person is animated from within to share anything about their current inner and outer life. There is no comment on, nor interaction with, what each person shares, because the check-in is offered to the presence between us. There may then be a period of verbal silence, or this plus someone stroking the rim of a Tibetan bowl with a stick of wood to produce a tone.

At a certain point there is a distinct, spontaneous animation of the energy field between us, which elicits a further animation within each person expressed in idiosyncratic improvised posture and gesture, movement, toning, rhythmic sounding of a diversity of instruments. This co-created orchestration is both an enlivenment by the spirit within us, and a resonant engagement with the animation between all our individual enlivenments. It is also both a heart-felt communion with the living presence within and between us, and an aware inquiry into its nature and credentials - a dynamic marriage of appreciation and experiential research.

This dynamic, charismatic, inquiring opening goes on for a considerable period – on average about forty five minutes - with series of crescendos and diminuendos which are potently co-created with the rhythmic life within us and between us.

There is an unmistakable final diminuendo. We become entirely still. We draw together and hold hands, or sit silently apart, and for a long period feast on, and probe with the soul, the extraordinary depths of the spiritual presence between us, also aptly named by one of our members as "the band of golden silence". This also has a clear ending. It may, or may not, be followed by a sharing, an affirmation, and an inquiring review, of what has been going on. Then we close the meeting and people depart for their homes.

A very important outcrop of what is generated in the depths of the between is that, at varying intervals, we plan a co-operative inquiry into some specific human-spiritual activity undertaken in everyday life between our fortnightly meetings. Then we make space during the session for each person to report on and review the previous two weeks of activity, and, in the light of that, plan the next two weeks.

In summary of the primary process, the check-ins from within arouse, and engage with, the build-up of presence between, which, in the following period of silence, deepens to the point at which enlivenment within each bursts forth, further intensifying the charismatic resonance between all. It is also clear that the deeper the presence between us, the more intrinsically open it is, out of the intensity of its subtle passion, to the beyond - like the deep resonance between trees in a forest participates in the glory of the overarching sky beyond them and including them. The beyond is also always within and between.

5. Daily living experience. It also seems to me that these three kinds of animation are also available for co-creating my daily living - if and when I am available, and not forgetful and distracted, not caught up in self-perpetuating maladaptive attitude and action. In this context, the interpersonal widens out into the situational, a felt dynamic resonance with the presence between myself and the other persons and the place here where I am now. The intrapersonal is the ongoing play of animations deep within my psyche, each animation arousing a creative adaptation to and interaction with the immediate presenting situation. The transpersonal is an animation from the beyond, arousing me from the sleep of limited awareness, and inviting me to open the margins of my mind to an all-embracing awareness, in the light of which everything integrally possible is appropriate.

Animations within and between are in continual interplay with each other, in the light of the beyond. And this is especially so in a close personal relationship, where the between is clearly central, enriched by the within and the beyond.

6. More on primary features. There are several further provisional points I would like to share from my experience of these animations, to elaborate further the five key points presented above:

(6) Depending upon the human structure of the situation – session, group or daily life - they come and go in their own rhythms; they both call, and can be called up; and their sequencing can vary, they can interweave and interrelate in diverse ways.

(7) They are micro-gifts of living grace and discreet congeniality, three dynamic spiritual dimensions, which, when given human space to interact together, supportively enhance the essential humanity of our nature. And it is inherent in each animation that while it calls to be recognized as a spiritual gift, it also honours the liberty of humans to ignore it. Indeed, the animations respectfully allow for agnosticism and atheism, since anyone is free to regard any of them as naturalistic.

(8) Most importantly, these gifted animations invite humans to be co-creative with them: they elicit and facilitate autonomous, intentional, innovative adaptations and initiatives. Intrapersonal animations in particular cultivate the emergence of self-determining capacity in humans. Spirited self-determination is one primary feature of the intrinsically human.

(9) I have an overall sense that the between and the within provide the best conditions for effective and appropriate human co-creation with the beyond. I also believe, as a fourth wave humanist, that spiritual animations between persons, and between persons and place including other kinds of beings in that place, are central, and that this centrality is serviced by animations both within and beyond (Heron, 2006).

(10) These or any other propositions about the animations can be researched by collaborative phenomenological action research (Heron, 1996, 1998, 2006; Heron and Lahood, 2008). This kind of inquiry can establish the intentional human conditions within which these spiritual animations may occur, and clarify their distinguishing characteristics. Practical wisdom also suggests the benefits, for any such inquiry – whether individual or collective - of times of wise suspension, in which every dimension is abandoned for a period in favour of not-knowing - the paradoxical way of intentional nescience.

7. Sacralization. My impression is that the spiritual deeply values the unique nature of the human, delights in co-creatively enhancing and expanding it, and does this in a way that sacralizes and exalts the embodied realm of individuated persons who are creatively interacting in regenerating their world. The notion of humanism as a sacralizing force is certainly not new, for it was brilliantly foreshadowed in the second wave of humanism.

The Renaissance was an awakening of the senses: its artists rediscovered the lushness, beauty and exuberance of nature. But they did not just reproduce nature in a humdrum manner: "They brought sanctity to nature. Renaissance landscapes are alive precisely because they are infused with spiritual energy. Beneath the visible currents of the sensuous forms of life, a deep process of re-sacralization is going on" (Skolimowski, 1994: 130).

The artists of the Renaissance showed through their own achievements that the human being is an imaginal co-creator of the world. It was not just the person as the measure of all things, but the person as the measure of a sacral reality, of a spiritually co-generated world. However, as Skolimowski points out, the world-transforming potential of this aesthetic achievement was interrupted by the dominance of the mechanistic-materialistic worldview of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Newton – and the third wave gradually took over.

There is indeed a sense in which the fourth wave of humanism completes and carries forward the work of the second phase, which is perhaps why I lived for ten years in the triangle between Florence, Pisa and Siena – cities of the Renaissance – where I wrote four books central to my fourth wave worldview.

The recent background of the fourth wave

Let us start with Rogers, for whom personality was governed by an innate actualizing tendency, the inherent tendency of the organism to develop all its capacities in ways which serve to maintain or enhance the organism. This organismic tendency, he believed, is selective, directional and constructive. It affects both biological and psychological functions. Psychologically, it guides people toward increased autonomy and self-sufficiency, expanding their experiences and fostering personal growth. The connotation of organismic tendency construed self-actualization as a naturalistic drive, and affirmed a grounding element of third wave humanism in the humanistic approach (Rogers, 1959,1980).

Eugene Gendlin, following in Rogers' footsteps, developed experiential focusing as a method for making quite explicit, within the body-mind, the selective and directional guidance of the actualizing tendency. You create a relaxed space within the body-mind, take an issue of concern into that space, let it take shape in appropriate symbolic form, and attend to the form, with all its associated affect, within that pregnant space. You focus until there is an emergent resolution of the issue in imagery and/or words, the hallmark of resolution being a subtle liberating release of somatic energy. Once again the action of the actualizing tendency was seen as organismic, i.e. somatic (Gendlin, 1981).

The spiritual animation breakthrough comes with McMahon and Campbell (1991), practitioners of experiential focusing, who recategorize Gendlin’s somatic release as a bio-spiritual event, an experience of grace in the body. Letting go into the body-feeling about an issue, Gendlin’s felt shift, is now sensed as a movement of the indwelling life-giving presence and power of the spirit.

Here returns Schelling's deus implicitus, not only in this form, but also in several other related versions: the entelechy self, the root self, the ground of one's being, and the seeded coded essence which contains both the patterns and the possibilities of one’s life (Houston, 1987); the dynamic ground (libido, psychic energy, numinous power or spirit) of somatic, instinctual, affective and creative-imaginal potentials (Washburn, 1995); Eros as spirit-in-action, the indwelling divine drive at the root of human aspiration (Wilber, 1995). Human motivation is grounded in the spiritual life-potential within. The organismic actualizing tendency becomes reconfigured as, replaced by, a process of spirit-human becoming and co-creation. (Bruteau, 1997; Hubbard, 1998; Heron, 1992, 1998, 2006, 2007).

This spiritual animation within people appears to have a basic polarity, a radical and dynamic complementarity: there is the impulse to realize individual distinctness of being and the impulse to realize interactive unity with wider fields of being (Heron, 1992). The same basic principle is found in Hindu psychology: Bhagavan Das postulates a polarity of the primal Shakti, or divine creative power within the psyche, as a will to live as an individual, and a will to live as the universal (Das, 1953). It is a subtle balance: too much individualism leads to egocentric narcissism; too much universalism leads to spiritual fascism, authoritarianism and subtle oppression.

Collegiality in the fourth wave

I think a guiding principle for balance is that of collegiality - a collegiality of unbound mutuality and co-inherence of distinctness of being without separation of being, the flowering of individual diversity in free unity. Berdyaev (1937) gives a good account in terms of sobornost: the creative process of spirit manifest through the self-determining subjectivity of human personhood engaged in the realization of value and achieved in true community. The co-inherence of persons in such a community is an interpersonal true unity-in-diversity, a dynamic, developing social form of diune awareness (Heron, 1998: 99; Heron and Lahood, 2008; compare and contrast with the nondual in Wilber, 2000: 181).

Translated into my conceptual system, Berdyaev’s account means that living spirit manifests as a dynamic interplay between, and animation of, autonomy, hierarchy and co-operation. It emerges through co-creation within and between autonomous people each of whom who can identify their own idiosyncratic true needs and interests; each of whom can also think hierarchically in terms of what values promote the true needs and interests of the whole community; and each of whom can co-operate with – that is, listen to, engage with, and negotiate agreed decisions with - their peers, celebrating diversity and difference as integral to genuine unity.

Hierarchy here is the creative leadership which seeks to promote the values of autonomy and co-operation in a peer to peer association. Such leadership is exercised in two ways. First, by the one or more people who take initiatives to set up such an association. And second, once the association is up and running, as spontaneous rotating leadership among the peers, when anyone takes initiatives that further enhance the autonomy and co-operation of other participating members.

The autonomy of participants is not that of the old Cartesian ego, isolated and cut off from the world. Descartes sat inside a big stove to get at his cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am – and while his exclusively subjective self provided a necessary leverage against traditional dogmatisms to help found the modern worldview, it left the modern self alienated from the separated world it commands. The autonomy of those who flourish within sobornost, by contrast, is an autonomy that is rounded and enriched by a profound kind of inner animation that develops and flourishes only in felt interconnectedness, participative engagement, with other persons, and with the biodiversity and integral ecology of our planet (Spretnak, 1995).

This is the participatory worldview, which I see as the foreground of the emerging fourth wave of humanism. It is also expressed in an extended epistemology: our conceptual knowing of the world is grounded in our experiential knowing – a felt resonance with the world and imaginal participation in it. This epistemic participation is the ground for political participation in social processes that integrate autonomy, hierarchy and co-operation.

What we are now about is a whole collaborative regeneration of our world through co-creative engagement with the spirit that animates it and us. For just a few of the many contributors to the early dawn of the participatory worldview see: Abram (1996); Bateson, 1979; Berman, 1981; Ferrer (2002); Heron, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2006; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Skolimowski (1994); Spretnak, 1991; Reason, 1994; Reason and Rowan, 1981; Tarnas (1991); Varela, Thompson and Rosch, (1991).

A humanism-4 account of humanistic psychology

What would humanistic psychology look like if it were an expression of this account of fourth wave humanism? Primarily, it would take spirituality out of the ‘transhumanistic’ realm and put it back where it belongs, in an enhanced, more rounded and grounded form at the very core of the human realm. It then manifests as collegiality, a collaborative regeneration of what it is to be a human being.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into the integration and consummation of many areas of human development. One possible model of such collegial applied spirituality has at least eight distinguishing characteristics.

(1) It is developmentally holistic, involving diverse major areas of human development; and the holism is both within each, and between them. Prime value is put on relational areas, such as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, peer communion, morality, human ecology, supported by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.

(2) It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a fully embodied and vitalized co-creative expression with spirit. Spirituality is found not just at the top end of a developmental line, but is explored co-creatively with spiritual animations in the living root of its embodied form, in the relational heart of its current level of unfolding, and in the transcendent awareness embracing it.

(3) It is epistemologically holistic, including many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant form and process, by conceptualizing, by practising. Such holistic knowing is intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic and political.

(4) It is ontologically holistic, open to the manifest as nature, culture and the subtle, and to spirit as immanent life, the situational present, and transcendent mind. It sees our relational, social process in this present human situation as the immediate locus of unfolding human co-creative integration with immanent life and transcendent mind (Heron, 1998, 2006, 2007).

(5) It is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.

(6) It embraces peer-to-peer relations and participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a radical discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego.

(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice.

(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence.

In a sentence: it encourages us to inquire together, imaginatively and creatively, about how to act together in a spirited way to flourish on and with our planet.


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