Is there harmony about Harmony?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

There was a webinar last night: Teach the Future meets the Harmony Project.   The event was supposed to be looking at systems change in education, asking what an ideal education system looks like and how we can get there, but it was a bit of a love-in.  Everybody's contribution was brilliant, and everyone agreed with everyone else which is the new way, of course, where mild disagreement is seen as hostility and actual dissent is a crime against humanity.

We didn't hear very much about the Harmony Project save that it seeks to put nature at the heart of education, and that our top priority ought to be to make peace with it (nature, not education).  I'm very skeptical about harmony as a driving social idea.  The following edited extract from the book that Paul Vare and I wrote in 2018 explains why.

What springs to mind when "harmony" is mentioned?  If you're at all musical then you might think of the pleasing sounds that come from a certain combination of notes, or even of the harmonics that are so important to the richness of the sounds we hear.  Or, thinking of St Francis of Assisi, it might be the sort of harmony that seeks to displace discord; or the harmony we associate with tranquility and peace when we speak of living in harmony with our neighbours, or of getting along.  You might have also thought of Harmonia, the Greek goddess of peace and concord. Maybe eHarmony, the dating website, came to mind, or Harmony, the Rapper, who's a hip hop emcee.

Then again, you might know that in 2009 the United Nations proclaimed April 22nd as International Mother Earth Day.  In doing so, it acknowledged that the Earth and its ecosystems are “our home”, and expressed its conviction that it is “necessary to promote harmony with nature in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations.”  Or perhaps you know that, in 2010, the Prince of Wales wrote a book (with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly) with the title Harmony: a new way of looking at our world, with a focus on the world's environment and its problems.  It's for these last two reasons that Paul and I were interested in the idea.  I should note that the Harmony Project draws on the book's ideas.

The UN said that the world has been slow to respond to the damage that human activities are causing to the planet, and that the purpose of International Mother Earth Day was to promote a view of the Earth as the entity that sustains all living things found in nature; it was to honour the Earth as a whole and our place within it.  Confusingly, the UN had, in the 1970s, already designated March 22nd as Earth Day.  The differences between the two are too subtle for me.

HRH and co-authors say that Harmony is a practical guide to what we have lost in the modern world, why we have lost it, and how we might rediscover it.  It is, they say, a philosophical blueprint for the “more balanced, sustainable world” that we’ll have to create if we’re all to live well in the world.  In this sense, it’s rather like the Earth Charter.  Harmony looks at how many of the world’s challenges can be traced to how we have abandoned a “sense of balance and proportion”, and it illustrates how many of the practices of modern life have put us at odds with the rest of nature.  It sets out to show how this imbalance influences our lives for the worse.  It tells the story of what the authors see as our disconnection from Nature and what this has contributed to the greatest crisis in human history.  It argues that, if we seek balance in our actions, this will return us to a more considered, secure, comfortable and less polluted world.  The key idea here, and in many of the other meanings, is mutually-beneficial co-existence.

As we have seen, the word balance features a lot in the Prince’s book, but balance and harmony are not the same thing.  Balance is one of those words that everyone says they understand, when perhaps their grasp is shakey.  What image comes to mind when balance is mentioned?  Is it a see saw?  Or a pair of old-fashioned weighing scales where you put the weights on one side and an object to be weighed on the other?   We need an intuitive understanding of Newton's gravitational theory to make sense of them.

But the idea of a balanced diet is quite different, and is closer to the sort of balance that the Prince of Wales is writing about.  Understanding the idea of a balanced diet requires a theory of nutrition which allows you to know what to include in a diet, and in what proportion.  So what sort of theory do you need if you are to promote “harmony with nature” in order to achieve the UN’s “just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations”.   The UN doesn’t say.

But are we interested in harmony with nature, or within it?  The first sees humans separate from nature; the second part of it. This second idea, harmony within nature, might be useful as a political philosophy that seeks to protect the biosphere from the hubris of humans, but it does not describe nature itself where you see inequality, competition, violence and death playing out all the time.  There may be lots of examples within nature of mutually-beneficial co-existence, and we might want to draw on this to inform our own philosophy and politics, but you can never fully escape the other metaphor of nature’s being red in tooth and claw.

In a Guardian review of Harmony, Terry Eagleton argued that the book’s unifying thread is “the need to abandon a soulless modernity for a traditional spirituality.”  In other words, this isn’t a question of acting or behaving differently, but about thinking differently; that the biggest problem we have is how we look at, and see, the world.  Harmony argues that we should look at it like we used to, when we had a worldview that saw humanity as a part of nature.  Now, modernism and the enlightenment have separated both us (and God) from nature.  Whilst Harmony argues that solutions to our various crises (climate change, poverty, species extinctions, etc) lie in regaining that balance with the world around us, what it doesn’t do, is tell us how.  That is because it cannot.

All this takes us back to our default position of seeing harmony lying in our seeking to establish mutually-beneficial co-existence, not only with other humans, but with the rest of nature.  We might possible do this through nature-friendly policies, less exploitation of natural resources and wild places, living with a much smaller ecological footprint, and doing what we can to lessen our impact on other species, habitats and ecosystems.

We might try to have a kind of binding contract with nature to bring all this about, and might envisage a United Species Organisation to police it.  But this would be a one-sided negotiation – making a peace treaty with only one side at the negotiating table.  We might want to sign up, but nature surely wouldn't, even were it possible.  Nature is supremely indifferent to us, to human hopes and dreams, vanities and foibles, and hubris.  It may, one day, be our nemesis because fundamentally nature is not on our side.  We might remember that whenever we hear anyone speaking of harmony within nature as though it had any meaning.

Dominic Lawson wrote in the Sunday Times recently that "the ascent of humankind is nothing other than our triumph over the purposeless hostility of nature.  And the wonder of modern medicine — of which vaccines are the most glorious example — is the greatest tribute to our astonishing resourcefulness as a species.  To deny it is to be anti-human."  Is there, I wonder, just enough truth in these ideas for the Harmony Project to give them a place in any debate about putting nature at the heart of education?


HRH Prince of Wales, Juniper T & Skelly I (2010). Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. London: HarperCollins 

Scott W & Vare P (2018) The World We'll Leave Behind: grasping the sustainability challenge. London Routledge

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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