Three intrepid co-authors embarked on a revolutionary idea four years ago to link the written word with an evolving website and a collaborative virtual platform in order to warn that the human race had reached a fragile tipping point. With an eye to the biblical story of Noah and the Ark, Bruce Gendelman, Robert B. Miller and David Taus set forth on an ambitious journey to build a virtual Ark for the 21st Century by challenging readers to examine the world today and to consider the benefits of working together to achieve long term outcomes rather than continuing to live in fragmented isolation governed by near-term goals. Thirsty caught up with Robert B. Miller, one of the co-authors, for this exclusive interview.
THIRSTY: What is the Fishbowl Principle?
Robert B. Miller: The Fishbowl Principle describes the natural instinct we humans have to act based upon our own perceived short-term individual benefit, rather than perceived long-term benefit or the benefit of others. It also explains the significance of this hardwired aspect of our biologic development within the context of the evolutionary development of our culture. The significance of these phenomena to the dramatic challenges presently facing humanity could not be more profound. The warning signs are all around us: unanticipated worldwide financial distress, largely unheeded warnings about the impact of global climate change, politicians debating competing ideologies to the point of paralysis, and religious leaders suggesting that we will endure widespread suffering in fulfillment of God’s will, to name a few.
Humans have not always stood idly by in the face of adversity. Religion, science, government, industry, and the arts have all helped civilizations navigate past many seemingly intractable obstacles. Yet even though we are increasingly aware that dramatic action is called for to avert large-scale human suffering, we nonetheless struggle individually, nationally, and globally to marshal the needed level of commitment and focus to meet the challenges of our time. The Fishbowl Principle explains why this is the case and points to a hopeful perspective to allow for these self-destructive tendencies to be overcome.
Much of the impediment to solving these pressing problems comes from the myopic view that is often taken toward them. This tunnel vision is manifested in three inabilities. The first is the inability to view problems through an interdisciplinary lens. Those claiming solutions too often approach things with an absolutist singularity that, through its exclusivity, creates disharmony instead of progress. The second problem is the inability to prevent short-term interests from depleting resources at the expense of long-term needs, resulting in fewer legacies for our progeny. The third limitation is the inability to see beyond boundaries of local geography and culture. This tribal myopia prevents all of us from accepting that we are, in a very real way, connected to each other and all other species in our environment, and to the environment itself, on a global scale. Our actions often suggest a belief, at least at the unconscious level, that each person, city, nation, and religion operates independently. But this perceived isolation is an illusion. The human inhabitants of this planet (leaving aside the members of other species) are interconnected in many, many ways.
The Fishbowl Principle
THIRSTY: Why do you call it the Fishbowl Principle?
RBM: Think of it this way: We are swimming in an imaginary fishbowl, one that is sealed off from others and the very real ocean of the universe. There was a time when this fishbowl was all we wanted. Then, thanks to time and human ingenuity, the walls of our fishbowls began to crack, and we were able to break free and swim beyond the confines of our individual limitations. Even though we embraced much of the freedom that came from this emancipation, we have a vestigial tendency to operate and respond as if we are still in our fishbowls. Homo sapiens have not evolved biologically at the same pace that the products of our culture have, and it is our culture and its products that are responsible for both the creation of and the breaking of our individual fishbowls. As a result, we still see much of our problems through the narrow and cloudy focus of times long past.
We need to shatter the constraints we have placed on our perspective, overcome the hardwired tendencies we have inherited toward the immediate and personal, and learn how to swim in a sustainable way with our fellow inhabitants in the larger vessel we call Earth. This does not just mean species such as humans learning to coexist with polar bears, nor does it only mean people such as Palestinians and Israelis learning to live peacefully in the same world. This also means a new and transformative sharing of ideas among accountants and artists, evangelists and biologists, Republicans and Democrats, anthropologists and lawyers, Sunnis and Shiites, plumbers and presidents.
THIRSTY: What brought you and your co-authors together, and what was the process that led to the development of the Fishbowl Principle?
RBM: The process began in a conversation between two of us on a hike to a pink colored lake in the Galapagos Islands about whether the boundaries of the human mind extended beyond the actual brain tissue. From such light-hearted banter, a close friendship was born, along with the recognition that we shared deep concerns about the direction in which our civilization was headed, and a passionate desire to figure out what could be done about it. The idea of the book germinated, as well as the recognition that as generalists, we had a good deal of research ahead of us. We hired a research assistant, whose contributions were so profound that we asked him to become the third author.
THIRSTY: In December 2009, your book, The Fishbowl Principle, was released. How long did it take to write considering there are three authors?
RBM: Four years. We have not stopped debating each sentence.
THIRSTY: Did each author specialize in certain aspects of the development of The Fishbowl Principle or did you all collaborate on every topic?
RBM: We all contributed to all aspects, but we tended to come at it from different directions because of our life experiences. While the three of us were all fortunate to have been born into similar circumstances (educated Americans with relatively few legitimate complaints about the fishbowls we were raised in), it was natural to expect that because the lens through which each of us viewed the world was different, so would be our inclinations toward areas of interest and opinions.
THIRSTY: Throughout your book, you refer to many great contemporary musicians. Can you name a few of your favorites and explain how they influenced your thinking and aided in the expression of your message?
RBM: It was less about our musical tastes -- although we all like the Grateful Dead a great deal -- than about introducing recognizable slices of popular culture that we hoped would resonate with a widely diverse audience. Music is almost as powerful as the sense of smell in bringing us emotionally back to a particular moment or feeling of deep individual meaning. We like to think that this connection will reinforce the interconnectedness of our particular species in a way that will cause us to realize we are all in this together, so we can take some harmonious steps towards a more sustainable existence.
THIRSTY: Your book is entitled: “The Fishbowl Principle – Building the ark for the 21st Century.” In concert with the publication of this book, you launched a website called the “Arknode”. How does the book tie together with this website, and what gave you the idea to create such a unique interactive, mixed-media approach?
RBM: The hopeful vision we hold out is of thousands of modern-day Noahs scrambling to build their own versions of an Ark (based on their expertise, their morality, or their gut emotions) to save those wishing to be spared from the storms brewing on the horizon. These concerned people are currently speaking out about problems of tremendous importance, but whether due to oversaturation or problems in communication, we as a species do not seem to be really hearing what they are saying. Meeting the needs of our time requires synthesis, an Ark for our age built of more flexible and durable stuff than wood and pitch. It must be constructed from an interdisciplinary dialogue, in which we take action based upon the best thinking of physicists, religious scholars, biologists, economists, poets, political scientists, and ordinary citizens.
There is a need for a more inclusive clearing house for the dissemination of a ideas and action: a modern day town square where anyone can stand on their soapbox and shout at the top of their lungs for others with different views to hear them. Shouting to the inhabitants of a single fishbowl will not get it done. The companion Web site to this book attempts to provide such a forum for connection.
THIRSTY: How do you expect people to use the Arknode?
RBM: Any individual, entity, organization, or group can enter a node on the Ark at fishbowlprinciple.org. This node is their mission, their idea, and their invitation for like-minded people to join them.
THIRSTY: What do you expect people to gain from the Arknode?
RBM: As connections are made one can visually see how interconnected they are. We know that not all crowds have wisdom, but some of the best thinking of this Internet age has occurred from this emerging discipline of open innovation. We need to do more than listen to prognostications. We need to join forces, to lend each other a hand in the construction of the Ark that will protect us from maelstroms and guide us into calmer waters. We need to break the cycle of poor communication that began with the Tower of Babel. We need to assume and embrace the responsibility that comes with our freedom, and we humbly offer our book and companion website as a means to provide the common framework upon which a civil, meaningful, and progressive debate can be facilitated.
THIRSTY: You speak to the fact that your book is continuing to evolve. Will interactions from the Arknode be part of that evolution?
RMB: Absolutely. We are convinced we are onto something, but are humble enough to know that our ideas need to evolve, like everything else that is organic and vital. This is only a beginning.
THIRSTY: Your book chronicles how men have used their minds to change the environment, but you conclude that without collective action, the consequences of developing today’s complex society will produce catastrophic damage. How dire is the situation?
RBM: The situation is very dire, but there are reasons for hope. The consequences of our appetites have become particularly apparent in recent decades, with the “haves” struggling mightily to keep up with inflating or deflating standards that impact their way of living, while the “have nots” are trying (and some with considerable success) to get to the point of the “haves.” This international economic competition has in many ways had a polarizing effect: It has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of people living with abundance, but it has been accompanied by increasing numbers of people living in extreme poverty). The struggle to produce the energy required for economic growth places increasing demands on Earth’s resources, which in turn has far-reaching human costs—taxing not only our pocketbooks but also the very quality of our lives. Our increasingly high standards of living are fueled by a similarly increasing level of consumption. We have now reached the point where our activity has affected the very functioning of Earth’s natural processes, which in turn is creating a vicious cycle with potentially devastating consequences for most living things, including us.
Clearly there is urgency in completing our escape from our fishbowls. Compounding the major threats we face is an acceleration of cultural phenomena and a resultant spike in the rate at which serious consequences are unfolding. Whether it is the financial devastation from a global economic tsunami, the environmental devastation from a melting polar icecap, or the reputational devastation from a false rumor carried over the Internet, the storms we face are imminent and threaten us with increasing rapidity, intensity, and consequence. Because our brains do not register the very real threats we face over the span of months or years in the same way a stampeding elephant headed our way would influence our behavior, until recently, we have stood transfixed and vulnerable.
But here’s the hopeful part: the same process of cultural evolution that has amplified our ability to destroy ourselves also allows positive change to occur more swiftly and effectively than in prior generations. Because the human mind is the host in which viral ideas grow, it follows that our recently developed ability to transmit information with breathtaking rapidity may, if carefully harnessed, prove to be more a blessing than a curse. What we need to do is channel the growing recognition that many old ways are not working and that we need not only new solutions, but more important, new ways to find solutions—a more unified, rational approach to the most intransigent difficulties of our time.
THIRSTY: In the book, there is an emphasis on the role that evolution plays in our lives. Do you think this will be controversial to many religious people?
RBM: Only to those who are threatened by reality. To say that evolution is only a theory is as silly as saying that gravity is only a theory. Just because you observe an object falling to the ground one thousand or one million times does not prove that the next time it will not fly upwards, but the evidence is fairly compelling that it will drop. While there do exist some highly vocal people who want us to live in accordance only with the teachings prevailing thousands of years ago, most people of faith are untroubled by integrating present scientific knowledge into their lives, by, for existence, refrigerating their food, using a computer, or taking an antibiotic. Just as the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an were not designed to be scientific treatises, the U.S. Constitution was specifically designed not to be a religious document. Religious and nonreligious people alike, when they are able to work together toward common goals, do so because they are unified by common ideals; disruptions and disharmony result when groups are threatened by others with competing ideals.
Robert B. Miller
Robert B. Miller earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Emory University. He is a litigator in complex cases of financial fraud and lives in Miami.
Bruce Gendelman earned an undergraduate degree with honors in economics and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. He is the founder and chairman of a national property and casualty insurance brokerage company and lives in Florida and Colorado.
David Taus earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Brown University and a Master's Degree from Harvard University. He has worked in biochemical genetic research, in clinical psychiatry settings, taught biology, psychology, chemistry, and environmental science in urban public high schools and lives in San Francisco.