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Mark Perry has authored a new book published by George Ronald titled Convergence: Cities, Spirituality and the Future of Civilization. The book asks the question: What makes a great place to live?
In this book, Mark draws on the experience, knowledge, information, wisdom and vision of people of diverse fields working with and concerned about human habitats. Using as guiding principles some writings of Baha’u’llah, Mark looks at how spirituality and the developing science of sustainability might converge to produce communities that are moderate, local but interconnected globally, technologically and spiritually-based, progressive and sustainable, and great places to live.
Mark graciously agreed to tell us more about his book and how it came together:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Swarthmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. My first career goal was to be a musician and I majored in music in college. But racism was constantly on my mind, and I couldn’t focus on music while dealing with persistent questions of inequality and segregation buzzing around like mosquitos and hornets. I was fascinated by my first sociology course, which provided a way to discuss social problems and their solutions. I pursued graduate studies in sociology, cultural anthropology and history, and have been teaching in those fields since 1987. From 2014 I have been teaching at BNU-HKBU United International College in Zhuhai, China.
Baha’i Blog: Could you please tell us a little about your book?
Convergence is a view into a possible future in which cities are highly developed not only materially but also spiritually. My first book, The Last War, employs several principles in the writings of Baha’u’llah to analyze racism from a spiritual viewpoint. Convergence builds directly on Last War and uses the same method: it applies principles of Baha’u’llah as guidelines for imagining an ever-advancing civilization in which human society, technology and nature are in balance. The general goal in both books is to emphasize that social problems cannot be solved by material solutions alone; a spiritual approach is also required. The Last War ends with a brief description of a future society in which racism no longer exists, a vision of how a city would become far more peaceful and beautiful when that plague has ended. Right after Last War was published in 2005 I expanded that vision in a paper on environmental sustainability, and ultimately this became Convergence.
Baha’i Blog: What inspired you to write it? Could you tell us about your interest in exploring the question, what is the ideal habitat for human beings?
My interest in the environment was sparked by different “teachers”, starting with my hometown. Swarthmore is unusual compared to most towns in America. When we moved there in 1965 every street was lined on both sides with mature trees and sidewalks. About 90% of the trees were so tall they formed a canopy that in summer was like a cathedral ceiling over the streets. Some of these canopies stretched unbroken block after block for nearly a mile. The town center was and still is a tight cluster composed of elements that most urban designers would prescribe: public library, café, restaurants, grocery store, shops, train station, and service businesses. Swarthmore College, the main employer in town, had a large arboretum bordering Crum Creek, and kids loved to roam the campus and woods in all seasons. In winter the Crum would freeze over and hundreds of people would be out skating on weekends and holidays, like a scene from a Dutch renaissance painting. I noticed that nearly all of our neighboring towns were composed of treeless noisy boulevards and alienating streets forming no center or gathering place, and I wondered why.
I was a Boy Scout in the 1960s and 1970s. Our Scout leaders always taught us to bear in mind the high environmental and moral standards set by Native Americans, and we tried hard to practice the principle of leaving our camp area better than we found it. By the age of 15 I had hiked half the Appalachian Trail with my Scout troop, about 1000 miles. Although much of the Trail was near farming areas and we could see occasional roads and highways cutting through the mountains, there were stretches with nothing but forest in all directions – like being in a time several centuries earlier. In those mountains we learned that “reality” is not necessarily what we experience in the familiar surroundings of our hometown, and that nature is far more powerful than we think.
When I was four or five years old I became intrigued with the idea of visiting Switzerland, probably due to an illustrated children’s edition of the Heidi story. A few years later I came across an issue of National Geographic magazine which featured an aerial photo of a green summer valley beneath mountains in perpetual snow, with a graceful waterfall dropping a thousand feet; it was something from a children’s story book but it was real, and I was not surprised that the caption identified it as a place in Switzerland. Eventually I forgot this photo and the location, though I continued to hope that a journey to Switzerland would be possible some day. In the 1970s and 1980s I traveled to France, the Netherlands and the UK several times, but to my frustration never had the opportunity to visit Switzerland. Finally in 1991 I went to Landegg for the first of six summer sessions with the World Order Studies program. I found Switzerland to be more beautiful than I had imagined, not only for the mountains and lakes but also the organization of its towns and cities, which sit side-by-side with farms and nature in elegant, simple harmony. During that first summer our Landegg group traveled to Lauterbrunnen, where with great joy I recognized the waterfall from the National Geographic photo.
A major theme of the World Order Studies program created at Landegg by Suheil Bushrui and Jim Malarkey was environmental sustainability. Each summer we would read the latest book of a groundbreaking series called State of the World, published by Worldwatch Institute. The series offered both a sharp picture of current environmental problems – no sugar-coating – along with solutions being applied with proven success, giving us the sense that while the environmental horizons are dark we have the power to build whatever world we wish.
Studying environmental issues systematically for six summers in such an idyllic setting as Switzerland, I was always comparing American towns and cities to their Swiss counterparts. Swarthmore might possess qualities that most other suburbs lack, but Switzerland was like a dream beyond Swarthmore. I wanted a way to convince my university students that all cities in America – indeed in the world – could be far more beautiful and harmonious. Once you spend time in a land so inspiring as Switzerland you become convinced that the world can change, and that there is no limit to what we can create. As beautiful as Switzerland is, recent decades show that we are only just beginning to wield creative powers that transcend everything we have known.
Baha’i Blog: Could you tell us a little bit about the research involved in your book?
Started in 2005, the book was not completed until 2020. Those fifteen years were an opportunity to collect puzzle pieces of information about changes in the world, not only environmental changes but also fundamental shifts in the way we view technology and society, such as Steve Jobs’s user-friendly approach to computers, the rise of the Internet, and so on. Gradually those puzzle pieces seemed to reveal a pattern that, with the help of the writings of Baha’u’llah, began to make sense. We live in a time when the spirit of the Baha’i teachings is reflected ever more clearly in the world’s changes and shifts. The environmental movement itself reflects a growing awareness of the unity of the human race, but it has not yet developed a clear and explicit relationship to spirituality. Convergence is an attempt to clarify that relationship.
In his letters Shoghi Effendi encouraged the friends to relate the Baha’i teachings to issues of the day, “to be au courant with all the progressive movements and thoughts being put forth today … so that they could correlate these to the Baha’i teachings.” 1 It was easy to collect information about new environmental technologies – solar panels, electric vehicles, urban designs – but for the spiritual aspect of environmentalism the best sources were outside the mainstream Western culture, amongst the lives of indigenous peoples.
In the 1980s the Baha’is on the Lac du Flambeau reservation in northern Wisconsin kindly hosted youth visiting from Chicago. Our main hosts were Nick and Charlotte Hockings. Nick and other friends on the reservation taught us spiritual principles of the Ojibwe traditions and demonstrated how the Baha’i teachings were renewing the spiritual life of Native Americans. In Convergence there is a brief account of Nick putting into action the principle that prayer is essential to maintain balance when we harvest a resource from nature. Profound learning experiences like this are easily found among Native Americans, and it is wonderful to see that the voices of indigenous peoples around the world are gaining prominence in the media. In some respects this spirituality of indigenous peoples, and its application to the development of future cities, is the heart of the book.
While facts were being gathered for the book, new technologies and new problems were rapidly evolving, which made the research process like trying to keep up with Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory as their conveyor belt moved faster and faster. Rather than focus on technological details – every year many excellent new books and articles are published on sustainable techniques – it made sense to focus instead on the underlying pattern showing the general direction we are taking as an evolving species on this planet. The writings of Baha’u’llah provide the signposts for this direction, our evolution toward the unity of the entire human race. But what does that evolution mean in practical terms? The environmental movement now provides a rich treasure of information to help answer that question, to clarify the underlying pattern.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope the reader will take with them after reading your book?
Hopefully the reader will think of the book as a window offering a view into a new possible future quite different from what most science fiction suggests, or what government and corporate strategies plan for. The world we have known for so long, this industrial civilization built on factories, cars and vast smoky cities, seems permanent, an unquestionable reality. And yet things are changing so rapidly that now industrialism is no longer a vibrant civilization but an obsolete and dusty museum. If we can look out the window beyond this museum, then we can also walk to the exit door, step outside, detach ourselves completely from the old order, explore an endless garden of human potentialities, and build a new civilization transcending the old one.
I remember a conversation with historian Firuz Kazemzadeh in 1991 as my sister was driving him to a large Baha’i event near Washington, DC, where he was to give a talk. In those days the world witnessed the dramatic changes associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we wondered if he had ever expected to see such changes in his lifetime. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “And this shows how history is accelerating.” Thirty years later I still often reflect on what he said. There are many indications in the Baha’i writings of this acceleration of human evolution (no doubt this is a matter of personal interpretation so please take this as just my own view). Opportunities come quickly these days – and they disappear quickly too. It reminds one of how Shoghi Effendi expected all the friends working with him to perform their assigned tasks without delay. The world we have known is fading away at an accelerating rate, and before long we will find ourselves outside the industrial museum whether we wish to exit or not. Hopefully this book will provide some orientation, some way of helping people understand the endless creative potentialities beyond the industrial museum, the connection between spirituality and the creation of a sustainable economy and society.
Baha’i Blog: What are you currently working on?
All three of my children have chosen to pursue various aspects of art, and they have convinced me that the world is increasingly reliant on art as a highly influential and practical means of expression. They point out all the Baha’i artists who have done so much to promote the Faith and convey its spirit to the masses. Such successful spiritual artistry is a new pattern of great importance as we leave the old industrialism behind. So I’m exploring art as the focus for a book, though I’m not yet sure about the specifics. What seems clear is that the book will be about the future of civilization, and that even though I’d like to take at least 10 years to finish it, the acceleration of history means I need to pick up the pace.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so very much, Mark, for taking the time to tell us about your book.
You can purchase Mark’s book here from George Ronald: Convergence
You can also buy the book from local and online retailers, and Baha’i book distributors such as Bahaibooks.com.au in Australia.
- Compilation on Scholarship, excerpt 50
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