Natural – Material Intelligence (MI)


Natural Intelligence – Material Intelligence (MI)

Jonathan Wright – December 2018
WA: +61 401177048




Over time as we have come to rely on modern systems in an increasingly global and contemporary world, and as we have become less connected with the natural world, we have also ironically become less connected with understanding the many “things” we consume. We use all sorts of things, with more choice between brands and competing manufacturers and markets. But we seem to understand ’things’ less and less. What exactly is the difference between these ten types of tuna on my supermarket shelf? Do I know I can use an app on my SP to show me where these were sourced, how they where fished, info on transportation, process and packaging and even sustainability gradings and comparisons between brands? Same is starting for eggs. We are beginning to use tech to help us understand which is a real change. We need to take it further though.

Initially, through the force of change brought by the printing press, and later by the industrial revolution, we started creating lifestyles that did not rely on sensitivity to natural ecosystems and natural or other resources. Before this revolution, we were more connected with the sensibilities needed not just to work with a multitude of fragile ecosystems but to be part of those ecosystems, symbiotically connected. When we used fire to cook and protect and also to heal wounds and shape tools – when we planted, harvested, gathered, sought for water or raised animals, we were integrated with these natural systems. Apart from isolated tribes and those still living by ancient ways, there is very little ‘natural’ intelligence or what has been termed ‘Material Intelligence’ (see Glenn Adamson AEON MAGAZINE Dec 2018).




It seems crucial to foster sustainable thought and practices connected to the material world, the physical world, the real world. Like a yoga teacher imparting physical intelligence, we need to impart Material Intelligence (MI) through education. MI reconnects us to the reality of material things: what they are, where they come from, how they grow and who made them as a start. Later, more mature MI can discern between types of products, do careful product choice and selection, understand the impact of logistics in transporting products, help others to make simple changes and teach about aspects of waste management, improved plastics and purchasing choices. We all need to start somewhere!

And it is not only for a good cause, or to save the planet or to ‘go green’. Learning MI is essential to our future survival and development. We are entering unsteady waters and many areas of life will be affected. We have less water, we have overfished the oceans, we are losing land to deforestation, drought, climate change and bad management.



A recent documentary called The Evolution of Us (Netflix Nov 2018) shows how we humans are designed to run long distances. We still carry a small amount of the genes associated with hunting in the African Savanna which our ancestors passed on. The longest muscle in the human body is the thigh muscle and we are designed to sweat when we run so that we can outrun almost any grazing animal. The ability is still in us genetically and physically. The common practice, however, is that the majority of us do not run. Natural intelligence is also in us. We need to overcome a few elemental fears and try our hands at something to start connecting more.

Developing natural intelligence or MI is not only important from a sustainability and environmental perspective. It is hugely essential wisdom, hidden wisdom connecting us with the real world. Until not so long ago people made things with their hands. The world moved slowly and it was not overpopulated. It was the combination of agriculture and technology that has so populated our planet with humans. Most people before around 100 years ago had a hand in growing, making, preparing that connected them to the real world. They were not squeamish around killing and cooking their food, for example, just a normal part of life.





Today we see whole cities full of ten’s of millions living in tiny concrete box’s driving shiny metal boxes to the school, the mall, the workplace each box with AC on full. The mall and the supermarket today are the jungle and the valley of yesterday – not just geographically but in every way. Grade 8 students tell me that their food comes from the supermarket. Most things to them come from TV or the internet. It is as if these mediating devices have a universe of their own in the popular imagination. While no one can argue the convenience of all this tech and the mediation of realities, with the growing conveniences, if we apply MI to it all we may find ways to keep the convenience while exercising better choices in what we consume, how we select, where we buy, know what we are buying, where it came from or how it was made or grown etc. That is the only way to change things – the power of the people.




Marketing companies would not have it though. They are aggressive and use subliminal ways to hypnotise that masses into consuming not just for convenience but as far as possible for ignorance if they can smoke screen us all into just buying it without asking all those pesky questions then all the better for them. However, many humans don’t realise they have choices and indeed, most of us don’t realise that almost all we have in our favour to get ahead is the exercise of those choices. For example, we cannot control circumstance or fate. We can only really control our response and approach to life. But this gives us huge choice and potential.

Ironically it is technology that has insulated us from reality. If the internet went down permanently (say a massive solar flare or two from the sun), we would not survive for long, only because all the food is moved around the globe by sophisticated computer systems. All our other systems would go too, banking, finance, communications, everything. Indeed, we are a fragile little rock floating around in the middle of nowhere in this obscure corner of the galaxy.

The industrial revolution and the advent of tech have increasingly separated us from reality. We call this progress because it feels like something better is happening. More choice, more convenience. For many if not most a good portion of the day also includes screen-mediated realities. Phone screens, tablets, TV screens, computer screens, advertising screens, security screens. We live in such an advanced and convenient society because of all this tech and we are influenced so much by the ceaseless screen-mediated marketing. Supermarkets were the first step towards this culture and now with online shopping, Uber Eats and their kind it is all so convenient we don’t need to get up off the couch!




The current systems are not safe to merely rely on though. Dr Google is excellent for shallow and wide information but the way it is set up does not encourage deeper understandings. We go there merely for information. If we want to know materially, neither the internet, our phones or screen-mediated communication will lead us there. They function in 2D. Reality is in 3D. We need to touch it, explore it, discover it.

I showed a friend a blueberry fruit on the bush in the garden. He was surprised. Didn’t realise that was how they produced. Also didn’t know that the fruit comes from the flower, that the flower needs pollinating, that population relies on insects, particularly bees and that our fruit and vegetables would shrink and perish without the bees alone.

Einstein reportedly said we would starve as a race in four years if we lost the bees. Thankfully there are lots of bee species and we are still here despite the huge losses around the globe in recent years. And besides, if worst came to worst, we could do what they are doing now in parts of Southern China. They climb up tall ladders and decked in mask and suit and gloves they delicately collect pollen from fruit flowers, tweezers and sterile bag. Their pollen will, in turn, be placed on the flowers elsewhere to pollinate and cross-pollinate, so fruit will grow. At least these Chinese bee replacement workers are getting back in touch with reality. We live within fragile ecosystems and we have become ill-equipped to manage if the slightest thing changes or goes out of balance.




Some folks have strong material intelligence. Artisans and makers, farmers and builders. People who use their hands and bodies to perform or create or refine skills. Most sports require the physical side of material intelligence within the confines of the playing culture. As soon as we pick up a hammer, a spade, touch the wood, the soil, walk in nature, make a garden we are causing the connection to flood us. Something unspeakable takes place when a group of young people arrive at the farm. An absolute wonder comes over them. They experience hands-on activities, planting seedlings, watering plants, picking fruit. Much more is going on for these kids than information download. They are making connections. The students are realising where things come from. They are seeing the processes and experiencing dozens of new understandings.

In turn, a context like this which accelerates the material connection through living things and to the uses of innate things, dead things, unmanageable things (like recycling 13500 recycled car and motorbike tyres in our infrastructure projects at 5EyesFarm), creates a tremendous new canvas in the student for the learning process to take new form, advance, interconnect. And it affords many teaching opportunities as well. Creative teaching comes from being connected with the material world. We use tech as aids (tech), but we get our hands dirty to advance our material intelligence (MI). If for example, we create a raised organic layer bed to grow a kitchen garden. The project then becomes a nature project with many ecosystems involved and many processes learned. First, we learn with our hands (doing), then with our hearts (passion) and then with our heads (knowledge).




There is no point in theorising when we encounter this project. We need to touch it, feel it, see it, experience it. We till our soil, then carry leaves, plant seeds, mulch beds, make compost, protect plants (pest/climate). Also, enhance naturally and maybe combine with other useful systems. Doing this or any small part of it empowers the learning process. It activates interest and I would suggest that there is a deeper part of us that is satisfied working in the natural world with our whole selves. It is from here that it is easy to learn the theories, the sciences, the Latin names, the chemistry, biology and physics of it all.

It is possible to apply the arts to our expression, communication and reiterations of what we experience and discover in the natural world project — a painting, a song, a presentation, an essay, a lab session, a finger painting, a group dance or any other creative expression. A theory is easy to discover when interest is present. Students learning like this learn quickly and it seems to cross-pollinate all their other learning.

Students can also learn things that often get missed in school settings. They learn to communicate and advocate well through built confidence in being instrumental in the design, plan, building, creating, making, growing, processing, marketing, cooking, selling, inventing of the projects undertaken. There is a social and relational advantage in this learning context too. As students problem solve in groups and work together in cohorts to accomplish their goals, they develop strong loyalties and bonds and motivate each other forwards. We don’t mean group work where everyone is bored and only one or two people do all the work. It is a culture where everyone is involved; everyone has some part to play, some new thing to discover, explore or learn.




Alternative schools like Montessori and Steiner have educated through connecting natural intelligence. The GreenSchool in Bali where I helped with the pioneering phase is the best example of this vital practice that I know and the students will undoubtedly be effective green leaders of the future. Imagine this natural learning taking place within communities involving all ages, an emphasis on gender equality and inclusion. Imagine transforming a district of around 80,000 people across ten villages with programs and business initiatives all centred around learning, improving the local environment, creating opportunities. Not too difficult if you are working together with people who have good MI and a bit of motivation. We need some outside resources but surely that is possible (calling all philanthropists). We think this might work, over time, with patient guidance and mutual support.

With 5EyesFarm (Kebun Mata Lima) we have more than a farm and more than a school on the cards: it is starting/modelling a series of learning opportunities, an informal school that spreads through the community in different ways. Cooking classes, English lessons, applied learning through making, creating, designing. Small business development through workshops on making hygienic Tempe, sambal, to sell, raising fish or animals for profit and whatever emerges through need or inspiration. A learning community that develops from within, village-up power, not top-down handouts. And not programs that reinforce our distance to MI. Capitalising on that intelligence and empowering it to flourish. “Calling all leaders and teachers of a new kind to step forward”.


©Jonathan Wright (PJ), Dec 2018©