I've heard that the Chinese have an ancient curse which translates roughly into English as "May you live in interesting times." My friends, I've come to the conclusion that we have the dubious fortune of living in the most interesting of human times, ever.
What is it that makes these times so darn fascinating? Two words: cultural collapse, now playing everywhere you turn.
Of course, the phrase "cultural collapse" isn't heard every day, so maybe you're scratching your head, wondering what I mean. The short version: Cultural collapse occurs when the most basic, fundamental beliefs of a culture are demolished. This demolition can occur because the beliefs no longer make sense of changed conditions, because new evidence is found which renders them genuinely un-believable, because they result in behavior which undermines the ecological life-support systems the culture relies on, or some combination of these elements. The people, and particularly the young, lose faith in their leaders and elders, and they no longer accept the traditional explanations for how things came to be this way.
I could point to various pieces of evidence to support my contention that we're in the midst of cultural collapse, but I'll save most of these for later columns. There isn't space to deal with them in depth and I don't want to simply give a list. Instead, I direct your attention to one that hits very close to home: the state of families in our society. When pretty much everyone thinks of their family as "dysfunctional" (to the point that the term "dysfunctional family" seems almost redundant); when we mistakenly think that it's perfectly normal for young people to reject their elders' values and traditions - to "rebel" - when they reach puberty; when families are split apart by vicious divorces and simple distance, parents from children, sister from brother, grandchildren from grandparents; I see all of these as sure signs of a culture in collapse. The foundations of human relationships in our culture are breaking down at even the most fundamental level of the family, leaving each individual to make their way in the world, to an ever-increasing degree, alone. To my heart, this is no welcome change.
Now, we're not the first culture to ever experience a collapse, so that doesn't qualify these as the most interesting of times in and of itself. No, what makes our times so unusual is that the culture we live in, this culture coming apart at the seams, has metastasized into a global super-culture, one to which almost (but not quite) all of the people alive today on the planet belong, by choice or by force. If this rickety contraption completely collapses, as I'm convinced it's on the verge of doing, watch out, because it's going to take pretty much the whole world we know with it.
Think I'm exaggerating? Think there's no global culture? Looked at from the traditional perspective, you're correct. Many facets of culture do vary considerably from one part of the world, one society, to the next. I'm focusing on one particular aspect of culture, though, and the most fundamental one: worldview. Nothing is more basic to a culture than what the people of the culture see as their place in the world - their vision of the world and their purpose within it. Every culture's vision is stated most emphatically in the way the people live, of course. Our global culture, which encompasses over 99% of the people of the world now, is based on a single worldview, which can be distilled to this one sentence: The world was made for us, so it's ours to do with whatever we please. We never have to say this to demonstrate that it's our vision (though some folks do say it), because we live it.
Now, there's not a lick of evidence to support this worldview. Nobody has produced a deed or bill of sale from the divine titling or entrusting Earth to humanity. Apparently, no such document exists, and the divine has made no verifiable appearance to testify to such a transaction or bequest. Since there's no proof that the world was created for us, there's no substantive reason to think that it's ours, and we don't have any justification for treating it as if it is. If we continue, we do so because of our arrogance and desire for power and control, not because we have any cause to believe we were meant to do so.
So what can a poor boy do when he finds himself living through cultural collapse? Unfortunately, the most common response seems to be to look the other way - any other way - to distract ourselves from what's happening because we don't know what to do about it. Worse, many people doubt that they, personally, can do anything about it because they've been taught two things: First, only exceptional people can really make a difference in the world, and second, you're not exceptional.
And our culture certainly offers plenty of options to distract ourselves from the catastrophe all around. Every form of media offers up the private lives of the rich and famous to obsess over. Thousands of television channels, movies and web sites are available every hour of every day to entertain those who watch with people's lives, both real and enacted, that are more interesting than their own. If the lives of the people on the screen weren't more interesting than the lives of the people in the audience, why would so many people spend so much of their lives watching?
Our culture also offers up plenty of toys for purchase to distract you from your loneliness and misery if you're inclined to go that route, as many people apparently are at the moment. The toys come in many forms, from the drugs we take in our veins, up our noses, and down our throats to this model year's cars, from the "new" spring fashions to that shampoo which promises to make my hair soft and silky, from exclusive, luxurious hotel suites to cell phones with interchangeable face plates in a variety of fabulous colors. These days, there are few places left to turn to avoid the pushers and their products.
I don't want to seem smug and self-righteous here, though. Not so long ago I was squandering much of my own life this way, and I still watch a movie or turn on the TV from time to time. My point is not to try to make anyone feel guilty about the distractions they choose because I understand why we do it and I don't expect us all to simply stop. No, all I'm asking is this: Wouldn't we all rather have lives that were so interesting and fulfilling that we wouldn't have much interest in watching actors pretend to be living fabulous lives on a screen? I certainly would.
But that's not the only reaction to our cultural collapse. There's a smaller, though determinedly vociferous, segment of our culture which insists that what we need to do is go back to the way we did things in the "good old days." Unlike these cultural reactionaries, I don't think for a moment that the way out of our crisis lies in a return to unquestioning acceptance of "traditional values" and "moral absolutes." We're in the throes of cultural collapse precisely because those traditional values aren't working for us, because many of us have come to the conclusion that they're neither "moral" nor "absolute." We once had those values, at least to a greater degree than we do now, and we turned our backs on them precisely because they weren't satisfying us. If they had been, why would we have abandoned them? I don't see any reason to think a return to those traditional values would fulfill our deepest human needs any better than they once did.
Fortunately, there's a third option. You see, I come here not to bury the world, but to save it (though most definitely not by myself); not to convince you of the hopelessness and futility of our situation, but to show you a new path of promise. I'm quite sure we're doomed if we continue doing what we're doing, but I'm here to convince you we don't have to. There is another way.
If we're going to go another way, though - if we're going to, in effect, remake the world - we first have to rethink the world, because people can only do what they first think. Rethinking the world is precisely what this column is about, of course. Since the whole dang thing is coming down around our ears anyway, why not take a fresh look at everything, hold each piece up to the light, reexamine it, and throw out the stuff that doesn't work, doesn't fit the available evidence, and doesn't make sense?
With a mandate like "rethinking the world," I have a big playground to roll around in, and I intend to use it. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I am willing to take a look at issues most other folks ignore (if they can see them at all). I'm here to ask questions other columnists don't (often because they don't even realize there's a question to be asked), to dig deeper than they do, down to the root causes, and to try to offer some fresh perspective on the whole gnarly shebang.
I won't be doing my job here if I don't get folks riled up from time to time with my words, and I sure hope to hear from you when you don't take a liking to something I've typed out and sent your way. I'm interested in a conversation, a dialogue, that helps us all to find answers. I am most definitely not setting myself up as a prophet or guru come down from the mountain to reveal to you "the answer," because there is no one answer to each of the questions I intend to explore.
This column is co-written by two people, Bill and myself. This doesn't mean we will be regularly collaborating when writing columns, however, though we may choose to do so on occasion. Nor does it mean that we will be offering point and counterpoint for your argumentative pleasure. No, we've joined together to create Rethinking the World because we share a common feeling that the world needs rethinking and a common desire to take part in that process. Moreover, we respect each other's thinking ability, and we're friends. All the same, please don't assume that because one of us writes something the other agrees with what's written. Bill and I share a whole lot of common ground, but we aren't joined at the mind
My intent is for all of us to learn a great deal from this process. Moreover, I also want the things we learn to help us figure out many new ways to live, ones that don't destroy the world and do give people what they really want in life (I'm just radical enough to think the two go hand-in-hand). Now wouldn't that be a wonderful, welcome change?
I hope you'll choose to join us in this journey.
Why should we "Rethink the World"? A valid question, but perhaps a better one might be, "Why didn't we rethink things a long time ago?"How we got here is assuredly too big a topic to examine in this brief column. Let's just agree that we did in fact get here. And by here, I mean several things: this point in Earth's history, in population, in environmental degradation, in use of finite natural resources, in redistribution of the world's biological mass (away from biodiversity, toward an ever-increasing proportion of the world occupied by homogeneous human mass), and a score of other indices which define "where we are."
I'll enlist the words of Thom Hartmann from his book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, to help me describe our position. "In the 24 hours since this time yesterday, over 200,000 acres of rainforest have been destroyed in our world. Fully 13 million tons of toxic chemicals have been released into our environment. And more than 130 plant or animal species have been driven to extinction by the actions of humans. The last time there was such a rapid loss of species was when the dinosaurs vanished." And those of Paul Hawken, the author of The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. "We live in a time in which every living system is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating as our economy grows. The commercial processes that bring us the kind of lives we supposedly desire are destroying the earth and the life we cherish. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We are losing our forests, fisheries, coral reefs, topsoil, water, biodiversity, and climatic stability. The land, sea, and air have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste."
I believe that most of us intuitively recognize that there is something perilous in maintaining cultural and individual practices which permit the sort of things described above to occur. But our myopia allows us to tell ourselves a lie, that "everything will be OK." Looking too deeply at the situation exposes the lie, so most of us don't. As Derrick Jensen, in A Language Older Than Words, puts it: "In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities. Truth must be at all costs avoided. When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defenses and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party. We try to stay out of harm's way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed as the hollow people we have become. And so we avoid these truths, and continue the dance of world destruction."
Complete destruction of the world's living systems through human activity is not likely, especially not while I'm still biologically active (alive). I'm certain that it will continue to support some level of human population for quite some time to come. And I don't have kids, so I'm not proposing to "rethink our world" to save it so that my genetic inheritors will carry on the bloodline. But I know many people who do have kids. I'd like to see them inhabit a hospitable place, but, frankly, I don't think things can go on as they are too much longer even more without serious repercussions. The purpose of "Rethinking the World" is, for me anyway, to help expose the lie, and to correct the myopia. If that goal sounds a bit grand, then maybe I can spread a bit of simple, helpful, educational material to a wider audience.
There is one other thing: Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must become the change you seek in the world." That is what "Rethinking the World" represents, at least in part, to me. My own lifestyle could in no way be represented as ecologically sustainable. So this column is an opportunity to change myself and, hopefully, help in a much broader sense the rest of "the world."