Thom Hartmann: As World Population Reaches 7 Billion, What Will Save Us From Ourselves?
Best known as a political thinker, Thom Hartmann is the most popular progressive radio show host in the nation. In his new book, The Thom Hartmann Reader (Berrett-Koehler 2011), editor Tai Moses pulls together Hartmann's writings from a dozen books and other sources (along with new material) to present a comprehensive picture of where Hartmann's wide-ranging intellect has led him over the past 30 years, from politics and ecology to history and anti-corporate activism. The following is an excerpt from The Thom Hartmann Reader.
Something Will Save Us
Wendy Kaminer wrote a brilliant book titled I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help. In it she pointed to the pervasive assumptions of dysfunction inherent in the self-help movement and the increasing obsession with emotional and psychological pathology in our culture. She didn't offer any specific solutions; she had only defined the problem. (Although one could say that her solution was really the most elegant of all: see the problem for what it is and refuse to dance the dance. In this she argued forcibly for people to reclaim their own inherent power and emotional health.)
Kaminer received numerous letters from people demanding solutions to the problems she had identified. She pointed out this irony in a later edition of the book: it was as if the people writing wanted her to suggest the creation of a self-help group or book to help those addicted to them.
Some of the initial responses to the early editions of my book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight were similar. I received letters, emails, and calls from people telling me with great certainty that the only solution to the problems outlined in the first third of the book would be found in smaller families; cold fusion; coaxing the flying saucer people out of hiding; a worldwide conversion to Christianity (at least a half-dozen different people suggested that only their particular Christian sect could bring this about, and all other Christians must ultimately recognize the error of their ways), Islam, or some other religion; or the immediate institution of a benevolent one-world government. The letters ranged from amazement to outrage that I'd failed to see and support their perspective.
But these are all something-will-save-is solutions. This kind of thinking is a symptom of our younger culture-and fighting fire with fire is only rarely successful. Usually, it just produces more flames. As Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, often the most powerful and effective way to "fight back" against the pathological kings and kingdoms is to walk away from the kings, see the situation for what it is, and stop playing the dominator's game.
But that involves a shift of perspective that some people find very difficult. There are, for example, those who point to the foundational belief of our culture (and, particularly, to European-ancestry citizens of the United States) that we can solve any problem if we just put our minds to it. Some even argue that the exploding human population is a good thing because the more people there are, the greater the possibility we will find among them the next Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, or Thomas Edison, who will figure out how to get us out of this mess. It is, of course, a simplistic, and ultimately cruel, notion but one that has been used for years, usually to advance a dominator religious or economic agenda.
In fact, it's somewhere between unlikely and impossible that children born into the contemporary slums of Islamabad or Haiti, or even Baltimore or East Los Angeles, will grow up to change the world or solve our problems. They may become very competent; any corrections officer can tell you there are geniuses among our cities' gang members and in our prisons. But grinding poverty and pervasive violence -- born of overcrowding and a lack of resources and security -- rarely produce more than a surfeit of ingenious criminals and competent jailhouse lawyers.
On the other hand, Jefferson was a member of the land-owning elite, what we would today call the very wealthy. Translated into today's dollars, nearly every signer of the Declaration of Independence was a millionaire or multimillionaire. Einstein was never truly poor, and he lived a life ranging from comfortable to wealthy. And even Edison, penniless when he ran away from home at age 15, entered a world with a total population that was a fifth of what it is today, rich with cheap natural resources, and almost limitless opportunity for ambitious white young men who spoke American English. If any of them were to be born into the modern-day sewers of Bogotá, they might end up being hunted for sport -- but it's unlikely that they'd ever have access to the resources necessary to create lasting and meaningful changes in the world.
True Change Is Not a Simple Process
There is no shortage of do-this-and-everything-will-be-okay solutions proffered in books and the press. The more commonly touted include worldwide birth control, strong controls on corporate exploiters and polluters, $5-per-gallon (or more) taxes on gasoline and oil products, doubling or tripling of the cost of water and electricity by increased taxation, worldwide destruction of weapons of war, more money for environmental remediation, and the creation and the empowerment of new political parties not beholden to corporate powers.
The idea of cultural change is often unpalatable because any sort of real, individual, personal change in beliefs and behaviors is so difficult as to be one of the rarest events we ever experience in our own lives or witness among those we know. It's easy to send $10 off to the Sierra Club; it's infinitely more difficult to reconsider beliefs and behaviors held since childhood and then change your way of life to one based on that new understanding, new viewpoint, or new story. But if such deep change is what we really need, I see no point in pretending that something simpler will do it.
The Something-Will-Save-Us Viewpoint
We are members of a culture that asserts that humans are at the top of a pyramid of creation and evolution. In our modern techno naiveté, we reveal our fatal belief that anything we have done-for better or worse-can also be undone. We tend to think that every problem, including manmade ones, has a solution.
In the deus ex machina ending in Greek plays, the hero inevitably finds himself in an impossible situation. To close the show, a platform is cranked down from the ceiling with a god on it, who waves his staff and makes everything well again. Similarly, we have faith that somehow things will turn out okay. "Don't worry," our sitcom culture tells us, "human ingenuity will save us."
We envision that our salvation will come from new technologies, or perhaps the rise of a new leader or political party, or the return/appearance of ancient founders of our largest religions. The more esoteric among us suggest that people from outer space will show up and either share their planet-saving technology or take us to a less polluted and more paradisiacal planet. The Christian "rapture" envisions the world's "good people" being removed from this mess we've created and relocated to a paradise created just for them. Among the New Age movement, a popular notion is that just in the nick of time the Ancient Ones, now available only in channeled form through our mediums and psychics, will make themselves known and tell us how to solve our problems. And, of course, there is no shortage of "just follow me, worship me, do as I say, and you'll be happy forever" gurus.
Whatever form it takes, our culture whispers in our ears daily, "Something or someone will save us. Just continue your life as it was, and keep on consuming, because you couldn't possibly save the world, but somebody else will."
This is what I refer to as something-will-save-us thinking.
It's built into our culture, at the foundation of our certainty about how life should be lived, how the world works, and our role in it. It most likely originated as a way for dominators in emerging younger cultures to control their slaves: "Just keep picking that cotton and praying, and you'll eventually be saved. It may be after you die, but it'll happen; don't worry about that. In the meantime, don't stop picking that cotton!" Far from being the solution, something-will-save-us thinking is at the root of our problems.
Younger Cultures and Something-Will-Save-Us Beliefs
Something-will-save-us beliefs are at the core of younger cultures but are startlingly rare among older ones. This is not to say that older cultures don't have spirituality, belief in deities or spirits, elaborate rituals, offerings or oblations to gods or spirits, personal mystical experience, and so on. But younger-culture beliefs require two essential elements that are lacking from most older cultures:
- The belief that there is, to paraphrase Daniel Quinn, only One Right Way to Live (which, of course, is "our" way) and that when everybody on the planet figures this out and lives our way, things will be good. Conversely, this belief says that if we fail to convert everybody to our way of life, the deity (or, for secularists, the science/technology) who defined this One Right Way to Live will punish us. This punishment may be personal, or it may involve the destruction of the entire planet; but, in either case, those who fail to conform to the dominator culture's way will suffer, and the only way to be saved from doom is to conform.
- The belief that humans are essentially flawed, sinful, damned by a specific deity, or intrinsically destructive and, therefore, they (we) can and must be "saved." According to this belief, this personal (and thus worldwide) salvation process can happen only by intense personal effort and devotion to a particular program (yoga, rosary, prostrations, good deeds, psychotherapy, jihad, Prozac, evangelism) or through the intervention of a divine being or beings who reside in a nonearthly realm (aliens from space) or nonphysical realm (gods, saviors, angels, prophets, gurus, channeled Wise Ones).
The most secular among us believe that we will find, among our own human race, people who will save us from ourselves. Historically, this was the basis of the rule of dominator kings: they had to have absolute power over their people, they said, to save the people from themselves. This is also a core belief among modern people who treat either politics or science as a something-will-save-us religion.
Because members of older cultures assume that there are Many Right Ways to Live, each unique to a particular time, place, and people, they avoid evangelism. Instead they respect other cultures and beliefs, carefully protecting their own ways and beliefs from outsiders and accepting "converts" in only the rarest of circumstances.
Believing in the flawed or "fallen" nature of humanity allows people to rationalize the various genocides, past and present, committed against humans and nonhumans. According to this worldview, some of us will act out "human nature" (whether it's biologically caused as the neo-Darwinians suggest or a curse from an upset god as some religions suggest) and commit all sorts of crimes against the human and natural world. But if evil is fundamental to human nature, how could it be that it doesn't exist in all cultures? Few ever pause to question whether the evil or dysfunction may be in the nature of our culture rather than in the humans our culture comprises.
If We Could Just Find the Right Lever
Something-will-save-us beliefs -- whether rooted in technology or religion -- suggest that our problems are always solvable by new and improved human actions: they're things we can control and manipulate if only we have the right science or can figure out the right prayers to motivate the right god(s) or space aliens.
The technological something-will-save-us believers say that we haven't yet mastered the technology of efficient and nonpolluting energy use, equitable economic and political systems, simple and widespread methods of food and birth control (and their distribution), better medicines, and efficient communications. Their refrain always begins, "If only there were more of..." or "If only everybody would..." and is then followed by the doxology of the particular solution being recommended.
Religionists say we just haven't yet mastered the technology of pleasing the particular god of their sect: if every last tribe is found and converted to a particular institutionalized religion, or if all the ancient prophecies are fulfilled, or if enough people would meditate with the right technique or say the right magic words or the right magical name, we'll be saved from doom. We haven't yet gotten that system perfect, they feel, so we need to work harder on it.
Older Cultures and the Synergist Worldview
The true problem we're facing is a natural and predictable result of this way of viewing the world. The problem is the stories we tell ourselves, what we see and hear and feel as we move through the world, our disconnection from the sacred natural world, and our insistence on quick-fix/external-to-us solutions to natural-world crises that we ourselves created.
Most of us can't even imagine what it would be like to live with a different worldview from our own. (We do, though, keep getting glimpses -- most often in the words of our "enlightened ones" -- and we usually ignore those glimpses because, being older-culture wisdom, they're so inconsistent with our way of life.)
The younger culture says, "Who cares what our children's children will inherit: that's their problem, and they can work out their own salvation just as we must work out ours."
The older-culture perspective says, "We're here, now, and must deal with the practical realities of this life. Any decisions we make must consider the impact on our grandchildren seven or more generations from now."
I find value in many of the technological suggestions people are exploring and promoting worldwide, and many must ultimately play a role in the transformation of our world if we are to avoid utter disaster. But none attacks the problem at its core. We must begin to live a sustainable, egalitarian, peaceful way of life. This can happen through political or religious transformation, but at its core its cultural transformation.
This is not a secret: Older-culture people have been shouting it at us since we first began our genocide against them 7,000 years ago. Most of them are still trying as hard as they can, but we're not capable of hearing because our culture has plugged our ears to their message. Here it is:
Return to the ancient and honest ways in which humans participated in the web of life on the earth, seeing yourselves and all things as sacred and interpenetrated. Listen to the voice of all life, and feel the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
Living from this place, all other decisions we make will be appropriate.
The good news is that this is a very clear solution, embodying, as it does, only a single issue and a single change in a single culture (ours). The bad news is that that single issue is the most difficult and wrenching change I can envision -- but we must begin, now, to take the first steps.
It's the same problem with which the prophets of old wrestled: their message was most often Change your way of seeing and living in the world because the path you're currently walking will lead to disaster. As secular and Bible history show, such prophets were almost always ignored, at least until the predicted (and inevitable) disasters struck, and even then the responses to the disasters were reactive: more animal sacrifices, building bigger temples, developing new medicines, drilling deeper wells, seizing distant and more fertile lands, and so on.
The worldview of older cultures rarely brought them to the inevitable and cyclic crises that younger cultures have faced since their first eruption 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. Because people in these older cultures assumed that humans were intrinsically good, emphasis was on nurturing and healing rather than controlling and punishing. Because they believed that humans and natural systems were not separate but rather interpenetrated and interdependent-synergistic-they developed cultural, religious, and economic systems that preserved the abundance of their natural environment and provided for their descendants generation after generation.
So What Are the Easy Answers to Difficult Problems?
Unlike many of our self-assured gurus, ecologists, and technologist something-will-save-us believers, I don't claim to know the exact details of our future. What I do know is that if we are to save some part of this world for our children and all other life, the answers won't simply rest in just the application of technology, economy, government, messianic figures, or new religions, sects, and cults.
True and lasting solutions will require that a critical mass of people achieve an older-culture way of viewing the world-the perspective that successfully and sustainably maintained human populations for hundreds of thousands of years. Because I'm convinced that our problem is rooted in our worldview, the solutions I offer derive from ways we can change that, which will then naturally transform the technological/political/economic details that emerge from that new perspective. For example:
- History demonstrates that the deepest and most meaningful cultural/social/political changes began with individuals, not organizations, governments, or institutions.
- In helping "save the world," the most important work you and I face is to help individuals transform their ability to perceive reality and control the stories they believe because people do tend to live out what they believe is true. This has to do with people's taking back personal spirituality, finding their own personal power, and realizing that most of our religious, political, and economic institutions are younger-culture dominators that must be transformed if we are to prevent them from destroying us.
- Then, out of this new perspective, we ourselves will come up with the solutions in ways that you and I right now probably can't even imagine.
In the reality and the experience of an older-culture perspective-a life-connected worldview-we find a life rich and deep with wisdom, love, and the very real experience of the presence of the sacred in all things and all humans. It is a world that works for every living thing, including our children's children's children.