|Something Will Save Us
by Thom Hartmann
But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving?…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Wendy Kaminer wrote a brilliant book titled I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. 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. At the end of the book, she didn’t offer any specific solutions: she had only defined the problem. (Although one could argue 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 reclaiming their own inherent power and emotional health.)
Interestingly, after publication of the book, Kaminer received numerous letters from people indignantly demanding solutions to the problems she 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 self-help groups or self-help books.
Some of the initial responses to the early editions of this book were curiously 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 this book would be found in smaller families, cold fusion, coaxing the flying saucer people out of their hiding, a worldwide conversion to Christianity (at least a half-dozen different people suggested, too, that only their particular sect of Christianity could bring this about, and all other Christians must ultimately recognize the error of their ways) or 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-Us 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 Edison or Jefferson or Einstein, 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 in 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 multi-millionaire. Einstein was never truly poor, and mostly 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 virtually 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 Bogota, they may 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, of course, no shortage of do-this-and-everything-will-be-ok solutions proffered in the press and other books. The more commonly touted include worldwide birth control, strong controls on corporate exploiters and polluters, five-dollar-a-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 empowerment of new political parties not beholden to corporate powers. I even dance around the edge of such solutions in the chapter about using our current oil supplies to create non-oil-consuming energy sources such as solar; I also, however, make it clear that this is nowhere near a full solution, but merely a stopgap.
But those who are concerned that this book doesn’t emphasize technological or political solutions have — if I may say it gently — missed the point.
Missing the point of a book like this is quite easy to do, because this book makes a radical departure from the normal fare of self-help and environmentalism. It presents the problems, delves into the cause of the problems, and then presents as a solution something that many may think couldn’t possibly be a solution because it seems unfathomably difficult: change our culture, beginning with yourself.
Such a solution is among the most perplexing to grasp because culture, at its core, is invisible. Like the air we breathe and walk through, its presence is only felt when it’s resisted: at all other times it’s part of the nothing-around-us that we rarely consider and almost never question.
The idea of cultural change is also 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 ten dollars 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 humans are at the top of a pyramid of creation and evolution. In our radio-talk-show 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 man-made ones, has a solution.
"Don’t worry," our sitcom culture tell us: "Human ingenuity will save us." 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 today have an ultimate faith that somehow things will turn out ok.
From this perspective, 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 another, 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 only available 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."
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 originated, most likely, 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. But, in the meantime, don’t stop picking that cotton!"
And, far from being the solution, Something-Will-Save-Us thinking is 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 startlingly rare among Older Cultures. This is not to say Older Cultures don’t have spirituality, belief in deities or spirits, elaborate ritual, offerings or oblations to gods or spirits, personal mystical experience, and so on. But Younger Culture Something-Will-Save-Us beliefs require two essential elements which are lacking from most Older Cultures:
The belief there is 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, then things will be good. Conversely, this belief says that if we fail to convert everybody to our way of life, we will be punished by the deity (or, for secularists, the science/technology) who defined this one right way of life.
The 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’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 only happen by either intense personal effort and devotion to a particular program (yoga, rosary, prostrations, good deeds, psychotherapy, jihad, Prozac), or through the intervention of a divine being or beings who reside in a non-Earthly realm (aliens from space) or non-physical realm (gods, saviors, angels, prophets, gurus, channeled Wise Ones).
The most secular among us believe 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, to save the people from themselves. This is also a core belief found among modern people who treat either politics or science as a Something-Will-Save-Us religion.
Because members of Older Cultures assume there are many Right Ways To Live, each unique to a particular place, time, and people, they avoid evangelism. Instead, they respect other cultures and beliefs (even when they disagree with them): in fact, most carefully protect their ways and beliefs from outsiders, and accept "converts" only in the most rare 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 non-humans. According to this world-view, people are essentially evil and cursed; it logically follows that some of us will act out what we all agree is basic "human nature" (whether it’s biologically caused as the neo-Darwinianists 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 the humans who are in it.
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 levers/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 non-polluting energy use, equitable economic and/or political systems, simple and widespread methods of food or birth-control (or distribution of them), better medicines, or efficient communications. "If only there was more of…" or, "If only everybody would…" the Something-Will-Save-Us refrain always begins, followed with the particular 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, then we’ll be saved from doom. But we haven’t yet gotten that system perfect, they feel, so we need to work harder on it.
Older Cultures and the Synergist world-view
The true problem we’re facing is a result of our Something-Will-Save-Us way of viewing the world — a natural and predictable result. The problem is the stories we tell ourselves, what we see and hear and feel as we move through the world. The true problem is our disconnection from the sacred natural world. The problem is our insistence on quick-fix/external-to-us solutions to natural-world crises which we ourselves created.
Because our world-view is so much a part of us, subtly programmed into us since birth and reinforced a thousand whispered times every day, we take it for granted. We assume that the worldview we live with is inevitably, unchangeably real. Most of us can’t even imagine what it would be like to live with a different world-view 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).
Essentially, the Younger Culture Something-Will-Save-Us perspective says, "Something/somebody outside of us will save us," whereas the Older Culture perspective looks within the individual and the local culture for solutions.
The Younger Culture says, "Grab all the gusto," or, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may be dead." It hopes that no matter what we do or how bad we screw up, somehow we’ll be saved from it, either in this life or the next. 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. And, most important, any decisions we make must consider their impact on our grandchildren seven or more generations from now."
I find value in many of the Something-Will-Save-Us 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.
The solution is not hidden from us: people have been doing it for over a hundred thousand years. A dwindling few million still do, to this day.
These are not secrets: Older Culture people have been shouting them at us since we first began our genocide against them 7000 years ago. Most of them are still trying as hard as they can to tell us, but we’re just not capable of hearing, because our culture has plugged our ears to their message.
Here is their message:
"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 toward the changes necessary.
It’s the same problem the prophets of old wrestled with: their core 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 both 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, etc.)
The world-view of Older Cultures rarely brought them to the inevitable and cyclic crises 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 placed on nurturing and healing, rather than controlling and punishing. Because they believed that humans and natural systems were not separate but, instead, interpenetrated and interdependent — synergistic — they developed cultural, religious, and economic systems which 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/cults.
Instead, 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 so firmly convinced that our problem is rooted in our world-view, the third section of this book is devoted to ways we can change that world view, rather than the technological/political/economic details which may emerge from that new perspective. The concepts of this third section flow from a few simple assertions:
1. History demonstrates that the deepest and most meaningful cultural/social/political changes began with individuals, not organizations, governments, or institutions.
2. In helping to "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 taking back personal spirituality, finding their own personal power, and realizing that most of our religious, political, and economic institutions are Younger Culture dominators and must be transformed.
3. 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 experience of an Older Culture perspective, the mystical and life-connected world-view, 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. A world that works for every living thing, including our children’s children’s children.
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