Note: This content, as with the previously posted excerpts, was composed in January 2020. I have not edited any of my original thoughts relative to current events (i.e. COVID-19 pandemic)
As I write this, Australia is experiencing the most extreme heatwave and bushfire season in its history, the US military, on order of President Donald J. Trump, (and without Congressional approval), assassinated the top general in Iran, likely beginning yet another war in the Middle East, homelessness is on the rise in the US and throughout the developed world, and the most recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that we have approximately eight to ten years to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions or it’s ‘game over’ for human life on Earth.
It’s not looking great for humanity.
Techno-utopians, or those who believe we can ‘tech’ ourselves out of any problem, have dominated the American and world conversation and captured the attention of most major political and media representatives. It is not surprising that a few individuals- all extremely wealthy, male, and white- have become the dominant voices in the conversation and that few alternative viewpoints have had any impact on their perspective. In order to be clear, I will name a few of them them: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Elon Musk (Tesla), Larry Page, & Sergei Brin (Google). These men are the Titans of Tech. Their influence, and that of other technology capitalists cannot be overstated. Through their dominance of capital markets over the last couple of decades, these men have established an out-sized influence over national and international policy decisions, economic models, and social norms. They are looked at, by and large, as visionary leaders of the 21st Century and their financial success is held up as evidence of their virtue and “rightness” in idealizing technology as our only way forward. I, and others, find this disconcerting and quite dangerous. Our existence is at stake. Technology will not fix what is, fundamentally, a problem of human philosophy- driven by stories that have informed and enabled the very activities that have created every crisis we now face.
Since the problem I’m discussing is massive, encompassing all of the interrelated systems that organize the vast majority of human beings on the planet, I would like to focus for now on the stories- narratives that have driven us into a mass extinction event that certainly won’t wipe out ALL life on Earth, but will certainly lead to a devastating future for most of humanity and other life forms.
Narrative 1: The Myth of Perpetual Growth
It is a rarely questioned idea in our society that economic growth is good and lack of growth is bad. Our obsessive observation of the Stock Market and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures is evidence of this. Regardless of how difficult individual and family experiences of our economy are, we are lulled into thinking that everything is getting better as long as “our economy” is growing. There are economists and others who have substantively challenged this model of economic health but, for the most part, their voices have been drowned out by the chorus of growth evangelists who have the loudest amplifiers in politics, media, and other social information-sharing systems.
In the United States, it is commonly understood that the Republican Party is more business-friendly and unabashedly in favor of any policy that provides for the ‘free’ operation of capitalist markets- deregulation of industry, low taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and the acquisition of additional natural and technical resources, by literally any means necessary. Democrats, conversely, are supposedly more focused on labor rights, social safety nets, and leveling the playing field for ordinary people. In practice, however, both parties have demonstrated unwavering allegiance to the idea that growth is the most important aspect of economic health and prosperity. Even the most left-wing members of the Democratic Party are devoted to a continuation of the core components of this economic model.
Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist and considered “extreme” by most members of both the Republican and Democratic Party establishments. This, despite the fact that even Sanders is not advocating for any substantive change to the model, itself, merely a redistribution of “created wealth” to benefit the majority of people working to produce the goods and services and those who are unable to find meaningful opportunities in the system, such as the elderly, disabled, very young, or very poor. I am supportive of providing for the needs of all people living in our society and think the ideas Sanders and other progressive politicians are advocating are important in shifting our culture away from the excessive inequality and subsequent social harm that has been wrought by our hierarchical economic system. Without a fundamental change in our understanding about the design flaws inherent in the system, however, we will only mitigate some of the harm temporarily, rather than moving toward a more egalitarian and sustainable system for the future.
Narrative 2: The Myth of Human Dominion
The idea that human beings are exempted from any limitations on our economic growth is a natural offshoot of the idea that we were created to dominate the world and everything in it. This idea comes, primarily, from the story of Adam & Eve and the Garden of Eden. In this Old Testament story, God creates the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, and provides them with everything they need to be comfortable and cared for in perpetuity. He gives them explicit permission to “subdue the earth” and rule over all other lifeforms.
This is taken quite literally by many adherents Judeo-Christian theology, which has had an immeasurable impact on the development of our dominant cultural narratives and practices. Daniel Quinn posits a theory in his books that I have not seen in any theological analyses about Genesis 1:28 and the rest of our Old Testament “origin story.” Quinn suggests that the knowledge of good and evil is the power to decide who lives and dies by controlling food sources and compelling former hunter-gatherers to accept large-scale agriculture and food hoarding as the right way to live. This theory is supported further by analyzing the Cain and Abel story, with Cain representing the tribal members who sought to put more land under cultivation and control the food supply and Abel representing traditional hunter-gatherers and herders who sought to continue their subsistence economies. That God rejected Cain’s offering of grain means, in this context, that the balance of nature could not be maintained when humans controlled the food supply and could decide who would live or die based on that control. “Murdering” Abel means destroying a way of life that had sustained humanity in harmony with the rest of nature for millennia, in favor of a new way of life that would lead to figuratively, “brother turning against brother.”
The human family was split against itself due to differing worldviews, arising from the new invention of agriculture and the ancient Hebrew tribes may have started telling these stories in order to warn their members against the dangers of attempting to control food sources and forcing others to adapt to an unproven lifestyle after millennia of success in tribes. The entire, largely unquestioned history of civilization is amplification of this narrative- divide, conquer, control, exploit, colonize, industrialize, dominate, destroy… Sound familiar?
Narrative 3: The Myth of Separation
Our worldview, shaped by the proceeding myths and subsequent human events, has precipitated intense loneliness and insecurity as hallmarks of emotional life in the modern and post-modern eras. Famous philosophers like Descartes have expounded on our individual consciousness and rationality as proof that we are separate from each other and even from ourselves. We are so convinced of this that we have created innumerable ways to enhance and exacerbate separation- sexism, racism, classism, and all of the other “isms” are ways that society has divided itself into ever smaller groups and we perpetuate harm against all those with whom we are convinced we cannot identify.
This indicates that we have an intense need for belonging but we are compelled to reduce our connections to fewer and fewer possible “others.” Even within families (perhaps, especially so) there are deep rifts that prevent our relationships from feeling solid or secure. Our cultural narratives have become increasingly divisive and closed-off and we are all feeling the impact. Within identity groups, smaller and smaller categories of identity are being formed and these splits are creating increasingly intractable barriers to consensus and unity. As a result, people are feeling more disconnected and isolated than ever, despite online social networks and an infinite range of opportunities both virtually and in real life to connect to others with whom they share core values and beliefs.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have been on the rise in the United States and other developed countries for decades, as have self-harm, addiction, mass shootings, and deaths by suicide. Social science research clearly indicates that authentic, meaningful relationships with others are protective factors against personally and socially destructive behaviors but our cultural belief in fundamental separateness undermines significant movement toward a culture of inclusion, connection, compassion, and empathy. It is not necessary for an individual to believe in the concepts of human sin (also translated as separation) or the biblical fall from grace that supposedly cursed humanity, in order to buy into the idea that we are fundamentally flawed and it is in our nature to harm ourselves and each other. That idea is built into our civilizational worldview and will only be countered by rejection of the model that precipitated it and the replacement of that model by another one that works- namely, tribal organization.
Narrative 4: The Myth of Divine Intervention
Throughout human history, there have been stories of miraculous events that could be explained only through the existence of supernatural, or divine beings, intervening in human lives. Every cultures’ mythologies and theologies contain such narratives. Rather than focus on the particular stories, I’d like to explore how their existence reinforces other components of our civilizational worldview. The average person recognizes as unalterably true that individually, and even collectively, human beings are not powerful in the way that they perceive a God or gods to be powerful, despite our having created scientific and technological tools that may well render our planet unlivable. Many individuals credit “God” for any and all achievements they attain, while blaming themselves for any failures. Others claim that the true reward for being a “good human” is eternal bliss in Heaven and the punishment for being a “bad human” is eternal damnation in Hell.
There are those who believe they are “saved” and will be among the chosen heavenly inhabitants because they’ve avowed allegiance to Christ, Allah, or another Godhead. Ask the average person how they would describe prayer and they are likely to say that it involves asking God to intervene in their lives or the lives of their loved ones in some way. Many churches have prayer request slips in the pews for submission during services or prayer chains that link members of the church in order to enlist them in praying for church members and others in need. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become so ubiquitous in American politics and culture when any tragedy happens, that there has been a backlash- mainly on social media but also in mainstream media. Especially in the case of mass shootings, which have accelerated sharply in the US over the last 20 years, patience for the endless tweets and posts from politicians sending their “thoughts and prayers” has run thin.
There are other myths that I could list and analyze but most are extensions or iterations of those listed here.
For me, discovering that I held these ideas as true- and that they actually weren’t– came in the form of realization over time, through conscious thought, reading and hearing new narratives, and growing in relationship with others.