Note: This section of the book begins delving into my life story and is written from my perspective based on my memories of my experiences. For friends, acquaintances, or family members who may read this and think, “that never happened,” or “it didn’t happen like that,” please try to be open to the possibility that each of our perspectives, while potentially contradictory, are real and valid. I would not presume to dictate to you what your truth is- I can only share mine as honestly as possible. Thank you.
As a child, I had personality traits and lived experiences that I believed were completely unlike anyone I knew. I thought they made me weird, strange, uniquely different from everyone else. I felt alone and misunderstood. I felt tremendous pressure to conform to social and cultural norms at home, at school, and within my peer group, but there were such clear inconsistencies within those norms, I was in conflict with myself and others just about all the time.
As I mentioned earlier, my parents were “Hippies,” at least in the cultural sense. They used drugs, eschewed traditional structures, and dressed differently from many of my peers’ parents. They had divorced before I started school and my mother remarried a week after my 5th birthday. My biological father, Charles Michael, who preferred and went by his middle name, was not a primary caregiver beyond my 2nd year, so I have no memory of his being in our household or parenting my two sisters and me at all, really. In my early childhood, he was “Daddy Michael,” to us and our stepfather was “Daddy Ken.”
Our mom, Sue, was our main influence and most consistent parental figure. She was super smart, funny, independently minded, and very loving. She had survived a great deal of trauma and dysfunction in her upbringing but, of course, I didn’t know or understand any of that as a child. Her lifestyle was unorthodox and some of her parenting choices were questionable and, arguably, damaging to her children but I have no doubt that she did the best she could with the knowledge and resources she had at the time. That’s my adult perspective, obviously. When I was young, I had a much less nuanced understanding of her circumstances and her choices.
While in elementary school, I began to observe a number of ways in which my home life and I, myself, were not “normal.” I watched other families at parent-teacher conferences and open houses and noticed that many of my fellow students were represented by their still-married, biological parents. I saw that other kids’ dads didn’t have long hair, or unkempt beards, or tattoos of the Zig Zag man. Or any tattoos at all!
Other kids’ moms didn’t have a different haircut or color every few months and didn’t dress in peasant blouses and floral wrap skirts that they made themselves. As far as I could tell, none of my peers went home to small apartments where their parents would smoke weed and drop acid on a regular basis. It was made clear to me very early on, both implicitly and explicitly, that my parents’ lifestyle was not something to discuss at school or with my friends. There was nothing wrong with what was going on, I just shouldn’t talk about it.
Adding to my sense of separateness was the discovery that I was academically advanced, or “gifted.” I had started reading at 3 years old and had moved well beyond the typical Kindergarten curriculum by the time I entered formal schooling. Much of my time in the classroom the first 3 years of school was spent working independently, with occasional check-ins from my teachers. As standardized tests soon revealed, my intellect, at least by the accepted measures of the time, was “off the charts.” We were poor and my parents could not afford to engage any additional “enrichment” opportunities for me but they made sure I always had books, typically from the public library, and I was free to ask questions, at least early on. My precociousness was, I imagine, somewhat novel and endearing when I was a tiny, pig-tailed, rosy-cheeked little girl. As I got older, however, and my questions became more challenging, conflicts began to arise.
In third grade, I was extremely fortunate to be placed in Miss Bullen’s class. She was an exceptionally engaging and warm presence, who recognized the need to differentiate her teaching methods for students, based on their individual strengths and challenges. Despite my abilities to learn and understand material more rapidly and deeply than most other students, I was disorganized and resisted structure and restrictions- finding most rules arbitrary and, often, downright “stupid.”
Miss Bullen worked with me on strategies to keep my desk neat and explained why switching from reading or art (which I loved) to math or science (which were less interesting to me) was important and necessary. On her own time and with her own resources, she offered extra field trips (expeditions) for a few students, including me- those of us who demonstrated an inclination for learning beyond the classroom. I have vivid memories of exploring local resources like the Erie Canal and researching the historical and cultural significance of the Indigenous tribes of Western New York with Miss Bullen. She sang songs with us, talked with us, hugged us often, and told us we were capable of achieving whatever we could imagine for ourselves.
It is clear to me, in hindsight, that her influence has inspired my personal and professional approach to working with young people immeasurably- not just through demonstration of effective teaching practice but also by providing an example of genuine, intentional relationship-building between an adult professional and children. Some might characterize this as merely another teaching practice but Miss Bullen was the only teacher I had throughout my schooling who created extra opportunities for her students to know her and explore learning with her outside of the typical teacher-student power dynamic. Enrichment programs within the school setting- even with field trips and expeditionary learning models- are still “school” and don’t have the same kind of impact as adult professionals personally and intentionally giving time and attention to their students.
The remainder of elementary school was less pleasant for me and I began to exhibit increasingly problematic mood changes and disruptive behaviors at home and at school. At the time, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. No one seemed to understand me well enough. I was too different. I spent most of my free time reading- immersing myself in other peoples’ lives and worlds. Mine was scary and confusing and, despite how “smart” I was, I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to reconcile my thoughts with my feelings.
During this time, my family moved out of the school district I’d been in since Kindergarten to a small town in a rural area. It was only a few miles away from where we’d lived previously but it felt like a huge distance. My few close friends and I were able to stay in touch and visit one another regularly, but it was no longer every day and I had difficulty making new friends, especially since most of the students in my new school had known each other since kindergarten and already had formed cliques.
By middle school, I had become relatively close with a couple other “smart kids” and I’d gotten used to the small town environment but I never felt at home there. My stepfather and I were frequently getting into arguments that led to physical punishment of some kind- spankings were most common- and I was internalizing the idea that I was not, nor would I ever be, good enough to be really accepted and loved by my parents. I resented my intelligence and wanted to be like other kids- the ones who seemed happy and popular. The ones whose parents seemed to cherish and celebrate them- to truly want them.
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.
Note: If you have feedback on this or any of my prior posts, please comment or send me a note. I sincerely appreciate your thoughts!
Relationships between individuals are the core units of human cultural transmission. All of the information we learn about what it means to be a person and how to live in the world originate from relationships between and among us. All of our media and technology infrastructure have been built by people. All of the messages, ideas, images, and other information transmitted through that infrastructure are created and disseminated by people. Religions have been started and propagated by people.
The worldview that we hold as right and true has been created through our relationships with people and the products people have created. Though our society today is often characterized as being more disconnected and polarized than any other time in human history, there are more similarities than differences in how people live now and how we’ve lived since the onset of civilization. Stratification based on wealth and status has been present since the first human decisions to store food and control its distribution.
I imagine that the tribal folks seeking to continue their way of life found it very polarizing when the land they’d always lived on was suddenly taken over by those who sought to increase the amount of land under cultivation in order to hoard more food. Large-scale conflict only became the norm when more and more of what had been tribal territory became farmland for the enrichment of those who sought to expand civilization at the expense of traditional, indigenous ways of life. Early civilizations often grew too fast, used too many resources, or otherwise abused the power created through their newly formed hierarchies. Masses of indigenous people were forced to labor in fields, build cities and monuments, and otherwise serve masters- masters they had no say in choosing- in a form of social life they had no interest in perpetuating. Rebellion became a thing. How could it not?
It is not surprising that so many ruins of formerly great cities or settlements have been found with evidence of mass destruction and abandonment. Despite efforts by the masters to convince the masses that some sort of supernatural or supreme power had been conferred upon the few to rule the many, inevitably the many became disillusioned and decided to stop supporting a system that enslaved and exploited them. Once critical mass was reached, the civilizational model would collapse. At its inception, the concept of civilization was difficult to impose on tribal people because they were not discontented with their traditional way of living. Why would one choose to live in crowded, filthy, insecure conditions when one could continue to subsist with a minimum of effort and stress with one’s kin, having a guarantee of lifetime security and continuity of purpose?
As more and more land was cultivated for cash crops and the population subsequently grew, social structures were created to compel, coerce, and otherwise convince the growing masses that they must take their place in this new world. The alternatives? Be enslaved, killed by newly formed armies, or be forced to find territory somewhere else. Many chose to find new places and continued to live as hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders, or subsistence farmers for millennia until the population grew to the point that virtually every possible square foot of arable land was “conquered” by the civilized (colonizers) who took what they wanted by force and claimed divine right to do so.
Today, approximately 370 million of over 7.7 billion people in the world, around 5%, are considered indigenous people- living in traditionally tribal ways or attempting to maintain some traditions, while segregated from the rest of society in reservations or outposts on the edge of the “real world.” It took approximately 12,000 years to explode our population from just 4 million people to the nearly 8 billion living on Earth today. The vast majority of that growth has occurred in the last 600 years as the chart below illustrates.
The explosion of global population has had predictable impacts including natural resource depletion, extensive pollution, famine, poverty, homelessness, pandemic diseases, unending wars, genocides, the climate crisis, and a growing sense among the masses that our collective future will not be comfortable but full of human suffering. Many of our cultural narratives, especially those from religious sources, feed the idea that we, as humans, deserve to suffer because we are sinners- flawed to the core and destined to destroy ourselves. This narrative is clearly counterproductive to our collective ability to imagine alternatives to driving ourselves to extinction. We need new stories that not only imagine alternative ways of living but also reframe our understanding of humanity as worthy of meaningful lives and relationships that promote well-being for ourselves and future generations.
Note: Reading previous posts is advised. Content warning: includes personal disclosures about childhood sexual abuse. This content was originally composed in January 2020.
It is a largely unquestioned assumption in American culture that the United States was founded with the most advanced governmental model ever devised. Our Constitution, we’re taught, ensures that every citizen has rights and protections that prevent tyrannical applications of power by our leaders. People of color, women, immigrants, children, indigenous people, and others were excluded from such rights and protections from the beginning and have always been aware that the USA is not, and has never been, the true bastion of universal democracy it claims to be. Rebellions, protests, strikes, and other forms of activism provide evidence that large groups of people have been left out since day one.
Even among those explicitly included- white men who were born in the US- there are discontents who distrust our government and believe that revolution is imminent and much needed. Fringe groups of all varieties have formed online and in person- many with the stated objective of “burning it all down” and starting over. In his 2019 book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz chronicles his 3-year investigation of the alt-right movement in the United States. His reporting makes clear that there are a lot more people seeking and actively promoting the destruction of our Democratic Republic than we know. Authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise throughout the world, with “strongmen” heading the governments of Russia, Syria, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and others.
Recent polling in the US suggests that there is a growing sentiment that strong leadership is more important that democracy and that the separation of powers within our government is unnecessary and inefficient. Trump supporters seem completely unbothered by the corruption and criminality that have been exposed within the President’s businesses, family, campaign team, and administration. If anything, his “above the law” persona has strengthened his base’s support. These are extremely ominous trends, demonstrating major flaws in the design of our system of government. We can argue all we want about the merits or deficits of the Electoral College, the proper voting age, gerrymandering of election districts, voter purges, money in politics, and the like, but we need to address the overall design problem inherent to any governmental model that is based on our civilizational worldview. It’s the hierarchy, dammit!
To be fair, there are also examples of progressive leadership rising in parts of the world, including the United States. I am encouraged, to some extent, by the recent elections in New Zealand, Finland, and Costa Rica, where 30-something politicians, Jacinda Ardern, Alverado Quesada, and Sanna Marin, respectively, have become heads of state. Each has come to power with platforms focused on human well-being and sustainability. Realistically, however, they are each leading small countries and are up against the same structural challenges faced by any leader in a hierarchical system. It is important that their ideas are popular within their societies and that they have a world stage upon which to promote their priorities but their influence will, inevitably, be limited by the parameters of civilizational hierarchy.
In virtually all civilized cultures, our children are held up as our primary focus- with childcare, healthcare, housing, environmental protections, and education being necessities for their development. When it comes to where tax dollars are allocated, however, our actual priorities are clear- military might, industrial growth, and increased shareholder value for the already most privileged classes. The apparent contradictions are difficult to reconcile because they are fundamentally irreconcilable. Most of us don’t even bother to question the preeminence of the so-called “military-industrial complex” at this stage- perhaps because there have been so many failed attempts to challenge the status quo. The counterculture revolution efforts of the past, most notably the Hippies’ movement in the 1960s, resulted in a reversion to the dominant culture with backlash against any hint of progressive or revolutionary thought.
My parents considered themselves part of the movement but seemed only to have an interest in the free love, drug use, and lack of responsibility parts of the scene. They were not involved in protests or demonstrations against the War in Vietnam or American hegemony in the world, in general, but had long hair and smoked/sold a lot of pot and other drugs. Within 15 years of the end of the 60s, they were full-on capitalists, owning businesses and profiting from the labor of others with no noticeable qualms, whatsoever. My memories of early childhood include a lot of tribal elements- various other hippies around- getting high, making art, playing music, and discussing all manner of philosophical questions. My sisters didn’t seem very interested but I absorbed a great deal from listening to them. They reflected a communal, non-materialistic, creative, and possibility-laden worldview that I was inspired by as a kid and remain so to this day. It was not without problems, of course. We were poor- but we always ate and had housing and clothing (even though mom made many of our garments from second-hand Indian print bedspreads that were atrocious even by 1970s standards!) My sisters and I were less supervised and more unstructured than many of our peers and that led to a quite a few unsafe situations and traumatic experiences. As the folks are fond of saying, though, we “turned out alright.”
I would argue that there were things that happened to me, as a child, that should never happen to anyone. I was sexually abused by a neighbor who took advantage of my age and vulnerability but that could certainly have happened regardless of my parents’ lifestyle choices. As an adult, I’ve learned that the majority of people have experienced some form of sexual exploitation and/or abuse prior to their 18th birthday, so clearly it is not because my parents were hippies that I was abused. I am one of millions of survivors who have been made vulnerable to mistreatment more so by structural flaws in our society than by individual parenting choices. Learning that has been both liberating and infuriating. How can we accept this? I can’t. I won’t. I will fight against the normalization of oppression, abuse, exploitation, and other harmful byproducts of civilization until my last breath.
The best way I know to do this is by presenting viable alternatives to the model, itself. In writing this, I hope to reach a wider audience but I have trained and taught hundreds of young people skills and practices to build community- based on essentially tribal principles- for much of my adult life and that is where my focus will remain. I believe strongly that relationship-building, critical thinking, and tangible opportunities to create alternative, meaningful ways of making a living are the keys to solving our seemingly intractable social and political issues. It isn’t quick- which is frustrating given the devastating impacts we have already experienced and are seeing accelerate in recent years- but I am convinced that it’s the only way to truly transform our culture.
Note: It is probably helpful to read Part 1 first, for context and continuity. But I’m not gonna tell you what to do!
An objection that often arises when one engages in discussions about culture change is this: “Well, fine. I may change the way I live but I can’t make anyone else change, so what’s the point? The corporations aren’t going to stop exploiting labor & natural resources and poisoning the planet. The wealthy aren’t going to give up their riches and play fair. I might as well keep trying to get as much as I can for myself, right?”
It’s true that none of us can force anyone else to adopt a different way of life. We can, however, set examples for others by pursuing alternatives that demonstrate the effectiveness of tribal organization. The dominant model of civilization is currently being imposed upon, and enacted by, the vast majority of human beings on Earth, which is accelerating negative impacts and outcomes. As individuals and in groups, we can raise attention about these impacts and outcomes and actively engage in alternative options, while building connections and community with others who share our interest in living differently. We don’t have to convince everyone to join us, merely opting out of the culture of maximum harm and engaging in practices that demonstrate restorative and regenerative philosophies demonstrates that alternatives exist and frees those involved from contributing to ongoing devastation. Given that most people are currently suffering economically, socially, and emotionally from the impacts of the dominant systems, I believe many will choose alternatives once they are made visible and viable by those on the leading edge of this movement.
In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn discusses the need for new ideas- a vision for humanity that is rooted in our collective responsibility to each other and the world. It is not a Utopian civilization Quinn advocates, but a return for most of us to a way of life that has proven successful for tens of thousands of years. Tribal people are no more specific in the practices of this way of life than those living within various models of civilization. The Inuit, the Yanomami, the Zulu, the Mohawk, the Navajo, and the thousands of other tribes anthropology has documented are all different in manner of dress, food sources, styles of worship, recreational activities, etc. The similarity is in their basic organization- one in which every member of each tribe is valued as equally important and having a stake in the decisions made by their leaders.
In a number of conversations I’ve had on this subject, people have said, “tribes have chiefs- they are hierarchical, too!” Quinn addresses this question in his writing, as well. A chief or leader in a tribal structure is not “the boss” and their role is no more valued or prized than any other member’s. Every organization requires some management but managing is a role, like any other role, not a de facto status upgrade in tribal cultures. The current trend of “servant leadership” in corporate and political settings reflects that people are seeking leaders who take into account the feedback and ideas of all stakeholders within organizations when deciding a course of action. It is virtually impossible within our civilizational model, however, for leaders to truly serve the people when there are such clearly defined strata of status within our organizations. The compensation paid to CEOs, alone, is so outsized to their actual value within companies and society that there is little chance they are able to see the contributions of workers as truly significant. They generally reign on high like feudal lords and treat their underlings as peons. The solutions to structural inequality must address the design. It is the design that leads to excessive wealth inequality and abuse of workers. It is the design that leads to social ills such as addiction, homelessness, entrenched poverty, failing schools, mental illness, lack of access to quality healthcare, pollution, mass violence, and premature death. It is the DESIGN.
It is January 1, 2020, and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed. The posts are largely reflective of the optimism that generally accompanies New Year’s greetings but there are other trending topics that the algorithm has seen fit to show me; massive bush fires continuing (for more than 2 months!) in Australia, Vladimir Putin is having a bad week, #PresidentSanders is trending on Twitter, several ads for diet programs, lots of my ‘friends’ cute kids, and arguments in a comment thread about how alcohol is an acceptable and socially promoted vice that kills more people than opioids but how sugar and fat (obesity) are the real killers… It’s kind of a shit show. If social media is reflective of where our society really stands, then there’s not much hope, right? And social media is where the majority of people are getting their news in America and other ‘civilized’ countries. We are inundated by inanity, horror, judgment, and advertising for all manner of goods and services that will, purportedly, provide us with a respite from our personal and collective pain. It has recently come to light that Facebook and other social media networks have been selling users’ personal data for profit (shocking!) and many of my activist friends are deleting the app and moving to new platforms that are supposedly operating in more ethical ways.
This may be true but with over 2 Billion users, Facebook is, and will likely remain, the dominant social network for a while yet. The influence of social media on politics, commerce, and human interaction cannot be overstated. Our last US presidential election was significantly impacted by targeted “fake news” on Facebook and other platforms. There is ample evidence that foreign governments, especially Russia, played a major role in originating and propagating misinformation and disinformation in the 2016 race and they are already at it again for the 2020 contest. We have a wide-spread lack of faith in our government, made worse by the ascension of a reality TV personality to the highest office in the land and his subsequent policy decisions, which have disproportionately impacted the already most vulnerable people in our society. If, as many pundits have proposed, the underlying intention of Russian efforts to undermine our elections is to exploit a sinking sense in the American electorate that the entire system is corrupt and our efforts as individual citizens don’t matter, they have succeeded beyond Putin’s wildest dreams! But, again, the fundamental issue lies in the design of the system, itself.
Long before the current Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic crisis started, I was compelled to begin a book project to consolidate and share ideas I’ve been developing and interrogating for about 20 years. Rather than pursuing the publication of a full manuscript, I think it makes sense for me to begin sharing what I’ve written so far in short form excerpts and give readers an opportunity to offer feedback on my thoughts. Here is my thesis statement and opening chapter, which I originally wrote in December 2019:
All hierarchical social structures have a fundamental design flaw- they are designed such that a privileged minority at the top of the hierarchy will, inevitably, exploit and oppress the majority below, within the given structure. Exploitation and oppression invariably give rise to unrest, rebellion, and, eventually, large-scale destruction. Civilization, by and large, is considered good and right, regardless of the inequities that are, by definition and design, inherent to the model, as it is structurally hierarchical. Attempts to significantly address oppressive and exploitative outcomes within the context of structural inequality are ineffective unless and until the structures themselves are dismantled and replaced with egalitarian alternatives.
Such alternatives include creating self-sufficient communities in which all members are equally valued and power is shared based on the skills and aptitudes of each member. Human organizational history (anthropology) provides us with ample evidence that indigenous cultures lived in harmony with each other and nature, prior to the advent of state societies, or civilization. Tribal groups maintained balance for hundreds of thousands of years, maintaining sustainable populations and subsisting without destructively exploiting natural resources or engaging in large-scale conflict. Scarcity and need were not significant social issues until humans began hoarding food and requiring forced labor by the underclasses for the benefit of the ruling classes. This began roughly 10-12 thousand years ago in several locations around the world- the most commonly-known site being the “Fertile Crescent,” also known as the “Cradle of Civilization.”
The assumption contained in modern stories about the development of hierarchical civilization is that humans are meant to be civilized- that hierarchy is the most advanced and correct way to organize ourselves, regardless of the clear and ever-present detrimental impacts of this type of organization. War, famine, epidemic and pandemic disease, mental illness, isolation, poverty, environmental degradation, overpopulation, racism, sexism, (all the –isms)., are inevitable byproducts of civilization but most accept these as products of ‘human nature,’ rather than outcomes of our dominant organizational structure. Narratives, or stories, are the primary means by which human individuals within any community learn about their roles, responsibilities, values, and potential future opportunities. It is not sufficient to unlearn harmful stories; we must convey alternative narratives that support authentic cultural transformation.
Those of us who are raised within ‘civilized’ cultures are taught from our first breath that the right way to live is within hierarchy. Children, being the most vulnerable members of any human social group, are most impacted by the power dynamics of our hierarchies. It is not surprising to me that children and youth will point out unfairness and abuses of power more readily than most adults. They haven’t yet become accustomed to the systems of oppression that most adults accept as normal within our culture.
Formal education, or schooling, reinforces the power structure through top-down authoritarian rules, regulations, and codes of conduct- designed to train young people to be compliant and complicit in their own oppression and that of others. Freedom of thought or behavior is not valued in most educational models because it leads to questioning the basic assumptions upon which our hierarchies are built. Even at the highest levels of education in our culture, there is an underlying belief that the purpose of advanced learning is the acquisition of status (monetary wealth) and power (ability to control others’ actions). Learning for learning’s sake is devalued- even considered a waste of time by most within our civilized societies- and those who propose any serious consideration of alternatives to hierarchical systems are often treated as pariahs.
Daniel Quinn, author of many books including Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization, addresses many of the questions that may arise in consideration of tribal organization as the most efficient and effective one for human beings. He proposes that, just as a flock of birds or a troop of baboons is appropriate to those animals, a tribe of humans makes the most sense for us. What many people picture when they hear “tribe,” however, is limited to the notion of ‘savages’ that we’ve learned through our education by schooling, media, and other stories of what it means to be tribal. Half-dressed, barbaric ‘heathens’ struggling to survive in the wilds of Africa or the Amazon and succumbing to injury or illness at a young age is what most are likely to imagine when prompted. This is not an attractive image and not what Quinn, or I, propose.
There are myriad ways to organize ourselves tribally that don’t involve living in the woods or abandoning all of the creature comforts to which we have become accustomed. It is about making a living with minimum stress, in cooperation with others who are similarly inclined. Quinn uses small circuses, independent media, theatre troupes, and other pursuits as examples of how modern tribes may work. Rather than devoting our lives to producing goods and services for the benefit of corporate masters, it is possible for many of us to commit our efforts to independent, local initiatives that provide a livelihood for ourselves without excessive, harmful impacts.
Many of us are already engaged in what may be considered tribal activities. Within the context of civilizational hierarchy, however, we must be mindful that our goals are not aligned with the ‘culture of maximum harm,’ as Quinn calls hierarchical civilization, but with small-scale subsistence and sustainability. Regeneration and renewal are primary concepts within tribal cultures- leaving our children and future generations a world that works and with the means to support their livelihoods. This worldview represents a major paradigm shift for civilized people but it is inherent to tribal philosophies and practices. Based on the unprecedented challenges we currently face, perhaps it is time for many of us to embrace this shift…?
The last few days have felt like months. So much change. So little clarity. So few leaders with the presence of mind to adequately prepare the public for what is currently happening, what may happen next, and what each of us can do to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
For those of us who have been studying and attempting to address the impacts of system failures in various spheres- including social services, education, climate, economic structures, law & order, etc., this may not be completely unfamiliar but the urgency we’ve felt for so long about the issue/s we’ve been working on is now being felt by nearly everyone at once.
That knot in the pit of your stomach. That nagging voice that says we’re running out of time. That sense of dread when our politicians spread misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies about something you understand better than they seem to. Some of us have become accustomed to these things and developed our capacity to transform our worldview, connections, and involvements in response.
The rest of the world is awakening but, instead of gradually informing themselves, joining existing groups, and feeling empowered to act, they have been abruptly compelled to consider things that were unthinkable just a week or two ago. It’s jarring and disorienting. Nothing makes sense. This kind of confusion, insecurity, and instability is potentially much more dangerous than the virus. Folks who are in this state of mind are incredibly vulnerable and may become desperate enough to act out violently or they may isolate and succumb to despair.
I, for one, would like to advance some alternatives to prevent either of these outcomes. If you are reading this and have ideas or advice from your lived experience to share, as well, please do so in the comments.
Seek out factual information about COVID-19 to counteract misinformation, rumors, and conspiracy theories. A good place to start is this video and the CDC Website.
Be mindful of your thoughts and feelings – if you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other emotional health challenge, consider exploring these online resources. It is tremendously important to take care of yourself and your loved ones, first and foremost.
Reach out to folks you know who are engaged and involved in climate and/or social justice activism and discuss possible opportunities to join them in the work- especially as it relates to the current public health crisis. If you don’t have any activist acquaintances, a large number of rapid-response groups have been formed on Facebook and other social media to assist neighbors in need. There are likely several in your area to join.
Explore the recommended resources listed on this site and/or search for others based on your particular area/s of interest.
I think we’ve probably all heard the oft-repeated trope about the Chinese word for ‘crisis,’ wēijī, being composed of characters representing ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’ The original meaning, according to linguists and native Chinese speakers, however, is “danger at a point of juncture.” I think there is value in considering our current point of juncture- this moment in time- as very dangerous, indeed, and it is absolutely critical that we consider how we respond very carefully.
We must be mindful that the ones who will suffer most during this outbreak are those who are already suffering due to systemic greed, oppression, and lack of investment. Those of us who are able to get through the next few weeks and months in relative comfort have a responsibility to seek out ways to act. Not as saviors- but as neighbors, friends, members of a global family.
Recently, I decided to challenge myself to write in a form I don’t typically use- poetic verse. It’s outside of my comfort zone, but I’m beginning to really enjoy it and hope you do, as well! Please feel free to share any of the poems (with attribution or, preferably, through a direct link to this site.) Edited on March 27, 2020: I’ve decided to post each poem separately. “The People” will remain here since it was the first one in the series.
The People by Sara Hughes
The People were dying And the ruling class said, “Revolution can wait, here have a little bread.” The People were dying And the ruling class stated, “Revolution won’t work, drink wine and be sated.” The People were dying And the ruling class spoke, “Revolution is nonsense, we’ll make it a joke.” The People were dying And the ruling class feared, “Revolution is nearing, let’s make war for years.” The People were dying And the ruling class paled, “Revolution is working, let’s put them in jail.” The People were dying And the ruling class learned, “Revolution needs resources, steal all they’ve earned” The People were dying And the ruling class laughed, “Revolution can’t work if we split them in halves.” The People are dying The ruling class rules Will we rise up together or perish, as fools?
It is mid-March of 2020 as I begin this project and the entire world is in the midst of a profound shift in thinking, working, and living. Global climate change, pandemic disease, and social disintegration have coalesced at once, making humanity’s future devastatingly uncertain. My aim is to gather and share some of the most promising resources and information for those who are able to see past this moment and envision new possibilities that have not yet been realized in the modern age. I seek collaboration and invite your imagination and your willingness to hope and act for change. Ideas, stories, and relationships have always been the foundation of our species’ interactions with each other and have always influenced our ability to rebuild after catastrophic events. The question I am desperate to answer is this- will we continue to build structures and systems that lead to ever more catastrophe or will we learn how to accept The Law of Life and adapt in ways that ensure humanity’s survival for millennia to come?
“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity.”