It was in late childhood that I first began to realize that the society around me was on a reckless track. I recall being infuriated by the insipid materialism and commercialism of America in the 1950s. As I learned a little about history, I began to regard war as more evidence of crassness and stupidity. Why did people allow their governments to behave like schoolyard bullies? It seemed that the fate of the planet was in the hands of raving idiots.
Meanwhile, it was clear that the world was in a whirlwind of change: Every year brought new products and inventions (like lasers and microwave ovens), social controversies (such as those surrounding the civil rights movement), and cultural phenomena (like the Beatles). It was all exhilarating, yet disturbing. The only certainties were change itself and the general direction in which it was headed toward anything that was more, bigger, or faster.
In 1964 my high school geography teacher, in one of her frequent sardonic asides to the class, mentioned something about awful consequences that would follow if America were to get mired down in a conflict in Southeast Asia. At the time, I attached little significance to her warning: Asia meant nothing more to me than words and pictures in a book. Only a few years later, most young men of my generation were either in Vietnam or trying desperately to find a way to avoid being sent there. I was one of the lucky ones: I had a high draft lottery number and was never called. Instead, I went to college and joined the antiwar movement.
The Vietnam War was an education for many of us -- but a very different education from the one we were receiving in school. Our textbooks led us to believe that America was the wisest and kindest of nations. Our country, we were told, was a torchbearer of freedom. Yet in Vietnam our government seemed to be championing a puppet dictatorship and ignoring the wishes of the people. The war appeared to be the creation of the very military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in his last speech as president, had warned against -- huge transnational corporations that were largely financed by Pentagon contracts; that increasingly controlled government policy; that were interested only in raw materials, markets, and profits; and that routinely destroyed indigenous cultures around the world in order to enrich themselves.
The Mask Falls Off
Once the debate over Vietnam had torn the mask of civility from the empire culture in which we were living, many of us began to see that it was riddled with all sorts of contradictions and inequities. It became apparent, for example, that the way of life to which we had become accustomed was polluting and exhausting the natural environment; that women and people of color were being routinely exploited; that the rich were continually growing richer and the poor poorer. This was difficult information for any young person to absorb. What to do about it?
Since I had grown up in a religious family, my first reflex was to look for spiritual solutions to the world's problems. Perhaps humanity was acting in selfish, cruel, and shortsighted ways because it needed enlightenment. The wickedness in the heart of the worst industrial polluter or political terrorist exists in my heart too, I thought, if only in essence. If I cannot expunge envy, hatred, and greed from my own soul, then I have no real basis for blaming others for their shortcomings; but if I can, then perhaps I can provide an example.
For the next twenty years I studied Buddhism, Taoism, and mystical Christianity; lived in spiritual communities; and explored New Age philosophies, therapies, and trainings. It was a time of growth and learning for which I shall always be grateful. But eventually I realized that spirituality isn't the full answer to the world's problems. I often met people whose dedication to God was unquestionable, but who had adopted an authoritarian or intolerant attitude, or who glossed over economic and social dilemmas that couldn't easily be framed in the context of their etherial worldview. After two decades of waiting for the formation of a "critical mass" of enlightened pioneers to spearhead the evolution of humanity into a New Age of universal harmony, I began to realize that in reality the world was worse off than ever.
Meanwhile my investigations of comparative religion were leading me toward the study of tribal societies -- such as those of the Native Americans, Africans, Aboriginal Australians, and Pacific Islanders. These non-industrial peoples, many of whom had ancient Earth-based spiritual traditions, didn't (at least, until time of contact) share many of the problems of the First World. Their cultures may have been imperfect in their own ways -- the natives of Papua New Guinea, for example, routinely practiced human sacrifice -- but in terms of environmental destructiveness they were far less ruinous than the industrial societies of the twentieth century. Their patterns of existence were sustainable, while ours is not. As I researched tribal peoples it became apparent to me that their social and ecological stability derived not just from their religions, but from all the details of their ways of life.
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Modern World Insanity
Simultaneously, I began to see that the insanity of the modern world is not due simply to a lack of morals or spiritual awareness, but is embedded in every aspect of our collective existence. Our destruction of the natural environment, our horrific wars, and the spread of poverty throughout both the Third World and our own First World cities cannot be fully halted by a government regulation here or a new invention there. They are inherent in the overall pattern of existence we have adopted.
I gradually came to see that what we eat, how we think and live, and the kinds and quantities of resources we use all imply a certain contract or covenant with nature, and that every culture makes such a covenant by which its members (mostly unconsciously) abide. Humankind and nature exist in a reciprocal balance: just as people shape the land to their needs, land and climate also affect people -- leading them not only to rely on locally and seasonally available foods, but to entertain attitudes toward life that spring from their adopted patterns of subsistence. Desert pastoralists tend to have consistent and predictable mythologies, forms of social organization, and worldviews, no matter what continent they live on; and the same can be said of coastal fishers, arctic hunters, and tropical horticulturists. Moreover, historical hindsight and cross-cultural comparisons suggest that some covenants with nature are more successful than others.
Civilization -- the pattern of life that involves cities, lifetime division of labor, conquest, and agriculture -- represents a uniquely exploitive covenant in which humans seek to maximize their control of their environment and minimize its constraints upon themselves. In the past, many civilizations have fallen because of their unrealistic demands on soil, water, and forests, leaving deserts in their wake. We are presently living in a society whose patterns of reliance on nature appear to be leading to similar ends. But in this case, because our civilization has become global in extent, we may seriously impair the biological viability of the entire planet before our institutions finally sputter and die.
Along the way, a voice in my head raised objections: Aren't you merely romanticizing primitive cultures? If you actually had to do without all of the conveniences of modern life you'd probably be miserable. Anyway, we can't simply go back to living the way our ancestors did. We can't "uninvent" the automobile, nuclear reactor, or computer. This voice refuses to shut up. Sometimes its arguments appear irrefutable. But as yet it has offered no alternative solution to the great underlying crisis of our civilization -- the fact that we are presiding over a worldwide biological holocaust. The voice of "realism" merely says that the crisis is somehow inevitable, perhaps an evolutionary necessity.
But of course there are alternatives, there are solutions. The path away from our predatory industrial-electronic civilization need not be an attempt to imitate the lifeways of the primitive peoples. We cannot all become Pomos. But we can relearn much of what has been forgotten in the march of "progress". We can regain the sense of responsibility to land and life that indigenous peoples have always known. Even if we cannot now envision all the details of a post-imperial culture, we can at least speak of it in general terms, discuss the process by which it might come into being, and take practical steps toward its realization.
This article was excerpted from:
A New Covenant with Nature
by Richard Heinberg.
About The Author
Richard Heinberg has lectured widely, appeared on radio and television, and written numerous essays. His alternative monthly broadside, MuseLetter, was included in Utne Reader's annual list of Best Alternative Newsletters. He is also the author of Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony.