The Cult of Individualism and the Desolation of the Earth

Second Life IC

My friend Paul Heft sent around Derrick Jensen’s article on the need to bring down the industrial systems that are destroying our planet, and my article in response, A Serious Resistance, which argued:

It is time for us to mount a serious resistance. It is time for us to tell the world, starting within our own communities, relentlessly, unapologetically, furiously, that the industrial growth economy that is killing our world must stop — now. It is time for us to start to take back our world from the thugs whose reign of industrial, imperial, colonial terror across the globe has begun the sixth great extinction on our planet, one that is desolating the world, bringing about massive and inevitable economic, energy and ecological collapse.

In this serious resistance, we must each pick our own role, yet work in concert and collaboration with our fellow resisters. We must draft others into the resistance movement, and we must do more than just talk about how bad things are, or how we might get the regime to mitigate its horrors. We must choose and commit ourselves to real measures of the defeat of the regime and the undermining and collapse of the industrial growth systems — economic, political, social, educational, technological, and media. Derrick has listed his measures. Mine include the complete stoppage of the Alberta Tar Sands and the industrial agriculture system, especially factory farming (”confined animal farming operations — CAFO”).

One of the recipient of Paul’s note was our mutual friend Nelda Martinez, who responded with this extraordinary letter:

I have read both Jensen’s and Dave’s pieces, and while I agree that the steps they outline are necessary, they remain insufficient – there is a piece missing, and I think I know what it is.

The problem that both have is in their approach.  In both cases, the proffered perspective is “there’s me, and then there’s everything else.”  Both insist upon individual consideration, individual decision making, individual commitment, and individual action.  Jensen says, “for me, winning means..” and then rattles off a list of states of nature that he, personally, would prefer to see, and then implicitly includes the reader in his conclusion that this must be done by whatever means necessary.  Dave’s step number one is to “build our own personal capacities and competencies” in conjunction with those of our communities, as though our communities’ capacities and competencies might somehow even be identified, much less honed.  It is my belief that that is precisely where the insufficiency lies.

The problem is that our so-called communities are so loosely knit, so diffuse, that they are almost impossible to identify, much less mobilize.  Most such “communities” are utterly non-communal; reliance upon them in any but the most immediate, most dire of circumstances is folly.  And get this: the reason that “community” is such an ephemeral thing is that we collectively agree that we value our individuality more than we value membership, or participation, in community.  It is the one binding characteristic, the one single shared value we place above all else – that our individuality comes first.  In order for community to have meaning in the context of this discussion, the sense of belonging to community must have greater priority than the right to individual thought, belief, or expression.  In order for any meaningful action to work, the self must be subsumed to the group.

I make no apology for this.  I am fully aware that it rubs right against our sense of what is right and good; that’s just what I’m saying.  I welcome any expression of resistance to the idea, and hold up the vehemence of such response as evidence of my assertion.  The more vigorously opposed one is to the idea that individual strength and expression is the very root of our problem, the more surely one is illustrating the truth of the allegation.  It truly is our top number one shared value, and all other values must necessarily fall before it.

Ours is a culture of individuals, and it will be our undoing unless we figure out a way to fix it. (I can hear the name-calling now, beginning with “communism,” “cult,” “beehive mentality,” “fanatic,” and “zealot.”)  The truth of the matter is that it is precisely that very zealotry that will enable us to succeed, and without which, we will be consigned to failing – as individuals – with lots of individual thoughts, suggestions, preferences, and opinions.

What we need is a shared system of values that is, as Dave puts it, “sustainable, responsible, and resilient.”  Fortunately, we know that such a system is available, in that humans succeeded in living quite well, for quite a long time, before corrupting the system.  I have written before about the problems associated with the adoption of agriculture as a way of life [Dave says: see Jared Diamond’s famous essay on this], and Dave has thoroughly elaborated the problems associated with industry.  I submit that it is the values associated with these two patterns of behavior that are our enemy, and that our efforts must be toward the undermining of these value sets, not toward the machinery that is their manifestation.

But the mere prohibition of values or behaviors is rarely effective; witness the efficacy of the Ten Commandments as a moral code.  What is needed instead is a set of replacement values that is simply more attractive than the one currently in place.  And then we, our community, must all adhere to it – all of us.  There can be no compromise on this point; individual expression or interpretation must not be tolerated, especially in a fledgling movement (this is where the zealotry part comes in).

So the answer comes not as some kind of conservation movement, nor as any way to maintain ourselves, or our way of life for future generations.  We must embrace the notion that the system is going to come down, or indeed is coming down now, despite any efforts to halt its collapse, and that our options lie in how we will position ourselves to face that as it occurs, or is occurring.

While we still have some measure of leeway in terms of our response, we must take advantage of the infrastructure that enables rapid communication and transportation, and establish a true community.  It must be a community that is not composed of merely “like-minded individuals”  who put great stock in being “free spirits,” but of people committed to a single ideal, joined in a community whose purpose is greater than the whims or desires of its individual constituents.  And it must be based upon a set of values that is self-propagating, popular and enticing to the point that it sells itself, as we simply don’t have time for a slow-growing, grassroots movement.  It must be framed in such a way that it catches on like a fad, stays in place as unperturbedly as anything written by Beethoven, and is ultimately as universally known as shave-and-a-haircut.  If we can do all of this in the narrowing window of opportunity we have available, we will have made a difference.  Otherwise, I would suggest that we all go back to our televisions, put our feet up and have a beer – we have front row seats, and it promises to be quite a show.

If you are not already as blown away by this tour-de-force of thinking and writing, I should mention that Nelda is only 29 years old.

What she says is simply brilliant. We do have a cult of individualism in North America & Europe. This is not the case in Asia (thought that may be changing quickly) or in indigenous cultures.

What got us into this problem was, I think, a reaction against the fearsome power of propaganda (especially with the new ubiquitous media of radio and TV). Hierarchies got very powerful and very rich and, after Stalin and Hitler and Mao, there was an upsurge of loathing for government and for collective action of any kind (anticommunist hysteria). Americans then began to idolize the cowboy myth — of ‘self-sufficiency’ and rugged individualism and fending for yourself without government or anyone else helping you.

It’s understandable — I’m very fond of ee cummings’ lament about how prone we are to become ‘everybody else’ because our modern culture indoctrinates us into mindless and passive conformity so effectively:

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being
can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.

I do think we take on the ‘everybody-else’ ‘gunk’ that our culture lays on us and which we accept when we’re young and end up (if we’re smart) spending the rest of our lives scraping off of ourselves.

But that’s very different from the cult of individualism. I think we can be altruistic and collectivist and part-of-all-life-on-Earth while still being “nobody but ourselves”. But because we confuse the need to struggle against the loss of our individuality due to cultural indoctrination (a good struggle), with the need to struggle against all government and all collective and cooperative and collaborative work (a bad struggle), we get it exactly backwards: Instead of becoming ‘nobody-but-ourselves’ we become ‘ourselves apart from everybody’.

It takes great self-knowledge and self-confidence, I think, to be truly yourself and think critically, while also committing yourself absolutely to optimizing the collective well-being of the community. There’s a natural and very healthy tension there that I’ve witnessed among (for example) intelligent and sensitive people in the Intentional Communities movement. They are able to BE themselves but still DO everything as integral part of community.

While the rest of us are busy with our logo clothing and brand name cars BEING everybody-else and DOING things only for ourselves, alone, with our own, private and unshared property.

Exactly backwards.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on Nelda’s comment that, in order to be effective, at least initially, “the self must be subsumed to the group” — that model communities must be zealous and single-minded in their pursuit of shared objectives and intentions and that until then “individual expression or interpretation must not be tolerated”. It is true, I think, that indigenous cultures and truly effective communities tend to be of one mind, and fanatic about their values, principles and beliefs. Yet Chris Corrigan, who has worked closely with many aboriginal communities, stresses “passion bounded by [individual] responsibility“, that while the collective must listen carefully and respectfully to all the ideas expressed by community members, ultimately the decision on what to do (or not do) is left to the absolute discretion of the individual.

These ideas are not necessarily irreconcilable, but if we are to posit some theories or principles about the essential nature of an effective post-industrial model community, we need to tease this out. We need to respect and trust individuals in community to BE nobody but themselves and to DO what they themselves have passion and accept responsibility for, while at the same time we need to achieve a much higher degree of cultural cohesion among community members, to overcome what Nelda laments about today’s “so-called communities … so loosely knit, so diffuse, that they are almost impossible to identify, much less mobilize”. And then what we need from these cohesive communities, I think, is concerted, radical action. We can’t wait for consensus among a disparate group.

The question then becomes whether we can identify and coalesce radical model communities of people who know themselves, know what is happening in the world, know what they’re meant to do and must do, and who are willing to subvert their personal self-interest and comfort to the community’s collective programs and practices, and hence to really make a difference — to make measurable substantial progress towards undermining and ending the systems of the industrial growth society.

I agree with Nelda that nothing less than this will make any significant impact on the accelerating desolation of the earth. I doubt, however, that this degree of subsuming of individual wants and privileges to the collective need is likely to happen, even among the enlightened and progressive “communities” of human civilization culture. We’ve become far too “self-ish”, perhaps because that is how creatures respond in times of great stress. What would it take, do you think, for that to change?


Thanks to all my readers for your support and encouragement this past year. 2010 is likely to be another year of great change for many of us. I wish you and your loved ones peace, love and joy in the coming year.

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18 Responses to The Cult of Individualism and the Desolation of the Earth

  1. Janene says:


    Good Stuff.

    I think Nelda is perfectly on target on about 98% of what she said… and unsurprisingly, the things that caught my attention were exactly the statements you pulled out, Dave. I think I want to let this percolate and then really write something in depth in response, so I’m gonna hold off for this moment. After tomorrow I’ll have some time to work it out in my head.

    One quick comment… you seem amazed that she is “only” 29… but my recent experience has been to be surrounded by “youngsters” (18-25) that just “get” all these things that I have worked so hard to wrap my head around. Just today I was talking with one of the boys and he was telling me vociferously how it doesn’t HAVE to be win-lose all the time. It can be win-win. I explained Lakoff’s Moral Accountancy to him and beyond that, all I could do was nod my head and say “yeah….” :-)


  2. Patrick says:

    The first thought that we’re living in a society that full of Individuals is a stretch. People are convinced to jump on the band wagon of the latest fashion, tech trend, or frame of thought; and the latests is even sometimes better. There’s no lack of giving your own desires up in favour of fitting in. Just look at this conversation, it’s happenng because th few of us here are misfits.
    We don’t need to force anyone else to do anything, we just need to get serious and provide a better alternative. Bucky: you don’t change a system, you provide a more attractive one(more or less). The last resort of a bad idea is to force it upon people. Why not allow people in, make it elite, sought after. Then make it like ikea. Don’t be afraid to use the tools of business to make the world better.

  3. Randall Ross says:

    Great article Dave. Thank you for all that you do. Please have a happy holiday and may 2010 be the year!

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  5. Todd says:

    I sometimes feel like an old broken record, having made the following plea to every organization, community, politician, individual, and “thinker” engaged in figuring out how to do all the wonderful things you all hope to do to turn the earth killing around, but here I go again. If Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and good old Mahatma were to miraculously come back today, it would take each of them less than a few minutes to assess the situation and then say to you good people, “So where is your boycott component?” The command Speak Truth To Power has been shown to be laughable. Power cares nothing for truth. Speak bottom line to power. Each of these great social strategists knew they could accomplish nothing without a successful boycott. Since 1991 I have written and called tirelessly to incite any organization at any level of influence to engage in a boycott of Chevron, the Bush family company, and I have been scoffed at by everyone from MoveOn to you name it. I have been told “they tried to boycott Exxon” but it failed. The Exxon boycott was probably started by the oil companies to distract a few people who might otherwise have contributed to a meaningful boycott. Most of Exxon’s profits are not from the pump, which is not true of Chevron. But even if you, too, want to rationalize why we shouldn’t launch a national boycott of the main engine of earth destruction, I challenge you to study the historic record and come up with an effective boycott strategy of some kind, else you are truly whistling in the wind.

  6. vera says:

    When I hear of individuals subsumed by groups, I hear groupthink. Not something I want in my life. Still though, Nelda is right, we do need zealous communities who come together because they care about certain key things, and such communities do not tolerate those members who decide those key things are not for them. Such individuals are free to leave but not free to disrupt the group while they try to bend it to their particular way.

  7. Paris says:

    “the self must be subsumed to the group”, of course human are obviously social beings, and they allways do it. That’s why they’re so easily convinced into fashion, religion, politics, terrorism, and so on…they so deeply want to be part of a group that they madly follow so many dangerous systems: Nazism, Al Qaida, Maoism, to name a few. So called individulism is just a cosmetic layer slathered on groups that don’t wanna be named any more due to the worst examples named hereover.

    Moreover the latest 40,000 years have shown us all that people do not subsumed to wild groups, due to its greatest weakness, unlike ideological groups, it’s space dependant, it’s localy rooted. Any wild community can’t strive out of thin air unlike Internet communities. A wild community needs a biozone, somewhere to hunt, to gather, for permaculture, for village building, for human bonding… so it’s very easy to disrupt a wild group, just disrupt the biozone. And that’s exactly what has been done sucessfully for the past 40,000 years.

    Some of us might be a tribe, in our minds, though our biozone has been destroyed, so we are scattered individuals among the industrial/agrarian crowd/group.

    They key for real change is therefore to stop the biozone disruption, however there’s not many ways to do it, either destroy the machines, or kill the human operators, or a mix of both, anyhow that’s called a WAR.

    Yeah a terrible word, so that sounds a lot bloody diffcult.

  8. Girish says:

    Nelda says that the problem of today is due to ‘freedom’ of individuals to make their own choices. Well, if today’s communities were truly about individuals making ‘free’ choices, we will not be in this mess that we find ourselves! Actually, we have been ‘brainwashed’ into making a certain type of choices believing those to be our ‘independent’ choices, but which are clearly not. People are indeed very eager to jump onto bandwagons, and the flock mentality is very overpowering. It is actually much easier to get people to follow along a pre-defined track with life decisions ‘given’ to them – look at the mass following that various types of ‘gurus’ have! In fact, it is a relief not to have to make your own choices for most people! I am well aware that the zealous community envisaged by Nelda is not quite like this (will be based more on collective decision making etc.) but my point is the present society/community is NOT a reflection of Individual choice overriding collective choice. In other words, producing the type of community Nelda envisages is NOT going to happen by suppressing individuality. On the other hand, it will come about by freeing individuals to truly make their own choices. If every individual could really think freely with no preconceived notions and not needing the crutches of what some other ‘wise people’ think/say/preach/write/show to support their own logic, I am sure humans will make much more ‘sensible’ individual choices! And if that is not the case, it IS actually in the interest of Gaia to get rid of us!!

  9. Ria Baeck says:

    Thanks for many of your blog posts Dave. Regarding this one I always wonder why ‘others’ have to be convinced; why we always have to think if ‘they’ are going to do what we think is right… IF the world, if life is ONE then what I do – being my full self, following my life’s calling – has an influence. Full stop. That seems to be the only thing that I can do. Then I have to deal with this constraint, that is somehow painful…
    And in my experience there is a place – beyond I and we – where we can really meet! (like th eintentional communities) If everyone is BEING who they really are, and if we are in real CONNECTION to one another there seems te be a natural flow of being WE.
    See the video’s of Meg Wheatley ( ) read the latest book of Harrison Owen, Wave Riders…
    Thanks a lot!

  10. Jon Husband says:

    ” It must be a community that is not composed of merely “like-minded individuals” who put great stock in being “free spirits,” but of people committed to a single ideal, joined in a community whose purpose is greater than the whims or desires of its individual constituents. And it must be based upon a set of values that is self-propagating, popular and enticing to the point that it sells itself, as we simply don’t have time for a slow-growing, grassroots movement. It must be framed in such a way that it catches on like a fad, stays in place as unperturbedly as anything written by Beethoven, and is ultimately as universally known as shave-and-a-haircut. If we can do all of this in the narrowing window of opportunity we have available, we will have made a difference.

    This statement above reminds me that a lot of people share some core beliefs about Christmas, and hence act accordingly (and often differently that they do the other 364 days of the year) on that day. It’s a movement, built around an idea and with shared values. And, it’s for the kids, to boot !

    Let’s have Christmas all year long.

  11. Jon Husband says:

    “the self must be subsumed to the group”

    Hmmm, got me thinking. I think it’s more about whether you “know who you are” or not or “what values-base do I come from”? I think (vast generality alert) people in Europe are much more community and group-mind oriented than North Americans … for a range of reasons, some of it having to do with ancient traditions, some of it having to do with shared experiences over the last 100 or so years.
    Off to think about this some more..

  12. As soon as I begin thinking about the reasons for our alienation from one another and from nature, my thinking becomes crowded and I begin to realize how complex the issues are. As a Process thinker following A.N. Whitehead’s “Philosophy of Organism”, I tend to put most of the blame on modern science and a false belief in substances (stuff which needs nothing other than itself in order to exist – including such ‘things’ as selves, atoms, chairs and rocks). However, it may be that the primary reason for alienation has to do with the emotional and psychological injuries we receive from others and from nature as we grow up. Regardless of the causes, it is obvious that something is sick and broken.
    My small contribution toward the healing of this broken world has been to invite and then to create a space in our home for our neighbors to gather once a week. The results have been… miraculous? I emphasized for the start that neighbors are not necessarily “like-minded” – the only thing we may have in common is the desire to be in a community where members can experience a sharing of life. Healing and love, acts of kindness, and a growing sense of connection to one another and our shared environment begin with simply listening as each of us answers in turn, the unspoken question, “How ya doing?”.
    If it wasn’t for something Dave wrote (“the best way to begin is to begin”), I might have remained stuck in a “paralysis of analysis”. My vision is for a network of neighborhood gatherings which, I believe, have the potential to transform the world. We are experiencing the power of love in transforming our neighborhood. If what we are doing here in our neighborhood could be duplicated across the world, perhaps there we could have reason to hope.


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  14. Vincent says:

    Wait a minute when i read this it looks like the world is dead which is actually not the case. I see a lot of people criticizing all the world and the society and meeting on this kind of websites where we can see all the misery of the world BUT surprinsingly … NOT ANY CONCRETE PLAN or action to take. Believing that something is going to change just by chatting about stuff is a nonsense. Technology is not to blame technology as nature is something neutral. So is science. Neutral . How many of you on this blog will stop using their computers tomorrow because it consumes oil and coal ? Who is going to do it first ?
    Individualism is natural when we are not evolving in tribes. And let me tell you sth it isnt possible to make a “world-ethic-so-everyone-can-stick-to-it” these kind of ideas are called totalitarism and are nonsense especially when talking about millions of people. How many of you are studying chemistry and electricity here ? I do and let me tell you somthing we have alternative using science and it cost money okay ? You can now go and buy solar panels and so on and get a small electric car and electric water boiler and so on. It cost money thats right and let me tell you somthing studying science costs more than writting on a blog so I worked for years to be able to get something and you now what ? One day I’ll be able to be involved in some long-term project. Everytime I go out I hear people talking about all the baaaad system and all the baaad society and people and they don’t watch themselves just doing what they want but opening their mouth to say shit. I found money to build 3 schools in africa and 1 in Asia that means finding 40’000 dollars to run these places and so on. INSTEAD OF WRITING GO AND ACT. It is really not a question of yourself and your society it is a question of your acts. You now you can spend ur life whinning and blaming others for what you are not doing. But let me tell you somthing it involves PAIN for yourselfyou understand ? PAIN and blood as Churchill said. You going to be cheated, robbed, bluffed, stuffs are not going to work as you think and you’ll have to restart again and again. People will laugh at you okay ? But in the end it doesn’t matter. Stop reading philosophy it is just nonsense. Philosophers have always been people without any sense of purpose. You can spend your life reading philosophy and liking it because it is “cool” but life is not “cool” and when i see people claiming that they own the truth and have the solutions for everybody and pissed of and I think I can see what they looks like through my screen.

    Now instead of posting stupid stuff and willing to change the world (which is impossible) start thinking what kind of action can I do (yes DO) to improve 1 problem that bother me. You can all speak english here so you can start to go to foreign communities in your country and help them learn english. That is one idea for you instead of running these stupids texts.

    May somebody bless you. Don’t forget that today, now, life is a war for lot lot of people. A war for finding something to eat okay. And you are in this war but your so far away from the battlefields that you don’t even touch a bit of what life is. You surely spend days chatting on internet, making false friends on twitter and so one, listen to some stupids guru or reading philosophy or personal developnment. You must GROW! and growing is suffering i repeat but as Marcel Proust once said )because i was reading shit all the time like bloggers) we’re only learning when suffering and the farther I go in life and the farther I give him credit.

    And people in asia are far more selfish than us europeans or us citizens. Life is not Krishnamurti or I don’t know what other new-age hippie shit. Life is about eating and trying to live as long as possible. Now you probably start to feel bad because you’re hesitating ? who to thrust ? But if you hesitate and feel incomfortable it is maybe because you now know who is right and who is not. So thighten your seatbelt and get involve in acting. The wolrd was here before you he doesn’t ask you anything anything. You can choose to give something or you can read stupid things all day long and go to bed without worries. Stop thinking about all the stupidity you see and start thinking about the good you can put in practise. Travel to asia if you want to see the nirvana and let me tell you your going to be baaadly disappointed. Caus Asia (Ive been in Thailand 6month and India 6 month) is rally not what you think. It is streets filled with rats and shit everywhere cause there are not so much restroom. People commit suicide very often and are as bad as “western” people when it comes to money. BUT you can choose to help the one who didnt asked to live this shit and thrust me ther is still work to do. Everyday ! U can learn logistics and go help them improve their campment You can work for a bank involved in microcredit (U just need to learn one language), You can study microbiology and learn how to sterilize stuffs and so on intead of just chatting like chickens. And forget philosophy and psychology if you got problems with you conscience its maybe because you are not acting.$


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  16. Dick says:

    The enlightened self-interest element that is fundamental to all mutualist movements has never been more urgent a prerequisite to future social organisation. The bleak and reductive picture represented by comment 15. only serves to underpin this.

    My experience of mutual action is within schools – notably schools constituted ideologically and practically to encourage, nurture and implement a sense of shared social responsibility within which the individual experiences his/her interests as inextricably contained within the health of the community. Check out Summerhill, St Christopher and Frensham Heights schools on my sidebar. Not perfect examples, by any means, but much further round the mutualism-through-action spectrum than most.

  17. thank you dave pollard and all the good folks who have shared their individual thoughts about these issues. my personal favorite is #15 by Vincent. It is deeply rooted in our American psyche that “action” is the final arena of choice after thinking and writing. Vincent recommends that doing something is far better than splitting hairs about the right approach. We do need a paradigm of where we want to go. We need specifics of the kind of society and the kind of infrastructure that we need to be working on. We need images of what we want to create. Multiple choice is always easier than fill-in the blank. America is about what works. Nevermind that our older visions have left out some key ingredients. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to take the best of what we have and add the components that make it more functional. A lot of this work has already been done by people like Stewart Brand (“the world Earth Catalogue” and “the co-evolution quarterly”) and many others who have focused on whole systems.
    Everything starts with what you regard as Holy.

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