I often read arguments about the ability or inability of humans to change. They generally fall into two categories, depending on their proponent’s worldview:
I’m not sure there’s any reconciling these two views, though there seem to be lots of people determined to try. For years I was a fence-sitter on this issue, unwilling or unable to make up my mind. Recently I’ve come down squarely in the second, less popular camp. That’s not to say I couldn’t be convinced to change my mind. But it jibes better both with my understanding of history and with my instincts.
I remember sitting in a dentist’s waiting room many years ago and watching three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family. The grandparents spoke no English, dressed traditionally, and seemed bewildered and distraught about the world. The grandchildren spoke only English, dressed in definitive Canadian branded clothing, and seemed able to take anything in stride. The parents, caught in the middle, had to translate for their own families. They struck me as simply coping, dealing with the needs of the moment. To the grandparents, their grandchildren were utterly alien, incomprehensible.
I’ve seen this again and again over the years, and I now closely observe my own grand-daughters for evidence of how able new generations are to make leapfrog changes that any one individual, no matter how long her lifetime, could not. I recall in my youth arguing with my father (himself a progressive, all his life) about his generation’s inability to change. I told him I didn’t trust anyone over thirty, and that it was time for ‘the establishment’ to get out of the way of the momentous change we were destined to bring about in a new, loving, peaceful Earth.
Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, For the times they are a-changin’.
Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
The line it is drawn the curse it is cast, The slow one now will later be fast
Dylan wrote that over 40 years ago, and my father’s argument that it had all been said before, generation after generation, yet we kept making the same mistakes over and over, fell on deaf ears. He just didn’t understand, I thought. This is something new. And now, nearly 40 years later, I have become my father. And we are still making the same mistakes, over and over.
My Genius is Imagining What’s Possible. It’s a useful and interesting talent. But I don’t confuse what’s possible with what’s likely. It’s possible that a meteor will hit the Earth tomorrow. It’s possible that some benign alien species will arrive tomorrow and fix all the world’s problems for us. But I’m not counting on it, in deciding what to do next and what to do in the future. It’s possible that humanity and technology will transcend the looming crisis facing us, and it’s interesting to imagine that happening. But it’s science fiction stuff, escapism, denial, a distraction from reality, from the real work facing us here, now.
Back in the 1960s, we did what we had to do. We shook an intolerant, war-mongering, fearful culture to its foundations. We ended the war. We challenged everything. We tried some bold and optimistic experiments.
But in the end, we changed nothing. Our twin religions of humanism and technology, it turned out, were not enough to make us, and our culture, over into something we, and it, were not.
So now I’m a skeptic about our ability to change. I recognize its imperative. I can imagine and appreciate its possibility. And I think about the leapfrogs that were made, from the generation of my grandfather, an enlightened and conservative depression-era survivor (and, like me, a bird-watcher); to the generation of my father, a progressive and an explorer who is still today generous to a fault; to my generation; to that of my lovely children, utterly caught up, like the middle generation of that Chinese-Canadian family in the dentist’s office, with the immediate needs of the moment, raising their own families in a deeply troubled economy; to the generation of my extraordinary grand-daughters, who are learning, exploring, discovering what their world is about, and who are not yet ready for the terrible lessons I have for them about their future.
My grand-daughters’ culture is as different from mine as mine was from my grandfather’s and from that Chinese-Canadian family’s. Yet somehow, in the ways that are important, these cultures are indistinguishable. Almost as much as ‘we’ are mere servants of our bodies, so too are we co-prisoners of our culture. Noam Chomsky has said that all human languages are so astonishingly similar that an alien ethnographer would have absolutely no doubt that we all came from a single ancestor. Anthropologists are flabbergasted that human groups so utterly separated by time and space have evolved such staggeringly similar cultures, quite independently. Our culture, with its local variations that cause us so much conflict, is becoming more homogeneous and undifferentiated, and hence poorer and less adaptable, less capable of complex change, every day. Rather than liberating us from doing what we must, and enabling us to do what we can and what is imaginable, our culture is instead our bodies’ evolutionary servant. Our bodies evolved our brains to invent culture because without it we would have perished. To see human culture and ‘consciousness’ as anything more than an evolutionary survival mechanism is a colossal, collective conceit, an exercise, like belief in The Rapture, in magical thinking. As Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”.
So we go on doing what we must. Rising and groaning and going to work. Sublimating our dreams and intuitions and imaginations. Looking after the needs of the moment. Invading Iraq and tomorrow Iran to feed the inextinguishable hunger for the ‘food’ that nourishes our fragile bodies and keeps us in the evolutionary gene pool. Distracting ourselves to death with useless information and desperate consumption and flimsy entertainments. Exploding in numbers and despoiling and impoverishing the Earth. Generation after generation, being what we are, and doing what we do.
The answer is, ironically, not striving for impossible, collective change, but rather becoming more truly human. Connecting better, more authentically to each other and to nature. Learning everything we can; learning to be useful, to be a part. Becoming more aware, more sensual, more instinctive, more generous, more in touch with ‘our’ bodies and hence ourselves. Taking delight in small pleasures. Living on the Edge. Slowing down and paying attention and living in the moment, undistracted. Refusing to be being everyone else in our culture.
That will not save us, but it will give our lives meaning and purpose. Inthe end, I think, that is all there is, and all that can be asked of us.
Image: From Danish Ministry of the Environment.
Other Writers About CollapseAlbert Bates (US)
Andrew Nikiforuk (CA)
Carolyn Baker (US)*
Catherine Ingram (US)
Chris Hedges (US)
Dahr Jamail (US)
Dark Matter Women Witnessing (CA)
David Petraitis (US)
David Wallace-Wells (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Deena Metzger (US)
Derrick Jensen (US)
Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Jan Wyllie (UK)
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jem Bendell (US)
Jonathan Franzen (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
Kristinha Anding (US)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Richard Heinberg (US)
Robert Jensen (US)
Roy Scranton (US)
Sam Mitchell (US)
Sam Rose (US)*
Tim Bennett (US)
Tim Garrett (US)
Umair Haque (US)
William Rees (CA)
Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
My Other Sites
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.