E.F. Schumacher, the British economist-reformer, dubbed American culture “the people of the forward stampede.” He noted our culture’s technological penchant for doing something just because it can be done. Thus far American citizens have been the unwary laboratory critters on whom the pharmaceutical and food industries experiment. That is, the burden of proof on the safety of products is shifted upon the public to prove otherwise.
Schumacher is remembered for defining and illustrating the concept of appropriate technology – technology that has a “human face”. His supported technologies of scale, technology based on more ecological principles, and demonstrated that these industries become most economical when ecological integrity and human welfare are factored in as values. He looked upon American technologies as violent toward humans and life itself due in large part to their scale. Schumacher’s classic, Small is Beautiful, joined progress with values that embrace respect for life.
Schumacher was ahead of his time in making new calculations about “profit” (the current idea of ecosystem services), and economic viability that take into account the natural resources from which all human economy arises. He first coined the term “natural capital”.
We have evolved far from ancient ways that recognize the value of preserving natural capital, preferring technology based on profit only, and we are firmly convinced this is an enlightened and modern practice.
Yet in recent times as environmental toxins accumulate and become apparent in deteriorating health, decreased fertility, and declining stores of natural resources to sustain economic development, this point of view is being called into question. We have an opportunity to reevaluate the basic values that drive our culture. We are at a critical juncture right now. The window is open. But not for long. Critical decisions are being as I write this about who will own the genome of many species, and genetically modified food is already all over our grocery stores.
The ancient Essenes held this truth: “I tell you in very truth, Man is the Son of the Earthly Mother, and from her did the Son of Man receive his whole body, even as the body of the newborn babe is born of the womb of his mother. I tell you truly, you are one with the Earthly Mother; she is in you and you in her. Of her were you born, in her do you live, and to her shall you return again. Keep, therefore, her laws, for none can live long, nor be happy, but he who honors his Earthly Mother and does her laws….
“Seek not the law in your scriptures, for the law is life, whereas the scripture is dead. I tell you truly, Moses received not his laws from God in writing, but through the living word. The law is living word of living God to living prophets for living men. In everything that is life is the law written. You find it in the grass, in the tree, in the river, in the mountain, in the birds of heaven in the fishes of the sea; but seek it chiefly in yourselves. For I tell you truly, all living things are nearer to God than the scripture which is without life.”
These ancient teachings were taken and hidden from what would become Western civilization. We lost our compass on a living planet, the ancient wisdom that has guided humans to live sustainably for all time. We lost the wisdom that emanates from Natural Law, the law that spirited Moses and St. Frances.
We must recover this wisdom in modern terms. We know it intuitively, for it runs in our blood, and infuses every cell in our bodies. This window of time (to slow down our “stampede” of progress for progress’ sake), depends on the engagement of citizens in thoughtful evaluation of personal values and how culture influences them.
E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, maintains that culture is a construct perpetuated through the interaction of our genes and the prevailing culture from one generation to the next. On the level of thought, individuals have a choice between kinds of thoughts and actions they choose. Thoughts and feelings arise from deep tendencies: survival, innovation, procreation – passed on via genes to the next generation. If we are not aware of how these powerful and old “rules” influence behavior, then we will continue to make decisions based on responses that may or may not promote true survival outcomes. Our environments are changing faster than our genes can keep up with. Where competition may once have been more important to our survival, cooperation now takes precedence. The genes that pull us into community are more important than ever, and individualism without a social context is no longer of survival value.
“Culture is created by a communal mind, and each mind is the product of the genetically structured human brain…. Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are neural pathways and regularities in cognitive development by which the individual mind assembles itself. The mind grows from birth to death by absorbing parts of the existing culture available to it, with selections guided through epigenetic rules inherited by the individual brain.” – E. O. Wilson, Consilience p. 127
Wilson explains the gene-culture co-evolution, and how each generation “reconstructs culture” collectively in the minds of individuals. This has important implications, and requires that if we want to change the values that underlie American culture, we must actively participate in evolving it. As young minds are growing what are they absorbing from this culture?
The medium we use for transmitting culture is language. Each word represents a concept, and these are grouped together by the brain into nodes of reference. When nodes are linked by the brain to other nodes there is meaning. Meaning is conveyed through language. We cannot change the genetically driven propensities that influence the choices people might make inherently, but if we accept that culture can influence those choices then we have the possibility to shape culture for long-term sustainability in both ecological and ethical terms.
The collective mind of our culture must understand survival in terms of the ecological integrity of biomes across the Earth, and peaceful resolution of conflict between members of our species. These are the basic elements of national and international security as well as survival and fitness of the individual.
Language becomes the tool for shaping our culture’s understanding of this profound shift in values. We are witnessing a time when the most fundamental values upon which our nation is founded are being eroded by twisting the meaning of words like justice, security, peace, and liberty. When a word’s meaning becomes its opposite on the level of action, it is rendered meaningless. This is the frightening reality of our time, when leaders espouse justice yet preemptively take away sovereignty, when hostility to others becomes security, when we are told that violence will bring peace, and when our liberties are taken away for freedom.
For many Americans our government does not represent their values, beliefs, and vision for the future. Years ago Aldo Leopold wrote this prophetic statement in the essay The Ecological Conscience (1947): “Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.” He was making a serious challenge to prevailing economic assumptions that threaten life everywhere.
Surprisingly, one might think that the majority of Americans accept that what is profitable should be the measure of whether we do something or not. This is not so. According to Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, authors of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Millions People Are Changing the World, surveys show that in fact 89% of the American public believe that “economic growth and protecting the environment are fully compatible”, and “the environmental crisis justifies change in our way of life (75%).”
Ray and Anderson identified a “sub-culture” which they have named “the cultural creatives”. This group of people in the U.S. represent people with many different lifestyles, education levels, religious or spiritual traditions, i.e. it is a diverse group of people. However, what they do share in common is dissatisfaction with government, a government which does not represent who they are or their vision for the future. Within the cultural creatives are people who are concerned about women’s rights, the welfare of children, the sustainability of the planet, and the value of diversity. Their focus is on localism, supporting the local community’s sovereignty, the vibrancy of small business, and the protection of freedom of choice.
We are in a time of great upheaval, a time of chaos socially and politically when what we have always taken for granted is changing. Ray and Anderson point out the opportunities during transformational times when we can create new social and political processes that can result in a sustainable way of life for humans and the planet.
They assert that we first must become aware of moving into a “historical window of time”. They point to our power to organize with diverse groups who share common values coming together to tell a bigger story about who we are and where we are going. Are we here to just “get ours and to hell with everyone else?” Or, are we here to be a part of a greater dream? Citizens can weave a picture and a strategy toward an ecologically sustainable world view, one Ray and Anderson call Wisdom Civilization. Just as Nature throws out thousands of strategies to develop successful designs, we can do the same by inviting the majority of people to participate, not a few who do not represent who we are or what we envision for our families.
Science and spiritual traditions can find new resonance. Thomas Berry the ecologist/monk writes in The Great Work: “There are cosmological and historical moments of grace as well as religious moments of grace. The present is one of those moments of transformation that can be considered as a cosmological, as well as a historical and a religious moment of grace….A comprehensive change of consciousness is coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations of the world….A younger generation is growing up with awareness of the need for a mutually enhancing mode of human presence to the Earth….The distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by the more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing organic-based Earth community.”
This statistic is riveting: among Americans surveyed, 77% believe we must achieve ecological sustainability. They expressed the need for leadership to accomplish it. As Ray and Anderson point out, this is a huge change in world view. It is currently not represented by our leadership or big business or the media. We must create a new leadership by bringing forth the values and beliefs that the majority of Americans believe in.
The time has come to make the shift, and we can be a part of it.It is up to us now; the window of time is here. We must not fail our children and all those to come.