Seeing the Future Anew, Through Ancient Eyes
By Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.
Presented at the World Future Society Annual
“The Front Lines of Sustainability”
July 27, 2008 Washington, D.C.
[Abstract: In our increasingly complex human world, we are so specialized and compartmentalized that we tend to lose touch with what it means to be human. We still do have our ancient, primate eyes to open if we so choose. If we do that, we will be better able to see who we are and how similar we are to each other, rather than reveling in the exaggerated differences cultivated by ideology and technology. In this way, we may find our highest human common denominators rather than being stuck in a stressed-out consumerism that unwittingly cultivates our lowest.]
As a species, we humans have learned to close our original, primate eyes and open new bionic eyes, constructed during centuries of technological growth and spiritual stumbling. And yet, as shiny and attractive as our new technologies may be, the relationships and connections with nature that feed our souls have not changed at all. Will we humans open and refocus our ancient eyes in time to create new ways to live sustainably on this diverse planet? Will our ancient lenses be able to filter out the overwhelming chaotic complexity of our current human cultures, our ever-expanding kaleidoscope of sight, sound, touch and smell, our competing schools of thought, ideologies, disciplines and interests? Will we be able to see humanity, and our world at large, through our primitive, primate minds, and reconnect with that curious beast whose pulse beats beneath our modern brains, computer-filled with facts, figures and rationalization?
When individuals face major challenges, we often look deeper into who we really are. Through this process, we often reset our priorities. As a culture, and as the human race, we are experiencing major crises and we need to do the same thing to create a better future. Our world is shrinking and we need to learn how to get along with other peoples, other species and to understand our environmental constraints - and to commit to conservatism for those constraints we clearly do not understand. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the human race does not behave productively when in a crisis of spirit. We engage in finger pointing, paranoia, greed and denial, which lead to uncooperative, competitive attitudes which encourage divisiveness and war. When we open our primitive eyes in the midst of a crisis, we most often see red. Compare the numbers of people who listen to National Public Radio with those who expose themselves to the fear and rage of shock jocks and corporate television “neo-news” commentators.
If we open our eyes today, we must look first at the human race. With eyes of compassion and knowing, we must begin to see our species as it is - a remarkable race of primates with utterly amazing creativity and incredible data processing, and yet primates nevertheless. We like to think of ourselves as divine beings, angels just waiting for our wings. Yet, we are also mischievous and manipulative, constantly rationalizing our internal, subjective needs through our quests for power, popularity and wealth, just like our primate cousins.
Frankly, we don't much like what we see when we open our primate eyes. So we tend not to use them. Who wants to see their species as puffed up monkeys strutting around feeling omnipotent and omniscient? The original peoples of North America saw this. Countless traditional cultures, when confronted with the materialist monotheistic cults that emerged from Europe were overwhelmed and shocked. They must have felt that they were being invaded by insane people, by some sort of alien species that was crazed and yet invincible. So, here we are. We've expanded our populations and taken over the planet. We've increased our activities and populations to the point that we threaten the very planetary ecosystems that serve as our life support system. What now?
We know this is going on, but we seem powerless to do anything about it. We sit here, divided into disciplines and departments, corporations and governments, divided in politics, economics, religion and spirituality, education, profession, technologies, health and cultures. We partition our world into theologies, ideologies, methodologies and processes, each with a language of its own, a veritable tower of Babel. And yet, there are eyes inside each of us that see life very much the same as everyone else. Do we dare own those eyes? And maintain our awareness of what they see? They are the eyes of the human primate, and they always ask the same questions. Am I safe? Do I fit into the social order in a way that gets my needs met? Do I have a secure source of food and water? Do I have people to love and care for, and to care for me? Abraham Maslow used those eyes when he developed a conceptual model for hierarchies of human needs, as did Margaret Mead, but all of our great thinkers of the past have owned those eyes.
Dare we look more deeply at our species, and at our own primate-ness and observe our world with these "new" eyes? If we do, we will see not only immense challenges, but wonderful opportunities - not only failures but astounding successes. When we see that we are a species of primates, our accomplishments become all the more amazing. And we will be closer to opening our hearts in ways that acknowledge our humanity and extend our assistance and cooperation to peoples and species we have only begun to understand.
On a practical level, there are steps we must take in order to sustain a more balanced way of living. We need to take better care of ourselves and to reduce the stresses our populations are currently living with. It is not useful to replace the stresses of struggling to find adequate food and shelter with the stresses of struggling to raise a family while working full time. It is not useful to simply transfer our stresses from one form of survival to another - from waiting for rain to assure that our crops will grow - to waiting for the stock market to rebound so our stock portfolio will yield security. We live in plenty, and yet feel just as challenged as those struggling for subsistence survival.
This corporate, materialistic, consumerist realm we have invented, or stumbled into, and increasingly inhabit, simply does not work as our new eyes believed it could. Opening old eyes, we will be better able to work for, and accept, changes that are driven by our real needs - and not by the greed and rationalizations of those people in government, industry and religion who seem intent on being the alpha males and females. Sometimes with the best of intentions, they tend to dominate others and shape the world in ways that satisfy them, rather than ways that meet the needs of the larger majorities who are simply doing their best to live good lives.
Opening our primate eyes is not an appeal to work at what we may fear is our lowest, animal, common denominator – but rather an invitation to see what is actually our highest animal, common denominator – our love of community and humanity, our intense curiosity and joy, and our capacity to expand our tribe to include all humans and eventually all of life, our global realms and beyond. While we have the opportunity, living in relative peace and plenty, let’s transcend our various ideologies and disciplines and methodologies and grasp the best of our possibilities. Through primate eyes, I can see a wonderful future for us all.
BIO: Earon Davis is the author of an upcoming book entitled “Divine Primates: Hope for Our Stressed-Out Species.” He has combined a number of different roles in his journey, leading to some remarkable experiences and the integration of numerous aspects of intellectual and nonverbal domains into a distinct world view. Earon earned degrees in sociology, public health and law, and has written numerous articles on environmental health, culture and ethics. He has been a lawyer, advocate and consultant, newsletter editor and publisher, stay-at-home Dad, healing bodyworker, and has directed and advised a number of nonprofits. Earon’s book project more fully explores his observations on human nature and what we can do to create a culture that is more rewarding and sustainable. He lives in Evanston, Illinois and is a member of the World Future Society and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Earon is a primate.
Hope for an Environmentally Sustainable Future
by Earon S. Davis,
J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.
Presentation at WorldFuture 2007,
The Annual Meeting of the World Future Society
Minneapolis, MN July 30, 2007
Everyone is talking about the weather, but it may be time to look more closely into why we are doing little more than complaining - particularly about pending disasters related to global climate change. We have been talking about paradigm shifts and systems thinking, but global crises are increasing each year. Is it politics? Is it economics? Is it religion? I believe that the problem rests largely with our own human culture, especially in America. Moving into a rational environmental paradigm will require a new awareness, a new story of human nature, itself.
Systems thinking is a powerful tool for transformative thinking, but in the case of global environmental issues, it must also include as part of the “system” the collective human behaviors that have placed our global ecosystems in jeopardy. We can study global climate issues forever, but if we do not factor in the strange, sometimes dysfunctional behavior of the human primate species on this planet, we are not likely to develop effective solutions. We need to understand the sources of the obvious human resistance towards protecting our planet.
Humans are a species of primates. We are the dominant species on this planet, perhaps, but we are definitely part of the problem, along with the cows we breed, the poisons we spread, the fuels we feverishly burn and the frenetic pace of our caffeine fueled culture. We calculate the contribution of other species of animals and plants and other natural systems to global warming, but we seem to ignore the fact that we are a species of primates. Does this matter? Yes.
To date, most of our systems thinking about global warming places human beings outside of the natural systems we are looking at. This error inadvertently diverts our attention from the mess that we humans are making. Instead, we focus on measurements of chemical and temperature indicators of our pending disasters. In the meantime, our culture encourages us to behave as if life on Earth is only about humans, so we sit on the sidelines and act as some sort of grand analyst or engineer, as a god-like creature charged with running this planet.
If we are aware and afraid, we seem to be paralyzed by that fear rather than motivated by it. There is an archetype or belief system at work, here, rather than science. It is likely an artifact of Cartesian thinking, holding that the world is a complex machine and it is man's mission to understand and control it. But it may be getting in the way of efforts to change human behavior to reduce the risks of catastrophic global ecosystem deterioration.
What if humans are seen as another species rather than being the center of all creation? What if we are seen as more “primate” than “divine?” What if the world is not all about humans, but the task of humans, like all other species, is to find ways to get along with the natural order of things in order to survive and prosper in the long term?
Native peoples around the world have long commented on how the white/european people were crazed and out of touch with reality of the natural world around us. Over time, we have learned that there is much truth in that observation, but we have continued to use and abuse our planet with little regard for the consequences to future generations.
If we only view humans as created by god to have dominion over the world, then the whole world is about the human race, or perhaps the humans who go to a certain type of church. If, instead, we also see humans as having evolved from other species of primates, then we are simply another species, unique as we are, trying to adapt and survive. Thus, we would always temper our activities with a desire to avoid upsetting the delicate ecological balances around us so that we didn't inadvertently destroy our local, regional or global habitats.
But, here's the kicker. We are not even just any old species of animals. Of all things, we are primates! We monkey around with everything and are always getting carried away with things. With all of our incredible intelligence, we spend much of our time watching tv, fantasizing about sex, surfing the internet, playing games, or working at “jobs” to earn money. Is this the divine species put here to keep the Earth in balance? Hardly.
As long as we see ourselves only as divine beings of light, we will act as if the planet is here to serve us. In that case, our human nature will generally keep us dazzled by short term gain and paying little attention to long term problems we may be creating, whether that is environmental degradation, global warming, rising sea levels or war. However, if we also see ourselves as a species of primates, we may be better able to perceive our massive shortcomings as stewards of the Earth.
That awareness provides a key to synthesizing systemic checks and balances on our primate decision making. Does our concept of basic human “freedom” mean we are guaranteed the right to destroy human lives and cultures to have a cool view of the ocean - or interesting packaging for a new product - or food products that have a longer shelf-life - or a new telephone technology that is exciting and fun - or cosmetic surgery that makes us feel sexy? Do we have the right to play with matches at a petrol dump? Do we have the right to produce marginally useful products, with scarce resources, which contribute to global warming, disposal and remediation costs that are born by people who do not buy or produce those products - and by future generations who have had no say in that decision?
Right now, America is enticing the rest of the world along the irresponsible path to global environmental crises. At this time, it seems like we are “king of the hill,” but the hill may be built of ego, greed and selfishness rather than anything of enduring value. As long as we see ourselves only as divine creations, perhaps we are entitled to all that the world can offer, thinking that god and/or science will somehow save us from our own excesses. But if, as almost everyone knows deep down, we are also primates who evolved from other species of primates, then we must become accountable for our excesses.
It is more fun to see ourselves as divine beings, and religious fundamentalists and “new agers” want everyone to focus on that aspect of our nature. But, as a very clever species of primates, we may be facing a different kind of “day of reckoning”. On that day, we will be faced by disasters of war, famine and economic collapse resulting in authoritarian governments - all precipitated by our own greed and arrogance, rather than any particular judgments about our religious beliefs.
In that case, we'd better get going with the unpopular and difficult task of building a sustainable culture so that our scientific knowledge falls into a context of hope, action and competence, rather than guilt, shame and hand-wringing. If we won't do this for ourselves, let's do it for our grandchildren.
For more information on WorldFuture2008, see the listing of environmental programs at the World Future Society website.