I had a conversation with my brother yesterday about Thom Hartmann’s Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. John is a farmer with sophisticated literary tastes and a refreshingly unconventional. earthy perspective on the issues of our time. Since he doesn’t use the Internet or read newspapers or magazines, the echo chamber of public discourse cannot distort his powers of discernment. He is one of my main allies reminding me that I am not, in fact, crazy.
I’d read parts of Last Hours maybe ten years ago, and since then one or two of Hartmann’s essays, and I’m familiar with his reputation as one of the leading thinkers of the environmental sustainability movement. So I was surprised when John said, “I couldn’t finish the damn thing. Basically all it is, is that our culture is bad—other ones were good but ours is bad—and not only that, not only are we bad, but you are bad. Yes, you, personally—you are bad.” He was speaking, of course, of our complicity (through our way of life) in the ongoing destruction of planet earth. John found this message tedious and dispiriting, so he put the book down.
I too have little patience with such books. It is not that I disagree with them. I believe that the planetary crisis is fully as serious as they say. I too feel anguish at the pillage of the living treasure of Mother Earth, the ruin of her forests, seas, mountains, rivers, coral reefs, wetlands, ecosystems and species, the conversion of beauty into pavement and profit. I also agree that this destruction is the result of human activity, specifically the activity of modern, industrialized humans.
I do not agree, however, with the response of, “We’ve been bad and we’re going to have to try harder to be good.” I disagree for two reasons. First is simply that that response is ineffective, as the sorry record of the last thirty years of environmentalism demonstrates. Secondly, and even worse, that response is actually part of the same mentality that is responsible for the destruction in the first place.
When we go filled with blame and anger at those selfish people driving SUVs—how could they!—and those evil corporations and the politicians beholden to them, who just don’t get it, and the weapons makers and Big Pharma and the genetically modified seed companies and the petrochemical companies, and human weakness and greed which, we think, these evildoers must possess in greater measure than ourselves, we are just reenacting the age-old War against the Other. Environmental destruction is one aspect of that war, which manifests in various forms as the war against nature, the war against human nature, and the war against the true self. It comes from a mindset of Separation.
The war against the other says that in order to create Good, we must conquer that which is Bad. We must conquer the bad, evil, greedy people. We must similarly conquer those qualities within ourselves. Hence, the necessity and virtue of control. It is an attitude that took shape with the advent of agriculture, which imposed control upon nature and classified, for the first time, some species as good and others as bad. (Preagricultural animists made no such distinctions, recognizing the functional necessity of all beings in maintaining a harmonious whole.) The War against the Other gained in intensity over the centuries, achieving its culminating articulation during the Scientific Revolution in Descartes’ heady declaration that technology would render us the “Lords and Possessors” of nature.
Today we are beginning to emerge from our thralldom to the ideology of control. There is another response to the heartbreaking ruination of so much that is beautiful, another response than to attempt to coerce better behavior with the whips of guilt, shame, and blame. The Age of Separation is ending. The new response of the Age of Reunion understands that our true desire is not to destroy, that greed is a symptom and not a cause of our way of life, and that everything we do to the Other we do to ourselves as well. This is the way of thinking I explore in The Ascent of Humanity. During the years I spent writing the book, I grappled with the seemingly overwhelming case for the badness of ourselves, our civilization, and my own self too. After all, look what we have done! And look at all my own nasty conniving thoughts, my secret vanity, my calculations, my greed, my subtle putdowns, my earth-consuming lifestyle that puts my own comfort above the very lives of plants, animals, and the ecosystem itself.
Something in me always refused to believe this irrefutable case for our personal and collective badness. I pondered a riddle: “If we are essentially divine beings, why have we created the world I see before me?” Something in refused as well to believe that life must be an endless struggle of the good against the bad. But again, why does it seem that it is only our restraint of the bad side that prevents the destruction from being even worse?
My first attempt to resolve these riddles was the book, The Yoga of Eating, which explored the impact and resolution of the war of control in the area of food. Translated into diet, these riddles ask, “Why can we not trust ourselves? Why does health seemingly come from successful control of desire and limitation of pleasure?” In this book and the seminars I’ve created since then, I developed a technology of selftrust that recovers authentic appetite, aligns pleasure and health, and unifies discipline and desire.
The key breakthrough in that work is the concept of substitute desires. We do not know what we truly want and need. The true object of our desire is inaccessible, so we reach out for best substitute. We also are cut off from true pleasure and pain, which normally are meant to guide us to the fulfillment of true needs.
The Ascent of Humanity provides the context to apply these concepts far more generally. Applied to the environmental crisis, the new response of the Age of Reunion recognizes that the greatest beneficiaries of modern civilization really have not benefited at all. The mindset of modern technology has separated us from true need, true desire, and authentic pleasure, and given us instead increasingly superficial substitutes. In place of human connection, we get television and celebrity news. In place of connection to nature, we get mounds of plastic junk and cheap entertainment. In place of adventure and self-expression, we get virtual adventure games, amusement parks, and TV safaris. In place of health, we get technological pills and props to just get by. And in place of wholeness of spirit, we get a series of fixes, temporary, superficial pleasures to mask the inner wound of separation.
All of the behaviors that we blame for the crisis are simply the results of this broken wholeness. To try to rein them in without healing the wound of separation will only cause them to manifest in a different form, usually even more destructive. The logic of the technological fix and the drug fix both says that you can defer the pain from an unhealed wound forever. Today, a convergence of crises is rendering the falsity of that logic transparent. Our extreme of separation is birthing a transition back to wholeness.
Facing the planetary “environmental” crisis, the response of Reunion looks first to each person’s deep desire for wholeness. It sees in each person a desire, a need, to be an agent for the creation of beauty. It sees our desire for wholeness, our desire to love and be loved, to play, to create, to grow. It speaks to those desires. It doesn’t say, “You’ve been bad and you’re going to have to give up some of your benefits.” Instead it says, perhaps not explicitly, “I know that these so-called benefits are not really benefiting you at all. I know they are not what you truly want.” It says, “Look my brother, here is what you can be. Here is what you can create.” It speaks to the heart and trusts in the fundamental goodness of every person.
The response of Reunion is also a return to the ancient animistic mentality in which there are no good or bad beings, but in which all have an essential role in the harmonious functioning of the whole. All beings desire to enact that role. Human beings are no exception. This response, then, speaks to the question that troubles the heart of every despot and plutocrat who ever lived: “Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?” The people living in the mansions and flying in the corporate jets want nothing less than to fulfill their true purpose on this planet. If you live anything other than that, a steady stream of distractions and superficial pleasures and material substitutes is necessary to even make life barely tolerable. Eventually they lose their efficacy: personal crises converge and birth us into the life we were meant to live.
The same is happening, collectively, in the present era. It is an exciting time to be alive!