Originally published in New Renaissance, Vol. 9, no.3, 2000.
At first sight the human race’s future seems so bleak that a pessimist might be forgiven for believing that we might not even have very much of a future. After all, there are certainly very good grounds for pessimism if we look at the world’s present environmental predicament.
A report published last year by a number of organisations – including the World Conservation Monitoring Centre at Cambridge University – shows that environmental destruction is accelerating at an alarming rate. According to the report, the world’s freshwater resources are being dangerously depleted, with half of the available resources being used already, and the figure increasing by 6% a year. As well as this, since 1970 the consumption of wood and paper has increased by two-thirds, consumption of the world’s fish resources has doubled so that now they are ‘in serious decline’, carbon dioxide emissions have doubled and are continuing to increase, and, perhaps most worryingly of all, the overall situation is getting worse now that many ‘developing’ countries are growing economically and beginning to deplete their own supplies of natural resources.
It’s also clear that Global warming has already begun to cause serious problems to the world’s climatic system. Figures recently released by the world’s insurance industries show that 1998 was the by far the worst year on record for natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. In fact during this one year the world suffered more than twice as much damage than in all the decade of the 1980s, and scientists expect the situation to get worse, with the world entering a ‘new era’ of hurricanes.
An observer from another planet would probably come to the conclusion that the human race has agreed to some sort of collective suicide pact, perhaps decided that life isn’t worth living after all, and resolved to make themselves an extinct species within the next hundred years.
Or perhaps they would look back at history and come to the conclusion that this self-extinction was more or less inevitable right from the beginning. Because we can, in fact, trace the existence of the particular human group which is mainly responsible for the problems back thousands of years – back to around 4000 B.C., for example, when a group of human beings who archaeologists later called the Indo-Europeans began to branch out from their homeland in the steppes of Southern Russia.
At this time most of Europe was inhabited by Neolithic peoples who, as the archaeological evidence shows, lived in a very similar way to the native inhabitants of the continents of America and Australasia. As Riane Eisler shows in her important book The Chalice and The Blade, these people were artistic, spiritual and felt a strong sense of connection to nature. Their societies were remarkably egalitarian and non-hierarchical, with women afforded the same status us men. They worshipped goddesses rather than male gods, and, perhaps most strikingly, there is an absence of fortifications in their settlements and of warrior images in the art they have left us which suggests that they weren’t aggressive or war-like.
The Indo-Europeans were different, however. The archaeological evidence makes it clear that they were a war-like people who worshipped ‘the power of the blade’ rather than nature, whose gods were all male and whose society was rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal. And when, at around 4000 B.C., the Indo-Europeans began to enter the territories occupied by the Neolithic peoples the outcome was probably inevitable : they ‘conquered’ the whole of Europe and parts of Asia, and the old European culture of the Neolithic peoples was replaced by a new one based on their values.
Over time these Indo-Europeans subdivided into many different groups – they became the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Celts, the Germanic peoples and many others. But no matter how culturally divergent they became they retained the basic Indo-European value system, and developed similarly patriarchal, hierarchical and war-like societies, worshipping male gods and developing a concept of nature as an enemy to be conquered and exploited.
These original Indo-Europeans are the ancestors of modern Europeans, of course, and of modern North and South Americans and Australians too. It was their development of chariots and horses as a form of transport which enabled the original Indo-Europeans to conquer old Europe, and, thousands of years later, the ship-building and sea-faring prowess of the ‘Indo-Europeans’ of western Europe enabled them to cross the oceans to distant continents. And there, from the 6th century onwards, they destroyed the native American and Aborigine cultures with the same ruthlessness that their ancestors had destroyed the old European Neolithic culture, and replaced them with new societies firmly based upon the old Indo-European ‘dominator’ principles.
The Old State of Being
What this suggests is that there was something wrong with the Indo-European ‘state of being’ right from the beginning. Above all, what characterises the modern American or European (or the old Indo-European) mentality is a highly developed sense of ego.
In contrast to native peoples like Aborigines or native Americans (and probably the Neolithic peoples) we experience ourselves as sharply defined ‘selves’ which live inside our brains and our bodies and exist in complete separation to other human beings and to nature. Because of this, we’re literally more ‘selfish’ – that is, our own needs and desires are usually much more real and more important to us than the welfare of other species, the environment as a whole, or even other people. And it also means that we tend to live inside our heads instead of actually in the world. We’re so busy thinking and worrying and planning that it’s unusual for us to actually give our attention to our surroundings, which means that the natural world isn’t as real to us as it is to other peoples who haven’t got such strongly developed egos.
Perhaps the original Indo-Europeans developed this state of being because of the hostile climatic conditions in which they originated – in the steppes of southern Russia – which meant that they had to develop a certain selfishness and a competitiveness to survive, which peoples who originated in more pleasant climates didn’t need. And we can certainly see the roots of our present environmental problems in this state of being – the lack of connection to nature, and the lack of a sense of the ‘alive-ness’ of natural things which has resulted in us treating nature something ‘other’ to us which we’re entitled to conquer, abuse and exploit.
A New State of Being
Looking at the problem from this perspective also makes it clear what is required for us to overcome our present problems and ensure our species’ survival. Since the fundamental problem is our state of being, we need to collectively develop a new state of being.
We need to overcome our sense of ego-separation, develop and new sense of connection to the world and a new sense of spirituality – in fact, to develop a state of being similar to that of native peoples and of the old Neolithic peoples.
This might seem to be another cause for pessimism. After all, how can we expect hundreds of millions of people to somehow transform themselves in this way, especially when it seems that they’ve only got a very limited amount of time to do it in? But this is, in fact, one of the biggest sources of optimism in our present predicament – because there’s a lot of evidence which suggests that such a widespread transformation actually is taking place.
We can see this most clearly in the amazing growth of the ‘personal development’ movement over the last forty or so years, the massive upsurge in interest in eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, spiritual practices like meditation and yoga, and in other ‘alternative’ spiritually based practices like Reiki healing, Rebirthing, Shamanism etc. Research conducted by Peter Russell (reported in his book The Awakening Earth) showed that this interest in self-development is the fastest growing trend in the modern world, with the number of people who are involved in it one way or another doubling every four years.
It’s also evident in a slightly more obscure way from the increasing restlessness which seems to be spreading through our societies. More and more people are, it seems, finding themselves unable to live the ‘ordinary life’ which is expected of them, in which they’re supposed to live in exactly the same ‘life-situation’ for years on end, doing the same jobs and going through the same daily and weekly routines and restricting themselves to a narrow range of experience. There seem be an increasing number of ‘misfits’ or ‘drop-outs’, people who switch from one job to another instead of sticking to one career, who go travelling around the world, who find the routine of work to soul-destroying to put up with and resign themselves to life ‘on the dole’, or people who perhaps do live an ordinary life with jobs and mortgages but feel as if they’re trapped and ache to break free. This suggests that there’s an increasing alive-ness spreading amongst people, an increasing desire for experience and unfamiliarity, and a growing realisation that the purpose of life isn’t just to ‘get on’ in the world and to enjoy yourself by treating yourself to material goods and sensual pleasures.
There’s also an increasing spirit of empathy spreading through our societies which we can also see as evidence that a collective change is taking place, since it suggests that people in general are becoming less selfish and separate. Studies of life in previous centuries – such as Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind – make it clear that our ancestors were generally much more cruel and indifferent to other people’s sufferings than us. As Wilson writes, ‘Our present concern for children and animals would have struck an early Victorian as ludicrous, while Doctor Johnson would simply have condemned it as a dangerous sentimentality.’ But since then, and especially over the last forty years or so, people seem to have developed a much more pronounced ability to identify with and to feel for others (including the members of other species). In recent decades this has manifested itself in, for example, better treatment for disabled people, a decline in racism, more equality and social acceptance for gays, an increase in vegetarianism etc.
It seems obvious that this change is taking place in response to the dangers we’re facing. Perhaps it’s being caused by a deep-seated survival impulse somewhere within the collective being of our species, or perhaps, in some mysterious way, nature herself may be engineering it.
After all, it’s not just a question of making ourselves an extinct species – if our ecological destruction continues it’ll have terrible consequences for all life on earth, and probably set back the process of evolution by millions of years. So perhaps the sheer catastrophic weight of the crisis has triggered a response from nature, and she’s implemented a sort of ‘check’ similar to the natural ‘checks’ which some animal species undergo when their populations have grown too big.
A pessimist might say that even if all this is true it doesn’t make much difference because there’s nowhere near enough time left for a collective transformation like this to occur. After all, the change only seems to have affected a minority of people so far, and it’s probable that if our ecological destruction continues for a few more decades it’ll already be too late.
But this is where we come in. We don’t have to just leave it to nature to spread this new state of being throughout our species, because we can, in a very real sense, help to spread it ourselves. As the biologist Rupert Sheldrake has shown, the changes which individual members of a species undergo affect the species as a whole. When some members of the species develop a new trait its ‘morphic resonance’ builds up, making it easier for other members of the species to develop the same trait, until eventually, when the morphic resonance has built up sufficiently, the trait is taken on by all members of the species, and becomes a part of the ‘species blueprint’ which members of the species develop in accordance with from the moment of conception. So for us this means that by developing ourselves spiritually and moving towards a new state of being, we’re prompting other human beings around the world to do the same. We’re influencing them, building up the morphic resonance for this new state of being, and eventually, when a certain ‘threshold number’ of human beings have moved towards it, the state of being will permeate our species as a whole, and become as natural to us as our present one is.
The responsibility for the human race’s future doesn’t, therefore, just lie in the hands of governments, global corporations or environmental groups; it lies with every one of us. We all have a choice to make. If you like you can forget about the future and just spend your life enjoying the hedonistic spoils of capitalism, earning and spending money and trying to become more and more successful so that you can earn and spend even more, in which case you’ll be adding your signature to the human race’s death warrant. On the other hand you can make spiritual development the main purpose of your life, in the knowledge by changing yourself you’re helping the whole the human race to change – in which case you’ll be helping to lead our species away from a catastrophic future, and towards a new harmonious one.