Thoughts for my grandchildren [5]

. . . on the topic: “What you’ll be facing”

(this was the fifth in a series of six articles that I wrote
for Green Horizon Magazine about ten years ago)

* * * *

Dear Grandchildren:

In order to lay the groundwork for understanding the special conditions you’ll be facing, these notebooks, so far, have focused on making some key points in regard to the macro-trajectories and objective circumstances of human history. Now we’ll see how all that might bear on your personal, subjective experience of life. To tell you truth, that’s what I really care about the most!

I hope that you’ll find fulfillment, hope that you’ll enjoy the experience of living, even though it may be quite a challenge during the period of The Great Turning (see David Korten’s book by that name). Whatever insights you’re able to achieve regarding the impending tectonic transitions will help you to navigate the challenges and apply your personal resources in ways that are creative and satisfying.

As we’ve been discussing throughout these notebooks: after millennia of going in a problematic direction humanity has arrived at a point where we are risking ecological, social, psychological, and geopolitical breakdown. Aspects of each will color your life experience every day.

Ecological Sensibilities

The ramifications of the ecological crisis — which were all but unanticipated fifty years ago when Silent Spring and then The Limits to Growth shocked the modern certainty about the notion of progress — are in the news just about every day now. The result is a background anxiety, especially about what the consequences of global warming, in particular, ultimately will be. A corollary of that is a subtle sense of culpability among those who understand the repercussions of our society’s pursuit of affluence.

By the time you are in the prime of your lives it’s likely that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have surpassed 450ppm. I’m confident that you’ll be enlightened enough to recognize both how necessary a radical reduction from that level will be and how difficult it will be to achieve.

History is replete with calamities and times of great trauma. But certain aspects of the crises of our epoch are qualitatively more profound. They are geological in scope. The fact that our lifeways have resulted in ecosystem despoliation, habitat destruction, and mass species extinctions is starting to weigh on the human spirit. I know you to be sensitive and I know that you will be affected.

And then there is a deeper level . . . touching on issues of which only a small minority are fully aware:

We evolved to live on and with the land, its flora and fauna — but the urban-industrial context of our daily lives is now so severed from nature and the Earth that most people, if they experience the dissociation at all, sense it as nothing more than a nebulous unnamed deficiency. That’s why a book like The Call of the Wild (Jack London) has an almost mysterious kind of resonance. I think on a subconscious level we recognize that our domestication and solipsism are factors of estrangement in our lives and in our culture. We wonder if our civilization is inherently irresponsible. We are concerned about the role of human beings in this “Anthropocene Epoch.” I have some hope that, in your time, the green movement will succeed in fostering an appreciation of a deep ecological sensibility — thus opening doors for you and some of your peers to become models of mindfulness and healing.

Social Issues

In prior notebook entries we’ve talked about how there have been two essential human lifeways. In order to try to get some sense of the relations within and subjective reality of the “Old Ways,” think about how people treat each other in a family setting. Within a healthy family any exhibition of condescending or dominance-seeking behavior is anathema. Parents have authority over children, of course, but there is an egalitarianism in regard to worthiness, attention, and care. Exploitation of one family member by another is not tolerated.

Anthropologists tell us that similar norms generally prevailed in aboriginal and village societies, where interdependence was near-familial. In regard to life-sustaining contributions by individuals (what we now would call “work”), needs were immediately evident and discernible. People worked directly for the sustenance of each other, resulting in an organic kind of esteem flowing from direct appreciation.

In complex societies social contributions are typically made via “jobs” — where the labor of an individual is a resource for an impersonal institution. Within this context egalitarianism is the exception rather than the rule. Owning or managing elites appropriate surplus value in the interest of the institution. The masses of people are dependent upon the job market for material sustenance and the nuclear family for emotional sustenance. Work is done for the paycheck rather than for the direct benefit of a specific community or place.

Grandchildren, maybe you’ll find careers that you love and thus avoid the alienation and anomie that are so common throughout the modern “workforce.” Perhaps you’ll be among the lucky few able to obtain truly meaningful work within the globalized Leviathan. But you’re likely to find it quite a challenge. As you seek fulfillment, appreciation, and decent remuneration you’ll be facing an intimidating labyrinth of commercialism, avarice, and competition. You’ll find that cooperative and communitarian impulses are all too often overwhelmed by the drives and imperatives of the empire builders. You’ll discover that capital, technology, and the state are the interlocking components of a Machine whose value system centers around power. I’ll advise that the most righteous work you can do is to participate in the creation of sane, healthy, and just alternatives.

Geopolitical Disorder

Trade between human groups may go back more than a hundred thousand years, but until relatively recently it tended to be a marginal phenomenon, mostly confined to exotic items. As one group after another transitioned (voluntarily or by compulsion) to complex systems of production and consumption starting five thousand years ago interdependence gradually expanded. Nonetheless, localized economies produced the bulk of necessities for the vast majority of people on the planet until the emergence of the modern world-system between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Grandchildren, you need to understand the fact that we’re among the fortunate, the privileged within that system. We reside in one of the “advanced” countries that benefits from the modern geopolitical conformation. Wealth flows in to the United States from all over the world. This enables our institutions, systems, and technologies to operate adequately for the most part — “the trains run on time,” food and amusements are abundant. But in the countries that constitute the periphery of the world-system the resources to support the functioning of hypermodernity are lacking. On the one hand those resources are drained away to the center. On the other hand hypermodern development is an incongruous overlay imposed by the center — embraced by the elites of the peripheral countries but resisted by the populaces.

So the system does not work well for the countries that function as the “sacrifice zones” from which the affluent developed world derives raw materials and cheap labor. Their people face a daily reality of malnutrition, exploitation, and squalor. They subsist within the artificial boundaries of nation-states sometimes held together by strongmen and sometimes not held together at all. Within those countries there is little hope and little progress. In fact, it appears that during the twenty-first century retrogression has set in. Those of us in the privileged societies get a vague sense of this as we try to digest news bites regarding ethnic conflict, religious fundamentalism, corruption, disease, social implosion, terrorism and lashing out in the Third World.

At one time it was thought that the “wretched of the earth” would rise up and liberate themselves from the yoke of the world-system that so oppresses them. But more often than not oppression simply manifests as pathology . . . a pathology destined to subtly but increasingly permeate into the center.

Psyche, Culture, and Civilization

Grandchildren, the reality you’ll be facing is riddled with contradictions. In twenty-first century America, with abundant resources, you’ll have myriad opportunities for achievement, enjoyment, self-expression, and success. As individuals, you and many of your peers may do fine. And I hope that will be the case.

But it probably will not be possible or advisable to disregard the pathology all around. Beyond that of the ecological abuses and the social injustices there is something more subjective, more personal . . . an underlying disaffection, a kind of spiritual impoverishment that touches nearly all of us.

We have lost our Home and our bearings. Those who enjoy affluence sense that there is something hollow about it. Humanity is confronting a crisis of meaning which goes very deep. Under such conditions it should be no surprise that psychopathology is pervasive.

* * *

The Leviathan cannot be our Home. We’re too sensitive to be comfortable within its harshness. Culture is unable to fulfill its ameliorative role within such an antipathetic environment.

I’ve made the point that people grounded in the affinity, stability, and intelligibility of the Old Ways would find our current lifeways alien and incomprehensible. This is not to argue in favor of “going back” — which would be neither possible nor desirable. Rather, in order to go forward — toward effectuating The Great Turning that’s called for at this historical juncture — we need to start coming to terms with the idea that certain crucial elements of social sanity have been lost since humanity took a wrong turn in the wake of the Neolithic Revolution.

For the individual this especially starts to become a life issue during modern adolescence, because, in many ways, the world of childhood still remains close to what characterized the original human reality: a limited and manageable domain of experience, territorial boundedness, familiar relationships. Alienation starts to become a factor of life when the road to adulthood opens up for the adolescent. This is the theme of a corpus of modern literature. In Growing Up Absurd Paul Goodman notes the associated disorientation. In Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, young George Willard finds most of the adults around him to be “grotesques.” He has the impetus to escape.

Escape has consistently been a motif of what Korten calls Empire Culture. An anthem of the sixties counter-culture, the song “Wooden Ships,” is a good example:


Take a sister by the hand,
Lead her away from this foreign land.
Far away, where we might laugh again.

[We have set out in] wooden ships on the water,
Very free and easy . . . the way it’s supposed to be.

Silver people on the shoreline, let us be.
We are leaving — you don’t need us.

An interpretation (derived from the full lyrics and the context of the times): The reality we, the younger generations, have been presented with by the adults is intimidating and oppressive. It’s unnatural and unhealthy. We’re escaping in simple wooden ships. The stolid ones on the shoreline that we’re leaving behind seem “silver” to us (metallic, technocratic) . . . propagators of lifeways that feel foreign, un-free. Our alienation from it all makes us counterproductive to those who want to integrate us into their Leviathan. We’re heading off to create an alternative existence.

* * *

Escape . . . from the alienation and disorientation, from the social and psychological pathology. Grandchildren, some will tell you that those phenomena are inherent in the human condition. But that is not the case.

It is true that psychological issues have been a factor of human existence at least since consciousness developed to the point of fostering a complex, imaginative mental life. Our ability to imagine extensive degrees of success, aggrandizement, satisfaction, etc. engender uniquely human motivations — along with uniquely human degrees and kinds of frustration. Our ability to contemplate suffering, humiliation, infirmity, loss, and mortality engender uniquely human degrees and kinds of apprehension. We imagine that our impulses could be destructive or reviled; we imagine adverse consequences.

All higher animals exhibit “fight or flight” in response to objective adverse stimuli, but humans are subject to the abstract contemplation of adversity. For this reason anxiety and neurosis are inherent to some extent. Culture provides an important mediation between nature and psyche. It enables us to live within nature by providing a requisite buffering, a channeling of instinctual energy, an assuagement of anxiety . . . a kind of cocoon within which people can feel secure and thus within which energy flow is felt to be safe. Aboriginal culture, based upon communitarian support and sanction, succeeded in fulfilling this function. With the onset of urban civilization the context for that buffering and channeling was ruptured. As we became increasingly alienated from nature, to the extent that communitarian support and sanction were diminished, neurosis became increasingly problematic.

Grandchildren, as we’re discussing the subjective experience of your lives, believe me when I say that neurosis and psychological idiosyncrasies will be an appreciable factor. To put it another way: People can be difficult, strange, and funny! In fact, cultivating a sense of humor about this aspect of life is highly recommended! Not so funny, though, is the degree to which hypermodernity exacerbates these all-too-human characteristics.

A crisis of culture and character

Psychoanalysis introduced the idea of “character structure.” It focuses on energy flow within the body, as influenced by posture, tension, the way we breathe, emotional blocks, etc. Just as each individual has a unique mix of personality characteristics, so do we each have a unique somatic character structure. Moreover, beyond that, cultural patterns can be discerned — and they can be affected when people confront an altered social reality.

The transition to the New Ways was motivated by scarcity (relative to burgeoning population). The value system of the New Ways prioritized productivity, control, possession, expansion, and technological mastery. These cultural values induced characterological changes. At first, individuals and populations manifesting such constituted a small minority. But they were driven to domination and, over time, they achieved domination. Thus did the New Ways transform humanity.

Psychologists counterpose “assimilative-accommodative” (open, feeling, flowing, acclimating) personality characteristics to “aggressive-defensive” (on guard, protective, preservative, controlling) characteristics. A healthy balance of the two was appropriate for coping with the exigencies of life within the state of nature or within the cocoon of aboriginal culture. The disorientation, stress, and atomized difficulty of life within the Leviathan creates a condition wherein the aggressive-defensive character structure (“Type A”) predominates.

From early in life, in order to be able to cope, we are habituated to a degree of repression that aboriginals would find intolerable. This results in “character armoring,” wherein energy flow is constricted, the body is tense, the posture aggressive-defensive. Instructive in this respect were the records of the early encounters between Europeans and Native Americans. The Europeans were impressed with how the indigens seemed calm, open, childlike — agile and fluid in their motions. William Wood described the health of the Indians north of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1639: “Most of them are between five and six foot high, straight bodied, strong composed, smooth-skinned, merry countenance . . . The reason rendered why they grow so proportionable and continue so long in their vigor (most of them being fifty before a wrinkled brow or gray hair betray their age) is because they are not brought down with suppressing labor, bothered with annoying cares, or drowned in the excessive abuse of overflowing plenty.” By contrast, the natives described the Europeans as aggressive, domineering, and cold.

The natives did not have the perspective to recognize pathology. We are only developing that perspective at this point in our history. It could lead us to the realization that life does not need to be the way it is and has been. We do not need to tolerate the discontents, injustices, and indignities. We do not need to be armored and repressed. We could escape the suffocation of the surrogate world we have created, get out from under the burdensome weight of Leviathan existence, if we could see it for what it is and then, on that basis, transform our value systems and our lifeways.

The real revolution of our time, percolating under the surface, is based on the realization that humans have the capacity to attain a state of peace, health, and social harmony — not by struggling toward a “higher stage of development” or a faux “abundance” — but rather by getting off the treadmill to nowhere. Our struggling has benefitted so few among us. For the vast majority salvation will entail turning our backs on the Machine and finding our way Home.

David Watson: “When the Lakota medicine man Black Elk, sounding exactly like the old taoists, said, ‘We should even be as water, which is lower than all things, yet stronger than the rocks,’ he wasn’t counseling servility. He was telling us something valuable about strength, not as force but as endurance; about radiating power rather than possessing or controlling it; about listening to nature instead of fantasizing about mastering it — all evocative of the kind of character change that will be necessary to sustain us in the coming period of challenge.”

. . . to be continued


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Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).