Thoughts for my grandchildren 
. . . on the topic: “What you’ll be facing”
(this was the last in a series of six articles that I wrote
for Green Horizon Magazine about ten years ago)
Grandchildren, in this final notebook entry I’m going to start dispensing Advice.
I don’t blame you for reaching for your earplugs. But . . . humor me . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
We’ve noted that you’ll be living through special times in the sense that there will be a growing background buzz associated with the looming civilizational-ecological crisis. But for you, as middle class Americans, there won’t necessarily be dramatic shifts of circumstance in your day-to-day existence. Most likely, yours will be the common challenge of living in this world as it is.
Still, that’s quite a challenge. We’ve discussed before how being human has some inherent issues. Consciousness and self-consciousness result in a unique degree of anxiety and “existential” discomfort. That’s one reason why we need the cocoon of culture. Relative to other animals, it’s hard to be a human being.
But the point of these notebooks is that it shouldn’t have to be this hard. Look around the world at the stress and the suffering. It will be presented to you as normal. Don’t believe it. Life could be better, it should be better, and we can make it better.
Our movement has a slogan: “A Better World Is Possible.” An important step toward realizing that vision is to spread the news that “better” lies in a very different direction than our traditional cultural values might suggest. It will require working patiently to counter a whole variety of deeply ingrained misperceptions.
The mystique: “Progress and Development”
The long-ago shift from the Old Ways to the New was traumatic, but it seems that once the developmentalist trendlines were established as our cultural norm a mystique about it took hold. The New Ways were presented as “progressive” by those who most benefited. It was in their interest to foster general acceptance of this idea — even though the truth was that the development of the urban-technological edifice made life harder for the vast majority.
Psychologists tell us that people tend to attribute their struggles to their own shortcomings. It appears to most people that others are coping better. The supposition, then, tends to be: if others can manage it, our social reality must be manageable. Modern youth face a challenge of trying to craft a persona of competence amongst the institutional and technological minefields of the Leviathan. People fall into depression when the maintenance of the persona is too difficult, the air of buoyancy too hard to sustain. This is a widespread affliction. If you understand that the social reality is problematic — hard to manage — then you can have some perspective on your own situation and the frustrations and difficulties you’ll encounter as you try to cope.
The frustration was visible on the face of Mario Savio when he spoke at Berkeley’s Sproul Hall in December of 1964. But it wasn’t fully clear what he had in mind when he proclaimed: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part . . . and you’ve got to put your body upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus . . . and you’ve got to make it stop!”
Make what stop?
Mario Savio was a relatively privileged young collegian with a bright future. The Vietnam War was not yet an issue on campus. What was he railing against? racism? poverty? capitalism?
A history of “scarcity”
Grandchildren, even when I was your age (and by the way, Sarina, I really enjoyed your ninth birthday party last week!) I had the idea that war and poverty didn’t make sense in a world that had seen so much progress. In addition to my reading, writing, and arithmetic skills I had fully absorbed the subtle but ubiquitous lessons regarding the touted progress of our society. And I was fully convinced of it, noticing how the cars got bigger and fancier every year.
Later, as a teenager, I made intensive inquiries trying to understand the reasons for the social ills “all around.” My readings indicated that many of them could be attributed to scarcity, which had historically caused contention among people, groups, and nations. The contention led to belligerent, acquisitive, and exclusionary behavior. Until the modern era, efforts to overcome scarcity had never gotten far enough as to make much of an impact. But advances associated with the Enlightenment and the Scientific/Industrial Revolutions presented humanity with the opportunity to realize age-old dreams.
This seemed to make sense. But I noticed that there was a raging debate about how to go forward from this point in history. The conventional wisdom, with which I was thoroughly familiar, held that democracy and freedom of the kind attained under the American Way of Life simply needed to be generalized.
An alternative viewpoint was based on one or another variant of socialism. It maintained that the standard Western “bourgeois democratic” worldview is flawed because it conflates the idea of “freedom” with “free markets” — the latter being a euphemism for an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production. It asserted that a higher stage of social development could be attained only by extending democracy from the political into the economic sphere via collective ownership.
Each of these worldviews offered a trenchant critique of the other. The private enterprise advocates argued that “the people” could never, in reality, collectively own and control the industrial apparatus of a complex modern economy. Rather, socialization of the means of production could only have the deleterious effect of concentrating more power in the hands of the state. Socialists, on the other hand, claimed that under capitalist production relations class division could never be overcome, and as long as society is riven in that way public policy will never be made democratically, it will always be unduly influenced by the owning plutocracy.
I listened to the arguments and made a decision. It seemed to me at the time that the goal of a classless society needed to be central. I thought there must be a way to deal with the caveats about socialism such that an advancement into the “next higher stage” of history would be possible and successful. And for many years I worked hard for that vision of human liberation.
A Deeper Questioning
When the Green movement first emerged it seemed to many of us activists like just another of the “niche” movements to come out of the Sixties. We were fully supportive of the reforms they all advocated, but we hoped to impress upon them the need for fundamental systemic change, which we interpreted to mean: Capitalist productive relations as the problem, socialism as the solution.
It did concern many New Leftists like myself that the experiments with “really existing socialism” had not often proven very satisfactory. We contrived explanations, but during the 1980s I began to notice increasing attention to ideas associated with something heralded as a “new paradigm worldview.” It professed very different explanations. To my surprise, the ideas had originated in the Green movement — which clearly had started to address issues far beyond simple environmentalism. I discovered that the Greens were taking the radical step of questioning the common fundamental assertion of the two dominant worldviews regarding the legacy of the process of “progressive development.”
Whereas the capitalist and socialist ideologues agreed that humanity has “come far” and now just has to take one or another set of further steps in order to achieve abundance, leisure, peace, and security, the Greens pointed out how the reality of our circumstances in the 20th-21st centuries utterly contradicts that sanguine perspective. Instead of abundance, we’re facing depletion; instead of liberation, we’re in jeopardy of collapse! States are failing, safety nets are fraying . . . and beyond the human sphere, the stresses on the planet are shocking. In reference to the fact that we’re living through the sixth great mass extinction of life on earth, John Clark writes: “If an extraterrestrial came to visit and then went back to report on what was happening here, this would certainly be the number one item. News from Earth: ‘They’re going through a kind of planetary disaster that has only happened six times in several billion years!’”
I came to feel that only the Greens could satisfactorily explain how things have arrived at this point. Rather than a beneficial and progressive process of development, they said that our history should be viewed as the chronology of a long aberrant period replete with resource contention, power-lust, war, exploitation, and oppression. Having endured such for hundreds of generations, this state of things has come to seem normal, a characteristic of the human condition. But it’s not so. We entered a unique crucible when the human population bloom reached a critical point prior to the Neolithic Revolution. That crisis forced a transition into very unnatural and uncomfortable lifeways. Values became distorted. We struggled to cope with the situation by straining to expand food supply and increase productivity in general. Doing so only fostered the expansion of the Leviathan, consigning us to the plight of running faster and faster on a treadmill to nowhere.
Scarcity is a concept relative to population numbers and felt needs. It was not an ever-lurking specter until urban life became predominant. Only then did the “New Ways” pattern take hold, the pattern whereby the most aggressive managed to accumulate wealth and assert elite dominance, while the masses labored to avoid penury. The carrot of aggrandizement and the stick of anxiety fueled growth. The growth demanded more inputs, both objective and subjective, leaving us now on the verge of depletion and exhaustion.
We’re not freeing ourselves
Grandchildren, you might ask: How is it that the twin ideologies of industrial modernism could have failed to recognize such problematic civilizational trajectories? The answer is that they shared a misguided value system. Their focus was on the “panacea” of alleviating scarcity through increasing productivity.
In 1930 the British economist John Maynard Keynes published an article titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (he stole the idea from me!). But he actually wasn’t writing about his own grandchildren, he was writing about people who would be in the prime of their lives a hundred years hence, in the year 2030. That’s you! Due to gains in productivity, he predicted that by 2030 a 3-hour daily shift and a 15-hour workweek would become the norm.
Well, since then productivity has actually increased more than he anticipated. Yet the middle and lower classes — even in the most affluent countries — are still working very hard. I think we can view Keynes’s prediction as an exemplar of the mystique of development: We’re “making progress.” We’re “freeing ourselves.” We’re “getting somewhere.” We’re “mastering nature.”
The problem is: we’re not freeing ourselves. We’re burdening ourselves. And the culprit is those hypertrophied civilizational trendlines: More, bigger, faster, farther.
For all the gains in productivity and efficiency, we have not made life easier or better. Under the influence of misguided values we’ve lost things that are more important than “affluence” and technological capability. We’ve lost appreciation for limits. We’ve lost our bearings — due to a lack of grounding in the elemental; due to a preoccupation with the superficial; due to a misconception about what really constitutes freedom.
The focus on productivity has been successful within its self-reflexive domain. We’ve gained the ability to produce an enormous amount of food, energy, goods, services, and amusements. In fact, we can produce so much now that material scarcity would no longer be an issue if it were not for the highly skewed distribution of It All. But we haven’t considered the extent to which we’ve been increasing the scarcity of things that are much more vital to social and psychological health.
The spectrum of the human condition
Grandchildren, news reports almost every day now reflect how the civilizational crises are manifesting as “trouble at the periphery.” The result may be that you observe your peers growing conservative. Or maybe we should say “preservative” . . . in the sense that their inclination will be to preserve their relative prosperity and “normalcy” in the face of encroaching pathologies exhibited by the left-behinds, the marginals, and the underprivileged. The social breakdown, terrorism, disease, etc. “out there” will be increasingly disquieting.
The first entry of these notebooks to you contained a succinct Robert Louis Stevenson poem from the first page of the My Book House volumes that we read together in your early years:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
There is truth in that, but it’s a truth related to just one pole of the spectrum of the human condition. For balance, here’s another succinct couplet apropos of the other pole:
We live in a sea
Of neurosis and technology.
(Neurosis here is meant to represent both the psycho- and sociopathologies consequential of a civilization in crisis. Technology is meant to represent the entirety of the institutional-technological Leviathan, but especially the hypertrophied aspect of what Barry Commoner calls the “technosphere.”)
The latter is so diametrically opposed to Robert Louis’s halcyon representation! . . . purposely, in order to give you a sense of the full spectrum of “What You’ll Be Facing.” Because only the full spectrum is the truth.
TOWARD ECOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Grandchildren, strive to discern the truth and to find balance. Meanwhile: You can recognize the profound problems of our society without disdaining to participate. Esteem comes from participating and coping. Don’t drop out. Live fully (“anyway”), with positive aspiration and even with good humor. Take care of yourselves, your health, your families.
The report of the extraterrestrial visitor might focus on humanity’s crisis, but what he might miss — because it’s both unprecedented and inchoate — is something else; something that’s spreading tenuous roots underground; something that could be a basis for optimism amid the prognostications of civilizational collapse.
If we’d like to feel that the human race is capable of progress, we could re-frame that notion to mean advancement of consciousness. A case then could be made that we’re on the verge of a real leap forward.
Let’s think back again to that fateful crossroad when humanity entered the critical phase of our population bloom ten thousand years ago. Let’s remember that most human communities responded appropriately and limited their population growth. It was likely a kind of ecological reflex-response and not a result of deliberation based on consciousness of the macro-situation. There was no “policy decision” on the part of humanity worldwide to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, some of the tribes did not do the right thing — rather, they endeavored to try to support a too-large population by taking a path that led to the misbegotten transition to the New Ways.
What’s hopeful, in our time, is the possibility of a deliberate advancement on the basis of a very new, very real, and increasingly deep ecological consciousness.
The onset of the human species bloom dates to at least a hundred thousand years ago. The urban-technological hypertrophy that has been so problematic was built up over a period of two hundred generations. A perspective on arresting and reversing these trends must be realistic in relation to the timeframes involved. Can we get the human population back to three billion within a couple of hundred years? More generally, can we — with patience, humility, and a new kind of wisdom — shift our civilizational trendlines toward ecological and social sustainability?
I mentioned before about how impacted I was to discover the “new paradigm” analysis of the Green movement. Even more significant than its alternative explication of “where we’ve been” is the hope it engenders in providing guideposts regarding “where we can go.” Rather than advocating some new socio-economic system, it suggests how we can let go of the mystique, shrug off the burden, stop the machine, and step off the treadmill.
Grandchildren, the world surely is, indeed, full of a large number of felicitous things. The most beautiful and wondrous among them have nothing to do with monetary expenditure, industrial production, or complex division of labor. The monstrous modern reality of states, corporations, remote governments, and impersonal institutions produces little of real value. For the sake of your well-being and peace of mind I hope you’ll consider the Green alternative. You could be pioneers of the Great Turning. That may sound like a big job, but it’s really as simple as finding your way Home.