Long one to one interview with Thom Hartmann. A fascinating insight to Thom's thoughts and opinions.
Socrates never wrote down a word: he taught entirely by challenging his pupils to argue or debate or discuss things with him. We only know of his existence because several of his pupils - Plato being the most well known - wrote about his life and teachings. Plato, having been schooled in the “Socratic method,” wrote most of his work in the form of a dialogue. Some of it was a recreation of his earlier dialogues with Socrates, some dialogues with other people, and some simply a dialogue with an unknown person, presumably himself.
The technique of dialogue is so compelling and powerful at presenting information that I’ve decided to use it to share my most recent thinking. This is entirely copyright 2000 by Thom Hartmann: please do not reproduce any of it in any fashion by any medium...but feel free to tell your friends to visit the page. Here goes:
Life is pretty good here in America. How come the Third World can’t use economic progress to achieve our lifestyle? Why don’t we encourage them to grow their way out of their problems?
Because it would take all of the resources of at least four planet Earths to sustain the six billion people of our world if everybody were to live a lifestyle even of an American earning minimum wage flipping burgers. It’s simply not possible.
Then why do we have it so well?
Because others live so poorly. Literally. Look at the two-dollar nightlight you can buy in Wal-Mart, made in China. It took two hundred pounds of soil mined from the earth to supply the iron and copper in there. The plastic represents a pint of oil, and the manufacture of the plastic took four gallons of oil. The neon gas inside the little bulb had to be extracted from over a thousand cubic feet of air, and the process consumed another gallon of gasoline. When you add all the components together, there’s over two man-hours of work in it, and it had to be transported over 11,000 miles to get to the store where you bought it. And the store made a profit on the sale.
How is that possible?
The rulers of China are willing to use up their resources to get our cash, and to force their people to work as slaves. North Americans are 5% of the world’s population, but we consume 30% of the world’s natural resources and produce 50% of the world’s non-organic waste. We can pull it off because through luck, happenstance, and military power we directly or indirectly control most of the world’s oil. Our control of oil and military/economic power has caused the despots of the Third World to trade their resources and the sweat of their people for our currency.
And when the world runs out of oil?
It’s already happening. Burma is down to a 3-year supply, and the realization of that about a decade ago led to an overthrow of their government. As countries in the Third World lose access to oil or their wells begin to run dry, you find war follows. East Timor is oil-rich, for example, a fact overlooked in most American news analyses of why Indonesia, which is down to about a 10-year supply domestically, invaded that tiny country. When countries run out of oil, they do what Hitler did when he ran low on oil: they go to war.
But it seems to me that we’re moving toward something positive, that we’re growing and evolving. I mean, a few hundred years ago they were burning women at the stake and a few hundred years before that they were murdering people in the crusades and before that people lived in caves and chased animals with sticks. So there has to be some sort of forward path, doesn’t there? Some kind of evolution?
Yes and no. Every modern culture and every organized religion that I know of has a myth that’s central to their belief structure, a creation myth, which starts out with people being in a state of grace or happiness, a Garden of Eden, from which they’re ejected into this world...
Don’t you think that’s a reference to the birth experience? To being thrown from the world of spirit into the world of matter?
Perhaps. But I suspect it’s really far more practical, more reality-grounded, because these stories almost always point to a real, physical place, not a metaphysical place. The Garden of Eden, for example, was at the headwater of four rivers, which became the Euphrates, Pison, Gion, Hiddekel rivers. The name Eden is probably an adaptation from the Sumerian name for the plain of Mesopotamia, which was called Edinn. This was a real place, and the first writers of the Bible spoke as if they had specific knowledge of it. You’ll find this same sort of reality-groundedness in most other modern culture stories that refer to a previous golden age or to the decline of humanity, from the writings of Greek Poet Hesiod, who wrote Work and Days 2800 years ago, to the stories of traditional Norwegians, dating back to before the Christian conquest of Norway about 800 years ago. The Romans believed that when Saturn reigned in ancient times, there was neither sorrow nor work: everybody was happy and lived in peace. That was followed, according to the Romans, by the age of heros - called the silver and bronze ages - and the iron age of work, which is pretty much where Roman history ended, when the Holy Roman Empire reinvented itself as the Holy Catholic Empire. So there’s a pretty strong consensus among our modern cultures, from the Jewish to the Christian to the Hindu to the Moslem, that there was a time in ancient history when all people lived happily and peacefully.
You missed the Buddhists.
Yes, intentionally. To the best of my knowledge, they have no story about the creation and there’s no notion of a fall from grace, at least that’s acknowledged among all the different Buddhist sects. But Buddhism doesn’t believe in a continuous soul and doesn’t discuss the presence or absence of a single creator, either. So Buddhism is a bit of an anomaly here. Nonetheless, the Buddhists start out with the assumption that all life is suffering, which was the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and that through the practice of their method suffering can be overcome. One could argue that this presumes there was a time before our civilization came along when all life wasn’t suffering - which puts them back in the camp of the others - or that, like with the issue of monotheism, they just don’t go there. But I think the true answer is that while Hinduism believes in cyclical time, and Christianity, Judaism, and Islam believe in linear time, the Buddhists believe in chaotic time.
Chaotic time is the notion that there isn’t any particular time at all. It’s all just an eternal “now.” The now of the past is the same as the now of the present. If somebody became enlightened in the past, then people can also become enlightened in the present, because time is essentially directionless and chaotic.
They don’t posit an end of time?
Actually, the Buddhists do: you find reference to it in the Bodhisattva and other vows. For example, the Dalai Lama once led a group of us in a vow which included: “As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, until then, may I too remain and dispel the miseries of the world.” It implies that there is some end time, toward which we’re all moving, and those who take the vow to stay or reincarnate (using that word loosely, in the Buddhist sense) are going to stick around until that time. But in the acting out of Buddhism, I’d say you see more of the chaotic sense of time than the linear sense of time.
Ok, back then to being ejected from the Garden of Eden. What does that have to do with the evolution of human beings?
It has everything to do with it, or, rather, with refuting it. With this creation story and its variations, what virtually all Western and Eastern thought is saying is that there was a time in the past when we were happier and more attuned to spirit and Earth than we are today. In other words, in our striving for improvement, we’re not evolving, but instead we’re trying to go back to something we once had.
I know of one religion that doesn’t have a “we were once all happy” story in its timeline.
And that is?
Science. Our scientific story is that we started out living in caves, living painful and terrible lives in the freezing cold and rain, and eventually, through the use of ever-improving technology from fire to transistors, reached our current state of comfort. And, of course, if we would just turn everything over to science, they’d genetically engineer the perfect food, the perfect person, and the perfect world.
Yes, salvation through technology. However, you misrepresent that when you say it’s the scientific perspective. What you’ve described is the consumerist perspective, which falsely claims itself to be scientific. Consumerism is actually the largest religion in the world, and it carries the belief system you just described. But we’ll get back to that in a later conversation: first, I want to finish with the idea of the Golden Age or the Garden of Eden.
Wait a minute - you’re saying that science doesn’t say that we evolved from apes and that our ancestors were less happy than we are?
Science says no such thing. The science of biology suggests that we evolved from an early primate, which also evolved into apes: modern-day chimps and apes are our cousins, not our grandparents. And the science of paleoanthropology - the study of human and pre-human life before the invention of literacy - has pretty much totally refuted the notion that most early humans lived miserable lives. Like tribal people today, they ran the spectrum, from eking out a living to having abundant, meaningful lives.
Are you going to pitch the “noble savage” now?
It’s neither black nor white. A few weeks ago on a cold November day here in Vermont, my wife met a fellow in downtown Montpelier who was walking around barefoot. He had calluses on the bottoms of his feet that were at least a quarter-inch thick: he hadn’t worn shoes in years. And he walked that way everywhere he went, in all four seasons. The body is capable of acclimating itself to just about any type of weather, within reason.
I haven’t seen any nudist Eskimos.
They prefer to be called the Inuit people, but, yes, you’re right. On the other hand, even in the face of all the wonders and luxury of our lifestyle, many of them would prefer to continue to live their traditional life. Why would that be, even in the frozen north?
I dunno - it seems nuts to me. Freezing their butts off.
Not at all. They’re no colder or warmer than people living in town: both live in heated buildings and wear warm clothing. The big difference is that the people in town work anywhere from six to ten hours a day, five to seven days a week, just to survive. The Inuits who live their traditional lifestyle work about two hours a day to provide for food, heat, and shelter.
What about when they go out on a whale or seal hunt for a week at a time?
And they bring back several months worth of food? Do the math: it averages out to around two hours a day. That’s what’s typical among hunter/gathering people, whether it’s in the Arctic or on the Equator. Scientists - real scientists, not writers like Thomas Hobbs who’s always quoted with his “short, nasty and brutish” comment about pre-British life - often refer to such people as having “the original leisure lifestyle.” Missionaries today often make the same comment about such people as the Pilgrims did about some of the Native American tribes: they seem “lazy.” But it’s not that they’re lazy, it’s that they’re satisfied. They’re living in Eden, and so they don’t jump at a chance to go to work in a mine or factory or on a farm.
But what about the cannibals of Borneo or the warlike indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori? They were constantly killing each other - that doesn’t sound like Eden to me. There’s even some evidence of cannibalism among the Anasazi people living in what’s now called Colorado, during the twelfth century, and the Aztecs were big into eating people. How could you say these folks were living a leisure lifestyle?
Excellent question - you’re revealing the basic flawed myth of our culture: that linear time is the only time there is. That myth teaches that time is a line, moving from some distant “bad” point to some future “good” point, or from an extremely distant good time to a long period of bad time to some extremely imminent future good time. For example, God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and cursed future generations to work six days a week with their faces covered with sweat. But then God prepared an escape hatch, promising one day to send to Earth a savior to free people from God’s own curse. The Christians believe that was Jesus, but he didn’t fully succeed in freeing people from the curse of having to work so hard and have a miserable life, so he has to return to the Earth again to “make all things new.” So the beginning of time was being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, the long middle of time was from then until now, and the end of time is either death leading to heaven - the individual end of time - or else the final battle of Armageddon followed by a thousand-year reign of peace.
Ok, I get it about chaotic time, and linear time is pretty much a description of the way I was brought up thinking, but why is linear time a myth?
Because it’s simply not so. In order to have a notion of linear time, it’s necessary first to erect a barrier to the memory of time before now. Cultures create stories of the past which exclude all previous cycles, and focus instead only on the current cycle, from the beginning of that culture until the present, with theories of its future. For example, fundamentalists hold up our story of Adam and Eve as the story of the creation of human beings. But in Genesis we’re told that Adam and Even found a wife for their son, Seth, and that after killing Able, Cain went off to the land of Nod and found himself a wife there and gave birth to Enoch. You find that most tribal people, when you ask them what they’re called, will give you the word in their language for “human being” or “people” or “man.” This is true of the San, the Lakota, the Inuit, the Ik, the Karamoja, and virtually every other tribe on Earth. They realize there are other humans around, but they consider their particular group to be unique from all the others. They were the ones who, like the Inca, were born of the sun. Or like the xxx, were the result of a heavenly bird laying an egg in the place where they live from which the first “people” were hatched. It’s a creation story, yes, but a story of the creation of one tribe, that which came to be known as the Hebrews or the Jews.
And that story erects the barrier to remembering what life was like before their tribe got started?
Yes. It’s the beginning of linear time.
And all our modern religions observe either linear or chaotic time?
Mostly. You could argue that historically the Jews understood cyclical time - they had built into the epistemology the notion of a weekly day of rest, of giving the fields a rest every seven years, and of freeing all slaves and equalizing all income every 49 years. But while some Jews keep this cyclical notion of time alive, most have lost it: the Jubilee is no longer observed every 50 years, for example, and few fields are given their seven year rest. Only a very small percentage of Jews even observe the Sabbath in the way that the Bible dictates, and virtually no Christians do so. The Christians were so offended by cyclical time that they smashed Maypoles in the 15th century and changed the springtime rituals of cyclical “pagan” time into celebrations of a past event called Easter. So pretty much everybody lives in linear time these days, but cyclical time is what’s true.
That’s a pretty strong statement. I think science supports linear time as being what’s true: consider the big bang theory.
And what follows that?
Well, eventually all matter turns dark and cold.
Eventually gravity pulls all matter back into the center of the universe, where it gets compressed into a pinpoint.
Got it. It explodes outward, in a big bang, starting the whole thing over again. The ultimate cyclical time.
Right. No matter how you look at it, if you look hard enough you find that everything goes in cycles instead of in a straight line.
Which brings us back to the notion of evolution. If everything goes in cycles, then how come there weren’t people back before there were dinosaurs?
Maybe there were. But it would have been in the last creation cycle, not in the last mammal-growing cycle of this planet. And the mathematical odds are vastly in favor of their having been, being, and will be people on other planets in the universe. We’re part of the life-cycle of this planet, which is part of the life-cycle of this cycle of what we call our known universe.
Then evolution is a linear-time theory within a cyclical time universe?
Actually, not the way Darwin understood it. Some of his earliest writing was about the finches he found on the Galápagos archipelago. He noticed that there was a cycle occurring between two finch populations, those with larger beaks and those with smaller beaks. The birds with the smaller beaks were more efficient in their use of energy: they didn’t have to drag around as big a beak. This was an advantage, so long as there were small-sized seeds for them to feed on. But as they increased in population, they wiped out the plants that carried the small seeds, and their small beaks were not strong enough to crack the larger seeds of the large-seed plants that came to replace the small-seed plants. So the small-beaked finches seemed to vanish, while the population of large-beaked finches flourished. But after a few years, the large-beaked finches had wiped out the large-seed plants, and so their population went into a decline while the small-beaked finches reemerged to eat the small-seed plants, which were now growing where the large-seed plants had died out. What Darwin observed was a cycle, not a progression.
But there is a progression in evolution, isn’t there? I mean how else would we be here if life on Earth began with single-cell organisms?
Yes, of course. But within that progression are cycles. That’s the important point.
As it relates to humans and human evolution and that so-popular buzz-phrase these days, “The evolution of consciousness”?
Exactly. Imagine that you were living in a way that only required you to work two hours a day. The climate was decent, food abundant, and there weren’t a lot of people around to compete with you for the local food supply. You spent your days hanging out with family and friends, making up songs, telling stories, playing games, even visiting other psychic worlds and talking directly to the gods through the use of local plants or techniques of meditation and breathing. Life was good.
Sounds like Eden. But wouldn’t your tribe’s population eventually grow to the point where it wiped out the local resource base and you’d have to work more than two hours a day to find food?
Let’s say for the purpose of this discussion that that happened once in the past and that your tribe learned from it. You learned the importance of keeping your population small and stable, in order to maintain a high quality of life.
This was before birth control pills?
Yes, but there are many other means of birth control. Several plants make effective morning-after teas. The women, living as they do in the natural world, are more in tune with the natural rhythms of their bodies and easily able to spot the fertile days of their menstrual cycle. You discovered long ago that when women have equal power with men - particularly to decide when to have sex - that the population stabilized. Like the Lakota, you have a cultural belief that it’s poor form to have a child more than once every six years, because then the previous child won’t get enough parental attention and the tribe will grow too fast. Non procreative sex is encouraged, even including homosexuality. Women breastfeed their children for years, and while women are breastfeeding their bodies suppress estrogens and so it’s very hard for them to get pregnant. So, you’ve figured out a bunch of ways to keep your population stable, none of which include having to kill children or old people.
But there’s evidence that some tribal people did kill their children and old people.
Yes, but let’s assume, for the moment, that those people did that during the learning part of the cycle I referred to a moment ago. They overpopulated, didn’t know how to handle it, had to kill off some folks, and eventually discovered the methods I just mentioned.
How are we feeding ourselves?
We gather about eighty percent of our food from local plants, and about twenty percent of it is local game. The women trap small animals with nets, and the men hunt larger ones with spears and arrows and the like. It’s great fun, great sport, and also consider a sacred job. Food, after all, is the core of life.
Ok, so we’re living in a group, a tribe, working just a few hours a day, and our population is stable and life is good.
Right. Trading with the neighbors, occasionally our children will intermarry with theirs to keep the gene pool strong, we even have sporting competitions with them.
Is this true? Did this actually happen?
Lacrosse was a game invented by the Iroquois. They’d play it for fun, but sometimes they’d play it as a way of settling disputes between tribes.
I thought the Europeans invented sports.
Some. Until contact with the Native Americans, most European “sports” were miniaturized versions of war. Jousting, sword-fighting tournaments, battles to the death against wild animals like lions or bulls in an arena, or fistfights. There were a few that were less violent, like the game of golf which was invented by people who’d lived tribally - the Scots - until Britain conquered them. But because golf wasn’t a “preparation for war” exercise, in 1457 the Scottish Parliament passed a law making it illegal to play. They wanted people to practice their archery, instead, to help defend and expand the British Empire.
Geez. Ok, continue.
So we’re sitting around having a pretty good life, and one day a tribe just north of us decides they’re going to start organized and intensive agriculture. We visit them and remind them that every time a tribe has tried that in the past, it’s caused their population to explode and ultimately led to famine, but they decide they know better than we do and tell us to mind our own business.
Why would they do that? You mean they discovered agriculture?
No, intensive agriculture had been known for twenty thousand or more years. Probably for all of human history, a hundred thousand or more years, but we have fossil evidence of it at least thirty to forty thousand years ago. It’s just that people generally didn’t do it.
What do you mean by “intensive agriculture,” as opposed to regular agriculture?
Well, all people historically have practiced a sort of local, natural agriculture. Even some apes do it. They encourage the local growth of plants that are good to eat, and weed out the plants that aren’t good to eat. But intensive agriculture is where large areas of land are devoted to the production of a single crop. This causes a boom in the food supply, and so therefore the population grows.
What about all those prehistoric birth-control measures you talked about a minute ago?
Those were to keep the population stable within the limits of the local food supply. When the local food supply expands, they’re not necessary. The goal wasn’t a certain number of people in a particularly area, but a sustainable number of people in a particular ecosystem.
Ok, so the folks to the north of us have started planting wheat or sweet potatoes or whatever, and their population is growing. What happens next?
Weather. Weather goes in cycles, but often the cycles are longer than the memory of a single person. In the United States, for example, there are some who are suggesting that we’re now moving back into the weather cycle that, in the 1930s, produced the dustbowl in the Midwest, leading to ruinous crop losses. That’s a sixty or seventy year cycle. There are other weather cycles that climatologists have identified that run hundreds of years. The “little ice age” which killed off the people trying to colonize Greenland in the 1700s is an example. It froze the river Thames in England, something that hadn’t happened in the memory of the British Empire and hasn’t happened since. Nobody’s sure how long that cycle is. So, anyhow, weather happens and the people who are growing the crops hit a bad year. Too much or too little water, or a short season, or a hard winter: something that radically cuts the productivity of their cropland. They’re experiencing starvation, and getting desperate.
Yep. So, first they had to decide that they’d break the law that all the other humans were living by, that you shouldn’t do agriculture...
There was such a law? There’s evidence of such a thing?
Here’re two quick examples. First, among most of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia it was explicitly built into their culture, their stories, what we’d call their religions, that it was bad luck to engage in agriculture. It would lead to the doom and destruction of the tribe, because fields of food just attracted hungry ghosts. Second, consider this little quote from the fourth book of Genesis in the Bible: “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering [of agricultural crops] he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.... And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”
What’s that all about?
Cain was the first farmer, in this Biblical story. He was the first human ever to engage in intensive agriculture. And the LORD didn’t like Cain’s offering - he told Cain that he’d sinned, presumably by farming. And Cain was so upset that the LORD had dissed him like that, that he killed his brother, Abel. I think it’s a warning against agriculture, and it’s pretty typical of the kinds of stories and religious mythologies you find among herding and hunting/gathering peoples all over the world.
So that’s what got us in this mess: agriculture.
Actually, no. It’s not agriculture per se. It was the decision to engage in agriculture intensively, and to centralize that as the basis of our food supply. That always leads to population explosion, which then puts the tribe at risk of famine. And it also leads to a concentration of wealth, as those who control the food literally control the power of life and death over others.
Ok, so the farmers from the north are coming to get us. They’re gonna kill us off or enslave us, and convert our land into cropland. Is that about it?
So what do we do?
We have three choices: run, fight, or submit.
Which do we choose?
It all depends on our situation. If there’s someplace to run to, then we would probably do that. That’s what most tribal people do. It’s what the Indians in the jungles of Brazil do when the loggers come in to clear land for cattle for the hamburger chains of the United States. It’s what the Native Americans did when Europeans first started to overrun the East Coast and then the Midwest. And if we’re out of places to run, we can submit, which is what many of the Native American tribes did, hoping to get good treatment at the hands of the Europeans. Usually they were made into slaves, but at least they were still alive.
And if we choose to fight?
Well, keep in mind that we have a culture that’s not based on warfare. Our life is pretty laid back, and we have no army. We don’t even have a police force or a jail. So we can try to fight back, but first we have to develop the weapons of war and a social structure to support that.
A step forward in human evolution?
A step backwards.
Backwards?! I thought we were constantly moving forward, or at least forward through a cycle?
That’s the point we started with - that notion is wrong. The beginning of our civilization wasn’t a step forward in human evolution or in creating a way of life that works best for humans and all other life on the planet. It was a step backwards.
But we have cars and trains and planes and antibiotics!
And one in four of us will die of cancer, and we spend our lives frantically working to make the rich richer, living in terror that we’ll be downsized and lose our health insurance. And we’re producing killer germs faster than we’re producing germ killers, and right now at this moment fully a third of the world’s population is infected with tuberculosis and half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day and goes to sleep every night hungry.
I never see that on TV.
No, you never see that on TV. But it’s what’s real.
But I read this book the other day that said that we were all evolving spiritually, and if we’d just learn to pray correctly we could reach the next level, a much better way of life, happier lives. In fact, I’ve read that in dozens of books - most of the “New Age” books - that we’re spiritually evolving, and the agency of that evolution is, depending on the book or author, intervention by God, angels, space aliens, ancient masters, hidden wise people, or a particular type of spiritual exercise, meditation, or yoga. And if we could only move to the next step, the world would be a happier place.
The second half is right, but instead of using the world “evolving,” I’d use the word “recovering.” Like Darwin’s finches, we’re cycling from one beak to another. We made a terrible mistake a few thousand years ago, and now most of the human race and the rest of the natural world is paying the price for it. If we can figure out a way to undo that mistake, then life may become good again. We can return to the Garden of Eden.
Yes, we’re in the midst of a cycle. It’s one that has been repeated many times before.
You mean there were trains and cars and televisions before?
Probably not. But there were people who thought they could control and dominate nature before. The earliest known record is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written between five and seven thousand years ago. It tells the story of a man who created a mighty empire and a huge army based on a human population bloated by his huge irrigated fields of barley. His people were farmers before the story of Cain and Abel was written: their land was apparently where Adam and Eve sent their son to find a wife. And the Epic of Gilgamesh also tells of how the fields became exhausted from over-planting, and finally the soil was poisonous to the crops, too salty, because of over-irrigation. And his civilization collapsed.
Did they learn their lesson?
Apparently not: they just moved on and started again. But some of the later prophets warned against what they were doing. Jesus, for example, said, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
A rhetorical question?
A warning. Read it in context and you’ll see and hear what I mean.
So we’re not spiritually evolving?
I’d say no, we are not. Others may be, those who never left the path that we strayed from. But we’re in the bottom of the cycle, the pit. We first need to climb back up, spiritually speaking, to the place where our Older Brothers, the Kogi and other indigenous people, are already standing.
And they’re spiritually evolving?
Most likely: it’s an ongoing process, albeit probably a slow one. But they’ve been working at it for the past seven thousand years, while we’ve been fighting wars with each other over agricultural land. We’ve been stuck, and all this “spiritual progress” that everybody is talking about is, in my opinion, really an effort to get us back on track or back up to where we were before Gilgamesh made his fatal decision.
So let me see if I understand what you’re saying. There’s the large cycle of life on the planet, and of the development of human life...
And that’s a cycle of millions of years: you probably won’t notice a change in that cycle in a single lifetime. Parts of that cycle included the dying off of Cro-Magnon man, and the killing off or assimilation of Neanderthals into modern humans. And the differentiation of the races of modern humans. We’re talking long-term stuff, here.
Ok, there’s that cycle, a biological cycle. And we don’t know where that’s going, maybe towards the assimilation of all races into one, or maybe into the emergence of new ones, or maybe it’s just where it is, but it’ll take thousands of years to know. And then within that cycle, there’s the cycle of cultures, which can and do change within a lifetime or two. And that’s really the cycle that we should be paying attention to, because that’s the one we’re moving through. Right?
Yes. This cycle bottomed out over the past three thousand years, and is probably moving back upwards, as it were, toward its beginning point, now.
It’s beginning point? What are the stages of this cultural cycle?
Well, to simplify it, we could say there are four stages to the large cycle, and within the large cycle there are smaller cycles, which we’ll get to them a few minutes. But the four big stages are: Paradise, Defiance, Terror, and Recovery back to Paradise.
Can we go through them, one at a time? Starting with Paradise?
Sure. Paradise is the first, but also the last, because this is a cycle and not a line: we keep cycling through it. It’s why every culture has stories about paradise in its ancient past...except those few cultures which are experiencing paradise right now, who are at that point in the cycle today.
There are such people alive?
Sure. And they’re well documented. Although we’re doing our level best to exterminate them as fast as we can.
And when a culture is in the Paradise part of the cycle, how do they live?
That’s the most stable part of the cycle, which is why probably most of human history was lived in Paradise. For be in that part of the cycle, people must have a cyclical rather than linear sense of time. They’re connected into the cycles of nature, of birth and death, of the seasons. They know that what goes around comes around. They have a memory of a time when people lived the Defiance, the Terror, and the Recovery. They tell stories to themselves to warn themselves not to step out of Paradise into Defiance, because it’ll inevitably lead to Terror, which will then require Recovery to get back to Paradise. The most obvious feature of Paradise is stability. Population is stable, the social order is stable, the food supply is stable, and things don’t change much.
Exactly. And cultures which remember Paradise consider anything other than that to be unpleasant. It’s why the ancient Chinese, who remembered the time of Paradise, would say, “May you live in interesting times,” as a curse.
Yeah, I guess if I lived in Paradise, I wouldn’t want things to change much. Hey - is this why our notion of heaven is that it’s a place where nothing much changes, and people sit around playing harps all day?
The words “Paradise” and “heaven” are often interchangeable in some modern religions, so I’d guess that the modern notion of heaven is a distorted or distant memory of the Paradise part of the cultural cycle.
And that’s why everybody is always trying to get there! This makes sense!
Yes, although if you were in charge during a time of Terror, then you’d want the idea of Paradise to be thought of as something unattainable by normal humans. This isn’t because the folks in charge during the times of Terror were inherently nasty - it was the times as much as the people - but because during that part of the cycle the idea of a Paradise part of the cycle was simply unimaginable. It couldn’t be real in the physical world, they’d think, so it must be metaphysical. So if you were in charge during that time, you’d tell people that they’d have to die to get there, and the way to make sure you get there after you die is to do what the people in charge tell them to do right now. “Just pick that cotton, boy, and when you die you’ll be rewarded with Paradise.”
But isn’t that what our religions explicitly say? I mean, like, some Christians even believe that if a baby dies unbaptized, he won’t go to heaven!
That’s what the religions teach, because they were the ones who happened to be in charge during the time of the cycle called Terror. They were just telling their truth as they knew it: it made sense to them, because during the Terror the idea of Paradise is so distant and far away that it seems unattainable, just like in the dead of winter you don’t think, when looking at the snowdrifts, that Summer may happen the next morning. It’s inconceivable. So they were just telling their truth: Paradise is unattainable on this Earth, at least in our lifetimes. They couldn’t see the cycles beyond their own lives. But the founders of our modern religions could see the cycles beyond their own lives, and so that’s what they taught. For example, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” He was saying that it is possible, and that if enough people reformed the culture, it could even be possible in a single lifetime.
It’s us who are capable of Paradise, but it’s our culture that’s stuck?
Not stuck, so much, but just here and now in this part of the cycle. And every culture, no matter where they are in the cycle, has a faint memory or a fable or a story about the time of Paradise that they’d once known. If they’re fully into the Defiance, the story is about how they’re going to either improve on or recover Paradise, depending on whether they walked away from it intentionally or were driven away from it. If they’re fully into the Terror, then they tell themselves it’s in a long-distant future, or only available upon death, because it seems so far away that it looks like those are the only sensible possibilities. And when they move into the Recovery, then they begin to believe that Paradise is actually a possibility within their own lifetime, that they could re-achieve it now, then the stories begin to shift into the arena of what can be done now, in this generation, to bring about Paradise. But everybody, all cultures, have such stories, because all cultures sprang from the roots of humanity, which has been around long enough that we all have distant ancestors who experienced the time of Paradise and told or wrote stories about it. Those stories echo either as fables or as religious myths or simply as part of the collective unconscious.
You mentioned winter and Summer before. Are the four seasons an apt metaphor for this?
Very apt. Summer is the time of Paradise. All is well and life is good. Then the weather turns nasty: Autumn has arrived, and the cold of Autumn defies the warmth of Summer, causing annual plants to die and the trees and perennials to lose their leaves. This is like the time of Defiance, and the analogy is particularly good because most times of Defiance are actually brought about by changes in the climate. It’s a time of turbulence, of change, of danger. Those with arks survive; others may perish. Then, after Autumn, come the short days and bitter cold nights of Winter, the time of Terror. If Winter is upon us and I have food stored and you have none, I can get you to do just about anything in exchange for some food so you can survive. Similarly, during the cultural cycle of Winter, Terror, those in charge who control the food supply exercise absolute control over everybody else. The Samurai can cut off a person’s head and present his family with the bill. The kings and their local Lords exercise the “right of the first night,” sleeping with every new bride the night of her honeymoon before her husband can legally touch her. People are bought and sold with the land, and life is cheap - except, of course, the life of the ruling classes. And, like Winter, the season of Terror can seem very stable, like it’ll go on forever. But, of course, it’s just a season, and pretty soon, like the first shoots of Spring breaking up through the thawing ground, the cracks in the social order begin, heralding the transitional time or Recovery or Springtime. This is a time of willy-nilly growth, all sorts of unexpected things popping up all over, movements and religions and political parties...
Sounds like the time of Recovery is rather interesting, almost pleasant.
Sometimes. Sometimes it’s brought about by another sort of crisis, though. The breakdown or overthrow of the older and seemingly stable social order that reigned during the Terror. Disasters such as famine or plague. If it happens slowly it could be a time of relatively peaceful evolution into Paradise; more often, though, it’s a time of brutal upheaval, the riding of the four horsemen. Actually, the Bible has stories of all four of these cycles, pretty clearly defined. You’ll also find them in the literature of Hinduism.
Ok, so now we’re back to the Paradise part of the cycle. People have figured out how to live in harmony with their environment and with each other. But what then brings about the Defiance again? Why would somebody change things if they were living in Paradise?
As far as I can tell, there are three possible triggers. The first and probably most common one is that there’s an ecological disaster, which is not of human making. A volcano blows up, a drought or extreme rainy period extends for a few years, the oceans rise and flood the homeland, there’s a huge series of earthquakes, or - as has happened about every ten thousand years during the hundred to two-hundred-thousand years of human history - there’s a major meteorological shift like the beginning or end of an ice age.
Any one of which would disrupt the community’s food supply?
Right. Or their water supply: food and water are the two things humans can’t live without. So something external to the culture causes a drop in the food supply, and suddenly the people must come up with a new way to live. The gods have thrown them out of paradise, at least in their own minds, and if they don’t do something quickly they’ll starve.
And in the story in Genesis, the two things they tried were herding and domesticating animals for food, which is what Abel did, and intensive agriculture, which is what Cain did.
Yes. And those, basically, are the only two options. The three ways that people have always provided for their food are hunting/gathering, herding, and farming.
What about scavenging? I read an article somewhere about ‘man the scavenger’ that said that early humans were opportunists, like crows or buzzards.
Well, first off, we’re not designed to be carrion eaters. We don’t have the digestive system for it. But if people came across a fresh lion kill and there was something left over or they could scare away the lions, they’d be silly not to eat what they could. Really, though, this is just an aspect of hunting/gathering.
Got it. So when something happened that caused hunting and gathering to no longer be a viable option, in Genesis they tried herding and agriculture. And God didn’t like agriculture. He wasn’t happy with Cain’s offering.
So it would seem. And you find similar stories still extant among the Bedouin people of that region: they’ll herd goats, but they won’t plant fields. They’re nomads. The same is true of the Karamajong of northern Uganda, who herd cattle and live mostly from the blood and milk of their cows. And you’ll find distaste for settling down and planting among the Roma people, who are often referred to as Gypsies. All of these peoples chose the path of Abel, which the Bible says was the path God preferred. The rest of us, it seems, chose the path of Cain, which is to live off intensive agriculture.
And what’s wrong with that?
Intensive agriculture creates a situation kind of like that faced by so many Americans who are trying to live a lifestyle that makes them look richer than they are. They can’t pay for a quarter-million-dollar house, but the bank will loan the money for one. So they take the loan and live in the house, but a third of their paycheck every month has to go to the bank. They’ve stepped out onto the thin ledge of debt, and if they lose their job and can’t find a comparable one quickly, they lose their home. Similarly, with intensive agriculture people step out onto the thin ledge of an artificially inflated food supply. Irrigated and fertilized fields of monoculture crops produce huge amounts of food, but are very fragile: a bumper crop of locusts or a few years or drought will wipe out the food supply just like the modern-day householder losing his job wipes out his money supply. In both cases, the result is disaster.
And herding is more resilient?
Yes, and so is hunting/gathering. Assuming low human population density, you can move from place to place when local conditions get bad.
But didn’t the Bedouins wipe out much of the lands of northern Africa about five hundred years ago, turning scrublands into desert by overgrazing?
Yes, they did. Some of that land is only now recovering, and governments have in many cases banned them from grazing. I didn’t say the pastoral life was optimal, just that it was less fragile than intensive agriculture, and produces more food than hunting/gathering. When something local happens that makes hunting/gathering no longer viable, it’s the least fragile of the two options left.
Ok, you said there were three different ways that people could leave or be thrown out of Paradise, or that would cause the Paradise part of the cycle of culture to end and the Defiance part of the cycle to begin. What are the other ways people would move from Paradise-time into Defiance-time?
The second trigger for moving away from Paradise is the actual act of defiance. A group of people, a small tribe, for example, decides that even though their culture and religion teach that intensive agriculture is dangerous, they’re going to try it anyway. They’re going to defy the gods. This is a subtext to The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest foundational stories of our culture. Gilgamesh went out and cut the head off the god who protected the forests, and then cut down the forests. He used the logs to build a great city - Uruk or Ur - and he turned the former forestland into irrigated cropland.
And the story ended in disaster when the cropland suffered from salination and siltation?
Right. One part of the Epic is another of those ancient warnings about agriculture, just like Genesis.
But Gilgamesh’s people didn’t turn away from agriculture, did they?
No, they concluded that somebody must have done something wrong, but weren’t willing to believe that their way of living was what it was. So they blamed the gods. For example, maybe it was the revenge of Enlil, the top god, for Gilgamesh’s having cut off the head of Hambuba, the forest god. In any case, they moved on to another nearby land, conquered the people there, and set up agricultural shop again.
And the cycle of land destruction and famine happened again?
As it does to this day, all over the world. Even with the promise of genetically modified foods and super-duper pesticides and fertilizers, an ever-increasing food supply will always just produce an ever-increasing population...until the food supply hits the limits of its growth. And intensive agriculture exhausts land, so when that limit is hit, there isn’t a sudden stability of food supply, but a sudden decline.
It’s coming here, now?
It’s already started. Over ninety countries in the world can no longer grow enough food to feed their own people.
But Western Europe and the United States and Canada aren’t among them, right?
So long as we can continue to convince the nations sitting on top of huge oil reserves to keep pumping it out and selling it to us cheaply, so our tractors and fertilizer factories can keep running.
Ok, I want to get back to that in a minute, but first let’s finish the three ways people walk away from or are thrown out of the time of Paradise. You mentioned climate change or natural disaster, and somebody coming up with the bright idea to ignore the historic injunctions against intensive agriculture. What’s the third?
Oh, yeah. You mentioned that earlier, but just in passing. You read the history of the world, though, from the time of Joshua conquering cities all over the Middle East, to the settling of the Americas by Europeans, and it seems that invasion is probably the most common trigger for the transition from Paradise to Defiance and then to Terror.
In our recent history, yes. Talk with the Abenaki Indians of Vermont and northern New York State, though. They can tell you stories of the last cycle, when the mountains of blue ice moved north and they settled the lands. Their memory is, literally, ten thousand years long. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki storyteller, wrote a beautiful novel about those early times titled Dawn Land. You’d probably enjoy reading it.
So invasion isn’t the most common way that the cycle starts over by throwing people from Paradise into Defiance and Terror?
In recent history it is, but in the history of the human race, I’d say the anthropologic record shows that climate change is the most predictable and unstoppable.
Ok, so we have these four cycles, these four seasons. Do they happen to every culture?
Yes. Every culture has a memory of Paradise and a longing to return to it, and is somewhere in one of the three other stages of the cycle if they’re not in Paradise.
Does this happen worldwide?
If you mean, “Does the entire world make the same shift at the same time?” then I’d say the answer is a qualified “no.” There are still a few - a very few - cultures alive on the planet right now who are living in the Paradise part of the cycle. Others are in Defiance, Terror, or Recovery.
And what about our culture? The United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, what we call the First World? Where are we in the cycle?
Overall, we’re in Recovery. It started in the 18th century, when the American and French Revolutions brought back from the Iroquois the basic ideas of how a culture governs itself during a time of Paradise.
The Iroquois were living in a time of Paradise?
It’s not that simple. The Iroquois, as we refer to them, weren’t one people, they were a confederation of a half-dozen tribes, formed around 1570, and referred to as the Iroquois League. It appears from the histories of the time that the Onondaga and the Cayuga were living closest to the Paradise part of the cycle, and the Mohawk and Oneida were fully into Defiance. It’s harder to know about the Seneca and the Tuscurora. All, however, were thrown into Defiance by the arrival of whites, which prompted the formation of the Iroquois League, what they called the Hodenosaunee. In any case, all lived within either a few lifetimes or in physical proximity to people who lived in a time of Paradise because the fundamentals of it were so well known to them. They hadn’t descended into the season of Terror when Paradise is thought to be distant and unattainable. Even when they fought against the whites, they did so in the hopes that they could recover or return to a time of Paradise.
And that was also the idea of the Founding Fathers? That they could overthrow the tyranny of the British and create a Paradise time here?
I think that was the idea of some of them. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was very enamored of the ways the Native Americans had organized their tribes, and borrowed heavily from the Iroquois in his writing of the Constitution of the United States of America. Others, though, like James Madison and George Washington, seemed more interested in maintaining a hierarchical form of government, an oligarchy of the educated and wealthy. Washington, as president, wanted to be addressed and treated as if he were a king; Madison argued that only white men who owned land should have full rights of citizenship and be allowed to vote or participate in the government. Nonetheless, Jefferson and those aligned with him, particularly Ben Franklin, built many of the Paradise time notions of governance into the U.S. Constitution, and thereby set the stage for the beginning of the Recovery.
Does Recovery come about because people decide to make it happen?
It may seem that way, but my guess is that it’s not. I believe it’s brought about by the exact opposite of the conditions that lead to the Defiance.
I’m confused - I thought you said three things could lead to the beginning of Defiance.
Yes, three situations: climate change, invasion, or decision. But at the core of all three is one primary impact on people: scarcity. When resources become scarce, then people leave Paradise in search of another Valhalla, or in an attempt to recover Paradise. The scarcity can be brought about by change in climate or by invasion, or by some third thing that would cause a decision to be made, for example the emergence of a very powerful but essentially sociopathic leader, or exposure to what seems to be the opportunity for riches. The classic example of this are the hundreds of indigenous tribes who are living on land rich in tropical woods, gold, or other natural resources that we want. Instead of just killing them off, we’ve discovered that it’s just as effective to give them televisions. Within a year or so, they decide that they don’t really live in a paradise after all: the real paradise is what they see on TV. And they want it, so they’re willing to deal with the loggers or miners to exchange their land for cash and jobs. Or at least a few of them are willing to make this deal-with-the-devil choice, and so we designate them as the tribal leaders and sign contracts with them and then give them a bunch of money and put the tribal government in their hands. We’ve done it, literally, hundreds of times in the past century: it’s much more effective and much less messy than simply going in and killing them like Custer tried to do with the Lakota because he wanted to lay a gold-mining claim to their lands for his retirement. The point is that all these transitions from Paradise to Defiance are rooted in scarcity or the perception of scarcity.
And so the transition from Terror to Recovery is based in the opposite of scarcity?
Yes, it’s rooted in abundance. Or the appearance of abundance. And you can see both micro and macro cycles of this. At their peaks, both the Greek and Roman empires thought they had unlimited fuel supplies in the forests of Greece and Italy. They entered what are still referred to as golden ages, and had the luxury of a relatively leisure lifestyle and the development of philosophy and entertainment. But these golden ages were not true times of Paradise, because they weren’t sustainable, weren’t in balance. They were based on the rapid consumption of a finite resource, in this case, wood. When each empire wiped out their forests - as the Sumerians had under Gilgamesh a thousand or two years earlier - then they, too, entered periods of scarcity. Nobody had time to be a philosopher or playwright, and their empires moved into terrifying times of warfare and expansion, capturing nearby and distant lands to get fuel and slaves. Their art shifted to scenes of war, their literature to the stories of warriors and conquest, their technology to instruments of destruction.
A micro cycle of abundant resources causing Recovery, leading to Paradise, then running out of fuel and dissolving into Defiance, and then leading to a reign of Terror?
Yes, the same as we’ve seen in Europe over the past thousand years. Every time a new fuel source is discovered, a pseudo-Paradise time is entered into when art and culture blossom. Coal around a thousand years ago, oil and nuclear power over the past century. In the United States, we are only now beginning to exhaust the abundance of natural resources that were here when Europeans first arrived: we’ve consumed about half our oil, and are discovering that the damage to our environment from burning coal is so costly we need to make it more scarce, even though there’s still a lot of it in the ground.
So what, then, is it that brings a culture back into the time of the true Paradise? I read these books that say that there are angels or channeled beings who’ll do it for us, and others say that space aliens are “helping” us toward it, and the religious folks are expecting some cataclysmic event or the appeara