I am almost 50 years old, and in my current lifetime I have lived through one of the most intense, rapidly changing periods of human civilization on this planet. The technological discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries were steadily gaining steam when I was born in the early 1960s; “progress” seemed infinite, and infinitely exciting. Advances in medical understanding and treatment, the speed of computing, the mechanization of every aspect of our economic systems, and the explosion in information technologies, all made our civilization seem powerful—even invincible. The blip of failure that registered when we “lost” the Vietnam War was quickly swallowed up in a huge wave of optimism as the economy surged in the 1980s, and the collapse of Soviet Communism, as well as the softening of Chinese Communism, made Euramerican Capitalism seem like a global Manifest Destiny.
And yet there was always the dark underbelly of the beast, clear to anyone who had the will to see it. Rachel Carson sounded the first alarm on the dangers of synthetic chemicals, released haphazardly into the environment. Chernobyl was the first major indicator of the serious dangers of “clean” nuclear power. The slow epidemic of cancers (in the wealthy countries) and AIDS (in the poorer countries), and a myriad of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, have begun to make clear how we have poisoned our environment even for ourselves. And now, in the first decade of the 21st century, it has finally become apparent even to the most resolute deniers that climate change is a dangerous reality to which we must adapt or perish.
So these are the transition times we live in. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to compare our times to the last years of other great human civilizations in the past: the Romans, the Mayans, the Inca, the Ming. All of these civilizations were based on the possibility of exploiting resources—human and natural—to such a great extent that tremendous wealth could be amassed for the rulers. This was the same model followed by the English, French and Spanish during their colonial periods (16th-19th centuries, roughly), and the U.S. is playing by the same rules with the rise of corporate capitalism backed by the biggest, most deadly military the world has ever known. The U.S. has become the political center of a global Empire that any feudal European would recognize, the only difference being the advantages that the contemporary wizards of technology afford our leaders. King Arthur would have been lost without Merlin, and our leaders today would be lost without the magic of electricity. Truly, our civilization would entirely grind to a halt were we to lose power for even a short period of time.
This is why the frantic quest for energy sources has turned so ugly in recent years. To the average household, losing power is an inconvenience—but we know the power company will come out and fix it sooner or later, we don’t get too bent out of shape about it. As worldwide demand for electric power grows, along with demand for easy, cheap means of moving people and goods through space, the question becomes one of supply. Our scientists are telling us that the Earth is finite, that she has reached her carrying capacity in terms of sustainable growth. And yet the human population keeps growing exponentially, and the global reach of corporate capitalism keeps creating more and more demand for modern conveniences: cars, refrigerators, air conditioning, computers.
Clever leaders manipulate the demand of the populace for the luxuries on display through every TV set. We have become familiar, in the late 20th, early 21st century, with the term “debt bondage,” now not just applying to serfs in feudal Asia, but common in any American suburb, where it takes two adults working more than fulltime to support the average mortgage, car loans and consumer loans, not to mention the school loans and home equity loans.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was a kid, people who opted out of all this, who chose a simpler life, perhaps even living “off the grid,” without running water, were derogatively termed “hippies,” weird fringe folks who spent their time smoking too much dope and having too much sex. Some joined cults, and some of these cults were headed up by dangerous psychotics who led entire communities into suicide. The media effectively demonized anyone who tried to resist the prevailing forces of modernity. The most powerful dissenters were silenced by the oldest method in the book: assassination. Since the 1960s, there has been an ever-growing list of charismatic leaders, educators and journalists who have been assassinated by the political elites, all over the world. In the old days, the colonists would come into an indigenous community and immediately pick out the smartest ones, the ones who looked like the leaders. Those who proved incorruptible would be enslaved or simply killed.
This is still going on, but now, in addition to the old-fashioned methods of violence, there are subtler ways to neutralize dissent and channel resistance. Antidepressants, anyone? Addictive media games? Above all, educational systems that teach obedience to authority from earliest childhood, backed by drug therapy (think Ritalin or Adderall) and indoctrination into an acceptance of inequality and environmental destruction.
There are still pockets of clear thinking and resistance to be found, even in the heart of Empire where I live. I don’t claim to have answers or to know the “right” way forward. But I do have a fierce desire to explore our present reality in all its dimensions, even some of those that many people would find too “out there” for comfort—the spiritual realms, the astrological and the psychic. Nothing should be off limits to inquiry; in many ways I still feel as curious as a young child, open to every nuance the world has to show me.
Just before a baby is born, the laboring mother is said to be “in transition.” This is what happens when the birth canal is dilating enough to allow the child’s big head to drop down into the free air. Our world is in transition now. Something new and different is about to be born. Whether we humans will still have a role to play remains to be seen. But it certainly is an interesting time to observe, and I believe there is still time to try to intervene and create a more positive outcome, not just for us but for all the species we will take with us if there is a major environmental cataclysm.
We must be both the midwife and the laboring mother, in this case. And the baby about to be born. Our job above all is to nurture, to love, to stroke, to build a deep resilience so that we can survive whatever may be thrown at us. This is the work of my second half of life. And this is what I’ll be exploring and documenting in this blog.