It is not easy to accept, but it is becoming more and more obvious that our country and our world are not doing well. Some believe the U.S. is falling apart and the humans have made such a mess of the environment that we should call it quits, go out in a blaze of destruction, and leave planet Earth in the hands of species who are better able to be good partners in the community of life on Earth. Others believe that human ingenuity and innovative technologies will fix things and we have a bright future ahead. I have a different vision that was given to me in a sweat lodge in 1993 at a men’s gathering in Indianapolis, Indiana:
We are all on a huge ocean liner. It is the Ship of Civilization. Everything that we know and have ever known is on the ship. People are born and die. Goods and services are created, wars are fought, and elections are held. Species come into being and face extinction. The Ship steams on and on and there is no doubt that it will continue on its present course forever.
There are many decks on the ship starting way down in the boiler room where the poorest and grimiest toil to keep the ship going. As you ascend the decks, things get lighter and easier. The people who run the ship have suites on the very top deck. Their job, as they see it, is to keep the ship going and keep those on the lower decks in their proper places. Since they are at the top they are sure that they deserve to have the best that the ship has to offer.
Everyone on the lower decks aspires to get up to the next deck and hungers to get to the very top. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it has always been. That’s the way it will always be. However, there are a few people who realize that something very strange is happening. What they come to know is that the Ship of Civilization is sinking. At first, like everyone else, they can’t believe it. The Ship has been afloat since time before time. It is the best of the best. That it could sink is unthinkable.
Nonetheless, they are sure the Ship is sinking. They try and warn the people, but few believe them. The Ship cannot be sinking and anyone who thinks so must be out of their mind. When they persist in trying to warn the people of what they are facing, those in charge of the Ship silence them and lock them up. The Ship’s media keep grinding out news stories describing how wonderful the future will be and technology will solve all our problems.
The Captains of the Ship smile and wave and promise prosperity for all. But water is beginning to seep in from below. The higher the water rises, the more frightened the people become and the more frantic they scramble to get to the upper decks. Some believe it is the end of the world and actually welcome the prospect of the destruction of life as we know it. They believe it is the fulfillment of religious prophecy. Others become more and more irritable, angry, and depressed and use alcohol, drugs, and other forms of self-medication to escape the pain.
But as the water rises, those who have been issuing the warnings can no longer be silenced. More and more escape confinement and lead the people towards the lifeboats. Though there are boats enough for all, many people are reluctant to leave the Ship of Civilization. “Things may look bad now, but surely they will get better soon,” they say to each other.
Nevertheless, the Ship is sinking. Many people go over the side to the boats. As they do so, they are puzzled to see lettering on the side of the ship, T-I-T-A-N-I-C. When they reach the lifeboats, many are frightened and look for someone who looks like they know what to do. They’d like to ride with those people.
However, they find that each person must get in their own boat and row away from the Ship in their own direction. If they don’t get away from the Ship as soon as possible they will be pulled under with it. Though each person must row their own boat, they must stay connected to others. As people row away from the Ship, they connect with each other in a new, yet ancient, network. A new way of life is created that is much better than the Ship of Civilization which continues to sink.
Here are a few things I have thought about over the years that gives me hope for the future:
- “Civilization” is a misnomer. Its proper name is the “Dominator culture.”
As long as we buy the myth that “civilization” is the best humans can aspire to achieve, we are doomed to go down with the ship. In The Chalice & the Blade: Our History Our Future first published in 1987, internationally acclaimed scholar and futurist, Riane Eisler first introduced us to our long, ancient heritage as a Partnership Culture and our more recent Dominator Culture, which has come to be called “Civilization.” In her recent book, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, written with peace activist Douglas P. Fry, they offer real guidance for creating a world based on partnership.
Historian of religions, Thomas Berry, spoke eloquently to our need to be honest about our present situation.
“We never knew enough. Nor were we sufficiently intimate with all our cousins in the great family of the earth. Nor could we listen to the various creatures of the earth, each telling its own story. The time has now come, however, when we will listen or we will die.”
2. There is a better world, beyond civilization.
When I was given the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, I got a clear sense of the two worlds that are competing for our attention: A world where hierarchy and dominance rule (Quinn calls it the world of the Takers) and a world where equality and connection rule (Quinn calls it the world of the Leavers). In his many books Quinn offers a clear contrast in worldviews.
In his book, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, Quinn says,
“I can confidently predict that if the world is saved, it will not be because some old minds came up with some new programs. Programs never stop the things they’re launched to stop. No program has ever stopped poverty, drug abuse, or crime, and no program ever will stop them. And no program will ever stop us from devastating the world.”
Quinn goes on to quote Buckminster Fuller who said,
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
3. All Civilizations Come to an End, Most Within Ten Generations (250 years).
In her powerful and important book, Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, social scientist Margaret J. Wheatley shares the findings of historian Sir John Glubb.
“Glubb studied thirteen empires in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, from Assyria in 859 BCE to modern Britain in 1950,”
“The pattern of the decline and fall of these superpowers was startingly clear. It didn’t matter where they were or what technology they had or how they exercised power. They all declined in the same stages and it always took ten generations, about 250 years.”
“The deceit we are engaged in is that we think we’re special, that we can transcend history, alter the seasons, and step off the Arrow of Time. Surrounded by technology that dazzles us with its capabilities and techno-optimists who confidently promise ever more wonders, we believe that even as other civilizations failed, ours will not.”
4. Understanding the Reality of Collapse.
The thought of our country collapsing or humanity becoming another species that becomes extinct is terrifying to most. One response is to deny the reality of our situation, to lose ourselves in the latest escape or addiction. Another is to falsely believe that some technological fix will magically save us from ourselves.
When I hear the word “collapse,” I can’t help becoming terrified and wanting to run away from the truth. I picture a freeway collapsing and crushing cars with people inside or the twin towers collapsing floor by floor and killing hundreds.
The truth is that even during these disasters, not everyone died. Many more people walked out of the twin towers than died inside. When civilizations collapse, it doesn’t mean that everyone dies. When the British empire collapsed, it didn’t mean all Brits lost their lives. Some did, indeed, die. Death is something we all must accept, but collapse can signal a transformation.
In describing the reality of collapse, Margaret Wheatley draws on the work of Joseph Tainter, as well John Glubb. Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1987, is acknowledged to be the seminal work in establishing the pattern of collapse that is the fate of all complex societies.
“He is a superb and dedicated scholar,”
“both humble and clear. Over several years he studied in depth many different societies; as he did so, the pattern became so clear that he felt no need to continue to study others in detail.”
Tainter’s description gives a more accurate, and less terrifying, description of the reality we are living through. Tainter defines “collapse,” as primarily a political phenomenon with consequences in all other spheres such as economics, art, and culture.
“A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.”
This fits well with the descriptions I have offered by sociobiologist and futurist Rebecca Costa. In her book, The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, Costa examines the rise and fall of multiple civilizations including Mayan, Khymer, and Roman empires. She found that the underlying cause of collapse had not been fully understood or addressed. What she discovered was that a societies inability to deal with complexity was the root cause of collapse.
As Costa’s mentor, the world-renowned sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson said in the books foreword:
“The clash of religions, and civilizations, Costa argues, is not the cause of our difficulties but a consequence of them. The same is true of the global water shortage, climate change, the decline of carbon-based energy, our cheerful destruction of the remaining natural environment, and all the other calamities close to or upon us. The primary cause of all threatening trends is the complexity of civilization itself, which cannot be understood and managed by the cognitive tools we have thus far chosen to use.”
But transformation is inevitable and we have an opportunity to create a different way to live, one that is more sustainable and supportive of life. Our ancestors go back millions of years and humans have lived sustainably on the planet for much of that time. But getting from here to there is a long journey requiring a new kind of leader, which Margaret Wheatly describes as a “warrior for the human spirit.” I will describe her ideas more fully in part 2 of this series.
As Wheatly reminds us, “The Warriors arise when the people need protection. The human spirit needs protection. May the Warriors arise.” As I am learning, getting older and dealing with disability and death, have some similarities with the transformations going on in the larger world. It takes the best of our warrior spirit to meet the challenges of life in the 4th quarter of life.
I appreciate your comments and support. If you like articles like these, please consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter here. I will post part two in an upcoming article.