[The excerpts below are from an insightful and inspiring new book by Duane Elgin -- Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future. Promise Ahead is a breathtaking view of the future relevant to anyone seeking to navigate through our profoundly changing world. Based on thirty years of research by one of the foremost thinkers about the future, it is the sequel to Elgin's bestselling 1981 classic Voluntary Simplicity. In Promise Ahead, Elgin looks beneath the headlines to reveal the deeper currents that are now changing our lives. Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future is available here.]
From Chapter 1: Is Humanity Growing Up?
Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.
--Simone de Beauvoir
ow grown up do you think humanity is? When you look at human behavior around the world and then imagine our species as one individual, how old would that person be? A toddler? A teenager? A young adult? An elder?
As I’ve traveled in different parts of the world, speaking to diverse audiences, I’ve begun many of my presentations by asking this question. Initially, I didn’t know whether people would be able to relate to or even understand my question, much less agree on an answer. To my surprise, nearly everyone I’ve asked has understood this question immediately and has had an intuitive sense of the human family’s level of maturity. Whether I’ve asked this question in the United States, England, India, Japan, or Brazil, within seconds people have responded in the same way: at least two-thirds say that humanity is in its teenage years.
The speed and consistency with which different groups around the world have come to this intuitive conclusion were so striking that I began to explore adolescent psychology. I quickly discovered that there are many parallels between humanity’s current behavior and that of teenagers:
Other authors have noted that
we are acting like teenagers. Al Gore wrote in his book Earth in the
Balance, "The metaphor is irresistible: a civilization that has,
like an adolescent, acquired new powers but not the maturity to use them
wisely also runs the risk of an unrealistic sense of immortality and a
dulled perception of serious danger...." In a similar vein, Allen
Hammond, senior scientist at the World Resources Institute, who has been
exploring the world of 2050, has written, "Just as parents struggle
to teach their children to think ahead,to choose a future
beings may not be far from a new level of maturity."
"Human beings may not be far from a new level of maturity."
If people around the world are accurate in their assessment that the human family has entered its adolescence, that could explain much about humanity’s current behavior, and could give us hope for the future. It is promising to consider the possibility that human beings may not be far from a new level of maturity. If we do develop beyond our adolescence, our species could begin to behave as teenagers around the world do when they move into early adulthood: we could begin to settle down, think about building a family, look for meaningful work, and make longer-range plans for the future.
Adolescence is a time when others - such as parents, schools, churches, and so on - are generally in control. As we step into adulthood, we enjoy a new freedom from control, and a new responsibility to take charge of our lives. In a similar way, during our adolescence as citizens of the Earth, most humans have felt controlled by someone else - especially by big institutions of business, government, religion and the media. As we grow into our early adulthood as a species, we will discover that maturity requires taking more responsibility and recognizing that we are in charge. Instead of waiting for "mom or dad to fix things," an adult is one who pays attention to the larger situation and then acts, recognizing that our personal and collective success are deeply intertwined.
Is it plausible that humanity
is truly on the verge of moving beyond our adolescence? Not only do I
consider it plausible, I would like to offer a rough timetable for the
maturing of humanity. I estimate that we awoke in the infancy of our potentials
roughly 35,000 years ago. Archeologists have found that, at that time,
there was a virtual explosion of sophisticated stone tools, elaborate
burials, personal ornaments, and cave paintings. Then, with the end of
the ice ages roughly 10,000 years ago, we began to settle down in small,
farming villages. I believe this period marks the transition to humanity’s
childhood. The food surplus that peasants produced made possible the eventual
rise of small cities. I estimate we humans then
are on the verge of moving into the communications era and our
"We are on the verge of moving into the communications era and our early adulthood."
This timetable gives only a rough estimate of the average level of maturity of our species, but it does make an important point: that human beings are growing up, becoming more seasoned and wiser through hard-earned experience. Despite humanity’s seeming immaturity in the past, I believe we could be close - within a few decades - of taking a major step forward in our evolution as a species.
Humanity’s Heroic Journey of Awakening
If we look beneath the complexity of human history and culture, there seems to be a story that humanity shares regarding the purpose of life. Joseph Campbell, a world-renowned scholar who spent a lifetime exploring the stories that have brought meaning to people throughout history, described the common story at the heart of all the world’s cultures as the "hero’s journey." Although the details vary depending on where and when it has been told, it is essentially the story of an individual who grows up by going through a series of tests that teach him or her about the nature of life. The person then brings this precious knowledge back to his or her personal life and life of the community.
If we assume that the overall
human family is on an heroic journey of development, then the pivotal
question becomes, "where are we on the hero’s journey?" To
explore that key question, it is important to know that the hero’s journey
usually consists of three stages: separation, initiation, and return.
It begins with the hero (or heroine) leaving home to search for the
deeper meaning and purpose of life. This is the stage of separation.
There eventually comes a time when the hero undergoes a supreme test,
whereby he is initiated into the nature and ways of the universe and
no longer feels separate. With initiation, he experiences the deep unity
and aliveness at the foundation of the universe and his sense of life-purpose
in relation to it. He returns from his adventure with that hard-won
knowledge and the capacity for personal renewal or even, says Campbell,
"the means for the regeneration of society." The core purpose
of that sacred knowledge, according
to Campbell,is to "waken and maintain in the individual asense of
hero undergoes a supreme test, whereby he is initiated into the
nature and ways of the universe and no longer feels separate."
"The hero undergoes a supreme test, whereby he is initiated into the nature and ways of the universe and no longer feels separate."
Just as all major cultures share the story of the hero’s journey, all have customs of initiation as well. Initiatory rites of passage around the world have at least two things in common. First, for the individual, the initiation marks a decisive transition from one stage or kind of life to another (such as from adolescence to adulthood). Second, initiation rites are also stressful social situations in which new ways of relating to other people are learned and established. The experience of initiation forges bonds of connection among those who have gone through it, bonds that transcend previous distinctions based on status, age, or kinship. Long after the rites are concluded, these links and emotional bonds persist and provide much of the social glue that holds the community together.
Let’s look at humanity’s journey in terms of this simple model of separation, initiation, and return.
When we view humanity’s evolution
this way, our times take on new significance. Humanity is about to move
into a stage of initiation - a period of stress and testing in which we
will be challenged to discover ourselves as a single family with responsibilities
to one another, the Earth, and future generations. Although the challenges
we face may seem to be evidence of humanity’s failures, reaching this
stage is actually an expression of our great success over the past 35,000
years. I believe that the apparent crises we face are, in reality, part
of our initiation into a new relationship with one another and the Earth,
is about to move into a stage... in which we will be challenged
to discover ourselves as a single family with responsibilities
to one another, the Earth, and future generations."
"Humanity is about to move into a stage... in which we will be challenged to discover ourselves as a single family with responsibilities to one another, the Earth, and future generations."
When we began our journey of awakening roughly 35,000 years ago, we had only an indistinct sense of ourselves and a strong but largely unconscious feeling of connection with nature. Over the millennia, we have acquired a strong sense of ourselves, but at the cost of separating ourselves from nature. Looking ahead, we have the opportunity to reconnect consciously with nature and the larger human family. As in the hero’s journey, our challenge is to return to where we started, but with a new level of insight, compassion, and creativity. T.S. Eliot foretold of this return when he wrote "And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time."
Initiation: Hitting the Evolutionary Wall
Here is how William D. Ruckelshaus, the former director of the Environmental Protection Agency, describes the evolutionary task that we are facing:
"Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation.... If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on the Earth."
What would motivate us to attempt
such an undertaking? I believe it will take both the push of environmental
necessity and the pull of evolutionary opportunity for humanity to attempt
adolescents pressing to find the limits of their parents’ authority,
we are pushing up against the limits of nature, as though seeking
to discover just how much abuse our planet will tolerate."
"Like adolescents pressing to find the limits of their parents’ authority, we are pushing up against the limits of nature, as though seeking to discover just how much abuse our planet will tolerate."
Like adolescents pressing to find the limits of their parents’ authority, we are pushing up against the limits of nature, as though seeking to discover just how much abuse our planet will tolerate. But we face much more than physical problems; we face equally great challenges in our own consciousness and character. The historic path of development is being confronted, not only with an environmental wall, but by an even more formidable evolutionary wall. It would be useful to distinguish here between the two:
In seeing the initiation that awaits us, it is clear that we have come to a great choice-point in our journey. Although human beings have been faced with challenges throughout history, we have never before been confronted with a challenge to our entire planet and species. Our time is unique in one crucial respect: the circle has closed - there is nowhere to escape. For the first time in our history, the entire human population is confronted with a common predicament whose solution will require us to work together.
This book looks beyond the possibility of a destructive evolutionary crash to the possibility of an evolutionary bounce. I believe that in the coming decades, there is the distinct possibility that we may surpass ourselves and evolve to a level of maturity that we could not attain without confronting these trials that I am calling "initiation." How might an evolutionary bounce look? I see it as a leap forward in our collective maturity to build a life together that would be harmonious in three ways. It would be:
There are two compelling reasons for making this evolutionary turn. First, it is eminently desirable and will lead to a higher quality of life for all. Second, it is necessary if we are to avoid creating a planet that is hotter, hungrier, poorer, and more polluted, diseased, and biologically impoverished than it already is.
Humanity’s Promising Future
If we do get through these difficult
times and grow into our early adulthood as a species, how long might we
then survive? We can gain some perspective by looking at the longevity
of early humans and other animal species. The typical life span of a species
is estimated to be between one and 10 million years. For example, our
humanity is as capable of survival as the dinosaurs were, our
species would be able to endure for more than 25,000 times the
span of recorded human history."
"If humanity is as capable of survival as the dinosaurs were, our species would be able to endure for more than 25,000 times the span of recorded human history."
Just as every child makes missteps on the path to adulthood, humanity has made and will continue to make painful mistakes as we evolve. We learn through our mistakes, however, and we keep moving ahead step by step. We are ever more experienced, ever more seasoned, and ever more mature. Although our future is uncertain, we already have the resources and capacities we need for success. The biologist Lewis Thomas describes the promise of our species beautifully:
I too believe that humanity
has a promising future. The word promise has its origin in the French
word promittere which means "to send forth." A promise, then,
is a sending forth of a declaration, vow, pledge, or commitment. I believe
we are reaching a unique point in our evolution where we can make a promise
to future generations. It is a declaration that we will not forget them
in the rush and
all share the same Earth and a common journey through eternity."
"We all share the same Earth and a common journey through eternity."
Duane Elgin is a futurist and author (Awakening Earth [Morrow 1993] and Voluntary Simplicity [Morrow 1981]). He has anticipated some of the most important trends of our time. According to a 1997 Trends Research Institute report, "voluntary simplicity... is now spreading throughout the industrialized world.... Never before... has a societal trend grown so quickly, spread so broadly, and been embraced so eagerly."
Elgin served as a senior staff member of the joint Presidential-Congressional Commission on Population Growth and the American Future and as a senior social-scientist with SRI International. At SRI he co-authored several major studies on the long-range future (for the Environmental Protection Agency, the President's Science Advisor, and the National Science Foundation). Elgin has an M.B.A. from the Wharton Business School and an M.A. in Economic History from the University of Pennsylvania.
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