Health Supreme by Sepp Hasslberger

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August 02, 2003

future of adolescent man

At times we must consider more than our immediate life and daily chores. One area which I find highly interesting is the way humanity is evolving from warring nations to a more and more co-operative model of society. We are still witnessing the growth of "warring-nation-hood", where a seemingly superior force of empire is using the means of war to shape the rest of the global community in its own image.

But we are also witnessing a growing interconnectedness at the grassroots level, despite public media lies and despite all economic difficulties. According to Duane Elgin, the needed quick responses to changing conditions on this planet will not come from governments but from the interconnected grass roots of the human population. In an interview, published in The Sun Magazine, Elgin discusses coming changes and possible solutions.

Many people do not realize that our technical designation is not just Homo sapiens, or "wise beings," but Homo sapiens sapiens, which means that we are "doubly wise beings" with the ability to "know that we know." When we use this precious capacity for reflective consciousness, we are enabling a living universe to look back and reflect upon itself.

an interview with Duane Elgin by Arnie Cooper, The Sun Magazine

Cooper: What do you think about the self-help movement's version of simplifying: for example, a book like Elaine St. James's Simplify Your Life, which offers a collection of quick fixes, such as how to reduce clutter around your house?

Elgin: I'm all for it. [Laughter.] I try to do that on a regular basis. One aspect of simplicity is reducing clutter. It helps bring clarity and lets me focus on what matters most in my life. More power to any author who can inspire us to reduce needless complexity and thereby get down to what matters most.

Cooper: One advantage to material wealth is the ability to surround oneself with beautiful objects. How does aesthetics fit into the life of voluntary simplicity?

Elgin: There is a simplicity aesthetic, one aspect of which is an appreciation for older things. The Japanese have a wonderful phrase for this: wabi-sabi, a feeling of appreciation for things whose wear and aging reveal life's impermanence. For example, if you have had a cup, table, or chair in your family for several generations, each chip or scratch is not an imperfection, but a memory, inviting you to reflect on all the others before you who held that cup or touched that table. So, in my home, if I happen to scratch the dining-room table, I say I've just "wabi'd" the table meaning I gave it a little more patina and age, a little more value.

Cooper: How does the notion of voluntary simplicity connect with those who are poor by Western standards?

Elgin: If you live a life of involuntary simplicity, then the concept of voluntary simplicity doesn't mean much to you, because you have not yet achieved enough material well-being for there to be a meaningful degree of choice.

Cooper: But is it important for the world's poor to understand these concepts, or is it just we in the West who need to think about these things?

Elgin: Rich or poor, the whole world needs to be thinking about and exploring new ways of living. We need something akin to the Marshall Plan which restored Europe after World War II only global in scale. We need to create a future of mutually assured development, where progress leaves no one behind and doesn't destroy the ecosystems on which our lives depend.

Given intelligent designs for living lightly and simply, our manner of living would vary depending on local customs, ecology, resources, and climate. People who are poor need to ask not for access to the traditional American lifestyle, which is destroying cultures and the biosphere, but for a helping hand toward sustainability over the long haul. The problem is that we've not yet developed a literacy of sustainability that tells us what to ask for. Instead of a global plan that would do just that, we're being sold a consumerist culture by the mass media.

The average person in the U.S. watches about four hours of television each day. Over the course of a year, we see roughly twenty-five thousand commercials, many of them produced by the world's highest-paid cognitive psychologists. Their job is to figure out how to grab our attention and make us feel deficient if we don't own their clients' products. And these heavily produced advertisements are not merely for products, but for a lifestyle based on a consumer mind-set. What they're doing, day in and day out, twenty-five thousand times a year, is hypnotizing us into seeing ourselves as consumers who want to be entertained rather than as citizens who want to be informed and engaged. We need to take back the airwaves as a sphere of mature conversation and dialogue about our common future.

Cooper: So the media can be a positive influence?

Elgin: Yes. We've already seen evidence of this. The mass media have played a pivotal role in bringing the civil-rights movement, the environmental movement, and the women's movement into our collective consciousness. Broadcast television is not only the primary window onto the world for most Americans, but also the mirror in which we see ourselves as a society.

For the past thirty years, I've been exploring the process of "awakening" at a civilizational scale, and I have concluded that the mass media are the primary carriers of our collective "thought stream," which can foster either ignorance and fear, or awakening. For the individual, awakening involves developing a capacity for reflective consciousness or simply paying attention to our thoughts. In a similar way, our collective awakening will involve paying attention to our thoughts at a civilizational scale: not just consuming media, but purposefully directing our attention as a society to cultivate mindfulness, equanimity, and so on.

So the media can have a positive influence, if we will reflect on how we use this immensely powerful technology. The basic problem is that the mass media are not being held accountable for their programming. Although, by law, television broadcasters have a strict obligation to serve the public interest, they are serving their pocketbooks instead. It is time for us as citizens to come together and hold them accountable for their legal responsibilities.

The media have long given lip service to serving the public interest, but there has never been a means for measuring their failure to do so, because there's no mechanism in place to register the public's views. Polls show a majority of Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the media but feel powerless to bring about changes. Our Media Voice is a nonpartisan national campaign I cofounded in the Bay Area. We have devised a practical strategy for holding broadcasters accountable for serving the public interest. We want to develop prime-time "citizen feedback forums" in cities across the nation. The forums will be like electronic town meetings, at which citizens can raise concerns about pervasive violence, stereotyping, lack of diverse perspectives, and limited coverage of critical issues. The idea is to give citizens a new "civic voice" and feedback system for media accountability.

Cooper: What about the government? Doesn't it exert any control over the media?

Elgin: Government deregulation of the media has led to a rapid coalescing of ownership. As a result, a half dozen enormous media conglomerates now own a majority of media outlets in the U.S. It is these corporations which value profits above all else that are controlling the media, not the government. On the contrary, the media set an agenda that, in many ways, controls the scope of governmental concerns.

Cooper: In your latest book, Promise Ahead, you liken the human species, though 135,000 years old, to a teenager on the brink of adulthood.

Elgin: Over the past decade, I've given talks around the world, and I have asked people to consider the human family as one individual and then, looking at the behavior of that individual, to determine our stage in life. Specifically, do they think the human family is behaving like a toddler, a teenager, an adult, or an elder? I've asked this question in India, Europe, Japan, Brazil, and the United States, and without hesitation three-quarters of the people say that we're in our teenage years. Another 20 percent say we're in our toddler phase. On my personal website, more than two thousand people have voted on this question, with the same results.

So I've looked into adolescent psychology and found interesting parallels. Teenagers are rebellious, and we are rebelling against nature. Teenagers don't tend to think about the long-term future; nor do we as nations. Teenagers are often concerned with how they look; we're a materialistic society consumed with appearances.

But there's also an upside to this life stage. Teenagers have a huge amount of untapped energy and idealism, a sense of hidden greatness that is about to burst forth. As a species, I think we also have untapped idealism and a sense of our hidden greatness. We just need a chance to develop these potentials as a human family.

We are already beginning to move from our adolescent, reactive mode into our early adulthood, in which we start learning to live together. For example, the nations of the world are cooperating in ways that are seldom recognized. Every day we cooperate in running the world's weather-forecasting systems and air-traffic control. Cooperation among world health organizations has eradicated polio and smallpox. We are beginning to cooperate in the realm of international justice for example, arresting dictators for abuse of power and genocide. And around the world, reconciliation movements are emerging and trying to take root. Some are making dramatic progress, like the peaceful transition to democratic rule in South Africa and the growing peace process in Northern Ireland.

Cooper: In the final pages of Promise Ahead, you say that, within twenty years, humanity will undergo an "initiation."

Elgin: Most teenagers do not become adults without moving through a time of testing and challenge a rite of passage. I believe the human family is about to go through a time of profound initiation and challenge as we move from our adolescence to our adulthood. This initiation will take the form of a worldwide systems crisis as we hit an "ecological wall" the physical limits to growth. For example, right now, co2 levels are higher than they have been in 20 million years. We've already overshot the boundaries and thresholds of climate stability, and it's just a matter of time before we start experiencing severe fluctuations in the climate.

Add to this equation the fact that by the 2020s we're going to have roughly 8 billion people on the planet. As the climate warms, however, food production is going to decline, because many seeds are up against the limits of their thermal resistance and will have difficulty germinating. Compounding the situation further is the fact that, within a generation, we'll be running out of the cheap oil that has propped up our high-production agricultural system with its petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. In this same time frame, it is also estimated that 40 percent of the earth's population won't have access to enough water to be self-sufficient in growing our own food.

Now, if you start putting all of these factors together, it's clear that within twenty years we could have a crisis that is completely outside anything in our collective experience. Nonetheless, I think this is a very organic and predictable occurrence. We're moving from our adolescence into our adulthood as a human family, and you don't make that transition without going through life-changing events.

Cooper: Is it possible that, through genetics and other new technologies, we'll be able to avoid the chaos and the tumultuous times that you write about?

Elgin: In my opinion, no. Just look at the global dynamics at work. Climate change and species extinction represent massive disruptions to the biosphere. Population growth is creating enormous, unsustainable megalopolises around the world. I think genetics and new approaches to food production will be important, but I don't see anything deep enough, broad enough, and transformative enough to make a difference anytime soon.

Cooper: Could you describe what you think life is going to be like in the United States in, say, 2030?

Elgin: My guess is that, around the world, the various forces of climate change, population growth, species extinction, resource depletion, and human misery will have converged into an unstoppable force heading for either breakdown or breakthrough where the human family either pulls together in cooperation or pulls apart in conflict.

I find it harder to predict what life will be like in the U.S. specifically. We are one of the more resource-rich nations in the world. What I can imagine is even larger numbers of people pushing across our borders saying, "We want a part of your affluence." We could experience the breakdown of civil society and the need to start rebuilding from a more decentralized base. One way to picture this is to look at what life is like already for people in parts of the world where ecosystems are overstressed, economies are in ruins, and lives are being pulled apart by poverty.

Another dramatic transformation that will take place by 2030 is the growth of global communications. It's estimated that by 2010 roughly a billion people will be connected continuously on the Internet and that's still twenty years shy of the time frame you're asking about. So, give ourselves twenty years of this new world of communication, add to that the stresses of climate change, species extinction, water shortages, civil unrest, and so on, and what we get is a world that will be intensely in dialogue with itself. And the effects of that dialogue will cascade down into our personal lives into the food we eat, the clothes we buy, the transportation we use, and the homes in which we live.

Cooper: In your book Awakening Earth, you try to look even farther into the future. What might happen after we've cleared the hurdle of our birth as a global civilization?

Elgin: If we go back to the metaphor of the human life span, it's when people move into their early adulthood that they start thinking about the future, doing meaningful work in the world, and building lasting relationships with their peers. So the next stage will be one of collective reflection on a global scale seeing who we are as a human family and how we can live and work together in a way that is sustainable.

If we can successfully meet the challenge of living sustainably on the earth, I think we will then have the opportunity to learn to live more compassionately in harmonious and caring relationships with one another, other species, and the cosmos. A culture of kindness could infuse the planet. This could be an era of renewal, as the earth is restored to health. My sense is that we have a long and interesting future ahead of us, if we can get through this critical period of transition.

Cooper: Our politicians don't seem particularly concerned with any of this. For example, Dick Cheney commented that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." Are there any politicians who are thinking along the lines of sustainability?

Elgin: Certainly Al Gore had an appreciation for living sustainably when he wrote Earth in the Balance. A more immediate example is Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, who signed an executive order in 2000 directing the state to "develop and promote policies and programs that will assist Oregon in meeting a goal of sustainability within one generation by 2025." The Oregon Solutions website [] is dedicated to that purpose and is full of strategies, examples, and resources. And the Bush administration, though it's no friend to the environment, is pushing for a new generation of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Cooper: Do you think we should continue to develop faster, smarter, more independent machines?

Elgin: We have to look at what the machines might be used for. If the human family is to create some form of sustainable species civilization, we need a capacity for collective conversation and mutual understanding. So we need the Internet and the global transparency it's bringing. We also need sustainable forms of energy, which means retrofitting and rebuilding a huge amount of infrastructure homes, office buildings, and the like for solar and other renewable sources of energy.

Cooper: In Promise Ahead, you say that "we are the leaders we have been waiting for." But to keep the movement going, doesn't there need to be someone leading the way?

Elgin: If it is going to be voluntary simplicity, then it needs to be deliberate and intentional. If you have to be talked into it, it isn't voluntary. [Laughter.] I find it heartening that this is a self-organizing, leaderless movement. People are recognizing that no one else is going to do this for them. They must take responsibility for pioneering changes in their own lives. When economic, environmental, and social systems begin breaking down in the next decade or two, I think it will motivate nearly everyone to make changes.

Some feel that large-scale change requires government involvement. My sense is that we are moving into a situation that is so dynamic and so complex that no government agency will be able to figure it out. It's going to require inventive, savvy people at the grass-roots level adapting quickly to radically changing circumstances, making small changes that accumulate into a major societal change.

Cooper: Elsewhere in Promise Ahead, you quote T.S. Eliot: "And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." What does that quote mean for you?

Elgin: Let me approach it through the name that we've given ourselves as a species: Many people do not realize that our technical designation is not just Homo sapiens, or "wise beings," but Homo sapiens sapiens, which means that we are "doubly wise beings" with the ability to "know that we know." When we use this precious capacity for reflective consciousness, we are enabling a living universe to look back and reflect upon itself. A gardener appreciating a flower or a child appreciating the stars in a night sky is each a knowing witness to creation, closing a loop that began with the birth of our universe billions of years ago. We are beings who can knowingly appreciate and celebrate the great mystery of our own existence.

Awakening Earth


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Saturday August 2 2003
updated on Monday September 29 2008

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

"Homo Sapiens Sapiens" are not wise enough and will never as a "spicies" find the way to peace and thus achieve sustainable energy/society. The spirit-in-man gives us mind power and is the seat of our self-conscientiousness. That is why "We are beings who can knowingly appreciate and celebrate the great mystry of our existance.
Only God can bring about the
the change you describe and
He will do it after Homo Sapiens Sapiens have failed
and stand on the brink of total annihilation of life
on planet earth. You must communicate this fact to your
Man has not existed for 135,000 years. What makes us
human is the spirit-in-man; thus, man has only been on earth aproximately 6,000 years. Ape-like hominids did
not have the spirit that is only in humans. You will learn and "know that you know" this revealed knowledge after Jesus Christ returns.

Posted by: John Power on August 23, 2003 05:43 AM


Thank you for your comment, John.

I happen to believe that we are capable - each one of us - to know and to take control of both ourselves and our surroundings. God would not have made us weak and dumb and if we are, it is because of our own choices and shortcomings.

You seem to anticipate the abject failure of the human race and a "glorious salvation" by God at the brink of annihilation. To me, that sounds like relinquishing all responsibility for what we are doing only to say "well, we aren't capable of handling our own affairs but God will do it all for us - he will get us out of the trouble we are getting ourselves into".

Ever heard the saying "God helps those who help themselves"?

I say, better help ourselves. Don't just lay back and wait for God.


Posted by: Josef Hasslberger on August 23, 2003 01:11 PM


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The Individual Is Supreme And Finds Its Way Through Intuition


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