The vision that guides our society is peculiar. Step 1 is to absorb as much education as you can endure and afford. Step 2 is to plug into the economy, aggressively pursue every opportunity for advancement, and make as much money as you can, by any means necessary. Step 3 is to spend that money in a manner that continuously increases your display of personal status, as defined by the current trends of consumer society.
Obviously, this culture is disconnected from our ancestral roots, and from the family of life. Countless millions devote their entire lives to acquiring and discarding unnecessary stuff. In the magazine room at the library, I observe patrons devoting intense attention to understanding the latest trends in automobiles, electronics, fashion, cosmetics, homes, pets, and so on. They long to experience inner peace and happiness in their lives, and they believe that shopping is the sacred path. But, no matter how skillfully they shop, or how much they spend, it never works, except for fleeting post-purchase consumer orgasms. Trainloads of Prozac numb the pain.
Nature-based cultures understand and respect power. It’s everywhere, in everything, including all of us. Power comes in many forms, and it is the greatest gift of all. Some folks are skilled at tracking, hunting, or midwifery. Others are healers, warriors, or storytellers. There are weavers, herbalists, or shamans. Power speaks to those who listen. Modern folks often leave their power in the box, unopened, because they’ve never discovered their vision. They are lost.
A minority of modern people do manage to connect with their power, and use it. They are not swept away by the strong currents of consumer society, because they can see right through the silly nonsense, and they have the power to deflect it. They do not indulge in false hope and irrational optimism. They remain present in reality. I don’t understand why they are different, and I have no name for them, but they certainly exist, and they live outside the fence of the fantasy world, usually in the shadows, distrusted by the mainstream.
They tend to be intelligent, imaginative, and horrified by the madness of modern society. Their right brains are bulging and strong, from regular creative exercise. They are often writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, playwrights, poets, storytellers, dreamers, or rebels — people whose spirits have not been severed from the ancestral realm of uncontrollable wildness and freedom. They have power. According to The Dark Mountain Manifesto, “Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings.”
If they had grown up in a nature-based culture, some of them might have been known as shamans. All wild cultures had shamans. Everywhere around the world, descriptions of their methods are remarkably similar. Adults in a tribe can readily recognize the boys and girls destined to become shamans, because their power is easy to see. They sometimes have so much power that it’s hard for them to function in society. Older shamans take them under their wing, and teach them how to carry their power, and use it well.
Ordinary children have no memories of other times, lives, or realities, but young shamans do. They tend to be introverted, and closely allied to nature. They may have powerful dreams or hallucinations. They can communicate with the spirit world, and see things that the others cannot. Sometimes they play important roles as messengers, bringing back wise instructions from ancestral spirits, when the tribe is confronted with challenges. They have a strong spiritual connection to life.
For the sacred task of envisioning a sustainable future, people with shaman-like powers could help us remember who we are, and where we came from. Whatever we call them, they must be people who have a passionate relationship with the natural world, who excel at clear thinking, people who can effortlessly think outside-the-box. This sort of crowd has power. They can break spells.
Donella Meadows devoted a lot of thought to the notion of envisioning a sustainable future. Our society is enacting a vision of perpetual growth, and this drove her crazy, because it’s so stupid. This stupid vision thrives because alternative visions have yet to gain momentum. Most folks have no interest in greener visions, because they are perceived to require sacrifice, a life of less. Less what? Less stupidity? Less waste? Less anxiety and depression?
I recently saw the movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the ancient paintings at Chauvet Cave in France, discovered in 1994. Many of the paintings were done about 32,000 years ago, and they depict profound reverence for life. In those days, France was a healthy paradise filled with wild aurochs, horses, rhinoceros, bears, lions, bison, and many others — a world that was spectacularly alive and well. The paintings may have been made over a period of 5,000 years.
Can you imagine a low-impact way of life that lasted 5,000 years? Can you imagine living in a society filled with awe, amazement, and overwhelming love for the natural world? Can you imagine living in a world that wasn’t on a high-speed path to self-destruction? Was this era of abundant freedom, wildness, and vitality truly “less” than our modern suburbia? Wouldn’t it be precious to wake up in a sane and healthy world?
Our wild ancestors always resisted the aggressive intrusion of outsiders. The Sentineli still do. They inhabit North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman archipelago of islands, in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of India. These people are a Stone Age society of Negrito pygmies who survive by hunting, foraging, and especially fishing. No signs of agriculture have been observed. They have a long tradition of welcoming visitors with a shower of arrows and insults, and they are skilled marksmen.
Amazingly, the Indian government protects the Sentineli, and allows them to live in wild freedom. They remain free because the island isn't that big, doesn't have much valuable timber, and mineral treasures are unlikely. The island is surrounded by treacherous reefs and treacherous seas — safely getting there by boat is nearly impossible. Once a year there is one location that becomes theoretically accessible to those who wish to take their life in their hands and fight the powerful currents.
The Sentineli enjoy a good life in a healthy, stable, and sustainable culture. They need nothing that they don’t have. They want to be left alone to live in peace. Imagine what a terrible “sacrifice” it would be to live a simple life on an island paradise, in balance with nature, in a world with no strangers.
To be continued.