Episode 40: Duane Elgin – Part 1: Evolutionary Perspective on Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future

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In this dialogue, I talk with one of our fellow visionaries (and media activist) Duane Elgin about certain of the core themes Living Dialogues has expressed since its inception.  Included among these Living Dialogues perspectives are:   (1) the fact that we live in an “alive universe”, in which our dialogues as humans are not exclusively with ourselves, or even “within ourselves”, but from my perspective, also with all of manifest and unmanifest creation -- involving a feeling for the natural world and the cosmic potential for goodness (acknowledged by Einstein among countless others), which supports us in our hope for an evolved future beyond the destructive fragmentation of our current cultural settings; (2) the recognition that as a species, our human family is currently in an adolescent stage of development, now beginning a kind of collective rite of passage into a greater maturity, so that we can go beyond demonizing dualism as a survival strategy into a greater sense of understanding and unity within diversity (“out of the many we are one”) – and so keep pace as a species within the evolutionary imperative coming from an infinitely expanding universe, which science shows us is continuing to further complexify and integrate at an ever more rapid pace; and (3) recognizing that, as I often say, “dialogue is the language of evolutionary transformation”, that we can only make this evolutionary adaptation and survival leap in concert with one another, a shared midwiving if you will -- involving multiple ongoing dialogues between all participants in this birthing of a new and deeper required understanding of ourselves and our world.

As the well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead once said:  “For humanity to evolve, the conversation must deepen”.  This is what the program Living Dialogues is about, with myself, my guests, and all of our deep listeners continually and collectively evoking further insights of this new understanding from and with one another.

In this Part 1 of my 3-part dialogue with Duane Elgin, we set the overview and lay the foundation for our subsequent two dialogues, in the process referring to certain themes discussed on previous Living Dialogues on this website (scroll down and see, for example, Programs 31 and 32 with Richard Tarnas and Program 37 with Paul Ray).   Among other topics, we talk about the 20th century role of Joseph Campbell in helping us prepare for this next great initiation:  the creation by all of us together of certain new planetary myths (beyond the tribal myths Joe documented and explained so well).  We talk about how this collective initiation of the human family in the 21st century involves a time of reflection, taking an assessment of ourselves in our personal and social actions.  I believe this process is a kind of collective vision quest going out beyond the range of both our ancestors and our conventional modern world perspectives, to a new third consciousness, capable of sustaining us in this time of ever more rapid change.

Among the key dialogues that need to take place are those among youth and elders, men and women, different ethnicities, different nations, indigenous and modern cultures. 

I talk about the “ethical dialogue” psychologist and historian Erik Erikson said all civilizations need to nurture between youth and elders in order for a civilization to remain vital and survive and thrive.  This dialogue about the values we proclaim and being accountable for the gap between those values and our culture’s lived reality is essential.  Idealistic youth bring a certain wisdom to the table in that they have a passion for these values to create a world that will live as long as they do (sustainability), and they have a familiarity with the rapidly changing technology of communications.  And real elders, like Socrates in his time, support that hope by stressing the importance of integrity and truth, in ourselves and in our actions in the larger world, in order to create change that will benefit the whole and endure.

The first step to creating a sustainable future together is mutual understanding and finding common ground beyond dualities of gender, race, nationality, generations, etc.   Then we use new forms of technology (video, internet, etc.) to democratize and vitalize our communications beyond the non-reflective, manipulative, commodity and consumerist driven commercial consciousness perpetuated and reinforced by our current mass media, in order to make the leap to a new and deeper consciousness.  Duane Elgin talks about his passion for bringing our mass media back into a responsible role in our cultural dialogue, offering the perspective for his focus on media transformation:  “It is primarily through our ‘social brain’ (i.e., the television system and its interconnected computer and satellite networks) that the mindset of the species will be established and cultivated.  How we use our tools of mass communication is not just another issue – it is the basis for understanding and responding to all issues.”


To order a full transcript of this program you can contact me at my website: www.livingdialogues.com or at [email protected]. Many thanks again for your attentive deep listening in helping co-create this program. All the best, Duncan


Announcer: This program is brought to you by personallifemedia.com

Duncan Campbell: From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous councils, and ancient wisdom traditions, through the work of western visionaries, such as Plato, Galileo, and quantum physicist David Boham. Mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning. A dire flow of logos meaning. Beyond what any one individual can bring through alone. So join us now, as together with you, the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in, living dialogues.


Duncan Campbell: Welcome to Living Dialogues, I’m your host Duncan Campbell, and with me for this particular dialogue, I’m really delighted to have Duane Elgin. Duane Elgin is an author, speaker, evolutionary activist, and internet entrepreneur. He is the author of “Voluntary Simplicity,” “Awakening Earth,” And “Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future.”

Duane is a former senior social scientist at SRI International, at Stanford University where he co-authored numerous studies on the long-range future for the Environmental Protection Agency, the President’s Science Advisor, and the National Science Foundation.

He holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and an MA in Economic History from the University of Pennsylvania, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. So Duane, what a pleasure to have you on the program again. 

Duane Elgin: Well it’s good to be here Duncan, thanks for having me.

Duncan Campbell: One of the things I thought we might do in this particular program was perhaps give an overview of your life and work. Particularly, perhaps, beginning with when you first heard the call of what would become your life work. Perhaps in boyhood you know how Joe Campbell talks about how, oftentimes in adolescence we first get a glimpse of the grail, and then it’s later in life that we find the full-blown  mission. So, perhaps you could talk about your own life in that perspective?

Duane Elgin: Well, let’s see, I grew up on a farm in Idaho. And my earliest recollections are of the connection with the earth, connection with the animals, and my mother was a nurse, so also a connection with healing. And I think those elements really weave together in my life, a feeling for nature, a feeling for the need for healing of humanity. And in different ways those have woven into my life. I did work, after getting out of graduate school, for two years, back in Washington DC on a Presidential Commission, looking thirty years ahead, at the American Future.

And for a farm boy from Idaho to be plopped down in the middle of a Presidential Commission looking at the deep future that was an extraordinary education. And the biggest part of the education, really, was seeing that people weren’t looking thirty years ahead, they weren’t looking ten years ahead, they were looking maybe only one or two. And basically I thought someone would be minding the store, and I discovered that they weren’t.

So I left Washington, moved to California, began working at the Stanford Research Institute, and that’s where, as you say, I ran into Joseph Campbell. And my first job there, working at SRI, was really working for a year, looking at the deep archetypes, the deep stories, the deep images we hold about ourselves as a human family. Are we builders? Are we voyeurs? Are we healers? And so on.

And I remember this conversation I had with Joseph Campbell in, oh, 1972, 1973. And I was asking him about “well, what is the story we have about the whole human family? Where are we going as a species?” And he turned to me and he said “well how should I know?” He said, “all the stories I know about are tribal stories. They are stories about groupings, and they are not stories about the whole human family, and we are yet to discover that story,” he said.

And so that launched me on what then became from say, 1973, into a twenty year process of inquiry and writing, about ‘do we have a larger story?’ And indeed I think we do, and that story was described in the book “Awakening Earth” that was finally published in 1993, twenty years after this conversation with Joseph Campbell.

And in the interim, before that. I wrote another book, “Voluntary Simplicity,” and I wrote that not because I had any expertise, but because I realized, from my years of research, that I had a lot to learn about living sustainably on this earth. And so I wrote that as much for myself, as a learning experience, as I did for anyone else.

And that was the published in 1981. And lastly, the last book I published was in 2000, and that’s the book “Promise Ahead”, which summarizes all this work over the last thirty-some years. And the last thing I would toss into the mix, to give you an overview of my life and the influences: in the 1980s, I spent that decade doing community organizing in the San Francisco Bay area, primarily on the whole theme of media accountability.

Specifically television, and broadcast television, not only how it’s really, maybe, polluting the collective mind with the gratuitous sex and violence, but is also… there’s an impoverishment of the collective mind by the absence of attention to things like climate change and species extinction. So, another part of my life’s work has been grassroots organising for media accountability. So, in addition to the writing there’s been that work as well. So, that’s kind of a quick overview of the last thirty-something years.

Duncan Campbell: Well, Duane, that’s very elegantly stated. And I think one of the things that draws it all together is that passion that you had early on, as you described, even in your childhood, for the earth, a connectedness with a web of life, and a feeling for the planet as a whole, as embodied in the earth which is our home. And then going to Washington DC, and, in a sense, being surprised to see that unlike the Native American heritage of this continent people were not thinking seven generations ahead, in fact, rarely are they thinking more than the next political election ahead, or the next quarter on Wall Street.

With that, your conversation with Joseph Campbell, I think is very striking, because there was a similar interview, with Joe Campbell that appeared in Al Ray and Sherry Henderson’s excellent book “The Cultural Creatives” in which Joe said, for all his great wisdom and knowledge, said that basically he had prepared the ground for a new vision to come through, but he was not to one to bring it through, as such. And you have, embarked on that great work, and, in recent times have published an article entitled “The Self Guiding Evolution of Civilizations.” Which, in article form, in a sense summarizes and brings up to date your evolutionary vision as well as your activism. So perhaps we could use that as a bridge now, to talk about your own vision of what is emerging as a planetary consciousness, and how does it fit into the evolutionary paradigm. Where are we on the evolutionary ladder, if you will?

Duane Elgin: Yes. Well, here is what I have discovered, over the years, since that conversation with Joseph Campbell. First of all I thought it was quite extraordinary that we would enter this time of global testing and challenge, if we didn’t have a story. It just seemed like it would be natural that somewhere that story would be present.

And so, I began asking people, oh, about ten years ago, as I would go around the different parts of the United States, and different parts of the world, I began asking people the following question: when you look at the whole human family, and you look at our behavior, what life stage do we seem to be in, when you look at our behaviors? Are we behaving like toddlers, are we behaving like teenagers, are we behaving like adults, or are we behaving like elders?

And I’ve asked that question in India, in Brazil, in Europe, in Japan, in the United States, in all kinds of circumstances. And what I’ve discovered is quite extraordinary, is that people, within seconds, have an answer. When given the choice between toddler, teenager, adult and elder, immediately between two thirds and three quarters will raise their hands and say “we are at our teenage years in the human family.”

Now, what I gather from that is that at an intuitive level we know there’s a story being played out here. Josephs Campbell’s story that he was looking for is already resident in our own intuitions about where we are as a whole human family, and we look around, we see that we’re in our teenage years, we about to move into, what appears to be a rite of passage, a time of initiation as a whole human family, and that’s the time to move from adolescence and into our early maturity.

And I think that’s the story we were searching for, that we are in a stage of natural organic evolution from our adolescence to our early adulthood. And one of the critical stages in becoming an adult is the whole idea of just taking a hard look in the mirror, and that’s reflective consciousness, saying wait a minute, who am I? What am I doing here? What are my life choices really about? And that kind of reflective… taking assessment of yourself, is a major step in maturation, and that’s a step we need to make, we’re beginning to make, at not only a personal level, but also at a social, civilizational, scale, and that bring in then, the mass media.

Duncan Campbell: Before we get onto that, we might linger on this great, overarching vision of humanity being in a stage of teenage-hood, or adolescence. Something that has been observed as well, by a number of other people, and different angles, or perspectives we might say.

Richard Tarnas, in his great book “The Passion of the Western Mind” sees an overarching meta-narrative very similar to that which you describe, in which he feels that at this point in time we are reaching the end of a kind of masculine initiatory crisis. That we might say the species as a whole when it was originally appearing in the evolutionary paradigm, the move from living cell organisms to the human species, the great evolutionary leap that we came out of, we might say, a matrix, a womb of feminine energy, and a kind of childhood of the species, which you describe in “Awakening Earth.” Where you talk about how, having begun for maybe one or two million years, embedded in nature in a relatively contracted or unreflective consciousness.

As the human species moves into the hunter gatherer phase and the agrarian phase, and the industrial phase, which is now coming to a close, we developed greater and greater complexity of this self-reflective consciousness. Which would be analogous to the adolescence separating from the embeddedness in the family, and striking out to individuate and explore the world, and to attest his or her powers of independence. And then at some point, has to return to a kind of embeddeness, if you will, from a conscious, voluntary perspective in the wider community and bring back the gifts of that intense exploration.

Duane Elgin: Yes.

Duncan Campbell: And so, we have Deepak Chopra talking about the species being in adolescence, and Bob Keck, in a wonderful book called “Sacred Quest”  had a beautiful phrase saying that the species attitude, especially in the Western Culture at present, to the environment, is that of a teenager to the refrigerator. And I thought that was really interesting because you can see that as we’re sort of fascinated with growth, we’re impelled by a cosmology that understand growth to be good, not necessarily in a balanced way, a feedback loop modelling on nature, but on a sense of Newtonian, Cartesian model that fuelled the industrial revolution.

That more growth is better and rising tide will lift all boats, but somehow there is no mature understanding of where all these resources that filled the refrigerator are coming, or how we’re responsible to make sure that they’re self-renewing. And from that perspective, I would invite you to comment on that notion of our attitude toward our environment, and how it might shift as we move onto the role of the media.

Duane Elgin: Ok. Well, just taking the theme you were speaking to earlier, about being in our teenage years and moving into our early adulthood. Given the feedback I got from around the world, I because very curious about teenage psychology, adolescent psychology, and I began to see there were a number of parallels between humanity’s behaviour, and that of teenagers.

Teenagers, for example, are rebellious, and here we are as a human family rebelling against nature and trying to prove our independence from nature. Teenagers are reckless, and here we are, consuming with rather reckless disregard for the future of the human family and other species. Teenagers are often into appearance, and here we are as a materialistic consumer society, really into appearances. Teenagers are often into instant gratification, and we have this very short timeframe as a human family.

Now, someone once said, humorously, “Teenagers are God’s punishment for enjoying sex.” Now there’s an upside here to our being in the teenage years. Teenagers are also courageous, and teenagers are also daring, and they’re willing to work really hard, and they have idealism. So, if we take some of the strengths of the teenager, the adolescent, and apply those to the whole human family at our time of crisis, ecological crisis and such, I think we can rise to the occasion, and in rising to the occasion it means we’ll rise into our early adulthood, and we’re going to pull together as a human family.

And just like a teenager now, when they move into early adulthood they start thing about family, about the future about looking for work, if we just did that much, as a human family, if we said “ok, we’ll start thinking about the whole human family, about the work we’re doing here, on earth, and about our future together.” That would be an extraordinary shift in collective consciousness, and it would  be very natural. Just, as you see the natural evolution of teenage-hood.

Duncan Campbell: Well, we could also mention now, just as we move onto the media, that the famous Nike slogan, ‘Just Do It’ could be seen in either perspective. It could be seen as reckless, or it could be seen as daring and cutting through the kind of hesitation and constant questioning that may come with age. The negative side, as Paul Goodman was fond of saying, sometimes adults have the “nothing can be done” disease. So there’s that sense, that, y’know, the teenager and the positive sense, or youth in general, have that sense of possibility, and willingness to test new frontiers.

And of course, as you say, it can be reckless, and it brought to my mind as you were speaking, probably the most often seen ad, during the Olympics. “Do What Feels Good”, I think it was for Coca-Cola, or Pepsi-Cola, I can’t remember, but “Do What Feels Good” it seemed to me again, to have that sense of pandering to the instant gratification.

Yet at the same time, there are people, in the teenage years, and in what Eric Erickson called ‘youth’ that extended period of post-adolescence from around the age of 18 to the age of 30, that is a transitional stage in our highly complex technology orientated civilization that precedes adulthood, that have articulated the goals of society, the stated goals, with a lot of passion. And they do hold a certain kind of wisdom because of their familiarity with this rapidly changing technology, and their passion for creating a world that will live as long as they do.

And so, what I’m thinking of is Eric Erickson’s great invitation to this ethical dialogue between the elder generations and the younger generations, and how do you see the possibilities of conducting the dialogue about values, Duane. Given the fact that the media, which would be the normal conduit for us to share this reflective consciousness, between generations, is apparently completely in the hands of a non-reflective and relatively manipulative consumerist consciousness?

Duane Elgin: Indeed. You know, I think the whole issue of generational reconciliation, that you’re bringing up is really important. As is gender reconciliation, reconciliation around racial differences, and income, and on and on. And the first step towards reconciliation is mutual understanding. If we don’t understand one another we can’t really respect one another, and come to some common ground with one another. And understanding comes out of communications.

We have an enormous communications gap in our society when you look at all the divisions that exist, both within this country, and the rest of the world. And, as I look at our evolution, as a human family, it seems to me that it comes down to, in many respects, to communications. I think it’s our ability to communicate that got us this far, to the verge of an effective planetary civilization.

It will be our ability to communicate that will get towards a sustainable, more passionate, creative planetary civilization. And we look around, and we’re in the midst of an extraordinary communications revolution, with not only television, or visual communication. But also with the internet, and digital forms of communication.

It’s amazing the power of mass communication that’s cooking away in the world now, at the very time that we need to be empowered to communicate our way through this time of crisis. We have the tools of mass communication around us more than enough to do that, if, if, if, we’ll use those for that purpose, and that means we have to look beyond consumerism and materialism and such as the guiding principles for running our mass media.

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell