Episode 41: Duane Elgin – Part 2: Evolutionary Perspective on Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future
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 2 of my 3-part dialogue with Duane Elgin, I focus on at the second of the three core themes of Living Dialogues set forth above, as we explore together in depth the history and stages of human evolution to see why we are at an inflection point now in our development, poised in an initatic evolutionary moment which could (1) make a quantum leap beyond our adolescent dualism and conflict into the beginnings of a real maturity, what I often call a Sacred Marriage of feminine and masculine energies, able to hold our rapidly evolving technologies in a non-destructive, nurturing, generative manner, a new meta-Renaissance; (2) degenerate further into complete collapse, ushering in a new Dark Ages, then rebuilding from a devastated base, or perhaps not rebuilding at all; or (3) remain stuck in a kind of polarized and destructive stagnation until one of the previous two dialectical alternatives prevails.
We review our pre-individualist knowings from the beginnings of human consciousness, moving into the homo sapiens sapiens explosions of artistic and spiritual creativity that emerged in our species approximately 35,000 years ago (evidenced by cave paintings in various parts of the world), followed 25,000 years later by the beginning of agriculture (the “domestication” of the plant and animal species), then advancing through city-states (with mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, architecture and complex building) following the Modern Mind development trajectory as it continued into the industrial revolution, and now into our present “communications era” characterized by planetary modes of communication, satellite television, international air travel, the Internet, etc.
Many of us understand that we are poised and challenged to make a quantum leap of consciousness during our lifetimes, with the key distinctions from past eras that we may for the first time in human history be able to reach “critical mass” so that the transformation is both conscious and intentional, as well as a broad-based transformation beyond small numbers of aware people as have existed throughout history. We are energized in this by the push of dire necessity (global warming, species extinction, etc.) and the pull of extraordinary opportunity (the ever more available access to the whole storehouse of human knowledge and wisdom traditions, and the ability to democratically communicate with one another over the Internet, etc.).
Or, as I often put it in shorthand: we are challenged to keep up with the imperative of evolution itself, the increasingly rapid complexification of the cosmos in both greater and greater diversity and higher and higher levels of integration. And we can only do this by embracing an “engaged cosmology” together in multiple dialogues – within and between ourselves and all forms of consciousness.
As I have seen everywhere I have traveled throughout the world, there is a huge movement now afoot about shared consciousness, moving from fragmented consciousness to connection and dialogue – where we come together not just to share information, but to evoke an empowering revelatory awareness, one that sparks our ember of consciousness into an ever greater fire of generative and positive change and transformation. (Scroll down most recently and listen, for example, as just one example, to my dialogues in Programs 36 and 37 on this website with Paul Hawken.)
We can all join in engaging this evolutionary energy by participating in “conversations that matter”, such as these Living Dialogues in which your deep listening is an essential part of what gets evoked and articulated -- not only within the program but in conversations and awareness stimulated beyond when we continue to come together in an open-ended and open-hearted manner. Such coming together occurs when each of holds, in quantum physicist David Bohm’s term “a bank of the river” of dialogue rather than mere discussion. This is where the great river of Logos – the revelation of the Mystery – can flow into time through us.
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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 Bohm, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning—a dia (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”.
Welcome to “Living Dialogues”. I'm your host, Duncan Campbell, and with me for this particular Dialogue, I'm really delighted again to have Duane Elgin, visionary activist and author whose three books have been enormously influential in the last three decades. First of all, he's known to many of you as the author of “Voluntary Simplicity”, a real classic that was praised by Sam Keen, one of America’s leading social philosophers as “bread and wine for the spirit”. Following that, he published his great opus, “Awakening Earth”, a vision of humanity’s evolutionary future entitled “Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness”. Finally, his book most recently, “Promise Ahead” summarizing the prior books and giving us a guide boast and a guideline as to how to approach the future. That book is subtitled “A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future”.
Duane has in the past been involved with the Stanford Research Institute in the 70’s. Prior to that, he worked in Washington DC as a senior staff member for the National Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and he's also a leading activist for a revolution, if you will, in the use of our mass communications.
So Duane Elgin, it's a real pleasure to have you back here on “Living Dialogues”.
Duane Elgin: Good to be here, Duncan.
Duncan Campbell: I thought in this particular Dialogue, Duane, what we might talk about was the full vision that you put forth in your great work, “Awakening Earth” in which you, basically, talk about the meta narrative, we might say, of humanity’s evolution as a species and where we have been and what initiation we maybe approaching right now. You call it “inflection point of evolution”. I think we could just take the time here to set out your full seven-part vision for the species. Particularly, what I'd like to focus in is why our definition is homo sapiens sapiens, the species that knows that knows, the species that is uniquely self-reflective, so critical for our evolution and for our survival at this point.
Duane Elgin: Let's start with the very last thing that you raised, the name that we've given to ourselves. I find this very interesting that if you go into the scientific literature, our name isn’t simply homo sapiens which means wise humans. Instead if you go into literature, our actual technical name is homo sapiens sapiens and that means doubly wise humans. That’s been described as the following. Where animals have the capacity to know, humans have the capacity to know that they know. In that distinction, in knowing that we know is a super charged boast to evolution in that competency in knowing that we know. And because that means that we can bring a reflective consciousness into our lives and observe ourselves in what we're doing.
Now, the very first step of developing our competency for knowing that we know is to observe ourselves in our physical existence, the sheer physical fact that we're here and that’s what hunter-gatherers began to do. They were reflecting on the sheer, just the flat fact that here we are as physical beings. So this ember of reflective consciousness burst into this flame of reflective knowing but it was oriented towards our physical circumstances primarily and that was about 35,000 years ago.
Duncan Campbell: Let's pause for just a moment right there in the narrative, Duane, and talk about what preceded that. You talk about the preceding stage as phase 1, pre-reflective knowing or contracted consciousness that went on for some millions of years. Let's briefly describe the evolution of what eventually became homo sapiens sapiens from prior life forms before we move on to the hunter-gatherer stage.
Duane Elgin: It's clear, for example, that chimpanzees have a wide range of emotions. They have many capacities or competencies that indicate that there is this ember of reflective consciousness operating. My sense is that it was our capacity for knowing that we know, for moving from simply just knowing, just seeing the world and running on automatic, so to speak, to then running on consciousness, running deliberately, intentionally in the world. That shift for humanity began about 35,000 years ago.
And about 35,000 years ago, we've seen an explosion in terms of small-hand objects that are crafted are being carried around by mobile hunter-gatherer, you see paintings on walls, you see necklaces, you see the beginnings of musical instruments and flute, and so on. There's artistry in creating stone tools. So about 35,000 years ago, it's clear that we woke up in a decisive new way and we saw that we were here in with that begin I think the march towards our maturation, towards full development of our capacity for knowing that we know, full reflective consciousness. And we're about halfway along the path, I feel developing that capacity as a human family.
Duncan Campbell: So let's then talk about what awakened at that point in terms of this ember of consciousness? What fanned it into flame? Is that a mystery?
Duane Elgin: That is a mystery. That is a mystery. And it's a further mystery of how civilizations exploded on the earth about our [xx] civilizations and such about 3,000-5,000 years ago. They began to emerge roughly at the same time about 3,500 years ago in different parts of the world that weren’t really yet in communication with one another. And it's a mystery how all of a sudden we learned the arts of civilization, of mathematics, of astronomy, of building, of metallurgy, of governance, and so on. It's quite extraordinary and it's still not understood how that just catapulted into existence some 3,500 years ago.
Duncan Campbell: Looking at your maps of the evolutionary consciousness of the species, we see after this pre-reflective era, you're talking about the hunter-gatherer era succeeded then after about 25,000 years by the agriculture era that began about 10,000 years ago. Then the industrial era that some people say began with Copernicus 500 years ago or, certainly intensified as you say, about 300 years ago in the 18th century.
Then you say right now we're entering into a reconciliation era or an era of communications that will be succeeded by a deep bonding era and a surpassing era before we become a mature specie. So one of the things that a number of people are talking about at this point, Jean Houston, for instance, talks about “jump time”. Various people are talking about making a quantum leap in consciousness that were poised on the leap as say James Redfield or Michael Murphy say in their book “God and the Evolution of Consciousness” were poised to make a meta leap, what Deepak Chopra calls a meta biological leap of consciousness. One common thread of these visionaries or their comment is that we will be able to make certain conscious choices at this juncture that we did not make before. So perhaps we could go into that aspect in your own views on that, Duane.
Duane Elgin: The same word, Duncan, about which kinds of choices you're thinking about.
Duncan Campbell: Well, what I'm thinking about is as we look backwards, you have said that the evolution from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society, for instance, was something of a mystery as was the evolution seemingly miraculously and increased rapidly from agriculture to an industrial society. I might, for instance to illustrate what I'm talking about, quote from your most recent book “Promise Ahead” where you talk about William Ruckelshaus, the former Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, describing the evolutionary task that we're facing this follows. The quotation you use is taken from an article by Ruckelshaus called “Towards a Sustainable World” from Scientific American in September of 1989. He said, “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.” That’s the sense of mystery. “If we actually do this, however,” Ruckelshaus says, “the undertaking will have to be a fully conscious operation and will be absolutely unique in humanity stay on the earth.”
So the question for you, Duane, in that regard is what is it that gives us the ability to make this meta leap in a conscious way? What makes it unique in terms of these stages of transformation that you've set out in your book?
Duane Elgin: Yes. We are becoming conscious of consciousness, I feel, as a human family. We're actually becoming reflective of our capacity to be reflective and that’s the nature of knowing that we know. We can say are we actually talking about things that matter through our mass media, for example? That would be an illustration. We can say, “Well, let's take a look at what we're looking at through our mass media. Is it really paying attention to things that really matter for our long-term future and our well-being, yes or no?” That would be an example of a very practical reflection at a civilizational skill.
And I take a hope for this transformation in consciousness really to two forces. One is a push of necessity, just dire necessity and second is the pull of extraordinary opportunity. If you put dire necessity in alignment with extraordinary opportunity and the two are moving together, I think you see the opportunity for change. So let me look at those briefly. The push of necessity, we're just beginning now to experience climate change. This is a factor that by itself I think could propel the human family into either a new dark age or into a new era of cooperation and working for a sustainable future.
But climate change is a very, very serious challenge that we face together as is species extinction, as is the over fishing of the world’s oceans, and the impoverishment of people around the world. There are enormously challenging difficult problems that we face that we must deal with together. We need to pull together instead of fall apart and that’s part of the narrative that you were talking about. We're moving from a time of separation to a time of reconnection. So that’s one part, the push of necessity.
The other part is the pull of just extraordinary opportunity. Here we have a mesh of this miscommunications evolution that’s weaving the world together and we have the capacity now to learn together, to grow together as an entire human family in these synergies of culture, of consciousness, of art, of all of that coming together is I think just is utterly unprecedented in human history.
Duncan Campbell: A new meta Renaissance.
Duane Elgin: It is, it's just extraordinary. For example, looking at the world’s spiritual traditions. Just in the last [xx] in the last 20-30 years, the democratization--so to speak--of the world’s spiritual traditions, you can now go in and dive into the most sacred parts of the world’s different spiritual traditions and see what they have to say. It's just wonderful that this is now available all over the world. So if knowledge is power and that communications revolution is spreading knowledge around the world like crazy, so we're having an incredible level of empowerment made possible by the communications revolution. And that’s a part of the pull of possibility. We can do this. So we have the need to do it and now we have the opportunity as well and I think put those two together and we can move from our adolescence as a human family and into our early adulthood.
Duncan Campbell: Very well stated, Duane, and it calls to my mind the phrase that you began with having conversations what matter and our media actually having those kinds of conversations or hosting those kinds of conversations in the precious airwaves on television and radio, and for the most part, they are not. What occurred to me is that that phrase “conversations that matter is something that’s being used now, for instance, by the Institute of Noetic Sciences. It has been their insight in the years since 1973 when Edgar Mitchell founded that the six months after he came back from space and had the epiphany of seeing the possibility of holistic consciousness. It's been their experience that people change through, what you in your article and your book called this “small conversations”. What Christopher Bache in this program recently referred to as conversations around the kitchen or conversations around the water cooler or in the living room. What Margaret Mead said “the gatherings of people in living rooms and houses that would be the real vehicle for consciousness change”.
I think we want to, at this point, maybe talk a little bit about that movement. There is a huge movement now of shared insights and insight about the value of dialogue where we come together not only to share information but to evoke a revelatory consciousness, if you will. As David Bohm describes dialogue as opposed to discussion, he said, “It's as if we're holding two banks of a river, and the dia or the flow of the logos or the revelation of the history can flow between us if we come together in conversation that is open-ended and concerned with what really matters.”
Duane Elgin: Yes.
Duncan Campbell: So in your own perspective you say yes, that is one side of the coin. But the other side of the coin is our mass communications, that’s a more difficult task. We see that people are gathering together with passion, connecting through the Internet, connecting to these resources that are made available on an international scale for the first time of the deep spiritual traditions from around the globe and from indigenous traditions. But what about our mass communications at this point, could they be a stumbling block and cause this great evolutionary opportunity to be lost?
Duane Elgin: Yes. Good question. Let's look at that for a minute. Both are essential, I feel we need the local conversations in the classrooms and then the living rooms and then the board rooms and around the water coolers. We need to have conversations and talk about climate change. What are we going to do? This is really, really serious business so we could take the time to talk about that. What are we going to do about species extinction and the growing disparity of well being and the impoverishment of billions of people on the earth and that as a well spring for hopelessness and, therefore, terrorism.
We have really earnest problems that need to be dealt with--once again, there are two levels here that need to come together. If we had look only at the local scale and ignore the national or the global, well then our actions seem not to matter in the larger sphere of things. On the other hand, if we only look at the large scale and don’t connect those large-scale conversations with conversations in communities that matter to local, then we won't act upon I think that we know about. So both are necessary now, we need now to enter into these conversations as a part of our own growing up process and in growing from our teenage consciousness and into our adult consciousness.
These conversations to say, “Well, let's take a look in the mirror. What are we doing here as a human family? How are we living? How are we consuming both individually, how about as a society?” So the conversations need to be happening at both levels, and I think one are the more difficult levels is to mobilize it through the mass media because the mass media--as you indicated before--has a vested interest in programming this for commercial success and a byproduct of that is evolutionary failure. So it's imperative that we, as citizens, insist that the mass media live up to its obligation to serve the public interest because it's not a matter of taste anymore, it's a matter of our evolutionary survival.
Duncan Campbell: Yes, it's an evolutionary imperative and I think at this point, we should mention in your book, “Awakening Earth” you point out there are three pathways into the future that realism demands we confront. It's all well and good to talk about making a quantum leap into the next level of human reconciliation consciousness. But you also point out that there are two possibilities here. One is a complete collapse and possible rebuilding from a devastated base or perhaps no rebuilding at all. A third middle alternative would be what you call “dynamic stagnation”.
So I think we should take a minute or two here to just acknowledge that there is no guaranteed outcome here. Perhaps you could talk about what factors could lead to this collapse which in addiction therapy, they talk about as “low bottoming”. A person cannot really sometimes cognitively see the inevitable results of the self-destructive path they're following if they're addicted, let's say, to alcohol or heroine or whatever. They have to actually hit bottom before they can awaken, that would be in the sense the collapse model.
Duane Elgin: Yes. That’s very worrisome because by the time we experience collapse particularly in the affluent developed countries, the deterioration of the world’s oceans and atmosphere and biosphere will be so great that it will be difficult to retrieve the situation. In 1992, 1,600 of the world’s leading scientists came together and signed a warning to humanity that said, “A great change in how we live on the earth needed to be made and if it weren’t, we're going to be experiencing enormous human suffering.” They felt we would potentially irretrievably mutilate, this is their word, irretrievably mutilate the biosphere.
When I thought about this, what does it mean that we would “irretrievably mutilate it”? It means that we just couldn't go back, we'd never recreate itself in the way that was before and the foundations for civilizations on this earth would be impaired. So if you look at what we're doing in the area of climate change, CO2 is higher now than it has been for 20 million years and we are on the verge of having a runaway change in climate, not just an uncomfortable change but a runaway change. The species extinction, we're looking at the sixth largest extinction that’s ever occurred in the history of the earth and it's being caused by the human family. These are planetary scale infringements that are really devastating the ecological foundations for the future. So those kinds of factors, when they come together, when the depletion of waters--the precious resource--when climate change and species extinction and all the rest converge, they're converging and appears in the next 20 years is my best guess.
At that point, we have not simply an individual problem, we have a whole system of problems that are interconnected, that are converging together, and that must be dealt with either as a whole system or we pull back from it and the whole system falls apart. So that’s my sense, that’s our right of passage, our time of an initiation as a human family.
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