Episode 42: Duane Elgin – Part 3: 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 concluding Part 3 of my 3-part dialogue with Duane Elgin, I focus on at the first of the three core themes of Living Dialogues set forth above, the foundational awareness that we exist in an “alive universe”.   In order to survive, much less thrive, as a species, we recognize the need to move beyond our adolescent preoccupation with materialism into a more mature, reflective, and co-creative consciousness.  This fascination with materialism is a result of our “modern” conventional scientific world view, which for the last four centuries has viewed the world beyond our subjective consciousness as objective, fragmented, and inert – there, essentially, to be manipulated for our own purposes by humanity.  As Duane observes, if the universe is essentially dead at the foundations, then consumerism makes sense, but now contemporary science is finding that the universe is, in fact, integrated into a whole conscious system.  Despite the enormous distances that separate its different parts, the universe functions as an integrated unified whole, so fragmentation is being overcome with unification.

As I have observed in other dialogues, contemporary science is now confirming this “wholistic” consciousness that we can also access by in effect “remembering” and reawakening to our indigenous heritage, where as a species we experienced ourselves as embedded in an alive universe.  As Barry Lopez observed in Arctic Dreams, “the land is an animal that contains all animals” (see his praise for Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest and the dialogues Paul and I engaged in in Programs 35 and 36 in this series).  Duane adds that these new “discoveries” by contemporary science do not constitute a new idea.  In addition to the worldview of native peoples everywhere, Plato in our Western culture said a couple of thousand years ago that the universe “is a single living creature that encompasses all living creatures within it”.  As we begin to understand that the universe is really a living universe, then our experience with the soulful dimensions of life and relationships become so rich and meaningful that a consumerist lifestyle appears pale by comparison.

We know that in general our culture is in great crisis because we have literally a multibillion dollar industry of anti-depressants that’s being sold, as we speak, to many millions of individuals throughout the world, so that there clearly is a crisis of meaning and purpose in the midst of the consumer lifestyle.  Joseph Campbell once described the finding of the Grail (what in the East is called “enlightenment”) as awakening to aligning one’s own personal energies with the inexhaustible energies of the universe.  This requires an understanding that we exist as an integral part of “the force” of a self-renewing, constantly regenerating living cosmos.  When that pours into time through our own consciousness, we experience ourselves as fully alive, embraced in a caring intelligence vibrating with purpose and meaning, accessing the full richness of our inheritance as divine human beings on the planet.  This kind of poetic or mythical or mystical understanding is now being confirmed in its own way by Western science.  By bringing together the best, enduring aspects of both our indigenous and modern mind heritages in dialogue, we can “transcend and include” both in a new and renewed integrative vision and experience.   In so doing, we can reconnect what Vaclav Havel calls our “transcendent anchor” with our lived, day to day, experience, move beyond temporary pleasures into real joy, and come together in collaborative contribution to our shared alive universe.


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


Woman: This program is brought to you by PersonalLifeMedia.com.

[musical interlude]

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 once again to “Living Dialogues”. I'm your host, Duncan Campbell, and with me for this particular Dialogue, I'm truly delighted to have social activist and visionary Duane Elgin, author known to many of you for his first great book, “Voluntary Simplicity”, subsequently for “Awakening Earth”, subtitled “Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness”. His most recent book at the new millennium “Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future”. This book has been praised by David Korten, for instance, as a powerful message for our time, a seminal contribution to the new story and essential readings for those dedicated to creating a world that works for all.
Duane Elgin has also worked in the past, not only for the President’s Science Advisor and the National Science Foundation, but for Stanford Research Institute and the National Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. 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 where he's very active in a communications revolution of holding mass communications accountable to their original legal mission of holding the space for conversations that matter about our future as a species and as a civilization and the future of the earth itself.

So, Duane Elgin, again, a great pleasure to have you here on “Living Dialogues”.

Duane Elgin: Good to be here, Duncan.

Duncan Campbell: One of the things, I think, that you share in common with David Korten whom we mentioned as the author of “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Post-Corporate World” is that both of you view the universe as a living universe. More and more, we're hearing visionaries and social commentators bring to the fore the underlying premise, unspoken often in our educational system and our mainstream culture, that the universe we live in is, essentially, objective or a “nerd”. They're to be, essentially, manipulated for our own purposes by humanity.

Oftentimes, we go back and quote Francis Bacon from four centuries ago saying, “We shall use the tools of reason to torture from her nature’s secrets for the benefit of man’s estate.” That original vision of modernism to reduce nature to a non-living system that we could manipulate to elevate people out of the poverty and misery that were common in the feudal times, was initially a noble goal. But now, we've come to really an impasse predicted by Nietzsche in the 19th century when he said, “God is dead” and the 20th century could be a century of a crisis of meaning unless we can find our way back to a living universe. So let's take that as the topic for this particular Dialogue.

Duane Elgin: Wonderful. I appreciate how you frame this. In looking at the whole notion of a living universe, I just want to say right upfront what a big difference it makes. We'll return to this, but let me just briefly say as [xx] if the universe is essentially dead at the foundations, then consumerism make sense. It's totally rational to be focused on material concerns and consumption if the universe is essentially dead at the foundations. All we have then is matter essentially around us and that’s what we would use to protect ourselves from the deadness and to take to ourselves whatever pleasures they are. They're clearly only material.

On the other hand, if the universe is a living system, well then, it makes sense to simplify our lives. It makes sense to put our priorities on engaging the aliveness as opposed to putting all of our attention on matter. And the aliveness, often times, is found in nature, it's often found in solitude and quiet. Those are not often seen as a part of a high consumption materialistic society. So if we do shift our view of the world from dead to alive, it can have a powerful impact upon every aspect of our life, just one being how we approach consumption. So what I want to do right upfront is to say, “This really matters.” How we regard the universe. It isn’t simply an academic matter, it has huge implications for how we'd live our everyday lives.

So having said that, let me just mention the American Indians and their view of things. They viewed life as having three miracles. The first miracle was that anything exists at all. The second miracle is that living things exist - trees and plants and animals. The third is that living things exist that know they exist. In other words, living things that know that they know. Now, we tend to be more enamored with the third miracle, living things that know that they know, that know they exist and that’s us, the humans with the [xx] for reflective consciousness. But we forget often the first miracle which is that there's anything here at all. Anything here in the first place and that’s when we get back and begin to explore the notion that the universe within which we live may in fact itself be a living system.

This is not a new idea. Plato, a couple of thousand years ago, said that the universe “Is a single living creature”, as he put it that encompasses all living creatures within it. The universe is a single living creatures that encompasses all living creatures within it. So that was what Plato said 2,000 years ago. Now, in today’s world, if you ask people and surveys have been done to see how many people have had the experience of the universe as being alive? Surveys have been done about so-called “mystical experiences” and one of the key aspects is not only that you experience profound peace and a sense of great love at the foundations of the universe but actually that the universe itself is alive. About 40% of the American adult population has had that kind of an experience which means that it's pervasive.

In our culture, there's a huge number of people that have directly experience the universe as a living system. Now, what I find fascinating is that at the frontiers of science are now beginning to converge with the frontiers of the world’s spiritual traditions and both science and spirituality reporting in one direction and that is to say that the universe is, in fact, alive. If appropriate, I'd like to just take a minute, Duncan, and maybe describe some of the elements coming from science.

Duncan Campbell: Well, please do, because in your book you have a wonderful set of quotations from various sources that summarize, in their own ways, which you have just said. For instance, our own poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you quote her as saying, “Earth is cramped with heaven and every common bush is a fire with God.” D.T. Suzuki, the Zen scholar and teacher, says, “My solemn proclamation is that a new universe is created every moment.” Finally, your old colleague, Joe Campbell, “There is a life pouring into the world and it pours from an inexhaustible source.”

I remember Joseph Campbell talking about that was really the true meaning of the Grail, that finding the Grail was to align one’s own personal energies with the inexhaustible, self-renewing, constantly regenerating force of a living cosmos. When that poured into time through your own consciousness, you were fully alive, you were vibrating with purpose and meaning and that actually is the full richness of our inheritance, as it were, as divine human beings on the planet. This kind of poetic or mythical or mystical understanding is now being confirmed as you say, in its own way by Western science and their own experimental method technology. So let's address that now and talk about how that has come to past.

Duane Elgin: Yes. So, as you described, Duncan, from the spiritual side, all of these different traditions are saying that in different ways the universe is regenerating itself. There is a flowing life force that’s moving through the universe. So then we turn to science and we find in effect the same thing. Until recently, science looked at the universe and said, “Well, it's just a bunch of fragments. There's planets and star systems and galaxies and this and that but it's, essentially, a bunch of fragments. But now, they're finding, what through it's called locality that the universe is, in fact, integrated into a whole system despite the enormous distances that separate different parts of the universe. Yet, it does function in some ways as an integrated unified whole. That’s what you're calling locality. So fragmentation is now being overcome with unification.

Secondly, until recently, Physics said, “Well, look, sentients or the capacity for knowing is very unique and perhaps, it's only animal life forms and higher life forms that have any significant capacity for sentients or knowing. But now, so I'm looking at the behavior, for example, of an electron. Even [xx] who is famous for this is as saying the electron is behaving as if “it had a mind of its own”. Biologist are looking at simple proteins and they're seeing behaviors that indicate that there's some kind of consciousness there because there's a directive capacity, the same for a single cell’s slimo [sp] that’s found in pores. And on and on, at every level, we're finding some primitive but functional capacity for sentients or knowing throughout the universe.

So if we would go on, we're finding that the universe is integrated, it has a sentient capacity. It is being regenerated with incredible flow through of energy in this is called zero play energy as the energy of the background. David Bohm, the famous physicist said a single cubic centimeter of empty space contain millions of atomic bombs worth of energy. So we're walking around in a cosmic system, just infused with the enormous amounts of energy.

So the image emerges that our universe is really nested within a much larger mother universe. And we're a daughter universe that exists within the mother universe and we're relatively new. We've only been around here for about 12,000-14,000 billion years. We’re a living system that growing in a much deeper, larger context. That’s where science and spirituality converge is looking at our cosmos as regenerative system. We're living beings that live within a living system when life meets life, life knows life, that’s spiritual experience is beginning to reframe how we see the world. If it's alive, then it's sacred. Everything is worthy of respect. If it is alive, well then, my aliveness connects directly with that aliveness and I have an identity that’s not simply biological in dimension, it's cosmic in dimension because I'm a part of that cosmic aliveness.

So everything begins to shirt our patterns of consumption, our sense of identity, our sense of relationship with the sacredness the world and so on. Out of that reframing is coming a revolution and, I think, how we're going to be living in the earth.

Duncan Campbell: We might, at this point, invite you, Duane, to talk about your own experiments and life of voluntary simplicity. In your book, “Promise Ahead”, you point out that if a person begins to understand that the universe really is a living universe, then their experience “with the soulful dimensions of life and relationships become so rich and meaningful that a consumerist lifestyle appears paled by comparison”.

Now, we know that the culture is in great crisis because we have literally a multibillion dollar industry of anti-depressants that’s being sold, as we speak, to millions of Americans, in the most prosperous nation that the world has ever known, so that there clearly is a crisis of meaning and purpose here in the midst of the consumer’s lifestyle. So the question then becomes how can one plug in, if you will, to this inexhaustible energy of the universe? How can one go counter to the saturation of the dominant culture with the materialistic paradigm and find one’s own way to this aliveness as you say?

Duane Elgin: Yes. The challenges is, I think not so much as current to but to go beyond it, to go from our adolescent preoccupation with materialism into a more mature and conscious concern for the material and the conscious dimension of life and how they can be co-creative. I think we're beginning to see where materialism has gone over the last 35 years or so. In that space of time, real incomes in the United State have roughly doubled and money is supposed to buy happiness. So if real incomes have doubled, you'd expect happiness to be greatly increased over the last generation over the last 30-35 years. But in fact in that same time frame, the percentage of the population that says they're very happy has actually fallen from 35% to 32%.

Also, in that same time frame, divorce rates have doubled, teen suicide rates have tripled and there are some primaries that have quadrupled. I think what's happening is that people are saying that money doesn’t buy happiness and out of that insight, you'll say, “What is the real source of happiness?” Let's start moving beyond the life of materialism and consumerism. I think Lily Thomas [sp] put it well when she said, “The problem with our society is that--it's the rat race here she was saying and people are now saying that even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

Duncan Campbell: Yes, I remember seeing a poster of that at a demonstration one time.

Duane Elgin: Yes. Will Rogers, a wonderful American humorist, he said, “People spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.” I think people are seeing through this. They're saying, “This isn’t satisfying.” So where is satisfaction? This gets back into the issue of the life force, the life energy. Where do we find that juice and that joy in life? It’s in nature, it's in solitude, it's in quality, relationships with our partner, with our family. It's in connection with our sense of community in place, it's in our ability to be creative in our lives and contribute to the world. In those simple but really very precious areas is the real juice and joy of life. I think people are beginning to discover that, and in that very natural organic process, we're beginning to grow up as a human family.

Duncan Campbell: Part of that growing up, I think you describe very well, is encountering and being willing to face our anger at the way in which the earth has been so devastated. Our disappointment that material dreams that we've been led to adopt have not been fulfilled. Also, the sense that we have to work through our anger, sorrow and fear altogether about our own life circumstances. It does remind me of that rather stark comment of Joseph Campbell where he said that, “There comes a time in life when you get to the top of the ladder you've been climbing and you turn around to survey from that perspective and you see that you've put your ladder against the wrong wall.”

Duane Elgin: The wrong wall.

Duncan Campbell: There could be a tremendous sense of bitterness and resentment there, a feeling of being duped or a personal failure. But you go on to say, I think, quite evocatively, you say, “It's time now to, after having made that encounter, to explore our common future, recognizing that we are indeed a powerful, contentious and extraordinary species that has ascended to the verge of a potential planetary civilization.” Then you say, “It is time to begin telling the stories of our long adventure of awakening and to celebrate the sacred nature of our journey.”

This is under the Rubric [sp] in your book of “A Conversing Citizenry”. So let's talk about that now, Duane. If there are people called by Paul Ray the cultural creatives that are actively connecting to this sense of an alive universe, and are beginning to converse with one another through the Internet and small conversation circles and elsewhere. How do you see this evolving for our species and on a planetary level?

Duane Elgin: I do see a communication as being thoroughly just fundamental to our future. As our capacity of communication goes, so goes our future, I believe. If we pull together, we can readily make up through this time. We have all the resources we need, we have all the technology we need, it's a matter of social will, essentially, to come together. As you said earlier, to work through the anger as well as the sorrow, the unfulfilled dreams of materialism because we would need anywhere from two to four earths to satisfy the current population of the earth level [xx] the billions of people we're going to add in the next 20-30 years.

We just don’t have the resources to allow the people of the earth to realize the American style dream. So there will be a time of transition and that time of transition, I think, is coming within this generation, within the next 20 years roughly. At that point, we are going to have to either step up to the plate and talk about these matters as a whole human family. We'll have the technology easily to have that kind of level of richness of conversation and hear the anger of people that haven’t shared in the materialism and the sorrow, people and their broken dreams and such.

Then on the other side of that is an opportunity to come together and say, “Well, let's create a new dream that will service all. A future of mutually assured development where we can all prosper, where we don’t have to live in fear of terrorism, where we can see a pathway into not only a future sustainability but one of compassion and one of great creativity as well. So I see this is a really important time to wake up out of our complacency, engage to the world with a new level of citizenship using these new tools of mass communications, to have a new level of conversation about new topics that are confronting us.

Duncan Campbell: Duane, this maybe an opportunity to confront the great elephant in the living room, if you will, that is behind many people’s consciousness as we're recording this Dialogues and that is the aftermath of the 9/11 and the terrible crisis in which Israel and Palestine seem to be locked in a mortal struggle. What is your view at this point of the sense that many people fail of events have gotten beyond their control, beyond their ability to influence. As Thoreau once put it, “People are living lives of quiet desperation in a certain way that’s been compounded by the conflicts that are now breaking out all over the globe.”

Duane Elgin: Yes. It does seem overwhelming at times. It does seem impossible to make a difference at times. Yet, we're moving in to an era, given the power of mass communication, where communities and regions can begin to come together and collaborate and have an impact upon the international sphere.

For example, in California, the California legislature is beginning to explore fuel standards, consumption standards that are much higher than those being set by the national government. Those in turn will impact the other makers and will reverberate after the national level. The things that we can do here at a much more local level and right down into our very personal lives--and that’s why I wrote the book, “Voluntary Simplicity”--that we can be empowered from our personal lives into our community lives and then into our collective lives with the mass media to really engage these kinds of such difficult issues like in the Middle East.

I wonder, for example, going to the mass media, what would happen if people from all over the world would sign on to the Web, and through the television stations and such, and appeal from a higher place for humanity’s sake to stop the violence there and to consider how to live in peace. I think it's going to take a larger a moral framework and maybe in a fuel from the world’s spiritual leaders and broadcast live on the world television to say, “Let's come together and explore ways of living in peace.”

So I think there's a whole range of ways that we need to become empowered from our personal lives to our community lives and then, obviously, on towards our collective lives with the media.

Duncan Campbell: What comes to my mind as you're speaking is a comment that [xx] made in the early part of the 1990’s which echoed Einstein’s comment that you cannot solve a problem from the same paradigm that created the problem. [xx] was saying that, “Unless we reconnect to our transcendent anchor, our original integrative vision out of which, for instance, the organization politically of states in a democratic forum flowed the original vision was an integrative vision and one that had a transcendent purpose and meaning. Unless that can be recaptured and reclaimed from the, in a sense, global corporative consumerist ideology that now is prevalent in the mass communications, then we won't be able to make this transition. We will need to have first, a revolution in consciousness before we can really bring forth a political or economic or social realignment.”

What are your views on that, Duane?

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell