2011: An Evolutionary Retrospective
Compared to our 13.7 billion year history, not much changes in a single year, right? While that’s true, we can place the changes we’ve seen in the context of an evolutionary perspective - that grand saga of life, which has given us our world.
On the grandest scale, the Universe continues to expand. The most distant galaxies are rushing away from us at a blistering speed of over 100,000 miles every second, putting them 3 trillion miles farther from us than just a year ago. And while we don’t know of any life outside of Earth yet, we have discovered many hundreds of extrasolar planets, most of them discovered in 2011 by the Kepler mission. Much closer to home, our Sun has become more active, ramping up into the coming solar maximum, and sparking huge Northern Lights this past October 25th.
Our Earth is a planet that has brains, eyes, and the internet, and is a planet that has intentionally launched parts of itself into space. In November, the most advanced probe to Mars ever made (the Curiosity rover) lifted off flawlessly, showing our continued advancement. Also advancing, our global connections have greatly increased with at least tens of millions of new internet connections and new wireless hotspots in 2011 (if we have millions of both in just Great Britain, the worldwide total is easily in the tens of millions). Whether or not this qualifies as a global brain yet is another topic for another day, but our progress is rapid, and who knows what the results will be in the future? One possible result of our interconnections so far has been the 2011 Arab Spring. Another has been the information explosion, with as much text written every few days now as humans had written in their entire history up to 2003, and more text written in 2011 than in any other year in our history. Hopefully this information processing will help us handle the problems of the future, both expected and unexpected.
And we moved toward some of those problems in 2011 as well. With 134 million new babies born in 2011, the world population continued to increase. That many births means more mouths to feed, as well as a billion or more new mutations in our gene pool – most being neutral, some harmful, and some beneficial. (Estimates of the mutation rate per generation in humans varies widely, so I used a very conservative number of around 10. Some evidence suggests average mutation rates well over 100 mutations per birth.) With natural selection reduced by our technology, the harmful ones are more likely to increase healthcare costs, and the beneficial ones may fail to spread to everyone. It will be another challenge for future generations to figure out the best way to handle this constant mutational drumbeat. That issue won’t really need to be faced for a while, especially compared to our unsustainable energy habits. In 2011 we burned enough fossil fuel to add about 10 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, carbon that has been buried underground for millions of years, and now will contribute to global climate change. Similarly, the rapid extinctions we are causing continue, with both headline losses like the Western Black Rhino, and the loss of at least hundreds of species in 2011, many before they could even be named by science. Religious based hatred continued in many incidents, including the slaughter of dozens of teens in Norway by a person who wished to “return Europe to its Christian roots”. Worst of all, I suspect that the majority of humans on our planet are unaware of the threat all of these are posing to our future generations, among so many other threats as well.
There are also reasons for hope. The information explosion mentioned earlier may bring the powerful force of our collective creativity to bear on these problems, before they are insurmountable. The Arab Spring may have helped millions of people move from tyranny towards democracy. The occupy movement in the United States may be partly driven by concern for future generations, and in 2011, the level of human concern for future generations appears to already exceed that at any point in our history. Our circles of care continue to expand in many areas, one of which was shown by the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Human action in 2011 also gave us a higher use of sustainable energy sources, like wind and solar, than has ever been seen.
Of course, this review of our evolution toward a just, peaceful and sustainable world surely misses a lot, even the most important points. In addition to the events I simply forgot to mention, many of the most important events of 2011 are likely unreported in the news. For instance, did millions of teens begin to see our place in this Great Story, and their role in crafting the future, in 2011? Were there elementary kids who learned the basics of science in 2011 who will go on to use that understanding to find a cure for cancer, or a new solar cell technology decades from now? We can’t know, but we can trust that this pulse of life, which has overcome even deadlier threats in the past, continues to surge now, in us, at the start of 2012. May we each do what we can to live up to our potential, for ourselves and for future generations.
In hope - Happy New Year!
~ Jon Cleland Host
Immortality Projects in the Internet Era: The Rise of Volunteerism, the Demise of Consumerism, and the Democratization of Cultural Progress
A year or so ago a colleague suggested that I submit an article to an excellent magazine to which he regularly contributes. I responded along the lines of,
“Why would I want to do that?! The magazine has no free online presence. At most, my article would be read by a few thousand subscribers and then utterly lost to posterity. Meanwhile, the trees cut to produce the paper would add to my ecological footprint. No thanks!”
As the author of two books and two anthologies ushered into print by respectable publishers over the course of a decade (1991 - 2001), I have been responding in a similar vein when asked whether I plan to write another book:
“Why would I want to do that?! At most my book would be read by a few tens of thousands of individuals over perhaps a decade; I’m not famous enough for a publisher to produce an audio version; and I wouldn’t be allowed to keep updating the content. Besides, the publishing industry has crashed; there is no money anymore for my class of writer, so I might as well keep creating, posting online, and updating my own stuff for free.”
Ten years ago, all I could do on my computer was type, save, and print a text document. That was a marvel, of course, compared to the IBM Selectric typewriter on which I composed my first book (published in 1984). Today I still type in text, but now I convert that text into html and upload it into one of my websites, or I convert it to pdf and link it into the Internet. Or I might post the text as a blog, as I plan to do here.
I enjoy creating audio, too, using the recording, editing, and music-making software that comes with my Apple computer. I convert the final product to an mp3 file and upload it onto a commercial podcasting site, for which I pay a small monthly fee.
Best of all is the opportunity to create and publish in video format. Not only is video the richest, most emotionally compelling and artistic mode for communication, but the final product enters an arena that is as close to immortal as anything humans have yet devised — and it costs me nothing, thanks to YouTube.
I’m not sure whether Google is God, but I darn well know that YouTube is my ticket to eternity. And Google is godly enough to have provisioned YouTube with the best indexing-and-finding system yet imaginable.
If a video truly has merit, if it offers something unique, and if I have done a satisfactory job of embellishing it with a text description and keyword tags, then ultimately it will be found; it will be appreciated. That may happen long after I am dead. But it won’t moulder in some descendant’s basement and be tossed into the trash during a move. It won’t stand idle on library shelves, where my four books now repose. (And I’m not convinced there will still be bricks-and-mortar libraries in a hundred years.)
Note: Just this moment I discovered a website that lists all the libraries in the world where each of my books resides, in order of distance from anywhere in the world. My 1997 book, Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science stands in 698 libraries, the furthest being Botswana.
As to most digital forms of legacy projects, long life and accessibility is, at present, far from assured. Consider: If my husband and I were to die today, within a year or two our websites would go down, for lack of payment to the server and for nonrenewal of domain names. Within a few months, all three of our podcast channels would vanish, archives and all — again, for lack of payment.
YouTube not only freely accepts all my videos. It requires zero upkeep on my part. At this moment, it is by far the best bet for immortality.
Google Scholar is also as close to immortal as anything gets. But it is decidedly undemocratic. It preserves and makes available only scholarly texts, and then, if there is a copyright issue, only in bits and pieces. Portions of two of my four books are preserved on Google Scholar.
Bottomline: if you haven’t attracted the attention of a real publisher, Google Scholar is unlikely to be interested in your immortality project — however dear it may be to you.
Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (1973), popularized the notion of “immortality projects” — portraying them as the offspring of our human awareness of death and our consequent attempts to overcome it. When Becker was alive and writing, people (other than brilliant scholars like himself) had few opportunities for immortality projects other than producing offspring or excelling in business, arts, politics, or war. With the Internet, all that has changed — and that is great news for our species and our world, as well as for aspiring individuals.
Consider these shifting opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy:
1. GENETIC LEGACY: Opportunities for leaving a genetic legacy have vastly improved in the developed countries, thanks to the virtual elimination of famine, malnourishment, unsanitary public water supplies, and plagues, and by turning childhood death from a fact of life that nearly all parents experienced into a rare and shocking event. Whether our genetic legacy will be something we can be proud of is another question.
Youth are launched into a complex and often unfriendly world in which they must find their own way. No longer does the eldest son simply inherit the farm or the hardware business. No longer is the second son, while barely a teen, apprenticed out to a shoemaker in the next village. No longer do young women expect that marriage will come soon, last until death, and adequately provision themselves and their children with life’s basic necessities.
In just my lifetime, industrial and manufacturing vocations for securing a spot in the middle class have collapsed, and even a college degree no longer guarantees a living wage and a fulfilling career. And marriage for young women? Dream on. Young men no longer need marry to obtain legal, emotionally nurturing, and recurrent sex. Thus, what began in the 1970s as a welcome and exhilarating choice for women like me, has now become a near necessity: virtually all young women now need to scramble for a living wage and fulfilling career — no less than the young men.
Meanwhile, our stone-age instincts all too easily succumb to the escalating temptations of modern life, notably the “supernormal stimuli” of addictive foods, psychoactive substances, gaming, gambling, and internet porn. Hence, good people do not necessarily die delighted in their offspring.
2. MEMETIC LEGACY: Opportunities for passing forward a memetic legacy, no matter how lowly one’s family of birth, have long been improving. In the USA, public funding of primary education blossomed in the early 1800s. In 1883 American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie began funding free public libraries in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, so that even the poorest kids and adults could self-educate with Great Books. The 1930s ushered in compulsory secondary education. In 1944, the G.I. bill made it possible for working class war veterans to attend college, thanks to public funding of tuition support.
In my lifetime, the cultural release of blacks and women to compete equally as generators of valuable ideas and arts (“memes”), as well as businesses, will surely go down in history as a great leap forward for our species. I am a grateful beneficiary of this cultural shift.
Finally, opportunities for creating a worthy memetic legacy (I’m not talking about “celebrities” and psycho-killers who briefly secure facetime on what is sometimes called “news”) have taken another great leap forward — and beginning only about ten years ago. Thanks to the Internet, no longer does one need to acquire a graduate pedigree, an impressive resume, or a famous mentor in order to get a hearing in the intellectual marketplace of ideas. For the first time, virtually anyone with the intellect and the drive can (a) self-educate and (b) self-express.
That is what I mean by the democratization of idea generation and exchange.
We’ve all seen it. We’ve all marveled at it. We’ve all benefited from it. And yet it goes largely unheralded.
Some obscure individual gets a great idea, launches it via a blog or video and the thing “goes viral.”
Here’s my favorite example. His name is John Boswell, and I first heard about this newly graduated econ major in September 2009. He had just posted a video on YouTube that emerged from a combination of his musical talent, his veneration of Carl Sagan, his delight in the cosmos, and his tinkering with some fun new software.
Just three-and-a-half minutes long, this music video (titled “A Glorious Dawn”) garnered a million views in just one month. (As I write, in December 2011, it is now up to 7 million views.) More important, a scan of the comments reveals that the video is still powerfully affecting — even to the point of tears — viewers young and old. (Check out one of my blogposts to read some of the over-the-top comments that were posted on the video’s YouTube page.) Or listen to me and my husband jam about it on our podcast episode titled “Symphony of Science.”
I’ve kept in touch with John Boswell by email. He continues to post more music videos in this genre — still for free. He’s got a donation button at the bottom his webpage, symphonyofscience.com, and I have donated twice. Somehow he keeps himself alive financially.
Boswell is an example of volunteerism unaltered by fame. Here is a passion to produce something that matters, that uplifts, that just might inspire a 12-year-old to pursue a career in science and maybe even to discover something that will astonish the next generation of 12-year-olds.
Call it a yearning to be noticed and respected. Call it a desire to make a difference. Call it an immortality project. Call it what you will. But you need only dabble on YouTube to get a sense that, right here, people of little or no stature are posting results of intense avocational pursuits that ultimately (in many cases) will serve the world.
YouTube’s free outlet for creative sharing has made it possible for just about anyone to launch into the world their memetic legacies. All one need do is acquire some basic geek skills (which is no more difficult than breathing for our youth), hone a fascination, and persevere in self-education and exploration of their topic of choice.
When the video is finished, it is uploaded and the waiting and watching begins. Alert your Facebook "friends" to your new video, and the “views” start to rise. As soon as one person posts an appreciative comment, you get a dopamine hit. What remains and grows is a sense of accomplishment and the warm feeling of knowing you are valued and respected.
An avocation is thus nurtured. More projects will follow. Gone are the wasted hours, the boredom, the existential angst, the fear that “I am nothing.” Sure, for some lucky souls their fascinations may eventually yield a paying vocation. But for most of us, we are not only content with volunteerism; we are drawn more and more into it.
Thanks to the Internet, the democratization of the flow of information and the exchange of ideas is prompting a surge of volunteerism and a push-back against consumerism in the western world.
This is very good news, as both trends bode well for our culture, our society, and the community of life.
Thanks to the Internet, more and more individuals — and at astonishingly young ages —are discovering not only outlets for their creative energies but also the joy of giving away their gifts, of volunteering their time, of participating in the democratization of cultural progress.
Those of us besot with an avocational passion need no monetary draw to keep us producing and giving, producing and giving. More, we begin to start structuring our lives to free up more time to “play” in this worldwide and open exchange, this supremely democratic form of meritocracy that with no hesitation gives all comers a platform to prove the value of their projects.
For the still-in-school, this always-available creative outlet is a reminder that we do have worth and that life is not just confusion, boredom, and a set of rules and timetables not of our making. It is a way to gain respect and a sense of accomplishment.
For those who have launched into the adult world of earning a living, we learn by experience that if we really want to pursue our passion, then we have to cut back on what we buy, what we consume, what we think we must have and must do. We thus shed the default foundational value of our culture — that is, the goal to get, to spend, to acquire. Consumption as an end in itself.
For those who have fared well enough and long enough in life to no longer need to earn income, here is an outlet for putting wisdom to work. We happily volunteer time and energy toward projects of our own making — not just what our local community may offer. And, here too, the drive to consume diminishes. There is “something more” and that something more is a way to grow our legacy — to attend to our “immortality projects” — in this final phase of life.
Even the computer-phobic among us can manage to write (and with help, post) an Amazon (or Google Books) review. Old folks have a special role to play in this regard. Just tally up your favorite books of the past, find them on Amazon or Google Books, and post (what may well be) the very first review!
Let’s take a look at what the Internet era means for the folks who have long stood at the helm of idea generation and exchange at a societal level. This is the arena of “public intellectuals.”
Many in this category are scholars employed at colleges, universities, and privately funded think-tanks, whose ideas and communication skills launch them into public view. A rare few make their living as columnists with the top tier of newspapers and magazines. Others are entrepreneurs who must generate their own paycheck, by way of published articles, books, and speaking fees.
In September 2011, best-selling author Sam Harris posted on his blog ruminations on the dismal future for both the publishing industry and “public intellectuals.” Entrepreneurial public intellectuals, like Sam, have grown accustomed to earning their living by writing books and articles and giving the occasional invited talk.
Sam titled his essay, “The Future of the Book.” It begins,
Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free. Jaron Lanier has written and spoken about this issue with great sagacity. You can purchase his book here, which most of you will not do, or you can watch him discuss these matters for free. The problem is thus revealed even in the act of stating it. How can a person like Lanier get paid for being brilliant? This has become an increasingly difficult question to answer.
Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. . .
After a fascinating tour of his own experience in print and recent forays into ebook self-publishing, blogging, and vlogging, Sam concludes:
One thing is certain: writers and public intellectuals must find a way to get paid for what they do—and the opportunities to do this are changing quickly. My current solution is to write longer books for a traditional press and publish short ebooks myself on Amazon. If anyone has any better ideas, please publish them somewhere—perhaps on a blog—and then send me a link. And I hope you get paid.
As a “public intellectual” and author, I too am feeling the financial pinch. For ten years my husband and I have been travelling the USA in our van, giving talks — mostly at no charge. We do, however, routinely set up a book table at each venue, where we sell our own books and dvds along with a selection of books by others — meaning, we earn our living more as booksellers than as idea-makers. With the crash in the economy, fewer people are buying books and dvds. To be sure, audiences enjoy the free lecture. Individuals may even be moved and remade by it; and they tell us so. But most leave without purchasing anything.
I cannot fault them for that. I do the same. As Sam Harris pointed out, “audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free.” I would add that audiences increasingly expect to find all forms of content online (and for free), including the most alluring format of all: free videos on YouTube.
Indeed, over the past decade of this ongoing “major transition in evolution” (in the way information is stored and passed forward), software and hardware technologies for all three modes of communication have become increasingly available to those of even modest means — limited only by one’s drive to self-learn and persist in internet empowerment. (See also Kevin Kelly’s superb blogposts on this theme: “The Major Transitions in Technology” and “Evolution of the Scientific Method”.)
And so, while I continue to love thinking and writing and talking (on audio and video), I am no longer doing so with the hopes of producing a salable product. No more books! (And beginning three months ago when YouTube eliminated the 10-minute limit on video uploads, I now also declare, No more dvds!)
More and more, I am drawn into volunteerism. More and more, I look for ways to reduce my spending so that less and less of my time needs to generate income.
The game has changed utterly, irrevocably.
Halleluia! . . . (I hope)
Let me be clear: Facebook pages that survive the individual’s death, along with the plethora of self-focussed and fluff YouTube videos, will of course pass forward in a memorabilia sort of way. One’s great-great-great grandchild might someday thrill to catch a glimpse of what life was like for an ancestor in the days of digital deprivation, when there were still places where one had to purchase Internet access — indeed, when there were still regions lacking optical fibers or satellite feeds. As well, all such digital memorabilia may serve some function as part of a vast and easily accessible database for future scholars of cultural history and transformation.
But there are growing numbers of us whose creative and volunteer energies are sparked by a chance to pass forward something of lasting value — something that might actually improve a life (maybe a million lives) or help preserve the planet.
And we are willing to invest time in learning about that which captures our heart, our mind, our imagination, so that we truly will have something of value to post.
After weeks and months (even years) of soaking up the wisdom of others, one day an idea for a new project arrives unbidden. It may even be something we feel uniquely positioned to offer the world. So we get busy, taking great care that our text or audio or video baby will have a decent chance to capture the scarcest resource of all: the attention of other Internet surfers, public intellectuals, and immortality project creators.
Within the last few months, not one but two now-elderly creators of information-rich websites have sought to bequeath their digital babies to my husband and me. We are both in our fifties, so we are still a pretty good bet.
The websites are superb and uniquely valuable. Nonetheless, we declined. Both of us have a backlog of creative Internet projects we are aching to pursue. Assuming responsibility for somebody else’s website cannot compete with our existing creative To Do lists — no matter how worthy we regard those projects as contributors to the public good, to cultural progress.
Who will take those websites over?
And who (or, more likely, what) will take over ours in another few decades?
What new digital emergent will assure that these painstaking contributions are accessibly archived — maybe even periodically updated so that their worth not only maintains but grows?
Sure, I could take all of our audio podcast episodes one by one and laboriously turn each into a black-screen or minimal-jpg video and post them as a distinct playlist on my YouTube channel. But that is a cop-out. There really ought to be a way to keep ideas-rich audio as audio, while securely passing forward and superbly tagging each mp3 with a description and keywords, in YouTube fashion.
And there really ought to be a way to secure the continuity and accessibility of educational websites when their creators and caretakers give up the ghost.
I am certain that among the wealthy of the world are benefactors who have already secured in elaborate bunkers digital records and instructions for rebooting the Internet after a civilizational collapse (see update, below). That would be the greatest immortality project of all! Here is why:
We can direct our human ingenuity to perhaps safeguard the world from nuclear and biological terror. And it is well within our reach to nudge the flight paths of asteroids coming our way, if only we are willing to fund the effort.
But there is nothing we can do about our planet’s half-dozen civilization-destroying supervolcanoes.
So maybe digital “immortality” is a physical impossibility, even for the likes of Google.
Nonetheless, I am content to believe that at least some of my digital babies will live on — and continue to make a positive difference — until Yellowstone blows.
UPDATE 12/20/11: Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) directed me to one of those “bunkers” online, known as the WayBack Machine. It has a simple enough url: http://www.archive.org/web/web.php. And yes, indeed, my thegreatstory.org website is fully on there. It hasn’t yet connected the podcast archive pages of mine with the actual mp3’s, but finding a way to do that myself will go onto my long-term To-Do list. (BTW: I made a financial donation to the archive.)
Kevin’s email also said,
“YouTube will die some day. This is a certainty. What we need is a pan-civilization, non-profit record for all time. This is technically possible —even safe from Yellowstone supervolcano. We at The Long Now made a "backup" of 1,000 language versions of the same text (Gen 1-5) put it on a nickel disk (optical readable), and it is on its way to land on an orbiting comet right now. See the Rosetta Project at Long Now. We could put the entire library of earth there if we wanted to.”____________________
Connie Barlow’s immortality projects (in text, audio, and video formats) can be accessed through her main educational website: TheGreatStory.org, especially this page.
The Death of the Fringe Suburb: Why we boomers are to blame and what the youngers can do about it
A superb Op-Ed piece by Christopher Leinberger appeared in The New York Times on November 25, 2011:
The Death of the Fringe Suburb
That essay offers profound insights and trends for twenty- and thirty-somethings to keep in mind when buying a home in this new and volatile era. I view the signs of change as truly hope-filled. Nonetheless, as we peel away the layers of causality, we boomers are forced to see ourselves as the reason for much of the economic decline. Now it is our job to ensure that the lessons of this sixty-year history that we have lived through are not lost on the generations that follow.
Note: Please take a few minutes to read Leinberger's Op-Ed piece. Then return to this blog to consider two additional points I wish to make.
First, a little background: My husband, Michael Dowd, and I have lived entirely on the road for ten years, occupying for a few days to a few weeks the guest rooms (or sometimes, vacation homes) of Americans affiliated with the churches and nonprofit groups that delight in the message we deliver as “America’s evolutionary evangelists”. Accordingly, we have, in a sense, been sampling and eavesdropping on the lifestyle of Americans our age and older — that is, couples whose kids are grown and out of the house, and who are wealthy enough to live in a home that has a spare room (sometimes an entire wing) for guests. We have carved out an odd career and lifestyle that utterly depends on the generosity of others: we live almost entirely in homes that we ourselves could never afford.
Thanks to this amazing opportunity to sample middle-class American homes and standards of living, I now offer two insights that perhaps will help Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennials avoid the mistakes that we boomers have made — mistakes we have made mostly as a group, not because we are especially foolish or self-centered as individuals.
Mistake number 1: MIS-JUDGING WHAT MAKES FOR QUALITY OF LIFE
Time and again, surveys have shown that people who choose a home for the wonderful nature-filled yard (but a long distance from anything), find themselves oppressed by a long commute or isolated because it takes too long to drive anywhere to extra-curricular events (for themselves or their lonely kids), especially in inclement weather.
Even though I am a nature fanatic (and feel like the luckiest person alive when my husband and I are offered a month or more hospitality at someone’s vacation home in one of the unbelievably large number of astonishingly beautiful nooks in North America), I have also delighted in getting a chance to live a few days at a time in high quality urban and established suburban settings. Michael and I have often been hosted by folks who have been living in the same neighborhood for 30 or 40 years — the traditional suburbs of the 50s and 60s. Though the homes we have been invited into would have been regarded as the wealthier neighborhoods decades back, today those homes don’t have enough square-footage, bathrooms, and garage space to be attractive to the “wealthy” anymore. The reasons for my fondness of these older “inner suburbs” are four-fold:
- It is just a walk or short drive to the store and post office and other venues.
- There are actual sidewalks in the neighborhood; one doesn’t have to walk in the street (nor drive kids a long distance to play with other kids).
- The trees (whether or not they were large to begin with) are now extravagant and represent a far greater diversity of species, even slow-growing oaks, than one finds in new developments that are turning into ghost towns in farmlands-turned-exurbs.
- The homes tend to be smaller and hence fully used; untouched dining rooms and living rooms are rare, as are energy-extravagant cathedral ceilings.
My point is this: older neighborhoods are not only still thriving; for many reasons (as presented in Leinberger’s Op-Ed piece) these are the locales that youngers should think about moving into themselves.
Mistake number 2: INVESTING FOR RETIREMENT
My second point is not one that was covered in the recommended Op-Ed piece. Indeed, I haven’t encountered anybody else writing on the housing collapse or Wall Street madness from quite this angle. Here is my take:
Boomers invested in extra homes (especially, homes larger than most of us would want to retire into), as we expected to resell those homes for a large profit. Boomers also invested in the stock market because of a new phenomenon initiated by our parents’ generation: old folks no longer expected (nor wanted) to move in with their adult offspring. When we boomers were kids, we ourselves (or at least some of our friends) had grandparents living with us in our home. That was normal in the 50s and 60s. The grandparents did not save a huge sum for retirement, and few got pensions. Back then, grandma got a bedroom to herself and was expected to help out with the kids and cooking some meals. Her social security check was fully adequate for covering her share of the mortgage (for that extra room) and she certainly earned her food costs by the help she gave in the kitchen and with the kids.
In my case, my father’s parents lived with us in, what would have been, the master bedroom. They had a private attached bath and their bed folded into a sofa during the day. They had a little cookstove and refrigerator and tiny “kitchen” table in their room too, and their TV set was on top of the clothes dresser.
That is not the future we boomers intend for ourselves. Also, we expect to live a lot longer after retirement than our grandparents did — and to spend those years taking excursions, golfing, shuttling between our regular home and our vacation home — indeed, intending to live rather extravagantly because many of us have been working just too darned hard. At least, that was our plan before our stocks, real estate, and 401k accounts tanked.
In contrast, our grandparents never even considered those activities. They were happy (at least as happy as anyone expected to be in those days) staying close to home, feeling useful for the next generations, perhaps tending a small vegetable garden.
Of course, changing demographics and the fact that few boomers can expect their adult children to be living anywhere near where they were raised (nor to remain in that locale for long) will make it nearly impossible for grandma or grandpa boomer to happily move in with our adult children. Long-time friends and community groups would have to be left behind — and maybe repeatedly as the kids keep following jobs, mates, and dreams around the country.
All this means that, unlike my grandparents’ generation, most of my peers have assumed that they have to save a quarter million dollars or more before they can safely retire. That is a quarter million dollars per couple that must be “invested” somewhere over the course of decades that it is stashed away. Once upon a time, one simply put money into a savings account. But boomers viewed savings accounts as a loss — no profit there, and with interest rates lagging behind the rate of inflation. The only two places to invest, really, were the stock market and real estate — hence the crash of both of those institutions.
The result of this extraordinary drive to “invest” for retirement was this: huge sums of money were taken out of the real economy and stashed in the casino called Wall Street and in vacant lands and overbuilt housing called real estate. That money was not available for spending on the next generations. Instead, we let the infrastructure that we share communally (roads, bridges, parks, sewers) decline. We pulled state and federal taxes out of the subsidies that we formerly invested in colleges. Instead, we forced the younger generations to pay enormous sums for higher education and thus to be saddled with debt. Consciously or not, we allowed the marvelous infrastructure that we inherited from the Eisenhower era to rust away. Not to worry: “Be, here, now!” Remember?
CONCLUSION: The point of this essay is to let the younger generations know that it is not just Wall Street that screwed them over, but a massive shift in how ordinary Americans came to use and invest their earnings. It is my generation and the one older that made it possible for Wall Street financiers to become garishly wealthy doing nothing of use (and in the case of derivatives, doing much harm). It is my generation that invested in land and new homes that we knew we would not want to retire into, and that would be flagrant energy guzzlers (both in home heating and in gasoline for commutes and errands). I think we had an inkling that our kids could not afford, nor would they want, to live in such wastefulness. But all we needed to do was to resell that McMansion in five or eight years to someone else of our generation who was looking not for a home but for an investment — an investment for retirement.
MY DREAM: My dream is not that Grandma Boomer and Grandpa Boomer turn the pages of history back and go move in with the kids and grandkids. Those days are over for the reason I mentioned earlier: the kids keep moving from city to city and state to state. Rather, I’d like to see two new forms of high-density, low square-footage housing that 20-somethings just starting out and retiring boomers would occupy. (Noise from stereos would not be a problem, as earbuds would be required and no loud parties by anyone choosing those special, low-rent digs.) We olders would choose to occupy such housing not only because our investments failed, but because paring down to simple living would bring a joy to life that we haven’t known since the 60s and the 70s.
Such lost-cost housing developments, of course, must be located near a greenway or park in walking distance, and a grocery a short walk or taxi or bus ride away. There must be sidewalks; there must be trees. Neither we olders nor the youngers just starting out would have to own a car. We wouldn’t mourn a lost opportunity to golf or to cruise. We would be happily engaged in our patch of community garden, volunteering in local schools, joining birdwatching groups in the parks, mentoring the twenty-somethings, and finding real community with peers just around the corner or across the street.
Imagine this: we would be able to pretty much live on our Social Security checks, just like our grandparents did. And no generation, ever again, would be tricked into “saving for retirement” in ways that impoverish and threaten the health and wellbeing of those who follow.
Dawning realizations re Occupy Wall Street
The following is cross-posted from my main blog site, here. (See comments posted there too.)
It is slowly dawning on me that I've seen events very similar to Occupy Wall Street.
The first time was on the Great Peace March in 1986 which started out from Los Angeles as a hierarchical mega-PR event with 1200 people and tons of equipment. It suddenly and traumatically went bankrupt in the Mojave Desert two weeks later. 800 marchers went home. 400 marchers didn't. It took them (us) two weeks sitting around an BMX track in Barstow to reorganize with no formal leaders (but tons of ambient leadership) and little support (but tons of vulnerability that soon attracted grassroots support). As we re-started our 3000-mile trek with 400 people, it turned into a 9 month miracle of self-organization (I mean, where DO you put 400 people each night 15 or so miles further down the road?!!), out of which came my first experiences of and ideas about collective intelligence, which led to my life work today. The lives of hundreds of other people were transformed by that March, whose emergent troubadours sang "echoes of our care will last forever..". The folks at Occupy Wall Street are doing a similar experiment in passion-driven self-organization.
The other comparable events I've seen were run by Open Space and World Cafe - especially Open Space. Remember?: The two legs of Open Space are "passion" and "responsibility", which combine into that remarkable guidance formulated by Peggy Holman as "Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service." Are we seeing that in Occupy Wall Street, or what?! Then there's "It starts whenever it starts." "Whoever comes is the right people." "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have" and "When it is over, its over." In Open Space there are two exploratory plenary sharings each day. For most of the day, though, there's no preordained agenda - only people gathering in groups to do what they want to do together. Or being "butterflies" (going off on their own, often stumbling into random conversations) or "bumble-bees" (going from group to group, cross pollinating). No one is "in charge".
The whole thing holds together because those who are present share a passion. In Occupy Wall Street, the shared passion is a desire to reclaim human life and community from "Wall Street" - the greed-based, hierarchical corporate-financial system that has colonized and degraded our minds, lives, politics, economics, world, and future. That passion has a thousand manifestations, which are the polyphonous "issues" that swarm around Liberty Square like bees in a meadow.
So I realized: OF COURSE Occupy Wall Street doesn't have "demands." Demonstrations and protests have demands. But although O.W.S. LOOKS like a protest and a demonstration (and occasionally turns into one), it is actually something more, something else: It is a passionate community of inquiry acting itself out as an archetypal improvisational street theater performance embodying, in one hand, people's longings for the world as it could be and, in the other, their intense frustrations with the world as it is. These longings and frustrations reside in the whole society, not just in the occupiers.
The occupiers are behaving and reaching out in ways that release and activate those suppressed transformational energies all over the country and world. (Arny and Amy Mindell call such archetypal energies "timespirits" after "Zeitgeist", the spirit of the times.) To think of Occupation Wall Street as primarily a demonstration or protest misses the profound novelty and power of what they are doing. All of us - they and we - are figuring out what it is they are doing as they do it. They are kinda building the road as they travel.
That the whole thing wasn't consciously built according to any plan - that it EMERGED - is both its power and its limitation. We would do well to think about how to combine such powerful spontaneity with transformational processes (like Open Space and World Cafe) that use self-organization to help spread evocative energy from a dynamic center like Occupy Wall Street out into the society, transmuting that society's latent frustrations and longings into a force that can shift the energy of the whole System towards Life. I sense a new form of activism, of citizenship, of aliveness being born here. Each of us gets to ask what role we want to play in that flowing, creative Mystery. And the roles we inevitably play inevitably become part of the inevitable river as the ice inevitably melts...
A few recent insightful articles about Occupy Wall Street...
• On the eve of my trip to Occupy Boston
• #OccupyWallStreet is a Church of Dissent, Not a Protest
• Andrew Ross Sorkin's assignment editor
• What the Environmental Movement Can Learn From the Wall Street Zombies
Being Stressed Out as a Spiritual Practice
"Being Stressed Out As a Spiritual Practice?!" Say, what?
You’re probably thinking: “Wow, I’m way, waaaaaay more spiritual than I ever thought. If being stressed out is a spiritual practice, then I’m right up there with the Dalai Lama!”
Or perhaps (more likely) you're thinking: “You’re joking, right?”
No, I’m serious! But let me back up for a minute.
We know that biologically, during evolution, good things (like eyes, brains, etc.) are selected for only if they are needed at the time. After all, if a creature can survive OK without the latest mutation, then it will do so, and the latest mutation won’t spread across the population. Hence, everything I appreciate, like being able to walk, think and see, are all the results of huge amounts of struggle, without which we’d all still be pond scum. Like that ‘80’s workout slogan, “No pain, no gain”.
And look at what we are blessed with! Powerful bodies made of incomparable molecular 'machines', eyes, the most advanced brain known of in the Universe, and more – each the result of an unthinkable amount of hardship – or it simply would not have been selected for.
When one deeply appreciates this mountain of struggle we all stand upon, our daily difficulties take on new meaning. Challenges (ours and our ancestor's), as bad as they may be in the moment, are what gave all of us much of what we value most! If I sat around and did nothing in a cushy life, I’d feel that I’d let those Ancestors down, that I wasn’t a worthy recipient of the wondrous gifts they bequeathed me.
So whenever I feel pressure or difficulty, I know that it's very much like that which allowed me to be, and that pressure can help me grow. I couldn’t feel it without some taste of stress. In fact, our lives today have a lot less stress than existed in many of those past lives! Few of us, after all, are just hoping to be breathing tomorrow, which at times in the past was really in doubt on a regular basis. So, though I don’t intentionally try to get unneeded stress, I remind myself that every drop of stress I get is a gateway to deeper appreciation of every good thing in the world today.
Yes, being stressed out is indeed a spiritual practice, if I choose to make it so.
~ Jon Cleland Host
The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age
“We will never achieve a just and sustainably lifegiving future on the resources of the existing religious traditions, and we can’t get there without them.” ~ Thomas Berry
The 21st century will be seen historically as humanity’s rite of passage. We’re growing up as a species, going through the very same process we’ve all gone through as we mature. As children we’re guided by beliefs and we think the world was made for us. As adults, we’re guided by knowledge and we live our lives (at least in part) as a contribution to others and the world. Indeed, for healthy adults, self-giving is actually one of life’s greatest satisfactions. As well, most of us needed no special training or incentives to begin questioning the beliefs we were spoon-fed as children – just the usual dose of hormones and peer focus that signals adolescence.
These two transformations, from beliefs to knowledge and from self-focus to contribution, are precisely what we’re now collectively experiencing. I call this species-wide rite of passage the “Evidential Reformation,” and I believe it is destined to transform not only the science-and-religion debate and how religious traditions relate to one another, but, even more importantly, how humans relate to the larger body of life of which we are part and upon which we depend.
Big history, also known as the epic of evolution, is our common creation narrative. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced, derived entirely from evidence, and will soon be taught to high school students around the world (see here, here, and the YouTube clip at the end of this post).
In our “childhood” as a species – as tribes, then villages, then chiefdoms and kingdoms, then city-states and early nations – our main source of guidance came from religious beliefs. Shared allegiance to a particular religion that bridged even ethnic and linguistic differences was a crucial factor in the rise of civilizations across the globe. Consider: our instinctual heritage as social mammals will suffice for fostering cooperation at the scale of a clan. (Biologists call these instinctive forms of cooperation kin selection and reciprocal altruism.) Mutually advantageous trade then facilitated greater circles of cooperation. But for 10,000 or more human beings to be induced to cooperate: for that, you need religion – a singular, shared, unquestioned religion, and probably one that doles out harsh consequences (including ostracism) for apostates.
A multitude of religions arose independently of course, because in any bioregion where fierce competition for territory or resources arose, there would have been a survival advantage to groups that could forge cross-clan alliances for mutual defense. As well, there are two functional issues that all cultures need to address: what’s real and what’s important. (In a six-minute YouTube video based on his book, Religion Is Not About God, philosopher of religion Loyal Rue refers to these two functions as “how things are” and “which things matter.”) These two functional issues will be answered differently based upon where and when you live and upon the happenstance of interpretive imagination of one’s ancestors. Each “wisdom tradition” thus reflects regional collective intelligence encoded mythically. That is, the regional collective intelligence is encoded in pre-scientific language that reflects a people’s daytime and nighttime experience. (See here for a discussion of “Day and Night Language,” which was a central concept in my book, Thank God for Evolution.)
In our “adolescence” as a species (which was a threshold crossed as the modern era swept the globe), we began to question the beliefs, interpretations, and meanings we had inherited. The birth of this new form of collective intelligence, global collective intelligence, occurred when access to powerful new technologies (beginning with the telescope) ramped up our ability to discern how things are. We then faced the frightening truth that ancient understandings were not, in fact, the best maps of what is real. This challenging process is still facing much of the world, as traditional religious beliefs are increasingly found to be obsolete and simply no longer credible when interpreted literally.
Some individuals thrilled to the prospect of participating in this threshold event: of valuing measurable observation, rationality, and collectively encouraged skepticism and testing as the preferred means for discerning what’s real and what’s important. In the 19th century these “natural philosophers” became known as “scientists.”
The two institutions responsible for ensuring that the self-interest of individuals and groups are aligned – namely, governance and religion – were impacted differently by the rise of modern science. Democratic forms of governance were the first to embrace evidence as authoritative. Religions are only now beginning to catch up and to not only experience the terror but also taste the thrill of what the Evidential Reformation offers.
Like any rite of passage, once one voluntarily steps through the threshold there is no integrous and healthy way of going back. So of course there are shrill voices of protest and deep institutional inertia.
But ultimately, this shift will happen. One by one, segment by segment, the great religions of the world will pass through the threshold – else they will wither and the new generations will leave them entirely behind.
What the Evidential Reformation offers for religion is centrally this: Science reveals “God’s word” for humanity today – that is, what’s real and what’s important, or how things are and which things matter – far more accurately than the Bible or Qur’an could ever hope to. And Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Prophet Mohammad would surely be among the first to applaud this trend were they alive today.
Yet, until faith leaders become a whole lot bolder in proclaiming to their flocks the goodness and necessity of this shift, religious people will remain blind and deaf to what God (Reality personified) is revealing today through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence. And that means that God/Reality will continue using the New Atheists to mock unchanging religious beliefs and those who espouse such beliefs.
The main hindrance to religious people wholeheartedly embracing evidence as divine communication – divine guidance (i.e., how Reality reveals itself) – has been what I have long been characterizing as idolatry of the written word (also here). Idolatry of the written word occurred anywhere in the world where ancient oral stories (which surely evolved for millennia as conditions and needs changed) became frozen into unchanging scripture – scripture that was then deemed as the foundational (even the sole) locus for discerning priorities, values, right thinking, and right behavior.
This shift from oral storytelling to unchanging scripture as the way wisdom, morality, and a sense of the sacred (supreme value) is generationally passed forward set the stage (albeit centuries later) for a profound and now exponentially expanding mismatch. This mismatch is between globally shared and empirically tested updates of (once-again) evolving wisdom versus what religious people still preference as “God’s Word”.
Idolatry of the written word has thus led to what could be considered “demonic beliefs.” I do not hesitate to use such harsh language because any and all beliefs that cause good people to do bad things and to vote in evil ways (ways that are shortsighted, self-centered, and harmful to future generations) are demonic. And who among us does not see where such beliefs have led to a kind of collective insanity? The only cure, as far as I can tell, is for religious leaders to accept – indeed, to celebrate – that scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence are the actual venues through which Reality/God is speaking and guiding humanity today. Fortunately, this shift is happening rapidly…and seems likely to be fleshed out in just another generation or two.
I do not decry or disvalue this aspect of religious history. Indeed, I accept that idolatry of the written word could not have been avoided. Without the shift to literacy, humanity would never have been able to access the fruits of modernity: the rule of law, exponentially growing knowledge, cumulative technological and medical advances, and a widening sense of one’s “in-group” and compassionate treatment thereof.
Nonetheless, the negative social consequences of this form of idolatry have been quite severe – and threaten to become even more terrifying and destructive as deadly weapons come in ever smaller packages. It is thus time to prophetically speak out against continued favoring of ancient scriptural ‘authority’ over our best collective understandings of facts and values today. Said another way, the Church, currently shipwrecked (also here) on the immovable rock of “biblical authority”, can still be saved, but only by embracing “the authority of evidence”. Reality would have it no other way.
One of the most significant and hopeful insights to emerge from the early days of the Evidential Reformation is a re-envisioning of what “self-interest” really is. Self-interest actually exists at all biological and cultural levels – not just at the obvious, individual level. Indeed, the key to ever-increasing social complexity in the human realm over the past 10,000 years has been the aligning of self-interest at multiple levels. It could even be argued that nothing is more important for ensuring a just and thriving future than aligning the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the wellbeing of the body of life as a whole. The outcome of this shift would be to make competition co-operative, self-interest nontoxic, and society wise.
One could thus conclude that humanity’s “Great Work” in the 21st century is to co-create global and bioregional governance such that individuals and groups that benefit the common good benefit themselves, while individuals and groups that disregard or harm the common good are taxed, penalized, or face moral strictures.
By organizing and managing ourselves so that the impact of parts on the whole, for good or ill, are reflected back to the parts, we shall create a system through which individuals, corporations, and nations are incentivized to do what is just and ecological – while simultaneously being incentivized to not do what is unjust or un-ecological. This aligning of self-interest at multiple scales would ensure that what is perceived as the cheaper, easier, more convenient thing to do is also the right thing to do, rather than the harmful thing, as it is now. This re-incentivizing of societal goods and services to comport with human nature (as it really is, not as we wish it would be) would also help all elements of society to access and make decisions based on humanity’s collective intelligence (also here and here).
The promise of the Evidential Reformation, as I see it, is this: As the world’s great religious traditions come to honor and celebrate evidence as divine guidance, and big history as our common creation story, they will begin to wield their moral authority in ways that assist, rather than resist, the passage of our species out of the desert of destructive and unsustainable adolescence and into the promised land of contributing and fulfilled maturity.
Larry the Lounge Lizard
Isn't it neat to know that we all have lizards and furry li'l mammals living in our heads, running our lives?
Ok, maybe not exactly, but as we learn more and more about evolutionary brain science and evolutionary psychology, as well as gain more evidence about our amazing ability to rationalize and self-deceive, the analogy becomes less fantasy and more spot-on than we might imagine.
A person might be inclined to be a bit worried at the thought of scaly lizards and furry creatures running amuck, inside our brains. However, to me, this news is far from disconcerting. In fact, this knowledge gives me compassion to lighten up on myself and others when our "inner animal" or "shadow" nature, or "darkside" flares up, and wisdom about how to live my life in spite of being a human being with mismatched instincts in a world of supernormal stimuli.)
I invite you (yes YOU reading this post) to think about those times when you have felt deep shame and condemnation for certain aspects of yourself and others. You know the feeling, deep inside, that despises the part of you that you keep hidden from others? Those lustful feelings that you "shouldn't" be feeling, those food cravings that you just can't control? What if all those urges were actually perfect? Not as some "airy-fairy" new-age proclamation that "you're perfect just the way you are," but as an actual fact that modern science has uncovered?
What if this "dark" part of yourself that lusts and hungers out of control is actually perfectly adapted to serve an evolutionary role? What if that very instinct is the very reason you even exist? After all, if your ancient ancestors didn't have those very same instincts, they wouldn't have been motivated to seek as much food as they could in preparation for the famine, or go chase after the pretty cavewoman (well..."pretty" might be stretching it for a cavewoman :-). My friends, it's time to turn and give a big ol' hug to our "shadows!"
To me, that is what an evolutionary perspective provides: the ability to compassionately look at yourself and others, "flaws" and all, and KNOW that you are perfect...that is, perfectly adapted for the environment your brain evolved in, I should say.
To me, this knowledge has been personally and relationally transformative. I can now plainly see, often in the moment, the lizard, mammal, and monkey that are pulling on the levers and dials of my thoughts and actions, while my higher brain (neocortex) rationalizes every move and pretends IT is running the show!
Also, knowing that these instincts (for safety, sustenance, and sex) have refined and ingrained themselves for MILLIONS OF YEARS, I see what I am up against. The words "precautionary measures" start to seem like a really good idea...
After all, do I really think that if I try to fight against these urges, or condemn them, that they will be any less potent? Do I really think I don't have to put in place any structures to override these primitive urges (using accountability, social support, etc), that this lizard / monkey / animal won't get its way sometimes (or most of the time in all likelihood?)
Did I mention the CRAFTED OVER MILLIONS OF YEARS thing?
In terms of the oldest part of our brain (the reptilian brain)... When I think that, in effect, there is a little lizard (I call him Larry) inside the deepest part of my brain, who desires to eat sugary, fatty, salty food and wants to mate with every attractive female that he sees, it suddenly becomes dramatically easier to be one step ahead of him, while smiling at his wily ways.
When a beautiful babe walks by, Larry chimes in, "Hey, look at her! Maybe she'll look back at you, which could lead to some innocent flirting, which could lead to... (you know where Larry is going with this one. :-)
Equipped with this knowledge about "Larry" and what he wants, compared to what I am actually committed to, instead of indulging his every whim I can now chuckle, make a joke about Larry's primal urges (often with my girlfriend, which is SUCH a gift to both have this knowledge), and move on with my day.
Also, regarding Larry's penchant for sugary, salty, and fatty foods, this knowledge allows me to put in place the support that will have me making wise nutrition and exercise choices (accountability around sticking with an exercise program, stocking my house only with 90% healthy options, so that Larry isn't tempted, etc).
I know that millions of years of evolution backing these urges for sugar, salt, and fat is nothing to trifle with!
To me, this understanding is vital for having exactly the kind of life I want and relationships that truly work. I now see plainly what inner forces are in me, what they are likely to pull me towards, and what I need to do or put in place to make wise, healthy, integrous choices.
P.S. I want to give a shout-out to my homey, "Larry the Lounge Lizard." You got me a long way ol' boy! But you can relax for now. I promise there will be food and fornicating in your future!
P.P.S. For more information about Larry and the other animals inside your brain, check out all the amazing resources on this page!
The above was written by Shane Dowd. (It's his very first blog post.) Click on Shane's name on this page for more background on him (and to see his gorgeous girlfriend).
Guidelines for Making Wiser Decisions on Public Issues
If the ideas intrigue you, you can find a longer version with more detailed guidelines and references here. I wrote the abstract below to make it easier for you to see the whole pattern at once. I hope you find both versions interesting and useful.
As a civilization we have tremendous collective power, but we don't always use it wisely. We can make good decisions, but we face messy, entangled, rapidly growing problems with complex, debatable causes. Efforts to solve one problem often generate new ones. We need more than problem-solving smarts here. We need wisdom.
A good definition for wisdom here is
the capacity to take into account
what needs to be taken into account
to produce long term, inclusive benefits.
To the extent we fail to take something important into account, it will come back to haunt us. But often we only realize we overlooked something long after our decision has been implemented. Certain practices - because they lead us to include more of what's important - can help us meet this challenge. Here are eight complementary ways to do this. The more of them we do, and the better we do them, the wiser our collective decisions will be.
1. Creatively engage diverse perspectives and intelligences. High quality conversations among diverse people with full-spectrum knowledge, using their full human capacities - including reason, intuition, and aesthetic sensibilities - can generate wisdom.
2. Consult global wisdom traditions and broadly shared ethics. Ethical principles common to most major religions and philosophies provide time-tested wisdom, augmented by what we have learned more recently through global science and global dialogue.
3. Seek guidance from natural patterns. Wisdom is embedded in nature, in organisms, in natural forms and processes, and in evolution, providing a vast reservoir of insight and know-how tapped not only by scientists and engineers but by tribal and agricultural cultures.
4. Apply systems thinking. Wisdom comes from understanding underlying causes and taking into account how things are interrelated, how wholes and parts influence each other through power relations, resonance, feedback dynamics, flows, motivating purposes, and life-shaping narratives, habits and structures.
5. Think about the Big Picture and the Long Term. Wisdom grows as we step out of limiting perspectives to understand (and creatively use!) histories and energies from the past, current contexts and trends, future ramifications and needs, larger and smaller scales, and other mind-expanding perspectives.
6. Seek agreements that are truly inclusive. The more people contribute to, engage with, and believe in an agreement, the more likely it will wisely address what needs to be addressed and be well implemented.
7. Release the potential of hidden assets and positive possibilities. It is wise to notice and creatively engage existing energies and resources and to tap the power of people's aspirations which often show up at the rough edges, on the margins of our thinking, our group, our society.
8. Encourage healthy self-organization and learning. Any situation or system has problem-solving and self-organizing capacities which can be released and supported with well-designed forms of invitation, participation, and collaboration - powerful questions, crowd-sourcing activities, incentives, democracy, conversation, games...
9. Co-create accessible, relevant, accurate, full-spectrum knowledge. Fundamental to every one of these principles is the ability of decision-makers to know what's important.
Society's capacity to make wise decisions will be enhanced to the extent these wisdom-generating practices are supported and institutionalized AND to the extent the systemic obstacles to them are removed or bypassed.
The Future of Religion
One of the many empowering realizations that an evolutionary worldview gives us is that we can make some reasonable guesses about the future based on long term trends of the past. We can enter the future with trust and with our eyes open, poised for some likely scenarios, instead of being blindly buffeted by inscrutable Fates. In chapters 16 and 17 of Thank God for Evolution, Michael Dowd shows that if the 14 billion year history of the universe were compressed into a single century, then the next minute on the cosmic century timeline would represent 250 years. Surely, we should be able to make a few accurate assumptions about the next minute if we know the past 100 years of history!
Some events can't be predicted very well, such as distant supernovae or the direction of next week's stock market movement. Others, however, are the result of long-term trends, and can at least be estimated based on those trends. For instance, world population has been increasing rapidly for centuries, and it appears likely to continue to do so for several decades into the future. When our day-to-day experience is affected by long-term trends, those trends can predict part of what our future (and our kids' future) will be like. Out of all the aspects of society that affect our lives, let's look at religion.
If you are an American Gen X'er like me, you probably grew up in a world where the dominant religion was an unquestioned, moderate, mainline (Protestant or Roman Catholic) Christianity. I remember some religious conflict in society (such as the fight over female ministers), but also remember times without conflict. How much should I trust those memories of mine?
Anecdotal evidence (the memories and experiences of one or several people) is naturally a powerful force in our evolved minds. After all, it's the only kind of evidence that our Ancestors had available for well over 99.9% of our existence. It makes sense that we have evolved to pay a lot of attention to it. However, our experiences are terribly limited, our recall quite selective, and our memories malleable by desire and expectation. This is why anecdotal evidence is often not worth the paper it is (sometimes) printed on, and why it takes a conscious effort for us to go beyond it.
Luckily, the modern world often gives us powerful and effective supplements to anecdotal evidence. The 20th century, unlike any century before it, generated a wealth of detailed data on an astounding array of subjects. To ignore this evidence when looking into any subject is like driving with your eyes closed. It's stupid, pointless, and often harmful. So let's look at some recent religious trends...
The First Measured Century, by T. Caplow shows us some of these data, while many other studies provide additional data. Since 1900, moderate Christian denominations, like the Episcopal Church, have been shrinking, while more fundamentalist groups, like the Pentecostals, have been growing. Even though this growth has been going on for a long time, in comparison to moderate-to-liberal Christianity, mainline Christians were still the overwhelming majority until recently. Now, even evangelicalism is in serious decline in America. For more about this, read the provocative and much discussed recent article in the Christian Science Moniter: "The Coming Evangelical Collapse", written by Michael Spencer, a well-respected evangelical blogger.) The last two decades have also seen an increase of the "non-religious": Agnostics, Atheists, and a resurgence of Deists.
The recent data from the ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) just published on March 9th confirms that these trends are continuing today. For instance, this survey found that the non-religious continue to increase, now reaching 15%, up from just 8% in 1990. Similarly, the proportion of Christians in the U. S. continues to decrease, down to 76% from 86% in 1990 and 93% in 1965 (Rasmussen data). Minority religions experienced growth of over 10% per decade, from 3.3% in 1990 to 3.9% in 2008. However, the biggest shock was the drop in the mainline, moderate, Protestant Christian faiths that defined much of American culture for so long. Nearly 20% of Americans were mainline Protestants in 1990, 17% in 2001, and just 12.9% in 2008. Perhaps most importantly, the young are the least likely to identify with mainline Protestant Christianity. We've also seen an explosive growth of "ex-Catholics"
So what does this tell us about our future? Because these trends have been going on for decades or centuries (depending on the trend), it seems likely that they will continue. It seems hard for many of us to imagine a United States where Christianity is a minority religion, yet that appears likely within the lifetimes of many of us. The remaining Christians will be mostly fundamentalists. Religious diversity will be the norm, with large proportions of the non-religious and increased Muslim, Hindu, and other populations. Can you imagine a future world where many people haven't even heard of tiny sects like Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists? How can we imagine such a radically different religious landscape?
One easy way is to simply look across the pond to Europe, where these same trends are farther along. Like the probable future United States, Europe currently has growing minority religions, a shrinking Christianity, and a large Non-Christian (or Post-Christian) population. This can be seen in the 2005 Eurobarometer poll, which found that only 52% of Europeans believed in God, with even lower rates among the young. Because the countries in Europe vary greatly in regard to religion, some countries show this much more than others.
Do we need more confirmation of these trends? What is going in Australia, a third large chunk of western culture? In 1901, Australians were over 95% Christian. This dropped to 76% by 1981, and to 64% by 2006. Minority religions are rapidly growing (and were at 5.6% in 2006), and the Non-Religious have grown from near zero in 1966 to between 20 and 30% in 2006, and are even higher among the young.
In all of these Western cultures, the highest numbers for both the non-religious and the minority religions are among the young, who will become the culture of the future in all these areas. As a result, as the young grow up these trends will likely continue, in addition to any acceleration due to the cultural changes that are driving them from the start. Confirmation of this comes from recent data on Canadian teens. Compared to mid 80's, 30% fewer teens identify as Catholics, over 60% fewer teens identify as Protestants, and today there are more teens in Canada who identify as Muslims than as Protestant. Over the same period, the number of professed Atheists among Canadian teens tripled.
These data certainly came as a shock to me. They may come as a shock to you. They no doubt would come as a major shock to the millions of Americans who wrap Christianity and America together in their minds. In fact, a 2006 study found that in America, Atheists are more widely hated than any other studied group, including homosexuals, Muslims, and African Americans. Unlike being homosexual, Muslim, or African American, simply being an Atheist disqualifies a person from being president of the United States in the minds of most Americans. With the non-religious being second only to Christianity in numbers in the United States, it's no surprise that we've all seen the growing animosity on both sides of the God debates, as well as the escalation following the appearance of the New Atheists. (See Connie Barlow's blog post: "A Place at the Podium")
Are these trends and the attitudes of millions of Christians (especially in the United States) on a collision course? Is our near future and that of our kids going to be marred by hatred and conflict between Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and others? As we've seen throughout history, few human differences can result in as much violence as differences over religion, such as when the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation killed literally millions of Europeans over the course of two centuries. It is chilling to realize that most of the religious carnage that has occurred in recent centuries did so without the aid of nuclear and chemical weapons, which have since become a common addition to arsenals around the world. What will religious conflict be like with them?
A tragic future is not, of course, inevitable. An evolutionary worldview provides us with a way to call into being new interpretations of every religious (and non-religious) path, interpretations that are vibrant, healthy, living, and perhaps most important of all, harmonious. As someone on the Evolutionary Paganism (Earth-honoring) path, I'm happy to see the growth of Evolutionary Christianity, Evolutionary Islam, and so on. I happily promote Evolutionary Christianity among those whom it will fit. I'm a Pagan promoting a form of Christianity? Yes! The evolutionary forms of religion really do fit together harmoniously, and they really do expand our circles of care and concern to embrace the whole planet. This harmony is but one of the many gifts of the evolutionary expressions of each religious tradition.
What are these new, evolutionary forms of the venerable religious traditions? They are simply the core religious concepts of each tradition, practiced in the light of the current discoveries of science and our evolutionary past and future in ways that inspire and empower. They are discovered when those within each tradition translate their own religious metaphors and symbols to make them relevant, real, inspiring, and universally true. This is nothing new. All religious paths grew and changed as their adherents revitalized their religions again and again over time. To see this happening today is evidence of a living faith that has not stagnated. Michael Dowd goes through this process for Christianity in Section III of his book, Thank God For Evolution (and in the recent blog posts "Christian Naturalism" and "How and Why I'm a Pentecostal Evangelical"). Others have begun this process for other faith traditions.
Evolutionary forms of all religious paths also evaporate the conflict between believers in God and Atheists. An evolutionary understanding of God is not something can be disbelieved in - the evolutionary God is as obviously and undeniably real as our own bodies. This is discussed in detail in many previous blog posts here, such as "Metaphorical Gods vs. Reality: Part 1 and Part 2". When evolutionary forms of religion and non-religion are adopted, the whole Atheist/Theist question becomes irrelevant, and we are all freed to celebrate our lives together, and freed to concentrate on the real problems of building a bright and sustainable future for our great great grandchildren. (See Michael Dowd's blog posts: "Creatheism: Evolutionary Emergence Ends the Theism-Atheism Debate" and "The Silly Debate Over God's Existence."
The trends we are seeing today are moving faster than many of us realize. As the past four billion years of life on our Earth has shown us, Evolutionary Emergence generally speeds up over time. To keep our species from being caught unprepared for these changes, pioneers across the globe are helping to usher in the religious revival needed to prevent much of the future religious conflict before it happens. The fact that traditional, flat-Earth religions are withering even without a clear competitor shows how needed all of these real, fulfilling evolutionary forms of spirituality are today. In the West, perhaps the second most important evolutionary spirituality that must be built is that of a meaningful, purposeful, Evolutionary Humanism. It is a path so poorly developed that the majority of Americans have never even heard of it, or its sister paths of Religious Naturalism and Neo-Pantheism. Few attempts have been made at this important part of the Great Work of building our future culture - though some great beginnings do exist, such as the ongoing work by Connie Barlow and Ursula Goodenough. In discussions with other people with a naturalistic worldview, I rarely hear more meaning and purpose than the banal nihilism of "we all just decompose eventually anyway". The Great Story—the Epic of Evolution—can be a tremendous source of meaning and value for evolutionary forms of all religions, traditional and non-traditional, and for freethinkers as well.
We each make decisions every day that speed or slow the emergence of a just and thriving future for planet Earth and it's diverse species. For the sake of your kids, and mine, I hope we are making decisions that will help us build this inclusive, evolutionary, science affirming culture sooner rather than later.
All of the estimates of the religious landscape in any area are likely to change depending on the wording of the questions asked as well as methodological differences (such as whether or not children are included). For this reason, sources are provided for all the numbers used in this blog post, and the reader is encouraged to check the data from various sources. Some of the main sources used include:
The Cosmic Century (the 14 billion year history of the Universe condensed down to 100 years) is explained in greater detail starting on Page 277 in Thank God for Evolution, by Michael Dowd. A similar condensation (Earth's history condensed to a single year) can be seen in Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Episode 2.
The First Measured Century by Theodore Caplow is available in many bookstores, including online bookstores.
The entire ARIS 2008 Survey is available as a free download, which also contains a summary.
Pre-1990 data on the proportion of Christians in the US can be found here.
Detailed statistics on the explosive growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity can be found in "Spirit and Power—a 10 Country Survey of Pentecostals" by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, October 2006.
The Entire 2005 Eurobarometer poll can be downloaded here. Note that the poll allows for the selection of "some universal spirit or life force" instead of "God", however, being the question being address was the prevalence of Christianity, only belief in "God" was considered so as to separate Christians from those with a more Deistic or New Age view of divinity.
Data on the religious landscape in Australia give slightly different numbers depending on the source. The approximately 30% non-religious estimate is from Flinders Social monitor (Gladigau K., West, Dr B., Flinders Social Monitor, No. 8, April 2007 (ISSN 1834-3783), while the 20% non-religious estimate is from the Australian Census Bureau, and can be accessed here.
Data on the beliefs of Canadian teens is available HERE.
Poll data on hatred in the United States toward Atheists can be found in Penny Edgell; Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann (April 2006). "Atheists As 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society". American Sociological Review 71 (2): 218.
I am a Christian naturalist, not a supernaturalist. I do not deny the possibility of what some may call 'supernatural', but my focus and locus of inspiration is found in this cosmos and in this life. My understanding of the divine and experience of the gospel relate to this very real Universe, not merely to a mythic unnatural realm. I do not value what is unnatural over what is natural. Indeed, the core concepts of my faith tradition—sin, salvation, the kingdom of God, heaven and hell, Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life—are real for me in a this-world, undeniable way (and in a way that non-Christians and the non-religous can appreciate too), as I discuss in several chapters in my book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.
The idea of an eternal life-after-death without pain or struggle, yet with awareness of the everlasting torment of others (those who did not believe as I did), I consider hell, not heaven.
I no longer merely believe in God. Thanks to the worldwide self-correcting scientific enterprise, I now know that facts are God's native tongue. Evidence reveals God's nature, God's ways, and God's guidance far more accurately than could have possibly been revealed to the biblical writers. This is in no way a dissing of scripture. It is, however, honoring God as a truly divine communicator and lifting up scientific discoveries as revelatory. Few things are more unflattering than imagining that God spoke more clearly to goat herders and fisherman in the distant past, through dreams and intuitions, than God does today through cumulative evidence discerned by the global community of scientists.
In an evolutionary context, theism is trivialized if it is thought to be solely, or even primarily, about otherworldly matters and unnatural entities.
Christian naturalism is an evo-theistic, or creatheistic, perspective that transcends and includes traditional notions of God that made sense when people assumed the earth was flat and the universe revolved around us. Like Evolutionary Christianity, it doesn't reject the possibility of a supernatural realm. But it does focus on, and primarily value, what is natural and unquestionably real. And the fact that such a science-based way of reframing and celebrating the core insights of religion has been endorsed by 5 Nobel laureates and other leading scientists, as well as by religious leaders across the spectrum, suggests to me that Christian Naturalism has a glorious future.
The Unnaturalist Fallacy
Imaginary gods vs. Reality/God: Part 1 and Part 2
God is NOT a Supernatural Terrorist
How and Why I'm a Pentecostal Evangelical
Traditional Religion's God Problem
Evolution as Meaningful, Inspiring Fact
The Great Blasphemy?
The Debate Over God's Existence
Few things are more antiquated than the debate over the existence of God. Prior to an evolutionary worldview, such debates made sense. In an evolutionary context, however—in light of what Ursula Goodenough and Terry Deacon call "The Sacred Emergence of Nature"—such arguments are outdated at best. (I discuss this at length in chapters 4-7 of my book, Thank God for Evolution, the section titled "Reality is Speaking".) Here's how I begin Chapter 7, titled "What Do We Mean by the Word 'God'"?
Do you believe in life? What an absurd question! It doesn’t matter whether we “believe in” life. Life is all around us, and in us. We’re part of it. Life is, period. What anyone says about life, however, is another story, and may invite belief or disbelief. If I say, “Life is wonderful,” or “Life is brutal,” or “Life is unimportant—it’s what happens after death that really matters,” you may or may not believe me, depending on your own experience and worldview. What we say about life—its nature, its purpose, its meaning—along with the metaphors we choose to describe it—is wide open for discussion and debate. But the reality of life is indisputable. This is exactly the way that God is understood by many who hold the perspective of the Great Story—that is, when human, Earth, and cosmic history are woven into a holy narrative. Our common creation story offers a refreshingly intimate, scientifically compelling, and theologically inspiring vision of God that can provide common ground for both skeptics and religious believers. For peoples alive today, any understanding of “God” that does not at least mean “Ultimate Reality” or “the Wholeness of Reality” (measurable and nonmeasurable) is, I suggest, a trivialized, inadequate notion of the divine.
The crux of the problem, as I see it, is the failure of millions of people, religious and non-religious alike, to distinguish meaningful metaphor from measurable reality. God as a subjectively meaningful interpretation simply cannot be argued against. God is always a legitimate interpretation. But God is NOT (and never has been) an actual, physical Being, as science and common sense define reality. (Those who would attempt to argue that God is a REAL Father or King, but just in an unnatural, otherworldly sense are left in the bizarre position of claiming that God, the Creator of the Universe, is less real than the Universe, as I discuss here.)
HERE IS A WAY OUT OF THIS IMPASSE: Whenever you hear the word ‘God', think ‘Reality'. "I have faith in God" can be translated "I trust Reality". "God is Lord" means "Reality rules". Throughout the world, God has never been less than a mythic personification of Reality as a Whole, Ultimate Reality, or what today some call "the Universe". If we fail to recognize this, we miss everything. ALL images and characterizations of God are meaningful interpretations of Reality As It Really Is. When we forget this, we will inevitably trivialize God, belittle science, and desecrate nature. As renowned systems thinker Gregory Bateson has said,
If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.
God does not have multiple personality disorder, as a literal reading of the world's scriptures might imply. Cultures that tell stories of God as Mother have known reality as mother-like. Those who speak of God as Father, or as a steadfast rock, have known reality as father-like and as solid and unchanging as a boulder. And as we all know, reality at times can be like a trickster—a fox, or coyote—as some indigenous stories remind us.
There are an infinite number of metaphorical images and instructive (or misleading) interpretations of reality, but there is only one Reality, a Uni-verse. Religions are all about meaningful interpretations. Science is all about trying to understand the nature of measurable reality. The two really can work together, but only if we distinguish what in my book, Thank God for Evolution, I call, descriptive "day language" and interpretive "night language".
This is not theological rocket science. Theists are right when they insist that God is real and faith (trust) is transformative. Atheists are right when they insist God is imaginary and supernatural claims are fiction. If we do not understand how both of these can be true, we don't understand the evolved nature of the human brain and the metaphorical nature of human language. Arguing whether it was God or evolution that created everything is like debating whether it was Gaia or plate tectonics that created Mount Everest. Such silly and largely unnecessary confusion will remain the norm until we distinguish and value both metaphorical and descriptive language. In the meantime, I'm grateful to Richard Dawkins and the other "new atheists" for bringing this debate front and center. Perhaps in the coming decades we can finally move beyond the mistaken notion that science gives us a meaningless universe and religion is primarily concerned with unnatural (supernatural) entities.
- Christian Naturalism
- Imaginary gods vs. Reality/God: Part 1 and Part 2
- God is NOT a Supernatural Terrorist
- Creatheism: Evolutionary Emergence Ends the Theism-Atheism Debate
- Pentecostal Evangelical Naturalism?
- Traditional Religion's God Problem
- Evolution as Meaningful, Inspiring Fact
- The Unnaturalist Fallacy
- The Great Blasphemy?
- Endorsement from Nobel Laureates
- Science Leaders Praise TGFE
- Responses from Religious Leaders
- Best Evolution Resources
- Free PDF Download of the first 50 pages of TGFE (Table of Contents, Promises, Prologue, Intro, Chapter 1)
7 Deadly Sins of Old-Time Religion
"A mistake about Creation will necessarily result in a mistake about God." —Saint Thomas Aquinas
One of the most important truths revealed in recent centuries is this: everything—the entire Universe—is in an ongoing process of deep-time transformation. Galaxies and star systems evolve. Planets evolve. Life evolves. Human cultures evolve. Individuals and groups of all sizes evolve. And our personal and collective thinking about life's big questions (including our concepts/stories of Ultimacy, God, or Undeniable Reality) evolve, too. Reflecting on this is, I suspect, what led Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to write:
"Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, and all systems must bow and satisfy henceforth if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow."
Over the next few weeks, I will elaborate on The 7 Deadly Sins of Old-Time Religion, taking them one at a time. I will show that there are 7 profoundly negative consequences of religious resistance to a measurable understanding of reality, and deep-time view of grace. Specifically, I will reveal how, from a religious naturalism point of view, a pre-evolutionary worldview frozen within scriptural literalism necessarily...
1. Trivializes God, guidance, and good news;
2. Balkanizes religion and bastardizes science;
3. Desacralizes nature;
4. Blasphemes death;
5. Fails our children in three tragic, unnecessary ways;
6. Denies individuals and families access to the most important saving wisdom for overcoming personal and relational challenges; and
7. Blinds us from seeing the true nature of the current global integrity crisis.
Everything must evolve in order to remain viable. Three billion years ago, life (bacteria and archaea) thrived in a context of 2% oxygen. Today, anything less than 15% oxygen would wipe out all mammals. In an ever-emerging, ever-developing Cosmos, conditions that were once healthy and lifegiving can later become dangerous or even deadly—which is, of course, why life must be so adaptive.
Traditional religions will either evolve like everything else or, paradoxically, they will destroy nearly everything they stand for, or perhaps just go extinct. I'm betting my life that they will evolve, and will become more lifegiving then ever—not just for their own members but for the entire Earth community. This is, indeed, why I wrote Thank God for Evolution, and why Connie and I have been living on the road for 7 years, sharing a sacred, meaningful view of cosmic, Earth, life, and human history with religious and secular audiences across America.
The boldest creedal assertions are in the future, not the past. I foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when churches and other religious organizations preach and teach the science-based epic of evolution as our common creation story, and when this story is seen as foundational for moral instruction and teaching values to the next generations. Widespread awareness of The 7 Deadly Sins of Old-Time Religion will, I pray, significantly further this process.
Evolutionary Youth: the Great Story and the Next Generation
Generation Waking Up: Coming of Age at the Crossroads of Civilizationby Joshua Gorman
"At the leading edge of our generation is a revolutionary new consciousness arising from the convergence of our deepest spiritual wisdom and cutting-edge scientific discoveries. We are waking up to a breathtaking new cosmological vision revealing that Life is an unfolding evolutionary process of increasing complexity, creativity, and consciousness. Wherein the past humans imagined that the world was born in one miraculous instance of creation, today we understand that Creation is a living and dynamic process that travels through the trail of Time, one that thus far has a 13 billion year history stretching from the Big Bang to our emerging 21st century Global Mind.
As we begin to fully comprehend this incredible new Story of Life and our human place within it, we are confronting the inescapable fact that we live in a participatory Universe, one that demands our active and conscious participation in bringing forth a positive future for all. Never before has a generation had such a clear and compelling vision of where we have come from and where we are going. As large numbers of our generation grasp onto this Big Picture of Life and are transformed by the greatest Story of all Time, we are being filled with a newfound passion for action and world-engagement."
Read this entire article in Kosmos journal...
Great Story Stuff for Kids!created & compiled by Connie Barlow
Learning the science-based STORY OF 14 BILLION YEARS of cosmic, planetary, life, and human evolution in fun and meaningful ways can be transformative for kids. Curriculum materials are available on a number of Great Story themes at TheGreatStory.org. All of the materials are intended for use by parents and teachers who wish to integrate a science-based understanding of the world and the cosmos with whatever spiritual or philosophical worldview the child is being raised within. These worldviews include liberal forms of Christianity and other religions of the Bible, humanism, paganism, religious naturalism, Buddhism, and more.
If you would like to contribute to this section or suggest a resource to be spotlighted, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.