Late-stage capitalism has provided us with a series of visions about the future that are pretty terrifying. The grand narratives of infinite growth and progress at all costs have landed us in a warming age marked by the loss of biodiversity, climate instability, and growing social upheaval. Not many people feel positive about the future at present, but rather often express dread, fear and anxiety. If we follow the present path of capitalism, it offers a few pretty terrible visions of the future. One is that we simply ignore the mounting warning signs and let the wheels of progress continue on with consumptive behaviors (which despite the climate crisis, have no signs of slowing) and basically consume the earth into a dystopian nightmare. The other is that we somehow find a technological solution to the climate crisis (bioengineering, etc), and then are able to continue on consuming. Or maybe we colonize Mars and the Moon and keep on consuming. There’s a pattern here: the visions of the future that late-stage capitalism offers are variations on a theme designed to keep the current growth and progress engines running through consumption and resource extraction of the living earth. How much of the earth has to be consumed and destroyed in order for this to end? How can we vision a brighter, better future without this paradigm? In order to counter these narratives and in order to come into balance with nature culturally and globally, we need some new visioning, hopeful, positive, and balanced.
As I described in my post two weeks ago, Re-visioning at the Summer Solstice, and in my earlier post, Visioning the Bardic Arts, visions give us hope, they give us opportunity, and they ultimately help us make positive change. Before we can bring something into reality, we have to envision it. Visions become reality if enough people get behind them to make them happen. Visioning is also a magical act–magic is all about setting our intentions, directing energy towards intentions, and then seeing a change in the world. Thus, visioning is a critically powerful opportunity to take meaningful steps to create a better world. My summer solstice post explored how you might set your own vision, and magical work to help with visioning and move forward. I didn’t want to clog up the Summer Solstice post with my own ideas for what a vision of the future would look like, so I saved that for this post. Thus I’ll put forth my vision as a work in progress–principles that I’ve been working on to live, teach, and share with others. I say it’s a vision in progress because I do feel like as I grow more as a person, and have new experiences, these principles may deepen or change. So here is where I’m at now!
Visioning Principles: The Web of Relationships
My vision takes the idea of relations and relationships and considers carefully the nature of humans’ relationship with the natural world, each other, ourselves, the ancestors, and the descendants. It is rooted in ecocentrism, where humans are put into sacred and meaningful relationships with all living things rather than being at the center of our thinking, actions, and considerations. It is also rooted in connection, care, and gratitude for all life (and my long-term readers will note these are consistent themes in this blog for many years!)
My own visioning has been influenced heavily by a number of philosophies, practices, and individuals. I especially want to acknowledge indigenous teachers and writers who have helped shape my understanding. Indigenous teachers globally are sharing teachings that can help us envision the future and a better world, and we desperately need their voices and wisdom in helping to guide our path to the future. Most Indigenous societies are sustainable, relational, and connected, and thus, provide models of alternatives to the present paradigm. I want to first acknowledge my teacher and friend, Lillian Wolf, an Annishnabe woman who has been teaching me her family’s tradition. Her teachings have radically shifted my understanding of my own role in the world, the ethics through which I interact with the spirits of nature, and my relationships with the land, plants, and animals. She has taught me how to engage in deeper connection, gratitude, and care. I also acknowledge Tyson Yunkaporta who wrote Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta is an Aboriginal Australian who spoke with many indigenous peoples throughout Australia and the globe for Sand Talk. Yunkaporta makes it clear that the material in his book is open-source, and that he wants these ideas to spread to help save the world. Aboriginal Australians had some of the most stable and enduring human societies in recorded history, spanning over 60,000 years prior to imperialism and colocalization. Lucky for the entire world, these teachings and wisdom endure–and now is the time to privilege their wisdom and voices.
I also acknowledge a number of other philosophies and teachings: my experiences and learning through druid tradition, particularly the Ancient Order of Druids in America (see the AODA’s vision here); my experiences in studying permaculture, natural building, herbalism, and bushcraft and the many teachers who have shared their wisdom, and most importantly, the living earth herself, who will always be my greatest teacher. I also acknowledge poets, artists, and dreamers, including Wendell Berry, who has influenced me considerably. And with those acknowledgments, here are the principles that make up my vision.
I’m not saying I’m right, I’m not saying this is complete, but I think it’s useful to put it out there as a thought exercise and way forward.
Humans in relationship to nature: Taking up the role of being custodians.
In the modern age, humanity has lost our way, and the result of this loss is the destruction in the present age. So how do we find our way back again? One of the primary points that Yunkaporta stresses throughout Sand Talk is that humans have a very specific role in the world–we are to be custodians of the living earth. Due humanity’s gifts and skills, we are meant to tend, care for, and nurture life on earth. Of course, this is the opposite role that humans have created for themselves in the industrial age–and unfortunately, in quite a few ages before that in the Western World. For too long, humans of the west have seen nature not as something to protect, preserve, and defend but rather as something to extract, colonize, and destroy. I am not surprised that in this current role as extractors of nature, we are full of sickness, disease, mental illness, and general malaise–because we have lost our core work and true purpose on earth. This is why it feels so good to get in the garden and to do some planting and harvesting. This is why it feels so good to go plant trees, spend time in nature, or do any other earth-honoring activity or sacred action. When we do these things, we return to our original purpose, and our spirit resonates deeply with this original role.
Thus, visioning for the future asks us to claim and enact the role of being a custodian, caretaker, and guardian of the living earth. To be in a relationship with nature in a powerful way, and allow that mutuality to drive our decisions and thought processes. What does being a custodian mean? It means that every decision, from what we eat to how we live, from how we make things to how we travel, needs to be in line with that custodial role.
The really good news is that a lot of people finding their way back into this role, in ever-growing ways. I wrote about Dancing Rabbit ecovillage two weeks ago, and they offer one such powerful vision of this custodianship. Practices like permaculture design, conservation, organic gardening, homesteading, herbalism, ancestral and earth skills, natural building, and new artist movements surrounding local arts and foraged pigments–are all ways of people taking the first steps to return to that right relationship of custodianship which requires respect, reverence, and balance. Most of us who have taken up this path recognize that we still have a long way to go, but we are learning, growing, and visioning a brighter world. And recognizing humanity’s true purpose on the earth is a core part of that work.
Humans in relationship to others: Avoiding narcissism and building healthy communities.
Tying directly into the role of humans is managing behaviors that support or detract from that custodial role–what kind of humans can we be? What should we guard against? How should we conduct ourselves? Another big part of Yunkaporta’s discussion of indigenous wisdom is in protecting communities and nature against narcissism. As Yunkaporta writes, described in aboriginal culture as the “emu fallacy” in many legends, the Aboriginal Australians recognized how destructive narcissism, narcissistic people, and narcissistic behaviors are to the good of all. Narcissism is, in his terms, the belief that: “I am better than you” and argues that this belief is one of the root causes not only of destructive relationships and behaviors in human society but also with the natural world. The more that I have meditated on this particular teaching and observed the world, the more I understand that it seems to be a fundamental requirement for bringing us into balance.
On an individual scale, narcissistic behavior is presently one of the most enduring features of modern Western culture–look at the rise of reality TV and its sweeping influence on society, the prevalence of selfies, social media, and “me” focused behaviors. It is literally a defining behavior right now in the US culture, and it’s hard to resist participating when it is so common. Everyone does it, no one questions it, and this incredible amount of narcissism has a severe toll–not only for humanity but for all life on earth. The present age also gives us plenty of opportunities to observe what happens when extremely narcissistic people end up in positions of power. We can also see the impact of narcissism has on nearly all of of the grand challenges of our present age: imperialism, racism, resource extraction, homophobia, transphobia, intolerance, bigotry, etc–all stem from the idea that “I am better than you.”
Narcissism happens not only on an individual scale but also on a collective scale, and in some ways, this is harder to address. A few weeks ago, I wrote about shifting from anthropocentrism to bio/ecocentrism–and I believe that anthropocentrism is collective narcissism on the part of the human race. After all, isn’t the behavior of industrialization a culture-wide statement that “I am better than you, so I take what I want regardless of the consequences”? And of course, this is where the belief that humans have a right to do what they want with the land, her inhabitants, and even other human beings all stems from. Thus, if we are going to create a better vision of the future, it also involves dealing with narcissism not only individually but collectively. One of the things that Yunkaporta writes about (but doesn’t elaborate on) is that in Aboriginal Cultures, there are culture-wide and community-wide ways of dealing with narcissism and making sure it doesn’t start or spread. He notes that it is almost impossible to deal with narcissists on an individual scale. So as we are thinking about the communities of today that lead to tomorrow, thinking about how to stop narcissism and teach about its dangers seems like critical work to do to build more sustainable communities of the future.
I think that one powerful way of addressing both individual and cultural narcissism is de-centering humans and bringing nature back into the conversation as an equal partner. That is, recognizing that humans are not any better or worse than all other life on this planet: equal to the lightning bug, the spruce tree, or the goose. We are all equal and therefore, all equal in respect and the right to life. This is a very hard lesson to think about and grasp given our cultural bias toward human-centric thinking. In terms of centering nature and making it an equal partner: there are lots of ways into it. I’ve been writing on this theme for a while now–in terms of setting intentions with nature, developing deep gratitude practices, building relationships with nature that are balanced, and much more. There’s so much work to do in this area, both for each of us and culturally. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Humans in relationship to the past and future: Centering the ancestors and the descendants.
Sociologist Geert Hofstede studies cultures on a large scale, and he has explored a variety of scales that help determine crucial elements of a culture, including one he calls “long-term orientation.” Long-term orientation refers to the ability of a culture to pay attention not only to the immediate time and instant gratification but to consider the longer-term consequences of our actions. Like most other things researchers discover, this too is already known as part of indigenous wisdom, such as through the Haudenosaunee principle of Seven Generations. The basic philosophy of seven generations is that decisions are made not only for today and for the living right now, but for the next seven generations. This ensures that those who are not yet born also are considered in decision-making and decisions are made on behalf of not only the present but the future. Making this concept mainstream would require enormous shifts–in how we conceptualize and measure the world, how we govern ourselves, and what kinds of decisions are privileged. One of the things that the youth climate change movement has done is to give voice to this idea–the youth recognize that they will live with the consequences of previous generations who are currently in power, and they are working hard to change it. This principle also asks us to recognize and honor both the young and the old–individuals who, in present culture, are often viewed as burdens. How do we privilege the voices of our elders? How do we support good elderhood? How can we ensure that traditions are honored, developed, and carried on?
Being in right and ethical relationship with the past and the future allows us to honor the wisdom of the elders, those ancestors who have passed, and the wisdom they shared, but also allows us to make better decisions for those not yet born–not only human but of all life.
Humans in relationship to spirit: Visioning creativity, joy, and freedom.
Something that I’ve learned on the path of druidry for the last 17 years is how important it is to cultivate a strong inner life, to have one’s own thoughts without the influence of media/others, and to cultivate self-expression and spirituality through the practice of the bardic arts. Another thing that this culture seeks to do is to fill our minds with dribble, to strip us of our ability to make decisions for ourselves, to make creative practices a commodity, and to commodity everything we do. We have given our sovereignty over to others who would seek to profit from it: we pay for their creations, their entertainment, and even their own thoughts to replace our own.
Life is hard in this age. It is very, demanding, full of endless monotony and countless hoops to jump through. People are depressed, suffering from mental illness, stifled creatively, overworked, and generally miserable. Further, freedom is really not very free–our laws regulate our lives down to very specific ways (like the length of your grass, what you can do, your body, etc.). For me, part of my vision for the future has a lot more freedom, creativity, and joy. In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity David Winston and David Graeber demonstrate that many previous human cultures had a great deal more freedom, both in terms of free time and in terms of societal structures. Leisure time, time to explore one’s spiritual path, and the ability to creatively expresses oneself are human gifts that help us keep in balance. Being able to make choices of how to live for ourselves–which allow more sustainable and ecological options–are also important here. So this last principle is all about those three themes: creativity, joy, and freedom–and the gifts that they offer.
So to wrap up, I’ve done my best to go beyond the “we need a brighter vision for the future” and actually articulate some of the primary pieces of what that may look like. I hope that others who are reading will also jump in with some additional principles and ideas–so we can build this together. I don’t think these principles are complete, but they are my first attempt at articulating a more concrete vision of what I think would make a much better world and things that I am working toward, both personally and in my own communities.
The visioning principles above are powerful and extremely hard to enact, particularly given the challenges of today. All four of them ask humanity as a whole to literally walk a completely different path than we are doing right now–and yet, they are powerfully worth doing. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions–how do you respond to these? What is resonating? what is missing?
I will also say that the act of writing this was very generative for me–it allowed me to take many different thoughts and mediations and coalesce them into a grand vision. I really encourage you to consider writing your own vision down, even if it’s not yet cohesive or complete. Just writing it alone offers it a spark of nwyfre (a druid term for life force) that can make so many good things happen.
To close, I’ll leave you with the words of my favorite poem, Wendell Berry’s Work Song, Part II: A Vision. It was Berry’s poem that originally spoke to firmly to me about the importance of finding and sharing a vision, and I hope someday we can have just such a world. I say this often as a prayer and meditate on it.
Work Song, Part II by Wendell Berry
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.
PS: We are in the final week for the TreeLore Oracle and Magical Compendium of North American Trees Indegogo Crowdfunding campaign. If you haven’t yet had a chance to check it out and were thinking about doing so, please consider it!