Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity's Futureby Duane Elgin
When Duane Elgin's classic bestseller, Voluntary Simplicity, was published in 1981, it transformed the lives of thousands and was hailed as the "bible" of the simplicity movement by the Wall Street Journal. Now, for anyone seeking to navigate today's profoundly changing world, Promise Ahead is the powerful sequel to a road map for securing a promising future.
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Is Humanity Growing Up?
and in surpassing itself;
if all it does is maintain itself,
then living is only not dying.
-- Simone de Beauvoir
How grown up do you think humanity is? When you look at human behavior around the world and then imagine our species as one individual, how old would that person be? A toddler? A teenager? A young adult? An elder?
As I've traveled in different parts of the world, speaking to diverse audiences, I've begun many of my presentations by asking this question. Initially, I didn't know whether people would be able to relate to or even understand my question, much less agree on an answer. To my surprise, nearly everyone I've asked has understood this question immediately and has had an intuitive sense of the human family's level of maturity. Whether I've asked this question in the United States, England, India, Japan, or Brazil, within seconds people have responded in the same way: at least twothirds say that humanity is in its teenage years.
The speed and consistency with which different groups around the world have come to this intuitive conclusion were so striking that I began to explore adolescent psychology. I quickly discovered that there are many parallels between humanity's current behavior and that of teenagers:
- Teenagers are rebellious and want to prove their independence. Humanity has been rebelling against nature for thousands of years, trying to prove that we are independent from it.
- Teenagers are recklessand tend to live without regard for the consequences of their behavior. The human family has been acting recklessly in consuming natural resources as if they would last forever; polluting the air, water, and land of the planet; and exterminating a significant part of animal and plant life on the Earth.
- Teenagers are concerned with appearance and with fitting in. Similarly, many humans seem focused on expressing their identity and status through material possessions.
- Teenagers are drawn toward instant gratification. As a species, we are seeking our own pleasures and largely ignoring the needs of other species and future generations.
- Teenagers tend to gather in groups or cliques, and often express "us versus them" and "in versus out" thinking and behavior. We are often clustered into ethnic, racial, rellgious, and other groupings that separate us from one another, making an "us versus them" mentality widespread in today's world.
Other authors have noted that we are acting like teenagers. Al Gore wrote in his book, Earth in the Balance, "The metaphor is irresistible: a civilization that has, like an adolescent, acquired new powers but not the matunity to use them wisely also runs the risk of an unrealistic sense of immortality and a dulled perception of serious danger. . . ." In a similar vein, Allen Hammond, senior scientist at the World Resources Institute, who has been exploring the world of 2050, has written, "Just as parents struggle to teach their children to think ahead, to choose a future and not just drift through life, it is high time that human society as a whole learns to do the same."
If people around the world are accurate in their assessment that the human family has entered its adolescence, that could explain much about humanity's current behavior, and could give us hope for the future. It is promising to consider the possibility that human beings may not be far from a new level of maturity. If we do develop beyond our adolescence, our species could begin to behave as teenagers around the world do when they move into early adulthood: we could begin to settle down, think about building a family, look for meaningful work, and make longer-range plans for the future.
Adolescence is a time when others-such as parents, schools, churches, and so on-are generally in control. As we step into adulthood, we enjoy a new freedom from control, and a new responsibility to take charge of our lives. In a similar way, during our adolescence as citizens of the Earth, most humans have felt controlled by someone else-especially by big institutions of business, government, religion, and the media. As we grow into our early adulthood as a species, we will discover that maturity requires taking more responsibility and recognizing that we are in charge. Instead of waiting for "Mom or Dad to fix things," an adult pays attention to the larger situation and then acts, recognizing that our personal and collective success are deeply intertwined.
Is it plausible that humanity is truly on the verge of moving beyond our adolescence? Not only do I consider it plausible, I would like to offer a rough timetable for the maturing of humanity. I estimate that we awoke in the infancy of our potentials roughly thirty-five thousand years ago. Archeologists have found that, at that time, there was a virtual explosion of sophisticated stone tools, elaborate burials, personal ornaments, and cave paintings. Then, with the end of the ice ages roughly ten thousand years ago, we began to settle down -in small farming villages. I believe this period marks the transition to humanity's childhood. The food surplus that peasants produced made possible the eventual rise of small cities. I estimate we humans then moved into our late childhood with the rise of city-state civilizations roughly five thousand years ago in Iraq, Egypt, India, China, and the Americas. At that time, all the basic arts of civilization were developed, such as writing, mathematics, astronomy, civil codes, and central government. Still, the vast majority of people lived as impoverished and illiterate peasants who had no expectation of material progress. With the scientificindustrial revolution roughly three hundred years ago, humanity began to move into our adolescence. Beginning in Europe and the United States, industrialization has spread around the world, particularly in the last half-century. Now, with the industrial revolution devastating the whole planet and challenging humanity to a new level of stewardship, it seems plausible that we are on the verge of moving into the communications era and our early adulthood.
Meet the Author
Duane Elgin is an internationally recognized speaker and author. His books include The Living Universe, Promise Ahead, and Awakening Earth. In 2006, he received the international Goi Peace Award in recognition of his contribution to a global "vision, consciousness, and lifestyle" that fosters a "more sustainable and spiritual culture." He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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