Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earthby Ralph Metzner
• Shows that the solution to our ecological dilemma lies in our own consciousnesses.
It is becoming more and more apparent that the causes and cures for the current ecological crisis are
A visionary ecopsychologist examines the rift between human beings and nature and shows what can be done to bring harmony to both the ecosystem and our own minds.
• Shows that the solution to our ecological dilemma lies in our own consciousnesses.
It is becoming more and more apparent that the causes and cures for the current ecological crisis are to be found in the hearts and minds of human beings. For millennia we existed within a religious and psychological framework that honored the Earth as a partner and worked to maintain a balance with nature. But somehow a root pathology took hold in Western civilization--the idea of domination over nature--and this led to an alienation of the human spirit that has allowed an unprecedented destruction of the very systems which support that spirit.
In Green Psychology Ralph Metzner explores the history of this global pathology and examines the ways that we can restore a healing relationship with nature. His search for role models takes him from shamanic ceremonies with the Lacandon Maya of Mexico to vision quests in the California desert, from the astonishing nature mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen to the Black Goddesses and Green Gods of our pagan ancestors. He examines the historical roots of the split between humans and nature, showing how first sky-god worshiping cultures, then monotheisms, and finally mechanistic science continued to isolate the human psyche from the life-giving Earth. His final chapters present a solution, showing that disciplines such as deep ecology and ecofeminism are creating a worldview in which the mind of humanity and the health of the Earth are harmoniously intertwined.
"Metzner brings an astonishing number of sources together in his survey of contemporary ecological thinking. With accessible prose, extensive references, and superb illustrations, Green Psychology provides the reader with a fascinating introduction and resource to the field of ecopsychology."
"Metzner's vision makes for stimulating reading and provocative reflection."
"Ralph Metzner's life-long fascination with human consciousness has led him to research history, political systems, mythology, archetypal psychology, and indigenous spiritual means. Green Psychology is a unique, masterful, and much needed integration of these usually disparate fields."
"An engaging and inspiring perspective."
"At once visionary and down-to-earth, [Green Psychology] is an often profound exploration of the deeply disturbed relationship between humanity and nature."
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The True, Original
My interests in shamanism, ethnopharmacology and indigenous cultures converged in a trip I made to the Lacandon Maya in the rain forest of Chiapas, Mexico. While there, I was able to sample the ceremonial intoxicant known as balché. This journey led me to the realization that our familiar conception of First, Third, and Fourth Worlds, based on economic power, is logically and historically flawed. The world of the indigenous tribal people is the true, original first world.
In January of 1995, I had the opportunity to visit one of the villages of the Lacandon Maya, in the company of a fluent speaker of their native tonguean anthropologist who had lived among them for more than two years. This visit occurred a few weeks before the crackdown by the Mexican army on indigenous villagers perceived as being supporters of the Zapatistas. We ourselves did not see any of the rebels, though they had been seen earlier by the villagers, before disappearing into the remote jungles and highlands of southern Chiapas. In the small town of Palenque, street vendors of indigenous crafts were offering Zapatista puppets, complete with black ski masks and riflesimages of revolution turned into commodities as folk art. Likewise, we did not see the army in action, although we had to pass through three roadblocks on the drive to the village and troops from a nearby army encampment did their daily exercise jog by our hotel, chanting training slogans and accompanied by armed guards in jeeps. We were told the young men passed theirtime in the camp playing cards and smoking pot and supplementing their meager salaries by dealing pot as well.
The occasion for the visit to the Lacandones was a seminar on the Ethnobotany and Chemistry of Psychoactive Plants organized by the Botanical Preservation Corps, a North American educational and research group dedicated to gathering and preserving traditional knowledge of medicinal and psychoactive plants, particularly from Central and South America. My general approach to the topic of psychoactive (or entheogenic or hallucinogenic or psychedelic) plants is that I see the revival of interest in them as an aspect of the renewed respect for indigenous traditions of knowledge. They are forms of knowledge and practice that have preserved a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity with the natural world. The reemergence of a respectful and ceremonial approach to sacred visionary plants (not drugs, which is another story altogether) can be seen as an aspect of a grassroots paradigm shift toward more Gaian, holistic, and ecological thinking and values.
I would argue that at a time when the global techno-industrial culture is leading to massive erosion of biodiversity, worldwide ecosystem destruction, and profound social and economic disintegration, there are a number of cultural movements that are cautiously and purposively moving toward the articulation of an ecological worldview and a bioregional, sustainable lifestyle. Among movements with similar values and assumptions, I would include the revival of interest in herbal, homeopathic, and natural medicine; shamanic practices; bioregionalism; deep ecology; ecofeminism; social ecology; environmental ethics; ecopsychology; ecotheology; green economics; and the neopagan revival. The ecology movement was born out of the same 1960s cauldron of social transformations, along with the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the free-speech movement, the women's liberation "consciousness-raising" movement, and the so-called sexual revolution. All of these groups challenged the alienating and restrictive attitudes of earlier generations.
Even though corporate practices continue to degrade and pollute the environment and government policies to prevent or reduce these practices are woefully inadequate, public opinion surveys carried out in the United States over the past two decades have shown a persistent increase in general pro-environmental attitudes and concerns, to the point where 70 to 80 percent of Americans acknowledge environmental preservation as one of their highest-priority values. With the 1990s has come increased public awareness of economic and technological globalization, which has vastly increased the scope and power of the multinational industrial corporations, with a concomitant increase in the scope and intensity of worldwide biosphere destruction, loss of species diversity, and massive social disruptions accompanied by poverty, famine, disease, violence, war, refugee migrations, and the like.
A key theme in the political rhetoric and media punditry of the seventies and eighties was the cold war confrontation between what were called the "First World" and the "Second World." These two worlds were seen as competing for the political allegiance and economic alliance of the countries of the so-called Third World, which was seen as needing "development" in order to bring it to the levels of prosperity assumed (falsely) to be prevalent in the industrialized First and Second Worlds. During the nineties, this whole balance of power has collapsed. What we have now instead is one remaining military superpower, the United States, with its politically aligned yet economically competing trading partners, primarily Western Europe and Japan, constituting the so-called First World or the industrialized North. The former Second World is no more. Russia and its erstwhile client states, including Eastern Europe, are rapidly being turned into Third World countries, in which cheap labor and as yet unexploited natural resources can become fodder for the industrial growth machine of the Northern First World. This transformation is sometimes referred to as the "triumph of capitalism."
The East-West political dynamic, backed by military might and the threat of nuclear force, has been replaced by a North-South economic dynamic, also backed by the threat of military power. The continuing exploitation of the Southern Third World by the Northern and Western First World, which used to be called colonialism and is now called "development," is encountering growing resistance, however, particularly in the Southern countries, whose people can see more clearly the nature of the beast. In the industrialized Northern First World, the resistance can also be seen in the opposition (by various labor and environmental groups and some conservatives) to the passage of NAFTA, GATT, MAI, and similar instruments of economic globalization.
A further aspect of this resistance has been the concept of the Fourth World: the world of indigenous societies politically encapsulated within larger nation-states, living by subsistence economies, and not participating voluntarily in the industrial development process but equally threatened by exploitation and extinction. Between two hundred and six hundred million of Earth's people belong to indigenous societies, making up as many as five thousand different language cultures. Environmentalists and conservationists working in various parts of the globe have increasingly come to the realization that indigenous societies provide models for the kind of sustainable stewardship of natural resources that the industrial world desperately needs to learn. Indigenous writers have pointed out that these people are the "miner's canary" of the human family: existing in direct dependence on nature, they are the first to suffer the effects of pollution, degradation, and exploitation.
From the Industrial First World to the Indigenous Fourth World
In the journey that we took to the Lacandones living in the rain forest of Chiapas, we traveled from the First World through the Third and into the Fourth, and in the process of doing so, I came to a new appreciation of the complex and precarious cultural dynamics that constitute the real present-day world order. Flying into Mexico City, a thick, poisonous, yellow-brown blanket of smog is visible over the city, and numerous smokestacks can be seen emitting huge plumes of even thicker smoke. With well over thirty million inhabitants and adding several hundred thousand more per year, Mexico City is the largest urban conglomeration in the world, containing vast masses of impoverished rural immigrants living in unimaginable squalor. At the same time, it is an outpost of the North's industrial and financial empire, where wealthy Mexican and multinational corporate elites, with their armies of managers, lawyers, accountants, and bankers, pursue ever increasing profit opportunities through intensified exploitation of natural resources, currency and financial speculations, and assorted marginally legal forms of trade, primarily involving drugs and arms.
When, on January 1,1994, NAFTA was signed into law, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation occupied several towns and villages in Chiapas, demanding that the government recognize the Indians' rights to their lands, their culture, and their autonomy and equal participation in the democratic process. Whether the Indians will ultimately gain any of their demands as a result of this rebellion remains to be seen. A series of military and political moves and countermoves ensued, which have led directly to the unraveling of the seventy-year stranglehold of the ruling Mexican party, the collapse of the Mexican stock market and economy, the political disgrace of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, rampant inflation, and mass unemployment.
From Mexico City, we flew to Villahermosa, industrial capital of the state of Tabasco, where tens of thousands of protesters organized by the opposition party had occupied the plaza in front of the government building, demanding the resignation of the recently and fraudulently elected governor (a demand to which he ultimately acceded). The protests forced the government to move to other buildings and triggered sporadic army roadblocks and airport closures in retaliation. One can see these conflicts as expressions of the ongoing divisions between the ruling elites and the disenfranchised masses, between the centralized nation-state and the outlying rural populations, or more generally between First World centers (capital and industry) and Third World periphery (peasants and indigenous people).
From Villahermosa, a two-hour bus or taxi ride takes us to the small town of Palenque and a hotel beautifully situated near the ancient ruins. We immersed ourselves in the arcana of the chemistry, botany, and indigenous lore concerning visionary plants and fungi. We also visited the ruins of Palenque, a Classic Mayan ceremonial city abandoned one thousand years ago that the Lacandones still refer to as the "navel of the world." Here, in an immense complex of dozens of temples, more than a hundred thousand peoplenobles and their families, priests, magicians, scribes, astronomers, stonemasons, sculptors, painters, artisans, as well as the traders and farmers who supported themlived and died, performing elaborate ceremonies and celebrations, honoring the cycles of the sun and moon and planets and their earthly counterparts. The Mayan nobility referred to themselves as halach uinic, "the true, original humans," and also zac uinic, "the white (or radiant, or bright) people." On a night when the moon was full, when the Moon goddess, Ix'chel, also the goddess of beauty, love, healing, herbs and flowers, and women and children, bathed the bleached stones of the ancient temples in ethereal radiance, we were able to enter the complex and sit in quiet meditation on the steps of the central temple. While the fragrance of copal incense mingled with the smells of the tropical night, I wrote this poem:
We sit in silence on the steps
of the House of Our True Lord,
in the soothing silvery light
of the full moon, embraced by
the goddess Ix'chel.
And the spirits of the noble
Maya lords and ladies,
halach uinic, zac uinic,
the true humans, the bright ones,
who left this place a thousand years ago,
graced our presence in
a moment of unspeakable beauty,
and flowered again in our dreams.
According to our guide, the anthropologist Christian Rätsch, who has studied the ancient and modern Mayan languages, "flowering dreams" is the term used to describe the visions induced by certain plants, minerals, animals, or magical practices. Today we refer to such experiences as "altered states of consciousness" or "nonordinary realities." The ancient Maya and their modern descendants certainly were deeply familiar with a whole range of visionary statestraveling in other worlds and encountering beings that, to us, appear incomprehensible, nonordinary, magical, or even alien. Their visions were expressed with surpassing artistry in the bas-relief sculptures on the walls of the temples, which in ancient times were brightly painted, and in ceramic vases and sometimes frescoes. These show the figures of men and women in various ritual postures, dressed in animal skins, especially the jaguar, encoiled with serpents, toads, and monkeys and with outrageously fantastic feathered headdresses and ornaments on noses, ears, lips, and heads.
The Lacandon and other Mayan societies still surviving in Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala have preserved many of the traditions and practices of their forebear. Until quite recent times, when the pressure of tourism stopped them, small groups of Lacandones used to regularly visit the ruins of Palenque and perform ceremonies in the temples, burning copal and singing invocations to their gods and goddesses. Worldwide, the indigenous peoples of the so-called Fourth World have preserved the spiritual practices as well as the ecological awareness of their ancestors. By contrast, in the industrialized, urban North, the increasing dominance of the materialist worldview, and the colonialist mentality that accompanied it, has led to severe alienation from the traditional sense of embeddedness in the cycles of the natural world. This represents a contraction of consciousness and perspectivewhat the Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva has aptly called "monocultures of the mind."
Our little party of five people drove in a van the hundred or so kilometers from Palenque to the village of Naha, one of three remaining Lacandon settlements. On the drive there we had to pass through three army roadblocks, where solemn young men with machine guns questioned us about our destination, our origin, how much money we had, and so on. Laboriously, they wrote our names and passport numbers in a bookevidently under orders to track all movements of people in and out of the contested regions. The road became progressively narrow and eventually unpaved, winding through open fields and dense tropical rain forest. We seemed to be leaving the Third World urban environment and entering the indigenous Fourth World environment of small villages by lake- or streamside. We saw fewer and fewer cars and trucks, but the villages, including Naha, had an occasional satellite dish and color televisionsthe long tentacles of the urban industrial center have reached here as well.
Most of the remaining five hundred Lacandones live in traditional villages; some of them live in towns like Palenque, like our driver, and make a living doing odd jobs there while still maintaining frequent contact with relatives. Christian Rätsch is an adopted relative of the Lacandones because of his previous long stays there, and he was therefore asked to don the ankle-length white cotton robe worn by all the men. When we arrived in Naha, several of the young men came out to greet him, maintaining a certain respectful distance but laughing and talking with great animation and obvious pleasure. Christian introduced us as relatives of his, and we were graciously welcomed also. All the men were barefoot, wearing white robes, and they had long, jet-black hair, which never turns gray or white with age. The women wore somewhat more colorful clothes, with necklaces of beads and multicolored sashes and dresses. The young boys also wore the "white" robesthough most boys and their clothing were incredibly filthy. Their speech is delightful to listen to, even though I didn't understand a word; it has a kind of rhythmic cadence, with many glottal stops and rich vowel sounds. I was content just to soak up the nonverbal ambience.
Although some of the Lacandones have watches, and some have television sets and radios, these artifacts of twentieth-century technology seem to play a marginal role in their lives. Like other indigenous people, they are still mostly connected to the natural cycles of sun and moon, of wind and rain, of growing crops and flowering plants. The Lacandones do not make decisions about when to plant or harvest, when to go on a hunt, or when to hold a ceremony on the basis of complex calendrical calculations, as did their ancestors, who lived in the ceremonial centers of Palenque and Yaxchilan. Rather, they let the natural occurrences of the seasons and the needs of the community determine the timing of such events.
We spent the afternoon visiting several families, including that of old Chan K'in, who is said to be between 107 and 110 years old (he does not know himself, nor does he care). He has had four wives, dozens of children, and innumerable grandchildren. Two of his wives are still livingone in her seventies and a younger one in her forties. The younger one was carrying around a two-year old child of the old man. He is not a chiefthe anarchic Lacandones have no chiefs. Perhaps "elder" would be an appropriate term. He is obviously respected, even revered, and has a reputation far beyond his village for his extensive knowledge of traditional lore, chants, incantations, and magical practices. We found him sitting on a pile of blankets on a cot in the middle of his hut, which, like all the huts in the village, had plain wooden board walls and an earthen floor, with a few simple pieces of wooden furniture. His very mobile, expressive face was kind, with large, sparkling, round eyes. Christian told us that the Lacandones have no way of saying "hello" or "goodbye"; when they meet they just start talking, and when they depart they just walk away. It's as if the bonds of family and friendship are not disconnected by distance and therefore do not need to be reestablished.
The Lacandones farm the surrounding land, growing corn, beans, chili, and squash using the traditional slash-and-burn technique; their diet is supplemented by occasional hunting expeditions (formerly with bows and arrows, now with rifles) for monkeys, tapirs, parrots, and other game. The old Chan K'in has always worked on his part of the communal land; later, we saw him walking, slowly, carefully placing his feet, assisted by a long wooden staff. I was reminded of Lao-tzu's description of the Taoist sage: "He walks carefully, like a fox crossing a frozen river." Christian tells me that when he lived here, he once contracted amebic dysentery and lay at death's door for three days; none of the Western medicines was working, and he wrote a farewell letter to his parents. Finally, old Chan K'in came and chanted magical songs for several hoursthis led to a full recovery. Although the Lacandones have extensive knowledge of edible and healing plants of the forest, they seem to rely for most healing primarily on chants and incantations. There are no "shamans," or healers. Everyone learns to heal through singing, just as everyone learns to plant and to harvest, to hunt and to prepare food.
A Balché Ceremony
Balché is the ceremonial intoxicant of the Lacandones. The preparation of the drink normally takes two or three days, but in honor of our coming one of Christian's adopted relatives, a man in his seventies who looked to be in his forties, had already prepared the drink for us, and the following morning, after a freezing night, we assembled in the "god-house" for the ceremony. The drink is made in a large dugout canoe from the strips of bark of the balché tree (Lonchocarpus violaceous) soaked in water and fermented with honey. Hour-long incantations are sung by the one who prepares the drink: numerous gods and spirits of the forest are invoked, especially the spirits of various poisonous plants, mushrooms, and insects. They are asked to enter into the drink, to make it strong and healthy. The Lacandones say the balché makes them strong and helps them live long. Perhaps the invocation of poisonous ingredients is a kind of spiritual immunization; the drink with those spirits in it fortifies the drinker against those poisons.
The god-house is a thatched-roof structure with open sides. Only the men assemble for the ceremony; women, if they participate at all (rarely, though it is not prohibited), sit in a separate structure about twenty-five feet to the side. Inside the god-house are rows of blackened god-potsceramic pots for holding the copal incense, each one carved with the face of a deity. Part of the way through the ceremony, the master of ceremonies lights the chunks of copal resin, which burn brightly and send up great clouds of black smoke. He also takes a gourd bowl of the drink and offers each of the god-faces a little bit of the drink with a leafall the while chanting and praying softly. The master takes a quantity of the drink from the canoe that is nearby and fills a large gourd; from this large gourd he then fills the smaller gourds and gives each participant one to drink from. One is expected to drink large quantities, we are toldseveral liters every hourand the ceremony continues for several hours. Balché is an intoxicant, emetic, and purgative; from time to time, the men go into the nearby forest to urinate, vomit, or defecate. Afterward you feel cleansed, lightened, hungry. As visitors, no one put pressure on us to drinkwe were told just to take as much as we wanted.
The three Western men in the group sat on low stools in the god-house along with about a dozen Lacandones, who came and went quite informally. The group included, from time to time, young boys, who also drink the balché. Two visiting women sat in the nearby women's house and were also given balché to drink. The mood was festive, respectful but joyous, with much laughter and mutual kidding and teasing. Only when the balché master sang his songs to the gods did everyone become quiet and attentive. At the beginning, in a nervous mishap, I spilled my just-filled gourd on the leg, foot, and robe of the master, who was sitting close by. He looked at me and laughedthere was not the slightest hint of reproach. The Lacandones' approach to the ceremony was very casual; there was much animated conversation (including political discussionsI heard the Zapatistas mentioned) and almost constant smiling and laughter.
The drink tasted slightly bitter and tart in a pleasant way. After drinking about three or four gourds, I began to feel a warmth in my chest, accompanied by mild distress in the abdomen. My head felt light and almost transparent, without any hint of alcoholic wooziness. Indeed, measurements confirm that the alcohol content of the drink is only about 2 percent. The feelings that gradually developed over the next couple of hours were not unlike those with which I am familiar from therapeutic work with "empathogenic" substances, such as MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy). There were no perceptual changes or inner visions, as with the classic hallucinogens. The effect of the balché seemed similar to what I have heard about the Polynesian drink kava: a nonalcoholic euphoric intoxicant that induces strong feelings of interpersonal affection and functions to bond community members.
I noted that I was feeling a profound affection and admiration toward these people, whom I don't know and can't even understand. I also felt affection emanating from them toward me and toward each other. Those not participating in the ceremony were also included in this empathic web, as were the creatures and plants of the forest all around usindeed, the whole world of sky and earth, rain and sunlight, wind and rocks, and trees. It seemed that by not understanding the words being said, I could concentrate totally on the waves of positive feeling that were washing through the group. Someone began to laugh, and the rhythmic sounds of laughter rippled and resonated until all of us were laughing in synchrony. Deep black eyes were shining in dark, bronze-skinned faces. And then one or another of the men, leaning up against one of the supporting poles, fell silent and looked to a faraway place of dreams.
My capacity to take the drink is quite limited compared with that of the Lacandones, who down five or six liters every hour. After three or four hours, the ceremony comes to a close. The master stops filling the gourds, and the people disperse back to their respective houses or work projects, carrying benevolent and cooperative feelings with them. The cycles of life continue. Such ceremoniesare not conducted on fixed days, as are worship on Sundays or the Sabbath; rather they are held when someone requests a healing, or when the weather has destroyed crops, or when someone is being honored, or when there is a crisis or conflict of some kind in the community. The balché ceremony can be used as a way of resolving conflicts. Christian told us of ceremonies he's participated in where the master has given two men angry with each other enormous quantities of the drink, until the two antagonists are no longer able to hold on to their enmity. From our Western point of view, this must be considered a truly innovative method of conflict resolution.
The True, Original First World
Gradually, it dawned on me: we have it backward in our conventional view. The world of the indigenous people, like these Lacandones, is the real First World, because it has been here the longest and it was here first. The so-called First World of the industrialized North is first only in capital wealth and military force. Those cultures that were superimposed later in time on the enduring world of the aboriginal inhabitants are the ones that should be called Second, Third, or Fourth Worlds. We can understand why some North American "Indians" have begun to refer to themselves as "First Americans" or "First Nations"after all, the term Native American would logically apply to anyone born in America. "First Nations" or "First World" puts it in the correct historical context.
I realize, too, that the lifestyle of these "true, original humans" is much the same as that of my Germanic and Celtic and pre-Indo-European ancestors in the neolithic village cultures of Old Europea mixed subsistence economy of farming and gardening, supplemented by hunting and fishing to add meat protein. Everyone was attuned to the recurring cycles of nature, revering nature and all the gods and goddesses that animate the world of visible living beings and that connect us to the invisible realms of spirits, of the ancestors, and of dreams. A few such cultures have survived more or less intact to this day. Cultivating social bonds through shared food and drink and ceremonies of empathic intoxication, such as the balché, is a widespread practice; one example is the Polynesian kava ceremony. The old Norse Eddas tell of rituals of reconciliation between previously warring rival clans of gods that involve a shared "mead of inspiration."
To consistently use the term "First World" in a manner that reflects the realities of historical development, rather than the realpolitik of military and economic dominance, would have a consciousness-raising effect on our thinking, I believe. The mixed farming-gardening village communities that began to be formed concomitantly with the rise of grain cultivation about ten thousand years ago in Europe, the Near East, Southeast Asia, and the Americas represented the form of social organization that evolved with the so-called neolithic revolution, also known as "domestication." It was truly the first, original form of human settlement, and in a large, though diminishing, number of areas around the world, this form still survives and thrives. The Lacandones, for example, are not in any real sense of the word "underdeveloped." They have an economy and culture that is sustainably adapted to existing ecological conditions.
It is, of course, true that preceding the neolithic village culture, there was an even more original, primal worldthe world of the nomadic bands of paleolithic gatherer-hunters, which existed for hundreds of thousands of years. Before the domestication of Homo sapiensthe only animal species ever known to have domesticated itself, our ancestors lived in the "wild" state, even more dependent upon and hence attuned to the ever changing cycles of nature than the settled villagers. Remnants of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies also survive, in such areas as Australia and the Kalahari Desert. The Lacandon Mayan economy combines elements from both layers, since they both farm and hunt. Perhaps we should say that the real, or original, First World is the combined world of indigenous people, made up of seminomadic gatherer-hunters and small gardening and farming villages. The historic (and prehistoric) developmental sequencegathering-hunting economies, followed by farming-herding with some elements of hunting and gathering preservedcan be observed to this day in the layering of different strata of society, superimposed one upon the other or blended together like a photographic multiple exposure.
Actually, we should say that this aboriginal, indigenous First World, with its mixed farming, gardening, and hunting economies, is preceded by an even older, primordial worldthe world of nonhuman, or prehuman, nature. The temporal precedence of ecosystem to human culture includes the animals, since Homo sapiens is decidedly the neophyte on the evolutionary stage. In both the ecological and the evolutionary sense, the world of natureof animals, plants, land, water, air, biotic communitiesprovides interdependent support for every living being. This is not so much an earlier culture preceding the aboriginal First World as it is the ecological substrate, the niche or habitat, to which the cultures have developed more or less successful adaptations. We could say that the indigenous or aboriginal cultures constitute the First (human) World, keeping in mind that without the ecological substrate, this world would literally have no place to exist.
In this alternate historic-developmental schema, what then are the Second, Third, and Fourth Worlds? I suggest that they are the world of cities and towns (second), the world of the nation-state (third), and the world of the global capitalist industrial economy (fourth). Historically, each of these worlds was superimposed on the cultures that preceded it, and today they coexist as interpenetrating layers of varying density and concentration. In an ecological sense, the relationship of the later, larger systems is parasitical to the earlier, indigenous cultures: the flow of resources, including raw materials and food, is primarily from the indigenous world to the urban, national, and capitalist-industrial worlds, and military-political control is exerted in the opposite direction. This analysis corresponds to what some call the dynamic beween center (capital concentrations) and periphery (labor and resource pools).
In our journey to the land of the Lacandon Maya, we had traversed these different worlds, traveling backward in time, as it were, to an earlier, pre-industrial, pre-urban culture and sharing for a moment in their way of life, which is primarily First World but interpenetrated in complex ways by Second, Third, and Fourth World culture. The Second World of cities, descended from the city-states of ancient times, is distinguishable from the First World by the presence of specialized workers, producing goods and services; traders; and administrative hierarchies (priests in ancient times, bureaucrats in modern days). The Lacandones participate in the life of the cities by going to trade there, or to buy furniture and supplies, or to work at part-time jobs; they also receive municipal water supply and electricity. Occasional visits from city-based police or bureaucrats maintain the lines of administrative control.
We encountered the nation-state Third World system on our journey when we passed through the Mexican federal army's roadblocks; they controlled the movements into and through the territories occupied by the indigenous peasants using military force. The relationship of the centralized nation-state to the indigenous populations living in peripheral, rural areas is purely exploitative and parasitical. There is nothing that being part of the Mexican nation in reality contributes to the welfare and survival of the Lacandones and other Indian peasant groups. On the contrary, ever since the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas and continuing to this day, the indigenous First World people have been consistently marginalized or exterminated, while their landholdings are expropriated to form the cattle ranches of wealthy Mexicans. The expropriation of Indian lands is supported by the military force of the Mexican central government. Indian and peasant groups who protest this takeover of their ancestral lands, like the Zapatistas and their predecessor revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, are branded as "rebels" and criminalized.
Shortly after President Ernesto Zedillo's aggressive crackdown on the Zapatistas, North American newspapers reported on a leaked memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York to the Mexican government. The memo gave Zedillo an ultimatum: neutralize the Zapatistas or international investors would pull out of Mexico completely, dooming its economy. This message made explicit what many have long suggested was going on behind the scenes. It represents the global power of the multinational financial and industrial corporations to control the political and economic affairs of nation-states. The multinational corporate Fourth World, which is erroneously referred to as "First World" in current political discourse, essentially supports and extends the parasitic, exploitative reach of the nation-state Third World. So-called freetrade agreements, such as GATT, provide the legal framework for the free movement of capital to areas of lowest labor costs and easiest access to natural resources, thus maximizing profit returns.
All over the world, the multinational, capitalist-industrial Fourth World extends its reach, searching for trees, animals, minerals, or fossil fuels that can be converted to profitable commodities. In exchange, the products of this global economic system are sold to ever larger masses of "consumers" in all corners of the globe. The production-consumption tentacles of this Fourth World industrial growth monster had even reached into the Lacandon village, in the form of satellite dishes and color television sets. It was strange to see these TV sets in mud-floored houses in the rain forest and barefoot children watching atrociously vulgar Mexican television gameshows. The Lacandon Maya have been lucky thus farindustrial corporate scouts have not found anything yet in their bioregion that they want to exploit. Indigenous societies in other areas of the Americas have been devastated and destroyed if they live in the path of land-hungry cattle ranchers or the prospectors for oil, gold, or uranium. The most likely threat to the Lacandones will come from logging companies looking for increasingly scarce tropical hardwoods, such as mahogany.
The Lacandones have a prophecy about the end of the world, our anthropologist friend Christian told us. According to their lineage of prophets, of which old Chan K'in is the last representative, the world will be destroyed when the last mahogany tree is gone. In the ecologists' language, we would say the mahogany is the "indicator species" for the Central American rain forest. Its health or death is indicative of the health or death of the entire ecosystem. It is true; when deforestation has proceeded to the degree that there are no mahogany trees left, the forest, and thus the habitat, or world, of the Maya will be destroyed. The prophecy tells that the burning eyes of the One True Lord, Hachak Yum, will consume the forest in flames. The smoke from the burning of tropical rain forests can already be seen from satellites miles above Earth.
The indigenous people of the true, original First World are preparing themselves for the final struggle. Many have nothing left to lose, only the remaining trees and land, and their children, to fight for. And so we are told, in one of the first declarations of the Zapatistas, coming out of the Lacandon jungle: "We are the dead, rising to die again so our people can live once more."
Meet the Author
Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., has been exploring states of consciousness and transformational practices ever since he helped found the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960. He is a psychotherapist and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and the author of many books, including The Psychedelic Experience (with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert), Maps of Consciousness, Opening to Inner Light, The Well of Remembrance, and The Unfolding Self. He lives in Sonoma, California, with his wife and two children.
Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., helped found the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960 and is now a psychotherapist and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He is the author of many books, including The Psychedelic Experience (with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert), Maps of Consciousness, Opening to Inner Light, and The Well of Remembrance. He lives in Sonoma, California.
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