They both got PhDs, taught and did research at universities and then left the ivory tower, deciding, as Socrates did, to take their message to the streets. And their common concern is how to live in a way that’s not a lie in our time of climate change, peak oil and economic and cultural crisis.
McPherson’s background is in ecology and management of natural resources. Ackerman’s is in cultural philosophy and intellectual history. They both, though, reached a point where they decided to turn their backs on what Scott Nearing called The Establishment and try to find deeper meaning and authenticity in their lives.
McPherson lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house in Arizona where he puts into practice his lifelong interest in sustainable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Ackerman lives at Shastao Philosophical Hermitage, a solar-powered community in Mt. Shasta, California, where she raises almost all of her own food, uses a bicycle for transportation and is active in her town’s re-localization efforts.
Both McPherson and Ackerman have given life to the words that Vaclav Havel penned in his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” They have found the strength within themselves to “express solidarity with those whom their conscience commands them to support.” They have, again in Havel’s words, “stepped out of living within the lie and are attempting to live within the truth.”
But, this attempt to “live within the truth” can come with the price-tag of being ostracized and criticized. It would probably be pretty interesting to sit up into the wee hours talking with these two old professors. The next best thing might be to read some of their dialogues, such as the one below:
ACKERMAN: Guy, Derrick Jensen recently lamented that Americans have “been systematically trained to identify more closely with—and care more about–industrial capitalism than life itself.” Let’s start our discussion with his observation, as I think that the philosophical implications of this claim (and I agree with it) are absolutely staggering.
McPHERSON: Staggering indeed.
Jensen’s work documents how poorly we treat non-human species and people living within non-industrial cultures, as well as pointing out the horrific consequences of industrial capitalism even within this culture. Born into captivity (to borrow a phrase from my friend, the filmmaker and author Timothy Scott Bennett), most Americans fail to see the bars imprisoning us. Immersed in a culture that shapes a majority of the citizenry into submissive drones, we largely accept the cultural conditioning that favors money over happiness. Among the many barely-questioned outcomes are obedience at home, oppression abroad, and wholesale destruction of the living planet.
Obviously, there’s a better way to live. Equally obviously, most Americans will never seek that way because they are marinating in this one way.
ACKERMAN: As you know, Guy, I took the “road less traveled by” way back in the early 1970’s—and moved to Vermont to live on a back-to-the-earth commune. It struck me back then that something was dreadfully wrong with our cultural paradigm. And — although I felt this then — I really didn’t see the full scope of the problem.
Now, though, it’s in my face. I can’t miss it. So, although I agree with you that most people don’t see it, that fact scares me. Ignorance is not bliss.
And, a society unprepared for post-industrialism isn’t a very comforting thought.
Back in the late 1990’s, I read The Paradigm Conspiracy: Why Our Social Systems Violate Human Potential — And How We Can Change Them by fellow philosophers Denise Breton and Christopher Largent. They posited that the system was geared toward jamming everyone into a role — what you’re calling a “submissive drone” — instead of allowing any creative expression of authenticity. Our roles perpetuate separateness, which, in turn fosters toxic competitiveness, greed and senseless acquisition.
They maintain that it is only in breaking out of our roles and inhabiting our true nature — our inter-connected, community oriented, cooperative selves — that we’ll begin to shift as a culture.
But, I think that our authenticity has been so buried under myriad piles of cultural conditioning that, for many, it’s obscured. Completely darked-out.
This is a terrifying thought, because, if it’s true, we’ve become a whole different species. It would mean that our essential “humanness” is no longer operative and that, in reality, we’re not even human. We’re the end product of a system gone awry. Walking, talking robots.
When Herbert Marcuse, who had a powerful influence on my philosophical development, considered this issue, which he called One Dimensional Man, he used to say that in order to make a sufficient course correction, we would have to become a whole “new biological man.”
This, to me, corresponds to a radical shift in consciousness. But, what is is going to take for this shift to take form? We’re perilously close to collapse….and, like Nero, most fiddle.
What do you foresee as the next step?
Recovering our humanity
McPHERSON: I certainly agree with the assessment of Breton and Largent, although I’m optimistic about recovering our humanity when the ongoing collapse of the world’s industrial economy is complete.
In considering our humanity as defined by most dictionaries, I think the following lines from Walking Away from Empire are relevant:
Are we capable of being humane? How deeply do you have to drill into your memory to come up with a time you saw a large group of people acting compassionately, sympathetically, considerately toward other humans or animals? On the other hand — and please excuse my eternally optimistic outlook as it bubbles to the surface yet again — it’s probably quite easy to recall the last time you saw an individual human being displaying those same characteristics. Probably it was you, earlier today.
I believe industrial civilization pushes away our sense of humanity. But I think our humanity still lies within us, and is bursting to get out. As a result, I think we should prepare for completion of collapse in every way we can, most importantly including psychologically and emotionally.
It’s not the end of the world: It’s the beginning of a new one and, in my opinion, a better one.
In my entire life, the world has become a worse place every single year. But in the years ahead, the living planet will make a comeback instead of dying at the hands of industry. In the years ahead, the world’s population of carnivores, salmon, and rare species will increase every year instead of declining every year. In the years ahead, we’ll see less polluted air, less fouled water, and less soil dumped into the world’s oceans.
I can hardly wait for the turning point.
ACKERMAN: You’re echoing the sentiments of one of favorite Cultural Philosophers, Jean Gebser. He was a European Jew and became vexed by the lack of “humanness” proliferating during the Nazi aggression that led to WWII. He framed his inquiry around the question, “how can we do this kind of thing to each other?”
He didn’t just ask the question — he obsessed on it. He studied everything — philosophy, psychology, science, art, anthropology and so forth — searching for an answer.
His research suggested that human beings have lived in five distinctly different periods of psycho-history. He called it “psycho-history” because he was adamant that we create history. It isn’t something that “just happens” and of which we are helpless victims. It’s our human psyches — our structures of consciousness — that spin it out.
He called the era that we’re currently in the Mental-Rational Period. It’s a period characterized by egoism and its resulting alienation and isolation. He felt that if this structure of consciousness became “deficient”, the Mental-Rational period would increase in a loss of community, connectedness to the earth and social alienation.
The many crises affecting us today — ecological, social, economic, political — can all be traced to the effects of the Mental-Rational structure of consciousness entering its deficient mode.
Even though, however, in “deficiency” (decline), it still contains the seed of the next positive evolutionary stage. It’s there, gestating, waiting for the right time to come into being.
Gebser would agree with your statement that, “our humanity still lies within us, and is bursting to get out.” That’s what he called the “latent” seed of the next positive evolutionary stage — already there, just waiting to emerge.
Gebser would have considered the current breakdown a kind of clearing away, a making space for a new structure of consciousness, which he called the Integral, to arrive. As its name suggests, in this structure, all of the previous structures will be integrated.
This new structure of consciousness will transcend the singular, egoistic I-ness of the Mental-Rational period. There will be more concern for the whole, for the Earth. “We” will be more important than “Me.” People will rise to the realization that all of life matters. There will be equality among people, care of Nature, appreciation for the arts, and the adoption of more simple, satisfying lifestyles.
Gebser didn’t think that we would have to go through a total collapse in order for the Integral to manifest. He saw it beginning to sprout up like a fresh flower among the weeds of the decaying deficient Mental-Rational structure. For a while, the two structures would co-exist in a difficult transition.
I think he was right. I see early signs of the dawn of the Integral structure. It’s not attained a tipping point yet (and the old Mental-Rational structure is grasping and gasping to hold on with all of its might), but it’s started. Little by little, here and there, I hear about pockets of renewal and awakening: relocalization, renewable energy, sacred economics.
I’m particularly interested in facilitating a redirection of cultural focus from a “goods” life to a Good Life.
Sources of inspiration
McPHERSON: Your recent book certainly points a way, Sherry.
I’m attempting to follow the lead of you and your back-to-the-land generation, albeit much later. In my opinion, and clearly in your opinion as well, this alternative way of conducting our lives is superior to the conventional, industrial model regardless of whether collapse is under way and accelerating. Living outside the dominant paradigm has advantages well beyond extending our lives for a few more years, especially for those of us who have enjoyed relatively long and rich lives.
Taking an alternative approach is facilitated, and perhaps requires, a strong sense of personal identity as well as an underlying philosophy. Reading the ancients has been tremendously important for me, but such pursuits necessarily occur outside the public schools. The entire system of public education in the United States was designed with industry in mind.
As I wrote in Letters to a Young Academic, a book published in 2006:
The captains of industry and leaders of government set out to create an educational system that would maintain social order (and increase their profits). How? By teaching students just enough to serve industry but not enough so they could think for themselves. Questioning the sociopolitical order and communicating articulately were not part of the plan. Americans were to become drones in a government-subsidized country ruled by corporations. While Reagan-era neo-conservatives were excoriating communism as a system in which government controls industry, they were promoting a system built on an even worse idea, one in which industry controls government.
School is indeed a training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less) but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.
Henry reached this conclusion after spending hundreds of hours in the classrooms of our public school system and reviewing a mountain of published evidence. His scathing critique of American culture strongly supports the notion that individuality and creativity are purposely eviscerated from students well before they complete high school.
But Henry’s critique of public education is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The industrialized economy and the culture underlying it influence every aspect of our lives. As journalist and activist Dorothy Day pointed out many years ago, “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
We won’t overcome the predicaments of runaway climate change, extinction, human-population overshoot, conspicuous consumption, and all the attendant challenges by working within this “filthy, rotten system.” Rather, we must abandon this flawed paradigm in exchange for a better way to live.
A whole new story
ACKERMAN: Henry very aptly pointed out that culture was originally structured to assist man in his battle for survival in nature. In other words, the dominant cultural structure viewed nature as an unfriendly environment, which man had to “battle” — to overcome — in order to survive. Over time, this “battle” against nature came to be seen as normal — and, ultimately, became called “civilization” or “progress.”
In fact, any person who didn’t adapt to these cultural expectations risked being classified as criminal, insane, or a drain on society.
This is where our work begins — by deconstructing the memes that hold this whole lie in place.
We’ve been lied to, short-changed and violated by a system that has profited greatly from our unconsciousness. We’ve let the puppet masters run the show. It’s time to wake up and get pro-active. Now — or never — we have to write a whole New Story.
This New Story needs to come from us — from the ground-up and the inside-out. But, as you and I know, story writing takes a lot of time and commitment. When one is writing a story, there’s no time for lolling around malls, watching TV, online shopping and any number of other activities that distract the mind. If a New Story is to emerge, people have to direct their minds toward that which is good, not that which is cheap, fast and convenient.
Cheap, fast and convenient are what have gotten us into the mess that the world is in today.
McPHERSON: The story we’ve been telling ourselves — the story of civilization — began a few thousand years ago. The big lie keeps growing, and even relatively recent philosophers have joined the fray.
Pragmatist American philosopher William James declared, in his eponymous 1910 essay, “The moral equivalent of war,” that overcoming nature is a moral imperative. The timing of this essay contributed to a rapid change in the way we treat wildfires in this country: suddenly all fires were evil, based on a pronouncement from a philosopher on his deathbed.
The really odd part of this story is how little we’ve learned from early philosophers such as Plato, Lao Tsu, and the Buddha. They focused on creating lives of excellence based on simplicity, not on the latest toys. And, like Scott and Helen Nearing, early philosophers recognized the importance of a holistic approach to life. They promoted excellence in physical life as well as in the intellectual arena.
The Buddha went so far as to promote the idea that the self is not separate from the environment, including other humans. That’s a lesson we could take into our hearts today.
ACKERMAN: The lie is indigenous to Gebser’s Mental-Rational Period, which took root between 5,000 B.C.E. and 500 B.C.E. (but which we’re still in today).
But to go back to the beginning, it was at this time that man, to use Gebser’s image, stepped out of the mythical circle into three-dimensional space. Mythology had become so deficient (and it should be noted that each structure has its “efficient” as well as “deficient” form), that man needed a clean break with the past. (And, now we’re at that point again–with the Mental-Rational structure of consciousness having become so deficient that we need a clean break with it.)
Back then, the plethora of gods and contradictory stories of creation, formation of institutions, and so on threatened to overwhelm the consciousness of man; he practically stood on the verge of drowning in a deluge of mythological mentation.
In reaction to this, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and of course, Pythagoras stepped forth to counteract this trend. The Mental-Rational structure was inaugurated. These philosophers offered a really functional synthesis of “efficient” mythic structures of consciousness with the emerging Mental-Rational structure — until causality was discovered. At that point, abstraction became the key word to describe mental activity and we find man using his mind to overcome and master the world around him.
Monotheism almost universally replaced the plethora of gods of bygone days; dogma, in both allegory and creed, replaced the symbols of previous times; and method replaced the mysteries as man developed an ever-increasing desire to penetrate, and, of course, master nature.
McPHERSON: Over time, we’ve ratcheted up our seemingly never-ending desire to master nature.
Within the last century or so, our mastery over nature has been greatly facilitated by ready access to inexpensive fossil fuels. Those days are behind us, fortunately.
It appears the planet contained barely enough rope to allow Homo sapiens to hang ourselves. The rope is cheap oil, and climate change is the hangman.
I’m not giving up yet, but time is short and the stakes are higher than most people realize. It’s an open question whether, at this point, there’s world enough and time to save our species and a large enough fraction of the other species on Earth to make a significant difference. As pointed out in the journal Climatic Change in November 2009, only complete collapse of the industrial economy prevents runaway climate change.
ACKERMAN: I feel that this, Guy, is at the heart of your message.
You’ve been very clear that only complete collapse of the industrial society will effectively restore the earth and nature. Seen from this perspective, this collapse is not to be feared, but to be anticipated as the next healthy, natural step in our evolution. Every phase of psycho-history eventually morphs into the next. And, we’re standing right on that precipice — in liminal space — ready to Occupy the next phase structure of consciousness — the Integral.
This means that the Old Story will end. We will write a whole New Story. And, that New Story will represent the next phase of enculturation.
The question, of course, is how fast can we write? How long will it take until we have crafted the New Story? If we don’t start building the new paradigm, it will be too late, because the old one, in and of itself, is destroying its economies, environments and energy resources.
To me, trying to awaken people’s creative juices and get them focused on writing the New Story is the premiere task to be addressed.
McPHERSON: I couldn’t agree more, Sherry.
With collaboration as a key ingredient, I’ve tried to write a New Story for myself and, like you, I’m trying to show the way to a new and better future for people and other animals. I strongly suspect there will be many New Stories, each of them rooted in place as required by Nature in the form of relocalization.
At least, that’s my hope and my dream.
–Transition Voice with Guy McPherson and Sherry L. Ackerman