Global pandemic, social distancing, widespread shut-downs, testing and “tracing,” economic crisis, and more recently, massive protests and social unrest, not just in the US, but around the world — What does it all mean? Like virtually everyone else in the world, my attention lately has been focused on that question.
I don’t feel terribly anxious about Covid-19, even though for me personally it poses a significant existential threat. Although I’m fortunate to have no chronic illnesses, I am well advanced in years, and according to some recent reports, my gender, blood type, and ethnic heritage may put me further at risk.
I am more concerned about the social, political and economic impacts of the situation and governments’ reactions to it which may turn out to be more disruptive than the pandemic itself. At the same time I am hopeful, even optimistic, that this crisis brings with it great opportunities for positive changes that are long overdue.
For many years now I have been contemplating the phenomenon of metamorphosis, of which the caterpillar to the butterfly is the best-known example. In my book, The End of Money and the Future of Civilization (Chelsea Green, 2009) I devoted an entire chapter to the concept and its possible applicability to human evolution and the present course of civilization. I observed back then that “The intensifying mega-crisis that confronts the world today is multidimensional. It is not only environmental, but also simultaneously economic, financial, cultural, religious, and political. It seems that all of our institutions, and the various structures upon which we depend, are breaking down.”
Now, more than a decade later, we are facing added pressures from the pandemic, massive social upheaval, and economic collapse that have brought us to an acute stage and turning point. The old “caterpillar society” is disintegrating and the new “butterfly society” is struggling to emerge. The late Willis Harman repeatedly asked, “What in the world is it that is trying to happen?” and “What can, or should, we do to assist it?”
We see today a number of trends that common reason argues cannot continue, yet they seem to have an unstoppable momentum: human population growth, climate change, despoliation of the environment, increasing economic inequity among peoples and countries, erosion of democratic government, social alienation, and the increasing inability of institutions to achieve their intended purposes.
In response, political and business leaders around the world are proposing techno-fixes of one sort or another to try to keep civilization going pretty much as it has been for the past few centuries. Bill Gates wants to “vaccinate” every single person on the planet, others want to mess with the earth’s atmosphere to block the heat from the sun, and still others are proposing policies that are intended to enable (oxymoronic) “green growth.” Such “solutions” will require further centralization of power and decision making, the end state of which will be a “new world order” of mass regimentation, mass surveillance, and domination the by power elite. That’s a dystopia too gruesome to contemplate, but it’s precisely where we’re headed.
To confront this crisis we need a new story about who we are as humans and a clear vision of the sort of world we wish to inhabit. If metamorphosis is an apt analogy, then the “caterpillar” stage of human evolution is coming to an end and the chrysalis stage is now underway. The disintegrating “caterpillar” body cannot be sustained or reconstituted; we can only proceed with the metamorphic process, which means complete disintegration as the economy becomes a resource “soup” that will feed the emergent butterfly society. That suggests a radical pulling back from the old ways of doing things and applying our resources, creativity and intelligence to completely redesigning and rebuilding of all our political, economic, financial, social, and cultural structures—the things that have been hard-wired through our laws, institutions, and social norms. Here is our opportunity to create new structures and processes that are consistent with the values we espouse and the outcomes we wish to produce.
In situations like this we often hear the argument, “you can’t change human nature,” as if everything were predetermined and unchanging. But if there is one constant in nature, it is change. Adaptation is a continual process that is widely observed, and human behavior has been shown to be highly dependent upon the situations in which we are embedded. Our behavior is highly interactive with our social, political and economic structures; each determines the other. If we are fortunate, we will succeed in emerging as the new creature that I think humanity was always destined to become, bending our swords into plowshares and learning to live together as one human family.
Being conscious of what is happening makes it possible for us to help it happen in a way that will be less violent and painful than it might otherwise be. My recent reading of Daniel Quinn’s book, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, has affirmed my long held notion that social reorganization needs to proceed along tribal lines, not for the purpose of competing with one another, but for the purpose of rebuilding society from the bottom upward based on our relations with the people we know and trust. When institutions have become so toughly corrupted and dysfunctional is there any other way?
Quinn points out that, as humans have evolved over many millennia, it has been within small cohesive groups or “tribes,” not in mass societies like nation states, and that many civilizations in the past have collapsed when people simply “walked away” from them. Is it possible that we today can walk away from industrial civilization and the structures on which we have become so dependent? When my forebears and millions others walked away from their lives in the “old world” and headed for the Americas, they left behind all that was familiar in search of something better. Today, “walking away” has little or nothing to do with geography; it is about exploring “inner space,” becoming more self-aware, examining our values, attitudes and beliefs; it is about confronting our anger and our fear; it is about speaking our truth, walking our talk, and being more authentic; it is about finding ways to live that are respectful, peaceful, beneficent, compassionate and cooperative; it is about sharing, generosity and mutual support. And above all, it is about remaining ever mindful that, as Eckhart Tolle has said, “It puts as much pain into the world to take offense as to give offense.”
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This article was originally published on Medium.