Abandoning the Dream of Modernity

It is becoming increasingly clear to many of us that it is time to abandon what the Achuar people of Ecuador call “the dream of modernity.”

We know about this specifically because of the Pachamama Alliance, and its origin story. The Achuar are what anthropologists call a “dream culture.” Their lives are guided by their dreams, which they share and discuss each day. As Lynn Twist and others from the Alliance tell the story,

By the 1980s, some of the Achuar elders and shamans in the rainforest were having visions of a grave and imminent threat to their people and culture. As industries moved systematically closer and closer to their ancestral lands, they recognized that the roots of this threat lay far beyond their rainforest home.

These elders and shamans knew that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is driven by a complex web of social, political, and economic forces that are the result of the dominant worldview and culture in the Global North.

In 1995, guided by their dreams, they reached out to a group of people who included John Perkins (a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1968 to 1970, and later the author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman), as well as Bill and Lynne Twist, and invited them for what Lynne later described as a shamanic ritual visioning experience in the rainforest. The origin story continues,

The Achuar shared with this group the urgent threat to their lands and culture, their vision for self-determination, and a request for allies from the North who would “change the dream of the modern world”—shifting our culture of overconsumption to one that honors and sustains life.

This is the essence of the story. Of course, a great deal more has followed from it, from the founding of the Pachamama Alliance and its continuing work to this day, to our subsequent participation in a tiny corner of this world, the Pachamama Alliance of the Rochester Area.

But this is just the preamble to the story I want to tell. The way I saw the message of the Achuar, it was about the harm almost incidentally being done by “the consumer society” in its quest for oil and other natural resources under the land of the northern Amazon. But having just re-read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, it’s clear that this is about more than the consumer culture. It’s about the whole project of what we call “civilization,” the dominant culture of the past 10-12,000 years.

As Quinn presents it, human beings are always enacting a story, and there have been two great stories in the history of humanity, giving rise to the populations he calls the Leavers and the Takers. Today we might say that these are the stories of the indigenous and the (more or less unified) story of the conquerors or colonizers. Quinn was struck by a thought that has always bothered me — why is it that we think of the last ten thousand years as if it were the whole of human history, and pretty much disregard everything that happened during the previous three million years of human existence? Did nothing of much importance happen other than the development of tools and the discovery of fire?

It’s true that we don’t know as much about what we sometimes call  “prehistory,” which includes the period during which Atlantis is said to have existed. For us, human history comes into existence with the invention of writing; before that, everything was just supposition or inference from archeological remains. Since our knowledge of the preceding three million years is thus hypothetical, it has a kind of opaque quality compared to what we think we know of our own history. For most of us it is simply the preamble to our story, and even then is largely forgotten.

But in Quinn’s view, a full account of human history has to include all those centuries of tribal life which existed before the agricultural revolution, within traditions that continue down to the indigenous peoples of today. That existence was clearly “sustainable,” whereas our modern story is that of a break in the flow, leading to a separation from nature, and indeed from reality — and inevitably giving rise to a war with nature, an all-out effort to subdue it. The humans who adopted this narrative (by which I mean us) believed that they owned the world, whereas the indigenous have always believed that the world owns us; we are inseparable from nature and belong to Gaia, not the other way around.

(It’s important to recognize that this is a broad generalization about indigenous and modern cultures; just as the history of our civilization of the past ten thousand years is enormously varied, it’s obvious that “prehistoric” cultures took many forms during the preceding three million years. The common theme, however, was an acceptance of the natural environment as the sole context for life, as opposed to the idea that “man was the measure of all things” and could create a new reality by rising “above” nature and excavating it to fabricate an entirely artificial world of factories and shopping malls and housing tracts at the expense of all other species. By implication, prehistoric societies were subject to the natural forces of evolution, whereas modern society claims to have escaped them and to be free to evolve culturally and technologically with little or no regard for the biophysical systems we are embedded in.)

The implications of this for our actions today are enormous. Rather than asking what we want from the world, we should be asking what the world wants from us.

The good news is that many younger people are beginning to do this. They are seeking to listen to the voices of the Earth and of the indigenous cultures that have survived “since time immemorial,” living lightly on the land in the company of many other large and small creatures. Joe Brewer, author of The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth, and founder of Earth Regenerators and Barichara Ecoversity, speaks of the need for us to become “the future indigenous,” an idea that may seem almost blasphemous to those who are barely awakening to the idea that we need to honor the values of those cultures that we have almost destroyed—but is entirely obvious to their current descendants.

Often it takes a change in the generations for there to be a change in the culture, in our collective consciousness. Rather than holding on to the old paradigm, and either resigning ourselves to collapse (and possibly extinction) or hoping that some new technology will save the day, we need to shift our mindset from one of domination to that of partnership. Others, both before and since, have made this point, from Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade to Charles Eisenstein in The Ascent of Humanity and other books, including Sacred Economics.

But Ishmael puts it in a way that forces us to recognize the absolute futility of expecting the Taker culture to find a clever solution that allows us to go on as before. Here the parallels with the story of Atlantis are obvious: just as the advanced technologies of the Atlanteans could not prevent them from sinking beneath the waves, no amount of clever engineering will hold back the rising oceans — and in both cases, it is pure hubris to suppose that we can walk away unscathed from the devastation that we are bringing upon ourselves and the rest of terrestrial life. We are already in overshoot on seven out of nine planetary boundaries. It is futile to believe that we will somehow swerve right at the edge of the cliff; indeed, we have already gone past the edge of the cliff but like Wiley Coyote have not yet realized that we are in thin air.

The story of Atlantis is usually viewed as a parable or a myth, and Plato tells it in a way that seems to have little relevance to our time—yet sea level rise may bring humanity to much the same end if we continue to pursue our objectives at the expense of the Earth’s. In this sense, it is a cautionary tale. And as in our personal version, it seems as if we are again doomed to fail. Perhaps the best we can do is to persuade a few to abandon the dream of modernity and devote themselves to restoring the bioregions of the Earth in order to ensure that some portion of life survives.


Of course, this does not mean that we are going to abandon useful tools and technologies. The collapse of civilizations in the past has usually meant the abandonment of the knowledge and culture created by those civilizations. This time it seems likely that, if humanity survives at all, the future will carry over quite a few elements of the present, including some version of the digital world as well as older tools such as writing and printing. The work of Earth Regenerators combines permaculture and syntropic agroforestry with crypto, DeFi, and ReFi. There are shamanic practices alongside complex real estate and other transactions. Dozens of new startups are trying to figure out, and provide platforms for, the new peer-to-peer economy.

This is really the key. If we can detach ourselves from the centralized institutions that dominate our current degenerative capitalism, we may perhaps begin to fashion another world. If we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the “almighty dollar,” and find ways to recognize value rather than price, we can build another economy. This is the promise of Web 3. Its practitioners are fond of reciting Bucky Fuller’s injunction to stop fighting the existing reality and instead build a better model that makes the old one obsolete.


Concluding thought:

there is something we can’t bear to look at, and we are trying to distract attention from it by screaming at the people who are pointing it out. The thing we are avoiding is the thing that we used to call ‘nature’, and the reality that we are trying to distract attention from is that we are part of it, we live inside it and that everything we do to it we also do to ourselves. Change the climate out there and it changes in here. Erode the soil, erode your soil. Poison the oceans, poison your culture. This is how it works, and this is what we are now facing.

And we cannot face it; even those of us who think we can. Whatever we think our politics are – and they are likely to be the least important thing about us – we have no idea what to do about the coming end of the brief age of abundance, and the reappearance, armed and dangerous, of what we could get away with denying for a few decades: limits. Those who point these limits out – and who point out, especially, that the very existence of industrial modernity might be the root cause of the problems we currently face – can expect to be smacked down with the worst insults our culture can conjure.


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