…I felt this way way back then, when you’d be labeled mad….but now you’d be mad NOT to feel this way….

Everything We Tell Ourselves About America and the World Is Wrong

Why we need a new story that gives meaning to the world.
December 29, 2012  |  Charles Eisenstein/AlterNet
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Alexander Tihonov
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Every culture has a Story of the People to give meaning to the world. Part conscious and part unconscious, it consists of a matrix of agreements, narratives, and symbols that tell us why we are here, where we are headed, what is important, and even what is real. I think we are entering a new phase in the dissolution of our Story of the People, and therefore, with some lag time, of the edifice of civilization built on top of it.
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Sometimes I feel intense nostalgia for the cultural mythology of my youth, a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Superbowl was important, in which the world’s greatest democracy was bringing democracy to the world, in which science was going to make life better and better. Life made sense. If you worked hard you could get good grades, get into a good college, go to grad school or follow some other professional path, and you would be happy. With a few unfortunate exceptions, you would be successful if you obeyed the rules of our society: if you followed the latest medical advice, kept informed by reading the New York Times, and stayed away from Bad Things like drugs. Sure there were problems, but the scientists and experts were working hard to fix them. Soon a new medical advance, a new law, a new educational technique, would propel the onward improvement of life. My childhood perceptions were part of this Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology, to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society.
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From my vantage point, the basic premises of this story seemed unquestionable. After all, it seemed to be working in my world. Looking back, I realize that this was a bubble world built atop massive human suffering and environmental degradation, but at the time one could live within that bubble without need of much self-deception. The story that surrounded us was robust. It easily kept anomalous data points on the margins.
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Since my childhood in the 1970s, that story has eroded at an accelerating rate. More and more people in the West no longer believe that civilization is fundamentally on the right track. Even those who don’t yet question its basic premises in any explicit way seem to have grown weary of it. A layer of cynicism, a hipster self-awareness has muted our earnestness. What was once so real, say a plank in a party platform, today is seen through several levels of “meta” filters to parse it in terms of image and message. We are like children who have grown out of a story that once enthralled us, aware now that it is only a story.
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At the same time, a series of new data points has disrupted the story from the outside. The harnessing of fossil fuels, the miracle of chemicals to transform agriculture, the methods of social engineering and political science to create a more rational and just society – each has fallen far short of its promise, and brought unanticipated consequences that threaten civilization. We just cannot believe anymore that the scientists have everything well in hand. Nor can we believe that the onward march of reason will bring on social utopia.
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Today we cannot ignore the intensifying degradation of the biosphere, the malaise of the economic system, the decline in health, or the persistence and indeed growth of global poverty and inequality. We once thought economists would fix poverty, political scientists would fix social injustice, chemists and biologists would fix environmental problems, the power of reason would prevail and we would adopt sane policies. I remember looking at maps of rain forest decline in National Geographic in the early 1980s and feeling both alarm and relief – relief because at least the scientists and everyone who reads National Geographic is aware of the problem now, so something surely will be done.
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Nothing was done. Rainforest decline accelerated, along with nearly every other environmental threat that we knew about in 1980. Our Story of the People trundled forward under the momentum of centuries, but with each passing decade the hollowing-out of its core, that started perhaps with the industrial-scale slaughter of World War One, extended further. When I was a child, our system of ideology and mass media still protected that story, but in the last thirty years the incursions of reality have punctured its protective shell and have ruptured its essential infrastructure. We no longer believe our storytellers, our elites. We don’t believe the politicians, we don’t believe the doctors, we don’t believe the professors, we don’t believe the bankers, we don’t believe the technologists. All of them imply that everything is under control, and we know that it is not. We have lost the vision of the future we once had; most people have no vision of the future at all. This is new for our society. Fifty or a hundred years ago, most people agreed on the general outlines of the future. We thought we knew where society was going. Even the Marxists and the capitalists agreed on its basic outlines: a paradise of mechanized leisure and scientifically engineered social harmony, with spirituality either abolished entirely or relegated to a materially inconsequential corner of life that happened mostly on Sundays. Of course there were dissenters from this vision, but this was the general consensus.
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When a story nears its end it goes through death throes, an exaggerated semblance of life. So today we see domination, conquest, violence, and separation take on absurd extremes that hold a mirror up to what was once hidden and diffuse. The year 2012 ended with just such a potent story-disrupting event: the Sandy Hook massacre. Even realizing that far more, equally innocent, children have been killed in the last few years by, say, U.S. drone strikes, it really got under my skin. No one was immune. I think that is because its utter senselessness penetrated every defense mechanism we have to maintain the fiction that the world is basically OK. Unlike 9/11 or Oklahoma City, and certainly unlike the horrors that go on around the world, there was no convenient narrative to divert the raw pain of what happened. We cannot help but map those murdered innocents onto the young faces we know, and the anguish of their parents onto ourselves. At the base of our Story of the People is separation, of humanity from nature, of me from you, of each from all, and this event united everyone, of whatever culture, nationality, or political persuasion. For a moment, we all felt the exact same thing. For at least a moment, I am sure, most people were in touch with the simplicity of what is important; I am sure many people had that fleeting feeling, “It doesn’t have to be that difficult, if only we could remember what is so obvious now, that love is all there is.” We humans have made such a mess of things, forgetting love. It is the same realization we have when a loved one is going through the dying process, and we think, “Ah, how precious this person is – why couldn’t I see that? Why couldn’t I appreciate all those moments we had together? All the arguments and grudges seem so tiny now.”
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Following that moment, of course, people hurried to make sense of the event, subsuming it within a narrative about gun control, mental health, or the security of school buildings. Maybe I am imagining things, but I don’t think anyone really believes deep down that these responses touch the heart of the matter. Gun culture, we know, is a symptom of something deeper, and the violence that finds expression through guns would, even in their absence, come out in some other way. Mental illness too is a problem so vast that it is essentially unsolvable in our current system; it too comes from a deeper source. As for school security, a Chinese saying describes all the measures proposed: they stop the gentleman but not the villain.
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