Sunday Book Excerpt: Threshold - The Progressive Plan to Pull America Back from the Brink
How humans are hitting the thresholds of our environmental, cultural and psychological limits...and what we can do to rescue ourselves and life on our planet
Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.
In March of 1978 I met a man who for the next thirty years became a major force and role model in my life (I wrote a book about him titled “The Prophet’s Way”). Gottfried Mueller was, at the time, in his sixties and ran an internationally known famine relief and social work organization headquartered out of Germany. But his personal obsession was the near future, which he saw coming at us like an oncoming train.
We sat in Stadtsteinach, Germany, in the guest house of his organization Salem, and over a glass of organic red wine he put a paper between us on the table and with a pen drew a quick L – a vertical and horizontal line that was each a few inches long.
“Consider human population,” he said, starting to draw from the beginning point. “For a hundred thousand years we were pretty steady.” The line moved a few inches forward, left to right. “Then we started to grow. In 1800 we hit a billion. In 1930 two billion.” The line was starting to curve up. “Three billion in 1960. Four billion in 1974. And they say it’ll be five billion by 1987!” The line curved sharply up toward the top of the page.
“Now,” he said, drawing another L, look at everything else. “Poverty.” An upward line. “Diseases.” Another line shooting up. “Death of the forests and most things living in them.” Another line. “Pollution.” Another upward arc.
He continued through a dozen or so of the ills of humankind, from violence to crime to our consumption of food and water.
“When you see this curve,” he said, “you are in trouble. Each of these must hit a threshold. After the top of that threshold, there is either transformation or disaster, most often disaster. If you and I and others don’t do something about this, we are in trouble. The world is in trouble.”
He was right, and looking back on that March day in the rolling hills of the northern Bavarian Frankenwald forest, I realize that if anything he was an optimist. He thought it may be a generation, maybe even two, before the crises would be so great that we’d be facing disasters of biblical proportions.
Yet in 2008 over 30 countries had food riots. While just one multinational corporation, Exxon, showed a more than $40 billion profit in 2007, the World Bank in July of 2008 was begging the G8 group of the eight richest nations in the world for $3.5 billion to feed the world’s most destitute people. They encountered considerable resistance. After all, governments aren’t the solution in this brave new world, they’re the problem. Right?
The world is right now tottering atop three major thresholds: an environment that is so afire it may no longer be able to support human life; an economic “free market” system that is almost entirely owned, run and milked by a tiny fraction of one percent of us and has crashed and in many ways is burning around us; and an explosion of human flesh on the planet that has turned our species into a global Petri dish just waiting for an infective agent to run amok.
Four mistakes have brought us to this point, and the failure to recognize them at their deepest level will only push us faster toward total tipping points where we are thrown over the Three Thresholds into disaster. All four of these Mistakes are grounded in our culture, our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why we’re here.
The first Mistake is a belief that we’re separate from nature. Our religions tell us we were created by a supernatural being who is not part of this Earth, not from this planet. He set us apart from all other life, and many among us – perhaps even the majority of the six billion of us – don’t even believe that we are animals, but instead think we’re a totally unique life form.
The second Mistake is a belief that an abstraction – an economic system – is divine and separated from us. This mythical so-called “free market,” so we believe, operates under its own divine rules and is entirely and eternally self-regulating. It is always right. The fact that it’s more than 95 percent owned and run by fewer than .0001 percent of us is just the way things are, always were, and must be. We are here to serve the economy, this belief goes; it’s not here to serve us.
The third Mistake is a belief that men should run the world, and that women are their property. While it may seem that women’s rights are well advanced and society is nearly egalitarian in the First World, the US, Western Europe, and Australia combined are only about a quarter of the population of the world. In India it’s still a common rural practice for men to burn their wives to death simply because it’s more convenient than divorce. In many Arab countries and across much of Africa and South America it’s not uncommon for women to be murdered by their families if they “dishonor” the family by not going along with an arranged marriage or not being a virgin. Even in the First World, women are still routinely excluded from positions of power in the world’s largest institutions (like the Catholic Church).
This is one of our Biggest Mistakes, not just because it’s morally deficient or because it can be biologically challenged, but because its primary result is an explosion in population.
The fourth Mistake is a belief that the best way to influence people is through fear rather than through the power of love, compassion, or support. We stand baffled when Palestinians in Gaza vote for a political party that has a long history of terrorist activity, somehow completely overlooking the fact that that same group has been feeding people, building hospitals and schools, and providing old age and widower pensions to people in need. We think we can threaten and bomb people into liking us and behaving in ways that are consistent with our best interests while ignoring theirs. We have come to believe that we are not our brother’s keeper, that we are separate from all other humanity on the planet.