Oct 20, 2009
Review: The Living Universe by Duane Elgin
In the current moment it is nearly impossible to trust many of the voices in our world that issue from the field of economics. It is safe to say that none of the most esteemed in the field has the slightest idea how to address the global economic crisis. So when I picked up Duane Elgin’s book The Living Universe: Where Are We? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?, I was a bit wary when I read about his MBA from Wharton Business School—that is, until I realized that he is also the author of Voluntary Simplicity: Toward A Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. Even more reassuring is Elgin’s work as a social research scientist at SRI International and his work with Joseph Campbell alongside his lifelong commitment to integrate science, economics, and the world’s greatest wisdom traditions.
Elgin asserts that on the other side of our growing systems crisis, the world will be a decidedly different place depending on our actions now. We will either have an Earth ruined through conflict or an Earth restored through cooperation. Echoing the perspective of geologian and eco-scholar, Thomas Berry, Elgin states that:
The universe is deeply alive as an evolving and learning system and we humans are on a journey of discovery within it. We are learning to live within a living universe. If we lose sight of where we are (living in a living universe) we profoundly diminish our understanding of who we are…and where we are going….
The book is divided into the three categories above, with a final section on “Actions For The Journey Ahead.” Realizing that many readers may not espouse the living universe perspective, Elgin goes to great lengths in the book to establish a rational foundation for his assertion, skillfully marrying the principles of modern science with ancient wisdom. Although I read the entire book, I found the first two sections onerous since I needed little persuasion regarding the scientific basis for arguing the case of a living universe. However, for those who do, Elgin’s arguments are intellectually sound and powerfully compelling.
My interest in the book lies in the third section: Where are we going? Elgin wastes no time telling us that we are hanging from the edge of the cliff, but he does not leave us there because he reminds us that at this pregnant time in human history, we are each called to help birth a larger vision of the human journey. The author underscores what I have been asserting for many years and what I reiterated throughout my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, namely, that more than just a successful response to climate disruption and the dwindling supply of cheap oil, we need a compelling story about the human journey that enables us to look beyond looming conflicts over scarce resources. As citizens of the earth, every person has the right and responsibility to contribute to the collective visioning of our journey.
Essential Excerpts from The Living Universe
While it’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves, we are at a dangerous time in the transition from separation to communion. We are between two major stages and moving rapidly into a time of planetary initiation. Entering as we are a world system crisis, we must choose whether we will pull together in creative cooperation or pull apart in profound conflict. According to Elgin, the coming decades will reveal the soul of our species and provide the opportunity for a rite of passage from one great trajectory of learning development to another.
A critical step in this supercharged setting is to imagine together the world of our vision. All current signs point to a future of catastrophe and ruin, and it is easy to envision many such scenarios but much harder to visualize a future of opportunity and renewal. The latter is still a vague and unformed possibility in our collective imagination. The bigger the challenges, Elgin implies, the larger the vision required to transform conflict into cooperation and thereby facilitate a more promising future. Not only must we hold an expansive vision, but that vision must be informed by a commitment to a larger story of humanity than civilization has provided.
Some may question the need for understanding the reality of a “living universe”, but Elgin argues that it is necessary because understanding it allows us to discover our inextricable place in the fabric of life and expands our empathy as we come to see ourselves as beings of cosmic dimension and participation. Such compassion then becomes the basis for a higher unity that transcends our great diversity—racial, ethnic, sexual, generational, religious, political, economic, and more.
A world divided at the same time that it is facing enormous challenges, attended by the presence of weapons of mass destruction, is a recipe for catastrophe. Thus, unprecedented initiatives for global reflection, reconciliation, and the healing of past wounds are crucial as we endeavor to achieve a sustainable and meaningful future. Whatever our differences of gender, race, class, wealth, religion, or political orientation, we all participate in the deep ecology of consciousness which provides a common ground for meeting, understanding and reconciliation. In fact, if the human community is to live sustainably on the Earth, deep wounds of the human psyche and soul will need to be healed.
The first step in being healed is being heard. Despite a communications revolution which is still accelerating exponentially, humans are just beginning to experience an explosion of conversation. Concurrently, there must be a revolution in fairness, for without it, the world is destined to sink into endless conflict over scarce resources. Elgin reminds us that it was communication that enabled humans to evolve from early hunter-gatherers to the verge of planetary civilization, and it will be communication that enables us to become a bonded human family committed to the well-being of all.
But individual healing is only one aspect of the transformation, rebuilding our cities and neighborhoods into islands of relative self-sufficiency—reducing dependency on distant sources of food, energy, and other material needs—will become the basis for a global economic revolution. The hallmark of this revolution will be simplicity which is simultaneously a personal choice, a civilizational choice, and a species choice. According to Elgin, we will make that choice for a sustainable future with much greater enthusiasm when we recognize that it is a necessary part of a future path that calls forth our species potentials and leads us into ever-greater communion with the living universe.
The alienation of today’s massive cities could be replaced with a social and physical architecture sensitive to the psychology of modern tribes and a flowering of diverse communities—most created through retrofitting. One current manifestation of this is the eco-village.
Despite the appeal of eco-villages as a design for sustainable living, there is not time to retrofit and rebuild our existing urban infrastructure before we hit an evolutionary wall. Climate disruption, energy shortages, and other critical trends will overtake us long before we have the opportunity to make a sweeping overhaul in the design and function of our cities and towns; therefore, it is important to turn from the experiments in eco-villages and co-housing and to adapt their designs and principles for successful living to existing urban settings. Without the time to retrofit into well-designed green villages, we must make the most of the existing urban infrastructure and creatively adapt ourselves within it. Global challenges will produce a wave of green innovations for local living—technical, ecological, economic, social, architectural, and more. Lessons learned in eco-villages and co-housing will be important sources of invention and inspiration for a new village movement as existing urban architecture is transformed into human-scale designs for sustainable living.
Grasping the deeper significance of “the living universe” allows us to see ourselves as citizens of the cosmos who are actively engaged in a heroic journey of awakening, and we will then tend to fulfill that self-image. Because the mass media are so powerful in presenting and reinforcing our self-image as a species, it is critical that we use this storytelling machine of mass culture to tell ourselves bigger stories about where we are, who we are, and where we are going. Humanity is growing up and growing into the reality that we are beings of both biological and cosmic dimension.
Thus it is vital that we begin conversations about sustainability at a scale that matches the actual scope of the challenges we face. This is a time for rapid learning and experimentation locally, all the while being mindful of how we connect globally. In order to build a positive future, we must first collectively imagine it. This comes about through conversation, and with local to global communication, we can mobilize ourselves purposefully, and each can contribute their unique talents to the creation of a life-affirming future.
What is the Life Stage of Humanity?
Elgin emphasizes that there are no right answers but that there is a high level of agreement that surprises everyone. With audiences he begins by asking people to discuss the life stage of our species as reflected in our collective behavior. “After five to ten minutes,” he says, “I ask them to come up with a ‘social average’ and choose among these four stages for the species: toddler, teenager, adult, and elder. An overwhelming majority of the groups vote that humanity is in its adolescence. Interestingly, the reasons given are much the same around the world. Then I ask them to consider a second question: What was most important for you in making the journey from adolescence to adulthood?—the premise being that what was important for you at a personal level is probably going to be relevant to the human family at a global level. This conversation reveals that, as important as, for example, a new energy policy may be for humanity’s future, even more important are efforts to awaken a new level of collective maturity that includes a more conscious relationship with the living universe.
Curiously, Elgin’s book came into my life just days after I wrote “Humanity’s Rite of Passage: A World Tended By Adults”. It validated my belief that regardless of the strides our species makes in energy policy, carbon reduction, or creating economies of scale, if we do not mature emotionally and spiritually into adult human beings, we will have succeeded only in replicating the current predicament of a world replete with dazzling technological innovation, commandeered by children