Cassandras

Cassandra by Grace Roselli

One thing that Cassandras can be grateful for is that there are growing numbers of us – and that many of us have a sense of humor, or at least a sense of irony, about our position in a deluded society.  That there are growing numbers of people describing various aspects of the cultural trance and crying for people to wake up does not mean that Cassandras are any ‘safer,’ nor that we constitute a herd.  Rather, it simply means that we have more people to laugh with, learn from, and maybe even collaborate with as we proceed on our own paths of waking up, individuating, figuring out how to survive in a world coming apart at the seams, and how to make a positive contribution to the greater good.

Throughout Dharmagaians.org, the cultural trance, collective delusions, ignorance and denial – and the causes and consequence of these phenomena – is a theme that lays the ground for the sane responses that Dharmagaians suggest. Dharmagaians are people who seek and speak the truth, cherish and protect the Earth, and act responsibly for the welfare of future generations of all beings.  In The Positive Disintegration of our Collective Delusion, I suggest that our collective delusion is a major cause of the crises we are facing – or not facing, as the case may be; and that the crises offer the opportunity for breakthroughs and growth. My particular interest is to encourage and support the evolution of eco-psycho-spiritual sanity in relation to our unprecedented challenges because I believe that this kind of sanity will give humans and other species a better chance of survival. I elaborate on this proposition in Psycho-Spiritual Evolution and The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges.

Among the unprecedented challenges at this time of epochal paradigm change is the heightened propensity of industrialized humans to engage in extraordinary delusions that impede sane responses to real-world challenges – as social and environmental activists have discovered during the last few decades. This title, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay, 1841, is still in print for a reason!  John Michael Greer, a Cassandra, has referred to this book several times in The Archdruid Report, and regularly deconstructs popular delusions in the process of offering practical alternatives.

Dave Ewoldt, an ecopsychologist, provides a nice summary of collective delusions from a Dharmagaian perspective in In a Nutshell. Here he is referring to people who hold conventional beliefs, or ‘popular delusions,’ that impede what Ewoldt calls ‘natural systems solutions,’ the title of his blog:

The main group standing in the way of getting back in balance with the natural systems principles that create and nurture life seem to be those

1) who believe that economic growth and financial incentives are necessary for progress and prosperity, not that we’re naturally innovative, inquisitive and intelligent creatures,

2) who believe we are separate from and in control of the natural world, and not subject to the consequences of our actions,

3) who believe that money and material accumulation are acceptable substitutes for spiritual and emotional health and well-being,

4) who believe we can “greenly” resume business as usual and have an economic recovery that returns us to “normal” and don’t want to admit that normal is what brought us to this point,

5) who believe that because compound interest can be mathematically shown to expand to infinity that this “proves” natural resources can do likewise, and thus banksters are to be venerated in their wisdom of usury and worship of mammonism (the deification of greed),

6) who believe this is a cruel and heartless dog-eat-dog world and not that the Universe is friendly to life and its evolution, and

7) basically, those who believe that force-based ranking hierarchies of domination and a pathological sense of an inferior other (anything outside the ego) are normal.

Ewoldt’s list of beliefs is roughly similar to my list of cultural myths and illusions in Turning Danger into Opportunity, part 2. (I suspect that Western civilization, in particular, has a congenital weakness for extraordinary popular delusions, but I will pursue that at another time.) Many Cassandras have provided such a list and will continue to do so as long as the delusions persist. The interesting thing is that our collective delusions and the cultural trance they have generated seem to actually provoke the emergence of Cassandras.

Cassandras are people who have not only woken up from the cultural trance, but have the hard-headed inquisitiveness to probe deeper into what is hidden behind the curtain of government and corporate propaganda, secrets and lies – and beneath popular (culturally induced) delusions about reality – and to speak or publish the truth. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is a good example of such a Cassandra. Like Dharmagaians, Cassandras are by definition a minority. In the mythological sense, a Cassandra is one who possess more insight and foresight than the crowd, or ‘herd.’  To possess insight and, particularly, foresight is both a gift and a curse. The gift is ‘sight,’ clearly seeing the truth and telling the truth.  They are ‘seers’ and truth tellers. Their curse is that they are not believed, in spite of the evidence, and especially at a time when the madness of crowds, or herd mentality, is heightened, as it is right now.

Herd menality

Herd mentality, a phrase coined by the 19th century philosopher  Friedrich Nietzsche, describes how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors and follow popular trends. Wikipedia says that herd mentality implies a fear-based reaction to peer pressure, and that individuals follow the herd to avoid feeling ‘left behind’ by the group.

It seems to me that herd mentality also seizes people when inexorable change is looming, when the ground is quaking, and when humans are in an evolutionary bottleneck, and the imperative is “adapt and evolve, or die.” At this particular time, herd mentality seems to be a subliminal default response to danger that is denied in consciousness. By the time the danger is clearly felt, the next default response could be “every-man-for-himself” and mayhem.  When we fall into a default response, reason, compassion and the Big Picture get buried, and so does the individual’s potential to wake up and evolve.  That’s what worries me and a lot of other Dharmagaian Cassandras. But I take at least a little ephemeral comfort in seeing what other people write on the subjects of collective delusions and Cassandras.

Catching up on the ‘news’ in my email box recently, my interest was peaked by Mass Delusion – American Style, which begins with this quote by Charles MacKay from Extraordinary Popular Delusions: Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

Yes, that is the point: once we begin to wake up from the cultural trance, we only recover our senses slowly and one by one. Recovering our senses requires that we leave the herd, which seems to be the stumbling block. The author of “Mass Delusion – American Style,” one “JimQ,” concludes his review of American economic delusions by saying,

Based on all available evidence, it seems the American public wants to be misled. They have chosen ignorance over knowledge and understanding. They want to believe their corrupt leaders. They want to believe that things always work out in the long run. They want to believe that the economy is about to get better…. The American herd has gone mad. A few people have regained their senses, but the vast majority still exhibits the behavior of sheep being led to slaughter.

The diversity of Cassandras matches the diversity of crises that are overtaking humans at this time. The major crises are global: climate and ecology, energy and economy. As a species we have overpopulated a planet with a limited capacity to produce what we need to live and to recycle the wastes that we put into the biosphere. We have pushed the Earth beyond the tipping point.  The oceans are dying, species are going extinct, energy, water and other resources are being depleted, and the global economy is faltering.  So we have Cassandras who campaign to change policies on a multitude of issues. Megan Quinn Bachman, a Peak Oil and Community Solutions activist, tells her story of waking up and becoming a Cassandra in Call Us Cassandras: When Truth is Unbelievable.

Last month two Cassandras who have influenced me over the years got together to talk about their views on the cultural trance, collective delusions, and why there isn’t more resistance to corporate depredations on democracy, the economy and the environment. Chris Hedges, author of Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, has written extensively on our collective delusions regarding politics, culture, energy, economy and climate, to name a few.  In “Totalitarianism and Resistance,” an audio recording, Hedges engages in a fascinating conversation with environmental activist and writer Derrick Jensen, author of The Culture of Make Believe, on corporate media’s manipulation of the public, the psychopathology of corporate power, and the possibility of resistance to the corporate state.  This conversation covers just about all the issues except oil, which is a major focus of many of the Cassandras I’ve linked to in The Cassandra Club.

The death of a seer

Matt Simmons

Matt Simmons was a Peak Oil Cassandra. On August 8th, he died of a heart attack. His sudden death occurred a week after I linked to his last interview on Financial Sense News Hour (FSN) in Discoveries of the Week ending 7/31/10. On August 14, FSN posted an audio Tribute to Matthew R Simmons that reviews the career and virtues of the man, with clips from FSN’s interviews with him since August 2005.

As I listened to these clips and Jim Puplava’s commentary, I realized that this review of Simmons’ views constitutes an insightful review of the role of oil in the creation of our collective delusions over the last 60 years. Simmons was an unusual Cassandra. As a Harvard Business School MBA and doctoral candidate, he started a small investment bank and advisory firm, which grew into Simmons & Company International, a specialized energy investment banking firm that generated over a hundred billion dollars. But Simmons was not just an ordinary, conventional, wealthy Republican, he also had a conscience and was a seer.  His foresight into the end of oil and its consequences led him to become a leading spokesperson for Peak Oil. After retiring from the energy investment business, he started a renewable energy enterprise, Ocean Energy Institute (OEI), and he was fearless, though measured, in speaking the truth as he saw it. Most of his convictions were based on facts that he researched for himself.

Matthew Wild, in Matthew Simmons: a tribute, quotes Simmons from a Fortune magazine article in 2008:

“I find it ironic that here we have the biggest industry on earth, and I’m one of the few people to figure out that we have a major problem,” he says, in his confident if not quite brash way. “And I did it all in my spare time. How stupid and tragic is that? I shouldn’t be one of the only folks that actually has a handful of ideas of how we can keep from blowing each other up and get through this.”

Wild suggests this quote would be a “perfect epitaph” for Simmons, and goes on to say, “Anyone who writes about peak oil owes a great debt to Matthew Simmons who, in my, opinion, produced one of the new century’s most outstanding items of investigative journalism.” He is referring to Simmons’ groundbreaking book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, which, Wild says, “uncovered what [Simmons] called ‘the biggest energy illusion ever in the world.’ That’s how Simmons should be remembered – for cutting through the lies and secrecy.”

Cutting through the lies and secrecy about oil and energy is what I admired Simmons for. But for a detailed and edifying review of the collective delusions about energy that Simmons cut through, do listen to FSN’s tribute to him, which begins a 15:33 minutes.

Matt Simmons was only 67. His unexpected passing reminds me of other truth-telling Cassandras who have died in the last year and a half: Arne Naess, Thomas Berry, and Howard Zinn – who were in their 80′s and 90′s.  They have all inspired my life by challenging the illusions of the status quo and articulating the Big Picture.  I wonder who the visionaries of the coming age will be, as industrial society disintegrates – in spite of all the warnings by Cassandras about peak oil, climate change, species extinctions, overpopulation, overconsumption, toxic pollution, and the unsustainability of the growth paradigm.

The quickest way to break the trance?

John Muir by Herbert A. Collins Small

Maybe the visionaries of the future will be those who spend the most time studying the natural world, following in the trail forged by Dharmagaian Cassandras like John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess and Thomas Berry – and, of course, by the indigenous peoples of the world. Muir, Carson, Leopold, Naess, and Berry all experienced having the cultural trance irrevocably dispelled by their own immersion in wilderness.  As industrial society disintegrates, Nature could well be the saving grace for human sanity and survival, even in the midst of climate change, which will require humans to be more mindful than urban-electronic life prepares us to be.

A group of academic psychologists and neuroscientists discovered for themselves the cognitive benefits of immersion in wilderness in May of this year when they took a river rafting trip in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah.  The purpose of the trip was “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.” Forced to leave the electronic bubble of cell phones, email and other digital distractions, they became more relaxed, spacious, and lucid as they spent days paddling and being gently rocked – and also challenged to pay attention – by the mighty San Juan River.  Their minds became clearer, more open, more accessible to new ideas – and more cheerful.

A psychology professor observed that “people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential.” He wondered, “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?” By the end of the trip he planned to “focus more on understanding what happens to the brain as it rests. He wants to use imaging technology to see whether the effect of nature on the brain can be measured and whether there are other ways to reproduce it, say, through meditation.”

It seems to me that the river trip actually prepared these neuroscientists to address an aspect of the cultural trance: the distracted speediness of electronic multitasking, which impedes deep reflection and insight.  Underneath that trance lie layers of collective delusions rooted in the collective unconscious. There is no quick fix for dismantling those delusions. As Charles MacKay said in the mid-19th century, we only recover our senses slowly and one by one – that is, through individual, conscious reflection.  But dispelling the trance is the first step toward liberating ourselves from the delusions.

River trips in sandstone canyons and wilderness rites of passage have been important and profound experiences for me, so I can attest to their effectiveness in dispelling the trance of our civilization. We need to create space for Nature to speak to our deeper natures, and when we do allow Nature to break the cultural trance, that can catalyze the awakening that leads to The Great Turning towards an ecologically sustainable way of life, as all the Dharmagaian Cassandras have taught.

Dr. Kramer on the San Juan River, UT © Chang W. Lee, NY Times

  • Brigid Meier:

    Just read this on Ralph Metzner’s blog from The Green Earth Foundation and thought Dharmagaians might appreciate reading Starhawk’s take on the recent California elections: from her blog (Dirt Worship) on how to go forward:

    Make the rich pay their fair share:

    Raise taxes on those who can afford to pay them. It’s obscene that a Meg Whitman has $160 million dollars to spend on a campaign. The rich amass their money using the infrastructures we all pay for—they benefit inordinately and they are required to give very little back. Roll back the tax cuts for the wealthy. If California taxed the rich and the corporations at the rate we did under Reagan, we would not have a budget shortfall today. Is this going to hamper investments and prevent innovation? I don’t think so. California under Reagan still did pretty damn well, and people who invent things and start companies didn’t exactly wither away from starvation. Will this bring about ultimate social justice and world revolution? No, it’s just a modest start in leveling the playing field. But let’s start to turn the debate—instead of the mindless “No new taxes!” rhetoric, get those who benefit most from the system to bear their fair share of the burdens.

    Hold the real criminals accountable:

    Executives who sign off on shoddy safety systems that destroy the ecology of a region, companies that cut corners with cut-rate cement, officials who authorize torture, banks that foreclose on the unemployed with ‘sloppy paperwork’ read ‘fraud’, hedge fund managers that do the dirty deals that eat up the pensions of working people—shut them down. Prosecute them—with criminal, not just civil, lawsuits when they deserve it. Put a moratorium on foreclosures.

    Get big money out of our elections: Until we do this, until we have true campaign finance reform, those that serve big money will always have a competitive edge over those that challenge the interests of the rich.

    I’m sure there are many more points I could add to this agenda but starting with those four would go a long way to fixing things. I invite you to pass them on, agitate for them, rephrase them more eloquently, add your own. Repeat them, over and over again. Remember that the real work of change is always going on—if not in Washington, then in thousands of towns and neighborhoods and communities, if not in the halls of power, then in the streets. Don’t be complacent, but don’t despair. All around us are allies working for more justice, more freedom, more ecological balance, more peace. This is not a time to fall back, but to step up, to be bolder, braver, louder, funnier, more inventive, more outrageous, more committed. Political winds blow back and forth—hold to your deepest values, and we’ll stay the course.

  • Thanks, Brigid, it’s a good one. Starhawk is definitely a Dharmagaian and so is Ralph Metzner.

  • Elena B.:

    Thanks! it’s great to find this site to start the year!

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