My friends, it is wise to nourish the soul, otherwise you will breed dragons and devils in your heart.”
Carl Jung, The Red Book, Page 232.
One of the things we haven’t quite understood yet is just what a time of dramatic transformation the 21st century is going to be. For us. And I don’t just mean climate change — but in an even wider frame still.
The 21st century is going to the end of one chapter of humanity’s story — and the beginning, maybe, of another. It is going to be the end of the first chapter of humanity’s story — it’s roiling, joyous, painful birth and adolescence — and, if we are wise, its transition to becoming a mature species. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The 21st century is going to be the first time — ever — that the human species stops increasing, expanding, and growing. The human population is — for the first time in history — projected to finally peak around 2050, for the first time ever, in a hundred thousand years. Let me put all that in perspective, if your response is — “so what?” — I think it is one of the most significant events of all time, and I don’t say that for hyperbole’s sake. So powerful and meaningful that we haven’t even begun to think about it. I think it explains everything from today’s wave of fascism, to climate change — to tomorrow’s urgent, desperate need for better paradigms of everything, from economics to politics to society.
What does the end of the first chapter of human history really mean, say, tell us? It tells us that everything is going to change, and it is going to change radically, my friends.
About 70,000 years ago, a small number of humans — a few clans, a tribe, maybe just a family — left Africa. They expanded across Asia, and upwards through Europe. They walked across Siberia, and reached the Americas. They traveled down the coast, until, at last, they found themselves at the tip of Patagonia. That brings us to about 15,000 years ago.
After that, human beings expanded themselves into “civilizations”, and those civilizations began warring for land, power, for silver and gold, for slaves and servants — for resources, essentially. The winning “civilization” was the West, in the end. The West “explored” the “world”, and “discovered” the “new world” — so the story goes (it’s wrong, as you can see.) Then it proceeded to colonize it, which is to say, enslave it, control it, and dominate it — all in the name of control over its resources, whether Virginian tobacco, Indian cotton, or Jamaican sugar and rum. And that brings us to now.
Up until now — this very moment in history — the human race has been characterized by one single act. The act above. The act of expansion — for more resources, since numbers were always growing, growing, growing. With expansion, came war, slavery, tyranny, hatred. With expansion came violence of every kind. As the Biblical story eerily alludes to: in the exile from the garden is born sin. Whether or not we take it seriously, the story of the human race thus far has been one of a triumphant species, ever expanding, thanks to the easy bounty, the plenitude before it. If my goal is to expand, which is to control more resources, so my people can grow — why shouldn’t I consider you a “resource”, too?
So the human race came to be dominated by a certain attitude, a certain mindset, a certain way. The predatory-exploitative mindset. The idea, which was later formalized in the “racial” theories of Western supremacists, went like this: human beings are the apex predators, sitting atop the globe’s food chains and natural resources. As its apex predators, they had every right to simply plunder, pillage, and loot — to exploit. Without thinking twice — without thinking even once.
The predatory-exploitative mindset, if we’re honest, has been with us for millennia now. Rome lionized it — and practiced it. The Western age of Empires was essentially one great contest for it — to rule the waves and the world, which meant having the most colonies to exploit, the most people and land to prey upon. America came to exemplify it — seizing land, exploiting natives, enslaving Africans, greedily, hungrily. The Nazis, admiring America, took it to grotesque and horrific extremes.
But now this age is finally coming to an end. A bitter, difficult, inevitable end. The human race is at the end of this chapter in its history. The cycle of predatory expansion and exploitation has come to an end. There is nowhere left to colonize, and nothing left to exploit. Hence, the human population is going to peak, for the first time ever, in a hundred thousand years — in just a few decades.
Now do you see how momentous the times are that we are living through? Let me try to explain now why they’re so turbulent. If you understand by now that the first chapter of humanity’s story was about expansion, violence, over the resources an expanding species needs to grow — then it should be easy to understand why this age is so difficult and troubled.
This age is the climax of humanity’s first chapter. We often imagine growth as an “S” shaped curve, a sigmoid curve. But that isn’t true for human beings. Growth is something more like an exponential curve, a curve forever rising into infinity, until it goes parallel to the ground. Now imagine two such curves meeting — forming not an arch, but the shape of a minaret. That’s now. What does that curve say? It says that more people are competing for dwindling resources — than ever before, by a very, very long way. A thousand years ago, maybe it was seven million people competing for the plentiful resources of seven continents. Today, it’s seven billion, competing for the burned-out husks of the very same. Do you see the problem now?
Because this century is the culmination of the expansionist chapter of human history, it’s exploding into fascism. Into violence. Into stagnation, into poverty amidst plenty, into rage and despair. That’s a natural consequence of the central paradigm — the predatory-exploitative mindset. This mindset was always going to reach its limits — and when it did, the only thing human beings would have left to prey on would be themselves — their very own societies, democracies, cities, towns, rivers, lakes, children, lives.
That, my friends, is where we are now. At the end of the first chapter of human history. And we are bewildered, baffled, paralyzed — or lashing out in rage and fear — because while our paradigm has hit its limits, we know no other way. Because while we’ve reached the end of the first chapter — we don’t know how to write the second. We don’t even know how to pick up the pen. Turn the page. I’d feel afraid, anxious, and angry, too.
When a species stops expanding, we can say that it has matured. It has reached its limits. That is what the 21st century is to humanity. It is the time that maturity is upon us. The question is whether we are gong to understand this. If we don’t, we keep on trying to employ a predatory-exploitative mindset, in a world, a time, a place, a stage in our own evolution, when we should be transcending it. The result? Our very own demise. Not absolute, as in the end of the human race — but a plunge back into Dark Ages, where fractured tribes war each other, and slowly, slowly, the population, civilization, and modernity all decay and atrophy and rot away. That’s a kind of death, too, isn’t it? It’s the death of a species which never matured. Which remained in a larval stage, so to speak.
(Now let me address the idea — “but we’ll go to Mars!!” Sure, we will. We should. It will be a noble and wonderful day when we tiny things finally break our earthly bonds. But we can’t go to Mars and use the predatory-exploitative mindset. It would be futile. What would be the point? There’s no low-hanging fruit there to pick off. We can exploit the resources of other places, like whole planets, to make billionaires kings, sure — but that’s not progress. It’s not even stasis. It’s regress. So this isn’t writing the next chapter in human history — unless when we go to Mars, we do so in new forms of political economy and society which are radically more just, positive, fair, and beneficial to all — it’s just reading the first chapter, backwards.)
We have two choices at this juncture in human history, my friends. We understand our own story, for the first time, at last — so that we can write its next chapter. So that we can pick up the pen. Turn the page. And we begin to evolve — to mature. A mature species does not collapse its own societies and burn down its own home. A mature species does not eat its own young, or sacrifice them to imaginary gods, whether those on Olympus or those of the “markets”. A mature species is a wise, courageous, and gentle thing, with dignity, justice, truth, and plenitude for all.
If we make this choice, we begin to write the next chapter of human history. We transform, from the larva of a predatory-exploitative species, to the butterfly of a beneficent-constructive one. A species that is something more like the guardian and protector of all things noble, good, and beautiful — whether democracy, dignity, truth, justice, or life itself.
Or we read the first chapter of human history, backwards. We repeat the story of being an exploitative-predatory species — just in reverse. We begin with fascism and genocide — and we end up right back living in caves, hunting with spears, and chanting frightened prayers by firelight to vengeful gods. I’d say that so far, we’re on this path, wouldn’t you?
It’s going to take us a time to understand the message of this century — its power, its might, its meaning. That we have to turn the page now. In the most dramatic and fundamental ways imaginable. We literally have to chart a new path for our species — one that’s never been walked before, because we’ve never had to chart the frontiers of maturity.
It’s not going to happen overnight. The above was pretty challenging to read, to take in, to really grapple with, I’d bet. I’d say it’s about time we begin then, wouldn’t you? Because the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.
See that picture above? That’s Homo Erectus. He didn’t make it. Will we?
Below is a reflection upon several things I have read and listened to since leaving the farm. These are concepts that stood out to me and caused me to further reflect on my experiences at Plukrijp.
We live in an individualistic society, valuing ourselves as individuals, not as part of something larger and greater than ourselves. Capitalism and consumer culture have taken advantage of this concept of the ’individual’. People are encouraged to consume partly as a means of defining who they ‘really’ are. Express yourself! ‘Because you’re worth it.’ We are trapped in a cage created by a worshipping of the all-important self. Imprisoned by our own short term desires. Driven in part by consumer culture, there is an emphasis on the idea of the freedom to be an individual. We feel that we are free but does this form of individualistic consumer life really provide us with freedom?
As Adam Curtis puts it “We have been told that freedom, is freedom to fulfil our trivial and petty desires, but real freedom is freedom from our trivial and petty desires.”
We feel that we are free to consume whatever we want in order to create any kind of lifestyle we desire. When our desires are so frequently manipulated by those who want us to consume, can we consider this freedom? We are motivated to pursue what society has taught us to deem as valuable rather than any true understanding of our own value.
We live in a society that encourages fear and the control of any potential risks. The fear of chaos/lack of order and the fear of the perceived ‘other’.
Additionally, people now live their lives as a spectacle. Opening them up to the external observer. To be viewed and validated by others. Where the number of likes on facebook equates to a greater sense of self worth. Where people don’t do things to do them but to be seen to do them by others. The phenomenon that motivates people to give a £20 note to a homeless man but only after they have started videoing the act to share with their ‘followers’. A world in which we carry around the eyes of hundreds or thousands of others with us in our pockets and routinely display our lives to them for their judgement.
There is a need for a new story. However the factors above, among others, make any kind of revolution unlikely to happen. In ‘21 lessons for the 21st century’ Yuval Harari describes how we started the 20th century with three grand stories; the fascist, communist and liberal. Fascism was knocked out by the second world war. The years between the 40’s and the 80’s saw a battle between the remaining two stories, until the communist story also collapsed.
We were left with liberalism as the ‘dominant guide to the past and the indispensable manual for the future of the world.’ Liberalism has not been, as some had once hoped, ‘the end of history’. We are now faced with a ‘tidal wave of disillusionment’ towards liberalism. It is this disillusion that can explain the current climate of Brexit and president Trump. People are no longer happy with the current structure that the liberal story takes.
It seems that we are now in the position that there is no story left to believe in. The disorientation this causes can lead to apocalyptic thinking, particularly in the left. ‘Trump signals the end of the World!’ We are in need of a new story.
What are we to do in the face of this lack of a believable political story? In a culture of hypernormalisation in which we know the way things are is not quite right, but that feeling is ‘normal’ and we are pacified, feeling unable to do anything about it? Where people are so highly unlikely to feel the need for, let alone create, a revolution? When we face major problems that require global cooperation?
What can we do about it?
It’s easy to feel powerless.
Writers like Harari, Curtis and Harris use their skills to create tools of communication that inform others and encourage conversation. We can do this in our own way, talking about the topics we find relevant and important, with others we encounter. Maintaining the conversation with open discussions about where we are and where the hell we are going.
In asking the question, ‘what can we do about it?’ this quote seems pertinent.
“Don’t engage in oppositionalism, establish alternatives and live in them.”
Sometimes, the more force you use to push something away, the more force is generated to push right back against you. Rebellion can take a different form than outright opposition.
In this way, Plukrijp is a beautiful form of resistance and counter culture.
The concepts of permaculture, and how these are realised on the farm, answer many of the problems of society listed above.
Community and the acceptance of the whole as being greater than the part. If one is integrated into a real community, it is difficult to maintain a strong sense of individualism. When daily efforts are pooled and group energy goes into work that serves the community as a whole, it is tangible how much more can be achieved with a sense of we rather than I.
Sharing and resourcefulness. If most things are shared and we aim to waste as little as possible e.g. eating skip food, building with recycled materials like pallet crates, exchange via the freeshop and a repair rather than rubbish mentality. This way of thinking, alongside taking stock of what it is we really ‘need’ greatly reduces the perceived ‘need’ to consume. There comes a recognition that all needs can be met, that an abundance can be found, without any mindless consumption.
This is also linked to the idea of value based upon substance. In general society, value is somewhat determined by the way a person looks, dresses and what they own. This concept, in part, drives the consumption of ‘fashion’. Buying the latest ‘style’ and then throwing it away when it no longer serves as a symbol of status or identity.
In permaculture, as it is realised at Plukrijp, this becomes a redundant idea. Value, in this instance, is based instead upon what an individual contributes to the community. When you are surrounded by people who do not look at the external in order to assign value but rather at the inner qualities and skills one has to offer, when things are shared and there is no way to gain value based on what you own, you are invited to assess where your own value truly comes from. This idea welcomes a degree of self reflection. The image one has portrayed is no longer blindly reflected back and one has the opportunity to be faced with what was hidden behind an artificial image.
With the realisation that we do not need to consume in an attempt to piece together some false image of ourselves to the external world, we move one step closer to “freedom from our trivial and petty desires.”
If you are fully engaged with the community when living in a place like Plukrijp you should no longer feel the need for validation from distant, external audiences e.g those found on facebook. There is the opportunity for genuine human interaction. There is no need to reflect a false, artificial image of who you are. To frame yourself as a spectacle. Due to proximity, it is far more likely to be recognised as false. To continue in falseness or spectacle will only rob you of real experiences with other human beings who are physically there, waiting for connections.
An openness and honesty in communication also means that superficial connections are quickly moved on from. When this happens, conversation becomes authentic and there is no need for the superficial stroking of egos. We are presented with the potential for real self-reflection, introspection, feedback and growth.
“For me, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself and the World.”- Harari.
In this way, real communication helps us towards an understanding of our minds, the minds of others and a deeper, more lasting sense of satisfaction. This cannot be found in the chasing of things that provide temporary hits of satisfaction such as facebook likes.
We also live in a world in which facebook sends us a feedback loop of our own opinions. We don’t encounter this living in a community. We are not fed back our own opinions but are confronted by interactions with others whose opinions differ from our own. This allows us space to reflect on and learn from what others think. Recognising that our own World view is not the be all and end all but rather the beginning point for much greater understanding and learning. It is almost impossible to grow if you are never challenged.
Frank often talks about the function of fear. How we are often living so far from our limitations that we live in fear because we remain unaware of what we are really capable of or the pressures we can take. In this way, fear acts as control and keeps you smaller. If you never truly push to the edge of your limits because of fear then you will never grow. You will get smaller as you put up new boundaries inside of your true limitations and as such, perpetually increase your fear.
When we live in a World in which the narrative is saturated by fear. Growing up in a fearful society with fearful parents. What is brave is to acknowledge that much of that fear is constructed in your own mind. Then to learn to move on from that imagined fear and push to your limits. Is the fear real or a story? Where is the tiger?
To me, taking the step to live in this communal way, or even further to create a space as Frank and Martine have at Plukrijp, is one of the greatest things you can do in reaction to some of the problems of general society. To write a new story, not only for yourself but to invite others to come and live and write and edit that story with you.
It may not be a story that everybody wants to read. Or for some, it is a story to dip in to occasionally rather than on a permanent basis. For me, it symbolises that we do not have to sit and wait for someone else to write a new story that includes us. We can take it upon ourselves to find that story and to live it. To embody it. To show others how it’s done. In my eyes, it’s the greatest form of opposition to some of the shit parts of society. Plukrijp has inspired me to pursue a different way of living.
If any of this is of interest to you I can highly recommend the following:
Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis (film),
The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis (film)
21 Lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari (book),
The Waking Up Podcast by Sam Harris (ep. 68 is with YNH) and
Under the Skin with Russell Brand (eps with both Curtis and Harari, also a podcast)