Humanity faces many challenges, such as climate disruptions, species extinction, shortage of cheap oil, overpopulation, limited resources – a list that could go on and on. But Jason Hartman’s guest on this episode, internationally recognized author Duane Elgin says the biggest concern is how urgent we see our situation. What Duane sees developing are these trends converging into the “perfect storm,” a crisis of all of the world’s systems. This means political systems, economic systems, social systems, spiritual and religious systems that have overextended themselves, requiring humanity to pull together. He feels this will happen around the 2020s. Duane explains humanity’s separation from nature and from one another, stating we have succeeded so well that we’ve run into our limits and undermined our future success. His stories suggest ways for the human race to pull together, to create sustainability, stressing that system breakdown is actually good news in order to move into a new relationship with one another and the Earth. Please visit www.HolisticSurvival.com for more on Duane and Great Transition Stories.
DUANE ELGIN is an internationally recognized speaker, author, and media activist. His books include: The Living Universe, Promise Ahead, Voluntary Simplicity, and Awakening Earth. With Joseph Campbell and other scholars, he co-authored Changing Images of Man. He has worked as a senior staff member of the Presidential Commission on the American Future (looking ahead from 1970 to 2000) and as a senior social scientist with the think-tank SRI International where he coauthored numerous studies of the long-range future. In 2006, Duane received the international Goi Peace Award in recognition of his contribution to a global “vision, consciousness, and lifestyle” that fosters a “more sustainable and spiritual culture.” Duane received an MBA from the Wharton Business School, and an MA in economic-history from the University of Pennsylvania. Duane’s personal website is: www.DuaneElgin.com His professional site is: www.GreatTransitionStories.org.
Narrator: Welcome to the Holistic Survival Show with Jason Hartman. The economic storm brewing around the world is set to spill into all aspects of our lives. Are you prepared? Where are you going to turn for the critical life skills necessary for you to survive and prosper? The Holistic Survival Show is your family’s insurance for a better life. Jason will teach you to think independently, to understand threats and how to create the ultimate action plan. Sudden change or worst case scenario, you’ll be ready. Welcome to Holistic Survival, your key resource for protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Ladies and gentlemen, your host, Jason Hartman.
Jason Hartman: Welcome to the Holistic Survival Show. This is your host, Jason Hartman, where we talk about protecting the people places and profits you care about in these uncertain times. We have a great interview for you today. And we will be back with that in less than 60 seconds on the Holistic Survival Show. And, by the way, be sure to visit our website at HolisticSurvival.com. You can subscribe to our blog, which is totally free, has loads of great information, and there’s just a lot of good content for you on the site, so make sure you take advantage of that at HolisticSurvival.com. We’ll be right back.
Start of Interview with Duane Elgin
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Duane Elgin to the show. He is the author of several books, and right now he is engaged in something called Great Transition Stories. And that’s really sort of scripting a new narrative for humanity and helping us overcome problems through stories. Humanity is a story and that’s what it’s all about. So Duane welcome. You’re coming to us from Northern California today, right?
Duane Elgin: Yes. Good to be here Jason.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, well it’s great to have you. Tell us a little bit about, just kind of to set this up right, let’s talk about some of the problems that humanity is facing, some of the challenges. And I think our listeners probably know what they are, but we would be remiss if we didn’t just touch on that before we jumped into it.
Duane Elgin: Right. In a way, it really shows how urgent we see our situation. Because as you say, our viewers do know what the problems are from climate disruption, species extinction, running out of cheap oil, and we could just go on a very long list; unsustainable population and more. And what I see developing, and I’ve been watching this now for over 40 years professionally, are these trends are starting to converge. And my guess is by the 2020s they are going to converge into what I would call the perfect storm of a world in systems crisis. And that means all of our systems; political systems, economic systems, social systems, spiritual/religious systems. They’re all going to be in crisis trying to cope with a world that has over extended itself and needs to come together, pull together in cooperation instead of pull apart in conflict.
Jason Hartman: And so why 2020? How do you pick that time frame? And the reason I’m asking Duane is because hasn’t society always thought there are problems and challenges? I remember looking back at some stories from the 60s and 70s and everybody was worried about species extinction and population explosion and famine, and I don’t know if we’ve really overcome that but we’ve got a new lease at least, right?
Duane Elgin: Well, I’ve been studying these trends and I never did think that in the 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s, we were going to so-called “hit the wall”. I’ve said professionally since 1978, it would be in the decade of the 2020s when these various individual systems are problems. Population resources, the environment and so on converge into a single challenge, unyielding challenge to humanity. And then we have not simply an environmental problem, we have an evolutionary problem. Because what we’re running into is ourselves, and our own view of who we are and what we’re doing here. And we’ve had thousands of years of separation. Thousands of years to differentiate ourselves, individuate ourselves. But now we have the extraordinary challenge, it’s never happened before, where as an entire species we have to pull together if we want to have a promising future. And if we don’t pull together, it is going to be I think a new dark age of conflict that stands before us.
Jason Hartman: What has been the story? Let’s talk about the past. There are always many stories of course. But do you want to sort of pick a time period and go back? I don’t know if you want to make it a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago or 3 million years ago, but maybe pick a time and sort of talk to us about the impact of the human story and what the story has been and what it needs to be.
Duane Elgin: Sure. Well I would say, certainly for the last ten thousand years since the rise of agriculture, the basic story has been one of pulling back from nature and one of increasing power over nature, increasing domination of nature, and increasing differentiation from one another, becoming more established in our uniqueness as individuals and so on. So a power domination and differentiation has been really a story of separation; from one another, from nature and so on has been the dominate story for at least ten thousand years. And here we are; we have been so successful with that story that we’ve now over consumed, the earth changed, the earth’s climate and on and on. So the amazing thing is the failure of success. We have succeeded so well that we’re undermining our own success and our own future. So we face literally an unprecedented situation as a species.
Jason Hartman: So our success, when you say our successes has created our failure, do you mean in terms of economic success and resource use?
Duane Elgin: Yes. Absolutely. And success in every area. For example medical technology. So in my lifetime, world population has already tripled. It may quadruple in my lifetime. This is extraordinary. There was just over 2 billion people when I was born. Now there are over 7 billion. We are running out of cheap oil. At the very time that we have a growing population with mouths to feed and all the rest, we have less and less cheap oil to prop up that high intensity agriculture. So my point is this path of power, domination, differentiation and so on that has been so successful in the past for people and countries and such, is now running into its limits. And so we need to turn the corner.
And to turn that corner, it isn’t just a few people; it’s all of us. It’s the entire; the circle is closed. Climate change doesn’t care about the limits of national boundaries and so on. The circle is closed. And so we have to come together as a human family and figure out a new pathway into the future. And that’s where narrative comes in. What is that pathway for heaven’s sakes? Because we don’t have any experience as a species with figuring out a pathway together.
Jason Hartman: Well here’s where I become confused. How do we know what the number is? You just mentioned the population has tripled during your lifetime. Now that seems like a big deal and the population is like multi-level marketing. You tell two friends, and they tell two friends… We’ve all heard of that one, right? And it multiplies. It has a geometric progression to it because the more people there are, the more people there are to have children. And when infant mortality is improved, and people live, more births live, and people live longer, the population is just going to increase.
But the question is how do you or anybody know what that number is? Who’s to decide that the optimum number for the global population is 1 billion, or 5 billion, or 7 billion, or 37 billion for that matter? How do we know? People are always, when there were three people on earth they created an impact on the earth. And someone could have said back in the days when there was a hundred thousand people on the planet, well gee look what’s happening. All these people are consuming resources and doing things that are hurting the planet. How do we know what the number is? I just don’t get it.
Duane Elgin: That’s a really important question and what it gets to is the notion of what is the carrying capacity of the earth? How many people can the earth afford to carry, if you will? And that’s a measure of sustainability. Now a very key measure of that is how much of the earth’s biosphere are we humans using relative to all of the other species that inhabit the earth? And around 1980 or so we were using about half of the productive capacity of the biosphere. And we’re now using something like 60-70% of the productive capacity. That means we are taking up the land, the forest, the oceans… all of the productive capacity of the biosphere is enormously being shifted towards the human population and away from all the other parts of life on this earth. So that is a very distinct measure. It’s called out global footprint. How big of a footprint does humanity leave on the earth?
And right now it’s been said many times that it would take 5 earths to feed and take care of humanity in a way that’s comparable to let’s say the united states or modern Europe. So we’re already way beyond the actual, measurable, mathematical carrying capacity of the earth right now. And so that’s why I say the 2020s are going to be a critical time. And it’s because just bit by bit these trends have been coming together and I think that’s roughly when they’re going to converge.
Jason Hartman: And what’s going to happen when they converge?
Duane Elgin: Well we’re going to then move into a condition of systems crisis. And we’re going to see financial breakdowns; we’re going to see social breakdowns. For example, if a city goes bankrupt they can’t afford a fire department, a police force and all the other services that we just take for granted right now. We’re going to see political breakdowns as different degrees of consensus just don’t hold anymore. We’re going to see religious institutions in real crisis because we’ve had a sort of cosmology of generosity, that if you are a good person, then you will be rewarded with a good life materially. So basically we’re going to see breakdown.
And what I’m trying to say with the work on Great Transition Stories, is that this is good news. Because breakdown is also breakthrough. And we’re not going to more into a time of opportunity until we leave the past behind. That’s because we’re moving into a new world circumstances and that’s what I think we both understand by the powerful trends or population, resources and the environment. If we’re going to handle that, we have to move into a new relationship with one another, new relationship with the earth. So that’s the challenge of narrative; the challenge of story to explain that. How in the world does that happen?
Jason Hartman: I’ve just got to talk a little bit more about the sort of a how we know question. Because I think to create urgency, Duane, if this is as urgent as you and many, many others (you are certainly not alone in this) say that it is, it makes sense to go back to Thomas Malthus who in the late 1700s, he talked about the Malthusian Catastrophe. That population growth has outpaced agricultural production, that we have a huge sustainability problem. They were saying it back then. That was an awfully long time ago. And he was revered and famous, and still is in many circles. That’s sort of a hockey stick graph, that whole concept of how things are just exploding, and it creates these problems. That thinking’s been around for a long time, probably long before Malthus. I’m sure people said this stuff a long, long time ago. In Rome, there must have been people in that society that was sort of a consumption oriented, plundering society maybe very comparable to the United States today or the western world in general. What do you say to that? Won’t there just be new solutions created along the way? Hopefully; god forbid.
Duane Elgin: There must be new solutions. I am completely in favor of new solutions. You’re correct in saying hundreds of years ago Malthus was saying that population could outstrip resources. He was saying that; it had not happened. What I’m saying is that it’s measurable happening right now. And we can just go through the hard science, and I’m sure that would bore your listeners. But area by area, for example oil production has plateaued. It used to be you could get ten dollars’ worth of energy out of one dollars’ worth of oil. Now we’re getting about three dollars’ worth of energy out of every one dollar we spend getting that oil. And pretty soon it’s going to take as much money to get the oil out as we put in. do you see what I’m saying? So we are reaching a plateau. So there’s one.
Jason Hartman: Let me just ask you about that. The first question is, is that adjusted for inflation? Because part of…
Duane Elgin: Yes. It is.
Jason Hartman: It is? Okay, alright. So that’s adjusted for the official inflation statistics.
Duane Elgin: Industry-wide knowledge. Industry-wide knowledge. And the reason is very simple. The cheap oil has been pumped out. Now we have people with these billion dollar rigs stuck in the gulf reaching down a mile, two miles into the ocean to pump out oil. That gets really expensive. And so that is why. There’s a very logical reason why it is getting more expensive to get the oil out.
At the same time it’s very real, very measurable that we have tripled world population in my lifetime. It’s also very measurable and real that carbon dioxide is going up radically in the atmosphere. So these are not speculations, these are scientific numbers, if you will. And the question is, if you just let those numbers crank their way out, when do they converge into a collective system of genuine crisis where we have to make some key choices about our future as a human family.
Jason Hartman: Yeah. And on the oil thing, and I don’t want to spend a bunch of time kind of debating this, I know I’m being a skeptic to an extent here, but I’m sure you’ve had that skepticism level before so I’m sure this isn’t your first time, right?
Duane Elgin: Oh sure. Absolutely. No, not at all.
Jason Hartman: You’re being a good sport about it, so thank you. But as our consumption of energy become so efficient that, for example you look at what a computer can do nowadays, whereas decades ago it used to be a big giant room. And that little laptop on my desk, it takes a lot less energy than that big giant room to do the computing. So while the price of oil has gone up, well the price of getting the oil, from we used to get $10 out of it and now it’s only $3 worth. In terms of life quality, I’m really making a Hedonic adjustment. Which I have my disagreements with Hedonics in general, but there is some truth to it as well. And then wont new technologies be created? There’s certainly new drilling technologies. Or new sources of energy in general be created?
But without debating all of that, because I know we could to it for three days easily – without debating all of that, what does the new narrative need to be? Give us the new narrative. And your collecting these stories by the way on your website. If you want to give that website out, I think the listeners would like to check that out.
Duane Elgin: Yup. It would be important to take a look at the website. Because we just don’t have the time to summarize it even here. And the website is called GreatTransitionStories.org.
Jason Hartman: And I’ve got to say to the listeners: don’t be confused when you go there. It looks like a Wikipedia page, kind of a cool look for a website really. So you’re not at Wikipedia; you’re at GreatTransitionStories.org when you go.
Duane Elgin: And it is a wiki site. And the reason it is a wiki site is because what we’re doing is we’re is designing something the people can contribute to. And so this is something that we will collectively own. Everything on that website is open source. It’s free to the public. You can use it any way that you want within the common understanding, like just giving credit where credit is due for example. So what we’re trying to do is not to make money, but to make a difference. I feel our situation is so urgent, we need new narratives for a more promising future. And so what we have done, someone says well why should we believe your story? There are always stories.
Well you’re right. There’s an ecology of narratives, an ecology of stories about what’s going on right now. So we’ve gone to biology for some, to cosmology, physics and the other stories, to mythology like Joseph Campbell, psychology and so on.
And so what we have tried to do is to say yes, you’re right. There are many narratives. Many stories to explain what’s going on right now. And that can help us move through these times with confidence and knowing that it’s purposeful, and knowing that we’re going somewhere. And let me give an example. If I say to people well, if you look at the human family, and I’ve been doing this by the way for almost 20 years, when you look at the human family and you put us all together as one individual, what life stage do you think we’re in? are we behaving like toddlers? Are we behaving like teenagers? Are we behaving like adults or elders? Four choices. Toddlers, teenagers, adults or elders. And I give people a chance to think about it and talk with one another, then we vote. And overwhelmingly, whether I’ve been in India, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Europe, overwhelmingly people vote we are in our adolescent stage as a species.
And I say hey, that’s good news. Because if we’re in our adolescence, that’s a short ways from our adulthood and if we’re adults we’re going to start doing what adults do. They have a more sense of stewardship for the earth, and a sustainability, a sense of compassion, and caring for the rest of life, and a more sacred regard for the universe that is our common home. So there’s the story. Humanity’s just growing up. Hey, give us some slack here. We’re just acting like teenagers, of course. Well, we’re going through a rite of passage, a time of initiation. And that’s going to bring us together as a species. So there you have a story. It’s a very simple story. People understand that all around the world. Emotionally it’s a very powerful story. And it also evokes our higher potentials. In this case, we can grow up. And with maturity, not only do we get responsibility, we also get freedoms. And so that’s just one example.
Let me give you another example: the global brain awakens. Here we see the Arab Spring, the occupy movement, this and whatever that. The global brain is turning on and people are plugged in. It’s no longer a passive world of electronics, it’s interactive, it’s participatory and increasingly the human family is engaged in a collective conversation about our common future. So there’s another story. People say well of course, I’m a part of that. So it’s a simple story, it’s emotionally powerful, people relate to it in their everyday lives. But you can see what I’m saying. People say, yeah you’re right. That does transcend national boundaries, it does bring us together as a collective community and so on and so on. So those are the kinds of stories that are on the website.
Jason Hartman: We’ll be back in just a minute.
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Jason Hartman: So the new story. Now what is your goal with your new website and your work? Is it to take all of these stories and synthesize them into one story that’s simple and communicable that everybody can sort of wrap their head around and try and live that story?
Duane Elgin: Not necessarily. It’s more to be powerful and encouraging. I go out and I talk to people and I say, how does the future look to you? And so often, this is distressing, I get a three word response. Someone will say, well when I look ahead it looks like we’re going to hit the wall, or we’re going to go over the cliff, or we’re going to go in the ditch, and people have a really impoverished view of the future. And that’s not surprising because if you turn on the television set, if you look at the presidential debates, we have a very limited and narrow view of what’s going on in the world. And so what I want is to say look, these stories are all over the place.
For example, the caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. There’s a story from biology. The global brain awakens. There’s one from electronics. The human family grows up. There’s one from psychology. What I’m saying is they’re all kinds of narratives that explain what’s going on right now and rather than feel afraid of the future, we can be engaged in the future with the kind of innovation, Jason, I think you were wondering about. This is a time for profound innovation. And not just technological, but also cultural and social, how do we live together in community now? Because I think we’re going to be pushed back into a more local scale. So this is a very exciting time to be alive.
Jason Hartman: I’ve just got to say, I love the quote by Richard Bach. I read it in the book Illusions many years ago, “The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly.” It is a rebirth. No question about that. Isn’t that a great quote?
Duane Elgin: That’s right, yeah.
Jason Hartman: Well hey, listen we look forward to the evolution and collection of these stories. Everybody’s got your website. Did you want to give out another link or anything like that? You’ve got a website just after your own name, correct?
Duane Elgin: Yes. It’s DuaneElgin.com. So I hope your listeners in particular will look at the GreatTransitionStories.org website. It has a lot. Both of videos, and short descriptions and all the rest and it’s a lot of fun to explore.
Jason Hartman: Hey Duane, one last question for you. And I meant to ask you this a few minutes ago. Btu you talk a lot about the population problem, and we went into that, but what is the solution to that? Just tell people to stop having kids? What do you actually do about it? How do you execute that in practice?
Duane Elgin: Yeah, I do not have an easy answer for that. This is a very, very serious question and I respect the difficulties of grappling with it. So I’m going to differ on an easy answer, because I think it’s systemic. I think it’s not simply population; it’s the whole system of population, resources, the environment, our set of values, our intentions about the future and so on. So what I have to say is it really depends.
Jason Hartman: Yeah. Is it China? Remember their one child policy and that kind of stuff. It really scares me when governments try to control especially populations. Some scary things have happened in history. I don’t know if it can be done differently in the future, but that seems to be the crux of the Malthusian sustainability problem, is just simple population.
Duane Elgin: Well, yes and it’s very complex because energy comes in, climate disruption comes in, and the ability to grow food then comes in. And then what comes in some scary things have happened in history. I don’t know if it can be done differently in the future, but that seems to be the crux of the Malthusian sustainability problem, is just simple population.
Duane Elgin: Well, yes and it’s very complex because energy comes in, climate disruption comes in, and the ability to grow food then comes in. And then what comes in is starvation, famine, and population is self-limiting because people starve to death. And I think if climate disruption continues as it has… I grew up on a farm. I saw how vulnerable agriculture is to small changes in climate. If it continues to be disruptive, I think we are in big trouble as a human family, just providing enough food for ourselves under current conditions. so we’re going to be pushed into more innovation and I think, more cooperation.
Jason Hartman: Well Duane Elgin, thanks so much for joining us today.
Duane Elgin: You’re welcome Jason. Thanks for having me.
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Transcribed by Ralph