Stanley Krippner, Ph.D. Alan Watts Professor of Psychology, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
For the second time in human history, men and women are aware that they have entered a new millennium. In the sixth century, a Roman monk named Dionysius Exignuus devised the current method of counting years from the purported birth date of Jesus Christ. But few Europeans had calendars or knew that the year 1000 was at hand. In the meantime, other cultures have kept score with different calendar systems: Jews count from the assumed time of creation in 3760 BC, most Hindus from 3102 BC when the Kali Yuga time cycle began, and Muslims from Muhammad's flight to Medina in 622 AD. But with the exception of Islamic apocalyptic beliefs, the passage of one thousand years was not given special attention. The shift from "Before Christ" (BC) to "Before Common Era" (BCE) and from "After Domini" (AD) to Common Era (CE) has provided a secular unity for tracking the years. Even so, it was probably more accurate to date the beginning of the new millennium at the first of January 2001, not 2000.
In the meantime, countless cultures around the world, and their mythologies, have disappeared. In Meso-America, dozens of ornate Mayan temples lie mute, as do an untold number of Incan monuments in Peru, Celtic cairns in Wales, Khmer statues in Cambodia, and magnificent ziggurats in central Africa. The puzzle of Easter Island's vanished civilization and its giant statues is unique in archaeology because of the isolation of this barren land from its neighbors. Current archaeological evidence indicates that some 1,600 years ago the island's first settlers, explorers from Polynesia, found themselves in a pristine paradise with subtropical forests, dozens of bird species, and no predators. They prospered, multiplied, and distributed resources in a manner that suggests a sophisticated economy and a complex political system. Emulating the stone carvings of their Polynesian forebears, they began erecting ever-larger statues on platforms, as rival clans tried to surpass each other with displays of power and wealth.
But as the population soared, the forests were cut more rapidly than they were regenerating and trees were transformed into fuel, canoes, houses, and rollers and ropes for transporting the gigantic stone heads. The growing populace consumed the local bird and animal populations; the absence of wood for seagoing canoes reduced the fish catches; erosion and deforestation diminished crop yields. Disorder ensued; clan fought clan, toppling and desecrating each other's statues in the process. By the time the Europeans arrived on Easter Sunday, 1772, the once fertile island was barren and desolate. Its remaining inhabitants had degenerated into violence, starvation, and cannibalism.
Perhaps Easter Island's page in history is a preview that shows where our current path is headed, a part of the instruction manual we so desperately need for the current millennium. Easter Island's history is a microcosm of our planet, so far. A rising population is faced with dwindling resources. And just as no one could emigrate from Easter Island, the Earth has become so interconnected that it is itself like a single island. There is no place on the planet that is not affected by the ecology of the whole, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean.
If we are going to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders, we are called upon, individually and collectively, to change the myths that are leading us toward extinction and to find inspiring visions of a plausible and appealing future. For transformation to occur, human beings must actively shape the future, an enterprise that goes to the heart of myth making. If we are each a cell in what Peter Russell calls "The Global Brain”, this is an individual as well as a collective venture. Therefore, our peacemakers today have the opportunity to position themselves in the forefront of creating myths for the new millennium.
Myths are somewhat like what chaos theorists call “attractors”. They are constellations of thoughts, feelings, images, motives, values, and priorities. They take the form of narratives (spoken, written, painted, danced) that address existential human issues. Old myths are frequently challenged by counter - myths in cultures, in families, in institutions, and in individuals. Modern science and technology have propelled what Kenneth Gergen refers to as the Grand Narrative of Progress, in other words, extending the human life span, harnessing natural resources and the power of the atom, carrying sounds through the atmosphere, recording images on film, and exploring outer space by defying gravity itself. Rational thought, applied technology, and the empirical scientific method became the chief instruments of the progress myth, and they promised to discern which economic system, which form of government, which aesthetic design, which musical and artistic style, and which urban plan would best lead humanity out of confusion toward a utopian future. Mythology was equated with superstition and falsehood; its most vital elements could not be subjected to empirical verification and it emanated from the well of imagination rather than reason. Spiritual concerns, beliefs in the Divine, and respect for the sacred were considered to be the “opium of the masses" and, like any other addiction, were considered to be a hindrance to progress.
But as the Grand Narrative of Progress came to dominate other values and views, it began to cast a malignant shadow. The invention of the automobile was the quintessence of progress, but it left overcrowded highways, air pollution, and deforestation in its wake. Fertilizers increased crop production but also increased the growth of algae in lakes and canals. The discovery of powerful insecticides, first greeted with enthusiasm, was followed by the unintentional poisoning of fish, birds, and animals. Nuclear power plants increased available energy but led to storage problems, life-threatening contamination, and at least one accident whose repercussions were felt around the world. The waste products of technological living began to choke great cities and foul once pristine lands. When Western housing, clothing, and religion were brought to aboriginal people, the rate of infectious disease decreased, but there was an increase in the rate of alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and spouse and child abuse.
The Grand Narrative of Progress, which has directed the activities of the Western world and which reigns in this new millennium, is argued against by various Millennium Myths, both utopian and apocalyptic. The auspicious versions of the Millennium Myth predict that humankind will be rescued by solar power, cold fusion, plankton harvests, or aliens from outer space. These upbeat versions of the Millennium Myth portray a New Golden Age, the New Jerusalem, the Peaceable Kingdom, or the City of the Sun. In some of these scripts, heaven will come down to Earth, or at least be cloned. Other narratives foretell the arrival of the Messiah, the Return of Quetzalcoatl, the Emergence of Matriaya, or the Healing Spirit of the Goddess.
The gloomy myth-makers, on the other hand, foresee a world destroyed by floods or fire, and a human population decimated by war, by starvation, by infectious diseases, by the Antichrist, or by the collapse of the ozone layer. For them, the fallout of Western technology is past hope. Some religious leaders see the Earth as being beyond redemption; people are hopelessly degenerate and entry into the "other world" is human kind’s only chance of salvation. Furthermore, this entry is typically limited to "true believers,” those "predestined" to enter it, or those who have diligently worked through their "karma.” A number of religious and ethnic groups equate the Grand Narrative of Progress with sexual depravity, televised imperialism, and cultural homogenization. They want to keep their diet pure, their women veiled, their holy places inviolate, and their homes free from fast food, pornographic magazines, intruding police officers, strange ideas, and – perhaps above all – from sex, drugs, and rock music. They do not want to participate in the Global Village, the Information Highway, or the New World Order. Instead of expending their labors on behalf of scientific and technical advances, they prepare for Armageddon, the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment, the Pole Shift, or the closing out of the Mayan calendar.
Joseph Campbell cautioned us that we cannot predict the next mythology any more than we can predict tonight's dream. He was very clear, however, that if humanity is to survive, its dysfunctional myths must be transformed. For example, while most mythological systems direct the expansive faculty of empathy and belonging toward the in-group, they deliberately direct rejection and even violence toward the out-group and underdogs. The shrinking globe dictates that we can no longer afford to use such outsiders as containers for our destructive impulses. For Campbell, the emblem of the mythology begging to be born is the photo from outer space showing the Earth as a beautiful, blue, but unambiguously indivisible home.
The American philosopher Sam Keen, who worked closely with Campbell, has urged that we shift from the myth of progress to a myth of sustainable growth if we are to achieve the creation of the compassionate political order that might avert humanity from its course toward self-destruction. While acknowledging that this reversal may appear hopelessly utopian, Keen noted that a mere one-fourth of the world's military expenditures could prevent soil erosion, stop ozone depletion, stabilize population growth, prevent global warming and acid rain, provide clean and safe energy, provide shelter, eliminate illiteracy, starvation, and malnourishment, provide clean water, and retire the debt of developing nations.
The need for a new, unifying, adaptive mythic vision amidst the disorienting cacophony of competing myths presses on. Abraham Lincoln's famous American Civil War plea is more appropriate than ever. He observed that “The dogmas of the past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
One of the great advantages of democratic forms of government is that they allow dialectic among competing visions. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault observed, in totalitarian and autocratic regimes, where the power is concentrated in a single source, the natural flow of dialectic is not allowed to take its course. In making important decisions, the North American Iroquois Indians asked how a decision would affect the seventh generation to come. Effective social planning, whether public or private, requires an unrestricted dialectic between the reality of the present and the wisest vision of the future that a people can generate.
When Albert Hofmann wrote that the future of society rests in the alteration of consciousness, he envisioned the need, as did Lincoln, for us to “think anew and act anew.” The role of LSD and similar substances in creating social change in the United States has been underestimated, especially in regard to accelerating new ways of thinking in regard to the opposition to the Vietnam War, the civil rights and feminist struggles, gay and lesbian liberation, and the movement to preserve the natural environment. Each of these episodes represented an alteration in consciousness, a new way of thinking and acting that represented a shift way from what another American president, Dwight Eisenhower, called “the military-industrial complex,” a powerful cabal that we can see reflected in control by EuroAmerican, male-centered, homophobic religions, and by imperialistic corporate power blocs. LSD might have given many people the vision of new mythologies, but that vision had to be incarnated by hard work including political activism, by pressuring the media to inform the public of the ongoing dialogue, by arranging for grass-roots community gatherings, and by working with school boards, non-governmental organizations, and progressive religious groups.
Echoes of this altered consciousness and its impact can be observed in the current struggles in the United States to end the occupation of Iraq, to save endangered species and their homelands, to provide medical marijuana for those who need it, and to reverse the draconian drug laws that clog American prisons and distract the police from directing their efforts against serious criminal and terrorist acts that threaten public safety.
President Eisenhower also anticipated "systems design,” remarking that plans are useless but planning is extremely important. The information-based programs of both dictatorships and democracies rarely appreciate the complexity of social and economic systems, hence their goals are often undermined by events they have failed to appreciate or predict. Policy planning, even if it can not dictate or predict the future, can reflect shared values for the years ahead. One may ingest designer drugs and wear designer clothes, but one can not sculpt a designer myth. Yet, if systems design and policy planning veer away from the Scylla of the Grand Narrative of Progress and the Charbydis of the Millennium Myths, it is yet possible to foster mythologies based on economic sustainability, a renewed connection with nature, and with the growth of ethnically diverse but like-minded communities, many of them virtual and internet-based. The fate of the Easter Islanders can be avoided as the inhabitants of Island Earth navigate through the 21st Century. And when these ships land, let us hope that today's peacemakers, social planners, and environmental conservations will disembark with the consciousness needed to re-set the course of world history and human mythology.
This paper was prepared for presentation at LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug, An International Symposium on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann, 13-15 January, Basel, Switzerland. Its preparation was supported by the Chair for the Study of Consciousness, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.