Slow and Small are Beautiful: Recovering from the American Way of Life

May 1, 2005

Now is the time to experiment with building intentional community with other similarly seeking folks at a particular spot within a particular bioregion. Learning to live in a sustainable way within the context of the earth’s ecosystem is our task and joy now if we choose to evolve with dignity and sacredness.

Addictions and Denial

Those of us living in “developed” industrial nation states are experiencing extraordinarily dysfunctional and destructive cultures. We possess little respect for the biocentric (life-centered) values of sacredness and interconnectedness. Most of us growing up in these societies have been taught to be anthropocentric (man-centered), individualistic, quite separate from one another and superior to — rather than part of — nature. This model supports a selfish pursuit of values defined by scientific materialism with little or no consciousness of the social, economic, ecological, spiritual, psychological, genetic, or cultural costs of such a “get what you can” philosophy.

Many people are beginning to understand that this materialistic, man-centered model means death, literally. It seems incumbent upon those of us representing ourselves as healers and teachers, concerned about the well-being and wholeness of people and community, to be radically (going to the root) holistic as we share our own healing journeys with others. Martin Luther King once said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” No life is healthy, as we are beginning to sense, unless all life is healthy or safe. Everything, all of life, organic and inorganic, including homo sapiens, is in a dynamic process of sacred interconnectedness.

Striving to live the American Way Of Life (AWOL) is dangerous for all living beings. It cannot lead to psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, or ecological health. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we become aware of the clear distinction between what we have been taught and conditioned to believe, and what we come to know to be closer to the truth from our personal experiences. The earth-centered consciousness now emerging as an alternative to the model of selfish materialism that most of us have been taught suggests a need for conscious, intentional distancing from the many addictions that commonly form the essence of our mass consumer culture. However, without interactive face-to-face communities, creative interdependence with the larger culture is extremely difficult. The loss of vital, sharing communities is one of the most significant contributors to the extreme dysfunction of our era.

The depth of denial that exists in all Western and oligarchic societies is profound. Denial is a “defensive” necessity, consciously or unconsciously, enabling continuance of insatiable demands for a lifestyle that is diabolically exploitative of the majority of the world’s people and the earth’s natural resources.

The richest fifth of the world’s population receives 82.7% of world income, while the poorest fifth receives 1.4%. The United States, with 4.6% of the world’s population, consumes from 25% to nearly half the world’s resources, depending upon which resource is examined. People in the U.S. spend $5 billion annually on calorie reduction diets while 30,000 of the world’s children die every day from malnourishment. U.S. Americans spend $8 billion a year on cosmetics, $3 billion more than the estimated cost of providing basic education to everyone in the world. America and the European nations together spend $17 billion a year on pet food, $4 billion more than the estimated annual cost of providing basic health and nutrition worldwide. The average U.S. family affects the environment 40 times more than a family in India, 100 times more than a family in Kenya.

Various rationalizations, some originating in a deep racism and nationalism, are used to justify this enforced disproportionate privilege of the few at the expense of the many. People generally do not feel good about participation in egregious theft. Thus, insidious and deeply pathological denial systems develop, enabling the continuance of massive exploitation with a minimum of consciousness and resistance. Denial, at the individual or societal level, generally manifests in various types of addictions.


Hearing the Voices

Historian, philosopher, and novelist Theodore Roszak (The Voice of the Earth, 1992) believes therapists have been ignoring the most important inner voice of all — the “ecological unconscious.” The greater ecological realities of which we are an integral part penetrate our psyches, the voice of the earth expressing her pain through our seemingly unrelated tensions and diseases. Roszak proposes eco-psychology as a solution to the shortcomings of both psychotherapy and environmentalism.

I believe this kind of ecological consciousness/unconsciousness is involved in all efforts for healing. Furthermore, I would include in eco-psychology Martin Luther King’s understanding of injustice. The socioeconomic wounds of which we are a part, whether conscious of them or not, surround and tweak our psyches as well.

Massive injustices are occurring everywhere on the planet, most related in one way or another to the incredible global imperial policies of the United States, and the West in general, empowered by the systemic insatiable greed of the American (and Western) Way Of Life. The voices of the poor, the oppressed, and those being terrorized because they cry out for bits of justice and dignity, ultimately and inevitably, I believe, become part of our inner voice — manifesting through our seemingly unrelated tensions and dis-eases. We are in fact all one, just as indigenous peoples have tried in vain to teach us.

Not just the voice of the wounded inner child, but the voices of wounded others and the voice of the wounded earth are important to hear and address for profound healing to occur. Internal justice, social justice, ecological justice, and their interplay with one another are necessary in order to achieve holistic health and heightened consciousness. Everything is interconnected, and each piece within the whole affects every other piece and, therefore, the whole.

The practical implications are profound. As a physician asked me once, “How can I help an entire family recover from pneumonia and once again send them back to their unheated shack in the Tennessee winter, knowing they will soon return with another bout of pneumonia?” This particular doctor discovered how local bank redlining policies prevented Black residents from acquiring housing loans, relegating them to the only housing available to them — unheated squatter shacks with no utilities. This doctor felt obligated to become politically active against local racist bank practices in order to successfully treat his pneumonia patients. This is an easy-to-understand example of the connections between a clearly identifiable socio-economic injustice and a physical disease. Many connections are far more insidious and systemic than this example. Since everything is truly interconnected with everything else, it is not difficult to begin to comprehend that one seeking, as well as offering, healing needs to be aware of not only the voice of the inner wounded child, but the voices of other children wounded by political or socioeconomic conditions, and the voice of Mother Earth’s pain.


Withdrawing to Heal

The wisdom of a decentralist, biocentric consciousness and the hope it offers in these dark times provide us a choice that may lead to our salvation. A truly decentralized, grassroots participatory biocracy (democracy is for humans conspiring against nature) enables us to withdraw from our extreme dependency on the dangerous, dehumanizing, and violent consumption economy. As we simplify into local, bioregional communities of economic and energy self-sufficiency, we create a new foundation for the necessary radical changes. The many holistic healing and teaching modalities that respect ancient wisdoms of the earth, of cultures, and of an interconnected consciousness, offer promise for integrating physical, spiritual, emotional, mental, political, social, and ecological healing.

Real traditional medicine and healing evolves from accumulated and transmitted experiences, generally over long periods of time. It tends to be low tech, based on very archetypal but experientially proven principles in the use of local, earthy, natural remedies and the inner energies and capacities of homo sapiens, and is accessible to everyone. This is a moment in history when we critically need unrelenting honesty, while affirming an earth-centered consciousness urging radically different life and work styles. Slow and small in fact are beautiful. Fast and massive may soon be seen as dysfunctional, superficial, and ugly, even so destructive as to cause our extinction or near so.


A Dishonest Hoax

Following World War II the U.S. became the world’s leading superpower, acquiring control of virtually all the planet’s resources, assuring (in our deluded cognitive realm) an almost unlimited expansion of consumption by a majority of her citizens, no matter the real costs. As a result, a popular mentality has developed – a myth – that ever increasing consumption is a law of nature. This leads to unthinking, wasteful habits. To maintain this myth, it has become increasingly important to operate in a world of our own, as unaffected as possible by the larger human, ecological, and global issues. This is called denial.

Most of the effects on society and the environment are not incorporated into the costs of our consumptive lives. They have been outsourced out of our view or “feeling” field. Thus, there has been a distortion that has pervaded our pricing system because of our failure to include social, environmental and personal health costs (massive degradation, destruction, and deterioration of physical and mental health), and because of numerous and various kinds of subsidies and welfare for corporations and the rich. In sum, the entire system has been rigged, a dishonest hoax! When the needs of a particular system – no matter at what level – are not met from within the boundaries of that system, a severe price is paid in grotesque energy consumption, inferior food, pervasive global pollution, and worsening social, economic, and physical health.

The cultural revolution of the 1960s seriously pierced this comfortable paradigm that seemed so sacred and invincible; but there has ever since been an attempted revival of AWOL – a last hurrah, if you will of the seductive nature of opulence. However, increasing numbers of conscientious, sensitive human beings know, intuitively if not consciously, that there are numerous observable, objective signs – whether social, economic, political, psychological, genetic, ecological, spiritual, or physical – suggesting very deep and systemic levels of deterioration and sickness.


Ancient Wisdoms

Recently there has been a revival of people searching for community. I believe this comes from an ancient wisdom deeply buried in our subconscious, where cooperation and mutual aid are understood as far more important than competition and selfishness. We are wired as social beings. Alienation has steadily increased through the historical process of substituting money – in effect a substanceless artifact – for spiritual and community values. Money has become a substitute for affiliational ties with community and place. Even when people don’t understand their malaise or cannot identify a cause of feeling incomplete or unfulfilled, they do know that something about our way of life is not right.

Fortunately, we also know of choices we can make individually and collectively to walk a radically different path, to the beat of a different drummer. We know, for example, that we need – and must consume – less; that we must respect all of nature because we are an intrinsic part of nature; we must share equitably; we must live cooperatively and work locally for both ecological and personal well-being; use far fewer – perhaps no – fossil fuels; eat locally; exercise regularly; assure regular quiet and reflection time; take personal responsibility for our emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health; seek participation in various forms of community, etc.

It is also important to collectively understand that our withdrawal of support from the prevailing pathological political economy is strategic. It is both a form of noncooperation and resistance, while at the same time re-constructing an alternative from below –  toward a bioregionally sustainable social model consistent with our evolutionary origins.

A couple of years after my rude awakening in Viet Nam, I began earnestly searching for ideas that might define a markedly healthier view of the world from the one I had been taught and so blissfully accepted before Viet Nam. The military experience had caused me to suspect virtually every speck of the “American mystique” as well as my own personal identity. My fledgling legal career was in big trouble because of my emerging contemptuous feelings about the legal system as a protector of class interests. I was beginning to read and talk about ideas of community empowerment and local self-reliance. I was gradually coming to honor an inner intuitive distrust of any centralization of economic and political power and to be attracted to its opposite, decentralization.

I began developing an appreciation of ancient wisdoms, rituals, and indigenous cultures. I discovered the refreshing 19th century anarchist thinkers like Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin who articulated decentralized people-power politics. Tolstoy’s and Gandhi’s ideas of self-reliant communities as the basis of genuine freedom and autonomy made a deep impression. Learning of 20th century U.S. thinkers such as Ralph Borsodi, Scott Nearing, Paul Goodman, Joseph Campbell and Lewis Mumford affirmed for me that other offspring of the AWOL upbringing had very clearly and harshly critiqued American/Western political and economic values and structures, while offering radical, decentralist alternatives. I was very much influenced by the ideas of British economist E. F. Schumacher and his book, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.


We Are Not Worth More

Up to the moment of the U.S. massacre of Iraq in 1991, I spent a solid decade as a dedicated activist working for justice in both U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and for a radical transformation in our consciousness and understanding, as people recovering from the arrogance of self-righteousness and greed. In that decade I traveled to nearly two dozen countries learning about other cultures and the reaches of U.S. intervention into popular movements around the globe. I wrote and spoke out about the interventionist policies, lobbied political leaders, fasted on a number of occasions, organized solidarity efforts seeking to reverse U.S. policies destroying people’s movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador, participated in civil disobedience actions, and almost lost my life in this country while attempting, with others, to nonviolently stop the flow of lethal munitions designed for the killing and maiming of thousands of sacred human beings.

As I have said many times over: “We are not worth more. They are not worth less.” Yet we live as if we are worth more, and they suffer incomprehensibly as a result. In effect, they are worth-less, and, as a result, we have rationalized the most diabolical policies and lifestyles imaginable. And it has dehumanized us.

After the first Gulf War, I traveled to Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, Israel, Golan Heights/Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, among other places, in efforts to learn directly from aggrieved people themselves the nature of their struggles. These trips viscerally exposed me to the post-Cold War, unipolar, Pax Americana world where increasingly the capitalist global supermarket “free” economy is being asserted and inflicted with more vigor than ever. The results I observed were, and are, powerfully anguishing. An exponential increase in the disparity between haves and have-nots is producing a depth and extent of suffering and economic and social deterioration that I had not experienced in previous trips. I have always been shocked, anguished, and angered by what I have seen and understood to be “Third” World suffering related to “First” World exploitation. But I was not ready to observe how much worse it has become. My God! Help us come to our senses, our inner and interconnected natures and sacredness!

As the supermarket economy envelopes the entire globe, impoverishment increases. They absolutely go hand in hand. The post-Cold War global economy is enforcing draconian economic and social restructuring upon every Third World country that seeks credit from First World economic structures, in effect holding these countries hostage. Thus, external “debt” has become war by another name. Many more people will now die from malnourishment and disease than from all past wars.


Haunted at Home

I know how comfortable many of us in the “First” World have become accustomed to feeling – a kind of safety from such suffering that reinforces an attitude of superiority and racism. This is extremely dangerous. What we observe elsewhere – as we increasingly understand the connections of suffering elsewhere to attitudes, values, and policies here at home – is like an advance barometric reading of what will be coming home to haunt us.

As I have continued to travel within the U.S. – to such locations as San Francisco, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, New York City, Trenton, Camden, Boston, Springfield, Mass., and Washington, D.C. – I have noted with a deep sinking feeling in my stomach the corresponding Third World phenomenon coming home to the U.S. The disparity between Haves and Have Nots is widening at an alarming rate, with catastrophic implications for our society. Racism, an original sin in U.S. history, seems more insidious and widespread than ever. Death rates, homicide rates, illness rates, school drop-out rates, malnutrition rates, among other indicators, reveal that minorities’ social welfare is deteriorating to deep levels.

The myth of AWOL, and the Western oligarchic way of life in general, is rapidly exploding into disintegration. Violence, so prevalent in the United States, is one of the major symptoms of disintegration. Epidemic despair, hopelessness, street and suite crime, out-of-control drug use as well as middle class anomie, all contribute to an increasingly dangerous situation. As injustices mount and become more systemic and prevalent, it is not hard to comprehend that fewer and fewer of us will enjoy justice and peace. No matter how much protection the wealthy can afford, when injustice is everywhere, their lives and property will not be safe either. Even as domestic police have become more abusive and violent in preserving our class system, such repression can only last so long.

These social indicators and trends – from the many ecological factors that are clearly suggesting catastrophe for the future – spell disaster for all human communities, unless there is radical and revolutionary change unparalleled in human history. To be radical simply means going to the roots of understanding our recent genocidal and exploitative history and the origins of our arrogant, racist, self-righteous values. In this case, to be revolutionary means turning around a value system, a consciousness, and a paradigm – from adherence to savage materialism toward faith in the reality of the sacred interconnectedness of all life which resides as an ancient archetype in each of us. What is more important than sharing and caring?

It has become important for me to integrate the big picture with my own internal growth and maturity — no small task! This requires focus on local relationships with self, family, friends, acquaintances, community groups, and natural habitat as the locus for integration. Integrating our global with our local experiences and awareness, along with our internal transformational process, has caused many of us to deeply appreciate the beauty of the slow as well as the small.

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