The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight - book review

2008-01-11

Another book, another accolade.

"The last hours of ancient sunlight" by Thom Hartmann, is an excellent book.

Amazingly every book I pick up lately has immense value.

Where as Ken Wilber's book focussed on the evolution of our culture in the last 6,000 years to modern day differentiation of "man over nature" or the "ascended/descended" principle, Thom Hartmann takes another approach and compares "modern" man to ancient man. What he calls the "New Cultures" from the last 6,000 years and the "Old cultures" which have existed [and still do today] since [at least] the last 200,000 years.

The comparative is exhaustive and elaborates in solid-crack-free logic the reasons for our world/environmental crisis.

The book is divided into three parts, the first of which details the current world problems, the second details our cultural problems, and the third provides solutions - most of which are purely cultural.

Thom tackles head-on all of the common arguments people use when defining our world situation, including:

* "It's man nature to be dominant/destroy/be greedy" etc.
* "A solution will come/be invented to resolve things"
* "Modern civilized life is much better than uncivilized life"
* "If we are taking over the planet and "replacing" Older cultures [only 1% of the population today still practices Old Culture ways] it is because we are 'superior' or it is natural-evolution"

Thom also chronologically describes our New Culture as a deviation from Older cultures effectively and maps out the values and moral codes of Old Cultures around the world from Native Americans to African, Latin American & Asia.

From his wide experiences with these different Old Cultures he has come up with a wide array of differences between their culture, which has been ours for the last 200,000 years [minus the 0 to 6,000 years date at which point it was subdued into the "new culture"], and ours.

These Older Cultures are sustainable by nature. Humans, for the last 200,000+ years have evolved fine-tuned cultural systems that have worked precisely because they are sustainable. So a sustainable mind-set is not something we have never had, a sustainable mind-set is something which we all come from. What has changed is a cultural "forgetting".

It would seem then that the "solution" to our current problem is to take the best of Older Cultures and to merge them with our current lives. If we are to survive, it is the re-integration of cultural value which will prevail.

I present some of them here in a table:

Older culture New culture
Cooperative Dominator
Leadership a duty Leadership is power
Local Large
Diverse and unique Monoculture
Long term thinking Short term thinking
Respective of environment and identity of others Consumptive of environment and absorptive/destructive to other cultures
Conscious rituals Passive ritualization
Sharing of resources Ownership and control in the hoarding of goods and resources
See's war as vulgar and unnecessary See's war as exciting, horrible and dramatic
Political independence Political dependence
Food, water, shelter and energy self sufficiency Food, water, shelter and energy dependancy
Promotes individual-spiritual-actualization Prevents spiritual actualization

One of the most important items in this list is the second to last one: Self sufficiency. Before I had read this book, I still did not see clearly the importance of self sufficiency of basic necessities. However, now I see this very clearly. If you can provide your own food, shelter, clothing and energy - then you have basic safety and security. Our society, for all its flare and dazzle, provides neither of these - work is uncertain, homelessness real for many, pressure to work to pay rent is very pervasive... and yet the tribal-unit [Old Cultures] provide this for their members as a basic-building block. In fact, contrary to common-myth, Older Culture people actually end up having more free time - even after tackling their needs of food, clothing, shelter and energy - than Younger Cultures do. This pressure to continue to work to pay bills, this need to be dependant is paramount to the system's ability to survive. Human dependent capital ensures the dominator scheme can continue.

Independence from this dominant culture requires living independently... once you can ensure your basic needs, you no longer have a need to work at jobs you don't like, you don't have to do things you don't believe in, you don't even have to pay "taxes" if you don't think the money is going to the right places [actually I don't think taxes are necessary at all! as the majority of the Older Cultures has never had a concept of taxes in its 200,000 years of their existence and taxation has historically always been a means for feudal/fascist/royal New Culture systems to amalgamate wealth/power]. Instead communities care for every member in their group and projects which require larger man-power are things which the community then band together to achieve. So everything that taxes are supposed to do: pay for schools, build roads, health care" etc. are all things which are dealt with easily by a functioning tribe/community of people.

* "It's man nature to be dominant/destroy/be greedy" etc.

Thom states that this has not always been the case, in fact, for the last 200,000 years it's only in the last 16,000 or so that there has been any fluctuation. Previously it was such that if another person in a tribe were to become greedy or dominant that they would eventually lead their tribe to its own self-destruction. In fact, this has been the case with our "New Culture" repeatedly in the past as well. The Romans, the Chinese [two dynasties], the Incas, the Sumarians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians... and on and on. "New Cultures" are not sustainable because of their cultural ehtos. Put simply, "to dominate another is to destroy yourself" - it's just that the effects are not immediate to us as they often span generations; but the cycle is very clear.

This view of "human's are inherently corruptible/bad/evil etc." or "this planet will probably be better off without us" mentality is actually a view-point from our Younger Culture and precisely one of the cultural problems. This negative standpoint is what permits negative behavior to continue, and what makes it seemingly impossible for anything else to ocure.

There are countless stories from all Older Cultures all around the world that echo identical patterns as they were approached by New Cultures. The most common response in the Pacific, Africa and the America's to "conversion" to Christianity was a perplexion to the concept of "man being innately evil/sinful". They would respond with confusion and say: "how can that be true"?

Thom is very careful to state that the problem is not in the people, its in the culture. It's our 'story' we tell ourselves about something that affects the way we see the world and the way we behave.

As the New Culture has spread throughout the world it offered Older Cultures very little in the ways of options. Whereas Old Cultures are inherently respective of other cultures [they respect and promote diversity], New Cultures are absorptive. You either adapt to our culture [by becoming "civilized"] or you are destroyed. We can see this in history, and today, everywhere - the options an Older Culture has are few they can:

- Give in
[and be absorbed/enslaved as the Haitians, Africans and millions of others have been]
- Fight back
[which fails because they adopt the same tactics as their enemy and essentially adopt younger culture views in the process]
- Run away
[which works as long as there is somewhere to run to]

* "A solution will come/be invented to resolve things"

While a solution may come to replace oil, to help agriculture move away from pollutants and in other areas, none of this will solve the core of the problem. The core of the problem is cultural - and I completely agree with Thom on this point. Until we stop living consumptively, the problem will only persist and get worse before it gets better.

This "New Culture" attitude also has a "someone else" will fix it mantra [or "some god will fix it"] - as long as we keep this attitude, no change will occur. It's a fixative belief that keeps the culture from shifting by promoting apathy.

* "Modern civilized life is much better than uncivilized life"

Well, I've already gone into this above, but basically we work more for less free time, and we have no or little security. So less free time, and less security in exchange for... more things. But what is the value of things? A roof and enough food to eat will make me happy, but a new ipod and a fancy new dress will only make me momentarily happy if I am still unsure about whether my job will be here tomorrow or if i can pay all my bills.

It is also possible to combine our ideals. We can live in a world where we value the individual and still retain all the good things that come with modern life. All the values I hold from modern life are transferable and technology itself [often cited as the thing we don't want to loose] is not dependent on a globalized or dominant culture. On the contrary, if I had more free time because basic needs are full-filled it would allow me, and many others, to pursue more areas of intellectual interest - such as: technological/artistic/musical/philosophical developments...

* "If we are taking over the planet and "replacing" Older cultures [only 1% of the population today still practices Old Culture ways] it is because we are 'superior' or it is natural-evolution"

First of all, there is no way to say that our culture is more suitable to life on earth than another until we are far enough down the line of time that we can look back and ask ourselves if one culture outlived another. Frankly the way we are going there is so much environmental pressure from our culture that it seems impossible to imagine that this "better" culture will survive the test of time unless it dramatically shifts its way of thinking.

Secondly, just because one culture is willing to kill [either literally or culturally] another to absorb them, doesn't mean it is 'superior'. If I walk into a room with a gun and shoot and kill 20 other people we all know [i hope] that this does not that mean I am superior to them. And yet our culture spreads around the world very much like cancer does in the body. Our culture replicates itself and when it comes into contact with another it offers it very limited options [join ours or be destroyed] - if anything, our culture is "sick" not "superior". A "superior" culture, in my mind, would be one that valued others, didn't build weapons of war [because it understood that even developing weapons of war is robbing the future of resources and always destroys, financially or literally, the civilization it comes from], and was in balance with its environment.

I can't really discuss these issues any better than Thom Hartmann can, so if you want to get into this subject and learn a whole lot about what problems we are facing, why we have cultural problems, and what we can do about it, I urge you to grab from the library a copy of this book! You won't regret it.

I hope my summary has proven insightful.

[next post I will go into my own personal decisions and directions]

With kind,

Sebastian.