Preserving the wild human | An interview with Dr. Louis Herman

Herman: Many factors are involved. Clearly it is in part a matter of choice in the face of countervailing forces. But one of the more profound and more elusive factors has to do with living in wilderness. This eludes us because we are so removed from a life in nature. We have to keep reminding ourselves that traditionally the San were surrounded every moment of every day and every night by a relatively undamaged African savannah with all the charismatic megafauna—the big antelope,  giraffe, wildebeest,  lions, hyenas—and, depending on the ecology—rhino and elephant. The idea of living with large predators as neighbors fills us with fear because we have so radically separated our lives from the natural world. But when you are part of a culture that has co-evolved with lions, antelope and giraffe you are of necessity attuned to their ways, as they are to you. For example, there seems to be a truce between Kalahari lions and the Bushmen who live with them. There’s no record of a Bushman being killed or harmed by lions in the memory of existing traditional San. Likewise Bushmen would never hunt lions. One scholar of the San, Elizabeth Marshall, described how this truce seemed at times to rest on a mutual fascination. She describes how when they once visited a group of San in the desert, they arrived  late at night and were too tired to put up their tents so they simple scattered their sleeping bags in the sand near the Bushman camp and slept under the stars. During the night they were vaguely aware of shouts and some disturbance, but being very tired they kept on sleeping. In the morning they found tracks of a group of lions that had walked through their group, going up to each sleeping person in turn, sniffing their heads and moving on.

It seems as if the beauty of a wilderness environment has a tuning effect on human politics. The emotional template of  beauty is everywhere in pristine wilderness. Everyone can experience directly, at any time, the beauty of the dunes and the sky, the grass and trees, the lakes and the rivers and of course the animals, insect and birds. Everything has its place. Everything is part of a single, integrated, connected whole, which is both good and beautiful. In contrast, industrial capitalism is based on the sacredness of private property and John Locke’s idea that wilderness is “waste” until converted by human labor into valuable property. For most primal and indigenous societies the natural world is perhaps the supreme good-in-itself—a sacred miracle. Wilderness immersion reminds us that this sacred beauty extends to the human too and this helps us respect for other humans. There is evidence that the experience is also associated with qualities like generosity, compassion and loving kindness towards other human beings, and this, of course, would condition human politics. Shamans call the healing effect of the beauty of wilderness  “the big medicine”— waking up to  the creative force that permeates creation and by extension humanity.

Compare this to our contemporary situation. Think about the stress of working to the clock in the bureaucracies of our congested cities: endless buildings blocking the sun, asphalt covering the earth, traffic, noise, pollution, and the anonymous masses  of people—many of whom we experience as oppressive—bosses, enforcers, officials, competitors, even adversaries. Today the reality of our wilderness origins is overwhelmed by the human and human creations. Our urban condition suffocates our consciousness. So what we’ve got now is a culture addicted to consumerism and endless production of material wealth, where 90% of what we purchase is trashed within six months. In the process of this mad pursuit of endless wealth we are depleting our natural resources, exhausting ourselves  and poisoning and despoiling our environment.

We need to remember that much of our suffering has to do with our creative freedom. We can no longer live instinctively like the antelope grazing in the savannah. We evolved with the animals but leaped into a realm of ethics. We cannot avoid making choices, yet our freedom is limited and our knowledge always imperfect so we make mistakes, we fall from order into chaos. We need  rituals and practices of remembering and reconnecting to the mysterious creative source which sustains us in life. These practices need to be guided by the continual pursuit of wisdom, not data. Only through such disciplines can we stay balanced, keep our wilderness origins in mind, and thus attune our politics and economics to the great mystery of existence. Humans need a truth-loving politics and a wisdom-worshipping religion.

MOON: So, how does the life of the San inform your model of “primal politics”? What are primal politics?

Herman: In one sense “primal politics” simply describes the way of life of the first, original or primal mode of human existence. It is the politics of nomadic hunting-gathering societies living in wilderness. This is characterized by direct democracy where  decisions are made by consensus through continual face-to-face discussion and the economy is self-sufficient and based on voluntary caring and sharing. There is no political hierarchy, minimal division of labor; there is an ethos of  egalitarianism and a spiritual relationship to the natural world.

But in a deeper and more universal sense I use “primal politics” to  described a politics, a way of life, based on the primal search for meaning—“the best life possible”—as it emerges in the life of the species and the life of the individual. As I reflected on the dramas of my personal search for a “good” and meaningful life, and as I studied the searching of the great political philosophers of the past, out of whose works came entire new societies, I saw that they shared four fundamental elements of what I call the primal truth quest. To quickly summarize, they are: one, searching by expanding through one’s lived experience—in other words, personal growth or individuation; two, doing so in honest, cooperative face-to-face relationships with others, where each one is on his or her  own unique path; three, where all are supported by and support  a democratic community as a basis for the search; and finally, four, where all contribute to and are guided by a big picture of the human condition, which in turn is part of an ever-expanding political cosmology. It became clear on reflection that these four processes were rooted in the paradoxical structure of human consciousness as it emerged from nature. They are also recapitulated in the life of every individual, as each one of us wakes up from unconsciousness and grapples with his or her our own unique situation asking the questions “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What are my choices?” These are also the fundamental questions of political philosophy. Knowledge is essential but always partial, and therefore certainty is impossible.

I saw that all these processes were right there at the organizing center of Bushman life. I started seeing it elsewhere: at the heart of the creative brilliance of classical Greek polis, the small self-sufficient city states with their ideals of the whole person, participatory democracy and the examined life. I saw it reappearing at creative moments of transition in history; I saw it in many self-organized intentional communities. So here’s the thesis: primal politics seems to foster the primal truth quest, which in turn feeds back fostering primal politics in a “virtuous circle.” This dynamic can best expressed as four quadrants of a mandala where each element is a part of every other one.

Then I was shocked to realize this practice was not only ignored but actively repressed  by our institutions of higher learning and purged from our political culture. No wonder we are confused and troubled!

Much of my book is a collection of examples of what a politics based on such a wisdom quest looks like; how our current unfolding catastrophe is tied to the abandonment of the quest, and how the way forward requires its recovery.

The MOON: “The way forward,” which is also in the subtitle of your book, implies that we’re at an impasse. How would you define or describe that impasse?

Herman:  We live in absolutely extraordinary times. All our ecosystems are collapsing. Our way of life, based on unlimited industrial production, consumption, and waste, is at a terminus. Ever-growing quantities of natural resources are removed from the Earth and turned into consumables, which are trashed with increasing rapidity in increasing quantities. One-third of all groundwater in the United States is now contaminated with fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Vast islands of floating plastic trash are accumulating  in all our oceans. Four out of five fisheries are fished at or over capacity. Sylvia Earle, the groundbreaking oceanographer and scientist-in-residence at National Geographic, estimates we’ve lost 90% of the big fish in the ocean already.

Even conservative institutions are waking up. The Pentagon recently issued a report acknowledging global climate change as “an immediate threat to national security.” No less than the president of the World Bank talked of a terrifying scenario of escalating climate disasters disrupting the global economy. Various tripping points are in danger of being passed, catapulting us into uncontrollable, unstoppable climate disruption and most likely the end of civilization. In an extraordinary irony, at the same time that we are discovering that there have been five major extinctions of life on Earth, we are simultaneously discovering that we are causing the sixth. According to Edmund Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, we are exterminating, at the very least, some 27 thousand species of living creatures and plants every year. This is 100 to 1,000 times the background extinction rate. The collective impact of industrialized humanity is as devastating to the biosphere as that asteroid strike that wiped out most of life on Earth 65 million years ago. Geologists are now talking of the end of the epoch of the Holocene, referring to the last 10,000 years of climate stability during which agriculture developed. They tell us we have entered the “Anthropocene”—an epoch marked by the destructive impact of industrialized humanity. It is staggering to consider that in the words of the futurist van Dusen Wishard, “We are sleepwalking through the apocalypse!”

These are some of the large-scale measures of our crisis. They are driven by economic and political forces, which in turn are a product of cultural and spiritual pathology. At the heart of this pathology is abandonment of the process of seeking wisdom—the elements of the truth quest.

The MOON: Can you say a little more about the four essential elements of “primal truth quest” in the lifestyle of the San?

Herman: The four core elements of primal politics are four very basic practices of seeking the good life, which are also experienced as goods-in-themselves—in other words, both means and ends. They are ways of searching for the truth of the good life, as well as constituting key elements of the good we are searching for.



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