Four Essays On Human Meaning
“Would you like your experience of life
with or without CATTSOP”
Dr. Daniel Kriegman
In addition to whatever good thoughts we may have, we are unavoidably filled with terrible, bad
thoughts, worries, fears, hurts, anxieties: Did I hurt so-and-so? Does so-and-so love me? Why
must my loved one(s) suffer so? Is this sickness potentially dangerous? When/where/how/why
will I die? How could the United States have elected George W. Bush? Etc., etc.
This is inevitable for biological, evolved, sentient beings who were selected (shaped) for life in a
world of conflict in which enormous suffering and/or death touch us all.
But there is a spigot that can be turned off and COMPLETELY eliminate all bad thoughts. Full
access, enabling you to turn off this Spigot of Pain (SOP), can be yours. All you have to do is
believe X, Y, or Z, one of the belief systems that offer Control Access To The SOP (CATTSOP).
Once you surrender to the belief in X and whatever X tells you to do, all bad thoughts VANISH.
[For a classic example of how one can garner dramatic benefits from adopting ludicrous beliefs, consider Glenn Beck's conversion to Mormonism. And before being offended by the characterization of Mormon beliefs as "ludicrous," please view any of the other videos on the page with Beck's tale of conversion.]
Well, actually, the fuller your surrender, the more thorough the disappearance. This means that
partial or intermittent surrender does grant one partial or intermittent CATTSOP. And near
complete banishment of all negative thoughts and their replacement with Righteous Meaning and
Peaceful Serenity (even in the face of suffering and death) is, depending on the degree of
surrender, attainable for most people at least some of the time.
Even if you are a full-fledged atheist today, if you ever truly believed in one of the CATTSOP
belief systems, you should have memories of how effective they can be in providing a sense of
righteousness and/or serene union with an idealized God meme. They really work. Enormous pain,
doubt, anomie, anxiety, fear, and worry can actually vanish, dissolving away in the solvent
provided by religious faith.
CATTSOP is not a vegetable.
Furthermore, we are told that believing X is good for us, so good for us that we should place X at the center of our hearts, bind it upon our hands, and place it as a frontlet between our eyes (Deuteronomy 6:6-8). But anyone with their eyes open can see that is not so; X isn't a health food. The problem has been that one has always had to pay a ridiculously unhealthy price for CATTSOP:
One has had to engage in a shared delusion with a large group of people.
Ever since the human population explosion, people have been less and less
likely to find themselves living in an isolated, small group or tribe. So unlike the situation with Yoism — the World's First Open Source Religion that is built upon Reality (our collective, intersubjectively verifiable experience) — with the traditional religions you are unlikely to have anything much to say
about the contents of the shared (and actually delusional) beliefs that provide CATTSOP.
Because of this, the odds are slight that any of the available, one-size-fits-all, authority-based
belief systems that provide CATTSOP are fundamentally aligned with your interests.
In addition, the belief systems that have been surrendered to — i.e., religions and quasi-religious belief systems that underlie almost all war, genocide, and other forms of mass group
violence — have been at the root cause of much if not most human suffering. This alone
makes the available belief systems highly likely to be terribly misaligned with your individual
So, for CATTSOP, historically, you have had to pay two times.
♦ First, you needed to adopt a set of beliefs that, with or without the second cost,
were significantly misaligned with your genuine self-interests, and
♦ Second, you needed to play your role in your group’s endless power struggle with
other groups who use an alternative CATTSOP providing meme system. This has
always entailed large-scale, delusion-based, intergroup violence that has caused
incredible human suffering
that — though such violence appears to have been adaptive for the
victors in the past — today benefits almost no one.
Those who have freed themselves from such delusional beliefs came to realize that this price is
not worth it. These are the Atheist Warriors of Earth (otherwise known as AWE, as in those who
reject God while embracing naturalistic wonder and science-enhanced Awe, e.g., Richard Dawkins, Christopher
Hitchens, and Sam Harris). The AWE-filled are true Yoan Saints who are trying to lead humanity out of
delusion and away from ugly, psychotic group violence. They want us to use our resources
sanely, i.e., to use science and reason to come as close as possible to creating a sane,
technologically advanced society that would truly be a relative Heaven on Earth.
Note, however, that they most often would not use a word such as “heaven” to describe their
goals. Rather, they might describe their goals as helping to create a sane, productive, human
society in which humanity is safe to realize its further potential, which includes the beneficial
wonders that reason and science can bring to the human experience. But surely — if, that is, they
were freed from their fervent atheism enough to be able to play with words that have religious connotations
— they might also describe this goal as one of creating a real, relative heaven on earth. And they could
describe some of their motivation for promoting atheism as an attempt to oppose those who
encourage people to try to get into an imaginary, perfect Heaven in some highly unlikely state
known as an afterlife and, in the process, actually help to create a true Hell on earth for many, if not
Now that really is a saintly goal, dammit. I mean, I’m not exaggerating when I say these folks
are truly Saints (in the Yoan sense of the word).
Yet, as Stanley seems to understand (see “Think Again: God Talk” in the blue box on the right), the AWE-filled don’t see that motivation, meaning, and ultimately highly sought after CATTSOP are not subject to
reason/science. They offer us no alternative to the meaning and CATTSOP providing belief
systems. They give us no clear, idealized, and motivating beliefs — which are essential, necessary parts of both human meanings/purposes and CATTSOP — for getting us to join a group
proclaiming their “religion” (i.e., The Way of AWE). That is, there is no motivational source that could produce a group that could move people in unison in any particular direction. In atheism, there is no basis for a needed, effective movement that could help humanity embrace sanity and let go of deranged, destructive, and divisive delusions.
Michael Lerner's critique of the Obama Administration expresses this same theme from a more traditional, religious perspective (see Michael Lerner's prediction that “Barack Obama’s Non-Ideological Pragmatism Will Backfire” in the beige box on the right). His thesis is simple: Without some overarching spiritual ideology (religious worldview, values, vision), Obama's laudable moves will not last beyond him. The religious ideology of the right, which has locked up one third of the American electorate (thus needing only one in four non-fundamentalist voters to join them in order to win a national election), will be able to regain power and undo everything Obama will have been able to accomplish. Without some righteous, spiritual glue to hold the non-ideological, liberal coalition together, it, along with any gains it may have made, will disappear with Obama's passing from the presidency.
Meanwhile, the deluded purveyors of dangerous religious nonsense are hawking their Crazy SuperGlue (their organizing meanings/ideology and CATTSOP) on every corner. They are indoctrinating children and organizing people with all their hearts, with all their souls and all their might, exactly as they are commanded to (Deuteronomy 6:7) by their fantasy God. And, once organized to act in unison, they are herding humanity off the lemming cliffs.
Grow up and face Reality: Are not Reason & Science enough?
While it is true that the aforementioned High Priests of AWE clearly derive great meaning from
their AWE-filled activity — that is, they appear to be getting the essential benefits of religion in
their battle against religion, which would seem to indicate that religion itself isn’t necessary for living a full, meaningful life — what
appears to be true is deceiving. These High Priests do, in fact, gain some access to CATTSOP
when they feel that they are righteously doing good for humanity. That can give them a real
sense of meaning, purpose, and goodness.
But this vague sense of meaning from doing good for humanity is tepid tea. The meaning and
CATTSOP it offers the High Priests of AWE are simply too abstract and intangible for anyone
not in their shoes who (1) doesn’t see their adoption of the Principles of AWE as having much (if
any) influence on humanity and (2) also doesn’t get any of the other advantages that high status
confers on the leaders of AWE. You see the High Priests of the AWE, just as with the High
Priests of any religion/movement, get a lot of other goodies from their AWE-filledness that
provide them a great deal of meaning (including a good deal of CATTSOP that is not derived from the aforementioned
sense of doing good for humanity). That is, these guys are
rich and famous! They are celebrated everywhere they go by devotees who shower them with
money, power, and adulation. A steady diet of that stuff will go a long way toward providing
meaning and even a good deal of CATTSOP. So these misguided leaders of AWE are trying to
lead an army without understanding that an army marches on both its belly and its CATTSOP providing ideals/religiosity.
These leaders don’t understand the human motivation (the need for meaning, identity, and CATTSOP)
that must be activated in order to form a group that can take effective, mass action because these leaders themselves are getting something out of their
advocacy that isn’t available to the ordinary member of their movement. The ordinary member —
who has no access to the wealth, fame, and power these leaders get from being AWE-filled —
needs a much more clearly defined and much more powerfully idealized meme system to identify
with. To form an effective, world changing movement, the ordinary member needs to be able to feel like yo is part of something
♦ that is clearly labeled,
branded, identifiable, and
♦ that is sacred, holy, larger than themselves, and
♦ that seems like it could
determine the course of human destiny (is mightily important).
Without such a clearly identifiable, idealized, all-important meme system defined group to be part of — or without the fame, fortune, and feeling of making a significant difference that are only available to the leaders of AWE — it is impossible to get satisfying meaning and
CATTSOP out of sacrificing other interests in order to join and promote AWE. And AWE offers no such profound meaning, no access to CATTSOP.
Because AWE doesn't offer these essential rewards for joining their movement and because such a movement is necessary to alter the destructive course humanity is taking, AWE provides no realistic map showing how to get to anything even metaphorically like
relative heaven from here. Instead, the AWE-filled spout their faith-based conviction that we are
already on the way there and we just need to be exhorted to realize what is taking us there
(reason, science, and progress) and to keep going toward embracing reason, science, and progress
more fully. We will then make further progress and find ourselves continuing to create a better
Nice faith-based delusion.
It reminds me of the hippies who thought that LSD and Love would change the world. Right.
Like highly motivated, organized groups of power holders (religious leaders, politicians, controllers of mega-corporations) wouldn’t
find some way to regain control over the anarchistic hippies and either commodify acidic art, music, and loving sentiments or make access to the sacred sacraments illegal.
Like these same greedy and/or insane groups won’t continue to usurp the lion’s share of the
benefits of scientific progress (the technological miracles worked by rational human thought and
industry), even if they cause mass destruction in the way they do it.
As Fish and especially Paul Hawken
(see “You Are Brilliant, and the Earth Is Hiring” in the green box on the right) note, the evidence (supposedly AWE’s highest
arbiter of truth) does not show that humanity has made progress toward a better world by dint of
science and reason; and as Lerner notes, the recent election of Barack Obama is also unlikely to indicate any real progress. Some things are much better. But some things are much worse and these
new problems (e.g., real WMD’s that will inevitably fall into the hands of insane fanatics, the overpopulation generated increased risk of pandemics,
and the destruction of the life sustaining
biosphere) may cause more pain than the things that are better prevent.
I am not saying that science caused these problems; they are caused by the misuse of science just
as a match can light a warming fire or a devastating forest fire.
And I am not saying that things will inevitably be tragic.
However, there is nothing to support the notion that overall life today is, and that life in the
future will be, better than when we lived in tribal communities and villages. Maybe it will be;
maybe it won’t. I would certainly rather live in the age of antibiotics than in the time when half
of one’s children had to be buried before they reached adulthood. Yet, I’d rather face the sad
struggle to survive in a small village that provides meaning and community than live in a
meaningless, suburban, shopper’s world where I and/or half or more of my children (or my children's children) may die from
the inevitable use of proliferated nuclear WMD’s or from a population explosion produced
global, viral pandemic.
Some such tragedy may not happen. But the myth of progress (for most
of humanity) is not supported by the available evidence that already suggests that bad things (made possible or accelerated by the misuse of reason-based science and technology) are,
in fact, already occurring and/or are fairly likely to occur in the not-too-distant future.
Despite the fact that the AWE-some Three proselytize for their particular idealized belief system
of progress through science and reason, they not only don’t claim to have a grand picture for
human meaning (i.e., a labeled system of beliefs that one should adopt completely and following
which one should live one’s life in unison with others who should be strongly invited and
encouraged to participate
), they are proud to be agnostic about why we’re here, i.e., they claim
that ultimate meaning is something that we cannot know and/or do not need to know.
In contrast to standard religions, that loudly proclaim that their goals (even their ugly, stupid, and
delusional ones) are the sole and only purpose of human life, you have to read between the lines
of the minions of AWE to get a picture of what they are striving for; they’ll never call it “Heaven
on Earth” in grand religious tones, i.e., they will not talk about their project as the ultimate
meaning of human existence to which we all should bow down/surrender completely. In fact, because of the obvious horrors produced by religious belief,
they are quite proud to face Reality without such a “meaning” (i.e., without a meme system that offers
CATTSOP and thus could be a motivational force for organizing a powerful, cohesive group).
For most AWE-filled, it is enough to just enjoy life and the beauty of existence.
They seem to self proclaim this an act of bravery. And the AWE-filled followers seem to take
pride in living without comforting meaning, without CATTSOP, and without the meaning,
CATTSOP, and comforts their leaders get from their fortune and fame. The followers of AWE are definitely
braver in facing existential anxiety with only their AWE-filled convictions than their rich and famous leaders are.
So being a follower of The Way of the AWE is, indeed, an act of bravery, to some degree, but
not nearly as much as they claim. You see, in addition to the leaders of AWE getting the perks
of riches and fame, which provide them with enough CATTSOP that they can ignore the
universal human need for such, virtually all of their militant atheist followers (who face life
without the comforts of fame and fortune) live in pretty nice conditions. As Saint John said,
“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Sure, some of the AWE-filled experience
pain and some of them may have suffered terribly due to misfortune. But they all tend to live in a
world of relative plenty in which most of the people around them have a pretty good shot at “the
good life” (which includes, among many things, the joys inherent in scientific understanding and
So it may be a lot easier for these supposedly brave souls to forego trying to get CATTSOP and
to face Reality head on, protected only by
their personal commitment to reason and
the meaning that can be found in the
pursuit of the good life.
But that’s not the real reason they are
They are wrong because there are recipes
for CATTSOP that can help guide us away from
delusion and toward reason and science.
These alternative prescriptions for meaning
and CATTSOP also much more fully
proclaim the between-the-lines motivations
that the AWE-filled actually possess but don't actively profess. They are wrong because “One can have CATTSOP and
sanity, too,” to coin a phrase. There exists a sane, healthy alternative to the delusional belief systems. Instead of obtaining CATTSOP through surrender to destructive delusion, one
can bow down to Yos Instructions, which
♦ vary from individual to individual and are explicitly tuned to the deepest interests
of each individual (e.g., "Take care of yourself and those you love; seek to enjoy life in all aspects in which you find your personal joy; you are a divine being who has every right to thrive!"), thus diminishing the first cost of adopting a religious belief system, while
♦ universally (for all individuals) entail complete abandonment of all forms of belief
of the types that have led groups to initiate aggressive, intergroup violence (e.g., "Accept empirical responsibility and never follow leaders who offer you a faith-based, fairy tale about an imaginary deity who commands your allegiance in violent competition with those who don't believe as you do!"; "Respect the divinity of all sentient beings by adopting the 10 Sacred Principles of Yoism!"), thus
being a potential solution to the horrendous cost of religious, intergroup violence.
So they are wrong because their refusal to create and adopt a religious meme system needlessly
deprives them (and their followers and especially the much larger group of their potential followers for whom science and reason are valued but not idealized) of CATTSOP, which we could also call beliefs that
provide Righteousness and Meaning (RAM) even in the face of suffering and death. All
unnecessary or excessive bad thoughts can be banished as one Surrenders to such an alternative
belief system (i.e., Yos Instructions) and focuses on one’s surrender and the resultant RAM.
But they are even wronger because, in their world of relative plenty and potential, as Fish
emphasizes, they are actually hiding from a full engagement with Reality; they are hiding behind
their equally faith-based delusion of “progress.” Because of this, they can be relatively
complacent about needing to find CATTSOP and they provide no clear motivational direction for
organized group action or model of a system for organizing such action.
And because they maintain a commitment to a tepidly fervent, abstract belief in the ultimately progressive impact that reason and science has had and will have on humanity (for
which there is no support in the evidence that they claim is the sine qua non of belief) they can see no need to
provide such a motivational direction or system for organized group action. Their quasi-religious faith in progress blocks them from becoming aware that something else is necessary now. And when their faith is coupled with their antipathy toward group
beliefs, they become completely incapable of envisioning what forms such a needed, effective solution
And such a solution MUST be found SOON if humanity is not to face dire consequences beyond
anything ever seen or even imagined.
Yoism is that solution.
May the P.L.W.Y.G.Y.W.O.
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books.
May 3, 2009, 10:00 pm
In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”
Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”
The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”
The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.
And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”
Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?
Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.
And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”
That kind of belief will have little use for a creed that has at its center “one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.” No wonder “Ditchkins” — Eagleton’s contemptuous amalgam of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, perhaps with a sidelong glance at Luke 6:39, “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” — seems incapable of responding to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”
You won’t be interested in any such promise, you won’t see the point of clinging to it, if you think that “apart from the odd, stubbornly lingering spot of barbarism here and there, history on the whole is still steadily on the up,” if you think that “not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.” How, Eagleton asks, can a civilization “which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient” see any point in or need of “faith or hope”?
“Self-sufficient” gets to the heart of what Eagleton sees as wrong with the “brittle triumphalism” of liberal rationalism and its ideology of science. From the perspective of a theistic religion, the cardinal error is the claim of the creature to be “self-originating”: “Self-authorship,” Eagleton proclaims, “is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence,” and he could have cited in support the words of that great bourgeois villain, Milton’s Satan, who, upon being reminded that he was created by another, retorts , “[W]ho saw/ When this creation was…?/ We know no time when we were not as now/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised” (Paradise Lost, V, 856-860).That is, we created ourselves (although how there can be agency before there is being and therefore an agent is not explained), and if we are able to do that, why can’t we just keep on going and pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails?
That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.
“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)
If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.
For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”
One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.
One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”
The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.
You Are Brilliant, and the Earth Is Hiring
Commencement Address to the Class of 2009,
University of Portland, May 3rd, 2009
Paul Hawken is a renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental activist, and author of many books, most recently Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. He was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by University president Father Bill Beauchamp, C.S.C., in May, when he delivered this superb speech.
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there.
But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation – but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement.
Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food – but all that is changing.
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.
You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen.
Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown – Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood – and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit.. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.