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Must Humans Go the Way of the Dinosaurs?

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Spiders sling webs between stalks and catch flies, termites create voluminous clay mounds, anemones grow on reefs, tortoises dig burrows in which to sleep away the winter, bacteria explode in a drop of dew, and humans make villages, cities and towns. Obeying the dictates of evolution, all animals probe opportunities and try different strategies. Although every living thing eventually goes extinct in the face of changes ranging from ice ages to interspecific competition, the fossil record shows that while some species debut and are booed off the stage, there are others -- cockroaches and sharks come to mind -- whose dance with time is more waltz than jitterbug. Is it about time for human beings to leave the floor?

Approximately 10,000 years ago, in the so-called Neolithic Revolution, our ancestors made a fateful decision that would affect who and what we became, and would ultimately lead to the problems we face today. That decision was to give up our Paleolithic, hunting and gathering lifestyle in favor of settling down and growing crops to feed us. In our nomadic days, our experience of nature was often demanding and sometimes downright harsh, but it was always an experience lived in harmony with nature. When there were berries, we ate berries: when there was animal prey available we killed it if we could, shared a bite with the rest of our clan, then moved on to happier hunting grounds, enjoying seeds and roots and nuts along the way.

In that state, our population levels were determined by how much food was available, and our equilibrium with our environment was the same as that of other animals, who too were constrained and supported by the larger ecosystem. Once we forsook this balance in favor of agriculture, however, we were able to have more children and grow our communities simply on the basis of having more food available to eat. More, tending the fields represented greater effort than walking around picking vegetables, so large families became an advantage where they once had been a burden.

In a sense, the Neolithic Revolution marked the beginning of an effort to cheat nature by outsmarting her, a game that required every more sophisticated technologies, first to increase crop yields and then to give us more and more free time to "terraform" our environment in ways that made our life more comfortable. Pride in the success of this venture led us first to concoct and then to actually believe religious ideas such as a right to dominion over other species -- including not only cultivated plants, but even creatures whose intelligence, while different in type, rivals our own.

These days, this Neolithic choice, which seemed, no doubt, like a fine idea at the time, has borne the most toxic possible fruit. Our obsession with conquering our world rather than living in harmony with it has given us nuclear waste, dead, sludge-ridden rivers, mass extinctions, dying oceans, and vast swaths of the globe where a new generation does not know that the sky is supposed to be blue. All of this seems to be okay with the proponents of technology, who see opportunities for new advances in these challenges, and of course opportunities for new businesses too.

These technologists are very convincing orators. They prey on our greed and our laziness, our desire to persist in wrong living and poor decisions. They coddle us into believing that we need not make a rapid evolutionary course correction because more of the same type and line of technology will rescue us from our woes; they seduce us into believing that we won't have to do the gritty work of challenging our deepest assumptions and mending our ways. Assuming the mantle of the medicine man of yore -- the shaman whose special abilities allowed him to travel between, and thereby connect, different layers of reality -- our high-tech gurus, doctors, industrialists and researchers have actually got us believing that they will save us from ourselves with their gizmos and discoveries and devices.

In addition to being masters of botany and the ways of the rainforest and taiga, shamans of yore were similar masters of deception. They preyed on our desire to believe not in technology, but in them and their ability to heal us, often parlaying that belief into personal and even political power. Where the old-style shaman used trance states and hallucinogens to shift perspective, the shamans of our brave new world can peer through a lens and, with a twist of the wrist, see first inside a cell and then the spiral of a galaxy. It's tempting to think that it is only technology that separates the old medicine men from the new, but in fact it is something more profound. Traditional healers found grace and fear and wonder in their contemplation of nature, instinctively recognized that she must be honored and respected and that her true mysteries would always be beyond our ken; today's practitioners actually believe that whether all on our own or in union with some as-yet-to-be-developed artificial intelligence, we will someday understand the universe completely.

Taoist masters, the great founders of ancient Chinese philosophy, teach that such reliance on intellection over intuition is a mistake. They explain that to emphasize our rational mind over our instinctive knowing is dangerous, to forsake what we know deep down to be true in favor of what we talk ourselves into can only lead us to ruin. They too understood that despite the frailties of flesh and blood, we have always had the power to determine our own fate. All of their magnificent teachings center around the fact that we have choices; if we make the right ones and live in accordance with the way of nature, we live prosperous, happy, relatively effortless lives. If we don't, we struggle, fall ill, and ultimately fail. They would have been shocked to see how far the developed world has strayed from the path, only to build trillion dollar defense and healthcare industries to fix the very problems we ourselves have created. They would be stunned to see the modern, misguided arrogance that leads us to imagine that no matter how we insult and abuse Mother Earth, we can fix what we have wrought with our technology.

Perhaps the Mayans (along with the ancient Egyptians, the Hopi, the Dogon, the Iroquois, the Australian aborigines and others) also foresaw that we would someday arrive at such hubris, and with it reach the evolutionary crossroads we now face. Perhaps, in their own way they understood that a shift was coming, needed to come, and that it would be from Homo sapiens -- the man who thinks he knows when in the grand scheme he knows nothing at all -- to Homo spiritualis, the species of awe and wonder and grace. Perhaps they knew that if that shift did not come, we would be doomed.

The ancients also understood something that must now come to us, which is that unlike the dinosaurs, we silly little monkeys have the power to forge our own fate. Despite the overwhelming inertia of billions of people headed in the wrong direction, we can change direction, each and every one of us, and thereby affect that global shift. How? First by recognizing that although we cannot resume the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we can reduce our consumption and embrace a sustainable lifestyle, and second by becoming old-style shamans right here, right now, inside our own lives.

What does that mean? Well, rather than inuring ourselves to the natural world we strip bare to it. Rather than numbing ourselves to what we smell and taste and think and feel, we must embrace it. Rather than sealing ourselves off in metal and concrete coffins, we must step out into the forest and feel the bed of leaves beneath our feet, the salt water in our cheeks, the wind at our backs, the last heat of summer in our bones. Right now, right this moment, we must stop and take stock of the fact that there will be no safe haven for our species in the stars if we murder our earthly compatriots and trash our home. We must quiet our voices, slow down, and hold the changeable, fragile, and transitory nature of life to our bosom. We must joyfully accept that we are part of nature, not in charge of it, that we depend upon our natural world rather than stand above and apart from it. Our technology must follow our new intention. It must begin to support nature and help it recover from what we've done, at the same time helping us fit back in more seamlessly and harmoniously than ever.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience show that changing how and what we think can actually change the structure of our brain. Such is the relationship between mind and brain, and such is the mechanism through which ideation meets evolution, a way from Homo sapiens to Homo spiritualis that is as biologically proven as the way to an opposable thumb. This necessary global transformation is no fanciful dream better suited to our neighbor who likes Bach and watercolors than it is to us, nor is it an impossible task better left to those younger or more highly educated or more broadminded than we think we are. This adoption of a new path of harmonious living within our resources and in harmony with our planet is an eminently attainable, reasonable goal, and one we can set for ourselves and then reach.

Right now, these are just ideas on a screen, or perhaps on a page. Soon, however, they will be ideas growing in you and those around you, clawing for a foothold amidst the information overload, finding a physical manifestation in changes in your brain. More and more of us can begin to see things differently, to understand what we did not before, to step outside, look at the sky and the trees, recline in the grass, move in old, healthful, and natural ways, and remember how to breathe again.

Let the change begin. It's time to evolve or clear the dance floor for whatever species comes next.

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