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Creating Twenty-First-Century Life-Sustaining Societies

By Bill Plotkin

In our moment of history, perhaps the most sweeping and radical transformation ever to occur on Earth is under way. This “moment” is the twenty-first century, a lifetime from a human perspective, yet a mere dust mote of duration within our planet’s 4.5 billion years of exuberant evolution.

As is so often the case, the opportunity at the heart of this moment arises from a great crisis. Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth’s chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans, and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our planet.

Compounding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare.

But entwined with and at the root of all these environmental and social devastations are epidemic failures in individual human development. True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent.

Interwoven with arrested personal development, and perhaps inseparable from it, our everyday lives have drifted vast distances from our species’ original intimacy with the natural world and from our own uniquely individual natures, our souls.

But if we know where to look, we uncover great opportunities spawned by these crises. All over the world, we are witnessing a collective human response to exigency, an immensely creative renewal, addressing all dimensions of human activity on Earth—from the ecological, political, and economic to the educational and spiritual.

I believe that human maturation is our essential key to creating a viable human-Earth partnership. A more mature human society requires more mature human individuals. And nature (including our own deeper nature, soul) has always provided and still provides our best template for human maturation.

By embracing nature and soul as our wisest and most trustworthy guides, we can raise children, support teenagers, and ripen ourselves in ways that enable us to grow whole and engender a sustainable human culture. We can progress from our current egocentric societies (materialistic, anthropocentric, competition-based, class-stratified, violence-prone, and unsustainable) to soulcentric ones (imaginative, ecocentric, cooperation-based, just, compassionate, and sustainable).

True Adulthood
One of the premises of my new book, Nature and the Human Soul, is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world., and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transpersonal experience—in a mystic affiliation with nature, experienced as a unique sacred calling—that is then embodied in soul-infused work and mature responsibilities. This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked—or actively suppressed and expelled.

Although perhaps perceived by some as radical, this premise is not the least bit original. Western civilization has buried most traces of the mystical roots of maturity, yet this knowledge has been at the heart of every indigenous tradition known to us, past and present, including those from which our own societies have emerged. Our way into the future requires new cultural forms more than older ones, but there is at least one thread of the human story that I’m confident will continue, and this is the numinous or visionary calling at the core of the mature human heart.

Human maturation is essential to societal transformation because the most potent seeds of cultural renaissance stem from the uniquely creative work of authentic adults. All such adults are true artisans, visionaries, and leaders, whether they live and work quietly in small arenas, such as families, farms, and classrooms, or very publicly on grand stages. They are our most reliable agents of cultural change. Nature and the Human Soul offers a set of guidelines for restoring and refining the process of human maturation in each of the eight stages of the life cycle so that increasing numbers might grow into true twenty-first-century adults, into mature transformers of culture.

Developmental Tasks
The process of becoming fully human—developing as nature and soul would have it—entails a radical shift in worldview and values. We must re-conceive every stage of human life, including the psychospiritual tasks of each stage. These are the tasks that must be addressed for a human being to progress toward full maturity. In particular, we must learn to raise children in alignment with nature, preserving the innocence of early childhood and refashioning middle childhood as a time of wonder and free play in the natural world (in addition to a time of learning cultural ways). We must assist teenagers to be as authentic and wildly imaginative as they can be. We must cultivate full societal support for young and middle-aged adults to explore and be transformed by the mysteries of nature and psyche—so that they might take their places as artisans of cultural change and eventually enter a seed-scattering elderhood of wisdom, grace, and the holistic tending of the more-than-human world. We must provide these opportunities for all people, in all socioeconomic classes, in all societies.

The developmental tasks that characterize the soulcentric stages of human life each have a nature-oriented dimension as well as a more familiar (to Westerners) culture-oriented dimension. Healthy human development requires a constant balancing of the influences and demands of both nature and culture. For example, in middle childhood, the nature task is learning the enchantment of the natural world through experiential outdoor immersion, while the culture task is learning the social practices, values, knowledge, history, mythology, and cosmology of our family and culture.

In Industrial Growth Society, however, we have for centuries minimized, suppressed, or entirely ignored the nature task in the first three stages of human development, infancy through early adolescence. This results in an adolescence so out of sync with nature that most people never mature further.

Arrested personal growth serves industrial “growth.” By suppressing the nature dimension of human development (through educational systems, social values, advertising, nature-eclipsing vocations and pastimes, city and suburb design, denatured medical and psychological practices, and other means), Industrial Growth Society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.

This neglect of our human nature has led to the tragedy we face today: most people are alienated from their vital individuality—their souls—and humanity as a whole is largely alienated from the natural world that evolved us and sustains us. Soul has been demoted to a new-age spiritual fantasy or a missionary’s booty, and nature has been treated, at best, as a postcard or a vacation backdrop or, more commonly, as a hardware store or refuse heap. Too many of us lack intimacy with the natural world and with our souls, and consequently we are doing untold damage to both.

But it is not too late to change. Nature and the Human Soul suggests how we might embrace the nature task in each stage of human development and how we can address the culture task much more thoroughly and fruitfully than we do in Industrial Growth Society. By devoting ourselves to both tasks, we can reclaim our full membership in this flowering planet and animated universe, and become more fully human, both as individuals and as societies. We can grow unimpeded into adulthood and, eventually, elderhood, and create twenty-first century life-sustaining societies.

Bill Plotkin, PhD, has been a professor of psychology, a research psychologist, and a psychotherapist. Currently a wilderness guide, ecotherapist, and depth psychologist, he leads a variety of experiential, nature-based individuation programs. He is the founder of Animas Valley Institute, in Colorado, and the author of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Visit him online at www.natureandthehumansoul.com and www.animas.org.

Based on the book Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. © 2008 by Bill Plotkin. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

Find out about Bill Plotkin’s upcoming programs at Kripalu.