Free At Last: Overcoming Our Addiction to the Sinking Ship of Civilization


When I finished reading Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael, I did something I’d never done in my life and have never done since. I found out where the author lived, bought an airplane ticket, and knocked on his door to tell him that his book had changed my life. Ishmael, which received the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship for the best work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems, began with these simple words:

Teacher Seeks Pupil.
Must have an earnest desire to save the world.
Apply in person.

When I arrived unexpectedly at his home in Austin, Texas, I was answering the call. We spent the day together and I met his wife, Rennie. Over the years we became friends. When I wrote the book, The Warrior’s Journey Home: Healing Men, Healing the Planet, he offered these words.

“Jed Diamond’s homeward journey of awakening has taken him far into the mystery of being male and human—dangerous territory in an age when being male and human is practically a crime.”

 Quinn wrote many other books building on the themes he explored in Ishmael. In Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, he begins with this fable.

            “Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations—packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe: Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchal rather than tribal.

            Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn’t like it at all. They worked and lived like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive. ‘This isn’t working,’ the masses said. ‘The tribal way was better. We should return to that way.’

            But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, ‘We’ve put that primitive life behind us forever. We can’t go back to it.’

            ‘If we can’t go back,’ the masses said, ‘then let’s go forward—on to something different.’

            ‘That can’t be done,’ the ruler said, ‘because nothing different is possible. Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention.’”

The Ship of Civilization is Sinking: My Own Introduction to TEOTWAWKI

            I first encountered TEOTWAWKI, The End of the World as We Know It, in an unlikely place. In 1993, I was attending a men’s leadership conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. As part of the experience we were invited to participate in a traditional Native American sweat lodge ceremony. During the last round of the ceremony, the heat was so intense that many in the small sweat lodge crawled out. Though I was seated at the back, the very hottest part of the sweat lodge, I didn’t feel the heat, but was transported to a vision where I witnessed the sinking of the Ship of Civilization.

            After the ceremonial sweat had ended I wrote down my experience, though it was nearly impossible to put into words. Here is an excerpt I share in my forthcoming book, Long Live Men! The Moonshot Mission to Heal Men, Close the Lifespan Gap, and Offer Hope to Humanity.

We are all on a huge ocean liner. It is the Ship of Civilization. Everything that we know and have ever known is on the Ship. People are born and die. Goods and services are created, wars are fought, and elections are held. Species come into being and face extinction. The Ship steams on and on and there is no doubt that it will continue on its present course forever.

There are many decks on the ship starting way down in the boiler room where the poorest and grimiest toil to keep the Ship going. As you ascend the decks, things get lighter and easier. The people who run the Ship have suites on the very top deck. Their job, as they see it, is to keep the Ship going and keep those on the lower decks in their proper places. Since they are at the top they are sure that they deserve to have the best that the Ship has to offer.
Everyone on the lower decks aspires to get up to the next deck and hunger to get to the very top. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it has always been. That’s the way it will always be. 
However, there are a few people who realize that something very strange is happening.
What they come to know is that the Ship of Civilization is sinking. At first, like everyone else, they can’t believe it. The Ship has been afloat since time before time. It is the best of the best. That it could sink is unthinkable. 
Nonetheless, they are sure the Ship is sinking. They try and warn the people, but few believe them. The Ship cannot be sinking and anyone who thinks so must be out of their mind. When they persist in trying to warn the people of what they are facing, those in charge of the Ship silence them and lock them up. The Ship’s media keep grinding out news stories describing how wonderful the future will be and technology will solve all our problems.
But as the water rises, those who have been issuing the warnings can no longer be silenced. More and more escape confinement and lead the people towards the lifeboats. Though there are boats enough for all, most people refuse to leave the Ship of Civilization. “Things may look bad now, but surely they will get better soon,” they say to each other.
Those who do leave get into their individual lifeboats and row away from the Ship, each in their own direction. But they stay connected with the other boats and eventually create a different kind of world than the one they left. They are guided to a new future, based on old ways of partnership based on our two-million-year history of indigenous wisdom. They continue their fight to keep the old ways alive while the Ship of Civilization continues to be reclaimed by the vast ocean.

Overcoming Our Addiction to Civilization

            In an article, “Transformations: The End of the U.S. and the World as We Know It and The Truth About Our Collective Future,” I said,

“What we call ‘Civilization’ is a misnomer. Its proper name is the ‘Dominator culture.’ As long as we believe the myth that civilization is the best humans can aspire to achieve, we are doomed to go down with the Ship.”

In The Chalice & the Blade: Our History Our Future first published in 1987 and her most recent book, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, written with anthropologist, Douglas P. Fry, internationally acclaimed scholar and futurist, Riane Eisler first introduced us to the original Partnership System and the more recent Dominator System.

Historian of religions, Thomas Berry, spoke eloquently about our present predicament.

“We never knew enough. Nor were we sufficiently intimate with all our cousins in the great family of the earth. Nor could we listen to the various creatures of the earth, each telling their own story. The time has now come, however, when we will listen or we will die.”

William R. Catton, Jr., whose book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, was praised by indigenous writer and advocate, Vine Deloria, Jr. as “one of the most important books I have read in my lifetime.” When the book was published in 1980 Catton courageously described the reality of our present situation, saying,

“In a future that is as unavoidable as it will be unwelcome, survival and sanity may depend upon our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity.”

Free At Last: Joining the Recovery Movement and Accepting Hardship as the Pathway to Peace

            I met social activist, Chellis Glendinning, at an addiction recovery conference in 1993 where we were both speaking. She began her talk saying,

“My name is Chellis. I’m in recovery from western civilization.”

She got a laugh, but she was dead serious. Later she wrote the book, My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. In the Preface she says,

“I repeat what I said every time I speak at a recovery conference, psychological seminar, or political gathering about what is fast becoming the screaming link between pervasive personal dysfunction and the ecological crisis.”

            Another social activist friend is Michael Dowd. I met him following the publication of his book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will  Transform Your Life and Our World. In a recent talk, “Serenity Prayer for the 21st Century: Love in Action” he begins by sharing the Serenity Prayer that is offered at most 12-Step recovery meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous and was originally penned by Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Dowd goes on to add the line from the original prayer that most people have never heard.

“Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.”

            Like William Catton, Jr., Daniel Quinn, Riane Eisler, Thomas Berry, and many others, Michael Dowd offers a vision for a better future. He sees the Serenity Prayer, as path to the future with three guiding principles:

  • Acceptance

Trusting the realities of our present situation that we do not like or want. This includes accepting the inevitable pain, suffering, and loss of life as the Ship of Civilization sinks. It also includes accepting the feelings of fear, denial, and grief that accompany that reality.

  • Courage

When we accept the things that cannot change, we also move towards the serenity that is the foundation for acting with courage to address the things that we can do to assist those who suffer.

“It allows us to take bold action in support of all that is regenerative, redemptive, life-giving, pro-nature, community building,”

says Dowd. And we take action to resist whatever is anti-future, anti-nature, anti-community.

  • Wisdom

Wisdom involves accepting ourselves, our world, our lives, and the beautiful world that still exists, as we grieve what has been lost. We do what we can to live every day with loving kindness. Elizabeth Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, reminds us that “Each of us are like snowflakes, absolutely beautiful and unique, and here for a very short time.”

For those who are ready to accept hardship as a pathway to peace, you are not alone. Another friend and colleague, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, wrote an essay, “We Were Meant for These Times.”  She says, in part,

“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary, people.”

She goes on to say,

“You are right in your assessments. The bluster and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times.”

When I become discouraged or forget the positive aspects of my vision that included the lifeboats, I remember these hopeful words from Clarissa.

“I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.”          

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