Essential Shifts

By Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann: Thank you Steven, I'm pleased to be here.

SIA: What we like to do in these interviews is start first with the big picture context and the question that we're using for that is how do you see our current global situation.

TH: As challenging and hopeful. We are probably at this point in time, no matter how concerned Thomas Malthus was, really at one of those pivot points where the intersection of population and resources and threats to population, ranging from disease to ecosphere destruction, are colliding very rapidly. And at the same time we have developed technologies, and we have this extraordinary thing called our minds, and increasingly access to the wisdom of people who have frankly confronted many of these same issues in the past, in different ways of course, but the same issues, which many other people before us did not have access to – the ability to have the retrospective view – it gives me great hope. So I'm very concerned about the current situation and I'm also frankly optimistic.

SIA: You did a whole book on the phenomenon of peak oil and how that's one of the key drivers of this whole transformation we're going through, if you can talk a bit about that and provide some context.

TH: Sure, the book is The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, and the premise of the book is that the technology isn't going to save us, reducing populations isn't going to save us, finding more oil isn't going to save us, finding more energy sources isn't going to save us, that the problems we confront right now, as a planetary community, particularly the "we" who are the developed and developing world, we who use alphabets, we who use technology, that these problems have arisen mostly from our perspective, our way of thinking, our way of understanding who we are in relationship to each other, to the rest of the planet, to all the other life-forms on the planet and frankly to all of creation. And that that's the place where the fundamental shift has to happen if there's going to be significant, lasting and long term change. And I think that we could look at failed civilisations in the past, the Roman Empire for example, as an example of what happens when thinking doesn't shift, when we simply run into the logical endpoint of playing out the game that we're playing out. On the other hand you look at the Iroquois Confederacy for example and you can see what happens when a fundamental shift does occur and people actually do listen and say, "Oh there is a different way to live, let's try that", and change their thinking, and out of that change in thinking come changes in politics and technology and culture.

SIA: So it's really an evolution of consciousness that's at the root of all these larger shifts that are necessary.

TH: Well, in a way. I think one of the problems is there's a lot of people running around loose saying, "Oh consciousness is evolving and we're getting higher and smarter and more brilliant and all that kind of thing, and we're the pinnacle of evolution so far", and I would argue with that. You know we've been doing trial and error on how to make a civilisation work for roughly 7,000 years – an agricultural based civilisation that first emerged in Sumeria, what's ironically now Northern Iraq – and the history of it's not particularly good. On the other hand there are other people around, even today, who have been by trial and error figuring out how to live for tens of thousands of years and I'm convinced that they know things, they understand things, and many of them are living out things that we have not yet discovered. And when we discover them we'll probably pat ourselves on the back and say "Ah we've made a great evolutionary leap", but the fact of the matter is that it's nothing new. Humans have figured this stuff out before. We just always dismissed them as being aboriginal or indigenous or savages because we didn't understand what they understood.

SIA: I think in one of your books you make the distinction between older and younger cultures that has nothing to do with technological advancement – more of a maturity of soul in a way.

TH: Exactly, that's the point I was just making. We're a really young culture. We're an adolescent culture right now and we behave like adolescents in a lot of ways and there are older cultures around the world, there are thousands of them, they're under tremendous pressure from us. They represented perhaps half the world's population in 1800 and today they're probably less than 10 % of the world's population, maybe even less than 5% but they're still here and they're still saying to us, "Hey you guys, wake up" or "Grow up" actually.

SIA: Have there been particular cultures that have been most influential for you in helping shape your emerging world view.

TH: The problem that I think all of us have in this world is that by definition you can't have contact with a pre-contact culture because once you have contact with them they're a post-contact culture. However there are people that I've known, Robert Wolf for example, who lived with the Senoi in Malaysia for many years and wrote a book about it called Original Wisdom. Peter Farb, who's now deceased, who back in the 60s wrote Man's Rise to Civilisation. He wrote probably one of the best ethnographies of Native American cultures that has even been written. And then you can go back and read the writings – and I referenced some of them in Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight – of people who were the first contact people, the first Europeans on the north American continent, for example, or the first Europeans to visit Africa, who were able to come back and tell the story of what life is like among people who have spent ten, twenty, thirty thousand years figuring out how humans can best maintain homeostasis relative to their environment and each other and have happiness. The story of the San, another one, from the !Kung people from central southern Africa – and this was a fascination of Rousseau, and the whole noble savage idea was a fascination of Jefferson who was intimately familiar with and knew very well many native American tribes and native American elders, wrote about it at great length, saw them as a model for America in many ways. So I think it's possible for us to piece together an awful lot of knowledge and wisdom that is of value to us. The tough thing, the challenge, is applying mature wisdom in the context of an immature society. It's rather like going to a 14 or 15 year old and saying "Okay, here's a bottle of whiskey, here's the keys to this new car, here's a 9mm Glock with a loaded clip with 16 shots in it (or whatever they're called), here's a couple of thousand dollars and there's the supermarket down the road. Now you figure out how to live." It's like all the tools, all the weapons, all the potential for destruction – and yet at the same time the potential to learn through that. But mostly I'm concerned about the destructive potential that we have.

SIA: We're sort of the sorcerer's apprentice now, playing with chemicals and explosive possibilities that are beyond our abilities.

TH: Yeah, we're more like the stoned teenager son of the sorcerer's apprentice.

SIA: That's funny. One of the things I was struck by in reading The Prophet's Way was your kind of angle on the Christian tradition, because it felt to me like it's one of the challenges of our day, the Christian tradition being such a strong positive influence in many ways and also at times a barrier to emergence of a new kind of thinking, and it felt like you really struck an interesting balance in bringing some threads of that tradition forward that can really serve.

TH: My reality here, my sense of the reality of it is that Jesus was bringing older culture values to a culture that had once been an older culture and had then become a younger culture as a consequence of agriculture. In fact I see in Genesis, the whole Cain and Abel story, a warning not to engage in agriculture – Dan Quinn writes about that much more eloquently than I do. And he was bringing these older culture values forward and saying, "Here's how to live", but then it got picked up by Paul, who was very much a product of a younger culture, and reincarnated as the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, which was the poster child for younger culture mistakes, and institutionalised as the Catholic Church, and now we have this weird acting out of younger culture religion founded by an older culture mystic.

SIA: Part of what you're explaining in the book is also some of the threads that retained that older culture wisdom, that didn't necessarily become the mainstream body of Christian thought.

TH: Oh sure, yes, Meister Eckhart, Saint John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, there's no shortage of people. I mean those are all from centuries ago, but even today, Father Berrigan, there's no shortage of people who get the older culture message that Jesus brought forward and are trying to apply it and live it in this younger culture in which we live today. And I really honor that. For a long time I was reluctant to call myself a Christian and I do so now because it think it's time to reclaim the essential message that Jesus of Nazareth carried forward which is an older culture message, and not just reclaim it but reclaim it in a way that hopefully can serve as a teaching vehicle for future generations.

SIA: I'd love you to speak about Herr Müller, who's been a very strong influence on you, just in terms of a practical mystic doing the transformational work in the world.

TH: Yes, Gottfried Müller is now in his nineties, in fact I'm going to send him a shabbat shalom fax as soon as we get off the phone, as soon as the phone line's free. I was just writing it a little before you called – every Friday I send him a happy Sabbath fax. He was a German. He was the peak of the younger culture, the Germanic war culture, the warrior culture. He joined the army at a young age, and was sent off by Hitler's folks to the middle east to try help the Kurds seize control of the oilfields and in fact he designed what is now the flag used by the Kurds in the north of Iraq. He and his brother were both questioning what Hitler was doing and so, by way of disposing of them, they sent his brother to a front where he was immediately killed and they dropped Gottfried Müller along with two others right in the middle of a British Camp, when they airlifted them into Northern Iran or Iraq, right near the Iranian Iraq border, Kurdistan, and he spent the rest of the war in a prison, in a prisoner of war camp, sentenced to death by hanging by the Iranians and by firing squad by the British as a spy, because when he came in he was out of uniform. And through a series of what he considers miracles he made it out, and he says, 'Thank God I was in a prison camp throughout the war and never had to kill anybody' and all that kind of thing. And he went back to Germany and said 'Okay, I'm going to devote my life to doing good. I was part of this giant evil machine and we need to heal the world rather than harm it'. So he started communities for orphans – there were many of them after the war in Germany – and homeless people, and that then over time became communities for homeless kids and abused children and orphaned kids, and it's grown all round the world. My wife and I started a program based on his program in New Hampshire back in 1978, which is still there doing quite well, Salem Children's Village. And his spiritual mentor when he went back to Germany, the man who he hooked up with, was a fellow by the name of Abram Poljak, who was a Hasidic Jew who had survived the holocaust, and was convinced that this Jesus guy had something important to say, but retained his identity as a Hasidic Jew. And so you had these two guys, this German protestant Christian and this Hasidic Jew running around Europe after World War II doing social work and being cultural evangelists, I guess would be the way to say it.

SIA: I like that because it really exemplifies how part of the solution is bringing together different spiritual traditions so that we're drawing the essence and the benefits without needing to polarise into separate camps as well.

TH: Herr Müller was – I say was, he's not very active now in his old age – is the ultimate pragmatist, he's very, very pragmatic. When he created the first communities for abused kids or for orphaned kids his first question was, 'What did I have that allowed me to grow up as a reasonably well adjusted person that children without parents are lacking?' and it wasn't for a building to sleep in or food to eat, it was a family, and so when he created the Salem children's villages – it's pronounced 'Saalem' in Germany, from shalom – and so when he started these he said, 'Let's not put more than six kids in a house. Let's have two people, two parents who were house parents to them. Let's tell them that when they reach 18 and the government money stops they can still stay as long as they want. They can always come home. This is their home if they want it to be. Let's do everything we can to replicate a family.' And that was considered a radical idea in the 1940s and 1950s, and in fact when we started the program in New Hampshire in 1978 we and Karl Menninger in Kansas were about the only two institutions for severely emotionally disturbed kids that were doing that and now it's become the norm.

Similarly, he thought that vivisection was a terrible evil, the experimentation on animals, and he had become a vegetarian while he was in prison during World War II, as a statement of non violence, and so he wanted to end vivisection. So he hired a couple of scientists and put together this thing called the Salem Research Institute in Germany. They didn't do any original research but they pulled together literally thousands of studies that had been done over the previous 20, 30 or 40 years in all these different realms. They broke it into different categories from radiology to geriatrics to oncology to bacterial infections, you name it every category of medicine and research was covered, where they demonstrated that using human tissue cells in a Petri dish was actually not only a more effective and accurate way to do the tests but was actually cheaper. And then he hired some guys who had been detail men, sales people for drugs companies, to go out and knock on the doors of companies that were using vivisection companies to test their drugs and cosmetics and say. 'Hey here's an alternative way you can do it. We'll help you set up the lab and show you how to do it and you can save a pile of money.' He single-handedly saved the lives of millions and millions of animals all across Europe and got laws changed in a dozen countries without a single protest, without a single sign, without ever telling someone that they were evil. It really is an example of his approach to life – honoring people wherever they are and working with them to try to move them forward in a way that doesn't create confrontation and war but it instead brings about peace – using peace to bring about peace.

SIA: I was particularly touched by the way in that book you shared the importance of the small acts of kindness. You talked about him clearing the path of earthworms that were about to be run over by cars, and that those little acts that we do have big repercussions on a subtler level.

TH: I first met him in 1978, and I went back to Germany at least once or twice, sometimes 3 or 4 times a year and have every year since then – it's coming up on 30 years now – and in fact last time I was there was last November and for the first 10 years or so, or first 8 years, I guess it would be, we'd go out on walks and whenever we'd go on a walk it rained a lot in central Germany and there would be worms in the street and he would always stop and pick up a worm and turn it over, drop it in the grass and say, 'There you go, my little friend,' and then give me a little lecture about how even a worm counts and some day maybe he'll be in Heaven and the worm will say 'Hey, you should let him through the Pearly Gates because I remember he did me a favor. You know he was speaking half jokingly but just trying to make the point that all life is sacred and I always thought he was trying to teach me. I thought he was doing this by way of 'Let me give you a good example – the importance of non-violence, the importance of respect for life,' and in 1986 I had come back from China and I was all jet-lagged and I was staying there at Salem in Stadtsteinach, and because of my jetlag I woke up one morning at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning and got up and looked out the window and the sun was just starting to crack the horizon and it had rained the night before and here's this figure running up and down the street the … side, bending over in the street, standing up and running over to the side and going back in the street bending over and running over to the side and after a few motions I figured out, 'Hey that's Herr Müller,' so I pulled on my clothes, I went down and up the street to see where he was – he was about a quarter mile away and he was picking worms up off the highway, off the road. And I said, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'I'm trying to rescue the worms because pretty soon the cars will come, rush hour will be in another hour. You help me, you take the worms over there'. That's when I got it – it wasn't any kind of show he was putting on, it's who he was.

SIA: It's very inspiring, walking the talk on that level of detail. You know we're aiming for about a half hour here so I also want to move into some of your current passions. I know in the last four or five years you've dedicated yourself primarily to progressive political work and rekindling some of the wisdom of the American founders and exposing some of the shadowy things that are happening now and speaking to the deeper need for America really to shift to another level of expression so maybe you could talk about that work and the importance of America making some shifts too.

TH: I've written four books I think now that are grounded in the world view that came out of Rousseau and Locke and Jefferson and the Enlightenment and the whole idea that there is a better way to live and maybe we can institutionalise it – when we do that, that's called politics – and if we do that at the level of a nation it's called creating the United States, and where we've gone wrong. There's the traditional opponents to that, people who call themselves conservatives, who during the American revolution felt that we shouldn't fight against the king because after all kings and kingdoms are the natural order of things and how things are supposed to be. My most recent book is called Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class – And What We Can Do About It. It's a book about, in a more ancient sense, agreeing with Thomas Jefferson that you can't have democracy unless you have a well-informed and well-educated middle class, and on the other hand the conservative notion that really gained traction – I mean it was there back in the 1780s, and John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were probably its most eloquent spokesmen, has regained traction – that, 'Oh, that's a quaint idea but really we need wealthy and powerful institutions and people in order to have a stable society and we really shouldn't have too much of a middle class like we did in the 60s and 70s because then people had such job security and pensions and it was so cheap and easy to get into and go to college that they felt free to go out in the streets and protest and march and African Americans wanted equal rights and women wanted a place in the workplace and how dare they, we can't have this and this is social chaos.' So they set about basically doing away with the middle class, turning the middle class into a class of the working poor so that we would be politically disempowered and that's the thesis, the premise and the theme of my most recent book Screwed.

SIA: I was reading an article a little while ago on the web today that you'd written, talking about how important it was that we retract from the powers that we've given over the corporations for us to really move politically to the next level I think we have to bring personhood back out of the corporate arena and back to individuals.

TH: Yeah, this is a terrible mistake. You go back to 1787 when Madison first sent the first draft of the constitution to Jefferson, who was at that time living in France as the US envoy, and James Madison was so proud of it – 'Look at this thing that we've done and isn't this great and we're going to try to get it ratified here over the course of the next two years,' and Jefferson sends it back going, 'Well, this is nice, but it's missing a bill of rights and here's what you have to have.' And one of the things that Jefferson wanted in the bill of rights was a ban on corporate monopolies, a ban on corporations being able to monopolise markets, a ban on corporations being able to own other corporations, corporations having a limited life span, corporations not having rights but only having privileges, corporations being answerable to we the people, he was quite explicit about it. And Madison replied saying, 'Well you know, I don't want to disagree with you but every state already has laws like that. You can only create a corporation at the state level. The word corporation doesn't appear anywhere in the constitution. There are no federal corporations, and so really this isn't something that needs to go into the constitution,' and they had a little pissing war about this thing for the better part of a year and finally Jefferson gave up and he lost that battle, but he ultimately lost that battle thinking that, 'Well probably Madison was actually right.' And it wasn't until 1886 when they were both long dead that the railroads had achieved so much power and risen up so high that they went before the Supreme Court and argued that the 14th amendment, which was passed right after the Civil War in order to grant rights to the former slaves in the United States, which says that no person can be denied equal protection and under the law, so the railroads came forward and said, 'We're persons,' and in fact, at law, traditionally corporations had been considered persons. They were called artificial persons, but they were persons, and there was a distinction in classic British law and early American law between natural persons, which is you and me, human beings, and artificial persons, which is corporations, churches and government. But the 14th amendment does not say natural persons, it only says persons, so they argued before the supreme court that they should have the same rights in the bill of rights as human beings. They should have the right of free speech in the first amendment, they should have the right of privacy in the 4th amendment to be able to tell government to butt out of their affairs; they should have the right in the 5th amendment of habeus corpus and the right against taking and the right to be silent and not have to testify against themselves and so on and so forth. And the court actually ruled against them and said, 'No sorry, this is not the case,' but the clerk of the court, who was a former president of a railroad and very favorably disposed to the railroads' arguments, a man by the name of John Chandler Bancroft Davis, who was the wealthy son of the former governor of Massachusetts and an aristocrat in his own right, wrote in the headnote which has no legal standing to the decision, 'Corporations are persons under the 14th amendment and entitled to the rights of persons thereof,' and for some bizarre reason that nobody has been able to explain, literally, ever since then the supreme court has acted as if that headnote was the ruling, when in fact it contradicts the ruling and so corporations have these powers. Dow Chemical, for example, sued the Federal Government when the Federal Government was going to do a surprise inspection in one of their factories because a whistle-blower had complained about pollution. They said 'No you can't come in. We have 4th amendment rights of privacy,' and the EPA said, 'But we were created to do these kinds of inspections,' and Dow said, 'We don't care, we're a person,' and the Supreme Court said, 'Well, I guess they are.' And Nike most recently, a couple of years ago, tried to claim that they were persons and they had the right to lie. Wal-Mart routinely claims 14th amendment rights of personhood that you can't discriminate against them. For a community to try and keep out a Wal-Mart is the same as a lunch counter trying to keep out an African American. What's happened since that decision in 1886 is the rise of the corporation in a way that I think you can accurately describe as genuinely toxic and destructive to democracy, and very useful for the conservative forces in establishing this oligarchy, this conservative oligarchy, that they think is really the most stable and functional form of government. It's not that the conservatives are evil people, it's that they have a different notion of how things should be, they're very much products of younger culture, very much believe in the model of command and control and top down and hierarchy and patriarchy, whereas the original architects of democracy in the United States – Jefferson, Madison, John Jay, George Mason, Ben Franklin – these guys were looking at older cultures, at the older cultures that were surrounding them, at the Native Americans, at the older culture attempt that was made in Athens back 3,000 years ago – they were looking at these older cultures and saying, 'You know, there's a lesson here for us to learn,' and that's been this dynamic tension between older and younger cultures, or between conservative and liberal worldviews, as the case may be, literally from the founding of the country. Both of them ebb and flow but we're in one of those periods of transition right now, so I'm trying, in my various books, Screwed: the Undeclared War Against the Middle Class, the new one, talks mostly about the economics of it all and how the middle class is so important to democracy. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and Theft of Human Rights: This book is almost entirely about that 1886 Supreme Court decision and how corporations became persons. We the People: A Call to Take Back America is a broad brush view of American history, particularly revolutionary era history and how we've gotten from there to here. What Would Jefferson Do is a book that I wrote from spending three years reading the collected writings of Thomas Jefferson and just discovering that this guy is not who we thought he was. He really was a small-d democrat. He really, in many ways, embraced the ideals of older cultures in ways that were in fact horrifying to many of his peers and surprising to others and wonderful to others – in many ways the father of the United States of America as we have it today.

SIA: I'd like to celebrate all the work that you're doing, I really appreciate it. We're running out of time here, maybe we could just close with the final thing we focus on – if there were some practical recommendations you have for what folks can do personally to create positive shifts so we can really move to a healthier, older culture inspired mature world now.

TH: I think there's two or perhaps three arenas that we could be working in right now. The first is learning of course. I'd love to recommend my own book; [Daniel] Quinn has done some brilliant writing in this area; there are others out there. Grounding yourself in spirituality and in politics, I think it's very important stuff. Secondly reaching out to others and sharing the message and for many people that means becoming active in the political process or becoming active in institutions, whether they be churches or civic institutions or synagogues or whatever – just getting out there and getting active. And the third, and perhaps actually it should have been the first, the most important, is finding for each one of us our own centre, finding our own place where we're grounded and we're connected to everything that is, and then bringing that out into the larger world and helping change the world from that place because the place from which we do things in many regards is more important than the things that we do.

SIA: Beautiful. Great, that's a good way to close and I just want to honor you for your work and thank you for your time today and really keep appreciating you moving things forward.

TH: My pleasure, my pleasure Steven.

SIA: Thank you so much, Thom.

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