Sounding the Alarm on American Culture

Article excerpt

PROMISE AHEAD By Duane Elgin William Morrow 224 pp., $23

THE TWILIGHT OF AMERICAN CULTURE By Morris Berman W.W. Norton 224 pp., $23.95

Duane Elgin's new book, Promise Ahead, has a hopeful sounding title and message. But the "promise" that lies ahead, Elgin warns, can be realized only if we start to think, feel, and act in a way that will enable us to move past petty, selfish, and ultimately self- destructive individualism, nationalism, industrialism, and consumerism.

This certainly sounds like a fine plan, but how might we even dare to hope such farsightedness will prevail?

Looking around at some dismaying current behavior - obsession with ethnic, racial, and religious identity; attraction to instant gratification; reckless disregard for the long-term consequences of one's actions - Elgin notes that these are the characteristics of teenagers. His hope is that humankind will soon give up these immature and irresponsible ways: in sum, that we, as a species, will finally "grow up."

One sign that we may be "growing up" is the environmental movement. Elgin succinctly explains the gravity of the crisis. Trends like global warming, overpopulation, pollution, the depletion of resources, as he illustrates, are no joke. But Elgin views the history of the human species as a long process of maturation:

In our prehistoric "infancy," we had a weak sense of our own potential and lived in superstitious awe of a nature we didn't understand. With the dawn of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, we reached our "adolescence," gaining an ability to understand and manipulate nature but with too much of a sense of independence and separation from it. Continuing this paradigm, Elgin hopes we will now begin to develop a wise and "adult" sense of belonging and stewardship with regard to nature.

As he discussed in his 1981 book, "Voluntary Simplicity," there is a lot that each of us can do to help bring this about.

Morris Berman also has some ideas about what individuals can do to alleviate what he foresees as a kind of second coming of the Dark Ages. In his brilliantly observant, deeply thoughtful, and lucidly argued book The Twilight of American Culture, he asks us to take a long, hard look at the sorry state of civilization.

Americans would like to believe they are exporting their most cherished ideals to the rest of the world. But what they are actually exporting, Berman argues, is a corporate hegemony that is already making a mockery of those ideals. Looking around, Berman finds signs that the current state of American civilization has a lot in common with that of the Roman Empire as it descended into barbarism: a widening gap between the rich and the poor; rapidly declining levels of literacy, critical thinking, and "general intellectual awareness"; the pursuit of shallow diversions; and the death of what Freud called "superego" and what is still commonly known as conscience. …