PROMISE AHEAD By Duane Elgin William Morrow 224 pp., $23
THE TWILIGHT OF AMERICAN CULTURE By Morris Berman W.W. Norton 224
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
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. …