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June 2008

Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight

While watching the movie the 11th hour hosted by Leonardo DeCaprio, I was struck by the reference to a book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. The phrase "Ancient Sunlight" felt poetic and the quotes mentioned resonated with me so deeply that I made a mental note to read the book. As a person well versed in the trauma we've inflicted on the planet, I wondered what new insights or thoughts the book could contain that would hold my attention or add to the dialog. With surprise, joy, anger, and plenty of ah ha moments now under my belt, I can say the basic premise of the book rises above the environmental destruction issues so often sited and the list of what and how to steps for change so often included in other works. Instead, author Thom Hartmann succeeds in explaining and clarifying the fundamental cultural forces that have carried us to this point in time and continue to drive us in our destructive behaviors. As a person with a Bachelor's degree in psychology and plenty of interest in my own psycho-emotional health and wellness, I am always seeking and drawn to understanding the underlying causes of attitudes and behaviors. So, I welcome this framework that Thom so wisely uses to examine our environmental, social, and economic challenges.

The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight is written in three main parts. Part one: We're Running Out of Ancient Sunlight sets the stage by explaining how oil and coal are really stores of sunlight energy having formed into their current states over millions of years. We're using this stored up energy now just like using a savings account that we aren't adding anything back into. Of course, we can't add back into the oil and coal account because it's a non renewable resource only nature could provide during the evolution of our planet. And as if that weren't bad enough, we're also using renewable resources beyond sustainable limits and causing globally reaching negative side effects. We've set up a temporary house of cards that can't do anything but collapse.

Part one also includes an overview of the basic life supporting systems that we're damaging. I came to understand for the first time the role of trees in the water cycle. Learned about the connection between fast food hamburgers and the destruction of the South American rain forests. Discovered the importance of diversity in all types of systems including economies and cultures; ours are currently lacking in diversity and therefore more vulnerable to decline or failure. And I was shown examples of how damage to one part of the ecosystem contributes to climate change and hardships on people throughout the world.

The second part of the book: Younger and Older Cultures: How did we get here? really begins to heat up so to speak with new insights about the fundamental cultural influences underpinning our destructive behaviors. Some of these ideas are introduced to us in Part one but here, they become the central theme. Thom describes Older Cultures that were relatively small communities existing for thousands and thousands of years; cultures organized around sustainable practices rooted in a connection to nature and most importantly grounded in the attitudes of cooperation and respectfulness. While Younger Cultures evolved into large city-states with domination and winner take all attitudes focused on power; cultures using resources in non sustainable ways and treating other people with disrespect. These two lists show the fundamental structures of Older Culture tribal or democratic groups and Younger Culture non-democratic city-state cultures.

  • Older Cultures
  • Political Independence
  • Egalitarian Structure
  • Getting their resources from renewable local sources
  • Having a unique sense of their own identity
  • Respecting the identity of other tribes
  • Younger Cultures
  • Political Dominance
  • Established hierarchy: clear authority structures
  • Acquiring resources through trade and conquest
  • Absorbing other cultures into their own identity
  • Genocidal warfare against others

Part two is full of examples of Older Cultures that succeeded as well as of Young Cultures that failed. The reasons for the relative successes and failures are explained as well. I learned the ways in which our founding fathers borrowed from native cultures of North America and included Older Culture principles in the foundation of our government. But, also, ways in which our government strayed during its formation and has strayed further as we have evolved so that we now embrace mostly Young Culture principles. These Young Culture ways are evidenced around the world in the colonization of foreign peoples and the elimination of native peoples. Young Culture ways include a domination and use/abuse of nature as well which is evidenced in the global environmental challenges we now face. This domination that is such an integral part of Young Cultures is the reason they spread and thrive. But, we can choose to incorporate Older Culture ways into our modern lives. Understanding how to change course now is the focus of part three of the book.

What can we do about it? is the title of part three. It's full of examples of how we can change course. The usual change of behaviors like stopping our dependence on oil and shifting to the use of renewable resources are examined. It's also acknowledged that this is a process in which even renewable resources are at this time dependent upon oil for their development. Solar panels for example are made from PVC, a petroleum product. But, beyond and along with these usual "how to's", Thom includes the fundamental cultural changes needed so that we can become grounded in the principles necessary to move from domination and power to cooperation and balance as guiding forces that will ensure our shift to sustainable living.

To Quote Thom Hartmann, the what to do is this: "Unlike many of our self-assured gurus, ecologists, and technologist something-will-save-us believers, I don't claim to know the exact details of our future. What I do know is that if we are to save some part of this world for our children and all other life, the answers won't simply rest in just the application of technology, economy, government, messianic figures, or new religions/sects/cults.

True and lasting solutions will require that a critical mass of people achieve an Older Culture way of viewing the world; the perspective that successfully and sustainably maintained human populations for hundreds of thousands of years."

This kind of change is rooted in the efforts of individuals to do as Gandhi is often quoted as having said, "Be the change you want to see in the World." This is Thom's advice as well. Still, we are also encouraged in the Afterword to share this book and the principles of Older Cultures in an effort to help make change happen. Because, if we are going to build a world once again based on cooperation and not domination, then we must reach a critical mass of participants. We can't cooperate alone.

Book reviews technically aren't supposed to be summaries. But, I choose to include some summary information as a teaser for people to either be inspired to read the books or informed enough to choose not to. Hopefully, in this case I've given enough information to tempt you into reading but not so much that you still won't be surprised and engaged as you read and discover the depth of the connections and breadth of the concepts Thom tackles in this brave work. I say brave because he goes to the heart of the status quo. I expect each of us would find and should find some of the information threatening to our own cultural equilibrium. That is exactly the point. So, I encourage you to be as brave as Thom. Read this book, question your role in the status quo, the type of government you want for our country, the place you want us to share in the world, and the everyday personal and professional attitudes and behaviors you choose that can and will help be the change we want to see in the world.

by: Sue Norman