Magical Thinking: It’s Everywhere and Getting More Dangerous

We all labor under certain illusions, some modest and minor, others enormously majestic. Social illusions have always been with us. We tend to think of the myths of “primitive” peoples as illusions and our own beliefs as facts. But that may be the biggest illusion of all. Some of what at first appear to be outlandish illusions turn out to be, on further investigation, valid and useful. Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein come to mind. Their scientific theories were at first dismissed as blasphemous or absurd.

Illusions, Then and Now
For millennia, human groups have labored on the basis of illusions, myths, or stories. Such stories gave them a conceptual framework for making decisions about their lives in the places they inhabited. What seems to confuse us moderns is that the stories on which ancients and “primitives” depended for guidance in their lives seem so fanciful and unreal. Yet they worked. As anthropology eventually figured out, the myths of ancient and indigenous peoples worked for them in their time and place. That is because they were consistent with the conditions of life for those groups in their environments. However little sense they make for us, their structure and content led to useful behavior for the tribe, or group, in the lived environment. However unreal the myths of others may seem in our modern and post modern context, they worked in their time and place.
Today, the stakes are much higher at a vastly larger scale. Many of the myths and stories we believe are increasingly unrelated to the conditions of modern life. The social and environmental conditions of the modern world have changed radically in the last two hundred years. The illusions of any era seem perfectly reasonable to those who believe them. In more stable times, those illusions were relatively stable over time and were consistent with the conditions under which people lived. When they were not, the group that held them in spite of changing conditions died off because their myths failed to lead to the decisions needed for survival.
That’s pretty much where we find ourselves today, except that the scope and depth of changing conditions are worldwide and “mission critical” for human survival. The scary part is that we may very well be wandering down the same path to collapse as the societies of the past that failed to respond to changed conditions because they insisted on holding to the beliefs they had always felt comfortable with.

Science and Magical Thinking
We are very proud of our science, technology, and exploitation of fossil fuel energy, which have produced the conditions and conveniences of modern life. The exploitation of fossil-fuel energy has allowed an overabundance of new and entertaining products the world has never before known. We pride ourselves on our reasoning, our “rationality.” But in many ways such pride rests on illusions that can kill us.
Then there are the utterly foolish notions of those anti-scientists such as Senator James Inhofe.  In the face of mountains of evidence from all over the world for human caused global warming, Inhofe declared it all “the greatest hoax.” Inhofe’s magical thinking is, of course, closely tied to the oil and gas interests that support him.
The very science and technology that has for a very short historical period allowed us to live in relative luxury, have produced conditions that are disrupting the earth systems upon which we rely. But our industrial culture has failed to inform us of the dangerous environmental and social trends that have resulted from our extractive massive-waste producing economy.
Instead, the most important element of science itself, skepticism, has been suppressed by the culture of consumerism brought on by the economic domination of society by the corporate state. It is relatively easy to manipulate a population that is mostly unable to engage in critical thinking by encouraging and directing magical thinking. One of the key components of magical thinking is the ignoring of evidence – the Inhofe syndrome. In contrast, critical thinking is attuned to the many forms of illusions that marketers use to convince us to buy buy buy – both products and politics. Reasoning on the basis of evidence overcomes the untruths of magical thinking.

The Growing Danger of Magical Thinking
Magical thinking results from the capacity to ignore evidence in determining one’s beliefs. It is able to override both facts and logic in order to arrive at a comfortable belief that relieves the believer of the responsibility to critically judge all claims to knowledge. Magical thinking overrides facts and ignores logic in order to retain the comfort of believing that, for example, dire circumstances that may require us to make difficult decisions simply do not exist. We don’t want global warming to disrupt climate, damage crops, raise the sea level, and cause long term droughts, or produce resource wars, etc., etc. It is easy to ignore ominous facts if you allow magical thinking to shape your beliefs. The relief from responsibility is a powerful unconscious motivator.
The short term economic interests of some giant corporations are for people to not believe the overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate disruption. Exxon-Mobil paid the same marketing and public relations propagandists that had helped the tobacco industry deny the harm done by cigarettes, to plant all sorts of “climate denial” disinformation in the mass media. Continued magical thinking resulting in “climate denial” puts us all at grave risk.

Becoming Indigenous: Settling a Population Adrift in an Unstable World

In the modern and post-modern worlds, we are set adrift. Who now lives fully integrated with a clan, tribe, or other group ‘emplaced’ for many generations in a particular location and fully integrated into the ecology of that place? Nobody on my block! We are all individuated, barely a member of a family, and that family is probably scattered across the country, if not the globe.

Is that a problem? Very much so. For most people in the industrially developed nations – in the U.S. more than most – mobility is a way of life. Rich or poor, people move in response to economic conditions, and not always with much success. We have long passed the point where family or clan, or place for that matter, are more important than our job or a potential job. We are usually located in some corporate setting with hopes for a career path, not a geographic one.

Nevertheless, the coming transformation of the place of humans in the world makes what may now be thought of as “lifestyle” choices a matter of survival. The idea of becoming indigenous may be easily misunderstood. As intended here, it is meant not as a fashion statement, lifestyle choice, or sudden personal adaptation of native folkways. As time runs out for humanity to respond to the extant and looming catastrophic consequences of industrial pollution of the ecosphere, a massive reorientation will be necessary. The remaining indigenous peoples offer a potential source for guidance in designing a new way of living in harmony with the earth that may not otherwise sustain us. The world will be very different in any case.

Indigenous Peoples and Interest Groups

Until the dawn of the Industrial Era, people were organized around kinship. Economic activity and trade were an aspect of the life ways of core social groupings. Human groups existed in stable locations. People were indigenous. Most indigenous peoples left in the world today are the residual elements of populations that were colonized and/or enslaved during the colonial and imperial eras. Almost none are truly isolated from the industrial nations or industrializing nations that constitute most nations on earth. Some ethnic groups have retained a semblance of their traditional culture and stayed together in one area. More and more are reviving their language and cultural practices. But in most cases, the influences of the larger globalized economy are very powerful.

Most of us organize our lives around our jobs. What little time is left may be devoted to some special interest such as sports, hobbies, or other entertainments. As often as not, engagement with that interest is via a ‘flat screen.’ We are a culture of spectators, whether watching NFL games or even while engaged in the unreality of a “World of War Craft.” Our illusions are illusory. The illusions of indigenous mythology are real in their cultural functions of sustaining viable relations with each other and with the natural world. Many of the illusions of the modern/postmodern world are little more than dysfunctional.

Extractive Economics and Indigenous Culture

The displacement of everyone in industrial culture is an inevitable result of the endless extraction of materials for the endless production processes of the endless-growth economy. No place is sacred if profit can be extracted from the land or water. The expansion of industrial production that necessitates more and more extraction of resources for both energy and products has no internal limits. In fact, it requires that there be no limits. However, for decades now the earth’s systems have been showing us their limits increasingly in climate disruption and ecological destruction.

The blindness of industrial culture to the earth’s limits on the exploitation of ecologies and earth systems is precisely the opposite of the awareness inherent in the cultures of indigenous peoples. People who still live intimately with their environments directly perceive the elements of Nature that they must respect. Their long traditions are built around that awareness. The irony of the end of the industrial era is that as the growth economy accelerates toward its catastrophic end, only its victims can show a path to human survival. Only the wisdom of the indigenous peoples who industrial culture defines as “backward,” can even come close to salvaging some semblance of civilization from the fast approaching chaos.

Becoming Indigenous

The globalizing economic/political leviathan is in for a big surprise, and very soon. It continues to minimize the adaptations necessary to convert from fossil-fuel energy production to “renewable” energy production, with nearly no sense of the necessity of energy conservation. Yet nearly nobody involved recognizes that a viable place for humanity on the planet in the near future will require a total transformation far beyond anything currently contemplated. It will be such a vast reorganization of economic activity and social relations that the term “paradigm shift” is hardly sufficient.

The new indigenous activism of native peoples from around the globe has grown rapidly around the principle of climate justice. The connection between the destruction of local ecologies and the threat to the entire planet posed by the globalized economy is obvious to indigenous activists. Protecting local land and resources and defending all earth systems are synonymous to them. Wide cultural divides exist between indigenous peoples from Canada to Brazil, from Uganda to the Pacific islands. Yet they are united and work together in the struggle defending the earth against plunder by the globalizing world economic system.

Significant numbers of citizens in the industrially developed nations must “become indigenous,” but not by merely mimicking any particular native peoples. For us, becoming indigenous must entail a new recognition of the essential relationship of our species to the planet. We must also recognize that relationship outside the paradigm of the industrial era. “The old ways” can help guide us, but it will be difficult, requiring us to abandon many of the ideas and conveniences we daily take for granted and don’t really want to give up. We must build new understandings of the unprecedented transformation that lies ahead by learning what it really means to be an indigenous people. Such a creative reintegration of humanity with our world may be the greatest transformation of the human experience ever.