by Duane Elgin
William Morrow, New York, 2000, $23.00 hardcover. 224 pages, illustrated.
Reviewed by David Loye

 This eloquent and insightful book should be read and pondered by everyone concerned with the evolution of our species and whether we are “going to make it or not.” 

Promise Ahead is also one of few books of its kind that mainstream publishers have had the courage to publish during this strange, ironic, and disturbing time. We limp through a time when our species, at least in America, seems bent on turning its back on the future-a time characterized by the mediocre, the trivial, the obscene, by escapism and the race for the bottom as well as the bottom line.
Historically, Promise Ahead is in the great tradition of planetary “wake up” studies, advancing the dialogue set in motion by The Club of Rome series, the evolutionary action books of Ervin Laszlo, the cultural transformation books of Riane Eisler, the futurist warning books of Hazel Henderson and Alvin Toffler and many others.

Honing the ability to monitor social trends and project their likely paths led Elgin to his first major venture into social activism with Voluntary Simplicity. He was involved in the pioneering development of the electronic town meeting as a way of using television to strengthen democracy and hopefully hasten pro-social human evolution. With Awakening Earth, he tackled the puzzle of evolution from its beginning and how to accelerate human evolution from an ecological and increasingly spiritual perspective. Promise Ahead is the practical visionary advancement of this earlier work.

In chapter one, “Is Humanity Growing Up?” Elgin tells us of how during talks around the world he asked audiences to think about our species as if it were a person growing up. How far along a scale from infancy to old age are we? The majority said we are still only teen-agers in terms of evolutionary development. Elgin then notes that we have spent the past 35,000 years progressively separating ourselves from nature. We now face the consequences of this separation during our current time of initiation to a potentially higher stage of evolution-with the most severe crunch coming two short decades from now. If we pass this initiation, it will be because of our return to “conscious unity with nature.”

He sees our time as involving a particularly jolting and unsettling “initiation” that involves “hitting the evolutionary wall.” This consists of an “environmental wall” of limits we are “fast approaching because we are rapidly consuming more resources than the Earth can renew,” and an “evolutionary wall” where the limits are posed by our “social and spiritual” capacity to “sustain dysfunctional and destructive behaviors.”

How promising is our future? Calculating the life spans of earlier species, Elgin ventures the guess that if we can make it successfully past the time of the big crunch, our species can look forward to no less than 25,000 times the span of recorded human history with the increasing benefits of maturity he outlines later in the book.

So much for the good news. In chapter two, he turns to the “adversity trends” we face. Here the reader is likely to steel themself against the numbing encounter with the overwhelming factual reality of all that confronts us. Elgin, however, knows the material so well he can bring it to life through economy of selection and his considerable art of presentation.

He chiefly focuses on global climate change, world population growth, mass extinction of species, depletion of natural resources, and poverty and diminished opportunity-this last the vital component currently so woefully under-perceived by either the privileged or their favorite experts during the current celebration of our unparalleled economic growth. 

“We have a tendency to compartmentalize these powerful trends and think that we can deal with them one by one when, in reality, they are increasingly interacting and amplifying each other’s impact,” Elgin notes of the five adversity trends. He deftly shows how they will interact to become the “waves of famine” and “resource wars” that lead to our pivotal “make or break” evolutionary challenge by the year 2020.

Now shifting from the motivational stick to the carrot of promise ahead, Elgin looks at the “opportunity trends” of a positive future. First is a shift in “our shared view of the universe-from thinking of it as dead to experiencing it as alive.” Such a shift may seem too subtle to be consequential. “Yet all of the deep and lasting revolutions in human development have been generated from just such shifts”- e.g., the prehistoric awakening 35,000 years ago recorded in cave art, the shift from a nomadic to agricultural life 10,000 years ago, and the shift to the scientific-industrial era 300 years ago.

Driving the vital shift to the new shared view that may save us are six new perspectives for science: 1) perception of the cosmos as a unified system; which contains 2) immense amounts of background energy; is 3) continuously regenerated; 4) distinguished by freedom at the foundation; with 5) consciousness throughout; and 6) is further able to reproduce itself.

He then paints a gripping picture of our universe as not only one among many, but born out of a “Mother Universe” in which the new insights of physics mirror the ancient perceptions of the wisdom traditions of religion and spirituality.

Six characteristics of this Mother Universe as seen by both East and West, Elgin says, are that it is present everywhere, is non-obstructing, utterly impartial, ultimately ungraspable, compassionate, and profoundly creative.

“In looking across the world’s spiritual traditions, the insight emerges again and again: although we live in a world of seeming separation and division, our universe is a unified whole brimming with life and infused with a divine presence.” (p.61).

In chapter four Elgin develops his idea of voluntary simplicity from his earlier book, first quoting the unique wisdom/humor of Will Rogers. The problem, says Rogers, is that “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”

Elgin spells out these implications in terms of a people driven by advertising and a dead universe ethos to try to gobble up the planet heedless of others at present or in the future. Particularly impressive are the number of surveys that repeatedly find that “a lifeway of soulful simplicity, with its new pattern of values, is emerging as a significant trend in the world.”

Among the new value patterns, Elgin says, are the ideas of sustainable economic development, with recycling as a notable marker; economic justice, with a new sense of kinship with the world’s poor among those shifting to a life of voluntary simplicity; new forms of community, for example, “eco-villages”; and greater participation in politics.

Chapter five, “Communicating Our Way into a Promising Future”, opens with Lester Brown of Worldwatch Institute: “The communications industry is the only instrument that has the capacity to educate on a scale that is needed and in the time available.”

Far from being a visionary pie in the sky, the picture that Elgin develops here is of major importance. One may propose everything from mass meditation to a new “anti-violence” pill to get us past the nearing crunch, but I would urge that Elgin’s perceptions and proposals in this section be carefully read, taken to heart, and put into action.

“Television may be our window onto the world, but the view it now provides is cramped and narrow,” Elgin offers in the mildest of observations (p.105).

The book’s final four chapters are so packed with insights and information, and emerge out of such a passion for the saving of our species, I am tempted to characterize them as an electronic “sermon on the mount.” Quoting Teilhard de Chardin, Elgin explores the “power of love.” The universal emergence and power of the Golden Rule are explored. He tells of the inspirational reign of Ashoka, the warrior king in India who, repenting of his previous life of slaughter, became an enlightened embodiment of “compassionate love” and one of the most impactful political leaders in history. He writes with insight of all the major conflicts now dividing humanity and of the process of reconciliation, ending with the statistical punch of how far the money we waste in trivia could go toward solving the world’s problems.
“To achieve universal access to water and sanitation, the estimated annual cost is $12 billion, which is what is spent on perfumes in Europe and the USA each year.” (p.126).

Later Elgin develops the case that the purpose of evolution, “humanity’s central project,” is to become “doubly wise.” By this he means our unique human capacity to be self-reflective as well as self-organizing. That is, our species not only knows what is going on around us, as with all sentient organisms, but “knows that we know,” which gives us the capacity for an expanding consciousness of who we are and the potential for life.

He then suggests what study circles, churches, classrooms, community and professional groups, and corporate boardrooms can do. This is all sensible and true but mighty thin stuff in relation to the challenge. He then returns to what may seem too grubby and materialistic for readers looking for more easy soulful salvation: how the exponentially increasing power of the Internet and television can be used to save rather than destroy us.

“Our situation is like that of a long-distance runner who prepares for a marathon by eating a steady diet of junk food,” he tells us. “We are trying to run modern democracies on a diet of televised entertainment just when we are confronting challenges of marathon proportions.” (p.188). He then describes some ingenious and hard-hitting practical ideas that could push us toward bounce rather than crash IF we can elect the kind of smart, courageous, and practical (i.e. electable) political leadership locally, regionally, and nationally to fight for their enactment.

This is a strong and useful book, at times brilliant, most impressive in its logic and its grounding. So what’s the problem? Take away all the trappings of where we are technologically and developmentally, and there is this startling consonance in terms of the expansion of mind, the need for moral sensitivity, the humanistic potential and even a nudge toward the grounding in spirituality of Darwin’s vision of the future for our species. And yet, as I detail in Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love (iUniverse, 2000), this humanistic completing top half for his theory of evolution was denied us for over 100 years.

What buried Darwin’s “better half” can again, unless we begin to understand it and how it operates, over-ride and bury much of Elgin’s hopeful picture. It can again, as in the 20th century, drive us toward the evolutionary crash, unless more visionaries of Elgin’s stature and experience - as well as the rest of us - begin to more effectively work into our consciousness and action plans the hard reality of a central perspective on our cultural evolution that keeps getting shoved out of mind.

 The nature of this struggle must be clearly perceived and actively dealt with if we are to transcend the entrenched power of this abiding  paradigm to override all the good intentions and good sense in this world.
This said, let’s close with more of Elgin’s vision:
“I believe there may be no more dangerous challenge to our future than the cultural hypnosis that is generated daily by commercial television, which trivializes the human experience and distracts humanity from our larger potentials,” Elgin writes. “By programming television for commercial success, we are programming the mind-set of entire civilizations- indeed, the species-civilization- for evolutionary stagnation and ecological failure.”