It’s really not about reading books but about changing minds. Once people understood that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, they didn’t drift back to thinking that the earth was a stationary object that all else revolved around.

Once they understood that the earth was round, they didn’t drift back to thinking it was flat. Once they understood that the universe is billions of years old, they didn’t drift back to thinking it was created all at once and in its final form in 4004 B.C. (unless they were Christian fundamentalists). Mind changes like these literally transformed the world. And right now we’re in desperate need of another mind change.

Like me, you’d like to see a renaissance occur in which “we will stop destroying the planet.” But this renaissance is not going to occur among people who imagine that humans belong to a species that is separate from the rest of the living community (and who therefore think, for example, that the mass extinctions we are bringing about are sad but not really life-threatening).

Until they know–with the same certainty that they know the earth is round—that humans are intimately bound up with (and completely dependent on) the rest of the living community, why would they “stop destroying the planet”? You can’t force them to stop; you can’t make them stop by passing laws or by shooting them. Once their minds are changed they WILL stop, just as back in the fifteenth century mariners stopped worrying about sailing off the edge of the earth.

If you want people to BEHAVE differently, then you must make them THINK differently. (For my best formulation of this, see my speech “The New Renaissance.” 

But I know I haven’t really addressed what’s on your mind. If I read your letter rightly, you’re saying, “Changing people’s minds doesn’t produce any immediate, practical result. What can I do that WILL have an immediate, practical result?”

To counter the first of these, I’d refer you to “Taming the Big, Bad Wolf,” an essay on this point  in which the story is told of a single individual, Ray Anderson, who transformed a global industry—because his mind was changed by reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and Ishmael—a very immediate, practical result.

The second I have to answer the same way I answer it for everyone: only you know what resources you have and only you know how to make the best use of those resources. I couldn’t have told Ray Anderson what was possible for him to achieve, and I can’t tell you what it’s possible for you to achieve. I know a lot, but I’m never going to know what every individual on this planet should be doing. You do what is in your power to do—and only you know what that is.

ID: 584
updated: 03 Sep 2002