When we look back twenty-five years on the world of the 1980s, it is with a combination of great relief and even greater bewilderment. We are, of course, relieved that the unthinkable global nuclear holocaust did not occur, but amazed that matters were ever allowed to come to such a pass. Here was the entire human race — never more advanced in scientific knowledge and achievement — teetering on the brink of self-annihilation, and daily adding to the means by which annihilation might come about. It is a horrifying memory. But since our transition from that precarious state of affairs is still very much in progress it is useful to look back occasionally, so that the destructive passions that led to that dark hour of history only a quarter of a century ago may never again dominate human hearts.

People think differently today, they act differently toward one another, and they have a different appreciation of life and its meaning and purpose. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this change, for we are only beginning to see the fullness of its implications; and yet it is a difficult thing to describe, since it is utterly unprecedented. If the full story of the circumstances surrounding this renaissance of the human spirit were to be recounted it could run into volumes. I am hardly qualified to present a definitive record of these remarkable events, and in fact I doubt that anyone is, because in so many ways they defy analysis. Therefore what I have to say in this brief report will necessarily be something of a personal view, admittedly colored by my own unique perspective.

In the early 1980s I was preparing for a career as a classical musician, hoping to spend my life sharing with others the joys of refined music-making, savoring the fruits of a great culture. It was during the middle years of that decade that I began to awaken to the fact that my imagined future could be obliterated in a moment by the decision of a fear-struck statesman or general. Not only was my career in jeopardy, but the possibility of home, family and all the pleasures of life a young person takes for granted the future will hold. And not only was my future and that of my friends and family at stake, but that of my civilization and culture as well: art, music, literature — everything noble and beautiful — could be swept away in a moment. And not only did Western culture hang in the balance, but every human culture, every human life, now and forever. It was beyond the capacity of mind and emotions to respond adequately to the awful contrast between the present beauty of our planet — a living jewel hung in space, a sacred home given in trust to mankind — and the potential results of nuclear war. But there could be little doubt about the nature of those results: in studies published in the Scientific American it had been shown with inexorable logic how a nuclear exchange of even moderate proportions would lead to the lofting of vast dust clouds into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun and causing a catastrophic drop in world temperatures lasting for years. Moreover, high-yield thermonuclear air bursts would chemically destroy the atmospheric ozone layer which protects animals and plants from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. These combined effects — prolonged bitter cold and deadly ultraviolet radiation — would virtually ensure the extinction not only of the human race but of most life on the planet, with the likely exception of micro-organisms, insects and grasses. Meanwhile I watched and listened as politicians justified the creation and deployment of even more weapons, as though the threat of extinction required constant reinforcement. The destruction of the earth through nuclear war was not an abstract possibility — like the sun exploding or the earth being struck by a huge comet — but was an event of increasing likelihood. Had human beings ever before invented a weapon, produced it in great quantities, and then refrained from using it?

I realized that I had a fundamental choice to make. I could either push these thoughts to the back of my mind and pursue my personal ambitions, or do something extraordinary — I didn’t really know what — to intervene in the world situation. Every hereditary and environmental influence constrained me toward the former choice; reason, and a mysterious inner urge, compelled me toward the latter. It was a remarkably simple decision to make, actually: reason prevailed. My own personal wants, desires, fears and expectations would have to be put entirely to one side while I sought to find some solution to mankind’s dilemma. Though I was utterly without qualifications as a statesman or leader, and had no more assurance of ability or success than any other ordinary citizen would have had, I determined that I would devote myself to acting on behalf of all humankind: whatever integrity I possessed would be satisfied with nothing less.

Since I was only one person, I decided that what little leverage I had should be most effectively applied: I would look for solutions, but at the same time I would seek to identify the root of the current global impasse so as not to waste my efforts by merely worrying at symptoms. I examined political, diplomatic and social approaches, but quickly saw that even the simplest and most obviously constructive idea — such as a freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear weapons — could easily be sabotaged on its way to acceptance or implementation. Every plan I studied was ultimately subject to the attitudes of people — the most intangible of quantities. Even if a brilliant diplomat were to succeed in negotiating a treaty, its peaceful effect depended upon human goodwill — which, had it been present in the first place, would have made the treaty unnecessary. The more I turned the matter over in my mind the more clearly it came to me that the source of the world’s unrest was not a lack of bright ideas, policies, programs or initiatives, but some basic flaw in human nature.

One way of describing that flaw, it seemed, was as the tendency to blame and accuse. Of course the blame constantly being heaped by the superpowers on each other was a major cause of tension in the world, but those who were ostensibly seeking world peace seemed to spend a great deal of their time at the blame game as well: they blamed political leaders for being too unyielding and aggressive, and even blamed nuclear weapons themselves, though a moment’s thought should have revealed that, were all the bombs to have been gathered into one place and ground to dust, the fears and enmities that compelled their original construction would have urged new batches onto the assembly lines in a matter of weeks or months. All this blame had the effect of shifting responsibility away from the individual and of putting those in positions of power on the defensive, making a relaxation of tensions ever more difficult.

Thus, I decided, if I were to blame anyone or anything for the world situation I would merely be perpetuating the attitudes helping to fuel the world-wide engine of terror. As I observed my own thoughts, feelings and actions, I saw that whatever tendencies I abhorred in nations or in political leaders were present to some degree in myself as well. Unless I could learn to deal creatively with these tendencies in my own heart and mind, so that they no longer controlled my behavior in any way, there would be little hope for the world as a whole. I resolved to become a microcosmic testing-ground for the possibility of human regeneration and transformation.

In the early months of my awakening experience I tended to think that I had chosen a hopelessly naive and simplistic approach. After all, the essence of my realization had been offered in various forms over the millennia by innumerable moral and spiritual teachers, and yet here was mankind on the brink of suicide. Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and scores of lesser saints had taught compassion, love and forgiveness, and invariably their sayings had been codified by followers into dogma, which often then served as a basis for more war and conflict. Could I hope that now, with the world at the end of its rope, human beings would suddenly respond to the voice of wisdom? There was no way to know, no apparent cause for optimism. Yet reason led inescapably to this as the only approach that could make a real and lasting difference.

To my surprise and delight, not long after I came to this point of decision within myself I began to meet others who had made a similar commitment. I will never forget the excitement of meeting a friend who shared my new awareness — the depth of our individual understanding, determination and ability to act quadrupled immediately! — and then another friend, and another. Gradually I became aware of an anonymous, spontaneous network of men and women around the world who were interested in putting the well-being of the whole ahead of their own opinions, beliefs, likes and dislikes. We all had come to realize that the survival of our species could result only from a basic change in human character. We had seen, in effect, that we were the only possible hope: if we merely demanded that governments change without experiencing that change first within ourselves, nothing worthwhile would result; but if we could demonstrate a quality of character that was sane, rational and loving, then perhaps we might provide the seed for an entirely new state of being for the body of mankind.

As I became aware of more and more people who were interested in personal transformation, a few came into view who had pioneered the way many years before. One was Buckminster Fuller, who in 1927, penniless and with wife and child to feed, nevertheless resolved to dedicate his life to mankind. In his later years “Bucky” had spoken of the trim-tab factor. The trim-tab is a small adjustable flap on a ship’s rudder; by maneuvering it, one person can easily turn the entire ship. He was saying that one person can make a difference, that in fact it is always individuals who make the difference. Other pioneers were less well-known than Fuller, but had explored other essential aspects of global renewal. Some thought in political terms, some in spiritual terms, some in economic terms, but all emphasized personal responsibility.

As I came to realize, the fact that the world was at the end of its tether was in some unforeseeable way a positive element in the equation rather than a negative one. In our generation, for the first time in history, all of mankind was faced with the full consequences of its actions. Always before there had been the illusion that we human beings could and would get away with our self-centeredness: even if a given individual did not survive, his offspring would presumably have the same opportunity he had had to extract as much as possible from the earth and from other people, while giving as little as possible in return. Now we were faced with the very real possibility that there would be no future generations, and, as human beings, we had no one to blame but ourselves. Thus, for burgeoning numbers, moral regeneration began to take on the imperative of the survival instinct.

As the years went by the amorphous movement I am seeking to describe began to encompass every field of human endeavor. It was not a matter of men and women leaving their professions to become full-time anti-war activists; rather, businessmen, doctors, politicians, artists — people in every conceivable trade and profession — brought a new awareness with them into their work. And the awareness was not “anti-” anything, not even anti-war: in retrospect one could say that we were discovering the real nature of peace. Peace as merely the absence of war was a hollow goal; instead, we were learning that peace is a palpable, living, loving atmosphere which one is personally responsible for maintaining. Both the realization and the atmosphere were infectious.

Even though more and more people began to resonate with the new tone being sounded in human consciousness, specific effects were at first difficult to put one’s finger on. Because what we were up to was neither violent nor sensational, the media paid little attention to us. Since we were uninterested in finding villains to blame, no one saw us as a threat. Since we were expressing a spirit rather than promoting a program, cause or religion, some of us were not even aware that we were part of what in retrospect we might call a “movement” — indeed, many of us were individualists who avoided joining organizations. Yet we all felt compelled to learn how to work together in a spirit of loving friendship, in order both to share our awareness with others — through newsletters, symposiums, films and other projects — and also simply to demonstrate in our relationships the attitude of yieldedness to Life that we were talking about.

Yet in spite of our invisibility to the media and our lack of traditional organizational structure (or perhaps because of it!) we were producing results. Merely because we saw the stupidity of blame and accusation, others began to see it too; the awareness spread as if by osmosis into the general population. Public figures — who increasingly wished to appear genuine, compassionate, balanced and sane — were more or less forced to let go of whatever tendencies they’d had toward dogma, inflexibility or egotism. Even the electioneering hyperbole of politicians lost its harsh, accusatory tone as candidates saw that in order to be respected they needed to appear respectful of each other.

Moreover, this new awareness knew no national boundaries. As leaders in one nation moved toward a reasonable, compassionate stance, other world leaders felt safe to relax their hard-line approach to various issues. Treaties became easier to negotiate, and distinctions dissolved: socialists found that only by promoting individual initiative and personal responsibility could government actually help people, while capitalists began to see for themselves that greed, and its resulting uncontrolled devouring of resources, wasn’t in anyone’s ultimate interest — their own included.

So far, I have been describing only the constructive, integrative aspects of the transition. But the fact is that not everyone responded to the new spirit on the move — far from it. For instance, businesses and corporations which insisted on putting profits above people began to find resources and raw materials vanishing. Because international money manipulators traded on the average person’s acquisitiveness and fear, when the character of the average person began to change subtly, the world monetary system was thrown into disarray. Years of economic chaos resulted; but it is safe to say that today virtually everyone is thankful that the arcane and incredibly fragile global monetary system of the twentieth century, which was based on debt and speculation, has been replaced by a more natural order in which transactions of material goods are kept as simple and straightforward as possible, with spiritual values as the underlying medium of exchange .

In addition, and of far greater immediate consequence, those who were determined to press their own ideology, religion, program or profit were somehow deeply frightened and angered by the ineffable change in the mass consciousness. Dogmatic governments seemed determined to get into a battle — but since it was so difficult to fight with those who were becoming increasingly reasonable and flexible, it was necessary for the doctrinaire to contend with each other. Unfortunately, their contentions became increasingly violent, so that by the mid 1990s lines of tension were stretched to the breaking point.

Some say that the hostile exchange of four multiple-warhead nuclear missiles in late 1995 was the catalyst which showed mankind once and for all the futility and senselessness of war. It is true that the horrendous, instantaneous carnage of that fateful week in November marked a distinct turning point, since now everyone could see the options in stark contrast. Yet, had a positive alternative not already been in place, the destruction would simply have spread and engulfed the whole world. In retrospect, the significant event was not the apocalyptic detonations which immediately commanded the world’s horrified attention, but the slow, invisible changes in hearts and minds which had been going on for years — subconsciously for most, but consciously for at least a few. Enough awareness and practical experience had emerged through and among us pioneers that when the powder keg blew there were just sufficient stable, clear men and women on hand to pick up the pieces and show a new direction.

And it was an entirely new direction: prior to the events of November 1995, virtually no one would have thought it possible for human beings to change so deeply and so quickly. We were suddenly and forcibly brought to terms with the hollowness of all our institutions and philosophies, and the inherent destructiveness of human nature itself. The old voices of greed and hate fell silent in one long moment of shame and sorrow. All of mankind was at last united — in tragedy, yes, but united just the same — and the unprecedented, profound and unified silence of the moment left space for a new voice to heard.

It was then that gentleness first had its way. The simple truth of oneness could not be denied, and the small, quiet minority came to show the way for all mankind. The prophecies of all the ancient cultures — of a time of global conflict followed by the beginning of a new age of peace, “a new heaven and a new earth” — were suddenly clear in meaning. Our individual lives took on a new context and a new sense of purpose.

In the fifteen years since the Great Destruction we have come far: not only have weapons been put aside, but governments and institutions have themselves become virtually meaningless, and the assumption of individual responsibility for wholesome, healing function is virtually everyone’s concern and priority. Yet the deeper the internal changes go, the more acute is our awareness that we, humankind, have for millennia been in grievous violation of the natural order. Clearly, we have a long way to go before innocence is restored. The choice has been made, however, and the process is inexorable.

If I could send a message back through time to the people of the 1980s, it would be one of encouragement and hope, but I would certainly stress the insidiousness of complacency. Had it not been for those brave few who were willing to stop accusing and blaming and to make changes in their own living, it is clear the direction events would have taken. It was the individual who made the difference, not organizations, governments, religions or philosophies; and it is to the individual I would speak. “Only you can do it,” I would say. “It is up to you. What we call human nature is not inevitable; beneath your acquired human identity you are inherently divine. Let the light of truth shine through you, no matter what. . . .”

This essay was originally entered in a competition sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, which invited entrants to envision peace in the year 2010. It’s available in booklet form, for $2 postpaid, from Foundation House Publications, 4817 North Country Road 29, Loveland, Colorado 80537.

I first read it in Manas, a thoughtful journal of “independent inquiry” (Manas, P.O. Box 32113, El Sereno Station, Los Angeles, California 90032). It didn’t win the competition, but deservedly it’s finding its audience.

— Ed.

Copyright © 1985 by Richard Heinberg
Published by Foundation House Publications, Inc.