Choosing Earth: With Duane and Colleen Elgin
Syndicated from, Jan 06, 2021

23 minute read


Editor’s note: Duane Elgin’s book, Choosing Earth projects a half-century into the future to explore our world in a time of unprecedented transition. Duane offers a whole-systems view of the converging adversity trends facing humanity and three major scenarios for the future that are most likely to emerge from these powerful trends. By illuminating deep psychological, spiritual and scientific changes that are already underway, it offers hope for the emergence of a mature, planetary civilization beyond our times of crisis. Based on a lifetime of research and a decade of community organizing by the author, Choosing Earth is an unvarnished look at the reality of our world in crisis and an invitation for us to actively shape our future rather than be passive victims of denial and delay. Recommended.

Kosmos | We have a lot to talk about, but since we have Coleen for a short time, let’s start with you Coleen. I’d like to begin with something in my tradition we call ‘flower watering’. Tell me about Duane and the things that you admire in him. That way, we can get to know him a little better through your eyes.

Coleen Elgin: | There is so much I could say. One of my earliest memories when I first met Duane is sitting on the beach in 1992 reading the manuscript to Awakening Earth that Duane gave me. Reading that manuscript was deeply moving and intuitively I knew my life was going to connect with that work and Duane would be part of the journey. The depth of his work, his presence, and his commitment to this transformational journey was present from the very beginning of our relationship. So was his playfulness and gusto for living a full life.

Duane Elgin

One of the qualities I admire in Duane is how he has stayed on course, staying true to his vision, being dedicated to the work and to serving the well-being of the larger world. When you are pushing the edge of what culture accepts, you come up against resistance from many sources. For instances, while on the staff of a Presidential Commission on the American Future in 1971, Duane wrote a position paper titled “The Poverty of Our Abundance.” This was met with a great deal of resistance. Yet, Duane carried on with this theme and eventually wrote the book Voluntary Simplicity that became a best seller and was one of the early books helping to ignite the movement toward simpler, more ecological ways of living.

My sense is that people who make significant contributions with their lives often bring the many strands of their life into an integrated whole. Duane has done that. From growing up on a farm with his mystical experiences as a child, to working on a Presidential commission and seeing how government works (and doesn’t work), to finding himself at the Stanford Research Institute as a young man, as a futurist and visionary working with prominent elders such as Joseph Campbell. It seems life was drawing Duane toward transformation from the beginning. And unknown to most, while at the Stanford Research Institute (now called SRI), Duane became a key subject in the earliest government research on psychic functioning. Over a three-year period in the early 1970s, he was regularly involved in exploring both the receptive side of intuition with experiments in “remote viewing” and the expressive side with experiments in “psychokinesis.” Those years of laboratory experiments along with his early meditation practices, provided a deep foundation for the work that followed including the recognition that we live in a living universe. There have been many seeds of transformation that Duane has planted as well as harvested from life. I am honored to be on this journey with Duane, the cosmic farmer.

Kosmos | Wonderful! Duane, Please ‘water Coleen’s flowers’ and tell us about her good qualities.

Coleen Elgin

Duane Elgin | Thank you Rhonda. This feels like a waterfall going into a little flowerpot because Coleen is a big soul — and an old soul. Coleen invested more than a decade in deep meditation. For several hours a day, she meditated in the Tibetan tradition. So she is a deep practitioner in her inner journey and she is also a very talented documentarian —which means she has both an eye for the outer world as well as an inner eye for seeing the invisible aspects of reality. Coleen is also a community builder — a skill I love and appreciate. Before Covid times she would regularly gather together people in community for dinners and rich conversation and she has convened a number of ongoing groups. Coleen also has a background in transformative learning and social change and that has brought many gifts to our current work. So Coleen is an old soul, a community builder, a deep practitioner, and a visionary. I’m delighted with the documentary that she is completing about the great transition humanity is moving through.

Kosmos | Thank you. Beautiful. It is wonderful to have a partner in life that you can work with so closely. Coleen, tell us about the documentary.

Coleen Elgin: | First, I want to say that this documentary project called me. It wasn’t something that was my passion to do. Instead, it knocked on my door over and over calling me to bring it into form. And that was challenging. When you listen to an inner calling it can take time to reveal itself and that can bring up all kinds of feelings and resistances. My job has been to make space for it and to ride the waves of doubt, limitations, and so forth. To allow it to work me and to stay on course, following the intuition, without knowing the outcome.

The message that it frames is the paradox of our time — profound planetary challenges and profound opportunities for transformation, growth and awakening. The documentary looks wide to explore the climate emergency and species extinction, and even wider to include social and economic inequalities, climate justice, over consuming the Earth, and so forth. Woven throughout are stories about the impacts of some of these challenges and also stories of resilience both individual and community.

A number of elders, including Duane, explore “what is being called forth from humanity by this crisis?” By exploring this question we can see that the crisis can’t be “fixed” by technology and it will take more than mere adjustments. It’s a much deeper crisis that calls forth a deeper response and way of being. Humans have the capacity for maturing as a species, for deepening our awareness, and expanding our care to wider circles. And now is the time to work together to embody those capacities on behalf of all of life.

Kosmos | The documentary is called “Facing Adversity,” right?

Coleen Elgin: | The full title is Facing Adversity: Choosing Earth, Choosing Life. Ultimately that’s what this documentary is about — the deep interdependence of life on Earth, that choosing Earth also means choosing life.

Kosmos |  It makes me think of a line in the book, “aliveness is our only true wealth”, right? I would love to hear what that means to you. Aliveness is our only true wealth.

Coleen Elgin: | It’s kind of like a koan. You recognize aliveness directly, and then the meaning becomes clear. Aliveness is the foundation for our existence and all of life is included.

Kosmos | I took a medicine walk this morning and the dew on the grass was glittering in the sun. And I thought, ‘it’s more precious than diamonds’ – just to be here in this moment and see this glittering dew is more precious than all the diamonds, all the wealth in the world. When I came back in and I opened your book to prepare, that line just jumped out at me, ‘aliveness is our only wealth’.

I’m aware you must leave us Coleen. Wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much.

Coleen Elgin: | Thank you Rhonda. Good to meet you.

Kosmos | It sounds like her film and your book are a beautiful hand-in-glove. With events changing so rapidly, is it difficult to know when something is finished?

Duane Elgin | Yes! Whether a book or a film, what do you cut and what do you leave? For example, what you just said about the dew on the grass being more precious than all the diamonds in the world needs to go into this interview.

Kosmos | Okay. I’ll make sure to keep it in.

So let’s see. Where should we begin? It’s your new book, Choosing Earth, that inspired this conversation. I’ve been carrying it with me and sharing it with others, including my son. The subtitle is, Humanity’s Great Transition to a Mature Planetary Civilization.” Tell me why you chose that subtitle.

Duane Elgin | For more than twenty years, I’ve been going around the world, giving talks and, before offering my point of view, I would often begin by asking the audience the following question: “In your personal estimation, what is the life stage of the human family? When you look at the behavior of the whole human family, do you think we are behaving like toddlers, adolescents, adults or elders?” After asking the question there would often be a few moments of silence and then the room would explode into conversation.

After a few minutes, I would then ask people to take a vote so we could learn from our collective wisdom. Invariably, a consistent response would come back: Whether it was schoolteachers in India, business leaders in Brazil, students in Europe and the US, a common response came back. Roughly three-quarters of audiences would vote that we are in our adolescence as a species. When I asked people to volunteer their reasons for that estimate, common responses were: “We are rebelling against nature, trying to demonstrate our independence and superiority.” “We are behaving recklessly, without regard for consequences because we think we are immortal.” “We are seeking instant gratification and not inclined to postpone short-term pleasure seeking.”

Then I would ask a further question: “What was it in your life that enabled you to move from your adolescence and into your early adulthood?” Powerful answers came back. Some said their maturing experience was a “brush with death” and seeing that we are not immortal but have a limited time on the Earth to learn and grow. Others would mention “role models” and persons who inspired them to reach higher and explore new potentials associated with greater maturity. Another common theme was people being pushed to “take responsibility for others” – an aging parent or to take on an extra job to earn money needed by the family. Others said that they took a “hard look in the mirror” and realized they could step up to a higher level of maturity.

The important insight that I take away from this is that the human family shares a collective intuition and understanding: We are behaving like adolescents and we know that we could behave differently if we were to move into our early adulthood. We could give priority to others before ourselves; we could delay gratifications and keep long-term commitments; we could take charge of cleaning up after ourselves; we could consume more consciously and, instead of rebelling against nature, we could seek to design ourselves back into nature; and so on.

Stepping back, we can recognize that it is a short step from adolescence to early adulthood. Often this transition is accompanied by many challenges and stresses but the nature of this transition to adulthood is already recognized by billions of people. The transition into adulthood is almost miraculous. However, it happens all the time for individuals. Now we are challenged to bring our personal capacity for awakening to a higher maturity into our collective lives as a human family.

Kosmos | We don’t have the formal initiations for young people that some traditional cultures have. In some religious traditions, there’s perhaps a formal event, like the bar mitzvah in the Jewish tradition, but generally we lack soul-shaking, soul-challenging initiations. What does that mean to us as individuals and for our collective growth?

Duane Elgin | You are right. Most people don’t have initiation ceremonies — already established — for maturing ourselves into our early adulthood. So how do we accomplish this great transition as a species? In my view, the Earth is providing us with that rite of passage right now. The climate crisis combined with species extinction, extreme inequities of well-being, resource scarcity, and much more are together creating a profound rite of passage for humanity. We are creating an extraordinarily demanding experience — which is also an opportunity — for growing up and moving to a new level of maturity as a human family.

Kosmos |  You talk about the three pathways for humanity in the book. Can you describe the three trajectories?

Duane Elgin | I see three, major pathways ahead: The first pathway is business as usual which exacerbates adversity trends and leads to the unraveling of institutions and the breakdown and collapse of civilizations around the Earth. The second pathway is one of authoritarianism empowered with artificial intelligence, which is able to pull back before hitting an evolutionary wall but at the cost of human freedoms and creativity. The third pathway is that of a great transition as we move into our early adulthood as a human family and awaken to our responsibility to care for the well-being of all life on the Earth.

Each of these three pathways is now playing out in the world. In more affluent nations, we see the first pathway as strong pressures to return to “business as usual” as many people want to resume their perception of normal — which is living in ways they experienced before the Covid pandemic. The second pathway is that of authoritarianism enabled with artificial intelligence and this is growing rapidly in major countries throughout the world. China has more than a billion people whose lives are monitored and controlled with facial recognition technologies, mobile phone recognition, and more. In the authoritarian pathway, material sustainability is achieved at the cost of a loss of freedoms combined with both rewards and punishments for behaviors.

Kosmos | Is it because we equate ‘thriving’ with economic growth?

Duane Elgin | What does it mean to “thrive”? Let me offer a quote from Simone de Beauvoir. She said, “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” The primary concern of the two, initial pathways is with perpetuating ourselves — of only not dying, of simply staying alive. In my view, that is not a thriving future.

Kosmos | And what’s the third pathway?

Duane Elgin | The third pathway is one where we collectively take responsibility for the well-being of all life and make a great transition in every area of our lives: the food that we eat, the transportation that we use, the clothes that we wear, the home and community in which we live, the education we seek, and much more. Beyond personal changes are a vast array of other changes ranging from energy sources throughout the economy including businesses and government, the content of television programming and advertising, the nature of education, the structure of the urban environment, and much more. Overall, this is a path of great creativity, new freedoms and conscious choice.

Kosmos | And what’s interesting about the three pathways you propose,  is that initially — the next few decades, at least — they all go toward collapse, right?

Duane Elgin | That’s right. All three pathways are present now and, to varying degrees, they will continue into the future. I think sometimes of a roller-coaster ride as an analogy of our global predicament. When the ride begins, we are going up and up — and this is akin to the past few hundred years when much of the world experienced tremendous economic growth, going up and up — although benefits have not been distributed equitably. As we move toward the very top of the roller coaster, we can look out with a grand view of things, and many think this is so wonderful. This lasts only a short while as we move over the top of the ride and then begin to make a swift descent down the other side. We experience a breathtaking whoosh as we begin picking up speed on the downward journey. Returning to our three pathways: One pathway shoots downwards and is unable to stay on the tracks, resulting in a tremendous crash with much death and destruction. A second pathway also descends rapidly at first but is able to slow nearing the bottom by applying strong brakes and severe constraints to the people on the roller coaster. A third pathway also experiences rapid descent with major disruptions and severe dislocations but this is a rite of passage and inspires people to rebuild the ride while it is underway. Before hitting bottom, the ride changes as humanity awakens to new visions of who we are and where we are going. Working together, we create an entirely new trajectory ahead.

People often ask if we have to take a downhill ride on the roller coaster of our global society and economy that is breaking down. Couldn’t we make a more gradual adaptation to sustainability? I reply that we have had a half-century — roughly from 1970 to 2020— in which we recognized there were limits to growth and we could make a more gradual adaptation to a future where we both maintain ourselves and creatively surpass ourselves. However, that window of opportunity has closed and the accelerating descent has begun.

The entire Earth is involved and there is no way off this roller coaster ride. What lies ahead is a period of great unraveling as key institutions — economic, social, political, spiritual — start coming apart. The threads that hold institutions together are beginning to unravel and break, and this continues until there is little to hold us together. With that, we go from a great unraveling to a great fall. The human family plummets downward and we can then: 1) surrender to the downward momentum, feeling helpless to anything other than accepting a great crash at the bottom; or 2) surrender our freedoms to a digital dictatorship that places harsh controls on lives and avoids a devastating crash by pulling back from unsustainable living before hitting bottom, or 3) take charge of our lives at every level by transforming the ride we are on. We experience an unfolding crash filled with destruction and sorrow and this awakens and motivates large numbers of people to create a sustainable pathway forward before hitting absolute bottom and utterly devastating ourselves.

Importantly, the descent of all three pathways has a profound but simple message for humanity: “You cannot go back to the world as it was! The past is gone!” When hope dies that we can somehow return to the past, it opens up a new consciousness for moving toward a sustainable and purposeful pathway into the future. Letting go of hope that we can return to the past creates the conditions for freshly imagining the world anew. Aa a growing proportion of humanity begins to recognize our deep interdependence, that knowing is expressed through more mature actions and ways of being that are the seeds for a new future.

From this time of great awakening can come the opportunity for great choice. We can return to the Earth that is our only home, consciously choosing sustainable ways of living with the Earth. Choose it or lose it.

Importantly, I have not always held the view that a great crash and sorrow lies ahead. Only as I have watched for over 40 years as the window of gradual adaptation has closed have I come to this view. Previously, I worked for a gradual transition to a sustainable future. Only with great reluctance and inner resistance have I come to the conclusion that a time of great sorrow lies ahead. The suffering of all life on Earth can be purposeful. It’s the Earth telling us we’re not going back but, instead, we must go forward into a radically new future.

Kosmos | What kinds of wisdom are in the world right now that can be a bridge to a positive future? Rather than all of us going over the top of the roller coaster of evolution and crashing at the bottom, what wisdom can guide us into a new tomorrow?

Duane Elgin | I think the most foundational wisdom we require is an understanding that indigenous cultures held close for thousands of years. Indigenous wisdom says there is life everywhere and in everything. Therefore, everything we do can connect with a deeper aliveness — the great spirit that permeates and sustains everything. Although this wisdom has been largely neglected in our rush for material development, science and spirituality are now beginning to find common ground. There is an emerging realization that the universe is not a collection of dead matter and empty space; instead, the universe is a living, superorganism. In turn, we are an integral part of this larger aliveness and that has profound implications.

On the one hand, if we regard the universe as essentially non-living or dead at its foundations, then it is natural to exploit that which we think is dead for the living — which we see as ourselves. On the other hand, if we see evidence of aliveness wherever we look, then it is natural to assume that we live in a living universe and feel motivated to take care of all that exists. Aliveness changes how we regard ourselves and the evolutionary journey. We are not who we thought we were — only biological beings. Instead, we are an integral part of the living cosmos — we are biological and cosmic beings — we are bio-cosmic in nature.

Kosmos | You talk also about cosmic purpose. What, in your view, is our cosmic purpose?

Duane Elgin | The universe is alive and we’re a part of that aliveness. From that perspective, our purpose is to learn how to live in the living universe. We are learning about our subtle nature. Beyond our physical and biological nature, we are a larger body of aliveness. The subtle qualities of our body of aliveness are recognizable. Simply stated, we are a body of light, love, music and knowing. We can look into someone’s eyes and immediately see the light that is there. We can also feel the orchestration of resonance that another person embodies — and recognize the music of their being. We can feel and know the qualities of love or compassion that another person personifies. So we’re each an invisible body of essence that endures in the deeper ecology of our living universe. All things end. All being continues. That is the nature of each. Discovering that is why we’re here. We’re learning to live in a living universe.

Kosmos | We have a remarkable opportunity to be fully alive during a time when the universe is becoming aware of itself through us. We have these hidden capacities, as you say, but so much of the universe is hidden from us. I love your description of our cosmic purpose — to align our evolution with the living, evolving universe. It’s very hopeful. And the theme of this edition is visionary spirit. In your view, what is the role of the visionary in today’s world?

Duane Elgin | The role of the visionary is to call us into our maturity, to call us into our sense of collective community on this small Earth, and to call us into the greater aliveness of the living universe. The visionary calls us into the miracle that who we are as a body of light, love, music and knowing.

A visionary calls us to recognize that 95% of the known universe is invisible and, because we are an integral part of the universe, it means a large part of who we are is invisible as well. The visionary says, let’s pay attention to the essence of who we are. Let’s not put all of our energy and attention into the thin slice of material reality. Instead, the visionary calls forth larger potentials, subtle knowing, and love to unfold on the journey ahead.

Kosmos | And to come back to the practicalities of living day-to-day, what do you think our lives will look like 50 years from now? How will our daily lives change?

Duane Elgin | I think the changes over the next half-century are going to be pervasive and profound, impacting every aspect of our lives. The range of foods that we are able to grow in a hothouse Earth is going to diminish markedly. The work that supports a sustainable future will shift dramatically. The transportation that we use will change fundamentally. The homes in which we live will reconfigure as we move toward new forms of community living.

For example, community could be a little pocket neighborhood with two or three homes, or an eco-village with maybe a dozen homes, or a larger village with a few hundred people that’s relatively self-organizing and self-contained with its own gardens, or a transition town with hundreds of thousands of people, and so on. At every scale there will be adaptation and invention. As we shift our emphasis from the material side of life to the experiential, we’ll find new ways to contribute to the healing of the Earth and relationships at every level. It will be a much richer and more communal world where mature people are self-organizing their lives and consciously choosing how to live. Beneath these material changes, I see a new maturity and sense of community as the foundation for a sustainable future. More and more people recognize our deep interdependence with all of life and begin the journey to embody and live into that recognition.

Kosmos | Most scientists say that one thing they can agree on is that life evolves into increasing complexity. Are we also capable of evolving into increasing simplicity?

Duane Elgin | Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” A higher level of simplicity calls us to move beyond the complexity of everyday life in our world that is breaking down. It is often the power of love that makes a higher level of simplicity possible. If we can move into our maturity, we can move through this time of breakdown with all of its complexity and recreate our lives in new and more loving ways. Simplicity has been called the ultimate sophistication and this fits the challenge of recreating lives of sustainability at a global scale.

In the last few hundred years, consumer societies have exploited the material resources of the Earth for the benefit of human beings — a self-serving approach that is bringing ruin to the ecology of the Earth. A fundamental change is needed: Instead of asking what we humans want (what do we desire, crave, hunger for), we are being called to respond to a far deeper and broader question: what does the overall ecology of life need (what is essential, basic, necessary) to build a regenerative future for the Earth? Simplicity is the knife that cuts through luxuries to reveal the essentials. Shifting from a culture of “wants” to one of “needs” represents a penetrating and important change. Consumer societies like the US will be asked to cut consumption of resources by a factor of roughly 75%. Although this challenge is enormous, the pay-off could be even greater. The material side of life can grow lighter, less burdensome, and more easeful at the same time that the non-material side of life becomes more awake, alive, and expressive. To compensate for material limitations, people will cultivate more meaningful friendships, share simple meals, spend more time in nature, make music, do art, develop our inner life, and more.

I often hear people say either that technology will save us or it will enslave us. Technology is not inherently bad, it’s a tool. The question is whether these tools are enough to save us from our overconsumption of the Earth? Stated differently: if the challenge for humanity’s future is to grow up and move into our early adulthood as a species, then will more tools be the key for enabling that to happen? Will material tools be an effective substitute for greater psychological and spiritual maturity? It seems to me that we need to combine our tools with a higher level of consciousness and maturity. Technology alone won’t save us. It is the human heart and consciousness that also needs to grow. A big part of the problem is the assumption that, because technologies have gotten us this far, they will take us into the far future. Yet, the rite of passage that we’re going through now recognizes we’re here to grow our consciousness and experience of aliveness — and that’s largely an “inside job.” Technology cannot substitute for this learning. That is not to deny the importance of technologies; rather, it’s to see the vital importance of integrating our material powers with higher levels of love, wisdom and purpose.

Kosmos | I think there is something to be said for putting our active intelligence into some of these technologies before it’s too late to reshape what we want from them.

Duane Elgin | I’ve been writing and speaking about the decade of the 2020s since 1978. For over 40 years, I’ve been saying the decade of 2020s will be pivotal — that this is when we’re going to hit an evolutionary wall. In other words, we will not simply run into an “ecological wall” and material limits to growth. We will run into an “evolutionary wall” where we encounter ourselves as humans and are confronted with foundational questions: What kind of universe do we live within? Is it dead or alive? Who are we? Are biological beings only or are we also beings of cosmic dimension and participation? Where are we going? Is material evolution the measure of our development or are there invisible dimensions to life that will unfold as well?

“Choosing Earth” is not a prediction for the future; instead, it’s an opportunity for collective social imagination. We have a choice. If we can recognize the future we are creating — enacting it in our social imagination — we can choose an alternative pathway forward. We can move toward a great transition, not waiting for collapse. We can begin to plant the seeds of that future now, working back from a positive future we see in our collective imagination. Mobilizing our collective awareness is part of our maturing. Our freedom to creatively envision the future and then freshly choose is being called forth. To choose Earth and to choose life.

Kosmos | Yes. It’s heartening to see that so many are already building the future without waiting for permission, without waiting for the collapse. Those who are building eco-villages and regenerative economies, the Transition Town movement, the millions of small initiatives everywhere — from community gardens to whole cities like Auroville in India; efforts to preserve and protect forests, animals and indigenous culture. There are so many initiatives right now that are powerful models for what we might do in the future.

Duane Elgin | The human family is being called to a higher role and responsibility of living on this Earth. If we can awaken our collective imagination, we have a future of promise. If we can imagine it, we can create it. First we have to imagine it. Our times call for both a sense of urgency as well as great patience. I’ve had a short poem posted on the frame of my computer for years. It’s a Zen poem, and it says, “No seed ever sees the flower.” We plant seeds with books, films, business organizations, social movements, and so on, in hopes we will see them flower. The Zen proverb advises us to give up hope that we will see the results of our actions. Accept that we may not see the flowering. The seeds we are planting now may flower long after we move on. Our job now is to be visionary farmers — and to plant seeds of new possibilities without the expectation we will see their flowering.


This article is syndicated from Kosmos Journal. Their mission  is to inform, inspire and engage individual and collective participation for global transformation in harmony with all Life, by sharing transformational thinking and policy initiatives, aesthetic beauty and collective wisdom.Duane Elgin, is an internationally recognized author, speaker and media activist.  He is the co-director of the Choosing Earth Project. His books include: Choosing Earth, The Living Universe, Promise Ahead, Voluntary Simplicity, and Awakening Earth. He received the Peace Prize of Japan—the Goi Award—in Tokyo in 2006 in recognition of his contribution to a global “vision, consciousness, and lifestyle” that fosters a “more sustainable and spiritual culture.” His personal website is:  and project website is: www.ChoosingEarth.Org

Coleen LeDrew Elgin is Co-director of the Choosing Earth Project. Currently the project is finishing a package of materials that can support organizations and groups to explore the great challenges and opportunities of our time of great transition. The materials include Duane’s book Choosing Earth, a study guide for group facilitators, a documentary film in two versions — one that includes stories, and another that is trimmed down and focused on trends — a conversation guide for the film and website resources. Coleen researched, wrote and directed the forthcoming film: Facing Adversity: Choosing Earth, Choosing Life.