Is Sandy an isolated, freak weather event, as much mainstream media coverage would have you believe, or is it something more? I spoke earlier today with John Perkins, author of the best-selling memoir, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, as well as a number of books about shamanism, including Shapeshifting: Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation. I was hoping to hear a different perspective from someone deeply familiar with indigenous shamanic wisdom. I was not disappointed.
Ken Jordan: Here in Brooklyn we've just experienced tropical storm Sandy. Hopefully, more people are rethinking our society's skewed priorities because of this awful disaster, in which so many lost their homes, their loved ones. I was interested in your perspective, because of your experience with indigenous shamanic teachers in Central and South America, as well as your broad knowledge of U.S. business and politics. Please share some of your thoughts about Sandy.
John Perkins: To start, in 1992 when Andrew hit I lived in South Florida, in North Palm Beach. We weren't hit very hard, because it landed just south of Miami. There was a huge sigh of relief where I lived because we were told that this was a once-in-a-100 years storm. We figured, well, we're safe for the next hundred years. But since then there've been a tremendous number of these storms. Scientists now say these same storms are now once-in-a-10 year storms. They may be even more frequent now. It's obvious over the last 20 years how much things have changed.
The indigenous people have long been telling us that this is happening. I remember, around the time of Andrew, I led a group of people to visit the Andes. It was for a non-profit I founded called Dream Change. We used to go down and work with shamans, study with them and listen to their wisdom. One time, a woman on the trip asked a shaman woman what we can do to save mother Earth. The shaman responded – well, she laughed first – she said, "Mother Earth isn't in danger. We are, as as species, and so are a lot of other species, but not the Earth. To mother Earth, we're just like fleas. If we get to be too much of a nuisance, she'll just shake us all off."
KJ: You get the feeling that now the shaking is more pronounced.
JP: Exactly. But even at that time, the shaman pointed at the glacier up on the volcano near where she lived in Ecuador, and said that the glaciers are receding. Mother Earth — Pachamama, she called her — is twitching. She said the good news is that we understand this, and can respond. It's an exciting time to be alive, where we can actually listen to mother Earth and do something about it. Unfortunately, that was 20 years ago, and we haven't done much. I hope that Sandy will a the threshold event.
It's interesting that Sandy hit New York, the power center. It impacted the whole North East, which controls so much of global economics and politics. In that way, it's different than hurricanes that hit Florida, the Gulf Coast, or New Orleans. I'm not negating the people that live in those place, but when Wall Street gets hit and is shut down, and when you shut down other huge business establishments, when the corportacracy is hit in its soul by an event like this, the event has a power far greater than when other places are hit.
KJ: It's almost like mother nature is saying, I've told you this for a while, you had Katrina, now what must I do to get your attention? Target New York and you get people's attention.
JP: Exactly. Shortly after Irene hit last year, I was in New Hampshire, where I grew up. The area was just devastated, especially Vermont. I've never seen anything like it. But the big power brokers are not in Vermont. This time they've been hit. The nation's most vital subway system was stopped, it's still not running completely. Millions of people without electricity. This is a potent reminder.
KJ: A reminder of what, in your words?
JP: It's a reminder of the power that human beings have — a power that can be used very positively. Our technology, our wisdom, our commercial systems, can be used to get rid of pollution around the world. We can clean up the polluted rivers, lakes, oceans, air, and land. We can see to it that starving people have means to produce food more efficiently and store it and distribute it, and we can come up with better transportation and energy systems, and better banking systems. Or, we can continue to use that power destructively.
Either way, we human beings are an extremely powerful species. We're in a unique position. We're the only species that has the ability to make huge changes on this planet. So while the shaman may have been right, that we're not going to destroy Pachamama, mother Earth, we can drastically alter her, at least on the surface, and therefore alter all life forms. We're the only species with that ability. We can do it in a good way, or in a bad way. There's a fine line between the two. The economic development we've had over the past couple of hundred years has probably been good, for the most part. There's a lot of exploitation, but we've had some major advances: getting rid of terrible diseases, living better lifestyles. But we've reached a tipping point where it's gone too far. We need to understand to this.
I'll make an analogy. When it was introduced, the car was hailed as the end of terrible pollution in major U.S. cities. New York, Boston, Chicago were all inundated with horse manure. The fields around these cities were devoted to growing grains for horses. The horse was becoming a terrible nuisance. They were plowing horse manure into the East River in New York, and into the Charles in Boston. In the winters it was particularly bad. So when the automobile came along, it was regarded as a very clean substitute for horses. But now it's gone too far. Of course, the horse was not a problem in Colonial times, as long as towns were small. But all of these things reach tipping points, and it's important that we recognize there are tipping points. We have to see when they're coming and make changes accordingly.
KJ: You've written about your experiences bringing people from this part of the world down to South America to work with shamans, connecting them to indigenous traditions, enabling them to experience spirit in a different, deeper way. For an increasing number of people, indigenous wisdom offers hope for a shift in consciousness. Do you see an opening here?
JP: Because of events like Sandy, people will engage more with these aspects of existence that mainstream society tends to ignore. Absolutely, I think this is an opening. I've been taking people to work with indigenous cultures since 1990, and continue to do so. I'm a co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance, and we do over a dozen trips a year. Mainly so the people will learn from these other cultures. They are teaching us a lot. Two major oil companies, one of them is Conoco Phillips, have just dropped out of Peru. They abandoned huge projects because the indigenous people have insisted that they get out. They finally said, "Yeah, I guess we have to."
Indigenous cultures have much to teach us about sustainability. Incidentally, all of them have prophesized that this is a time when the opportunity for transformation is here. The prophesy of 2012 is just one of many. It's not a doomsday prophesy, like Hollywood leads us to believe. It's a prophesy that says we have the opportunity to change. If we don't, then it could be doomsday. But the opportunity is here, and we need to wake up to it. I'm taking a group to the Mayan people in Guatemala this December, on the big date of December 21, 2012, which is really just a marker. The Mayans tell us that this change has been happening for twenty years, and it will happen for another twenty or thirty years.
I'd like to share a story that sheds light on this. I was working with the Shuar people, who live deep in the Amazon. I was a Peace Corps volunteer with them back in 1968, and I still go back often. This story took place about five years ago. I was hiking up to the sacred waterfalls with two young Shuar men, warriors. It's a long, hard hike, and we spent two nights up there doing ceremony by the waterfalls. On the third day we returned.
As we approached the community where we'd begun the trip, the two Shuar men stopped and looked at this little plant beside the trail. They said to me, "This plant's sick. But when we went up three days ago, it wasn't sick." I looked at the plant and it didn't look sick to me. It had some brown leaves, but it didn't look that bad. We were in the Amazon, we'd walked by millions of plants, how did they pick this one out? But in any case, they called a meeting of the elders that night and explained what they saw. Other people stood up and said they had seen similar sick plants on other trails. The meeting lasted most of the night, and there was a lot of discussion. In the end, the decision was made that nothing could be proven, but there was a good possibility that this was a message coming from nature that the trails were being overused. The decision was made to stop using these trails. It was a huge sacrifice for these people. They don't have chainsaws. Cutting trails through the Amazon rainforest is not easy. But they were afraid that if they didn't stop using these trails, there would be a negative impact on their children and grandchildren. They were not willing to take that risk, even though they couldn't be sure that that's what was happening. I was so struck by this.
A few days later, I was back in the United States driving home from the airport and listening to the radio. The U.S. Congress was debating climate warming. The crux of the debate was that even if climate warming was happening, can we prove that industries are responsible, should we change our regulations regarding climate change and the environment? The decision was "Absolutely not." Because we couldn't prove it.
I was struck by how this indigenous culture, illiterate — most of them can't read or write — the supposedly uncivilized, uneducated people made the right decision, to take care of their kids. And we, so civilized, so educated, made the wrong decision. I think that says so much about what we have to learn from indigenous cultures, that the right decision is always to protect the future. Even if you don't know for sure, if there's a suspicion that you might be causing problems for future generations, you need to change.
KJ: In your books about shamanism you've written about shapeshifting, which implies that everything is energy, and that energy is continually changing its form. In what way would this crisis call upon us to shapeshift?
JP: That's a beautiful question. It is all energy. We need to shift our energy. Where do we put our energy? We have to remember that all emotions are energy. Sadness is a form of energy, or rather, it generates a form of energy that helps us. Guilt, anger. What's really important is not that we have these feelings, but how we act according to these feelings. Right now we should all feel a little angry at our leaders for having put us into this position, and at ourselves for allowing that to happen. But rather than beating ourselves up with this anger, or going out and breaking windows, let's direct this energy towards really changing. And have fun in that process. I think there's nothing more gratifying in the world than to do things that are going to create a better world for ourselves and our offspring, for future generations.
So we need to direct our energy toward that shapeshift, to getting out of what I call a death economy, and death politics. Our politics and our economics are oriented toward war, toward ravaging the Earth, digging up the Earth, raping the Earth. Killing trees, killing plants, killing animals. It's really a death economy. We need to move toward a life economy. A life economy says what's important is creating a better world for future generations, and not just of human beings, but of animals and plants too. We need to move into that kind of economic and political system, one that emphasizes cleaning up pollution, making the planet a healthier place for everyone, getting rid of starvation, doing away with extremely archaic transportation systems, and banking systems, and commercial systems. There's so much room for change here. There's room for tremendous growth. It's just growth in a different direction, with a different goal.
KJ: It's possible to see the energy of Sandy as a catalyst, pushing us to re-shape our consciousness. Would you consider that there's an energetic intention behind "super storms" of this kind?
JP: I think that's entirely possible. At the risk of being considered a wacko, I would express an indigenous view: the Earth is a living creature, known as Gaia, or Pachamama, as many indigenous people say these days. As the Shuar shaman says, she'll shake if she doesn't like what we're doing, if we're getting to be too much of a nuisance. You could say, if you take that view point, that the Earth, perhaps consciously, is creating these great storms, these floods, droughts and fires, to send us a message. That same indigenous shaman woman said, you know, if we human beings fail, if we vanish from the earth, big deal. Our spirits will still be here. The dinosaurs were a failed experiment. They vanished, but their spirits are still here. That's why we're so fascinated by dinosaurs. They're in us. We all have a reptilian brain at the bottom of our skull. They're here with us. If we humans don't make it, if we really screw it up, as we seem to be doing, big deal. The earth will come up with something new. We'll be a failed experiment.
But, she said, isn't it exciting to be in a position where we can make sure that we don't fail, where we really listen to the messages? Mother Earth is sending us these messages. Let's listen to them, and let's have a good time with this. Let's take satisfaction in the fact that we're smart enough to hear the warning and then take action to do something about it.
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