Born to be wild: How can we save the world? Bill Plotkin says it starts from within

Mar 12, 2008 at 12:57 am

Bill Plotkin
Bill Plotkin
Imagine a forest of trees so massive they seem as if they’ll always enjoy hegemony. But then, one day the big trees succumb to greater forces, and something new is revealed, something that’s been there a while but hidden.

The newly revealed growth is hearty, and exhibits surprising patterns of development that are inarguable in their efficacy. This growth is ready to step in and take the place of what had been in control.
That’s one analogy for examining our future.

Many serious-minded people look at our trajectory and figure we’re too far gone. They can’t fathom a happy scenario where we change of our own volition, and they’re sure we’re heading for a Mad Max scenario. Others are not as doubtful. They note there is good work quietly going on in the world, and say that — like undergrowth — these alternative systems are ready to step in when the old trees fall away.

Bill Plotkin, the noted psychologist and author, falls into the latter camp. Through his writing, and through the nonprofit Animas Valley Institute, which he established in 1980, Plotkin sows the seeds of individual change by helping people reconnect with nature. Quite simply, he believes building a more mature human society first requires more mature individuals, and those sorts of changes are unlikely to occur in any top-down fashion.

It’s particularly interesting to consider such ideas during a time when Kentucky politicians are haggling over their competing visions of education reform. Plotkin, who comes to Louisville this weekend for a Saturday night lecture and a daylong workshop on Sunday, didn’t specifically address that issue, but one gets the sense he has little faith in the ability of existing institutions to lead the sorts of radical change he believes necessary for the survival of the human species.

LEO caught up with him on the telephone.

LEO: Who do you draw to your events, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Bill Plotkin:
These programs are aimed at people who are awake to the enormous difficulties in the world today — clinically, environmentally, economically, socially, in our educational systems — and have a longing to make more of a difference than they are so far. One of the central desires in our work is to engender what I think of as “visionary consciousness,” and I mean by that, deeply imaginative creativity where people’s choices and actions are sourced in their greatest impulses to contribute to this world.
LEO: A lot of people would agree about our dire circumstances, but they’re at a loss about what to do, almost to the point of despair. What can you impart in one weekend?
The most I can hope to accomplish is to inspire people as to how they can make a difference. It’s really an introduction, two kinds — intellectual and experiential. At the lecture, I hope to attune people to the fact that there’s more going on in the world than they may know about. There are remarkable visionaries doing quite a bit, lots of organizations and individuals creating change.

Sunday is more experiential, and there’s an introduction to the kind of work we do at Animas. Intellectual understanding is one thing, but another thing is experiencing your own membership in this world in a different way. I’m going to introduce people to a few kinds of practices that open up the possibilities for how we can participate in this world, how we experience in our bones our membership in the natural world. We are all from Earth — we know that intellectually — but it’s remarkable how many contemporary people don’t have a deep experience into that. Even in a day, it’s possible to take steps in that direction.

The second thing is our relationship to human community. So many people feel alienated. Most everyone feels loved in some way by the important people in their life, but it’s amazing how many people haven’t had a deep experience with a human community. And using simple formats, we can evoke that experience in a way that’s sometimes deeper than people have experienced before.

The third thing is the depth of our own psyche. You mentioned despair. A lot of people who are emotionally alive at all, which is not necessarily the majority, are living with fear and despair and grief about what’s happening in our world. At some level we know this is not healthy, and it’s leading to what could be a horrendous catastrophe. In the depths of our own psyche, there are deep emotions that we often don’t embrace. I’ll do some things on Sunday that will provide an opportunity for people to feel these things more deeply, but only those who are ready — I won’t do anything pushy. And it mostly will be private experience.

LEO: The person who would sign up for your workshop is probably in a different place than the person who either doesn’t think about such things or, when presented with them, may get combative or dismissive. You could give people the benefit of the doubt and say they’d do the right thing if they just knew what that was — but how do you cut through our base, fearful instincts?
Some people say things are not likely to change until there’s a full socioeconomic worldwide collapse. Some people even say that whatever we can do to hurry that up is the best thing to do. I don’t have an opinion about that, but I can see the point in both positions. A related thing but different is that some people — I’m one of these — say it’s gonna take generations to create healthy, more mature societies. But we don’t have to have fully healthy, mature societies to have a healthy enough adolescent society that at least wants to save its own environment. I think we could do that in 10 or 20 years. There are so many people, even in the mainstream, who’ve caught on to this and who are making the effort to change our laws and institutions.

What about the average person who’s not very healthy at all, and what about base human instincts? I have to disagree with you about that — I think our base human instincts are healthy, pro-social ones, and the kind of greed/out-for-myself and emotional numbing and all those things, that’s not our normal, healthy human nature. That’s the effect of what I call our egocentric culture. At our core, I think we’re born to be cooperative, like everything in nature is — why would we be the one exception?

We might have to wait for mainstream systems to collapse, and then these new systems will be ready to take their place. For example, the technological solutions to the energy crisis, to global warming, are all available. But we have to change the political will, the political system. And people have to be willing to make changes in their life that really wouldn’t be big sacrifices, just changes. That’s one thing about our culture — so many people are afraid of changes, even if they’re not bad ones. We get stuck in our ruts. So the infrastructure of a new society is being developed — it’s actually pretty far developed.

Hope is an interesting topic. A lot of people in our country think hope is when you have confidence somebody else is gonna fix it or we’re gonna get lucky. That’s immature. Vaclav Havel says hope is really a property of the soul, the property of our human depth, and it’s that part of us that is inspired by who we are and our way of participating in the world.

LEO: Anything you’d like to add?
I always like to say that because of the culture we’ve all grown up in, our full maturation, full development into our full humanity, has been difficult. Most people in the Western world have some significant development deficits from childhood and early adolescence. But the good news is that I’m quite certain it’s never too late to address the pieces that are missing from earlier in our life. It’s never too late to have the experiences that help us grow in all our dimensions and to thereby have a more fulfilling life in whatever particular color or style is ours. We’ve been learning ways to help people do that, to individuate and create more fulfilling lives.

For more information on Plotkin’s new book, “Nature and the Human Soul,” go to For information on the Animas Valley Institute, go to Animas is conducting a series of free teleconferences; the next one is March 19. Both websites have more information. Contact the writer at [email protected]

‘Nature and the Human Soul’
With author and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin
Lecture: Saturday, March 15
Metro United Way Building
334 E. Broadway
Free; 7:30 p.m.
Intensive: Sunday, March 16
The Barn (behind St. Agnes Church)
1920 Newburg Road
$50; 10 a.m.-6 p.m.