Book Review — The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight
A Thoughtful Search for a Silver Lining amid the Gloomiest Storm
It is quite normal to get deceived when you are ignorant, to get distracted when you are not free, and to become desperate when you can see no hope. These are the three states which Thom Hartmann challenges in his book, calling for an action by every individual to face a problem that undermines the existence of the whole of humanity. It is not yet another book about the environment and the depletion of nature’s resources, as it is a unique book that speaks to the practical as well as the spiritual, the informed as well as the misinformed. You may not like all that’s written in it, but that won’t change the fact that its premise is true, and the truth usually hurts.
Hartmann is an author, a radio host, a psychotherapist, and a political commentator, among other things. His areas of expertise include treating ADHD — a main subject of some of his books — studying tribal communities, and, as it seems from this book, a casual interest in spiritual meditation. He has a good understanding of science and is rightfully concerned about the future of our children as we all should be. In this book, which was originally published in 1998 — the edition on which this review is based — followed by a revised edition in 2002, he tries to build a momentum towards “sustainable living” through a clear understanding of the scale of the problem ahead of us. His aim is a collective action of all humans, yet he describes why that is impossible in a system like the one we are living in. Hence, he appeals to the individual, trying to build from the ground up an awareness of the need to change, so as to at least mitigate the dangers as our modern culture sucks the life out of the planet.
From the beginning of the book, it is clear that what lays beyond us isn’t a rosy way. The author notes that he divided the book into three sections, each trying to answer the following questions respectively: What the scale of the problem is? How have we gotten ourselves into such a dire situation? And what can we do to escape the seemingly inevitable doom? He emphasizes that those who like to only hear good news will feel a tendency to stop the reading after reaching the middle of the first chapter for the lack of any. He invites them, though, to continue reading with a promise of a silver lining towards the end of the book.
The first chapter is as intense as it should be, detailing the current situation. The prospects are gloomy, projecting a future in which nothing of substance is done to circumvent the status quo towards a better destiny. It is purely scientific, qualifying as a concise, simple introduction to the mechanics of nature and how our actions are disturbing it — I really believe it should be taught in schools. Hartmann refers to all sorts of energy as sunlight, whether current, like plants and animals’ meat, or ancient like coal and oil. The premise of his book, and especially this chapter, is simple: Sunlight is the source of almost everything living on Earth and the energy these creatures consume. Thus, consuming only current sunlight means maintaining a stable population dependent on what the lands can deliver as energy while consuming ancient sunlight means growth of population beyond the Earth’s output of current sunlight. One can immediately see where this is going by rereading the title of the book.
In the course of describing the whole natural cycle of energy production and the vital role of trees in it, Hartmann reminds us of bits of history that show how development affects the environment through the patterns of consumption of energy. It all began with hunting-and-gathering tribes, which date back to more than hundred thousand of years, depending totally on current sunlight. With herding came the use of extra plants unneeded by humans but essential to increase the population of animals, and consequently humans; it was still current sunlight though. Then came agriculture a few thousands of years ago, planting the very first seed of “civilization,” allowing the emergence of large, hierarchical communities, which are usually referred to as “city-states” throughout the book. Agriculture meant the more effective use of the land to produce human-edible food, allowing populations to rise once more. The first use of stored sunlight was by getting fuel through the burning of wood which started a few thousand years ago. The first widespread usage of ancient sunlight was in the beginning of the industrial revolution with the extraction of coal. This, along with the later discovery of oil, caused the unprecedented rapid growth of population and consumption during the last century, accompanied by unprecedented levels of pollution and erosion of fertile lands. The consequences were no more local, thanks to the advancement in transportation, as the whole world started to depend mainly on the ancient sunlight, as the current sunlight became unable to sustain all the consumption needs.
The city-state culture is an important factor that contributed to the over-consumption of the planet according to Hartmann. He shows that from as early as Mesopotamia, natural resources were eradicated by consistent consumption, eventually causing the fall of the civilization itself. This pattern, he argues, keeps on occurring for each city-state civilization that arises, including ancient Greece, Rome, China, and many others up to this day. He provides arguments from the likes of Aristotle portraying humans as the masters of nature and links these convictions with the tendency of cities to expand, seeking more power. This paves the way to the comparison between the domination nature of city-states communities and the cooperation culture of tribal communities, which is the main theme of the second chapter.
For more than a hundred thousand years, tribes generally lived peacefully and sustainably until the arrival of the dominant culture of city-states. With that premise in mind, Hartmann spends most of the second chapter describing a somewhat romantic version of tribal lives, elaborating on what he believes is the true meaning of freedom and spirituality. He parts from the scientific tone of the first chapter, focusing more on a narrative that sounds more like story telling. And despite his experience with the subject and the research he has evidently done, most arguments are plausible but not necessarily true, which is understandable in a way, given the scarcity of information about ancient tribes.
Nevertheless, Hartmann pinpoints the essential features of tribal life and its sustainable model correctly. These features, which are described extensively in the book, are mainly cooperation within the tribe, respect of diversity among other tribes, and the connectedness to nature. He calls this model of living “old culture,” while that of city-states is called “new culture.” With these names, he implies that the tribal way of life is the natural one, having preceded our way of life with thousands of years.
Looking once more into history, he gives a few examples of ancient tribes who are not around anymore: some examples of tribes that were either assimilated into the culture of their conquerors or destroyed by them, and some accounts of crimes that were committed by conquerors in the name of civilization, Columbus being the protagonist of one of these horrific accounts. He also mentions other tribes which are struggling to survive in our rapidly growing, modern day world. He argues that in face of the juggernaut of city expansion, a tribe only has three choices: to fight, to surrender, or to run for another land, with the three choices leading eventually to the same consequence, because of the hungry and contagious domination culture of city-states.
The second chapter is full of historical narrative. Hartmann’s goal is to inform us about the disadvantages of living in cities and the advantages of the tribal way. Still, he states clearly by the end of the chapter that his motive is not a longing for living inside caves, but a desire to bring the tribal notions of cooperation and respect to our societies. That’s the basis of the “solution” he explains to us in the third chapter.
Of those who eagerly waited for the promised “new yet ancient” solution, some may get disappointed a little at the first few pages of the last chapter. Spirituality is a main component of the book — and of Hartmann’s way of thought for that matter — that he spends quite some time praising the spiritual tribal life and lamenting the materialism of the city-states. His proposed spiritual solution consists of some vague concepts and figures of speech like “living in the here and now,” “seeing the face of God,” and “touching the sacred.” Practitioners of meditation, as well as deeply religious people, would probably find this amusing; it seems to me, however, that all this talk about spirituality can be summed up in the practical notion of being “connected to nature” and aware of how one affects it.
Those among us who are inclined to the more scientific argument wouldn’t have to wait for long though, as Hartmann’s rhetoric transforms into more tangible solutions a few pages ahead. He prescribes a set of actions to change our culture, which I believe is extremely important and directly to the point. The list includes cutting addiction to consumerism by living frugally and learning the “secret of enough,” living independently “off the grid” to eliminate the dependence on government, empowering women, and imitating the outline of the tribal way of life by creating what he calls “intentional communities.” All these solutions are derived from the basic principles of localization, accepting diversity, and the reduction of consumption.
Throughout the book, Hartmann introduces concepts in clever ways and using clever analogies. He rightfully describes our current economic model as a “Ponzi scheme” or a finite “startup capital” we keep spending from, leading us to a breakdown, which will make the cities we live in more like “time bombs.” He compares Earth to a cancer patient suffering from an unsustainable growth, an allegory of the culture of domination and its consequent overpopulation. All this may change, however, if we change the mindset, usually referred to in the book as cultural “stories,” a word that implies conviction regardless of the truth. He explains why diversity is important using an example of a power grid with multiple points of failure, and how small deeds can lead to big changes using the example of an electric transformer. In addition to his clever writing, each chapter is preceded with an introduction and a set of questions to prepare the reader for what is coming, and every section of each chapter begins with a related quote reflecting upon the subject to be discussed, which I have found usually to be very thought-provoking.
But despite Hartmann’s brilliance in many pages, there were few parts in the book in which his bias and enthusiasm for his ideas outweighed his commitment to the truth. For instance, while acknowledging in a paragraph or two that there were some violent and unsustainable practices among some tribal people in the past, his overall portrayal of the tribal culture is somewhat too romantic, if not Utopian. In other parts he treats questionable theories as scientific facts to the point of comparing Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance to Einstein’s relativity, and using particles entanglement as an evidence of the instant transfer of ideas like some kind of a universal consciousness — a conclusion that is not scientifically sound, at least till now.
The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight is a heavy read because of its subject that challenges many widely accepted ideas. It is heavily critical of scorched-earth tactics and slash-and-burn agriculture. It doesn’t shy away from showing the plight of Indian Americans in the face of the savagery of the white colonists. It attacks capitalism for driving overconsumption, socialism and communism for focusing on defining the patterns of consumption rather than promoting cooperation, and organized religions for their historic role in forming the culture of domination. Even recycling and many of the “Green” initiatives are not spared. Above all, it directly takes aim at our modern way of living.
Not everyone will be willing to accept Hartmann’s message in this book, and from those who will, many will not find the promised solution conclusive. And it is not. Even Hartmann acknowledge that much damage has already been done, yet I can’t see that as an excuse to wait for the Apocalypse; you shouldn’t either. The discussed “plan of action” should be regarded for its outline as a guide to a system with sustainable living as its main concern. It has been more than 15 years since the first edition was published, and we are still falling steadily in the same trap. It is partly because of the ignorance induced by the media, partly because of the false feeling of euphoria due to the exponential growth, and another part because of the fact that our modern way of life is so addictive, a fact that I was constantly reminded with while ironically reading this book on mass produced paperback.
Still, I find this book, despite its shortfalls, compelling and beautifully written overall; its purpose is a sufficient excuse to include it in the list of “most important books” as many of its admirers suggest. I recommend it for anyone who cares about his future and that of his children, and who is curious to know how and why we keep on missing the forest for the trees, both figuratively and literally.