Culture Shock: The Good Life and Survival
When I entered the Peace Corps in 1968
the United States was a superpower less than a year away
from a manned landing on the moon. We were prosperous
and occupied with two wars: Vietnam and the “War
on Poverty.” We were at the pinnacle of civilization
even though we were struggling with violent war and civil
rights protests, and we were shocked by the assassinations
of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. These latter
events exposed the dark side of our national psyche.
Personally, I probably represented the highest that any
young American could aspire to in post World War II America.
A middle class youth, graduate of one of the top ten
universities trying to live the ideals of our country,
product of the American Dream.
At the same time a counter culture
was growing. Hippies were refugees from the American
Dream of the 50’s
and 60’s. They had had it all and they now believed
that the consequences of their materialistic upbringing
and arrogant nationalistic fervor were turning life into
a political, social and environmental wasteland. Thus,
many dropped out, seeking a more natural life somewhere
between a communal agricultural society and a spiritual
ashram. The foundation of the movement was much more
than drugs, sex and rock-and-roll although they played
their part in defining the culture and creating a decisive
break with the past.
Publications that were born and
grew during that time brought the word “alternative” into
our vocabulary and manifested as a lifestyle. It was
a term that meant for many what the Declaration of
Independence meant to the colonists — the beginning
of a new society.
Earth News was born, a resource of ingenuity
for the “back to the earth” movement (there
were even plans for home-made hybrid cars). Mothering magazine,
which advocated natural childbirth, breastfeeding, backpacks,
herbal remedies and no television was the handbook for
new families. Organic
grew to reflect a new health and earth oriented consciousness.
Diet For a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé put
a global perspective on food choices. Self-actualization
and environmentalism became spiritual paths that expressed
the interdependence of all life. (The word “sustainable” was
not yet in the public consciousness, and the first “Earth
Day” had yet to be celebrated.)
Arriving in the village where I
did my Peace Corps service was like stepping out of
a time machine. I had left the most technologically
advanced country and ended up in the Iron Age, a journey
of some three thousand years back in time. The villagers
in this sub-Saharan area of the northern Côte d’Ivoire
lived in family compounds made of adobe and thatch
and practiced communal agriculture. My first culture
shock was that with all my education I did not have
the skills to survive. Of course I had a job to do,
which explained my being there, but without that job
I could not have supported myself in that economy.
My job was to aid in the development of housing for
Ivorians who would create the infrastructure of public
services in the bush, and parallel to that, help the
rural areas of this newly independent country develop
economically. My second culture shock was that I was
to be an instrument in changing an organic, traditional,
communal society that was self-sustaining, non polluting
and peaceful; where spiritual concerns governed material
practices. This was just the type of society that my
contemporaries back home were dropping out to create!
I felt like I was living in the utopian society for which
my generation was searching. This created an inner crisis
of opposing values.
Eventually I realized that to not
participate in change was also a type of arrogance.
Who was I, who had had all the material conveniences
that technology and wealth had to offer, to tell people
that their society was fine the way it was and that
modern life was undesirable — violent,
dehumanizing and polluting. Upon further reflection I
realized that the hippy movement, whose social and environmental
values I believed in, mostly attracted educated middle
and upper middle class people who were rejecting what
they had, not what they didn’t have. Very few poor
people or minorities were hippies. Philosophically, the
latter were struggling to have the material wealth of
the American Dream. This was also the goal of the developing
Now the planet is at a crossroads, and
the dilemma I faced as an individual in an African village,
is the same dilemma the industrialized nations face in
relationship to the demands of all the developing nations.
Does a country like the United States, where practically
every driver owns a car, have the right to say that the
planet cannot sustain every driver in China having a
car? If every family in the world had the same standard
of living as every American family, the death of our
planet by over-consumption and pollution would be hastened.
Additionally, who is to say that
the American lifestyle is even a desirable way to live?
In 1968 muscle cars were all the rage, with 400+ cubic
inch (6.7 liter) engines sucking gas at twenty-five
cents a gallon. We no longer buy cars like that, but
the rest of our lifestyle guzzles resources much as
those monster cars did. Those cars are not sustainable
and neither is our current way of life. I recently
viewed two books by photographer Peter
Menzel and writer
Faith D’Aluisio: The
Hungry Planet— What
the World Eats, and Material
World— a Global Family
Portrait. One can experience culture shock from page
to page as one travels from Chad to Guatemala to Egypt
to Germany to the United States. Viewing the week’s
groceries of the typical American family one’s
emotions may travel from shock to shame. The typical
American diet is a formula for waste and disease for
humanity and the planet.
The industrialized nations can
no longer serve as models for development. To maintain
our health and the health of our planet we need to
meet the developing world halfway. Americans who are
willing to go to war to preserve a “way
of life” must question if our dependence on oil
and consumerism to maintain that “way of life” is
really desirable. We already see the “alternatives” proposed
by the “counter culture” of the 60’s
becoming mainstream. American automakers were threatened
by extinction until they downsized. Hybrid cars have
moved from Mother Earth News to the autoplex. Organic
foods can now be obtained in most supermarkets. Environmental
survival and global warming are now popular political
What was considered “alternative” in the
60’s is now seen as a necessity of adaptation forty
years later. Culture shock comes when change is forced
upon us — when we are forced to adapt to an alien
way of life. Survival, however, may force us to change.
People in the industrialized nations can avoid the shock
of cultural revolution if they intelligently change to
adapt to the new demands of evolution. Survival is not
antithetical to a good quality of life. The hippies were
radical and on the fringes of accepted society because
they were the pioneers of the future. They were responding
to the tide of evolution without intelligent guidance.
Like all pioneers they paid the price of experimentation,
of trial and error. However, their instincts were correct.
Peace, ecological consciousness, and a spiritual perspective
are the requirements for survival. Now we have a name
for those qualities: “living a sustainable life.” There
is no longer an alternative.
Corps — Celebrating 46 Years:
March 1, 1961 - 2007
2007 Richard Sidy
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