Notes on Ancient Sunlight Presentation

For the impatient, the "bottom line" is: to create a future that works, with sustainable lifestyles, we must relearn the lessons known by our ancestors.
The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight
Thom Hartmann
Sponsored by West Washtensaw Greens and the Friend's Lake Cooperative Community
4th October 1999, at the Michigan Friends Center in Chelsea, Michigan.


I am not a professional note taker or journalist. These notes are not complete. While I strive for accuracy and faithfulness to the speaker's ideas, I can not write fast enough to take down exact quotes or facts. I often state ideas in my own words, since I remember ideas better than exact words. Not only that, I was often glancing aside to admire a beautiful woman next to me. Use these notes at your own risk. Not to be used as testimony in court. According to my lawyer, I may or may not be a semi-literate fifth grade drop out. Do not consume with alcohol or operate heavy machinery while under the influence of these notes. Not for children under 99. Not certified for use in life-sustaining equipment such as heart-lung machines.


From the author's commentary on his own book and the responses from readers:
Missing the point of a book like this is quite easy to do, because this book makes a radical departure from the normal fare of self-help and environmentalism. It presents the problems, delves into the cause of the problems, and then presents as a solution something that many may think couldn't possibly be a solution because it seems unfathomably difficult: change our culture, beginning with yourself.
So, keep that in mind as you read these notes...

The Last 24 Hours

Mr. Hartmann began by asking us to remember what we were doing 24 hours ago - at 7:00 yesterday. Since then, during those 24 hours, xx-thousand people have died of starvation, more than half of them children, xx thousand acres of rain forest have been destroyed, etc. So many people live on an income of under two dollars per day. We have all heard these kinds statistics. Mr. Hartmann brought these vividly to us, by putting them in a daily context.

Some especially horrifying stats: about one billion people in the world have tuberculosis. That's a significant fraction of our 6 billion in human population. Also, one billion people today will be watching "Baywatch" on TV. This is not supposed to be an amazing coincidence, but reflects the kind of world culture we're in.

Good News, Bad News

After telling us these statistics, he asks "Why?" He had been asking "Why?" for a long time, researched, and found out. There's good news, and bad news.

Good News:Of all the cultures on Earth, only one has gone awry to make all this trouble
Bad News:We're that one
It's not merely the side effects of technology, often wrongly blamed for most of our troubles, or the result of government fumbling or corporate greed - though that certainly plays a big part. These troubles come about because of the stories we tell ourselves, the things we made up and decided to act as if they're true. Different cultures have different stories.

By "our culture" Mr. Hartmann refers to all the people who watch TV, use money, all peoples who consider themselves "civilized", probably about 90% of the entire world population. No matter how poor or rural or far away, many people are aware of, in contact with (maybe not easily or frequently), and to some extent caught up in, our culture.

Can we change our culture? Some people say it's difficult, but look at just the last century - we've allowed women the right to vote, we have mass consumerism, we have couch potatoes, we have rock and roll culture, and so on. Culture changes, often with little help.

Over the last 200,000 years the Earth has had modern Humans, in the sense of they looked like us and lived and acted in ways we would understand, though perhaps "primitive". For most of this time, no more than 1/4 billion (or did he say 1/2 billion?) people stood on Earth, their only source of energy and food being from plants. Plants are made of complex carbohydrates, created from carbon dioxide in air, and water, and sunlight. All of mankind's energy was indirect, stored sunlight. Then we discovered peat bogs, and coal, and petroleum. These source of energy took thousands, or millions of years to create, and we burn them up quickly, allowing farm machinery to operate, factories and transportation to function - with the result that now there are many more of us, and we're living longer. (Mr. Hartmann never mentioned increased life spans, actually.) So the population grew faster - the 2nd 1/2 billion taking only a few centures, and the next billion taking only 130 years, and so on... the latest 1 billion increase, from 5 billion to 6, took less than two decades!

In biology, there are only two other known situations of such rapid growth:

  1. Infections -- the rapid proliferation of germs prior to a sick organism's death
  2. Cancer - out of control growth that always results in death for the cancer cells and their host

There is something wrong with our way of thinking, that governs our way of living, and that must change.

Mr. Hartmann asked some fundamental questions: Is Humanity worth saving? Why are we concerned? ( I am not going to address these in my notes.)


We all have personal beliefs, what Mr. Hartmann calls Stories, that become set roughly in adolescence, and which we live by. Some are stories of "I am..." or "I can...", such as "I am the smart one", "I can bake cookies" but typically more sophisticated than these small examples. We also have "I am not..." stories, such as "I can't play musical instruments".

The "I can ...." stories are the floor upon which we stand, and the "I can't..." stories make up the walls and ceiling that box us in.

As persons have such stories, so do entire cultures. Some stories that we collectively have been following:

  • Time is linear, in infinite line. With all kinds of rationalizations, yes, this model of time does work well most of the time - but this belief, and all the stories that go with it, lets us forget the past, as something gone, and neglect the future, as something we'll take care of later. A healthier story is time runs in cycles - what our parents went through, we're going through, and our children will go through. He cited as an example how in some cultures actions would be taken only after considering how it will affect the next seven generations.
  • It's OK to have slaves and masters. We think we eliminated slavery in the U.S. in the late 1800's, but no. Most of us go to jobs to "slave away" at someone else's endeavor. Slaves in ancient Rome were signified by their short-cut hair. Today, most men cut their hair short - it's the civilized look expected in business. Mr. Hartmann did not mention neckties, but those are nooses around our necks, like the neck collars and chains used on black slaves in America. (I for one never wear ties, and the women like my long, wild crazy artist-Einstein style hair!)
  • Man's duty is to subdue, conquer and control nature
  • We are all separate Each of us struggles independently in a chaotic world, to survive, to outdo our neighbors. We are familiar with this western industrialized way of thinking. It becomes uglier when compared to how other cultures think.
  • If you behave badly, we'll punish you!, When someone breaks a law, we fine them, toss them in jail. We have thousands and thousands of people in jail. Question: does this really help? What is really being accomplished?

    In some other societies, there is a great effort made to encourage the person who is in disharmony to be restored into harmonious relation with others. A faux pas leads to apologies and forgiveness, and repair of any damage done, not punishments.

    Mr. Hartmann says that prison may be found only in slave-holding cultures. That is an interesting thought, and a good topic for researching in the library. Only a slave-holding culture (no matter how the hide their slavery) needs extensive rules to control their members to do the bidding of the powerful few. Police and jails are the means of enforcing those rules. Comparing again to Native Americans, have you ever heard of any tribe that had anything like a police force?

  • Happiness comes from Stuff. Who knows if you've been naughty or nice? Not God, but the Bringer of Toys! The truth is: Yes indeed, it is better to be clothed, by a warm fire and well-fed (especially with a good homemade lasagna), than to be hungry and naked in the woods on a cold night. The truth becomes fiction when we extrapolate and figure that if some things are good, more things are better, to associate material things and comforts with happiness.

    The author described one evidence for the widespread belief in this story -- the way most people arrange their houses as shrines to -- what? some false deity? No, to their TV sets -- The fount of all shopping "wisdom", the oracle that informs us what to do: BUY!

The history of Religion offers countless examples of stories - some that repressed society, and some that reversed those effects. Consider the classic philosophical question: Why do Bad things Happen to Good People? Mr. Hartmann said that, ultimately, there are two basic answers, originating with the ancient Greeks:
    1) Bad things occur as accidents when the gods fight; we are but ants crunched under their feet.
    2) There is a cruel god
With story #1, the natural conclusion is that we should try to placate the gods, make offerings and song to please them, to keep them calm.

Story #2 needs to be explained in a little more detail. A long time ago, the universe was populated with intelligent beings, Aeons. One, Sophia, gave birth to a son with a twisted mind. Cruel, wicked to the extreme, when he was old enough to create, the gods sent him off far, far away, to make his own world. As a madman god, he made random mischief all over that world. That world is Earth, and here we are stuck. Once in a while, one of the Aeons would send a compassionate teacher to Earth to provide relief to the inhabitants. Typically, this teacher appears as a human born to a virgin mother -- unknown to most Christians, this is a common them in many ancient traditions.

Gnosis grew as a secret knowledge of how to avoid the dangers of the psychotic god. At the time Jesus taught, stories #1 and #2 just described were the prevalent beliefs explaining the world's condition. Neither motivates people into action, to improve themselves or the world. Jesus wasn't into Gnosis or myth. He said: "Ye are gods." His Sermon on the Mount was one of the greatest anti-Gnostic speeches ever.

My notes a little muddled here, but having to do with Gnostics and Jesus. The Gnostics had their way of understaning who Jesus was -- something totally different from what Jesus and his sincere followers, who knew him personally, believed. There was a branching, with the followers going one way, and the Gnostics, and Paul in particular, going another way. The early Pauline church was basically Gnostic. Around the year 300, when Constantine wanted to convert all Romans to Christianity, he made use of the fact that the people understood gnosis readily, and so chose Paul's writings and ideas. This lead to the Catholic church as we know it, with Pope and all. Watch out, be careful, the crazy god will get you!

This is a toxic story - telling us there is a danger basically outside of our control or knowledge, and avoidable only through certain rituals, ways of living, the expertise of priests. The latter belief among the people, of course, gave greater power to the rulers of the land.

Compare this to the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and the sayings of Jesus. Whereas the Romans (up to the modern day) use the bible as a thought-weapon, the actual contents brings the reader into closer contact with spirit, tasting the deeply mystical, feeling divine joy. Organized religion usuall fails to bring that aspect out. Once in a while, a teacher or saint comes along to restore awareness of divine joy, to reform the church or reform society outside of formal religion: Martin Luther, Theresa of Avalon, St. John of the Cross, and many more of similar, lesser, or no fame. They show people how to regain contact with the mystical part of life, to set aside fear.

The book of John teaches about God and Love, and does not promote fear as the guide to life. Mr. Hartmann called John non-gnostic rather than anti-gnostic. Someday I will reread John to find out why.

On a totally different topic, but here it is in my notes, Monsanto has created a genetically modified seed that grows plants one season, but those plants are sterile. The farmer must buy all new seeds for the entire field every year, making the seed company very rich, and disturbing the economical and traditional farming practice of keeping seeds from one year's crop to plant next year's. These are known as Terminator seeds, and Mr. Hartmann asked the audience if anyone knew of the riots in England protesting the scheme. Monsanto is in big trouble in the USA too, but one doesn't hear so much about it except on National Public Radio.

Write your state legislators and ask that Terminiator seeds, and similar things, be forbidden in Michigan.

Dalai Lama

Mr. Hartmann had met with the Dalai Lama just a few weeks before this talk - very few weeks before. (This is not in his book, being too recent.) The subject of his discussions, along with several other Westerners, was the situation between Tibet and China. What if we boycotted all companies doing business in China? asked the Westerners. No, said the Dalai Lama - what if the boycott meant that Chinese children had to go hungry because their parents lost their jobs? To harm businesses whose practices, presence, or politics we don't like, is to harm the people who depend on jobs at those businesses for food and necessities. So the Westerners thought some more.

There is great harm being done by the huge trans-national corporations who do not need to answer to any government. They can go anywhere, rape and pillage, and leave when local complaints build up. The corporate kings, to some extent, rule over governments. Now it seems to me that Earthlings are just so dense and confused and loving of ignorance, that much of our trouble can be explained without corporate kings, but we do have them, and they're certainly not helping with the problems.

How big must an organization be, to become a "they"?

One final comment on this section about our stories: Dioxin, a nasty chemical is being perhaps wrongly blamed for causing cancer. Yes, it is a nasty chemical and that we shouldn't be splashing all over the land. But researchers in conventional and alternative medicine are discovering that cancer seems to result from withheld anger and worries. Especially in holistic medicine, the mind-body health connection is seen as the primary means of understanding disease. Since Dioxin is by now everywhere -- you who are reading this have it in your body -- how to explain that some of us have cancer, and some of us don't? It is debated whether one's state of health is entirely dependent on one's emotional, psychic state, or if it takes a combination of that and carcinogenic substances.

Well, check the statistics -- there really is an increase in cancer rates in high-dioxin areas. Certain kinds of tumors are dramatically correlated with certain kinds of pollution. However you want to explain it, you can't hide the fact the chemicals and disease are related. We really do need to clean up our world! What we learn from alternative medicine is good and useful, but we must remember that we are in physicsal bodies in a physical world, and so need to take good care of our physical planet.

Fixing Our Stories


The first step is recognizing the various Stories that we've playing make-believe to for so long. Just recognize the beliefs that civilized society has agreed to, that no one of us was asked to vote on, but we all live by. Beware especially of the belief that culture is hard, nearly impossible, to change - this too is one of those beliefs to notice and question.

After that, help others to recognize these stories and beliefs that no longer serve a good purpose (if ever they did). Those who can see the illusions for what they are, can point this out, diplomatically, to others. Spread the light.


Read the legends, myths of other cultures -- such as Native American, Tibetian, and so on. While we may need to adjust their stories to fit modern ways - we now drive cars and live in apartment complexes, not trade goats and pigs and tend farms -- the stories of the wiser cultures have excellent core values.

Another story Mr. Hartmann told was how in Australia, the aboriginal children were tuaght the English game of cricket. While the kids learned easily enough the rules, techniques and method of play, the English instructors were annoyed that the kids would never play competetively. Instead, the kids of the two teams in a match would play until both sides had the same score. No matter what the teachers, the kids cooperated for an even score. Imagine American business owners thinking that way!

Many Native American tribes give their tribes names that more or less mean "the people", "we", seeing all individuals as part of a very extended family. One calls themselves by the word that, to them, means "deer". They see themselves as even more connected to nature - people eat deer and make their housing and clothing from deer skins; people die and become food for plants, and the plants become food for the deer.

Mr. Hartmann told, in some detail, of a native american who described how southerners (europeans; he was from a northern tribe) came to take the land and its resources, needed slave labor. The work required literate slaves, and so the southerners built schools. The Native American children did not do well in those schools, and the europeans thought this was a problem. So the southerners put more effort into the schools, and controlling the Native Americans' society. When the southerners asked the Native Americans what else they could do the help them, the indians replied: Just consider this -- that we don't want to be your slaves! We don't want your schools, or your ways.

For the Europeans, anyone not conforming to the needs of industry and business is a misfit, and is considered pathological. We have created a great number of misfits, just by having defined limited and false goals for society. Respect the ways of others, and peace will follow. There will then no longer be any misfits. We willl have defined away the problem. We do not all have to follow the same big goals.

In learning about other, wiser cultures, we will learn their stories. Some may be false in ways different than how ours are false, but more likely we will find something to learn. Western industrial society has been arond two, maybe three centuries. Mass consumerism only about half a century. Large armies go back to Roman days, but the Western Empires have never been very stable.

Compare to Australian Aboriginals, Native Americans, and various peoples in South American and Africa. Most of them have been going on for many centuries. Not all enjoyed peace, but many of them did. Certainly none had such threats as nuclear holocaust, or fouled up their own lands. Read their stories and find out what beliefs they held that guided their ways of living.

Better Life

Most specific advice I heard on how to tranform society into a better kind of civilization, came during Q &A at the end of the afternoon session.

Q: What can we do to help our kids? They sit glued for hours in front of the TV, watching hundreds of ads. Are they being brainwashed? Help them stay out of the consumerism trap by pointing out the manipulations that advertisers use to persuade their audiences. If there's one thing kids of all ages hate, it's mind control.

Be helpful when your kids want to things you approve of - drive them to visit friends who would be a good influence. Don't offer to drive them to places where less favorable influences abound.

Note on addictions: There is one addiction that is worse than nicotine, worse than crack cocaine. It changes one's opinions, sometimes strongly, it distorts reality, in many ways qualifies as a drug, yet it's not a chemical. It's TV. Mr. Hartmann presented this in a more intriguing way than I can -- he's the talented book author, not I. He described studies in which heavy TV watchers had less healthy brains. Younger poeple have has so much simultaneous audio+video stimulation, they just can't imagine any story when presented just as words. They cannot create their own pictures in their minds. Their imaginations are dead!

From something else Mr. Hartmann wrote:

As Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, often the most powerful and effective way to "fight back" against the pathological kings and kingdoms is to walk away from the kings: see the situation for what it is, and stop playing the dominator's game.

In Closing...

Q: So why bother to save Humanity? Are we really worth saving? Hmmm.... No answer here in my notes. (I was distracted, admiring Tami's beautiful hands.)

And then we all climbed into our gas-burning cars and drove home.


"Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight"
Thom Hartmann. Explains his ideas in much more depth than this talk. In a way, this book is already obsolete in that he brought some fresh stories about the Dalai Lama that were too recent to be in his book. But it's a good read -- I wouldn't wait too long for a 2nd edition. You may want to visit the web site
Something will save us
Also by Thom Hartmann
Voluntary Simplicity
Duane Elgin. Finding ways of living that are outwardly simple, inwardly rich. published by Quill. Old book, but I have a revised edition, 1993. The original came out in 1981. ISBN 0-688-12119-5.
The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer
Juliet B. Schor, Basic Books. All about "competetive spending" and how spending affects our quality of life. One interesting point of this book is that, statistically, for every extra hour per week of TV watched in a household, another $200 in debt they'd likely to be. This correlation is not due to people going out to buy, zombie-like, whatever was advertised, but rather is due to a desire to "Keep up with the Jones", the "Jones" now being the glamorous families depicted on TV sitcoms and dramas. Designer jeans, and shoes worn by star athletes. People want to feel they're at least even with the average, and so buy the things that make them feel that way, even if they have to do on credit. This goes on without any reality check, with no comparisons to one's actual neighbors. As one review puts it, "The long-term health of our world, ecologically and socially, depends upon America's ability to break the work-and-spend cycle." Many people spend in ways not consistent with their values, and are in denial about it. "Not looking too hard helps keep that inner conflict tolerable. Squarely facing the fact that you spent $6,000 on your wardrobe last year and gave less than one-third of that sum to charity is a lot harder than living with a vague sense that you need to start spending less on clothes and giving away more money."
"Your Money or Your Life"
Vicki Robin. During questions and answers, someone asked how to step back from the insanity of modern civilized life, and still be functional. This book, and Voluntary Simplicity, were the books Mr. Hartmann most recommended. Read a review. Vicki Robin also wrote A Deeper Shade of Green (non) Consuming, in which she explains that "green consuming is still consuming".
Clutter's Last Stand
Don Aslett The author is better known as a cleaning expert, and has appeared on daytime talk shows to display his encyclopedic knowledge. This book is for anyone who looks around their room, sees too much stuff not really needed, but not knowing how to get rid of it, how to let go. With skillful humor, whimsical illustrations, but a deep core of wisdom, this book teaches games such as "Justification", illustrates some of our foolish behaviour by clear anlaogies (e.g., the way hunters trap monkeys), and will, before you have reached the end, make you feel good about getting rid of that stuff you know you don't need. A good gift for yourself, and any pack-rat relatives and friends.
Beyond Civilzation
Daniel Quinn. Web site:
The Media Monopoly
Ben Bagdikian, Beacon Press, 1983 The author later became Dean of the journalism school at University of California / Berkeley. This book has the rare distinction of being recommended in the liner notes for a CD by a music group, Rage Against the Machine. (See their complete reading list)
There Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armidillos
Jim Hightower (Not one of Mr. Hartmann's recommendations, but mine) A book to make you laugh and cry at the same time - all about the strange and stupid things big corporations and government agencies do. You'll see how corporatism is ruining life for everyone, after reading this. Also has web site
"Designing Social Systems in a Changing World" by Bela Banathy
I Don't know much about this - heard it's interesting... This is here more to remind me to look at it sometime, rather than to promote it. So many books, so little time!

Related (maybe) Organizations, Etc.

These are organizations, web sites, and other things that may be of interest to people who enjoyed Mr. Hartmann's lecture (or these notes about his lecture.) Some of them are more directly related to sustainability and energy consumption than others.
  1. Center for a New American Dream. "...a not-for-profit membership-based organization that helps individuals and institutions reduce and shift consumption to enhance our quality of life and protect the environment. " They offer a monthly e-mail newsletter, Step by Step, "designed to replenish busy individuals like you through inspiration,action, and humor." If you like their campaigns and services, please consider joining the Center as a supporting member
  2. The Green Party. Bigger in Europe than in America, this political party focuses on environmental issues. There are several Green groups in Michigan
  3. I wish we had all gone home in alternative fuel vehicles. Read about electric vehicles (EVs) at Electro Automotive or Eco-Motion. Yes, the power plants will burn more coal making the electricity, but the overal system efficiency is better than hauling gasoline all over and burning it in every individual car. Also, EVs are much quieter, don't contribute to smog (except near the power generators) and start easily on cold winter morning. Substantial use of EVs would preserve our Ancient Sunlight. Natural Gas V (NGVs) are an even better idea in some ways.
  4. Dream Change Coalition " Working closely with indigenous people from the Amazon, Andes, Himalayas, and other cultures where shapeshifting dreams into reality is an age-old part of life, DCC has helped many people transform themselves and has cleaned up pollution, preserved endangered forests, plants, and animals, and inspired institutions to commit themselves to helping future generations rather than focussing on selfish, short-term objectives. We are people from every continent and every profession. "
  5. Read about and look at Earthships and sustainable ways of life on the Knapps' site. Another site explains clearly the advanteges of an Earthship over a conventional house. here are scads of web pages on the economy we live in, how its hurting us, what can be better. Some pages you might not be likely to stumple upon in your searches:
  6. Uni-v.e.r.s.e., A Unified Vision, Entrepreneurial Resource Services Enterprise (which doesn't really make sense, but I guess they had to call it something). Thought, essays, articles on economics, why our current economy is unsustainable, and what kind of economy would work better, among other things. Read this little excerpt from one article.
    Our project -- The Uni-v.e.r.s.e. -- will soon reflect the structure required to transition humanity, as smoothly as possible, from the increasingly dysfunctional, win/lose system into a functionally sustainable, win/win environment --- from predatory economics to conscious commerce.
  7. World Transformation supplies a cornucopia of ideas, resources, connections, information, inspiration and surprises, all aimed at growing, creating or discovering a world that works better for all of us.
  8. New Civilization Network is a global network of people visualizing a better world and working on building it. A world of increased quality of life, freedom, fun and inspiration for all. A world where the needs of all of humanity are met. Find out more in their FAQs