My Cult and Infinite Growth: A Tale of Two Stories

[I wrote this essay in June 2014. A month later, a man I met at the Northeast Permaculture Convergence became the first to respond to my admission of cult involvement with a version of, “Yeah, me too.”]

I spent most of my twenties trapped in a story. The story, roughly, was this:

The mass of humanity, also known as “the DeathKultur,” is destroying itself, its fellow creatures, our precious web of life. We few dozen Zendiks (heretics, outlaws, revolutionaries), homesteading on a hundred acres in the backwoods of Western North Carolina, are creating a new culture that forsakes competition and lying for cooperation and honesty. Once we’ve cleansed ourselves of our “DeathKultur conditioning,” our example will spread everywhere. Competition and lying will cease, along with violence and ecocide. In the meantime, any Zendik who deserts the cause is doomed to half a life. Her betrayal will haunt her till she dies.

In other words, I joined a cult. I was twenty-two; the year was 1999. But I didn’t say, “I joined a cult” until 2005 – six years later.

Since then, I’ve said it hundreds of times, to hundreds of people. Some, in turn, have recounted friends’ and family members’ cult episodes. A few have described living in cults as children, through no choice of their own. A friend said she’d spent time in a group some might consider a cult. The one response I’ve yet to hear? “Yeah, I joined a cult too.”

Why? Where have all the cultists gone?

Maybe the hurdle is the word “cult.” Nobody knowingly joins a cult, and no one in a cult would call it that. We join – we commit to – communes, new religions, meditation circles, personal growth programs, ashrams, revolutions. Saying “I joined a cult” means repudiating a story that’s given our lives meaning. Admitting we surrendered self-trust to a despot crowned by collective delusion. Opening ourselves to others’ judgments – however unfounded – that we’re dumb, weak-minded, naïve.

* * *

But we’re all trapped in a story – The Infinite Growth Myth. Here it is:

Economic growth creates jobs and increases wealth, along with health and happiness. It advances technology and security, nurtures the arts, and allows us to invest in luxuries like developing renewable energy sources and protecting the environment. When it slows or stops, we suffer. We lose drive and purpose; some of us lose access to basics like food and shelter. Someday we’ll discover how to keep the economy growing steadily, forever and ever, and life for all of us, in the United States and throughout the world, will improve exponentially. In the meantime, given a choice between growth and another good, we must choose growth, since it is the spring from which all good flows.

The first story I told – the Zendik story – doesn’t need debunking. Though it starts with a version of a valid observation about human behavior, it ascends, by the second sentence, into an obvious flight of magical thinking. The second story is no less absurd. The economy grows when we start wars, blow bubbles, and pay corporations to do and make more and more of the things we once did and made for each other and ourselves. These activities tend to concentrate wealth in the accounts of the one percent. The economy shrinks when we make peace, burst bubbles, and learn to rely on ourselves and each other for our wants and needs. These activities boost access to essentials – clean air and water, healthy soil, strong relationships – while giving the web of life a desperately needed rest. Finally, and most elementally, infinite growth dependent on infinitely accelerating “resource” extraction cannot happen on a finite planet. Yet, as you read it, The Infinite Growth Myth probably seemed plausible. Why? Because it isn’t some fringe phenomenon. Three hundred million of us live inside it, and help maintain it, every day. Are we all fanatics? Cultists? No, we’re normal. We’re just like everybody else.

* * *

In Combatting Cult Mind Control, veteran exit counselor Steven Hassan says that “the great majority” of former cult members he’s interacted with “were stable, intelligent, idealistic people who tended to have good educations and come from respectable families.” Many showed “a genuine impulse” to work closely with others for “social and religious causes” but had a hard time finding a community through which to channel that impulse. Most Zendiks I knew – myself included – arrived bewildered by the soul-numbing that seemed to be required for survival in a story favoring growing the economy over tending the web of life. So maybe “I joined a cult” also means, “I needed to believe I could belong to a tribe – a tributary – in which some of the mainstream’s insane assumptions could be revised.”

Maybe The Infinite Growth Myth helps drive traffic to cult stories.

What can cult stories offer The Infinite Growth Myth?

Hope for a happy end.

All of us who’ve joined cults and come out know how powerful stories are, and how much harm they can cause, running unchecked. We know how wrenching it is to lose stories that give our lives meaning; we know it’s possible to grieve old stories and weave new ones. If we can claim our knowledge – if we can share it – then maybe we can help lead our culture out of The Infinite Growth Myth and into a truer version of the more beautiful world we were always looking for.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

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