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"WE'RE SEEING A GLOBAL REGRESSION into domination," warns macro-historian Riane Eisler, reflecting on the frightening state the planet currently finds itself in. "It happens in cycles, and in the past those downward spirals eventually cycled back up. The crucial difference with thisdownward spiral is that nuclear weapons are involved.
"We no longer have unlimited time to figure out how to live together -- and that's why the politics of partnership is so important now," adds Eisler, who provides a blueprint in her new book, The Power of Partnership: The Seven Relationships That Will Change Your Life. A self-help text synthesizing elements of systems theory, anthropology, history and feminism, the book is a compendium of tips on how to improve relationships with the self, lovers, nature, and the local, national and international community.
Partnership's central idea -- that people either work in partnership or are imprisoned in hierarchies of power -- is obviously a sound one, and is a reprise of material Eisler presented in her gender-holistic analysis of eroticism, Sacred Pleasure, published in 1995. Both books have roots in her international best-seller of 1987, The Chalice and the Blade, which examined history in terms of what Eisler refers to as "dominator society vs. partnership," as well as making the case that goddess-worshiping cultures flourished for 15,000 years prior to the birth of Christ. Dominator societies tend to be governed by vengeful male gods, and maintain their power through violence. Needless to say, the world has been mostly ruled by such systems, but after studying these societies for years, Eisler concluded it doesn't have to be that way: Human beings, and cultures, are capable of change. "I know change is possible," says Eisler, "because historically it has happened."
Eisler maintains a daunting schedule of lectures and symposiums, but manages to carve out time for an interview between preparing talks she'll deliver in Dubrovnik and Switzerland. Eisler lives in Carmel with her husband of 25 years, social scientist David Loye, who picks me up at the Monterey airport early on a Saturday morning. A bearded man with longish hair and a slightly beleaguered air, he seems like a sweet character, and shortly after I get into his car he turns to me and solemnly announces, "Meeting Riane was the most important thing that ever happened to me." Eisler may have changed Loye's life, but she won't be having lunch with us, he explains, because "She eats at funny times." Thus, minutes later, Loye and I are roaming the aisles of the local health-food store, and discussing the relative merits of various dips available for sampling. Loye then remembers he needs a packet of screws, and we head for the local hardware store, where we putter around some more.
Errands completed, we arrive at the rambling, light-filled house Eisler and Loye share a few miles from the Center for Partnership Studies, a clearing-house for similarly forward-thinking work being done in other fields, which the couple established 13 years ago in Pacific Grove. After entering through the back door, Loye removes his shoes and requests that I do the same. "For the sake of our rugs, we don't wear shoes in the house," he explains as he shows me into the living room to meet Eisler, who enters from another door. At 70, she's a stunningly attractive woman with a regal bearing well-suited to her task of persuading others to share her point of view. I notice she's wearing shoes.
SINCE CHANGE IS THE ESSENTIAL subject of Eisler's work, I cut to the chase: How can individuals change a system in the grip of corporate powers that maintain their position through liaisons and methodologies that are largely hidden?
"It has to start with the transformation of parent-child and gender relations," she begins. "Parent-child relationships are crucial because they affect the neurochemistry of the brain, and once patterns are established in childhood they're difficult to change.
"And it's a huge advantage knowing history -- that's why I wrote Tomorrow's Children," she continues, referring to her book on child development and education, published in 2000. "Kids need to be taught history properly so they can see we can be agents for nonviolence. Look at us now in the West. We're not good, but looking back as recently as the '50s, it's obvious there have been dramatic shifts in consciousness in terms of homosexuality, women's rights and children's rights."
Eisler's new book places enormous emphasis on proper nurturing in childhood -- so much so that it appears to suggest we all come into the world with equal capabilities, and that with adequate tending everyone will grow up to be nice. "I don't intend to imply that," Eisler corrects, "but I do believe we all have some capacity for empathy. The fact that humans have ideas like fairness and yearn for caring connections -- it's a biological given built into us. Some people do come in with a greater capacity for partnership, but the variable I'm interested in is what's taught. I'm not disputing that hormonal arousal plays a role in behavior, and we can't change that, but we can change how people are taught to handle those feelings. I, for instance, have a lot of anger, but I've learned to use my anger productively."