The End of Exceptionalism

Nov 4th, 2020 | By | Category: Other Resources

By Geoffrey Holland, contributing writer for Transition Earth.



It’s amazing to me that so many Americans continue to buy into the myth that because of our citizenship, we are entitled to the ‘American Dream’, and are smarter and more worthy than everybody else on the planet.

When white Europeans began immigrating to the American continent, they brought with them a religious construct known as manifest destiny. In essence, they believed their brand of piety made them superior in every way to the indigenous peoples that have populated the Americas for tens of thousands of years.  European settlers imposed their culture. They used their ‘Manifest Destiny’ meme to justify the forced displacement of native Americans from the land they had traditionally occupied. Millions of indigenous Americans suffered and died in the process.  It was a holocaust, before the holocaust; an undeniable bloody stain on the human history of the Americas.

The Christian religion teaches that men are superior and in charge, and that women are inferior and worthy only of subjugation. The gospel exhorts men to exploit nature, justifying the relentless extraction and consumption of our Earth’s resources to the point of exhaustion. And that is exactly what is happening.  We have an economic system that gives its incentive to profit, while externalizing the true costs of the pollution from our cars, and the human destruction of our planet’s natural systems.

The male-dominant sense of superiority is still a part of the American brand. We are constantly sold the idea that Americans, particularly white Americans, are exceptional compared to the rest of the world, and that they are entitled to a nebulous construct known as the ‘American Dream’. Unfortunately, too many Americans, way too many, buy into this self-absorbed perception, and use it to gloss over all kinds of bad behavior.

The reality: if Americans are exceptional, it must be based on the amount of arrogance, self-delusion, and entitlement that we harbor compared to the rest of the world.


It is not that I am not a fan of American exceptionalism. That is like saying I am not a fan of the moon being made out of green cheese – it does not exist. Powerful states have quite typically considered themselves to be exceptionally magnificent, and the United States is no exception to that. The basis for it is not very substantial to put it politely.

Noam Chomsky


The COVID pandemic has humbled the United States of America like nothing ever has before.  Our massive failure to respond to the COVID virus is a self-inflicted wound to our psyche; a powerful reflection of exceptionalist imperfection, symbolized by the politicization of the public health mandate to wear protective masks and avoid crowds.

At this moment, the US is experiencing a substantial resurgence in COVID infections because white conversative Americans are defying the mask and social distancing mandates. They do it because they believe following proper public health guidelines is an abridgement of their freedom.  Defiance is their game.  COVID infections are spiking mostly in politically conservative states. The COVID virus follows the path of least resistance. It does not care if you are a science believer, or a blind-faith follower of the gospel. If you fail to stick with globally accepted standards for protecting yourself and others from this highly contagious  scourge, odds are the disease will get you, and then you will infect your communities. In the process, infected people who failed to follow universally accepted heath guidelines become a threat to overworked health care providers, and communities that have complied with guidelines. Meanwhile, the failure of some to follow sensible guidelines leads to more infections, more deaths, and an economy that remains stalled, with ten of millions of Americans out of work.

People who reject masks and other broadly accepted pandemic guidelines have largely circled their wagons in defiance of what is best for the common good of all.

The biggest share of white America has long functioned as wedded to Christian Exceptionalist dogma. A literal, fundamentalist view of the Bible remains at the root of discrimination against women, against native people, African Americans, and anyone, who is not devoted to strict traditionalist Christian gospel.  The catechism of exceptionalism has also long been the justification for the relentless exploitation of our planet’s biosphere and its limited store of resources.

Our Earth may have been able to absorb the damage and renew itself when there were only two billion humans mindlessly exploiting land and seas. Now, there are nearly eight billion humans on Earth, each wanting a piece of the planetary pie.  The biosphere we all depend on for survival is reeling and increasingly at risk of collapse. Humans are entirely responsible.

Take a moment to consider planet Earth in the early part of the 21st Century. We are sucking the life out of our oceans and replacing it with our plastic waste. We are cutting down our forests and squandering our precious topsoil. We are exhausting our freshwater aquifers and flooding our environment with toxic industrial chemicals. The biodiversity of our planet is in deep distress. Plant species are disappearing; wild animal populations are in freefall.

Since the beginning of the industrial age, humans have been pumping billions of tons of heat-trapping pollutants into our atmosphere, resulting in sea level rise, and ever more extreme fires, floods, and seasonal storms.

The world we know is coming apart at the seams.  There is no mystery about this. It’s a big part of the news cycle, 24/7.  We are all complicit in the mindless erosion of the only planetary home we have.


The goal is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with nature.

~ Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth


We must wake up. We must evolve. We are not above and superior to nature, we are a part of nature.

Humans are mammals; warm-blooded animals. We are privileged to be the only animal-species on Earth that has the ability to process complex ideas, to use language to speak with each other, and use the written word to advance our civilizational agenda. Consciousness is a gift from nature for which we owe every human’s appreciation and gratitude. A caring person recognizes a human obligation not to destroy our Earth’s biosphere. A caring person chooses to nurture life and be a proper steward of our planetary home.

A devolution into hostile tribalism is a real possibility. It is also a dead end for humanity. We have to get past that. We have to win over those who see ‘exceptional’ when looking at a mirror.  We need to communicate with them, and encourage them to open their hearts and minds. We need to find ways to welcome them to the common human family.


[photo: Creative Commons]

[photo: Creative Commons]

We are all in this together. No matter our gender, our nationality, our race or creed, we all have a stake in fostering a future built on service to the common good of all life on Earth. There can be no worthy outcome when some groups of humans put their self-interests ahead of everyone else. In a just world, exceptionalism is marginalized. In a just world, tribalism fades and becomes a stale relic.  In a just world, every human sees herself or himself as a planetary citizen. In a just world, we humans express our gratitude and declare our love for nature.  We stand for assertive public policy that is life-affirming in a way that inspires dignity for all and a shared obligation for taking good care of our Earth, the only planet we have.


Let us develop respect for all living things. Let us try to replace violence and intolerance with understanding, and compassion. And love.

Jane Goodall, Naturalist, Earth Mother


Turn out the lights on exceptionalism. That kind of self-delusion has no place in a world that celebrates our common humanity and our privileged place in nature.


Geoffrey Holland is a writer/producer, and lead author of The Hydrogen Age. He is Dialogue Coordinator for the Stanford Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere.



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