In 1980, John Perkins appeared to be successful: he was working as a chief economist for a major consulting firm. While he’d been taught that his work provided developing countries with an advantageous economic model, he began to question the broader implications of his role, eventually realizing that his work was a form of “new colonialism” and that he was an “economic hit man.”
Boldly setting out to undo the damage he had done, Perkins flashed to an experience from his service in the Peace Corps: in the jungles of Ecuador, he’d met a shaman who taught him to “touch the jaguar.” This experience had changed Perkins’s life. It taught him to transform fears into positive actions by changing his perception.
Perkins wrote about his process of self-discovery in Shapeshifting and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. In his new book, Touching the Jaguar, Perkins draws from his experiences to urge readers to confront their fears, accept accountability, and make necessary changes in their lives.
Why was it important to write Touching the Jaguar now?
We live at a time of virus pandemics, climate change, species extinctions, and many other crises. All of them stem from a failing global system. This death economy is driven by the goal that was promoted by a group of economists led by Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman in the 1970s and 1980s, namely, that “the only responsibility of business is to maximize short-term profits, regardless of the social and environmental costs.” That goal has had a disastrous impact on the world.
The transition from a death economy to a life economy happens through changes in the perceptions that drive values and actions and in the stories we tell around them. “Maximize short-term profits, regardless of the social and environmental costs” becomes “maximize long-term benefits for all people and nature.” When groups of consumers, workers, and investors accept the resulting values, take actions to support businesses that promote them, and pressure governments to codify them into laws, the change we need happens.
You say that to shift our perspective, people must embrace personal accountability. How can the power of our perceptions help us change?
We start by realizing that when we change our perceptions, we also forge new values and then take actions that lead us into a different reality. We can look to history and our own experiences for evidence that our perceptions mold reality. Just one example: In 1773,
nearly everyone thought the British army was invincible. But George Washington had seen a British force estimated at 1,500 men and led by one of England’s most experienced generals thoroughly routed by about 900 French and Native Americans during the French and Indian War. “The British aren’t invincible,” Washington said. “We just need to hide behind trees.” That new perception changed history.
What advice do you have for readers eager to change their lives?
I encourage people to dive into understanding what brings them joy (their passion in life) and what skills they most enjoy using, to examine the obstacles (jaguars) that might prevent them from doing that—including feeling confined by societal roadblocks or stuck in unfulfilling circumstances—and then to touch those jaguars and receive the inspiration and energy to move forward.
Do you feel that times of uncertainty and disruption, such as what we are living through now with Covid-19, can lead to unexpected opportunities? Absolutely. Here’s a little story—a true one—that addresses these times of disruption. A person in a group I was leading
to visit indigenous people in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador once asked a female shaman, “How do we save the earth?” The shaman laughed. “The earth is not in danger,” she said. “We humans are. We’re causing many problems for all other species. If we get to be too much of a nuisance, Mother Earth will just shake us off, like so many fleas.” She pointed up at the mountain that hovers over her home. “Twenty years ago that volcano was covered with a big glacier. The glacier is gone. Mother Earth is twitching. She has not shaken us off yet. But she’s demanding that we listen.”
What do you want readers to take from Touching the Jaguar?
I hope that readers will come to understand that we can and must change ourselves and the world—and that we can have fun doing it. For more, visit johnperkins.org.