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Confront Our Fears Through Touching The Jaguar: A Book Review

A new book uses stories of interacting with people who live in the Amazon to challenge the way we think about capitalism and our responsibility to the Earth.

The best kind of non-fiction is told in story form, right? Touching the Jaguar is just such a book. John Perkins was a young Peace Corps volunteer whose fears literally made him sick. The fear of things different, unfamiliar, and the unknown had created a mindset in him where perception of his surroundings, of the food and drink he would imbibe, were overwhelming. It was only when he encountered an Amazonian shaman who taught him how to “touch the jaguar” could he confront his fear and use its power to create positive change.

“Touching the jaguar” means that you can identify your fears and barriers, confront them, alter your perceptions about them to accept their energy, and take actions to change yourself and the world. The metaphor is used to offer us a touchstone where we, too, can unite in a common goal to transform a global economy that destroys its own resources and nature into a self-renewing system. Very entertaining, the book is filled with humor and told from a self-deprecating point of view. Together, the stories become a series of lessons in an “evolving education about the US government work and the way we abuse our privileges” (p. 41).

Touching the Jaguar

Image retrieved from US FWS

The Economic Hit Man as King of a Colonialist Shell Game

John Perkins is an activist and author of 10 books on global intrigue, shamanism, and transformation. However, he wasn’t always an enlightened social and environmental justice activist. Perkins uses this book to trace how he transformed from being “an economic hit man” to someone who would fight colonialism and defend the Earth from destructive policies and systems. His job was “a case of molding reality through changing perceptions — a technologically sophisticated form of proselytization” (p. 55).

Early in his career, Perkins became convinced that his work as an economist could help poor people around the world rise out of poverty and improve their standards of living. He’d been taught in business school that improved infrastructure stimulates economic growth, so that prosperity would persuade nations to choose the US form of capitalism and democracy over communism. Eventually, his work required him to convince leaders of countries around the globe with resources that US corporations wanted to accept huge loans from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, or a similar organization. The funds, which would be used to hire US engineering companies to build infrastructure projects, ended up leaving the countries wallowing in debt. To reconcile their loans, the country would be forced to sell its oil or other resources at well-below-market prices. The countries might be forced to privatize services, or vote against Cuba, or be sites for US military bases.

It’s 21st century colonialism at its finest worst. “Colonialism” is defined by Perkins as a phenomenon that occurs when a dominant group from a foreign culture takes control of local peoples to exploit their resources; steal their lands; manipulate their economies; enslave or abuse their people; force belief, language, and culture; and break bodies through violence, imprisonment, and sometimes genocide. Perkins came to realize that, yes, the effects of infrastructure projects did grow economies, but that growth only benefited an extremely small percentage of the population. The poor — who would often lose the ability to survive in their communities due to resource devastation — became homeless or turned to drugs, suicide, or acts of violence that would be “classified as terrorism by their victims and patriotism by their supporters” (p. 55).

He comes to realize that his work is equivalent to “earlier slavers” — so that he had become an economist who adopted a contemporary approach to oppression (p. 58). He experiences cognitive dissonance as he works on behalf of and against the Amazonian people. He is the modern embodiment of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “ushering into this land the darkness, cruelty, and barbarism”  (p. 147) of civilization.

Rejecting the Dominant Discourse about Acquisition

Touching the Jaguar

Image retrieved from the NSF

Looking back, Perkins realizes his own perspective is rife with naivete and that he might have guessed that the US would:

“… continue to exploit resources and create a military presence in more than a hundred countries, that we would defend brutal dictators as long as they cooperated with our policies and overthrow democratically elected presidents who did not, that we would ravage the planet’s resources and devastate fragile environments…”

Instead of viewing the Amazonians as childlike, he comes to see the wealth of local knowledge as priceless. His comprehension of the lives and cultures of the Amazonians comes slowly, though, through individual experiences that build into an anthropological study and forever changes the way he sees colonialism and capitalism. Over and over, he meets people whose lives have been unalterably changed by foreign influences. Instead of succumbing, however, they “change the reality of the way they conducted business and their lives” (p. 46). It’s the same philosophy Perkins hopes that his audience will adopt.

Terms are defined in ways that the reader can not only follow, but also gain enough insights so as to feel like a behind-the-scenes pseudo-expert in how complicity is accessed through government interventions, protocols, and action. Yes, they seem at first to serve democracy, but really, they truly only benefit the über-wealthy.

Touching the Jaguar would be a good textbook for business students who are likely inundated with all-profit, all-the-time instruction. By introducing the audience to actual people and how their lived experiences contradict colonialist teachings, Perkins offers numerous examples of how perceived reality changes objective reality. “It’s simple,” a shaman tells Perkins. “Just change the story we tell ourselves. That alters the way we think about ourselves” (p. 82).

Perkins learns from his experiences that people from very different cultures can learn to prioritize people’s relationships with others, to treat each other with respect, and to teach and learn from one another. Instead of accepting a colonialist past in which we “marched along a path to gain more control, power, materialistic wealth, and cultural superiority” (p. 129), we can accept Perkins’ plea to:

  • fend off the oil companies
  • protect the forests
  • shift a culture of overconsumption to one that honors and sustains life
  • emphasize taking care of many generations into the future

He asks us, “Can’t we all make the changes that will allow our species to survive and thrive in a sustainable world?” (p. 180). It would definitely take work. We’d have to:

  • clean up pollution
  • regenerate devastated environments
  • recycle
  • develop new technologies that benefit people and nature

But Perkins says this is achievable, especially if we come to value businesses that pay returns to investors who invest in an economy that is itself based on renewable resources. These would become the success stories of a capitalistic democracy.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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