For tens of thousands of years, fire has defined our civilization. It is fire that has allowed us to smelt metals, to purify chemicals, to power cars, trains and airplanes, to pave over the earth and travel to the moon. Without fire there would be no silicon chips, no pharmaceutical drugs, no plastic toys, no guns or bombs, no televisions or computers. Ours is surely an Age of Fire — an age which is rapidly drawing to a close.
The Age of Fire is an age of separation, during which humans have sought to dominate and control nature. From the very beginning, the circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the Wild. Here was the hearth, the center of the circle of domesticity. Here was warmth, keeping the cold world at a distance. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Here was light, defining a human realm but making the night beyond all the deeper, all the more alien. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.
The Age of Fire is also an age of domination. The original technologies of fire mostly employed wood, thereby removing it from the normal biological cycle and preempting the natural flow of matter and energy. No longer did it nourish generations of insects, fungi, and soil. This arrogation of wood's oxidative energy to human purposes defined very early on the dominating relationship that technology embodies; today, the same logic sees all the materials of the world as "resources," classifying them according to their usefulness to man. Today we burn oil, not wood, but the mentality of burning is the same: the arrogation of stored energy to human purposes of control, accompanied by the degradation of other phases of the cycle in an unsustainable pretense of eternal linear growth.
The unsustainability of our present system derives from its linearity, its assumption of an infinite reservoir of inputs and limitless capacity for waste. Fire is a fitting metaphor for such a system, for it involves a one-way conversion of matter from one form to another, liberating energy-heat and light-in the process. Just as our economy is burning through all forms of stored cultural and natural wealth to liberate energy in the form of money, so also does our industry burn up stored fossil fuels to liberate the energy that powers our technology. Both generate heat for a while, but also increasing amounts of cold, dead, toxic ash and pollution, whether the ash-heap of wasted human lives or the strip-mine pits and toxic waste dumps of industry.
It is not that fire is unnatural. Fire, along with its biological counterpart of oxidation, is a stage of a natural cycle. Our folly is to act as if that stage could exist permanently and independently. Only someone who cannot see the whole of reality would say, "Of course we can keep the fire burning forever-when it burns low we'll just add more fuel." To believe that a larger and larger fire can be sustained forever is transparently absurd. While fuel is plentiful, perhaps, the delusion might be sustained. But today it is increasingly evident that we are running out of fuel-both social capital and natural "resources"-even as we suffocate in the ash.
The end of the Age of Fire promises a reversal of the course of separation and domination that fire has fueled. Immersed as we are in the ideology of separation, it is hard to conceive of a mode of technology that does not involve the objectification, domination, and control of nature. Yet such technologies exist, even if we hardly recognize them as such. They are based not on fire but on earth, water, light, sound, and the human body. Rooted in an ancient past, they nonetheless carry the promise of a "new age." Who knows what unconscious wisdom has named it the "Age of Aquarius"? But I shall call it the Age of Water.
Water (to risk stating the obvious) carries metaphorical connotations very different from those of fire. Water denies linearity: cycling endlessly, it is also the agent of nature's cycles, nourishing both growth and decay. Similarly it resists separation: named the "universal solvent," it tends away from purity to partake of its environment. Water is also the nemesis of control. Seeking out the tiniest crack, nothing can hold it in. As waves in the ocean, it destroys any bulwark. Whereas fire burns clean and purifies what it touches, water makes a mess. Hence the key to preserving anything-houses, books, food, clothes, metal-is to keep it dry.
Water, with its cycles and flows, its unruliness and its ubiquity on earth, could be called the essence of nature. Our dependence on water — the fact that we are made mostly of water-denies the primary conceit of civilization, that we are separate from nature or even nature's master. No more nature's master are we, than we are the master of water!
Yet for centuries we have tried to persuade ourselves otherwise. In science our pretense of mastery manifests most fundamentally in the supposition that water is a structureless jumble of identical molecules, a generic medium, any two drops the same. To a standard substance we can apply universal equations. That each part of the universe is unique is profoundly troubling to any science based on the general application of standard techniques. The same is true of technology. Only a universe constructed of generic building blocks is amenable to control. Just as the architectural engineer assumes that two steel beams of identical composition will have identical properties, so does the chemist believe the same of two samples of pure H2O.
That any two samples of H2O, or graphite, or ethanol, or any other pure chemical are identical is a dogma with enormous ramifications. It implies that the complexity and uniqueness of objects of our senses is an illusion, that they are mere permutations of the same standard building blocks. Such a view naturally corresponds to the objectification of the world, which makes of it a collection of things, masses.
The opposite view sees every piece of the universe as unique. No two drops of water, no two rocks, no two electrons are identical, but each has a unique individuality. This is essentially the view of animism, which assigned to each animate and inanimate object a spirit. To a Stone Age person, the idea that water from any source had a unique character or spirit would have seemed obvious. Modern chemistry denies it and says any apparent differences are merely due to impurities — the underlying water is the same. Animism say no-to have a spirit is to be unique, irreducibly and intrinsically unique. To have a spirit is to be special.
With the dawning of the Age of Water, we return to our animistic roots and recognize the unique, enspirited nature of each drop of water and indeed every substance in the universe. Not even the field of chemistry is immune to this paradigm shift, as it becomes increasingly apparent that water does indeed exhibit structure on several levels. Even within the mainstream, chemists and materials scientists are now recognizing that structure maintained by hydrogen bonds and van der Waals forces is responsible for many of water's anomalous properties. Few, however, believe that this structure can convey information to biological systems. Yes, water has structure, they might admit, but there is no signal in the noise.
Mainstream scientific antipathy toward meaningful structure in water was manifest in the uproar over "water memory". In 1988, a highly credentialed French allergy researcher, Jacques Benveniste, published a study in Nature claiming that water retains the properties of a dissolved solute even after the solute has been removed. He soon lost his funding, laboratory, and scientific reputation after a hand-picked group — not of chemists, but of debunkers including the professional magician James Randi — failed to reproduce his results. The Benveniste Affair was the kiss of death to any research in this field until recently. I think the hostility to the idea of meaningfully structured water goes beyond mere academic politics or Kuhnsian paradigm shift resistance. Ultimately at stake is the "building-block" conception of physical reality, which gives primacy to matter, not information, and implies an unlimited human capacity (and license) to master nature by mastering its building blocks.
So let us not content ourselves with respectable science. Consider the empirical science of homeopathy, which has been developed over two centuries to a remarkable degree of sophistication despite the absence of any cogent reductionistic theoretical underpinnings. (In other words, no one really knows how it works.) What is clear, however, is that it somehow uses water to convey the information embodied in natural substances to the body. Two different homeopathic samples of high potency may both be chemically pure H2O, but they are far from identical in their effects.
Perhaps because it is based upon water, homeopathy fosters a philosophy of healing very different from the conquest of nature that characterizes fire-based allopathy. Allopathic medicine is based on control: killing microbes, dictating hormone levels, cutting out organs and tumors. Whereas allopathic medicine dominates nature, homeopathic medicine sees nature as the body's teacher. The homeopath seeks out the natural substance that can teach the body a healthier pattern of being. Looking within nature instead of seeking to defeat or transcend it, the homeopath approaches healing in the spirit of water instead of fire.
Even further from scientific respectability, we find the work of Masura Emoto, the Japanese photographer who depicts ice crystals from water subjected to various influences: electromagnetic, emotional, musical, and so forth. Critics typically point to his failure to implement double-blinded controls and his on-line Ph.D., but apparently the substance of his work is beneath them to even address. True, his work is not rigorous, but it isn't meant to be. It is beautiful and, to those to whom it "rings true", suggestive of further directions in thought and research.
Essentially, Emoto's work confirms the metaphorical associations of water as a universal medium, a universal solvent not only for physical materials but for thoughts, feelings, energy, and information. Water carries the imprint of its environment, and since each lake, river, glass, or drop of water is uniquely located on earth, each is subject to a unique combination of influences. At the same time, since this "environment" extends to include the whole planet and beyond, each drop of water contains the informational imprint of the whole universe. Emoto's work suggests that our every thought and intention affects every drop of water on earth; it's just that the intended target of that intention, along with the water within our own bodies, is most strongly affected.
One consequence is that we cannot escape the effects of our thoughts, words, and actions. Released into the universe, they leave their imprint there, in effect reconfiguring the reality in which we live. In an Age of Water we will understand this principle. In contrast, today's ideology of the technological fix assumes that we can forever avoid the effects of our depredations, like an addict making the pain go away with another drink. But eventually, when the fixes stop working and the costs become unbearable, we will understand that, like water, all things eventually cycle back to their source.
An Age of Water will imitate the water cycle in its economics as well. Fire is the epitome of consumption, as indeed we have experienced in our millennia-long incineration of social and natural capital. Today, though, we are already seeing the precursors to the cyclical economy of the Age of Water. Waste recycling is only a start, as is zero-waste manufacturing, full-cost accounting (eliminating externalities), and non-interest currency systems. Eventually, all will coalesce into what Paul Hawken calls an "industrial ecology", mimicking the ecology of nature in which "waste is food."
Perhaps the most profound transformation of the Age of Water will be in our spirituality — how we relate ourselves to the universe. Above, when speaking of animism, I said that each water droplet or other object "has a unique spirit," but that is not quite correct. The conception of spirit as something to be "had," and therefore extrinsic to matter, is a metaphor of separation and of fire. What animism actually implies is that each thing is a unique spirit, that matter itself is spiritual, sacred, and special. Spirit can no more be abstracted out from matter than structure can be removed from the water that carries it. The Age of Water, then, is an age in which we treat the earth and everything in it as sacred.
At the same time, water teaches us that the unique spirit of any bit of matter is not discrete and separate from the rest of reality. Like all things including ourselves, water takes on the spiritual qualities of everything that surrounds it; thanks to its ubiquity and receptivity, it is also the medium of this communion of all with all. Unique we are, each one of us, yet no more separate than two drops of water in the ocean.
Image by essjay, courtesy of Creative Commons license.