When I was 14 years old I embarked upon a reading program that included The Gulag Archipelago, A People's History of the United States, 1984, Silent Spring, and a volume of much lesser stature entitled The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich. The latter was a Malthusian work predicting mass starvation in the 1980s unless impossibly drastic measures were adopted. Essentially, it predicted the end of the world as we know it. And after reading those other books, some part of me secretly hoped it were true.
Skip ahead a couple decades to the late 90s. The world hadn't ended yet, but there was still hope: Y2K. I read compelling analyses of the magnitude of the problem and the impossibility of a timely solution. Too much legacy code, too much interdependency. The power grid and all that depends on it was going to come down on January 1, 2000.
Well, that date came and went too. Fortunately, new world-ending calamities continue to offer themselves: Peak Oil, for example, or a financial meltdown, or the collapse of the global conveyor belt system of ocean currents. People become obsessed with one or another of these potential crises, visiting Peak Oil websites every day for the latest news showing the imminence of the Crash. And when it doesn't come and doesn't come, they feel somehow disappointed or even betrayed.
And now of course we have the 2012 meme, another story of the end of the world as we know it. Can you imagine the disappointment there will be if that year comes and goes with no earth-shattering, unmistakable shift?
So why this longing for "the Big One"? Why do certain pundits evince such unmistakable relish when they lay out the case for Peak Oil or financial collapse? To be sure, anguish colors their enthusiasm in varying degrees. (Environmental activists are usually the most outright despondent.) Part of the longing for the Big One is a desire to be proven indubitably right: I told you so! A larger part is the desire for a wake-up call, something that will shock the public out of its complacency. Then we would see the error of our ways and devote ourselves to the healing of the planet, right? We would abandon our consumerism, our militarism, or whatever other foolishness relates to the issue at hand. Here would be the shock that transforms the medical system, the educational system, the agricultural system, the political system, the economic system. Lo! We would repent and see the error of our ways.
The eschatological flavor of the various doomsday predictions hints at a deep resonance within the human psyche that transcends political identity. I've noticed that Christian fundamentalists obsessed with End Times seem to radiate an emotional energy very similar to that of the environmental doomsayers. Their politics, their policy prescriptions, and their opinions about the source of the problem are diametrically opposed, but they share a similar righteous indignation that cycles back and forth to lonely, brooding despair. They also share an impatience with those who just don't get it, and a smug satisfaction that "they'll see". When the Trump sounds and they aren't ready, they'll see. When gas goes up to $15 a gallon, they'll see. When the faucet runs dry in Atlanta, they'll see. When the President dissolves Congress, they'll see. When the UFOs land on the White House lawn, they'll see.
A third component of the longing for the Big One is a desire for transcendence. It comes from a valiant dissatisfaction with the lesser lives and less beautiful world that we have come to accept as normal. It intuits that life, individual and collective, can be far more magnificent than what we are used to, and further that this can only happen through a transformation so fundamental as to remake the world itself. This longing is the positive image of Freud's thanatos, the death-wish; it underlies our great archetypes of Revolution and Utopia; and, I believe, it seeks the fulfillment of a developmental process on both the civilizational and the personal level.
You see, the doomsayers are basically correct! For people immersed in the study of any of the crises that afflict our planet, it becomes abundantly obvious that we are doomed. Politics, finance, energy, education, health care, and most importantly the ecosystem are headed toward near-certain collapse. In the years I spent writing The Ascent of Humanity, I became familiar with each of these crises of civilization, enough to get some sense of their enormity and inevitability. Every year I would wonder whether this might be the last "normal" year of our era. I felt the dread of what a collapse might bring, and visited the despair of knowing that our best efforts to avert it are dwarfed by the forces driving us toward catastrophe.
On the other side of that despair I found optimism. Not a blind optimism that ignores the magnitude of our crisis, but a practical one that sees and integrates all the ugly facts of our world. We face not the end of the world, but the end of the world as we know it, and a birth into a new kind of human beingness. But in case you think I just don't get how bad things are, let me establish my doom-and-gloom credentials.
First and foremost, I am aware of the environmental crisis: climate change, desertification, coral bleaching, tree death, topsoil erosion, habitat destruction, irreversible loss of biodiversity, toxic and radioactive waste, the PCBs in every living cell, the vast swaths of disappearing rainforests, the dead rivers, lakes and seas, the slag heaps and quarry pits, the living world reduced to profit and pavement.
I am aware of Peak Oil and the dependency of all aspects of our economic infrastructure and food supply on fossil fuels. And I realize that no conventionally-recognized alternative energy source can possibly hope to replace oil and gas any time soon.
I am aware of the impending health crisis: the epidemic rise of autoimmune diseases; the causes and effects of heavy metal poisoning, electromagnetic, chemical, and genetic pollution. I am aware of the degeneration of the modern diet, the toxicity and impotence of most pharmaceutical drugs, the suppression of alternative therapies.
I am aware of the fragility of the global financial system, a Ponzi scheme five hundred years in the making, and the hyperinflation, currency collapse, and depression waiting for the day when the American debt pyramid can no longer be sustained.
I know about the political trend toward fascism and the surveillance state, the barely-concealed contingency plans for martial law, the concentration of media, and the ubiquitous propaganda machine so successful that even its operators are unconscious of it that legitimizes the hijacking of government for profit in the world's most heavily armed nation. I know of the machinations of the global power elite, its addiction to the arms, narcotics, and prison industries, and its increasing desperation to hold onto power as Things Fall Apart. Nor do I imagine that we can cleanse the system by removing a few bad apples, because I understand that nearly every important institution of our civilization is complicit in this plunder.
I am aware that the bloody terror that has long stalked civilization remains essentially undiminished today. My optimism does not ignore the babies smashed to death against walls in front of their mothers. It does not ignore the genocide repeated throughout history, with no end in sight. Nor I am ignorant of the widespread torture happening in prisons and police stations around the world, including my own country.
My optimism is cognizant of the ongoing destruction of the world's languages, cultures, and communities at the hands of the all-consuming global corporate-consumer monoculture. I know about factory working conditions in the Third World, and the utter destitution and despair that prevail there. I have met people working eighty-hour workweeks, barely subsisting, so that the developed world can suffocate under useless piles of plastic junk that contribute to its own brand of misery.
I am aware that even the winners, the most privileged under the present global regime, are actually among its most pitiable victims. I have witnessed the alienation, despair, and loneliness of the very rich, whose acquisition of mansions, money, sports cars, wealth, prestige, and power do nothing to fill the inner void.
I have observed our schools turning into prisons, complete in some cases with barbed wire barricades, metal detectors, random locker searches, uniforms, prohibitions on personal articles, drug testing, armed guards, undercover police, video surveillance, and chemical control over those who will not submit. I know of parents threatened with legal action for failing to medicate their children.
Nor does my optimism depend on the god Technology come to save us, for I am aware that technology has abetted the despoliation of the planet, the acceleration of the pace of life, and the dehumanization of the world as it is converted into money, property, and data.
So please do not think that I am an optimist only because I do not recognize the true dimensions of the crisis. I have integrated it all, and remain an optimist. The kind of optimism associated with a blithe disregard for the fact that many people today live in Hell and are creating more Hell is no optimism at all, but mere fantasy. It is the kind of optimism that paves over a toxic waste dump and forgets it was ever anything but a parking lot. Out of sight, out of mind.
As the parking lot metaphor suggests, false optimism of this sort is actually a recipe for disaster. My optimism is of a different sort, independent of the logic of the technological fix, which says that these problems swept under the rug don't matter-that science, after all, will find an answer, that technology will find a way. By now, I think most of us see through that, as the long-awaited technological Utopia recedes ever farther into the future.
It is not my purpose to persuade you that we indeed face an environmental, financial, political, energy, soil, medical, or water crisis. Others have done so far more compellingly than I could. Nor is it my aim to inspire you with hope that they may be averted. They cannot be, because the things that must happen to avert them will only happen as their consequence. All present proposals for changing course in time to avert a crash are wildly impractical. My optimism is based on knowing that the definition of "practical" and "possible" will soon change as we collectively hit bottom.
Another way to put it is that my optimism depends on a miracle. No, not a supernatural agency come to save us. What is a miracle? A miracle comes from a new sense of what is possible, born from a surrender of the attempt to manage and control life. In individual experience miracles often happen when life overwhelms us. For an alcoholic, to suggest "just stop drinking" is ludicrous, impossible, unimaginable. It takes a miracle. The changes that need to happen to save the planet are the same. No mainstream politician is proposing them; few are even aware of just how deep the changes must go.
When the above-mentioned crises converge, when we experience acutely and undeniably that the situation is out of control, when the failure of the old regime is utterly transparent, then solutions that appear hopelessly radical today will become matters of common sense.
And this will happen. The timing of each crisis is uncertain, but the forces driving them are inexorable and cannot fail to be expressed sooner or later. Processes set in motion long ago have accelerated past critical mass; we are just beginning to taste their effects. Even if we somehow stopped making new pollution right now, the cumulative effects of existing ecological damage are enough to generate catastrophe. The same inevitability is true in other realms as well: public health, education, finance, and politics. It is already too late. It is only a matter of how soon, how bad, how long. However bad you think it is, it is probably worse. Read books like The Dying of the Trees or Boiling Point if you don't believe me.
Like the Titanic, the momentum of technological society is so huge that even if we reversed the engines and steered hard right now, the short-term and mid-term course of events would not change much. We are on a collision course with nature that can no longer be averted. Yet not only have we done little to brake or steer away from the looming iceberg, we have maintained an oblivious policy of "full speed ahead!" In the United States, Republican policy has been essentially, "What iceberg?" while the Democrats try to change course by a few degrees but not so quickly as to spill the drinks on the first class deck. The "practical" proposals and workable compromises on the table are woefully inadequate. One party repudiates the Kyoto Treaty and the other endorses it, but few acknowledge that even that is far too little, far too late. Outside the United States, "developing" countries such as India and China, abetted by Western institutions, stoke the Titanic's furnaces with their headlong industrialization using the old linear model of extraction, processing, consumption, and waste.
And meanwhile, on deck the party continues, as it will continue to continue even after the first crunch reverberates through the ship, even as the icy torrent consumes compartment after compartment. On the top deck the band will play on even as the ship lists and rolls, maintaining a desperate and deadly illusion of normalcy.
At this point the utter bankruptcy of the program of competition, security, and financial independence will become so flagrantly obvious that no one will be able to ignore it. I once read a pessimistic book of the business genre forecasting a polarized society of crime-ridden slums and wealthy walled, gated, fenced, alarmed, guarded communities. The author's advice was to contrive to live in the latter! This is tantamount to climbing to the highest deck of a sinking ship. Everyone speaks of the intensifying competitiveness of the present era, evoking in my mind masses of rats struggling and clawing for the top where they will perish but a few minutes later than the rest.
Yes, you can locate yourself as far as possible from the war zones, trash incinerators, toxic waste dumps, smog zones, bad neighborhoods, and other perils of an increasingly toxic world, but sooner or later the converging crises of our era will obliterate all defenses. No matter how diversified your investments, no matter how many guns in your walled compound or cans of food in your basement, the tide of calamity will eventually engulf you. Gates, locks, razor wire and guns can ensure security only temporarily, and a fraudulent, anxious security it is. Eventually we will abandon our bunker mentality and understand that the only security comes through giving, opening, and being at the center of a flux of relationships, not taking more and more for self; security comes not from independence but from interdependence. The survivors will not be those who try to insulate themselves in a fortress, but who are able to give, to help, and to contribute to a community. They will form the basis of a new kind of civilization.
Our crises are converging within a ten or twenty-year timespan because they are related. Each helps precipitate the others, even as each arises from a common source. We can see harbingers of what is to come when politicians use terrorism as a pretext to abrogate civil liberties and intensify the recording and controlling of people's activities. In Asia the same thing happened during the SARS crisis, as it might here under contingency plans for influenza or smallpox epidemics. And historically, the connection between economic collapse and political fascism is well-documented. Already drought and ecological degradation are beginning to generate refugees; imagine the political instability that could result when today's localized disasters coalesce and swell into regional or global environmental degeneration. Nations are already at war over oil; imagine the consequences of shortages not just in energy but in food and water too.
The foregoing doom-and-gloom scenario might seem familiar in tone if not in details, but consider that it may be not just The End but a Beginning as well, a birthing crisis that will propel us into a new age based on a different sense of self. This is not to say we can sit back and wait for the birthing to happen. Despite the inevitability of our gathering crisis, the seemingly futile efforts of generations of activists to avert it are extremely important. If you are such a person, facing down despair to tackle impossibly huge problems, take heart that your work is not in vain. While it is true that no effort at renewable energy, wastewater recycling, local currency, wetlands preservation, or reform of any aspect of society is going to avert catastrophe, these efforts are sowing seeds for the planetary renewal that can happen after the present regime collapses, after the addict has hit bottom upon the exhaustion of his very last technical fix.
All the technical solutions for living sustainably and harmoniously exist already, and indeed always have existed. What is required is a shift in consciousness, a reconception of ourselves as individuals and as a species that will reverse the widening separation and deepening misery of the past millennia, but that, paradoxically, will only come as their result.
The shift in consciousness I speak of is not predicated upon any sort of technological invention, nor does it insist on a regression in our technological level. Once it happens, though-and it is already beginning to happen-vast technological consequences will proceed as a matter of course. Visionary people are pioneering these material and social technologies today, in response to the increasing futility of the old modes of management and control. That their inventions are not adopted on a wide scale simply means that the requisite shift in consciousness has yet to manifest. They are simply inconsistent with who we are today. We already know everything we need to know it is just a matter of growing into it.
The mechanisms by which society suppresses the technologies of sustainability all rest on the same core delusion: the discrete and separate self living in an objective universe of Other. In economics, this delusion manifests as interest and the externalization of costs. These in turn present an insuperable barrier to processes based on cyclical flow. In science, the same delusion blinds us to other conceptions of what is possible and practical, generating barriers to the acceptance of new understanding and new technologies. In medicine it focuses research within the old us-versus-them mentality that is constitutionally unable to grapple with the new autoimmune diseases, and classifies other modalities as unscientific. In the areas of politics, law, and education the paradigm of control eliminates solutions that do not extend the ordering, numbering, standardizing, and controlling of the world.
The fact that the regime of separation appears to be reaching new heights, the fact that the whole globe is falling into the grip of the monetization of life and the commodification of relationship, the fact that the numbering, labeling, and controlling of the world and everything in it is approaching unprecedented extremes, does not mean that prospects for a more beautiful world are receding into the distance. Rather, like a wave rolling toward shore, the Age of Separation rears up to its maximum height even as it hollows out in the moment before it crashes. This crash, inevitable eons ago, is upon us today. As for the world that we can build thereafter, we can see glimpses of it in all the "alternatives" presented today with so little effect.
The present convergence of crises was written into the future thousands of years ago. It is the inevitable culmination of the separation that began in the deep past, and that once initiated, could do no other than to build upon itself. From the very moment we began to see ourselves as apart from nature, our doom was sealed. While the impending crash is all too plain today, it was much harder to foresee centuries or millennia ago when the world was still large and we were still few and the effects of treating the world as an other were easy to escape. Nonetheless, throughout history perceptive individuals have seen the writing on the wall, the inevitable destination toward which our conception of self and world propels us. Long ago they saw the first stirrings of a gathering calamity written into who we are, and they couched their insights in the language of myth and metaphor.
Some of their metaphors are quite striking. Plagues of locusts symbolizing the ecology gyrating out of balance; boils symbolizing the diseases we have brought upon ourselves. Wars and rumors of wars. The Whore of Babylon, representing the commoditization of sexuality but also the prostituting of the sacred in general. The end-of-the-world prophecies so popular in American fundamentalist Christianity today tap into an authentic realization, except for the idea that our salvation will come from without. They imagine Jesus coming down from the sky to take away the True Believers in a rapturous escape from a world we have ruined. It is a thought form exactly parallel to that of the techno-utopians. Only the identity of their god is different.
The same awareness of gathering crisis manifests subconsciously in mass society as an all-pervading dread. Subtle when times are good, even the best of times cannot allay the ambient anxiety that pervades the ebb and flow of life and business-the very same anxiety that is embedded in our science and our dominator technology. Infusing our entire culture, anxiety fuels our defining compulsion to control.
Accordingly, for thousands of years now people have been predicting the end of the world and soon! Though their frequent postponement of the date of Armageddon detracts from their credibility, the basic psychic energy behind the loonies holding up placards on Times Square comes from a real source. They are tapping into a true insight: the edifice of civilization has an irremediable structural flaw that dictates its eventual collapse. We are on a collision course with nature and with human nature.
This long chiliastic tradition, going back to the originators of myths like Armageddon and Ragnarok the battle at the end of the world has consistently underestimated just how far separation could proceed, the depths of alienation we could reach, and the capacity of the technologies of control to patch up and shore up the teetering edifice of civilization. And perhaps I too am premature: perhaps we will continue to manage the proliferating consequences of past technology; perhaps the mad scramble to compensate for the lost functioning of ecosystem, polity, and body will be successful for a long time to come; and perhaps we will find as yet unimagined new realms of social, natural, cultural, and spiritual capital to feed the engine of perpetual growth.
Perhaps. For a time. But even if we find a way to hold off for another century the looming convergence of crises, everything I am telling you is still valid.
Notably, these world-ending myths had also in common that the ending is not of the world per se, but of the world as we know it. Some even described a vision of what was to come thereafter. Like the world-ending battle, the world thereafter projects into the collective unconscious as intuition and myth. Deep deep down, we all know that a much better world is possible, and more than possible, certain, someday. Ultimately it is this knowing, and not the ideology of the Technological Program, that generates the "Gee Whiz The Future!" myth. The Technological Program ideology merely coopts this intuitively sensed future by claiming it will be brought about by more of the same rather than by its collapse.
The same knowing comes out also in the age-old myth of heaven which, though idealized and abstracted under the regime of dualism into a realm separate from earth, nonetheless portends on a metaphoric level the necessity of the end of life-as-we-know-it. Even the procedure for entering heaven usually involves some kind of transcendence of the customary self, a letting go of the old ways of being; as the Christian formulation has it, to be reborn in Christ. In the same way, the glorious estate to which humanity may ascend after the convergence can only come after the breakdown in our collective self-definition as distinct from nature and exempt from nature's rules.
The visions of utopia that have recurred throughout the modern age are more than technologicalist propaganda, but hark as well to that universal certainty that a world is possible far more beautiful than what we have wrought today. Yet as the word Utopia, which literally means "no such place," implies, we can never attain such a world through the types of efforts that have brought us to where we are today. Utopia will not be achieved by better science, more precise technology, finer control over inner or outer reality. It will not happen by trying harder to be good, and not by better controlling nature or human nature. Quite the opposite. The Hell we have created originated in the program to objectify and control nature. It is only by transcending that program and its accompanying conception of self that we can expect to create anything other than a further intensification of what we have today.
In parallel with Millenarian predictions of doomsday, New Age proclamations of the dawning Age of Aquarius have also proven premature. But that doesn't mean these visions are false. The Sixties hippies who knew beyond doubt that in ten years, war, money, laws, school, and so on would be obsolete were seeing a true future, a true inevitability that is not invalidated by the fact that most of them went on to become dentists. Once when my brother was standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the ex-hippie standing next to him said, "Man, we were through with all this. In the Sixties we were finished with lines and forms and ID's." To the hippies it seemed obvious that all these institutions were obsolete, that they would wither away in the light of expanded consciousness quickly overtaking the planet. A few short years, that was all it would take.
The hippies were not mistaken. Indeed, for some the end of the old civilization manifested, subjectively, in their own lifetimes as they dropped out of the matrix. Some are still living today in the interstitial spaces of our society, nearly invisible, and neither money nor laws nor war is part of their experience. They are akin to the Taoist Immortals of Chinese legend who fade away from normal society into remote mountains, invisible to anyone subject to the usual cultural blinders, and interceding but rarely in human affairs. For the rest, those that stepped back from their vision to become dentists and lawyers, the future they saw with such compelling clarity remains just that, a future. What they saw was true; only their temporal interpretation of that vision was off.
It is an inevitable future, yes, but also, paradoxically, one that we have the power to postpone indefinitely, to the day when every last vestige of beauty is consumed.
For many people, the convergence of crises has already happened, propelling them, like the hippies or Taoist Immortals, into a release of controlled, bounded, separate conceptions of self, away from the technologies of separation, and toward new systems of money, education, technology, medicine, and language. In various ways, they withdraw from the apparatus of the Machine. When crises converge, life as usual no longer makes sense, opening the way for a rebirth, a spiritual transformation. Mystics throughout the ages have recognized that heaven is not some distant, separate realm located at the end of life and time, but rather is available always, interpenetrating ordinary existence. As Jesus said, "The Kingdom of the Father is in us and among us." This is the esoteric meaning Matthew Fox ascribes to the Second Coming: not a single definable event in objective time, but the sum total of all our temporally separated, fitful, but inexorable awakenings to Christ consciousness. What is special about our age is that the fulfillment of processes of separation on the collective level are causing this personal convergence of crises, and the subsequent awakening to a new sense of self, to happen to many people all at once.
The promise of a recovery of a long-lost Golden Age reverberates through countless myths. The heart-chord it strikes has inspired visionaries and idealists from time immemorial. As well, it fuels a healthy discontent the flip side of modern anxiety that refuses to believe that this is the best we can do. It is an indignation, a muted outrage that can be allayed temporarily by comforts and luxuries, that can be subdued, temporarily, by survival anxiety, that is always strongest in the young, and that lies latent in all of us, ever-ready to be roused into a crusading idealism, though often coopted toward the perpetuation of the very conditions that give it rise. It is my purpose, dear reader, to give voice to your indignation and to reaffirm your intuitive knowledge that life is meant to be more.
Today we already can catch a glimpse of the technologies-social forms as well as paradigms of material production-of a future in love with life, which encompasses the love of being alive as well as the love of living beings. They are the technologies of sun, soil, and water, of bioenergy and rhythm, light and sound, word and touch, mind and dreaming, matter and information. All of them arise from and embody a different understanding of self and world. Just as present-day social forms and technologies both spring from and reinforce separation, 21st century technology will be both a cause and an effect of separation's reversal-a very different understanding of the universe articulated on every level from psychology to cosmology. As our crises intensify we will be faced with new choices and new possibilities. Let us recognize the full ramifications and full power of the choices that will soon open up to us.
Image by Trey Ratcliff, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.