We are called to be the architects of the future, not its victims.
Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.
Chief Sitting Bull
How many civilizations have risen and fallen on our planet? How many species have lived and died in our solar system? How many species have formed, lived, thrived, and advanced, only to expire, in our galaxy? How many technologically advanced civilizations in the universe created their own demise by depleting their resources, or succeeded and evolved to immense complexity, only to be wiped out by some unforeseen cataclysm? How many civilizations have evolved past anything we could imagine, and exist presently as beyond our comprehension? The Drake equation, a probabilistic argument used to determine the number of active and communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, was theorized by Frank Drake in 1961. Though Drake’s original estimates have been modified since that time, he began an important dialogue that offered an alternative to the implausible anthropocentric notion that humans are the only advanced civilization in our galaxy, let alone our universe. Since that dialogue began, it seems much more likely that many other life forms and civilizations, some far more advanced than ours, populate the universe. With the recent discovery of exoplanets similar to our own within our galaxy, the probability increases that we are not alone even within our tiny corner of the vast universe.
We do know for sure that universal forces create births and deaths, ebbs and flows, oscillations, cycles, epochs, and ages, and give rise to earthlings—and, most likely, to many other life forms unrecognizable to us. From our narrow perspective, we can only conjecture what might be going on elsewhere in the universe. Shamans and visionaries, artists and scientists, poets and physicists, have attempted to transcend the limitations of human consciousness and reach into a realm of possibility beyond the known.
Current images of possible futures tend to be highly polarized. Science fiction paints shining utopias and bleak wastelands, peaceful and harmonious planetary societies or war-torn, chaotic dystopian hordes of cannibals and postapocalyptic mutants. As a child, my imagination covered a spectrum of possible futures, both hopeful and terrifying: dreams of bright futures in deep space mingled with dark nightmares of a nuclear apocalypse.
Science fiction and speculation occupied my adolescent imagination as the line between science fiction and scientific theory grew thin with advances in technology. Increasingly, whatever could be imagined eventually became real. I began to suspect that our imaginations had a lot to do with our future. I realized that the impossible becomes possible given enough time. What we only imagine now may yet come to pass; what we imagine matters more than we think. Not only does what we imagine for our future matter, but how we imagine it may be even more important.
In the face of climate change, overpopulation, mass extinctions, cyclical catastrophic events, near-Earth asteroids, religious wars, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, superbugs, and potentially malevolent AI, our imaginations seem about as capable of addressing our problems as a wet match in a hailstorm. Some scientists caution that even if we shift away from fossil fuels, biodiversity will not recover for thousands of years. More hopeful discourses suggest that rapid technological shifts could salvage the future and even create an advanced civilization. Whatever the case, the Anthropocene marks the end of a golden age of delusion, the beginning of a humbling unknown.
Sacred futurism views all these stories as powerfully interactive. Our ability to embrace uncertainty with imagination, compassion, and hope affects our role in the unfolding universal story. Joanna Macy has called this the time of the “Great Turning,” and invokes the powerful metaphor of three rivers: “Now, in our time, these three rivers—anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs, and ancestral teachings—flow together” to help us face the unknown.1 Transformation tends to converge what we consider disparate: birth and death, old and new, despair and hope. Tension between opposites creates the warp and woof of life’s mysteries. Nature requires us to tolerate this tension, and as we learn to flow with it, we discover the essence of transformation.
Nature’s Terms and Cosmogenesis
Author Kurt Vonnegut said in a famous letter to the future: “It (nature) has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well.” He went on to suggest that in the face of such incredible forces, such unpredictability, and the constant possibility of annihilation
are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:
- Reduce and stabilize your population.
- Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
- Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
- Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
- Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
- Stop thinking your grandchildren will be okay no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
And so on. Or else.2
Vonnegut furnished that perspicuous list in 1988, but humans continue to resist living by nature’s terms. Anthropocene nature challenges our resistance. We continue to think that science can fix everything if we give it a trillion dollars. Science can indeed fix many things, but it cannot fix or alter nature’s terms. Those terms are nonnegotiable. Life is complex, and nature’s terms are simple. We cannot reduce complexity, but we can expand our own creativity to include, first and foremost, a better understanding of those terms. In this hypercomplex age, we need to use our creativity to inquire more deeply into nature’s terms and how we honor and respect them.
In The Universe Story, visionary cosmologists Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme describe their adaptation of Albert Einstein’s cosmological principle, which states that, on a large scale, the universe exhibits homogeneity and isotropy, operating according to the same physical laws throughout.3 In addition, the cosmogenetic principle claims that evolution of the universe involves three key characteristics: differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion.
Berry and Swimme describe the tendency for all systems in the universe to generate a cascade of ever-expanding complexity through symmetry-breaking differentiation. As this cascading process continues, higher orders of increasing complexity self-organize, and new systems with new capacities emerge. Although the universe’s complexity expands in a dazzling kaleidoscopic of patterns, everything remains related, interconnected, and in deep communion—the sacred fundament of cosmic evolution.
Nature’s planetary terms relate to how the cosmogenetic principle expresses itself through Earth and its inhabitants. All beings, each a minicosmos or microcosm, operate according to these principles.
Vonnegut uses the phrase “surrender terms,” which implies that nature stands as a formidable enemy to whom we must raise a white flag. Instead of “surrender,” I prefer the idea of acceptance. We would do well to accept nature’s terms—regarding them as an opportunity for transformation, by choosing to participate in the process, knowing that nature, while formidable and irreducible, also displays generous and wonderful complexity. If we attempt to reduce complexity, we end up disconnected from the flow of cosmic unfolding. Complexity can be met only with active and intentional communion as we encounter each ambiguous, even perilous, moment with curiosity, humility, and inquiry.
Architects of Complexity
In the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller gave a powerful call to the world: “We are called to be the architects of the future, not its victims.” To this he added an equally powerful and provocative challenge: “[to] make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.”4
This crucial question requires a shift to a new way of thinking that I have discussed in this book so far: partnership instead of domination, and synergy instead of mastery. Using the insights of panpsychism and complexity thinking, this book aims to augment Fuller’s vision by establishing a sacred foundation for futurism. In the spirit of embodied envisioning and sacred futurism, I ask: How can we make the world work for as many sentient beings as possible in the shortest possible time through synergic creativity, minimizing ecological damage or disadvantage to any species?
Does this seem naïve, idealistic, radical? Synergic creativity thrives on inquiry, especially radical inquiry. The word radical, after all, comes from Latin radix, or “root.” In order to face insurmountable problems, we must ask the most impossible-seeming questions, which dig deeply into our existential roots. To secure a sacred future, we need to ask radical questions such as what kind of future will support the well-being of all species’ cultures? How might different answers to these questions coexist and support each other? The answer lies in our ability to tolerate, and even embrace, complexity. We have to recognize that all nonhumans and humans share the same cosmological origin—and that we become through differentiation, self-creation, and are reunited through communion. Communion requires the ability to connect and co-create through complex consciousness, so that we might see the real magic in each other and the world. This expanded, or enchanted, epistemology offers us that possibility. I call the radical revisioning of our world that offers us that greater possibility of futurity radical enchantment.
Philosopher Freya Mathews describes the panpsychist worldview as “enchanted,” meaning that we live in a landscape of intersubjectivity. She suggests that we are “permeable” to other subjectivities, and that permeability leaves us open to cotransformation.5 Similarly, ethnographer Anna Tsing offers the idea that encounters are “indeterminate; we are unpredictably transformed.” She suggests that “radical curiosity beckons.”6 Radical enchantment combines complex consciousness, the enchanted worldview, and radical curiosity toward navigating a hypercomplex futurity that offers unexpected opportunities for cotransformation.
Edgar Morin cautions that we tend to think of futures in terms of either/or because of oppositional rather than inclusive thinking. He explains that uncertainty, complexity, and the dynamic nature of living systems means that what seems impossible becomes paradoxically possible.
We are . . . faced with the unheard of paradox in which realism becomes utopian and the possible becomes impossible. However, this paradox also tells us that there is a realistic utopia, and that there is a possible impossible. The principle of the uncertainty of reality is an opening in both realism and the impossible.7
If we give up because our current utopian visions elude us and allow ourselves to become paralyzed by dystopian nihilism, we become the victims of the future. What if, instead, we imagine how to synthesize the complexity of the world not through reducing it, but using synergic creativity, guided by both/and thinking? Where we crave certainty, we cultivate curiosity—about ourselves, each other, and our world. We transform with the world while learning how the world could be, transcending our fears in courageous communion. Transform, commune, and evolve. That is no guarantee, but it is a possibility.