The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein
The Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the convergence of crises that is birthing the transition
More than any other species, human beings are gifted with the power to manipulate our environment, and the ability to accumulate and transmit knowledge across generations. The first of these gifts we call technology; the other we call culture. They are central to our humanity.
Accumulating over thousands of years, culture and technology have brought us into a separate human realm. We live, more than any animal, surrounded by our own artifacts. Among these are works of surpassing beauty, complexity, and power, human creations that could not have existed—could not even have been conceived—in the times of our forebears. Seldom do we pause to appreciate the audacity of our achievements: objects as mundane as a compact disc, a video cellphone, an airplane would have seemed fantastical only a few centuries ago. We have created a realm of magic and miracles.
At the same time, it is quite easy to see technology and culture not as gifts but as a curse. After millennia of development, the power to manipulate the environment has become the power to destroy it, while the ability to transmit knowledge transmits as well a legacy of hatred, injustice, and violence. Today, as both the destruction and the violence reach a feverish crescendo, few can deny that the world is in a state of crisis. Opinions vary as to its exact nature: some people say it is primarily ecological; others say it is a moral crisis, a social, economic, or political crisis, a health crisis, even a spiritual crisis. There is, however, little disagreement that the crisis is of human origin. Hence, despair: is the present ruination of the world built in to our humanity?
Is genocide and ecocide the inevitable price of civilization's magnificence? Need the most sublime achievements of art, music, literature, science, and technology be built upon the wreckage of the natural world and the misery of its inhabitants? Can the microchip come without the oil slick, the strip mine, the toxic waste dump? Under the shadow of every Chartres Cathedral, must there be women burning at the stake? In other words, can the gift of technology and culture somehow be separated from the curse?
The dashed Utopian dreams of the last few centuries leave little hope. Despite the miracles we have produced, people across the ideological spectrum, from Christian fundamentalists to environmental activists, share a foreboding that the world is in grave and growing peril. Temporary, localized improvements cannot hide the ambient wrongness that pervades the warp and woof of modern society, and often our personal lives as well. We might manage each immediate problem and control every foreseeable risk, but an underlying disquiet remains. I am referring simply to the feeling, "Something is wrong around here." Something so fundamentally wrong that centuries of our best and brightest efforts to create a better world have failed or even backfired. As this realization sinks in, we respond with despair, cynicism, numbness, or detachment.
Yet no matter how complete the despair, no matter how bitter the cynicism, a possibility beckons of a world more beautiful and a life more magnificent than what we know today. Though we may rationalize it, it is not rational. We become aware of it in moments, gaps in the rush and press of modern life. These moments come to us alone in nature, or with a baby, making love, playing with children, caring for a dying person, making music for the sake of music or beauty for the sake of beauty. At such times, a simple and easy joy shows us the futility of the vast, life-consuming program of management and control.
We intuit also that something similar is possible collectively. Some of may have experienced it when we find ourselves cooperating naturally and effortlessly, instruments of a purpose greater than ourselves that, paradoxically, makes us individually more and not less when we abandon ourselves to it. It is what musicians are referring to when they say, "The music played the band."
Another way of being is possible, and it is right in front of us, closer than close; that much is transparently certain. Yet it slips away so easily that we hardly believe it could be the foundation of life; so we relegate it to an afterlife and call it Heaven, or we relegate it to the future and call it Utopia. (When nanotechnology solves all our problems. . . when we all learn to be nice to each other. . . when finally I'm not so busy. . .) Either way, we set it apart from this world and this life, and thereby deny its practicality and its reality in the here-and-now. Yet the knowledge that life is more than Just This cannot be suppressed, not forever.
Whether for myself or for the world, I share with dreamers, Utopians, and teenagers an unreasonable intuition of a magnificent potential, that life and the world can be more than we have made of them.
What error, then, what delusion has led us to accept the lesser lives and the lesser world we find ourselves in today? What has rendered us helpless to resist the ugliness, pollution, injustice, and downright horror that has risen to engulf the planet in the last few centuries? What calamity has so resigned us to it, that we call this the human condition? Those moments of love, freedom, serenity, play—what power has made us believe these are but respites from real life?
Inspired by such moments, I have spent the last ten years trying to understand what keeps us—and what keeps me—from the better world that our hearts tell us must exist. To my endless amazement, I keep discovering a common root underneath all the diverse crises of the modern age. Underlying the vast swath of ruin our civilization has carved is not human nature, but the opposite: human nature denied. This denial of human nature rests in turn upon an illusion, a misconception of self and world. We have defined ourselves as other than what we are, as discrete subjects separate from each other and separate from the world around us. In a way this is good news: in this book I will describe the profound changes that will flow—and are already flowing—from the reconception of the self that is underway. The bad news is that our present conception of self is so deeply woven into our civilization—into our technology and culture—that its abandonment can only come with the collapse of much that is familiar. This is what the present convergence of crises portends.
Everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph about our civilization also applies to each of us individually. Saints and mystics have tried for thousands of years to teach us how we are trapped in a delusion about who we are. This delusion inevitably brings about suffering, and eventually a crisis that can only be resolved through a collapse, a surrender, and an opening to a state of being beyond previous self-limitation. You are not, they tell us, a "flesh-encapsulated ego", and lasting happiness can never result from pursuing that ego's agenda. These spiritual teachings have helped me realize, at least partway, my intuitions of what work, love, human relationship, and health can be. They are not the main subject of this book, however, nor do I claim to exemplify them in my own life. Nonetheless, the shift in our collective self-conception is intimately related to a parallel shift in our individual self-conception. In other words, there is a spiritual dimension to the planetary crisis.
As this planetary crisis invades our individual lives, unavoidably, neither the personal nor the collective misconception of who we are will remain tenable. Each mirrors the other: in its origins, its consequences, and its resolution. That is why this book interweaves the story of humanity's separation from nature with the story of our individual alienation from life, nature, spirit, and self.
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Despite my faith that life is meant to be more, little voices whisper in my ear that I am crazy. Nothing is amiss, they say, this is just the way things are. The rising tide of human misery and ecological destruction, as old as civilization, is simply the human condition, an inevitable result of built-in human flaws like selfishness and laziness. Since you can't change it, be thankful for your good fortune in avoiding it. The misery of much of the planet is a warning, say the voices, to protect me and mine, impelling me to maximize my security.
Besides, it couldn't be as bad as I think. If all that stuff were true—about the ecological destruction, the genocide, the starving children, and the whole litany of impending crises—then wouldn't everyone be in an uproar about it? The normalcy of the routines surrounding me here in America tells me, "It couldn't be that bad." That little voice echoes throughout the culture. Every advertising flyer, every celebrity news item, every product catalog, every hyped-up sports event, carries the subtext, "You can afford to care about this." A man in a burning house wouldn't care about these things; that our culture does care about them, almost exclusively, implies that our house is not burning down. The forests are not dying. The deserts are not spreading. The atmosphere is not heating. Children are not starving. Torturers are not going free. Whole ethnicities are not being exterminated. These crimes against humanity and crimes against nature couldn't really be happening. Probably they have been exaggerated; in any event, they are happening somewhere else. Our society will figure out solutions before the calamities of the Third World affect me. See, no one else is worried, are they? Life hums on as usual.
As for my intuition of magnificent possibilities for my own life, well, my expectations are too high. Grow up, the voices say, life is just like this. What right have I to expect the unreasonable magnificence whose possibility certain moments have shown me? No, it is my intuitions that are not to be trusted. The examples of what life is surround me and define what is normal. Do I see anyone around me whose work is their joy, whose time is their own, whose love is their passion? It can't happen. Be thankful, say the voices, that my job is reasonably stimulating, that I feel "in love" at least once in a while, that the pain is manageable and life's uncertainties under control. Let good enough be good enough. Sure, life can be a drag, but at least I can afford to escape it sometimes. Life is about work, self-discipline, responsibility, but if I get these out of the way quickly and efficiently, I can enjoy vacations, entertainment, weekends, maybe even early retirement. Listening to these voices, is it any wonder that for many years, I devoted most of my energy and vitality to the escapes from life? Is it any wonder that so many of my students at Penn State look forward already, at age 21, to retirement?
If life and the world are Just This, we are left no choice but to make the best of it: to be more efficient, to achieve better security, to get life's uncertainties under control. There are voices that speak to this too. They are the evangelists of technology and self-improvement, who urge us to improve the human condition basically by trying harder. My inner evangelist tells me to get my life under control, to work out every day, to organize my time more efficiently, to watch my diet, to be more disciplined, to try harder to be a good person. On the collective level, the same attitude says that perhaps the next generation of material and social technologies—new medicines, better laws, faster computers, solar power, nanotechnology—will finally succeed in improving our lot. We will be more efficient, more intelligent, more capable, and finally have the capacity to solve humanity's age-old problems.
Today, for more and more people these voices are ringing hollow. Words like "high-tech" and "modern" lose their cachet as a multiplicity of crises converge upon our planet. If we are fortunate, we might, for a time, prevent these crises from invading our personal lives. Yet as the environment continues to deteriorate, as job security evaporates, as the international situation worsens, as new incurable diseases appear, as the pace of change accelerates, it seems impossible to rest at ease. The world grows more competitive, more dangerous, less hospitable to easy living, and security comes with greater and greater effort. And even when temporary security is won, a latent anxiety lurks within the fortress walls, a mute unease in the background of modern life. It pervades technological society, and only intensifies as the pace of technology quickens. We begin to grow hopeless as our solutions—new technologies, new laws, more education, trying harder—only seem to worsen our problems. For many activists, hopelessness gives way to despair as, despite their best efforts, catastrophe looms ever closer.
This book explains why trying harder can never work. Our "best efforts" are grounded in the same mode of being that is responsible for the crisis in the first place. As Audre Lord put it, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Soon, though, this mode of being will come to an end, to be replaced by a profoundly different understanding of the self, and a profoundly different relationship between human and nature. This book is about the gathering revolution in human beingness.
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When we say that the planetary crisis is of human (and not natural) origin, what do we mean? Human beings are after all mammals, biological creatures no less natural than any other. In a sense, there can be no distinction between human and nature, because human beings are a part of nature and everything we do is therefore "natural". However, we do distinguish. We recognize in nature a kind of harmony, balance, authenticity, and beauty lacking in the world of technology—think of the connotations of the word "artificial". Whether in fact or in perception, we modern humans live in a way that is no longer natural.
At the crux of the human-nature distinction is technology, the product of the human hand. While other animals do make and use tools, no other species has our capacity to remake or destroy the physical environment, to control nature's processes or transcend nature's limitations. In the mental and spiritual realm, the counterpart of technology is culture, which modifies and even supersedes human nature in the same way technology modifies physical nature. In thus mastering nature with technology, and mastering human nature with culture, we distinguish ourselves from the rest of life, establishing a separate human realm. Believing this to be a good thing, we think of this separation as an ascent in which we have risen above our animal origins. Hence our favorite term for the millennia-long accumulation of culture and technology: "progress".
It is separation then, in the form of technology and culture, that defines us as human; as well, it is separation that has generated the converging crises of today's world. People of a religious persuasion might attribute the fundamental crisis to a separation from God; people of an ecological persuasion, to a separation from nature; people engaged in social activism might focus on the dissolution of community (which is a separation from each other); we might also investigate the psychological dimension, of separation from lost parts of ourselves. For good or ill, it is separation that has made us what we are.
Through long and tortuous pathways, these forms of separation have created the world we know today. Our intuitions that life and the world are meant to be more reflect the ultimate illusoriness of that separation. But it is a powerful illusion, having generated the converging crises we see today in politics, the environment, medicine, education, the economy, religion, and many other realms. In this book I will trace the pathways to these crises. Constantly I am amazed how the same fundamental misconception of self underlies phenomena as apparently unconnected as the war in Iraq, intellectual property, antibiotic resistance, acid rain, ethnic cleansing, junk mail, suburban sprawl, and declining U.S. literacy. (No, I'm not going to blame it all on "capitalism", for our economic system too is more a symptom than a cause of separation.)
The root and the epitome of separation is the discrete, isolated self of modern perception: the "I am" of Descartes, the "economic man" of Adam Smith, the individual phenotype of Darwinian competition for resources, the skin-encapsulated ego of Alan Watts. It is a self conditionally dependent on, but fundamentally separate from, the Other: from nature and other people. Seeing ourselves as discrete and separate beings, we naturally seek to manipulate the not-self to our best advantage. Technology in particular is predicated on some kind of individuation or conceptual separation from the environment, because it takes the physical world as its object of manipulation and control. Technology, in effect, says, "Let us make the world better."
If, as I wrote above, our self-conception as discrete and separate beings is an illusion, then the whole ascent of humanity—the species of culture and technology—is based on an illusion as well. That is why the implications of our present reconceiving of ourselves are so profound, promising no less than a radical redefinition of what it is to be human, how we relate to one another, and how we relate to the world.
Not only is technology based on a conceptual separation from nature, but it also reinforces that separation. Technology distances us from nature and insulates us from her rhythms. For example, most Americans' lives are little affected by the seasons of the year. We eat the same food year-round, shipped in from California; air conditioning keeps us cool in the summer; heating warm in the winter. Natural physical limitations of muscle and bone no longer limit how far we can travel, how high we can build, or the distance at which we can communicate. Each advance in technology distances us from nature, yes, but also frees us from natural limitations. Hence, the "ascent". But how can all these improvements add up to the world we find ourselves in today?
We are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, technology and culture are fundamental to the separation of humans from nature, a separation that is at the root of the converging crises of the present age. On the other hand, technology and culture explicitly seek to improve on nature: to make life easier, safer, and more comfortable. Who could deny that the first digging stick was an improvement over hands and fingernails; who could deny that fire keeps us warmer and medicine healthier than the primitive living in a state of nature? At least, that is what these technologies intend. But have we actually made the world better? If not, then why has technology not achieved its intended purpose? Again: How can a series of incremental improvements add up to crisis?
Chapter One begins to answer these questions by describing a grave constitutional flaw in the very premise of technology, and beyond that, in technology's generalization as the "program of control". By considering it through the lens of addiction, we will see that the despair mentioned above is justified, that our entire approach to problem-solving renders us helpless to do anything but worsen the gathering crisis. Like an animal caught in quicksand, the harder we struggle the faster we sink.
Chapter Two describes how we got into this quagmire to begin with. It digs far beneath the usual culprits of industry and agriculture to identify the origins of separation in everything that makes us human: language, art, measure, religion, and technology, even Stone Age technology. These have built upon each other, converging into the tidal wave of alienation and misery that engulfs the planet today. Nonetheless, by tracing the separation responsible for our current crisis to prehistorical or even prehuman times, we begin to see separation not as a "monstrously wrong turn" (to use John Zerzan's words) but as an organic inevitability leading, perhaps, to a new phase of human and natural development.
It was with the Scientific Revolution of Galileo, Newton, Bacon, and Descartes that the ideology of separation received its full articulation. We call this articulation "science". Chapter Three describes how the conceptual distinction between self and world is built in to our very vocabulary of thought. The methods and techniques of modern science, along with that entire mode of thought we call rational, objective, or scientific, reinforce the regime of separation even when we try to ameliorate it. The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. An example of this is the urge to "save the environment" or "conserve natural resources", locutions that reaffirm an external environment, fundamentally separate from ourselves, upon which we are only conditionally dependent. This echoes the classical scientific cosmology which, though obsolete, still forms the basis of our intuitions: we are isolated, separate beings gazing out upon an objective universe of impersonal forces and generic masses.
Meanwhile, religion too is shown to be complicit in the despiritualization of the world that we associate with science. By retreating into an ever-shrinking non-material realm of the spirit, or by flagrantly denying elementary scientific observations, religion has effectively ceded the material world to the science of Newton and Descartes. With spirit separate from matter and God separate from Creation, we are left impotent and alone in Fritjof Capra's "Newtonian World-machine".
After language and measure have labeled and quantified the world, and science made it an object, the next step is to turn it into a commodity. Chapter Four describes the vast consequences of the conversion of all wealth—social, cultural, natural, and spiritual—into money. Phenomena as diverse as the dissolution of community, the weakening of friendship, the rise of intellectual property, the shortening of attention spans, the professionalization of music and art, and the destruction of the environment have a common source in our system of money and property, which in turn arises from (and reinforces) our self-conception as discrete and separate beings in an objective universe of others. To simply try to stop being so greedy will never be enough, because selfishness is built in at an impossibly deep level. This selfishness, however, is not "human nature", but rather human nature denied, human nature contorted by our misconception of who we are.
The consequences of our fundamental misunderstanding of self and world, introduced in Chapter One, are portrayed in full flower in Chapter Five. Our opposition to nature and human nature, implicit in technology's mission to improve them, can only result in a "world under control." Manifesting in every realm, from religion to law to education to medicine, we maintain the world under control only at an ever-greater price. Helplessly, we respond to each failure of control with more of it, postponing but ultimately intensifying the eventual day of reckoning. As the social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital of Chapter Four is exhausted, as our technology proves helpless to avert the impending crises, the collapse of the world under control looms closer. It is this collapse, which the present convergence of crises portends, that will set the stage for the Age of Reunion described in Chapter Seven.
While classical science presents the illusion of separation as fact, scientific developments of the last century have rendered the Newtonian World-machine obsolete. Chapter Six describes how the crumbling of the objective, reductionistic, deterministic worldview opens the door not just to a new mode of technology, but also to a spirituality that sees sacredness, purpose, and meaning as fundamental properties of matter. Part of our separation has been to see spirit as distinct from matter, either imposed from the outside by an extra-natural God, or a mere figment of our imagination. Assiduously avoiding New Age clichés about quantum mechanics, Chapter Six draws on recent developments in physics, yes, but also evolutionary biology, ecology, mathematics, and genetics. It lays the scientific groundwork for a reuniting of matter and spirit, as well the reuniting of man and nature, self and other, work and play, and all the other dualisms of the Age of Separation.
We are witnessing in our time the intensification of separation to its breaking point—the convergence of crises mentioned above that is birthing a new era. I call it the Age of Reunion. Chapter Seven portrays what life might look like no longer founded on the illusion of the discrete and separate self. Drawing on the new scientific paradigms of Chapter Six, it describes a system of money, economics, medicine, education, science and technology that seeks not the control or transcendence of nature, but our fuller participation in nature. Yet it is not a return to the past, nor a divestiture of the gifts of hand and mind that make us human. The Age of Reunion is rather a new human estate, a return to the harmony and wholeness of the hunter-gatherer but at a higher level of organization and a higher level of consciousness. It does not reverse but rather integrates the entire course of separation, which we may begin to see as an adventure of self-discovery instead of a terrible blunder.
Although I affirm the general, growing premonition of our civilization's impending crash, nonetheless the enormous misery and ruination we have wrought is not in vain. Look at the New York City skyline, or a closeup of an integrated circuit board: Could it all be for nought? Could the incredible complexity, furious activity, and vast scientific knowledge of our civilization be merely, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "a sound and a fury, signifying nothing"? Following my intuition to the contrary, in Chapter Eight I describe what I believe to be the cosmic purpose of our "ascent" to the furthest reaches of separation. Drawing on religious, mythological, and cosmological metaphors, Chapter Eight puts the tides of separation and reunion into a vast context in which none of our efforts to create a world of wholeness and beauty, however doomed they seem right now, are futile, foolish, or insignificant.
Even in the darkest days, everyone senses a higher possibility, a world that was meant to be, life as we were meant to live it. Glimpses of this "world of wholeness and beauty" have inspired idealists for thousands of years, and echo in our collective psyche as notions of Heaven, an Age of Aquarius, or Eden: a once and future Golden Age. As mystics have taught throughout the ages, such a world is closer than close, "within us and among us"; yet as well it is impossibly far off, forever inaccessible to any effort arising from our present self-conception. To reach it, our present self-conception and the relationship to the world it implies must collapse, so that we might discover our true selves, and therefore our true role, function, and relationship to the universe.
This book exposes the futility, the fraudulence, and ultimately the baselessness of the program to control the world, to label it and number it, to categorize it and own it, to transcend nature and human nature. Thus exposed, that program will loosen its grip on us, so that we may let go of it before it consumes every last vestige of life and beauty on earth. The extensive scientific chapters are there to persuade you that the mechanistic, objective world of the discrete and separate self is not reality but a projection, merely the image of our own confusion.
The Ascent of Humanity is not merely another critique of modern society, and the solutions I explore are not along the lines of "we should do this" and "we shouldn't do that." Who the hell is "we"? You and I are just you and I. That is why so much political discourse (about what "we" must do) is so disheartening; that is why so many activists experience such despair, such despondency. You and I, no matter how much we agree with each other, are not the "we" of collective action, as in "we need to live more sustainably" or "we need to pursue diplomatic options." I find many people resonating with my intuition of a wrongness about life and the world as we know it, but their response is not empowered indignation, it is despair, helplessness, impotence. What can one person do? Actually, these emotions too are symptoms of the same separation behind all of our crises. When I am a discrete and separate individual, whatever I do makes little difference. But this logic is founded upon an illusion. We—you and I—are actually powerful beyond imagining.
Because the illusion of separateness is crumbling, the alternative I offer is practical, natural, and indeed inevitable. The ruin and violence of the present age do not typify an immutable "human condition". They originate in a confusion about self and world, a confusion embodied in our fundamental scientific and religious principles and applied in every aspect of modern life, from politics and economics to medicine and education. Social and environmental destruction is an inevitable consequence of this world-view, just as rejuvenation and wholeness have been, and will be, the consequence of a different world-view, one that has roots in primitive culture and religion, and that is the inescapable yet heretofore generally unrealized implication of 20th century science.
Our current self/world distinction, and its consequent parsing of all the world into discrete entities, has run the course of its usefulness as the dominant paradigm. Our individuation, as individuals and as a species separate from nature, is complete; in fact it is over-complete. What started with agriculture and even before, with pre-human gropings toward the technologies of stone and fire, has reached its outer limit. It has taken us far, this separation; it has fueled the creation of wonders. To the extent that the separation is an illusion and that we too are part of nature, that illusion has unleashed a new force of nature that has transformed the planet. But if the human gifts of hand and mind are natural too, then what happened to the "harmony, beauty, and authenticity" whose absence everyone can feel in the world of technology? Can we ever attain that human condition that we sense is possible in those moments of spiritual connection? This book will explore the extremes of separation we have reached, as well as the potential reunion that lies in the fulfillment, and not the abandonment, of the gifts that make us human.