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Daniel Pinchbeck: 11

The acclaimed author continues his monthly countdown to 2012, asking what will become of humanity when it emerges from the chrysalis of crisis


To understand what we currently face as a species, we might study what happens when a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. In the cocoon, the caterpillar doesn’t grow wings, as it remains essentially itself. Instead, the entire body of the caterpillar melts down into biotic goop. Then a small group of what are called “imaginal cells” propagate the new instruction code that leads to the reorganisation of this mass into a butterfly. At first attacked by the caterpillar’s immune system as a threat, the imaginal cells manage to spread their code to ever-larger groupings of cells, until the new program is activated. Through this transmutation, the insect changes from rapacious consumer to elegant pollinator, gaining the added dimension of flight.

We are currently in the chrysalis phase for our society, a time of intensifying chaos and darkness, when everything seems to be collapsing upon itself. Psychedelic drugs seem almost irrelevant as the daily news becomes hallucinatory. Like magic tricks, trillions of dollars appear from nowhere, while vast spills of oil and toxic chemicals suddenly disappear from the news. Bizarre weather events become the norm, suggesting a severe destabilising of the earth’s climate, likely to have wrenching effects. On television, pundits blather on, but it feels like white noise, devoid of sense, logic, or meaning.

Theorists responding to our unfolding planetary crisis fall into different camps. Most are reformers who hope to preserve the status quo by changing aspects of the tax system, building a “green economy” or increasing our dependence on technological fixes. Stewart Brand, for instance, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the 60s, now promotes genetically modified foods, nuclear power, and extensive geo-engineering projects such as putting reflectors in space to reduce the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. It doesn’t bother him that every shiny new level of technology has caused a slew of unintended consequences, from holes in the ozone layer to vast plastic dumps in the oceans.

While technocrats like Brand believe we can engineer our way out of the crisis, a slew of pessimists who study factors like peak oil, resource depletion, and political gridlock argue we are headed for a “long descent” or “power down” back to a simpler, almost pre-industrial way of life. Post-collapse thinkers include Richard Heinberg, Dmitri Orlov, John Michael Greer, and James Kunstler. Then there are more severe pessimists and anarcho-primitivists, such as Derrick Jensen and John Zerzan, who see civilisation from agriculture onwards as a mistake and a trap. The opposite contingent are the post-humanists, led by Ray Kurzweil, who believe we will fuse with technology during a rapture-like Singularity. Fascinating yet sinister, post-humanism has become the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

I believe humans have to master our projections of technology, rather than envision the machine as a savior. Progress is not always good. Personally, while I spend a lot of my time on laptops and Blackberries, I hope this is a transitional phase. In the future I hope people will spend more time interacting with nature and creating together, not fixated on tiny screens. As the radio host Tiokasin Ghosthorse notes, we have fallen into a “salvation point mentality,” expecting redemption to come from outside of ourselves. We have displaced this yearning for redemption from ourselves and on to our technology.

As people realise that global capitalism leads to scorched-earth decimation, governments remain paralysed; the future is up for grabs. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski of the Council of Foreign Relations: “The central challenge of our time is posed not by global terrorism, but rather by the intensifying turbulence caused by the phenomenon of global political awakening.” This awakening – underscored by the massive data dump of classified documents by WikiLeaks – represents a major threat to those upholding the current political order, but a great opportunity for liberation.

I like aspects of the approach taken by Transition Town and The Zeitgeist Movement, although I find them incomplete. These movements seek to activate civil society, bring people together to learn about what is happening, and empower them to make changes in the world. Transition Town promotes localising food production, creating complementary currencies, and training people in basic life skills. The Zeitgeist Movement, which was inspired by Peter Joseph’s two Zeitgeist films focused on the international monetary system, propose a strict “resource-based” economy and the abolition of money.

Which concepts will provide the “imaginal cells” for the new social organism and planetary consciousness? Which code will we propagate as the current system devolves? I believe that whatever emerges will have to recognise not just the physical but also the psychic aspects of human experience, establishing initiatory ritual as part of a renewed shamanism. As we will explore in future columns, the archetypal and mythological forces that shape our collective dream also need to be explored and addressed.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, and the just-published Notes from the Edge Times. He edits and is featured in the new documentary, 2012: Time for Change