What an unusual book. I was recently in the middle of writing two other posts, one about how the Leaf performs in the winter, and another about a book I read about municipal zero-waste systems, when I came across this book and started reading it. I couldn’t put it down. Here is a really bright guy, with some truly big ideas, which, if they are to be countenanced, would trump topics like electric vehicle performance or recycling. I’m quick to criticize others for not having a firm intellectual foundation, and here’s a book that calls mine into question. Maybe I’m on the wrong track, maybe I’m guilty of letting myself be influenced by paradigms that don’t hold up to close inspection. As such, I’ve bumped the topic to first place on the docket, despite the resulting week-long holdup in the blog flow. Whether his ideas hold up to scrutiny, well…
On one hand, Charles Eisenstein has some really insightful views on the state of the world. His work actually reminds me very much of two other books– “Ishmael”, by Daniel Quinn, and “Think on These Things”, by Krishnamurti (and Marx, too, with his ideas of modes of production). Like these authors, he truly steps outside of humanity and human culture, and takes an outside look at the forces that we are immersed in. In Eisenstein’s words, “We have been colonized through and through by the old Story of the World. We are born into its logic, acculturated to its worldview, and imbued with its habits”. He calls these beliefs our “Story”, and says that our history since civilization began has been a “Story of Separation”—we have divorced ourselves from nature, and from each other, and seek salvation from the problems that technology has caused by pursuing ever more of the same. For Eisenstein, nearly everything we know is part of this “Story”– money, politics, education, religion, science; all of our dominant institutions. They all mold us into a standard way of thinking, and to deviate from this party line is to be considered delusional, and to invite alienation. But, deviate he does…
But, before I get to his ideas about solutions to “Separation”, here’s a sampling of some ideas from the book that either ring true, or really made me stop and take stock of my own attitudes and assumptions–
— That fifty or a hundred years ago that people everywhere had a similar vision, of economists and political scientists and biologists and chemists all moving us toward “a paradise of mechanized leisure and scientifically engineered social harmony, with spirituality either abolished entirely or relegated to a materially inconsequential corner of life that happened mostly on Sundays”. But, Eisenstein writes that this vision has fallen apart, and most people don’t have a vision of the future. This certainly seems true—I think it’s clear to most thinking people that humanity is on a bad course, and I don’t think most people know exactly why that is, or have any real idea about how to substantially alter that course.
— That both doom and gloom and naïve optimism can be self-fulfilling.
— That we like to think of ourselves as basing our beliefs on the evidence, when it is far more common for people to arrange evidence to fit their beliefs, “…distorting or excluding what won’t fit, seeking out evidence that will, surrounding ourselves with others who share [our beliefs].”
–That we were all shaken to our cores by the brutal and senseless events at Sandy Hook, but just as many equally innocent children died that year in drone strikes, or that week from hunger. This is one that made me examine my own assumptions. What exactly is the basis for this military action half a world away? One can’t deny that we Americans have quite a few “stories” that justify it. What if we have collectively been too accepting of these?
— That activism is logically a faulty course (though he seems to be on both sides of this issue, as he is clearly an “activist” himself, calling for action). What one person does doesn’t matter, only if millions did it would it make a difference. BUT—ordinary people don’t have the power to make millions do anything, so, the logic holds in reverse—what the activist does doesn’t matter. This one caught my eye, despite the fact that I don’t quite agree; “we shout the truth from our blogs and no one gets it, except the already-converted”. Could it be logically true that my efforts are useless?
— That we might do well to question education as we know it, that school is a conditioning agent to instill in children “respect for authority, passivity, and tolerance to tedium…”. Perhaps, says Eisentein, a healthy child is one who resists schooling and standardization.
— That we don’t need to invent anything new to solve our problems, that “…we could live in an earthly paradise using perfectly uncontroversial technologies: conservation, recycling, green design, solar energy, permaculture, biological wastewater treatment, bicycles, designing for repairablitiy, durability, reusability, and so on…”
So, I’ll stop there, but suffice it to say that the book is thought-provoking. So, what exactly are Eisenstein’s ideas about how to solve this endemic condition of “Separation” that we all suffer from? I’m not quite sure I can do his ideas justice, but he seems to believe that science (and rationality) as we know them are both hopelessly too narrow to explain how the world REALLY is. I have to admit that this could be true; I have had premonitions and other “paranormal” experiences in my life that science as we know it doesn’t seem to explain. J. B. S. Haldane once famously said that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger that we can imagine. So, to proceed with an open mind and without judging (yet), here are some of Eisenstein’s ideas–
For Eisenstein, we are all cosmically connected in a vast web, and everything we do has an effect on everything else. In fact, the entire universe, and everything in it, the rocks, the trees, the sun, the stars, could be conscious. This animism might be based at the quantum level, he writes, where particles are utterly unpredictable, and “choose” where to go and what to become. He also seems to be a follower of the ideas of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, particularly Sheldrake’s ideas about “morphic resonance”. To wit, that patterns, once formed, will be recreated elsewhere. With this in mind, Eisenstein gives an example—suppose we help an old woman as she’s dying. No one knows we helped her, but we ease her suffering at the end, and then she dies. This act of goodwill has a broad and strong effect, according to Eisenstein. In conventional scientific thinking, if no one knows about the act, then there aren’t many external effects. But, Eisenstein holds that a pattern such as this, once formed in the cosmos, enables other similar patterns to form. (He doesn’t directly say it, but seems to liken it to entangled particles in quantum physics, where two particles, once entangled, behave exactly the same despite being physically separated). Cause and effect don’t necessarily apply—doing an act of goodwill, in any form, helps to solve all the predicaments that we’re in.
His ideas like this continue. Among those that he seems to give credence to—“water memory” (that all samples of water are unique, and hold within them the power of everything they have ever touched), crop circles, the Gaia hypothesis, gift economies, negative-interest money, Earth Treasure Vase rituals, deep admiration for indigenous cultures, epigenetics, and over-unity devices. His writing is powerful, and yet humble at the same time. In the end, his message is almost “Jesus-like”, urging us to believe, to help and love our neighbors, to treasure each other, to treat nature with reverence. As his title purports, a more beautiful world is possible, and could be just around the corner.
Now, given that the universe is likely stranger than we imagine, how should we judge Eisenstein’s ideas? For argument’s sake, let me say that there are ideas in his book that Eisenstein himself seems to discount. One, he writes of an acquaintance who was convinced that there was a vast conspiracy underway in which an all-powerful elite class actually controlled the world, which the acquaintance was elucidating with forms of numerology and symbolism. In another example, he writes of New Age ideas like “Reality Creation”; whereby sufficiently strong belief in something will make it happen. If I understood his position correctly, he refers to this one as “New Age hooey”. So, here’s my question (and I’m not being facetious)—how is “Reality Creation”, which Eisenstein discounts, different from, say, “morphic resonance”, which he gives credence to? If the world is stranger than we can imagine, it could be possible that both are true. But from an “orthodox” scientific perspective, neither are supported (though there are some people who say that support exists for all kinds of things, see these two wacky websites- over-unity devices, over-unity for sale).
So, as mere mortals, how do we know who to believe in the realm of ideas that aren’t rational from a strictly objective sense? Do we give credence to the Young Earthers, or the Charles Eisenstein’s, or the David Koresh’s of the world? (And my apologies to Eisenstein for putting those two names together in same sentence). Or, for that matter, to religious teachings in general?
Let me take a stab at it, and lay out my intellectual foundation. First, yes, the universe is likely stranger than we imagine. Thousands of things could potentially be true, and grasping the actual truth might be beyond human capability. But, Descarte’s “cogito ergo sum” still holds; “I think, therefore I am”. We can’t forego our critical thinking, our powers of reason, or we literally have nothing. And though science can be too reductionist at times (good article, “Science in Context“), it is a reflection of our reason. If science as we know it can’t support an idea, that doesn’t make the idea not true. But it does put it in the same realm as all the other unsupported ideas, from native beliefs that the moon is a calabash, to teachings about the Buddha, or Biblical accounts, to modern ideas supporting perpetual motion machines. And since there are limitless versions of things that might be true but can’t be proven (witness the proliferation of conspiracy theories), I can’t see how a rational person can let those ideas overly inform their thinking, lest one become like the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
So how’s this for a thought—what if science isn’t failing us, and our problems are mostly just a function of 7 billion people on the planet? What if people aren’t out to wreck the environment, but rather don’t see the consequences of their actions, and don’t yet see a better way? What if the market system, despite not being perfect, is a force for productivity and efficiency that keeps us all fed and clothed? What if, instead of focusing on cosmic oneness, we admit that it might be possible but also remember Eisenstein’s other words, that we don’t need to invent anything new to solve our problems, that “…we could live in an earthly paradise using perfectly uncontroversial technologies: conservation, recycling, green design, solar energy, permaculture, biological wastewater treatment, bicycles, designing for repairablitiy, durability, reusability, and so on…”
That, right there, might lead us to a more beautiful world that we all know is possible.