What’s Possible

A conversation with Charles Eisenstein

'For us to enter into a more beautiful world, there has to be a major disintegration of the world that we live in now'. As the climate crisis and current pandemic disrupt the social and environmental fabric of the world-as-we-once-knew-it, Akshay Ahuja interviews writer and activist, Charles Eisenstein about how we might weather this kind of radical inner and outer change.
grew up in New Delhi and the suburbs outside Washington, DC, and now lives in Southwest Ohio with his wife and son. He works as a gardener at a teaching farm, and writes about food, plants, and the arts in their various wild and domesticated forms.
I first met Charles Eisenstein several years ago at an Economics of Happiness conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During the writing of his most recent book, Climate: A New Story, Eisenstein became interested in the work of the Dark Mountain Project, especially in its recentering of an old environmentalism based on experiences of connection and beauty.

Born to intellectual parents in Pennsylvania, Eisenstein describes being filled, from an early age, with a sense that ‘It isn’t supposed to be this way’. Whether filling out worksheets in a classroom, or hearing from his father about the skies filled with passenger pigeons before they went extinct, he always felt what he describes as ‘the wrongness in the world’. 

After graduating from Yale with a degree in mathematics and philosophy, Eisenstein went to Taiwan to work as a translator. During his time there, experiences with Chinese medicine, qigong, and Taoism began to widen the cracks in his Western rationalist worldview. In his late 20s, he describes having a “long and intensifying period of crisis” where it became impossible to continue doing the kind of work he had been doing.

As one part of his life began to collapse, another was being born, and Eisenstein began to put into words his sense of what stands between us and the kind of world most of us want to live in. In The Ascent of Humanity, it is the stories of civilisation and progress; in Sacred Economics (2011), our financial systems; and, most recently, in Climate: A New Story (2018), the way that the conventional climate change narrative distorts our true sense of caring for the earth. 

His 2013 book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, is probably the most succinct summary of his ranging body of work. Most recently, Eisenstein wrote a widely read essay on the coronovirus shutdown called “The Coronation,” which he discusses at the end of the interview.

 

AA

You begin the book with the story of your father and the flock of birds.

CE

I describe it as the moment where I became an environmentalist. I was outside with my father. We were holding hands. I was maybe eight years old, and we were watching a big flock of starlings. And I said to him, ‘That’s a big flock of birds.’ And he said, ‘Yes, it is.’ Then he told me about the passenger pigeons and described how their flocks would cover the sky from horizon to horizon, for hours and hours, or even days, literally darkening the skies. And how people would point their guns up into the air and shoot, and pigeons would just drop down, and they would eat them or maybe not even eat them. It seemed like there was a limitless supply. 

‘But they’re all gone,’ he said. ‘They’re extinct.’ That was the first time that I really understood what ‘extinct’ meant. Never coming back. Extinguished, gone forever.

That pierced the facade of normality that I had accepted as a child. It signalled to me that the world is not as it should be. That it was once very different. And it awoke in me this latent discontent – this part of me that believed, and still believes, that life is supposed to be more alive, more authentic, more intimate, than what had been presented to me as normal and real.

AA

 How is this different from the way people generally talk about the environment?

CE

The passenger pigeon story was not about bad things that could happen to me – it was purely reaching to the level of love. I didn’t need a reason to know it was bad that the passenger pigeons went extinct, just as today I don’t need a reason to feel sad when another swath of Amazon is cut down. I’m not doing some implicit, self-interested calculation where a certain amount of carbon sequestration is going to be lost, impacting my future well-being, therefore I’m sad about it. That’s ridiculous. That’s not why anyone becomes an environmentalist. And that’s not how to inspire others to become protectors and regenerators of the environment. It’s the wrong strategy. And it’s not even true, because when we give self-interested reasons to others about why we should save the environment, we’re not speaking our truth.

AA

There’s a term that you use, ‘climate fundamentalism’.

CE

I use two similar terms: ‘climate fundamentalism’ and ‘carbon fundamentalism’. Climate fundamentalism subsumes every problem and issue in the world under climate change. What if your passion in life, your calling, is to abolish the death penalty and exonerate men who are falsely accused sitting on death row? What if your passion is to recover dying languages, or even one dying language – Gaelic, say? Or what if your calling is that you have a disabled child who requires 24/7 care?

Climate fundamentalism implies that all of these things are irrelevant, and they’re kind of a waste of time – because if we don’t stop climate change, and sea levels rise fifty feet and Earth becomes uninhabitable, then what do these things matter? 

I identify that way of thinking as a version of fundamentalism – that sacrifices everything for the one important thing, and frames all issues in terms of one issue. It’s also very similar to war thinking. When the enemy is at the gates, nothing is more important than to defeat the enemy. That way of thinking, I believe, is part of the problem. It’s part of the sacrifice of the immediate, personal, relational, for the sake of an abstract, overarching, unitary goal. It’s a mindset that we’re very comfortable with.

In the book, I take a living planet view. If there’s one core idea in the book, this is it – that Earth is alive, that its organs and tissues, which are the forests, the wetlands, the seagrass meadows, the whales, the elephants, the mangroves – all of these are organs of a living being. And if we degrade and destroy the organs, then even if we reduce fossil fuels to zero overnight, Earth will still die a death of a million cuts. 

Therefore the most important thing that we can do is, first, protect whatever remaining pristine ecosystems still exist – the Amazon, for example. The Congo. There are a few other places on Earth that are reservoirs of biodiversity, that are epicenters for planetary healing to emanate from, because that’s where the deep health – or you could even say the dream of the earth – is still held, the deep information about what a healthy planet is. 

The second priority is regeneration. Regenerative agriculture, reforestation, marine preserves to allow whales and fish to regenerate. Because they’ve been decimated. The number of whales today is between 1% and 10% what it was before commercial whaling. Fish biomass has declined in half during my lifetime alone. Without these life systems that maintain the condition for life, greenhouse gases become a lot more dangerous. They’re putting stress on an already weakened system.

The third priority, in my view, is on the tissue level, to stop dousing the whole planet with poison.  When I was a kid, the entire state of Pennsylvania where I lived – and beyond – was sprayed with insecticide to destroy the gypsy moth caterpillar. Today, in the last thirty years, there’s been a 75% decline in flying insect biomass. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember what bug splatter used to look like.

That Earth is alive … its organs and tissues, which are the forests, the wetlands, the seagrass meadows, the whales, the elephants, the mangroves – all of these are organs of a living being

AA

 I am. It’s a fraction of what it was.

CE

Older people say, ‘Yeah, we couldn’t even drive sometimes’. We’d have to slow down. There were clouds of insects. And it’s not caused by climate change. We would like to think it’s caused by climate change because then we can jump to the one cause, which actually preserves the status quo a lot better. Because then all you have to do is offset this with that. Plant a forest here, cut your emissions there, put some solar panels up. Problem solved.

When we relate to the Earth as alive, we know switching to a different energy source is not enough. That’s not the initiation for humanity we are actually facing. For hundreds of years, we have treated the Earth as a pile of resources and a waste dump. I think what the climate crisis is calling us to is a deep realignment in our relationship to the rest of existence. To recognize we’re not alone here. 

The fourth priority is to cut greenhouse gases. It’s still important, because the system is weakened, but I would say it’s a distant fourth. If you protect ecosystems everywhere, you can’t drill for more oil, regardless of carbon, because oil drilling, fracking, pipelines, etc., all ruin ecosystems.

I can arrive at what the climate movement wants from a very different pathway that doesn’t demand that we trust ‘consensus science’ and implicitly trust the authority of science and the systems of authority in which science is embedded. And to trust the elites as they tell us [wagging a finger] ‘Listen to teacher. Listen to the scientists’. I am really reluctant to trust consensus science in climate because I don’t trust consensus science in a lot of things.

AA
 Like what?

CE

Telling us that GMOs are perfectly safe. They’ve been telling us that pesticides are perfectly safe. They’ve been telling us that dietary cholesterol causes heart disease – for decades – and it doesn’t! They’re finally, quietly acknowledging that that was completely wrong. But if you had said that ten or fifteen years ago, you would have been laughed out of the room.

I hesitate to go too far down this path of saying things I disbelieve about consensus science that you might believe, and that the readers of this might believe. So I’ll just say that I’ve had personal experiences in my life that science says are nonsense. My wife practices a healing modality called IMT, integrative manual therapy, that science says is quackery, with amazing results.

AA

Can climate change still be a push to people who might not have much of a connection to the natural world?

CE

This is an important point. Climate change seemed like such a gift to environmentalism. Now we can give a self-interested reason why we have to change. Because otherwise we won’t survive. I don’t think that strategy’s working. People’s daily experience is not that survival is threatened by climate change. Even if they believe that hurricanes are being intensified by climate change – I mean, how many people in North America are dying from hurricanes? From daily experience, it’s just not at all obvious that the dying of life on earth is going to cause human dying. We have to take it on someone’s word.

I can envision a possible future that is a concrete world. A giant strip mine and waste dump and carbon sucking machines and algae pools making oxygen and vat-grown food and bubble cities and high-res digital displays to entertain us. We’ve gone step by step towards that future of less and less life and more and more technology. The reason to change is not that we won’t survive. The reason to change is from a choice of what world we want to live in.

I don’t want to survive in a world where there are no whales and no seals and no birds and no butterflies anymore. I don’t think an addict is ever forced to change either. There are people who smoke from their tracheotomy hole. There are people who drink themselves to death. And there are people who get that wake-up call and make a choice to change.

AA

At times, it seems like you are describing a transition could happen organically, almost painlessly, just by people following their passions. At other times, I feel like you are describing a kind of island that is far off and surrounded by oceans of suffering. Which is it?

CE

It’s hard to answer that question. I believe both at the same time. For us to enter into a more beautiful world, there has to be a major disintegration of the world that we live in now. Because it’s so different from the world that could be. That breakdown is scary and can be painful. And I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that. There’s no way to transition without transitioning. There’s no way to occupy a new place without losing things that we’re really attached to, and are afraid of losing. 

We are already going through the ocean of suffering between here and the island. The amount of suffering on this planet is incalculable. Some of it is visible in, say, the genocide in Cameroon. It actually might not be visible, because almost no one knows about it, but it’s horrific. It’s been suppressed because it’s in the interest of the oil companies to clear out the people resisting extraction.

A lot of it is invisible. Just yesterday, I was at a playground with my son, and a grandmother and grandfather were there with their grandkids. The grandmother was hovering over the four-year-old boy, warning him and instructing him how to play – “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.” Finally he made friends with my son. They ran off together. She couldn’t keep up with them so they got some real playtime. They were roughhousing sometimes, and they were holding hands – it was so sweet.

Maybe it was too much for the grandparents, because they abruptly said, ‘OK, we’ve got to go now’. They dragged him toward the gate to the playground. The boy started racing around the parking lot, and then he fell full length and his forearm scraped against the macadam. It must have really hurt. And the grandfather shouted “Good!” The little boy was weeping. He and his little sister, who is totally bewildered, got hustled into the car and driven off.

That’s a day in the life of American childhood. This tender, vulnerable, playful little boy gets subjected to violence from the people he is biologically programmed to trust and love the most. It’s terrifying, it’s bewildering. What part of himself has to die in order for him to even survive? 

And it’s going to continue. He’s going to go to school, he’s going to get ADHD meds, he’s going to get anxiety meds. The amount of force required to subjugate children is increasing because – if I can indulge in a little New Age-y thinking – the basic consciousness on this planet is shifting. The children coming in these days have a different energy, a different frequency. The amount of violence and pharmaceutical force required to constrain them is growing.

So this ocean of suffering – we are already in the midst of it. You may think that suffering in the rich, Western countries is less than the suffering of Syrian refugees and Guatemalan peasants. But if your psychological suffering is so great that you commit suicide, that’s a lot of suffering – and there’s a lot of that going on.

So I can answer that question by saying, it is unavoidable, and it is already happening. We are already going through this rite of passage. It’s a process of the breakdown of the story of the world. Who am I, why am I here, how do I live – and then a passage through the place between stories – and eventually into a new story. This is, I believe, inescapable. It’s just like the birth process.

I’ll say this to Dark Mountain readers: the horrors, the atrocities, the losses that are being brought to our attention, are essential for us to encompass in our purview. Without this information, we are not in reality. It is also essential to bring in the miraculous, beautiful phenomena that are excluded from many people’s worldview. Only by embracing the entire spectrum of reality can we be ‘realistic’.

So when I encounter someone who recovered from Stage 4 cancer through some kind of energy medicine – and I’ve encountered quite a number of people – then I think, if that can happen to a human body, what’s the equivalent for an ecological body? Or the body politic? If that’s possible, then what else is possible? What parts of reality does our despair exclude?

If I exclude the things that we call miraculous from my vision of reality, then I am just as much in delusion as I am if I exclude the ecocide and genocide. Because reality does not operate as we thought it did. If we restrict ourselves to the reality of force and mass, the situation is hopeless. But that reality is where the ecocide comes from in the first place. In that reality, we want to insulate ourselves from these arbitrary natural forces that are indifferent to human well being. We want to impose our intelligence on a world that has none. We want to dominate the Other. That same worldview that renders us helpless is also the source of the malady of civilisation.

It is more than a living planet. It is an intelligent planet, and an intelligent cosmos that holds powers far beyond our conception. In that paradigm, despair is unjustifiable. We might even see this entire passage that we’re going through as ordained as part of a larger process. The phase of despair and hopelessness is even ordained. But it’s a phase, and a necessary one that cannot be short-circuited.

  The horrors, the atrocities, the losses that are being brought to our attention, are essential for us to encompass in our purview. Without this information, we are not in reality.

AA

Most of us are currently insulating ourselves from what would seem to be an arbitrary natural force ‘indifferent to human well being’. Is there another way to think about the coronavirus? What might we learn from this crisis?

CE

I won’t go into the science here, and it is quite controversial, but viruses, even the dangerous ones, can also serve positive roles. For example, some people argue that traditional childhood illnesses like measles, mumps, and chicken pox gave the immune system a challenge that helped it develop, and even precipitated leaps in cognitive and emotional development. This idea receives ridicule today because of its association with the highly polarised vaccine issue, but when we stop looking at self as a separate individual and stop looking at nature as a vast competition, and instead embrace a relational, ecological self and see the role of symbiosis and cooperation in nature, then we are no longer disposed to see viruses only as enemies. Of course, they can still be dangerous, but we can ask how they might also benefit us, how they might co-evolve with us, and what the consequences might be of obsessive hygiene.

In nature, viruses are not just predators. They play a key role in ecology and evolution, transferring information between cells, organisms, and even across species boundaries. A large percentage of human DNA is of viral origin. Cells, especially when facing a challenge, even emit exosomes that are nearly indistinguishable from viruses – they are on a continuum. Viruses are part of the seething community of life that populates human beings. We are not separate individuals, not biologically, not ecologically, not socially. Our health – that is to say, our wholeness – depends on relationships.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

Read more
Comments
  1. I am sympathetic to much of what Charles has to say, but I hope that in future he will be more careful about details. I am trained in the physical sciences, and so I always try to get my facts straight. His statement that “a large percentage of human DNA is of viral origin” appeared highly unlikely to me so I did some checking. The data I found indicates that the viral DNA content of the human genome may range from 5-8% with some estimates going as low as 1%. Even if it were 8%, this would not be “a large percentage.”

  2. I agree with Charles that not every issue is directly related to climate change but we still have to realize that regardless of the rightness of our passionate interests and goals, none of them will matter if the earth is toast. There is no question that the earth is dying and there is a probability that tipping points of no return have already been passed. The climate emergency exists because time is of the essence. A gradualist, step by step, approach toward slow, individual changes will not have the required radical impact to save people and planet.

    The polluting corporations are so gigantic, wealthy and entrenched in our government, economy, education and social systems that it may be impossible to extradite them before it is too late. Without this vital sense of urgency we are doomed. All sectors, ideologies, and worldviews must unite and organize in a massive way to end the pollution, exploitation, endless growth, endless wars, consumerism and corruption or there is no hope. So first, Tell The Truth. It is far worse than Charles seems or wants to admit.

    The forests and ice will soon be gone. The oceans and rivers may never be able to recover or be restored. Our soils are being poisoned and destroyed as fast as our aquifers are being depleted, probably forever. Our atmosphere is so filled with greenhouse gasses that heatwaves, droughts, famines, searise, storms, wildfires and floods will continue to expand and accelerate long into the future, regardless of what we do. Massive suffering and death of billions is as certain as the extinction of species and the collapse of ecosystems and of society itself. No one can accept this daunting challenge unless everyone does. And how likely is that? “First Tell The Truth”. Hard times are ahead and the only humane thing to do is prepare for them with compassion and understanding, starting at the community level and involving everyone, especially the oppressed. This is why XR is the end of despair and the beginning of tactics.

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