Flavorwire Interview: Futurist Author Daniel Pinchbeck on the Planet, Consciousness, and His New Book, ‘How Soon Is Now?’


In his just published work, How Soon Is Now, author, speaker, and thinker Daniel Pinchbeck — known for his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head and 2012’s The Return of Quetzalcoatl — undertakes a review of the current state of humanity, of consciousness, and of planet Earth. Pinchbeck argues that without fundamental change, we’re hurtling towards an inevitable destruction; and, he suggests, the blame can’t be placed only upon some of us. We are collectively responsible. At the same time, he argues that the onset of what scientists say is imminent ecological disaster may be the catalyst that humanity requires to evolve to a higher state, shedding systems and modes of thought that no longer serve us.

Covering subjects as diverse as energy, economics, ecology, politics, media, and culture, How Soon Is Now sometimes finds itself caught up in details of big ideas, and in the sorts of difficult conundrums that no one human could wrap their head around in many lifetimes. At times, its view of humanity suggests that we might want to give up, pour ourselves a stiff drink, and just admit that chaos is on our doorstep, it’s out of our control, and we’re all doomed. But ultimately, he reminds us that change is possible even in the darkest moments, and rallies a call-to-arms which he argues can save us.

Flavorwire sat with Daniel to discuss a few of the major themes.

Flavorwire: You write about how humanity may be self-willing an ecological catastrophe, which could ultimately help trigger a consciousness shift. Do you believe that a catastrophe is necessary for such a shift? And if so, how bad do you think it will ll have to get before it will initiate real change in people?

Daniel Pinchbeck: We definitely see this pattern in our individual lives. Generally we don’t make significant changes or even grow in certain respects unless we’re facing some type of disaster or crisis. We see it in young people, as adolescents they’re seeking some type of initiation. They’ll push themselves really hard with drugs or racing cars, or doing anything to force themselves to the edge. It’s a natural human thing to push oneself to the edge. We are wired to seek altered states. I guess what I’m arguing in the book is that we’re doing that collectively. We’ve known for 50 or 60 years that if we keep polluting and toxifying and pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, eventually we would hit a big crisis. I don’t think we knew how big and how soon it would come. It turns that it’s a really critical situation already, more than most people realize.

It’s the way that biology works also. Birth is a crisis. Birth seems terrifying. There’s screaming and blood and everything seems to be going crazy, and then something new is created. Maybe that’s what’s happening at the level of our collective civilization. We need to get this type of level. How bad does it have to get? I don’t know. I guess part of my theory is that the more people who understand, the more quickly we’ll wake up, and the less total collective misery we’ll have to go through. That’s why I think this book is needed now.

I also felt the progressive community needed a shared, coherent vision of the world we want to see. If we don’t want horrible wealth inequality, institutionalized racism, wars for oil, and so on, then what do we want? What is the alternative positive vision? And then, also, how do we manifest it?

It’s ironic that the moment you published this book, which is so focused on the necessity of fixing the environment and energy issues – now with no time to lose – a new president comes in and immediately starts dismantling the EPA, calls for the return to more fossil fuels, and hires the head of Exxon in his cabinet. What does this mean?

I am a radical, I would say that my perspective is anarchist, which means I want direct and participatory democracy for all without excess inequality of wealth and privilege. I’ve thought for a long time that the only way we’re going to deal with what’s happening is through a radical system change where we shift from what I talk about as a consumer culture to a regenerative society where we’re scaling down our use of resources in many respects and also making a rapid shift to renewable energy and regenerative farming practices and so on. From my perspective, Obama and Clinton were neo-liberals who were tasked with maintaining the American Empire and the system of corporate globalization. They were reformists and moderates who were doing decent things for civil liberties and so on, but also not really dealing with the deeper level of the situation. For instance under Obama, economic inequality got much worse, fracking got much worse and so on, Middle Eastern wars got worse and the environment deteriorated. What we actually need to deal with our situation did not happen under Obama and would not happen under Clinton.

Now, yes, we are in a situation where it’s like the train is off the track, it seems to be hurdling into deep space or towards a cliff or something, but maybe that’s the necessary thing that will allow us to change our direction. Maybe people need to have the shocking awakening and say okay, the system needs to change. We can’t pretend anymore that things are okay … Maybe even Trump and his people, in their hubris and greed, will bring about a breakdown of the financial system. Perhaps they will catalyze a financial meltdown that will be unrecoverable. If that happens, it doesn’t change anything in the physical world, but it might force us to think about how we exchange value.

We don’t think about this, but money is ultimately a cultural artifact and a belief system. Capital only exists as a social relation. It is in our minds. There is no real reason someone who takes care of children should make exponentially less than someone who sits at a computer terminal manipulating the exchange rate of foreign currencies. We created a system of values that support this.

Our current money system is a monoculture and inherently destructive. Money is designed create artificial scarcity, winners and losers, and it is based on debt. A financial crisis might force us to figure out how we collaborate with each other in ways that aren’t so exhaustive of our resources. We might develop new mediums of exchanging value that support ecological health.

Some people say that Trump is a shadow of our personality, that he contains many things that we collectively have.

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. To think about this whole situation, it requires us to be willing to make that kind of self-examination. Where do we just act for our own impulses or out of greed or self-interest? Where have we not lived up to our highest principles and ideals, and for the most part, I don’t think most people really have. We’ve also been in this historical bubble where, whether you are Gen X or a Millennial, we haven’t really been tested in the same way previous generations were, like people during the Second World War or the Depression. Maybe in a way once again this is a test of us to see if we can find those deep reserves of moral courage and willpower to change the system for the better.

With the Women’s March which happened just after the Inauguration, did you see the seeds of our ability to rise up, take action and beginning to take back this country, or did you see it as a one-off gesture?

Absolutely the seeds are there, but the question is what happens next? I remember when the Climate March happened and everybody was super excited and everyone was like “Oh, this great movement,” but then really nothing came of it. The danger is that a march, any expression like that, can act like a steam valve that lets off some pressure. Its certainly nobody on the side of the conservatives who have now won everything, that are feeling threatened by a march. I did feel there were a couple of powerful moments that happened. For instance the white supremacist leader getting punched in the face. Although I believe in nonviolence, I feel like that there actually was some value in that happening. The extreme right and their White Supremacist allies are monopolizing this kind of fear mentality and it would be good if they also began to realize that there can be real repercussions for that. Germany learned the hard way that hate speech needs to be restricted, as it feeds people’s worst impulses. We don’t want to go through that again here, I hope.

A friend posted it to Facebook and wrote “I don’t condone violence, but this felt really good.” You referenced earlier Martin Luther King and Gandhi, what would they think about this? Is this the right way to go about it?

Satyagraha means truth-force activism. Gandhi wasn’t totally against violent resistance. Non-violent was preferable, but in cases where non-violent resistance wouldn’t work, violent resistance was preferable to no resistance. Spencer has a magazine, with that magazine they’ve written articles suggesting that maybe there needs to be a genocide against black people in the U.S. These type of ideas can be tolerable when they’re marginal, but they are always dangerous. I spoke with Marianne Williamson yesterday, and she used the metaphor of an immune system. When a virus is there but the immune system is strong enough so the virus is marginalized or quarantined or whatever that things are okay, but when the virus starts to take over then you have to take different measures.

You talk a lot about peer-to-peer systems, and how we can we create more valid systems of this kind that allow the community to decide what is acceptable and not. Can you talk more about that?

I think we have to see that there’s the potential for things still to develop based on the internet, on our networking capacity, that could be more deeply democratic and in support of humane and progressive values. Facebook is only 13 years old as a company and now one and a half billion people are connected on it. It’s almost unbelievable how fast it has grown. Facebook is like a public utility in private hands. Unfortunately it’s under a corporate financial system that kind of determines its priorities and the way it can be used and so on. For instance, you don’t have voting functionality on groups.

I have one group that I helped start that has two and a half million followers, but we can’t go to those people and say “Hey everybody, what do we want to do together?” I feel there’s more potential for something like a peer-to-peer social network to actually even supplement or supercede many of the functions that we now see as government functions.

At the core of the founding energy of these corporations is venture capital, which has particular objectives in terms of what it wants. Can we create powerful inventions and media properties which are innovative in the right ways if the same organizing energy of venture capital is involved?

In the present moment I can understand resisting — trying to slow down or fight against this current agenda — but it probably requires, as I argue in my book, a deeper level of system change, to a post-capitalist system. Using the biological metaphor again, let’s consider for a moment humanity as a giant superorganism, which is in a symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s ecology as a whole system. In a strange way, corporations are kind of like the organs in that collective body because they move around energy and information and goods in a highly efficient way, but I guess in the way they’re doing it now it’s all based on competition and maximizing profit for the shareholders, whereas somehow we have to change the system so that these incredibly powerful instruments are actually working for collective benefit.

You talk about how our culture is based on a mindset of competition, which is focused on individuality and accumulation of wealth and possessions, and how we have to get to a mindset of cooperation – perhaps even doing away with private property, finding a new system of money, and starting to see ourselves as a global tribe.

Yes. It’s a very radical program. A number of thinkers have noted that private property works against our development. Marx noted we had lost connection to being and been seduced by a delusionary “sense of having.” Rousseau saw private property as the origin of inequality. Murray Bookchin argues that elite control of resources makes it impossible for us to create a truly sustainable or regenerative society.

We live in this media dominated world, where publishers are reaching us through the phones that we’re carrying with us at all times. Meanwhile we’re feeding off of sources of information which are ultimately continuing to support negative organizing principles that you discuss. Do we have to break these systems to be able to free ourselves from these ideas?

One way or another, our world is going to change profoundly over the next decades. Barring some incredible new technology is that can somehow change the direction of the ecological situation – for instance, refreezing the glaciers, I think we are going to see a disintegration of the current system, whether it takes two years or 20 years. Ecological crises will probably bring down the insurance companies and the financial system in its current form. Tens of millions of climate refugees will be pouring across borders or causing genocidal responses.

One of the things that nobody really is discussing that underlies Trump’s victory is that resources are getting more scarce and cheap fuel is getting more scarce, which is leading to more drastic efforts to find more expensive sources of fossil fuel and so on. It’s a short-term game, and it’s a zero-sum game when you look at what’s happening to the climate and so on.

When we live in New York or London or LA, we still have all of this development happening, so there’s still the excess, the tip of the excess there’s still a lot of energy available for those who have tremendous wealth and the opportunity for huge profits, but in the whole middle of the country I think it’s like that around the world, there isn’t really that energy anymore. Things were built in 50s and 60s and now it’s really, really sluggish and so people in the country feel super frustrated because their potential for any type of positive evolution has been kind of compressed.

I think the only way that shifts is if we present them with a totally different model of what a happy future is, that isn’t about two cars and three houses and six television sets, but is like people living together in multigenerational communities taking care of the land, learning about nature again, reconnecting, educating themselves, having some kind of basic incomes, they don’t really have to work so hard. A system that’s much more resilient, regenerative, decentralized, participatory, which I think would also be a lot more joyful. It’s just that as we both can see, the transition to that is a difficult one to imagine where we are now.

Before we can talk about the hard task of digestion and integration, this information first has to be transmitted. But at the moment, there are few sources – a couple of movies, sites, books like yours, but not very much – that are presenting it.

In my ideal reality, the realization of this as a necessity would become so great that some of the people who are the elite sectors of society who by karma, happenstance or skill, have amassed big amounts of capital would say “Okay, we need to have an alternative to Fox News or CNN that is solution-focused, inspiring, proactive, that is really modeling this other option for humanity.”

One character you bring up a bit in your book is Oscar Wilde. You talk about how we may get to a place where we’ve automated food, energy, and goods to the point where we can say our existence is built not on work but quote Wilde, “cultivated leisure”. Perhaps this could be a new vision of happiness?

Wilde wrote this beautiful essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, which could also be a Burning Man manifesto. It overlaps with his realization that artists in the past were the ones who had the ability to really cultivate and express their unique individuality, and most people were just too broken by having to work for a living and focus on how they fit in and so on. A lot of the time artists were actually people who had private incomes through inherited money or whatever and had the time to cultivate themselves. Oscar Wilde looked towards the future where everybody would have that opportunity to really cultivate their unique assets.

He believed that to do that, we actually had to liberate the powers of machines to serve humanity. In a way now, we’ve kind of reversed it in that we think that we’re almost supposed to be the servants of technology, and the technology is just like this thing that’s happening, to be replaced by machines. I think that the better way to look at it would be like, yes we want more automation to create a post-work society where people have to work less and have more time for love, more time for storytelling, more time to cultivate themselves to learn and so on.

The positive potential is not a return to 1950s style industrialization but a transition to a post-capitalist, post-work society where we use automation to liberate our human community from lives of drudgery and servitude. This is now technically feasible but we need to find the collective will to make it happen.

It’s kind of crazy because that really should have been the outgrowth of industrialization, but because of the way capitalism has been designed to create artificial scarcity and to keep pulling, extracting like a funnel the resources up to the top, it’s done the opposite. Now it’s reached incredible proportions where I think it’s something like 50 people control more wealth than half the Earth’s population. 17 of Trump’s cabinet appointees are wealthier than one-third of the U.S. population, 100 plus million people. This is obviously, we’ve reached the end point of this. Again, it can’t get much worse. We could have one person controlling everything, I guess. It’s time for this to change.

The fault of corporations?

Yes, but I want to say that I don’t even really see myself as anti-capitalist in a weird way in that I just see that capitalism, we may ultimately realize, was a necessary transitional system, like an adolescent system. It’s like when you’re in this great growth spurt and you’re not really paying attention to the world around you and you’re drinking too much and knocking things over and so on, that’s sort of what capitalism in. It’s like now, through the unstable dynamics of capitalism, you’re able to bring the world together into one global marketplace and in a sense now into a global brain through the internet.

We may see that capitalism has kind of completed its function because it is based on debt and artificial scarcity, and as such, can’t really create a happy circumstance. Now we have to take the value from that. We have the roads, we have the satellites and so on, and now we have to go into a rethink of what it’s all meant to do for us.

Can you break down the title of the book, How Soon is Now? One thing is, Flavorwire is a cultural blog and there are a few cultural references in the title, most notably The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” from the album Meat Is Murder, and I’m wondering, is intentional?

Not really. I was writing my last book sitting at this little café on Sixth Street and there was a van often parked in front of the café that had that spray painted on the side, so it just stuck in my head. One thing I had discussed in my work is time consciousness. It’s something that has been discussed in Ram Dass’ Be Here Now or Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, that we tend to forget about the present moment which is all we really have, because we get obsessed with worrying about the past or the future and I guess this idea that liberation, revolution, whatever you want to call it, a true revolution, not like a destructive one that just returns us to something old, would be uniting the now. It would actually be fully in the now. We would be in the flow. We would be acting from our authentic truth.

In the book, I talked about how the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who said that our society is based on perpetual postponement and this kind of underlying guilt and shame because we know that there was meant to be this liberation and we can feel that, but it’s been postponed so it’s made us cynical and jaded and we forget even that that’s underlying our sense of all these things. We know, deep down, we can do better than this. That’s also a very powerful notion to me.