text by DANIEL PINCHBECK
Daniel Pinchbeck cofounded the literary magazine Open City, the web magazine Reality Sandwich, and the website evolver.net, and created the Think Tank Center for Planetary Culture. His most recent book is Afterlife: is there consciousness after Death?
I have a terrible yet relatively common confession to make: over the last six to eight years, I lost faith in humanity. I gave up.
I convinced myself that we were inevitably headed for extinction in the very near future: 50 years, give or take. I felt that nothing mattered; the jig was up. And that was even before AI happened, with its incipient threat to turn all matter in the universe into paperclips, annihilating us accidentally.
How did I reach such a somber conclusion?
Previously, I had been a visionary optimist with an esoteric bent. I had written a number of books: the first, Breaking Open the Head (2002), on psychedelic shamanism, preceded and helped to inspire the psychedelic renaissance of the last decades. My second, Quetzalcoatl Returns (2006), explored the prophecies of indigenous and ancient cultures around the world as they relate to our time. It was, briefly, a New York Times bestseller; I had the honor of introducing ayahuasca and iboga to Stephen Colbert on late-night TV. Rolling Stone ran a long, quite nasty profile of me. While this hurt my feelings, it seemed a good sign: my radical ideas were unsettling the establishment, which needed to organize a preemptive strike.
Then my third book didn’t come out for another decade. Fearing the approaching apocalypse, I made a determined effort to put my ideas (about prophecy, anarchism, ecology, and social change) into practice. I undertook this as a kind of intentional martyrdom, driving myself semi-insane in the process.
I started a Web magazine and a nonprofit, helped to build a global network of local communities — the basis for revolutionary social change — linked together through an alternative media infrastructure. We had 60 local groups at its zenith, but the project collapsed after some years due to funding and personality issues. I was devastated.
Finally, in How Soon Is Now (2016), I offered a full-spectrum scheme — a systemic action plan — to avert ecological collapse and create a cooperative, emancipated “utopia.” Sting and Russell Brand wrote introductions, which I hoped would ensure popular interest. But the book fell through the cracks. Trump and Brexit sucked the oxygen out of the culture. I felt most people preferred to wallow in dystopia or nihilism, rather than work toward — fight for — alternatives.
I fell into a personal abyss. It took me a number of years to climb back out of it. I think, now, I am out of it,
By nature, I am a voracious researcher. As a college dropout, I am an autodidact. When I started How Soon Is Now — partly why it took so long — I had to dive into many areas that were completely foreign to me. I pored over gloomy reports on the environmental megacrisis, read political philosophy, economic theory, plans for renewable energy implementation, and so on.
One of my inspirations was the American design scientist Richard Buckminster Fuller (creator of the geodesic dome, among other wonders). Fuller believed that modern civilization was cursed by overspecialization. A scientist might spend an entire career tinkering with one fragment of a chromosome, ignoring the larger context.
What we needed were “comprehensive generalists” to draw connections between diverse phenomena, Fuller proposed. I took it upon myself to become such a generalist, tasking myself with defining a meta-level overview of humanity’s current plight, in order to find a way out of it.
I realize the topic of this essay (and issue) is “Revolutions.” Don’t worry: I will get to it.
With the help of many (too many) psychedelic trips over many years, I tried to bear witness to our situation on Earth: I envisioned myself as a long-living extraterrestrial observing us, over many centuries, from his base on a distant moon. That wise, ancient entity would see small-scale communities aggregate into larger civilizations, track our wars and conquests, trade routes and innovations. The alien would witness as our human world meshed itself together into one planetary whole via shipping lines, highways, flight patterns, fiber-optic cables, and satellites. It would be a bit like watching the brain of a baby developing synaptic connections, slowly becoming aware of its own agency.
That ancient watcher would also see how, in our rush toward technological progress, we poisoned our air and water, drove millions of species to extinction, and broke the climate. It would note how once useful systems and ideologies outlived their usefulness, perpetuating themselves via inertia, causing damage and confusion. It would register the masses of humans caught in obsolete beliefs and ideologies.
These obsolete ideologies — I believed back then — include our current model of capitalism, nationalism, and also our enshrined ideals of monogamy and romantic love. Reductive scientific materialism that leaves no space for a soul or anything that transcends this reality is outmoded — but so are the ossified religious structures that unleash fanatics and zealots hypnotized by ancient scriptures. I tried to strip away layers of social conditioning and programming, to reach some essence of understanding upon which we could build a new, better world.
Obviously, in this single essay, I can’t explore all of those topics, so let’s take just one of them: capitalism.
Many of us now understand that the intrinsic flaw of capitalism is that it only values financial exchanges.
A publicly traded company is forced to maximize short-term profits for its shareholders: that is its fiduciary responsibility. This means it must ignore “externalities” of all kinds, such as the integrity of local communities or healthy ecosystems. There are efforts from within the global financial system to address these systemic issues, by compelling companies to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Soon, there will also be biodiversity development goals. But these seem to be coming too late and too slow to address the ecological emergency.
Perhaps it is taboo to mention this in a magazine largely supported by the fashion system, but part of the problem with capitalism is that it continually pushes excess consumption via media and engineered peer pressure (easy to manufacture: humans are herd animals). “Planned obsolescence” and “conspicuous consumption” are built into its DNA. Capitalism must create “false needs” and fads, as well as new products to satisfy those insatiable desires. The entire “culture of cool” is, in itself, a mechanism for
Considering a larger historical cycle, corporate globalization and neoliberalism (which, C.J. Hopkins noted, is a machine for “decoding” all values) seem to have crested. The promise of neoliberalism was a unified world market, what historian Francis Fukuyama envisioned as “the end of history” in the triumph of liberal democracies. Instead, we have seen a global shift toward authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in many parts of the world, most notably China, Russia, and other BRIC countries. It turns out that capitalism, technocracy, and totalitarianism can work very well together — and one great danger of artificial intelligence is that it can be used to institute airtight systems of social and even thought control.
From where we are now, it is very difficult to envision a successful “revolution” in the old sense of the term. Could “we, the people” — distracted, depressed, and alienated as we are — take to the streets in such vast numbers that we overthrow the current government, then supplant it with a new regime? And how would that “new regime” be substantively different from the old one?
Often, revolutions end up cycling back to the same oppressive situation (or worse!) from where they began. Ultimately, the Communist revolutions in Russia and China can be viewed as the means for bringing about an inevitable transition from feudalism to industrialization, costing untold millions of lives in the process. They didn’t lead to a collective emancipation.
And yet, “revolution” of some sort is, I believe, still inevitable. I also believe we all possess crucial agency at this time (which is why I write such essays). And
I no longer believe we are headed for imminent extinction, given a bit of luck.
However, a level of near-term catastrophe is utterly unavoidable, when you consider what’s happening around the Earth. Rising temperatures make food and water increasingly precious commodities. Large areas of the Global South may become uninhabitable over the next decades. This means that populations will be on the move, heading North.
Resources of all sorts will be in increasingly short supply.
Things will continue to become more expensive. Many other factors will coalesce to make the next decades an extremely dangerous, very challenging time.
To take one example: the combination of super-smart AI and robotics has the potential to cause massive job losses. Goldman Sachs estimates that AI alone will “degrade” 300 million jobs within the next 10 years. These include jobs like graphic design, legal clerking, programming, accounting, and journalism. In fact, a lot of “cognitive labor” can easily be replaced by AI. Corporations will have no qualms about reducing their labor force substantially.
Entire industries will disappear. Let’s consider the Philippines: apparently, their entire economic development over the last years has been based on the call-center industry, which accounts for 10% of GDP growth and employs over a million people. In the next two to three years,
AI will simply eradicate that entire industry. What will happen to all of those people?
What will happen to all of the 600,000 cab drivers and 3.5 million truck drivers in the US once self-driving vehicles work perfectly? What’s happening to all the cashiers being replaced, now, by automated checkouts?
At the same time as a significant proportion of the world’s labor force is becoming redundant, there remains all kinds of absolutely necessary work that needs to be done that can’t get done under market-based capitalism. For example, we should paint all the world’s rooftops white to reduce the albedo effect (as the Arctic disappears, more sunlight is absorbed). We need to replenish wetlands, build rooftop gardens, insulate old buildings, devise neighborhood composting programs, and so on.
We know the world’s coral reefs will die out before the end of the century due to ocean acidification, as the oceans absorb excess CO2. The only way to interrupt this is to leech the excess CO2 out of the oceans. This could be done through geoengineering-scale ocean aquaculture — essentially growing kelp and other forms of seaweed on a massive scale.
As we saw during the Covid-19 lockdowns, the vast majority of the work people are forced to do to survive in our society is nonessential — more or less ornamental. In theory, we could give those people some kind of universal basic income (UBI) and retrain/repurpose them to do valuable work that contributes directly to building the regenerative society of the future. In fact, that is what we really have to do to avert universal cataclysm.
If this seems impossible, we might recollect how the gigantic economic engine of a mighty nation can be quickly redirected during wartime or when faced with other existential threats. We still aren’t treating biodiversity loss, global warming, and desertification as existential threats — but soon we will be forced to confront them in this manner.
Also: the fact is, in an ideal world, people wouldn’t be forced by economic necessity to spend half of their waking hours working in a drab call-center office, a dismal assembly line, or a dangerous cobalt mine, or as a legal proofreader or a truck driver. Much of the work that people still must do today is repetitive and vacant, and a lot of it is unhealthy and threatening. If AI plus robotics can liberate people from all kinds of drudgery, that could be a great thing — but not if they are thrown on the streets instead.
None other than Oscar Wilde foresaw a future where machinery had eliminated drudgery, allowing every person the opportunity to cultivate their unique individuality as only artists and wealthy dilettantes were able to do in his time. Wilde realized that all civilizations were built on slavery — on having people forced to do the terrible things so that others could appreciate the finer things. Our modern civilization is, of course, based on the incredible amplification of labor we gained from fossil fuels. Each barrel of oil possesses the equivalent of 25,000 hours of hard
human labor, which is 12.5 years of work. This is why we are so deeply addicted to oil and why replacing it is so difficult (but not impossible).
In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde wrote: “Under proper conditions, machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure — which, and not labour, is the aim of man — or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. […] On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”
For Wilde, a utopian future for humanity would involve liberation from dismal drudgery along with an end to private property in a truly cooperative arrangement. This would give everyone the time and opportunity to discover their unique self.
I tend to agree with Wilde. But I would add, along with “cultivated leisure,” another “aim of man” is the yearning for initiatory experience, altered and mystical states — also known as gnosis and transcendence. Although not everyone gets this yet, we are currently undergoing — in semi-slow motion — a consciousness revolution.
The received paradigm of reductive scientific materialism or physicalism is scientifically obsolete. What will replace it is the understanding that consciousness is the foundational reality of the universe, the “ontological primitive,” and that we are individuated expressions of this unified field of consciousness that precedes matter. This not only “solves” the hard problem of consciousness, but also accords with the last century of discoveries from quantum physics. And it also matches our direct experience.
My personal belief is that this shift from materialism to “idealism” is destined to have a tremendous impact on human society — beyond what anyone can envision at this point. This is one basis for my current optimism: the realization that consciousness is the foundation suggests we are on an evolutionary trajectory that is neither random nor purposeless. We are aspects or expressions of consciousness as it explores its ever-changing creative opportunities. This also suggests the potential for system change to occur via nonlinear dynamics: exponentially.
We are also at a time when an awakening is spreading, particularly among the cultural and financial elite. For many, it is no longer cool to be over-consumptive or to show off material wealth. There is increasing focus on personal growth via plant medicine, meditation, vision quest, etc. Increasingly, wealthy people seek to make “impact” investments, support plant-based meats and new energy technologies — anything that can help repair the damage we have unleashed. This trend is poised to grow quickly.
The Chinese word wei ji means both “crisis” and “opportunity”: the two concepts are clearly linked. Crises are opportunities to transform the world as we know it into something else.
We are already in a multidimensional global crisis that is radically destabilizing our world in many ways. The question for us is whether we sleepwalk through it or seize the opportunity presenting itself and make something else.
While extinction is certainly a possibility, I do not know for certain that it will be what comes. Even if we pass through decades of intense crisis and cataclysms — burning forests, vacant oceans — that cause the deaths of millions, hundreds of millions, or billions, humanity may weather the storm. We might undergo a deep transformation as a result.
Ultimately, I believe we will reject capitalism in favor of a new regenerative social and economic system that works to reharmonize us with the Earth’s native rhythms and frequencies, reducing wealth inequalities and other injustices. Even if we don’t see this in our lifetimes, we can feel it in our hearts and our souls now. We can choose to work toward it. This is the basis of my current optimism — a more tempered, realistic optimism, but a vision of the future that I find motivating and meaningful. What about you?
[Table of contents]
editor’s letterRead the article
by Daniel Pinchbeck
by Paul B. Preciado
cover #1 cindy shermanRead the article
best of the season f/w 23-24
photography by Olivier Zahm
art or the possibility of the impossible
by Alain Badiou
cover #2 milla jovovich in gucci f/w 2023-24
photography by Cameron McCool
evgeny morozovRead the article
cover #3 aylah peterson in prada f/w 2023-24
photography by Reto Schmid
cover #4 john giornoRead the article
photography by Ethan Skaates
mariko mori, the unseen power of energetic fieldsRead the article
cover #5 margaret qualley in chanel f/w 2023-24
photography by Jeremy Everett
de wain valentineRead the article
cover #6 zegna x the elder statesman f/w 2023-24
photography by Olivier Zahm
interview by Oliver Zahm & Aleph Molinari
what climate collapse asks of us
by Bayo Akomolafe
cover #7 gabbriette in guess usa f/w 2023-24
photography by Richard Kern
cover #8 minttu vesala in balenciaga winter 2023
photography by Juergen Teller
cover #9 mariana arias in dior cruise 2024
photography by Olivier Zahm
cover #10 saskia de brauw in fendi f/w 2023-24
photography by Brett Lloyd
cover #11 caroline polachek in givenchy F/W 2023-24
photography by Kira Bunse
cover #12 carsten höllerRead the article
is there an angel in the ecosystem?
by Val Plumwood
anthea hamilton “mash up”Read the article
interview by Aleph Molinari
charles rayRead the article
cover #13 louis vuitton pre-fall 2023
photography by Takashi Homma
interview by Olivier Zahm & Aleph Molinari
hinako, the rubber queen of tokyo
interview by Bobbi Salvör Menuez
cover #14 hari nef
photography by Steven Klein
hour of the wolf
photography by Robi Rodriguez
the idiots revolution
by Byung-Chul Han
cover #15 melvil poupaud in dior men f/w 2023-24
photography by Ola Rindal
cover #16 marie-agnès gillot and charlotte dauphin in valentino f/w 2023-24
photography by Andrea Spotorno
cover #17 loro piana f/w 2023-24
photography by Dario Catellani
cover #18 emmanuelle lucianiRead the article
cover #19 sascha rajasalu in saint laurent f/w 2023-24
photography by Esther Theaker
interview by Daniel Pinchbeck
interview by Daniel Pinchbeck
“what can the body do?” with georgia bryan
photography by Dana Boulos
fashion factionRead the article
cover #20 moncler karakorum f/w 2023-24
photography by Henrik Purienne
find each other
By The Invisible Committee
cover #21 dash snowRead the article