Once-celebrated author and thinker Daniel Pinchbeck can't find an audience for his new book. He has a few ideas why.
Photo of Daniel Pinchbeck by Fabrizio Chiesa
Daniel Pinchbeck has been called an icon, a visionary, and a quack. The New York–based author came to mainstream prominence in 2006 with the release of his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, which used indigenous prophecies as a launch pad for exploring fringe phenomenon including crop circles, shamanic practices, ayahuasca, and aliens with an open-minded approach as aided by loads of psychedelic experiences and a few treks to Burning Man.
A bestseller, 2012 compounded Pinchbeck's status among the psychedelic elite initially earned through 2002's Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, which forecasted the psychedelic renaissance of the moment. Subsequent projects—another bestseller, a documentary, website, think tank, and event series—expanded Pinchbeck's mission of demonstrating how ancient wisdom and emerging technologies can be used to solve the host of crises facing humanity.
But the psychedelic bon vivant tag earned earlier in Pinchbeck's career has been hard to shake. His latest book How Soon Is Now? explores how the complex failures of capitalism have fostered worldwide systems collapse, spiritual despair, and an ecological breaking point. In the face of constant, almost pornographically negative coverage of climate change, the book possesses a level-headed optimism that breaks down the New Age concept of "global awakening" into pragmatic action items that read like mental coolant for brains fried on Trump and Twitter.
Despite his big ideas and cultural cachet, Pinchbeck's new book has received minimal mainstream coverage. In a recent letter sent to raise money for a PR campaign, the now 51-year-old author wrote, "I learned that, while the worst alt right thugs are given air-time on nearly every major TV show to spew hate-filled trash, if you spend a decade exploring how we can re-design our world to benefit our human family as a whole while restoring our damaged ecosystems, the mainstream media will not let you share your views."
I called Pinchbeck so he could.
Your new book presents a lot of ideas for potential solutions to the planetary ecological crisis. What do you think is preventing people from taking to these ideas in an expansive way?
It's a very complicated situation. If you're part of the milieu that has access to progress in various areas, it's in some ways the most amazing time to be alive ever. Most of the people I know, even if they don't have a lot of wealth, are jetting around the planet going to festivals, doing yoga, exploring new opportunities for raw food or nutrition or sound baths. People are exploring Tantra and polyamory. People have more access to more types of experience than ever before.
On the other hand, there's a very strong, established structure based on old models of profit. Even people who are progressives in the investment space, people who are part of the Social Venture Network or whatever, they still want to invest in things that have the capacity for a certain return on investment. Unfortunately, when we think about what's happening on a planetary scale, this type of capitalism that's so based on growth and development is clearly in direct contradiction with our ability to have a future on the planet. So that's something people prefer to avoid confronting, because if you've made wealth, it's a big deal and you want to protect that wealth.
Another problem is the speed of change—people don't even know how to catch up. For me, there are some things that are really obvious. Media remains a big problem. I think VICE is doing a good job in some respects, but to me it's still not the type of transformational media that would inspire people to make more profound changes in their lives and want to be part of a movement for ecological and social regeneration.
I think it still comes out of a slightly cynical, fear-based thinking. New York Magazine a few weeks ago published this very devastating article "The Uninhabitable Earth." VICE has also done a lot of reporting that makes it all seem extremely negative. At this point, I don't think we should keep publishing stuff like that unless it's paired immediately with, "Here are the problems, and here's the solution set." For instance, if we radically reduce meat eating, 30 percent of the Earth's surface is animal grazing land. That means we could re-forest and turn a huge amount of the Earth's surface into a carbon sink.
The trend of deeply negative reporting still serves the corporate culture, because if people just feel doom and gloom, then you might as well just keep buying a bunch of crap, eat hamburgers, and chain smoke cigarettes because there's no future anyway. What we really need is a media that's authentic, transparent, and focused on solution paths. We must accept that real progress will require some serious changes in how we're doing business and living on the planet. People aren't ready to address that yet, unfortunately.
How do you personally maintain hope?
As I discuss in the book, I look at the ecological crisis as a rite of passage or initiation for humanity, much like a shamanic initiation on an individual level. When you undergo mystical, shamanic processes, you discover many things, and you discover that this world is not all there is. There are these other levels or dimensions of being or consciousness. In a way, I tend to believe this is something like a cosmic game or cosmic play that we're in, sort of like The Matrix. In that way, I have a deep sense that whatever is happening is meant to happen and probably there will be many more amazing things we'll discover in the future as well as in future incarnations. I think when you reach that kind of perspective, it helps to liberate you a little bit from fear around what's happening. I think it's the opposite of being detached, but being able to step more into a sense of wanting to help, take responsibility, and be of service.
What's one thing people can do in their daily lives to do those things you just mentioned?
Honestly, I think one of the first things people can do is read my book How Soon Is Now?, because without a systemic understanding of the situation we're in, it's actually very hard to act constructively. The book offers a systemic model of the levels of change that would need to happen and then drills down into details. I look at the three biggest areas. We have to think about the technical infrastructure in areas like energy, industry, and farming. For instance, with energy, we would need to make a transition to more or less 100 percent renewable energy not in 50 or 100 years but more like 10 or 20. That's not inconceivable. There's nothing technically preventing us from doing that. The only things preventing us are political and financial barriers.
The problem is that without a comprehensive model, people are just sort of scrambling around. It's all one big system, and [if you see that] then you can think about who you are and what you do. If you're a lawyer, maybe you need to take a pay cut and stop helping corporations do patenting and work for a nonprofit and defend indigenous rights or something. A lot of people still defend various actions they do to make a living that are of negative consequence to the planet, and I think people really need to stop doing that. Withdrawing our energy from these types of structures is really important. It's not enough to have a yoga practice and work for Monsanto. You have to have a yoga practice and do something that benefits the world.
I tend to agree with Slavoz Zizek, a political philosopher who talks about how a certain type of new age quasi-Eastern mysticism has actually become the underlying ideology of post-modern capitalism because it allows people to keep participating in the system while having a sense of inner detachment from it.
In what way?
People work in corporations, and corporations are now teaching mindfulness partially because it makes people more productive workers. That's not good enough. Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now is a great book, but there's no advocacy for ecological or social change. He's just saying, "Remember that you're now and connected to the present moment." I think that's not enough and Zizek is correct, that this type of ideology can just end up feeding the capitalist machine unless we also bring in a wisdom perspective that recognizes that our actions individually effect the whole collectively. If we're using our life energy to support systems that are destructive, then we're directly responsible for the thing that's happening.
Conversations like this often boil down to the fact that capitalism is the root of a lot of the problems we're up against. Do you think the system has any positive attributes?
For me, capitalism is fundamentally necessary as a transitional system. It has, over the past few centuries, meshed the world together into one global market. And now with Internet and satellites and so on, into one global brain. It seems to be this evolutionary process that's bringing us into this collective awareness as a species and the possibility to act together as one. The problem is that it forces constant development and unsustainable growth, which is inherently unstable. It's debt-based, and you have to constantly find new markets, so it actually leads to things like turning clean water, which we used to just have, into something you have to now buy in bottles. People used to just take care of one another's kids, and now we send them to daycare. People used to tell one another stories around the fire, and now they watch narratives on Netflix. Because capitalism is inherently unstable, it has to keep turning more and more things into marketable products. Essentially it turns everything into a marketable product. Air will be next. This is overtly unsustainable.
You recently started a fundraising campaign to raise money to promote your new book, which you said was completely ignored by the mainstream media. Why do you think this happened, given that your earlier work got a lot of press attention?
There are a number of things. My past work, particularly the second book 2012, considered psychic phenomenon, extraterrestrials, and prophesies in a serious manner. I think that's too much for the mainstream establishment media. You're not really allowed to cover those subjects in a way that doesn't just ridicule them. That book sold very well, was a best-seller, but people who work for the media are very busy and they kind of pigeonhole things. If you're pigeonholed as someone weird or marginal, it's easier for them to dismiss what you do. I anticipated some of that, but I didn't know so many people… I assumed there'd be somebody who'd be open to considering my ideas. But I couldn't find anybody, not one. It was painful. Also, because of the way the whole media system works, generally if you can't get reviewed by the New York Times or the New Yorker or TIME, then you can't get on a mainstream television show. And that makes it almost impossible for your book to reach its intended audience
What makes me really sad is that I had spent many years on this book—it's not very long or complicated, but it took me a long time to figure it out—that tries to present an optimistic viewpoint on what we could do to deal with the disaster we've unleashed. I thought for sure there would be a cultural hearing for these ideas and maybe even an understanding that it would have to be someone a little bit outside of the mainstream system to make that intellectual journey, because you can't really do it if you're writing about culture, writing about science, from within the establishment. You need to be an outsider—that is how paradigms always change, from the outside. Meanwhile, the people who are part of this alt-right movement are given so much airtime to express a perspective on the world that I find really disgusting. So it felt very demoralizing to see how the cultural machinery functions.
Are you in any respects feeling the shift you're attempting to foster?
All I can really say is that we're in a pressure cooker of a situation, and there are people who are evolving, and there are new tools available, and this level of cultural insanity is really dangerous. Whatever the alt-right has constructed—we seem to be in one of those phases of collective psychosis, and it can go in any direction. It could easily go in the direction of something very dark. If it's not going to do that, it's going to be because some type of intervention on the part of all these people that are waking up, that we figure out how to work together more coherently, and we build structures and use media to shift the perception and show how the people have gotten hoodwinked by fossil fuel misinformation and all this stuff. I can't say that I feel it's going great right now on that level, but what do I know? I think it's a wonderful story that we're in, and it may have a fantastic and totally unanticipated conclusion.
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