Fifteen years ago, author and journalist Daniel Pinchbeck gave us one of the defining texts of cultural psychedelics use – Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism – in which he traced his own experiences with ayahuasca and iboga, and made a strong case for deeper and higher levels of human consciousness. Now Pinchbeck is back to implore humanity to wake up and realize how close we are to making this planet uninhabitable, and the fact that reform is still within reach.
In How Soon Is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation, Pinchbeck outlines in painstaking detail exactly how the human race is careening toward extinction: we continue to pump CO2 into the air even though we know it’s heating up the ozone and melting ice caps; we clear forests that are full of trees that could potentially help clean that CO2 out of the air; we throw away plastic water bottles; and worst of all, we feed into the corporate systems that keep this destruction going. He also, thankfully, outlines plans and hopes, both lofty and practical, for what we could still do to save the planet, and ourselves – things as simple as ride-sharing and investing in solar energy, and as complex and exacting as rethinking our relationship to the planet we live on, down to a deep, spiritual level.
Pinchbeck spoke with Rolling Stone to give us a little taste of the bracing wake-up call contained in his new book. Here, he explains how the Internet might save humanity, how science and religion could (and should) be allies and how he thinks Donald Trump’s presidency might actually be a good thing, in the long run.
In your book, you talk about a fundamental shift that needs to happen in people’s mentality. Can you give us a kind of overview of what that shift is?
We are in an ecological emergency and the future existence of our species is in jeopardy. So, we’re at a choice point as a species. We can either continue going on this way and we’ll have a few more years, maybe a decade or two of being able to our thing. Then we’re going to hit serious constraints in every area. Or we can try to wake up sooner and figure out what we do together to get out of this mess.
For instance, we need to shift to renewable energies not in 50 or 70 or 100 years but much faster than that, in 15 to 20 years. We know we can do that physically. There’s nothing that’s stopping us from making that transition except that we have an entrenched financial system that is not oriented towards that kind of rapid change.
We’ve seen in the past society is able to make rapid changes when they need to, when they faced a common foe, in a war for instance. During the second World War, after the Pearl Harbor attacks, the U.S. was able to redirect all of its factory production in three months, they started to tax the wealthiest of the population at more than 90 percent, and they used all of that resource to create a war machine and defeat a common foe. That’s kind of where we’re at now on a planetary scale. If we don’t address what we’re doing with energy, with farming, with industry, we’re probably not going to be here in this present form for much longer.
Do you think we have a chance of making this rapid change voluntarily, before we no longer have a choice, or do you see it being more of a reactionary thing, where the system falls apart and we have to find new ways to operate?
The dynamics of system change are little bit mysterious. There are tipping points that can often be invisible or unexpected, that then lead to a collective shift or awakening. An example of that was the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. You go back to the Seventies and Eighties, and nobody was saying ‘the wall is just going to be taken down by people and it will be done peacefully and there won’t be military conflict.’
I think a lot of people are beginning to understand, for instance, that the financial system is rigged against them. In fact, there is something deeply wrong with the political system that is only able to put forward very compromised, very deficient, very corrupt leaders. If you then do the thinking about it, you recognize that we’re not going to be able to reform our way out of this. It’s going to require some type of deeper system change.
So, yes, at the moment the cultural infrastructure or the civil society movements that would be necessary to make that change doesn’t really exist, so it seems like there is a huge gap between what really has to happen and what seems conceivable at this point.
I do think there’s hope in the possibility of rapid self-organizing through the Internet. At the moment 1.5 billion people are connected on Facebook, which didn’t even exist 13 years ago. So, a tool like Facebook or Google could potentially be used to awaken people to what’s happening to the planet, why it’s so urgent that we come together as a human family to address this crisis. And also, what people could do in their areas from conserving resources and ride sharing, car sharing, sharing tools, working with alternative forms of money and other ways to exchange value, downscaling, stuff like that. It could be that the internet could be a highly efficient machine that could be used to help us make all these changes.
Plus, there are a lot of young intelligent people who have now made fortunes, and some of them could become really like guides and stewards for this new planetary culture, and recognize it’s not going to matter how many billions you have if the biosphere isn’t functioning. If the temperature spikes and the plankton stop producing oxygen we’re all going asphyxiate here.
One thing you advocated for is a return to spirituality. Science and religion have become politicized opposites, but you talk about seeing them as going hand in hand. Can you talk about that a little bit?
If we are going to make the shifts in the time that we have, it’s going to require surprising new alliances, breaking out of conventional mindsets around the prejudices that scientists have about religion and so on.
Potentially, the religious systems and structures that we have could be creatively used or repurposed for to help with this ecological crisis. Pope Francis wrote this book, On Care for Our Common Home, where he looks at all the Catholic doctrine that supports our shared responsibility for the earth – particularly those who have wealth and resources – to take care of the poor, to take care of the planet, take care of nature. And you know, that could be made into something that could be doctrinal for the billions of people who are Catholics.
It’s interesting that you bring up alliances, because that would clearly be wonderful, but it also feels like we’re getting more and more polarized. You obviously started writing this book before the presidential election – has the current political climate impacted your thinking at all?
Honestly, it hasn’t really changed my thinking very much, except that I think that it’s an accelerator. It’s accelerating a lot of people waking up to realize that something is profoundly wrong with our society that it could allow this to happen. It’s also potentially accelerating a breakdown that’s probably necessary. For instance, if we had another crash of the financial system like 2008, maybe even a worse one, I know that would be very hard for many people and many people would suffer, which is terrible, but on the one hand, they would slow down the speed of industrialization and economic growth, which would also be good for the planet.
It might be a threshold that would force people to think about what we’re doing. In a sense, what we really need is a sort of timeout for humanity. We need people to wake up and be like, alright, we’re in the inertia of all these systems, and we have this idea that money and progress are the goals and so on, but how do we really know that? How do we go forward from here considering everything we know and what’s happening ecologically? And then we need to redirect, redesign, reinvent, you know, move in a different direction. So, I don’t know what’s going to bring that about, but I actually do feel that Trump and his repercussions is much more likely to bring that about than a continuation of neoliberalism.
A lot of this is pretty theoretical, so if someone is reading this and feeling fired up and wants to make some small changes in their lives today to make a difference, what is the one thing you would advise them to do?
One easy thing that people could do is to become as vegetarian as possible or totally vegetarian. Because we do know that meat eating has a very negative impact on many levels in terms of what it’s doing in terms of deforestation, CO2 emissions, and so on. So that’s a good one.
But beyond that, it’s really understanding comprehensively where we’re at, which requires breaking through distraction haze and actually doing some intellectual work. And it’s going to require building community. Like people are going to have to come together in groups, whether in town halls or small groups and admit there’s a problem and then work together to make changes. For some people that might be creating off-the-grid communities. For other people, it might be using social technologies to create boycotts and pressure corporations and so on. You know, a lot of stuff is happening already.