In 1950, the year I was born, did any of us alive then imagine where we would be at this historical juncture? I certainly didn’t. 2020 will be remembered, I think, as the year that the world as we know it ended. Thankfully it has not ended in the cataclysm of an asteroid impact or global environmental collapse, or a thermonuclear war, although all of these threats still loom large in our imagined future, and seem closer and more likely than ever. But instead of these planetary cataclysms, 2020 is the year that we glimpsed what our world will look like in the decades that will unfold ‘after’ the end of history. These are the realizations that we must acknowledge: History as we think of it, as a concatenation of events that appear more or less in a sequence that we can comprehend, has, in fact, ended. Nothing will ever be the same.
Covid is a reminder that Nature is in charge
There are lessons to be learned from reflecting on the year just past. Covid has been an important wake up call for our species, and despite its horrors, it is one of the kindest and gentlest wake up calls we could have hoped for. It is Nature’s way of reminding us that we are not in charge, an understanding we seem to have trouble getting through our thick monkey skulls. If Covid is the first global pandemic of the 21st century, it is surely not the last. Hopefully, but doubtfully, we will meet the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, better prepared than we were for this one. These future pandemics may well be far more brutal than Covid.
Covid has brought into sharp focus just how fragile our social, economic, and technological systems are. They have never been all that stable; now we are seeing how little it takes to nudge these foundational systems toward total collapse.
Reality denialism has induced a collective psychosis
But more than destabilizing global civilization, 2020 marks an inflection point when reality itself seemed to warp and shudder, and began to fragment at the edges. There is no longer any collective consensus as to just what constitutes reality. We can see this manifest in numerous ways.
Most obvious and most immediate is the collapse of our civic polity, and the deterioration of public discourse into near incoherence. In the United States at least, and in much of the rest of the world, large segments of our population have deliberately and willfully opted to participate in a kind of collective psychosis, characterized by denialism. This makes it very difficult to engage in any kind of rational or constructive dialogue in the public sphere because reason itself is under attack. Denialism of the reality of climate change, which has for decades been the most obvious and urgent threat to the survival of our species, created a situation of gridlock that has made it nearly impossible to recognize that there is a problem, let alone seek solutions to avert or mitigate it. In the political arena, denialism has poisoned our institutions of governance and sabotaged our democracy to a point where seeking solutions through political process is nearly impossible.
When more than 80% of the Republican party and nearly 40% of the population believes that the election was ‘rigged’ and stolen from the ‘rightful’ victors through massive fraud, despite no evidence, and massive evidence to the contrary, we have a serious problem. It is compounded by the fact that Trump, a malignant narcissist with authoritarian ambitions, has been able to hijack Twitter and other social media in a massive disinformation campaign to maximize divisions in our society and to deceive millions into buying into his delusions.
We can be grateful that, for now, this effort has failed due to his sheer incompetence; but it has inflicted extensive and long term harm on our institutions that may irreparably disable them. A future aspiring dictator, smarter and less bumbling than the current idiot in chief, may well find ways to leverage the current chaos and collective psychosis to implement a much more sinister and grim hegemony. To those tempted to heave a sigh of relief that ‘our institutions have withstood this test, and are fundamentally sound’ I would sound a cautionary note: We will be unable to avert a political Dark Age far worse than the Third Reich in the 20th century until we have reestablished some semblance of a consensus reality.
The ‘Singularity’ is a seductive and dangerous delusion
Some may argue that the fragmentation of reality should be welcomed as a sign that we are approaching ‘the Singularity.’ The Singularity may well loom, but I think we should be very cautious about what we understand it to be. It is not something that we should necessarily welcome. By definition, the Singularity is a state of maximum chaos. We are already getting a taste of that; for most people, it is not fun; for many, it is a nightmare.
If, indeed, the chaos that the world is experiencing now is a result of the reality-distortion field generated by the Singularity, how do we navigate our shaky ship to a new metastable state without completely destroying our species, our beautiful wounded planet, and all that makes us human? I’m taking it as a given that we want to remain human. I regard the scenarios imagined by the ‘Transhumanists’ as dangerous delusions fostered by a fetishistic fixation on technology. I, at least, have no interest in becoming something other than human. In what years may be left to me, I intend to focus on becoming a better human; and I have plenty of work to do, as does almost everyone.
Singularity: A hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.: "maybe the singularity just happened, and we didn't notice".
Wake up with curiosity and wonder
Is there any hope of forging a new and better human reality in the ferment of this Chaos? One that does not abandon but respects human values such as compassion, love, empathy, respect for Nature, and understanding of our place within it? I have to believe that there is. Giving into despair is not a solution. For years in my talks and public lectures I have been propagating the message that, if Humanity is to have a hope of saving ourselves and the planet, we must do two things: First, we must wake up; second, we must wise up. What does this actually mean?
The first challenge we face, waking up, essentially means that we must recognize and reject denialism. Denialism is nothing new. For much of human history we have cleaved to comforting delusions, precisely because they are comforting, and permit us to avoid acknowledging, and dealing with, our existential situation. This is not going to work any longer.
I submit that at least in Western civilization, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of many of our organized religious institutions. Such institutions have little to do with our inherent spiritual nature, our yearning for something transcendent and meaningful in our lives. Rather, they have hijacked these impulses, enshrouding them in dogmatic and authoritarian belief systems that discourage, and sometimes even prohibit, genuine spiritual experience. They require us to ‘have faith’, to accept the tenets of belief systems that deny the validity of personal spiritual experience, to effectively turn off our minds and stop questioning, stop being curious, stop wondering.
And yet it is curiosity and wonder that is at the heart of genuine engagement with the marvelous world we live in. It is curiosity and wonder that drives science, curiosity and wonder that expands our understanding of our place in Nature and the Cosmos.
Organized religion seeks to kill curiosity and wonder, and instead substitute a set of ready made beliefs with no inherent validity whatsoever, and that effectively acts as a bludgeon to keep us fearful, and separated from genuine, direct experience of the miracle of our existence. Organized religion has facilitated a collective mindset of denial for millenia; our ability to think clearly has been so badly disabled that now that the real challenges facing our species and the planet itself are becoming ever more urgent, we are unable to break out of our prison of denialism to even acknowledge them, let alone respond to them effectively.
Wise up with humility and insight
What about the second challenge we are facing? Assuming we do manage to wake up, to overcome denialism, how then do we wise up? My belief is that once the scales of denialism have fallen from our eyes, once we have recovered our ability to think, then the path to wisdom will be clear. In order to reach it we will need, on a collective level, to fundamentally change how we relate to the world and how we relate to other species in the planetary community of life.
First, we need to rediscover humility. We need to recognize that we are not the owners of Nature; we are not the most superior or even the most intelligent species on the planet; and we need to understand that despite the advances we have made in understanding the world and our place within it, in fact we only grasp a tiny fraction of what reality actually is. There is no place for, and no excuse for, arrogance and hubris. These things are collective personality defects, barriers to true clarity and understanding.
We must become partners with the biospheric community of species
Once we have found humility, and recognized the limitations of our knowledge, we can open our minds and hearts to learning from our partners in this biospheric community of species. And partners we must become. For too long, our species has made selfish decisions about how we conduct our lives on this planet. We need to understand that there is nothing that we do that does not affect every other species on the planet. Life is entangled at every level.
From now on, we must learn to make decisions and change our behavior in ways that recognize this fundamental reality. We are immersed in Nature, whether we like it or not. Without Nature, there is no existence for Humanity. Our priorities must shift from selfish decisions that may appear to benefit us alone, to behaviors that foster the well-being of all life and the planet as a whole; as the living system that it is, of which we are only a part.
Plant medicines are symbiotic partners and catalysts for the evolution of consciousness
For me personally, and for many others in our community, the plant medicines are a blessing, as tools to help us learn both how to wake up, and how to wise up. These plants and fungi are gifts from Nature, symbiotic partners in our long evolutionary journey from apes to angels. We are only about half way there; they still have much to teach us, and we still have much to learn. They have been available to Humanity for millenia, but have long been marginalized and forgotten, much like the indigenous people have been the stewards of the plants and the knowledge to be gained from them.
I am heartened by the relatively recent emergence of plant medicines into the space of collective awareness. Their value, at last, is beginning to be widely recognized. They are symbiotic partners with our species and catalysts for the evolution of consciousness. They have brought many people to the realization that our fundamental challenge is to reforge a partnership with Nature.
I am encouraged that the world is rediscovering the value of the plant medicines, at the same time, I am concerned that the connection is not happening fast enough. We have at most a couple of decades before planetary ecosystems become permanently broken, so damaged that they are unable to recover. It may already be too late; certainly, we are at the 11h hour. As a species, we must transform our collective consciousness; but we do not have the luxury of time. This global transformation needs to happen quickly! Plant medicines can play a role, but they are not the total solution. They are desperately trying to get our attention, they have brought a message from the biospheric community of species: wake up, wise up, and do it quickly.
But that message will do no good if we refuse to hear it. Many civilizations of the past have ignored this simple and obvious lesson and are now remembered, if at all, for their failures. I suspect that similar fates have befallen other ‘advanced’ civilizations, and if we ever do succeed in moving out among the stars, we will stumble on their ruins. We can only hope that ours will not befall such a fate.