Monday, November 30, 2009
There's something decidedly twenty-first century about an inventor telling us that technology is about to make us into God. This would be the final realization of the line in Genesis, ye shall be as gods. The emphasis there was on our stepping across the line into moral choice, eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. No more trusting obedience to the ordering principle of life in the Garden. But post-Eden, tending the Garden became our neolithic charge. We need to stop short of the God-equation, and go back to living within our niche, if that still has any meaning at all.
Let's face it, those who are not techno-hip, or not saved, will have a time of it. The stark limit of biological evolution is population overshoot, not conscious control of the inner springs of life and consciousness (though there will always be a tiny handful who achieve this state, as the yogins of India have shown for at least four and a half millennia). We crossed that line ca. 1986, when we pushed the earth beyond 100% bio-capacity. And that was before the rise of China and India, with a third of planetary population.
Since Kyoto, carbon emissions have gone up, not down, and the curve has steepened since China's big push. The faint hopes of a climate treaty (not in Copenhagen, alas, but “sometime” next year), rest on getting the nations of the world to play by corporate rules, agreeing to commoditize carbon, allowing market manipulators to distort the process to the degree that the goal is effectively subverted. A real integration of science and economics can only reasonably come from a clear-cut carbon tax, with subsidies to the industrial poor to offset it. But that is off the table. We can deny the ensuing rolling collapse, which is the response of the vast majority of humanity - including almost all my colleagues, friends and family- or meet it as an existential challenge.
In Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, Carolyn Baker argues that we listen to the still small voice and recognize the process of industrial civilization’s collapse, making it an opportunity for initiation for those of us who survive. Baker, following Dmitri Orlov, says this process has already started, and the challenge is no longer economic or technological fixes, but spiritual transformation. I have long argued that the global ecological crisis is the greatest moral challenge in human history. Baker and other “Doomers” proclaim that we have already failed that challenge, which leads to the next, crossing the archipelago back into our still–waiting indigenous selves.
Many wise people have argued that this has been the challenge for our species ever since we left the Garden of hunting and gathering. I’ve always loved Jung’s term , the “two million year-old Great Man.” This is the type of the human, the creature who knew how to inhabit its niche, wherever its ancestors happened to live. Now that the late industrial is fast becoming the post-industrial, the long repressed cry for elders is beginning to find voice, and suburbians travel to deserts or mountain fastnesses to walk further than they’ve ever walked before, fast intensely, and pray as deeply as they can, seeking the blessed Grail of initiation into deeper, more meaningful lives than consumerism and jetting to adventurelands for “cultural enrichment” could ever provide.
At an earlier climate conference,1992 in Rio, George Bush Sr proclaimed, “The American way of life is unnegotiable.” Baker's analysis of this kind of thinking (she attributes the original quote to Cheney) is that it reveals the underlying psychology of industrial capitalism: the developmental stage of a 2-year old, “believing that there are no limits and we can have whatever we want.” Not only can, but should. My own sense that democracy operates at the level of a young adolescent is trumped here by an even deeper analysis, reminiscent of Paul Shepard's critique of industrial society acting to juvenilize nature.
But let’s face it, there aren’t many initiators out there. The remaining treasures are the remnant of archaic men and women who know how to live in place within what remains of their tattered ecosystems. The far-sighted and courageous among the dominant industrial culture are training themselves to learn to live again in place, thus to become indigenous once again. But the key, as Baker, Bill Plotkin, Maladoma Some, and Michael Murphy all proclaim, is that our type, morphologically, genotypically and spiritually, still lives deep within us, accessible to anyone with full awareness of what is needed in our desperate times. Whether accession leads to initiation into an integrated, empowered adult in touch with the Great Man (or Woman) who can live in the ruins of the Petroleum Interval is another matter. It is my challenge and yours, dear reader.
Next up: a community providing a courageous example of embracing the challenge of becoming indigenous: Durika, in Costa Rica.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Apocalypse Now: the Rapture, the Singularity, or Collapse?
Another camp, following mathematician and sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, has translated the whole business of the singularity, occurring at the event horizon of the visible universe, into the human realm, as Stewart Brand explains in The Clock of the Long Now. The rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating, throwing off the constants figured in the first half of the 20th century. Similarly, the rate of technological explosion is accelerating, and our ancient primate and mammalian encoded genetic make-up struggles to cope. Vinge thinks this isn’t just sci-fi, but that our consciousness is rapidly approaching singularity, something like a Black Hole, which, once entered, will feel like being pulled like a piece of taffy, infinitely, or until we change states. If you resist it, you’re torn apart. “Society itself could be dismembered, as some people ride the breaking wave of ever-new technology over the event horizon into invisibility while others lag behind, feeling the immense gravitational pull of still–accelerating tech, while no longer able to see it” (Long Now, 21).
The consensus date for this techno-singularity is 2035. What happens beyond that point is “unknown and unknowable.” The crest of the wave of humanity disappearing into the singularity is the new age tech version of the Rapture. Inventor Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity Is Near, 2005) speaks confidently of these highly skilled techno-surfers as becoming asymptotic to God, who would thus be the chaotic attractor within the Black Hole.
This leaves us a long way from the blueprints in our archaic genetic makeup. I have long been troubled by loose talk about “conscious evolution,” something you can go study with Andrew Cohen, or pursue as a higher degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Classical biological evolution has never been “conscious”; it is driven by natural selection, and the qualities being selected for may be very different from the consequences to the species of the traits produced. I believe deeply, however, in immanence, that the Divine is present throughout the universe at every level, and that all outer evolutionary traits express an interiority that is purposeful. Call me an adherent of Intelligent Design if you will, but I am not talking about a grand Wizard/Puppeteer, staging this whole thing from some archimedean point outside the universe. Divine intelligence is a kind of entelechy working from within, expressed in outer forms which only make sense when one sees the pattern of the whole.
Allan Combs tries to make sense of the different ingredients in “evolution soup” in his book, The Radiance of Being. He distinguishes biological evolution from historical evolution, which has more to do with the progressive development and maturation of the psychospiritual dimension, including progressive structures of consciousness. This is not the place to go into the vast sweep of the historical development of hominid consciousness. But the last step envisioned by Combs’ two theorists of these structures, Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber, may have the potential to position us at the cusp of the moment of singularity. Gebser called it the Integral stage, when all structures of consciousness work together to re-member the “ever-present Origin.” As in Vedanta, unlike biological evolution, which is seemingly without a goal, the telos of spiritual evolution is to remember that each of us seemingly separate sentient beings is, and always has been, the Origin, God.
My understanding of conscious evolution, as opposed to evolution of consciousness, is that it involves individual consciousness. It occurs after the awakening of the soul to its higher goal of divine fulfilment, throughout the history of the truly human. But lately, in the last 15-20 years, some theorists have begun speaking as if this individual process actually was the laboratory for conscious evolution of the species. As Thomas Berry put it in the Great Work, we are at the juncture where it is necessary to reinvent the human at the species level.
The work of Rupert Sheldrake, among others, shows that Lamarck's ideas of the inheritance of acquired characteristics may not be as far-fetched as we once thought, opening the door to the possibility of something like conscious evolution at the species level. But it still feels to me like a category error: what is true for the individual is not at all the same as what occurs at the species level. In Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy distinguishes between the transformation of individual consciousness and self-reflexivity on the level of social systems. She wonders if our current global eco-crisis might engender the next step in systemic self-organization, a holonic shift in group consciousness. But if this were to occur, would we call it “conscious evolution” or an evolutinary response from within the Gaian system to preserve interspecies equilibrium?
Theorists of biological evolution point to periods of relatively rapid evolution, when genetic changes happened far more quickly than the traditional Darwinian process would predict. Combs speaks of “emergent evolution” in terms of transforming individual consciousness, rapid quantum-like shifts rather than the gradual development characteristic of “constructive” evolution. There seems to be a collective fantasy for this to happen globally, working at the species level. The leading wave goes into the Singularity, and the rest of us are left behind on an aging terrestrial wreck. This would be something like the triumph of homo sapiens over neanderthalis. In that instance, we proved to be more adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, and technology apparently played a part in it.
Pressured by the immense force of accelerating technological advancement, New Age techies literalize the process of historical evolution of consciousness, observed in homo sapiens on a fortunately-placed planet in a particular solar system in the Milky Way, making it a just-so narrative. For them it is not a matter of analogy or metaphor, an as if scenario. The leading edge, asymptotic to God, will simply disappear into the Singularity. This is the twenty-first century modulation of space colonization, which, however unworkable and morally repugnant, clung to a faint echo of possibility.
This new sci-fi fantasy has power because of our intuitive pull to the immense attractor within the Black Hole. But it remains sci-fi for me, nevertheless. Vinge and Kurzweil make the category error of imagining that spiritual development and technological development, as an extension of biological evolution, are one, occuring on the same ontological plane. It may feel as if the high-flying techies have disappeared, which is certainly the experience I've had trying to be mutually present with some of them. But to actually disappear is another thing altogether. This is true as well of the “gravitational pull of still-accelerating tech.” We would not experience this pull unless we assented to it as a spiritual reality. Archaic spiritual practices still remain valid, for instance those of truly gifted shamans. Those anchored in the Origin are not to be numbered just among the accelerating crest of the tech wave.
Instead of following this Singular crowd, how about looking at our whole enterprise from the perspective of that crusty old nineteeth century discipline of population biology? Placing conscious evolution within the physical constraints of biological evolution might well be instructive. Hence , our next post, which is on to the sobering prospect of population overshoot and collapse.
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