un nouveau départ pour l’humanité, vous aussi ?

One of the things we haven’t quite understood yet is just what a time of dramatic transformation the 21st century is going to be. For us. And I don’t just mean climate change — but in an even wider frame still.

The 21st century is going to the end of one chapter of humanity’s story — and the beginning, maybe, of another. It is going to be the end of the first chapter of humanity’s story — it’s roiling, joyous, painful birth and adolescence — and, if we are wise, its transition to becoming a mature species. Let me explain what I mean by that.

The 21st century is going to be the first time — ever — that the human species stops increasing, expanding, and growing. The human population is — for the first time in history — projected to finally peak around 2050, for the first time ever, in a hundred thousand years. Let me put all that in perspective, if your response is — “so what?” — I think it is one of the most significant events of all time, and I don’t say that for hyperbole’s sake. So powerful and meaningful that we haven’t even begun to think about it. I think it explains everything from today’s wave of fascism, to climate change — to tomorrow’s urgent, desperate need for better paradigms of everything, from economics to politics to society.

What does the end of the first chapter of human history really mean, say, tell us? It tells us that everything is going to change, and it is going to change radically, my friends.

About 70,000 years ago, a small number of humans — a few clans, a tribe, maybe just a family — left Africa. They expanded across Asia, and upwards through Europe. They walked across Siberia, and reached the Americas. They traveled down the coast, until, at last, they found themselves at the tip of Patagonia. That brings us to about 15,000 years ago.

After that, human beings expanded themselves into “civilizations”, and those civilizations began warring for land, power, for silver and gold, for slaves and servants — for resources, essentially. The winning “civilization” was the West, in the end. The West “explored” the “world”, and “discovered” the “new world” — so the story goes (it’s wrong, as you can see.) Then it proceeded to colonize it, which is to say, enslave it, control it, and dominate it — all in the name of control over its resources, whether Virginian tobacco, Indian cotton, or Jamaican sugar and rum. And that brings us to now.

Up until now — this very moment in history — the human race has been characterized by one single act. The act above. The act of expansion — for more resources, since numbers were always growing, growing, growing. With expansion, came war, slavery, tyranny, hatred. With expansion came violence of every kind. As the Biblical story eerily alludes to: in the exile from the garden is born sin. Whether or not we take it seriously, the story of the human race thus far has been one of a triumphant species, ever expanding, thanks to the easy bounty, the plenitude before it. If my goal is to expand, which is to control more resources, so my people can grow — why shouldn’t I consider you a “resource”, too?

So the human race came to be dominated by a certain attitude, a certain mindset, a certain way. The predatory-exploitative mindset. The idea, which was later formalized in the “racial” theories of Western supremacists, went like this: human beings are the apex predators, sitting atop the globe’s food chains and natural resources. As its apex predators, they had every right to simply plunder, pillage, and loot — to exploit. Without thinking twice — without thinking even once.

The predatory-exploitative mindset, if we’re honest, has been with us for millennia now. Rome lionized it — and practiced it. The Western age of Empires was essentially one great contest for it — to rule the waves and the world, which meant having the most colonies to exploit, the most people and land to prey upon. America came to exemplify it — seizing land, exploiting natives, enslaving Africans, greedily, hungrily. The Nazis, admiring America, took it to grotesque and horrific extremes.

But now this age is finally coming to an end. A bitter, difficult, inevitable end. The human race is at the end of this chapter in its history. The cycle of predatory expansion and exploitation has come to an end. There is nowhere left to colonize, and nothing left to exploit. Hence, the human population is going to peak, for the first time ever, in a hundred thousand years — in just a few decades.

Now do you see how momentous the times are that we are living through? Let me try to explain now why they’re so turbulent. If you understand by now that the first chapter of humanity’s story was about expansion, violence, over the resources an expanding species needs to grow — then it should be easy to understand why this age is so difficult and troubled.

This age is the climax of humanity’s first chapter. We often imagine growth as an “S” shaped curve, a sigmoid curve. But that isn’t true for human beings. Growth is something more like an exponential curve, a curve forever rising into infinity, until it goes parallel to the ground. Now imagine two such curves meeting — forming not an arch, but the shape of a minaret. That’s now. What does that curve say? It says that more people are competing for dwindling resources — than ever before, by a very, very long way. A thousand years ago, maybe it was seven million people competing for the plentiful resources of seven continents. Today, it’s seven billion, competing for the burned-out husks of the very same. Do you see the problem now?

Because this century is the culmination of the expansionist chapter of human history, it’s exploding into fascism. Into violence. Into stagnation, into poverty amidst plenty, into rage and despair. That’s a natural consequence of the central paradigm — the predatory-exploitative mindset. This mindset was always going to reach its limits — and when it did, the only thing human beings would have left to prey on would be themselves — their very own societies, democracies, cities, towns, rivers, lakes, children, lives.

That, my friends, is where we are now. At the end of the first chapter of human history. And we are bewildered, baffled, paralyzed — or lashing out in rage and fear — because while our paradigm has hit its limits, we know no other way. Because while we’ve reached the end of the first chapter — we don’t know how to write the second. We don’t even know how to pick up the pen. Turn the page. I’d feel afraid, anxious, and angry, too.

When a species stops expanding, we can say that it has matured. It has reached its limits. That is what the 21st century is to humanity. It is the time that maturity is upon us. The question is whether we are gong to understand this. If we don’t, we keep on trying to employ a predatory-exploitative mindset, in a world, a time, a place, a stage in our own evolution, when we should be transcending it. The result? Our very own demise. Not absolute, as in the end of the human race — but a plunge back into Dark Ages, where fractured tribes war each other, and slowly, slowly, the population, civilization, and modernity all decay and atrophy and rot away. That’s a kind of death, too, isn’t it? It’s the death of a species which never matured. Which remained in a larval stage, so to speak.

(Now let me address the idea — “but we’ll go to Mars!!” Sure, we will. We should. It will be a noble and wonderful day when we tiny things finally break our earthly bonds. But we can’t go to Mars and use the predatory-exploitative mindset. It would be futile. What would be the point? There’s no low-hanging fruit there to pick off. We can exploit the resources of other places, like whole planets, to make billionaires kings, sure — but that’s not progress. It’s not even stasis. It’s regress. So this isn’t writing the next chapter in human history — unless when we go to Mars, we do so in new forms of political economy and society which are radically more just, positive, fair, and beneficial to all — it’s just reading the first chapter, backwards.)

We have two choices at this juncture in human history, my friends. We understand our own story, for the first time, at last — so that we can write its next chapter. So that we can pick up the pen. Turn the page. And we begin to evolve — to mature. A mature species does not collapse its own societies and burn down its own home. A mature species does not eat its own young, or sacrifice them to imaginary gods, whether those on Olympus or those of the “markets”. A mature species is a wise, courageous, and gentle thing, with dignity, justice, truth, and plenitude for all.

If we make this choice, we begin to write the next chapter of human history. We transform, from the larva of a predatory-exploitative species, to the butterfly of a beneficent-constructive one. A species that is something more like the guardian and protector of all things noble, good, and beautiful — whether democracy, dignity, truth, justice, or life itself.

Or we read the first chapter of human history, backwards. We repeat the story of being an exploitative-predatory species — just in reverse. We begin with fascism and genocide — and we end up right back living in caves, hunting with spears, and chanting frightened prayers by firelight to vengeful gods. I’d say that so far, we’re on this path, wouldn’t you?

It’s going to take us a time to understand the message of this century — its power, its might, its meaning. That we have to turn the page now. In the most dramatic and fundamental ways imaginable. We literally have to chart a new path for our species — one that’s never been walked before, because we’ve never had to chart the frontiers of maturity.

It’s not going to happen overnight. The above was pretty challenging to read, to take in, to really grapple with, I’d bet. I’d say it’s about time we begin then, wouldn’t you? Because the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.

See that picture above? That’s Homo Erectus. He didn’t make it. Will we?

February 2019

thanatos over eros ?

I often say that we live in an age of trauma. There’s a simple way to think about that. The world is so messed up, we’re having to invent new forms of mental imbalance just to make sense of our own inability to cope with it. The world is so messed up it’s messing with our heads.

Take the example of “climate grief.” Last year, the APA wrote a report which began to recognize that natural disasters and climate change were having severe, lasting psychological effects. That might sound obvious to you — but it’s a brave step. We don’t think hard or often enough of how badly we’re affected by just existing in times like these. Climate grief, I’d wager, will come to be recognized as a defining psychological imbalance of the 21st century. But it’s hardly the only one.

Just scanning the headlines is one long exercise in trauma. Yes, trauma. You see, you’re quite wrong to say “but we have it better than anyone before in history!” Do we? People in the middle ages, the dark ages, the Roman empire, and so on, didn’t have access to the kind of information or knowledge we do — at the tap of a finger, anytime, anywhere. If the planet was about to melt down — they wouldn’t have had a clue. Nor did they have the power to make the planet melt down. It’s the fools’ logic of an economist to say we are the most fortunate people in history — materially, perhaps that’s true, in some meaningless way. We’re not robots, after all. But psychologically, emotionally, we are constantly confronted by relentless, addictive flood of information which confronts us with death, harm, and ruin. That’s the stuff of severe, lasting harm. It bruises and batters us deep down in the soul to constantly “read” about — know about, think about, suffer through — the death of the planet, democracy, society, the future. It takes a piece of us with it.

(And so we are all grieving today. I say that, and I think people recoil a little bit. But don’t you think it’s true? Every single person I know is in a kind of deep grief — even if they don’t quite know it themselves. Think about the signs. Trouble sleeping. Anxiety, depression, brooding.

An abiding sense of sorrow — letting go of what can never be. The process of mourning — letting go a past that can never be again.)

As a result of this age of profound, shattering grief, when we mourn for so many things that matter so much, all at once, is that we are suffering through what might be called a loss of libido. (Sorry — don’t roll your eyes, because I don’t mean it in the most superficial terms, though it shows up even there, which is that we’re having less and less sex.) I mean it in the sense of Eros, life-force, will to live, to flourish, to realize ourselves authentically, fully, and fiercely. (You see all those young people giving up on their dreams? All those old people who only seem to care about themselves? All those politicians having creepy affairs but not having the courage or purpose to give a damn about society? That’s all the loss of Eros.)

It is as if our will to live — to live fully, authentically, well — is vanishing — and is being replaced by a kind of destructive, ruinous impulse instead. At a social scale, maybe a global one, not an individual one. How, exactly? Look at skyrocketing suicide rates. Look at how neighbor is turning on neighbor. Look at how country after country is retreating into its little shell. Look at how we give up on the challenges before us — the big four — climate change, inequality, stagnation, and division. We shrug, or hand our heads in despair — but either way, it feels as if we are defeated. This is a loss of libido, of Eros, at a social scale. What is replacing it is Thanatos, the death instinct. The impulse to seek vengeance, to take revenge, to burn the house down, when you cannot climb to its top. Eros seeks transcendence — the loss of the self, it’s merging and connection into a larger whole (isn’t that what you’re after when you’re having sex, falling in love, or appreciating a beautiful sunset?). Thanatos seeks annihilation — the exaltation of the self, as the only being, even at the price of the destruction of the world.

The truth is that we are surrounded by Thanatos. Immersed in destruction, because we are permeated by self-preservation. It has come to define our lives in ways we don’t see, appreciate, understand, or know. Technology, social media, is a mighty force of Thanatos. Rather than offering us genuine self-transcendence — like we might feel watching a beautiful sunset — it offers us nothing but unbridled narcissism. The annihilation of the world, so we are the only ones left standing. Look at me! Like me! I am the one that matters most! Capitalism, too, which created this kind of technology, is Thanatos in pure form. It tells you are inherently worthless, so then you compete for status through consumption — you are basically competing to be the only one that matters, with more money, toys, prettier partners, and so on. Thanatos-as-capitalism says it doesn’t matter if it costs the whole world, democracy, the planet, the future, society, even your better self — as long as you feel like the only one who matters, because it told you never mattered to begin with.

But that is exactly how you get to a planet melting down, democracy dying, society in tatters, nations divided, and a world this troubled. Thanatos is the impulse to ruin, destroy, and pillage, so that one can stand atop the wreckage, it is the aggressive, egoistic, domineering force in us. So quite naturally, when we build institutions and norms and values upon it — where else can we end up?

The 21st century is going to be a difficult decade. But the most difficult thing about it, perhaps, will be the challenge of building a world on Eros, not Thanatos. It’s funny — today’s leftists are already trying. What is the obsessive focus on gender and sexuality if not Eros? But it is a small kind of Eros. Eros more properly understood is the instinct to merge, to be one, to lose one’s self. It’s what you feel dancing at a nightclub, or at the pub with your friends, or when you see a little child’s smile. It’s not just sex — though that’s what today’s left has, a little childishly, reduced it to.

A world built on Eros would prize the fulfillment of every being within it as it’s first priority. Every river, tree, insect, and person. Flowing, growing, humming — maturing. Do you see what I mean? A river’s potential is to flow, an insect’s to fly, a tree’s, to grow — and yours is to mature into grace, truth, decency, courage, defiance, wisdom, passion, insight, love. When you stand before the flowing river, you feel a sense of oneness, don’t you? So the more flowing rivers there are, the more self-transcendence there is for you, too. In this way, all things are linked through Eros — your possibility is to maximize the possibility of all things, just as their possibility is to maximize yours.

Thanatos, sadly, finds its truest expression in modern American life. Why don’t people give each other healthcare? Why would they prefer to make their neighbours beg for insulin online? Why don’t they stop each others’ kids getting massacred at school? America’s unbelievably, strangely, weirdly cruel culture and abusive society are expressions of Thanatos. Everyone is trying to climb over everyone else — so no one really goes anywhere but down. Society has become one giant arena for bruising, battering, bloody competition. It is lethal competition, too — lose that job, there goes your healthcare, bang! You’re dead. So through America’s example, we see the lesson of Thanatos versus Eros spelled out very, very clearly.

Thanatos seeks your self-preservation, even at the expense of the destruction of all things, all beings, everything. The whole universe could implode, and as long as you came out on top, Thanatos would say all was right and just and well. But Eros seeks the fulfillment of all things, through you, precisely so that self-transcendence can happen. If there are no rivers flowing or suns setting over them — what is there for you to transcend into? Do you see what I mean? It’s a subtle point, so think about it.

When people are threatened, Thanatos kicks in. The self-preservation impulse takes over. The fury and rage of destruction mount. Having build system after system of Thanatos — capitalism, technology, and so on — we have also built a world where people’s selfhood is constantly, perpetually, severely threatened, whether through a lack of money, resources, time, or care, and so, quite naturally, they are trying to preserve themselves, instead of gently transcend themselves.

What are we really grieving for these days, my friends? Is it just “climate grief” which tears through us? Not at all. We also grieve for, are anxious about, dread the loss of, democracy, society, the world, civilization, and the future. Yet grief is best understood as the loss of Eros, an opportunity to reach self-transcendence that is now gone forever — which one must let go. When you “grieve” for a parent or spouse or friend, that is what you are really missing — the merger, union, that you felt with them. And you can feel that loss of Eros everywhere in the world today. In the fury that’s sweeping the world, for belonging, for meaning, for purpose. In the rage that’s ripping across country after country, to be seen and counted as someone that matters. That is what I mean by the “loss of libido.”

Thanatos came to replace Eros, as capitalism and technology swept the globe — people, constantly threatened, adopted an aggressive, hostile, destructive stance, in the name of self-preservation. It doesn’t matter if we destroy the river, the tree, the insects — as long as I preserve myself. But then there is nothing left for us to transcend ourselves with, either. So in that way, capitalism and technology have also led us to give up the will to live fully, authentically, honestly, expansively — because doing so always recognizes our highest need is for self-transcendence, even though our first one is for self-preservation.

All of which leads me to a simple conclusion. The 21st century must be a time of Eros, if we are to heal this broken, troubled world. Not because I say so. But because we need to heal from the ruinous malaises of the ages of capitalism and technology. The anxiety and fear and isolation and meaninglessness they brought with them. We need to grieve, and grieve deeply, for all that we harmed, hurt, lost, abandoned, and ruined, in order to live again. And that is what is really being tested in this strange, difficult, century. Whether or not we want to live again. The alternative is, as it has always, been, death. The age of Thanatos is coming to an end. But will the age of Eros begin? That, my friends, is the question.

December 2018