Grief in the Age of Separation
My reaction to Charles Eisenstein’s remarkable book The Ascent of Humanity — in short, every compassionate and reflective person should read this book and meditate upon its contents
Recently, I experienced life as it was a 100,000 years ago, a million years ago. A friend of mine invited me to a song circle in a natural hot spring not too far from my house. The night I finally was able to join was a new moon — that is, no moonlight at all — and it made it all the more special to be sitting in a large natural hot pond (a new one created at Pohoiki park by the volcanic eruptions of 2018), in the utter dark, surrounded by people I could only hear in the water around me, singing songs to the beat of a hand drum, call and response style, in a way that was almost certainly something we have done from the earliest days that we humans acquired language.
It is rare these days to be able to experience these moments of technology- and electricity-free moments of being. To merely be in the moment, to be with others without the mediation of screens or some other kind of modern technology.
How did we find ourselves in this world of ever-increasing complexity and anxiety? Why are so many people so miserable (depression and anxiety were already epidemic before the pandemic vastly exacerbated them)? Are we headed in a good direction? Should we change direction? Can we?
These are all questions prompted by my reading of Charles Eistenstein’s astounding book, The Ascent of Humanity, his 2013 magnum opus that took over a decade to write.
I’ve long been a technophile, but not without internal debate about my love of gadgets and new things. In recent years I’ve found myself living a kind of dual life, both embracing technology and preparing for a life without it, or at least a life with much less technology.
What I mean is that while I live a modern life with most of the gadgets that have become commonplace, like smart speakers, smartphones, rice cookers, big screen TVs, electric cars, and even self-driving technology, I also am preparing a life for myself that would be quite comfortable, and quite possibly far more enjoyable, that does not rely anywhere near as much on technology.
For me this means growing a “serious” garden, having catchment water (rainwater fed house water), solar panels for electricity, learning how to make and mend clothing, and amassing a library of how-to books on all kinds of crafts, from blacksmithing to guitar making to darning to tribal leadership. All in the service of knowing how to live in the event of major catastrophic events in the world — or simply in my own life, such as losing my job. Or just deciding to live simpler and forgo the world of Netflix, Internet, social media, screens, and smart cars in exchange for a more human and organic way of life.
Eisenstein’s book is perhaps that most rare of books: the kind that can prompt major revisions in one’s worldview, even in long-established areas of thought that we hold dear. It’s like his book dropped from some alien culture that has extensively studied humanity for thousands of years and offers not only a summary of that history but also a prescription for how to get back on track to a more healthy way of living, for ourselves and our planet. His book is part of what he calls the “philosophy of civilization,” a real but not often recognized area of study (Alfred North Whitehead’s book Adventures of Ideas is another worthy addition to this relatively small field).
Eisenstein’s main point is that we, not just humans, but all life, have been undergoing an epic journey of separation, of individuation from the world around us. He calls this journey the Age of Separation. This is separation of ourselves from the natural world around us. In short, as he puts it: “descent masquerades as ascent.” Progress (ascent) is not progress toward what really matters. The more we get ahead the more we separate from the important aspects of life.
This journey of separation started long ago, perhaps with the advent of life itself, but accelerated with the dawn of eukaryotic life and the sequestration of genetic material inside the nucleus. This was the end of the profligate and free-spirited sharing of genetic material that characterizes bacterial (prokaryotes) “conjugation” — the bacterial version of sex — opting instead for a more cautious and less care-free mode of living.
This steady separation as life evolved over the course of billions of years allowed for the evolution of more complex forms of life as we traveled through the major evolutionary steps toward multicellularity and, later, symbiotic absorption of smaller entities like the formerly-separate life forms that are now our cells’ mitochondria.
Another major step was the dawn of language, with its naming of parts of the world around us, and the necessary carving up of the world into discrete and reified things that follows from such naming/labeling.
Perhaps the next major step in separation was the dawn of numbers and the idea of collections of things that, through such lumping together, destroyed their individuality and made them susceptible to counting and commodification. What was formerly a copse of individual and unique trees is now “six trees” that are now easier to cut down because they are, through the act of counting, in key ways now the same thing, and they become commodified things. And so on with the rest of the world through labeling and mental commodification.
Another serious step in the Age of Separation was the dawn of agriculture. Long hailed as a breakthrough that allowed for storing food through hard winters, and allowing for a more diversified and structured society, a growing view among anthropologists is that this may be better described as the “agricultural catastrophe” because of its very negative impact on human wellbeing, life expectancy, and of course our impact on the planet (Christopher Ryan makes a similar argument in his excellent book Sex at Dawn).
With the advent of agriculture we went from a relative life of leisure as hunter-gatherers to a life dictated by the demands of farming, harvesting, and worrying about the past and future far more deeply. The dawn of agriculture was perhaps the dawn of anxiety as a way of life. Was this all worth it? We may know the answer in a few more thousand years.
He then argues that it is time for us to transition into an Age of Reunion as the next step in our evolution. This is, he suggests, the next step in our epic journey of becoming and will be advanced through the Story of Interbeing that he offers as a “new story” about our relationship to ourselves and to the natural world. We need not regret the long journey of separation. We should instead learn from it and see it for what it is: a first (massively long) leg in our journey toward a more complete life and civilization, one that better mirrors the natural cycles around us far more than it does today.
He argues not against technology in general, or progress in general — recognizing that such an admonition is futile in today’s world — but that we should instead reorient our technology and our desire for progress toward the creation of beauty, of beautiful things and toward art more generally. He argues in a later book, Sacred Economics, which I also read recently, for how these visions can be translated into the fabric of our lives, into our personal and large-scale economies.
I have to add some brief thoughts comparing Eisenstein’s vision to that sketched by Steven Pinker in his books The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, which argue, based on voluminous data, that in many ways our lives are dramatically better than our forebears a few centuries or a few millennia ago. He argues that modern science and technology, and the Enlightenment way of thinking, based on reason, have indeed allowed humanity in general to ascend to unseen heights. We have, Pinker would argue, found success in building the Tower of Babel. The structure is standing and growing taller each year.
The distinctions between Eisenstein’s and Pinker’s views are complex and a later essay will explore this comparison more. In short: both thinkers are right in many ways. What Pinker leaves out of his extensive arguments are the parts of life and civilization that Eisenstein focuses on, including the degradation of the natural world and the using up of finite resources, and the ability of our environment to absorb our civilization’s waste products. And, perhaps most importantly, Pinker does not consider at all the commodification of every aspect of our worlds in the modern era, including our attention and “mindspace” that rob us of time, equanimity, beauty, and freedom. We can perhaps sum up this effect best with Eiseinstein’s phrase: “the uglification of the world.”
Eisenstein’s vision of beauty as the goal of life is not an elitist parody though some may, without understanding his vision, interpret it that way. I’m a little biased since I have for some time now shared a similar view: that life is ultimately about the creation of beauty, or art, but this view was for me based more on intuition than comprehensive reflection (well, there has been quite a bit of reflection about it, but Eisenstein’s book has connected many dots for me and allowed a much deeper integration of my own ideas).
Eisenstein’s vision is a beautiful one. His “art” is clearly the crafting of idea paintings, or weavings (perhaps a better metaphor), that allow us to see broad swaths of history and human life, and to then find the beauty within ourselves that spurs us to seek and create our own forms of beauty that we can share with others in the process of re-beautifying the world.
Where did his vision come from, if not the advanced alien civilization that it feels like it came from? Well, most likely it is a testament again to the power of the vision he sketches and lives: one based on a deep reverence for play and exploration, and sitting with oneself and others without the normal technological distractions.
In short, it is clear that Eisenstein has put in the [work] play that is required for such deep integration of vast bodies of knowledge, and then to offer up ideas and suggestions for the betterment of humanity that are based on that profound and sublime integration.
Thank you, Charles, for letting your mind play in the realms of deep history and for coming back to offer your insights.