A conversation with my favorite contemporary social philosopher, Charles Eisenstein, about his life, his work, and the major opportunities and obstacles we’re facing today
From a young age, Charles Eisenstein has felt something was fundamentally wrong with our world or, more specifically, with the social and political realities we have built.
I first came to Charles’ body of work with his astounding “Coronation” essay from April 2020 (which we discuss a little below). I won’t ruin the punchline of that piece but after seeing his name come up over and over again I decided to listen to Sacred Economics, his second major book, published in 2011 in its first edition. It also blew my mind over and over, which led me to then listen to his magnum opus and his first major book, published in 2007, The Ascent of Humanity, a more hefty book that covers the history of consciousness and humanity from prokaryotes to the present. My mind was blown numerous times yet again.
Then I listened to his most recent book, from 2018, Climate: A New Story [since I did this interview he has released a book length version of his essays on the Covid-19 pandemic called The Coronation]. His climate change book revisits many of the themes discussed in the first two books just mentioned, but is (obviously) focused on the climate crisis. Equally deep and unique insights are offered with great compassion and understanding. He highlights, over and over again in his thought, as a more recent kind of Alan Watts, that most of the ills we face today are a product of our mistaken sense of self. We are not that separate, you and I, he argues time and time again.
I then read his most popular book, published in 2013, and one that may have the best title of any book ever written: The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. It’s a more personally-focused book that looks at the changes each of us must make in order to achieve that more beautiful world.
I committed to this deep dive through Charles’ ideas because I sensed as I swam deeper not only a fellow traveler (I’ve also been on a long and eclectic thirty-year journey of discovery to “figure it all out”) but also a guide for better understanding of the broad and sometimes incomprehensible sweep of human and pre-human history. Indeed, in a brief review of The Ascent of Humanity I was inspired to write this:
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.
No hyperbole was intended. It really was that eye-opening for me, largely because I have long had a deeply-rooted feeling that we in this modern world of ours are on the road to ruin, even while I embraced technology and gadgets and also while I see much validity to arguments made by Stephen Pinker and others that our modern way of life offers countless improvements over pre-agricultural and pre-hierarchical societies.
My intuitions — my heart- and gut-based modes of understanding — have been cultivated by Eisenstein’s work. But nor is his work anti-rational. He has a strong background in analytical methods, having studied mathematics and philosophy at Yale as an undergraduate and clearly has “done the work” in understanding — and critiquing — many major areas of modern science and philosophy.
After doing this survey of his books and essays I reached out to Charles about doing an email interview about his life and work and he kindly agreed. As you’ll see from this interview, there are some areas of disagreement but I have enjoyed finding such a bright light who seems to have come to similar conclusions as I have in my own work, from the ontology of identity to aesthetics to fundamental physics to evolutionary theory to climate change policy, forest policy, and egalitarian political movements.
We conducted the following interview by email during February and March of 2022.
Let’s start with your background and motivations for your work. You went to Yale for your undergraduate studies and focused on mathematics and philosophy. Your first major book (2007) was The Ascent of Humanity, which you suggest in that book itself was a work that took a decade or more to research and write. What inspired this effort? Who are the major thinkers you looked to in forming your ideas?
That book embodies at least a decade of study and thought, but I was actively writing it for just four years. Some key influences were Wendell Berry, Ilya Prigogine, Lewis Mumford, Marshall Sahlins, David Bohm, Helena Nordberg-Hodge, Lynn Margulis… I could name some others, but really this is not primarily a scholarly book, and the list of influences won’t help much to understand it.
You write in the introduction to your 2013 book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible that you are an ordinary person and if you, an ordinary person, can seek and achieve these insights and these practices in your life, then almost anyone should be able to. I don’t wish to detract from your efforts to paint yourself as an ordinary guy but it seems pretty clear that you have spent an extraordinary amount of time reading, researching and writing about a vast number of topics, from spirituality, to economics, to science, to climate, to currencies, to political movements. Doesn’t the effort you’ve expended in itself make you at least a little extraordinary?
Sure, why not. My point, though, is that the insights didn’t come from a dramatic life story or unusual discipline. They are quite close at hand for ordinary people, because really what I am doing is to give voice to a new mythology that is rising in the collective consciousness.
How would you sum up the key points of your work? Despite the breadth of issues you’ve written and spoken about, there is a theme that runs through your work. You write very accessibly and your target audience seems to be anyone who wishes to listen (rather than writing for a niche field of professionals, for example). Why have you chosen to write for the “everyperson” rather than more niche audiences?
The overarching theme of all my work is the transition in civilization’s defining mythology, from a story of separation to a story of interbeing. This transition plays out in all the fields I write about, and provides a way to identify common patterns across those fields. Because I am what you might call a “generalist,” my work is accessible to laypeople. I am myself a layperson, albeit highly educated in certain fields.
You moved to Taiwan in your 20s, studied Chinese, and worked as a translator for some years. What caused your life to take this particular turn? Are you still conversant in Mandarin?
Yes, I am still fluent in Mandarin, although I seldom have opportunity to speak and have forgotten a lot in the 25 years since I lived there. I went to Taiwan right out of college, because I felt like such an alien in my home country, and I couldn’t make myself get with the program. I had no ambition whatever to become a success, build my resume, go to graduate school, or anything like that. Furthermore, living abroad gave me the opportunity to discover who I was apart from the reinforcing circumstances of my home culture.
How much does your fluency in another language and culture, quite different than US culture, influence your thinking and willingness to propose ideas that are radically different than the mainstream?
Well, there are certainly plenty of multilingual people around, and not all of them are creative thinkers. But I think in my case, immersing in a radically different language and culture prevented my intellectual programming from calcifying. I was introduced to entirely new categories of thought before the old ones had fully formed.
I also have to credit psychedelic medicines for exposing the narrowness and artificiality of what I’d until then accepted as real. They helped open my mind to different ways of conceiving and perceiving the world that local traditions of Buddhism and Taoism offered. I never studied either deeply, but they suffused the cultural atmosphere and influenced me profoundly, particularly Taoism.
One influence I can say that Chinese has had on my later work is that it helped me work more comfortably with paradox. It is in many ways a less precise language than English; the same is true of the various Taoist sciences. You don’t start with basic definitions and first principles and work your way up from those. Taoism applies a more holistic logic and employs more teleological thinking. To some extent, this is embodied in the Chinese language too. Grammar is more fluid, words can morph from one part of speech to another, and the “atoms” of the language are semantic and not alphabetic. Aphabetic languages offer a model of reality in which meaning is an illusion. Just as meaningful words are composed of meaningless letters, so also is the meaningful world composed of meaningless protons, neutrons, and electrons. Chinese is not like that: meaning in Chinese is elemental. Perhaps these feature of the Chinese language primed me to explore non-reductionistic thinking and the relationship between story and reality in my later work.
Were you always comfortable with being considered a radical? In my own experience studying various fields and finding myself coming to very different conclusions than the mainstream I’ve realized that there must be significant other factors than logic or evidence influencing whatever ideas or theories are most prominent — because so many of them just don’t make sense under scrutiny. I’ve thus found myself comfortable with being in many ways “on the fringe” but it’s not something I sought out. Have you experienced a similar dynamic in your intellectual meanderings?
I have long and frequently felt a bit of an alien here. Until recently, that has mostly meant being ignored and dismissed, a mostly benign neglect outside the corner of the culture that comprises my readers. That has changed with the pandemic, when ideas that I’ve written about for years all of a sudden attracted much more attention, much of it hostile. For example, in The Ascent of Humanity there is a section titled “The War on Germs,” in which I located conventional medicine within larger paradigms of conquest and offered quite specific critique of certain medical practices. But it was only in the last two years that such views drew public denunciation and cancelation — including by the very publisher who now carries that book. If I may flatter myself to say that my views are true, I can only hope that they exemplify Schopenhauer’s adage: “All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
You describe in your work how you’ve had a feeling of discontent and of fundamental wrongness with modern society from an early age. When did these feelings and realizations first happen to you?
It began very early on in grade school. I couldn’t have articulated the feeling at the time, but I just couldn’t accept my situation as good and right, sitting in rows in the classroom, forced to do things I didn’t care about, filling out worksheet after worksheet, watching the clock tick slowly toward recess. I was quite timid, but I remember secretly siding with the “bad” kids and glorying in their insubordination.
As a teenager, I began encountering books that fueled my latent indignation. I read Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, and so forth. I knew then that I wasn’t crazy for believing something was fundamentally wrong in the world. I also began to suspect that the origin of the wrongness was much deeper than anyone knew. That is how I became a radical.
Shifting to less personal questions, how do you respond to the Pinkerian argument that the Enlightenment has improved the world in countless ways? Pinker has argued in two hefty books (The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now) that the Enlightenment way of thinking, led by science and reason, has indeed led to a vastly better world in numerous quantifiable ways. He presents data in dozens of categories showing that the world is far better off in terms of declining violence, longer lifespans, better standard of living, access to health care, declining child death and death of mothers during birth, etc. You of course paint a very different picture in your work, of a world on a fundamentally wrong track. So what does Pinker get wrong or leave out?
I could answer by pointing you to an essay I wrote in response to Pinker: Our New, Happy Life? The Ideology of Development. It is not possible to rebut his thesis in a few short paragraphs, when such a rebuttal requires overturning deeply held assumptions. His book was so readily celebrated by powerful people in the establishment because it feels so commonsensical to them, drawing on assumptions they take for granted.
That said, I can point to several lines of critique. First, the chosen measures of well-being are loaded with the values and assumptions of the very culture (ours) that is assessing progress and naming itself as the most advanced. So for example, Pinker talks a lot about life expectancy, but what about quality of life in those longer years? Is it any improvement to have to manage chronic disease or live in a nursing home, lonely and depressed? Other authors have also questioned Pinker’s metrics on their own terms: Is society actually less violent than it was in Medieval or pre-historic times? Or has the form of violence merely shifted? Thirdly, I and many other people who have spent time in less “developed” places on earth have witnessed levels of well-being and happiness seldom seen in modern society.
We have more and more of everything we measure, as the immeasurable, the qualitative, ebbs out of modern life. We then seek yet more of the quantitative in futile compensation for its loss. One very concrete way this plays out is in the mania for safety that I first noticed in the wave of litigiousness in the 1980s, that accelerated after 9/11 into a national obsession, and then reached hysterical proportions in the Covid era. Each security measure makes us safer. You can measure it. Keeping kids indoors in front of screens, making borders “secure,” locking down all of society. And what does safety compensate for? A life of meaning and purpose. Cut off from that, there is nothing left but to stay alive.
You write in The Ascent of Humanity about the commodification and monetization of the world through a steady reduction of services provided by friends, family and community in favor of companies providing these services for a fee. For example, childcare, birthing, and laundry used to be performed by families and friends but now in the case of many modern families are done by paid third parties. You warn about the loss of community and family ties because of this vast commodification and monetization of the world. What practical ways do we have to reverse this trend?
I’ll answer this question on a personal and political level. On the personal level, we can look at our lives and ask what part we can reclaim from money, what we can bring back into the realm of community, self-sufficiency, or gift? Or you could approach it as a shift of dependency away from markets toward people we actually know. Some things may not make sense right now to change, but maybe you’ll recognize that the time is ripe to plant a garden, or start a homeschool co-op or babysitting co-op or play group, or to replace on-screen entertainment with regular musical gatherings with friends.
On the political level, we can reverse policies that destroy community. In many cases, because of licensing requirements, building codes, and so forth, it is actually illegal to do things we once did for each other. Regulations that protect us from unscrupulous big corporations also make it difficult for small, family-run farms and businesses to operate. Furthermore, any policy that shifts economic activity from a local to a global scale will damage community, because even when money is used to facilitate local transactions, something else happens along with money exchange.
People interact with each other locally — more at the small food co-op than at the Wal-Mart grocery story, and more at the Wal-Mart than if they order groceries online. Our system has all kinds of hidden subsidies that promote delocalization and expansion of scale. We can shift those subsidies to support localism.
Why do you focus on beauty as such an important aspect of life, and of what’s missing in our modern world, with its “uglification” and industrialization of so much around us?
Beauty is one of those things we cannot quantify, and therefore which fits poorly into conventional economic thinking. Money logic is good at maximizing efficiency, which is actually maximizing something measurable. For example, it produces large buildings cheaply.
I focus on beauty a lot because it offers such a clear example of our poverty. The beauty lens makes it obvious that financial thinking, and quantitative thinking generally, is incapable of producing certain things that the human soul requires. What does the world need most right now? Is it more?
Is it practical to suggest that performing mundane acts like laundry, yard work, or changing diapers should be viewed as sacred tasks, as ways of creating a more beautiful world, as you suggest in your work?
Well, our society little celebrates such activities, and our economy hardly rewards them. Yet, they require a lot of patience and humility. We need people to do such things with care and devotion, at least as much as we need people to invent new machines and build new organizations. Neither is more sacred than the other. However, I’m not suggesting that some people should spend their whole lives changing diapers and doing laundry. Calling such activities “sacred” is not a way to justify an unfair, exploitative division of labor. It is rather the opposite. If we as a society hold those activities as worthy, then no one will believe themselves to be above such things.
Ultimately, I am advocating a reversal of an age-old prejudice, which values the abstract over the concrete, the spirit over the flesh, and the spiritual over the material. This anti-materialism has caused tremendous harm to materiality; that is, to nature. Part of recovering from the spell of money (which is itself an abstraction of value) is to re-value the material, the soil, the flesh, the living, and the human.
Do you ever tear up at witnessing a particularly beautiful sight or moment or idea?
Yes. What affects me the most is to witness generosity, kindness, and selflessness. Like when a small child shares with another.
You mention in The More Beautiful World… how a lot of people have seemed for some time to somewhat perversely be looking forward to normal life and society breaking down, in whatever manner comes along, like an alcoholic needs to truly bottom out before seeking help, or like the necessary flames before the rebirth of the phoenix from the ashes. I wonder how much of this notion affected your attempts to discern your personal response to the pandemic and lockdowns in those early months of 2020 before you wrote the Coronation essay and established yourself as more of a Covid skeptic, at least in terms of seeing the world’s seeming over-reactions to the virus as part of a very long historic arc toward power seeking more power and control?
I think that the public’s willingness to accept lockdowns and in general the break in normal life is that they wanted liberation from normality. A lot of people in modern society feel trapped in their lives, and here was deliverance. Or so it seemed.
In fact, the hoped-for freedom did not materialize. The regime of control only intensified.
Klaus Schwab, author of The Great Reset and founder of the World Economic Forum, has a new book out called The Great Narrative, a compilation of many different authors’ ideas about how our global civilization should arise from the ashes of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, it present a rather different “great narrative” than the Story of Interbeing that you have offered for a new Age of Reunion. Have you considered engaging with these kinds of leaders in order to seed fresh thinking, from a perspective of Reunion rather than Separation? If Schwab invited you to speak at Davos would you attend?
I have not read the book, but from what I’ve seen of the Great Reset, I think it is a mix of good and bad ideas, or at least some of the ideas come from a good motivation. For example, the idea that “you will own nothing and be happy” is actually a reference to the leasing economy, where instead of buying a washing machine you buy the use of the machine, which gives manufacturers an incentive to make it durable and reparable. The main problem in the kind of ideas that come out of the World Economic Forum is that they invariably put more power in the hands of centralized institutions and the elites that run them. Many of the ideas would be quite good if they could be liberated from that. For example, a universal basic income would be great if it didn’t come with dependency on a government that could take it away if, for example, you espouse subversive ideas.
In any case, if I were invited to speak to them I certainly would. I don’t think we should ever write someone off as irredeemably evil. On some level, these elites long for the same thing we all do, subject to their own particular blinders. I would speak to the part of them that also seeks a more beautiful world.
If you had the resources of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos what would you do?
If I had those resources, neither I nor the world would be as they are right now. I would have to be someone I am not. Or, the world that would put such resources in my hands would uphold different values than it does now. In the former case, I would probably do not much different than those two do. In the latter case, I wouldn’t need those resources to begin with.
Making it more concrete, what if one of these men (or someone similarly wealthy) was so inspired by your ideas that they decided to give you access to $1 billion and hired a team of people to work under your guidance to implement your vision?
I still question whether this would be the best use of my time; however, I’ll play along with your game. I have a vision called The Institute for Technologies of Reunion. It funds and develops various technologies that draw from and contribute to a new story. Some of them are quite mundane; for example, regenerative agriculture and ecological restoration practices. So I might fund young farmers who want to transition to regenerative farming. There are already organizations doing that, such as the Agrarian Trust. Other technologies are social, for example various kinds of conflict resolution practices. Then there is the realm of physical and emotional healing, using modalities that don’t fit into current medical paradigms or medical funding systems. Beyond that, I would host R&D on unconventional methods of energy production, mind-body technologies, and esoteric practices.
Getting a little more into the weeds, I want to ask whether you’ve considered the merits of panpsychism (see Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West, Griffin’s Unsnarling the World-knot, or Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind) as an alternative to the return to animism you sometimes suggest in your work could/should be the basis for a new story of interbeing, a story in which all parts of the world have some degree of consciousness? Whereas animism seems to return us to a kind of prerational/romantic state, would you agree that panpsychism offers us a scientifically and philosophically defensible foundational philosophy that may perform the same spiritual function you hope for animism to achieve (I’ve argued this in my book, Mind, World, God)? Panpsychism does indeed some to be catching on in philosophical and scientific circles in the last couple of decades.
I would say that I am a panpsychist, yes. I articulated that position quite early in my career in my first book, The Ascent of Humanity. I believe that the distinction between panpsychism and animism is mostly academic, and that the views of ancient and indigenous philosophers were and are a lot more sophisticated than we may give them credit for. I also reject the Spiral Dynamics thinking that locates our own civilization at a higher point of evolution than other cultures, and fancies itself to have “included and transcended” them. Along a certain axis of development this may be true, but it applies a cultural blindness to the many ways that a society can evolve and advance. To call animistic cultures prerational or romantic is a modern conceit. I suggest reading Graeber & Wengrow’s description in The Dawn of Everything of how modern notions of a liberal society such as liberty and equality originated in the critiques of North American philosophers such as Kandiaronk, who profoundly influenced Jesuit missionaries and other colonizers, and whose critiques found their way into the writings of philosophers like John Locke, Rousseau, and so forth. Anyway, I don’t think animism is essentially different from panpsychism. The latter is more a translation of animism into modern conceptual idiom.
You paint a nuanced view of technology, highlighting its ability (already realized in so many ways) to make problems worse through unwise “technofixes,” but also suggesting that there may indeed be “technologies of Reunion” that may bring us more quickly into the Age of Reunion you call for. Can you offer some rules of thumb on how to make this key kind of discernment about the role of new technologies in our lives?
The key differentiating principle is that Technologies of Reunion are not based on control. What we call technology today is a system for applying force to matter with ever greater precision. The dream is that if we could only control every atom in the world, in our own bodies and brains, etc., if we could only quantify and manipulate everything in the material and social world, we could engineer paradise. Well, no matter how far we develop our ability to control the world, paradise remains on the horizon, as far away as ever. (The same is true on the personal level when we try to control other people in our lives.) In contrast, Technologies of Reunion draw on an understanding that the world is alive, that there are intelligences beyond the human, and that by participating in these intelligences we can co-achieve miraculous results. For example, technologies of control try to perfect agricultural yields by precisely controlling every component of the soil, eliminating weeds and pests, and so forth. Technologies of Reunion seek to support the aliveness of the soil, listening and observing it as a living being, asking what it needs, trusting that its thriving is connected to our own.
You have a rare talent of provoking reconsideration of seemingly bedrock aspects of one’s worldview. Reading your work has provoked a lot of soul-searching in me and many of your readers. I and my academic colleagues recently developed a framework that could in theory lead to the quantification of consciousness (a “psychometer”) in whatever physical structures are being considered (animals, plants, robots, stars, etc.) There are some pretty obvious benefits of having this kind of technology but also potential downsides. Would you say that having a more or less reliable psychometer would fall in the “technology of reunion” category, or not so much?
Such devices can be fun and illuminating, but we must approach them with humility. A key precept of the modern world and its scientific view is that, in principle, everything that is real can be quantified, measured and counted. According to that precept, if consciousness is real it can be measured too. (Also, whatever can be measured may also be controlled; we have subsumed it within our own system of numbers and categories; we have domesticated it.) Humility suggests that there are real things that will always escape quantification. We can work with them, we can understand them, but we can never pin them down or reduce them to number (which is a fundamental form of conquest). So whatever you are measuring with your psychometer, please understand that it won’t include everything that consciousness is. Be aware as well that whatever it leaves out may correspond to social and ecological prejudices and power relationships.
Are psychedelics a “technology of reunion”?
Yes and no. Just because something is a technology of reunion doesn’t mean that we know how to properly use it. We must learn. These technologies are powerful. In a sense, the technology is not the substance itself, it is the set of practices that includes it. By itself, a psychedelic is no more a technology than is a microchip in a hole in the ground. The word technology means a “logos of crafts.”
You argue in Climate: A New Story that even shifting to a fully renewable energy economy, while offering obvious benefits over our current mostly fossil-fueled economy, would still entail numerous ills because simply changing our power sources won’t fix the growing separation we all feel. As someone who has spent his primary career focused on the green energy transition, I’ve been guilty of advocating for this particular techno fix for some time and we are indeed on the verge of realizing a fully renewable energy economy in two to three decades in the US and globally (I make this argument in my book, Solar: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright). That said, I find myself agreeing with you that this is far from a “mission accomplished” moment, as much as I would like to take some much-needed time off from advocacy. You seem in your work a bit torn about the merits and effects of a fully green energy economy. Would you agree that transitioning away from fossil fuels is highly desirable for many reasons, but that this alone is only one part of the overall changes we need to make in how we live?
Yes, transitioning away from fossil fuels is highly desirable for many reasons — depending on what we transition into. That is actually more important than what we transition out of. In the book I say that even if global warming is not a problem, I still want to end fracking, oil spills, tar sands excavation, and all the other ruin that accompanies fossil fuel extraction. However, I don’t want to replace it with the ruin that accompanies the electric economy, which at least at this stage requires a vast expansion of ecologically ruinous mining for silver, coltan, lithium, rare earths, etc. The ecological damage from hydro power, biofuel plantations, and nukes is also horrendous. In my view, by far the most important transition is to see earth as alive, precious, and sacred. And then to implement this understanding with a complete moratorium on further “development” of remaining undamaged ecosystems. No more deforestation of the Amazon and Congo, no more draining wetlands, etc. Equally important is restoration of damaged ecosystems, soil, and marine environments. We should for example put at least half the oceans under marine preserves. That will give the world’s navies something useful to do. When the organs of Gaia are strong, she will be resilient to changing levels of greenhouse gases and other challenges. If the organs (forests, wetlands, oceans, etc.) are weak, then the climate will spiral into derangement even if we cut carbon emissions to zero.
A major techno fix that is increasingly likely is space colonization, including the Moon, Mars, and other bodies in our solar system. While we won’t be seeing millions of people living in space in the next decade or two, it seems likely that by 2050 or so we probably will be. In terms of all of the many environmental, social, and spiritual ills you highlight in your work, how much, if any, of these problems will be ameliorated as we become a multiplanetary species and find untold abundance in other planets and eventually other star systems? Is your philosophy suited for a space-faring civilization?
I disagree. Space colonization is much harder than the optimists think. It will require technologies that aren’t really on the radar right now. It will in fact require the kinds of technologies that are inaccessible to the consciousness that wants to escape responsibility for earth.
I see a clear progression in your last four books with each more or less leading naturally to the next. But I can’t discern what your next one will be. Maybe a foreign policy based on love? Is it in the works already?
I’m not sure if I will write more books [as mentioned above since this interview was completed Charles did publish a book of his essays on the Covid-19 pandemic]. Events are happening so quickly that it doesn’t make sense to spend a year or two writing a book, which is then published the year after that. Instead I can publish piecemeal on Substack.