It helped cement Daniel’s public image as a psycho-spiritual warrior, bringing him close to tech titans like Sean Parker, enabling him to enlighten superstar friends like Sting and Russel Brand, mingling with eccentrics at Burning Man and often finding himself purging on earthly psychedelics with indigenous communities around the world. People warmed to his alternative views on everything from existentialism to eco-living, although others have looked on his differing views and labelled him as part of the ‘tinfoil hat crew’. His latest work How Soon Is Now is the culmination of 10 years of research, a remarkably lucid manifesto about the society in which we all live that is inching ever closer to collapse. Pinchbeck presents a plethora of engaging solutions about how we can work together to solve the problems we face.
Influenced by a roguish bunch of thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Buckminster Fuller, if you manage to get past some of the rabbit holes Pinchbeck likes to climb into, he offers up a hopeful view of a future that is definitely not too late to start thinking about.
I found out about you when you did this walkabout with Alejandro Jodorowsky, when we were doing research around our feature with him. You seem to surround yourself with all these really interesting characters like Russell Brand, Shawn Parker and all the people at Burning Man. Do you think that creates a certain aura around your character or that you can use those people as conduits to get your message across?
There’s not a huge amount of conscious strategy in that. We gravitate towards other people for different reasons, you could just be on the same frequency or something. Russell actually sought me out after he saw this documentary I made in 2010 called 2012: Time For Change. He later admitted that my views had a big influence on him, in his book Revolution, and I think I helped him to see things more holistically.
Your book How Soon is Now talks a lot about the ecological disaster that we are creating with modern practices. Obviously, society has evolved incredibly but it also seems like we are regressing?
I look at everything through the lens of evolution, and we have been through a very rapid evolution – only 200 years ago information could only move by horse and cart speed and now it moves instantaneously, so new ideas proliferate instantaneously. We didn’t know that our technologies could have this impact on the planet – when plastics were developed in the 1920s no one was thinking that they would ultimately infiltrate almost every ecosystem on the planet, concentrate up the food chain and cause cancers, disrupt hormones and so on. So it has been a very rapid evolution and now we have reached this point in many different spheres of life where to go forward we need to almost have a time out and just survey where we are. We need to shift some of our intentions and practices.
Sting appearing in Pinchbeck’s documentary 2012: Time for Change
The book is almost like a manifesto, setting out a sort of guideline for action and I really don’t think it’s that far out, in fact, I think most of it is quite logical. You talk about transforming the basis of our ‘post-industrialist ecologically suicidal, hyper-individualist deeply unjust society’. What does that mean?
The problem is that we really are annihilating the capacity of our planet to sustain life into the future, and I think we all know this in a subliminal detached kind of way but it’s too much for most people to face head on. For instance, we are losing roughly 150 species each day out of something like 8 million species on the planet, so if you do the math that’s about 10 per cent of the Earth’s biodiversity every 10-15 years.
We are at 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere and we know that the last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere the temperatures were around 4 degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were 50-100 feet higher. So we know that we are on this terrible trajectory and that there are all these feedback loops in the system that are already getting engaged, if we look at all these huge forest fires happening around the world, and that’s just with a temperature rise of less than 1 degree. If that goes up again then it will be exponentially more catastrophic. During the Permian mass extinction 95% of all species went extinct in a century, including one of the largest species, so if we don’t take control of these catalytic processes, that will probably bring about our own extinction or maybe just a very small percentage of the population will survive.
"If we are going to survive as a species from where we are now, there will need to be some very dramatic shifts in awareness and in how we collaborate and cooperate with each other."
Daniel Pinchbeck on ecological collpase
You used a lot of references to thought leaders and people that have inspired your thought so talk to me about how you gathered those reference points?
I think that’s one reason why the book took so long because I probably lost a year going too far down French deconstructive political philosophy and then getting tangled in their language and their way of thinking. How do you create a fulcrum or find a balance between a lot of different perspectives? There are certainly different thinkers who I resonate with more, and I didn’t really have a political philosophy before writing this book and I didn’t know a lot about the financial or economic side so I had to educate myself with Buckminster Fuller’s idea that our basic human capacity is to be generalists, and actually the hyper-specialisation in our modern world is actually part of the problem. Somebody might be totally focused on one seed without thinking about the whole forest. It’s all about finding the right focalising point I guess.
I’m interested to know where you are trying to go with this book, what would be the suitable outcome? Is it to wake people up to our reality?
I think ultimately if we are going to survive as a species from where we are now, there will need to be some very dramatic shifts in awareness and in how we collaborate and cooperate with each other. For instance, we know we need to shift to 100% renewable energy. According to COP 21 and the Paris Accord, we might do that in 50-100 years but that’s way too long to wait. If we could accelerate that we could do it in 10-20 years, and there’s nothing physically preventing us from doing that, just as there is nothing physically preventing us from shifting from industrial and monoculture farming, which is killing the soil, to regenerative agricultural practices like permaculture and organic farming.
Once again, that’s something that we need to do really quickly. So we need global awareness acquired through the media, some type of social movement and networks of participation so that people can get on board with bringing about these types of changes.
Interestingly, in the UK they have just passed a law stating that they will phase out all diesel and petrol cars by 2040, which is a big deal, but that’s over 20 years from now.
That’s why a lot of people just saw the Paris Accord as a bit of a joke because they were saying that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 8-10% a year, but that’s just kicking the can down the road.
“People just saw the Paris Accord as a bit of a joke.” – Daniel Pinchbeck on the COP 21 agreement not going far enough.
At the moment there seems to be this real contrast between some people that think things are incredibly unstable and unpredictable and others that think we are in the middle of an accelerating revolution i.e. – technology like Yuval Noah Harrari. What’s your take here?
There are several different levels here. There is the capacity for something that is called conscious evolution, where we shift from the unconscious to conscious decisions as a species, and we recognise that a lot of these systems that we are in are our creations and we are in the inertia of them, so we can actually stop inside these machines that we have created and think about what direction we want to go in.
So for me, when I read Yuval’s idea that people are going to retreat into video games, I think that is very demoralising and depressing. I’m more intrigued by this idea that we can harness some aspects of futuristic technologies and meld them with what we can learn from archaic and indigenous societies to create something that is much more harmonious and satisfying for the individual and the community.
You reference indigenous cultures quite a bit in the book, and you obviously think we have a lot to learn from them, which I would agree with. But some naysayers would argue that their knowledge is no longer applicable to our super accelerated society now. How can we incorporate that thinking now?
That’s a very complex question. If you go to a festival like Burning Man, you see people almost reforming these tribe-like communities, and people seem so happy. So I feel like actually, the alienated, detached nuclear lifestyle that we have is kind of an aberration for human beings, and actually being integrated into hopefully more multigenerational communities where there is a larger sense of caring for each other is something that will work better for people, especially for child rearing. So how they take care of each other is one thing we can learn from indigenous communities.
Another is how they value nature and how they understand the sacred, how they understand the relationship between our state of consciousness and the world that we experience as natural or material.There’s a lot that we can learn from them.
We interviewed Wade Davis, who you reference in your book, and he has spent a lot of time with indigenous people. He said something really poignant that stuck with me, within the context of all that, that in his lifetime he has seen women go from the kitchen to the boardroom, gay people go from the closet to the altar and black people go from the woodshed to the White House. So we have made a considerable amount of positive progress.
Yes, absolutely, the amount of progress that we’re experiencing on so many levels is incredible. However, in the rapid evolution of society we have also made a lot of errors and created a lot of unnecessary destruction, so to address that we are still going to make some tremendous leaps in terms of consciousness and cooperation. Having corporations that are, in a sense, artificial life forms designed to succeed within a game that we created called the stock market, we only give those life forms one direction which is to maximise profit and financial value, which is extremely disruptive for the planet because it leads those corporations to evade environmental restrictions and destroy the rights of workers and sociopathic personality times becoming most successful because they are the ones who care least about externalities etc.
So that’s how we’ve constructed a suicidal system along with the fact that in order to keep reaping those values you need to have things like planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption, so we have created a model that is based on excess waste.
Pinchbeck calls the gathering Burning Man the greatest culturual movement of our time.
I like the way you talk about corporations because they aren’t necessarily evil, they can have agency they just need to change the way they align themselves in society.
But it’s deeper than that because we would need to actually redesign the foundations of the financial system so that you wouldn’t allow these incredibly powerful robots, the artificial life forms that we have created, to be just focused on financial value or profit. They would have to also be focused on ensuring biodiversity, ecological health and the welfare of communities.
I did really enjoy the book but one of the problems I have with it is that it feels like you’re trying to slow down the change, that you want us to scale back to almost agrarian times. The laws of nature would probably say otherwise. The change is in full effect.
The laws of nature is an interesting term to use, and I don’t know if you know the work of Rupert Sheldrake but he critiques this idea that nature is fixed by a set of immutable laws, and how that idea in itself is something that we ascribed to nature based on our legal system and our idea of the absolute God who is the judge of all etc.
That is dangerous thinking, his TED talk was one of the only ones to have been banned for those reasons.
Yes but that’s what new paradigms do, truly innovative new thinking. When cubism and quantum physics came about they were an uproar. His ideas get banned because there is a power to them, and those who are holding on to the old paradigm don’t want to deal with that. But I’m just saying that the idea that there are fixed laws of ideas is also just an idea, and Sheldrake’s argument is that there might also be patterns that become more coherent over time but can also be altered.
My favourite aspect of the book was where you talked about love and the deeper aspects of sexuality. ‘Polyamorous’ seems to be the trendy term du jour, but I think there are a lot of interesting ideas in that.
I think it’s really important for people to be able to understand. If you look at the last US election, it was all about suppressed, toxic male sexuality and unaddressed sexual trauma – you have Trump with the ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ and Bill Clinton and his philandering, Anthony Weiner and the sexting, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly being toppled due to sexual harassment – there is clearly a massive pathology around the truth of our sexual nature that we need to bring the consciousness and work through. As the book Sex At Dawn argues very well, we are not intrinsically monogamous as a species, which doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to be monogamous and find great joy and happiness in that, but when you have this cultural ideology that values monogamy above all, it forces many people into hypocrisy. Therefore people become hypocritical even with the most important person in their life, which is their spouse, by saying that they only desire them, and when you learn to be hypocritical even in the most intimate relationship you have then you are prime to accept hypocrisy and corruption in society at large.
“If you look at the last US election, it was all about suppressed, toxic male sexuality and unaddressed sexual trauma.” [Disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner]
Can you give an example of some of the statistics you found to support your proposal for change?
Yes. So for instance, the UN has estimated that we only have 60 years left of harvesting with industrial agriculture, because it is depleting the earth’s top soil. So then you would have to look at agricultural practices that would restore the top soil, things like no till farming, permaculture, and organic farming. Those require more training and are more labour intensive, with more man power, and part of the modernisation ideology has been that the countryside is boring, everyone will relocate to the cities to have fascinating jobs as marketers or in sweatshops. We may actually have to reinvent our ideology to resettle people back in the countryside, particularly when you think about what is happening with automation – a lot of jobs that people have now may not exist in the next 5-10 years. Trump came into office to claim that he was going to bring back the golden age of industry, but we know that won’t happen because the resources aren’t there for that and automation is actually making a lot of the drudgery jobs obsolete. In the US the largest workforce is truckers with over 3 million truck drivers, but we basically already have self-driving vehicles so in 5-10 years when there won’t be any need for those people driving trucks, what are we going to do with all those people? The Republican idea seems to be that you cut their healthcare and their education and then give them all the guns they want and see what happens.
Another thing I’m intrigued by is this guy James Ehrlich from Stanford who has created these modular mass-manufacture housing units called Regen Villages that have composting, renewable energy and aquaponics all built in to them. So you could mass-manufacture these almost Walmart style houses to give them out to maybe refugee populations so that they could tend for themselves, rather than these tent cities where they are in need of constant assistance. We are definitely going to see many more environmental refugees in the next 10-20 years so we will need some more innovative ideas for how to respond to that.
At times I sympathise a lot with the changes that you want to make but I also feel like you are begging for anarchy.
Well, I am an anarchist. I mean I hate labels and terms, all these –isms, are we even in capitalism right now? In a way it is like state supported socialism, that particularly supports the wealthy and the corporations. I think these terms are in a way going to become outdated but what we need is a functioning society where we protect our whole human family, our resources and create opportunities to continue innovating and exploring both the internal psycho-cosmos and hopefully the physical universe.
It feels like you are adamant that some major change is going to come, whether it is an ecological collapse or something else?
Well looking at the US right now, we are already in a constitutional crisis. This is clearly not a normal circumstance. Trump is talking about the ability to pardon himself; I mean the whole system is basically in a state of free fall right now.
Regen Villages developed by James Ehrlich have composting, renewable energy and aquaponics all built into them.
"The Republican idea seems to be that you cut their healthcare and their education and then give them all the guns they want and see what happens."
The problem is that the vast majority of people really don’t care about the future, if they can live life to the full in the present, they don’t want to think about the benefits of cutting back now. And maybe that is to do with the way that we have been taught, that we need this paradigm shift.
I get you. People have been indoctrinated and programmed from early childhood into this cynicism and empty façade of a hipster rebellion. A lot of effort has gone into making us so cynical and detached, so we are basically like prey for the corporate predators. But because I really don’t think that is our natural state, once again, if there was to be the capacity to really redirect the global media machine, I think it would be surprisingly quick to bring about a turnaround.
If all these nations and governments know that we are heading towards eco-suicide then why not just enforce a set of mandates that regulates change?
It’s too politically suicidal. I don’t think it can happen within the system of reform and regulatory laws in the nation state system. It has to be something else, maybe a blockchain global movement that links people together based on new values or principles. Something like that could develop very quickly, you just have to look at Facebook and how that has developed in the last 13 years to the point where now 2 billion people on the planet are using it every day. I actually helped organise a gathering in the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto to talk about climate change and think about what they could do with their platform by putting a call to action on their homepage, giving people the tools to make a change both locally and globally. If it’s not Facebook, it could be the next thing.
“[Buckminster Fuller] He was a systems thinker so he combined thinking about all these areas from housing to economics.”
Exactly. Talk to me about your love for Buckminster Fuller, because he was a fascinating figure and a truly radical thinker.
He had a series of really profound insights, one being that he worked out that we were basically designing everything based on this paradigm where we were seeking to control nature rather than learning from nature and imitating his principles. He was a systems thinker so he combined thinking about all these areas from housing to economics. There are two really wonderful books that he wrote in the 1960s that are short, extremely easy to read and very pertinent to where we are right now called Utopia Or Oblivion and Operation Spaceship Earth. With Utopia Or Oblivion, he basically saw those as the two paths for humanity, either we design a revolution that elevates the health of the entire human family in resonance with the ecosystems that support us or we become extinct as a species, and I think that was very prescient and we are close to that decision point right now. In Operation Spaceship Earth, he looked at how we almost woke up and found ourselves as this crew on an amazing spaceship, and this spaceship has everything we need to live happily but the only thing missing is an operating manual. So humanity has to use our creativity and our generalist intelligence to figure out how to operate it. A few people have said to me that they thought How Soon Is Now was almost like that operating manual and that made me really happy because I took that as a great compliment.