Rejoice and transcendence: Compassion and a new ecology

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We are at a watershed. We’re on the verge of a phase transition toward a larger conception and experience of self, and that in that transition there are things…it is time to surrender.What is the next step that is calling to us in our evolution as beings? – Charles Eisenstein1

I think science fiction is inherently optimistic, despite the proliferation of dystopian settings. The fiction that we best engage with as readers is that which focuses on the characters—the study of humanity as it strives against the odds of whatever speculative settings an author might throw at it.

The saving of humanity from itself, in the guise of ecological collapse, is fertile ground for such an exploration of what constitutes humanity. In Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart2, Steven Erikson takes another fertile trope—first contact—strips it of all its explosive flair, and forces us to ask important questions, including: Why would they? and, importantly, What happens next?

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson

In Climate: A New Story3, Charles Eisenstein charts our ecosystem’s decline, and the narratives employed that perpetuate our self-destructive reality. He convincingly argues that we need a complete inversion of our priorities, and this will not come from our current modes of activism, denial, or martial rhetoric.

Climate: A New Story

Eisenstein writes and speaks about the need for revolutionary experience, that our minds can best be changed by direct experience of our oneness with the earth and all it contains. Here, in Climate, he takes the most fundamental cause, saving our existence, and tells us that we need to meet it with love.

Rejoice is about aliens arriving and overturning our current unsustainable systems. Climate is about overturning our current assumptions about climate activism, and finding alternatives to those same systems. Both are thought experiments in the shape humanity might take.

These are two alternative futures being posited. They run the same basic script—our current methods and myths are powerless, and for humanity to move forward and prosper, for the earth to be healed, something is going to change. To that end, Erikson offers a specific case, a metaphor perhaps, while Eisenstein grounds it in reality, theory.4 Both are treatises for humanity, offering hope, based in compassion. Here, then, are two rallying cries for humanity to join hands and look for greater purpose.

Part 1 – A shift in consciousness

For Eisenstein, the only way to change our perspective on the world, to see it with love instead of exploitation, to change our story, is to experience such oneness firsthand, or to remember a time when we viewed the world in that way. We need a numinous experience. We must change our underlying belief system to one of love for the planet, its sacredness, love for beauty, connectedness. We can’t keep on as we are. Erikson makes the same point—we can’t continue business as usual—but the question of how we can disrupt those systems and beliefs effectively is answered by Erikson: let’s have an intervention.

In Rejoice, the aliens arrive, though unseen. It is an invisible force field stopping all acts of violence which awakens realisation among the populace, and this draws a lovely parallel because it is crucially what we have left behind in our belief systems, the things we no longer let ourselves see, where the damage to the earth is being done. An alien invasion could be read as a representation of the archetype of god’s word, god’s intervention. I would posit the need for it is symptomatic of a culture or age that looks outwards instead of inward, perhaps. (The whole intervention ideal would be easy to read as freudian, the superego swooping down to put a lid on the death drive of the id, but the conclusion of that reading is, to me, less hopeful.)

Eisenstein writes “…the most striking synchronicities seem to happen in times of uncertainty….They rarely happen when everything is planned, predictable, and controlled. It is as if the spirits have no room to come in.” (Climate p.263-4).  So, in this time of crisis and uncertainty, perhaps the aliens in Rejoice are the answer to our prayers. Not that they are god, per se, but they are an answer, an opening to the conversation. But, after all, “God, you might say, is in all things, and nothing is not god.” (Climate p.266)

Eisenstein explores our belief systems beneath awareness, showing us that both the historical cause of our current ecological dilemmas and our present inability to change the trajectory of climate degeneration is due to (in fact, baked in to) our underlying mythology—of who we are as a species, our place in the world.

“From what state of being do we extinguish other species, ruin earth and sea, and treat nature as a collection of resources to be allocated for maximum short-term benefit? It can come only from the constriction, numbing, and diversion of our capacity to feel empathy and love. No mere personal failing, this numbing is inseparable from the deep narratives that run our civilization, and the social systems that those narratives support.” – Climate p.6

Erikson represents the utter shock of people who can no longer operate as they were, whether through violence to other people, or violence to the earth in greedily harvesting its resources. I was reminded of Eisenstein’s representation of grasping for the enormity of a single cause to our problems: “That moment of humble, powerless unknowing, where the sadness of ongoing loss washes through us and we cannot escape into facile solutioneering, is a powerful and necessary moment.” (Climate p. 42)

In some ways, this then is the moment of awakening for Erikson’s characters. Rather than a numinous or transcendent experience (though in some ways the first contact is that), this is the grounding of reality—revelation of the depth of our powerlessness (without our myth of power) hits home.

In Eisenstein’s reckoning, “We must enact a civilization-wide unifying purpose: to restore beauty, health, and life to all that has suffered…” (Climate p.57), and Erikson shows us this purpose—it is enacted upon us by the intervention. In a different way, Erikson is making his own list of demands for change, though guiding us through the authority of a benevolent outsider.

“We need to look beyond existing institutions, ways of thinking, technologies, and economic mechanisms, all of which are intrinsic to the problem.” (Climate p. 59) They echo each other, offering this unknown future, but in both cases it is filled with hope. To Eisenstein, it is an initiation; to Erikson, the first step in a heroic journey, a new evolution of mankind.

Of course, some will try to profit from the debacle—as much we see in the ‘green’ movement, and climate fundamentalists. In Rejoice, the media mogul, Murdo, and the US president take this approach, thinking selfishly, as though doubling down on the very lack of compassion that caused the situation, that created a need. This is the clinging on of the old story—its power structures and intentions to profit and win. “Invoking self-interest to solve a problem caused by runaway, blind self-interest merely adds fuel to the fire. We need the opposite: to expand the circle of compassion to include every being on this earth.” (Climate p.29)

Erikson’s purpose here is to show us humanity, and thereby elicit compassion. Indeed, compassion is the theme of Samantha August’s speech. The chosen communicator, a science-fiction author, makes her case to the people:

“Our every act now, beginning with how each of you engages with the people around you, with loved ones, estranged ones, neighbors and friends and enemies, will either serve or reject the new future awaiting us. And it may well be the case that if enough of us reject the future, if enough of us fail in recognizing that what we do—right now, the rest of today, and tomorrow and in the weeks to come00is important and has meaning, we may end up having no future at all.” (Rejoice, p.413)

By using the author as the conduit, Erikson shows us the author’s methods, twitching the curtain some. Alongside this, he shows us some of the most awful people—weapons dealers, child soldiers, small time gangsters, abusers, mainstream journalists—and forces, by way of his interventions, to look upon the humanity beneath. They each go through a realisation that now their persona is lifted, their humanity can reawaken. This is perhaps the boldest and most optimistic aspect of the tale.

Erikson renders this most strikingly in Kolo, a leader of child soldiers, and Casper, a mercenary weapons dealer. Kolo, his former power is taken from him by the intervention of non-violence, seems bereft, and as he journeys he sees his once-slave girl, Neela, less as object and more as unknowable spiritual quantity. Similarly, Casper begins to see life less as calculation of profit and loss, lives less as collateral, and too, opens up to love. By turning our story to one of love, as Eisenstein posits, we become more self-loving, and accept that we are able to be loved.

 

Part 2 –Stop the hurt

The initial phase of the aliens’ interventions in Rejoice is an invisible field preventing all violence, done to people and the planet. “…the equivalent of a cease-fire, world-wide. Aggression and destruction aimed against the environment, the fauna, and between humans, has now ended.” (Rejoice p.52). Non-violence is also the fundamental assumption for Eisenstein. Indeed, it is the outcome of a more compassionate approach. He argues that we must experience a revolution of consciousness, open the door to oneness of being, to change the world. It must not be by force. “Social healing is indispensable in ecological healing.” (Climate p. 36)

Part of the story that Eisenstein describes us having built up around humanity is that we engage in the language of war. This is no less so in the typical approach to standing up for the ecosystem: climate activists want to defeat the polluters. By taking a belligerent tack, we sacrifice fundamental connections, in our communities and homes, in our approach to others and the environment more generally. Being in a mindset of warfare overrides our compassion. The world, at least our myth of it, is composed of enemies and hostility. Hammers and nails.

Competition is a form of violence, non-cooperation. It is inherently dual: a positive must balance a negative in the ledger, thus tension. And, due to the structure of our system, inequality. But a cooperative system, a cooperative ethic, could potentially create sum benefits without the negative consequences. This is similar to the (here read as metaphorical) energy systems provided by the aliens. Power is given, but without consequence. It is a map to the mentality humans must adopt, and indeed by undermining the foundation of the inherently imbalanced economic systems based on energy scarcity, it forces the humans to do exactly that.

Eisenstein tells us the mentality of humans’ destiny to rule means we plunder. Connectedness, though, means less competition. But what will it take to shift the mindset? The greater other of the triumvirate in Rejoice gives humanity a rallying point, or at least a focus. Again, there is a possible metaphor here to a god, but the point is, greater purpose comes from understanding our true place—our self-consciousness. The bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

“What is unique to human beings is also defining of human beings. Who we are as a species relates intimately to what we use for energy. The old story of man over nature extrapolated the exponential increase in energy use into the future, assuming that nuclear power would be as great a leap past fossil fuels as fossil fuels were past firewood and oxen.” Climate – p .203

Basically, we are a civilisation built around our energy usage. Erikson’s second stage, after the non-violence, is to remove energy from the equation. It unmans us, so to speak. Economic competition suddenly becomes unnecessary because the fundaments of our system are based on energy flows, usage, the power of man over resource—be it animal or dead animal, or atom. Scarcity is removed.

“Abundance is a state of mind and a function of social relationships. Technology is but its tool. We could have abundance right now, with no new technology, if we rid ourselves of various systems of artificial scarcity, epitomized by the artificial scarcity of money.” Climate – p. 212

Of course, the mentality of warfare is shown in Rejoice by some notables who want to stir up demonstrations of mass dissent against the alien invaders. They are itching for a fight. Only, the sneaky aliens don’t make a physical appearance. Erikson has made a stroke of genius in not giving the triumvirate a face, a body. The aliens contact humanity as a disembodied consciousness, a oneness residing in another realm. Give it a face, and it becomes other.

“I wouldn’t make an appearance either. No alien visage to focus our resentment on.” (p.141)

“It’s hard to focus hate on an enemy that stays unknown and, possibly, unknowable” (p.343).

Compare to Eisenstein’s argument, that passivity of climate change response, even among believers, is largely due to the global scale of the fear campaign. “It shifts attention away rom the local devastation toward distant, perhaps hypothetical, effects.”

“…People cannot see changes is atmospheric concentration of invisible, odorless gases, nor can they be directly aware of distant effects on climate, but they can see (or feel the effects of) denuded hillsides, erosion gullies, smog, toxic waste, contaminated water, and so forth.” Climate – p. 137

The great invisible, intangible is there, it matters, but yet it doesn’t matter. What matters is the local, local ecosystems, the human response to its environment. Perhaps this enlightens us also as to why we don’t need to see the aliens. They don’t matter as much as our changing locality and our response to it.

Non-violence is only the beginning, according to both texts, though it is an important step in harvesting compassion. Eisenstein writes:

“Climate change portends a revolution in the relationship between nature and civilization, but this is not a revolution in the more efficient allocation of global resources in the program of endless growth. It is a revolution of love. It is to know the forests as sacred again, and the mangroves and the rivers, the mountains and the reefs, each and every one. It is to love them for their own beingness, and not merely to protect them because of their climate benefits.” Climate – p.141

Eisenstein’s final list of suggestions includes moratoria on logging, fishing, expanding reserves, protecting keystone species. Again, in line with the actions of the triumvirate in Rejoice. One hopeful message to take from this cohesion of ideas is: we know what we have to do. Can we do it, though, without assistance? Can we cultivate the compassion in us as a species that will make these self-evident needs mainstream priorities? Who will lead the chorus?

 

Part 3 – A change in myth

Eisenstein’s book argues that the story we build around our idea of progress is what entraps us in this self-harming existence. Central to that story is the notion that humankind is separate from and greater than the planet on which we exist.

Story is also central to Erikson’s thesis: not only in that Rejoice is a story, but the vehicle through which the aliens choose to communicate their presence and intentions is that of a writer, a science-fiction writer, no less. What is it about writers that sets them apart for this mission? Imagination, something broader than themselves, the ability to put themselves in another’s place. And for science-fiction, that vision becomes even grander, taking account of entire planets and civilisations, understanding how all the pieces fit together, speculating about how changing one factor might change entire histories. That is exactly the mindset that Eisenstein is promoting in Climate.

Erikson demonstrates that the writer empathises. In Rejoice the author, Samantha, communicates on behalf of a disembodied consciousness who here intervenes, but in general is compassion. We could see this as a metaphor on the writer’s touch with supraconscious creativity, but I think this is more literal than that—that this is a literal intervention whose purpose is compassionate, a recognition of humanity’s place within a greater network. And that obviously presses questions on the (wisely unanswered) greater networks, here represented by the galactic triumvirate.

If it is our underlying narratives—our collective story, our mythology—that gives rise to our dilemmas, then it is in literature, with its power to mould our souls to a new story, that we may find our escape.

Eisenstein refers to this myth within which we have enwreathed ourselves as the Story of Separation—the “separate self in a world of other”. Reconnect, is the rallying cry here. Work together, and we will reestablish the basic human desires for connectedness, sacredness, intimacy.

As I read Climate, I couldn’t help thinking that while it may be impossible to stop ecological disaster with a myth centred about the fight narrative, surely it is equally hard to create the conditions and feeling of love and connectedness that he promotes. Yes, it is already there, and it is possible for everyone, but something needs to turn it on, to awaken it. Systems of power are self-fulfiling and self-justifying. They are not going to allow us to awaken. Something has to give.

Erikson readily offers us that intervention in the contact and what they provide. Once we no longer need to compete, literally cannot fight with one another, we must by necessity work together. The boundaries dissolve—nations, states—and community becomes global. This is the spiritual connectedness that Eisenstein begs for.

The message that Erikson is giving us is that compassion, through writing, through literature, can be the change of heart that leads to greater change. I hope that is the case. Books have at times changed the way I see the world, sometimes even changed the way I act. “Our education system no longer teaches empathy…if everybody  in college had to take a minor in Literature, the world would be a better place.” (Rejoice p.150)

But can they do enough? It seems the runaway negatives, at least in terms of ecological collapse, are pulling away from the potential positives—and that’s before we consider the trees felled to print said life-changing pages, or the Brazilian villages excavated to find rare earth metals to run the e-reader, when a literary or otherwise artistic phenomenon seems tied merely to titillation or merchandise consumption. Again, I hope they can do enough. Perhaps it is all we can do, and it must be enough.

We could just take it as metaphor—that the writer’s or reader’s life-changing experience is consciousness-shifting. And, crucially, that it comes from within.

 

Part 4 – Where to next? – Alternative futures

While the two books offer similar underlying ideals and tactics with which to deal with the impending catastrophes of species and planet, there is something fundamentally different about their visions of the future. They are both optimistic, despite their litanies of humankind’s failings. Rejoice tells us we will necessarily and inevitably look outwards, to leave earth in a purer and take our business elsewhere (indeed, there is another enemy on the horizon). Climate says that by changing our deeper myths we will necessarily live more harmoniously within earth’s abundant systems. For Eisenstein, it is not necessary to have free energy and new planets—that will all come when life necessitates it. For Erikson, there is still a fundamental disparity between human and earth—progress is forced upon us by the intervention, and compassion and deeper changes in the myth will happen alongside our expansion. I think they have the same end goal and open future, but the difference in roads taken has interesting differences.5

In our immediate future is a change in the economic systems of competition and artificial scarcity, as Eisenstein lays out here and in other texts. My firm belief is economic collapse will happen before ecological collapse (any day now, I keep telling myself), and I have hope that the former will create such upheaval that we will have an opportunity to apprehend the latter.

In Rejoice, Adam variously discusses these systems with Samantha:

“Given that humans are capable of compassion, why has economic efficiency so easily triumphed over it? …what is the spiritual effect upon a species and a civilisation that has segregated its sense of compassion?” (p.83-4)

“When there is too much of everything, the economy collapses and a avalue system based on exchange must find a new paradigm. Now then, in place of the economy as humans recognize it, what arises within a post-scarcity scenario?….the answer is simple. Freedom.” (p.195-6)

And Kolo wonders: “Was it all as simple as this? Food and shelter in abundance, and from these two simple, basic things, peace?” (p.171)

As Eisenstein posits about our challenging our underpinning myths, the intervention in Rejoice challenges those assumptions that underlie humankind’s social structures and contracts. Doing so makes possible another story, another world as Eisenstein would put it.

I’ve mentioned before that these two books seem to be running the same script. The plan for Erikson’s triumvirate is: non-violence, energy, change the systems. Post-scarcity. Lift-off. Consciousness. Eisenstein gets to a similar point, laying out his path, with the conscious choice taking primacy. “To change those conditions we need to implement a different economic system and understanding of nature, and more importantly, we need to recover our empathic ability to feel.” (Climate p.173)

Beyond economics and social systems, what about our life systems? Will we get off this planet, and should we?

I have often wondered about our assumption that we can up and go, when life is so dependent on a tenuous balance of planet-bound ecosystems, even down to things like gut bacteria. But we assume we can pick up this meat sack called me and plonk it elsewhere and we can just go on living as we do. Maybe we can’t go on living—physically, mentally, spiritually. Biomes are self-contained and, thinking fractally, a human is a biome.

The notion that this thin skein of sub-atmospheric life is ‘all we’ve got’ and must be cherished isn’t merely some adolescent motivational hippy claptrap. It’s literally true. At least for now. There is so much life here, and yet it is all the life we are aware of in existence, and probably all we will ever experience.

Indeed, Adam poses similar thoughts in Rejoice: “All species arose within a natural, planet-bound biome. We are genetically predisposed to not only favor it, we also require it. Species that abandon their natural biomes over successive generations often sicken and die.” (p.154)

Later, Samantha August’s words, “What happens to our bodies and our minds when we’re no longer in sync with the rhythms of our native world?” (Rejoice p.353)

Similarly, Eisenstein writes: “Earth is a complex living system whose homeostatic maintenance depends on the robust interaction of every living and nonliving subsystem….Life maintains life. (Climate p.36)

He is saying this is relation to climate change, but won’t the same interconnectedness apply when we venture forth beyond our planet? We know so little, yet we presume to know how we might transform another ecosystem to sustain us.

“The idea that our planet is alive, and further, that every mountain, river, lake, and forest is a living being, even a sentient, purposive, sacred being, is not a soppy emotional distraction from the environmental problems at hand; to the contrary, it disposes us to feel more, to care more, and to do more. No longer can we hide from our grief and love behind the ideology that the world is just a pile of stuff to be used instrumentally for our own ends.” (Climate p.151)

But, as Eisenstein argues, we can’t make that case intellectually. I think the scale of our understanding is just too small. Our instruments have expanded our consciousness beyond what we are biologically capable of dealing with (at least en masse), or at least we haven’t kept pace evolutionarily. Eisentein’s point is that people must be convinced by experience. A transcendent, mystical, numinous experience can open the door between the unconscious and the rational mind. The oneness which we at some level feel but our conscious mind can’t accept and social structures won’t allow us to take seriously.

We are like our ancestors, a primitive ego swimming in the womb of the ocean. We have made our first tentative swim to the surface. We will do it more until we are ready to spend moments out of the water. Farther still is the time when we will gallantly slither onto land. Even with exponential progress, this analogy suggests we are a long way indeed from escaping the warm enfolding of our birth world.

Even if we don’t buy the idea of swapping planets, the journey could be read as a metaphor—get off our current myth, that we’ve built around this planet and how we treat it, and start greening another one.

By answering the initial questions, of what happens when contact is made, Erikson leaves us with the deeper ones. Yes, there are others, no we won’t see them. You can’t fight any more, and renewable energy is here. We are left, in other words, with similar questions as Eisenstein posits—what are we here for, what is our role on this earth?

One answer is as stewards. A job we are failing at, as Eisenstein details, and the triumvirate’s rep, Adam, details to Samantha (almost as though he is promoting a return to earth’s garden of eden.)

To Erikson, it is what we make it, and we are not bound by it. He, too, casts aside the standard arguments (not forwardly, but he doesn’t get bogged down in details) in a similar way as Eistenstein’s focus on the underlying matters says to disregard the surface level arguments about climate.

“We are life, born into a certain form, with a unique array of gifts. Like all life, our purpose is to serve life—to serve both what it is and what it might become. For never is life static. Each unfoldment of complexity builds on the last. What is the dream of life? What wants to be born next, and how can we serve that?” Climate p.104

The point is, we don’t know what the future will look like, whether we’re talking about our ecology or contact. All we know is how we are now and all we can control is how we act. Both these books offer us dignity and compassion as an ideal.

Offering us speculation of what it will look like is ineffective. It is the same as giving the aliens a face. We will quibble about the practicalities and the details, get hung up on the science, debate reality, and the future is always going to be the future, which is not now, thus not real. Whether it be our impending doom or impending liftoff. Decades of science fiction, and we all just carry on, tell ourselves its science fiction. Decades of predictions of disaster, and we just carry on, some telling ourselves it’s fictional science.

No, the way to change, be it a paradigm or consciousness, is to be conscious of who we are and how we are now. This can only be shown to us, reflected in our literature, or through some equivalent numinous experience. “What I’m talking about here is holding up the mirror and telling us what we’re seeing.” (Rejoice p.396)

What will it take to change our story? An intervention might do it. But maybe all we need is a writer with compassion.

 

 

Sources/Notes

  1. Russell Brand (October 2018). Under the Skin #050 Systems of the Damned (With Charles Eisenstein). https://www.russellbrand.com/podcast/050-systems-damned-charles-eisenstein/
  2. Steven Erikson (2018). Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart. Promontory Press.
  3. Charles Eisenstein (2018). Climate: A New Story. North Atlantic Books
  4. The question of is it real or not is fertile for fiction to explore, by its nature. As CE articulates in the podcast referenced above, the question of reality is pursued by the objective mind, which has been trained to seek for distinction and break things down into categories – real vs false. Specifically talking about free energy devices, he says that the “reality in which these devices fit is a reality where people have an acceptance of the fundamental generosity and abundance of the universe.” That seems to fit with what Erikson is portraying in the triumvirate. Arguably, that fits Erikson himself.
  5. By the nature of projecting speculations into the future, I found it hard to communicate this distinction, and in actual fact they are probably less different than I put forward here. Both authors, I think, fundamentally believe that the progress in both humanity and our systems, our internal and external evolutions, will occur coincidentally. It is more that the trigger is global in Erikson’s novel, and I think the focus is more individual (which, of course is inseparable from the global…) in Eisenstein’s book. Indeed, elsewhere CE writes: “We need to change our habits of thought, belief, and doing as well as change our systems. Each level reinforces the other: Our habits and beliefs form the psychic substructure of our system, which in turn induces in us the corresponding beliefs and habits.” (CE; The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible [2013], p.86).

 

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