Apocolypse never

Q & A | published in Real Change on Nov. 3rd, 2010
Interview with: Daniel Pinchbeck

Some believe the Mayan calendar says the world is over in 2012; author Daniel Pinchbeck disagrees


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At the box office, disasters amount to big bucks. Last year’s “2012” — a star-packed, CGI-heavy film that offered catastrophic earthquakes, an erupting caldera and a mega-tsunami — netted more than $750 million worldwide. People, it seems, love cinematic representations of our impending, unavoidable destruction.

But what if filmmakers and filmgoers have misplaced their affections? What if the future heralds a time for improved interactions with each other and the planet? Author Daniel Pinchbeck believes so. Sure, the former journalist agrees we’re in a rough spot now. But this position provides the perfect chance for us to reevaluate where we are and where we’re heading. The media, the economy, social movements: Each could be re-imagined in new ways.

His ideas stem from the culmination of years of research, delving into the belief systems of indigenous cultures, undergoing psychedelic experiences and studying the works of famed philosophers, spelled out in such books as “Breaking Open the Head” and “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.” He presents his current outlook in his latest book, “Notes from the Edge Times,” (Tarcher/Penguin, $23.95), a collection of essays printed in numerous magazines as well as a website, realitysandwich.com, which he helped start. They cover two years in the evolving mind of a cult figure to many seeking alternative pathways to social justice.

Deep in the midst of his book tour, Pinchbeck and I chatted in a U-District Tully’s about where we are now and where we may be heading, touching upon Jung, Ghandi and even Lady Gaga.

Let’s say someone says to you, “2012: What does 2012 mean? What’s the big deal?” What would you say?
The ancient civilization of the classical Maya were fascinated by a model of cyclical time and also developed a series of extraordinary calendars. For them there’s a great cycle of 5125 years that ends on December 21, 2012. As we’ve figured it out, they pegged it to that date due to a rare astronomical alignment where the winter solstice sun rises at the center of the Milky Way. It’s an observational alignment from the Earth; there’s no reason why that would have a transformative effect on the planet. But the indication from our interpretations of their culture, their mythology, is that they saw this time as the hinge point of a shift in world ages. If you go back to the Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, they talk about these different cycles of the world that end in a kind of destruction, where humanity kind of shifts to a different state of being. This myth is also very congruent with a lot of what other indigenous cultures around the Earth talk about.

With my first book, “Breaking Open the Head,” I started out as a skeptical journalist. I had an existential crisis: I felt that life was kind of nihilistic and meaningless. I remembered psychedelic experiences from college as the only time I kind of opened into other dimensions of psychic possibility. So I decided to make that the focus of an exploration. I went to West Africa, went through a tribal initiation in Gabon, taking ibogaine, which is also known as iboga in the West and used as a treatment for heroin and cocaine addiction. I went to the Amazon [and took] ayahuasca, went to the Aztec Indians in Mexico. I also explored the Burning Man festival and modern tribal culture. Through a series of experiences my worldview shifted. I began to recognize that our Western model of the psyche was very limited and a lot of things discussed in these shamanic cultures have validity.

In my second book, “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” I tried to delve into if there could be validity to what these traditional and indigenous cultures are saying. So that required me to look at people like Heidegger, Neitzsche, and Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner, to articulate a paradigm around this transformation.

So, 2012: I don’t expect anything necessarily drastic or amazing to happen on that date or even in that year. It’s more that we’re already in the crux of a transition for humanity on the Earth. I think when we look at the ecological crises, the species extinction — over 25 percent of all species could be gone in 30 years, over a million species — the ice caps melting, potentially flooding the coastal areas, the toxification of the biosphere, stuff like the Gulf oil spill: If there’s some shift in our consciousness and a shift in our society, it goes from being destructive and unsustainable to somehow regenerative and symbiotic with the Earth. So, that’s what 2012 represents for me: The hinge point where an awakening is underway, a possibility that we begin to transform our way of being, our understanding of the world, and develop a different intention, a different paradigm, different infrastructures that would then open us to a new reality.

So let’s back up to 2010. What are some ways we can alter the way that we’re acting?
Beyond the books I also just did a documentary film, “2012: Time for Change.” The film also looks at the prophecies, the sense of impending crisis, the self-transformation of the individual consciousness through shamanism and meditation and yoga, and then what types of practical solutions are available. We took in the film as our lynch pin the work of Buckminster Fuller, who was a design scientist. He had a spiritual awakening at a very dark point in his life and he recognized the way humans had been designing was against the principles of nature.At the moment most food is produced using an industrial agricultural system that is very fossil-fuel dependent, that drains the soil of life. The alternative to that is permaculture, which is more labor intensive but actually produces much more food. It’s higher quality and local. So one part of the shift would be transforming our system of agriculture. Another part of the shift would be bioremediation.

You know, the logic of capitalism has been to destroy and waste, because if you poison the local fresh water then everybody starts drinking bottled water, and that turns something that was available into a series of transactions that makes money and GDP goes up. GDP goes up and people get cancer, GDP goes up and people get divorced—

Really? There’s a correlation?
Sure. Gross Domestic Product simply means that the sum total of all economic transactions made in the society. It’s a horrible indicator to measure the health of human society, because more transactions could mean just the things I mentioned: very expensive treatments, lawsuits. All that stuff adds to the GDP, but it actually subtracts from the quality of experience that people are having.

A major piece in the book and also in the film is a fundamental change in the economic system. Basically, at the moment, we only have one form of money that we use to exchange value. It’s a kind of monoculture that’s created by a private banking consortium and manipulated to create artificial scarcity and misery. So, if you go to a bank and you take out a loan — if you’re able to get a loan — they give you the loan, but they don’t give you the interest you have to bring back to the bank. That then forces you to compete against everybody else in society, rather aggressively, to bring back that extra money. Some of the people that we worked with on the film, [former currency trader] Bernard Lietaer or [community economist] Tom Greco, they suggest that that is a fundamentally destructive and unsustainable system, but it’s not the only way. There’s community-trading currencies, mutual credit clearing agencies that could issue zero-interest loans, time banking and even negative-interest currencies, which is a currency that’s indexed to perishable goods and resources that degrade in value over time, so they would have what’s called a demurrage charge: They would lose value the longer you held onto [them]. So rather than hoarding, you would share it, because if you’re not going to be able to hold onto it you might as well spread it around. Then people are gonna remember that you did a good turn, so it creates community bonds.

I mean, the list goes on and on. But the first thing is that switch in paradigm toward something that’s more like a regenerative culture than a destructive one.

All right, nice segue: In the book you mention that mainstream media might be able to play a role in that paradigm shift. What could the mainstream media do to bring that about?
The mainstream media, it’s like the nervous system of the human species at this point. It programs people with behavior patterns, with desires, and it’s like a control frequency. So people are constantly getting these inducements to be afraid, to buy stuff, to fill some kind of insatiable void inside themselves. They’re indoctrinated to think that violence is a normal part of human society, so you have kids getting these video games, they’re just all about shooting everything. Their nervous systems are being trained to consider violence a normal state of affairs. You know, that was one of the big realizations Gandhi had:  that just as people aren’t born able to read, people are not naturally born nonviolent, but they can be taught it just as you’re taught literacy. So it becomes an active part of your programming. So wrestling media is crucial. A counter-media could help to bring about a massive change in human value and human intention.

Here we go, another segue: I happen to be watching this PBS series called “The Jewel in the Crown,” about the waning days of the British Empire in India and Gandhi is in the background. So, we think of Gandhi, we think of nonviolence. In the book you mention that the way people many perceive of nonviolence isn’t exactly how Gandhi practiced it.
My friend who owns a yoga studio in New York, she’s like, “Oh, you know, if violence is coming your way just run away. Run into a forest.” But Gandhi’s perspective was more of an active nonviolence, that it had to be an active, willing, constant effort. He also saw situations where violent resistance was preferable to passive resistance. He was a deeper thinker, strategist, than we’ve given him credit for. He was also brilliant as a propagandist and a marketer: I mean, coming up with the idea of the trip to get the salt or using a spinning wheel. He isolated these memes that were then incredibly potent as cultural changers.

And what is a meme?
A meme is kind of like a bit of cultural DNA: Lady Gaga exposes her breast during a concert and goes on every media outlet, that’s like a meme. It just keeps people in the same distracted state. The same way that media can replicate and transmit certain ideas can also be used for all sorts of purposes — good ones, also.
You talk about the concept of initiation in many indigenous cultures. Do you see any examples of initiations occurring in mainstream culture?

A lot of people I know seem to put themselves on a path of self-initiation. There’s the increasing popularity of shamanism, people going to South America, practicing with shamans, people going deep into yoga practices. I think that because we don’t have a culture that really supports that, it becomes more the individual recognizing the lack in themselves and then filling it. And then modern, secularized Western culture is really the one culture that completely lacks that concept and we get kind of stuck with “kiddults” —

With what?
Kiddults: Adult-kids who haven’t really stepped into a deeper responsibility, the way an elder in a tribe would not only be looking after their own piece of the pie, but they would wanna take care of the healthy unity of the whole tribal group.

You talk about a paradigm shift. What are some tools that can help the shift occur? Is the Internet a tool?
We have a website, evolver.net, and we’ve created the Evolver Social Movement. It’s an experiment in building a useful social technology that includes a monthly offline meeting. We have about 45 groups in the U.S. and abroad. In a sense, one of the things we feel is lacking is a civil society infrastructure: People get these ideas, but they don’t know how to connect with other people and share them. So we’re trying to create little community nexuses where people can come together and raise their consciousness and then also move into a practical application.

I also feel that people are feeling we’ve ceded all of our power to top-down authority structures and institutions. For me the main part of this shift is gonna be toward self-sufficiency, you know, people taking back their responsibility and their power, and building those alternative systems that need to be there. The internet is a very powerful tool for that, and the whole model of open-source development could become a replicable model that actually subsumes a lot of the activities of government corporations. That’s really proving that people who get inspired to do something together can build more amazing instruments and tools.

Having said all this, how do you feel about what could occur in the next two years?
Well, I feel very lucky and grateful to be having these thoughts and conveying them to people, and I’ve been amazed how things keep changing. I have a lot of hope. I think we may go through a lot of turbulent times in this country. We may see the return of certain types of authoritarianism, fundamentalisms and so on. But I also think the tools are there for us to make this quantum leap in perspective: It could actually happen very quickly.

One of the ideas that I talk about in the book and in the film is from this mathematician, Peter Russell. He looks at how these sort of revolutions in consciousness and society have been happening exponentially faster. So, where the agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial revolution then took hundreds of years and the information and/or knowledge revolution has just taken a few decades. Each one is building on the past revolution. He proposes that according to this exponential model, the next shift could be from the information revolution to what he calls a wisdom revolution, where we then use all the tools of the knowledge revolution to re-think our social practices and act with forethought in all areas. So, the same type of technical genius that’s gone into making iPhones and widgets could be repurposed to create wilderness corridors, to share resources equitably and to protect the rights of nature.


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