Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sacred Economics With Charles Eisenstein

I was introduced to Charles Eisenstein through Daniel Pinchbeck, to talk about his book Sacred Economics which is published by Evolver Editions. I suggest you check it out.

As we talked, it became apparent to me that we’ve both worked on projects with many similar intentions, and so there seems to be an element of serendipity involved here. I offered the opportunity to post here on Modern Mythology, so you will likely be hearing more from him in the future. 

I hope you enjoy the conversation we had about myth, post-economics, and the apocalyptic, evolutionary challenges facing our species. 

James Curcio: It seems to me that you're taking a lot of the issues now facing us as a species – economically and environmentally – and posing them as challenges.

It has long seemed to me that there is a sort of “evolve or die” challenge posed to us as a direct result of our own actions, and it's best to face those challenges with optimism rather than pessimism. Much of that challenge arises from the myth of the individual and our unwillingness to bring that back to actions for the greater collective good. It can be hard to remain optimistic in light of that.

Charles Eisenstein: It isn't so much that I see the crises we face as challenges, but as the drivers of a transformational process. I guess you could call them challenges – but only in the sense that they challenge the basic mythology of our civilization. They are not bumps in the road that we can overcome and continue our trajectory. As you mention, one of the primary, defining myths of our civilization is the “myth of the individual,” or what I would call our “story of self” – that we are discrete, separate beings living in an objective universe, bubbles of psychology isolated in genetically-determined flesh robots, seeking to maximize self-interest. I think that the crises converging upon us are making this story of self untenable, as we become most painfully aware that what we do unto the other, we do unto ourselves.

JC: I'm very familiar with this idea. The Immanence of Myth – a book I'm having published in August by Weaponized – deals with these myths a great deal. I feel like there's a lot of synergy between these works actually, from what I can tell. It seems we've developed a similar lexicon, which is unsurprising if this really is a movement on a scale where it could possibly have any effect. It has to be bigger than all of us.

CE: Indeed, there are many many of us: story-tellers of the new world.

As for optimism, I think it is only helpful to face our challenges with optimism if that optimism is authentic. If it is fake optimism, a veneer of positive thinking over a black hole of despair (I've certainly been there!) then on some level we know we are fooling ourselves, and we cannot act effectively or speak persuasively.

I am indeed optimistic, but it is an optimism fully cognizant of the magnitude of the crisis. In fact, things are worse than almost anyone thinks, even the doomsayers. I am optimistic, though, because of how transformation happens, whether on an individual or collective level. It is something like this:

The old world falls apart and, after a time in the chaotic void-space between worlds, a new world is born. Or we are born into it. So I think the crises of our time are a kind of birthing – they are the birth pangs of mother earth. It is painful, and even dangerous, but it can't happen any other way.

JC: Yes. A good premise for mythic fiction as well as a very possible future.

I also think the conditions we face serve as a stress test, where, as you say, entire paradigms need to be reborn. A lot of times the amount of work that such an endeavor demands can only happen after a tragedy. There’s a tragedy in Japan with a nuclear reactor and suddenly people begin questioning the efficacy of what’s been in our backyards for decades. And I don’t say this to imply that hysteria is the modern version of Hegelian logic.

I think that systemic shifts only happen through the level of myths first, and then through the rest of society. People say ideas are empty and it's true that talk is cheap. But myths drive the world, and if those don't shift, in this regard, nothing else will.

CE: I agree with you and I'm happy to know other people understand the importance of myth, and the extent to which it creates our world even today. I usually call it “story” not myth, but we are really talking about the same thing. Sure, on one level they are just words, and people often tell me they are sick of words and more words; they want to take action. On the other hand, though, in a socially-created world, words are actions. When Obama “takes action” he does so by saying something or signing something. Congress “takes action” by writing long documents. The symbols that they wield carry power because of the stories in which they are embedded.

We can feel these stories wearing thin today though – our defining myths are losing their power. That is one reason why I think that the time is ripe to create new myths. Well, not really to “create” in the usual sense, but to tap into them, receive them, spread them, and serve them.

JC: I completely agree. It’s what I’ve dedicated my life to. Would you say that is true for you as well?

CE: Well, yes I suppose, though it took me a long while to figure that out, to figure out why I am here. I think all of us, each in a unique way, is on earth at this time to serve the emergence of what I call The More Beautiful World our Hearts Tell us is Possible. That service could be quite public, or it could be nearly invisible – taking care of a dying person or an abandoned animal – but on some level all of us hear the call. In my case, it took a lot of years of wandering before I finally listened to that call. One purpose of my work is to tell people, “Yes, I hear it too, go for it!” so that they needn’t wander as long as I did. When there is no one reinforcing that heart-knowing of a more beautiful world, one suspects that maybe one is crazy. We feel alone.

JC: Yes. However, I am curious how you see this transformation occurring realistically when there are so many cultural forces in place designed specifically to stop it until it has already reached a point of no return. For instance, the corporate land-grab for land as well as water and energy resources...

CE: It is true that certain forces will do their best to keep the Machine running as long as possible, just as an alcoholic will sometimes destroy his entire life just to keep the addiction going a little longer. In fact, our relationship to technology, to debt-money, to consumption, is very much like an addiction. It is indeed possible, as you say, for our emergence into a new realm to be stillborn; sometimes the alcoholic only hits bottom on his deathbed. That is why we cannot just sit back and wait for the collapse to happen. Before it does, we must actively “raise bottom”, so that when things fall apart, there will be enough natural, cultural, and spiritual wealth remaining to nourish the next phase of humanity.

JC: Of course, it’s interesting to me when we start posing The Machine as a negative thing. There’s a lot of myths that have been born out of machine-anxiety, whether it’s Metropolis or , or we see the psychological ramifications of it crystallized in Orwell’s 1984. The biggest challenge of understanding mythology is seeing beyond the ethical binaries our own myths create.

All that said, I think we can both agree that we prefer the kind of technology represented by the Lifestraw – a device that lets you turn dirty water, even sewage, into drinkable water – than genetically owned non-heirloom seeds. And that’s what this really comes down to, isn’t it? Asking that our technology be as controlled by humanitarian ethics as profit?

CE: Certain environmental behaviors can be profitable, but if we are to justify and motivate them based on profit, then we are implicitly validating profit, legitimizing profit as an ally of change. That would be okay if it were, but usually it is not. My work in economics is largely devoted to changing the money system to align money with ecology at the base level. After all, money is supposed (in an ideal world) to represent the gratitude of society for an individuals contribution to the common good. Why, then, do we have a money system in which you can make money by cutting down a forest and building a housing development, but if you want to restore a forest to serve the planet and future generations, well, there's no money in that? The answer has little to do with greed, but is inherent in the way money today is created and circulates.

JC: There's still a deeper question here, just how long the gravity of the status quo will keep us locked in as a society. I see an increasing number of people blinking and looking around like, “wait a second! This is insane! We've been had!” But no one seems to really know what to do about it.

CE: In a way it is good that they don't know what to do about it, for now. That's because, one: so many of our conditioned responses are ineffectual or actually end up strengthening the status quo and deepening our servitude. I'm thinking of the rebellious high school student who knows he's being had and lashes out by setting off a smoke bomb in the lavatory, thereby reinforcing the myth of the necessity of controlling these bad kids, and controlling the animal nature of all of us... and he learns that resistance is futile, and learns to be ashamed of himself.... Oh, and two: we don't really have a new mythology, as you would put it, to guide our actions. But I think the time is ripe for one.

Even if people don't know what to do, they believe less and less in the status quo, and therefore participate in it less and less fully. Their partial withdrawal accelerates its demise. In an earlier era, I would not be doing what I am today. I'd probably be cheerfully participating in the program of dominating nature. But by the time I came of age, that story, that myth that I call “Ascent,” was no longer compelling.

Charles Eisenstein is a teacher, speaker, and writer focusing on themes of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution. His writings on the web magazine Reality Sandwich have generated a vast online following; he speaks frequently at conferences and other events, and gives numerous interviews on radio and podcasts. Writing in Ode magazine's “25 Intelligent Optimists” issue, David Korten (author of When Corporations Rule the World) called Eisenstein “one of the up-and-coming great minds of our time.”

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized. (Or sign up to be notified of its release on

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