London: Watkins, 2017. 232 pp., hardcover, $24.95.
In September 2005, Daniel Pinchbeck had a revelation. In order to save planet earth, he would have to start a global revolution. Such thoughts were not foreign to him, or to many others at the scene of his visitation, the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.
Many were on his wavelength and shared his ideals. But a strange urgency had come over him, and he went through a kind of personal enantiodromia, when one’s values suddenly turn about face and become their opposite. In a flash, the whole Burning Man scene, full of New Age highflyers, corporate shamans, and psychedelic entrepreneurs (and of which Pinchbeck was a significant part), seemed phony and unreal, an empty shadow world cast by well-heeled seekers of enlightenment, himself included.
He now spread a new gospel, or at least tried to. Rather than culminate the festival with its traditional Wicker Man–like finale, he argued, all the various tribes and clans should work together to create a spontaneous model of what a “regenerative society” would be like as an example for the rest of the world. Rather than return to their lives, they should remain with him and create the kind of new social experience that, as Pinchbeck’s vision had shown him, was absolutely necessary if the planet was going to be saved from ecological meltdown. It would require sacrifice and a total change of being. They would have to work hard and give up a lot. The stakes were high—nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—and could not be ignored. But it could be done if only they all pulled together.
Two things emerged from Pinchbeck’s vision. One was that he was cast out from Burning Man as an apostate, a fairly common status for visionaries, having failed to get his message across to his people. The other is this book, in which he labors to do just that. If the title suggests a certain impatience, we should remember that a decade passed between the vision and its realization, at least in theory, and that like all visionaries, Pinchbeck is raring to get things going, and has little time for those who might want to drag their heels.
An apocalyptic sense—itself a kind of impatience—informs Pinchbeck’s other work, most recognizably in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006), which concerned certain possibilities for that year according to prophecies associated with the Mayan calendar. In 2016 Pinchbeck is understandably keen to distance himself from his earlier millennial work, yet the unavoidable planetary catastrophe that awaits us if we fail to fulfill the demands of the moment, of now!, casts as disheartening a shadow as any Mesoamerican deity. The end times are upon us again, it seems, only the time lag between prophecy and fulfillment is considerably shorter.
This is a book of three parts. One is a kind of confessional, in which the author repents for his previous life as a kind of celebrity shaman, a mea culpa aimed perhaps at anchoring his message in some personal soul-searching. Here readers may find out more than they need or want to know about his sex life, drug use, and famous friends.
Another part is a disturbing, at times numbing, report on the multiple ecological and environmental crises that face us and which, according to Pinchbeck, the powers that be are doing practically nothing to prevent. If I do not list these here, it is not out of any desire to minimize them. Their number is simply too great, and the stats and studies Pinchbeck musters are equally numerous and, unfortunately, convincing.
We can get an idea of the situation from what Pinchbeck calls Nine Planetary Boundaries, limits of excess that once breached are irreparable. According to Pinchbeck, most of these are stretched to breaking and will soon snap; the result will be a global catastrophe that will bring on the next mass extinction, humans included. I would think anyone aware of our environmental realities will have some idea of the seriousness of the situation, global warming and climate change being only two of the many disasters looming from a many-headed ecological Hydra. Wars over natural resources are another. Social breakdown too. And famine. Mass migrations. The list, I think, is all too familiar, and Pinchbeck adds to it, softening us up, as it were, for the punchline of the book.
Which is this: Pinchbeck sees a hidden evolutionary plan behind our time of troubles. What we are experiencing now is a self-inflicted shock that will, according to him, compel us to make the next step in our evolution. Borrowing from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, Pinchbeck sees this as humanity’s “transition” to a kind of world-mind.
And this brings us to the book’s third and most important part, from the perspective of Pinchbeck’s vision: his blueprint for the new, regenerative society that must take the place of our current degenerative one, if we are not to go to hell in a handbasket.
I emphasize must. It, and other urgent words like force and impel, are voiced throughout the book by an insistent we, using Pinchbeck as their spokesperson. “Whatever it takes,” Pinchbeck tells us, “we” must “force” and “impel” civilization to, well, adopt his plan for planetary salvation. Things are so bad that nothing short of a wise, spiritually-minded authoritarian elite can effect the kinds of global changes necessary to avert catastrophe in time. The crises we face will force us to give up our personal interests and pursuits in order to find our proper place within the new planetary superorganism that humanity, if it doesn’t blow it, is destined to become.
This means that if today you might be interested in art, literature, philosophy, or some other nonutilitarian (from the point of view of saving the planet) pursuit, forget it. Get with the program and learn how to mulch or to design self-sustaining geodesic domes. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those useful skills, but not everyone is interested in them, even if, according to Pinchbeck, they should be, for the good of the planet. Pinchbeck’s belief that in the future—if we have one—we will have to abandon the idea of a “private sector” because there is “no private interest within an organism” sounds chillingly fascistic, while his calls to forgo our own pursuits for those of the “collective” sound dangerously like similar directives of the Soviet era.
The changes necessary in order to save the world will come about, Pinchbeck envisions, through a cadre of social media gurus spreading the regenerative message through tweets and postings that will make the new world order “ a seductive, hip, glamorous adventure.” Like a benevolent dictator, Pinchbeck sees no wrong in using the mesmerism of advertising—now enrolled in perpetuating the evil system— to covertly persuade people to “transition” to the new state.
One would think, though, that the aim of a truly free and enlightened society would be to reject such measures wholly, rather than use them for our “own good.” And if sages and saints from Buddha to Mother Teresa have had a hard task prodding us to evolve, I doubt if a team of shamanic Mad Men can get the job done in the time remaining. But then Pinchbeck believes that consciousness—yours and mine—is “mass produced by the corporate industrial mega-machine” anyway, so if enough enlightened IT heads are put together, they just might shape “new patterns of behavior and new values for the multitudes,” a “new subjectivity,” just in time. To me this is reminiscent of B.F. Skinner’s dictum that we need to get “beyond freedom and dignity” and submit ourselves to benign social conditioning in order to save the world, and it is just as unappetizing.
Much of Pinchbeck’s master plan smacks of microwaved utopias of the 1960s, like Skinner’s, including chestnuts like free love, or at least guilt-free casual sex, as a panacea for our existential ills, plucked from the countercultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse. How it could pass the author by that love has been free and sex casual for some time now, without the mass “liberation” these developments were supposed to bring about? Freud and Reich were clearly wrong, and Marcuse’s calls for a “polymorphous perversity” adolescent.
Darkly there is also the sense that, as was said in the ’60s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—a very dangerous slogan, which can only feed a divisive sense of “us and them.” But Pinchbeck has a vision, and it can be summed up in two phrases, which murmur in the background of this book like a mantra: if only; we must. No one is saying that the times do not require vision. They do. But let us not embrace one that calls for measures as frightening as the dangers that inspired it.
Gary Lachman’s latest book is Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, published by Tarcher Perigee.