Daniel Pinchbeck is an author and modern philosopher who specialises in contemporary shamanism. The following text was taken from a conversation we had on evolution and economy. The remainder of the interview will be published in the coming weeks.


My interest in “evolution” began when I started to explore psychedelics again, in my late twenties. I had remembered from my first few trips in college how I realized, immediately, that there were more advanced states of awareness and consciousness – that our way of looking and understanding our world was largely conditioned, socially programmed. Psychedelics returned me to a basic clarity where I saw how artificial and primitive our human-made constructions were compared to anything that nature produced. People focused on meaningless things – like sports or celebrities, fashion or stock market trends – and they were alienated, disconnected, from the present moment, which is all there is. As I researched Breaking Open the Head, my first book, I visited tribal people in the Amazon, West Africa, and Mexico, as well as the Burning Man festival and other psychedelic gatherings. I discovered there were many dimensions of psychic experience that were incredibly important, but our society suppressed our natural interest in them, through different methods, including ridicule and the force of law.

This led me on a long thought experiment that culminated in my second book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, where I sought to understand the nature of “consciousness.” I also became fascinated by our mindless assault on the life support systems of the planet, which threatens us with near-term extinction: Why are we doing this? Why can’t we stop? What’s the underlying story here?

In the end, I understood that our historical and social progress – as well as the development of human consciousness over thousands of years – were, in all likelihood, a continuation of evolution, at another level. Evolution is the process by which life on Earth develops ever-more complex and differentiated forms over millions and billions of years, as organisms develop new capacities to mesh seamlessly with their particular ecosystems. Where biological evolution takes place through mutations in genes, cultural and social evolution happens through “memes” – ideas, narratives, new breakthroughs in scientific thought, and so on. We are currently in a massive meme war as a species – we can see this in the proliferation of all sorts of ideologies, whether religious fundamentalism, nationalism, or Singularity and transhumanism, neoliberalism, Degrowth, or Dark Ecology.

What’s interesting, when you look at the process of biological evolution as an analogy for what happens on the level of our human development through society and culture, we find that symbiosis and cooperation actually win out over competition, aggression, and domination, over time. Our own bodies, for instance, contain vast colonies of micro-organisms and cellular orchestrations. These were once organisms competing against each other. In a previous epoch of ecological crisis, they figured out how they could work together, creating more complex structures like skin and eyes, and ultimately zipping themselves up into these skin-suits. I believe humanity is at a similar threshold where we need a collective mutation of consciousness to shift from individualism and short-term greed to mutualism and cooperation, on all levels.

“The internal exploration of the Psyche through psychedelics, yoga, meditation, and group ritual could become a larger part of our future world”

From where we are now, a number of different futures seem possible. A lot of them look pretty dire, to be honest. If people want a different outcome, they are going to have to overcome their passivity and make it their responsibility and mission to actualize it – even if this costs them financial success or other rewards, in the short term. The fact is we need to get moving quickly – and move in a diametrically opposite direction to where we have been going over the last centuries. 

If we continue to emit CO2 at current rates, we will unleash runaway climate change within a few decades, and most forms of life on Earth will go extinct. We may also go extinct, as a healthy level of biodiversity is critical for our own survival. At the very least, world populations will crash to a much lower level. The level of global suffering will be brutal – almost unendurable.

To avert this doom, the developed countries of the First World need to step up and reduce their emissions 8 – 10 % annually while they convert to renewable energy infrastructures. This requires something similar to the mass mobilizations of populations that took place during the Second World War. At the same time, we need to stop unnecessary industries, stop unsustainable growth, stop excess consumption and excess plane travel, and, to a great extent, stop eating meat. By some accounts, meat eating is the worst contributor to global warming as well as a major contributor to mass extinction. We currently consume 100 billion animals a year. 30% of the Earth’s surface is used for animal agriculture, cattle grazing, etc. Much of this land could be turned back into forests, which sequester CO2. Animal farming is also responsible for massive amounts of deforestation, as jungles are converted to soybean plantations to feed livestock. 

I know this sounds impossible, overwhelming, and bleak. However, I think it is possible to turn that around, through an act of internal mental jujitsu. We can choose to see it as an amazing challenge and opportunity. Instead of promoting mindless consumption and endless growth, we can seek to build local communities based on love, trust, harmony, imagination, and creativity. I think the internal exploration of the Psyche through psychedelics, yoga, meditation, and group ritual could become a larger part of our future world – our new paradigm. We could also learn from traditional and indigenous cultures around the world, who express innate joy, and realize the inherent unity of nature, spirit, and humanity. 

Looking at the idea of initiation from indigenous cultures, we can conceive of our lives as initiations – and the great initiation of our time is to overcome the distraction and vacuity of our current culture, confront the ecological crisis, and launch a new operating system for a regenerative human society. This is as great a mission and purpose as we find in all of the science fiction films that people love – Avatar, The Matrix, Star Wars, etcetera. We are actually living in a story of that magnitude, and we can choose to sign on to become catalytic agents of positive transformation. 

Beyond a period of shared sacrifice that might last a decade or more, we could look toward the potential of a society based on shared abundance. For instance, humanity could establish an industrial system that is fully “cradle to cradle,” where all manufacturing processes have a beneficial impact on the ecosystems, modeling our productions on nature, which creates no waste. We can potentially use the Internet to establish new networks for free sharing of knowledge and resources. We could seek to establish a “post-work” civilization on a planetary scale where people’s basic needs are subsidized, leaving them time for the free development of their creative and intellectual gifts.


Daniel’s next book How Soon Is Now, comes out in February 2017, from Watkins Press. Join his newsletter at www.pinchbeck.io to stay updated and keep the conversation moving.

Author: Lisa Luxx of Prowlhouse