The (Well-Justified) Fear of a Living Planet

I’ve recently stumbled across more of Charles Eisenstein’s writings. For those of you unfamiliar with him, he’s a writer and would-be philosopher and economist, and who is oddly popular with the green left crowd. As an author, he’s not bad- which is a shame, because a lot of what he says is total nonsense.

Eisenstein’s major idea is the gift economy, of which he is a staunch proponent. His hope for us as a society to eventually replace our existing economy with a collection of gift economies at some point in the future. He has written, somewhat compellingly, about open source software and peer-to-peer (P2P) exchanges as models of what these economies might look like. However, much like the neoliberal economists he stridently criticizes, he makes the mistake of assuming his ideology trumps natural law. In his particular case, since gift economies work best with as limited scarcity as possible, he goes out of his way to invent ways to ignore scarcity in the real world. For example, with regards to energy scarcity, he assumes that the laws of thermodynamics are essentially social constructs, artifacts of our previous, “limited” capitalistic/industrial worldview, and as soon as we abandon that for a more holistic/enlightened worldview, the time will finally be right for the “free energy” concepts that supposedly have been previously suppressed to emergy. Boom, no energy scarcity. Of course, this is like saying the Law of Gravity is a social construct, and we can all fly if we just let go of the Newtonian worldview (please don’t try this, it will end badly).

Another example is medicine, which tends to be scarce due to its highly specialized nature and production. Eisenstein’s solution to this, it seems, to lie in the fact that he’s apparently never met a dubious, New Age “alternative medicine” treatment that he didn’t like (including “Flower Essence” therapy, and the belief that autism can be cured with diet and environmental changes). Which is a shame- aside from the fact that he’s oblvious to the notion that his worldview isn’t compatible with reality, there actually is an interesting discussion to be had here about how one could make medicine or energy free from scarcity (Open Source Ecology is working in this direction).

In any case, I thought I’d deconstruct one of his shorter pieces (to his credit, and as a testament of his faith in the gift economy, pretty much all of his writings, books included, are available for free/pay what you can on his website). In particular, an essay he wrote for the Kosmos Journal, Fear of a Living Planet.

Eisenstein starts off by pointing out the criticisms of the idea of Earth as a single, living, conscious organism, that it makes environmentalists sound like a bunch of flakey, delusional hippies (which, of course, it totally does).  He even points out some of the flaws of New Age views, saying,

“Certainly, there is a danger that, intoxicated by the idea of cosmic purpose or some-such, we ignore the pain and grief that we must integrate if we are to act effectively and courageously. Certainly, dogma like “It’s all good” or “We’re all one” can blind us to the exigency of the planetary crisis and discourage us from making changes in our lives. Certainly, borrowed rituals and concepts of sacredness can be an insidious form of colonialism, a strip-mining of cultural treasure to compensate for and enable the continuation of our own cultural vacuity.”

However, he then makes a rather bizzare rhetorical pivot, and instead of investigating and critiqueing the idea of a “living” Earth, suggests that the fault is all in the critics- that their repulsion to the idea is borne by fear and disappointment, rather than actual skepticism. He states that

“The fear of being emotional, irrational, hysterical, etc. is very close to a fear of the inner feminine, and the exclusion of the fuzzy, the ill-defined, and the emotionally-perceived dimensions of our activism in favor of the linear, rational, and evidence-based, mirrors the domination over and marginalization of the feminine from our social choice-making. Part of our resistance to the notion of Earth as a living being could be the patriarchal mind feeling threatened by feminine ways of knowing and choosing.”

Aside from the fact that he’s (inadvertently) perpetuating a kind of gender essentialist view of femininity [1], he also sets up a pretty tremendous false dichotomy, and an easy out for explaining away skeptics- they’re just afraid of getting in touch with their inner “feminine” nature.

Going on, he suggests that this suspicion is the result of a learned wariness, and attributes it to disappointment:

“The derision of the cynic comes from a wound of crushed idealism and betrayed hopes. We received it on a cultural level when the Age of Aquarius morphed into the Age of Ronald Reagan, and on an individual level as well when our childish perception of a living, personal universe in which we are destined to grow into magnificent creators gave way to an adulthood of deferred dreams and lowered expectations.”

So, in essence, the reason scientifically minded environmentalists hate talk of planetary consciousness in the like is because they’re disappointed that they didn’t achieve their childhood dreams, and they’re afraid of being girly.  Maybe.

If you read more of Eisenstein’s work, you’ll discover he’s not actually a huge fan of science, or, more specifically, what he imagines science to be.  This essay is no different.

“What if, as the biologist Jacques Monod put it, we are alone in “an alien world. A world that is deaf to man’s music, just as indifferent to his hopes as to his suffering or his crimes.” Such is the wail of the separate self. It is loneliness and separation disguised as an empirical question.

While no amount of evidence can prove it false, we must acknowledge that the science that militates against an intelligent, purposeful, living universe is ideologically freighted and culturally bound. Witness the hostility of institutional science to any anomalous data or unorthodox theory that suggest purposiveness or intelligence as a property of inanimate matter[2]. Water memory, adaptive mutation, crop circles, morphic fields, psi phenomena, UFOs, plant communication, precognitive dreams…and a living Earth, a living sun, a living universe, all incite scorn. Anyone who believes in these, or even takes them as a valid topic of investigation, risks the usual epithets of ‘pseudo-scientist,’ ‘flake,’ or ‘woo-woo,’ regardless of the merits of the theory or the strength of the evidence.”

First off, Eisenstein does an amazing job of begging the question, assuming, of course, that there is plentiful evidence for his litany of eccentric beliefs, when there really isn’t (except for maybe adaptive mutation, which I’m pretty sure is one of the cornerstones of evolutionary theory- though he’s probably using a different meaning of it).  However, this exposes a serious flaw in this line of reasoning, one science has been carefully constructed to mitigate: if you follow this idea to its logical conclusion- that we can ignore scientific orthodoxy, and choose to believe things because we want them to be true, it basically breaks the idea of reality itself (in the sense of reality being the things that we, as a society, collectively believe to be true).  Under Eisenstein’s ideology, there is nothing to stop someone from deciding, for some arbitrary reason, that setting people on fire cures disease, and then going and torching a hospital.  This is an extreme example, of course, but it demonstrates the problem- you don’t get to disregard the physical nature of the world we live in just because you don’t like the implications of it.

Eistenstein then goes on meditate on what the idea of a living planet means to environmentalism.  To sum it up, it’s basically that it’s easier to sell protecting the environment to people if it’s framed in an emotional context (which is probably true), and specifically a context of a love for the planet as living entity (which is probably not).

Two things stand out to me about this essay, and what it says about Mr. Eisenstein.

First off, I suspect that much of the disregard he feels towards skeptics and skepticism is the result of him being the complete opposite of a skeptic- he’s gullible. Really gullible.  As far as I can tell, he’ll believe anything, as long as it supports his worldview.  Granted, he is hardly alone in this- but science incorporated skepticism (and more specifically, peer review and various statistical methods) precisely to counteract the bias of the experimenters.  Eisenstein seems to be aware of this personal quality, but instead of addressing it with some introspection, instead doubles down, and tell us to embrace our inner mark.  I’m pretty sure telling people to be more credulous is probably not going to win them over.

Beyond that, though, I think Eisenstein’s conception of a living planet illustrates a major flaw in the New Age tendency of environmentalism.  Let’s assume the Earth (either the biosphere, or the whole hunk of rock- Eisenstein never makes it exactly clear what he means) is indeed a sentient organism.  If so, it is billions of years old.  The internal processes that make it up operate on timescales we can barely comprehend, much less experience.  And it probably wouldn’t be too happy with us, assuming its aware of us at all (I mean, do you keep tabs on the ants living on your front walk? Much less the bacteria?)

In short, forget Monod’s fear of an alien universe- an actual living planet would represent an intelligence far beyond our understanding.  We almost certainly would not be able to relate to it, much less effectively communicate with it (and vice versa).  There is good reason to be afraid of a living planet- assuming it noticed us at all, its action would represent an Outside Context Problem of tremendous magnitude, one that would probably not bode well for our species.

This betrays the major flaw I eluded to in this line of thought- it is tainted by rampant anthropomorphism.  It assumes that not only is there intelligence in nature itself, but it is human-like intelligence.  However, there is absolutely no reason for this to be the case.  Ironically, this fact is reflected even in the folklore of the many indigenous cultures that New Age environmentalists adore- spirits do not think the way we do, and to assume otherwise invites disaster.  For example, in the faerie folklore of Europe, the spirits of nature are capricious in the extreme, capable of both incredibly generosity and merciless cruelty, often with no explanation why either is offered.  I imagine that this reflects how many agrarian people felt about nature in general- it could provide, or it could destroy, and did so seemingly without reason (probably because, hey, there is no reason behind it).  Rather than making environmentalism more acceptable, this anthropomorphism makes it harder, and runs the risk of generating grave mistakes when addressing our environmental problems.  We cannot treat animals[3], ecosystems or nature  and the Earth itself as human-like entities, because they fundamentally aren’t human-like (or even really entities, in some cases).

Fear the living planet. If it exists, it will either ignore you, or do things to you for reasons you can not begin to comprehend; it most certainly will not listen to you, regardless.  And it will certainly not do your movement any favors.

[1] And believe me, as a trans woman, I have a very acute understanding of what society considers “feminine”, and how much its scorned.  Fear of it is certainly not preventing me from accepting the notion of a living planet.  But the traits Eisenstein attributes to the feminine – emotion, compassion, “fuzziness” – are not at all inherently feminine, and it is a great mistake to think so.

[2]In reading some of his other works, it becomes apparently that Eisenstein seems to think he’s invented pantheism, and as spoken in defense of animism.  He cites the property of emergent complexity as evidence for some sort of universal, inherent guiding sentience.  I’m not sure if this because he doesn’t actually understand emergent phenomena (which is odd, given that he ostensibly has a degree in mathematics), or, perhaps more likely, has chosen to interpret it this way to strengthen his beliefs, and prevent his warmfuzzies from being questioned.  Again, this demonstrates a recurring flaw in his writing- just because you want something to be true, doesn’t make it so.

[3] With that said, I believe we should treat animals with the compassion that all living things deserve- human or otherwise.


About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
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