The Meaningful World
Interview on economics, ecology, technology, and... me
Hi readers, I’d like to share some excerpts from an interview I did with Tam Hunt. Full interview here. I really appreciated Tam’s questions; some of them got me to speak of things I rarely touch in most interviews. It was a written interview but I recorded some parts in case you want to listen instead.
Tam Hunt: Why do you focus on beauty as such an important aspect of life, and of what’s missing in our modern world, with its “uglification” and industrialization of so much around us?
Charles Eisenstein: Beauty is one of those things we cannot quantify, and therefore which fits poorly into conventional economic thinking. Money logic is good at maximizing efficiency, which is actually maximizing something measurable. For example, it produces large buildings cheaply.
I focus on beauty a lot because it offers such a clear example of our poverty. The beauty lens makes it obvious that financial thinking, and quantitative thinking generally, is incapable of producing certain things that the human soul requires. What does the world need most right now? Is it more?
How much does your fluency in another language and culture, quite different than US culture, influence your thinking and willingness to propose ideas that are radically different than the mainstream?
Well, there are certainly plenty of multilingual people around, and not all of them are creative thinkers. But I think in my case, immersing in a radically different language and culture prevented my intellectual programming from calcifying. I was introduced to entirely new categories of thought before the old ones had fully formed.
I also have to credit psychedelic medicines for exposing the narrowness and artificiality of what I’d until then accepted as real. They helped open my mind to different ways of conceiving and perceiving the world that local traditions of Buddhism and Taoism offered. I never studied either deeply, but they suffused the cultural atmosphere and influenced me profoundly, particularly Taoism.
One influence I can say that Chinese has had on my later work is that it helped me work more comfortably with paradox. It is in many ways a less precise language than English; the same is true of the various Taoist sciences. You don’t start with basic definitions and first principles and work your way up from those. Taoism applies a more holistic logic and employs more teleological thinking. To some extent, this is embodied in the Chinese language too. Grammar is more fluid, words can morph from one part of speech to another, and the “atoms” of the language are semantic and not alphabetic. Aphabetic languages offer a model of reality in which meaning is an illusion. Just as meaningful words are composed of meaningless letters, so also is the meaningful world composed of meaningless protons, neutrons, and electrons. Chinese is not like that: meaning in Chinese is elemental. Perhaps these feature of the Chinese language primed me to explore non-reductionistic thinking and the relationship between story and reality in my later work.
Were you always comfortable with being considered a radical? In my own experience studying various fields and finding myself coming to very different conclusions than the mainstream I’ve realized that there must be significant other factors than logic or evidence influencing whatever ideas or theories are most prominent — because so many of them just don’t make sense under scrutiny. I’ve thus found myself comfortable with being in many ways “on the fringe” but it’s not something I sought out. Have you experienced a similar dynamic in your intellectual meanderings?
I have long and frequently felt a bit of an alien here. Until recently, that has mostly meant being ignored and dismissed, a mostly benign neglect outside the corner of the culture that comprises my readers. That changed with the pandemic, when ideas that I’ve written about for years all of a sudden attracted much more attention, much of it hostile. For example, in The Ascent of Humanity there is a section titled “The War on Germs,” in which I located conventional medicine within larger paradigms of conquest and offered quite specific critique of certain medical practices. But it was only in the last two years that such views drew public denunciation and cancellation — including by the very publisher who now carries that book. If I may flatter myself to say that my views are true, I can only hope that they exemplify Schopenhauer’s adage: “All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
Is it practical to suggest that performing mundane acts like laundry, yard work, or changing diapers should be viewed as sacred tasks, as ways of creating a more beautiful world, as you suggest in your work?
Well, our society little celebrates such activities, and our economy hardly rewards them. Yet, they require a lot of patience and humility. We need people to do such things with care and devotion, at least as much as we need people to invent new machines and build new organizations. Neither is more sacred than the other. However, I’m not suggesting that some people should spend their whole lives changing diapers and doing laundry. Calling such activities “sacred” is not a way to justify an unfair, exploitative division of labor. It is rather the opposite. If we as a society hold those activities as worthy, then no one will believe themselves to be above such things.
Ultimately, I am advocating a reversal of an age-old prejudice, which values the abstract over the concrete, the spirit over the flesh, and the spiritual over the material. This anti-materialism has caused tremendous harm to materiality; that is, to nature. Part of recovering from the spell of money (which is itself an abstraction of value) is to re-value the material, the soil, the flesh, the living, and the human.
You paint a nuanced view of technology, highlighting its ability (already realized in so many ways) to make problems worse through unwise “technofixes,” but also suggesting that there may indeed be “technologies of Reunion” that may bring us more quickly into the Age of Reunion you call for. Can you offer some rules of thumb on how to make this key kind of discernment about the role of new technologies in our lives?
The key differentiating principle is that Technologies of Reunion are not based on control. What we call technology today is a system for applying force to matter with ever greater precision. The dream is that if we could only control every atom in the world, in our own bodies and brains, etc., if we could only quantify and manipulate everything in the material and social world, we could engineer paradise. Well, no matter how far we develop our ability to control the world, paradise remains on the horizon, as far away as ever. (The same is true on the personal level when we try to control other people in our lives.) In contrast, Technologies of Reunion draw on an understanding that the world is alive, that there are intelligences beyond the human, and that by participating in these intelligences we can co-achieve miraculous results. For example, technologies of control try to perfect agricultural yields by precisely controlling every component of the soil, eliminating weeds and pests, and so forth. Technologies of Reunion seek to support the aliveness of the soil, listening and observing it as a living being, asking what it needs, trusting that its thriving is connected to our own.
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