Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of a breeze.
– Carl Sagan
The human collective has in the last several years transitioned into a new stage of its birth process.
I will draw from Stanislav Grof’s concept of perinatal matrices, a four-stage description of the psychodynamics of birth. Stage 1 is Uterine Bliss. The womb provides the fetus all its needs, and it grows without any apparent limit, struggle, or effort. While various kinds of maternal stress may affect the fetus, nature does its best to cushion it from serious trauma.
Stage 1 gives way to Stage 2 as the baby grows up against the limits of the womb and contractions begin. Paradise becomes hell as the pressure increases with no apparent way out. It is the hell of No Exit. It is an increasingly intolerable situation that subjectively feels like it must last forever. It is what existence has become. Hopelessness and despair are hallmarks of this stage.
Stage 3 begins when the cervix opens and the baby begins the journey through the birth canal. The contractions, the squeezing and the pushing, intensify, yet because a destination beckons, this stage is normally less hellish than the previous, even as it demands every resource of mother and child.
Stage 4 is the emergence into a new world. There is no going back. A profound separation has transpired, yet (at least in traditional birthing practices) the infant is reunited with the mother as she holds the baby to her breast. The baby is now a member of society, and a new phase of development begins.
Applying this map to human civilization, Stage 1 was the long exponential growth curve of human society that consumed the vast bounty of Mother Nature without apparent limit. Even when resources were depleted in one place, there was always virgin territory, minerals, forests, and cultures to exploit. The expansion consumed not only natural resources but also the wildness in ourselves. It was the colonization of gift cultures by money and markets, of traditional patterns of social organization by law, police, and government, of vernacular architecture by building codes, of folk medicine by pharmaceuticals, of midwifery by obstetrics, of storied communities by generic housing developments, of the singing circle by the MP3 download, of folk tales at the fireside by videos on YouTube, of the kingdom of childhood by the regime of schooling, of oral culture by written culture, of place-specific knowledge by universal formulas. None of these developments were an unqualified evil. Yet undeniably, a gnawing poverty torments even the wealthiest people today, and a sadness at the unacknowledged loss that no new distraction can assuage.
If I had to pick a date for the transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2, it would be 1917. After three years of the First World War’s industrial-scale savagery, that was the moment when the dark suspicion firmly took root that maybe science, reason, technology, and their industrial application would not be humanity’s deliverance after all. Some people started to see that civilization had hit a dead end.
The womb was still commodious then, but the pressure was growing. I am speaking here not so much of ecological limits to growth—as I argue in my Climate book, if we lose our remaining compunctions about destroying all that is beautiful and alive, earth can accommodate our expansion long into the future. Rather, I am speaking of that feeling of futility, senselessness, No Exit that germinated around that time in the Existentialist movement. We were still growing, but we weren’t getting anywhere. In the century since, that feeling has spread beyond the cultural avant-garde to engulf the mass of the developed world. In fact it accompanies development—in places that are still “developing” according to the industrial model, hope still animates development’s promises. But as development proceeds, so the emptiness of its promise become more obvious. The result is a collapse of sense, meaning, and identity that escalates as our inherited means and methods repeatedly fail us.
No longer do science and technology, modern medicine and robotics, social science and rational government promise paradise. Those promises languish in the Museum of 1950s Futurism. Today their best offer is merely to make life tolerable, to restore normality, or to achieve “sustainability.”
So might also a fetus think, as the pressure bears down from every direction with no apparent way out. How can I make this a little more tolerable? He shifts and squirms, yet no relief can he find.
I know I am not alone among the culturally sensitive who have stared abject hopelessness in the face in the last year. But now I feel that the winds have changed. The ship continues forward under its old inertia, but a new breeze is stirring.
As the cervix opens, the contractions do not subside; they intensify. We are on the brink of social convulsions beyond anything we have seen in America for 160 years, and in Europe for 70. (In other places this process is telescoped into a shorter time span and mashed all together in an accelerated nonlinear jumble.) The contractions may take the form of economic collapse, natural disasters, political turmoil, or social conflict. Old certainties, generations or even centuries standing, will dissolve with astonishing speed.
The “new breeze” stirring has blown in a storm. The clouds are no longer just on the horizon. We hear the rumble of thunder before the deluge: supply chain disruptions, forest fires, floods, and droughts, civil disturbances, transportation system breakdown, internet and power outages, political extremism, accelerating inflation, and so on.
As the saying goes, this is when “the shit gets real.” For many people it already has: the underclass, the sick, the persecuted, the hungry. They have been relatively invisible to the bulk of society, mesmerized as it has been by the Spectacle. Increasingly though, the problems of Jay Z. or Kim Kardashian are no longer so fascinating. Sports, celebrity gossip, and entertainment will no longer be able to keep reality at bay. The news becomes no longer a story on a screen. It invades life. Events start happening to us, not to someone else somewhere else. Normal will cease to exist, because we are now in passage. It is beginning.
In other words, we are entering a period of struggle where it is obvious that something important is at stake and our actions matter. We are moving down the birth canal. Immense pressures will bear down on us, pause for a while, then bear down again.
For most of my life, in the national and global arena each passing year seemed much the same as the last, a predictable deterioration. That is changing. The year 2020 was no aberration. Normal is not going to return. We might slide back a little after each contraction, but never all the way back. Each will push us into new territory. That doesn’t mean the world situation will gradually improve—quite the contrary. It will intensify with each contraction until the moment we are born.
We are going somewhere. I can’t offer proof of that, only metaphor, faith, and an appeal to your intuition. But here is one sign: The stasis that rendered us hopeless and cynical is over. That does not mean it is time to sit back and await our deliverance. It is just the opposite; now is the time when we get serious and act as if life depended on it. In childbirth the mother does most of the work, yet the response of the baby is important too. A live birth is easier than a stillbirth. This doesn’t mean that life is a struggle. Mostly it is not, or needn’t be. But there are times of struggle, as the sprout pushes through the soil, as the butterfly bursts through the cocoon. Soon, circumstances will push us out of our comfort zone. A comfort zone that, like the birthing womb, has long been uncomfortable.
Imagine what it is like to be a baby in the birth canal. You are subject to what are from your perspective titanic pressures. The whole world bears down on you. You have no idea what lies ahead; nothing in your life so far could predict the new experiences that await you: to breathe, to poop, to nurse, to see, to smell. Nonetheless, on some level even in the midst of the intensity, you know that something awaits. So it is with the human collective.
This knowledge is valid even though there is no guarantee we will be born alive. That uncertainty helps make the passage real. A newborn baby feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment, a whole-body satisfaction of having completed a hard journey. That is one reason why medically-unnecessary C-sections are so harmful. They rob baby and mother of a primal, foundational achievement. Without that sense of “i can do it!” the person may be susceptible to the infantilizing authoritarianism that increasingly runs our society. Without this archetypal experience of struggle and victory, he may tend toward docility and helplessness, disbelieving his power and agency, willing to let others do it, giving his power to Donald Trump—he will save us—or Bill Gates or those benevolent scientists and doctors. All is not lost though: the soul of the newborn deprived of that experience of struggle and victory may engineer it in her life, enacting the missing birth stages. First Stage 2: depression, hopelessness. Then a life-or-death struggle, such as a health challenge. Or an abusive relationship where she must finally exit the situation, gain a victory, and enter a new world with a sense of achievement. I’m not saying life-saving C-sections are bad or that babies born that way are irreparably harmed; however, birth choices should include such considerations, invisible though they may be to statistical risk-benefit analyses.
I’m not sure what the equivalent of a C-section wold be for humanity. Maybe it is when beneficent ETs swoop in and save us from ourselves. So far they have not, maybe because we still have a chance to do this on our own. Although I have witnessed only four births (these were the four best experiences of my life), other mothers have confirmed what I have noticed: that there is often a moment as the baby slowly moves through the birth canal where it seems impossible. A moment of, “I can’t do this.” Usually though, she can.
So can we. The process humanity is undergoing was not designed to be impossible; only to seem impossible at a key moment. We can do this. It is why we are here.
Here the metaphor begins to waver. Who is the mother? She is Mother Nature, devoting every resource to the birth process. She is Mother Culture too, doing the same. Neither nature nor culture are separate from ourselves. We are the baby, and we are the mother too, and we are the midwife. All bring their attention to what has become in this moment the one important thing: life.
The squirming and stretching of the baby in the birth canal is just that: the striving towards life. That is the guiding principle of our collective birthing time. It is to serve life, revere life, and claim life. It has an ecological dimension—serving life in its biological sense—and it has a political dimension: reclaiming human life from oppressive institutions. It includes the will to survive, yes, but to live is not merely to survive. So many of us have been surviving, half-alive, for too long. The impulse of our birthing is to live, as an active verb.
What are we being born into? I will not now try to describe the world that awaits humanity on the other end of the birth canal. If you want to know about it, you can draw on visions, ancestral memories, and the visitations of the future into the present that take the form of various golden ages; peak experiences; miracles of peace, forgiveness, and generosity; and Utopian social experiments that in their failure showed us what might nonetheless be possible. These intimations are like the sounds, voices, and dim shifts of light that hint to the fetus of another world. Now though, the important thing is not to know what the world beyond the birth canal will be. It is to know merely that it exists and we can reach it. The cervix is open. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the time has come to push.