A Conversation With Daniel Pinchbeck on Being Nice to Trump Supporters, The Collapse of Civilization and How We Might Survive it

Banter Editor Ben Cohen discusses the horrors of the Trump administration, the potential end of civilization and what we can do with it with author Daniel Pinchbeck.
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Banter Editor Ben Cohen discusses the horrors of the Trump administration, the potential end of civilization and what we can do with it with author Daniel Pinchbeck.

As some Banter readers know, I have strongly advocated the responsible use of psychedelic plant substances as a means to cure psychological disorders, reconnect with the natural world, and gain perspective on modern life. Back in 2015, I traveled to the Amazon jungle to take Ayahuasca -- a potent psychoactive "tea" known for its hallucinatory effects and extraordinary medicinal properties. It was a mind blowing (literally) and transformative experience that has had a dramatic and positive effect on my life.  

I wouldn't say that I am a part of the psychedelic community per se, but I am aware of some of the huge shifts happening within it, and the increased acceptance of psychedelic use by mainstream society (there is now hard science to back the curative properties of psilocybin, Ayahuasca, and LSD). There are many interesting thinkers and movers in the psychedelic world, and their ideas are spilling over into the mainstream at breakneck speed. I think this is in part due to the rapidly deteriorating ecological crisis, but also due to the rapidly deteriorating trust in the institutions that govern western society. With the election of Donald Trump, we are likely to see the further breakdown of government and its relevance in making our lives better, and we are going to have to take a serious look at either radically reforming government or abandoning it all together if it is incapable of meeting the challenges ahead of us. 

One of the thinkers I've followed for some time now is Daniel Pinchbeck, the author of "Breaking Open The Head", "2012 - The Year Of The Mayan Prophecy" and the yet to be published "How Soon is Now". They are fascinating reads and challenge conventional perceptions of human civilization and our relationship with the biosphere. Pinchbeck argues that western civilization is in the midst of a severe ecological/psycho-spiritual crisis, and that psychedelics can be used to help humanity cure its destructive attitude towards the natural world and create a more sane, equitable world based on empathy, cooperation and care for the biosphere. 

While I have great regard for Daniel's ideas, I was somewhat dismayed by his attitude towards the 2016 presidential election as he seemed to promote the notion that Hillary Clinton was "just as bad" as Donald Trump. He argued they were part of the same system and would represent no meaningful change. In the weeks after the election, Daniels posts became markedly different, apparently acknowledging the severity of the situation we now face. On a post reaching out to Trump supporters in order to engage with them in "an authentic dialogue", I challenged him on his previous denouncement of Clinton and the Democratic party in general. Daniel wrote back to me privately and asked whether I would be interested in airing the debate in a more public forum. I agreed, and went back and forth with him over email for a couple of days. Below is the unedited exchange we had:

Ben: I've long been a fan of your work (I'm half way through 2012, The Year of the Mayan Prophecy, which is excellent!). Having said that, I was somewhat dismayed by your approach to this election and your portrayal of Hillary Clinton as being "just as bad" as Donald Trump. I cover politics for a living and did my best to raise the alarm about Trump very early on. While I supported Bernie Sanders initially, I couldn't understand the extraordinary hatred directed towards Clinton. Bernie fans became so vitriolic and partisan that they couldn't see the forest through the trees. I agree that Clinton isn't perfect, but she's a rational, intelligent woman who would have surrounded herself with equally capable people -- all of whom would have believed in global warming, supported women's rights and wanted to use the government to alleviate suffering for the most vulnerable Americans. Instead, we have a fascist who is surrounding himself with white nationalists, dedicated to ripping apart the EPA, public education and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. I saw this coming very early on and was perplexed as to why people like yourself continued to peddle the "just as bad" meme. I think it's far too late for recriminations now, but I wondered whether you felt any remorse? I admire your efforts to reach out to Trump supporters, but having studied them closely for 18 months I fear you are wasting your time. It is too little, too late. I'd like to think all humans are capable of compromise and coming together, but the movement Trump has created is something entirely different. Like fascism in the 1930's, it has to be confronted and destroyed, not appeased.

Daniel: My straightforward feeling was that Obama showed the best we could expect under the neoliberal agenda. The biggest issue is the global ecological crisis. If we are going to address this as a species, we need a rapid awakening and a profound shift in focus and direction. Under Clinton and Obama, we are like the frog slowly boiling to death. These people have learned above all else how to compromise their values for short term political gain. Obama didn't use his presidency to create a new New Deal or really fight against the banking oligarchy. He and Hilary are part of that elite, which continues to be responsible for the systemic destruction of the Earth. Read the Wikileaks emails: Hilary was proudly promoting fracking and took credit for it. She was also a war hawk and made terrible decisions in the Middle East. I feel this whole system where you are forced to choose between the "lesser of two evils" is an absolute sham and a fraud. It is not democracy. Now, we may see a total breakdown but perhaps we will also see a collective awakening that will open people's eyes to the reality they face. Considering the viral nature of social media, this could happen quickly.

Ben: Hi Daniel, you may well be right, but I fear you are oversimplifying Obama's presidency and dismissing his attempts to navigate the ship in the right direction. Obama has always recognized the environmental threat and spent a great deal of time using his power to enact progressive legislation wherever possible. He spent months ensuring America's participation in the Paris Climate Agreement was 'Republican proof' and has declared huge swathes of land off limits for exploitation. Yes, he compromised with Republicans, but that's because he knew what he was dealing with -- a nihilistic political movement dedicated to the destruction of the biosphere (see Chomsky's thoughts on this). The Democrats were our last line of defense, and now that has gone. You take Clinton's advocacy of fracking as evidence of her innate corruptness and place in the neoliberal elite, but again, what are you comparing this to? Trump and has band of thugs believe global warming is a Chinese hoax and want to dismantle the EPA. There is simply no equivalence whatsoever. Your theory that this needs to happen for the next stage of human evolution may be true, but like myself, you will largely be shielded from the human suffering that will take place. It is easy to dismiss Clinton and other Democrats as being "part of the system" when you aren't reliant on basic public services and the protection a well run government provides. Anyhow, I do hope Trump's presidency spurs real change -- I just fear it could easily go the other way, as history shows us it almost always does.

Daniel: First of all, I think we need to be real in evaluating Obama’s Presidency. Unfortunately, his administration did not seek to organize the kind of action actually needed on the ecological crisis. He also failed to prosecute the financial elite who wrecked the economy in 2008 - not one banker involved in that fiasco went to prison, fueling working class anger at the system. He also continued illegal and illegitimate US policies including drone strikes / targeted assassinations and covert military actions. Obama had an extraordinary opportunity in 2008: He had a huge contingent of US citizens ready to volunteer toward a new “Great Society.” He ignored his constituencies and disbanded his network of citizen supporters. This set the tone for the rest of his Presidency, which essentially held together the first world’s Empire, which have continued policies of economic and military domination across the world. While you are correct that he faced pressure from Republicans, he also could have used his position to at least speak frankly, and constantly, to what we are now confronting ecologically. Also, under his reign, economic inequality continued to increase. I don’t think he leaves with a proud legacy, I am sorry to say. He seems like a tremendously likable person but he wasn’t the crusader for economic and social justice we needed - that I believe Bernie Sanders promised to be. 


I have been studying the ecological situation over the last decade, and I think, unfortunately, under any form of “business as usual” (which is what the Clintons and Obama represent), we were headed for collapse and the possibility of human extinction - or at the very least the loss of a large portion of the current population. We are currently losing 10% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity every 10 - 15 years. By some recent scientific predictions, the Earth could be 7 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100 - that would be catastrophic, as agriculture would be impossible and vast regions would become uninhabitable. The problem is we have learned of many positive feedbacks in the climate system, particularly methane stored under the oceans and in the Siberian permafrost that is 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than CO2. We need rapid, global, coordinated action to deal with this menace. We need an estimated 8 - 10% reduction of CO2 use per year, coupled with a rapid transition to renewable energy and a shift in our agricultural practices as well as essentially a moratorium or major reduction in meat-eating.

I have a new book coming out, How Soon Is Now? (howsoonisnow.info), where I explore the new operating system we need to ensure our survival as a species. I believe that this form of fake democracy we have now, where we are forced to choose between 2 candidates who are both deeply corrupt and compromised, is outmoded and we actually need a new form of direct or participatory democracy that could be orchestrated globally through the Internet, where people are continuously involved in learning and making decisions together about our collective future. I lay out how I would envision the changes we need to make in our financial system, our political system, and our technical support systems such as agriculture, industry, and energy production. The book was a product of nearly a decade of thought and inquiry. I suppose it provides my long answer to the question you raise here.

I believe that the fact we have a globally interactive communications system is one of the things that could make a crucial difference this time around. Ideas can spread instantly - not just ideas, but new solutions, blueprints for new technological systems, etcetera. I am fascinated by the evolution of the blockchain (the transparent architecture which underlies Bitcoin but can be used for many new applications). It is entirely technologically feasible for us to establish a truly democratic, transparent, trust-able voting system for humanity to make decisions together on its collective future. I believe what we are seeing with Trump’s rise is a tremendous frustration on the part of people who intuitively feel their evolutionary potential is suppressed by the current system. I entirely agree with Buckminster Fuller that our only real choice is between utopia or oblivion: Utopia is a world governed by love and empathy. To get there, we need to witness the full, savage, naked alternative of a society ruled by greed and anger, or so it seems.

Ben: I don't believe my role is to defend President Obama or Hillary Clinton, but I will say this -- I believe you are drastically underestimating the level of opposition Obama faced in the White House, and the awesome destructive instincts of the Republican party. Having studied politics for many years, I've never seen anything like this. As thinkers like Noam Chomsky have been saying for some time now, the Republican Party is quite possibly the most dangerous organization the world has ever seen. It is ideologically opposed to everything you and I hold dear -- the environment, caring for the poor, curtailing consumption, equal rights for women and so on. While flawed, the Democratic Party does good and necessary work and there are many elected officials who understand the urgent need for change. I believe Obama did his best given the circumstances, and held together a nation on the brink of collapse. I agree that his inability to take on Wall St effectively will damage his legacy, but knowing how serious the situation was, his actions can be better understood in context. This was Bernie Sanders on Obama's economic legacy:

I think in looking at the Obama years, it has to be seen in the context of the world in which we were living when he came in. When he came into office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month, we were in the process of running up a deficit of $1.4 trillion, and the world’s financial system was on the brink of collapse. Nobody except the most blatantly partisan person will deny that we are in much, much, much better shape today. The deficit has been cut by two-thirds. And needless to say, the world’s financial system — Wall Street — is not on the verge of collapse today. The number of people who are receiving some form of health insurance has increased significantly — those are real, concrete achievements that the president should be very, very proud of. I think the weakness is that while real progress was made on the economy, given the enormity of the crises that we face, and the incredible Republican obstructionism, we have not rallied the American people to take on the greed of corporate America.

Ideologically, I'm almost exactly where Bernie Sanders is, but I also recognize the massive complexity of the US political system and its structural resistance to drastic change. Sanders would have had close to no chance of getting any of his proposals through, and that's why I had no problem supporting Clinton -- who would have at least been able to do something. I agree with your assertion that systemic change is urgently needed, but it seems to me like you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The federal government has many, many useful functions in society and can be used to achieve a great deal of good. It protects our drinking water (for the most part), implements food safety regulation, provides disaster relief, funds public education (under Obama much of this has gone to extremely vulnerable students), provides foreign aid, invests in climate change research etc etc. The new technological solutions you speak of are indeed incredibly interesting and some show real promise -- but they are nascent and will require a great deal of investment to implement properly. Obama understood this very, very well (see this fascinating interview: https://www.wired.com/2016/10/president-obama-mit-joi-ito-interview/) and has worked to make the federal government far more technologically advanced and user friendly for citizens. It seems like you think those in government are bad, and those outside it are good and I fear this is an unhelpful position to take when we desperately need to engage more in the political process, not less.

You speak of Obama and Clinton as being "corporate shills", but the reality is far more complicated. I have several friends who work for the Obama administration, and they spend their time figuring out how best to use government power to help the poorest Americans, how to bring communities together using tech solutions, and how to engage people in the political process. They are not corporate shills, and they haven't dedicated their professional lives to enrich themselves. Hillary Clinton had an army of bright, well meaning people behind her and they would have spent the next four years trying to make things better, not worse. I don't see why we can't work for meaningful change at a grassroots level, while supporting pragmatic politicians who will protect us from the excesses of the corporate capitalist system we live in, work to green the economy, and invest in things like education, science and renewable energy.

I spent months trying to convey this point to angry leftists who were prepared to sacrifice the election for their principles, apparently to no avail. Now we have a lunatic running the most powerful country on earth who is surrounded by truly dangerous fanatics hell bent on dismantling every bit of progressive legislation the Obama administration managed to get through. Your narrative that we need to "witness the full, savage, naked alternative of a society ruled by greed and anger" may be right, but coming from an ethnic group that was almost wiped out by such a society in the 1940's, I'm not so eager to usher in another one. Do you think that the whole system has to collapse in order to create a sustainable utopia, or can the system be changed to produce better outcomes? 

Daniel: First of all, I want to acknowledge the truths in what you write. I do believe there are good people in the government, and I do agree that there were many people within the Obama administration seeking to create meaningful benefits for our society, within the limitations of the current system. Ideally, I would prefer that we could preserve both baby and bathwater. However, I stand by what I stated earlier, particularly in relationship to the ecological situation. The Independent, today, has an article on new scientific projections that are more drastic than previous ones. Over the eight years of Obama’s leadership, we didn’t make the changes we need to make - that is very clear. We weren’t going to make them under Clinton. I understand that the Republican party is as Chomsky characterized them - an enemy of humanity and of life.

I do believe there were serious issues with the Clinton Foundation and the personal enrichment of the Clintons. It seems the Wikileaks emails make this quite clear. I know it is not anywhere near as bad as the open kleptocracy we will have under Trump. However I don’t think we can continue with politics based on self-interest, compromise, and corruption. I think that this election will make inauthentic politics impossible. If any group is going to overcome this populist coup, it will be because they speak the complete, transparent, and authentic truth in a plain and clear language, with an emphasis on empathy and an ethos of love. I do not feel Hilary represented such a stance of truth or authenticity, in any way. We are now going to have to find a new political discourse. I believe that is positive.

Despite well-meaning people within the Obama and Clinton camps, the neoliberal agenda has been a disaster for humanity and the planet. Progress has been experienced mainly by a small elite, who have become extremely wealthy. As we know, something like 50 people control more wealth now than half the Earth’s population. Meanwhile, the developing world is, for the most part, not developing but stagnating - and will soon see the benefits they have accrued roll back due to sea level rise and climate chaos (Haiti as an example). I believe the Wal Mart family is worth more than the bottom 40% of the US population. This is insane. Nothing Clinton was going to do would change or even challenge it.

Personally, yes, I believe it is a question of making a systemic change - what we must do is develop and launch a new operating system for human society. I appreciate efforts in this area like The Next System Project. It may be that we need an accelerated collapse of the current system for people to realize this and commit to a deeper level of transformation - perhaps overcoming the ideology of capitalism and integrating elements of socialism and anarchism into an alternative.

You say it might take a long time to build the alternative. I disagree. In fact, we can build any virtual tool or infrastructure we want now in a matter of months if not faster. When emergencies happen, they can force rapid innovation and new initiatives to blossom. In theory, we could “hackathon” an alternative infrastructure for value exchange and participatory decision making, rapid prototype and test, then release it within a year, I imagine. Many pieces are already in place (examples include DemocracyOs and Loomio, which are applications for democratic decision-making).

In my new book, I propose the shift is a transition from competition to cooperation as our basic paradigm. What would it be like if humanity actually cooperated for collective goals? For instance, if we were working together as a planetary community, can you imagine how quickly we might transition from fossil fuels to renewables? We might be able to do it within a decade. it is the antiquated ideologies and social systems formed from them that are keeping rapidly accelerating progress from happening. We have, as Buckminster Fuller realized back in the 1960s, the technical capacity to make a world that works for everyone - but we need to break through the ossified structures before this becomes possible.

I know it is both painful to contemplate, and it is also extremely dangerous as we are looking at lunatics who will have nuclear weapons at their disposal. What I have also argued in my work - particularly my book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl and my new book - is that we must see this as a spiritual initiation, a rite of passage, forcing us to reach another level of consciousness as a species. We must learn to love our enemies and overcome them with truth not violence. Ironically, we can find some of the answers in the original wisdom of Christianity which they profess to believe in.

I think it is going to be very difficult for people to handle or navigate the next few years without a mystical or Jungian understanding of what is underway. When I look at our current circumstance, I see that we are in a period of regression or submersion back under the dark swamp-like waters of the unconscious. This is represented perfectly in figures like Steve Bannon. The only way to deal with this is to become consciously aware of the archetypal process underway and seek to mediate it through a higher level of self-awareness.

We also have to realize that media is the key battleground to change our current circumstance. The Right Wing media has brainwashed and programmed the minds of many millions of people. We need to find a tone and style for a new media that awakens and inspires people with a much greater vision of their own potential and our shared future together.

One other point: I also don't think you should blame Leftists for this election fiasco. I think if anyone you have to blame the Democratic establishment and liberal elite, which was tone-deaf to what was happening to the people in the Red States, and couldn't imagine that people might say something different to pollsters compared to what they did in the voting booth. Hilary was an awful candidate to put forward at a time when real change was called for by a wide spectrum of society. Bernie would have trounced Trump, I believe. Hilary's camp apparently supported Trump winning the election because they thought it would then be too scary to vote for him. They utterly misread the mood of the country.

Ben: I'm not sure it does us much good to continue the discussion about Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption. Having examined the so called scandals carefully, I will say that I didn't find anything I believed was remotely worthy of lumping her together with Donald Trump. She was exonerated over and over again in every official investigation, and sometimes by Republicans themselves. I understand the perception of her as being part of the corrupt political elite, but I also felt she was subjected to a great deal of sexism and scrutiny that other (male) politicians would not have been. I didn't see anything particularly toxic in the wikileak emails -- to the contrary, she appeared more human and more nuanced than I had previously thought. Either way, I have never really been a fan of hers and do relate to your instinctive distrust of her. Perhaps you are right, the tolerance for the inauthentic is waning rapidly.

I find your ideas to be thought provoking and challenging. I hope you are right that we have everything in place to build a more equitable, sustainable society, but I fear you drastically underestimate the forces we are up against. History is littered with tales of anarchistic, leftist movements being smashed to pieces by authoritarian forces and I've always feared that the chaos many people deem necessary to create change will do nothing more than accelerate fascism. I do sense a growing, global consciousness that gives me hope for a different future, but I do think we need to recognize threats when we see them. Building alternative structures to shift away from our destructive economic system is no doubt necessary, but I'd urge caution when it comes to dismissing the structures we already have in place. They can be used for better outcomes while we rethink where we are going, and it would be counterproductive to extricate ourselves from them without something concrete to take over.

You'll find no disagreement when it comes to the state of the planet -- the news is dire and dramatic action is needed immediately. Without world governments working together to switch to green energy and enforce strict carbon emission reduction policies, I don't see how we move in time. Again, this requires more participation with the political process, not less.

When it comes to the media and how to engage the Right, I have struggled with this problem for many years. The militancy is frightening and no matter how much well meaning liberals attempt to reach out, they are met with truly insane levels of hostility. The right wing media has managed to turn a cerebral, civil, and extremely likable centrist into a figure of hate and revulsion. The Right's treatment of Obama has been shocking, so talk of appealing to people's better nature seems a little fanciful to me. Perhaps I have been in the trenches for too long, but the forces I have spent years warning people about are now in power, and it has shaken me. Personally, I view this as a dog fight that must be won by a coalition of leftwing groups. Power needs to be taken back before it is too late, and given the ecological crisis we are facing, four years is an awfully long time.

That being said, I think your perspective is extremely valuable and I admire you courage in putting forward actionable ideas to get ourselves out of this mess. I'd like to help share those ideas too with our audience as I think those too immersed in politics sometimes miss the bigger picture.

I'll give you the last word Daniel. 

Daniel: Thanks for this dialogue. I think we must explore the true reasons for the “extreme levels of hostility” on the Right Wing, and, now, the incredibly dark and dire tone of the incoming regime (barring an Electoral College miracle). In order to to do this properly, we need to approach our “nemesis” with compassion and with understanding. I believe that these people have been thwarted in their capacity to reach their evolutionary potential - they are deeply frustrated because they are denied access to any kind of authentic transcendence. This is a central theme explored in my new book: Essentially, human beings have an intrinsic yearning for transpersonal experience, which liberates them from the constraints of ego-based identity. It is hard-wired into us. This is the function of initiation.

In a civilization that denies people positive access to transcendent experience, they still seek those experiences but in their dark or shadow forms, such as addiction to drugs or perverse sexuality, or through a yearning for cathartic violence. I think we see, in figures like Trump and Bannon, men who have been unable to find initiation, and have lost their basic “feeling function” (in his book on the Fisher King, Robert Johnson discusses the “wounded feeling function” in modern man). Our society, as a whole, is based on indoctrination rather than initiation. The mass media acts as a mechanism for indoctrination into a particular worldview and set of values. Even something like video games based on shooting help indoctrinate kids into a world where violence is normalized and expected.

I think we will never be able to address the threat confronting us until we understand the psycho-spiritual roots of it. Many of the people who voted for Trump live in a world that is empty of transcendence and, also, increasingly, devoid of any hope for a better material world. They see that the promise of the “American Dream” has disintegrated - their lives are bleak. Therefore they voted, in great masses, to push the destruct button on the current system. I do think the liberal and neoliberal elites on the Coasts ignored the devastation happening to the middle of the country, as we enjoyed both the cultural and economic rewards of the system - and the disparity was not lost on the alienated and infuriated multitudes who have seen their situation worsen.

So the question is what do we do now? I feel I presented my answer to this in my new book, How Soon Is Now? I believe we must organize a coherent movement that presents a new direction for human society. We must go beyond the lie of incremental progress on a world where the planet’s resources are increasingly depleted and degraded. We must explain to humanity the truth of our current circumstance while offering them a new mythology and a true path to a better future. What does this look like?

In my book, I propose the model of “regenerative society” to replace consumerist society. We could, within a generation, redesign our technical infrastructure so it supports and even enhances the health of the biosphere (read William McDonogue’s Cradle to Cradle for an idea of what this would mean for industry). We could engineer a massive, rapid transition to 100% renewable energy. We could make a transition from elite-controlled pseudo-democracy to a participatory democracy where power is decentralized. We could also redesign our economic operating system so it does not allow for excess hoarding or absurd disparities between rich and poor. People could look forward to living in multi-generational, relatively self-sufficient communities where they have a guaranteed basic income and the opportunity to continue to learn and advance themselves throughout their lives. In fact, our technical capacities make this entirely possible - it is only the inertia of our current ideologies and the systems based on them that make it seem impossible.

In short, we must create a vision that is tangible, compelling, and desirable of our future - a future where humanity cooperates for the collective benefit of all of its members, overcoming the current miasma of greed, egotism, nihilism, corruption, and narcissism we see all around us, mirrored by our political and financial elite. In the same way a corporation envisions a new technology it wants to build and then “reverse engineers” to reach that goal, we must approach redesigning the operating system for human civilization. We must envision the world we wish to live in and then execute the strategic and tactical plan to realize it.

I believe that when a tipping point of humanity realize this as not only our best but our only option (as Buckminster Fuller put it, our choice is between “utopia or oblivion”), then we will get to work on it and make it happen. Because of the instantaneous nature of our interactive communication networks, a switchover to a new system could happen extremely quickly. Remember that Facebook and Google are barely a decade old. We have only had SmartPhones for a decade. Transformation can happen extremely quickly. If we are going to make a Houdini-like escape from the current catastrophe, we are going to have to find not linear and incremental reforms, and exponentially scalable and replicable solutions: Many of them already exist. This is the potential that exists for us. Now we must find the courage, coherent intelligence, and willpower to manifest it. 

You can read more about Daniel Pinchbeck on his site here. You can pre-order his new book "How Soon is Now" here