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Down with Descartes

For better or worse, the distinction between humans and nature is collapsing

by Charles Eisenstein

Published in the May/June 2008 issue of Orion magazine



THE SHAMAN Martín Prechtel once told me that back in his village, no one would say, “I am healthy but my child is sick.” A person would say, “My family is sick” or “My village is sick.” To think any one individual could be healthy when his or her family, village, or indeed the land, the water, or the planet were not would be as absurd as saying, “I’ve got a fatal liver disease, but that’s just my liver—I am healthy!” Just as my sense of self includes my liver, so theirs included their social and natural community.

The modern self is a discrete and separate subject in a universe that is other. It is the economic man of Adam Smith; it is the skin-encapsulated ego of Alan Watts; it is the embodied soul of religion; it is the selfish gene of biology.

It underlies the converging crises of our time, which are all permutations of the theme of separation—separation from nature, from community, from lost parts of ourselves. It is at the heart of all the usual culprits blamed for the ongoing destruction of ecology and polity, such as human greed and capitalism.

Our sense of self entails that more for me is less for you; hence we have an interest-based money system embodying precisely that principle. In older, gift-based societies, the opposite was true.

When we exclude the world from the self, the tiny, lonely identity that remains naturally seeks to grow and connect through acquisition, building a realm of me and mine to compensate for its lost beingness. Other separate selves do the same, so we live in a world of competition and omnipresent anxiety that is built into our self-definition.

Looking out upon the strip mines and the clearcuts and the dead zones and the genocides and the debased consumer culture, we ask, What is the origin of this monstrous machine that chews up beauty and spits out money? The discrete and separate self, surveying a universe that is fundamentally other, understandably and logically treats the natural and human world as a pile of instrumental, accidental stuff. The rest of the world is fundamentally not-self. Why should we care about it, beyond its potential to be useful to us? So it was that Descartes, a pioneering articulator of the modern sense of self, articulated as well the ambition to become the “lords and possessors” of nature. And so it was that we built the infernal machine.

As above, so below. Having made nature into an adversary, or at best a pile of “resources,” it is no surprise that we manifest the same relationship within our bodies. The defining diseases of our time—autism, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, asthma, arthritis, diabetes—are in whole or in part autoimmune diseases, the somatization of our self/other confusion. What we do to nature, we do to ourselves, inescapably. Just as the village, the forest, and the planet are inseparable parts of ourselves that we mistake as other, so our immune systems reject our own body tissues.

Our rigid, narrow self/other distinction is coming to an end, victim of its own premises. As the mystics have taught, the separate self can be maintained only temporarily, and at great cost. We have maintained it a long time, and built a civilization upon it that seeks the conquest of nature and human nature. The present convergence of crises has laid bare the futility of that goal. It portends the end of civilization as we know it, and the instauration of a new state of human beingness defined by a more fluid, more inclusive sense of self. This convergence of crises is a birth crisis, propelling us from an old world, an old self, into a new. 

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Charles Eisenstein is a writer and speaker, and the author of The Ascent of Humanity and other books.

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