By Charles Eisenstein
When I graduated from high school in 1985, college was the unquestionable next step for an intelligent, middle-class or upper-middle class young person. I entered an elite school not out of any particular ambition, but because the story that surrounded me said that this is how to do life. College, and probably further degrees thereafter, was the path to full participation in society.
The problem was that deep down, I didn’t want to fully participate in society. I sensed a wrongness at the base of things. As I learned more about the workings of the world, I didn’t want to be part of it. Even the public service paths that elite education could prepare me for seemed themselves to be still part of the same system.
I didn’t know of any alternative to university however, or perhaps I wasn’t brave enough to find one. And besides, at that time I couldn’t identify the cause of my lassitude, my passive rebellion, my lack of motivation.
Now two of my own sons have reached college age, one 18 and one 20, and neither has yet gone to college. The nebulous intuition that led my unconscious rebellion has become, for them, an outright refusal to follow “the program.” Moreover, they have alternatives that were not on my radar screen in the 1980s. Jimi has spent time a ecological, spiritual, and permaculture programs in the U.S. and Costa Rica that prepare people to participate in a future that is not just an extension of the present, but a different world with different values and different ways of seeing.
Programs like these exist all over the world, yet still they are scattered and lack a unifying narrative that might present them as a solid alternative to traditional higher education. Young people must luck into them or know enough to seek them out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this kind of education – education in what the planet needs most right now – were more easily accessible?
Imagine a worldwide archipelago of land-based institutions of learning for people like my sons, sanctuaries of alternative technologies of earth, mind, matter, and body that are marginal or absent within conventional universities. So much of the most exciting work whether in medicine, agriculture, or social change is happening outside academia, invisible to many of the young people who might otherwise follow them into a career, and lacking the financial support and community of research that could propel them to the next level.
We need a parallel system of technology development that can guide society as conventional systems unravel and conventional technologies fail to adequately address our problems.
We need, to use Ken Carey’s phrase, to establish islands of the future in an ocean of the past. For reasons I will describe soon, let us call these places Institutes for Technologies of Reunion. They have two main functions: research and learning. For learners, especially young people who would otherwise go to college or graduate school, they are places:
- To obtain knowledge unavailable at conventional universities
- To acquire skills that will be useful and valued in a transformed world
- To acquire skills to help that transformation happen
- To deprogram from conventional education and have a sanctuary in which to develop a calling
- To bond with a cohort who share a common vision of what the world can be.
For researchers, they are places:
- To develop knowledge in an environment where you aren’t thought to be crazy
- To collaborate with other cutting edge workers in unorthodox fields
- To clarify knowledge by teaching it
- To pass knowledge to the next generation and mentor its development
- To test, incubate, and develop technologies to prepare them for wider application
What is Technology?
What kind of technology are we talking about here? The word usually brings to mind things like computers, robots, lasers, nano-scale fabrication, gene editing, chemical engineering, and electronics. These we think of as “high tech.”
All of these share certain characteristics in common. They depend on a high degree of specialization; they depend on a vast industrial infrastructure to produce; they are derived from scientific research; and they are based on the application of energy to manipulate and control matter. Accordingly, the standard dictionary definition of technology is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.”
These technologies have utterly transformed the world in the last few centuries, but they are proving incapable of solving the problems we face today, many of which, ironically, are caused by the very same kind of technology we hope to use to fix them. Whether it is agricultural chemicals degrading the soil and creating the need for even more chemicals, or medical interventions causing side effects that require further medical interventions, technology often becomes a “fix” in the sense of an addiction, requiring more technology to manage the results of previous technology. On a broader scale, the entire scientific-industrial system has created ecological degradation and social atomization that we attempt to fix from within the same technological mindset of quantification, engineering, and control. It follows the dream of techno-utopia: that if only we could exercise precise control over every bit of matter, if only we could quantify and label and digitize every object with its own IP address, then we could manage the world rationally, eliminate uncertainty, and maximize human wellbeing. On the social level, the same ambition translates into the program of total information awareness, so that each economic transaction, each social interaction, and all physical movement is tracked and saved in a database.
Yet it is becoming obvious that despite continuing advances in our ability to control matter and society, the promise of utopia is receding into the future, and indeed has passed the event horizon called cynicism. No longer does anyone believe that material and social engineering is on the verge of ushering in a perfect world.
For these reasons – the failed promise and worsening crisis of technology as we know it – I would like to offer an expanded conception of technology. The kind of technology described above is but a subset of all technology, a subset I’ll call “technologies of separation.” These will always have their place, but at the present historical moment we need to shift our collective will and energy toward a different kind of technology, which I will call “technologies of reunion.”
To expand the definition of technology, we can simply return to the original Greek roots of the word, which means “a logos of crafts.” Technology is a system of techniques for applying human will to alter the physical world.
A Transition in our Narrative
Technology is not just a haphazard collection of techniques. As a “logos of crafts” implies, these techniques are interrelated; they grow from a common logic, a unifying narrative or worldview. This narrative determines what we consider to be real, possible, and important. It answers the questions “What can we do?” “What should we do?” and “How can we do it?”
The technologies of separation that dominate the world today draw from the story of separation, which includes:
- Humans separate from nature
- The self as a separate individual
- Full selfhood (consciousness, sentience) existing in humans alone
- Competition as the defining characteristic of life
- Domination and control over the other as the key to wellbeing
- That all things are composed of generic, identical building blocks
- That to be real is to be measurable and quantifiable
- That the forces of nature are basically random, so human progress depends on insulating ourselves from their dangers and harnessing them for our purposes
- Linear and reductionistic thinking as the basis of technology
- Force-based causality
- Human destiny to conquer or transcend nature
These are the threads of the mythology that has overtaken civilization over the last few thousand years, and especially the last few centuries. It is rapidly becoming obsolete though, giving way to new and ancient story, the Story of Interbeing. It holds that:
- The self is relational at its core
- Humans are not separate from nature
- What we do to the world, we do to ourselves
- The basic qualities of a self (e.g. consciousness, intelligence) are ubiquitous and universal; everything is alive
- Each being is a holographic mirror of all
- Cooperation, sharing, and symbiosis are defining characteristics of life and evolution
- Morphic resonance is the primary causal principle
- Each being has unique and necessary gifts to give toward the wellbeing and evolution of the whole
- Human destiny is to use its unique gifts to serve the health and development of Gaia
Technologies of Reunion draw from the Story of Interbeing and contributes to its emergence in world civilization.
Technologies of Reunion contribute to the reunion of human and nature, mind and body, thought and emotion, matter and spirit, modern and ancient, masculine and feminine. They reunite all that which has been made artificially separate or even placed into opposition in the civilization of separation. It is not the erasure of binary opposites, nor is it the dissolution of all boundaries; rather it is the understanding the each includes the other, that the part includes the whole, that the inner mirrors the outer.
Examples of Technologies of Reunion
Almost any practice, whether in medicine, agriculture, energy, or education that is called “alternative” or “holistic” exemplifies a technology of reunion. Here are a few examples to illustrate how these practices draw from the Story of Interbeing.
Regenerative agriculture, for example no-till organic horticulture. This practice is motivated in part by the understanding the the health of crops and of people is inseparable from the health of the soil. It seeks therefore to serve the wellbeing of the soil, confident that the health of one is the health of all. Secondly, regenerative agriculture sees the soil not as a mere repository of chemical nutrients, but as a living being possessed of its own kind of intelligence, and as part of a larger living being that is the entire farm ecosystem. Therefore, instead of merely imposing a methodological template on a piece of land, the farmer carefully observes the land until she intimately knows it as a being unto itself, so she can ask, “What does the land want?” The relationship is intimate, personal, and unique, irreducible to any set of quantitative data on soil composition and rainfall distribution.
Homeopathy, based on the realization that every condition of a human being is mirrored by some material substance. Self and world are not separate. Homeopaths believe that introducing the informational signature of that substance into the body will unlock that disease pattern and bring healing. Furthermore, the medium for conveying the information signature of a substance is water, which in homeopathy is understood not as a generic substance defined merely by its chemical formula, but as capable of holding information and structure (a view supported by recent scientific thinking as well).
Truth and reconciliation processes. Story of Separation says, “If I were in the totality of your circumstances – biographical, economic, cultural, etc. – I would not do as you did. I am better than that.” Punitive justice comes from that belief: people do bad things because they are bad people and therefore must be deterred by threat of punishment. The Story of Interbeing says the opposite. It says, “If I were in the totality of your circumstances, my brother, I would have done as you did.” Truth and reconciliation processes change those circumstances. They come from the belief that if he could only be connected with the full impact of his actions, he would no longer want to do that. They rely on the healing power of the truth made visible. Brutalization depends on a cutoff of empathy, on the dehumanization of the victim. By sharing their stories to the witnessing of the perpetrators and the surrounding community, the victims reclaim their full humanity in the eyes of all.
Universal basic income (UBI) and community-based forms of resource sharing. In the Story of Separation, which says human nature is to maximize rational self-interest, this is an insane idea. If everyone’s basic needs were met, what would compel people to work and contribute to society? But if we believe that human nature is to want to contribute to something meaningful greater than oneself, UBI and resource sharing becomes a way to support that impulse. It also validates and supports the kinds of contributions that are hard to quantify, such as giving loving care to children or old people, making art and music, bringing healing to land and water in ways that don’t increase economic output, and so forth.
So, Technologies of Reunion include material technologies, social technologies, and also non-material technologies based on a different understanding of what is real. A partial list might include: mycoremediation of toxic waste; composting toilets and graywater/blackwater recycling systems; herbal medicine; therapies using psychotropic plants; earth building techniques; sacred architecture; sound healing; hypnosis and mind/matter techniques; nonviolent communication; compassionate listening; sociocracy, holocracy and other group decision-making methods; council processes; gift economics; restorative circles; family constellation work; tantric sexual practices; communication with other-than-human beings; nonviolent methods of political direct action; implosion motors; over-unity energy devices; worker-owned cooperatives and other forms of economic cooperation; biodynamic agriculture; silvopasture; perennial-based horticulture; wetlands restoration; Montessori and Waldorf education; technologies of voice, dance, and mask; the use of trance and dream states…
In various ways, all of these draw on the new and ancient Story of Interbeing. Even if they might also embody aspects of separation in their real-world application, they are also steps toward a new story. That is why you might feel a sense of kinship or alliance with workers in areas that seem entirely unrelated to your own. What does crystal therapy have to do with composting toilets or attachment parenting? On a deep level they are related, because their “what” and “how” draws from the same overarching story.
In perusing the list of examples of Technologies of Reunion, the reader may have felt uncomfortable with several of the items. While all of them transgress some aspect of consensus reality (social reality, economic reality, medical reality, material reality…) some of them are more at home in conventional scientific worldviews than others. You might be ready and willing to accept composting toilets, biogas systems, and solar collectors, but draw the line at astrology, free energy devices, and the use of copper braided disks to structure drinking water. I will not venture my own opinion on the authenticity of such technologies, except to say that just because an altered worldview no longer holds them impossible, does not mean that they actually work either. Regardless, a new story does motivate different avenues of research. These may or may not bear fruit – just as has been the case with familiar technologies. Whether or not they end up being usable, if you like I are still somewhat conditioned to the old story, then some of these technologies will sound outrageous. That is because they come from outside the boundaries of what we as a society have agreed to be real. We need to explore beyond the bounds of what is comfortable and familiar.
Alternative Research & Development
Unlike conventional technology, which enjoys a vast research infrastructure and powerful economic incentives to propel its development, technologies of reunion are usually quite marginal. They benefit from very little if any institutional support, but often face hostility instead. For some technologies like herbal medicine or regenerative agriculture, there exist substantial communities of research and practice, and even a little bleedover from conventional academia. Still, the career prospects for a humanure engineer or an animal communicator are seldom as secure as for a petroleum engineer or corporate communicator.
There are good economic reasons for this: technologies that do not further the extraction of resources from the earth or their consumption are less easily monetizable in the current system. They are not likely to result in a positive return on investment capital; therefore, they require funding from people not seeking a profit.
There is tremendous support for the technologies that have brought us to our present situation, but little support for the kinds of technologies that are most necessary for our society to transition into an ecological age. The technologies of reunion need communities of practice, and they need patronage from visionary holders of financial wealth and other resources.
As with conventional technology, Technologies of Reunion need their own incubators and R&D parks. These are already appearing in various guises on the edges of society. Ecovillages, herbalism schools, schools for traditional Chinese medicine, holistically oriented colleges and universities, land-based institutes, and other centers provide places where researchers can develop technologies sheltered, at least in part, from hostile external forces and economic pressures. Some technologies are better supported than others: probably the best supported are various forms of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, practiced in thousands of ecovillages and intentional communities worldwide, and still present to a degree in traditional villages that have not fully succumbed to mechanized chemical agriculture. Even so, these approaches are marginal in university agronomy departments.
Some examples of incubators for technologies of reunion include The Land Institute, devoted to perennial agriculture, The Farm in Tennessee, which pioneered the renewal of midwifery in America, Tamera Ecovillage, dedicated to healing human sexuality (as well as water retention landscapes and peace work), and the Damanhur intentional community in Italy, with its astonishing experiments in sacred architecture and plant communication. These institutions are each edgy in their own way, and perhaps conventional in other ways. Each chooses its areas of exploration in the vast territory of Reunion. In a sane future on a liveable planet, places like these must no longer be radical outliers; they must be the new normal.
The Starseed Generation
The blatantly new-agey term “starseeds” just popped into my head to describe the current generation of young people coming of age today, who do not fit into dominant models of higher education. The rewards and threats that bring most people into conformity with the old story do not sway them. They cannot be bribed into a normal career. Therefore, most of what conventional universities offer is unattractive to them: both the curriculum content and the form in which it is offered.
Some of these young people muddle through university anyway, engaging themselves in political activism as an outlet for their passions. Others, the lucky ones, find new-story content in the margins and crannies of their institutions, provided by professors who are adept at sneaking things under the radar. Many more drop out of college or refuse to go entirely. It is not that they are uninterested in learning; it is that what they want to learn is not easily available. They are here on earth with a purpose and cannot tolerate spending years of their lives on something that isn’t aligned with that purpose.
When these youth get their first glimpse of permaculture, or gift economics, or herbalism, or some other technology of reunion, they come alive. Their eyes light up in recognition: here is what I was looking for. Or at least, Here is a signpost that tells me that what I am looking for is out there somewhere.
Equally powerful for these young people is to come across others of their tribe, allies in the purpose of serving the healing of Gaia, and especially elders who model an alternative life path. They realize then that they are not crazy and they are not alone.
All of this speaks to the huge need for an alternative university system. Can you see it? It is just over the horizon. It looks very different from today’s institutions. It is an organic, decentralized network of programs; a distributed university, organizationally diverse, united by a common purpose. Young people spend a month here, a summer there, a week somewhere else, a year in another place, exploring different programs and weaving them together into a coherent education. Over four years, they develop the skills to find a place in a regenerative, holistic system.
Also in this time they forge lifelong bonds with people who will be deep allies. The coalesce into a cohort and socialize into a group culture that is part of an emerging parallel society, entwined with the mainstream to be sure, yet also forming a distinct identity..After a ritual of transition (i.e. graduation) the graduates may not bear credentials that are acceptable to mainstream institutions. However, the parallel society honors and values their training, accomplishments, and courage to follow this path. Graduates carry forward the Technologies of Reunion they have learned into careers that are marginal today but that a healing world will hold in high esteem.
The parallel society I have mentioned will not stay “alternative” for long. The central structures of our society are in a state of deep crisis. When they collapse, we will be grateful to have something wholesome that is ready to enter the ensuing vacuum.
For a young person to follow this path does take courage, because it is preparation for a world that does not yet exist, a world that values Technologies of Reunion. Yet, paradoxically, it will never exist if we don’t prepare for it. The technologies that serve an ecological future also serve the transition to that future. And, to risk following this path is to make an offering of ones life, and that is a powerful prayer.
In Alliance with the Earth
I recently spent some time with a friend who has founded a (K-12) radically alternative school on a magnificent piece of land in North Carolina. She said that on her first visit to the land, the land whispered to her, “Marry me.” I’m not sure if she heard a literal whisper, or if she was speaking metaphorically.
In any event, she said “OK,” and from there something grew that she would not have been able to establish through her own contrivance.
One technology of reunion has to do with communication with land and the building of alliances with the powers of the earth. Today, as the dominant culture turns gradually toward healing, special places on earth are sensing a new possibility of alliance. They are calling their partners to them, whether through dreams, synchronicity, or by answering a long hard search. These are the places that are ideal locations for Institutes for Technologies of Reunion.
Many of these places telegraph their specialness in obvious ways. For example, I recently visited some land near Santa Fe, over 600 acres in a valley with an old Christian Brothers retreat center that is for sale. At the end of the valley is a gorgeous waterfall gushing from a nearly vaginal crevice in the boulders behind it, an oasis in a very dry region with old ponds and orchards… land that is begging to be used for a sacred purpose and, like many such places, is also under the gaze of developers. Which way will it go? It seems almost to symbolize a wider choice for all humanity. Will we continue to exploit and extract until there is no beauty left on this earth? Or will we enter into alliance with the earth powers that are inviting us to rejoin them?
I believe the vision I have outlined is impossible without the aid of these special places on earth.
These places are both urban or rural, depending on the type of technology to be developed. There is sacredness in all places; indeed, many cities were founded on special spots on earth. It is important though that there be a physical location and not just a digital presence for Institutes of Technologies of Reunion. We are currently at or near the historical peak of abstraction of knowledge, of disconnection from place, and we are ready for a return.
I have come into contact with many visionary people who have financial wealth, or land, or rich social capital, and a desire to serve the birth of a new story on earth. These are people whose vision goes beyond conventional ecological or political boundaries. They understand the need for a revolution in means, not just a revolution in ends. They understand that present orthodoxies – whether in science, money, politics, and relationship to the planet – are all part of the same matrix. They take seriously alternatives to standard scientific worldviews; perhaps they have had mystical experiences, or have engaged indigenous worldviews, and they understand that to heal this planet these cannot remain in the realm of “alternative” or “spiritual” but must be integrated into every aspect of life. What would an education look like that took these seriously, not as mere objects of psychological or anthropological study, but as valid and important ways of engaging knowledge? What would it look like to bring these in to nuts-and-bolts politics, economics, agriculture, medicine, and community governance?
I am offering the vision of Institutes for Technologies of Reunion as a next step beyond the “intentional community.” Like ourselves, a community thrives when it has a mission, a reason for existing beyond itself. That reason might be to hold and host an Institute for Technologies of Reunion. Each might have a unique mix of technologies that it serves, but an overarching purpose unites them: to usher in the Story of Interbeing to our civilization. That is what will join Institutes for Technologies of Reunion (whether they call themselves that or not is unimportant) into a global community of communities.
The purpose of this introduction is not to invent an idea; it is to report on something that wants to happen, to name what has yet no name and thereby bring it into greater visibility. Right now, Institutes for Technologies of Reunion exist mostly as a field of potential. It is my hope that the description I’ve offered will be like an ideational seed crystal around which a latent possibility can take shape.