Apocalypse's Eternal Return

Hipster guru predicts: Capitalism will destroy the world!


2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, by Daniel Pinchbeck, New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin, 416 pages, $26.95

Did you know that the ancient Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl—the all-encompassing plumed serpent whose return has been prophesied for centuries—has decided to weigh in on politics? Here's an excerpt from his message for the world of mortal men: "The global capitalist system that is currently devouring your planetary resources will soon self-destruct, leaving many of you bereft."

Quetzalcoatl has chosen to speak through the curious medium of Daniel Pinchbeck, 40, a former editor of the Manhattan lit-journal Open City. Pinchbeck has had a glowing reputation in hipster circles since his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, a travelogue and treatise on exotic psychedelics, which transformed him into the 21st century's chief pop guru on the meaning and significance of altered states—a thought leader whose musings, no matter how offbeat, are considered worthy of review in publications as mainstream as The New York Times.

Pinchbeck's latest intellectual-spiritual journey, recounted in his new book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, has taken him on a globe-girdling tour of New Age fantasies, from crop circles to alien abductions to Mayan communication with ancient space brothers. It ends with him serving, he insists, as a medium for Quetzalcoatl, who dictates a message that sounds more like a zonked-out Inconvenient Truth than a traditional religious revelation.

Quetzalcoatl apparently has no idea or knowledge that was not already present in Pinchbeck, whose general sense of dread and dissatisfaction regarding capitalist modernity existed before his spiritual journey. Those sentiments are in fact nearly universal in the post-'60s counterculture for which he is a spokesman. Indeed, they're pretty common in mainstream intellectual culture as well; few literary intellectuals under 40 do not share them to some degree, though most refrain from claiming they learned them from a supernatural serpent with feathers.

Pinchbeck knows you'll think he's a bit of a freak for saying that he did just that. He openly acknowledges that seeing oneself at the center of a great cosmic drama is normally written off as a sign of mental illness. With that on the table, the reader can either give up or go along for the ride. Despite the zaniness, it's a ride worth taking, partly for the wild entertainment value but also because the book is a document with genuine sociopolitical relevance. Beneath the nutty metaphysical musings, 2012 is an engaging take on contemporary eco-politics, pretty much the hottest topic around in this year of awful summer heat and the Second Coming of Al Gore.

Pinchbeck's title refers to the idea that 2012, the final year of the Mayan calendar, will be, as New Age cranks have argued for years, the end of the world, or at least the world as we have known it. In Pinchbeck's reading, that end is approaching via planetary death caused by capitalist excess. Modernity, Pinchbeck argues, is inherently doomed and deserves to be doomed for playing into the detestable human urges of atomistic individualism and ugly greed; it has led to global warming, irreversible and tragic forest depletion, and a rapidly hastening loss of all the resources on which life depends.

2012 is more interesting than the typical doom-laden environmental policy document because Pinchbeck delivers his eco-political message in the form of a syncretic mad masterpiece, a colorful mash-up of the alien-archaeology fabulist Erich Von Däniken, the purveyor of fabricated Amerindian wisdom Carlos Castaneda, the psychedelic theorist Terrence McKenna, and the robed mystics behind the 1987 "Harmonic Convergence," who prophesied a shift in planetary consciousness to a higher level. Pinchbeck thinks almost all the phenomena he discusses—including the calendar (our Gregorian one, for reasons this reader found very hard to understand, is held responsible for a lot of our spiritual/cultural crises), his trips on the psychedelic drug ayahuasca, and various ancient cultures' prophecies— suggest a rapidly approaching apocalypse.

But he holds out hope that this end of times might just be the beginning of even better times if we can all somehow shift our consciousness on a planetary scale. "As much as everything seemed to be collapsing," he writes, "everything was also going seamlessly according to plan…the Plumed Serpent was meant to slither-flutter his way back to Earth, reestablishing 'Sacred Order,' reasserting harmonic concord amidst rampant discord, before the Great Cycle reached its end."

Or not. Pinchbeck has no trouble embracing paradox and ambiguity, because his evidence is always equivocal. You try to get precise, unarguable conclusions from crop circles or reports of close encounters with extraterrestrials. But such phenomena sure can suggest a lot, to the suggestible. About crop circles, for example—one of his biggest fascinations—he notes that "For every article or book I read that supported their validity, I found an equally convincing text or hoaxer's Web site that undermined such a perspective" and ultimately decided, hey, that's just the nature of the beast: "the [crop circles] offered instruction in how to work with paradox…you advance your understanding when you can hold both sides of a dichotomy in your mind at the same time."

Pinchbeck may equivocate about his more mystical excursions, but he's sure he's on solid ground when he sees evidence of our spiritual malaise in the damage caused by our abuse of natural resources, particularly burning petroleum. Neither species depletion nor forest depletion are moving along quite as quickly as Pinchbeck fears. If virtually everyone nowadays seems to agree that anthropogenic global warming is a cold hard fact, it remains unclear precisely what such warming will mean to human beings—and the "planet" per se shouldn't be concerned with how much usable coastline we have. And as for exceeding Earth's capacity to sustain us, food continues to get cheaper and more abundant as centuries of Malthusian fears continue to fall flat and population growth slows to well within our food-producing means.

Man unquestionably has an enormous impact on the world. If unaltered nature is your value, that impact is no doubt destructive. And if you think man's impact has been intolerably destructive, you are bound to recoil from markets and property—institutions that treat the natural world as something we can own, use, buy, and sell. Pinchbeck seems conflicted here. While he hates capitalism for its endlessly innovative "exploitation of resources" (put differently: he hates people for using the materials of the earth), he also hates "our patriarchal religions" for their "lockdown of possibility." In one sentence, he (well, Quetzalcoatl) insists we must fight for both "human freedom" and "preservation of the planetary environment." Neither he nor the Aztec deity grapples with the ways those impulses can both mesh and conflict.

Human beings have and will continue to cut down forests and burn oil to make room for themselves and to improve their lives (although the planet's overall forest land area has hardly changed in the last 60 years). Human freedom inevitably means using, even at times using up, parts of the world. But the key to taking environmental concerns seriously—to doing more with less—has been market institutions.

A planetary commons, like a dorm refrigerator commons, will quickly be depleted. Crises such as overfishing the oceans, which Pinchbeck laments, are a direct result of lack of property rights. Intelligent awareness of long-term values, and the incentive to preserve them rather than just slash and burn to get whatever you can today (because if you don't someone else will), is best actuated through private property. Such awareness and incentives ultimately can make the world greener as well as richer. The wealthy are best equipped to see forests as valuable for long-term, intelligent use, rather than something to be chopped and sold for today's immediate survival needs. Pinchbeck sees none of this promise.

The emotions behind apocalyptic thinking recur as eternally as doomsday is postponed. These days the most prominent doomsday theory sees the fruits of markets and liberty as harbingers of the angel of death. But anyone reading 2012 should also contemplate the computer-world guru Ray Kurzweil's vision of the "singularity," an idea moving along in a countercultural universe parallel and very close to Pinchbeck's. It's a vision that, while not designed as such, is in direct competition with Pinchbeck's. Kurzweil believes our increasing control of machinery, computer intelligence, biology, and the material world at the smallest levels puts us on the cusp of an earthly near-paradise in which we will have highly advanced control over both matter and mind without destroying the earth or even using very much of it.

Human beings have a fairly decent history of meeting the needs of a growing population while using less (per capita, at least) of the earth's resources. The technologies of the 20th century's "green revolution" have allowed us to grow more food on less land. Burning coal—not to mention splitting the atom—puts more energy at our disposal than burning wood, and with less impact on the earth. So whether or not its wildest extrapolations come true, Kurzweil's vision of a technological rescue from environmental and human limits seems more plausible than either Pinchbeck's apocalypse or his alternative Quetzalcoatl ex machina of a sudden shift in planetary consciousness.

What is more likely than either the Pinchbeck or Kurzweil visions of a planet utterly changed is that 2012 will pass into 2013 with the world a little bit different and a lot the same. But the kind of slow, gradual betterment in overall human well-being—the sort that has swept the Western world in the last century—lacks that shot of emotional drama that human beings crave. Some of us don't fear a vivid, certain end to the world we know; for various psychological reasons, some of them quite creepy, we want it. In an essay written after 2012 came out in June, Pinchbeck acknowledged this about a certain element in his own fan base: "A lot of people in the radical and progressive cultural realm, on some level, are actively looking forward to the destruction of the present system and then a truly horrendous and volatile passage before we potentially come out the other side." Pinchbeck means that as a criticism, but it's no surprise that such people would find his book attractive: He frequently sounds just like them.

Put another way, he frequently sounds like that other apocalyptic tribe, the Christian fundamentalists. His book lays into fundamentalism early on, but both he and the religious right are offering variations on the same ancient mentality—the one that's always finding new reasons everyone else deserves to get it good and hard.

Such people see our Western world of unprecedented wealth and opportunity as based on something akin to sin and thus deserving punishment. The richest culture on Earth includes a substantial minority who despise its economic basis even as they benefit from it. That is a dark emotional truth worth understanding.