Utopia or Oblivion: Daniel Pinchbeck's "How Soon Is Now"

The cover of Daniel Pinchbeck's "How Soon Is Now"

The cover of Daniel Pinchbeck's "How Soon Is Now"

By: Lana Power


It has never been more true what futurist architect R. Buckminster Fuller diagnosed in 1969: that we are at a critical juncture between utopia and oblivion. For those of us who have continued to wake up, breathe and maintain life in recent times, it has been impossible to ignore a collective sense of impending oblivion. Our earth is suffering, our collective ability for self determination is under threat and our ferociously compulsive consumption is depleting every resource, both earthly and human. All of this is happening under the direction and authority of political and social institutions that refuse to accept accountability. As poppy seeds inside this great big bowl, it can be easy to feel hopeless, anxious, or even responsible for contributing to this mess. While the latter may be true, there are institutions that manufacture our destructive lifestyles that must also be held responsible. We are facing systematic world collapse, therefore we must find systematic solutions, as Daniel Pinchbeck says, “we must change the underlying rules of the game.”

In his 2017 book “How Soon Is Now,” futurist Daniel Pinchbeck begins with the assertion that the environmental collapse is a consequence of centuries of an exploitative western, materialist, capitalist, nihilist and individualist colonization of our ways of life. The draconian aspects of this worldview feed on the vitality of our planet’s resources and our most vulnerable populations in order to perpetuate its inheritance into the future. Earth’s biodiversity is heavily deforested for resource extraction; its oceans are at unprecedented acidification levels and its atmosphere is polluted with the residue of mankind’s chronic exhalation of toxicity. Our planet, and the sacred vitality pulsing through life on Earth are being abused.

The environmental catastrophe is an indication that our civilization can no longer run on borrowed time. In the West, our constant access to power, electricity, running water, internet and a global network of products all rely on an unsustainable infrastructural design to life on Earth. We leech on the Earth, on ourselves and on each other without ever giving back. “Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence,” Pinchbeck writes in his book. He claims that there are alternatives to inhabiting spaceship Earth that are collective, regenerative and symbiotic in ways that render permanence obsolete.  “How Soon Is Now” is a meditation on how our environmental crisis could be an initiation into the next step in human evolution, pivoting our collective direction from oblivion towards utopia.

As contemporary life rolls forward with little regard for the future, Futurism challenges us to consider how the design of everyday life constructs our future as we live it. In his book, Pinchbeck presents contemporary dilemmas such as converting to renewable energy, equitable distribution of resources through hierarchies, reversing atmospheric carbonation and implementing regenerative agricultural models. He articulates how any solution requires an intersectional approach to complex systems management in ways that will shift us together. In the current moment, one dimensional criticism of political corruption, neoliberalism, imperial violence, patriarchal indoctrination, climate change denial or state despotism alone are not sufficient. We must think about how these systems intersect into a matrix built on outdated paradigms of scientific materialism, individualism, empty nihilism, consumerism, and hierarchy. Resisting these intangible enemies will not be enough – a movement forward is in formulating new paradigms for communing amongst ourselves and our environments.

According to Pinchbeck, 80 percent of emissions are produced by 20 percent of the world’s population, the wealthy and privileged people of the developed world. While the global privileged class squanders our resources for the sake of constantly perpetuating  inefficient systems which advantage them, we ignore the mythologies of entitlement that dominant our sense of being. Western life is directed by a prerogative that our species is more important than the archives of life around it. This entitlement is like a myth woven into the fabric of our ordinary lives. Pinchbeck states:

“The problem is that we come to believe in the stories we create, or the ones that have already been created for us. We forget that an original, formless awareness precedes any words or ideas. Meaning is always something we make; it doesn’t exist as an objective thing in the world. It is difficult to accept fully that we are responsible for whatever we chose to believe”

He continues that these myths “condition [us] to accept corruption and hypocrisy in society at large. [We] can accept the half-truths of politicians and pundits because [we] are compromised [ourselves]. We fail to care for the world as a consequence of our inauthenticity. After all, why would we want to protect and safeguard a world that has betrayed us at its core?”

Mythologies of  disempowerment from our environments leave us with nothing to feel but powerless when the systems fail from underneath us.

From a systemic perspective, I consider it no coincidence that our environmental collapse is happening alongside a political apocalypse. Inhabiting a world that discourages participatory sovereignty leaves us sacrificing ourselves to institutions that often times don’t know any better than us. While we accept that doctors can define wellness, that scientists have a monopoly of the commandments of truth, and politicians are equipped to make decisions about our right for survival, we sacrifice our abilities to construct the world we want to live in.

Mid-century German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt conceives of  “political action as something that gives dignity and value to human life.” This can only be done if we demand that the stakes of reality be equally distributed, and that we all become active in assembling participatory systems for the interest of all. The creative energy of humankind has nowhere to flow but into designing a collective future, or else it risks flowing back into the weight of historical dogma, like water into an eroded path. Futurists such as R. Buckminster Fuller and Daniel Pinchbeck illustrate that human potential reaches beyond the confines of the past. I contend that the place to begin in actualizing this potential for the victory of all is in detracting ourselves from institutions of entropy and feeding new institutions of collectivism and regeneration with our time, energy, and participation. If any semblance of utopia exists in the realm of cosmic possibility, the bridge to take us there is constructed with new mythologies of how humankind navigates life on spaceship Earth.