Macfarlane: Generation Anthropocene

In case you didn’t catch it, there’s an interesting article in today’s Guardian by Robert Macfarlane entitled “Generation Anthropocene”. It’s quite good.

But (as I noted in a comment there “below the line”) William Blake already had a concept of the Anthropocene, only he called it the “Ulro” — the Shadowland of the human self-image become the bubble of reality. Blake was way ahead of us in that respect.

Macfarlane’s article is worth reading (and you can link to “Generation Anthropocene” here). It even refers to it as the “Anthroobscene” as I once did here in The Chrysalis and does mention it as a narcissitic formation. It should also be noted that Marshall McLuhan also had a conception of the Anthropocene (or Ulro) earlier in his famous book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (and which is available in full online).

And for those of you familiar with Iain McGilchrist’s research on the divided brain in The Master and his Emissary, you will recognise this Anthropocene as being “the Emissary” itself, the usurper, who Blake also calls “Urizen”. The Anthropocene is the form of Urizen, certainly not “Albion”.

Macfarlane provides a wealth of resources for further investigation of this Anthropocene as the human self-image realised as “environment”. That’s perhaps the best that can be said about the Anthropocene itself. It allows us to see ourselves as we presently are “objectively” and in projection since it is the realised “hypberobject” (to use a term in the article itself) of our own self-image — the human form made manifest as a bubble and as the logical conclusion to human narcissism. It’s a gigantic golem or egregore.

This golem or egregore will be dispelled only with insight, which will render it transparent. Without that insight, it will turn and devour us. And that is a possibility even foreseen by the father of Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, in his God and Golem Inc. (also available online for the curious).

So, get to know this “Anthropocene” as the same as Blake’s “Ulro”, and as the irony, and the dragon, called “end of history” too. In him, we now live, move, and have our being.


6 responses to “Macfarlane: Generation Anthropocene”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    gebserians, I think — and especially Gebserians — need to get a handle on the meaning of the Anthropocene, because it we don’t penetrate its meaning by our insight, and render it transparent, it will devour us. I’ve no doubt about that. For as it is presently, it is a pathological formation, and we have seen indications of the the same pathologies emerging in Artificial Intelligence as well.

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      In early 2005, I excitedly attended an Integral Intensive weekend in Boston. Not only did I want to engage with other “second-tier” thinkers, but I wanted to somehow get involved and help promote Wilber’s ideas. As a lowly university student, I scrounged up almost of all of the money I had in order to go (to this day, it is the only self-help seminar I’ve ever attended).

      But upon arrival, my idealism took a punch in the gut. And although the weekend was an enjoyable experience and in some ways powerful, by the time I left, something didn’t sit right.


      At the weekend seminar, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what we were participating in was thinly-veiled self-indulgence and little more. In hindsight, I think this was as much a branding problem (from a business perspective) as an organizational problem (social perspective). Integral Institute built their movement in order to influence academia, governmental policy, to get books and journals published, and to infuse these ideas into the world at large. Yet, here we were, spending money to sit in a room performing various forms of meditation and yoga, having group therapy sessions, art performances, and generally going on and on about how “integral” we were and how important we were to the world without seemingly doing anything on a larger scale about it.

      If you want to be a self-development seminar and motivate people, then be a self-development seminar and motivate people. If you want to be a formal institute and have serious effects on policy and academia, then do that. Don’t half-ass both and muddy them with gratuitous talks and performances. The irony in all of this was that Wilber’s integral framework applied to organizations and business and should have accounted for these branding issues, but didn’t. The ironies would soon continue to mount.

      Following Wilber online, the conversation seemed to only become more and more insular. With an onslaught of problems in the world crying out for an integral perspective and solution — terrorism, the Iraq War, climate change, world hunger, financial crises. The silence coming from the Integral crowd was deafening. Major global and social issues were often only referred to in passing as descriptors for a certain level of consciousness development with the overarching implication being that “they” are not as highly developed as “we” are.

      We’re “second-tier” thinkers. We’re going to change the world… as soon as we’re done talking about how awesome and “second-tier” we are.

      Instead, most conversations involved esoteric spiritual topics, impulsive self-expressionism, and re-explaining the integral model in 4,102 different ways. For a philosophy based on including and integrating as much as possible, its followers sure expressed it by forming a nicely-sealed bubble around themselves.

      Evidence of this came when Wilber’s critics popped up. Experts in many of the fields Wilber claimed to have “integrated” questioned or picked apart some of his assumptions. In Wilber’s model, he uses what he refers to as “orienting generalizations,” ways of summarizing entire fields of study in order to fit them together with other forms of knowledge. Wilber admits in his work that he’s generalizing large topics and that there is not consensus in many fields, but that he’s constructed these generalizations to reflect the basic and agreed-upon principles of each field of study.

      Well, a number of experts began questioning Wilber’s choice of sources. And as for the claims that what he portrayed as consensus in some fields such as developmental psychology or sociology, it turned out there was still quite a bit of debate and uncertainty around some of Wilber’s “basic” conclusions. Often, what Wilber portrayed as the “consensus” of a certain field actually amounted to an obscure or minority position.

      Critics also picked apart Wilber’s model itself, showing minor contradictions in it. And a number of people caught on to his shockingly meek understanding of evolutionary biology and his puzzling insinuations of intelligent design.

      Wilber’s eventual response to many of these critics was nothing short of childish — a dozen-or-so page (albeit extremely well-written) verbal shit storm that clarified nothing, justified nothing, personally attacked everyone, and straw-manned the shit out of his critics’ claims.

      For many, that was the day the intellectual giant fell, the evolution stopped, the so-called “Einstein of consciousness” took his ball and went home.

      From there, the integral movement began to sputter. Rabbi Marc Gafni, a spiritual leader with whom Wilber aligned himself and even co-sponsored seminars, was later indicted in Israel for child molestation. Despite this, Wilber and his movement refused to distance themselves or repudiate him. In fact, the whole integral scene doubled down, claiming that its critics were “first-tier thinkers,” and were coming up with lies in order to attack a greater, higher level of consciousness that it didn’t understand.

      The seminars slowed to a crawl. Wilber’s health deteriorated greatly (he was diagnosed with a rare disease that keeps him bed-ridden). He stopped writing. Ten years on, despite developing some fans in academia (some in high places), Wilber’s work had yet to be tested or peer-reviewed in a serious journal. Much of his posting online devolved into bizarre spiritual claims (such as this one about an “enlightened teacher” who can make crops grow twice as fast by “blessing them”).

      The brilliant scientist-turned-monk-turned-recluse-turned-New-Age-celebrity, whose ideas changed everything for so many people (myself included), devolved into the butt of another New Age joke. How the mighty have fallen.


      Although flawed, Wilber’s integral perspective continues to be an inspiration in my life. I do believe he will be written about decades or centuries from now, and will be seen as one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. But as with most brilliant thinkers, his influence and ideas will be carried on by others in ways which he did not anticipate or intend.

      Wilber’s story is a cautionary tale. His intellectual understanding was immense, as much as I’ve ever come across in a single person. He also tapped into some of the farthest reaches of consciousness, spiritual or not, that humans have self-reported. I do believe that. But ultimately, he was done in by his pride, his need for control and, well, ironically his ego.

      The point is, if Wilber can succumb to it, any of us can. No one is immune. No matter how brilliant and how “enlightened” we are, we’re all animals.

      Wilber was a baby boomer in the US through the 60’s and 70’s. He came up through many of that generation’s eastern spiritual movements. These movements were started by eastern teachers and subscribed to a dogma that an enlightened awareness could develop someone into a flawless individual, an immutable authority. Despite Wilber’s massive understanding of human psychology and consciousness, he never seemed to shake this dogma. It followed Wilber through his career and eventually manifested in himself. When he was younger, he notoriously followed Adi Da, a spiritual leader who was later found to be sexually abusing female followers. Yet he stood by him. Later in his career, he also aligned with Andrew Cohen, a spiritual leader who was found to be physically and emotionally abusing his followers. And again, he stood by him. Why? Because Wilber maintained they had genuinely reached the farthest limits of human awareness and understanding.

      What Wilber taught me is that no depth of spiritual experience can negate our physical and primal drives for power, lust and validation. As primates, we’re wired to seek someone to look up to as well as to be looked up to by others. And that’s true whether we’re experiencing Godhead or bodhisattva or not. It’s inescapable.

      Wilber also showed me that a brilliant mind does not necessarily make a brilliant leader. Wilber bragged in an interview that he never planned anything at Integral Institute, because planning would not represent a “second-tier” leadership. Despite massive funding, enthusiasm, brain power and demand, Integral Institute found a way to fail.

      The grand irony here is that Wilber’s model itself, the Integral framework, accounts for and describes everything I said in the paragraphs above. Wilber failed in the exact ways his own model predicted. His model champions the idea of transcending the ego, not negating it. It calls for crowdsourced intellectual rigor and peer review. It goes on, at length, about the shadow self and how our unconscious desires sabotage our greater goals. It covers our primal and biological nature and how our lower impulses must be accepted and kept in check.

      Yet he would succumb to the same faults he warned us about.

      David Foster Wallace states in his speech “This Is Water” that we all choose something to worship, whether we realize it or not. Wilber would say what we choose to worship is dependent on the stage or level of consciousness we’ve developed to. And he would be right.

      But what he seems to have missed is that worshipping consciousness development itself, Wilber’s so-called “second-tier” thinking, leads to the same disastrous repercussions Wallace warned of: vanity, power, guilt, obsession.

      No one is immune.

      As humans, we have a tendency to cling to ideologies. Any positive set of beliefs can quickly turn malevolent once treated as ideology and not an honest intellectual or experiential pursuit of greater truth. Ideology does in entire economic systems and countries, causes religions to massacre thousands, turns human rights movements into authoritarian sects and makes fools out of humanity’s most brilliant minds. Einstein famously wasted the second half of his career trying to calculate a cosmological constant that didn’t exist because “God doesn’t play dice.”

      Wilber’s brilliance will always be a part of me. But what he really taught me is this: There is no ideology. There is no guru. There is only us, and this, and the silence.

      [Image credit: susivinh]


      • Scott Preston says :

        I’ve had occasion to take on Wilberism in the past in The Chrysalis, especially in the post “My Beef with Ken Wilber”. It was picked up and reposted at “Integral World”

        It got some positive (and a lot of negative) responses in my suggestion that Wilber represented the “deficient integral”, and that Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral was more holistic that Wilber’s AQAL model (which I claimed was just a modified Cartesianism made to look “integral” when it wasn’t), for the same reason Descartes’ model fails — the omission of time and of the second person “Thou” or “You”.

        I understand Wilber is coming out with a new book (or so I heard today), so we’ll see where he’s gong with it since.

  2. Steve Lavendusky says :

    I found that article on the web.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    By the way, of interest in terms of McGilchrist’s “divided brain” thesis is the birth of Athena, goddess of Reason, in mythology — she is born from the head of Zeus when either Hephaestus, Prometheus, or Hermes (there are various actors here) splits open the head of Zeus with an axe.

    It seems pretty clear early recognition (perhaps not fully conscious) of the “two attentions” of the divided brain.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    This “Generation Anthropocene” is aware of the price that must be paid. But it is a fragmented generation and every piece of it is waiting for the other piece to pay the price for cleaning up the mess. Everything has become a “business”. Everyone wants to make money. And the Anthropocene man himself is just one other commodity.

    P.S. Despite the hype, I hated “Gravity”. It was an utter waste of time. But “The Martian” was a good movie, I thought.

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