Six decades ago, paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated, “At this moment, as in the time of Galileo, what we most urgently need in order to appreciate the convergence of the universe is much less new facts than a new way of looking at the facts and accepting them. A new way of seeing, tied to a new way of acting — that is what we need.”
Nothing could be more important in this moment. A revolution about how we see our world is underway, and its outcome will determine whether we, the human family, can successfully navigate the unprecedented challenges facing us in the coming decades.
So, what is this new way of seeing, and how does it relate to capital — specifically financial capital? Pioneer of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg noted, “The Cartesian partition has penetrated deeply into the human mind during the three centuries following Descartes, and it will take a long time for it to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality.” The Cartesian partition? Really? Yes, that is our current way of seeing things.
This “old” way of seeing is characterized by the inviolate division between mind and matter. We know that “I am” and everything else is “out there.” We live in an inanimate clockwork universe. We know that resources are scarce. More is better. We have to look out for our own self-interest. And, knowing all this, we naturally see ourselves as separate from each other, separate from nature, separate from everything else.* We just know it — no need to talk about it. We know that the world is ours to either conquer or be conquered by. And so, we conquer; we other; we accumulate; we horde; we hide; we contract; we suffer; we fear. As Heisenberg was pointing out, this way of seeing is wrapped around the bowels of our collective mind.
Well, there is another way of seeing that is bubbling up in human consciousness all over the planet — an emergent way of seeing that echoes many indigenous wisdom traditions but which is being shaped in the crucible of science, philosophy and modern spirituality. It is an evolutionary perspective. One that says this not a clockwork universe but a living universe, that our planet is not an inert rock but a living organism of which we are an integral part:
“[Our] living universe is a unified and completely interdependent system that is continuously regenerated by the flow-through of phenomenal amounts of life energy whose essential nature includes consciousness or a self-reflective capacity that enables systems at every scale of existence to exercise some freedom of choice,” says futurist and economist Duane Elgin
One that says that mind and matter are inextricably linked:
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness,” says Max Plank, another founder of quantum physics.
One that says that our sense of separation is an illusion:
“The notion of a separate organism is clearly an abstraction, as is also its boundary. Underlying all this is unbroken wholeness even though our civilization has developed in such a way as to strongly emphasize the separation into parts,” says physicist David Bohm.
One that says that what we observe (and therefore believe) in the middling scale of the cosmos that we inhabit with our limited sensory capabilities is hopelessly incomplete:
“The universe emerges out of an all-nourishing abyss not only fourteen billion years ago but in every moment,” says mathematician and cosmologist Brian Swimme.
One that says we are going somewhere, that consciousness itself is the motive force of evolution:
“Life compels us increasingly to view it as an underlying current in the flow of which matter tends to order itself upon itself with the emergence of consciousness,” says Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, midwife of this emergent paradigm.
It is this last and most foundational shift in viewpoint — that the driver of evolution is not random chemical anomalies and accidental mutations but rather the attraction of consciousness itself — that is most relevant to the subject of capital. If this sounds like nonsense or seems contrary to everything you know or believe, just for a moment, I invite you to suspend your disbelief and step back to look at the long arc of creation. What do you really see — chaos or order? From the Big Bang forward, witness the evolution of the universe from a hot soup of undifferentiated energy to the accretion of subatomic particles to simple atomic nuclei to clouds of hydrogen gas to early stars to heavier atoms to planets and organic molecules to simple single celled life to collaborative assemblies of specialized cellular organisms to multi-celled organisms with specialized organs likes eyes and brains to organisms with language and self-reflective consciousness. This movement is the expression of a very real physical law that we haven’t yet fully embraced because the vision of most of us on the planet is still largely veiled in the “Cartesian partition.”
I’ll get to capital, I promise.
We see this law manifest everywhere as the irrepressible evolution of the universe towards ever higher states of organization, complexity and consciousness. We human beings are, for now, the foam on that advancing wave in our little corner of the cosmos. With the advent of our large forebrains, language and opposable digits, the modality for this law to play out (evolution) has shifted from chemistry and biology to technology and culture. We have become co-creators.
Viewed through this new way of seeing, we can also understand that the steady progression in the evolution of consciousness is woven into and supported by the tapestry of a living universe. A contemporary and relevant example of this pattern of integral support is the presence of fossil fuels. John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World offers some facts about petroleum that help illuminate this concept:
“Petroleum — the transmuted fossils of ocean algae — forms when the rock that holds the fossils becomes heated to the temperature of a cup of coffee and remains as warm or warmer for at least a million years. At lower temperatures, the algal remains will not turn into oil. At hotter temperatures, any oil or potential oil within the rock is destroyed.”
Given the unfathomable quantity of organic matter needed and the narrow window of conditions required for cooking up petroleum, how is it that we have so much of the stuff, and why? In our old way of seeing we understood this vast store of concentrated solar energy as an accident of nature upon which we were entitled to capitalize. In the new way of seeing we know it is a gift from life in the past to life in the future, generated to fuel a sea change in consciousness. Without it, we would not be where we are. We would not have the evolutionary advancements (technologies) to light our homes, fly across continents or connect to each other through the burgeoning global brain we call the internet. We would not have the food or education or health or lifestyles that have enabled our species to exponentially expand, both physically and cognitively. We would not see ourselves mirrored as we do in the images of our fragile planet taken from space. We would not have the insights into physics, biology, genomics, ecology, sociology, philosophy, the arts and spirituality that are once again changing the way we see ourselves and our world.
The formation of fossil fuels is just one manifestation of this integral pattern that surfaces over and over in our evolutionary history. Others include the emergence of photosynthesis that created our oxygen rich atmosphere, paving the way for breathers. The generation of the ozone layer that created a protective shell for terrestrial life. The eon-inches of life energy stored in the earth’s soils that supported the dawn of agriculture, a marker in the evolution of consciousness that gave rise to written language, the great wisdom traditions, mathematics and philosophy. This relationship between the whole of a living universe and the evolution of consciousness has a fractal quality that we can observe at the cosmic scale, planetary scale, human scale and quantum scale.
Of course, you may be thinking that all this is well and good, but we’re now on a train that is barreling down the tracks without brakes, and the bridge is out over the canyon ahead. Our dependence on fossil fuels and escalating climate crisis, overpopulation, frenetic hyper-consumption, destruction of soils, species extinction, ocean acidification, the escalating wealth divide and the looming dystopian possibilities that might precipitate from technologies like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering don’t really comport with this idea of a living universe grounded in the evolution of consciousness. How will we ever navigate all of this?
We may not. It’s important to note that the vector of evolution is not linear or predictable at an incremental scale. There are fits, starts, and many dead ends. We may be one of them. But taken as a whole its expression is clear, as is our path forward — the evolution of consciousness is precisely how we may survive. Our part as self-reflective co-creators is to embrace this new way of seeing, this evolutionary perspective, this awareness that “I am not separate,” this understanding that we are going somewhere, together and as part of a larger whole, as the path through the eye of the needle.
Those gifts from life in the past — the fertile soils, the fossil fuels and others — have carried us this far, but, grounded in our old way of seeing, we have depleted and debased them and, in the process, put life on this planet in dire jeopardy. It is clear that we cannot continue with this behavior if we ourselves want to continue. To survive, to evolve, we must cherish and preserve. We must repair and regenerate. We must open to new possibilities of relationship with each other and the living universe. However, our ability to do any of that with sufficient speed and scale to avert functional extinction depends on enough of us seeing in this new way — a new sea change in consciousness. And where is the next gift from life to fuel this change?
Over the course of the past two and half centuries we have taken those gifts of our living universe and have, through the alchemy of our creativity and industry, collected and concentrated them even further as capital. Not only have we transmuted the resources of life into capital, as co-creators, we have invented ways in which capital can grow and reproduce on its own. As a result, right now, the global stock of capital, if you include all hard currency, broad money, real assets, equities, and other financial assets stands at around $600 trillion.**
A staggering reservoir of potential.
How do we unlock it? In the past, we simply claimed it, dug it up, harvested it, sucked it out of the ground, taking for granted that it belonged to us… I own it. We didn’t ask for permission, or even think to ask, because our way of seeing told us it was our right. And, because that old way of seeing continues to dominate our lives, we still harbor the illusion of possession, which blinds us and creates a paradox. That is, unlocking this reservoir to fuel an evolution in consciousness, this new way of seeing, requires that those who currently hold this transmuted and concentrated bounty of life — wealth holders — begin to see in this new way… or at least believe that seeing in this new way is possible.
This is not easy. It’s not easy because the old way of seeing, the “Cartesian partition,” is still very much alive. The illusion of separation and the many ways it manifests through our fears clashes with the call to awaken. Those fears scream to us to aggregate and protect, and they move us to contract rather than open. Even when drawn by its inexorable pull, we don’t trust our impulse to surrender to this new way of seeing. We panic at the implications, and no issue is more panic inducing in this regard than the subject of capital. It is easier to compartmentalize or dismiss the ramifications of being an instrinic part of a living universe rather than suffer the cognitive dissonance it creates. As Charles Eisenstein put it, “We are not quite ready for such a story yet, because the old one, though in tatters, still has large swaths of its fabric intact… We will abide for a time in the space between stories.”
As we navigate the terrain between these stories, there will naturally be chaos and upheaval. We are already seeing this play out daily in current events. As difficult as it is for us to individually align our lives with this new way of seeing, it is even more difficult for us to collectively abandon the systems that have been built on the old. All systems eventually die, but they don’t go easily. We stand for a while with one foot in the old and one foot in the new, afraid for our survival to let go of the old, drawn by the promise of a better world if we step into the new. Capital and our relationship to it is one of those systems.
And yet, this gift of life — capital — is the bridge for our transition. It waits for us to unleash its potential. It waits for us to own our place in the story, our birthright, our solemn responsibility and joy as co-creators. Willingly, willfully… and quickly. We do not have the luxury of reluctance. We are now in a race where the stakes are nothing short of our continued opportunity to participate in the dance of creation.
The invitation to us is to open the floodgates and release this enormous reservoir of life energy to do that for which it exists— fuel the next step in the evolution of consciousness, nourish those who are illuminating the path to this new way of seeing, create a global ecology of equity and connection, pioneer systems that support all life, reframe our relationship to each other and our planet.
This is its purpose.
*This succinct articulation of three unexamined assumptions underlying our dominant paradigm — resources are scarce, more is better, and we have to look out for our own self-interest — came from Reverend Deborah L. Johnson at a gathering convened by Jubilee.partners on the Inglewood plantation in central Louisiana in 2018. To them I have added a fourth — that we believe ourselves to be separate from the other.
**Sue Chang, “Here’s All the Money in the World,” Market Watch