META-POLITICS – This is the first episode in a new conversation series between Layman Pascal and Matthew T. Segall. After touching on the deep strangeness of our time, and on the importance of finding a new post/metaphysical nexus for politics, religion, and ecology (a reintegration of the value spheres) Layman and Matt take up an extended reflection on meta-politics and the shape of a post-progressive political movement. They delve into such topics as developmental politics, the integral critique of modernity, the religious dimension of social movements, and a meta-progressive vision for social upgrade.

Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus

by Matthew Segall

What follows is a brief paper outlining a path forward for post-pandemic humanity. It attempts to integrate Marxist critiques of capitalism with the efforts of contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers to compose an alternative ecological civilization. 

Audio of this blog post.

A specter is haunting modern civilization—the specter of Gaia. All the powers of the global capitalist market have been entering into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. The name “Gaia” is borrowed from the scientific hypothesis of James Lovelock, who himself borrowed it from author William Golding, who in turn borrowed it from Hesiod’s telling of ancient Greek cosmogony. Do not imagine an anthropomorphized goddess, “Mother Nature,” when you hear this term. Imagine instead a gigantic, even monstrous assemblage of coevolving lifeforms precariously perched upon a complex, self-organizing set of geochemical feedback loops necessary for maintaining the habitability of this planet. For several hundred years, this living Earth has been treated as a mere background to human activity, a storehouse of raw materials to be violently exploited, a passive stage upon which our technological progress could unfold indefinitely. But Gaia could not be dispelled by the industrial might or monetary magic of global capitalism. Gaia has only been further provoked by it. 

Despite the wishful thinking of capitalist economists, the market is not a “perpetual motion machine” insulated from the biophysical inevitabilities of entropy and extinction. Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, the human economy has always existed at the grace of the Earth’s ecology. Whether agricultural, industrial, or informational, our species has undertaken each new mode of production with tremendous Promethean creativity, but also with increasing ignorance of the geophysiological conditions making it all possible.

“Gaia’s intrusion,” as the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has referred to it, has always been inevitable, but until very recently, it was for the most part only decipherable scientifically through complex data sets and computer simulations of global temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and many other relatively abstract metrics detailing the fraying of its feedback loops. Timelines stretching to the end of this century warned of the dire consequences of failing to take bold action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reverse other ecologically unsustainable practices. Insurance companies were beginning to feel uneasy about the increasing severity of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, but surely Gaia could wait for the market to adapt. 

With the rapid and virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic (likely a spillover effect of habitat loss*), the situation is just as it was before, only massively accelerated. After a decades-long trial period, planetary transformation is now no longer optional: “we do not have any choice, because [Gaia] will not wait.” 

What remained a specter only a few weeks ago—a barely perceptible threat safely hidden behind the noise and smog of business as usual—has now brought the entirety of modern human civilization to its knees. The immediate public health threat posed by the virus is potentially catastrophic on its own. And with most of the world’s human population unable to consume or produce at the ever-increasing rates required of a capitalist system, the economic fallout threatens to become even more severe. 

Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Jameson’s statement was borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin, whose original utterance was composed as a question: “What could [our species] create if [we] were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?” With the old world now on the brink as humanity is brought to its knees by Gaia,—the for too long taken for granted ground beneath our feet,—our species has a fateful decision to make. Will we continue to pray to the God of the Market by imposing another round of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or might we invoke an older god? 

To Marxist ears, the invocation of a god, especially one with the mythic residue of “Gaia,” resounds of ideology. Why leave our capitalist chains behind only to succumb to a new, or ancient, opiate of the masses? Worse, my narrative account of our current situation as the disruption of the human political economy due to the intrusion of a seemingly outside natural power appears to be a textbook case of the process Roland Barthes warned about more than half a century ago, whereby “the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature”; this, according to Barthes, is “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature.”

But Gaia has not come in any form recognized by the terms of the modern constitution, signed by Marxists and capitalists alike, which placed a metaphysical chasm between human society and physical nature: the historical realization of freedom on one side, mere matter to be mastered by it on the other. “If man is shaped by the environment,” Marx wrote, “his environment must be made human.” Even Marx’s dialectical materialism remains insensitive to Gaia’s non-modern mode of composition. Gaia is not “the environment,” not “Nature” as modern people have conceived of her. Gaia does not passively suffer our historical projects. Nor has Gaia come in the ancient form imagined by our ancestors. Gaia is not natural and not mythical. Gaia is a geohistorical hybrid, to use Bruno Latour’s favored definition. Latour asks us to face Gaia not as a transcendent mythical or immanent natural unifier, but as a call to return to concrete, earthbound existence as members of a Whiteheadian “democracy of fellow creatures.” Gaia is just as much a historical agent as we are, if not more so.

Finding ways to get along with the bizarre biological neighbors modernity has for several centuries prided itself on ignoring will not be easy, as the still unfolding COVID-19 crisis exemplifies. Human survival in this new/old Gaian reality will require reimagining our political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms. Our concept of “society” will need to be expanded to include non-humans. Time itself will need restorying: History has always been ending; myth endlessly beginning; and creation forever ongoing. We are not the rational animal capable of calculating profit and loss in advance of our exchanges. We are not lords of the land and owners of private property. We are coevolving creatures like all others, bound by a single atmosphere, of a kind with the bacteria that fertilize the soil, with the wheat and fruit trees, with the bees that pollinate their flowers, with all the other plants and animals. Becoming Gaian is not so much a matter of reinventing ourselves as “merely” biological organisms as of shedding our god-like Promethean ambitions, of learning to settle down here on the earth beneath the sky instead of setting sail once more, this time beyond all finite horizons, as if Mars, too, could be colonized and capitalized. Contrary to the dualisms of the modern world view, the capitalist economy cannot float above its material conditions like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, our species is not destined for space capitalism. All that is solid has not melted into air. Even the “cloud” that hosts our digital economy depends upon massive super-cooled server farms and undersea cables to power its invisible network. 

Marx and Engles could not have foreseen the specific condition—a viral pandemic—that would finally initiate the dialectical self-overcoming of capitalism. But they did predict that capitalism, by expanding the market over the entire surface of the globe and establishing connections everywhere, would at last compel each of us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our true relations to others of our kind. Our conditions of life, and our shared vulnerability, have never been been more apparent than during this planetary quarantine. Millions of people will soon find themselves in need of medical care, and billions more will need an economic lifeline. All humanity, despite our social distancing and our cultural diversity, must now unite against a common enemy. But who is this enemy? COVID-19? If we are no longer modern, we cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from this viral agent, as though “Nature” had raised a microscopic army against us. After all, maybe we are the virus. Maybe COVID-19 is a Gaian antibody. Nonsense: we, too, are Gaians. We, too, have a place on this planet, if only we would learn to inhabit it more humbly. 

What would it mean to be civilized in a humbler non-modern, or ecological way? Alfred North Whitehead was willing to consider that even some squirrels may be capable of it. For Whitehead, civilization implies conscious participation in the creative power of ideas—like freedom or love—to shape history. Whitehead is not an idealist, however. He is an organic realist. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat is capable of supporting their ingression.

Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or typed into computers by human hands. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an invitation to consider the possibility that the idea of the Good participates in generating the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks, butterflies, and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.

Whitehead: “The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human laboring in the economy, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.

What is value? Debates continue to rage among economists about the differences between use and exchange value, or between objective and subjective value, but ultimately Marx locates value in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity. So far so good. But the implication is that only humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.

Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extra-human that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos—and the Gaian reality we moderns are falling into—there is no more mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by someone called Man. “We have no right,” Whitehead admonishes us, “to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe.” Value is typically linked to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, Marx, or Hayek, have limited agency and thus value creation to human beings (or worse, as within capitalist social relations, value creation is even further delimited to those lucky enough to be owners of capital). 

Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination.” The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was techno-scientific: to become masters of nature. 

Gaia’s intrusion in the form of a viral pandemic is turning our lives upside down and inside out. Perhaps now, from the perspective it has granted us, we will come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the Earth, enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding. 

We must re-think human freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered. Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic. Marx said that the worst human architect is distinguished from the best honey bee by the fact that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human or bee creativity works? Organic architect Christopher Alexander studied how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.

Where to go from here? In place of deterministic teleology, we need processes of relational creativity. In place of individual competition and class hierarchy, democracy and social solidarity. In place of a Big Plan from on high, playful kin-making with the community of nonhuman beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise share this planet with. Instead of providential history, we must settle for what anthropologist James Clifford calls “big enough” stories that remain “ontologically unfinished” and “situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue.”

We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to respectfully recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help sensitize us to the values of nonhumans. Our survival depends on it. 

Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we to justify our presence on the Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society? These are questions any civilization hoping to survive the next century is going to need to answer.

Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 30 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development. Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.

Marx, of course, was not unaware of our profound connection to the Earth: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In Capital, he writes of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.” I do not mean to downplay the extent to which Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-earth relation goes a long way toward describing our new Gaian reality. But he still could not shake the all too modern tendency to treat Earth as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness. So with Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this) but a cosmological power from which our human values, and our human power, derives.

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* “horseshoe bats are the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-like virus and that civets are the amplification host highlight the importance of wildlife and biosecurity in farms and wet markets, which can serve as the source and amplification centers for emerging infections” (from a meta-analysis of medical studies on coronaviruses).

Bibliography

Neil Irwin, “One Simple Idea That Explains Why the Economy Is in Great Danger” in the New York Times, March 17th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/upshot/coronavirus-economy-crisis-demand-shock.html?referringSource=articleShare

Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, Jamie R. Oaks. “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover.” Trends in Parasitology, 2019; 35 (6): 399 DOI: 10.1016/j.pt.2019.03.010

Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 50. https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/978-1-78542-010-8_In-Catastrophic-Times_Stengers.pdf

Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), 76. 

Franklin, “What are we to make of J.G. Ballard’s Apocalypse?”; https://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/ballard_apocalypse_1979.html; credit is due to Matthew Beaumont for pointing out Jameson’s sources (see “Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion” in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader (2014). 

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007)

Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), 141, 129.

Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Whitehead, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” (1844). 

Here’s the recording of a lecture that Becca Tarnas and I delivered last night for the Atlanta Astrological Society.

Here are some relevant links if you want a more in depth discussion on some of what I mention in this lecture:

The Politics of Renaissance Hermeticism, and the Magic of Science

The Copernican Odyssey: From Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or from the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

Pluto and the Underworld of Scientific Knowledge Production

The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler

The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology

Plato and Astrosophy: The Wisdom of the Sky

Mission at Tenth special supplement

Vol. 7, 274-279 (2018)

“Carnival of Consciousness: Practice as Research in Black Rock City”

A Submission by Matthew T. Segall, PhD

“Burning Man and the Seeds of a New Story”

“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” –W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940)

As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press, 2010), the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the human population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis that are normally associated with traditional forms of religious practice. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being too self-centered and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality.The growing popularity of Burning Man, defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.

Human beings are order-seeking, meaning-making, story-telling creatures. For our species, meaning is at least as important as eating, and in some cases, more so. We construct cosmologies to orient ourselves in a mysterious and ever-shifting reality. No cosmology can hold chaos at bay forever, nor can it grant us complete understanding of the more than human powers that inspire all our mortal efforts to order, interpret, and narrate reality. Just as secularization led to the breakdown of the authority of traditional religion in the early modern period, it is becoming increasingly obvious at the start of the 21st century that the myth of the market (i.e., the modern story of individual competition fueling techno-industrial progress toward a consumerist utopia) is now also failing to properly situate human beings in our actual time and place on planet Earth. According to geologists, Earth is now entering a new geological era as a result of human industrial activity: the Anthropocene. The dominant values of the global economy are unraveling the life systems of the planet at a faster rate and a larger scale than anyone could have imagined a few centuries ago. Modern industrial humans have become a geological force, but so far our technical power continues to overshadow our knowledge of the planet’s fragile life systems.

We are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of Earth’s ecosystems, so much so that ecological entropy now threatens to destroy civilization itself.

It may be that our species is already doomed to extinction within the next century. In some sense, this message of doom has woven itself into our official civilizational narrative. Apocalypse is one of the bestselling plots in today’s mass media market. Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this fact is too much for any individual to face alone, the majority of us continue to sit in front of our screens watching, as though it were all just another form of entertainment.

Of course, fantasy and imagination are no mere trifle for our species: our meaning-making capacity is precisely what is at issue. How are we to conceive of our human presence on this living planet? Are we a cancerous growth or self-forgetful gods and goddesses? Are we capable of re-storying our industrial mode of meaning-making with a more life-enhancing cosmology? Must we be motivated solely by passive and isolated consumption, or might the celebratory and participatory communal values fostered by Burning Man signal a newly emerging possibility?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we compose our societies and how those societies come to inhabit the Earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its physical existence: the mechanistic and disenchanted worldview underlying industrial capitalism, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. A million years from now, even if our species is long gone, the biosphere will still show the scars caused by the industrial mode of life. Clearly, industrial cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that monetary profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the Sun, which thanks to photosynthesis produces and sustains all life on Earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured from the heavens by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes political ecologist Alf Hornborg, “the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them.”

Modern industrial cosmology has dissociated the human economy from the Earth’s ecology. Earth is a diverse tapestry of organisms delicately woven together by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Consumer capitalism homogenizes culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. Humanity, and many other species besides, are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values abstract profitability (the replication of money) over concrete productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, Hornborg continues,“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project.”

Burning Man provides our species with a precious opportunity to step out of the “default world” in order to reimagine our purpose as individuals and re-story our collective existence as members of a planetary community of life. Modern industrial cosmology is disenchanted, such that each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of ultimately tragic identity lost in an immense sea of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrial capitalism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue his or her own selfish ends in the hope that their sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

The Burning Man festival, in contrast, resituates human beings in the ritual context of communal meaning-making. It invites modern people to participate in the co-creation of an initiatory experience that re-awakens us to the possibility of an enchanted universe. It is inspiring the birth of a new story, a new way of being human, based not on alienated labor and the mindless replication of money, but on ritual play and the joyful recreation of life.

That said, according to the festival’s founder, the late Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. It is undoubtedly true that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism. As alchemists have known for millennia, initiatory transformations often unfold by way of enantiodromia, whereby taking something to its extreme ends up catalyzing a metamorphic transition into its opposite.

Gilmore’s book, mentioned earlier, makes the case that the growing popularity of the annual desert pilgrimage is forcing religious scholars to “reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience.” Having attended the festival myself many times (the first in 2010), I would agree with Gilmore and others thatBurning Man represents the emergence of a novel, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and technology into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful creativity. A strong strain of critique of the dominant culture pervades the event, standing in stark contrast to Harvey’s rather strange claim that Burning Man somehow represents “old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism.” The event can represent many things for many people, but there’s little doubt that Burning Man’s gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world,” and its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the present planetary crisis.

2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change indicating Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of its existence. No longer is it simply about burning The Man and reveling in the destruction of the patriarchal (and industrial) status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly thematize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace the dominator culture. 2011 also marked the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after an earlier iteration of the festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee welcomed Burning Man back to the city of its birth.

Despite its encouraging seepage back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, and that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in this participatory project are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, geeks, techies, welders, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and general purpose weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a welcome committee or interdimensional portal of sorts for a new kind of consciousness to incarnate upon the Earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future may be being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.