Book Review: Is Humanity on the Ascent?

"The Ascent of Humanity" is a perfect fit for Northfield's Book Club Culture.

Every once in awhile a book comes along that ushers in a massive paradigm shift on a major societal issue.

The abolitionist cause was barely struggling along when it got a tsunami of support from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   The ennui of the suburban housewife and the travails of the inner city working single mother had apparently little in common until the “click” of consciousness engendered by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. And Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring almost single-handedly spawned the environmental movement.

The Ascent of Humanity: the Age of Separation, the Age of Reunion, and the Convergence of Crises that is Birthing the Transition by Charles Eisenstein is just such a book for everyone concerned with the crisis of civilization to which humanity seems to have brought itself.

We now live in a world in which the population is exploding, resources are dwindling, the climate is calamitously shifting and the Ponzi scheme we call a global economy is courting complete collapse, yet our elected officials—if they even acknowledge it—only put Band-Aids on this cancerous overgrowth. People are suffering—the rich from diseases of overabundance, the poor from the diseases of starvation.

Most thinking folk in Northfield are aware of all this, and many are already doing what they can, but are possibly discouraged at times by the sheer size of the problem. 

There are plenty of books out there offering petrifying projections of the problem’s parameters; we can read about Peak Oil, The End of Food, and The Collapse of Complex Societies, but do we really want to track the coordinates of Armageddon?

Better to suggest this book to your book club: It may be the only you’ll ever read that fully gets the enormity of the crises facing us, yet responds neither with despair nor with fantasy suggestions about what “we” should do about it.                 

This scholarly—yet accessible—tome is panoramic in scope, yet personal in its impact. It does not invite facile analysis so much as the recognition of shared truth. Northfield’s fecund book club culture will find much to feed its hunger for actionable truth.

And if you don’t want to pay $25 in a bookstore, you can read it for free online.

Author Charles Eisenstein, formerly a professor of Science, Technology and Society at Penn State, says he’s written a labor of love, wanting his message widely spread whether or not he profits. (He now teaches at Goddard College in Vermont, and blogs on his own website and on popular blog sites as realitysandwich.com).

Digesting the situation

It’s a pithy read.

In its more than 600 pages, The Ascent of Humanity insightfully analyzes how the limits or growth, environmental destruction, and the law of diminishing returns are inevitably and drastically devastating modern culture; they are the unavoidable consequences of the Age of Separation.

But Eisenstein also posits that predictions of doom are premature, for  both the history and future of civilization arise inevitably from the evolution of the human sense of self, and offers enticing evidence that a seismic shift—the Age of Reunion—is already well under way.

The central theme of this ambitious and idealistic tome is that the pervasive alienation and shallowness of modern society, as well as the impending crises and threatened collapse due to exploitation of the earth’s resources, are all due to a basically distorted sense of self:  “the discrete and separate self.”

This separateness makes us selfish, says Eisenstein, because “we naturally seek to manipulate the not-self to our best advantage.” So, we regard others as competitors for resources, and develop technologies that further separate us from nature, from each other, and from ourselves.

Seeking security in this dire Darwinian scenario, humanity succumbed to what he calls the Technological and Scientific Programs. The Scientific Program is the attempt to “understand” every phenomenon by reducing, classifying and measuring everything. The Technological Program seeks to control nature, disrupts it in the process—then applies more technology to fix the disruption in a downwardly spiraling feedback loop.

Deconstructing Darwin, Eisenstein argues that cooperation between life forms may prove to be much more important to evolution than competition, and that isolating man from human emotions has given us a sterile, materialistic view that is hostile to nature and pollutes putatively objective scientific theory and practice.

Though Eisenstein’s overall approach is multidisciplinary, looking at humankind’s social, spiritual, political and economic development with an historical and anthropological overview, his take on the rise of money and property is particularly sophisticated and insightful.

Better yet, he offers up new ways of looking at nature and ourselves  that could conceivably create an economy more responsive to human needs, values and aesthetics than our current commitment to growth-at-all-costs.

But perhaps the book’s biggest accomplishment is to provide an insightful overview of the impact that quantum mechanics has had on human consciousness. Dissolving the artificial boundaries between science and spirituality, and impacting nearly every human institution, the author avers that this paradigm shift has brought us to mankind’s next big step.

“We need to recognize”, says Eisenstein, “that the boundaries that seem to separate individuals from the rest of the Universe are imaginary and arbitrary, and that the Divine exists not as some remote, disinterested deity, but in every bit of the material world.”

For anyone searching for meaning and hope between the horror headlines and the distractions of consumer culture, The Ascent of Humanity offers a meeting place.

Rose Ann Steenhoek September 12, 2011 at 12:55 AM
I am impressed that a 600 page book was condensed in such a meaningful way. I have read the book already, and this relatively brief review gave me new insights. I also like the comparisons to other major shifts. In her writing, Azna invariably gleans what is important and in such an interesting manner that I love to meander along her sentences. Rose Ann Steenhoek


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