Conversation #Curadaterra

Oppression, Interconnection, and Healing

Kosmos transcribed and edited this conversation between Alnoor Ladha and Charles Eisenstein that took place on June 23, and was published on July 27, 2020, as part of A New and Ancient Story podcast. You can listen to the full podcast here. You can also read Charles’ subsequent essay, “Cure of the Earth” and Alnoor’s essay with Felipe Viveros in The Correspondent. And you can follow the discussion about #CuraDaTerra on social media.


Charles Eisenstein: This is the moment of COVID, it’s the moment of the civil unrest around racial justice. And I think both of these issues have something in common. Or they have an invitation in common that I would like to extend, which is: what is left out of these discourses?

To even participate in a certain debate affirms that this is the debate we should be having. And that this is the most important thing to be talking about right now. Now, I’m not saying that racial justice or COVID-19 are not important. What I’m saying is that we tend as a society to focus on very narrow aspects of those issues, and leave an awful lot out. For example, racial justice, so much of it is about the police, and the racism within police forces, police brutality, extrajudicial murders, and, in general, the impoverished state of African Americans in this country, the legacy of racism and trauma.

Four in ten of DRC’s estimated 100 million people are short of food.

I keep marveling at how people can be so passionate about these issues, and be willing to march in the streets and put their lives at risk and topple statues, and not even bat an eyelash or have any awareness of the horrors unfolding in the DRC right now, for example, or the tens of millions of people, most of them black and brown, on this Earth who are facing starvation because of lockdowns. Or the Indigenous people in the Amazon whose cultures and persons are being destroyed by economic development, which in certain quarters is what is supposed to uplift them from the zero-dollars-a-day subsistence lifestyle that you have as a hunter-gatherer. That’s maybe another topic. But it’s actually not another topic. It’s part of the same theme of what’s getting left out from the way that we—the dominant culture of this Earth, or the one that would be seems to be dominant to itself—see the world; what gets left out from our metrics; what gets left out from our value system; and our sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Alnoor Ladha: I think it’s a beautiful dedication. One of the mantras of The Rules was “all oppression is connected.” There is no individual issue or problem area outside of anything else because they’re so deeply interconnected.

There is an even bigger discussion to be had about the role of capitalism, as it’s the oxygen and the economic operating system. We now have one way to acquire goods and services. We had fishing, and hunting, and bartering, and gifting. And now it’s fiat debt-based currency. And so whoever had the head start on that—i.e., Western Europeans—had the head start on this accumulation through whatever means—imperialism, slavery, genocide, etc.

We could look at this current moment without a historical lens or without a structural lens, and you get to a very different place of analysis than if you brought that in. It’s also something that almost can’t be spoken about in any place where there are funders or advertisers, or a commercial element, because it’s seen as taboo.

Charles: And you start to notice that the things that the mainstream media favors as the issue of the day are things that are not actually that disruptive to capitalism. Capitalism is not disturbed by COVID. In fact, a certain type of capitalism is thriving on COVID.

The billionaires are doing just fine. Small businesses are being decimated around the world. Capitalism is actually not that disturbed by racial justice either. Capitalism doesn’t care about the skin color of those who are administering the world-destroying machine. All it needs is an underclass and broadly desperate working class to keep profits high and wages low. I don’t want to overstate that case because it’s also true, as you were saying, that all oppression is the same. That each contains all the rest, you might say. And that deep healing of any form of oppression generates a field of healing that also leads us to look at other forms of oppression. So, what I just said isn’t the complete picture.

Nonetheless, generally speaking, the media tend to focus on the things that are not so deeply disturbing to the system. When you get into protecting the Amazon, and all other ecosystems, then you really run into problems with the nature of capitalism, which, as we know, depends on endless growth and the constant acquisition of new resources.

So we do have to look at capitalism. And I know exactly what you’re talking about as far as the sensitivity of that word. That’s a taboo thing to talk about, because all of a sudden, you’re a Marxist. And that was discredited with the Soviet Union, and so on and so forth.

So, I tend to be careful. One of the points I make is, what capitalism is depends on what capital is. And what is capital? It’s money and property. Well, what is money and property? It’s a story. It’s an agreement. Money is an agreement that human beings make about symbols. Property is an agreement that human beings make about who has what kind of right to do what with various pieces of the physical world. Agreements can be changed. Agreements are not absolute. So, when I’m speaking to people who would be triggered by any mention of capitalism in the context of Marxism or socialism or something like that, I really talk about changing the nature of capital so that it conforms to our expanding consciousness, expanding beyond the separate self, expanding beyond the war on nature, that understands that we are here in a co-creative partnership with nature. What would capitalism look like then? How would we conceive property when it’s not this object anymore, when we understand that the world has beingness and sacredness?

It is a beautiful and generative question to ask.

Alnoor: We often talk about post-capitalism. I’m not anti-anything. It’s just this current cycle has run its course, and clearly has reached its limits—whatever assessment you want to make of it, whether that’s planetary bounds or levels of happiness. As soon as you bring up the frame of post-capitalism, it opens up a very generative space. But what’s also interesting is people want you to have the alternative.

I think it was David Graeber who said the new system is not going to be created by a Marx or Engels, or a couple of smart white Europeans in a room. And it’s not our obligation to actually explain what the new system is going to be. It’s not the job of the vanguard, let’s say, to explain and create a new system, because as soon as you do that you’re getting into the same cycle of creating a new institution that’s going to fail anyway.

Charles: And that whole template for changing the world: it starts with a bunch of people—usually guys in a room debating about what’s the best plan—and usually the guys in the room end up fighting. For how many thousands of years now has this been going on?

To have a design, to have something that you impose onto the future is only necessary when you don’t think that there is a design, a future already existing beyond us, that we can participate in. We don’t have to actually create it. We could be guided toward it, and listen for each appropriate next step. And that gets a little bit closer to an Indigenous mindset where you understand that you are part of an immensely complex mysterious being that is unfolding over time. And you ask, “What is my role? What is my contribution? What is my gift that I offer, and that we as a people offer to this evolution of life? How do we participate in the beauty and the evolution of life?”

Alnoor: There’s a deep ideology rooted that I’m hearing you say, which is actually moving from a model of domination to a model of dialogue with the living planet. So, you’re also moving from a mechanistic rationalism to a more animistic worldview. Because that participation requires you seeing the world as something else than dead matter.

Charles: I think we have to go to that level. If we don’t go to that level, it’s just about more cleverly deploying the resources out there to maximize some number. We’re really good at maximizing the number. That’s what financial logic does. And then the idea is, “Well, let’s just translate that way of doing things onto greenhouse gases, or onto some other metric.” That is not a deep enough revolution. It’s not something that this culture really knows how to do. It’s not totally absent from this culture, but it’s marginalized.

So, it’s this way of being human, which is in dialogue with the other-than-human in participation in something much greater than ourselves. That’s something that other cultures have held and preserved, and that we can learn from.

We have to see those cultures as precious treasures. You can’t preserve a culture without preserving the place where that culture is. Human and land, or sea, or water, or soil, or ecology. These are not separate. Culture is not separate from these things. It’s not like something that exists just in the mind, but it exists in reference to land, and even as an expression of the land. In fact, that’s what it means to be Indigenous. It means to be of a place, part of a place, the flesh of a place.

Alnoor: Do you think that part of the desire to colonize, to dominate, to “extract” resources also comes from, not just a lack of humility or even a desire for those resources, but actually an act of hate of these cultures? Is there deep-seated racism in it?

Charles: I think it comes from a loss. It comes from a hunger. It’s the hunger for those connections. And that embeddedness, and that feeling of being at home in the world that we Europeans, we white people had, as well. And some white people still have them. The Saami, for example, or some of the people in Siberia. But generally speaking, most white people—and whatever your skin color—the more that you’re immersed in a market economy and in a conventional school system and in the worldview of science, the more disconnected you will become from place. And that disconnection, that experience of life where you no longer are surrounded by intimate companions whose stories and relationships you know, that experience of life is profoundly insecure. Because we are relational beings. We are not separate units of consciousness as conventional economics, or biology, or psychology recognizes. We are relational beings.

Alnoor: There does feel like a step change moment where a stronghold in consensus culture is realizing whatever we were doing is not working anymore. But there’s also a numbness that doesn’t recognize the loss. It hasn’t got to the place where it’s assessing this desire for consumption and more-ness is coming from a place of loss. So what’s the mirror to activate that?

Charles: The things that we have to do, the changes we have to make are much bigger than merely what we have to do to appear blameless or to get off the hook, or to get down on our knees and polish someone’s boot, or to tear down a statue and say “look what I did.” What we have to do is so much deeper and more thorough than that. It’s not going to come from trying to look good. It’s not going to come from vanity. It’s not going to come from the desire to be accepted by certain people that we’ve elevated to high status. All of these dynamics are part of the old story. And it’s a good question to ask, honestly—what does it take for somebody to let go of arrogance? And we can look inward maybe for answers to that. What does it take for someone to let go of a hate-filled ideology? And to say, “Wow, I was wrong.”

If our formula for success is that the other team finally admits that they were wrong all the time, and that, “Yeah, you were right all along.” Guess what, they want that too. And here’s one thing I know for sure. Everybody on all sides has something that they’re wrong about, that is dearly held, and part of their identity, including the Left, including the radicals, including you and me. And what’s it going to take? This political identity and this attachment to a certain ideology or a certain set of beliefs—to get our identity from that—that’s a symptom, too, that comes from the loss of connection.

Alnoor: I agree with you that pointing out wrongness is not a strategy for some dialectical harmony. And yet, there does seem to be responsibility and agency of some more than others. And all cultures, just like all identities, have their shadow. Some cultures have more negative impact on the flourishing of life. Does Western culture take more responsibility than an Amazonian Indigenous culture for the destruction of life on the planet? I do feel there’s a non-dualistic area where both are simultaneously true. There’s a disproportionate destruction of the planet that has come from Western culture. Does that mean everyone who holds Western culture is a destroyer? Of course not. We’ve all internalized that culture. So the culture is not outside of us simultaneously.

For me, I do find it helpful when there’s these moments where I realize that my hubris, or my stubbornness, or my domination, or my desire to know, or to wield my power over something, is the problem. And as soon as I acknowledge it, there’s a softening. But I don’t know if that’s true, let’s say, with Bolsonaro. My higher self wants to believe that’s true, that actually where the behavior is coming from is this deep longing for village ways, and for circle ways. But there’s another part of me where I don’t know. Maybe that’s the more cynical part, the real-politik part, or whatever believes that he so deeply enjoys the role he plays, as does Donald Trump, as the Wetiko-in-chief.

Charles: Given the alternative, Bolsonaro and Trump do enjoy their position, I think. They would rather be head honcho than be the defeated candidate, or the loser. But look at either of those men. How much joy do you see radiating from their soul, compared to maybe some of the Indigenous people you know?

To go back a little earlier in your comment there. It’s obvious that Western modern culture has wreaked way more destruction on this planet than any other culture. That is an obvious fact that we have to take in. We have to take in the reality of what’s happening on this planet. The point I was trying to make is that it’s damaging to ascribe that to our moral soul-level inferiority. Because when you make that ascription, then you get to ignore the circumstances that generate the behavior. On a subtle way, it’s actually maybe the best way to preserve the status quo—to blame bad things on bad people.

If we hold to that diagnosis, “the problem is bad people,” then we never look for the real causes; we never look for the totality of the situation that generates the behavior.

Alnoor: Another way to look at this is that the culture itself rewards a certain type of psychosis, short-termism, greed, etc. Within that culture, even if there’s an empathy with the plight of whoever—name your character—it’s not about a person; it’s the culture itself that has to change. Within a culture that rewards psychosis, certain types of people do well within that system. It’s a complex adaptive system. It has these rules, it’s got these values, and people who perform these roles well get pulled to the top. It’s the opposite of a merit system.

Charles: The ruthless get pulled to the top.

Alnoor: Right. I look at Fortune Magazine or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times and whoever’s face is on the cover of those magazines and those newspapers are simply, to me, the people who serve that logic the best.

And so, if I was in Trump’s position, even though I have deep empathy for his particular line of trouble and the fact that he’s born into a culture that’s rewarding that, he still has agency on some level. And so how do we also account for that in our moral calculus of what’s happening?

Charles: We get to the point of choice. Our choices are conditioned, but not determined, by our circumstances. Or another way to look at it is that there are deeper circumstances that can be invoked and catalyzed. The deeper circumstances being just our basic divinity and the will to evolve. So, some people are very skilled and powerful at activating buried, marginalized parts of others, for good or for bad. I’m thinking about our friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle. He’s an activist in Oakland.

Pancho Ramos-Stierle

He does a lot of social justice stuff. And he goes to jail all the time. And he’ll be in jail, and he’ll say to one of the guards at some point: “Brother, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this work.” And he’ll actually mean it because he actually is seeing into the beauty of that human being. And when he approaches people that way, and speaks to that part of them, something awakens. That’s the power we need to be able to access that doesn’t require that we somehow overcome the Trumps and the Bolsonaros at their own game. Because if we don’t have allyship with some part of them that actually wants what we want, then the only option is to overcome them by force.

And you might be able to overcome a Trump or a Bolsonaro by force. But can you overcome the entire military, industrial, pharmaceutical, educational, NGO, financial, agricultural, industrial complex by force? They have the force, not us. So, just as a matter of pure practicality, we have to adopt a different way than to become better than the oppressors at the technologies of oppression. Paulo Freire said it quite clearly in warning about sub-oppression and the tendency to adopt the methods of the oppressors…then you, at best, become the new oppressor. Probably you’re not going to be as good at it as they are, and you’re going to lose. But even if you win, you lose.

Alnoor: Exactly. And that is the tendency of the Left. Every counter-revolution becomes the new oppressor. And that’s because there isn’t a spiritual moral compass. Yet, I think that within the compassion and the structural understanding of the context that created people’s behaviors, you can still have discernment and judgment—a divine judgment let’s say—that does not come from a place of moral superiority, but it comes from a place of, “I know your soul deserves more than this.”

Charles: Yes. What I was saying can be misinterpreted to say, “Let’s not talk about the bad things that we’re doing.” It’s quite the opposite. Actually, the truth has to come out. The stories that have been suppressed have to come in to the central consciousness of society. And what makes that able to happen? If you’re carrying those stories and wielding them as weapons to make someone feel bad, they’re going to be resistant to them. But you can bring them forth with, “I know you as a caring person will be troubled by this. I know that you actually want to live in a way that takes into account the full truth of what’s happening on this planet. So let us be together in the pain of the story and expand our consciousness to include data points that were outside our consciousness before.” But avoid translating that into, “You’re bad, you’re guilty. You should be ashamed of yourself.” It doesn’t work.

Alnoor: This is the moment we’re in culturally right now. That’s why the bifurcation is happening in such a deep and intense way. Maybe we go full circle back to the Amazon, and with this lens of whatever we want to call this: post-activism or political work that’s informed by a deeper spiritual impulse of shared healing. How do we approach a situation where the structure, and the culture itself, requires perpetual growth? It requires the razing of the Amazon for soy and minerals and timber, etc. And it doesn’t matter if you replace Bolsonaro with somebody else, because the global machinations in place are going to require the next person to do exactly the same thing. Maybe not with so much pleasure and fervor, but it’s going to happen.

Charles: It’s hard to resist. This happened to Ecuador with Correa. They said, “We have all this oil, and we’d like to leave it in the ground. So global community, just pay us half of what we would make from this oil, and we’ll leave it in the ground.” And no one took them up on it. So they’re like, “Okay, we have to drill the oil.” We can’t say, “Ecuador, leave your oil in the ground, but please keep making your international debt payments, which you can only make with hard currency that you can only get by exporting your natural resources. So keep paying. But don’t drill your oil.” That is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is either a symptom of ignorance or it’s a symptom of being in a double bind, subject to conflicting imperatives. And we are all subject, in a market economy anyway, to conflicting imperatives. Like on the one hand, we have to do certain things in order even to survive or to be comfortable or to meet our basic needs, and another imperative, the imperative of the heart, wants to do other things.

So this notion of conflicting imperatives is important because there are many situations where, as individuals and even as nations, we do take actions and make choices that are for the benefit of life, that are for the benefit of the people of the Earth, despite the economic pressure to do otherwise. So, in the current situation where we do face an opposition between heart and self-interest, we can ally ourselves with the part of a political leader or a corporate leader or anybody who is ready to be brave. Courage is a community function. We can awaken and sustain the courage of each other, and witness that courage, and celebrate that courage, and hold for a leader that, “I know there’s a lot of pressure. You’re getting pressure from the opposition, you’re getting pressure from the CIA-funded media, you’re getting pressure from the international bond markets. And there is an audacious next step that you can take that you know is right, and we’re here to celebrate that. We’re here to see that.”

So it’s not hopeless. Like it’s not that we can’t do anything to save the Amazon until the global financial system changes. And at the same time, boy, it would sure be nice if the global financial system weren’t the enemy of everything good. So, I think that we can work on that level, too. Different people are cut out for different kinds of work and are called to different arenas of action. I mean, in a way—and I don’t want to dilute the call to do something directly to help the Amazon—but in a way, anybody who’s working for any kind of healing or any kind of justice is helping the Amazon. It’s the same as you were saying about all oppression is related. It’s true also of healing. All healing is part of the same healing. And I don’t want anyone to construe that as, “Fine. The Amazon will be taken care of by the people who are devoted to the Amazon, and I’m just going to do my own work.” Theoretically, that’s true. If you’re solely devoted to your own little community, that will help the Amazon. However, it may also be true right in this moment that you feel a calling, a stirring in you to do something about the Amazon.

What does stir someone’s care for the Amazon? I think that a lot of it is to be connected to its beauty, to its magnificence. It comes through a connection.

The Amazon is where Gaia’s memory of health still exists. And if that can be preserved, there will always be hope. If there is one healthy region that still has integrity, then it can teach the rest of the world to be healthy again.

Alnoor: The imprint of that matrix of possibility always exists if it exists here. What’s so unique about the Amazon is the symbiosis with Indigenous peoples—and the manner by which they live is unique to really any biome. We were talking about this before we started—the pride by which Indigenous people of the Amazon say “We are the cure of the Earth.”

In the Amazon, humans in the form of Indigenous peoples, are a companion species that are actively contributing to that ecosystem and that biome. That’s really the possibility for all of us. It’s also not just a biological possibility as in that place, but it’s also a possibility of human and more-than-human symbiosis.

Charles: In fact, I would even go farther and say that’s actually why we’re here. We were created by Gaia. Why did our species come into existence now? Gaia did not make us by accident. Species evolve to fill a need for the maintenance and the evolution of the whole. In other words, we have a gift to give to life. What is that gift? In the context of the Amazon, in the context of an Indigenous culture, that gift is clear. To enhance the life of that place through the practices and the ceremonies. There’s actually a lot of direct evidence for this. Allan Savory talks about how national parks he’s most familiar with in Africa, but other places too, where humans are just kept out, have ecosystems that tend to degrade sometimes, or not recover as quickly as if people are doing regenerative practices in those places. Land doesn’t recover. Humans are essential parts of the ecosystem. Maybe 10,000 or 50,000, a million years ago, depending on what continent we’re talking about here, maybe the ecosystem was without human beings. But once they are introduced, there’s an evolutionary possibility that can end up with the ecosystem being even more alive than it was before. That’s why we’re here.

And on an individual level, I’m talking to anyone listening to this. Don’t you know that you are here to serve life? That is why you’re here. And if you’re not doing something that serves life in some way, probably you’re going to feel, “There’s something I’m supposed to be doing that I’m not doing.” The open question is, for an individual or an Indigenous culture, what service to life might mean for civilization? And the gifts that humans have—that have enabled us to create a technological civilization, and to wreak such destruction on Earth—what are those gifts actually for?

And I just want to affirm that to even ask that question, “What is our purpose in service to life,” already signals a shift in consciousness. And if we hold that question, and are not satisfied with any false answer, that will be transformative.

Alnoor:  I agree. And the humans that exist 10 million years from now will be potentially as different from us as we are to single-celled amoebas. We have no idea what is to come. And so the continuity of life has always been culturally embedded within the impulse to be in service to life. Because there is some other thing happening that is beyond our understanding. This is the limitation of the scientific worldview. Science is a floor of understanding, not the ceiling. As soon as we elevate it to the ceiling of, “this is everything we know,” or even the fetishizing of the scientific method, which is a method that’s embedded in the five senses, we’re actually disconnecting ourselves from this longer project of continuity, to life yet born.

The idea that we would even have the power and ability to destroy other people’s livelihood for the sake of consumption and growth of the economic system, which is just based on a bunch of preferences that are made up and socialized, is so insane to me that to do anything else would be as insane, if that makes any sense.

Charles: Yes. If the system were making us happy, maybe we could justify it. But it’s not even making us happy. That’s the ultimate irony.

Alnoor:  I often think of the W.H. Auden quote from “The Age of Anxiety” where he says,

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

I remember reading that and realizing, “I see. I don’t actually have to persuade them. I have to wait to let their illusions die.” In some ways COVID is doing that for us. And ecological destruction is doing that. And, yet, I don’t think those external things are going to save us. There still has to be agency to choose another way.

Thank you for sharing the journey, Charles.

Charles: It was my pleasure.

About Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of human culture and identity. He is the author of several books, including Sacred EconomicsThe More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, and Climate: A New Story. His background includes a degree in mathematics and philosophy from Yale, a decade in Taiwan as a translator, and stints as a college instructor, a yoga teacher, and a construction worker. He currently writes, speaks, and teaches courses online, in addition to being a husband and father to four sons.

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About Alnoor Ladha

Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking, structural change and narrative work. He was the co-founder and Executive Director of The Rules, a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers and others focused on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty and climate change. TR started in 2012 as a time-bound project and an experiment in temporary organizational design, exploring new ways of how to work, play, and make trouble together.

Alnoor comes from a Sufi lineage and writes about the crossroads of politics and spirituality in troubled times. His work has been published in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Truthout, Fast Company, Kosmos Journal, New Internationalist, and the Huffington Post among others. He is the Council Chair of Culture Hack Labs, a co-operatively run advisory for social movements and progressive organizations. He is also the co-director of Transition Resource Circle and the co-author of Post Capitalist Philanthropy: The healing of wealth in the time of collapse.

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